There are as many pillows of illusion as flakes in a snow-storm. We wake from one dream into another dream.Ralph Waldo Emerson, Illusions (1860)
In the previous two installments, we began our final sub-thread in this series on real-world flavor in Magic — an overview of the philosophies of Magic: The Gathering's five colors. We started with the color white, (split into Part 1 and Part 2), and today we're going to examine blue. In each of these installments, we are looking for each color's most typical expressions, both from lore and from a gameplay perspective.
Since we are still dealing with flavor text coming from real-world literature, the range of examples available is limited. Nonetheless, as we are trying to prove, a good deal of variety is still found, even in such a narrow field.
Blue Color Philosophy
Blue is the color of knowledge, manipulation, and deceit. From a gameplay perspective, the fact that knowledge often translates as "card advantage" has caused a few problems with the balance of the colors in terms of power level over the years. We need to look no further for an example of this than the legendary Power Nine from Limited Edition Alpha. Of the nine cards, six are colorless artifacts. The remaining three are all blue cards (Ancestral Recall, Time Walk, and Timetwister).
Wizards improved at balancing both the colors in general and the power levels of individual cards over the nearly thirty-year (and counting) lifespan of the game. Through it all, blue retained its ability to manipulate your library and provide card draw, a power that is still unmatched. Let's take a look at the main characterstics of this color. As we did with White, we are going to split the article in a few subsections, each of which will introduce some cards.
The color Blue is mostly driven by curiosity and the urge to improve reality, whether by manipulating it or by creating a new one altogether. The first consequence of curiosity, though, is simply the desire of knowing more, which leads in gameplay terms, to library manipulation or plain card advantage. Let's look at a few cards that match these criteria.
Many wearing rapiers are afraid of goose-quills.William Shakespeare, Hamlet
First printed in Starter 1999, Tidings is a fine example of simple, effective card advantage. At the price of five mana, you get to exchange one card for four. No other colors offer you something like that, except maybe for Black, but we'll see the difference in the next installment.
Tidings is also a great combination of art and flavor text. The illustration by Pete Venters shows a hand imprinting a sign in the sealing wax of a letter. As for the quotation, it's from Shakespeare's Hamlet, one of his most famous and most quoted plays (even in Magic).
It's just one of several famous sentences stating that the power of words is stronger than the power of weapons. Just to mention another one, think of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Richelieu: "The pen is mightier than the sword". Such a concept is simply perfect for the color Blue, which relies more on intellect than on brute force.
I will … tell thee more than thou hast wit to ask.Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus
Blue's ability to provide card advantage comes in many shapes. The most obvious is instant and sorcery draw spells like Tidings or Ancestral Recall. Several blue creatures from throughout Magic's history also offer their owner a similar benefit.
The earliest is Ophidian, a defining example. First printed in Weatherlight, it's a humble 1/3 for three mana, but when it doesn't get blocked it gives you a card instead of dealing damage to your opponent. Many other creatures over the years have had this ability, and other cards have also been printed to give this ability to other creatures. Ophidian Eye from Time Spiral is one such example. As you see, even enchantments can turn out to provide excellent card draw, as long as they are blue of course.
The flavor text is quite ambiguous for a blue card. It reminds us why Blue appears next to Black on the color pie. This bit of text gives strong devil-pact vibes, particularly if you read "wit" as "common sense." In fact, it comes from The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, by Marlowe. Pretty Black, right? The effect of the card is not misplaced on a blue creature, but the quotation is definitely a dark one, giving hints of forbidden knowledge and excess.
Another characteristic of Blue is its ability to manipulate and shape reality. It comes in several flavors, as it can influence both the battlefield and players' hands, not to mention their libraries. There are so many examples of this trait, that we cannot analyze all of them. Let's look at a few and briefly discuss what they have in common.
Confiscate is quite an expensive Aura, in terms of mana, but its versatility is extraordinary. You gain the control of any target permanent, with no limitations whatsoever. Other enchantments with similar effects have been printed, but this is among the most famous and archetypal. The flavor text is a quotation from Mark Twain: "It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected". It seems to perfectly sum up Blue's philosophy, which is to always create and improve.
We have already seen Alluring Siren when dealing with flavor texts coming from Classical sources, as it quotes Homer's Odyssey. Let's just appreciate a different way Blue offers to manipulate the game. Hypnosis, and more in general mind control, is another typical ability of Blue. Here, it's offered on a small but interesting card, which allows you to force an opponent's creature to attack you.
Blue lacks removal spells to eliminate opponents' creatures, so it must deal with threats in other ways. Cards like Diminish are very useful, especially when a Blue deck isn't supported by other colors. At instant speed, and for the cost of one single mana, it transforms any target creature into a 1/1, no matter its original strength and toughness. Its flavor text is a quotation from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and with its dreamy setting is a great example of Blue's dominion.
Deceit is the last theme we are going to deal with today. It's close in kin to manipulation. In my opinion, though, deceit and deception make their presence felt in blue, at least in gameplay, via Blue creatures' evasion abilities, and some of Blue's counterspells and bounce spells. Let's take a look at some cards and see how this color is able to trick the opponent.
Let's start with an Aura, again. Gaseous Form, first printed in Legends, is not famous for its effect, but rather for its art. The illustration by Phil Foglio is one of those funny, cartoonish works that we have seen in one of the previous articles. In fact, it was Phil Foglio who also illustrated Greed.
As for the effect, it prevents all combat damage that would be dealt to and by enchanted creature. This kind of prevention is close to White's philosophy. White is the other allied-color of Blue, just as Black. The flavor text, quoting Shakespeare, mention the power of giving shape to "airy nothing": just what Blue likes to do.
Phantom Warrior, on the other hand, presents a different kind of deception. It's a 2/2 creature for three mana, and its ability pertains to the field of evasion. Blue is the color with more flying creatures than any other, but unblockability is even better than flying, It's the evasive ability par excellence. The flavor text, which you can find at the beginning of this piece, is very in-color. In fact, it mentions illusions and dreams, both concepts within the realm of Blue.
Last but not least today is Mana Leak. Perhaps the most famous, or at least most played of the cards we've seen today. It is a typical "permission" spell. They are also known as "counterspells", a name which comes straight from the archetypal Counterspell, a card that's thwarted opponents' plans since Limited Edition Alpha, and still sees play in formats ranging from Pauper to Modern.
Mana Leak has an advantage over Counterspell in only requiring one colored mana instead of two to cast it. Unfortunately, its weakness is that your opponent can always pay three mana to disregard your instant. The flavor text is a quotation from Sir Francis Bacon: "If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts". It's a perfect fit for a blue card, as when you play this color you like to keep your opponents in perpetual doubt. Should they try and cast that spell, or do you have a counter?
The cards we've examined all exhibit defining values and peculiarities of the color Blue in Magic. Just as we concluded with the piece on White cards, we can note how - even in such a restricted field - the main values of this color are visible. What do you think of Blue philosophy? Do you have something to add? Let me know in the comment section. In the next installment, we dive into the color black. What themes do you think we'll find?