Monster of Monsters: Rendering the Abject in Magic: the Gathering

Curator's Note

In Monster Culture: (Seven Theses), Jeffrey Jerome Cohen offers a reading of monsters as symbolic constructs that embody specific cultural moments, difference made flesh. They appear to us as grotesque spectacles that trouble the borders of existence such as: the animate corpse, a man-eating plant, or a murderous child. Monsters surface frequently in Magic: the Gathering on the cards that players collect and construct decks with. A highly developed mythos informs the game that is set in the Multiverse: a macrocosm comprised of countless planes of existence, where a dazzling array of beasts and horrors abound. In 2010, Wizards of the Coast (the game maker) introduced a new creature into the lore, the most terrifying and improbable species in the entire Multiverse. But what would the monster par excellence look like and behave in a world where monstrosity reigns, where demons, giants, and dragons are everyday occurrences? Enter Magic’s interpretation of the symbolic Other: the Eldrazi Titans and their progeny. They are transgressive not only in their creature design and visual appearance, but in their unique interactions within actual gameplay.

The Monster of monsters do not resemble or act like any other Magic cards previously printed. Unlike werewolves  and vampires the Eldrazi have little in the way of cultural context. All Eldrazi descend from three massive primordial Titans, Ulamog, Kozilek, and Emrakul, who live to consume, but are never satiated. Their very presence dissipates reality and inspires madness. The Eldrazi creature design pays homage to the works of John Bottin, H.P. Lovecraft and H.R. Giger: they are simultaneously humanoid and alien, skittering insects with tentacles or dozens of eyeballs, floating appendages, uterine canals, bulbous flesh sacks and exoskeletons.

But what truly distinguishes the Eldrazi from their monstrous cohorts is how their abject form is represented in the mechanics of the game. The cards themselves subvert normal gameplay with unique Eldrazi abilities, in particular their status as Devoid, or colorless. Magic: the Gathering’s philosophical framework is constructed around the color wheel. White represents organization, Blue symbolizes logic, Red refers to impulse, Green to instinct, and Black to self-concern. Within those terms, the colorless Eldrazi are defined by their lack, their monstrous ambiguity. Monsters threaten both individuals and “the cultural apparatus through which individuality is constituted and allowed.” (Cohen, 12). The very existence of colorless Eldrazi defy categorical definition.

The Eldrazi are Wizards of the Coast’s attempt to render abjection within Magic’s core game mechanics. The illustrative paper cards, though enchanting, are mere pieces within the true medium of the game: the abstract rules structure communicated through the text of those cards. The meat is in the interactions, which the Eldrazi uniquely disrupt.


Hey Hannah, great post, thanks for getting this week started. What is so interesting to me about how you construct the Eldrazi is how abjection is so perfectly communicated within the game when playing, for example, one of the titans. There's just this really great connection between the aesthetic of the art and the storyline that accompanies the game that is rendered so well when one of these creatures hits the table. And, I'm not sure I ever feel that same way with the other types you describe, or at least it isn't so overwhelming to the point where you want to concede immediately. It would be really interesting to think about which gameplay mechanics, more generally, elicit particular affects because I think your post perfectly captures the feeling of this one. I'm just thinking out loud but I'm wondering if you think this could be extended to other mechanics or deck archetypes like burn, or control, etc.?

Hi Adam, Thanks for your question! The short answer is absolutely, Wizards of the Coast intentionally designs mechanics with affectation in mind. Just off the top of my head--for Werewolves on the plane of Innistrad, for example, Wizards created double-sided cards, which start off as Human creatures and then "flip" into Werewolves when no significant action is taken during a turn, representing the stillness of nighttime. You also mentioned control decks, or decks that fall under the archetype of controlling mechanics that constrict potential actions an opponent can take in a game. The primary goal of control decks is to control the tempo of the game to establish an inevitable outcome where the control player wins. What's interesting here is that a TON of mechanics fall under this mantle of "control" that also bleed over into different archetypes, and there are different types of control decks that don't look or perform like each other at all. At the competitive level, Magic players attempt to eschew affectation. The goal is to win, and aesthetics don't matter.

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