Queer in Magic: The Gathering

By Jakob Asplund

Magic: The Gathering (commonly abbreviated as MTG, or Magic) is a trading card game produced by Wizards of the Coast, and is played by approximately twelve million players around the globe, as of 2011.

With a variety of formats and a 22 year history, Magic continues to thrive on the creativity of its players and the community surrounding the sagas contained within. Each set of Magic is a story of a magical world, with “planes walkers” as important characters who can travel between them.

Stories follow typically follow a particular theme, and can be based on real life histories and mythologies: the two most recent blocks (three sets tied together mechanically and narratively) are based on Greek myth and Asian cultures, respectively.

Despite Magic’s rich and diverse history, the community surrounding it can have its own set of challenges. As with many gaming communities, sexist and racist attitudes can permeate a predominantly white male culture, and at times, the cards themselves can support such attitudes. There are few planes walker cards, around 30 (this is out of more than 20,000 cards ever produced), and only seven are of women, with one agender (which will be discussed later). Magic has a history of good writing when it comes to female characters, but in recent years, it has done much to increase the amount of representation.

The Theros block is based on Greek Mythology, with a fairly open queer element for the time; after all, this is the culture responsible for the word ‘lesbian’, and even the gods themselves are put in queer situations: Zeus and Ganymede, his cup bearer; Artemis and Calysto, and many others. As such, I think that it is fitting that this is the first culture used by Magic to portray openly queer characters.

As such, there are two cards from this set that stand out: The Guardians of Meletis, and Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver. The Guardians of Meletis depict two royal figures guarding a river, the one on the right wreathed in armor. The card’s “flavor text,” the italic text on the bottom of the card that helps paint the larger narrative picture, says that the two rulers were in fact lovers, not the feuding rulers history thought them to be. A fan wrote in to the blog of Doug Beyer, one of the core writers and card developers for MTG, and asked: “Are the Guardians or Meletis Magic’s first gay Couple? Or am I misgendering one of them? Also, thank you so much for Ashiok! LGBTQ representation is awesome.”

Ashiok is a controller of nightmares and information, coming from an unknown world to Theros, the name of this plane, to experiment.

A decidedly cold and cruel character, many have questioned the intent of creating such an evil “token” character. Magic weekly posts fiction written by its development team to flesh out the story, and Ashiok appears in one to torment a local king and harvest his nightmares. Phenax, god of lies and deceit, one of the rulers of this plane, appears before Ashiok and says: “When the two had first met, the figure had called itself Ashiok…..  He, no, Phenax was not sure if the mortal even had a gender, Ashiok.” Thus, even a god does not know how to describe Ashiok’s gender.

Doug Beyer, the writer mentioned previously, received another comment that asked about Ashiok’s gender. In German, the card was given the pronoun “der”, which is masculine, and Doug Beyer replied by writing: “Others may attribute gender to Ashiok, but Ashiok does not define Ashiok’s own identity that way. Some languages require the use of a gendered pronoun, just like some people’s beliefs require other people to fall into clearly-defined categories. (I think Ashiok would be amused to hear those people’s attempts at categorizing Ashiok.) The effect of language on gender, and vice versa, is a complicated issue. But whatever any text or card or pronoun might claim, Ashiok’s gender identity is up to one person: Ashiok. And Ashiok hasn’t said, and won’t. So it’s officially unknown, just like many other mysteries about this mage.”

I think this response is rather fitting for a character who fooled the god of lies; the answer is simply a mystery. This queerest of characters will keep people guessing for a while.

The most recent expansion of Magic is the Tarkir block, which is set on a world populated by dragons and warring clans and is based on historical Asian cultures. There are groups based on the Thai empire, Tibetan Monks, Persians, Siberians, and the Mongol Horde. The leader of the Mardu Clan (modeled after the reign of Genghis Khan), which is devoted to warfare and freedom, is a 19-year-old transwoman with a blade canonically “as wide and as long as her arm.”

Yeah, rock on. The story for this character, known both as Alesha and by the epithet “Who Smiles At Death,” paints an interesting image of identity. The trans identity of the character is not the focus of this story, so much as knowing one’s own identity.

The Mardu people have a naming ritual where you earn the right to name yourself, and Alesha has an interesting story to tell of hers:

“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. In that moment, if anyone had told her that in three years’ time she would be khan, she just might have dared to believe it.”

This is an example of extreme inclusivity I think, especially in such a seemingly hypermasculine culture that this Genghis Khan expy) seems to embody. But it is much different than that, as Alesha remarks later. Her identity is called into question by a nameless orc, who calls her a “human boy who thinks he’s a woman.” “I know who I am,” Alesha says to him, still smiling. “Now show me who you are.”

This response is fantastic, such a verification of her own sense of self, while even as it questions that of a person that she knows to be lost. Later, after the battle, she confronts the orc again, who had proven helpful to everyone around him, saving them, protecting them, allowing them to deal the final blow. But he claims he has no glory, and the dialogue continues:

“I know who I am. I am not a boy. I am Alesha, like my grandmother before me.” Several of the nearest warriors murmured their approval.

“And I know who you are,” she said. “The Mardu know you. But you—you think every Mardu must be a Backbreaker or Helmsmasher. You think your deeds are not as glorious as theirs. And you are wrong.” She let go of his armor and shoved him, sending him stumbling back a few steps.

“When you learn what your place among the Mardu is, then you can choose a name.”

This story of her triumph as an individual is not about her trans identity. In fact, while the story mentions it, this is mostly about her interaction with the nameless orc rather than the fact that she is trans. This story is about knowing yourself and loving yourself, of finding a group of people who accept you for who you choose to be, whatever or whoever that is.

Alesha vows to help this nameless orc, the person who dared to misgender his leader in combat, to find his own place among the Mardu. Because knowing yourself and being yourself is the absolute freedom.