Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons have always been a match made in nerd heaven. With the recent releases of campaign settings like Guildmasters' Guide to Ravnica and Mythic Odysseys of Theros, not to mention all the previous Unearthed Arcana guides to planes like Kaladesh, it's never been easier to combine two great hobbies!
If you're anything like me, you love using the color wheel as a touchstone for discussing game mechanics and thematic choices. In Ravnica there is a direct relation between mana-color and the theme of your character since the Guilds and their associated backgrounds are tied to the various two-color combinations. But even in other settings, saying things like "this monster would fit perfectly in a green deck" or "my character loves to play blue" are ways of talking about styles of play and mechanics that are universal to other MTG players.
But one area I don't see the color wheel referenced a lot is when talking about DMing styles. There are clear mechanical analogies when we talk about the monsters, spells, classes, and other mechanics in D&D, such as necromancy being associated with black or counterspell being blue. But the connection between mana colors and DMing styles doesn't seem to get the same treatment.
"If the color was a DM, what would they be like?"
That's what I'm going to dive into today, using one particular interpretation that my friend brought to my attention and that I really like. Instead of focusing on game mechanics, this is all about analyzing the typical DM priorities - those things that guide all aspects of play and game structure - through the lens of the color wheel. And as any pop-analysis of D&D should have, there will be a little splash of alignment: the good, neutral, and bad versions of these DM mana colors.
The Green DM
I chose to lead off with this one because not only was it the most common response in a recent poll on our Twitter, but it's also the color I most strongly identify with, both in Magic and DMing. Here, there be monsters!
When the game is good, a Green DM is delivering absolutely epic combats with wonderous beasts and fearsome foes. The game comes alive when the group rolls initiative, and it's often the case that even veteran players find surprises in the adversaries they face. Roleplaying and Exploration don't necessarily take a back seat, but their primary purpose is to set up the next combat encounter.
Of course a neutral or bad Green DM is going to be close to something like an MMO, and not a good one. A middle of the road experience will give you plenty of variety, but veteran players might become bored with the lack of new monsters or mechanics. At its worst the combat can feel like an endless grind, and character builds that are focused more on Roleplaying or Exploration won't have many ways of contributing. They lead the party through session after session of unsatisfying XP farming that plods along with no real direction: all the stomp, but no ramp to get to the good stuff quickly.
The White DM
When you look at a white deck, you often see scenes of epic heroes, shining castles, and wide open fields. There's a sense of adventure, and at their heart adventures are stories.
A good White DM is going to lead you on a journey through an incredibly satisfying narrative. They love getting all those backstory details and incorporating them into the plot. They often spend hours concocting the perfect homebrew settings and narratives, intertwining player characters into the tapestry they want to weave so that everyone at the table has their time to shine.
Of course not everyone is keen on homebrew, or maybe they just don't have the time to devote to it. That doesn't mean the story has to suffer since there are plenty of hardback adventures available from Wizards of the Coast and dozens of indie and 3rd party publishes (including us!). Even an average White DM knows how to take those pre-baked stories and tailor them to their table.
Of course a bad DM in this style conjures the most dreaded of words: railroading. Now linear stories can be great (might be seeing a blog post on "good railroading" in the coming months *wink*), but when a story-focused DM goes wrong, it can be the worst version of a railroad. They have a story in their head that they are set on, come hells or high water, and no amount of player choice can change that. Probably best to find the quickest path to exile and get away from that table.
The Blue DM
No one understands the stack quite like a blue player. They bounce, counter, and tempo their opponent into submission with brutal efficiency. Nothing fills my green heart with dread quite like untapped islands. But that doesn't mean this style of play is bad, and the same can be said for the thing that makes RPGs a game rather than an extended improv exercise: the rules.
This is what happens when the resident "rules lawyer" finally decides to change out their law degree for a DM screen, but that's not necessarily a bad thing! A good Blue DM is an expert in not only the rules, but in creating a story that maintains internal balance and has verisimilitude. They want everyone to feel that the experience is fair and well adjudicated, with victory and defeat being the result of savvy, tactical play on both sides of the screen. The rules inform the story, and thus the story feels real.
Some Blue DMs are so focused on the nitty gritty of the rules that the story aspect starts to take a back seat. Their session zeroes can become burdened by extra materials, homebrew rules, and variant class guides that the players aren't really sure what to do with, but the DM seems excited so they play along. Half those rules end up getting forgotten since only the Blue DM can keep up with them all, but maybe there are a few that stand out and provide some fun!
Of course some Blue DMs never left their law degree behind and are now a full blown min-maxing rules lawyer with unlimited power. They fine tune monsters and NPCs to exploit every weakness the party has, and are always ready to find a reason in the rules for something cool to not happen. You're trying to have fun? Counterspell.
The Black DM
Whether it's the opponent's creatures or your own, there's gonna be a lot of death here. Undying legions, blood sacrifices, terrible prices paid to achieve unknown power; all in a day's work for the Black DM, who above all else prioritizes choice.
The White DM enjoys the story, and often crafts narratives with specific endings in mind. Green DMs are more concerned about target priority than narrative choice. A Black DM is all about making every choice feel important. This can be done with both carrots and sticks, and the balance of those is what separates the good from the bad.
A good Black DM, for example, is going to make sure the BBEG feels like a high stakes objective. They are a villain, and are acting in ways that will directly harm the PCs and the people/places/objects they care about. Failure has consequences, and success must be earned. But when it is, there's nothing else like it: the absolute rush of conquering evil and raising your sword high in victory!
Your average Black DM is going to make sure that the party's actions feel impactful, and that often happens by using character backstories as plot fodder. This can lead to campaigns feeling slightly disjointed as the party hops from character to character, but it can still be fun.
A bad Black DM loves to make your choices have consequences. The problem is that often the consequences are always bad. No-win scenarios, edgelord plots / characters, and even provoking or encouraging Player vs Player gameplay are the hallmarks of a bad Black DM. Remember that if every choice is life or death, your players are going to get burnt out.
The Red DM
Red is all about going fast and having a good time. A good friend of mine would describe playing red decks as "put a dude down, turn it sideways, ga-GOOSH!" DMing in a red style is about living for the thrill of the moment and prioritizing that most essential of RPG equipment: the dice!
To a Red DM, fudging dice is anathema. If you're playing an RPG without respecting random chance, then you're really just writing a book with extra steps. When it's good, this DMing style will create incredible moments that you can't find in other forms of entertainment. Watch actual-play shows like Critical Role or Glass Canon Podcast and you'll see what I mean: a resurrection ritual that creates a deal with a death goddess, or a lethal attack roll that ends up being a natural 1. Allowing players to do exceptional things in exceptional circumstances is the foundation of "rule of cool", and there's nothing quite like the rush you get when it happens.
A good Red DM knows when to bend the rules to allow for crazy things to happen, or how to take a result that could be seen as bad and transform it so a new story emerges. It takes time and practice to develop these skills, and most Red DMs are going to be in the middle ground. Not every roll of the dice ends up satisfying or even interesting, but the dice are the dice, and they will be respected.
A bad Red DM isn't one that ignores the dice; that's not even a Red DM at all! Instead they are someone for whom the game begins and ends with the dice. Stats? Features? Narrative investment? None of that matters compared to the glorious temptation of a d100 roll. These are the kinds of DMs that enjoy sticking the Deck of Many Things in their game as a way to sow chaos rather than story. They revel in pandemonium, creating a world where random chance doesn't help the story, it is the story.
Only One Planeswalker's View
Do you agree with our version of the DM color wheel? If so, what color are you? Or maybe you're a color combo! Or if you don't agree, how would you associate the color wheel to DMing styles?
Leave us a comment or hit us up on social media. This is only one way of looking at how the mana colors apply to DMing, and we'd love to hear from you!