It’s a fun little moment I write to you from this time. We’re in that peculiar week of calm where Christmas is (un)wrapped, 2020 is finally all but through, and the bold among us can begin to peek ahead at what’s round the corner in 2021. That dynamic is also at play in the Magic world, where the staggered release of official spoilers for Kaldheim has given us an unusual opportunity to speculate on what this new set — and new setting! — might have in store to kick off a critical year for Magic.
A-VIKING WE SHALL GO!
While Mark Rosewater may have ultimately decided against making it official on the cards, it’s been clear from the start that Kaldheim is the long-awaited Viking Set. Beards, axes, longboats, bears, wolves, ravens, runes, thunder, giants, cursed gold and one big eel. The concept seems like a home run, given that Norse mythology is as popular and evocative as the storytelling foundations of Theros, Amonkhet or Eldraine. And the broad influence of viking culture and imagery on fantasy means that Magic has been flirting with something like this as far back as Ice Age in 1995.
Along the way, iconic cards like Lovisa Coldeyes, Master of the Wild Hunt and Progenitus have shown how comfortably Magic can incorporate viking lore. But in creating a fully realized plane, WotC always wants to do more to put their own stamp on the old sagas. In this case, that stamp is a heavy metal music aesthetic and a choice to omit humans entirely, leaving the most appropriate selection of Magic creature types to fight it out at this world’s Ragnarok.
SURPRISE! IT’S A TRIBAL SET!
If you haven’t been delving into spoilers ‘til now, you might be surprised to hear Kaldheim is shaping up as something of a classic tribal set. The majority of important creatures belong to just a handful of specific creature types (“tribes”), and those types get explicit support cards which prompt you to build decks where a single tribe dominates.
What’s even more intriguing is the selection of major tribes with which WotC is furnishing this new world: Elves, Dwarves, Giants and Angels. Apart from the all-too-familiar Elves, these are races which haven’t ever really gotten proper tribal deck support in past sets, certainly not at this level. Dwarves almost vanished from the game after their mid-90’s heyday, resurfacing as the RW aggro tribe in Kaladesh and then finding a few more slots in fairytale set Throne of Eldraine. And while there are always strong Angels and Giants in the game, they’re almost always designed to be lone monsters — lacking key role players and synergy cards to fill out the curve of a prospective tribal deck.
For Kaldheim, these tribes are presented as equal options for brewers and drafters — each with a color pair and mechanical emphasis to match. The Elves are in green and black — not only capable of generating tons of mana and tokens in their usual way, but this time running a vicious grind game with recursion and creature-based removal. The Angel tribe also appears set up for the late game: they occupy the white-black slice of the color pie, which offers plenty of lifegain and removal to survive until the big fliers take over.
Kaldheim’s Giants look as elemental and titanic as you’d expect the foils of gods to be and, as foreshadowed by Thryx, the Sudden Storm, they appear to be red and blue. Rather than try and print oxymoronic “small giants” to cover the low end of their curve, WotC seems to have gone all the way in the opposite direction, with the early spoilers showcasing various mechanics which leverage the Giants’ abnormally large cost and stats.
Meanwhile, the dwarves remain in red/white to try and build on the success of their Kaladesh printings, even getting back to grips with Vehicles! With other synergies extending to treasure token management or equipment cards, the Kaldheim Dwarves come off as a blueprint for designing more unique and creative artifact-themed decks — one I’m excited to see come to fruition!
PARTY LIKE IT’S YOUR JOB
So these different races are the major focus in Kaldheim, but those keeping an eye on Standard will of course be looking at their “job” creature types to see which ones might help push the party mechanic from ZNR over the edge. While the majority of the new tribal creatures are Clerics or Wizards or what have you, a significant chunk in Mardu colors are instead representing the little-used berserker tribe. These maniacal damage dealers cannot assist you in forming a party, but they do seem set up for some nice tribal synergy cards of their own in RB or Mardu colors after everything else.
If you’re REALLY stuck for options to fill out your party slots, the secretive fifth tribe of Kaldheim is here to help. Blue-Green shapeshifters who come with the largely new idea of shapeshifter synergies within their tribe, but the changeling ability to immediately fill in the curve on any other tribe’s deck — or the slots remaining in a not-full party. As with green cards like Veteran Adventurer in Zendikar Rising, these shapeshifters will be needed in many cases to pad out a curve without diluting tribal synergies — but I expect people to warm up to Gladewalker Ritualist much faster than I remember by comparison.
RETURNING CARD TYPES: MDFC’S AND SAGAS
So, that’s the broad silhouette we can sketch out for Kaldheim, a.k.a. the land of the ice and snow, under the midnight sun where the hot springs flow. But there are some more specific things I’m sure we’ll see in the set based on these spoilers…
For one, MaRo confirmed a while back that the beloved and successful Modal Double-Faced Cards would be showing up both in Kaldheim and in Strixhaven. The most obvious place to see this returning mechanic would be on the remaining four cards of the Pathway cycle not printed in ZNR. Sure enough, those were some of the first cards to be spoiled, making up for their lack of mystery with some truly jaw-dropping artwork!
The completion of the Pathway cycle is a great moment for two-color decks in Standard, especially those relying on a more aggressive curve who cannot afford to wait and play tapped lands to facilitate them. In theory, this better mana would possibly be enough to spark the seeds of new non-green aggro decks, but we did just go a whole set with three red and three white Pathways available… and nothing happened. We’ll have to wait and see what aggressive creatures Kaldheim brings.
As for what Kaldheim’s MDFCs will look like outside the Pathways? We’ve only been lucky enough to glimpse one so far, but it’s a hefty piece: the mythic rare Halvar, God of Battle.
Why waste precious breath singing this god’s praises; I think Halvar’s pretty clearly worth the slot! I’m also particularly excited by the idea of a cycle of mythic rare gods whose alt side is just a backup legend for when you already have the first side in play — especially if they all feature some sort of defensive ability such as Sword of the Realms has!
At this point, it’s hard to say with real certainty what sort of cycle Halvar is a part of. He might be the only non-Pathway DFC in the set, or the rarest example of a set of MDFC equipment and auras which are all in white to match the theme of the dwarves. Or there could be 30 more left for WotC to spoil, in every color of the rainbow!
While the MDFCs which show up with land on one side are guaranteed to dominate both Draft and Sealed (and possibly Constructed), a card like Halvar with spells on both sides can thrive under much more humble expectations.
The other notable card type to make a triumphant return with the start of spoiler season was the saga, previously seen in Dominaria and Theros Beyond Death. Given that the latter of those two is still going to be in Standard alongside Kaldheim, I would not expect the sagas here to be as prominent or numerous as the ones in THB. But even if it only represents a single cycle of rare two-color sagas, Showdown of the Skalds is setting the bar quite high for those coming after. It bears more than a passing resemblance to Escape to the Wilds — a card famously banned from Standard. It just warms my heart to see RW getting some card advantage!
That’s close to all the confirmed info we have on Kaldheim at this point, as we wait for the remaining spoilers. But that’s not the end of this article! I have some strong hunches based on what we’ve seen so far, and a bit of intuition. But I did want to clearly delineate between the cards we have concretely been shown, and cards which I could be just making up entirely.
I’m about 25% sure that each of these theories will turn out accurate — which, mathematically, means AT LEAST one has to come true, right?!
PREDICTION 1: The new Tibalt card (there’s gonna be one) is going to be extremely powerful to make up for all the Tibalt memes through the years. I’d like to see his abilities include some sort of treasure production and Chaos Warp abilities. The story for this set will make us not want to laugh at him anymore, though.
PREDICTION 2: The Esper theme will involve exiling your own cards. Blue-White has the foretell mechanic, which seems to involve exiling cards from your hand as a cost, while the WB deck will use flickering to safeguard expensive angels from removal. Both this set’s Kaya and the new Planeswalker Niko Aris seem to have temporary exiling in their skillset as well, and many spoiled cards in these colors have ETBs worth recurring.
PREDICTION 3: The final Planeswalker, Tyvar Kell, has been referred to as an “elf tribal Planeswalker” that is “base green”– which seems to imply that his brother, King Harald (whom, we are told, is the great Elvish leader and uniter) might be black. Perhaps King Harald will be the black MDFC mythic? I imagine the blue one is probably Jormungandr, the green one the actual world tree, and the red one… some kinda grumpy Dragon. Assuming there’s actually a cycle in the first place, that is.
PREDICTION 4: One of the major talking points before any cards from the set were spoiled was the possibility of Snow making its return as a mechanic/card type. While I agree that a snowy viking world is probably the best venue in the world to explore this idea, I don’t agree that the idea of the current Snow rules is actually worth exploring to start with. Snow lands are just better basic lands, so unless WotC releases some errata with the set to make all basic lands able to tap for Snow, all this mechanic does is hose people for playing basic lands with nice art, and the companion rule proved this could change at any time.
Even if somehow the Allfather’s wisdom failed me, and none of these predictions come to pass, I still think I’m gonna really enjoy Kaldheim. Being able to lean heavy into metal is one of the positives of a slightly more relaxed Magic brand, and certainly the current form the design team has with cool mechanics and draft environments is incredible. 2020 was a radical year of change for the game, and while it’s tough when the parts of the game you held sacred are challenged, one antidote is to embrace the parts that change in your favor. In 2021, I will absolutely take a moment from banging my drum and enjoy banging my head.
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.