You may already be wondering how one could possibly say there’s a clear choice for scariest Magic card. You may think, James, I’m afraid it’s impossible to make an objective decision about something so obviously subjective.
I’m glad you’re afraid. You should be. We’re about to delve into some dark, disgusting, and downright terrifying things, so you’re in the right frame of mind. By the end, maybe it won’t matter what’s right or wrong, just that you survive the experience.
But bear with me because there absolutely is a scariest Magic card.
To figure that out , we need to dig into fear and how it operates and establish what makes a card scary. Let’s start with fear itself. The only thing to fear, according to Franklin Roosevelt. He never saw Abomination though, did he?
“Fundamentally, our response to fear remains basic, a primitive emotion essential to our survival and a core response that unifies our species.” – Harvard Medicine.
Fear is primal. An instinctive response in the amygdala. It’s fight or flight. A natural reaction to certain dangers, or the feeling of danger. According to Dr. Karl Albrecht, there are five fears we all share.
- Losing Control
- Identity Death
Death is simple and clear. Pain is tied to many phobias of things that can hurt you, heights, spiders, killer clowns… Losing Control is about things like aging, loss of mobility, poverty and so on. Separation ties into rejection, abandonment, losing friends, the death of others and finally, identity death is the shame and humiliation that make us lose confidence in who we are.
A lot going on there, but we’ve now boiled down five ways a card can be scary. This is the baseline, and its why Ad Nauseam is creepy as heck, but not scary.
Poor guy worked himself to death, relatable if you have a proper job and don’t write about cardboard, right? But it’s not quite primal. The late screenwriter Blake Snyder does a great job of breaking down the primal fears that drive us in his book Save the Cat, and none include too much paperwork.
“The motivation of your hero has to be primal: survival, hunger, sex, protection of loved ones, fear of death.”
The fact Ad Nauseam guy is already dead means he doesn’t have much to fear. You could learn the lore to get an idea of why he’s in that state, but the card alone is not scary.
The same goes for Brian DeMars’s pick for scariest card, Maze of Ith. I should feel bad for calling out a fellow writer, but it just isn’t scary.
As Brian puts it, “Not only is it conceptually disturbing and disgusting, but it also invokes the concept of claustrophobia. Can you imagine trying to drag yourself through this massive structure? It’s so nasty. Ith is quite the sicko for dreaming up this nightmare.”Sorry Brian, but you’re just wrong.
Claustrophobia is frightening, but not really in this context. It’s too complicated. Being lost in a labyrinth isn’t being locked in a box, it’s not direct enough to trigger the amygdala. Sorry Brian, but you’re just wrong. Let’s get to some cards that are actually scary, that meet our requirement of being a primal fear.
Two of my favorite cards that do a good job of being scary are Pulling Teeth and Sensory Deprivation. They both trigger primal responses from the list of five fears.
One is about losing control of your senses and the other pain; it makes you start thinking about your teeth, feeling your gums in your mouth.
But then again, those are more skin-crawling than true, abject terror. Witch-Maw Nephilim and Plagiarize fall into this category too. You bristle when you first see them, but they aren’t truly terrifying.
So what’s really, genuinely frightening? Giant monsters, of course.
There are plenty of monsters in Magic. Werewolves, vampires, horrors, Jace. The scariest of all are probably the Eldrazi.
Existing between planes of reality is certainly disconcerting to begin with, but that otherworldly nature is only the start. There’s the insanity they impart upon the populace of Innistrad, the mutation of everything from kittens to actual towns.
They’re weird, disgusting body horror, so pain.
They cause you to lose control of your mind and your body.
They’ll probably kill you.
They’ll definitely kill your grandmother or mutate her so much you have to kill her yourself (sorry Granny).
They’ll reach into your mind and destroy your identity.
The eldrazi are amazing scary monsters. They even represent that mechanically on cards like Emrakul, the Promised End and Transgress the Mind.
The Phyrexians are similar, they hit marks all over the primal fears. They’ll kill you, they’ll maim you and turn you into a machine, mess with your mind, it’s all great stuff, but the Eldrazi do it better in the game mechanics. Emrakul actually controls you, Elesh Norn just makes your creatures weaker. And have you seen Brisela?
Sure, Surgical Extraction is utterly disgusting and makes you think too much about your spine, but it’s not mechanically anything to lose sleep over. When my spine is in my graveyard, I’m guessing the rest of me will be too and I won’t be alive enough to care.
Despite everything though, there’s something off about the Eldrazi. They’re so cosmic and aloof that it’s hard to really be afraid. Frankly, Kozilek looks a bit silly too. Plus, these are big monsters, they’re not real, we know that.
We need to find the cards that really make you afraid.
There are some skin-crawlers that really get you, Brain Maggot is a good example. It’s horrible to contemplate that thing worming around inside your brain. If you consider what a maggot turns into, then you’re definitely losing focus on your Commander game.
Victim of Night, Mindstab Thrull and Treacherous Urge all do gory and body horror well too, but you become desensitized to disgusting quicker than many of us would like to admit.
There are some fears we can’t escape. If you have a phobia, you’ll be familiar with the visceral reaction you get from seeing that phobia up close and personal. You might get it standing somewhere high up, from feeling a spider rush across your foot or when a snake shows up on TV. Your heartrate surges, you tense up, you’re terrified, and you can’t control it.
The most common phobia is Arachnophobia. I’m terrified of spiders myself, so I absolutely go into fight or ask my wife to save me mode when I see one. It’s an uncontrollable, illogical fear. It’s primal in that a spider bite could kill me, but I also live in Ireland, so realistically it’s absurd to be afraid. We don’t have venomous spiders and the biggest one here is no larger than the palm of your hand.
Still, phobias are very real, and very frightening. That means Giant Spider creeps me out, and Ishkanah, Grafwidow – a spider that makes more spiders – is quite scary. That’s just my phobia. If it’s not yours, they’re just creatures that you don’t bat an eyelid at, and reach is not mechanically very scary, is it? Except secret reach like on Robber of the Rich, that gets me every time.
The problem with phobias is that not everyone shares them. For an agoraphobic, a plains might be the scariest card – if I’m being extremely hyperbolic. One phobia I think is universal though, if it’s taken to an extreme, is claustrophobia.
There’s a theory that we’re all claustrophobic because being trapped in an enclosed space is genuinely dangerous. 65% of people get claustrophobia in an MRI scanner. In Graham Davey’s work on Phobias, he found that of 21 miners who were trapped underground for 14 days, all had developed some level of claustrophobia.
That’s because unlike many other phobias, it’s entirely logical. Triskaidekaphobia, anatidaephobia and pemmaphobia, fear of the number thirteen, ducks and cake, respectively, are some examples of what you might call illogical phobias. The person suffering may have a reason for it, but it’s hard to relate to if you don’t have that fear.
Claustrophobia is relatable. It’s also primal in almost every way.
You could die from lack of air, you could feel the pain of being crushed or suffocation, the loss of control over your own breathing and inability to escape, even the separation aspect is there, you’re almost always trapped alone if you start to feel claustrophobic.
That’s why the card, Claustrophobia, is one of, if not the scariest card in Magic.It’s just a brilliantly real depiction in art, mechanics and flavor, of being trapped.
It’s not instantly gruesome or weird or gross, it’s not a big scary monster, it’s just a brilliantly real depiction in art, mechanics and flavor, of being trapped.
The art alone gets scarier the more you look at it. At first glance the poor guy just seems like he’s trying to get out of a confined space, but on closer inspection you see all the little details.
There’s his expression, which is absolute terror. The subtle scratch marks on the wood. The nails bearing down above him. The hands, clawed, grasping for purchase. The darkness. It’s grim and frightening and you can feel the breath catch in your throat as you stare at it. Ryan Pancoast captured something really raw in his work.
Beyond that, the flavor text adds another layer to the terror. “Six feet of earth muffled his cries.” That builds on the art so well, because we go from a man in a box, to being buried alive. Now we’ve got the separation part of the primal fears really nailed down. This man has been buried alive. He’s clawing at wood beneath layers of mud. He’s going to suffocate and die and no-one can hear him to help.
Mechanically the card also captures being trapped, though it’s certainly the weakest part of the three elements. Still, being unable to move, to do anything, that’s pretty flavorful, and in concert with the other details all adds up to a properly scary Magic card, which very few cards can genuinely claim to be.
But is Claustrophobia really the scariest card? Perhaps not. Maybe it’s the unknown that terrifies us the most. The stranger behind you on a dark street, the noise from downstairs in the dead of night, the last card in the burn player’s hand.
True fear in the game comes at two life against aggro or when you’re tapped out against combo or when your opponent has five creatures down by turn three. Ultimately, the scariest card in Magic is the one that’s going to kill you.