Why is conflict the central creative focus in every Magic story and set? Why is conflict also the main concern of the news, and often our personal lives as well? Why can’t we all just get along?

Today we’re going to discuss Magic’s color wheel, and how the central concepts behind it undergird actual societal and personal conflicts. I argue that the wheel tells us as much about life in this world as it does about fantasy battles taking place between armies on imaginary planes. And if you stick it out until the end, I’ll illustrate my theoretical points with a new game I’ve designed for you all to play: Four-Card Plot Summary.

Vorthos’ Favorite Pie

The Incompatibility of Goods

Let’s imagine you’re visiting a friend’s place, and that the blanket on their guest bed is too small for you, such that either your chest will be covered and your feet exposed, or your feet will be covered and your chest exposed. The options of cutting the blanket in two, or finding a better blanket, are off the menu for the sake of this example. The way the blanket is described here—the brute facts of the situation—forces us to choose between two incompatible goods, namely chest warmth or foot warmth.

In life, we are often similarly forced to choose between two mutually exclusive possibilities, each of which have some merit. We may want to feel free, have fun, and be spontaneous; but also crave the security and stability of a having a solid long-term plan for our lives—all while knowing that these goals and desires are in conflict with each other. Theoretically and practically, we can’t do much about that baseline fact.

And, just as we will often experience an inner conflict between competing values, our experiences with other people inevitably reveal that they have values different from our own. Some of these we can respect and integrate, and others would threaten our very identity if we adopted them. Zooming out even further, there are conflicts between different societies and cultures which operate on the same principle: that one value can only be promoted at the expense of its opposite.

By analogy, the world is like that crappy blanket that can’t let us have everything we want or need. Isaiah Berlin writes in The Crooked Timber of Humanity that: “Some among the Great Goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.” Conflict, in other words, is inevitable.

At least we can agree in our choice of haberdashers

The Inevitability of Conflict

This is central to what makes Magic such a compelling game, both flavor-wise and mechanically. The dominant bases of conflict are pictorially represented in the color wheel, and justify the in-game action. Chaos is incompatible with social Order (but what about a festival?); Morality and Immorality cannot both be simultaneously embraced as guiding principles in the same mind (but what about a tortured conscience?). Just going around the color wheel inspires you to think up interesting stories, none of which would get off the ground if all people adhered to an identical set of values.

While tragedy can sometimes be the result of conflict, there is also the potential for growth and greater understanding to occur through the clash of ideas. So instead of lamenting this inevitable feature of life, it may be more productive to focus on the positive aspects of value pluralism, one of which is that the world is organically set up like a free market of values for you to pick and choose between. As adults, each of us get to metaphorically pick our favorite color, or combination of colors, to play with. Hopefully, we learn from the resulting conflicts we get ourselves into with other people, who naturally have different ideas than we do. Still, there is at least one regrettable outcome of this never-ending clash of values: there is no final resting place of human history; no ultimate peace or unity awaits us.

Feature Match

The Impossibility of Utopia

Indeed, if a ‘utopia’ were established which promoted and protected any one value over the others, some people would be bound to suffer. Certain people’s values would not find expression in the utopian state apparatuses or its culture, making it less than ideal for them; even positively hellish in the worst (dystopian) cases. With reference to my blanket analogy above, the marginalized minority would be the cold and exposed toes, opposite the blanket-covered chest of the utopian majority.

A utopia of leisure, for instance, would alienate those who value the exertion of effort; and a communitarian utopia would have nothing to offer adherents of individualism. As Robert Nozick notes in Anarchy, State, and Utopia: “there will be no way to satisfy all of the values of more than one person, if only one set of values can be satisfied.” More dramatically, there may not even be a utopia for one person that is possible, given that our internal set of values is probably inconsistent as well. So even if we could build a personal paradise for ourselves, we’d likely get restless and tear it all apart.

Dylan Glynn illustrates this point with a Split Sketch

Wheel in the Sky Keeps on Turning

One upshot of perpetual internecine conflict is that things stay interesting. Developments are inevitable. Stories can be told. Even in card form.

In fact, Magic is already attempting to systemically narrativize its in-game action via the ‘Story Spotlight’ card series. However, as Sam Keeper recently pointed out, Wizards Creative could be doing a better job of hitting their beats and telling coherent tales. But how, specifically, could they improve?

Wizards Creative needs to be simultaneously clever and concise. The team has limited space to work with, and much that needs to be accomplished in it. Luckily, there are plenty of good precedents in word economy: take, for example, the Four Word Film Review. AardBall’s perfect description of The Blair Witch Project on that site is the very essence of pithy humor: “Tense. Intense. In Tents.”

Inspired by the Four Word Film Review, and some rules of Dixit, I’ve created the following party game: Four-Card Plot Summary.

How to Play ‘Four-Card Plot Summary’

You’ll need at least three players, each of whom has an adequate knowledge of Magic, as well as pop culture.

Using any four existing Magic cards, outline the plot of a narrative (novel, movie, play, or song) that you’ve secretly chosen. You may identify the medium for the other players, but nothing else. Then, give the other players a chance to secretly write down one guess each of the title of the narrative you’re referring to (use Gatherer if you don’t have the physical cards on hand). Once everyone has written down their guesses, you reveal the narrative you were trying to describe with the cards. Scoring is as follows:

• If all or no other players guess the right answer, you get 0 points and all other players get 1 point each.
• If some (but not all) other players guess the right answer, you and those players get 2 points each, while players that guessed incorrectly get 0 points.

Games go to 20 points; the player who reaches that number first, wins.

Next, let’s try a few hands so you can see what I mean. Bear in mind, of course, that this is an art rather than a science, and that different people could choose to represent the same plot with different cards. To better connect with the rest of the article, each one of my examples below will illustrate a central conflict between incommensurable goods on the Magic color wheel.

Good luck with your guesses! The correct answers will be given at the end.

Sample Hands

#1: Medium = Novel (Conflict: Morality vs. Amorality)

#2: Medium = Play (Conflict: Logic vs. Impulse)

#3: Medium = Movie (Conflict: Order vs. Chaos)

#4: Medium = Novel (Conflict: Technology vs. Instinct)

#5: Medium = Movie (Conflict: Interdependence vs. Parasitism)

Answers // Conclusion

1. The Stranger by Albert Camus. After attending his mother’s funeral, the anti-hero Meursault shoots an Arab on the beach for no particular reason; he is pilloried and condemned in a court of law for the crime, and after a long isolation in prison, is finally executed.
2. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. The oracle prophesies that a criminal in Thebes must be exposed to lift the plague on the city; shortly after, a blind prophet is the first to reveal to King Oedipus that he is in fact the one who accidentally murdered his own father, who was blocking his way at a crossroads; Oedipus pierces his own eyeballs and leaves the city, in the despair and inner struggle that ensues.
3. Hair by Milos Forman. Claude Hooper Bukowski is about to enlist as a soldier in the Viet Nam war when he encounters a group of freewheeling hippies, some of whom get arrested in their subsequent misadventures together; spontaneously, one of Claude’s new hippy friends impersonates him and takes his place on the troop transport plane headed for the war, thus saving him from death.
4. 1984 by George Orwell. Winston lives in a dystopian world wherein the population is controlled via continuous propaganda and thought control; and while he is keenly aware that he is always being watched by the government, he nonetheless indulges in an illicit affair, trades in contraband substances, and engages in seditious activities; this brings him to the attention of the sadistic agent O’Brien, who makes it his personal business to break Winston’s mind.
5. Avatar by James Cameron. Jake Sully is paralyzed, and the only way he can get the surgery he needs to repair his spine is to use an avatar to cultivate good relations with the alien Na’vi, for a nefarious corporation who want to mine their planet for its natural resources; Sully seemingly redeems himself by making genuine connections with a clan of the aliens who occupy a strategically-located Hometree, but in the end he is forced to choose sides in a mutually destructive confrontation between the corporation and the Na’vi.

Each of these movies, novels, and plays, is at least as creatively complex—if not more—than the backstory of the average Magic set. All the same, I was able to capture the essential elements of those complex plots with only four cards. I think that Wizards Creative should practice up by playing many, many rounds of my Four-Card Plot Summary game, getting used to matching up various cards with various story elements, before they choose // invent their next series of Story Spotlight cards. That way, their team might be better able express the nuanced and exciting conflicts already contained in their color wheel—resulting in (even) richer fictional settings for us players to explore.