Angels and Demons – Religion in Magic: the Gathering

The following is a guest post from Jesse, who is a blogger over at The Best Interest where he talks about various financial and behavioral habits. A controversial topic, Magic the Gathering, has been at odds with the Christian community for a long time. Jesse discusses the different religious aspects of the game, which will help you learn more about the game.

Comment on what you think of MTG, and if you played it before? What are your thoughts on the game?

Before Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh or the Game of Thrones card game (yup, it’s a thing), Magic: the Gathering blazed the trail as the world’s first collectible card game (CCG). Amazingly, it’s still the most popular CCG around the globe, with an estimated 35 million active players. But rather than focus on gameplay, today we’re going to discuss the interesting role that religion has played in Magic’s storied history, both inside and outside the game.

Controversial from the start

Magic: the Gathering (MTG) was created as a quick game. It was meant to pass time during downtimes between long Dungeons & Dragons sessions.

D&D, if you didn’t know, caused a minor religious debate in the ’80s. Players could cast spells as a witch? Make deals with evil spirits? They could choose to kill villagers? Everything was free game—be it gambling, sex, or violence. What kind of “game” is this?

So when Magic was introduced, it came with similar criticism. Perhaps the easiest microcosm of this criticism comes from the two cards Holy Strength and Unholy Strength. Care to guess which one was controversial?

Not only does Unholy Strength give a creature more power, but there’s also that issue about the pentagram in the illustration. So, an unsuspecting outsider might think, “Unholy Satanic worship granting power inside of a children’s card game?” Not a great message.

The pentagram in Unholy Strength is pretty overt. But there were religious questions raised outside of such obvious symbols.

For example, the entire point of the game is that you—the player—are pitting your sorcery against your opponent’s sorcery. Many religions, including verses in the Christian bible, disapprove of this type of magic.

Deuteronomy 18:10-13 (ESV)
10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering,[a] anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the Lord your God,

Leviticus 19:26 (NLT)
26 “Do not eat meat that has not been drained of its blood. “Do not practice fortune-telling or witchcraft.

And then there are the various common themes within MTG that toe the line of controversy. For example, a common in-game strategy involves raising your creatures from the dead to fight on your side once again. Necromancy—some religions frown upon it!

There are cards called Torture and Hell’s Caretaker. There are also cards called Wrath of God and Preacher. Religious connotation—both good and bad—are all over Magic: the Gathering.

The early set Arabian Nights featured quotes from the Qu’ran. Many cards have featured quotes from the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament. Proverbs, Mark, Exodus, Job…they all make appearences on real Magic cards.

While most newly printed cards do not make such overt real-world references, the early days of Magic were closely tied to real-world themes.

Five colors, many religions

The game itself features five different colors of mana, or magical energy, each of which specializes in a different form of Magic.

Strategically, this is awesome! Some colors tend to be slow and resourceful, while others tend to be aggressive (but might burn-out). No matter what kind of gamer you are, there’s probably a Magic deck that would appeal to your play style.

Thematically, the five colors open creative doors. Green, for example, is the color of growth—large creatures and bountiful landscapes are unique to green’s slice of the “color pie.” But this “color pie” also leads to many competing religious doctrines.

Many green cards feature nature-worshippers, woodsy druids, hidden dryads, and elvish summoners. Blue cards often feature intellectual wizards and artificers who turn metal into intelligent beings. Red is the color of pyromancy and lithomancy—fire magic and rock magic. But the two most religious colors, by far, are white and black.

White is the color of rules and regulations. White is the color of angels. If you search Magic’s 20,000+ card database, white cards are where you’ll find the most frequent use of “bless” and “glory” and “priests” and the “divine.” If you’re looking for traditionally “positive” religious references, odds are you’ll find it in the color white.

Black, on the other hand, is the color of Machivellianism. It’s not immoral so much as it’s amoral—black will do whatever it takes to win.

Black will sacrifice its own creatures. Black will make deals with demons. Black’s cultists will return their own dead creatures from the game’s graveyard back to play. Black is where you’ll find references to “necromancy” and “hell” and “zombies” and “skeletons.” For the outsider looking in, it’s easy to see why black cards might be considered “evil.”

Each color presents themes that mimic the religious themes that are common in our world and common in the fantasy tropes that we’re used to reading.

But Magic has also created its own unique religions within the game’s many settings.

World-building: religions inside of Magic

The Gods of Theros

Theros is a recent Magic setting where the game’s designers created Magic cards in the mold of Greek myths (with some sprinkling of Rome in there too).

There are cards that tell the tales of Hercules. Other cards describe a journey similar to the Odyssey, or a prophet similar to the Oracle at Delphi. There are chariot races and coliseum athletes and men who fly too close to the sun. Theros is a cool world.

But Theros is defined by its set of 15 gods, much like the Pantheon of ancient Greece and Roman gods. And beneath those gods are demigods, part human and part god. There’s even a titan who holds the world on his back.

The game designers use in-game cards and out-of-game stories to build a world where the player feels that they immersed in a pseudo ancient Greece, using the various colors of Magic to prove their devotion.

The Orzhov Syndicate

The city-planet of Ravnica is run by ten separate guilds, each striving for a balance between survival and ultimate power. For example, the Izzet guild is in charge of science and innovation. Another guild governs the city (the Azorius Senate), while a separate guild polices the city (the Boros Legion). One guild—the Golgari Swarm—is in charge of both the sewer system and the food production…ewww!

The church of Ravnica is operated by the Orzhov Syndicate.

The Orzhov aren’t your typically religious types (or maybe they are). In the game, they combined the ideals of the colors white and black (discussed earlier). While this means the Orzhov value tradition and ritual, it also leads them to value money above all else. If you owe the Orzhov a debt, their spiritual leaders will ensure you pay it off—even after death!

The Church of Avacyn

The world of Innistrad was modeled after 18th century European fantasy—vampires, ghosts, werewolves, Frankenstein’s monsters, and some scared humans just trying to survive. It’s gothic horror.

Those humans follow the Church of Avacyn, which is reminiscent of a stoic protestant or New England protestant church. “The world is scary, we’re simple folk, and we’re praying really hard that a higher power is gonna deliver us from evil.”

If werewolves and vampires aren’t your thing, you can play Magic with the disciples of the Church of Avacyn. They might not have fangs, but their teamwork and faith gives them a fighting chance.

Magic: the Gathering and your faith

How you reconcile your own religion and the religion inside of Magic: the Gathering is completely up to you. This should go without saying.

Religion is a personal topic, and each of you is a unique individual. Thankfully, Magic: the Gathering is an extremely personalized game with creative offerings for all sorts of unique individuals. I think you can find a way to play Magic that is both entertaining and enriching.

But here are a few ideas that might help you think about the issue.

Play with the cards you want to play with

You don’t have to play with any cards that make you uncomfortable. Heck, you could build a deck entirely of angels and priests. You could build a deck of dwarves and goblins. Magic is amazingly diverse. You can even build a deck specializing in fungus—nothing wrong with that, right?

Let the game be a game

We constantly use our imaginations to turn the fictional into something slightly less so. Imagination makes us human. It’s reasonable to play a game where you use Fire Elementals and Rage-Filled Berserkers, while simultaneously aware that Fire Elementals and Rage-Filler Berserkers (usually) are not part of our daily lives.

Where do you draw the line?

Ok, now this is a philosophical argument. But let’s assume the Magic: the Gathering simply violates too many religious tenets. What about Harry Potter? Or Lord of the Rings? What about board games like Risk (war is violent, you know) or Operation (playing God)?

I’m being facetious here, but partially serious too. I think we should use our intelligent judgment to draw the line that allows games to be played, even if it does have religious or anti-religious connotations.

Closing the book

One thing I try to do at the Best Interest is supply useful information but let readers make up their own minds. After reading this article about religion in Magic: the Gathering, I hope that’s how you feel.

It’s a cool game. Maybe it’s for you. Think about it, pray about it, and let God lead you on how to procede.

Jesse hails from Rochester, NY. When he’s not writing for his blog (the Best Interest) you can probably find him walking in the woods or playing board games and sports.

Twitter: @BestInterest_JC

Reddit: u/BestInterestDotBlog

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When not conquering digital worlds in video games, he can be found reading, watching anime, listening to music writing, and just enjoying life as a geek in the city.

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