In an age of consoles, streaming, and (at least for the foreseeable future) socially-distanced everything—it’s easy to regard the trading card game as an obsolete fad. To be clear, Magic: The Gathering‘s explosion in popularity following its unveiling by Wizards of the Coast in 1993 marked a watershed moment in gaming: here was an inviting-yet-complex franchise suitable for large-scale tournaments, kitchen-table play, or just plain collecting. And then there was its diehard, diverse player base, which, in spite of the internet’s relative infancy at the time, grew bigger and more organized by the year. By the time the ’00s rolled around, the landscape had shifted dramatically: cardboard was out, connectivity was in, and the trading card game seemed like a thing of the past.
In reality, Magic: The Gathering was bigger than ever. Away from the public eye (and with the fair-weather fans of the ’90s mostly absent), acolytes flocked to online forums and local game stores; Wizards of the Coast returned the favor with a robust tournament system, new expansions and mechanics, supplementary novels expanding upon the universe’s lore, and of course, more cards. Over 20 years and 10,000 cards in, Magic: The Gathering is still enjoyed by millions (perhaps even more so now, thanks to the introduction of Magic Arena, Wizards’ digital alternative to traditional “paper” Magic.)
Of course, like most forms of geekery and high fantasy, the game’s spurred some pretty kick-ass metal, largely thanks to the art, which presents an abundance of aesthetic comfort food: zombies, skeletons, demons, blood sacrifice, and the like. “Fantasy literature, swords and sorcery/barbaric pulp and films, and tabletop/role-playing games have had a strong impact on metal music’s aesthetic direction since the genre’s nascent stages, so it only makes sense that someone fascinated with metal album covers would be interested in immersive gaming experiences that provide a similar art direction, and vice versa,” says Jake Rogers, lead singer of Visigoth and lifelong Magic player. “If you’re someone who grew up playing games such as Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, or Warhammer, and then discover Michael Whelan’s art adorning a Cirith Ungol album, or happen across Omen’s Battle Cry—the art for which looks like it could have been taken from an early Magic: The Gathering set—it only makes sense that your interest in the music would be piqued.” With that in mind, here are seven metal albums that pay homage, both directly and indirectly, to the first and best trading card game ever made.
Flying one’s freak flag with pride, whether the banner’s stitched from high fantasy, futurism, or anything else, is a key tenet of power metal philosophy, and Visigoth are no exception. The title track from 2012’s debut EP Final Spell, adapts the Urza Saga—arguably the most iconic arc in Magic’s 25-plus year history—into five-and-a-half minutes of dueling guitar lines and powerhouse falsetto vocals, with the band’s rhythmic passion and existential desperation growing by the second: basically, the prodigal ideal of musical fan service.
“The Brothers’ War was the narrative backdrop for the early Magic: The Gathering sets I grew up with, and it seemed a fitting well of inspiration for a heavy metal song due to its dramatic, apocalyptic story arc,” explains Rogers. “Final Spell’ was one of the first songs we wrote for Visigoth. I wanted to do a Magic: The Gathering themed song because I think that growing up near Seattle where Wizards of the Coast is located, and playing the game from a young age likely had a strong impact on my interest in heavy metal music as I grew older.”
Path to Exile
Named in honor of one of the legendary “Power Nine”, a set of ultra-rare, overpowered, and ludicrously valuable cards printed in Magic’s first three sets back in the ’90s, Time Walk are a Missouri wrecking crew who contrast sludgy hardcore punk with ’90s death and thrash metal. They’re not a MTG-inspired act per se; were it not for their name, and the references embedded into their debut tape’s track-listing (songs include “Path to Exile” and “Supreme Verdict”), and their members’ stated collective affinity for the game, Time Walk’s nerdy traits would fly under the radar. Those cuts, as well as the title track, are but three examples of why metal and magic make such a perfect combo: the brutality is simply becoming of both game and group.
Pillars of Creation
Compact Disc (CD)
The most far-flung band on this list by far, Obsidian Tide are a progressive metal power trio from Tel-Aviv, Israel who build multi-part songs resembling space-age labyrinths, all winding, genre-bending rhythms, ambitious vocal arrangements, and arcane energy. All three are avid, lifelong Magic: The Gathering players, and credit it with bringing them together; bassist and harsh vocalist Shachar Bieber met guitarist and clean singer Oz Avneya on an Israeli Magic: the Gathering forum. Channeling their zeal for the game into an extended, wide-eyed anthem, “The Harbinger and the Millenial Vengeance” explores the Battle for Zendikar storyline from two perspectives: the eternal pilgrim Ayli, and the godlike demon Ob Nixilis.
“The interesting part about the song is the contradiction between how the two characters see Eldrazi: the mortal Ayli worships them, and looks up to them as gods, whereas Ob Nixilis only sees them as pawns in his plot for revenge,” Bieber says of the song. “I remember when we recorded this song the engineer asked us what it’s about, so I showed him some pictures of Eldrazi—and he was really awed!” Judging by the music’s sheer scale, it’s clearly worthy of these otherworldly beasties.
The Larval Hope
Cassette, T-Shirt/Apparel, Compact Disc (CD)
As Sallow Moth, Garry Brents makes narrative-focused death metal that’s heavily inspired by Lovecraft, classic horror films like Swamp Thing, and Hellraiser, and above all, Magic: The Gathering lore. Instead of voyaging to Zendikar or Dominaria, his rippers explore a self-created “multiverse” inhabited by celestial, humanoid moths (an insectoid callback to Magic’s faerie and menfolk tribes) warring against greedy humans, evil androids, and “defected faction of moths who went rogue mutating into these malicious scavengers and sorcerers who thrive on chaos and death/poison magic.” That Brents’ extensive liner notes provide an eloquent overview of all this complex intrigue is a godsend, but no matter: when the riffs are this good, who cares about a plot? Even the most epic moments on songs like “Ancient Grudge” and “Temporal Trespass” pale in comparison to the sheer noxiousness in which they’re framed: a series of rhythmic, Carcass-esque soundscapes burning onwards into oblivion, like, well, a luminous broodmoth to a flame.
California power metal outfit Gygax are all about the thrill of the game, literally: most, if not all, of their songs center around Dungeons & Dragons (a franchise that’s also operated by Wizards of the Coast), particularly on 2019’s excellent High Fantasy LP. “I’ve always noticed a connection between heavy metal and fantasy, ever since Dio was singing about spells and charms,” says bassist and vocalist Eric Harris. “Maybe it’s the imagery of epic battles and spellcasting. Heavy metal has a sense of storytelling or adventure to it’s ethos, so it makes sense that fantasy would fall hand in hand with that.” Which brings us to “Liliana,” a highlight off Gygax’s 2016 LP Critical Hits honoring necromancer anti-heroine Liliana Vess. The song’s ominous, thrilling feel is a direct reflection of the card itself, at least in spirit. After all, as Harris puts it, “A necromantic sorceress who made a bad deal with demons is pretty tight.”
With its threatening abilities and foreboding, eye-catching artwork—not to mention the fact that it’s basically a walking zombie factory—Grave Titan is one of Magic: The Gathering’s most iconic creatures, as well as a Commander staple. It’s also the namesake of a talented, up-and-coming metalcore outfit from Boise, Idaho, who parlay their zeal for metal and nerd culture into spectacular, well-produced breakdowns. “I think if you were to capture our music as an image, it’d be best displayed by Magic cards,” says lead vocalist, guitarist, and mono-red maven Alex Marshall, citing “Goblin Grenade” as a particular example. “‘Goblin Grenade’ made sense because that song, to us, sounds like throwing grenades, and lyrically, it’s about self-destruction.” For Marshall, Magic’s appeal is its careful balance between meticulous planning and straightforward assault; experiencing Grave Titan’s 2019 demo through a good pair of headphones, their music is clearly no exception: this is Bolt Thrower worship with serious brains.
Survey the Wreckage
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Wildspeaker‘s 2015 effort Survey the Wreckage might take its name from a mono-red spell, but its contents are more or less Golgari incarnate (that’s shorthand for black and green, if you haven’t been keeping up). On songs like “Overgrown Tomb” and “Abrupt Decay,” the Texans’ downtrodden sludge riffs and gnarled guitars drive home green’s undertones of cyclical decay and renewal, contrasted with black’s ruthlessness by way of blood-curdling vocals and thundering D-beat rhythms. Remarkably for a crust band, Wildspeaker’s lyrics are eloquent and poetic, developing the themes associated with different cards (at least ostensibly, given the titles) as case studies feeding into a broader inquiry on ugliness: “Speechless mermaid wilts to bones/ Time erodes naïvety/ Breathless to discharge shackled moans/ Abandoned as all patience and hope,” begins “Path to Exile.” Catchy and chaotic, profound and altogether punishing, Survey the Wreckage is proof that Magic isn’t just metal, but punk as fuck.