Magic: the Gathering and Gay Representation Through Play

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AC Atienza is an undergraduate at the University of Waterloo, studying in Rhetoric and Professional Writing as well as Digital Arts Communication. Their primary focuses are on playing games, writing about games and designing games. Storm is their favourite MtG deck to pilot, to the dismay of everyone (including themselves).  bio-email

Magic: the Gathering [MtG] is a fun trading card game produced by Wizards of the Coast (WotC). Since its first publication in 1993, hundreds of new cards have been created each year, but it wasn’t until the fall of 2016 in a supplementary set that we saw a gay couple featured on one. This raises the obvious question: does this card actually do anything positive for the queer community?

A depiction of Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis, a legendary creature card from Magic: the Gathering

Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis

“Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis” (henceforth referred to as ‘K&T’) is the only representation of a living, explicitly gay couple on a MtG card, ever. Thanks to heteronormativity, most players will assume that people shown on other cards are probably cisgender and heterosexual, so this puts pressure on K&T to represent gay people. While the effectiveness of representation as a tool of activism is not the focus of this essay, and I do not claim that positive representation is a cure-all for prejudice, the way K&T is represented in MtG is important to and for queer folks in terms of normalization, acceptance, and empowerment. Unfortunately, K&T is not our panacea. Its mechanics invite awkward interpretations and practices by MtG’s community of players despite initially looking successful. To explain, I’ll cover how procedurality works in MtG, then discuss how the various aspects of this card are implicit in  the discourse it engenders.

Death of the Designer

The core idea here is that a game’s design and mechanics reflect its represented topics, so the construction of the rules will affect a player’s perception of those topics. Katie Salen articulates: “When video games represent things—anything from space demons to long-term debt—they do so through procedurality, by constructing rule-based models of their chosen topics” (123). Essentially, the effects of K&T on the gamestate are linked to the characterisation of the couple themselves, and this is consistent with nearly every other MtG card. With this in mind, we can examine the lore and mechanics to find what connotations this card invokes in the context of representation.

K&T’s effect on play necessitates human interaction with it, and therefore a recognition of its mechanical design. In “Toward an Ecology of Gaming,” Salen posits that playing games can teach players and shape their relationship with the real world (1-10). The important thing is that it doesn’t matter whether or not the designers at WotC tried to craft positive representation into this card’s mechanical playstyle. It’s more useful to examine how the card itself affects players interacting with it, regardless of designer intent. Mary Flanagan in Critical Play briefly discusses this: “…I’ve come to realize that the methods followed by practitioners, whether consciously evaluated or not, are key to the meaning emerging from a game” (Flanagan 253). While Flanagan’s work delves deeper into procedural rhetoric — which assumes meaning is crafted by the designer — she acknowledges the importance of player reception as the method of consuming whatever discourse an artifact produces (Flanagan 185). The following analysis will be focused on this card’s actual mechanical effect on players rather than speculation about authorial intent.

The first things to look at is the card itself. K&T’s flavour connotations are largely positive; the art illustrates a prosperous land successfully ruled by our favorite power couple, including a literal shining city. Essentially, this looks like a great place to live, and we have these two people to thank. “Look what we’ve built together,” reads the card. So far on this metric, this card seems to represent an earnest attempt to include positive queer representation in MtG. By looking at how this card is designed to be played, however, we can also examine the connotations of its design. Its art is flattering enough, but players do not just encounter the card visually — they play with it too.

K&T was released as a flagship card in one of the 2016 Commander sets, which is designed around the unsurprisingly named Commander format in MtG. In this multiplayer mode, players choose a creature card to serve as the leader of a 99-card deck. The commander is unique because it is always accessible, and as such the other 99 cards usually synergize with them somehow. Because K&T is designed to be a commander, the couple on this card will influence a player’s entire deck and playstyle, meaning common deck inclusions can influence its mechanical discourse too.

A quick explanation of MtG’s mechanics: on each player’s turn, that player gets to draw one card, and place one “land” card down from their hand, if they have any. Because many powerful cards are only usable once the player has placed enough land cards, players have to wait a few turns before having the opportunity to play generally flashier, more impactful, or more exciting cards.

K&T suggests building around the “Group Hug” archetype because its abilities directly benefit opponents by allowing them to progress further into their deck’s gameplan. Group Hug is a unique archetype that eschews a traditional win condition such as eliminating opponents’ life totals. Instead, its purpose is to stay alive and help the other players have fun, in whatever capacity that ends up being. K&T’s mutually beneficial effects means this commander in a Group Hug deck is theoretically more likely to elicit a positive response from players compared to standing off against other commanders. Players should associate more positivity with this card simply because it is actively useful to them and their own gameplans. Everyone wins, right?

Procedurality vs Practice

Unfortunately this card isn’t as great as it seems — a lot of players actually loathe Group Hug decks. There’s two reasons for this hatred. First, it upsets those who abhor politics and just want a free-for-all; Group Hug’s propensity for gift-giving inevitably causes unfair biases in favour of the Group Hug player. There are also mechanical imperfections with the playstyle; as darrenhabib, Ascended Mage, articulates: “…in general they make the more powerful decks have even more chance of winning. [Casual] decks [fall] even further behind… Basically hugs decks are like the anti Robin Hood” (MTGsalvation).

Miguel Sicart, in “Against Procedurality,” emphasizes the importance of player appropriation and natural play to produce meaning rather than developer intent:

Proceduralists believe that those behaviors can be predicted, even contained, by the rules, and therefore the meaning of the game, and of play, evolves from the way the game has been created and not how it is played; not to mention when and where it is played, and by whom. (Sicart).

So, even though  Group Hug decks obviously don’t mean to accidentally further the power gap between powerful and weaker decks, the fact that this still happens is undeniable.

Poll results for Group Hug decks in Magic the Gathering depicting a majority result from respondents saying they don't like or want to play with or against them.

Group hug deck poll results

The second reason for the hatred against Group Hug is that several decks of another archetype [Combo/Control] masquerade as Group Hug in disguise. Such decks use Group Hug mechanics as a means to maneuver into an advantageous political position on the game board before winning the game with a “Combo”: a near-unstoppable ability or combination that immediately ends the game. Exploiting the plausible deniability that the Group Hug archetype provides, Combo players can easily manipulate others to spare them, too. [For example: “ I let you draw three cards last turn, so you should bounce Betsy’s Skullbriar instead of my sphinx.”]

Even when not disguised, many cards commonly found in Group Hug decks punish opponents for accepting the “gift” of playing an extra land or drawing an extra card; for example, some cards damage opponents for drawing cards. So instead of players associating K&T with positivity, there’s a chance players would associate them with underhandedness and hidden agendas instead.

Hey, just like how people treat queer people every day?

Queer people still labor to fight the stereotype of being equivalent to a spy. For example, the primary argument against transgender folk using their proper washrooms is a perceived fear that they’re only masquerading as their gender to fulfil nefarious motives (Fox News) [and the public comment section (obvious content warning): [1][2][3]]. In both the schoolyard and workplace, a common response to someone coming out as [any orientation but straight] are friends shrinking back and half-defensively joking: “Well, I hope you don’t hit on me now.” And at the crudest level, we see the very old online moniker of “trap” used to refer to transgender women (Knowyourmeme, Urbandictionary). This projected trickster stereotype seems to be a difficult cloud to shake away.

K&T accidentally encouraging decks with gameplay that perpetuates stereotypical backstabbing is an awkward situation. Even if most decks are genuine Group Hug decks, the fact that every once in awhile they may be a combo deck will promote players to pre-emptively turn against K&T commanders before it’s too late. The way this mirrors behaviours already enacted against queer people is an unfortunate symbolic gesture that is something we obviously wish to avoid, especially since Salen has already established that people use games as a means to learn behaviours to inform their real-world navigation. This connotation is exactly why it’s important to look deeper into a game system than just the immediate connotations that one may draw from a cursory observation. Yes, K&T look like great representation, but they’re not without faults — and it’s through analysing the experience of players engaging with this card that we can see the deeper connotations of this card emerge. Slam down this commander at a table and see how other players react; its inclusion in the Group Hug archetype will generate a surprisingly controversial opinion on these rulers. An examination of the card alone doesn’t provide this kind of insight.

[For additional online opinions about group hug decks, check here, here and here — they all share the same sentiment.]

So now what?

K&T demonstrates that even if everything looks like the best representation possible in a vacuum, players won’t necessarily react to it “properly.” Players will do what they want (Sicart), and in a game like MtG where there’s massive flexibility in how to construct the mechanical playstyle of cards, designers can’t force players to navigate K&T (or any card) in an exact manner. Sicart emphasizes: “Games structure play, facilitate it by means of rules. This is not to say that rules determine play: they focus it, they frame it, but they are still subject to the very act of play.” In a game with few restrictions on how to interact with a card, control over procedural rhetoric basically falls apart.

So what can we do? If a card that looks like the perfect representation has room for negative connotations anyway, how are we supposed to get good gay/queer representation in general? Well, we need more — a lot more. While this first card does give MtG its first gay representation, we’ll need more than this card to alter player perception — and this does not necessarily mean cards depicting lovers! We need fighters too, and healers, rogues, wizards and planeswalkers. In a game where a card’s mechanics expand into a thousand dynamics and subsequent rhetorical interpretations, the only way to create beneficial representations of gay/queer people is through normalization: consistent representation to “desensitize” viewers to their presence.

The issue with leaning on a single card to represent an entire demographic is that each of its traits, good and bad, become symbolic of that demographic as a whole. When it’s only one card, that representation will be inevitably two-dimensional. What is clear is that it’s probably impossible to get “perfect” reception of a card — K&T looks like the most flattering card possible, but its usage in play still incites some frustration against it. So rather than just creating a pleasant representation of gay people, WotC should create consistent representation instead. This is much more difficult than making consistent representation of women or people of colour (both of which WotC have been doing an excellent job of showing) because most cards don’t show couples. However, this is still possible, even without printing more double-character cards; for example, normalization can be as simple as having a knight’s flavour text refer to her wife at home. We also see potential in the latest Amonkhet spoilers through the concept of crop-mates — though “Start//Finish” includes an awkward end for the potentially-gay couple, it demonstrates that there are ways of responsibly and thoughtfully representing queer folk in games.

The main thing to take away from this analysis of K&T is that player experience of a game may subvert or even invert the meaning of whatever procedurality was intended in its design. We can also see that the burden of one card representing an entire demographic is, honestly, a comical weight that could never produce a satisfactory set of connotations alone. Normalizing queer folk will dilute the burden of representation to the point where a card’s individual connotations will no longer have a meaningful impact on a player’s response to the demographic represented at all. Rather than trying to craft a singular instance of “perfect” representation, creating more representations is a much better response.

End Notes:

[1] Guardians of Meletis is an accompanying card to K&T presumably featuring statues of the couple after their deaths. While yeah, it shows gay characters, they are inanimate and do not have explicitly recognizable genders so they don’t hold the same weight as their likeness.

Works Cited

Christians & Feminists Team Up to Fight Transgender Bathroom Mandate.” Fox News, FOX News Network, 7 Feb. 2017.

“Commander (Format).” MTG Wiki, Gamepedia, 13 Apr. 2017, mtg.gamepedia.com/Commander_(format). Accessed 14 Apr. 2017.

darrenhabib, et al. “What are your opinions on Group Hug?.” MTG Salvation Forums, 26 Oct. 2016.

Flanagan, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2013.

Flavor.” MTG Wiki, Gamepedia, 13 Apr. 2017, Flavor.

Group Hug.” MTG Wiki, Gamepedia, 2 Sept. 2014.

Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis.” Commander 2016. Wizards of the Coast.

Locke, Joshua. “Examining Commander Archetypes #6 – Group Hug.” Bands With Awesome: A Commander Blog, 19 Aug. 2013.

Michaels V. “Trap.” Urban Dictionary, 8 Sept. 2007.

Sicart, Miguel. “Against Procedurality.” The International Journal of Computer Game Research, vol. 11, no.3, 2011.

Salen, Katie. The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games and Learning. The John D. and Catherine E. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT press, 2008. Web. 27 Nov. 2016.

Traps.” Know Your Meme, 29 Mar. 2017.

Villeneuve, Magali. Début//Fin. 2017, Wizards of the Coast.

Willian Murai. Kynaios and Tiro of Meletis. 2016, Wizards of the Coast.

Yankeehero. “Does anyone dislike playing with group hug decks? • r/EDH.” Reddit.