It would be fair enough if you’ve forgotten, so I’ll remind you: going to a local store for your first Magic event is terrifying. Everyone knows much more than you about the game; all they have to do is mention a certain card you’ve never heard of, and everyone laughs or winces or smiles fondly. Everyone automatically follows an etiquette that it doesn’t even occur to them you might not know (ask me how many times I passed a pack the wrong way in my first in-person draft). On top of all that, you know you’re going to lose, and all you can really hope is that you don’t look really foolish, or make someone angry by slowing down the game.

Magic is a complex game with a long history, which rewards a healthy knowledge of a constantly evolving meta. It’s natural that it can be intimidating to newcomers, and also, it’s ok! Complexity necessitates some kind of learning curve, and it’s fine for some games to have a steep one. But it does mean that the community surrounding should keep newcomers in mind, and try not to throw more roadblocks in their way. The game is its own shibboleth, its own set of passwords to create an in-crowd; we don’t need to add any more.

With that said: let’s talk about color combination names.

You know what I’m talking about: Grixis, for example, or blue/black/red. Esper, white/blue/black. And they come in two-color pairings, too, naturally, such as Boros (white/red). And the list goes on: Jund, Patus, Rakdos, Gruul. One of those last four isn’t real, of course, and I’m guessing that most people reading this immediately know which one. But here’s the thing, if I wasn’t the one making the list, I, personally, genuinely wouldn’t know.

Here’s my honest best attempt, sitting here at my computer and not googling, at naming every color combination I know. This is after several years of playing online, and about six months of playing infrequently in person. Grixis, Esper, Jund, Rakdos, Gruul, Boros, Dimir, Izzet I think is a thing? Right, that’s blue/red and I was playing around with a blue/red deck to try and make Rootha, Mercurial Artist work as a Commander in Brawl (not very successful). And that’s what I’ve got. A quick Google later, it looks like I got half the two-color pairs, and three out of five three-color pairs! [Ed. Note: There are ten three-color combinations but I’m leaving this mistake here as it contributes to the author’s point] I’m actually pretty pleased with that–but it’s not necessarily a passing grade. Also, if you asked me to name what actual colors they all represented, I’m not sure I could.

A young woman with a look of panic is trying to levitate a small amount of water. Card art from Pop Quiz by Matthew Stewart.

Pop Quiz by Matthew Stewart

I feel nervous putting the preceding paragraph out onto the internet because I’m admitting I don’t know the password; I’m not fully part of the club. It’s the same nervousness I feel when I’m sitting at the drafting table at my local game store and I hear someone talking about their great new Bant commander deck. It’s the same uncertainty I felt when I try to look up decklists that feature my girl Rootha and find myself confronted with a long list of unfamiliar vowel/consonant strings.

These names essentially all go back to the lore of one of two sets: the Alara block, for the three-color combinations, and the Ravnica block, for two-color combinations. Alara was one plane split into different worlds, called shards, each themed around a three-color combination. Ravnica is ruled by ten guilds, each themed around a color pair.

[Ed. Note: Again, the author forgot about the Tarkir contribution of wedge names, e.g. Sultai, Jeskai, etc. but we’re not holding it against them since… well the reasons should be obvious!]

Both of these blocks are pretty old: Ravnica came out in 2005/6, Alara in 2008/9. Alara has never been revisited since the original block; Ravnica, of course, has been, but even Ravnica’s most recent set, War of the Spark, is starting to get a little far away in the rear-view mirror. Despite their age, the color combination names seem pretty fixed, a part of the culture that hasn’t evolved even as several new terms have become available; new players are much more likely to have seen Prismari cards than Izzet cards, for example.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that we should start saying “Riveteers” rather than “Jund”; that wouldn’t be any less Obscura. But I wonder if more experienced players don’t experience these names as baffling in the same way I do because they have context; they’ve played Dimir Guildmage and Esper Charm and maybe read the fiction for the Alara block, or the many Ravnica sets. As a recent player, I know literally nothing about Alara, and not all that much about Ravnica. And–Rosewater forgive me–I’m not especially inclined to learn. I have finite time and energy to give to Magic, and learning Alara lore isn’t high on the list of priorities (Nissa isn’t even in the Alara block).

A stern man pores over a book in a darkened library. Card art from Overwhelmed Archivist by Crist Balenescu.

Overwhelmed Archivist by Crist Balenescu

Learning at least some about the meta is significantly higher on that list, so color combinations are important, and this is actually the core of my personal frustrations with the color combination names. Before a draft, I’m poring over draft guides and trying to make sure I know the signpost uncommons and stand-out commons. I’m trying to learn the key themes of the different archetypes in the set. If I’m making a constructed deck, I am trying to play catchup on decades of deck-building wisdom and figure out why I never seem to draw everything I need to get an engine going. I am not, and have no interest in, memorizing fifteen new fantasy gibberish words. And it’s frustrating that I am kind of expected to if I want to search for decklists effectively or communicate with my fellow players at draft night.

Why am I talking about this in a column about queerness in Magic? Because anything that’s a barrier to new players and online players is going to disproportionately be a barrier to queer people, particularly people of marginalized genders (in addition to a lot of other folks who aren’t usually surrounded by people like themselves at their local store’s events). Anything that makes learning the game and entering the community a little harder is something that is worth thinking about.

That said–I know that complaining about color combination names is ultimately spitting into the wind; they’re deeply embedded in the culture and they’re not going anywhere. I don’t want anyone to feel bad because they use these terms all the time. And of course, I could just learn them; goodness knows that, as a nerd in her 30s, I’ve learned plenty of needlessly complicated things over the years.

But I do think it’s worth remembering that these little codewords that get thrown around so often are actually completely unintuitive for new players, and are references to sets that newer players (and Arena-only players in particular) are unlikely to be familiar with.

A friendly owl-like creature shelters a young human woman with her wing as the human asks a question on the campus of Strixhaven. Card art from Mavinda, Students’ Advocate by Wesley Burt.

Mavinda, Students’ Advocate by Wesley Burt

If you organize an in-person space, if you run a website, if you’re a competitive player putting out a decklist that other people may want to reference, I think it’s worth sparing a thought to the players out there who don’t know a Naya from a Selesnya–and doing what you can to make sure they understand what you’re saying, too.

Dora Rogers (she/her) is a writer, game designer, and heart-eyes lesbo from Montreal. She is one half of Gal Pal Games, and you can find her solo TTRPG and interactive fiction projects on Follow her in all the places, or catch her on Arena playing questionable Vorthos decks in Standard.

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