Disclaimer/Trigger Warning: this article mentions some nasty, gorey stuff from the Viking Age. Also, I'm not a historical scholar of any sort. My qualifications for talking about these things are purely an amateur-level interest.
Kaldheim isn't Viking-Age Scandinavia. This is the first thing I had to hammer through my head when thinking about how I was going to write this article. It's its own world, a fantasy land that draws inspiration from Norse stories as source material, but it's not intended to be a one for one copy. This was really important for me to keep in mind while I was analyzing card art and flavor text trying to find the most interesting pieces from a mythology near and dear to my heart.
Being mindful of this helped temper some of my initial disappointment with Kaldheim, which started when I saw monocolored gods.
The gods of the Norse are complex, full of personality quirks and contradictions. I was wary that distilling them down to single colors would come at the expense of much of their nuance. Odin's Kaldheim parallel was... mono-blue? The god of madness and battle ecstasy? Of the selfish pursuit of knowledge at great cost to himself and others? How does this god not have the fury of red or the ambition of black? And Thor, the peoples'-choice-awards winner, god of storms but also fertility, protection, and most beloved of the middle class is reduced down to mono-red?
What feels like a superficial oversimplification to a Norse pagan probably makes a lot of sense in the realm of functional game design. Norse pagans who also play Magic are an admittedly niche group, so it's also important to remember that the set is made for a wider audience, and what I might see missing likely just couldn't fit within the constraints of a Magic set that also has to be playable.
I'd give Kaldheim's gods six horse legs out of eight.
So since Magic is about people doing, well, magic, I thought it would be interesting to look at depictions of magical feats on the cards and see how they resemble what we know about magical beliefs of the Viking-age world. Three cards that caught my eye as especially good references to Norse magical tradition were Littjara Kinseekers, Village Rites, and Scorn Effigy.
If we zoom in on the art for Littjara Kinseekers, the figures appear to be holding the same type of staff associated with a völva, or seeress:
Staffs like these are employed by practitioners of seiðr, a branch of magic that has diverse uses. Most notable in the context of MTG was that seiðr was used to predict and influence the future (so yes, foretell is a very on point mechanic for a Norse set). Seiðr was considered a womens' magic and taboo for men, but found practitioners across the gender spectrum nonetheless. Odin himself learned the art from the goddess Freyja, but Loki also called him out on this during his intense roast of the gods in the Lokasenna.
Now, Village Rites and Scorn Effigy capture what I was really hoping to see from this set: old-timey authentic sorcery that we actually see in the sagas, history, and even contemporary use. Prior to contact with Christianity, magic in Scandinavia had very little in the way of curses to throw at individuals; it was used much more widely for divination or cultivating relationships with local spirits.
The one notable exception is the níðstang, also called a nithing pole or scorn pole. Without getting too specific, I'll say these poles were stuck in the ground with an animal head impaled on top, often with a message for the intended target attached. In the art for both of these cards, you can see carved runes and animal skulls (a deer for Village Rites and what looks like maybe a fox for Scorn Effigy), so the artists nailed it. Horse heads are the classical way to go for these, but in a pinch you can improvise, as evidenced by the trout-headed níðstang raised against the Icelandic prime minister in 2016.
Yes, people still make these occasionally, but no, I don't recommend it as a weekend arts and crafts project.
One iconic practice Kaldheim left out is útiseta, or "sitting out." This could have been a great addition as a blue/black foretell card, since the practice is centered on the idea of divining the future from sitting out at night at a crossroads or burial mound and meeting with the spirits there.
I gotta dock a point for missing this one, and give Kaldheim's sorcerous activities eight long nights hanging from a tree out of nine.
The use of runes in Kaldheim is pretty close to how they are found historically. On most cards where we see them, they are carved into stone or wood, just like the runestones scattered all over Scandinavia. Many Icelandic magical staves from after the Viking age also require their symbols to be carved into various surfaces to be effective, and in the Hávamál, the runes are said to be carved and painted by Odin.
The runic alphabet of Kaldheim is a mystery I've spent far too many hours trying to unravel, and it fueled my madness for the last several weeks of spoiler season. When I saw the first card art with written runes I was a little "meh" about it because I didn't recognize them from any alphabets I know. I had expected the set to probably use transliterated English into Elder Futhark, the most popular runic alphabet for a lot of popular media. Magic has done this in the past, like what appears on the character's shield in the art for Chaos Lord. I had been looking forward to finding hidden messages or lore tidbits in the runes, so it was a little disappointing to find I wasn't able to read them.
The real trouble started when I noticed the fakey runes were consistent across different cards and artists. This seems to indicate that a full alphabet was made somewhere for Kaldheim's runes. Maybe it was nothing more than a sheet of meaningless symbols for artists to reference and arrange however they wanted, but maybe it was an actual alphabet that represented sounds or words.
This drove me nuts because my pragmatic mind told me no one would go to the trouble of making a functional new alphabet when we already had so many to choose from, but try telling that to Tolkien. It's possible Wizards followed in his footsteps and created a rune set just for Kaldheim.
Maybe their unreadability is the point; they're supposed to be mysterious. Perhaps it's just that Wizards didn't want anything to be gleaned from them. The word "rune" also means "secret," so even this could serve as an explanation for why they made the symbols indecipherable. I'm sure someone with a linguistic background would be able to piece together more and perhaps tell us whether this is an actual alphabet or just a collection of symbols. I can recognize here and there a character from the Elder Futhark or the Anglo-Saxon runes mixed in with characters I've never seen. Some of Kaldheim's runes are just flipped or inverted real runes. I considered that the unrecognizable ones might be bindrunes, runes written one atop the other to form new symbols, but if that is the case then it doesn't help me decipher them since they could be combined in any number of ways.
Here are a couple real runes from Toski, Bearer of Secrets tail. That squirrel was my Rosetta stone until almost all the runes turned out to be fake:
That bent-looking F is a rune called Óss from the Anglo-Saxon rune set (I think), which is a descendant of Ansuz (ᚨ) from the Elder Futhark. The other one is Ingwaz (ᛝ) from the Elder Futhark.
It also doesn't help that the dedicated Rune cards we got don't follow the naming format for runes we know from historical sources. In the futhark alphabets, the name of the rune tells you what sound it makes. So for example Fehu (ᚠ) makes the "F" sound. Instead of giving their runes names, Kaldheim's Rune cards act more like bindrunes in the sense that they have a magical purpose instead of a phonetic sound and are called "Rune of __," so we can't use them to start puzzling out this alphabet.
Oh and also! The runes on Rune cards don't appear elsewhere in carvings on other card art! So what! The heck! Is happening!
Anyway. I could talk forever about runes and ancient languages, so I'll move on. Kaldheim's runes get a four out of 24 for readability, but full marks for stoking my curiosity.
The valkyrjur being assigned the Angel creature type is not unexpected, and was a necessity for them to work in a tribal set. The black ones are very cool to see (Eradicator Valkyrie is immaculate), and I would have loved them as just black, or perhaps black-blue or black-red in some instances, but definitely not white. The valkyrjur were "choosers of the slain," spirits of the battlefield who were essentially there as extensions of Odin, not to pick and choose the bravest of fallen warriors for Valhöll as is popular belief in today-times, but to actually decide who lived and who died and then ensure, through sorcery, that those people did die. They weren't so much sent to oversee the aftermath of the battlefield as much as they were unleashed upon it.
In one saga (Njáls saga—Darraðarljóð for those who want to read it themselves), a group of valkyrjur are depicted weaving the fabric of battle to influence its outcome, using warriors' guts for the material, skulls as weights, and bloody spear handles for loom rods. Use of human corpses for sorcery ingredients is probably too gruesome even for MTG, so I don't blame them for not getting this real. But still, I think having "angels" from this plane be completely absent from white would have been a fun and thematic shake up. I understand they had to fit 10 tribes into 10 two-colored realms, but just pretend math isn't real for a second and let me dream.
They get two Norns out of three for doing what they had to but leaving me feeling like they just brought in angels from a different mythology that we've seen before.
There was a spattering of other cards I really liked for Norse aesthetic. One of these that caught my eye just from the name was Rootless Yew. Any Wardruna fan will see this card and think of Rotlaus Tre Fell. The yew also has significance as the Eiwaz rune from the Elder Futhark (ᛇ) and the Yr rune from the Younger Futhark (ᛦ), so it was a good choice of tree.
Stoic Farmer and Story Seeker both made me really happy to see. As representations of non-viking career paths, they really help Kaldheim feel more fleshed out and alive. This might make some people angry, but there's no such thing as "viking culture." Viking was just a job title, and it takes more than raiders to run a society.
So all in all, I think Kaldheim offers up some pretty interesting glimpses into its source material. I can only imagine the challenges involved in set design, so although there are some things I wish were done differently, I think Wizards probably put a ton of time and effort into fitting Norse cosmology down into a set players would enjoy. It doesn't lean too far toward Marvel's interpretation, for which I am grateful, and even managed to include some lesser-known details among the popular stories it parallels. It has left me with burning questions about the rune set, so I hope we hear more about that in the future. My eyes are glued to Blogatog in case Mark Rosewater reveals any secrets about this.
Taken all together, I'd rate Kaldheim pretty well for its use of the source material within the constraints of playability. Let's say… seven and a half realms out of nine?
Oh, and Colossal Plow would make Freyr chuckle.