Magic: The Gathering Isn’t Feeding the Trolls

The famed card game has been pushing for better diversity and inclusion for years, but still has a few demons to purge.

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Wizards of the Coast has spent its summer cleaning house. In June, the publisher of Magic: The Gathering announced it would ban seven cards from the famed fantasy card game due to their racist and culturally insensitive imagery. The banned cards range from “Invoke Prejudice,” wherein players can cast a spell against opposing creatures of a different color than their own, to “Cleanse,” allowing a player to remove all black-colored creatures.

A few days later, the publisher revealed it had stopped working with Terese Nielsen, a popular Magic artist who has been known to be sympathetic to transphobic, alt-right views for years. Just a few days after that, WotC released a statement that it would similarly cut ties with artist Noah Bradley, after learning that he had “engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with members of the Magic and artist community.”

Now, Wizards of the Coast is hiring a senior manager for diversity, equity and inclusion. “We believe that having a well-rounded party (team) that represents and reflects the world around us provides a critical advantage by allowing WotC to build incredible game worlds that everyone can see themselves in,” the company writes in the job description, which was posted in July.

There is no official count for how many people play Magic: The Gathering. But at 27 years old, Magic is not exactly the niche game it once was or that some imagine it still to be. WotC estimates that around 38 million people have played the game, which is available around the world from Brazil to Japan. Magic’s image may — like much of geek culture — be dominated by white, cishet men, but the game also draws many women players, LGBTQ+ players and players of color.

But while there is no singular Magic community, the official face of the game, Wizards of the Coast, has been slower to integrate the diverse cross sections of people who have always been a part of the Magic community into positions of power. That those seven cards were created in the first place is a result of the lack of diverse viewpoints at Wizards — and the hasty decision to remove them reflects that Wizards of the Coast is trying to do the right thing, though perhaps ill-equipped to know what the right thing is.

“I saw a game where I could be the powerful wizard myself,” says host of the Casual Magic podcast Shivam Bhatt of Magic’s appeal. “Because a lot of fantasy novels at the time, they didn’t have brown kids on the cover. Basically, there was no really real sense of representation there, or anything of the sort. And being able to be the hero myself was very appealing to me.” Bhatt first picked up the game in 1994 and now frequently discusses — and critiques — the portrayal of Hindu and Indian culture in the Magic world.

“These guys don’t understand that in trying to not offend people they have erased us.”

For Bhatt, the way Wizards chose to remove the aforementioned cards is indicative of how the company often handles issues of cultural diversity: with good intentions, but sloppily. Wizards removed cards under the banner of eliminating racist imagery in the game, but in addition to banning cards such as “Invoke Prejudice,” the company also banned “Jihad,” a move which as Bhatt explains, conflates the religion of Islam with a race or ethnicity, ultimately alienating Arab players when the intent was to foster inclusivity.

“They keep jumping ahead and being like, ‘Oh, we need to fix things.’ But in doing so, they don’t take the proper steps to do it. And they end up overcorrecting, and they end up hitting with a broader brush than they wanted and hurting more people than they were hoping to do,” Bhatt says.

Wizards has been trying, Bhatt emphasizes. And the company has attempted to make diversity and inclusion one of its core pillars for years. “There are Black characters in the world inspired by Greek mythology. We spent a year on worlds inspired by Asian cultures. There are women warriors,” then-Wizards Director of Communication Hugh McMullen told Forbes in 2016 — a pre-Trump, post-Gamergate era. But its efforts have just as often led to stumbles as to victories — and fans are quick to call out such mishaps.

In 2016, Wizards launched the Kaladesh expansion block, a set of cards inspired by Indian culture. But for Bhatt, the deck was a missed opportunity for Wizards to accurately and authentically portray Indian culture. “They definitely were desperate to avoid cultural appropriation and insulting people. And what ended up happening is, they made a set that felt a lot like Rebel Without a Cause, like cars and 1950s American culture, and then they put Indian wallpaper on top of it. So it ended up looking like an Indian society, but it’s not, there’s nothing Indian about it,” he says. “These guys don’t understand that in trying to not offend people they have erased us.”

The Kaladesh deck also acted as an origin story for the planeswalker Chandra Nalaar. But though she shares a name with a Hindu lunar deity and hails from the Indian-inspired world of Kaladesh, Chandra has consistently been depicted as white, with fair skin and red hair — an aspect which some fans have viewed as cowardly on Wizards’ part.

“Literally the only reasons to maintain that Chandra is pale-skinned instead of Indian would be either a) they are so attached to branding and marketing to white people that they fear the backlash from the enfranchised bigots they cater today isn’t worth opening their market to one of the world’s largest populated countries or b) they’ve already set their hearts out on casting Felicia Day or Karen Gillan as Chandra in the Magic the Gathering Movie,” Hipsters of the Coast wrote in 2015 when Wizards unveiled artwork for Kaladesh.

Chandra went on to be at the center of another controversy a few years later. Many Magic fans had understood Chandra to be queer and in a romantic relationship with another female planeswalker, Nissa. But the 2019 Magic novel War of the Spark: Forsaken revealed that Chandra “had never been into girls” and her relationship with Nissa was merely that of really good friends. The backlash to the queer erasure was so great that the book’s author, a man named Greg Weisman, issued a personal apology.

Wizards may want to do right by Magic’s diverse fan base. But doing so also means undoing years of catering to an audience of predominantly white, straight, cisgendered male players — many of whom do not want to see their dominance questioned.

“Part of the reason that the culture is now changing is that the dollar signs are starting to move in a more intersectional direction.”

“The issue is a lot of the people who run the company, you know, they’ve been running the company for 15 or 20 years. And they’re there because they were the ones that did it when no one else knew that it was the thing to do, you know making Magic. And they’re set in their ways,” says Brendan McNamara, editor-in-chief of Hipsters of the Coast. The website covers Magic from both a cultural and gameplay standpoint, and describes one of its main goals as fostering “a positive, diverse, and inclusive Magic community.”

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has put the spotlight on countless industries, from sports to fashion to music, to address the systemic racism and other forms of discrimination in their ranks. The fantasy world of Magic is by no means exempt. After all, Magic is a business, and a rapidly growing one for WotC’s parent company, Hasbro.

“Part of the reason that the culture is now changing is that the dollar signs are starting to move in a more intersectional direction, and away from just doubling down on the people who idealize the teenage male lifestyle, regardless of what age they are,” McNamara says. “That was very much the market that they intentionally leaned into throughout the late late 90s, early 2000s.”

The complexity and sophistication behind Magic can often appeal to people who feel like outsiders to the game, McNamara explains. That can draw those from marginalized backgrounds, but it can also attract those with extremist, alt-right views. “It fits well into a lot of different subcultures. And it’s the sort of people who are drawn to those groups. Some of them, I would say that they’re interested in what might be considered fringe views. And some of those are healthier fringe views than others,” they say.

“This is where the nerdy guy goes to find refuge. They don’t want to let other people come in and take the last space that they have to feel okay about themselves,” Bhatt says. “Like the events of Gamergate like, ‘Oh, no girls are gonna play video games.’ It’s the same thing with the same cultural entrenchment.”

And much of geek culture tolerated such views — but to do so is no longer socially or financially sustainable. “The last 20 years has shown us you can’t do that. Or it’s a bad idea to do that, or what happens if you do, and people are being moved to face the consequences of that. And I think part of it was geek culture became mainstream culture. Now they make all these Marvel movies, that’s just the big movie that they make now,” McNamara said.

“It’s forced aspects of that culture, the big umbrella, to come out as Republican. And it forces people to take sides long, where before like, who was asking them? Who was making them, forcing them to take a standard and think about it?” they added.

That said, those misogynist and racist views still exist in Magic, even if they don’t represent the majority. Take the subreddit r/freemagic for example, where members wail against PC culture and social justice warriors, and brag about being banned from other Magic subreddits. Or as one, accidental joiner wrote on their way out: “I didn’t realize this sub was an excuse to be explicitly racist, homophobic, etc. You people are the reason many new players see the player base as toxic.”

Wizards has attempted to keep the sort of views rampant on r/freemagic out of the game at an official level. In 2017, the company banned YouTuber Jeremy Hambly from Magic for life after his repeated harassment of cosplayer Christine Sprankle. In 2019, Wizards of the Coast removed Owen Turtenwald from the Magic Pro League after allegations of sexual harassment, and filled his spot with Autumn Burchett, the first non-binary player to win a Magic pro tournament. And of course this year, the company announced it would no longer commission work from Noah Bradley owing to reports of his sexually inappropriate behavior (but cards containing his previously commissioned art will still be released).

However, in 2019, Burchett claimed that Wizards prevented them from using cards with pro-trans messaging at the Mythic Championship VI. The cards in question featured Terese Nielsen’s artwork with the words “Trans rights are human rights” and “No TERFs on Gruul Turf” penned on them in reference to Nielsen’s alleged transphobic views. Wizards later allowed Burchett to use different cards with similar messaging on them after pressure from fans.

Wizards has learned from its mistakes, and has since cut ties with Nielsen. And Wizards learned from its mistake with Kaladesh as well when it sought to create a new Magic character: Kaya, the first Black woman planeswalker. To do so, the company hired journalist and culture critic Monique Jones as a consultant, to offer her real-life experience to create an authentic Black female character.

The company did the best it could with the resources it had when it came to creating Kaya. But the real problem to begin with is perhaps that Wizards didn’t have Black women artists on staff to create the character in the first place.

“It allows you to experience what it’s like to be a powerful hero, what it’s like to be in charge of your own destiny.”

This June, Zaiem Beg, former editor for Magic: The Gathering retailer and strategy website Channel Fireball, wrote an open letter decrying Wizards of the Coast as “an unequivocally racist company” that has failed to hire and promote people of color. Hiring a manager for diversity, inclusion and equity is a first step for Wizards of the Coast to avoid some of the mistakes it’s made in the past, but such a role can only be successful with the support of the company as a whole.

But many Magic players are neither trolls nor ardent social justice warriors: they just want to play. While the official world of Magic helmed by Wizards of the Coast may be slower to catch up with the more progressive aspects of its fanbase, players can shape their own Magic experience into the world they want to see — which is what makes Magic’s appeal so enduring, even as fans disagree over Wizards’ choices.

“It allows you to be who you want, to express yourself in a myriad, infinite ways. It allows you to build a deck on anything from just people wearing hats, to being the most hyper-explosive kill you in one turn type of deck. It allows you to experience what it’s like to be a powerful hero, what it’s like to be in charge of your own destiny,” Bhatt says. “It can be anything that anybody wants to be.”

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