Ravens, Runes, and Rowdy Riffs: The Art & Flavor of Kaldheim


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.

reckless crew

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 omenkeel alrund cosmos charger
The swift dragon ships were very real and remains of them are still found around Scandinavia. Odin, however, did not need such modes of transportation. His ravens Huginn and Muninn kept him up to date with the news, and if he had to go somewhere really fast, his horse, Sleipner, had eight legs.

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.

Immersturm Skullcairn
I don't know how particular metal Kaldheim is. I mean, aren't a lot of black and red cards throughout the game's history just metal by default? Of course, Immersturm Skullcairn does look like something you could just slap a Manowar logo on and be ready to go.

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.

Weigh Down
Wizards are not alone in looting Viking traditions. But raiding other plunderers to make a card out of the intro sequence from the History Channel's "Vikings" would probably impress even the old Norsemen.

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.

the world tree the prismatic bridge colossal plow
Vikings are more than axes and looted monasteries left in flames: Usually portrayed as either an ash or a yew, Yggdrasil is the world tree connecting the realms of the Viking cosmos. Perhaps less familiar to the outside world is the rainbow bridge Bifröst by which the gods journey to the realm of men. But what about a Colossal Plow? Well, as it happens, the goddess Gefjon is said to have plowed the Danish island Zealand out of Sweden, leaving behind the great lake Vänern. I don't know how metal a plow is, no matter what it is forged from, but fans of the band Plöw do.

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.

Inga Rune-Eyes (showcase)
A lot of Viking imagery was conceived a millennium after the Viking age for various entertainment purposes. Rather than a heavy metal riff, Inga Rune-Eyes brings "Ride of the Valkyries" to my ears. She is just missing the horned helmet, which incidentally was an eighteenth century invention popularized by a Wagnerian costume designer.

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.

Weathered Runestone
Perhaps requiring the designers to actually hand carve the text on a stone before proposing a new card would limit the number of words.

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.

Snow-Covered Forest (#285)
Could this Snow-Covered Forest be the most metal card in all of Kaldheim? I think I see the logo of Xavlegbmaofffassssitimiwoamndutroabcwapwaeiippohfffx (yes, that IS a band name) hiding in the branches.

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."

Harnfel, Horn of Bounty
One thing Vikings and metalheads have in common is a reputation for being very thirsty.

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!"

halvar alrund toralf
Vikings had several gods associated with war. Besides the more famous Thor and Odin, there was Tyr, the god of battle. War was so much of an ordinary workday thing that the three ended up giving names to the midweek with Tuesday named after Tyr, Wednesday named after Odin, and Thursday named after Thor.

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.

the bloodsky massacre joven
Combining all sorts of tribal art into a Polynesian, Celtic, Viking, pre-Colombian sleeve is metal to the core. I like to think it's a fine new piece that Joven, the most metal dude in Magic, has made since he was last seen in Homelands. The Bloodsky Massacre is also quite metal as far as names go, though no match for Slayer's "Raining Blood."

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.

crush the weak

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.


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rammgorr(13.02.2021 12:40)

Great Article, thanks.
But i cant understand, why mostly human creature cards, and some elves, in this set have a more or less black skin. Doesn't seem to fit for the vikings theme. Or is this a kind of political correctness thing?

sanchonil(14.02.2021 09:05)(Edited: 14.02.2021 09:05)

Rammgorr: Glad that you liked the article.

At the risk of being branded as overtly pc myself I honestly had not even noticed the skin colors of elves and humans while studying the art of the set for weeks to write this article. To me Elves and Humans actually look mostly white, going back over them now.

I have no idea if much thought goes into the skin color of the characters portrayed in the game. Chandra is supposedly from somewhere inspired by south Asian (Indian) culture, and she could just as well be from Ireland, so I think they just do whatever.

mätschik(10.02.2021 10:28)

I fully agree with Joven! What a pity WotC missed this opportunity...
You are half a norseman by yourself; how cool is this... My ancestors were very likely bavarian farmers (not the heavy coolness factor). Thanks for the well written und nice to read article.

sanchonil(10.02.2021 10:48)

Mätschik: Bavaria is not too far from The Black Forest, which was a major part of the inspiration for Throne of Eldraine - and Innistrad definitely has some German inspiration too. That's some nice flavor which goes well beyond Lederhosen and Oktoberfest. But yeah, Viking has a certain ring to it.

mätschik(10.02.2021 12:21)(Edited: 10.02.2021 12:43)

SanchonilJust to clarify how cool you, the norseman, are:
Fitted with Halvar's Sword of the Realms, that cuts through the cosmos itself, you are sitting on the Throne of Death, wearing a Crown of Runes - sometimes Draugr's Helm - fondling your Infernal Pet while grinning about the Bloodsky Massacre...

In the meantime i am scared from a Wicked Wolf, cause running away in a fu**ing Crystal Slipper is a challenge. In my Gingerbread Cabin i'm wondering about the Golden Egg that contributes next to nothing to my most feared war-maneuver, the Bake (you) into a Pie, followed by the outrageous Turn into a Pumpkin-Trick.

... But nevertheless thanks for the nice try to built up a farmer's self esteem: I really appreciated it.

sanchonil(10.02.2021 13:00)

Mätschik: Thanks. That comment just made this Norseman's day.

Kristallini(09.02.2021 11:27)

An extremely entertaining article, thank you for that. I also think that with a lot of attention to detail on the part of Wizards the Viking flair garnished with the Nordic mythology was captured pretty well. I can live without Joven as long as Maro didn't miss the chance to make Toski the Magic equivalent of Ratatöskr, the mythical squirrel running up and down the world tree XD

I only miss the mythical goat eating from Yggdrasil and giving milk to the Vikings in Valhalla XD

My only criticism is that the metal theme was somehow very artificially put over the set, and feels more like a fixed idea from the marketing department than a real addition to Kaldheim, you also don't get the feeling that this was actively built into the set on the part of the set design, but even with that I can live well.

sanchonil(09.02.2021 11:52)

Kristallini: Thank you for commenting. I agree that Toski is a flavor win. Your observation about the origin of the metal flavor could very well be correct and perhaps we are all better of for that theme just being plastered on the marketing materials and not forced into the design of the cards.

TobiHenke(09.02.2021 06:43)

This was both delight- and insightful. Thanks!

sanchonil(09.02.2021 11:09)

TobiHenke: Thank you very much. Good to know that you enjoyed it.