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A System Beyond Magic the Gathering

Richard garfield

The color pie is a stroke of genius, it dictates everything within Magic the gathering, from themes and flavor, to mechanics and design and yet Richard Garfield hadn't intend for there to something so profound at the heart of his game, he simply needed a restriction for deck building, and perhaps a touch of thematic resonance to tie things together. To get there he took inspiration from other sources and played around with ideas until something just clicked. What makes it most intriguing to me is that if it had happened any other way we might not be here talking about it almost thirty years later. In this article I want to take a closer look at the brilliance of the color pie, how it was formed, its effects on the game and finally why it could not take any other shape than the one it does now. I guarantee that after this article, you won't ever look at the color pie the same again. So let us start then at the beginning.

The Beginning

When we think back to Richard Garfield's original design for magic we tend to see it with the power of hindsight and nostalgia. We assume that he was some sort of Game design God who forged the perfect game out of nothing more the infinite wisdom of his mind. The truth, like most creative endeavors, is in fact, a little more simple. Like all great things its a combination of borrowing and iterating until something just clicked. Richard Garfield has said in the past that his idea for splitting magic into five colors comes from a little book called masters of the five magics, a book he admits to not even reading, he was just struck by the idea of the five schools of Magic, and knew deep down that this would be the basis for his game.

I looked into this book and I wouldn't say that he took the schools and overplayed them onto is initial idea for the color pie, as they hold very different themes, rather he borrowed the idea of five, a simple take but sometimes things just sound right the moment you hear them and I venture to guess this was the case. Now here is where things get interesting, this decisions to split the color pie into five instead of say four or six actually holds a lasting impact on the game. In that with this exact number each color has two enemies and two allies, a crucial aspect of the color pie. A factor we will come back to later on in this article as its crucial to its design.

Now I don't want you to think that borrowing or taking inspiration from other creative works is a bad thing, in fact its quite the opposite really. Mark Twain himself said this about borrowing ideas “There is no such thing as a new idea. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope”. If we go back to the book that inspired the decision for five colors, masters of the five magics, we see this little book has inspired more than just magic the gathering. In fact you can find its influence in the Megadeath song of the same name, as well the author Patrick Rothfuss has said that this book inspired his own writing of the kingkiller chronicle.

When Magic the Gathering was nothing more than some scribbles and cutout pictures on cardboard I doubt he envisioned how much of a pivotal piece of Magic the Gathering the color pie would become and how much each color would inevitably be so well defined. Could he ever have guessed that there would be some council of colors analyzing everything about what each color believed in, no, the honest truth is that he needed something to divide up the game into neat factions and themes, but somehow he captured lightning in the bottle and the color pie grew beyond the vision of its original master. Now you have channels such as mine putting out essays on its many facets and intricacies.

Even the colors he decided on aren't some fantastic revelation. Of course the color for order and peace would be white, resonant of holy magic, a paladin or cleric. Then its only natural its enemy would be Black, darkness and self reliance. Red the color of rashness and impulse. These factors do not take anything away from what he did, no, quite the opposite, I find it almost beautiful to see something grow so far beyond it original intention. This is what I mean when I discuss the idea that creative people merely take ideas and build upon them.

The small idea in one mans head can grow and take shape as something much bigger, and allow other creative people to take up that idea and breath live into it. This small book from the eighties inspired the color pie, and in turn the color pie has inspired the creation of Planes, factions and many other creative endeavors outside of Magic the Gathering. It's as if Richard Garfield threw a stone into a lake, which caused ripples that can still be felt far from their origins.

Color Pie and Mechanics

The color pie dictates two major aspects of the game of magic the gathering and those are mechanics and flavor. Every world, character or faction is built with the color pie in mind, mechanics are then used to compliment these aspects, creating a marriage of flavor and mechanical design. For instance why does White change the rules of the game with enchantments that tax or restrict the board, why does red burn or rush its opponent down, why is green so focused on creatures. All of this may seem like the result of an arbitrary decision made by the designers but that couldn't be further from the truth. These effects mirror the philosophies and themes of these colors, what do I mean? Well you see White is the color of order and of law and thus it restricts what can be done to maintain some semblance of order and control of the state of the game.

Blue is the color of learning and perfection, and so it digs deep into its library until it finds the perfect outcome for any situation. Black the color who will take any path to get what it wants, restrictions be damned, is willing to turn to dark magics and effects that require it to sacrifice others to get the results it wants. Red is the color of impulse and emotion and so it does no have a grander plan outside of playing its cards as fast as it can, reflecting that need to act. Green is the color who is built around the idea of following natures examples and so it leans into things like creatures and that of spells that help the growth and the cultivation of land.

Outside of the mechanics the color pie is, as I have said many times before, the beating heart of the multiverse. It is not just how every Plane, character or faction is framed, but rather the reason it is the way it is. If we come across a faction who is Blue and Black, we know without reading one bit of flavor text or lore that they are a faction whom is ambitious, and deals in secrets and subterfuge. If we meet a character who is White Red we know that they are one to fight for their convictions.

You see the color pie resonates on a deeper level than that of a simple way to divide up the game into five neat parts, it is in fact the most important part of Magic the Gathering. You could not have one without the other. If we would shed the color pie and throw out any restriction the multiverse would be a grey husk of its former self. Sure other games can divide their factions into colors of their own but none of the intricate relationship to one another that the color pie holds.

The Connection of the Colors

With such an old system there has inevitably been talk about shaking up the color pie over the years. Most notably of all, and seemingly most popular is the idea of adding in an additional color, something like purple or orange. I am here to say that this will never happen and more importantly it shouldn't. Now don't turn away from your screen in rage my color pie enthusiasts I have my reasons. Some of which are simple and call back to Richard Garfield's initial concept for the color pie while others are a bit more complex and all of it comes back to relationship of five established from the very beginning. The simplest answer is that the color pie fits very neatly as five. What I mean is that with this arrangement there is a balance where every single color has two enemies and two allies.

Yes you could add in a bunch of new colors and there still would be a system of enemies and allies, but it would not be such a tight package as there would instead be gaps, colors who were blind to one another. In that each color would not have a relationship with one another in some way, there would be space between. In its current state there is a perfect balance, one where every single color is either an ally of or an enemy of one another. This is when the color is best, and by adding even one color you would break this tight coupling. That is the simplest answer but if we dig another layer deeper you will see that the colors are the way they are because of their relationships with one another. White isn't what it is solely because of its core ideology, it is also in opposition to its enemies, and thus its enemies are the way they are because they oppose its ideologies.

Any small shift in their position would in fact break the resolve each color has over what it believes. How about an example, let's talk about white once again. At the core of white is one major ideal and that is order. If we know this then we can be confident that its enemies oppose this ideal in some way. For one Red is the color of chaos and freedom, it fundamentally opposes order because it restricts impulses. On the other hand Black resists order because it restricts forward momentum. Black does not want to place any walls in front of itself on its path to getting what it wants. This isn't where it ends though, as any ideal a color holds has an effect on its allies as well. For one Blue's version of order would be structure.

For without some form of structure then perfection could not be reached. On the other side Green has its own version of order and that is harmony. Green believes that the world will balance itself out by following its purpose. So you see even with this small example the importance of this relationship becomes apparent. If anything were to shift or be placed in the way it would have rippling effects all throughout the color pie. It all comes back to Richard's initial intuition. He could just FEEL that five was right, and that was because of the relationships that it provided. I doubt he knew just how complex this would become but as it is with most of his original designs, he knew without even realizing what the color pie should be. Its as if it lived in him. This concept beyond a game, beyond just mechanics.


From the mind of a young man in the nineties to the world wide phenomenon it is now. Magic the Gathering has captured the imagination of people for generations and at the heart of this game we love is the color pie. An act of inspiration and iteration, the color pie is a core system like no other. One that has sparked conversation and imagination in others and will continue to do so long into the future. To me the color pie is more than the sum of its parts, and more than a simple mechanic in a game. It is a system that can be used outside of Magic the gathering to frame bigger conversations. It is a living and breathing thing, open and ready to be discussed. Even if you don't interact with the color pie in ways outside of how it effects your game, you must recognize how it holds it all together. So perhaps when you crack your next pack and look at your cards, take a second to appreciate how the color pie effects every aspect of it.

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