Wizards of the Coast has announced an exciting new Planeswalker character for Kaldheim: Niko Aris, a hero from Theros who uses they/them pronouns. A recent interview with the Creative team got players hyped to have a new, sympathetic, nonbinary character in Magic whose story isn’t all about their gender. Let’s take a look at how we got here, through the history of trans and nonbinary characters in Magic.
Xantcha is probably the first character in Magic’s long history to add complexity to how the game engages with its characters’ genders. She was created without a gender, as one of the “newts” designed by the Phyrexian artificer Gix to infiltrate Dominarian communities; she decides to present as female as a means of rejecting Phyrexian control over her actions. Eventually, she becomes a follower of Urza, and ends up sacrificing herself to protect him from her own creator.
Xantcha’s story is controversial, mostly due to the alienness of her Phyrexian upbringing. Since her creator did not assign her a gender, her experience of gender is radically different from that of many transgender humans, and the trauma she experiences at the hands of her creators makes her story painful to read. But that trauma, and Xantcha’s joy and relief at finding a place to belong among Dominaria’s humans, resonates with many trans Magic players. Her story is worth remembering as we make Magic more welcoming to people of all genders.
Ashiok is one of the most enigmatic characters in the Multiverse. Ashiok’s gender, plane of origin, and life goals are all unknown. What we do know is that Ashiok enjoys causing trouble by giving people nightmares and preying on their fears. We’ve seen Ashiok on Theros making deals with Phenax, causing wars, and learning about Phyrexia from Elspeth’s dreams. More recently, we’ve seen Ashiok ominously doing nothing in particular in Bolas’ Meditation Realm during War of the Spark.
However, Ashiok represents a long tradition in North American media of coding villainous and/or evil characters as queer. (Think of Governor Radcliffe from Disney’s Pocahontas, or Ursula from The Little Mermaid, among other examples of villains playing with gender presentation and preying on heteronormative heroes.) For several years, Ashiok was the only nonbinary Planeswalker, which contributed to the association of gender complexity with moral evils. We need nonbinary representation in Magic, but we also need that representation to accurately represent the full range of nonbinary identity.
Let’s move on to a more uplifting example: Alesha, the leader of the Mardu Horde in Fate Reforged. She’s the first marquee Magic character created with the intent of providing trans representation within the game. The story that introduced her is about her choosing her own name, earning her place as a warrior, and forcing anyone who questions her to accept her identity. That’s a power fantasy a lot of trans and nonbinary people can get behind.
Alesha is a powerful and beloved example of trans representation in Magic. Player response to her has undoubtedly prompted the addition of the rest of the characters on this list (not to mention Niko themself) and set a strong template for representation of trans and nonbinary characters in Magic‘s present. Not all their stories are about their genders—which, let’s be clear, is a good thing; there’s only so many times you can tell that story without creating characters defined only by their gender—but each of them is a trailblazer. Each of these characters has found a niche in their community that only they can fill and opened up new possibilities to future generations.
Magic‘s next step in nonbinary representation was a dramatic one: the aetherborn of Kaladesh, an entire species of nonbinary people. It’s not perfect representation—the nonbinary characters in Kaladesh’s story are limited to being aetherborn, and their connection with vampirism hearkens back to the same stereotypes that make Ashiok problematic. But these characters still provide nonbinary visibility on a grand scale, and aetherborn society includes a diverse array of personalities and gender presentations.
The most notable of these is Yahenni, a Ghirapur socialite whose home is a central point for aetherborn culture. During the Kaladesh story, Yahenni befriends the Gatewatch and helps them overthrow the city’s corrupt government. Yahenni is vivacious, optimistic in spite of their species’ too-short lifespan, and above all, tenacious in their work to make Kaladesh a better place for aetherborn. Although their time runs out during the events of Aether Revolt, there are hints that Yahenni has reincarnated, so we may see them again.
Hallar is a child of two worlds. According to legend, they were born during tense negotiations between two warring Llanowar elfhames. The midwife, legendary diplomat Marwyn, is said to have made peace by giving an enemy diplomat the new baby to hold while she took care of the mother. So Hallar became a symbol of that peace, learning the skills of both elfhames and using them to defend their peoples. Hallar is an expert archer, but they also use fire magic, which is almost unknown among Llanowar’s elves.
Hallar slipped largely under the radar when they were printed, since they were a relatively minor character in Dominaria’s story. But given all the tantalizing bits of information Dominaria gave us about life in Llanowar, I’d like to see more of their story.
It’s a testament to how far Magic has come in its representation of trans and nonbinary people that Commander Legends included a nonbinary character whose gender isn’t even the most interesting thing about them.
Alharu hears dead people. When they were a child, it was terrifying. As they grew up, they realized that the spirits didn’t want to hurt them; they just needed help moving on. So Alharu made helping the dead their life’s work, and eventually became one of the best spiritquellers in their community.
Like Hallar, Alharu didn’t really make waves when they were introduced, though they did make an exciting +1/+1 counter deck when partnered with Slurrk, All-Ingesting or Reyhan, Last of the Abzan. But I think they could become iconic if Wizards leaned into their journey a little more. Transition is a neverending process. We wish we could prove ourselves once and be done, like Alesha, but the reality is more like Alharu’s gradual progress toward mastery of their craft: we reinvent ourselves over and over, and there are always more people to explain ourselves to. But Alharu’s story is also a hopeful one: they became known for a job they excelled at rather than their gender, and that’s the kind of acceptance some of us need.
We don’t have much information on Niko, since they were just announced and have yet to appear on a card. But we can already tell their introduction is a major step forward for nonbinary representation in Magic. The Creative team that created them (which notably included a nonbinary writer) say they set out to create a nonbinary character who was not completely defined by their gender—so, similar to Alharu’s story, but with more care and more detail.
Niko grew up on Theros and was destined to be an unbeatable warrior. But as they grew up, they started questioning the idea of destiny. One day, they decided to deliberately lose a javelin-throwing contest to see what would happen. Niko’s actions triggered the God Klothys to send agents of destiny after them, setting off a confrontation that ignited Niko’s Planeswalker spark.
Nothing in Niko’s life truly depends on their being nonbinary, and that’s important. Their story sounds like a typical fantasy coming-of-age story, and that allows nonbinary readers to see themselves in the kinds of stories they grew up reading. It also demonstrates to all Magic fans that nonbinary people are capable of being heroes and going on empowering adventures. At the same time, Niko’s story reflects a common experience among trans and nonbinary people: realizing that your identity challenges the foundations of the society you grew up in, and learning how to pick up the pieces and ultimately become a better person. Having that experience become an official part of Magic is a strong sign of support for nonbinary players in the community.
Next on the A-Gender
Magic has come a long way in its representation of trans and nonbinary characters, but there are still only a handful. I’m looking forward to adding Niko to the family, and to a future of more and more diverse representation in Magic’s Planeswalker community. Let us know which characters make you feel most seen, and watch the skies for more Kaldheim previews!