Monday, April 10, 2017

Keep Your Friends Close

Hey folks. Please enjoy another post from guest columnist Jake Mosby.
—Jay Treat

Understanding the color pie is a core skill for anyone who wants to design Magic cards. Luckily, there are a lot of resources available to designers that analyze the broad strokes of the color pie. Mark Rosewater has been writing about the color pie for 15 years, and he's written at length about how the colors interact with one another. In all that time, I have yet to see anything more than cliffnotes about how colors come into conflict with their allies. For example, if you want to make a set where green is at odds with white (like Mirrodin Besieged), there isn’t a go-to resource out there to help you identify potential sources of that conflict. This article aims to change that.

Before getting into the details, allow me to explain my methodology. I find it useful to personify the colors, so the analysis below is formed as conversations between the various colors as though they’re people in a dialogue. First the allied color pair in question will talk about what they agree on. Second, each of those colors splits off and gets input from its other ally. Finally the original allied color pair come back together, but find that they disagree more than they initially thought.

If that sounded confusing, hopefully it becomes clearer after a couple examples. Let’s get started!

White and Blue have some important philosophical similarities, the most important being that they share a desire to improve society towards being a utopia. White wants to protect the weak, put moral structures in place, and generally promote safety. Blue wants to achieve perfection through conscious effort to improve, and is happy to extend that perfection to the world at large. When White and Blue are talking only to each other, they find themselves to be more or less on the same page.

The trouble comes in when each color is also talking to its other ally. White shares the notion of this ideal society with Green, but Green points out that there will inevitably be some flaws in the society that will have to be accepted. In order to achieve such a utopia, Green says, some people will have to make sacrifices for the greater good. White hears Green’s point and agrees. Meanwhile, Blue has been talking to Black, who tells Blue that if each citizen has the ability to self-improve, society at large will reflect that. Black warns Blue that any society that demands compromise from its citizens isn’t a utopia at all. Self-sacrifice isn’t an acceptable flaw, and Blue concurs.

When White and Blue reconvene, they find themselves at an impasse. White believes that in order to perfect society, sacrifices must be made and systems of control must be implemented. Blue believes such forfeits are preventable with time to plan things out and freedom for individuals to improve themselves. Though both strive for a utopian ideal, they have a fundamental conflict in how such a utopia looks and what it takes to get there.

Conflict: When crafting society, is a utopia achievable through sacrifice?

Blue and Black are the greatest proponents of personal advancement. Together they believe that achievement leads to greatness. Blue wants to use its intellect to mold its potential into an image of perfection. Black sees achievement as a means to acquire power, and knows self-interest to be an excellent motivator. Both colors understand that the consequences of mistakes can be severe, and so they generally share a belief that advancing one’s personal situation is a methodical process worthy of pursuit.

When Blue talks to White, White tells Blue that personal advancement is indeed worthy of pursuit, but that one can only realize their full potential in a world that has also done so. Essentially, that Blue can achieve perfection only by also raising up the world around it. Blue generally agrees with this, certainly they can at least become the best version of themselves without harming their fellow man. Black speaks to Red, who reminds Black that personal advancement is all relative. If you are the best, it’s inevitable you’ll push others down from time to time. Besides, Black’s goal of attaining power is worth the price paid by others – they should have been looking out for themselves enough to stay out of Black’s way.

Blue and Black come back to their dialogue with different motives. Blue wants to leave behind a powerful legacy that will cause it to be appreciated. Black would much rather survive with power and be feared. Though they both seek personal advancement, they have very different goals and motivations compelling them.

Conflict: When achieving greatness, is it better to be feared or loved?

Black and Red both agree that they need disorder to truly flourish. Together, they despise the limitations that laws and rules artificially impose. Black sees these restrictions as hurdles between it and its goals. Red wants to experience life to the fullest, and restraints prevent it from doing so. Both colors seek to step beyond such obstructions and ensure that those obstructions do not return.

Black consults with Blue, who sees this lawlessness as an opportunity for Black to think its way toward its goals. Blue tells Black that people are blank slates, so anarchy allows people to become whoever they choose to become. Black, listening to Blue, is excited for people to follow their heads toward change and greatness. Red instead communes with Green, who paints a much different picture. Green explains that people are who they are, that they have an inherent nature. Lawlessness is useful only to the extent that it allows people to be who they are without getting in the way or disrupting destiny. Red listens with rapt attention, agreeing that freedom is best because it gives people room to follow their hearts.

When Black and Red now confer, they realize that what they really want is fundamentally different. Yes, Black wants a world without restrictions, because Black can advance and change and progress in such a place. Red wants no restrictions because Red wants people to be who they are and to experience themselves – there’s no need for improvement, because improvement requires changing who you are.

Conflict: When truly free, should you follow your head or your heart?

Though the other colors are focused on improvement or change, Red and Green are the colors most invested in living in the moment – in following their impulses. Red seeks the freedom to experience the world on its terms, and doesn’t want to bother waiting or hiding from the dangers that such an attitude might entail. Green wants acceptance of natural structures, including people’s internal, primal natures. Together they both prefer to follow their instincts and passions.

Red excitedly tells Black that it wants to do anything its heart desires. Black whispers in Red’s ear that it should live life to the fullest, experience as much as it can in as short a time as it can. Black encourages Red to live in excess, because why not? Life is short. Red likes the sound of that. Green instead talks to White, who advises Green that following its heart should lead to discipline. White tells Green that people are innately predisposed to help one another and live within their means so as to not cause undue harm to others. Green isn’t as sure about the helping others part, but it certainly agrees that living within one’s means is a natural and sustainable method to accept.

Red runs back to Green, excited to burn through the world's resources and experience wonder together. Green is in disbelief that this frenzied and unsustainable pattern could possibly be Red’s inherent nature. While both are enthusiastic about living in the moment, their visions of how to live couldn’t be more contrary.

Conflict: When living in the moment, should you display discipline or reckless abandon?

Green and White round out the allied color pairs with a common goal that many people crave: structure. Green wants to protect and preserve nature – the world has exactly the right amount of structure. Part of accepting who you are is accepting the part you play in the larger picture and filling your role in nature’s interdependencies. White wants to use structure to protect and preserve people, updating that social structure as often as needed to ensure that people aren’t suffering. Both colors are committed to preserving structure.

But when they talk to their other friends, the cracks begin to show. Green hears Red warn about the burdens of too much structure – about how artificial impositions hinder the pursuits of the heart. Green realizes that it’s important to accept the natural structure already in place and to grow around it. White meets with Blue, who tells White about all its great ideas on how to improve the existing structure. White realizes that the present structure isn’t doing its job as well as it could be, and seeks to improve it for the sake of the people the structure supports.

When Green and White rejoin, they find themselves at odds. Green is firmly entrenched in the natural order, refusing to hinder people who seek to follow their instincts. White clamors that some people’s instincts cause harm to others, and those would-be victims deserve protection by society. Green is willing to accept that some are destined to suffer within the structure, and that isn’t something to shy away from. White sees people suffering under an imperfect system and sees that it has the means to save them.

Conflict: When establishing structure, should you seek to improve the natural order?

Wrapping Up
I hope this exploration of color conflict gives you all some food for thought, and may open the doors to some additional variety among your designs. Many designers have explored the conflicts between enemy color pairs, and I’m excited to see if and how these conflicts can be integrated into the community – hopefully it expands design space.

About the Author
Jake "Piar" Mosby has been involved with various custom Magic communities since the second Great Designer Search. He's facilitated several community projects including MTGSalvation's monthly "You Make The Card" contests. Beyond several personal custom Magic projects, he recently started designing other board games as well. He hosts the custom Magic podcast Cardography, which is available on iTunes and SoundCloud.


  1. At one point I was trying to come up with opposites in allied colors (for an ally-colored "Sword of X and Y" cycle) and came up with the following:

    WU - Land and Sea (mechanically this ended up being more like control vs. freedom)
    UB - Truth and Lies
    BR - Love and Hate
    RG - Making and Breaking
    GW - City and Country

  2. There are multiple differences, as Ipaulsen's cycle helps show. But I disagree about the conflict between blue and black.

    I'm not sure blue necessarily cares about a legacy, what others think of it. I think blue defaults to only caring about progress and its own evaluation thereof. In contrast, Black only measures itself relative to others. Which is why black is happy to file a loss for everyone else under progress for itself.

    I'll attempt to tie that into the format Jake set up: Blue talks to White, who insists on pursuing the greater good. Blue is less concerned with others, but knows being its best self will help society, and that a more capable society can help it reach its own potential. Black talks to Red, who speaks about seizing the day and the rush of making an impact on others. Black is more interested in the long game, but still gets a thrill from earning the respect of others (and the most expedient way to do that is to make them fear you). And so Blue value progress relative to itself, where Black values progress relative to others.

    1. I word the conflict between green and white a little differently: Structure is important, but should new structure be created, or existing structure preserved?

    2. You've an interesting take on Blue-Black. I definitely think it's a valid conflict between them, but I still see blue caring about its impact on the world (though maybe less concerned with how individuals perceive Blue). The great thing about the color pie is that multiple conflicts can exist between the colors, and we get to explore all of them.

      A reddit commenter pointed out that it's likely better to frame Green-White around community rather than structure, and whether that community should be established via civilization or nature.

    3. Indeed.

      Community tends to be the structure green and white are talking about, yeah.

  3. Thanks to Jake for this excellent perspective. Exploring the differences between allies should help us understand them more deeply, and inspire some new designs.

  4. Anyone care to share some of these articles that focus on enemy color pairs? Specifically I'm looking for an exploration of why enemy colors would ever want to get along. Official WotC stuff is largely limited to the Ravnica guilds and Khans shards.

    1. When I referred to articles about how the enemy colors get along I was primarily referring to the guild articles. They serve as a good jumping off point at least for finding common ground. It's possible other resources are out there, though.

    2. If the goal is to learn about those pairings from a non-Ravnican perspective, Suvnica has to provide a bit, as that was its goal.