First off, I need to apologize. This is my first article since mid December, and at the time I was planning on taking a week or two off for the holidays and be back at the start of January. Given that it’s early February now, clearly that didn’t go to plan. My personal life imploded just before New Years, and I needed time to get my life back together before I returned to writing about Magic.

Secondly, I need to announce a change that’s been a long time in coming. Ever since coming to Hipsters of the Coast I’ve been alternating between the more traditional deck editing articles and a variety of other topics including Magic’s lore and Commander philosophy. Something I’ve had to admit over the past month is that the deck editing articles are no longer sustainable. Doing a complete overhaul of commander decks is unbelievably time-consuming, and between determining card changes, writing the articles and editing I would often need to spend more than fifteen hours on a piece before it went live. Between the inconsistent and often unpredictable hours of my job, balancing the normal responsibilities of adult life and maintaining relationships that amount of time sunk into an article always meant something else got dropped, and the mess of the past month was in part due to the issues that had built up over time. As much as I love helping people in that way, I can’t commit to doing so on a regular basis anymore.

I’ll still be talking about Commander every other article, but I won’t be able to do super in-depth pieces where I talk about every single card going in and out. I’m still working on exactly what these new pieces will look like, but sometimes I’ll be talking about specific decks and sometimes I’ll be talking more broadly about the format as a whole.

Thank you all for your patience.

Characters and Color Philosophy

With all that said, this week I want to talk about a storytelling challenge that is unique to Magic: color philosophy.

In almost every other franchise character motivations and personalities are determined only by the needs of the story being told. If an author needs a particular character to be intelligent or passion or a hopeless nihilist in order to tell the story that they want to, then that’s what that character is. Sometimes this is done fantastically, sometimes horrendously. But barring sequels that need to stay true to an existing character, this freedom is always in the author’s hands.

Magic’s story is a little different, particularly in sets that contain factions. Every character that exists with Magic’s lore has a trait that characters from no other medium has: color identity. This would be entirely irrelevant from a storytelling perspective if it weren’t for two details. First: colors in Magic are tied to particular philosophies and ways of thinking. Now these philosophies are intentionally very broad, but they are a limiting factor. And second, a characters color identity is often determined long before the needs of the story are considered.

To illustrate this, I want to look at the Ixalan block. Planeswalkers (and ex-Planeswalkers) aside, every character in the block belongs to one of four factions, each defined along tight color boundaries. While this setup obviously leads to interesting clashes of personality and culture when two characters from different factions meet such as Huatli’s interactions with Tishana and Saint Elandra, what I’m more interested in is what happens when the story calls for conflict and disagreements within a faction.

There are a surprising number of examples for this, too. It’s implied that the Emperor of the Sun Empire is manipulating Huatli for selfish reasons, and I’m predicting an odd middle ground between reasoned philosophical arguments and two tigers mauling each other when Saint Endra meets the Butcher of Magan. However, the clearest case of what I’m talking about is the infighting within the river heralds, and specifically the two most powerful of their leaders, Tishana and Kumena.

In card form both leaders are green-blue, with mechanics that let you draw cards and encourage going wide with creatures (specifically Merfolk, in Kumena’s case.) Aside from the fact that Tishana’s a little more lenient about working with non-merfolk there’s nothing to show that these two Speakers of the River Heralds think or act all that differently. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Tishana and Kumena have worldviews almost diametrically opposed to each other, and yet in every appearance they’ve had in the story both characters are firmly Green/Blue in their outlook.

Before I start I’ll link to Maro’s articles on the philosophies of Blue, Green, and Simic.

The Color Philosophy of Tishana, Voice of Thunder

Let’s start with the obvious one: Tishana. Like most of the River Heralds, the Voice of Thunder isn’t focused on the quintessentially Simic mission of “Improving Upon Nature.” Instead of taking blue’s means and applying them to green’s subject matter, she takes green’s methodology and applies it to blue’s goal.

Blue strives for perfection. Whatever blue’s goal is at any particular point, it isn’t enough for blue to accomplish that goal. Blue needs to find the best possible solution and will go to extraordinary lengths in order to implement that solution.

Green, on the other hand, is all about accepting the world as it is. Green is the one color that doesn’t try to effect change or pursue an agenda but rather embraces how things already are.

Tishana, like the rest of the River Heralds, is charged with preventing Immortal Sun from being used for destruction. That is her goal, a mission of utmost importance that could mean the deaths of thousands if she fails even once. Perfection isn’t just an ideal here, it’s required. So what does she do in order to achieve perfection here? Well, nothing, really.

Sure, Tishana can and does use her weather magic to repel any invaders into the River Herald’s territory, but other than keeping people off of her turf she doesn’t actively seek to set up defenses around the Immortal Sun. For that matter she doesn’t even know where it is, beyond a general area of the continent. So how does a character that needs to strive for perfection completely ignore the object she’s supposed to protect? The answer is twofold. First, as a (partially) blue character, Tishana understands the value of knowledge; and she knows that nobody knowing where Orazca is, is a far better defense than any amount of traps or the greatest army of merfolk she could assemble. Secondly, Tishana is painfully aware that her own people are just as fallible as the pirates and conquistadors that they’re repelling. If Tishana did surround Orazca with an army of Merfolk defenders it would only be a matter of time before someone like Kumena arose and decided to wield the Immortal Sun themselves.

This is where the Green part of Tishana’s personality comes in. She already has her perfect system, and the secrecy inherent in that system makes it outright dangerous to experiment with. So instead of experimenting and iterating like a good mono-blue mage, Tishana spends her entire life up until the city awakens taking her role in the world on faith and accepting that she cannot improve on her world without damaging it.

The Color Philosophy of Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca

That brings us to Kumena. And if I’m going to talk about his color identity it’s time to addres the elephant in the room: Black.

Much like how I’ve talked about how perfection is Blue’s endgoal, Black’s ultimate goal is power. A black character will always be trying to obtain more power in one form or another, and ho boy does Kumena want power. I’ve been referring to Orazca as a whole and the Immortal Sun in particular as a superweapon and while the block’s Planeswalkers have a slightly different take on the matter to Kumena and the other River Heralds that’s what it is. The Immortal Sun, bringer of fire, destroyer of empires, breaker of continents. That weapon is Kumena’s sole goal in every line of the story that he appears in. Other black buzzwords like amorality and paranoia definitely seem to apply as well. So he has to be at least partially black, right?

Well, kind of. The first time I read through The Flood I was left with the distinct impression that Kumena was Golgari or Sultai colored, leaning heavily towards Black in either case. After thinking about it for a while though, I’m fairly sure the opposite is true. While he is most certainly a villain and a despicable individual, I believe that Kumena has no more Black in his personality than someone like Huatli or Ajani.

The reason for this boils down to one simple question: Why? Why does Kumena take the actions that he does? If we look at his actions, they run directly counter to everything the Heralds stand for. He is the one who raises Orazca aboveground, a step that enabled everyone from Vona to Angrath to Jace to access the city and destroys centuries of work from the his people. What’s more, he goes the next step further and briefly harnesses the power of the Immortal Sun himself before being ambushed by Vona.

On the surface this is a somewhat ill-thought-out powergrab worthy of a Saturday morning cartoon villain, but that’s not quite the whole story. In his very first appearance in the story, Kumena not only tries to convince Tishana to raise Orazca, he also puts forth his reasoning for why they should claim the city themselves.

In short, the increased intrusions into the Merfolk’s territory by the other three factions lead him to conclude that keeping the city hidden is no longer a feasible long-term strategy as they can no longer adequately police their borders and one intruder or another is bound to stumble across the hidden city sooner or later by sheer probability.

That’s not an unreasonable assumption, especially with Vraska’s compass in play and at least rumored to be leading directly there. Since Kumena doesn’t think it’s possible to prevent the Sun from being used by someone, his duty as a Shaper demands that he must still prevent its misuse. And with Tishana and Kopala refusing to entertain the idea that leaves him as the best candidate to try to use the Immortal Sun without blowing up half the continent. It’s easy to forget because of how close together all the characters were when the city was raised, but the only action Kumena took during the time between finding the Immortal Sun and when he’s ambushed by Marven & Vona is to raise an additional set of defenses around the city. He’s seeking power, yes. But it’s an open question as to whether he wants the Sun for the sake of increasing his own power or to keep it away from those who would misuse it.

For the sake of argument let’s call Power and Selfishness a wash until we get more story installments and look at some of the other aspects of black. Decay, undeath and necromancy are all out, which isn’t really surprising since WotC is consistent enough to not bleed abilities into characters of the wrong colors.

Paranoia certainly fits, as does amorality. But as the Herald’s greatest warrior and first line of defense it would be a little weird if he weren’t willing to drown enemy soldiers, and that’s one of the few actively villainous this we see him do. Even that’s fairly tame compared to Vona, who drank an entire hamletfull of her own subjects because she got bored, so of the various shades of monstrous he’s far from the worst this set has to throw at us.

That’s not to say Kumena isn’t a villain. He is, or at best an antagonist of extremely dubious moral integrity. But villains don’t have to be black in order to be bad people.

Here’s the scene that made the difference for me. As he’s ascending the stairs to enter Orazca, Kumena wonders to himself who else had ever climbed those stairs and why they were originally built. And as he climbs he reaches the following realization:

“No, not why. He knew why. They built it for this moment, for him to climb.”

That seems like egoism and/or arrogance, which is definitely in black’s wheelhouse. After all, he’s essentially saying that the single most magical place in all of Ixalan was built solely for his benefit. However, this isn’t quite Black’s kind of arrogance. Black doesn’t ask why because it doesn’t care. (At least in pure, mono-Black form.)

If this were Liliana or Bontu or Drana ascending the stairs, they wouldn’t bother to wonder why the city had been made—once the builders of something are gone their intentions don’t matter anymore. In fact, they’d be much more likely to mock the original intentions and how they were about to bastardize those intentions than they would be to assume it was all there for their benefit. This might seem like an incredibly fine distinction, but there is a big difference between mocking the past like Liliana does and misrepresenting it like Kumena does.

While Kumena is an egotistical person, his worldview is technically better defined as determinism: the belief that the whole universe functions on strict if sometimes unpredictable laws of cause and effect. According to this worldview Kumena claiming Orazca was indeed inevitable, not because he deserved it in any sense but as an inevitable result of everything from the particular quirks of his genetic code to the personalities of his parents to the broader political landscape of the time to his experiences as a warrior and a Shaper to the specific number and location of various enemies as Kumena ran through the jungle towards the city. And all of those circumstances were in turn determined by previous events, and on and on until the beginning of the multiverse.

And here’s the thing. Determinism is one of the trademark factors of green’s philosophy, and is in fact antithetical to black’s, which holds that anyone can accomplish whatever they want and that those who don’t are merely pawns in the games of those more willing to do what’s necessary. Or to put it another way, green kills because it is strong, black is strong because it kills.

Of course determinism is also antithetical to blue’s philosophy, but keep in mind that this entire chain of events came about because Kumena analyzed overall trends in what was essentially a combined warzone and political quagmire across a period of time measured in years and came to the conclusion that the longstanding and traditional means of keeping Orazca safe weren’t good enough anymore. He broke every social taboo his people had in order to improve the situation, or at least attempt to. No mono-green character would consider that.

Earlier I said that Tishana reverses the normal script for a Simic character by applying green’s methods to blue’s goals and general outlook. It isn’t easy to see, but Kumena flips the script right back by applying blue’s obsession with perfection to green’s worldview. He is the archetypical mad scientist of the Combine, except he’s recklessly tinkering with centuries-old geopolitics instead of genetic code.

These two characters are literally polar opposites of each other, and the fact that the story team managed to write them while keeping both within a single specific color combination is an amazing testament to the depth of the color pie.

Levi Byrne has been with the game since Worldwake and has a rabid love for fantasy writing that goes back decades. Despite some forays into Legacy he plays Commander almost exclusively, and has a love for the crazy plays and huge games that make Magic what it is. He was the go-to advisor of his playgroup on deck construction for more than five years before joining Dear Azami.

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