Ravens, Runes, and Rowdy Riffs: The Art & Flavor of Kaldheim
- Sancho Napora
After drifting aimlessly on the waves of the multiversal sea for decades, every Viking of Magic has finally found their home shores on the plane of Kaldheim. Raise your drinking horns and let us sample the flavor of this new set to see if it is able to quench our thirst for plunder and pillage—and our taste for metal.
Being at the very least a Halfdane, I grew up in a town named after the mighty Allfather Odin himself, and Viking lore and history has been a very living part of my world since early childhood. The town of Odense was home to one of the Viking ring castles built during the reigns of Sweyn Forkbeard and his dad, Harald Bluetooth. The same Harald Bluetooth who on a runic inscription took credit for turning the Danes away from the old gods, and who according to legend took a deadly arrow to his behind—fired by a staunch pagan named Palnatoke from my home island Funen.
Even the streets of Odense bear the names of the past with a Haraldsgade, a Palnatokesvej, and an until the advent of a popular TV show lesser known Regner Lodbrogs Vej. Much of my childhood was spent in a smaller town a few kilometers from the Ladby ship, a Funeral Longboat buried in a mound where the remains can now be visited.
The cathedral of Odense, which could well have been placed where the shrine to Odin originally resided, is named after Canute IV, sometimes considered the last Viking king. He was killed there by angry peasants who got fined for not being ready to man their dragon ships and venture out to reconquer England.
When it comes to my credentials as a metalhead I may be considered more of an Old-Growth Troll. My time as a headbanging Breakneck Berserker more or less coincided with the Binding of the Old Gods. To me the truest expression of the combination of the two subjects at hand, Viking culture and metal music, begins with Bathory's album Blood Fire Death and ends with their Hammerheart. Yet, all things considered, it has fallen on me to deliver my Iron Verdict on the flavor of the latest Magic expansion, Kaldheim, hailed by its creators as the most metal set in the game's history.
Seize the Spoils of Lore
As you might expect, from those initial words, the main focus of this review won't be to evaluate card strength, pass judgment on the Limited format, or make any guesses as to how the new cards and mechanics affect Constructed gameplay. The main questions I seek to answer are, whether Kaldheim is a cool Viking set and how metal it really is.
I suppose we all Saw It Coming. The biggest surprise about a Viking-themed Magic expansion is probably how long we had to wait for it. Creative companies such as those that produce games just love to mine cultures around the world for Inspiration or even entire mythologies that they can outright steal. I remember thinking that Vikings would be next upon seeing Champions of Kamigawa booster boxes on display in a store some sixteen years ago.
While I always found Japanese culture fascinating, I also was a bit saddened that the designers of Magic had run out of ideas for creating their own world and so obviously had to turn to cultural appropriation and picking low hanging fruits. Somehow I did not even think of Arabian Nights as a much earlier example of this. Meanwhile, both Ice Age and Mirage had seemed more like climatical and geographical settings than looting of a cultural Treasure Trove.
Of course absorbing the tales and artwork of a culture into a game can be done with more or less sensitivity. Many of you know that Wizards have occasionally burned their fingers in the process. Luckily, while the blood burns red in the veins of many a Viking descendant, few are easily offended when it comes to how their culture is handled for commercial gain. We literally grew up with Vikings plastered on a host of products in their most fake ways—with horned helmets. So I don't think that I speak only for myself when I say, "Do your worst." We can take it with a merry laughter rolling in our Viking bellies.
One-Legged Walker Rant
As is often the case with the planes where Magic expansions take us, we get to experience the world through the eyes of some planeswalkers from elsewhere passing through or settled there. And perhaps Wizards even went out of their way to Provoke the Trolls by making Kaya and Niko Aris those characters.
My problem with the new Kaya and Niko Aris is not that they challenge conventions that most informed people have long outgrown. What disappoints me is the wordiness of their textboxes. Each of those two cards have more words than any of the Weathered Runestones scattered across Scandinavia. I love reading, but recently card design has just gone too far—if I wanted to play an Axis and Allies-like table top game, I'd play Axis and Allies.
I remember hearing that when speaking at the Thing (the name for an old sort of governing assembly in the lands of the Vikings) you had to make your point short and clear—and if you needed to have the word for a second round, then you could only say as much as you had time for while standing on one leg. Play design might learn something there.
Magic was so much more pleasant to play when you didn't have to read the same card five times each game. Verbosity is definitely a flavor fail in my opinion. But this is not specifically a Kaldheim problem since the lack of concern for readability and keyword soup Weigh Down many a recent set.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Unsurprisingly and foretold by many, the snow mechanic makes a return with the set. Of course it is a flavor win with Scandinavia always covered in snow in the imagination of many who have never set their foot there. And to the best of my recollection the winters of my childhood always had plenty of snowfall, just like the summers were always longer and the strawberries sweeter et cetera. A major disappointment regarding snow cards in Kaldheim is the lack of effective hosers against snow-covered basics, which for now remain the strictly better alternative in several formats.
But how about the new mechanics? Boast and foretell. Well the words do fit quite well with a Viking setting. Their religion, like so many other traditions of the past, concerned itself with the foretelling of the future through the reading of runes and the patterns of nature. Boasting was a thing in the olden days too, and it seems to have made a comeback. (The heavy chains of the Law of Jante—"don't think you're anything special" et cetera, as popularized by the Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose—had for long kept many descendants of the Vikings from making themselves the center of attention with some healthy bragging.)
Boast also makes for some fitting flavor texts such as "It was nothing. I once took down a frost giant with a spoon!" from Goldmaw Champion and "Arrogant maggot. You won't be so proud when I rip out your tongue and drink from your skull!" from Frenzied Raider. If you have ever had a drink with a Dane or perhaps also other Scandinavians, you might have been told the story of how "Skål!" the word for "Cheers!" comes from a Viking tradition of drinking out of the skulls of slain enemies. In fact, the word is even pronounced similarly to the English "skull."
Most Viking-culture afficionados and particularly the metalhead kind nowadays settle for drinking out of horns though. Kaldheim's flavor texts capture this tradition nicely too, for example with Harnfel's "Like her well of stories, Birgi's horn never runs dry." and Warhorn Blast saying: "Mead down! Swords up!"
Fury of the Norsemen
Of course, if Vikings had just been boasting drinkers with a penchant for divination, we would probably not have had a Magic set devoted to their culture. The warrior needed something to boast about, the seer needed to foretell about more than next year's harvest, and the Master Skald needed good material for his songs. So the Vikings went In Search of Greatness. Year after year they would Rally the Ranks to man their fleets of Raiders' Karves, each with its own Reckless Crew. And wherever they did Run Ashore in their Dogged Pursuit, they would Run Amok and spread Crippling Fear according to tradition, leading their victims to pray for deliverance from the fury of the Northmen.
When it comes to injecting some Viking flavor into our favorite game, Kaldheim does a great job. The set has many noteworthy pieces of artwork and the showcase frames are the best since Kaladesh Inventions. I am, however, left with one big question about the claim of this being the most metal set ever: Where is Joven? Joven is without question and without comparison the most metal dude in all of the multiverse. I don't care what loopholes of continuity the story folks at Wizards have to jump through to get Joven from Ulgrotha to Kaldheim. Lube him up in lazotep, stow him away with Slimefoot on the Weatherlight, or make him dog sitter for Mowu. Just get him there already!
Did I miss anything? I sure did. Perhaps you would have liked me to focus more on the fact that we got another card inspired by Judas Priest's Ram It Down with Crush the Weak, or you think that the showcase version of Varragoth, Bloodsky Sire deserved an honorary mention. Did Tidechannel Pathway make you think of King Canute the Great bidding the tide to turn? Should there have been more about Sarulf, Realm Eater/Fenrir or the two cats pulling the chariot of Freyja? Let me know in the comments below which metal and Viking art and flavor of Kaldheim you think makes the set a Smashing Success.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.