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Where Did Magic: the Gathering Get its 5 Lands?



Why do Islands generate Blue mana, why is it mountains for Red, or swamps for Black, its questions like these that I get asked from time to time across my videos, and I mean it truly is a valid one to posit, because lands literally produce the mana that makes up the color pie, so there must be some profound connection between the two right? Some intent that Richard Garfield had for making such choices. Honestly it was something I couldn't avoid any longer, I knew it was time that this question had an answer, and so I poured over articles, listened to interviews and reflected on my own understanding, and what I found wasn't exactly what I was hoping for, and yet what came to be was something far deeper.


Why Lands?



The idea for lands and the color pie itself actually dates back far before Magic, and while it may have morphed and shifted by the time it was implemented into Magic the Gathering, it was this connection that Richard held onto rather early, back when he was simply designing games as a hobby throughout high school and University. Of which this connection between land and mana had two core inspirations, the book Master of the Five Magics and a game called king of the tabletop.


These inspirations, among others, would shape one of the earliest forms of Magic: the Gathering, a game he called 5 Magics, which utilized an initial version of the color pie and lands. Often the truth is far more simple than the grand stories we imagine of creative people. Art, and design are often matters of intuition and inspiration, of copying what works and building upon those foundations, and Magic the Gathering is no different


What do I mean by this, well the truth is that Richard was a visionary in many ways, blazing a new trail to craft this unique and interesting game, and yet much of Magic would begin as something smaller or simpler than that which it would grow into. Think of his initial design space in Alpha, to put it plainly the cards were rudimentary compared to how cards are designed now.



Another example, and one far more relevant to our discussion on lands, is the color pie, something that started as a matter of dividing the game into 5 neat thematic slices has turned into a whole new beast of complexity that is debated to this day, hell I have based my entire channel upon it. So while he may not have intended for the land to have any philosophical or thematic resonance with the 5 colors of mana, it has evolved in ways that make it seem like an intended choice to us now over thirty years from its initial concept in the 80's.


Design is a tricky thing, often times the reason for the choices that lead to the final product aren't exactly clear, and are built upon outside influences, intuition and the collective human cultural consciousnesses. I believe that much of Richard's vision for Magic is a mixture of these things, and I doubt he intended for each part of the game to be scrutinized in the way we do now. But I believe this deeper evaluation of his initial vision, and that of what it became, is part of what makes Magic: the Gathering so special, as it has evolved over time to meet these expectations. If we look back with the power of hindsight, it may seem as if Richard was planning decades down the line, and yet its rather his initial design of the game was so inspired that its many details have had time to grow beyond its progenitor.



All this considering that Richard merely grabbed the idea of five colors from an old book. Why bring up all these points, well it's because I believe lands are a feature of this game that exemplify this very idea. At first they were just what made sense as a way to divide the resources in the game, and were fitting enough for each of the colors he decided upon, but over time, either our understanding of this connection has grown, or more likely Magic has molded lands to fit alongside with what was being uncovered within the color pie. The first ever lands printed were quite literal representations of those biomes, while now their variance in art has shown us visions that push us deeper into the mana that makes them.


The reality is that these connections between land and mana are present, and their inspirations varied. But what are these connections, and how does the story of each basic land form, for that we need to take a step back and discuss each land directly. As each color has its own story to tell in this regard, and to be honest it would be Red and Mountains that would come to surprise me the most.


White



The symbolic association of White mana and Plains is drawn from both the abstract and the literal. In abstract terms the open Plains of the multiverse are a beacon of tranquility and stability. Open areas where this sense of calm stillness washes over you. It's this feeling that builds itself well to the ideals that White aims to foster, that of hope and peace. But the interesting thing about Plains happens when we shift our perspective from the abstract to the literal or historical.


Since the inception of agriculture, a marker in time when we went from small tribes to our first cities, fostered in the great plains known as the fertile crescent or the cradle of civilization, the plains have been where humanity has laid its claim to the land, a fact that resonates with White mana's focus on cultivating society.


Long before humans spread to every inch of this planet we first settled in those spaces of stability where water and soil were abundant, rather than the jagged mountains ranges, the wild forests or in the crossing of turbulent oceans to seek new lands. This connection, or understanding of Plains as being where our ancestors first built up walls, made laws, and traded our first currencies, is showcased in our association to Plains and White mana to this day.




Blue



Having recently moved to an island myself I have witnessed something that I have not seen anywhere else and that is the inherent sense contemplative tranquility that washes over me while looking out across the vast ocean. Water lapping at the shore in a rhythmic dance lulling me into a reflective state of mind, the waves weaving their soothing melody against the shoreline. Islands, and Blue mana do have a tenuous connection, in many ways held together purely based on how they make us feel, rather than any influences from other media, our culture or anything historic and literal.


Perhaps Richard felt the same way, or perhaps he had the color Blue in mind and just chose water, but you know what I would prefer to think of the former. Sure this association to water is present in many of the creatures of Blue, ones that I do feel have few ties to the core ideals of the color, that of contemplative logic, or of its calm and calculated nature.


But if we do want to spread our vision into the depths that surround these islands, then it could be said that the ocean is the last great mystery of our planet and islands are the havens among it, places of refuge as we uncover what lies beyond our own understanding, feeding into that endless curiosity, and you know what, that feels pretty Blue to me.


Black



No matter what sort nuanced take I try and spread about Black mana, there is one inevitable truth about the color, and that is its reliance on darkness, evil, mystery and death. As such its hard to separate such themes from its land type, and yet swamps in reality aren't these things. In fact they can be bright, beautiful places where life thrives in its own unique way, where only the mysterious nature of it stands true. So why then does the idea of swamps and Black mana fit so darn well in all of our minds.


I mean is there really any other biome in your mind that could work as well as swamps do for Black, and yet my point still stands, swamps on earth are not those places that we see in the multiverse. But if this is not born of a one to one look at nature, and is bread of some shared feeling, then where does this inherent feeling come from? Well the truth is that swamps have held our attention as places of darkness and evil, as told to us through the fantastical stories that surround it throughout history.


I think of the bubbling swamp outside a witches cottage, the swamp thing emerging from black pools or the dead marshes from lord of the rings. Swamps, especially in fantasy, are nearly always portrayed as the dark residence of vile beings, places of death where one dare not tread. So to ask the question again, is there really any relation to Black mana and Swamps, well in our world no not really, but in the worlds of our shared imagination there could be no other option so fitting.


Red



Growing up with the rocky mountains nearby I would often stare up at them from the backseat window of the family car during road trips, and would be overcome with a sense of stoic calm and wonder, their form intimidating yet still as they looked down upon me. So why Red mana and Mountains, surely volcanoes would have been more fitting for a color who erupts with passion. Something just didn't seem right about this choice, but I mean there had to be a reason behind Richard's intuitions on this front.


As I scoured the internet to make sense of this I came across a Reddit thread, and one comment in particular that simply... clicked. It was a comment from Presteel28 who said:

“But mountains, on a geographic time scale, are about change and movement. It is caused by the buckling of the earth's plates. They are proof that the earth does change and shift over time.”

It was one of those moments that totally shifted my perspective, because yes of course the creation of mountains is a violent act of upheaval, it's just that the earth moves on scales of time and space beyond our recognition. What is an eternity in a human life is a matter of moments in the span of billions of years. As such Mountains are a reflection of Red Mana, they are the scars of change, the flesh of the earth ripping and reforming. It is violent yet beautiful.


Green



Green and forests is perhaps the color that lends itself to the most direct explanation. In truth Forrest's are the one land type that has the most direct effect on the mana associated to it and its identity. Much of what drives Green mana is directly pulled from both our cultural and literal understanding of these spaces. They are places of life and growth, of wisdom and spirituality. Ever since Tolkien introduced us to the elves of middle earth this connection has only deepened in every form of fantasy media, Magic included.


But even before that the forest has always been seen as place of wonder and beauty. Many pagan customs place a significant importance on trees and forests, viewing them as sacred entities with a connection to the natural realm. Some belief systems consider them the symbolic "heart of the land" and representatives of the earth. Forests, specifically, are frequently perceived as enchanting and enigmatic places, commonly linked to the spirits of nature in various traditions and sources of media. For Green it could not be any other land type.


What Have We Learned


Richard Garfields choice of 5 land types may have been an arbitrary decision or it could have been a profound example of our shared cultural cannon. A way of thinking that shows how we are all influenced by what has come before, of abstract feelings and ideas. I believe that if 10 people were given the task of picking land types for each of the five colors nine of them would come out with the same five that Richard Garfield came to. But why is that? Well as a collective humans already associate certain emotions, and concepts to colors.


What comes to mind when you think of Red, aggression and passion? Could it be then that we do the same for biomes? Are there inherent feelings, or themes we place upon them. What then when that layer of color association is placed upon it, could it be that we have made a decision on what is fitting before we have had time to even think about. These shared influences are something born from the feelings we get in those spaces, from consumption of shared media or by concepts passed down to us. It's what makes us human, and while this is but a discussion on a card game, I can't help but wonder what it means for you and I as humans.


Thank you for reading my latest article, I hope you enjoyed this deeper look at one of Magic: the Gathering's key components. If you like this sort of thing then consider becoming a site member, that way you can be notified when my next article goes live, or if you want more Dicetry, then check me out in the links below. With that friend, I will catch you in the multiverse, bye!


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