The Ecological Side of Magic: The Gathering

by tigermanifesto


Most games impose resource limits on you. Whether that be a certain number of turns, a window of time, a source of energy, or something more mysterious. Magic: The Gathering, however, probably has my favourite resource system in all of gaming, both in terms of its mechanical implications and its environmental flavour. Magic, as anyone who plays will know, casts the player in the role of a powerful wizard who taps into the land itself for mana, which allows spells to be cast, creatures to be commanded, etc. Because the game uses landscapes and seascapes themselves as resources, Magic can be a rich vein of speculation and fantasizing about our relationship to our surroundings. The very act of playing can be seen as a struggle with environmental opportunities and limitations as much as it is a human battle of wits.

To elaborate a bit further, I’ll do a quick explanation of how lands both enable and limit how players can play in Magic. There are five land cards: plains, islands, swamps, mountains, and forests. Each land is tapped, or used, for mana of a corresponding colour: white, blue, black, red, and green. Lands are cards in the player’s deck alongside the spell cards that do desirable things for you or bad things for your opponent. If you don’t have a forest, you can’t use a green spell, you need swamps to cast black spells, and so on and so on. A Magic player is, in most circumstances, entirely without power without these land cards in play. Building a deck and playing the game, therefore, involves a great deal of thinking about what lands to use, which cards to use with those lands, and how to balance the power of using many lands with the problem of potentially not drawing the lands you need.


Mana, and the environment, are not always there for the player in Magic. In a similar card game, Hearthstone, the player gets one mana per turn until they reach ten, with mana represented by crystals. To take out some of the guesswork of drawing cards and making the game smoother, Hearthstone made it so mana is always there. Money is a good representation of this: crystals are icy blue, artificial, steady. Lands, however tranquil they might appear, are much more volatile. They require effort to tame and can be destroyed or disrupted. Losing a game might come down to not drawing an adequate number of lands, or drawing too many. Though this causes a lot of understandable frustration, I think that the mana system, drawing on often chaotic lands as mana sources, is better both for building decks and, more importantly, as a way of communicating a material relationship with resources.


Seen in an ecological light, Magic is about exploring worlds and systems. Individuals and civilizations are present, and highly important–this is not a game about untouched wilderness, even for green–but they are nothing without their environment. Every land, every colour has a distinct character of its own, and expresses a different philosophy and ethos. Some game strategies even revolve entirely around lands, my personal favourite being a combo deck built around two cards called Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Scapeshift.

In essence, the entire deck is built around finding a Valakut, a fiery volcano, and using Scapeshift to put many, many Mountain cards on the battlefield in order to rain fiery death on your opponent. Though there are creatures and more stereotypical spells in the deck, the vast majority of it is not built around individual beings but rather directly using the power of the world.

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The Aetherborn are a race in Magic that are born from fuel refinement processes and live very short lives in an industrial paradise.

As an environmental historian, Magic: The Gathering is full of thematic threads and ideological fragments that relate to our ecology. Devastation, rampant growth, evolution, and the flow of seasons all exist within the world of the game, waiting to be tapped. Magic deserves closer study as a representation of environments and ecological systems, not to mention a potential way of creating stories both within the cards themselves and in the interaction between players that have fascinating implications. Magic is by far my favourite game to play, and this richness of detail and nuance in dealing with the environment is one of the main reasons why.Image-1.ashx.png