Continuing in the series of etymological Arcana articles, today I'll be looking at a word that describes something vital to Magic and is sometimes contentious to its players. It's so important that Mark Rosewater has dubbed it one part of the Golden Trifecta (three concepts that make Magic great). Today, I'll be talking about mana.
Mana is at the heart of the game. At its basic level, it is what allows us to play the game, as described on the Magic Gameplay page:
Mana is the basic resource in Magic. Each card costs a certain amount of mana, and the more mana a card costs, the more powerful it usually is.
As the game's basic resource, mana is talked about pretty frequently both by those who make the game and those who play it at the highest levels (and, apparently, by word-loving editors as well…hi!). Here is just a sampling of what those esteemed writers have penned:
- Mark Rosewater explains the importance of the mana system and why it is part of the Golden Trifecta in "Mana Action."
- Sam Stoddard talks about the importance of dual lands and mana in both "Making Mana" and "Standard Mana Fixing."
- Reid Duke cuts to the heart of mana's importance in gameplay in "The Basics of Mana."
- Marshall Sutcliffe talks about the importance of mana fixing, particularly in Khans of Tarkir Limited, in "Prerelease Prep for Khans of Tarkir."
In-universe, mana is a force known to and controlled by Planeswalkers, as the top of the Magic's Story page explains. To wit:
…what unites the planes of the Multiverse? Mana, the energy that infuses these worlds and fuels their magic.
Only Planeswalkers can call upon and wield this energy. While average beings are unaware of worlds beyond their own, Planeswalkers know the greater truth: each plane is but one of many, with unique mana that could be theirs to control.
Mana is so important to the Multiverse that it's shaped multiple planes. Alara, before it was reborn, consisted of five shards of three colors of mana each, creating five distinct civilizations (Bant, Esper, Grixis, Jund, and Naya). Mirrodin (now New Phyrexia), is orbited by five spheres of pure mana (one for each of the five colors). Like Alara's shards, Tarkir's five clans control three colors each, although in their case as wedges (that is, one color and its two enemies).
Those are just some of the planes whose very natures are described by the colors of mana, but every plane has its own take on the five colors and every plane's mana feels a little different to Planeswalkers. Some of those variations on a plane's mana are expressed in the flavor text of cards.
Speaking of the beginnings of the game, as Mark Rosewater explains in "25 Random Things About Magic," for a brief time the game almost bore the name Mana Clash. That name later WAS used in the game, as a card from The Dark that has since been reprinted numerous times.
I could probably go on about the importance of the word, concept, and in-universe energy that is mana in Magic for a while longer…but let's take a look at the word more generally.
The need for and importance of mana fixing in Khans of Tarkir was one inspiration for tackling the word mana now. Another inspiration came from an article (back to that in a mo').
Despite the similarity in spelling, we don't get the word from the Greco-Hebrew manna (two n's). Rather, mana (one n) came to English from Maori, language of the indigenous peoples of New Zealand. But it's not a word exclusive to, nor apparently originating in, that language. The word and concept are present across Oceania and its myriad, related, languages.
It's a simple word for a complex idea (as many words are), but defined succinctly as "the power of the elemental forces of nature embodied in an object or person." Scroll down that Merriam-Webster page for a more in-depth look at the word and concept. According to M-W.com and my other sources, the word entered our language in 1843, yet it remained uncommon until relatively recently.
All of that (and more) is brought together in the article I mentioned earlier, Alex Golub's "The History of Mana: How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic." It's pretty long, and yes, Alex's focus is on other games, but Magic does get a (much-deserved) mention.
After the last etymology Arcana looking at various words of mass destruction, a reader named Curtis emailed to ask, "You say it's interesting to find words that don't follow the Latin to French to English route, but don't you find a lot of words that come through Anglo-Saxon?"
The short answer is "Yes." A better answer is: While Magic card names do seem to trend slightly toward containing fancy words—which largely came to English from Norman French starting in 1066—my own bias is definitely toward fancy words. There are exceptions, of course, when they're cool (such as soul).
And, finally, since we're talking about mana and Anglo-Saxon words, I would be remiss not to point out that both flood and hose come to us from Old English (aka Anglo-Saxon), which got them from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) via Proto-Germanic. On the other hand, screw came to us from Middle French, but where they got it from is a matter of debate.
2: It would be improper for me to not reveal said sources, so here they are: