What’s In a Name? or Why Doesn’t White-Red-Black (Really) Have One?

Shards of Alara was released in fall of 2008. Almost four years later, “Jund,” “Esper” and the other shard names are still firmly entrenched in the Magic lexicon, and my guess is that they’re not going away anytime soon. In contrast, when I started playing (a second time, after a ten-year absence) in fall of 2009—that is, right about four years after the original Ravnica block—almost nobody ever used the Ravnica guild names. The exception was Boros, as there was a Standard deck around that time that was known as “Boros Bushwhacker.” And, frankly, I had no idea where the name “Boros” came from for quite some time, because none of the other guild names were in regular use. UW control decks were definitely a thing at the time and literally nobody, either verbally on in print, called these things “Azorius.”

So, the question is, why? That is, why did the guild names (mostly) die over four years whereas the shard names are still going strong over roughly the same time period? Why do some names work and some names fail?

As it turns out, this isn’t exactly a science, but there are some ideas out there about this, for instance, there’s lots of advice in the world of marketing about the criteria to use when evaluating brand names that kind of apply here. Names for color combinations aren’t exactly brands, but some of the principles overlap. I think the key ideas are these:

Distinctiveness. A set of labels that all sound very similar isn’t going to be a very good set because people will confuse them. They must be distinct, both visually and by sound.

Brevity. Why do we make acronyms and abbreviations, and why do they stick? Because they take less effort to say and type. Almost any successful new name has to be shorter than the name its trying to replace. “Golgari,” for instance, is twice as many syllables as “black-green” so it seems unlikely that it will ever really replace just using the names of the two colors involved.

Likability. This one is admittedly more cloudy, but a good linguist could probably quantify this reasonably well. This is sort of a “how good does the word feel in your mouth?” kind of criterion. Since in MTG these are generally made-up words this isn’t (usually) a question about what kind of imagery is invoked or what other associations the name will create.

Easy Spelling and Pronunciation. I’ll just quote directly from the cited piece: “Will most people be able to spell the name after hearing it spoken? Will they be able to pronounce it after seeing it written? A name shouldn’t turn into a spelling test or make people feel ignorant.”

So, let’s look at some of the names that have been generated for MTG color combinations. I’ll start with the Alara shards:

  • Jund. Distinct, brief, feels good, easy to spell/pronounce. I give it an “A.”
  • Bant. Right up with Jund. A
  • Naya. Not quite as brief, spelling might be an issue if you hear it but don’t see it written out. B+
  • Esper. Easier to spell based on sound than Naya, not quite as brief as others (two syllables), but still strong. A-
  • Grixis. Probably the worst shard name, not very likable, easy to misspell if you just hear it first. B-

Overall, this is a very strong set of names. These caught on with the player base and really stuck, and that’s because they’re really good.

Now, the guild names:

  • Azorius. Distinctive but way too long, spelling issues (“azorious”). D+
  • Izzet. Short, but completely indistinct from regular English “is it.” B-
  • Golgari. Distinct, but way long and clunky to say. D
  • Rakdos. Not bad, pretty short, but not as distinct from Boros as it needs to be. B+
  • Selesnya. Again, way too long and a little bit clunky. D+
  • Boros. The best of the guild names: shortish, distinct, hard to mess up, likable. There’s a reason this was the only one left four years later. A-
  • Dimir. Fails on spelling/pronunciation, but at least it’s short. C-
  • Orzhov. Another minor spelling problem, though at least it’s short to say. C
  • Gruul. Who hearing this for the fist time didn’t spell it “grool” in their head? Seriously sounds like WotC was trying to evoke “drool” with this name, which I guess kind of matches up with the guild’s style, but still. D+
  • Simic. Probably the third best guild name, though still occasional spelling/pronunciation issues (I’ve heard people say “SIGH-meeck” until being corrected.) B

We have a few pretty decent ones (even the best one still doesn’t get the full A because its two syllables), but lots of not very good ones. Unless we have “Revisiting Ravnica Again” block in the next couple years, I expect these guild names to recede again, though it may take a little longer this time since this is the second time the community has gotten to see these.

So, let’s talk about the wedges. There are three naming schemes I’ve heard for these: the Apocalypse names (Necra, Raka, etc.), the names of the Planar Chaos dragons (Numot, Teneb, etc.), and the common names MTG players actually use. I’ll consider each of these in turn.

The Apocalypse names had the first shot at this and basically failed. I have literally never heard a Magic player use these names in describing a deck, but every once in a while someone on the Internet will reference them, usually when showing off how long they’ve been playing or what an MTG encyclopedia they are or to correct someone else when they say the wedges don’t have names. These are based on a some cycles of creatures in the set, and they aren’t really names, but prefixes. They are Ana, Ceta, Dega, Necra, and Raka. (Bonus point to readers who can actually name what wedges go with which names without looking it up. The fact that I have to look it up every time does not bode well for the names.) The names are short and easy to spell and pronounce, but completely fail on distinctiveness, both from each other (not so much in print, but say them out loud) and from other common words or MTG terms. (For example, “Necra” a couple years after “Necro” was the shorthand name for both a card and a deck that are mono-colored? Not a win there.) Also, these names weren’t pushed very hard by WotC; there aren’t multiple cycles of lands and artifacts and coherent themes for these things, so they don’t really have identities under these names.

The Planar Chaos dragons (Intet, Numot, Oros, Teneb, and Vorosh) are moderately well-named as a set, though overall they could be a little shorter and more distinct. Also, “Oros” is a complete disaster because of the Boros guild name (and the guild name was there first). Once again, these names weren’t pushed very hard by WotC so they don’t really have identities with these labels. Plus, of course, these are names for creatures, not actually names of wedges themselves.

What’s most interesting to see about the wedges is what people in the community actually call them. Effectively, three of the wedges have names, one of them kind of does, and one of them simply doesn’t. The color combinations black-blue-green and red-blue-green just go by “BUG” and “RUG.” Not very distinct, but very short to both say and type. Black-white-green is generally called “Junk” both verbally and in print, and I believe comes from a pretty old extended deck. For instance, the currently trendy black-white-green reanimator decks are usually called “Junk Rites” decks. Notice that brevity is the clear win here, as all of these are single-syllable names, just like the best shard names.

Red-white-blue is sometimes called “U.S.A.” or “American” after the U.S. flag, but those aren’t much shorter than just saying “red-white-blue” and in print people usually just type UWR or RWU or whatever. And, of course, using U.S. flag references as a name is just wrong anyway, since lots of other countries have flags that are red, white, and blue—looking at you, U.K., France, Australia, etc.

Poor white-black-red (that’s the order the colors are on a printed card of this wedge) really doesn’t have a name in common usage. It’s a shame because that’s my favorite wedge. Personally I refer to it as “Sin City” because black and white plus red was basically the color scheme for the comic/movie, but this doesn’t work because nobody gets it. That’s the problem with names, they only work if most people actually know and use them. So while technically this wedge could be called “Oros” or “Dega,” if you use one of those, most people won’t get what you’re talking about. That more or less defeats the point of a name in the first place, so this wedge effectively has no name, no matter how pedantic people want to be about it. (If a name exists but nobody uses it, does it still have meaning? I’d argue no.)

So, WotC, we have a clear need here. We need a block that is wedge-themed like Alara was shard-themed, it needs to have good names for the wedges, and those names have to be reinforced by multiple cycles of lands, creatures, artifacts, etc. just like the shards in Alara were. I know you’ll get right on that.