Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Friendship is Magic! [Final Paper]

Michel De Montaigne famously wrote “[Whoever] is delighted in solitude is either a beast or a god.”1 Friendship and connection are essential to the human experience, and throughout human history different minds have seen friendship in different ways. In this paper I’ll be analyzing friendship through a different lens than what we have previously looked, but in a way that I believe will help us reach a greater understanding of why we desire to have friendships with others: through a popular fantasy card game.

Magic: The Gathering isn’t just any card game, it’s the first massively successful trading card game. Created in 1993 by Richard Garfield, it took the world by storm, and twenty-six years later it is still going strong. In Magic: The Gathering, there are five main colors: white, blue, black, red, and green. Together, they make up the Magic color wheel.  Each color has unique traits and personalities associated with it, and these are represented through the game’s monsters, spells, and characters. Rarely, however, do you use just a single color when playing. The five colors all agree, disagree, and interact in vastly different ways – just like people do. The color wheel is an excellent tool for understanding the underlying motivations for different groups or individuals, and by recognizing how each color views friendship we can better grasp how different people approach this very human concept.

The first color in the Magic color wheel is White. Described by Duncan Sabien from Medium, “Each color has a central goal and a default strategy.”2 White’s central goal is peace. A white actor or group desires peace above all else, and it tries to achieve this through order. The whole is valued over the individual in a white society, and personal liberty and freedom is absolutely secondary to overall wellbeing. This is the color of religion, of communism, of teamwork and also of authoritarianism.

A white actor would look at friendship and ask “how can this work towards the common good?” The philosophy of civic friendship outlined by Sibyl Schwarzenbach is a very white sort of friendship because it is impersonal.  Civic friendship requires the individual recognition of the moral equality of others, a flexible good will towards them, and a practical willingness to do things for them.”3 This is friendship for the good of all, not the good of the individual. As Schwarzenbach says, “I can thus personally detest a fellow citizen but still be his or her civic friend; this means only that I will continue to uphold certain minimal standards in my treatment of him or her.”4 The aspect of friendship that white most appreciates is the multiplicative power of it; two friends can accomplish more than either could do alone. The community is truly more powerful in a society built on civic friendship, and when everyone is friendly with each other a true positive peace can be gained. However, with white there is no deep connection. This impersonality in a white society closes off individuals. Though everyone likes you, nobody really loves you.

The second color is blue. Blue’s central goal is perfection in all things, and blue believes this perfection can only be attained through knowledge. Knowledge is power for blue, and it will always plan for the path of clarity and reason. Blue is the color of strategy and trickery, of a university or a dreamer. It is aloof, and only yearns to learn and to create. We are all born with a blank slate, a tabula rasa, blue says, and we need to become the best we can possibly be.

Friendship at first seems alien to someone who is blue; after all, the emotional aspect would only interfere with the calculated logic of a blue goal. However, a blue actor would look at friendship and ask “how can this work towards understanding?” A friendship strictly for utility as outlined by Aristotle would be ideal for blue. In Nicomachean Ethics, he writes that “those who love for utility…are fond of a friend because of what is good or pleasant for themselves”5 which blue would agree with to an extent. A blue friendship is best understood as two lab partners who become friends so they can learn the science involved. They both want the other to learn and understand as well, but the overall goal is not connection but knowledge. A society built on blue friendship would be very different from a society like the one we would see today, not prizing emotion but intelligence. It would be a meritocracy where we all help each other to learn and succeed but not love or care.

Black is the third color in the Magic color wheel. Black’s central goal is satisfaction. Simply put, black wants to be happy. Since personal satisfaction is the highest possible good, black will achieve this through ruthlessness. Often, black is seen as an evil color, but it’s just a self-interested color. Power and control are necessary for black’s ultimate goal, and it will break any rule or law in its way. Black is the color of determination and pleasure, the color of amorality and greed, of totalitarianism and opportunism.

Friendship for black is simply a means to an end. A black actor would look at friendship and ask “how can I use this for my own personal gain?” This is Neoliberalism at its finest, and black would be an excellent entrepreneur. Any friendship for black is a friendship of investment and return, with the intent of maximum benefit carefully calculated. This is a friendship for the purpose of personal material gain, or social capital. Black is the color most stereotypically opposed to friendship, because it sees any rules or conditions as optional rather than required. All is secondary to the self. Unfortunately, this means that a black society is a neoliberal society pushed to the extreme. Everyone looks at everyone else and asks “how can I profit from you?” This is a nightmare for philosophers like Schwarzenbach and May, but not necessarily for the individual person. You will help others with their goals if only to further your own, but in the end most people will be personally happy from this transaction.

The fourth color is Red. Red looks at a world of cages, and wants only freedom gained through immediate and swift action. Living in the moment is very red – but so is passion and commitment. Red sees an adventure, and it follows its heart above all else. Red is the color of anarchy and authenticity, of creation and humor, of art, love, war, and purpose.

Red is unique because it looks at friendship and sees two different things. It asks either “how can this satisfy me emotionally?” or “how can this give me meaning?” Red has a constant struggle between short-term gratification and long-term bonds and connections, so it finds itself drawn to two very different kinds of friendships. For the first question, red looks to the Aristotelian philosophy of friendship for pleasure: an immediate burst of satisfaction to be gained. For the second, however, Red looks to a deep, Todd May-esque friendship to fulfill its needs; specifically, communicating friends. “Communicating friends are those through and with whom we develop ourselves, each other, and one another.”6 Deep friendships help create life, not just intersect with it. “In telling ourselves who we are, we often refer to those friendships as part of the web of meaningfulness of our lives.”7 A red society then would be volatile yet rock solid, with a combination of brief flashes of connection and sustained, devoted companionships. It would be driven by pure emotion – consequences only exist if you make the wrong choice, after all, and as long as you make choices from the heart, they will be correct.

Green is the final color of the Magic color wheel. Green seeks the harmony of the world through acceptance. This is a quest to gain understanding, and everything to be understood is right in front of us. The world is a spider’s web of interconnected lives, and each has a predetermined role to play. This is a deep, unyielding respect for all around you. Green is the color of humility and restraint, of interdependency and spirituality, of simplicity and tradition.

Green looks at friendship and asks “how can I fit in?” Green is the color of traditional Buddhism and Confucianism, so a green-based friendship would look very similar to friendships in the Confucian tradition: governed by roles and relationships. This idea of “mediating relationships” that Cheryl Cottine outlines in her paper on Confucian friendship is a very green concept. “By attributing the harmony of the larger social order to the establishment and ritualization of the various relational roles, and by arguing that the virtues are only possible when relationships are patterned, Xunzi seems to be suggesting that humanity reaches its fullest potential when the natural is properly molded and ritualized.”8 The Confucian Philosopher Xunzi just mentioned is a very green-based thinker, and his claims of social roles being central to order are very green-based ideas. A green society would be incredibly conservative and traditional, possibly to the point of stagnation. There is no change, but everything is perfect as it is right now.

Each of these five colors encompasses a major, albeit narrow and absolute worldview. Personality-wise, each individual will possess all five of these traits – though some will be more apparent than others. Any society missing even a single color is incomplete, so it is imperative that these five find ways to agree and work together. Obviously, colors will agree more easily with some than others. Take blue and red, for example. How can you reconcile such opposite viewpoints? Each of these ten connections represents a compromise, a meeting halfway between two vastly different ideals: a friendship between others, connected by a commonly shared virtue.

White and blue, the first two colors, agree on structure. Utility-based friendships and civic friendships cannot exist without a strong societal structure to ensure their success, and a white/blue friendship combines the logic and and rationality of blue with the desire for peace and order of white. To understand colors directly next to each other (white and blue, blue and black, black and red, red and green, and green and white) it helps to understand the color they most obviously oppose: in this case, white and blue are the direct opposite of red. A red society would be hell on earth for a white/blue individual, and vice versa.

Blue and black agree on personal growth. As the two colors least invested in friendship for the aspect of connections, they stand for asking how best one can achieve their goals. Blue/black is diametrically opposed to green in this context, as green’s sense of purpose and community only serves to confine and cage a blue and black individual. The combination of black’s desire for ultimate power and blue’s desire for ultimate knowledge makes blue/black a hard duo to understand from a friendship-based perspective, because it can best be described as brutal and secretive.

Black and red are allied by their desire for independence. Black/red’s innate question is “how can I get what I want?” which leads to a very hedonistic lifestyle. This can be described simply, as put by Magic: The Gathering lead designer Mark Rosewater: “They want things their way.”9 black/red can be an odd combination because red can care very deeply for individuals, while black looks at them as tools to be used. This is a color pair excellently summed up in characters like Peter Pan or the Joker from the Batman comics.

Red and green look across the aisle at blue and see everything wrong with the world: a lack of authenticity. Red/green is raw, unfettered emotion and it wants what it wants. This is a fierce combination, but a combination of deep and powerful friendships. Bonds in red and green are deep friendships that May could only dream of, because true understanding of their goal is realizing that there is no goal, only obstacles and limitations.

Green and white look at the world and see community. This is civic friendship and charity at its height. Any NGO that seeks to help others is predominantly green-white. Green/white is ultimate selflessness, and any aspect of the self must be removed. The greater good must eclipse all according to green/white, and any friendship that focuses on the good of the self rather than the good of the other is not only necessary but harmful to the ultimate goal.

Colors opposite each other can still find ways to understand each other. Let’s take the most stereotypical example first: black and white. Black and white is a combination of compromise between the self and the group, a realization that the needs of both can be met even if not completely achieved. This compromise of you vs. us leads to a sort of tribalism: the “in” group versus the “out” group. White and black are the colors most associated with religion (white for the community, black for the individual) and white/black is a very religious pair that seeks to either protect the ingroup from the outgroup or coerce the outgroup to join the ingroup. This is institutional friendship but only with those who are near you, look like you, or go to your same place of worship. It uses black’s self-interested nature and extends it to a community, and a black/white individual will strongly defend the established order of their group but be hesitant to allow outsiders.

Next is blue and red, the other stereotypical example. Blue and red disagree about the method, but they combine to create a force of creativity. Intuition and emotion combine to create a perfect storm. Blue/red is not necessarily a color combination of friendship, but it is a combination that I believe strongly represents how good a friendship can be. These immensely different viewpoints can find a common ground and produce great things from it. Blue/red is the mad scientist, the Elon Musk, the wild artist who is never quite satisfied yet keeps searching.

Black and green share an appreciation for the cycle of life. Birth, death, rebirth, the profane and the dirty and the recognition of evolution as the ultimate master. They share a deep respect with each other, a begrudging acceptance that this is the way the world is, and we need to pay the costs to make it to the top. It’s a friendship of acceptance, a curt nod when you walk down the street. Black/green doesn’t need anything more from the world, and it does not ask for it.

Next is blue and green. Blue and green oppose each other in the infamous nature vs. nurture debate, with blue wanting to shape the world and seeing everything as a blank slate, while green believes everything has its place and role. However, they do agree on the fundamental aspect of truth-seeking. Blue looks for knowledge while green looks for wisdom, and together they desire to understand all. This is truly a friendship for understanding, and as Paul Wadell wrote, “there simply is no other way to come in touch with the goods that make us whole than through relationships with those who share them.”10 Blue/green creates a healthy, growing friendship that, while lacking serious passion or emotion, has an overarching desire to understand themselves and the world around them.

The final color pair of the Magic color wheel is red and white. Sabien would describe red/white’s agreement as heroism: “passion channeled through morality, and adherence to laws that may be higher than law.”11 Red/white is a compromise between chaos and order, peace and conflict. They agree that there should be a goal, but not always on what it is or how to reach it. It is focused and determined, and though red and white have fierce disagreements they allow for compromise in order to succeed. There is a fierce will that is very similar to blue/red in its desire to be greater than the sum of its parts for the sake of accomplishment.

Now that we’ve gone through all possible two-color combinations, you might be wondering where we go from here. You might even be looking at a combination and saying “I can see myself here.” And that’s exactly what the Magic color wheel is good for. You’ve just read a brief summary of an enormous range of beliefs and ideals and views, and every single one shows friendship and compromise. My favorite of Sabien’s paragraphs is this: “This is where I get the greatest benefit from the color wheel, myself — in interpreting how and why people have the reactions they have to various stimuli, and in predicting what they’ll do next.”12 No color is more good or evil than another – but they react to urges and emotions differently.

This is where we reach the most important part of this paper. Friendships are difficult, especially between individuals who are opposites in how they see and understand the world. This doesn’t mean they can’t be friends, however. Friendship is the ultimate compromise between two entities – it’s outward-facing acceptance of another human being. But this acceptance shows itself in radically different ways. Someone who expresses many blue/white traits is going to have a difficult time trying to rationalize a black/red individual: “why can’t they just follow the rules?” But even blue/white and black/red can agree that we need to change the world to make it better. Neither pair can simply accept the status quo in the way that green can, they have to shape it to their ideal world.

The Magic color wheel contains five colors that on paper, don’t get along very well. But look closer and you see that they all share one common thread between them: the desire to connect with others. Connections and friendships are innately human characteristics, and through the five basic colors and their ten two-color combinations, you can see that the sum is much greater than the parts. The beauty of humanity is its diversity, and the true diversity of connections we can make with each other is breathtaking. Next time you consider a relationship you have with another, ask yourself what color/colors is this relationship? Am I moving this relationship in the direction it wants to go?

“And I see your true colors

Shining through

I see your true colors

And that’s why I love you” – Cyndi Lauper


  1. De Montaigne, Michel. On Friendship. New York: Penguin Books. 2002. Page 67.
  2. Sabien, Duncan A., and Duncan A. Sabien. “How the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Color Wheel Explains Humanity.” Medium. August 29, 2018.
  3. Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship” in AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies. 2015. Page 14.
  4. Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A. “Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship” in AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies. 2015. Page 11.
  5. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Hackett Publishing Company: Indianapolis/Cambridge. 1999. Page 121.
  6. May, Todd. Friendship in an Age of Economics : Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lexington Books. 2012. Page 86.
  7. May, Todd. Friendship in an Age of Economics : Resisting the Forces of Neoliberalism. Lexington Books. 2012. Page 99.
  8. Cottine, Cheryl. That’s What Friends Are For: A Confucian Perspective on the Moral Significance of Friendship. page 5.
  9. Rosewater, Mark. “Hedonism With Attitude.” MAGIC. August 14, 2006.
  10. Wadell, Paul J. Friendship and the Moral Life. Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press. 1994. Page 5.
  11. Sabien, Duncan A., and Duncan A. Sabien. “How the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Color Wheel Explains Humanity.” Medium. August 29, 2018.
  12. Sabien, Duncan A., and Duncan A. Sabien. “How the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Color Wheel Explains Humanity.” Medium. August 29, 2018.

Extended Bibliography

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