How the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Color Wheel Explains Humanity

How the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Color Wheel Explains Humanity

This post is based on the excellent essay of the same name by Duncan Sabien. Be sure to check it out for a more in-depth analysis and real-life examples.


The color wheel is printed on the back of every Magic card.

The color wheel is printed on the back of every Magic card.

About 25 years ago, Richard Garfield created the original collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering. It’s a fantasy game in which players can use five different styles of magic, represented by five colors on a color wheel.

The color wheel is interesting because it transcends the boundaries of the game. The philosophy behind it is a remarkably true-to-life framework for understanding personalities and organizations in both fiction and reality.

The five colors of Magic are white, blue, black, red, and green. Each color represents an archetype, with its own goals and means. In this post, we’ll focus on examples in pop culture. Let’s break ‘em down.

 
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White seeks peace through order.

Values cooperation, fairness, duty, honor, integrity. Can be rigid, intolerant, or a know-it-all bossypants. Asks, “What is the right course of action?”

Blue seeks perfection through knowledge.

Values truth, competence, clarity, rationality, brains over brawn. Curious and methodical, but can be tricky or overly analytical. Asks, “What course of action makes the most sense?”

Black seeks satisfaction through ruthlessness.

Values power, autonomy, wealth, status, its own desires over all else. Highly capable and ambitious, but lacks empathy and a moral code. Asks, “What course of action will leave me best off?”

Red seeks freedom through action.

Values passion, adventure, courage, fun, living in the moment. Can be reckless, impulsive, or chaotic. Asks, “What do I feel like doing?”

Green seeks harmony through acceptance.

Values wisdom, meaning, serenity, respect, seeing the big picture. But can be complacent and unwilling to change or take risks. Asks, “How are these things usually done? What is the established wisdom?”

Now what happens if we mix the colors together?

If you think about ensembles from Star Trek, Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Avengers, it’s easy to identify characters that match one or more of these archetypes. These character differences make the teams stronger by supplementing one’s weaknesses with another’s strengths, but can also lead to bickering.

The color wheel helps explain why. On the basic level, colors across from each other in the color wheel mostly disagree on values or strategy (enemies), and colors next to each other mostly agree (allies). Different color combinations can result in harmony, combustion, or “it’s complicated” type of relationships.

Disagreements (Image credit: Duncan A Sabien)

Disagreements (Image credit: Duncan A Sabien)

Let’s look at white’s relationships as an example. White vs. black is the classic head-to-head matchup: white prioritizes the group, while black prioritizes the individual. “From white’s perspective, black is selfish and evil; from black’s perspective, white is naive and coercive,” explains Sabien. However, both colors agree with blue (their common neighbor) on strategy: white and blue agree on the importance of structure in reaching their goals, while black and blue both exercise a growth mindset to reach theirs. White and blue are also allies because of their common enemy, red, which they see as a hot mess.

Agreements (Image credit: Duncan A Sabien)

Agreements (Image credit: Duncan A Sabien)

On the color wheel, there’s barely any separation between enemies and allies — which makes things a lot more interesting. Relationship statuses transform as powers shift. It’s also possible for one person or group to be between two colors on the color wheel, or even move between colors.

But wait… there’s more! You can also have identities made up of three colors. Captain America, for example, is red/white/blue — the classic red/white hero with a splash of blue. You can create characters from any number of combinations, and each combination can have different amounts of each color — making it possible to bring a nearly infinite number of complex, nuanced characters to life.

The goal of the color wheel, though, is to simplify. It’s a classification tool that helps us quickly understand why things are a certain way, and make predictions on how to move forward.

The key recognition is that all of these ways of being are okay. They’re all good, they’re all evolved and refined, they’re all adaptive and workable.
— Duncan Sabien

We can’t go forward without looking backward. We can’t build a greater community without individuals. All are required for a world worth living in, a stable society filled with fierce individuals who strive with passion.

Striving is everything. It’s the one thing all the color archetypes have in common, even if that one thing is what causes all the drama. They seek.

What about you? What do you seek? What colors are you?

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