Color Pie: An in-depth guide

Colour Pie: An in-depth guide

Welcome to the first in a series of design articles by Reuben Covington. While we are starting with simple stuff, it’s important to get the fundamentals spot on before delving into more complex ideas and their application. If you ever wanted to build your own magic set, or wanted to understand a bit more about game design and development, this series is for you.

What is the Colour pie?

A colorful pie

The colour pie system was created by Richard Garfield during his original design for Magic: the Gathering as a solution to a critical problem of the game:
How do you stop players from simply putting all of the best cards in their deck?

Over time it has grown beyond just a mechanical game system and now includes a series of philosophical and creative ideas that define of each of the colours in MtG.
Mark Rosewater, the lead designer calls it part of the “The Golden Trifecta” of game design systems that makes MtG the enjoyable and long lasting game we enjoy.

How does the colour pie work?

The components of this system consists of the 5 colours of Magic, each of which have a series of aspects including their mechanical identity, a philosophical identity and finally how these identities interact with each other colour.

Each colour’s mechanical identity is that colour’s strengths and weaknesses defined in gameplay, as well as an array of keywords and mechanics that it is allowed to use.
For example Blue is the colour of card draw with cards like Divination and Jace’s Ingenuity. You would never see these cards printed in white or red as it doesn’t fit how the mechanics are shared between each colour.

So mechanical colour identity forms the basis of how the colour pie is implemented from a purely mechanical standpoint, but each colour is also a representation of a series of philosophical ideas.
These philosophies such as White seeking peace through structure are used to give context and flavour to the mechanical systems of the colour pie and each influences the other to a certain extent.

Once each colour identity is placed in a wheel and the relationships between each of them defined as allied/enemy pairs both mechanically and more importantly through their philosophies, they then form the colour pie of MtG.

A visual representation of the color pie philosophies
A visual representation of the colour pie philosophies

Each colour in Balance

Each colour in magic is designed to have a different gameplay experience to create variety in the game and allow players to bond with certain colour identities. This system derived from the colour pie is one of the reasons for the longevity of the game and its ability to stay fresh even after playing it for hundreds of hours. Consider how playing mono blue control is very different to a red green stompy deck or modern combo deck. Each of these archetypes created by the existence of different gameplay between colours is like playing a completely separate game but with none of the issues of spending the effort having to learn a new set of rules beyond the strategic complexity involved.

Each colour provides a challenge

But how does the colour pie create different gameplay for each colour?

Each colour’s gameplay is dictated by the more mechanical aspects of the colour pie as a series of restrictions and advantages that is unique to each colour.

These restrictions create challenges for the player as no colour can do everything and thus the temptation to splash an additional colour for answers that cover your weaknesses.

Think about how many times in constructed or limited that you have had to weigh up whether to splash another colour for a sweet card or an answer to a card you can’t handle normally. But each splash makes your mana less consistent thus creating a beautiful ebb and flow of decisions that is essential to MtG as a strategy game.

Look at me i'm the DCI

Colours create good gameplay

Learning the strengths and weaknesses of each colour is important when looking at the design of the colour pie as it can help clarify that the separation of mechanics is very deliberate chosen for gameplay reasons, not just randomly chosen or based purely on flavour.

Lets look at white as an example:

White has some of the most aggressively costed 1 drop creatures in the game and along with green is the only colour with 2/1’s for 1 CMC without a drawback.

White has access to powerful removal that can often target nearly any type of nonland permanent. However this removal are always conditional (Kill Shot) or very inefficient (Angelic Edict).

Now each colour has a certain things that it simply can’t do, such as red enchantment removal. For white this is card draw. White has a large range of answers so making it harder for it to gain card advantage is integral to making white balanced. This also ties into the colour pie’s deliberate creation of challenges for players to overcome, suddenly pairing white with blue seems very attractive. Both these colours in turn have rather small creatures in general and so a difficult to interact with creature such as Thrun the Last Troll. Thus the deliberate challenges built into each colour creates the diversity of decks we see in constructed formats such as standard or modern.

But these mechanical designs are also intertwined with each other, for example while white has no efficient card draw available to it, it has access to board wipes like the famous Wrath of God. This allows white decks to create virtual card advantage against players that overextend. This is then also combined with white having a large quantity of small creatures that are both more expendable late game when you want to board wipe and easier to cast immediately after you board wipe to get maximum pressure on an opponent.

These kinds of interactions are all designed and a deliberate creation of WotC which is often overlooked. They didn’t just randomly assign each colour a few abilities arbitrarily.

The colour pie in planar chaos

Retrospectively, the colour pie break in planar chaos was a mistake. But it was an interesting way to see how the colour pie could have potentially been different if gameplay had necessitated it.

Planar chaos took a “what if” approach, keeping the philosophies in a similar manner to normal but mixing all the mechanical identities differently, allowing things such as bounce spells in red or vigilance in blue. They make sense flavourfully like Hornet Sting but the gameplay ends up being very different.

I personally wish that Planar Chaos had been a supplemental product in hindsight, especially when I see things like Sunlance see play in modern.

So essentially all of Planar Chaos broke the colour pie and thus shouldn’t be seen as a correct basis for the current mechanical implementation of each colour’s gameplay.

Conflux Art

The colour pie changes

Now you may have noticed I said “current mechanical implementation” that’s because WotC constantly look to balance each colour by finding design space that can help that colour with problems it has been having without breaking it’s core restrictions.

A recent high profile example of this is Chandra, Pyromaster and her “Impulsive Draw” ability.

Now how is this different from a colourpie break like Hornet Sting?

It must be solving an underlying gameplay issue and not conflicting with that colour’s mechanical restrictions.

For red WotC have been looking at a way to both increase its design space but also give it abilities that scale well into the late game. Impulsive draw does this really well as you have more mana to play any cards exiled and it doesn’t interfere with reds restrictions on its inability to remove enchantments etc.

So its important to remember that any changes to a colour’s mechanics is very unlikely to be random. Instead a specific gameplay goal is in mind to balance each colours ability to play well at any stage of the game.

Embrace the colour pie

So overall the colour pie is an often overlooked system of MtG that contains a lot of subtle design elements that I hope I’ve helped explain so you can appreciate it the next time you play a game or build a deck.

About the Author

Reuben Covington is a Melbourne games programmer, game designer and MtG enthusiast. He runs a podcast called Re-Making Magic about MtG custom cards and game design as well as works on projects such as his custom MtG set, Dreamscape of Noctus.


Twitter: @reubencovington

Further Reading
The Value of Pie – Mark Rosewater

Color Pie Ideology Summary – Mark Rosewater

The Bleed Story – Mark Rosewater

%d bloggers like this: