Magic: the Gathering's Hidden Narrative
In Magic: The Gathering card draw is the most universal mechanic we have access to, and subsequently its the kind of spell we are eager to put into every deck. Its what drives the game forward, adds an element of surprise and is just plain old fun to cast. I mean, who doesn't get that rush when you play a brainstorm, only to pull the exact card you needed from your library? But, have you ever just sat back and thought about the implications of this mechanic? Well I have spent weeks digging into it and I would posit that just like everything in Magic there is a greater narrative always at play, one shaped by the color pie, and in understanding why card draw is more than a mechanic you begin to understand how even such a universal action is something greater than the sum of its parts.
You see card draw is unique as a mechanic because it is one of the few that every color has access to in one form or another. The ubiquitous nature of card draw means that instead of a mechanic defining the color, the color has an opportunity to shape that mechanic, and by breaking down card draw into its fundamental parts and examining them, we can once again see how there is more here than meets the eye. I have been excited to talk about this topic for a while now, but before we do I would just like to extend a thank you to my Patrons for their direct support. With that, join me as we take a deeper look into card draw than, really, anyone probably should have.
Philosophy of Card Draw
In Magic: the Gathering there is a distinction created by allotting certain mechanics to each of its five colors, as in doing so it solidifies their identity. Think of Haste for Red, or vigilance for White. This is why we know what it feels like to play a given color, and it allows us to build upon our image of that color in our mind. Where card draw stands in contrast to most mechanics is in its universal nature. Sure some colors are better at it than others, sorry white, but this is a distinction in itself.
What this means is that while each color can draw cards through a variety of spells, its done so in drastically different ways based on the core themes and philosophies of the color acting upon it. Instead of a mechanic defining the color, it is a color defining the mechanic, shaping it in a way that makes sense for that color. This then feeds into the narrative of any given color, one that is woven into the fabric of card draw and how us players interact with it and the color pie. So at a high level what are these themes that each color imposes upon card draw?
White scorns greed in favor of fairness and order. In line with these ideals it allows for card draw in cases where its opponent has carved a lead, in others it will negotiate a mutual draw with its opponent, or draw upon the rallying of troops. While other colors might embrace raw quantity or unchecked power in their card draw, white's card draw mechanisms often prioritize moderation and defensive strategies, all of which mirror its broader principles.
Blue is built upon an insatiable need to understand, to learn and put in place its grand plan. This essence translates into how it interacts with card draw, which is impactful and direct. The analogy of drawing cards to the mind's exploration of knowledge creates this seamless connection, where each drawn card signifies a deeper dive into one's intellectual reserves. In many ways Blue sets the tone for how card draw is in a vacuum, a sort of pure take on the mechanic. This synergy between Blue's insatiable curiosity and its strategic employment of insights reinforces Blue's ideals.
Black is willing to do whatever it takes to gain more power for itself, and if this means taking drastic approaches to card draw, then that is what it will do. By embracing dark rituals emphasized by sacrifice Black secures knowledge as a form of currency, revealing its belief that true power demands drastic measures. This alignment between Black's unwavering pursuit of supremacy and its daring approach to card draw weaves a larger story of who Black is.
Red is impulsive and passionate, it does not waste time pondering over thoughts and actions. This central theme echoes through its unique interpretation of card draw, where its interaction with this mechanic mirrors this impetuous nature – transient and unpredictable. Red's card draw mechanics adopt a seemingly chaotic approach, much like its impulsive actions, capturing the essence of fleeting moments.
Green nurtures growth, benefiting from the cultivation of nature in many forms, whether through the recognition of large creatures, the summoning of them or in their death. Though this is where it's unique take on card draw ends, as it's the one color who has access to nearly every style of card draw mentioned from previous colors. I have wondered why this is for a while but have come to the conclusion that Green is in many ways the basis for all things. It is life, death, knowledge and wisdom, thus it is natural that it could mirror any style of draw, while still imprinting its own flavorful variations upon it.
This does bring up an important distinction that must be made, as this overlapping of card draw styles, showcases the idea that even though two colors can share rules text that is very similar, and in some cases the same, it's still two separate entities, all because of how the flavor is shaped by the color acting upon it, forging a thematic branching path, one dictated by flavor. For instance Both Black and Green can draw cards by sacrificing a creature. In the case of Black this is a method of getting ahead at any cost, but to Green this is the act of putting the fallen to rest so that something new may grow from their passing.
Let me give you another example so you understand what I mean by looking to the colors Blue and Red. Both colors have access to a filtered style of drawing cards, take for instance faithless looting versus that of Careful study, a distinction that is already displayed upon their card names. For its part Red shapes this mechanic into a way that informs us that it chooses not to keep the unnecessary at the top of its mind, instead digging into its library only to shed what was once in its hand. While for Blue it is the careful deliberation of what is needed that filters through its hand, so that it only contains that which is optimal.
Whether shared or not, each color contains a set of core mechanical variations of card draw that inform us of their methods and mindsets. It's yet another window into how the color pie shapes everything in Magic the Gathering. This then indelibly leads to a question at the core of card draw, and that is what does card draw truly represent in an abstract sense, that is how is it contrasted against he very literal raw card advantage in its mechanical form?
Mind and Memory
In his twenty thirteen article Drawing Attention, Mark Rosewater describes the library and hand as such.
“The hand and the library are a metaphor for knowledge (the former being what you currently are thinking of while the latter is the entirety of what you know)...”
As such we can come to the logical conclusion that drawing cards from the library, a representation of all that is known by the individual, is the act of learning, the process of thought itself, or of how we reason. In simplest terms it is the acquisition of knowledge, or the filtering of it. With this as our lens breaking down a colors' view on it only further enhances our understanding of each color. For if we dig into how each of the concepts mentioned are portrayed by each color, through the mechanic of card draw, we better understand who each color is.
For its part White sees knowledge as a practical and communal thing, something that is shared and built in unison. A resource that must be divided evenly, and utilized in a way that compliments structure but does not grow beyond it. In the case of Blue, learning is paramount to bettering ones self, thus it takes the direct approach to bringing its stores of knowledge to the for front. Black believes that knowledge is power, and power gained quickly always comes from forbidden places, it will then take to learning in a manner that is facilitated by dark rituals. Red then sees thought as a fleeting thing, something that passes through us on its way to action. Finally Green takes a holistic and wise approach to knowledge which is provided by many avenues, but it's preference is in learning what it can from the growth of nature and it many creatures.
Even though we have further reinforced Mark Rosewater's statement by viewing the library, hand and card draw as mechanisms of knowledge, we cannot ignore the other thematic representations we see in magic the gathering, when it comes to the act of pulling cards from the library into our hands, and I believe that we can draw some further conclusions based on them. In many cases, yes it is seen as knowledge, or of pulling from ones own mind, but one of the most common thematic variations of card draw is the act of looting, an act that places the cards drawn into the realm of treasure or currency, often times typified by the act of drawing on attack.
In other cases we have seen card draw built upon the idea of growth or in the rallying or troops, which puts the library in the position of nature or society, of cultivation or recruitment respectively. Whatever the case may be I think its best to abstract away the concept of the library and hand, to that of what we wish to utilize, and that which we have access to based on our methods, be it the gaining of knowledge, treasure, cultivation or power. In the end it is a resource, one that is molded to shape whatever narrative needs be spoken to for any given card or color.
In Magic: the Gathering there are three core resources available to each player: life, mana and cards. In every match we aim to acquire and then utilize each resource available to us in order to gain incremental advantages which will allow us to snatch victory. The way in which we acquire and utilize these resources is different for each color, and in fact as any given duel progresses the way in which each color acts upon these resources becomes more defined. Not just in how one acquires them but in how we utilize them as well. This pattern, as defined by each color, is, like everything in Magic a way of expressing the game-play feel of each color as defined by those colors. All of which adds to our innate understanding of the color pie.
Cards are a very specific resource among the three because they dictate the interactions we have with each of the other resources. We cannot gain or remove either life or mana, without the use of cards. Truthfully the others only feed into the utility of cards, making them the most important resource of the three. You may say that life is the most important because without it we lose, but how can we hope to win without the cards to act against our opponents own life.
The same goes for mana, as what is mana without the cards to spend it on. Thus the dance between all three resources is dictated by cards. So we must then look to how the other two work with cards in a way that allows us to acquire and then utilize them, which all stems back to card draw, whether linearly through a turn by turn basis or through direct means of acquiring them. This act is what sets the pace of a match, of how each colour further expresses itself.
Green, for it's expression of the pattern looks something like this, first it fetches land and cultivates mana so that it may utilize its cards in a fashion that offloads on the further end, often opting for larger creatures to end out the game. Red in it's impulsive nature is driven by immediacy when it comes to acquisition and utilization. Its approach is brisk, casting cards quickly in multiples at lower costs. It's a form of utilization over acquisition, one marked by urgency.
Black is a bit more greedy and will attempt to maximize both utilization and acquisition on every turn but at a cost to itself, one that cannot be paid infinitely. Blue front-loads acquisition of cards so that it may utilize an exact set of spell for the right moment. Lastly, White pursues a path of momentum, akin to a steadily rising tide. Its progression of acquisition and utilization is steady, crafting advantage through incremental actions, but once this momentum is set into motion, it becomes hard to stop it.
As you see the way in which any color manages their resources tells you a lot about who that color is. It's an expression of how they view the tools at their disposal. They can be careful with it, or reckless; they can be greedy or conservative. All of which build upon not just how they act upon card draw, but how they act upon the game in a more general sense.
Cost and Consequence
Cost and consequence, a concept that any card must adhere to, is how any given card is balanced for play, as nothing in Magic comes for free. Cost comes in three distinct flavors, there is the key cost, the secondary cost, and the drawback. The key cost is simply the mana cost of the card. When trying to understand the weight of the mana cost against its return, it's best to measure it against the most vanilla cards within its cohorts, for draw spells that card is Divination, which costs three mana to draw two cards. As always in Magic there is a base expectation when it comes to cost and reward, cards like divination become that measuring stick other draw spells are compared against. When something isn't meeting those expectations then it's usually coupled with one of the other two costs, something that further enhances the flavor of that card, which of course is dictated by the color the card fits within.
The secondary cost is any additional requirement needed to cast the card, such as paying life, or discarding cards. Finally there is the drawback, which in itself can be hard to discern at first glance. This can take the form of allowing your opponent to also draw cards, having to skip a draw step or having access to cards for a limited time. Whether any three of these costs are present or not, their presence or lack there of goes beyond balance. The application of cost and consequence in any combination or form is very important in conveying the flavor inherent to card draw, and is shaped by each color to further enhance the narratives being told within a given game of Magic.
White falls victim to cost and consequence in many forms, and is part of why it is said that it's such a poor color when it comes to card draw, outside of its limited options. It's primary form of cost is that of the drawback, or requirement, all of which stem from White's desire for some form of equality in means. Some of its best draw spells wait for an opponent to attempt at advantage only for White to take part in that advantage as well, or in the cutting of a deal which sees itself and another player draw equal cards. I see this as two nations at war, with White allowing for deals to be struck, and politics to be played, this narrative gaining even more traction in formats with more than two players on the field.
Blue rarely falls victim to secondary costs or drawbacks, which relates back to the idea that Blue is the color most able to pull forth knowledge. This simple exchange is only really broken in cases where cards draw is of a significant nature, in fact cost usually enhances its role in gaining even more advantage. As seen in cards that allow it to dump all of its mana into an X costed spell to dig deeper into its vast library, more so than any other color. Even in cases where card draw can be taken as filtering, Blue can turn it into advantage, that is if it can cast aside an artifact or any other specified card that has no use in the coming fight. Leaning into this idea that Blue sets the pace when it comes to what can be done with draw spells.
Black's version of cost most often is exemplified in the secondary cost, that of some sacrifice needed to be made. Most often it is Black's own life force, or other creatures that are a common offering made to those who hold dark power and knowledge, something Black is keen to acquire. Though because it is willing to sacrifice itself or others, it is usually paired with the lessening of the core cost. This form of cost and consequence builds upon the narrative held by most Black aligned characters, as they will usually take the straightest and shortest path to power, instead of any methodical or patient approach.
Red on the other hand faces cost in the form of drawbacks and secondary cost. It is able to gain more cards for itself but those cards often have a limit to them, or don't even reflect true advantage, in that Red may not be up a card by the end of an interaction, exemplified in the act of the classic discard two and draw two common to the color. In some cases their cards are exiled and available for a few short turns. This continual cycling of cards, as reinforced by cost and consequence, enhances the notion that Red is impulsive and reckless, unable to hold onto anything for very long.
While the forms of Green card draw can vary greatly and touch on many of the styles of cost we have discussed, I believe that thematically it is a color of requirements. In that the cultivation of advantage must be mirrored by the cultivation of nature or the animal kingdom. Such costs are seen in cards that require a creature to be cast, or a beast of formidable stature to be upon the field in its upcoming turns. This reliance on requirements means that Green is not the color to bend nature to its will but rather one that follows its lead, aiding in its growth and reaping the benefits in return.
Just like every aspect of design that goes into Magic the gathering, card draw is rooted in the philosophies of the color pie, and the narrative throughput defined by it, cost and consequence are present to further enhance the definition of each color and is another tool that the designers can use to craft concepts bigger than the simple act of drawing a card.
Threads of Fate
Magic the Gathering, in its natural state, is a linear game. Once decks are assembled and hands are dealt, the cards that will be played have been decided already. On the first turn we set a land, and if we are lucky a Sol ring, then say go. Our turn comes back around, we draw a single card, put down a land then play the card from out hand with the highest mana value, we say go then the cycle continues. In this state, if untouched, we are witnessing a story unfold, one that is essentially predetermined. Sure from our perspective it may seem like we have control over what is happening but in truth we are playing into our destiny. There is only so much mana available, so few option during any given turn that it's as if we could automate it and watch the game unfold.
But we know that this isn't how magic works, in fact we do have control over our fates and an avenue for escaping this linear track. The reason it is possible for us to forge our own destiny in every game of Magic the Gathering is because of draw spells. With their help we are no longer trapped on that treadmill, instead we can look into the future, manipulate the flow of time and forge a new fate pulled from the top of our library. Instead of our hand being played for us due to our lack of options, our choices become many, our fate uncertain. This dance with fate, as added to by card draw, is an act teeming with flavor, one shaped by the color pie. For you see each color, and how it interacts with card draw informs us of how each color handles these threads of fate.
You see White still aims for a future that is certain, one built piece by piece in a predictable way, thus it would rather hold confidence in what it can do now, and build out a solid foundation instead of relying on the unknown. Blue knows that there is no fate but the one we shape for ourselves, and this is why it will sift through its cards at a rapid pace, as if looking to multiple futures until it has found the most optimal path forward. Black rejects destiny outright and fights back against it with animosity, clawing and scratching to be free, thus it will do whatever it takes to forge its own path.
Red is confident in the fact that the future is fleeting, and will soon pass into memory, and so leans into a more chaotic path, almost reveling in the unknown. Green is confident in the future, so long as it waits and watches the flow of nature. Thus it is a color to follow the flow of time rather than dictate the future. If we look at draw spells as a way to shape ones own fate, or reflect upon ones destiny, we begin to see how each color views these concepts, and how that is then reflected in card draw, of taking ones own destiny right into their hands.
Card draw is the most universal aspect of any card game, and because of this we do it all the time without thinking much about it. But if you stop and really look, there's a whole world of philosophy and flavor behind it, one that the designers must always be cognizant of, in fear of breaking that precious game feel and flavor that makes magic the gathering what it is. The truth is that they must adhere to the color pie, not as a tool to design cards but as the guiding light behind everything in this game, for without it and its deeper meanings, we would be left with a mechanic, nothing more.
So next time you are sitting down at the kitchen table and cast Chemister's insight or Wheel of fortune, remember, it's not just about getting more cards to play with into your hand. It's a piece of the bigger story always at play, a reflection of each color's philosophy, and a way to shape your own fate in Magic the Gathering. For every draw spell is a chance to add another page to the epic tale that's unfolding on the table before you.
Thanks for taking the time to go on this journey with me, it's a topic that has been in the back of my mind for a long time now and I am happy to finally release it to the world. If you enjoyed this article then consider becoming a site member that way you can get notified when the next article goes live, with that friend I will catch you in the multiverse, bye!
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