This week I will attempt to characterize an aspect of Magic that’s been on my mind a long time. I’ve always enjoyed Magic’s aesthetic concept and believe the simple idea of some historic card designs continue to define the very nature of playing Magic. I think that aesthetics—rather than card design, flavor, or lore—are the definitive experience of playing our game, informing the role we all sit down to play first and foremost.

What I Mean When I Talk About Aesthetics

Simply put (if that’s at all possible), aesthetics is a philosophical study on the nature of beauty. For Magic, aesthetics can be about the mood of a card, or that cards idea within the context of the game which defines its beauty. Since aesthetics are only concerned with beauty, they are amoral; to put it another way, aesthetics are altogether separate from any logic or ideology.

This is an important distinction to make: a card’s aesthetic concerns itself directly with how it feels instead of what it does. So zoom out with me and let me attempt to extrapolate a single card’s aesthetic concept, or rather, the original beauty of a card’s idea.

The card I want to bring up first, and the one that drove me to write this piece in the first place, is Counterpsell.

On Counterspell

Now, wait . . . stay with me. I can already hear what some of you might be saying. Oh God, not that card. Counterspell, really? This isn’t some moral referendum, or how good or bad Counterspell is for the game. This is about the idea of Counterspell, how it functions aesthetically, and why I believe it to be one of the more important cards printed in Alpha.

Counterspell is vital to Magic’s existence; it exemplifies the arena upon which Magic is predicated, interacting as no other card was capable of doing back in 1993. Yes, there was also Spell Blast, and Power Sink, and the Elemental Blasts. They’re other and similar first examples of countermagic—but Counterspell is the purest out of them all. It is, for me, the cleanest way to communicate the big conceit of Magic: the Gathering: that Magic isn’t only about the battlefield, or creature combat. Counterspells tell us that Magic is wider reaching, that it’s ultimately about you and about your opponent, two “wizards” engaged in epic battle. And without Counterspell this layer of awareness, this aesthetic would quickly fall apart.

Counterspell also tells us that all our cards are spells. Creatures are not creatures, but spells that summon a creature onto the battlefield. Same with artifacts and enchantments, removal and pump—they’re all either permanents or are interacting directly with the battlefield. Counterspell allows us to tell a different story, providing us with a direct counterplay to what your opponent is trying to do with their spells.

If counterspells weren’t a part of Magic at its inception we’d likely be playing an entirely different game. Or, it’d just be worse, or maybe just less complex. In fact, the restriction of Counterspell, that it only interacts “on the stack” as we now say, further defines this form of interaction as only between the players.

It’s beautifully psychic, having to do with what some used to call “Magic of the Mind.” That is, people likening the card Counterspell, and in a much wider way the color Blue, as the personification of manipulation and deception.

I don’t kill your creature, or augment mine, or play an enchantment. No . . . Counterspell looks up at the player and says, “I stop you.” Counter target spell. It’s simple, elegant, and brings about an awareness to Magic like almost nothing else.

On the Color Blue

When asked why there were no Blue cards in his top ten Magic card designs of all time, Patrick Chapin pontificated:

“Sometimes I think all the other colors are just a vessel to experience the color Blue. Like, there needs to be context . . . if everything was Blue, nothing would be Blue . . . you know? It would be meaningless. But because there are the other colors, we all eventually reach the point in our lives where we realize we are Blue mages.”

Obviously this is in part due to Chapin’s love of Blue cards, but more specifically it expresses to us that, well—say what you will about the other four colors, but Blue is Magic. And for a long while in Magic, it certainly was. Counterspell is indeed part of Blue’s original polarizing reputation. But both it and the original aesthetic direction of Blue actually held the game up to an entirely higher form of beauty.

What I believe that Chapin really meant was that Blue’s aesthetic is the strongest defining element to the role we play in Magic. Blue is where we learn the true nature of the game, and according to Chapin, where we will all arrive at once we’ve taken the journey to understanding.

It’s no small thing that many of the games older players tend to enjoy playing Blue. The breadth of agency the color once held over the game is, for better or worse, long past us now. With so many years to correctly balance the game it’s really only visible now in eternal formats. And, whenever new Blue is even slightly too good, some of us are then reminded of the old days. Back when Blue really was Magic.

Interested in More?

If you’re interested in hearing more of these, drop me a line on Twitter. I have other cards I’d like to explore that further define our collective aesthetic experiences playing Magic, and would enjoy continuing to write about it.

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