Black Is Magic: How Magic: The Gathering Is Transforming One Teacher’s Game Club

Black Is Magic: How Magic: The Gathering Is Transforming One Teacher’s Game Club
Kaya, Orzhov Usurper is my favourite Magic card. (Illustration: Ben Curie / Kotaku)

On the wall in Mike Lawton’s classroom rests a cardboard cut-out of a Black man. It’s not Martin Luther King Jr. or any other famous Black figure from history — it’s a mage — dark skinned and powerful-looking as a spell shoots from his fingertips. It’s Teferi, one of Magic: The Gathering’s most powerful main characters known as Planeswalkers, and he’s Lawton’s students’ favourite.

“I was lucky to get this huge, five-foot-tall Teferi,” Lawton, a Milwaukee Public School science teacher, told Kotaku over Zoom.

Lawton runs a game club for his students, funded by generous donations or, most often, out of his own pocket. Promotional swag, like the kind of huge cardboard cut-outs usually given to retailers, is hard to come by, but Lawton was determined to snag the life-size Teferi from his LGS — the common parlance for “local game shop.”

“They finally relented and let me carry this thing home. And when I put it up for my classroom, students see it and ask, ‘Who’s that?’”

Teferi, Time Bender. (Image: Zack Stella / Wizards of the Coast) Teferi, Time Bender. (Image: Zack Stella / Wizards of the Coast)

“That” is Teferi — one of a number of Magic’s PoC or Planeswalkers of Colour and a part of a larger push by Magic’s parent company Wizards of the Coast to address past failings and feature more diversity in its IPs. For 2021’s Black History Month, Magic released a premium set of cards called “Black Is Magic.” The set offered special versions of existing cards that feature new art of Black characters drawn by Black artists. It’s that kind of representation Lawton says has been critical to the success of his game club.

Recently, Lawton, who is white, wrote a Twitter thread explaining how much seeing characters like Teferi means to his students.

“I’m not a member of the groups that the increased representation speaks to, nor is it the only factor, but from the vantage point of running a Game Club, the members coming has increased exponentially as #MtG has put to the forefront characters that are more like my students,” Lawton tweeted.

His thread featured a classroom filled with diverse students. Rows of desks are squished together covered in battlefields of cards as kids grin, hands hovering over their next spell.

“I see [representation’s] effect when I put up art on my classroom walls like this powerful, looming Teferi,”he added. The wider diversity on Welcome Deck boxes, all the packaging, right down [to] each card.”

According to Lawton, it’s the characters that look like his students that keep them coming back.

The Black is Magic variant of Kaya, Ghost Assassin. (Image: Dani Pendergast / Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku) The Black is Magic variant of Kaya, Ghost Assassin. (Image: Dani Pendergast / Wizards of the Coast / Kotaku)

Eight years ago, Lawton started the Game Club at the high school where he teaches to share his love of gaming with his students. He, along with another teacher, brought in their own beat-up board games, scoured the local Goodwill for more, and donated their own old and dusty Magic: The Gathering cards to create the initial repository of games from which their students could play. And while he loves all kinds of games, from board game classics to Dungeons and Dragons, Lawton says Magic holds a special place in his heart.

Magic: The Gathering is one of my favourite games,” Lawton said. “So I spent a lot of time teaching Magic to students and once that sort of nucleus of Magic players started they started teaching each other.”

That kind of co-instruction, Lawton says, not only helps new players but also reinforces the lessons that more experienced players have already learned. It also helps foster community.

“Students can come in, and they’re very much supported and [made to] feel welcomed,” Lawton explained. Magic is hard to get into. It’s an old game, around for almost 30 years, with thousands of cards, rules, strategies to learn. Having students teach each other builds confidence and can guard against getting a bad first impression of the game.

Lawton’s Magic students are at every experience level, but most are just starting out. He says they mostly play “kitchen table Magic” — a low-stakes, casual playstyle of Magic in which the rules aren’t strictly enforced. As a reward for participating, Lawton gifts students cards they can take home,which — given that the club isn’t funded by the school — can get pretty expensive for Lawton.

To keep his club flush with a steady supply of cards, Lawton frequently turns to his LGS for help. He takes whatever donations he can get which include Welcome Decks — simple to pilot, preconstructed decks equipped with all the spells and mana a player needs to get started.

The Black Is Magic variant of Cultivate. I would be proud to hang this art on my wall. (Image: Hillary Wilson / Wizards of the Coast) The Black Is Magic variant of Cultivate. I would be proud to hang this art on my wall. (Image: Hillary Wilson / Wizards of the Coast)

Lawton says his students are attracted to Magic for different reasons, but it’s the art that keeps them coming back. “On the cover of all the welcome decks was all white people,” Lawton said. “And then a few years later, they updated it with much more diversity. Even something like that, students were much more intrigued, you know, [they] found it much more compelling.”

I know the feeling. Kaya, Orzhov Usurper is a Magic: The Gathering card I have never owned yet it is one of my favourite cards. Not because of what the card can do — I prefer big-arse creatures more common in green mana decks — but because of who is on the card. Introduced in 2016, Kaya is Magic’s first Black female Planeswalker. And though she is by no means Magic’s first Black female character, she is definitely the first one I had ever seen in my years of on again, off again playing, and as such she became special to me. I coveted her cards (though I have still never had the luck of opening one) and I gorged myself on her stories.

Stories, as much as art, are important to Lawton’s students. In addition to Magic and board games, Lawton keeps a few books of Dungeons and Dragons around for students to peruse.

“I’ll never forget this Black girl that came in, a freshman, and she walked in and just kinda sized up all the games and asked, ‘Y’all play D&D here?’”

Lawton, excited by the prospect of initiating a new student to the D&D mysteries, gave her the books and let her go off and do her own thing.

“She brought in her friends and they all started making characters. They made characters for months. They were super into writing the backstories, making art of all their equipment, and what they look like, and all this stuff, and they’re constantly making characters and they weren’t playing at all.”

In addition to Magic, Lawton's students are prolific D&D players too. (Image: Wizards of the Coast) In addition to Magic, Lawton’s students are prolific D&D players too. (Image: Wizards of the Coast)

Confused, Lawton gently tried to prod the girls into actually playing the game. But they continued on making character after character, using D&D’s tools to create themselves, not so they could play, but just to wield that intoxicating power of creation.

“That was the thing that spoke to them. And then one day, three, four months into the club. Poof, one day, they were up and running, and that girl who came in on the first day was DM-ing [short for “dungeon master” — the director of a Dungeons and Dragons game] it, and she was such a natural, adept storyteller.”

According to Lawton, they homebrew campaigns, using D&D tools and stories from other franchises. They once ran a Pokémon-themed campaign and frequently play through one-shot stories centered around school holidays.

“They just want to create characters and tell stories and experience new and reinvented versions of themselves.”

Lawton’s vision for a more diverse community of Magic and D&D players extends beyond the doors of his classroom, following his students in every facet of their lives and their careers.

This is Huatli, she is a dinosaur knight. I repeat: A dinosaur. Knight. Magic can be really cool sometimes. (Image: Tyler Jacobson / Wizards of the Coast) This is Huatli, she is a dinosaur knight. I repeat: A dinosaur. Knight. Magic can be really cool sometimes. (Image: Tyler Jacobson / Wizards of the Coast)

When the pandemic shuttered most in-person schooling, Lawton shifted his Game Club to meet the needs of his students at home.. Through generous donations, Lawton’s been able to set students up with materials needed to play remotely.

“I had Game Club members sign up online for whatever they wanted, and literally filled my car and delivered it to the students,” he wrote on Twitter. “Bulk #MtG, sealed #MtG product, #DnD books and supplies, webcams, playmats, shirts, and other games.”

His Twitter account shows pictures of his car filled to the roof with long white boxes used to store cards and masked and smiling students, arms full of the gear that’ll get them through the pandemic. They’re using the materials to stay connected with their fellow game club students.

Lawton’s Game Club has impacted his local Magic community. Students that graduate continue playing and Lawton will run into students at an LGS participating in little events like Friday Night Magic or the latest pre-release event for the newest set of cards.

Saheeli Rai is another one of my favourite Planeswalkers. (Image: Willian Murai / Wizards of the Coast) Saheeli Rai is another one of my favourite Planeswalkers. (Image: Willian Murai / Wizards of the Coast)

“That’s great,” he said. “It’s just telling me that what I’m doing is transforming the community. A lot of my students are not the same demographic that make up the community at large. But they’re going out to LGSs and transforming the [Magic] community which is awesome.”

The Magic community is in need of a transformation and it takes grassroots initiatives like Lawton’s Game Club to make that change. I’ve been playing Magic: The Gathering off and on for 10 years and I’ve never seen another Black girl play. I know of many Black Magic players. I’ve seen Black people play MTG: Arena on Twitch and in official tournaments. But I’ve never had the experience of walking into an LGS and seeing anyone else who looks like me.

Black Magic players exist in pockets, separated by time and space much like the Planes that make up the world of Magic. Through social media and Black gaming groups, we have been able to bridge these vast distances, becoming the very Planeswalkers we put in our decks. By sharing his love of Magic with his students, by simply putting the cards in their hands — cards adorned with vibrant art of Black characters — Lawton is creating a new crop of Black Planeswalkers, players I hope to one day see in tournaments, on Twitch, and at my local game shop.

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