2010-01-20

Mana Matters, Part II: Five Color Cosmology

As noted in our initial post on Magic, mana exists in five colors (red, green, white, blue, black) produced by the five types of basic lands (mountain, forest, plains, island, swamp). Each of these colors possesses a distinct set of characteristics, and in terms of gameplay, spells using certain colors of mana tend to have access to particular sorts of effects which other colors generally may not.


In an extremely general sense, the five colors are associated with the following qualities, and are broadly characterized by the following effects:

  • Red - freedom, destruction: Red tends to specialize in attacking or using spells to cause direct damage to opposing players and their creatures. Red creatures often have the keyword ability "haste," which allows them to attack the same turn they come into play, while by and large creatures cannot attack until the turn after. Red also specializes in "burn spells" which directly deal damage as a one-time effect.
  • Green - growth, abundance: Perhaps not surprisingly, green holds a fair monopoly on spells which allow players to get more lands into play faster than normal, as well as many creatures which themselves have abilities allowing them to produce mana, especially forest-dwelling elves whose close connections to the land enable them to draw on its power for the player who summons them. (Interestingly, such creatures often have the creature type "druid.") In addition to spells which accelerate the availability of land or cause creatures to 'grow' and become temporarily stronger and tougher, green also has access to a wide range of powerful creatures, often in the form of large beasts. In some parts of the game world, such behemoths are regarded not just with respect, but with worship.
  • White - order, community: If green is the color of untamed jungles and hunter-gatherers, than perhaps white is the color of a settled agrarian society. White creatures are often small, but effective in groups (a strategic archetype known as a "white weenie" deck), though white is also known for its larger and more powerful (but more expensive in terms of mana cost) law-bringing angels. White also fields a wide class of spells to enforce its orderly tendencies: some bind individual creatures, preventing them from attacking; some destroy enchantments or artifacts which alter the rules of the game; some exile an offensive creature from the game more or less completely; and some even wipe the entire board clean of all creatures, or all lands, or both, to return the game to an unsullied state in which order may be reestablished.
  • Blue - intellect, control: Blue values use of knowledge to one's own advantage above all else. The color is best known (and despised) for its vast array of counterspells, which nullify the spells of other players before they can resolve. Blue also specializes in spells and abilities which allow a player to draw cards in addition to the normal one per turn, or even search their deck for a particular card (though the latter ability is shared in some measure by the other colors as well). This extra card drawing represents having greater or faster access to the knowledge of one's spells. On the other hand, blue also is fairly strong in forcing opposing players to discard cards from their hands, or put cards from the top of their deck directly into their discard pile (called the "graveyard"), which action is colloquially called "milling." Milling and forced discarding of cards both represent a sort of invasive mental destruction. Blue is generally not the strongest color in terms of creatures meant for directly attacking opponents, but blue creatures are often illusions which tend to have evasive abilities (such as being unblockable), or may have other useful abilities which open other strategies. Blue also is best-equipped to control the minds of other players' creatures, stealing control and letting the opponents' own minions take out their masters.
  • Black - death, sacrifice: Black is all about the pursuit of power at any cost, even one's own life. Black spells often require sacrifices in exchange for power: losing life points to draw cards, discarding cards as an additional cost to cast a creature spell, or literally sacrificing creatures you control in order to gain some benefit, or to appease some more powerful creature. Demons are the iconic creatures of the color, and are usually expensive creatures with a great deal of power, but with diabolical drawbacks. Black also possesses the abilities of milling and forced discard, but in this color these mechanics are often portrayed as the result of traumatic shock or horror rather than mental invasion.
These five colors provide a schema for classification not only of types of in-game effects, but also of personalities and characteristic strategies. As such, each color is considered allied or opposed to each of the other four colors. The allied color pairs are:

  • Red-green;
  • Green-white;
  • White-blue;
  • Blue-black;
  • Black-red.
Each of these pairs groups two colors with certain characteristic and strategic similarities. For instance, white and blue share the concern for controlling the game environment with removal or counterspells; black and red share the ability to directly damage or destroy opponents' creatures or directly cause opponents' loss of life; and so on.

The so-called "enemy" or opposed color pairs are:

  • White-red;
  • Red-blue;
  • Blue-green;
  • Green-black;
  • Black-white.
Similarly, these pairs' characteristics are internally opposed: red's passion chafes against white's constriction; green's growth struggles against black's decay; &c. However, multicolored cards are printed in each of these ten color pairs, including enemy colors.

In addition to these ten two-color pairings, five three-color groups also exist. A recent "block" of card sets explored the use of these three-color themes. The block, called Shards of Alara, centered on a plane which had been shattered into five separate worlds, each lacking two of the five colors of mana, and thus defined by the characteristics of one three-color group. These groupings, along with the associated world from Shards of Alara block, are:

  • Green-red-white (Naya);
  • White-green-blue (Bant);
  • Red-black-green (Jund);
  • Black-blue-red (Grixis)
  • Blue-white-black (Esper).
These groups are listed with each world's primary color first — though Bant, for example, contains an admixture of white, green, and blue mana, white is the predominant force on that plane and best characterizes the plane as a whole. Each grouping contains both the colors allied to its primary color, though those two colors themselves are opposed. These synergistic triplets allow for yet another level of mana-based organization and characterization.

What, then, do we make of this color wheel order? My proposition and purpose in describing this organization is that the five colors of mana provide Magic with a cosmology, a systematic representation of how the world functions and is organized. (Refer to our earlier post about Roy Rappaport's fourfold hierarchy if you'd like a refresher on cosmological axioms.) This cosmology not only informs the mechanics of the game itself, but constitutes part of a bona fide ritual system in which each player necessarily participates when they play the game.

Before pursuing this contention, we will next pause to arm ourselves with an understanding of what constitutes ritual.

2 comments:

  1. Where is black?

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  2. It looks like I did something stupid when I was formatting the post and accidentally pasted Blue's description over Black's. I've written in a new description for Black, though it's too bad I lost whatever I'd written in the first place.

    Thanks for noticing that.

    ReplyDelete