Magic: The Gathering colour wheel – explained
Magic: The Gathering colour wheel – explained
Many players, both established and new to the game, often ask themselves - what’s the meaning of the different types of mana and their combinations. Are they just portraying the basic differences in gameplay tactics, or is there a deeper, more nuanced meaning to it all? Why the various Magic spells are affiliated to some mana colours and not others? Moreover, how come some characters change their mana affiliation as the time progresses?
Let’s have a closer look at the colour wheel. For those who are new to the game or have never played it - In Magic: The Gathering, there are 5 core mana types – Black, Blue, Green, Red, and White. Each act as a currency through different types of landscape – Swamp, Island, Forest, Mountain, and Plains, respectively. Combinations of manas result in landscapes that represent several types of mana, for example Polluted Delta. All spells, from creatures to sorceries, within the game are paid for with mana, usually coming from lands. This gives us the core understanding that mana is drawn from the plain of existence itself – its landscape dictates the abundance of one type of magic resource over another, thus oftentimes affecting its inhabitants. Which brings us to the fundamental question of how mana affiliation can be expressed through specific characteristics, identity, and personality.
Traditionally, we see Black in creatures like Zombies, Bats, and Vampires, and in spells that leech out life or carry deathtouch, among others. It’s no wonder why many players jump to a conclusion that Black mana = evil (doesn't help that the symbol for this type of mana is a literal skull). That may be true in some cases, but there’s much more to it. Black mana expresses itself in such qualities as ambition, ruthlessness, self-serving pursuits, but also introspective reflection and internal rather than external conflict in a character. This can be seen in such Magic characters as Liliana, the iconically Black-affiliated planeswalker whose life’s quest is that of eternal life and beauty (very selfish pursuit, isn’t it), never mind that she also just so happens to be Multiverse’s best necromancer. For her, ends always justify means. But what’s equally contributing to her lingering Black-mana identity is Liliana’s internal struggle with her past and her brother’s tragic fate. In another, more recent example, Nissa – a historically Green planeswalker – has added Black to her new mana identity, which left many players puzzled.
After the recent event in Magic’s storyline, Nissa as a character was left riddled with internal conflict, plagued by guilt and doubt, which in her case are all a very personal struggles that she projects inwards. No zombies or ghouls, but an introspective quality to a character that previously hasn’t experienced it to the same defining degree.
Ah, Blue, Magic players’ favourite mana (or not, depending on which side of the table you’ll end up sitting). Traditionally, Blue can be seen in flying creatures, cunning counter-spells, and all kinds of sorcery shenanigans that spice up the game. Trickery, time and information manipulation – these as some of the first things that come to mind when dealing with Blue spells. The colour of logic, progress, technological advancement, and the pursuit of knowledge and perfection, Blue just so happens to contain some of the most powerful spells in the game. One of the most iconically blue characters in recent Magic story is Jace Beleren, a mage whose powers revolve around mind-manipulation.Jace has an analytical mind and an aptitude for planning (some may say, overplanning), and one of his biggest characteristics is his unquenching curiosity. His first instinct is to study the problem rather than face it head-on. He avoids physical combat, preferring illusions and mind tricks as his weapons. As another example, we have Dovin Baan – a character set in both Blue and White. No trickery or illusions, nor does Dovin fly (though he does favour flying thopters and spy devices). So why would he be a blue-affiliated character? Dovin’s talents lie in identifying all possible flaws in any machine, system, or venture. He is a character driven by the pursuit of perfection, which quite unfortunately leads him to become a villain.
Green is most often seen in gigantic creatures, forest-dwelling critters, druids, elves, and spells that stimulate growth. The colour of interdependence and togetherness, of balance and acceptance, of raw instinct and innocence, Green is frequently shown to defy progress, destroy artifacts and enchantments, and favour large surface-dwelling mastodonts while pinning flyers to the ground. Green is rigid and averse to change, favouring stability and the established order of things. A great example of a Green character is Vivien Reid. Her personality is rooted in her connection to the wilderness and ability to bring forth Spirit Animals. She is straightforward, defiant of civilisation, and on the quest to restore the natural order to the Multiverse. Similarly, the legendary Gruul druid Nikya is centred in both Red and Green, her Green affiliation expressed in close connection to her plain’s natural core and her ability to summon constricting vines, but also her and her clan’s resistance to progress and dedication to the “Old Ways”.
Red, the colour of passion. Same is true in Magic: The Gathering. Red mana represents emotion, aggression, impatience and impulsivity, recklessness and fast action. This colour is often depicted through fire magic, rampaging beasts and feisty creatures, brawly warriors, and passionate souls. The most iconic Red character in recent Magic story is Chandra Nalaar. Not only is she a gifted pyromancer (of course she is), but she also possesses a temper to match. Not one for subtlety, she’s quick to act and has a talent for improvisation. She is known for her fire-wielding abilities just as much as her ever-changing mood (as well as her very nature, some might argue judging from the recent book). But what about someone who has nothing to do with fire? Like, perhaps, a vampire? Edgar Markov, arguably the Multiverse’s most revered blood-sucker, is tri-colour – Black, White, and Red. So where does his Red come from. Indulgence and succumbing to impulse and desire, as well as his martial nature and readiness to step into the fight. We may not know all that much about the nuances of his personality from bits and pieces of lore, but his character is expressed vividly through his card – he is fast, he strikes firmly and without hesitation, and his martial prowess is unquestionable.
In opposition to Black, many players view White mana as benevolent. There is some truth to it, as a lot of life-giving spells and traditionally “good” creatures in Magic: The Gathering such as angels are White affiliated. However, this mana type is less about kindness of the heart and more about peace and morality rooted in control and structure, and the value of a community over an individual. For the greater good! You will find clerics and priests, soldiers and heads of state, judges and guards in White. Anything that establishes control and keeps peace and conformity, as well as benefits the group as a whole. White is rigid and inflexible, and always strives for order, which does not always mean benevolence. After all, as Jean-Luc Picard famously said, “there can be no justice as long as laws are absolute.” That being said, an interesting example of a White character is Nahiri, a Korr lithomancer.Nahiri is currently both White and Red, yet she started off as a completely White character. Her main goal is the preservation of peace on her home plane – Zendikar. Nahiri began her journey as a selfless character, ready for sacrifices for the good of her people. She agreed to endure millennia of stasis just so she could protect her world from the Eldrazi. Her character was driven by the pursuit of peace, and still is. Now, Nahiri seeks to restore Zendikar “back to its glory” – establish the status quo and bring forth order that the plane now lacks. By any means necessary. On the other hand, Sorin Markov, the grandson of previously mention Vampire lord Edgar Markov, started off as a Black character only to welcome White into his colour identity later on. The change came about when Sorin took it upon himself to be the protector – read master – of his home plane Innistad. He saw that his own kind were devouring the living of the plane with a little too much gusto, and before long the “supplies” would never be able to replenish. He then made an unpopular choice to establish control over the creatures of the night, quite literally creating a guardian angel to protect the human population from his own tribe. For the greater good!
Most spells in Magic are more than just one colour, some encompassing all five! Each combination of colours brings forth a distinct feature of that type of mana, be it the passion of Red or the community of White, oftentimes interpreted together as heroism. The many combinations of colours are often referred to by names inspired by Magic’s lore, for example Black and Green together would be called “Golgari” after the eponymous guild in those exact two colours. This and many other combinations can be seen in the diagram below.
Understanding the colours and their meaning helps comprehend the personalities of Magic’s characters as well as interpret the cards. It is also a pretty fun system for character alignment in an RPG setting, if you ever wish for something more flexible than the good ol’ Good-Neutral-Evil archetypes.
- Gumnut Team