How I helped make the first black woman planeswalker in Magic: The Gathering history

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Sep 28, 2017

It's officially been one year since Magic: The Gathering introduced Kaya, Ghost Assassin, the fantasy card game company's first black woman added to the Planeswalker line of characters.

These characters, who gain the power to travel beyond their world to other realms (or "planes") after experiencing an intense life event, are the main superheroes and supervillains of the current Magic storyline. Whether they use their powers for good or for evil are entirely up to them, but they are the only characters who are able to hop around the universe and affect life on the planes for better or worse. Think about it like how The Doctor, in Doctor Who, can hop from different worlds and either make things really awesome or really screw things up for everyone involved.

Magic has been stepping it up in terms of their focus on representation, and Kaya is definitely a character who has sent shockwaves through the Magic community. I should know — I was the main consultant for the character.

I helped develop the character alongside Kelly Digges, a creative writer for Magic: The Gathering. It was a fun challenge of fleshing out Kaya with him, and it was great to catch up with Digges again and revisit the process, as well as discuss where representation is fantasy today.

Monique Jones: What led the Magic team to come up with a character like Kaya?

Kelly Digges: We are always looking to expand representation on our cards, in our games and in our fantasy worlds. Inclusivity is one of our core values as a company. For many years, we've been pretty inclusive as far as the fantasy gaming genre goes in terms of our gender presentation — the number of women and how those women are presented as been a strength of Magic for a long time. More recently, we've really made an effort to expand our representation in terms of ethnicity and in terms of race.

We know that many different kinds of people play our game and enjoy our fantasy world. It's fantasy — we're dreaming up a world that doesn't exist. There's absolutely no good reason other than in implicit racism for those fantasy worlds to be populated mainly or entirely by white people. It's been in the last four to six years that we've really been making an effort to expand the range of ethnicity in the human characters on our cards.

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Why did Magic feel a consultant was needed for Kaya?

It kind of started for me with a blog post by the author N.K. Jemisin. She wrote about representation in one of the Dragon Age games. There is a black character and that was super cool to see, but then she mentioned that that character had a hairstyle that would be incredibly difficult to maintain under the conditions of the game and that took her out. While it was clear that the people making the game had good intentions with representation, what they didn't have was the on-the-ground knowledge.

I thought about that a lot, and that was at a point when we were really, really working to expand that kind of representation. I realized that I wanted to get details like that right. That's really hard if you don't have that lived, on-the-ground experience, and even if I really did my research and read up on blogs about what people wanted to see and what people didn't want to see, that would still be my idea of it. It would still be really easy to get things wrong and I would have to play it very safe. I would have to be careful in terms of what I tackled.

I began to imagine a scenario using hair as an example. What if we had a throwaway line about a black character doing their hair? Would that be much-wanted representation and a nod to a lived experience, or would it be like, "Oh, you're singling out the black character to talk about their hair?" I didn't know. In not knowing, I would really just have to leave that detail out. It would be safer to leave that detail out.

So that was the impetus — just not wanting to play it safe. Having someone we could go to who cannot possibly represent the broad spectrum of perspectives among our fans of color but someone who has both the lived experience and an amount of academic experience and journalistic experience, writing and thinking about issues of representation and people of color. Then we could have those conversations to get that representation to ring really true and it would be extra-welcome and not have to play it safe so we wouldn't trip over some line we didn't know was there.

On your end, what was the development process like for Kaya?

The first thing that happened was that we knew we needed a new character for this slot. Kaya is one of our Planeswalkers, our characters who can travel among our many different settings, go from world to world. There's a kind of universality that they need to have. When we get a new slot to make a new Planeswalker, it's a big deal. We don't do it that often. We make a couple of new Planeswalkers each year, two or three. When a slot came up, we were like, "We don't know who this person is, we don't have any goals for this character." We thought, "Okay, what can we do here?" The initial kernel of the idea, actually, we jokingly referred to the character as "Hanna Solo." We had the idea of a roguish, charlatan archetype, but a woman. That already seemed like something interesting and cool.

As we developed the character, we realized we wanted her to be black. There was no reason for her not to be black and that could add something interesting as well. From there we did a ton of research on hair, a ton of research on the kind of fashion we thought she might wear.

We did want a somewhat roguish, somewhat boyish sort of look. I had Janelle Monae on my mind at the time. We looked at a lot of Korean men's fashion to inform her jacket, which doesn't come through super loudly when all is said and done, but I'm proud we did it, and we did look at hair. We looked at a lot and found different kinds of silhouettes. I wanted to make sure her hair looked natural, that it was natural black hair — that was important to me.

I was the working with the art director, Cynthia Sheppard, and she worked with the artist Chris Rallis to create that first image of Kaya. There was a lot of back and forth and there was a little bit of focus group testing with some people in the building, but she came together pretty quickly.

We were also doing narrative work on her role in the story. We had a ghost king who needed to be assassinated — that was the thing that would happen next. So, we were introducing a character who would assassinate a ghost. We thought that was interesting. So, Kaya's powers started to come together after that. Once we were done with her art and her general role in the story, we didn't have the actual specifics of her prose story, "Laid to Rest," and that is when we turned to a consultant for those little touches of authenticity to help Kaya do her job and be appealing in the ways we wanted her to be to people.

Credit: Wizards of the Coast

Do you think there's been any significant change in how black women are perceived in those two genres in the past year since Kaya's release? I know right now, we have Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time and shows like Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story.

That's an interesting question. You certainly cited some great examples. What I have noticed is that there's certainly more conversation about it. There's a lot more awareness that when people say that sci-fi and fantasy should have more women and more women of color, those aren't two separate buckets. You look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens — there's a woman and a black man in main roles in Star Wars! That's great! Where are the women of color? In the past year, we've seen characters revealed in the next Star Wars movie who are women of color. That kind of thing does seem like it's slowly moving, but it's always a slow process. I truly don't know which way the wind is blowing on that, but I hope it's toward more inclusivity.

Do you think there's anything fans can take away from Kaya and her inclusion in the Planeswalker storyline?

A couple things. We have a little motto that goes with our values of inclusivity, which is "Dragons and elves belong in our world and so do you." I hope that what all players take from the fact that we're expanding representation in our lineup is that all kinds of people play our game and… all kinds of people should feel welcome playing our game. To facilitate that, to normalize that, to let cosplayers have someone who looks like them, we are going to continue to expand what kinds of people you see on cards.

Since Kaya, we've actually introduced a number of women of color. We have a character of South Asian/Indian descent named Saheeli Rai. We've got a character from an Egyptian inspired world, who is certainly black — her name is Samut. We're going for a very specific cultural vibe there, but she's the second black woman in our Planeswalker lineup, and just recently, we've introduced Huatli, an indigenous South American-inspired Planeswalker from a culture that is loosely based in Meso-America, except they have dinosaurs, which is cool. She is a dinosaur-riding warrior-poet. So, I hope that from Kaya and from these others people see that we are going to keep expanding the types of people you see on cards and that we will continue to expand the kinds of people we see in game stores, at events, around kitchen tables, playing our games.

When can fans of Kaya and Magic expect to see Kaya on the scene again?

Well, I can't answer questions about the future, but I can tell you that she is on our very short-list of characters to bring back in the immediate future. You haven't seen the last of Kaya and I'm very excited for people to see her again as soon as possible.