Wizards of the Coast, the company behind card game Magic: the Gathering, revealed last week that one of the characters in the newest set of cards is a trans woman. Say hello to Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, the game’s first canon trans character. That might not seem like a big deal for people who don’t play Magic, but the creation of the character marks a significant step forward in LGBTQ representation within the game. And with that, it’s a positive development for all of geek culture—which has not always been good at including queer representations in games.
For the uninitiated, Magic: The Gathering is a collectible trading card game played by roughly 12 million people around the world. People can dismiss it as a nerdy niche, but 12 million players is nothing to scoff at. The premise of the game is that it is a battle between “planeswalkers,” a sort of wizard that can travel between different worlds. Each expansion of Magic has its own unique fantasy storyline that ties together all of the cards within the expansion and provides context for new game play mechanics as well as flavor text and card art. Major characters from the storyline are often represented as “Legendary Creature” or “Planeswalker” cards.
Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is a legendary creature released in Fate Reforged, the newest Magic: the Gathering expansion. The set was officially released on January 23 but Alesha’s back story was not released until January 28 in a short story called “The Truth of Names.” The card itself provides no hint that Alesha is trans—the art depicts a woman in armor and text reads simply, “Greet death with sword in hand.” But the newly released short story tells the story of how Alesha got her name. Alesha is a member of a group called the Mardu horde, where members earn the right to name themselves after they have proven their strength and prowess in battle. After leading the horde in a skirmish with a dragon, Alesha recalls the day when she earned the right to name herself: “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.” As the khan announces the chosen name of each warrior who has proven themselves in battle, Alesha nervously waits to tell the khan her name. When she tells him she has chosen Alesha, her grandmother’s name, he announces it to the horde “without a moment’s pause.” She recalls how the horde affirmed her identity when “the warriors of the Mardu shouted her name.” Alesha’s story is one of understanding and claiming one’s true identity; the short story also includes an anecdote about her helping a young orc realize that his own value in battle lies in the way he protects his companions rather than his ability to kill so that he can claim his name.
It’s refreshing that Alesha’s trans identity isn’t her defining trait, but just one aspect of her character. She’s is first and foremost the leader of her group. Alesha’s character shows that Wizards of the Coast is making an effort at creating a more inclusive game. Queer representation has been scant in the Magic universe until very recently, so the creation of a character like Alesha makes a powerful statement. The introduction of Ashiok, a nonbinary planeswalker from the Theros expansion in 2013 and now the addition of Alesha seems to indicate that Magic’s developers are leaning towards writing more queer characters.
Many Magic players use the mythology and lore of the game and create a more imaginative and immersive gameplay experience. Creating new storylines with more diverse characters will help draw new players to the game by demonstrating that diversity is accepted and encouraged. Breaking down social barriers within the story of Magic will hopefully also help break down similar social barriers within the Magic community. If the stories are more inclusive, it’s my hope that the millions of people who play Magic will feel compelled to be more inclusive themselves.
If Alesha marks the beginning of a trend in Magic: the Gathering toward the representation of more well-written and developed LGBTQ characters, the game is taking a big step in the right direction. Incorporating prominent queer characters into Magic’s main storyline may help combat sexist and homophobic gatekeeping within the community.
Liza Dadoly writes, judges Magic tournaments, and geeks out in Portland, Oregon.
Related Listening — Liza discussed sexism in Magic: The Gathering on the “Geek Girls” episode of Popaganda. Listen below.