I’m not very engaged with the fandom of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
Given how many MLP-related posts I’ve made recently, that might sound like a rather odd (if not downright hypocritical) claim to make. However, the fact is that while I enjoy the show a lot, I simply don’t have much to do with the wider fan community that’s sprung up around it. I’ve watched some analysis videos of the series on Youtube, looked into its unofficial Pathfinder adaptation, and even read a fanfic or two, but that’s about it – and given how much fan-material is out there, that’s not very much at all.
I mention that as a caveat, in that it’s entirely possible that I’m misrepresenting the brony community with what I’m about to assert. That said, what I have seen is that the following is generally held to be a consensus viewpoint:
That Zecora, the zebra shamaness in MLP:FiM, is a character of considerable magical power.
This stance never fails to exasperate me whenever I encounter it, because it seems to run completely counter to what we actually see within the context of the show itself. However, most fans are quite forthright in holding that, while it might be more subtle and indirect than the glowing, unmistakable magic of unicorns, Zecora has magical powers that are comparable to Twilight’s (at least before she became an alicorn).
To be fair, this is a view that the show itself does seem to encourage. In the third season episode “Magic Duel,” Zecora offers to train Twilight in using magic to defeat Trixie (who has gained unparalleled magical power thanks to a cursed item), which implies that she knows more than Twilight does (e.g. you can’t train someone in something unless you possess more advanced knowledge than they do). She even says, in her usual rhyming couplet, that “when it comes to magic, it would be tragic if somepony licked me, especially Trixie.”
So the show is implying that Zecora has notable magic, and the fan community has run with the idea. But if you look at what Zecora actually does within the context of the series, she simply doesn’t have very much to show for her actions.
Let’s take a detailed look at everything we’ve seen Zecora do in the first four seasons of MLP, and see if we can quantify her abilities. Since objective measurements work best using an objective metric, we’ll default to using the d20 System, specifically the point-buy character-generation rules used in Eclipse: The Codex Persona.
Herbalism/Potion-making: One of the most common things we see Zecora do is make potions, along with various other tonics, powders, tinctures, etc. These seem to have some obviously-magical effects. In “Bridle Gossip,” she knows the herbal recipe that will reverse the effects of the Poison Joke plant on Twilight and the Mane Six. In “Luna Eclipsed,” she throws powder that makes misty shapes that put on a short play that she narrates. She makes a potion that can fix Apple Bloom’s chipped tooth in “The Cutie Pox,” as well as making a potion to help a rooster crow using a Heart’s Desire flower – a flower that Apple Bloom later steals and inadvertantly curses herself with (becoming afflicted with the eponymous cutie pox). Later in the same episode, Zecora shows up with the Seeds of Truth that are the cure for Apple Bloom’s condition.
In virtually all of these cases, the concoction that Zecora is making is clearly having some sort of magical effect, but in every instance it’s fairly obvious that the actual magic involved isn’t coming from her. Plants like Poison Joke or Heart’s Desire have their own inherent magic (which is not inconsiderable, since the former can do things like shrink Applejack down to a few inches tall!), which she’s simply utilizing via a recipe. Her “mist-play powder” is similar to how we can make fireworks form a picture, but using the magic in the ingredients to make it move. Zecora, like any classical alchemist, is simply utilizing natural resources to create the (relatively minor) effects that she wants.
In d20 terms, this is simply an application of Craft (alchemy). The proviso that only spellcasters can make alchemical items using this skill is waved due to the inherent magic of her ingredients; anyone with the proper training, spellcaster or not, would be able to accomplish this.
Her “plot-device” potion: This one is important enough to warrant its own discussion. In the fourth season premiere, Zecora whips out a potion that, when Twilight drinks it, allows her to witness events long-passed. That would seem like a stretch regarding what magical plants can do, but there’s a fairly major catch here: Zecora out-and-out admits that Twilight’s alicorn magic is needed to activate the potion.
While it’s a fairly major contrivance that Zecora would just happen to have such a potion on her, all the more so since she apparently can’t catalyze it herself, her requiring Twilight’s power here only further dilutes the idea that Zecora is using any sort of magic on her own in brewing these potions.
In d20 terms this one is a little harder to analyze, due to the collaborative nature of what went into creating it. Zecora says of this potion, “I do not dare to use it myself, the results would be tragic. It only responds to alicorn magic.” However, what the “tragic” results of using the potion herself would be are undefined – it could very well be that the “tragedy” would simply be that it went to waste.
To this end, I’d say that this one was an actual potion, in d20 terms; that would explain why Zecora needed Twilight’s help, since in that case some actual spellcasting ability would be required to complete it. In Eclipse terms, this would likely be an instance of Create Artifact, specialized for one-half cost/only for herbal or alchemical magic items. I’d also give Zecora the Enthusiast ability with the Adaption modifier, all specialized for one-half cost/only for use with Create Artifact, in conjunction with this, so that she’d be able to know a given recipe as needed. In this case, Twilight’s alicorn magic (e.g. a point of mana) was simply the last ingredient.
Her “teacup trick”: That line that Zecora says in “Magic Duel” about how it’d be tragic if somepony outperformed her with magic wasn’t tossed out idly. As she says it, she waves her hoof over an empty teacup, and as she does it’s suddenly filled with tea again.
This is apparently supposed to be indicative of her having her own magic. Personally, I found that scene to indicate anything but. This particular trick isn’t anything we haven’t seen in our own world, performed by stage magicians; it’s a feat of legerdemain, rather than eldritch prowess.
In d20 terms, this is a simple Sleight of Hand check.
Personal stability: At this point, Zecora has very few notable abilities left to analyze. We do see her balancing on her head on a pole in “Swarm of the Century,” and easily standing on a single hind leg with her eyes closed in “Magic Duel,” but both of those are simply indicative of very skilled balance. Again, people have performed comparable tricks in the real world.
From a d20 standpoint, these are just good Balance (or, if you play Pathfinder, Acrobatics) checks.
Wisdom of the Woodlands: The last ability of note for Zecora is her knowledge of magical creatures. Interestingly, while she is able to diagnose Spike’s aging in “Secret of My Excess,” she doesn’t know how to stop the para-sprites in “Swarm of the Century.” Oh well, everyony fails a skill check now and then.
The d20 stats for these are self-evidently Knowledge (arcana) and/or Knowledge (nature) checks.
Skills and Stripes
Ultimately, everything Zecora does can be explained by the characteristics of the ingredients she’s using, or by personal skill. Nothing that we see of her indicates that she can control magical forces; even her potions and poultices manage to create only the most minor of effects, compared to the things that unicorns do casually (e.g. telekinetically rearranging things).
Based on the above, were I to write up Zecora with d20 statistics, I’d make her a skill-based character rather than a spellcasting one. Given that she seems to be a little older than the Mane Six, and is notably competent in her chosen area, I’d probably put her as being 2nd level (which is higher than most of the ponies we see). While she has one or two tricks of note (e.g. Create Artifact), that’s all they are: tricks. She’s familiar with, and knows how to utilize, the magic that can be found in nature, but that’s not the same as actually having magic herself.
Of course, Equestria is a land where friendship itself can manifest as magical rainbows of intense power, so maybe the new season will prove me wrong.