The Surprising Evolution of the Orc in MTG
I'm not going to lie, when my Patrons tasked me with doing a color study of the Orc creature type my first question was “Aren't orcs just big Goblins?”. If we look to the first printings of Orcs in magic the gathering we can see that, if it weren't for the names and types, they were nearly impossible to distinguish from a goblin. For example look at these two cards and tell me which one of these is an Orc and which is a Goblin. Well it's a trick question they are both orcs, this test showcases what I mean.
It struck me as odd that the original designers took the time to even create these two types, none the less I was determined to look deeper into this creature type and like everything in the multiverse nothing is quite as simple as it seems. In fact the orc is indeed its own unique being, but this change took many years. In this article we will follow its evolution over twenty years of Magic, discuss its changes over time and how those are reflected in the colors that represent them. To do that we will indeed have to start at the beginning.
Orcs, like many iconic creature types, were first introduced in Alpha, and just as I said in the intro, they could hardly be distinguished from goblins at this time. Wild, silly and violent. They were always in Red and getting up to no good, even in their iterations in subsequent early sets like Fallen Empires and time spiral you could hardly find a difference, or a unique trait. It was to the point that I am not sure why they even created the orc type to begin with. Because of this there honestly isn't much that could be said about these early orcs, and in some ways I think looking to them betrays the interesting creature type they would later become on the Plane of Tarkir, as this is where they would come into their own and be granted some true definition going forward. So let's not waste anymore time in the ancient past of the 90s and move to the Plane of Dragons.
Right from the start the orcs of Tarkir already looked much different than their older counterparts. This is what I consider the second wave or chapter in the lifespan of the orc. No more were they lithe and stupid, instead they were now large, strong, skilled and clever. They held allegiance with more than just their own kind as well, integrated into the large clans of the Plane. Clans who were a wide mix of creatures and races. What's more is that they were granted a color outside of Red in Black, and while yes there was the rare orc before who was more than red, such as Sek'Kuar Deathspeaker, this was exceptionally rare. Tarkir is what fully added Black as the secondary color for this creature type as well. So let's dig a little bit deeper into the colors of these orcs to understand their shift. Red of course has and will always remain a primary color for the orc and on Tarkir this was no different.
These orcs indeed showcase Red's more violent and aggressive side. Always looking for the next fight for the simple pleasure that combat brought. Cards like Mardu Warshrieker are exactly what I am talking about. “No body can contain so much fury. It reminds me of another battle, long past” Fury, in a word, defines the Red orc and while the goblin shares this color its definition taps into a different dimension of the color. In that the Goblin is related more to the idea of mischievous violence, the almost playful and dangerous side of Red. On the other hand the Orc is more serious in its representation, falling more under pure rage, or that of the expression of true anger, or fury. To the Red orc of tarkir, rage boils over into everything they do, its anger issues cranked up to one hundred. Now the interesting thing about Tarkir orcs for me are those in Black. This is because they are not driven by the same motivating force, it is not rage but rather a desire to prove ones self.
Cards like Merciless executioner and Battle Brawler showcase Black's desire to exert itself and prove it worth, in this case through battle. The latter of the cards stating “Every time he returns from battle unscathed, he feels a tinge of disappointment” This idea of proving ones self, of marking its worth based on battle scars, is what sets the Orc of Tarkir apart from the Goblin. Where the goblin acts for nothing more than the simple desire to act. In my Goblin color study I came to the conclusion that the Goblin is the pure expression of Red, while the orcs motivations are a bit more nuanced. From here I want to travel to the Plane of Ixalan to further showcase the evolution of the Orc.
When we travel to the land of pirates, dinosaurs and conquistadors we can see many similarities, and yet some subtle differences, in the evolution of the orc. Once again we have a creature type who blends in with humans, something that I feel does have significance. You see the goblin, because of its disposition, will rarely coexists with humanity. I believe this shows us that orcs do indeed contain a somewhat greater level of intelligence and demeanor than the goblin, one that humans can match. Sure the Orc will only associate itself with those humans that can stand side by side with its desire for action and expression of rage, but it can't be overlooked that the orc is more than a simple mind stolen away by its whims like that of the goblin.
Of course I don't want to plant the idea in your head that the orc is not still focused on one thing and that is the exertion of itself upon the world around them. This is why Black is such a strong color for the Orc and why Red makes for a good partner as well. Both of these colors attract those that wish to exact out their desires and I believe the orc across the multiverse holds one truth and that is its need, or compulsion towards adrenaline feeding actions. Its as if they are fiends for it.
This is why we see them drawn to battle and adventure, with the Ixalan orc leaning more into the latter. It's something deep down in the orc that wishes to be free, a restless energy, or perhaps it is that rage, that desires an outlet. This is why we see them drawn to factions of war or those of adventure, like the pirate in this case. To sum up the orcs of Ixalan I want to leave you with this quote from the card Dire Fleet Captain which reads. “Orcs are happiest under captains who steer towards battle. Orcs of the Dire Fleet are downright jovial.” Now this desire does not go away with a better education, in fact it is focused instead into a certain expression of magic, as we will see in the orcs of Strixhaven.
I believe that the representation of Orcs in Strixhaven did to this creature type what Tarkir did for them in the past, and that is to fundamentally shake up our understanding of the creature. To me this signals the third wave or chapter of the orc, as it could now be whatever it wanted, that is with one remaining feature, and that is its desire for action or the feeding of its adrenaline, as we see on the card Prismari Pledgmage. “Many have the talent to create, but few have the courage to share their creations.” Note the school in which the orc enrolls, and that is the Prismari, the school whom favors action and expression over restraint. I would have liked to see an orc or two in the school of Lorehold though, as I believe that would have been a good fit but I suppose they weren't ready to give the orc white mana just yet. So with this school in mind, and the fact that an orc even attends strixhaven, we are shown an even greater level of intelligence and for lack of a better word, humanity of the creature type, further separating it from its origins.
Now we return to Dominaria once again, the Plane where it all started for the orc back in alpha. In our journey travelling the multiverse through both time and space we have seen our perspective of the orc change and now the Orc is something far more than it started as. With only one orc card in the set Dominaria United we now witness a crossing over into pure White mana. A journey that has taken us nearly all the way around the color pie to rest at one of Red's enemies, a journey that matches its change across the multiverse. A fitting end considering this is where it all started, a vivid and stark contrast to that of its days as a purely Red aligned menace. Perhaps we are witnessing the next phase in the lifespan of the orc, one that I believe is in some ways influenced by the baulders gate sets, a time when the orc is freed from its rage, a time when the orc is nothing like the goblins it once mimicked.
Thanks for reading this article all the way until the end. I hope this made you take a second look at the orc and perhaps appreciate it more. If you want more articles like this then consider becoming a site member that way you will be notified when my next article goes live, or follow me on all of my links below. With that friend, I will catch you in the multiverse, bye!
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