Magic: The Gathering has the distinction of being the first trading card game ever produced, and in the twenty-two years since its inception, has grown to 16 core sets and 66 expansion sets that add up to (approximately) twelve thousand cards, and has attracted (again, approximately) twelve million players.
So, phew! That's a long history. And a lot of fans.
The current expansion set, the second in the Khans of Tarkir block, is Fate Reforged. Its story is set a thousand years ago on the war-torn plane of Tarkir, where the dragons that are now extinct are still alive and menacing, and the five clans are at war.
This block might be significant for being the one that brought back the keyword "morph," but it's also significant because within this cycle is a character whose own metamorphosis is a part of her story.
In it, we welcome the first transgender character in MTG: Alesha, Who Smiles at Death.
Despite the vast expanse of worlds and seemingly limitless array of characters who inhabit them, there has been a surprising lack of diversity in the story space. (There has even been a lack in diversity on the tournament circuit, but that trail was blazed in part by trans woman Feline Longmore in 2012). The MTG Multiverse is mostly masculine, male, and heteronormative, and there is plenty of space for more queer characters.
Up until now, there have only been two other cards confirmed as queer. The expansion set Theros, released in 2013, included the androgyne Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver (on a card described as absurdly powerful), as well as The Guardians of Meletis, which included the first overt reference to a same-sex relationship in the MTG canon (although that card was not a particularly powerful one). But Alesha is another story. And you can build a Tiny Leader deck around her (if you know what that means, and are into that sort of thing).
Although the card was released on January 23, 2015, Alesha came out as trans five days later. Every Wednesday, on DailyMTG.com, the Uncharted Realms column features a new short story written by a member of the MTG creative team, which allows fans to learn about the characters in more detail.
Alesha's gender identity is not mentioned in the flavor text of the card itself, but rather in The Truth of Names by James Wyatt, where the mentioning is subtle yet definite. Alesha named herself at age sixteen (and the origin of the name was an unexpected creative choice), and three years later, the mononymous warrior is Khan of the Mardu Clan, leading her horde of humans, orcs, and goblins against an attack of lightning-breathing dragons.
In the illustration, handsomely rendered by Montreal-based artist Anastasia Ovchinnikova, Alesha's armor is not particularly sexed or gendered—she wears neither bikini armor nor thigh-high platform boots—and she wields a blade "as long and as wide as her arm." In the story, her gender identity is not central to her characterization. In fact, it's simply a factual detail of who she is. And that may be the most significant thing about it.
Alesha knows who she is and is unafraid to express herself—as a warrior, or as a leader who has been brazenly misgendered by a fellow Mardu (who himself seems to have some issues). But being trans doesn't define Alesha. Her strength and strength of character do. She smiles at death because she's ferocious and graceful.
There was no fanfare from Wizards of the Coast about this characterization. But there have been a lot of corrosive comments online, most of which take the form of challenging why such a detail of a fictional character's history even matters.
And why should we care?
Because back on the plane known simply as The Real World, where trading cards are printed and fantasy stories are written, a trans woman was murdered—in San Francisco, a city that's famous for its diversity and for its acceptance of LGBT people. And even still, the initial police and media reports misgendered her.
And because this was the fourth murder of a trans woman to have occurred in the United States since the release date of Fate Reforged. And one of those murders occurred since I started writing this piece. To some, I'm sure these things may seem entirely unrelated. But to me, a trans woman and a geek, the brutality of the world we live in underscores the importance of positive, inspiring portrayals of trans people as people, even in the unreal worlds we escape to and play in.