Magic: The Gathering Needs To Keep Experimenting With Soundtracks

For the last few of Magic: The Gathering's sets, Wizards of the Coast has been experimenting with different ways of promoting them. While we've had the usual cinematic trailers and preview seasons, we've also had things like Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty's impressive manga and anime tie-ins, but also a weird promotion with Ross Kemp for Streets of New Capenna. I suppose you can't win them all.

One of the more interesting things to come out of this current marketing push are the two soundtrack albums by YouTuber and singer Jonathan Young. One for Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, and one for Streets of New Capenna, both included a number of tracks composed by Young and included collaborators like Caleb Hyles, Annapantsu, and even Trivium's Matt Heafy. Though the results were mixed, especially for the first attempt, it would be a massive shame if we didn't see any more Magic music in the future.

We have had Magic-themed music in the past (most notably a metal selection for Kaldheim), but Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty was the first time a set had a true "official soundtrack". Playing up the set's blend of traditional Japanese imagery and cyberpunk, it was a blend of hard metal (the genre Young is best known for) and electronic music that only worked sometimes.

In an attempt to make this a true Magic: The Gathering album, it essentially retold the story of Neon Dynasty with songs, like Kaito searching for The Wanderer (Dearest Friend), and even Tamiyo's Phyrexian compleation (One With Phyrexia). Unfortunately, talking about Phyrexians and Planeswalkers and Sparks Igniting just doesn't blend well into a song, and the result is some truly cringeworthy lyrics that would be more at home in a cartoon opening theme than here. A particularly embarrassing example is the first song, Light It Up, which has the lyrics "each game you're getting better, each deck you reconstruct, with just a little skill and lots of luck, we can light it up" proudly belted out by Caleb Hyles.

And yet, for all the cringy vocal tracks, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty's album still had a lot going for it. It did a great job of evoking the feel of Kamigawa, especially in the instrumental tracks like Shadow of Boseiju, And We Glow, and the dubstep-influenced The Future Is Bright. Instead of banging on about Kaito and his spark or The Wanderer doing cool things with swords, these tracks simply let the music paint a picture of Kamigawa as a mix of tradition and technology.

While most people thought Kamigawa's soundtrack was going to be a one-off part of that set's notably heavy marketing push, we ended up getting a second one for Streets of New Capenna. If Jonathan Young had any of those 'difficult second album' anxieties when producing it, there's little sign of it in the work itself. New Capenna's soundtrack feels so much more confident, cohesive, and, crucially, less embarrassing than his first time around.

Instead of pinning the album to the set's story, New Capenna's soundtrack leans entirely into the vibe angle that made Neon Dynasty's instrumental tracks work. A brassy, jazzy, swingy affair, across the tracks we're introduced to each of the five families, which includes the unremittingly sexy Old Money and Nails and Kneecaps and are even treated to a big band spectacle with the Cabaretti's theme Family Means Business. Young even got to show off his metal chops again with Until This City's Burning, one of the most story-centric tracks that chronicles Ob Nixilis' rise to power, but keeps it just divorced from the events enough that it somehow still absolutely slaps.

A few duds remain, but they're outweighed by bangers. A Deal You Can't Refuse tries to force the intimidating aura a bit too hard and instead comes off sounding like one of those English-language anime theme covers that plague YouTube. Last Train Home and Angel Inside veer back into Kamigawa's story-focused-cringe problem, but to a much, much lesser degree.

It feels like Young is getting the hang of Magic music, and how it doesn't need to be explicitly about the game. We don't need the music we listen to mention Tamiyo, Tezzeret, or Jin-Gitaxias to appreciate it as a Magic: The Gathering album – we just need it to be consistent with the overall vibe and feel of the set it's based on. We don't want a musical (well, we do want a musical, but a good one with an Ajani solo moment), we want chill beats to draft to.

It's hard to predict whether we'll see this kind of project again for a while. The next set it could pop up in is September's Dominaria United, which is more medieval fantasy-themed than either Kamigawa or New Capenna. Without a distinct musical underpinning available to it, Wizards may choose to hold off, but that would be a real shame. We've seen what Young can do with the New Capenna soundtrack, and putting him to the task of how to represent an older Magic setting like Dominaria musically would be really exciting. Scrapping the soundtracks now would be a real disservice both to Young as an artist and to the game itself.

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