What is Dark Ritual if not a drug? It is a drug in the way that it entices the player. For the the price of one, you get three. Just one mana worse than a Black Lotus. It’s always welcomed by the one using it and often reviled by the one watching it being used. The card feels good early when you use it, but right after, you likely don’t want to see it again. But when you don’t see it in the early game, you desire it. What’s the phrase drug dealers use? “The first one’s always free”? We players say this to one another as we joke anytime a new Magic player comes to the LGS and is handed a stack of various booster packs by the owner. It’s like a destructive initiation. “Welcome to the party, pal! Here’s a couple of hits to get you started.”

As we know, Dark Ritual gives three mana for one mana. A very triune, religious notion. Three in one. A holy trinity. Or a dark trinity. It is a trinity much sought after in games where an expensive threat must be played in the first turn. But Dark Ritual also represents, to me, a mindset within the game that desires more, ever more, and only more. More of what? Efficiency. What’s easy to see is how the Boon Cycle of cards Dark Ritual is a part of was the most extreme exploitation of what each color pie was meant to represent. And that exploitation continues to reel in players, especially those devoted to black mana.

The card is a synecdoche (a rhetorical trope that makes a part stand in for a whole). It’s a greater metaphor for the indulgence of a player to see the rules, recognize the standard gameplay, and then abuse it all to hell. I mean, Richard Garfield created the card with the intention of offering this legal cheat to the players, right? Paying one and getting three is a sweet economic deal. Who wouldn’t take that? One would have to be either a masochist or a moron to not take it. However. Why does Dark Ritual even exist? It exists to ramp past your opponent in mana to play more spells or better spells out of the gate.

I have long been a kibitzer and complainer about the lands in Magic. That is, lands as a mechanic in general. The whole idea is a corrupting one. Yes, without it the game wouldn’t exist. Blah blah blah. (Consider that even Dr. Garfield didn’t find it compelling enough to continue, since every card game he’s created since that has gotten some traction has avoided a dedicated resource base like lands. KeyForge, SolForge, Mindbug, Star Wars, Battletech, Netrunner, Vampire: The Eternal Struggle–if there are resources they are divided evenly or built-in to a card’s other abilities.) But with it, everything revolves around proper land management. Which is, to be honest, boring as hell. Thinking about a mana base is perfectly fine for mathematical nudniks who want ruthless efficiency. Cards like Dark Ritual (thank god) bypass this concern of building a perfect mana base. And that’s why it feels so glorious to play it. Suddenly what feels like cheating is considered a viable strategy.

The “dark ritual” is also the game of Magic: The Gathering itself. It pulls you in—to spend time, money, and mental resources. For many, Magic is more than a hobby. It’s a consummation of their self. It is a secular ritual that has taken the place of church or community organization. The way I hear fellow players talk is like listening to Ph.D. students discussing the finer points of niche academic disciplines and arcane monographs in the narrow halls of libraries or faculty offices.

I am perhaps reading much into this card in the way a reader of tarot cards would. But I have no problem with that. The Boon Cycle says much about the id of the average player. We want more life/protection (Healing Salve), more card draw (Ancestral Recall), more damage inflicted (Lightning Bolt), and more power/toughness (Giant Growth). And, of course, finally: more mana.

The dark ritual, our dark ritual, is actually the tiny prayer we speak to our libraries when we’re getting mana screwed. Because, ironically, when you play more Dark Rituals, what do you tend to cut back on? That’s right. Lands.

Kyle Winkler (he/him) is a teacher and fiction writer. While he was pre-teen when Magic: The Gathering was released, he didn’t start playing until recently. He’s the author of the cosmic horror novella (The Nothing That Is), a collection of short stories (OH PAIN), and a novel (Boris Says the Words). His favorite card is a toss up between Crypt Rats and Oubliette.

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