‘In Truth They Were Peaceful Lovers, Their Story Lost to the Ages’

Dan Ewers – MA in History (University of Warwick)
(To contact Dan about his article, please email queerhistory@warwick.ac.uk )

Examining Queer Representation in Magic: The Gathering [1]

First released in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, Magic: The Gathering (often abbreviated to MTG) is a trading card game which sees two or more players summon creatures and play spells in an attempt to defeat their opponents. [2] Within the canonical storyline of MTG, players assume the role of ‘planeswalkers’, powerful wizards with the ability to jump across planes of existence within an infinitely large multiverse.[3] These ‘planes’ offer thematic locations for the unfolding of vast storylines and each ‘plane’ often comes with its own ‘planeswalker’ characters (powerful wizards whom the human players call upon for aid) and ‘Legendary Creatures’ (powerful creatures with a central role in the story). [4] The game design aesthetic is mostly centred around fantastical and magical themes but has previously drawn from such far-reaching locations as Greek Mythology, Ancient Egypt, dinosaurs and pirates, Lovecraftian horror, and fairy tale motifs.

In this article, I shall examine two aspects of queer representation within Magic: The Gathering. Firstly, I shall briefly examine Wizards of the Coast’s public demonstration of LGBTQ+ allyship and trends towards developing inclusive language within the game. Then, I shall examine three specific characters from within MTG’s canonical lore and their representation on printed trading cards to highlight the movements towards inclusivity through the development of queer relationships and characters. It is important to note that these three examples have been selected in the interest of brevity and are by no means an exhaustive list.

Wizards of the Coast and Queer Allyship

LGBTQ+ representation and queer allyship appears to have been one of the driving forces behind Wizards of the Coast’s recent publicity campaigns and shifts in game design direction. In 2018 and again in 2019, Wizards of the Coast announced its fundraising support for Lambert House, a Seattle-based community centre committed to supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. [5] This fundraiser saw the production of t-shirts featuring the planeswalker symbol and the Dungeons and Dragons symbol filled in with the pride flag. [6] Although critics might level a claim of chasing the ‘pink pound’, a criticism that has been levelled at a number of companies using LGBTQ+ themes and iconography during Pride Month as a way of marketing their products, Wizards of the Coasts’ commitment to supporting LGBTQ+ individuals, encouraging inclusive spaces when playing the game, and their socially-aware (and sometimes, self-defining as queer) game design team highlights a commitment to improving queer representation within their game and the gaming culture surrounding it, as well as supporting LGBTQ+ charitable endeavours. [7]

In a 2018 article written by Aaron Forsythe, Wizard of the Coasts’ Senior Design Director, Forsythe outlined the recent gameplay decision to drop the use of ‘his or her’ or ‘he or she’ within rules text on both digital and physical copies of MTG cards in favour of the singular ‘they’.[8] Forsythe cites a push for templating simplicity in the design of MTG cards, making them more accessible to newer players (as the use of the singular ‘they’ has the effect of shortening printed rules text) but also states that ‘this change, in addition to saving words, makes our card text more inclusive for people that don’t identify as either a “he” or a “she”’.[9] Clearly, game designers at Wizards of the Coast are pushing for further inclusivity in a game that has experienced increasing popularity over the last decade.

In the second half of this article, I shall highlight three key characters / relationships within the storyline underpinning the MTG card game. Within this article, I have selected two gay (in this case male-male) relationships and a trans woman character for an examination of ‘queer’ representation and I hope (pending approval by the editors) to explore lesbian and non-binary characters in a following article for this blog. This article is, therefore, far from an exhaustive list, serving instead as a cursory exploration into the world of Magic: The Gathering and the characters within it.

Ral, Izzet Viceroy and Tomik, Distinguished Advokist

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With the release of two recent sets (Guilds of Ravnica in 2018 and War of the Spark in 2019) and the concurrent release of the War of the Spark: Ravnica novel written by Greg Weisman, which outlined one of the biggest story events in MTG’s history (think Infinity War with all the characters, story arcs, all-powerful villain etc.) it was revealed that a male planewalker character, ‘Ral’, was in a romantic relationship with another male advisor named Tomik Vrona.[10] Their relationship was also subtly highlighted within both cards’ art pieces, with Ral’s character clutching a white piece of Tomik’s robes in his left hand and Tomik having a piece of Ral’s red robes tied around his wrist, alluding to the emotional intimacy between them both.

This canonical same-sex relationship between these two characters prompted a public discussion surrounding same-sex relationships within the world of Ravnica, a canonical plane built around ten ‘guilds’ who occupy a sprawling cityscape. The discussion was prompted by the inclusion of a section within a fan-made wiki article which stated that Ral and Tomik’s relationship was hidden due to ‘prejudices against same-sex relations’. [11] Wizards of the Coast senior designers Doug Beyer and Alison Luhrs responded to the inclusion of this passage on Twitter, writing that ‘Ravnican society is not homophobic. Same-gender couples are an accepted thing on Ravnica (and every Magic world)’ (Beyer) and ‘this is absolutely not canon’ (Luhrs). [12]

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death (Fate Reforged, 2015)

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In Magic the Gathering lore, Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is a warchief from the ‘Mardu’ clan, a warmongering tribe of soldier-like warriors, and features in a story entitled ‘The Truth of Names’ written by James Wyatt for the Magic the Gathering website. [13] Throughout ‘The Truth of Names’, a battle rages between the Mardu and a brood of dragons but, alongside the battle scenes, the story carries a second narrative which explores the journey of Alesha in establishing and affirming her ‘war name’ when it is challenged by one of her soldiers.

In a flashback sequence, Alesha recalls that:

‘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… One by one, they declared their new war names, and each time, the khan shouted the names for all to hear… 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.’ [14]

The potency of Alesha’s name, and the identity she claims through affirmation of it, serves as a recurring theme throughout ‘The Truth of Names’. Alesha’s war name is claimed through battle, both on the battlefield but also against the perception of herself as ‘a boy in everyone’s eyes’: she claims her own identity, stating ‘I know who I am. I am not a boy. I am Alesha, like my grandmother before me’. [15] Alesha is the first trans character in Magic: The Gathering’s history and her introduction asks a number of questions about the power structures invested in the act of naming oneself, resonating with contemporary discussions surrounding discourses of transition, ‘deadnaming’, and the historical understanding of trans individuals. [16]

Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis (Commander 2016, 2016)

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Kynaios and Tiro were first referenced in 2013 with the release of the Greek Mythology themed Theros set (see above the ‘Guardians of Meletis’ card) but the ‘Stalwart Unity’ Commander 2016 supplemental product saw the release of their named card as the primary ‘commander’ card (one of the few single cards depicting two named individuals in the history of the game). [17] The release also included a brief biography for the pair, which reads:

… 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. [18]

It appears less than a coincidence that the word ‘Kynaios’ appears to carry considerable similarities to the ‘kynaidos’ or ‘cinaedus’ of Ancient Greek culture, a ‘passively penetrative’ sexual role defined by a man’s desire to be sexually penetrated by other men, seen by some queer historians as a (very) precursory category to the ‘homosexual’ of nineteenth-century sexology. [19] It is also worth noting the depiction of intimacy within both the card art and the accompanying flavour text – the figure on the right has his hand on the back of his partner’s neck as they both survey the lands ahead of them. In the background, two statues appear framed by the bright light of the sun (the two statues highlighted within the ‘Guardians of Meletis’ card art) and the flavour text reads ‘Look what we fought for. Look what we built together’. [20]

The oft-changing nature of public memory, a challenge frequently posed to queer history and its mission to rewrite queer relationships into the history of sex, gender, and sexuality, is also highlighted within the flavour text of ‘Guardians of Meletis’, which reads ‘in truth they were peaceful lovers, their story lost to the ages’. [21] These two cards, considered in tandem, raise interesting questions about the nature of historical time, the difficulties of the (re)construction of history, and the ways in which ‘queer’ relationships have been framed and reframed throughout history. Kynaios and Tiro’ relationship also differs from Ral and Tomik’s relationship in that they are depicted within the very same card: their relationship therefore is brought to the very forefront as the card speaks directly to the romantic relationship between the kings of Meletis.

Concluding Comments

In this article, I have briefly outlined Wizards of the Coasts’ recent push towards being an ally for LGBTQ+ individuals and provided a general overview of queer representation in Magic the Gathering by examining three examples of ‘queer’ characters, their printed cards, and their adjacent storylines. In the interest of brevity, I have not explored lesbian or non-binary identifying characters within Magic the Gathering but this will (hopefully) be explored within another forthcoming article on this blog.

I agonised over how to end this blog post. That was until I discovered a Reddit post entitled ‘Some thoughts on Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis’, which sums up the importance of representation better than I ever could:

I’m a gay Magic player.

I cannot express how important the existence of the card [Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis] is to me. In today’s world, when LGBT representation is becoming more and more “cool”, it’s easy for media to include quick glances or mentions of gay characters and claim to be all open-minded and whatever (cough Frozen cough) but to see a form of media, especially a fantasy trading card game, not only represent a loving, interracial gay couple, but to put their picture on the front of a goddamn product? It’s amazing. [22]

Put simply: representation matters. Whether within film, television, literature, or a fantasy trading card game, it matters to players and designers alike. Part of the appeal of gaming, especially within the RPG and fantasy genres, is to see yourself and your world reflected in the game you play, to see your choices impacting upon the events, characters, and stories that unfold. The inclusion of queer characters, relationships, places, and cultures in gaming enriches the stories that are told through this medium but also opens up the medium (often criticised for its somewhat problematic representational history) to new audiences and new possibilities.

  1. Quotation taken from the flavour text on the ‘Guardians of Meletis’ card from Magic: The Gathering Trading Card Game by Wizards of the Coast [card art consulted at https://gatherer.wizards.com/Pages/Card/Details.aspx?multiverseid=398553 on 23/09/2019]
  2. ‘What is Magic the Gathering?’, on the Magic the Gathering website, found at https://magic.wizards.com/en/new-to-magic
  3. ‘Planeswalker Cards’, on the Magic the Gathering website, found at https://magic.wizards.com/en/game-info/planeswalker-cards
  4. Brady Dommermuth, ‘The Known Mutliverse’, on the Magic the Gathering Website, 19 March 2008, found at https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/feature/known-mutliverse-2008-03-19
  5. ‘Wizards of the Coast Brings Back Fundraiser to Support Lambert House’, 16 April 2019 [found at https://company.wizards.com/article/press/wizards-coast-brings-back-fundraiser-support-lambert-house]; See also Wizards of the Coast’s Twitter announcement here: https://twitter.com/wizards_magic/status/1110231476342345729?lang=en
  6. Lauren Orsini, ‘Wizards of the Coasts’ New LGBTQ Merch Is Its Latest Push For Inclusivity’, Forbes, 17 April 2019, [found at https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurenorsini/2019/04/17/wizards-of-the-coasts-new-lgbtq-merch-is-its-latest-push-for-inclusivity/#6878d3bf2a41].
  7. Orsini, ‘New LGBTQ Merch’, 2019.
  8. Aaron Forsythe, ‘Dominaria Frame, Template, and Rules Changes’, 21 March 2018. [consulted at https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/news/dominaria-frame-template-and-rules-changes-2018-03-21 on 23/09/2019]
  9. Forsythe, ‘Dominaria Frame, Template, and Rules Changes’.
  10. Greg Weisman, War of the Spark: Ravnica (New York, 2018)
  11. Lauren Orsini, ‘Homophobia Doesn’t Exist in “Magic the Gathering” Designers Confirm’, Forbes, 16 May 2019 [consulted at https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurenorsini/2019/05/16/homophobia-doesnt-exist-in-magic-the-gathering-designers-confirm/#7e961d8859ba on 22/09/2019].
  12. Tweets from designers can be found here: Doug Beyer [https://twitter.com/omnidoug/status/1128878230323097600?s=20] and Alison Luhrs [https://twitter.com/alisonthewizard/status/1128815668130828288?s=20]
  13. James Wyatt, Matt Knicl, Allison Medwin, ‘The Truth of Names’, published on the Magic the Gathering website on 28 January 2015 [found at https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/magic-story/truth-names-2015-01-28].
  14. Wyatt, Knicl, Medwin, ‘The Truth of Names’, 2015.
  15. Wyatt, Knicl, Medwin, ‘The Truth of Names’, 2015.
  16. For a useful introduction to the varied applications of transgender history, Allison Miller, ‘Beyond Binaries: How Transgender History Advances Discourse on Identity’, AHA Today, July 2015.
  17. Blake Rasmussen, ‘Commander (2016 Edition) Decklists’, published on the Magic the Gathering Website on 28 October 2016 [found at https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/news/commander-2016-edition-decklists-2016-10-28]
  18. Magic Creative Team, ‘It’s Time to Talk Commander (2016 Edition), published on the Magic the Gathering Website on 26 October 2016 [found at https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/magic-story/its-time-talk-commander-2016-edition-2016-10-26]
  19. There has been a wealth of work done on the kynaidos, the sexual cultures of Ancient Greece, and the role of gender in the construction of these categories. For more information, consult David Halperin, How to Do the History of Homosexuality (Chicago, 2002); Karras, Ruth Mazo, ‘Active/Passive, Acts/Passions: Greek and Roman Sexualities’, American Historical Review, 105 (2000), pp. 1250-1265.
  20. ‘Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis’, Magic the Gathering trading card [card art found at https://gatherer.wizards.com/Pages/Card/Details.aspx?multiverseid=420653]
  21. ‘Guardians of Meletis’ Magic the Gathering trading card game.
  22. This quotation was taken from a discussion thread on Reddit which can be found at https://www.reddit.com/r/magicTCG/comments/5acld8/some_thoughts_on_kynaios_and_tiro_of_meletis/

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