Using Magic the Gathering to Understand Tarot

For most of us, Magic is our main hobby, and let’s be honest – it’s a damned good one. The MtG universe is a rich tapestry of art, storytelling, gameplay, friendships, and fun, and one that’s easy to obsess over. We all are more than what we invest in Magic, though, and our hobbies and interests are as varied and unique to us as our decks. This week, I’d like to indulge one of my particular hobbies – Tarot – and dive into how Magic has helped me to not only memorize the 78 cards of the Tarot deck, but also to understand them.

The Tarot

Tarot has a long and checkered history. What originally started as a pack of cards for playing games later evolved into particular decks designed for divination. The earliest decks were designed to play a game more similar to what we now know as Bridge, but the use of the cards for other purposes was developing in Europe as early as the 16th century – players would use the cards, dealt at random, to create poetic verses about one another. This retro ad-lib game went on to become what we now know as the process of a Tarot reading, made famous – or rather infamous – by Aleister Crowley in the early 20th century.

Tarot today is looked upon either with a healthy skepticism as a harmless past time, or as a nefarious and occult practice shunned by more religious folk. Whether you believe in the mystical power of the Tarot to predict the future or not, it remains an excellent psychological tool for meditation and therapy. Through a more logical lens, one can make the argument that it is simply a more complex version of a Rorshach test. The reader will see what they wish to, and utilize the latent ability of the brain to make connections. This is ultimately a way to practice Externalization – the practice of abstracting yourself from your thoughts in order to evaluate them objectively. Externalization is an excellent form of meditation, and can be practiced through journaling or even something as simple as writing an email and waiting ten minutes to do your read through before clicking send. Your brain will be in a different place, and the distance allows a more productive evaluation than when it’s wrapped in the emotion in the moment. It’s also the reason leaving the room during an argument often puts things into perspective.

Tarot, then, is a great way to bring subconscious thoughts and desires to the surface and work through them to reach a conclusion. The idea that Tarot is divination is down to personal belief, but either way, completing the thought exercise of a Tarot reading can lead you to making decisions from a more informed place, and generally give you more confidence in your analysis of events. I’ll often perform a reading for a friend, or myself, when we’re feeling stressed about a situation with either too many decisions, or decisions that bear weight. By no means do the cards lock in a certain future, or spell doom and destruction (at least, not always) but they do allow for a rational discussion, with pointers for evaluating our personality and our way of handling things.

Understanding the Tarot

The idea of ascribing certain characters or personalities to the Tarot is as old as the Tarot itself – indeed, the classical interpretations of the Rider-Waite deck hinge on a grounded knowledge of archetypal figures, ancient mythology, religion, and astrology. Learning, memorizing and understanding the 78 different cards is a tall task, and even after a couple of years practice, I still have to consult my trusty notebook from time to time. One of the things that drew me toward using Magic: the Gathering as a jumping off point for learning the cards of the Tarot was the idea of the ‘Frontloading’ of information.

Mark Rosewater often mentions ‘Frontloading’ as a key aspect of game design. In his article on Piggybacking, he outlines the concept with the idea of Plants vs Zombies. Plants are immobile, and Zombies are slow, so it just makes sense for a tower defence game to be set up like that. It’s the idea that the audience, or players, come to ‘expect’ something to work how it does. Whenever an assumption is made that turns out to be true, it’s a victory for the game designer. One of the simplest examples in Magic is the idea that Flying creatures can go over the top of ground creatures. A vast majority of new players can make the connection, because that’s how flying generally works!

My goal was to use pre-existing connections to learn the Tarot faster and easier. This obviously worked, not only because of my knowledge of Magic, but also because the idea of Frontloading as a concept can be traced to the ideas of Structuralism – namely that elements of human culture must be understood by way of their relationship to a broader, overarching system or structure. As far as figures like Claude Levi-Strauss can be criticized for their overly a priori approach, the popularisation of the idea of the Mono-myth is in no small part thanks to this school of study, and upon delving into and comparing cultures, religions, and myths, it’s apparent that there are many crossovers.

That Structuralism contributed to modern psychology is undeniable, but what’s relevant here is what Jungian archetypes draw from that same pool – looking for commonality, patterns, and motifs common across people and cultures. These days, we see this commonality in the Myers-Briggs test, Hogwarts Houses, or the Magic Color Pie. Duncan Sabien wrote a fantastic deep dive on this, which argues the Color Pie  might even be a more accurate analysis than the Myers-Briggs test.

I see Tarot as being able to be interpreted upon a similar axis. The more frontloading of knowledge, the easier the connections. Despite having some good knowledge of religious iconography and archetypes, I would be able to associate more strongly what is ‘signified’ by the artwork and the associations of a card if it held more inherent meaning to me. I decided to build that association through Magic.

Magic: the Gathering and Tarot

Ponder by Dan Scott

The use of the Magic: the Gathering framework as a means to interpret the Tarot is not a new idea, and from an aesthetic perspective at least, one of the more popular and skillful renditions of the Major Arcana was designed by A. Lundell (@Ishton).

The talent here is unquestionable – A. Lundell clearly has great skill, and their work is confident, stylistically consistent, and wonderfully cognizant of the Tarot aesthetic. The choices of characters for each card though? I did not agree with all of them. Jace as the Magician was a fine pick, but Chandra is not the High Priestess (personally, I feel she sits somewhere between the Knight of Wands and the Knight of Swords, but fits neither completely).

In many ways, seeing this project was what interested me in writing this article. I’d been working on my own Tarot deck for practice and learning for at least a year prior to seeing this piece (though I’ve only sat down to write this today), and it got me thinking about how interpretation and meaning can differ so much between different people. Of course, we live in a post-modern society, and particularly if you’ve studied literature or humanities, you’ll know how much weight is placed on this approach, and I’m not about to take that away from you; lived experiences shape our interpretations of art, and there’s no doubt about that.

I do, however, think Tarot is a little more ‘structured’ than interpretation, at least from a reading perspective. There are rules and structures in place, and without those basic guidelines it would not be possible to perform a reading with the cards as they were intended. Moreover, readings may become more diluted or different from intended – if I am looking at Chandra, for example, am I thinking about how brash and bold she is, how fiery and impulsive she is, instead of the feminine mystique, unconsciousness, and spirituality of the High Priestess?

Before we look at an example of what I believe to be a great, fitting Magic character for a Tarot card, I’d like to emphasize that not every character or card fits. In my quest to design a Tarot I can learn from, there sometimes isn’t a relevant character in the Magic mythos that fits a card (enough) to own it completely. In those instances, I’ve followed my own heart, and included non-magic art and characters in my deck too. This series will concentrate primarily on the Magic Tarot cards, but I’ve also used references from The Lord of the Rings and The Witcher, two aesthetically similar universes. On that note, I chose Galadriel for my High Priestess.

The Art of Tarot

Galadriel by Magali Villeneuve

In my quest for artwork for my Tarot project, I’ve spent countless hours deliberating on artworks that fit the cards. Beyond mere physical limitations (the cards being vertical, for instance), the art chosen was very important to me. I can freely admit that I’m not hugely talented in the art department from a production side of things, but when it comes to symbolism, meaning, and aesthetics, I didn’t do a bad job curating.

One of the eternal questions about analyzing any piece of art is whether symbolism in art is intentional (or whether we should give any credit to the artist’s original intent at all). I’m returning to this Galadriel piece by Magali Villeneuve to illustrate something. The artwork for this piece is draped in mystery. The flowing cloth, hair, and water presents a fluid image, with the reflection of the Moon a literal ‘mirror’ to our own self-reflection. Galadriel herself is an embodiment of the feminine mystique, and captures the spiritual and supernatural side of the High Priestess well enough on that axis. More than that, though, the artwork above throws into contrast the dark and light duality present on the Rider-Waite original. This is fascinating, because though it was more than likely unintentional on the part of the artist, it does evoke a strong association of an archetypal image. Bingo!

It’s this kind of multi-layered association that I hoped to find by using Magic art and characters, as having a strong foundation is necessary to understanding the multi-faceted nature of the cards. Tarot cards at face value do not always offer a clear image – the most commonly misinterpreted card is Death, which most often means change or rebirth, as opposed to literal physical death. If possible, I wanted the art and characters I picked to have multiple layers of significance to deepen those connections.

Nahiri, the Five of Swords

Nahiri, the Harbinger by Aleksi Briclot

She has a sword, right? Sorted! Next.

All jokes aside (and you can afford me that one after a pretty long preamble, if you’re still reading), Nahiri having a sword is the first layer of the comparison. We’ll go deeper, I promise you. Let’s first look at the artwork, as that discussion is still fresh. There’s a reason I chose this art of Nahiri as opposed to the others. Notice the very obvious imagery around the ‘pentagram’ shape – there are five distinct angles emanating from the centre of the artwork.

The significance of the shape not only lends itself to Nahiri fitting the Five of Swords more readily, but also to expressing two opposing ideals. In the first, we see Nahiri wielding the alchemical elements of Fire and Earth respectively, as is their position in the Pentagram. This is hugely fitting with her Lithomancy background, and the molten disaster she is invoking. She also embodies Spirit (the top of the Pentagram); in her mind, righteous retribution. It would, admittedly, be pushing it to stretch this comparison further, but if the wings of the Manor fulfill the remaining slots, that would give them the qualities of Air (the sanguine humour of the blood) and of Water (cold, moody and brooding; often associated with diffusion and transformation). Gee, I wonder what race of bloodsuckers that could apply to?

Alternatively, we can draw the Pentagram in reverse if we look at the background, ignoring Nahiri. Turning away from the more literal ‘Satanistic’ interpretation, the reversed Pentagram also symbolises ‘overturning the proper order of things’. White mana, which Nahiri is aligned with (at least, more than Red initially) is about order. In this plot arc she is absolutely overturning that proper order, not only physically on Innistrad but also spiritually. Nice

Again, we have no idea if this was intentional. In truth, it could be argued that I’ve made a few leaps myself to make it fit – but fit it does nonetheless, especially if our goal is to achieve meaningful associations. I prefer the former interpretation, as it fits better, but it would be remiss to not examine all possibilities. 

The Five of Swords in Tarot

So, what does the Five of Swords mean? Good question. The headlines are self-interest, discord, and open dishonor.

“In readings, the Five of Swords can mean that you or someone else is forgetting the larger view of self. You are defining your interests too narrowly. If you try to get ahead in isolation, your actions will come back to haunt you later, one way or the other.

Sometimes this card implies a need to put your own interests first. If you are being abused or taken advantage of, you must get free. If you are worn out by demands, take care of yourself. If it is your turn, step forward and claim your due. Just be aware that if you hurt others in the process, your victory will not feel complete.

The Five of Swords also represents hostility – from a an insult to warfare. When the cords that bind us are broken, we experience dis-cord. This card can signify dishonors that are fairly open. Cheats, lies, tricks, deceits, even crimes. You may be on the receiving end, or be the perpetrator. Either way, hold to a larger view of who you are. Find the solution that is best for everyone…including yourself.”

We can see Nahiri here. She has been abused and taken advantage of by Sorin when he locked her in the Helvault. She experienced deceit and discord also, and eventually this ended in warfare. The Five of Swords warns us not to hurt others in the process of retribution, as victory will not feel complete. Though many root for Nahiri over Sorin, none can deny that the way in which she brought vengeance on Sorin was born from isolation and self-interest – I’m almost certain that if she comes ‘back to the light’, she’ll regret her actions. She is definitely guilty of ‘losing (her) moral compass’, ‘letting ends justify means’, ‘sacrificing integrity’, ‘losing sight of what is right’, and ‘achieving a dubious victory’.

Ultimately, the Five of Swords is warning us to pick our battles and not become blinded by revenge, hubris, or contempt:

“You may be tempted to fight every conflict to ensure you get your way, to prove that you are right, or defend yourself when you are feeling challenged or threatened. However, most experts agree: choosing your battles wisely is a much better way of life than engaging in every disagreement. Not only will it lead to a more peaceful existence, but your interpersonal relationships are likely to come out stronger.”

Nahiri is an excellent character to fit the role of the Five of Swords – her passion and relentlessness are intoxicating, enviable and inspiring. We can all see ourselves in her a little when we’ve been feeling resentful or beaten down. The Five of Swords warns us to move beyond those more base feelings and gives us an invitation to civility and reconciliation. It’s the balancing of Red and White mana.

It’s Nahiri.

In Closing

Tarot is a great psychological tool. I really enjoy using it from time to time to help get perspective on things when I have a mental block. Putting faith blindly in things like this is never advisable, so though I do advocate for Tarot being a fun tool, I would not invest your faith in it predicting anything for you (even if you do have mad skills like me – my friends are terrified).

This has also been a great project for learning the Tarot, and if anyone else is looking to learn, I’d suggest starting in a similar vein – pick a card that speaks to you, and ask yourself: who is this? Chances are, there’s a character out there that fits the archetype.

Finding art that speaks to you is always a fun endeavor, too – what artwork really speaks to you?


If you liked this article, let me know on Twitter @TheKristenEmily. I’ll be able to write more on the subject if it goes down well, so feel free to share it with your friends!

 

 

 

 

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