Reckless Heroics: My Love for Magic the Gathering’s Goblins
“The Boros banner stands tall even if its bearer doesn’t.” Those words make up the flavour text on the Magic the Gathering card ‘Goblin Banneret’, and they’re a small but vital part of explaining how a bunch of trading cards completely reshaped the way I think about an iconic RPG monster. Importantly, I don’t really think of them as monsters.
Let’s get a bit of background here. I started playing Magic around one year ago, when its online Arena platform went into open beta. That meant that the very first set of cards I ever played with was the Guilds of Ravnica expansion, which is set on a vast cityscape inhabited by a whole slew of thoroughly urbanised fantasy races, including goblins.
Now, at the time I didn’t really know much of anything about the setting or even the mechanics, but it was clear from the artwork, the flavour text and the general feel of the cards that these pointy-eared little devils weren’t quite the same as those that have been plaguing first-level adventurers since the time of Bilbo Baggins. A large part of that, I later discovered, seems to be a weird consequence of two things – the general design of the Ravnica expansions and Magic’s colour pie.
The colour pie is one of the founding principles of the card game and is one of the reasons why it’s remained compelling for well over 20 years now. In short, the idea is that there are five colours of magic, each of which has a certain focus – black spells kill things, green ones make big strong creatures, red deals lots of damage, that kind of stuff.
Importantly, these colours also have their own guiding philosophies and have certain creature types heavily associated with them. Goblins, for example, are the archetypal red creatures.
This all matters because Ravnica is defined – both in story and game mechanics – by its ten guilds, each of which represent one of the possibly colour pairings. The Simic Combine is blue-green, for example, while the Azorious Senate is white-black.
Naturally, as you work through the pairings you eventually get to white and red – the Boros Legion. This creates a situation where you need iconic red creatures, like goblins, to work alongside iconic white creatures, like angels.
And that’s where the fun starts.
Life in the Legion
The Boros Legion is an interesting faction. In fiction they serve as the Ravnican military, fighting threats both internal and external to the city. Commanded by immortal angels wielding flaming swords and served by thousands of brave warriors, they’re often portrayed as the stereotypical good guys of the setting, concerned with justice and all things noble.
However, as you poke around you soon realise things are a bit more nuanced. Again, this is thanks to that colour pie principle.
From the white-aligned side the Boros get their love of justice and willingness to protect the weak, but this also leads to their utter inability to see things from anyone else’s perspective.
The red-aligned slice provides a pro-active attitude and insane levels of bravery, but alongside this comes a healthy does of self-righteous recklessness.
This last area is where the idea of good-aligned goblins begins to make sense, and the beauty of it all is that it doesn’t need you to make any changes to the basic ideas of goblin-ness that have been floating round them for at least the last few decades, thanks to both Warhammer and World of Warcraft.
They can still be reckless to a fault, completely unconcerned for their own mortality and possess the attentional span of a six-year-old that just chugged a litre of full-sugar Fanta, but somewhere along the line a bunch of them decided to take all that and direct it towards beating up the bad guys rather than innocent villagers.
Canonically the Boros Legion is home to a pretty vast number of goblin troops who bicker, brawl and blow themselves up with very little provocation, but then go to work and strap on the red-and-white livery of Ravnica’s protectors. Sure, they’re a little weird from a human perspective and might be a little dangerous to hang around with, but that doesn’t stop them from being heroes.
This weird combination of reckless abandon and off-kilter heroism is even reflected in most of the Boros Legion goblin’s cards. The ‘Legion Warboss’, for example, creates goblin soldiers that have to attack the enemy no matter how suicidal that might be, but if he goes in with them he buffs up their stats. The good old ‘Goblin Banneret’ is incredibly weak most of the time, but with a bit of effort he can be pumped up to offer than same buffing effect to his allies.
Taking it Home
Of course, the Boros Legion aren’t the only guild in Ravnica to include goblins in their ranks. In the red-green Gruul Clans, for example, they tend to be much closer to the murderous little monsters found elsewhere in fantasy, while the blue-red Izzet League seems to treat them as a semi-disposable source of lab assistants/test subjects.
However, for some reason it was the Legion Warboss and his pals that really struck home for me. The way that the designers and writers behind the Guilds of Ravnica set had made them simultaneously heroic and wacky captivated my imagination, and that’s been shaping how I run them in RPGs.
Is every goblin tribe a band of brave and noble warriors? Of course not. But then again neither is every village of humans, or elven enclave. Their defining trait isn’t malice or cruelty, but rather recklessness and enthusiasm – both traits closely linked to red in Magic, as it happens. Plenty of them are still as evil as can be, but others are friendly to the point of mild irritation or obsessed with running off and becoming brave heroes before their age is measured in double digits.
Hell, this mild obsession has even caused me to roll up a goblin paladin for the latest campaign I joined (as a player!), who struggles to reconcile his admiration for order and peace with his natural impulse to act without thinking. A lot of his character traits were decided early on, frankly, when I picked a heritage that made him rather resilient to falling damage – he may be a small goblin, but when he hits the ground he bounces.
So, the next time you sit down and plan out an encounter for your first-level adventurers to cut their teeth on, think of that Goblin Banneret beaming with pride at being allowed to carry the Legion’s flag. Could you really bring yourself to hurt him?