Big ol’ [[TRIGGER WARNING]] – We are going to frankly discuss the ugliest, most offensive, most toxic aspects of a popular trading card game, both on and off the playmats. This is going to include some alarming images, horrific stories, and an unflinching look at what many could consider to be the most toxic culture in gaming. Some of it will be NSFW, all of it is “not safe for people.” Reader discretion is advised, but doing this is the only way we get any inch of progress once every couple decades.
In the midst of Civil Rights Movement II (We Can’t Believe We Still Have To Protest This), Wizards of the Coast, controllers of Magic: The Gathering, amazed everybody by ponderously stirring on its golden throne to ban a few cards from the game which it suddenly realized were racially offensive.
This was amazing because at least one of the banned cards had been a point of debate since its printing. Can you guess which one from the picture of what we will now deem:
“The Racist Seven”
If you guessed the nightmarish, shadowy KKK costumes wielding the battle-axes, ding, you are correct.
Now, we’re going to try to be fair to some of the game’s depictions. There is a difference between necessary terminology to work within the game’s mechanics and setting, and gratuitous sensibilities thrown in just for the shock value. “Invoke Prejudice,” printed in the Legends set, has been around since 1994. Its art and title does not even make that much sense with the card’s context; there are many “tax” mechanics in the card game that manage to function without being this offensive. Moreover, the artist who created this card, Harold McNeil, is said to invoke a lot of Nazi imagery in his work.
So, just to recap, the company hired an artist with this “Hitler Christ” in their portfolio:
…and said “Why don’t you make some cards for our fun family game?” And then he drew “Invoke Prejudice” for them and they said “Great!” and then the card rode along in MTG play history for 26 years, before they finally thought twice about it.
That’s the story of just ONE card! We have a lot more ground to cover. I’ll try not to take all day, but I literally could.
Contrast cards like “Crusade” in the Racist Seven. The image, by itself, is not particularly offensive. It’s showing Medieval-era soldiers going to war, a scene typical from Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, anything. Call it “Crusade,” which is what European Christians waged against Middle Eastern Muslims, and it’s getting a bit too specific. But when you add on the text, out of context, it appears to be a racist motto. It’s actually an unavoidable use of the game’s central mechanic of mana colors, which brings me to my first point:
The Magic : the Gathering color wheel is two-fifths racist
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this was on purpose.
It was just stupidly short-sighted.
The mechanic that Magic: The Gathering introduced to the gaming world was the concept of colored mana. This is a brilliantly innovative mechanic, because it adds so much variety to the game, and introduces its tactical wrinkles and flavorful themes. It’s just their bad decision to make two out of the five colors happen to be popular names for human skin tones.
It didn’t have to be this way and in fact can be overhauled right now without disrupting the game. If they can introduce the “colorless” color of mana so late in the game, they can do this too.
See, white is the color of plains. We’ve seen plenty of pictures of plains in MTG art, and many of them are golden from desert sands or golden from earth tones and amber waves of grain. The mana symbol for plains, a sun, is typically depicted as golden anyway. We can change white to gold.
As for black, that’s the color of swamps. Again, many of our swamp cards show any color but black, but we do have the mana symbol of a skull. Skulls, we know, are white, but bone fades darker over time (work with me here). Visit a real swamp at night at least and you’ll notice its primary color is gray. We can change black to gray.
Neither existing mana color, nor any of its associated creatures, lands, mechanics, or attributes, are affected by these two changes.
Now we have the same game as before. Birds and angels and knights can all frolic on the golden plains, demons and vampires and rogues can skulk about the gray swamps, and none of the colors happen to be named after a human skin tone except by the most fanciful interpretation. That way, cards like “Crusade” can still give a buff to gold and gray creatures (there are a lot of these in the game), and as long as they strip off the war-with-Muslims part, we’re cool.
That’s what they could have done if they’d just given it a single minute’s thought. Black and white never fit in with the other three colors anyway.
That was the breather. Let’s look at another kind of baked-in bigotry going on right under our noses:
Magic: The Gathering has a misogynist problem
Does this game just have an attitude problem with women? I dunno where I get that idea…
It just seems like they go out of their way to sexualize exactly one gender in art depiction.
It gets really creepy sometimes when it wanders into hardcore BDSM territory.
Apparently this woman is looking for shelter until she can find some pants.
“Triumph of Ferocity” is another card which, like “Invoke Prejudice,” has drawn complaints and has also been fanatically defended by the predominantly toxic MTG fanbase.
The apologies for this card go: “It’s Garruk vs. Liliana, they’re arch-rivals in a fight to the death.” Yes, but he’s pinning her down prone by the throat with one leg forcing her legs open. Check out this scene from Kill Bill:
This is a woman fighting a whole bunch of men, but at no point does it look like she’s about to be RAPED! That is how it is done.
Sometimes Wizards of the Coast just can’t get away with pushing the envelope to its ultimate, absolute max. So they had to censor this original artwork for the card “Keeper of the Mind”:
And then they had the gall, on the official WotC blog no less, to snicker over the affair like self-congratulating frat boys.
We could go on allllll day, again, but let’s round off with this example “Chosen of Markov” / “Markov’s Servant”:
This is a dual-art “flip” card, which starts out on the left and transforms over to the right. It’s a really weak common card play-wise, giving you a 3-CMC 2/2 which has to tap itself and another creature of that type in order to transform into a – be still my pancreas – a 4/4. Now we get it, the character of Markov in the game is a very old, immortal vampire, and here he’s corrupting an innocent waif.
But what we’re seeing is a clearly underage and dumbly-innocent child on the “before,” and a raging slut-beast with exposed breast and cleavage going right down to her public hair line on the “after.” Is there any way to show somebody being turned into a vampire without doing it this way? Any time the answer is “yes,” the sexualizing is gratuitous and the perversion intentional. Art like this isn’t just sexualizing, it’s viciously misogynistic to the point that you have to question the artist’s mommy issues.
We have had and will continue to have fanatic, misogynist defenders of the misogynist cards just like we had racist players defending the racist cards. “Invoke Prejudice” went on for 26 years while the racist defenders kept bellowing “no they’re just ghosts!”
The point is, there is a time and place for edgy artwork. We’ve praised examples of boundary-pushing in other contexts, as we’ve long since abandoned the idea that animation is just for kids. But Magic: The Gathering is clearly marked on game packaging as “for ages 13+.” This is NOT THE PLACE to be pushing the boundary of good taste as hard as you possibly can.
Magic: The Gathering has a pedophilia problem, too
A few years back, a new controversy arose over the subject of offensive artwork on playmats at MTG play events. The wonderfully geeky April King is a staff Security Engineer at Mozilla Corporation, and a Magic: The Gathering judge in her part time. So of course, she gets attacked by the toxic misogynist fan base whenever she dares open her mouth, such as the time she took exception to playmats that look like this:
What, an outlier, an exception, you say? Nobody plays with playmats like that at actual MTG events, you say? Explain these then:
Before you think that these playmats are just part of fan culture and not part of WotC official policy, this playmat was going to be handed out as a prize at an official MTG Grand Prix in 2012:
Now, over and over again, I see insult added to injury when hentai playmat owners defend their choices. When some inconsiderate oaf unrolls a kiddie-porn playmat at a card shop and has to roll it back up after the judges or store manager has to get involved, they’re always heard bellowing one of the following excuses:
It’s just Japanese culture! – No, it is not. Hentai and any other kind of porn is actually censored in Japan. In fact, uncensored porn is actually illegal in Japan, they sell the uncensored stuff to us foreign markets. In Japan, people prowling around after drawings of cartoon girl butt have to visit the same back-alley XXX-rated adult shops in the bad part of town just like you would in America. It is not flaunted proudly in public.
But I just admire the artwork! – No, you admire cartoon girl butt. Pedophiles the world over have just two skills: Lusting after kids, and arguing with everybody about why there’s nothing wrong with lusting after kids. But actually consummating that lust for kids tends to get you life in prison, so they settle for pictures of naked kids. But actual pictures of real, live naked kids is also something that can get you in the slammer, so they move over to cartoons of naked kids. And in areas where even cartoons of naked kids are against local laws, that’s where furry porn comes out, because if the cartoon of a naked kid has big ears and a tail you can argue that it’s a naked cat, not a naked kid. Once again, if you’re constantly straining with teeth-gritting determination to get away with the maximum possible degree of public perversion just shy of getting beaten by an outraged mob, you’re doing it because you’re a pervert.
But muh First Amendment! – The US First Amendment, and similar free speech laws in other countries (yes, they exist), only apply to the government. A private business, which is what your local card shop is, is bound by no such restriction, and can kick you out for any reason they damn well please, including flaunting kiddie porn in front of actual kids or refusing to abide by a face-mask policy during a deadly global pandemic.
But my hantai playmat has nothing to do with real pedophilia! – Well, let’s have a story moment:
Unsleeved Media (formerly MTGHQ) is itself at the center of yet another in the endless litany of scandals in the MTG community. But while the owner of that blog and YouTube brand was defending himself against charges of harassment, he took out a shovel and dug deep into MTG pedophilia history. And God, does he ever have a point there!
While Lou Colagiovanni, owner of Unsleeved Media, obviously has some issues himself and is no unstained innocent lamb, not to mention being a little shotgun on his research, some of what he reveals does hold water. Stopped clocks right twice a day and all that. There really was an abusive child molester clan that owned a game store with MTG tournaments at the Merle Hay mall, a story which broke mere blocks from my house at the time. Just one of many scandals involving MTG judges, store owners, competitors, and even WotC employees over the years.
Just ask yourself: Do we see this in other game communities? To this extent?
Magic: the Gathering continues to have a plain insensitivity problem
You might have heard of the #gamergate controversy, fired off over sexism in video game culture in general. The inciting event is when a developer who happens to be female gets harassed right out of public view by legions of misogynist trolls just because she is female. But one of the secondary events was the tale of MTG cosplayer Christine Sprankle, who was drummed out of the community, in part through abuse hurled at her by that same Lou Colagiovanni of Unsleeved Media fame.
Suffice it to say… a BIG fight happened. Practically every big name in MTG media jumped on every other big name all claws and fury. WotC, in typical fashion, showed up to make empty tsk-tsk noises and then not do a single damn thing about it like always.
The thing is, the leaders of WotC, even Mark Rosewater, are just tone-deaf, blindly stupid, blatantly tolerant of toxicity regarding race, gender, sexual identity, religion, age, social class, and every other possible metric. Here’s an ad for MTG Arena which just came out this last year:
Right up front, their idea of appealing marketing is to say “Magic hasn’t been this fun since the witch trials!” While showing a woman tied to a stake getting BURNED TO DEATH. SCREAMING!
Just, just…. Ooooo, just Wizards of the Coast, Hasbro, everybody in this community:
WHAT IN THE TRAILER-PARK TECHNICOLOR HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM???
All this is only scratching the surface. I found 10x what I posted about here. The list will never end. But this blog post has to, because we have thousands of other games to talk about, the sum total of whose lifetime record scandals doesn’t amount to what Magic: The Gathering racks up on a busy Monday morning.