For nearly three decades, the card game Magic: The Gathering has offered a popular escape for the young and young at heart.
Players acting as powerful wizards called Planeswalkers battle it out by drawing powerful spells and creatures to beat the opponent. From its inception, most of those Planeswalkers have been white characters — until now.
Magic: The Gathering is exploring Black life through a set of new cards called Black Is Magic.
“You don’t have to be Black to enjoy Black stories,” Sydney Adams, the lead designer of the set, says. “Black stories are human stories, and human stories deserve to be told.”
Adams was initially drawn to the Magic: The Gathering when she saw the image of Kaya, the game’s first Black woman Planeswalker, in 2016.
“At that point, a lot of the games that I had been looking at didn't really have that many Black female characters that seemed confident or even were just sort of visible,” she says.
Adams worked alongside children at the time and began to witness the impact that games had on their development. This realization led her to dream of transforming the game industry. She landed an internship with Wizards of the Coast, the role-playing game company that created Magic: The Gathering — and so began the start of her journey that led her to Black Is Magic.
The final product includes seven cards illustrated by Black artists. Each card has a message that aims to fight stereotypes.
The Cultivate card features two Black children watering a Black Lotus, the most valuable and rare card in the game. For Cultivate, Adams wanted the Black Lotus, which blooms amid adverse conditions, to be seen as a triumph of the children’s care.
Another standout from the new set is Teferi, the game’s first Black Planeswalker and one of the most powerful wizards who can bend time to his will. In Black Is Magic, he’s featured laughing with his wife while his cheerful daughter climbs on his back. Adams says she wanted the Teferi card to humanize Black people, specifically fatherhood.
Teferi’s rich backstory highlights how power and love work together, making his character ripe for showcasing his fatherhood. But until now, there weren't many positive depictions of Black fatherhood in gaming, she says.
“Especially for depictions of Black men, it's important that we show that there can be softness, there can be love, there can be fatherhood,” she says. “And this card is basically my love letter to Black fatherhood and family.”
Teferi’s true power lies within his loving support system, she says, which is what she hopes to reveal within the card’s messaging.
The complex multitudes of Black people is not something often seen celebrated in forms of entertainment like card games. Over the past year of working on the project, Adams wanted to show “Black people are not a monolith,” she says, “and there are so many different versions of what we call Blackness.”
That means a lot of research went into being intentional with each of the seven cards. There is only so much you can convey on a standard playing card, she says, “so every single word matters.”
Her focus from the start was giving Black children a game they can see themselves in. But it’s also crucial for players who aren’t Black to understand the significance of communicating universal concepts through a single card, she says.
“There are ways that you can relate to the product that aren't necessarily racial because Black stories are human stories,” Adams says. “But when you do see the race, I need you to understand that it is encouraging a group who needs to feel that support and needs to feel that inclusivity.”
Black Is Magic will only be printed once. The project’s conception has opened a “Pandora's box” internally and externally on how the company can assure employees and players that this type of undertaking isn’t a one-off during Black History Month.
Adams credits their new, first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion director Jontelle Leyson-Smith for helping continue the conversation while pushing Black Is Magic over the finish line.
So far, the feedback from the Magic: The Gathering community has proven they did the “right thing,” she says.
And ultimately, she says, the fans are “the ones who are going to continue to push us to make products that are worthy of their participation.”
This segment aired on March 1, 2021.