Magic the Gathering’s color wheel is a marvel of modern game design. Magic is a game with a lot of complicated mechanics and the color wheel offers an overall structure that helps organize and make sense of them. It also grounds these mechanics in a rich narrative framework, so that one of the deepest strategic games in history is also an exploration of fascinating psychological and philosophical ideas. Listening to Mark Rosewater talk about the color wheel is a master class in how to build a complex, living world out of rectangular pieces of cardboard.
But recently something about the color wheel has been gnawing at me. It started after reading this well-written piece about how the color wheel could be applied as a psychological framework to predict and explain human behavior in the real world. In this piece, the author notes:
Traits like “good” or “evil” do not map to the color wheel, since every color has ways in which it can be either.
When I read this, I nodded along in agreement. One of the appealing things about the color wheel is how it avoids simplistic moral dualism. But then a question occurred to me: what would someone within the world of Magic think about this idea? What would a White mage think about this? Would they agree that Black magic isn’t evil, just different? Probably not. Presumably they would find such an idea repulsive. They would have their own, entirely different way of organizing and explaining the metaphysical logic of magic.
The standard color wheel, our wheel, represents a coherent, internally-consistent, overall worldview. It organizes and explains everything in the world of Magic, including entire societies, cultures, traditions and philosophies. But wouldn’t each of these cultures themselves have their own coherent, internally-consistent, overall worldview? This is, in fact, basically how the standard wheel presents the various colors, each of them is a complete point of view. White cares about certain values, has certain beliefs, uses certain concepts, applies certain methods, and so on. Red has their own values, beliefs, concepts and methods. Blue has theirs, and so on around the wheel.
But — and this is the crux of the matter — even though each of the colors represents an entire explanatory framework, a complete system of thought and action for making sense of the world, all of them are forced to have their worldviews expressed through our explanatory framework — the standard color wheel.
Maybe we don’t use the good vs evil binary as a core concept, but someone within the White moral framework probably would. For them, Black isn’t just another color, one that they happen to disfavor. From the White point of view, the battle between good and evil is the central defining concept that organizes and explains everything, and the standard color wheel’s symmetrical division of the world into five even slices is confusing and misleading. And some variation of this disconnect would presumably be true for every color. Some of them, like White, might have binary systems, others might have tripartite systems or fuzzy spectrums or monist systems or whatever, but each would have it’s own coherent, internally-consistent system that didn’t fit neatly into the five-wedge pizza of the standard color wheel but was, instead, every bit as big and inclusive and explanatory on its own.
The standard color wheel presents itself as a neutral, objective, universal system. But in fact it’s a particular, historically-situated, ideological framework, with its own beliefs, values and methods. The color wheel is a cultural perspective, but one that presumes to place itself above all others as a total, global, natural, inescapable truth. It’s a perspective that we can’t see because it’s ours.
And so I set out to answer the question: what would it look like to see the world of Magic through the worldview of each of the colors, to understand them not just as features of the color wheel, but each one as a fully-developed system of thought, each one as coherent and persuasive as the color wheel itself?
For White it’s all about the war between the light of good and the darkness of evil. While it’s true that White wants peace through order, the peace White wants is total victory over evil darkness. White is the full spectrum of visible light. All the colors of mana except black combine to produce this spectrum. Black is the absence of light, a non-color. Black is only blindness, ignorance, disease, chaos, suffering, and death.
The foundation of White’s framework is cooperation, social cohesion, and collective action. The fight between good and evil is a war, and wartime is a time to unite for a common purpose. There are no atheists in a foxhole. The other non-black colors are at their best when they combine with White, or combine with each other to be more like White. Non-white monocolor magic is not to be trusted. Of the non-black colors, Green is the most trustworthy because it occupies the center of the visible spectrum. Red and Blue shade into the non-visible ends of the spectrum and are therefore more suspect.
This collective quality is not just mob mentality. The reason White is able to tap into the power of cooperation and coordination is that moral goodness is an objective truth that is visible to anyone who looks for it. The difference between flourishing and suffering, between joy and agony, these are concrete facts, and they join all sentient beings together. For this reason, moral rightness and the shared purpose of collective action are the same thing.
White’s reaction to the standard wheel would be outrage — this is some kind of sick propaganda, it’s centrist bullshit a la “there are good people on both sides”. Anyone with any moral sense at all can recognize that Black is pure evil. The war on evil is the only thing that really matters. Either you are with us or you are against us, and if you believe in the fake “neutral” position that there is no good and evil than you are against us.
From Green’s point of view, the colors of magic are linked together in a perpetually flowing circle of birth, death, and renewal — the cycle of elemental transformation. Each color represents one stage or form of reality. Reality is constantly changing between forms, when we channel magical energy to cast spells we just recognize and amplify this process. Green’s view of the world cares less about the particular qualities of each individual color and more about how each color becomes the next.
The color Green exists throughout the cycle, because it is the power of birth, life and growth. Green is the force that drives the cycle around and around, causing each state of the world to become something new and then eventually become itself all over again.
Green grows into Red, the color of conflict, blood, and fire. Violence, competition, and destruction are natural and necessary features of a thriving ecosystem. The world must destroy itself in order to change.
Red erupts into Black, the color of death, night, and soil. Black is the smoke that follows fire, the eternal night of death, the soil that swallows up the bodies of the dead, and the dank, swarming matter under the rock.
Black decays into White, the color of stillness, silence, and peace. White is the ash that follows the fire, the stars that speckle the night, the snow that blankets every feature of the landscape, dominating and unifying it.
White thaws into Blue, the color of oceans, rivers and sky. Blue is the slippery, swirling power that makes things dissolve and flow.
Blue flows into Green, the color of birth, life and growth. Green is the force that drives the cycle around and around, causing each state of the world to become something new and then eventually become itself all over again.
To Green, the standard color wheel seems strangely political, obsessed with allies and enemies, each color with its own narrow and fixed set of interests, all of them constantly negotiating and competing like squabbling technocrats. For Green, Black and White (for example) aren’t opposites. They could not exist without each other, they are woven together, Black is always in the process of becoming White and White emerges out of Black and, inevitably, eventually, returns to it.
For Red, magical energy exists as a turbulent system of swirling currents throughout which the property of color is spread diffusely. In order to craft this magical energy into effective spells mages must channel it through centers of power and control that are located within their living bodies. Each one of these centers, or loci, is attuned to one color of the magical spectrum and operates as an amplifier and lens for that color, harnessing and focusing its power. As a result, the types of spells you cast and the colors of mana they use determine the quality of your character and the course of your fate.
Locus of Feeling — the core of any mage’s identity is their values, preferences, and instincts. This locus is your spiritual center and the red energy it harnesses enables you to express the intuitive essence of your being. This is the “gut” you trust when you just know something deep inside. If this is your dominant locus your key traits are: honesty, passion, strength.
Locus of Discipline — if we move upward from feeling we realize that individual passion can be made even more powerful when it operates in coordination with others within an organized system of external moral principles. The white energy harnessed by this locus is the chest-swelling pride you get from belonging to something and the glowing heart that tells you right from wrong. If this is your dominant locus your key traits are: loyalty, virtue, obedience.
Locus of Thought — continuing upwards to the top of the spine brings you to the source of perception, ideas, and knowledge. The blue energy harnessed by this locus is the source of our theories, insights, and our capacity to use our heads to understand the world and how it works. If this is your dominant locus your key traits are: intelligence, competence, originality.
Locus of Desire — on the other side of feeling, moving downward, balancing out discipline, is the source of individual preferences, wishes, and plans. Feeling is who you are, desire is what you want. The black energy harnessed by this locus is the will to power, your capacity for pleasure, and the impulse to dominate and control the world around you. If this is your dominant locus your key traits are: independence, ambition, charm.
Locus of Balance — continuing downward to the base of our being we encounter the lower limit of our identity, the place where the individual is connected to the world, not by perception and ideas, but by the ground truth of material reality. The green energy harnessed by this locus is what roots us to the universe from which we came and to which we will return. If this is your dominant locus your key traits are: grace, stability, wisdom.
To Red, the standard color wheel seems strangely cold and impersonal. It doesn’t reflect the fact that magic only ever happens within sentient beings as a result of their thoughts and feelings. It is also very impractical, because it doesn’t help us understand our relationship to the magical energy that flows through us.
Here’s how things look from Black’s perspective: Learning how to bend magical energy to your will and use it to alter reality is a difficult and deadly art. You wouldn’t give dynamite to a baby. That would be dangerous, irresponsible, and a waste of perfectly good dynamite. By the same token, the secrets of how the forces of magic operate must remain out of reach of ordinary people, else the very fabric of reality would unravel. The ultimate truths about magic are hidden deep in the shadows, both by tradition — the nested puzzle mazes of arcane encryption that have been built up over the ages to prohibit the unworthy and protect the unwary — and by their very nature, because ordinary minds are incapable of comprehending them.
That elemental frequencies of magical energy exist, corresponding to the five colors, and that they have their different qualities as generally understood, is a trivial Level One truth about magic, easily accessible to anyone bothering to look. The foundation of arcane knowledge is the way that these colors interact with the hermetic principles which form the grammar of Uſeful Magick — Mind, Matter, Vibration, Polarity, Rhythm, and Cause & Effect. Mastering the matrix of these interactions is the first step on a challenging path that is accessible only to those who possess both an advanced capacity to understand and an intense desire for power. This path leads upwards towards infinite perfection. It leads away from others towards the self. And it leads into darkness, into the unmanageable, the unspeakable, into the deepest possible secrets. As you ascend this dangerous and hazardous path, Black sheds its initial status as a minor arcanum — one color among many — and reveals its true meaning — the source of disguise, camouflage, and mystery by which the hidden knowledge of absolute power protects itself.
Black’s opinion of the standard color wheel would be eye-rolling contempt. These are trivialities masquerading as deep knowledge, mere parlor tricks. The truth about magic will destroy most minds that attempt to comprehend it. The profound mysteries of real magic are dark visions that can never be shared. Not the kind of thing you put into a cheerful diagram and hang on your fridge.
In their pursuit of knowledge, the cultural institutions and intellectual traditions informed by blue mana have developed a method of curiosity, conjecture, and criticism that closely resembles our modern, rational, scientific mindset, and sometimes surpasses it in its ability to generate true understanding of the world.
Blue’s basic framework for thinking about the five colors of mana corresponds, roughly, to the standard color wheel. Not only do they understand that the colors have innate qualities that distinguish them from each other, they also understand how these qualities make different kinds of mana more or less suitable for different kinds of spells. So, in its simplest form, Blue’s view of the color wheel looks a lot like ours. If anything, it has more of a focus on practical issues and mechanical applications than it does on philosophical, psychological or ethical themes.
However, the most advanced and sophisticated thinkers of the Blue tradition have gone far beyond this. Because they want to understand, why? Why do the colors work like this? What causes it? Are the qualities of the different colors universal, eternal, unavoidable laws of nature? At the furthest edges of Blue research, planeswalkers have observed that the properties of the different colors of mana do not vary from plane to plane. They are, in fact, the one thing that remains constant across all of the planes of the multiverse.
This insight has led them to develop the theory of the overplane. According to this theory the entire multiverse, all the planes that they have access to, is a lower-dimensional reality attached to a higher dimension that exists in an unreachable realm above and beyond their own. This higher-dimensional reality is the original source of the five colors of mana. And, in fact, the basic properties of the standard color wheel are not descriptions of how the colors work, they are laws that determine how the colors work, and, therefore determine the overall nature of the entire multiverse.
This theory, that the properties of the colors come from a higher-dimensional reality and are, in a sense, imposed upon the multiverse, helps explain many of the mysteries of the color wheel. For example, why is it so well-tuned? So symmetrical, harmonious, balanced? Why does the endless war of White against Black always remain poised in a permanent stalemate? Because it is pre-ordained. Because someone, or something, in the overplane has deemed it to be so.
But the theory of the overplane raises as many mysteries as it resolves. In this higher realm the properties of the color wheel may be fixed, necessary, eternal truths or they may be arbitrarily chosen for some specific purpose, the way an architect designs a building or a mage constructs a spell. Perhaps this higher-level reality is itself one single plane within its own higher-dimensional multiverse. What, ultimately, determines the shape of the color wheel in this higher realm? Is it fixed there as well, or could it vary, and if so, how? The most ambitious Blue scholars wonder: could there ever be any way that the beings in our multiverse, despite the fact that we are, in a sense, less real, somehow reach up to the overplane and influence it, perhaps even altering the color wheel itself? There is so much left to learn, so much to discover.