My (exceedingly) early contender for album of the year is currently Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me—it’s Phil Elverum’s encomium to his wife, Geneviève Castrée, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2016. It’s gutting—it makes Nike Cave’s Skeleton Tree look like Architecture in Helsinki’s Places Like This. There’s no clear analogue for it, but in its simplicity and straightforwardness, it reminds me of Tom Hart’s memoir Rosalie Lightning, one of the best depictions of grief I’ve ever read. There’s shared territory in both of these works of art: they use simple diction and expressive austerity to clue the audience into the language of grief. Grief isn’t ornate or grandiloquent—as Elverum sings in “Real Death,” with a kind of harrowing numbness, “It’s dumb, and I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”

John Donne may have written beautifully about grief, but Donne wrote beautifully about everything. C. S. Lewis’s writings on grief are elegant, but Lewis’s bedrock of delusion means his writings are as discountable as they are well-reasoned. Didion is closer when she writes about how grief reduces you to helplessness and wounded innocence; but grief isn’t pithy, narrative-friendly microepiphanies. Grief is ugly. Grief is corrosive. Grief is endless and ravenous and it’s big enough to swallow you whole.

In Magic, of course, many things will swallow you whole—the world of Magic is a world of death. Since the game’s inception, creatures go to the “graveyard.” Spells are couched in the language of traumatic or sudden deaths—Slaughter, Execute, Waste Away—and there’s not much time to depict the aftereffects of death. Certainly, in the multiverse of Magic, death is a less permanent state of being, but there’s an ironic perversion in that transience (c.f. Restless Dead).

We’ve talked about ghosts before, and what is a ghost but grief made manifest? We want the dead to revisit us, because at the core of grief is that hideous awareness that our lives from now on will be so much different than they once were. From the moment grief first sinks in, we know we are diminished. It’s for that reason that white cards tend to be the primary cards that deal with grief (indeed, Bereavement and Yawgmoth’s Edict should probably be switched up, going strictly by flavor), since white is the color that prioritizes society. Depictions of grief are secondary in black cards, with the color’s affinity for death and selfishness. Grieving is a deeply social process that can take on a necessarily selfish tinge or it can be a process that focuses on the deceased individual—consider Lost Legacy, which depicts a social act of legacy-building—or both at alternating times.

The two varied art styles on Bereavement sum up this morbid dichotomy: in the original art, the perpetrator is in-frame, and the focus of the art is on the immediate impact of fresh grief. In the 7th Edition art (one of the very few 7th pieces I prefer to the original), there’s no context for how recent this death is, although the overgrowth on the monument suggests this is an old wound. In this contrast, we see the full scope of death—the pain of an external injury and the lasting trauma of an internal experience. There’s also a story in that card name—to be “bereaved” implies an act of violence, a theft, a crime. (In fact, we get the word “bereaved” from the Old English word meaning “to rob.”) Bereavement is a state of being—a passive state, at that, characterized by self-reflection and anxiety—but, etymologically speaking, it goes beyond a random act to an act of strict violence. The dead don’t leave us; they’re taken from us.

In Magic, we grieve for the Tarmogoyf who takes a Fatal Push, and we grieve for the Goblin Guide who got in there for six before taking a path to greener pastures. We don’t mourn for the Sakura-Tribe Elder who sponged up an attack and ramped us, because that’s the way things should have gone. That’s at the core of grief: we grieve because we are suddenly aware that the world doesn’t operate aligned to our expectations.

Side note here: WotC makes a meal out of Phyrexia as an alien consciousness, but the flavor of Phyrexia never really bears this out. Look at Phyrexian Revoker or Exhume—this isn’t alien philosophy, but edgy nihilism. Wizards, however, did knock it out of the park on one Phyrexian card: the Elesh Norn judge promo. That’s alien.

Back to Bereavement. Check out those two competing flavor texts, as well, and note how neither contradicts the other. From a creative standpoint, Magic is an act of anthropology, and so burial and grieving practices must be considered in that construction of a world. The first unarguable burials conducted by modern humans date back about 100,000 years—back to the days of the Paleolithic—and appear to be the ritualistic burial of a mother and her child. Magic never tracks back that far, of course—most of Magic is set along a timescale of about 3,000 years—and so there’s not enough time for social practices to concretize on an organic scale.

Tempest Block, oddly enough, has a pretty comprehensive belief system in the Kor society—for examples, see Spirit en-Kor and Kor Dirge. Rath is an exceptionally harsh world, so the Kor view death as a kind of freedom to be exalted and longer for. It’s an almost Puritanical view of life—something to be suffered through with as much rectitude as possible in order to reap the glory of the next life. The Kor of Rath also have several levels of grief—not only does traditional death steal away the beloved, they may betray their families and align themselves with Volrath (the “il” prefix before -kor, -vec, or -dal is the terminology applied to these traitors), or they may be trapped between worlds, thus dead to the family but existent on a shadow plane. No wonder the Kor have a blasé attitude towards death.

The society-focused concept of grieving is suggested in other white cards on other planes—see Moonlit Wake from Mercadian Masques for an act of communal mourning or Martyr’s Tomb for what creative veneration looks like on Dominaria or Guardians of Meletis for a white-aligned act of reverence. Black tackles the more anguished side of grief—see Murderous Betrayal and Recover—and does so, suitably enough, to a sometimes self-absorbed extent. Red, oddly enough, doesn’t engage much with grief—that’s wasted territory, as grief is a strong emotion that takes individualized form based on the sufferer and thus fertile soil for future creative development—but does have one perfect moment of grace in grief in Invasion’s Obliterate. Green doesn’t really grieve, because green sees the natural cycle as transcendent. It’s hard to feel challenged by grief when you’re raised to understand that your life is fragile and brief, but that the life-force is tenacious and eternal. Blue, with its need to intellectualize everything, doesn’t have much of a present relationship with grief.

That said, though, I’d argue that the best Magical depiction of grief itself is a blue card: Dandân. Grief lurks. It bubbles up suddenly and unpredictably. It’s abstract and benthic. It’s fragile and always below the surface of the quotidian world. Grief is like fasting: it’s deleterious for the body, but it exalts the mind. It scrapes away the quotidian concerns in favor of the big agonies. We get the word from the Latin “gravare,” meaning “to make heavy, to cause to grow weighty” and that sums it up entirely: grief is a weight. Grief is a presence. In Swedish folklore, the ghost of an unbaptized or unwanted infant is known as a myling; mylings wait for travelers to pass by, then leap onto their backs, demanding to be taken to hallowed ground. As the traveler nears the cemetery, the myling grows heavier and heavier, sinking the traveler into the soil, leaving the ghostling alone and impotent and searching for a new victim. Grief is a myling.

And yet, it’s not: grief isn’t a myling. Grief isn’t a Babadook. Grief isn’t any kind of externalized creature that can be reasoned with or fettered in the basement. Grief is the knowledge that our lives must go on without them, and that one day, their lives will go on without us. Grief is an almost universal and resonant concept, but it’s one that is antithetical to fun. I’m not blaming Wizards for shying away from difficult psychological states—or from psychological states at all, as that’s a deeply personal and dangerously passive thing—but a world without grief is an incomplete world. Certainly it’s less culturally rich; it may hurt to listen to someone else’s pain, but we would be worse-off without the art that grief has given us.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.