Happy New Year, my fellow magicians! We all made it through 2020 — now let’s celebrate with a hearty headbanging session. Maybe throw in a bit of haircopter, if you’re well-coiffured.
Yes, we’re continuing to wind ourselves up for the release of Kaldheim, the first Magic set to overtly claim inspiration from the heavy metal subculture. Personally, I think this was a great twist to throw on the long-overdue “norse plane”; viking metal has been a thriving subgenre since about 1990 and it makes it easier for WotC to take some license in adapting the norse mythos.
But they didn’t need to wait for Kaldheim to come up in order to shout out heavy metal, or rope in popular bands to promote spoiler season. Many of Magic’s other planes share aesthetic space with prominent movements and subcultures in metal, and you could argue that they largely draw creative inspiration from the same pantheon of sources. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a lot of audience overlap — there are many high profile players, even hall of farmers, who wear their love of metal on their sleeve. And as we have seen, there are internationally renowned metal artists who will happily admit to slinging spells in their downtime.
Magic has been a cultural force for long enough that we have even seen metal acts who name their bands, albums and songs after Magic cards, or otherwise directly shouted out their favorite game. So… what about on the other side of things? Which cards take the metal-Magic fusion beyond a shared interest in Frank Frazetta art and spiky clothes to really pay homage to this most powerful of genres?
THROW UP THE HORNS
Of course, there’s a reason I keep referring to things in terms of subgenres and subcultures when it comes to metal. The modern-day metal scene is a vast sphere, encompassing music with wildly different sounds, themes, inspirations and audiences, vaguely associated by their use of “heavy” production and a certain degree of intensity. But even that signature power expresses itself in different ways, much like Magic’s underlying mechanics and color pie are adapted differently to the circumstances and mechanics of each plane.
Still, it was not always so complicated. Once upon a time, heavy metal was a catchphrase thrown around with uncertainty as a small handful of bands began to emerge from the psychedelic and heavy rock music of the 60’s and early 70’s. These first proto-metal bands featured soaring, clean vocals and the kind of riff that you instinctively praise as “gnarly” or “radical.” As a new genre evolving in tandem with prog rock and other experimental music, there was a lot of colorful imagery: pegasi, tigers, rainbows and wizards.
This messy, unrefined pastiche of ideas bears a lot in common with the early years of Magic — both in terms of its oddball design, and the wildly varying tone and style in the card art. While Wizards and Dragons have remained central to Magic even til today, they are rarely as colorfully depicted as Shivan Dragon or the nameless geomancer on Fastbond. I find this mishmash of undirected fantasy cliches endearing in its own way; like early heavy metal, it shows enthusiasm and creativity unbridled by self-awareness or the need to stick to an identity.
Few artists exemplify this period of metal more than Ronnie James Dio, who lent his incredible voice to the supergroup Rainbow before making hits like “Holy Diver” on his own. Dio popularized the infamous “horns” gesture during his time as singer for Black Sabbath. In keeping with the band’s surprisingly idealistic and positive attitude, he claims it was a sign of protective magic to “ward off the devil” that he learned from his Italian grandmother — the malocchio.
Mainstay Magic artist Mark Poole seems to be in the know, because the bird-headed magus on the art of Indestructible Aura can be seen correctly using Dio’s malocchio to ward off red and blue elemental attacks, in keeping with the spell’s in-game effect. The art perfectly captures the “rule of cool” attitude, which makes it arguably the Most Metal Card from this early era of Magic.
WARLORDS AND PALADINS
While the bands we think of as heavy metal pioneers may just have been doing their own thing without a clear idea of what they would inspire, it didn’t take long for certain aspects of metal culture to become standardized. Especially through the bombastic halcyon days of the 80’s, metal bands got louder and heavier by the week as they sought to one-up each other in exploring the limits of their amps — and their eardrums. As fans of heavy metal began actively identifying with this pursuit of musical power, the genre quickly took to the mythology and aesthetics of Conan the Barbarian and other pulp fantasy heroes: virtuous brutes whose make-believe rampages could be celebrated all the more for their lack of consequences.
Magic — which harnesses the excitement of fantasy conflict for harmless fun — probably has more in common with classic power metal than any of the other aesthetics bands have cleaved to over the years. Especially during the time up to and during the Weatherlight saga, it was impossible to separate the nascent visual identity of Magic from that of bands like Manowar or Manilla Road, or the work of prominent fantasy artists who set tastes through the influential Heavy Metal magazine.
The viking metal bands that inspired Kaldheim originally evolved from more generic power metal, which confirms how compatible these styles are with Magic in general. We can trace the through-lines of inspiration every time we see a barbarian’s bulging biceps on a red card, especially on some of the oldest and least conservative examples.
But not all pulp-fantasy superstars are created equal, and neither are their Magic homages. Let me introduce a genuine favorite: Lim-Dul’s Paladin, from Alliances. The artwork is both exploding and T-posing to establish the level of respect you should pay this guy. The weapon and armor designs come from that pre-internet period of art where nobody knew what actual medieval gear looked like, or thought too hard about how the wearer was supposed to move (thanks to cosplayers around the world for changing this).
This suspiciously Rakdos-colored Paladin has equally intricate and confusing rules text: he draws tremendous power from his rune-sword, using it to fuel his otherwise pathetic 0/3 body. The sword is definitely evil, though — draining life from opponents in a way no white magic can prevent, and also draining sanity from its master (our hand size).
If you’re wondering why the Alliances team went to all this trouble for a random uncommon instead of just making it a 6/6 trample, it’s because this is a top-down design homage to Elric of Melnibone, one of the most influential pulp fantasy heroes of his day. Created by author Michael Moorcock, the frail prince Elric was transformed by tragedy — and a cursed sword — into an unstoppable anti-hero. The idea of the principled but tortured hero, outwardly invincible but emotionally vulnerable and denied solace, resonates down through dark fantasy staples from Berserk to The Witcher, as well as heavy metal. Moorcock even penned the lyrics to a metal song honoring Elric and his fell sword, called Black Blade (wonder where I’ve seen that name for a weapon before…)
SHINY AND CHROME
As metal continued to evolve, its aesthetic — like Magic’s own — was bound to diversify. Even as the power metal and viking metal bands continued to meditate on swords and muscles, other groups looked forward into a world of awesome machines. 80’s futurism kickstarted this aesthetic in metal even before all the themes had been adopted lyrically, with artist Doug Johnson’s famous cover artwork for Judas Priest albums showing what could easily be an alt-art promo for Magic’s Juggernaut, while the eponymous Jugulator could be mistaken for some early Phyrexian.
Both metal and Magic have evolved in their worship of the Machine-God, of course. More recent Phyrexian designs like Elesh Norn seem to share a lot of imagery with the genres dubbed “extreme metal” — blending body horror and torture imagery with a transhumanist undertone and blurred lines between organic and machine lifeforms. This modern metal influence is not restricted to just Phyrexians, though! For instance, I bet I can guess what Greg Staples was listening to while painting Urborg Syphon-Mage: Meshuggah’s influential album obZen had just come out that season, and who can blame him for being inspired?
GET DOWN, PLAY HEAVY MAGIC
So there you have it — a quick and by-no-means-at-all complete sojourn through some of the sneaky crossovers between my favorite card game and my favorite musical genre. Whether or not you listen to metal to relax like I do, I’m sure that the energy and swagger that Kaldheim draws from it can only make for more memorable and awesome card designs, including perhaps some more direct tributes that could lead me to revisit this list in the future. In the meantime, make sure you throw up the horns to ward off evil and stay tuned for me gushing about the new Orzhov cards.
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.