The Magic of Magic: The Gathering

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
11 min readAug 22, 2017


And the underlying metaphysics of postmodern fantasy


It’s been a while since I’ve last put on my metaphorical wizard hat, but I think it’s justified in the case of this rather popular and sophisticated card game that stubbornly refuses to die. What I will try to make clear is that it is much more than it seems to be on the surface, but even understanding what exactly it is on the superficial level greatly depends on whom you ask.

If you ask a boring historian, you may find that it is the original collectible trading card game created by some Wizards of the Coast in the early 90s. If you ask a money-minded creature, you may come to see it as the conqueror of the science of economic bubbles, through some dark magic still maintaining the value of its collectible cards almost 30 years later.

If you ask players of games, you may come to see it as either a complex game that rewards clever strategists who can figure out how to build the best deck, or a played-out, repetitive, boring dinosaur of a game that will soon be replaced by computer-based trading card games. Finally, if you ask South Park, you will never be able to take this game seriously ever again.

All of these perspectives are of course correct — it is a silly nerdy game with its pros and cons, a money-making machine carefully engineered by a corporation, and a notable bit of history of the making of games. Underneath or parallel to all that, however, it is also a full blown metaphysical interpretation of reality as seen through the eyes of a postmodern mage.

The Many Worlds Interpretation of Magic

Perspective is really the key word here. Possibly for entirely pragmatic reasons, the mythology of MtG has been engineered over the years so that it’s capable of absorbing virtually any (post)modern fantasy trope or idea about the nature of magic into a single, logically coherent reality. What’s especially interesting is the way the Wizards did it — by classical numerology.

I have already written an article or two trying to explain how numerology works as a tool for the creation of mythologies, in part because it’s mostly a lost art. Nobody nowadays uses it very successfully to any substantial degree. That is, apart from these Wizards. As far as I know, they must have reinvented it on their own, and perhaps don’t fully know what they have.

Specifically, in MtG, there are five colors representing five fundamental philosophies that are placed on a circle that represents the whole of reality. What makes it classically numerological is that they are transitive — as you move along the circle, the neighboring colors are allies philosophically closer to each other and the distant two are enemies with incompatible worldviews.

Moreover, number five has always been associated by numerologists with strife, struggle, or conflict. Which is exactly what MtG is about, a constant conflict due to dynamic imbalance of sides where each color can overpower its two enemies with the help of its two allies. In this sense, the transitivity of the colors goes even further since there can be combinations of all neighboring colors and even progressively more difficult to cast and maintain combinations of conflicting colors or more than two colors.

Overall, it’s a pretty nifty numerological matrix. So nifty in fact, so well-constructed that, intentionally or not, it can be taken absolutely seriously as a philosophical attempt to make sense of the world from the perspective of real magic — applying will to reshape the world in cooperation or competition with differing or outright conflicting perspectives on what should exist.

Colorful Philosophies of the Multi-Existentialism

Even more impressive is the fact that these Wizards managed to create such a system around an odd number, as that precludes the possibility of using balanced scales of polar opposites. There are opposite concepts involved in the wheel, or perhaps more accurately the prism, of the five colors in MtG, like order and chaos or life and death, but they don’t align in a static way.

To illustrate what that means in terms of MtG’s view of how philosophies of existence can differ, a simple question for you, reader — if there cannot be a perfectly aligned opposition of concepts, how can one fit simple good and evil into such a world? Indeed, one cannot. There are malevolence and benevolence distributed around the circle, but what the MtG prism uncovers in a genius way is that no side can be defined by one concept alone, which means that any agreement or disagreement between sides is always partial.

For example, in this system, red stands for freedom, chaos and self-determination, which means that it’s amoral, neither good, nor bad. That’s why its allies are two other colors that allow freedom of action, but one is benevolent (green) and the other malevolent (black). The conflicting philosophies are those of order that limit freedom, where one is benevolent (white) and the other morally pragmatic and therefore also neutral (blue).

As you move away from the red pole of the prism, you get decreasing freedom, but the opposite pole lies in between white and blue, not within either. As you move away from blue, you get growing benevolence on one side and growing malevolence on the other, but the opposite pole lies in between red and green and it’s actually another pole of moral neutrality that stems from randomness rather than pragmatism — both opposite to each other, but agreeing on the preference for neutrality for opposite reasons.

With this perplexing scheme, you can do this all day. Nothing has a direct antithesis, conflicting sides can agree on some things for opposite reasons, and every side has a decent degree of latitude to it in terms of its range of acceptable thinking and what behaviors it might resort to under specific circumstances. At the same time though, each side is a consistent perspective of personal identity, priorities, and overall worldview. Each color is an entirely different, but equally authentic and valid, form of existence.

Grand Theft Authors

The way the consistency is achieved for each color-philosophy is simply by taking what works from every mythology or (post)modern form of fantasy storytelling. You can start from a question — in a fantasy world (and by extension the real one in a less metaphoric way), who can you be? Who can you want to be? A wizard? A warlock? A rebel? A beast? A soldier? In order, these are blue, black, red, green, and white — the whole spectrum.

Then you find archetypes in between these archetypes, then internally conflicted combinations, then combinations of all allied principles, and then you simply browse all the stories that work, from which you use functional elements to fill in the details for each archetype that exists within your scheme. Finally, for obvious copyright reasons and for originality’s sake, you vary and tweak all of them just enough to make them your own, unique.

So far, Wizards of the Coast have done this in one “block” or another with various mythologies like the Japanese or the Egyptian, with classical fairy tales and romantic horror stories, with Dungeons and Dragons tropes derived from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and much more. Where it gets interesting is that you can take their numerological framework and do it too, there are even software tools you can use to design your own cards.

You could take for example the modern world, all the important political factions and public figures, and identify their placement within the color scheme. You could also make up rules for how their cards would work in the game which would undoubtedly be a lot of fun, if you understand the rules of the game. For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on the placement of real things in the world within this color scheme created for a mere game.

A Peek into the Wizardry of Our Politics

As I have mentioned in one of my previous articles, magic is primarily concerned with two questions — who are you and what do you want. Each of the colors in MtG has a specific answer to these two questions. White is someone who seeks to give benevolent order to the world and then protect it, even at the cost of self-sacrifice. It can cover aforementioned soldiers, but also people of faith or healers. Understandably, there can be many color complications with such people if their missions become corrupted.

Some colors map onto our world even more easily than white — blue are your scientists and green are your environmentalists (who even adopted the color green as their symbolic representation). Red are simply all the people who seek freedom or like causing chaos or destruction, which explains the difficulty of differentiating between freedom fighters and terrorists, as that distinction is more based on how they impact the lives and plans of others rather than their own essential identity. Red are also trolls and celebrities.

Finally, black is in fantasy depicted usually as necromancy, however on the level of principle, it’s simply a ruthless self-interest. Anyone in this world who’s only looking for profit or power and doesn’t care how much death and destruction that causes to others represents the color black. This therefore must cover most corporations and financial institutions, as well as individual sociopaths. Then again, corporations can have all kinds of aims in addition to making profit, making for all possible color combinations with black.

Career politicians may also easily fall under this color, while the oil industry in particular essentially uses black mana — black substance literally composed of concentrated corpses that gives power at the cost of killing the living even further. In other words, don’t think of the colors too much as “only metaphors”, since a big part of the reason why this typology is so compelling is that they are primal. White is the light of the sun that gives life, red is the fire that is chaos, blue is the sky to which the mind turns in thought, and green is the nature that gave birth to us. Black is death.

If you’re nowhere on this scale, then you must not be alive or have any personality or agency of your own. And even for that MtG has an answer — colorless entities and constructs of purely artificial nature. In that case, you would be simply a tool that someone else is using to accomplish a goal that can be represented by a philosophy of a particular color, because there’s no intent that cannot be represented within this color scheme. That’s how you can tell that a given ideal typology is successfully holistic, all-encompassing.

Walking Between the Planes

Oh but there’s still more, worlds more. One world, meaning one whole reality or universe, is called a “plane” in MtG, and there are characters, pretty much the ultimate heroes, who can traverse between them — the planeswalkers. Meaning that there’s actually no problem within MtG to consider our plane to be a part of a whole multiverse with the same underlying metaphysics as those that have dragons or zombies in them, and that there’s no reason why we couldn’t be planeswalkers in some sense.

Meaning that what that multiverse describes is the set of all imaginable realities in which creatures driven by the same imperatives as us can exist. While multiverse has specific meaning within theoretical physics, this is not a useless conceptualization, as it is a way how to understand or navigate multiverse qualitatively, in a philosophical way. It also makes it obvious that our future is a multiverse centered around a specific conflict of our choices.

From this point of view, each of us in fact is a planeswalker who travels forward in time into new universes, steering by the means of making choices while navigating toward a place that can be imagined within this color matrix. As it probably is with times and places in a multiverse, all the possible futures can be considered to be places that all physically exist always, and it’s precisely only a question of navigation how to get where.

Am I reading too much into this? Possibly, though it’s equally likely that most MtG players read not enough into this. In line with postmodern philosophy that this brilliantly turns into something practical for a change, most people treat it ironically. As in considering religions and spiritual philosophies inherently stupid and mocking them, but actually living by the moral precepts outlined in The Lord of The Rings. Even at the most basic level, what’s the difference between being that kind of fan and a believer?

Postmodernity Standing for Something and Other Miracles

This is actually an indication that postmodernity has something essential of its own, a serious worldview, though hidden in the background. Coupled with sci-fi shows like Rick and Morty, one might assume that postmodern philosophy can only support cheerful nihilism, but that’s only on the surface. What’s below the surface is a concept of qualitative multiverse of real places which each individual can traverse at will, a reality that still has meaningful structure along with the complexity of its infinite possibilities. It allows for conflicting but equally true subjective perceptions to which there is an order.

Put simply, in a universe like that of MtG, one can be anything they want, but they won’t get lost. All different existential frames of mind are all fundamentally real, and they relate to each other in reliable, logical ways. In such a universe, postmodernity still does reject simplistic generalizations of who people are, allowing for infinite possibilities of unique individual identity, but everyone has a place in the whole of things because each individual combination of principles means specific things to all others.

Of course, all that is “just entertainment” if you ask people about it, but then try following that question with an insult toward their favorite “fiction” and you’ll see how not seriously they’re taking it. Without most people noticing, over the last few decades all the fantasy and sci-fi books, films, shows, and games have formed a consistent mythology and metaphysical model of the world which is somehow understandable to everyone even though there’s no official religious institution behind it. And MtG is all that, concentrated.

This is also sometimes called “escapism”, but think about who or what is escaping from where to where — planeswalkers escaping from the here and now to a different place and time are only opening a doorway for entities and constructs from that place and time to come back here with them when they return. That other place and time may technically only be imaginary, but ideas from there coming here will manifest in our reality as what is real to us. The only thing needed for those ideas to take hold on our plane is for them to be compatible in a metaphysical sense with who we are.

Using the prism of MtG, one can start seeing our reality with different eyes that cut through non-essential appearances and unmask all creatures for who or what they truly are. If you define beings by the quality of their primal worldview, sense of self, and intent, you will see there exist wizards and goblins and vampires and myriad other magical creatures, who in a more fantastic world may have taken on more fancy appearances, but would be no different in terms of the consequences of their actions to themselves and others. You’ll see that laws and financial instruments are spells and that every ideology or social order is equally strange and arbitrary. But beyond all that, there would still be the bedrock of existence — a prism of choices.



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