Pondering the colors of Magic

Throughout the month of August, I'm aiming to write 25 blog posts. This is post #2 of 25. Find them all in the "blogathon 2014" category.

write one on what parts of the color pie your personality represents, including a comprehensive walkthrough of each color’s ideals/traits.

Kevin Dyer

Strap on your nerd helmets.[ref]I expect that a “nerd helmet” looks something like this.[/ref] I’m going all-in.

Even if you’ve never played it, you’ve probably heard of Magic: the Gathering. Magic isn’t just a trading card game, it’s the trading card game, first published in 1993 and still going strong after 20 years. In terms of cultural impact on both gaming and general nerdery, Magic is rivaled only by Dungeons and Dragons.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but this post isn’t about the success of Magic. Instead, I want to look at the single most elegant and impressive cornerstone of Magic‘s design, particularly as it relates to characterization. Even if you don’t play Magic, I think you’ll find that this concept neat.

It’s called the “color pie”, and it’s awesome.

Not a Chromatic Pastry

In Magic, there are five colors of magic[ref]More specifically, “mana”, or magical energy, but that’s not important right now.[/ref] that spellcasters can tap into: white, blue, black, red, and green. Each of these colors is associated with a certain geographical feature–white comes from plains, black comes from swamps, and so on–and is also loosely associated with an elemental force. Blue’s associated with water, red with fire, et cetera.

On that level, the system of Magic‘s magic isn’t that unique. Elemental magic is a staple in damn near every fantasy narrative out there. The beauty and elegance of these colors of magic derives from two decisions made by Richard Garfield when he was designing the game.

First, Garfield associated each color of magic not only with a type of land and an element, but also with a philosophy. I’ll explain these in detail below, but for example, green magic isn’t only about forests and life force, it’s also about the philosophy of growth and interdependence. Each color represents a different archetype, a distinct approach to life that is reflected in the type of magic that color wields.

Second–and this is where it BLOWS MY MIND–Garfield developed a particular order for the colors. Rather than simply creating five colors of magic and leaving it at that, he placed the colors on the five vertices of a pentagon, in a design reminiscent of the five Chinese elements. Each color was ordered according to its relationships with other colors. This diagram was referred to as the “color wheel” or the “color pie,” and it’s represented on the back of every Magic card ever printed.

In order to convey the elegance of the color wheel, I need to explain it further. Imagine drawing a five-pointed star.

Five-pointed star

Each of these points represents one of the colors. If you start at the top and move clockwise, they are white, blue, black, red, and green.[ref]Blue is represented by the letter U because B was already taken by black.[/ref]

Five colors of Magic

Let’s focus on white. White, as I’ll explain later, is the color of morality and order. White’s two ally colors are the colors immediately adjacent to it–so blue and green.

Ally colors

This isn’t just coincidence. One of blue’s primary traits is logic, which coincides with white’s desire for order. Green, on the other hand, is all about interdependence, which plays well with white’s devotion to morality.

White’s enemy colors, on the other hand, are the nonadjacent colors: red and black.

Enemy colors

Why red and black? Well, black is the color of amorality–the antithesis to white’s sense of moral structure. Red, meanwhile, is about freedom, passion, and recklessness, which is at odds with white’s sense of order.

It’s not just white that works like this. Every color on the wheel has its allies and its enemies, and they’re all defined by their location on the color wheel.[ref]Important sidenote: “Enemy” and “ally” are important designations, but any two-color pairing, whether it’s allied or enemy colors, will contain some harmony and some tension.[/ref] What’s more, since every color has very distinct philosophies and motivations, the color wheel is a powerful tool for defining characters, especially when you start combining the philosophies of two or three colors at once.

To do that, you’ve got to understand what makes each color tick.

Five Colors, Five Worldviews


White is the color of morality and order. White is motivated by a sense of community and the desire to help as many people as possible. Unity, peace, structure, perfection–white is driven by a desire for all of these.

White’s allies are green and blue. With green, white shares a sense of community obligation. [ref]This is reflected in the color pie; white and green share a common enemy, black, which is all about the individual, so white/green is about the opposite of that. Seriously, the depth behind the color pie is unreal.[/ref] White and blue, on the other hand, share a desire to improve the world by controlling it. Of course, no pairing is perfect–white finds green a little too impulsive for its tastes, whereas blue can be detached and clinical in its desire to improve the world.

White’s enemies, as mentioned, are red and black. White doesn’t like red’s chaotic, impulsive nature, as bursts of passion aren’t exactly orderly. Black, meanwhile is amoral and parasitic, focused on the individual instead of the group. Like with the allied colors, however, there is some nuance among enemies–red and white unify around fervent militarism, and white and black can coexist by aiming to elevate a small group, rather than everyone.

It’s important to note here that although white uses morality as a tool, white is not inherently “good”. No color is. White can act in ways that we typically recognize as “good”–preserving life, seeking to elevate all members of a society–but it can also be very “evil”. White will sacrifice the few to save the many. White doesn’t care about freedom–fascism is a very white philosophy. White cares about order and community, and that can be realized in both “good” and “evil” ways.

For more information on white and its philosophy, click here.


Blue is the color of logic and technology. Blue looks at the world and sees a blank slate, ready to be molded, adapted, and improved. How does blue seek to make these changes? Via understanding. Blue wants to learn all it can about the universe, and then make it better.

Blue’s allies are white and black. As described above, blue and white share a controlling desire to improve the world, although blue doesn’t care as much about the people in the world as white does. Blue just wants to learn, learn, learn. Blue and black, on the other hand, are unified in their belief that knowledge is power, although blue cares more about the knowledge side of the equation.

Blue’s enemies are green and red. Green, the color of the natural order and predetermination, is the polar opposite of blue’s tabula rasa mindset. It’s the “nature” to blue’s “nurture”. Red, meanwhile, makes decisions based on emotion, which blue’s logical side doesn’t like at all. They do have some common ground–blue and green both seek development, although green wants it to come via evolution and blue wants to tinker. Red and blue overlap in the realm of creativity, which is thinking, but thinking passionately. Still, blue has less in common with green and red than it does with black or white.

For more information on blue and its philosophy, click here.


If there’s one phrase to describe black, it’s “Power, at any cost.” Black wants power, period. Black doesn’t care about pesky things like morals or obligations. Black’s in it for Number One, and in its book, it’s only won when it can do anything it wants.

Black’s allies are blue and red. Blue and black share a certain level of ambition. Blue wants to know everything, whereas black wants the power to do anything. Black’s not keen on blue’s tendency to remain detached and inactive, but their goals overlap nicely. Red, on the other hand, is a fellow color that just wants to do what it wants. Although red lacks the foresight that black prefers, together, the two embrace a thoroughly hedonistic philosophy.

Black’s enemies are white and green. White, because it cares so damn much about other people and morality. Those are just obstacles for black, although the two colors together can represent a ruthless motivation to do what’s best for “me and mine”. Green is at odds with black in part because of their alignment with the life cycle–green is associated with life, and black with death–but also because of the parasitism/symbiosis conflict. Green is all about one’s place in the natural order, whereas black is about using the world for your own benefit. When wed, the two colors represent the incredible resourcefulness of using everything the world has to offer to serve your own aims, but the two colors are uneasy bedfellows.

For more information on black and its philosophy, click here.


Passion. Emotion. Instinct. These are the realm of red. Red is the color of freedom, of action. Red listens to its gut, and thinks everyone would be happier if they did the same. Yeah, it’s a little chaotic and anarchic, but that’s fine by red! Red lives in the now.

Red’s allies are black and green. Black and red are both driven by a hedonistic desire for satisfaction. Red feels black is a bit too solitary–after all, red embraces all emotions, including friendship and love. In addition, whereas black will willfully violate laws and mores in pursuit of power, red wants to tear them down merely because they exist. Green, on the other hand, is red’s partner in instinct, impulse, and savagery, although it cares more about community and the natural order than red does.

White and blue are red’s enemies, for very simple reasons. Red hates rules. White loves them. Red hates thinking. Blue’s all about it. When you force the colors together, however, you get passionate revolutionaries (red/white) or impulsive innovators (red/blue).

For more information on red and its philosophy, click here.


Finally, we have green. Green is the color of nature and reverence of the natural order. Green believes that the best way to exist is by living in harmony with the natural world. In contrast with blue, which sees the world as a blank slate waiting to be molded, green thinks the world is perfect as it is, and our job is to find our place in it.

Green’s allies are red and white. In red, green sees another color that understands the value of impulse and instinct, and isn’t afraid of destroying preciously held artifacts, ideas, or technology. Red’s a bit more individualistic than green, and there’s some nuanced distinction to be made between self-centered emotion and natural instinct, but still, the two are close allies. Green admires white for its focus on community and recognition that the individual is just part of a bigger scheme, although white relies more on orderly social constructions than nature-loving green prefers.

Blue and black are green’s enemies. Blue cares nothing for the natural world and only sees it as a resource to be exploited or built upon, which green can’t abide. Black subverts the natural order, using death for its own ends, operating as a selfish parasite instead of an interconnected being. In the rare situations when they do align, blue and green represent mystery and the technological acceleration of evolution, whereas black and green represent an unscrupulous embrace of life and death, a drive for power coupled with feral ferocity.

For more information on green and its philosophy, click here.

Them’s the five colors. Pick any character from fiction, and I practically guarantee you can classify them with one, two, or maybe three of the colors. Anakin Skywalker–and, by extension, most of the Sith–embraces his passionate emotions in pursuit of limitless power. He’s black/red. The Jedi, meanwhile, advocate the good of the many and use a sacred, natural power–the Force. They’re white/green. Buffy embraces her fated role in the universe as a Slayer and is motivated by the forces of destiny. Green. Topher Brink, my favorite character from Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, is an unparalleled genius who invents for the sake of invention but doesn’t consider the implication of his discoveries. Red/blue. And so on.

If you’re not impressed by the power and versatility of the color pie yet, then I think you’re lying to me.

What About Me?

To wrap it up, what colors am I?

What color am I?

I’m driven by three primary urges: to understand, to experience, and to create. I have an innate curiosity, and I’m always looking to learn more about the world. On the surface, that’s pretty blue. But part of how I want to learn about the world is via experience. I want to do things, try things. I draw deep meaning and motivation from my humanist philosophy, which stresses the importance of living in the now and experiencing life to the fullest, however I describe that. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call myself creative, either, and the passionate yet innovative nature of creativity is represented by only one color pair: blue/red.

But there’s one more part of myself that blue/red doesn’t capture. I’m curious and passionate, yes, but I’m not driven by a sense of fate, deference to the natural order, or unfettered ambition. I want to understand things and create things in part for their own sakes, but also because I want to better people’s lives. Right now, for instance, I feel drawn to the world of counseling, in part because I love understanding how people work, but also because I want to help people. I want to help people through their hard times. I want to grapple with powerful emotions–my own and others’– because I think that will help us find peace and be happier. I may be primarily blue/red, but white is a close second. I’m blue/red/white.

When I look at what that excludes, it makes sense to me. Green, the color of the natural world, of fate, destiny, and religious tradition–that’s not me. Though I love me some hiking, and obviously believe we have a duty to minimize our impact on the natural world, that isn’t a primary motivating force in my daily life. Black isn’t me either. I have very little desire for power, and I have a very hard time thinking of myself without also thinking of my relations with–and obligations to–others. Though I have my selfish moments, as do we all, a powerful drive for power and greatness isn’t part of who I am.

Try it yourself, though. Try to pick one to three colors that best represent who you are. Pick a favorite character from film or literature and attempt to figure out their color identity. It’s one of my favorite things to ponder–maybe you’ll get a kick out of it, too.

If you’re curious about the color pie and want to learn more, Magic head designer Mark Rosewater has written a series of columns about each color and two-color combination, explaining their philosophies and internal tensions. You can find them here.

3 thoughts on “Blogathon Post #2: The Colors of Magic

  1. […] as I rediscover every time I sit down to write something not about politics. Get me going about the philosophy of Magic: the Gathering and I can’t wait to return to my keyboard. As a peek through my journals shows, I will write […]

  2. […] the world worked and that I was surrounded by people who just didn’t get it. Know how I’ve said my color identity is blue-red-white? Back then, I was nothing but cold blue, convinced that problems, both in the world and in my […]

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