Since the early days of magic, the last proofs before the general printing of a set were given to the artists responsible for the art on the card. Or at least the artist credited for the art on the card. It seems highly likely that e.g. Drew Tucker got the proofs for the Plateaus in Revised as well due to the misattribution.
There are a few different ideas on why the distribution of artist proofs in Magic started and why it looks like it does. Regardless of which story we take as the truth, we can surely say that it is a fun type of business card, and a treasure to hunt for for those looking to complete a global set of particular cards.
|A basic 4th Edition Balance artist proof. Most all artist proofs are signed upon delivery to the artist and are easily distinguishable by their plain white backs.|
Going back to our modus operandi though, things get a little more convoluted. For the sets before Chronicles, most bets are off for the actual numbers. The numbers I state in this post are the closest to proper data I have been able to find, but print numbers were not written in stone during the first few years. A few cards may have had over a hundred copies, and another might have had a few or none. E.g. Douglas Schuler received 30 of almost every proof for Limited Edition except Mountain, of which he got over a hundred of each version. Some other sources also claim that his first Serra Angel proof were surprisingly rare. Supposedly something happened on their way to Schuler, and he only received 15 of them.
Another guy who throws the stats out the window is Tom Wänerstrand. Word on the street is that he wasn't interested in proofs and simply threw pretty much all of them away when he got them. That makes collecting a global set of, say, Royal Assassin, astonishingly hard and one of the more back-breaking endeavors a collector might set out on.
One theory states that the Beta proofs were never cut up. Instead WotC took the whole sheets and gave them out as such. 14 were supposedly give to the inner circle at Wizards, two were given out as top prizes in tournaments, one were framed at the WotC headquarters, one was cut up to play with, and perhaps a small handful more were lost to time.
|I rarely get envious of other peoples' stuff, but these mesmerize me. My wife even gave green light to put them up on the living room wall if I eventually get my hands on a set of these :P|
|Square-cornered Limited Edition proof, here with a sketch on the back by Mark Tedin.|
Regardless on what set they were actually printed with (or for what purpose) we can in good conscious say that these square cornered prints are the first batch of proper artist proofs. I personally mostly refer to them as Limited Edition proofs, as they are certainly that.
Next set to enter the stage was Arabian Nights. This set was somewhat rushed to market, and no proofs exists. This makes collecting global sets of AN cards comparably easy.
|Boom! A global set of Juzam Djinn; light and dark printings. I guess I should find the oversize as well though. And a signed one. And all the promotional material with Juzam on it. And perhaps cards like Plague Sliver. Hmm. Slippery slope after all.|
|Shamelessly stealing this image from the Artist Proof page on Facebook.|
After giving a nod to the Italian crowd with Revised, WotC went back to English only for Legends. They kept the total high though, with at least 100 proofs for each card. For The Dark, they again dropped back to around 50, still keeping it English only.
|6th Edition Llanowar Elves proof with alter by Anson Maddocks. Much love to Domenico Megu Chionetti for this one <3|
|Tiny original oil painting on the back of a Liliana of the Veil artist proof, by Steve Argyle.|
|If you know these four cards by heart, you get two old school points. No cheating ;)|
I'd like to give an extra shout-out to Mark Aronowitz who assisted with some additional info about the earliest proofs, and helped looking over the numbers. Check out the artist proof group he administrates on Facebook if you want to dig deeper or get in contact with some collectors.
If you are hankering for some more 93/94 Magic content, let me suggest that you check out this properly old school report from the fourth Knights of Thorn, courtesy of Carl from Belgium.