Magic: the Gathering (MtG) turned 25 this year and, as a very, very long term player, the London Gaymers and I felt it was a good time to touch on the game’s increasingly supportive approach to diversity and inclusion; and some of the ways that LGBT+ communities have come to be represented in the game.
For those of you who don’t know, Magic: the Gathering is a trading card game where you assume the role of one of the elite spellcasters of the Multiverse — a Planeswalker. Each player begins with 20 life, and if you reduce your opponent to 0 life you win! You use mana to cast your spells and summon creatures. There are five colours (white, blue, black, red, and green) and each colour of mana acts as a source for a different kind of powerful magic.
The game is played by approximately 20 million players worldwide, and I’ve been among that number for about 20 years.
Over the past five or so years the team at Wizards of the Coast (the company behind Magic: the Gathering) have been introducing more diverse characters into the line-up, particularly in relation LGBT+ communities. I’m going to explore some of these in more detail, and tell you why this is great news for players.
Our first guest is Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. A delightfully creepy looking Planeswalker who wields powerful mind magic and manipulates the fears of others.
Introduced in the Theros block in 2013, Ashiok is one of the first characters that has been seen by some to be genderfluid/agendered:
“Ashiok floated over to the king’s body, and saw the two letters the king had been writing. He, no, Phenax was not sure if the mortal even had a gender, Ashiok, bent down as if to read the letters, although Phenax did not know how a mortal could read without eyes.”
Mark Rosewater, the head designer for Magic: the Gathering has also commented that Ashiok’s gender is “unknown;” and whilst this doesn’t explicitly state that they are agendered or genderfluid, many have run with this idea and it seems to fit with what we have seen of the character’s personality in their biography and story appearances.
In some ways the introduction of Ashiok in September 2013 foreshadowed changes that Magic: the Gathering would make over the following years.
I was going to do this chronologically, but the next two cards are related; despite three years between their release. Guardians of Meletis, the first open and explicit reference of a same-sex relationship in Magic: the Gathering, were also part of the Greek / Roman-themed Theros block back in 2013.
“The histories speak of two feuding rulers whose deaths were celebrated and whose monuments symbolized the end of their wars. In truth they were peaceful lovers, their story lost to the ages.”
The artwork depicts two male warriors and the card text speaks about two lovers. It may not use the words gay or homosexual, but its message is clear — these ancient rulers were both men, and they were lovers. This has been confirmed by one of the writers and designers for Magic: the Gathering, Doug Beyer, in a blog post.
Now that we have seen their statues it’s time to meet the Guardians of Meletis as they were in the past. Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis, a rather attractive and well-dressed pair (imagine that royal wedding!). They were introduced in 2016 in a Commander set (same game but different rules; you can ask me about it later). You can see the Guardians of Meletis in the background, the couple stand looking out over their city and one has his hand on the nape of the other’s neck in an affectionate gesture (I don’t know which one is Kynaio and which is Tiro).
We don’t know a huge amount about these two beyond the paragraph that accompanied their release:
“In the age of antiquity, the humans of the region that would one day become the largest polis on Theros were ruled by the tyrant Agnomakhos, an immortal archon. Unchecked for generations, his power grew as he carved out a mighty empire. Kynaios and Tiro, joined by their love for one another and for freedom, rose to challenge him. The people rallied to their cause, and Agnomakhos was defeated. The polis of Meletis was founded on the ruins of Agnomakhos’s empire as a beacon of freedom and enlightenment, and its people chose Kynaios and Tiro to be its guardians.”
This next one made me tear up when I read her story. It wasn’t a particularly sad or emotive story; but it was poignant for another reason. Our next character is Alesha, Who Smiles at Death. Khan of the Mardu Horde from the Fate Reforged set, 2015, she is a kickass woman who leads her tribe. Oh… and she also happens to be a trans woman.
“She had been so different — only sixteen, a boy in everyone’s eyes but her own, about to choose and declare her name before the khan and all the Mardu.
The khan had walked among the warriors, hearing the tales of their glorious deeds. One by one, they declared their new war names, and each time, the khan shouted the names for all to hear. Each time, the horde shouted the name as one, shaking the earth.
Then the khan came to Alesha. She stood before him, snakes coiling in the pit of her stomach, and told how she had slain her first dragon. The khan nodded and asked her name.
“Alesha,” she said, as loudly as she could. Just Alesha, her grandmother’s name.
“Alesha!” the khan shouted, without a moment’s pause.
And the whole gathered horde shouted “Alesha!” in reply. The warriors of the Mardu shouted her name.”
Later in this story one of tribesmen calls Alesha “a human boy who thinks he’s a woman,” rather than thrash some sense into him, she shows him that actions speak far more than words and he ultimately changes his tune, shouting her praises to the assembled horde.
While strong and powerful women have been present in the game for years now, this represents a shift towards embracing diversity. Her introduction was lauded as refreshing and a good example of how characters like her can come out without the need for fanfare.
Most recently we have seen the introduction of another gender-neutral/gender-fluid character. Hallar, the Firefletcher, was introduced in the most recent set Dominaria, this year. Beyond the image below we know very little about Hallar, who has not appeared in any stories or other material yet. Magic: the Gathering release a new story each week, so I’m hoping we get to see a bit more soon!
It also turns out that the elves of Dominaria have a language that handles gender neutral words a bit better than ours.
Hallar is both refreshing in the attempt to better reflect the diverse society we live in and player base of Magic: the Gathering. In an recent interview with Kotaku, Rosewater discussed a big change they were making. All uses of he/she in card text was going to be replaced with they! Now, for a game that has as many nuanced rules and over 18,000 cards printed this was a pretty big challenge for the team, but this was something that players wanted and so the team worked to deliver this.
It might not seem like much, but it does show what can happen when they players ask for something in a game like Magic: the Gathering, and what can be done when the developers and writers really want to respect the players.
Finally, I wanted to touch more broadly on a statement issued by Wizards of the Coast late last year. This part, in particular, makes me think they are a company that respect the diversity of their players and fans:
“People who have audiences of thousands or hundreds of thousands of fans have a responsibility for the content they create. Words matter, and audiences matter. Going forward, we’re going to pay special consideration to those who use their platforms in ways that make a positive impact.”
I know many companies issues statements like these, but when I went to the Dominaria set pre-release event a few months ago, the organiser took a moment to say that any abusive language towards any minority would result in being asked to leave and being banned from all future events. It may not seem like much, but it made me feel supported and welcome there. Knowing that homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, sexism, racism etc. will not be tolerated made the environment feel more welcoming to me, I didn’t have to worry about hiding part of who I am.
I’m a 100% Magic: the Gathering fanboy and I have been for the past 20 years; even going as far as to support their recent charity efforts for Lambert House.
Magic: the Gathering is a fun game, it involves some good brain work, the art is pretty, and now, as I’m getting older, I realise that they are really trying to bring some representation into the game. For those of us in the LGBT+ communities it can often feel like we are forgotten about, or added as an after-thought; so this representation really helps.
I hope you’ve had fun exploring some of these cards and characters with me. If you want to know more about why representation and diversity matters come and join London Gaymers at MCM Comic Con this Saturday (26/05/2018) where we will be hosting a panel on “Homo/Bi/Transphobia in Gaming: Stories of being LGBT+ in gaming.”