Every Wednesday, the official Magic: The Gathering website publishes a short story set in the fictional world where the current expansion of the card game is set. Presently, stories are being told about Fate Reforged, set a thousand years in the past of the war-torn plane of Tarkir. The dragons extinct in the present day live in the past, and the five clans (all influenced by real world cultures) are different because of it.
January 28th’s story was about Alesha, Who Smiles At Death – the khan of the Mardu clan, who are based on the Mongol Empire to a point. She is a nineteen year old woman, she leads an army of raging orcs, cackling goblins, and human warriors against dragons, and she’s also trans.
The story, written up in the story The Truth of Names by author James Wyatt, also notes additional story contributions by Matt Knicl and Allison Medwin. It might be safe to assume based on the subject matter that they were consulted based on familiarity with transgender people.
The Mardu observe the practice of “war names”: a name is not earned until someone kills in battle for the first time. In the present day, the khan assigns a name. In the past, the warrior chooses the name– an important distinction. At sixteen, Alesha chose her grandmother’s name when everyone believed her to be a boy, and the khan at the time shouted out her name like her fellow warriors without any hesitation. The rest of the clan followed.
Three years later, Alesha led the Mardu against a brood of dragons, and dealt with an orc under her who insulted her by misgendering her. Shockingly, she did not decapitate him in an over the top display, but gave him the chance to shut the hell up and learn in battle. The execution of the transphobic remark in the story made me wince, it did feel a bit cliché. However, it was quite clear that he was the exception to not respecting Alesha. The nameless orc did come around by the end of the story, when Alesha gave him the chance to explain how despite the many things he has done, he had yet to kill a dragon. He gave glory to others, and in turn gave Alesha the name Who Smiles At Death when he realized just what his khan was made of. The Mardu chanted just as they did when Alesha was sixteen.
Here’s what I have to say about all thi s- it’s a start. Alesha didn’t get as much character development as the orc did, she was a bit of a cipher. However, she was a competent leader and fierce warrior that was only ever respected by the story, if not all of the characters within it. Her gender was affirmed throughout.
The head of the creative team, Doug Beyer, confirmed that Alesha was trans. He has stated that he’s wanted everyone to feel included in the game, something backed up by gay characters finally showing up in the Theros story of 2013-2014, and the non-binary character Ashiok being introduced around the same time period. Women have been on fifty percent of the card art for a while now, and the Magic team’s been taking pains to make sure the art is actually good now. Racial inclusion has been increasing over the last few years, as well
Response has been mixed to Alesha, but mostly positive. Forums have had the typical “why do we need to worry about sexualities in a card game’s fiction???” response, the occasional “but Alesha is a BOY!” on social media. There’s been plenty of buzz around the interwebs about her, and I know multiple people besides myself who actively want to build a deck around her card now.
Hopefully, we’ll continue to get more trans women (and introduce trans men) into the fiction as time goes on. Representation means having multiple people to identify with, not just one person who could be regarded as a token.
It’s also important to support trans creators, as well, and not just go agog over fictional trans people. Representation in reality is key, too.