Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Swamps and Black Mana

Stephan Martiniere (Swamp from Ravnica)

When I visited Jason at Earthdance last January, I left my EDH deck with him for safekeeping—not only for the deck's sake, but to ensure that I wouldn't allot all of my money and mental bandwidth to Magic: the Gathering in the months ahead. So when I visited him last week, you'd better believe we stayed up until three in the morning playing EDH games that went on forever. It was great. As an artist of sorts, I take great pride in how my Sheoldred deck functions like the well-greased Phyrexian nightmare machine Miss Shelly would have wanted it to be. (At least in two-player matches, anyway; in multiplayer the best I can usually hope for is to really ruin one person's shit before melting down on myself.)

Wait. Let's talk about something else. I need to think about something other than Magic. Once it gets back in your head, all the grooves of your brain become declined towards collection and cardflopping.

Actually, there's something about the basic premise and system of Magic that has started to bother me these last few years. Just a little, and not in any way that detracts from my enjoyment of the game and my admiration for its designers.

So in Magic: the Gathering, there are five types or colors of magic, which are each fueled by a particular flavor of mana drawn from a particular natural landscape or ecosystem. We all know this. For instance: white is the magic of light, healing, and protection, and is drawn from the sun-drenched plains. Green is the magic of life, fecundity, and growth, and is drawn from old-growth forests. So  far, so good. And black is the magic of death, cruelty, and greed, and is drawn from swamps.

I have to speak out on behalf of the swamps here.

If you're looking for a landscape that represents corruption and toxicity, swamps and marshes aren't your best choices. Few ecosystems are so dynamic or diverse, so rich, so teeming with the raw stuff of life. You can expect the soil to be much richer than that of a meadow, plains, or dry forest. The animal and microbial biodiversity of wetlands are staggering. If you want to see critters, visit a swamp or marsh instead of a dry forest or city park.

Ebony jewelwings, spangled skimmers, great blue herons, green herons, barn swallows, red-winged blackbirds, eastern box turtles, green frogs, northern water snakes—I'm just rattling off the animals I remember spotting during a half-hour visit to Jersey's Tourne marsh last July. There are more I'm not recalling, and certainly many more that I didn't notice.

This is a photograph I took with Hannah's iPhone in November; obviously I'm not used to taking pictures with one of these things. This is the marsh in Tourne Park. I must have known there was no way I could get a shot of it without a decent camera, but I tried anyway. (I took several pictures, but this is the only one Hannah sent my way. I don't know why this was the one she chose.)

What this (and every other) shot misses are the clouds of cattail seed drifting over the clearing. When disturbed by the wind (or by big dumb animals tromping around), tiny airborne seeds are shaken from the cattail seedheads, lifted up, and scattered by the breeze. When we first approached the scene, there was half a moment when I wondered if what we were looking at was a localized snow flurry that somehow touched only the marsh. I'd never seen anything quite like it before.

All I'm saying is that I'm not sure this is the sort of site you'd tap as a resource for necrotic death energy.


It would probably be inapropos to the medieval fantasy setting of Magic: the Gathering's original design, but if Richard Garfield wanted to be realistic, he would have had black mana coming from Wal Mart parking lots. Or warehouses. Factories. Office complexes. Or, hell: just any overdeveloped main street packed with strip malls on either side.

Places where nothing grows. Places with asphalt and oil slicks and overflowing trash bins and great big dumpsters out back where the rats get sick on the garbage and grease trap waste leaks out into storm drains and bleeds into the river with Starbucks cups and cigarette butts. Places full of tumescent ape bodies leaving trails of plastic and carbon as they maunder from Target to McDonald's to Dunkin' Donuts to the Exxon station to the liquor store to the smut shop...

You want landscapes that represent decay and amorality? Forget "natural" settings. Pick an anthropized landscape. After all, concepts like greed, deceit, and perfidy have no meaning in places where there aren't any people. Most every other biome tends towards fostering diversity; landscapes co-opted by human beings aggressively make themselves uninhabitable to anything that can't live on garbage and dung (and such species are often regarded as pests and systematically exterminated as such).

Loathing the ecology that keeps one alive must be a peculiar feature of people living in the modern age. Like a marriage where everything about your partner disgusts and offends you, but the sex is great and he/she is a reliably good cook—and where you can expect your life to become completely and irrevocably upended if you try to file for divorce.

My philosophy of deck construction in Magic has always been grounded in the classic Necropotence deck. On some gut level I seem to accept that I'm sustained by something that operates by sucking the life out of everything with which it comes into contact, myself included.

I need to get the hell out of Silver Spring.


  1. However, selfish, cruelty and other bad mojoes are mostly attributes of the black mana users, not characteristics of black mana itself. Black mana natural attributes are decay and death as part of the cycle in which green represents fecundity and life. Swamps and marshes are stagnant bodies of water where living things decay, die and putrefy. However, it's from all that rich, decomposing organic matter that an unique ecosystem of particular lifeforms that wouldn't appear or thrive in "cleaner" areas can sprout. And as many art pieces for Magic's Swamps through the years may attest, there is beauty in that.

    1. I'd have an easier time agreeing with you if black mana wasn't almost always associated with the characters, critters, and spells of the "destructive, avaricious, evil asshole" contingent in a given set, and pretty much never represented a group with productive or noble ends.

      I'd like to see a block where all the white cards represent some oppressive religious or political hegemony, and the black cards represent the scrappy, scrupulous resistance force. (We got at least one of these things in New Phyrexia, but black and white are just two different shades of evil where Phyrexia is concerned.)

    2. Or something like the "Cancerverse" in Marvel comics. (Uh, I haven't actually read the literature, but I've browsed the Wiki.) Imagine a plane where the forces of life and growth have become so disproportionate as to be monstrous, and death needs to regain a foothold so as to restore balance.

  2. What I liked about New Phyrexia was that it was the time of Red to be the Hero (tm). Even the red Praetor was by far the least evil of them all and it's theorised that it's because emotion is the hardest thing to "Phyrexianise", unlike flesh and reason. Red is also, a much better foil for the kind of evil White totalitarianism that you propose, as it's the colour more likely to "rage against the machine", while black would most likely be content to find loopholes and blind spots to take advantage of for self-gain.

    That's the thin about black, going back to our initial argument. Black is the colour most aware of death and as such, it's also the colour of fighting for survival. Of doing what it takes to stay alive and if possible, come ahead with very little regard for the means or the side effects. Such appeal to selfishness (an evolutionary directive!) plus the fact that you are usually dealing with things dead or diseased certainly attracts people of certain inclinations to become black mages.

    Anyway, not sure if you missed it during the years you stayed away from MTG but Kamigawa block had something like what you propose, a white antagonist and a black sort of Jack Sparrow-esque antihero.

    The "Cancerverse" premise does sound like a good way of emphasising the good qualities of the colour and the necessity of its existence, though. It's also kind of how the Golgari is arguably one of the least evil guilds in Ravnica, and even Rakdos was once outright heroic.