This month, the company behind “Magic: The Gathering” permanently banned that card and six others carrying labels like “Jihad” and “Pradesh Gypsies.” Wizards of the Coast, a subsidiary of toy giant Hasbro, acknowledged the images were “racist or culturally offensive.”
“There’s no place for racism in our game, nor anywhere else,” the company said in a statement announcing its action.
With the country roiled by tensions and protests over African Americans’ deaths at the hands of police, the issues entangling Magic and its creators are unlikely to subside soon. The fantasy game of goblins, elves, spells and more boasts some 20 million players, and in pre-pandemic times, thousands flocked to elite international tournaments with hefty prizes. Players of color say they have long felt excluded in the white- and male-dominated community from the game’s top echelons, as well as employment at the company.
Wizards has “a long unbroken pattern of insidious racist behavior wrapped in self-congratulatory praise,” wrote Zaiem Beg, a prominent Pakistani American commentator who analyzes the game’s strategy and tournaments. His is one of numerous letters now circulating on social media.
“Both Wizards and the community at large are guilty of making black people feel unwelcome in Magic,” wrote Lawrence Harmon, a black player who hosts a podcast about the game. “It’s time that changed.”
An endorsement from the company, which also produces Dungeons & Dragons, can boost the livelihoods of players, artists and commentators. A lack of support can have the opposite effect. Critics say individuals who speak out risk being shut out of certain high-profile competitions or opportunities to create content for the company.
The Wizards announcement did not address those issues, and a spokesman declined to comment. Yet its statement this month identified a clear impetus.
“The events of the past weeks and the ongoing conversation about how we can better support people of color have caused us to examine ourselves, our actions, and our inactions,” it said. “We appreciate everyone helping us to recognize when we fall short. We should have been better, we can be better, and we will be better.”
Wizards subsequently pledged to review every Magic card printed — a considerable undertaking given that 20,000 unique cards are in circulation. “This first pass isn’t meant to be an exhaustive catalogue of every problematic card in Magic’s history,” the company tweeted, “and we will continue to take actions on similar cards in the future.”
The game's lead designer — an icon in the Magic community — offered a mea culpa of sorts on his personal blog.
“I’m a white man that grew up in America in the ’70s and ’80s,” Mark Rosewater explained. “I need to recognize that a lot of things I’ve internalized as normal and ‘just part of life’ have ugly aspects tied to them. I need to self-educate to understand these biases so that I can remove them.”
The company did not provide an explanation of the thought process behind the banned cards. The former art director who approved the image for “Invoke Prejudice,” Jesper Myrfors, commented on the controversy in a defensive Facebook post. Pulling that card “was the right call,” he said, even though its characters, while looking “like KKK members,” had actually been inspired by the Spanish Inquisition.
In a separate Facebook post, the card’s artist also linked the scene to the Inquisition. “The later rather insulting assumptions and accompanying venom were a bit sad to me,” Harold McNeill added.
McNeill, once a regular contributor to Magic, has a personal website filled with drawings of swastikas, Adolf Hitler, crusader knights and highly sexualized depictions of women. For years, Magic players have raised questions about his use of fascist imagery and why “Invoke Prejudice” was ever released.
Neither Myrfors nor McNeill could be reached for comment.
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race in fantasy worlds and young adult literature, says racism in popular media can play a pernicious role in reinforcing negative attitudes about minority groups.
“If all your life you’ve been fed a steady diet of black people not mattering in your fantasy world, in your playtime, then why in the real world would you think that black people’s lives matter?” she said in an interview last week.
Thomas noted that the KKK itself drew on historical imagery such as the Inquisition to evoke an imagined ideal past. There’s a similar danger even when the imagining is for something as innocuous as a game, she said.
“I feel like these things inter-animate one another,” she noted. “Every time we encounter some racist backlash, we tend to want to go back to some imaginary past that was somehow purer.”
For the moment, players of color say they would appreciate at least being recognized for their accomplishments.
Greg Orange, a professional player from Minneapolis who is biracial, won a high-profile tournament in 2018 — a victory that made him the fifth-ranked player in the world. Still, he and critics say, Wizards officials repeatedly overlooked him in favor of white players when selecting participants for their top invitational tournaments.
Orange lives in the same city where a police officer in late May knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than eight ultimately fatal minutes. He has mostly stayed home of late, “freaked out” by the confrontations that erupted there between police and protesters reacting to Floyd’s death.
Early this month, in response to the turmoil nationwide, Wizards sent out tweets highlighting Magic players of color and expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Orange was one of those featured.
“That was cool,” he said, but “they could have mentioned something in the last two years.”