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Magic: The Gathering players say Killian Lu is the “Panda Expressification of Asian Culture”

The character’s version of representation frustrates AAPI fans.

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

The first time Daniel Kwan saw Killian Lu, one of the new characters introduced in Magic: The Gathering’s Strixhaven set, he was struck by two things: Lu was undoubtedly hot, and he was plastered all over promotional material for the popular trading card game. That initial reaction mirrored other Asian-American fans in his friend group, who couldn’t be happier to see publisher Wizards of the Coast representing them in one of its largest games.

“Whoa, an Asian person with modern sort of fashion sensibilities is the face of this new set? That's just super cool,” Kwan told Dicebreaker. A writer and cultural consultant within the tabletop RPG space, Kwan saw Lu as the perfect reason to return to his old cardboard hobby.

Lu is one of a group of student characters at Strixhaven used to embody the mage school’s five colleges, each with their own academic focus and two-colour identity. Lu is stylish, confident and - if a little severe - a total “smokeshow”, as Kwan put it on an episode of the Asians Represent podcast.

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Killian is the stereotypical person of color B-plot to five white characters.

As they discovered more about Lu and his place at Strixhaven, Kwan and friend Michelle Rapp - an artist and self-described Vorthos player who cares deeply about Magic: The Gathering’s lore and story - felt their excitement rapidly deflating. Cards such as Crushing Disappointment and the term “honormancer” did not match their expectations.

“Instead, what happened was everything about Killian was relegated to every single Asian stereotype that you've seen in media,” Rapp said. “And to me, it just felt like a wasted opportunity.”

Lu and his father, Dean Ambrose of the Silverquill College, share a deeply unhealthy relationship that mirrors ‘tiger parenting’, a term coined by Amy Chua in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It describes parents who are overly controlling, obsessed with success above mental health and essentially every other aspect typically ascribed to the Asian parent stereotype.

Killian Lu is the latest in a long line of Inkcasters, a legacy his father will maintain at the cost of his son's wellbeing. | Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

Ambrose pushes Lu to succeed at all costs in order to uphold the family legacy and not tarnish their public image, something Rapp and Kwan both said they have personally dealt with and seen affect the lives of friends and peers. It’s a real and harrowing experience that still happens today, but Lu isn’t described in any other terms beyond how he relates to his abusive father.

Kwan likened their portrayal to monetising Asian trauma. Even though Lu is otherwise described as a hardworking and diligent student, use of “positive stereotypes” elsewhere can feed into a system of white supremacy by offering one nonwhite group as ‘the good ones’. “This is something that we continue to see with the model minority myth and how it creates this divide between the Asian community and basically every other community of color,” he said.

Killian was relegated to every single Asian stereotype that you've seen in media.

“It really felt wrong to me to attempt to explore this kind of story using this medium,” Rapp said. “It was so clear that this is a failure of the team behind this game to fully understand the ramifications. And I guess to some extent, the crudeness of the instrument they're using to tell the story.”

Magic: The Gathering’s vehicle for narrative has changed over the decades. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Wizards of the Coast would contract authors to pen tie-in novelisations of the broad plot hinted at in each set’s collection of cards. When that strategy was discontinued in 2011, the official website hosted a series of microfictions and short stories that often focused on core characters like Jace Beleran and Liliana Vess - planeswalkers with the convenient ability to hop between worlds and embroil themselves in the plot.

Everything else must be conveyed through the cards’ elements: artwork, flavour text and mechanics. These crude instruments, as Rapp put it, left Lu’s execution feeling “a lot like trying to create a three Michelin star like meal with an Easy Bake Oven”.

“It’s the Panda Expressification of Asian Culture,” she said, comparing the attempt to the American chain of fast food restaurants known for its vaguely Asian-inspired recipes.

With good looks and a killer fashion sense, fans said Lu didn't need a stereotypical tiger parent to be interesting. | Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

Kwan recently published a Dungeons & Dragons adventure in Candlekeep Mysteries and spoke about the necessary freedom 7,700 words gives an author to explore characters and do the work to flesh them out beyond their skin colour. Compared to that work, he said Strixhaven seems like cramming “six seasons and a movie’s worth of TV and film just through trailers” - a strategy that feels flatter when dealing with minority representation.

Further frustrating the issue for fans is the fact that they claim that Magic: The Gathering has previously pulled off this trick. In a Kotaku article titled Hey, Magic: The Gathering, Your Story Is Doing Great Without The Racist Tropes, video game journalist Ash Parrish details her love of stories from the card game’s universe that manage to star Black characters but not rely on their Blackness to endear them to readers.

Parrish says that too often American media puts Black people under a lens of “hyper-visibility” - when the Blackness of a character is emphasised above any other defining trait - whether race is a theme of the work or not. “People have a tendency to hyper focus when they feel like, ‘we have to do better, we have to do good when we tell these non white stories’,’' Parrish told Dicebreaker.

I don't need you to somehow recreate in the Magic multiverse a Black person getting shot up by cops.

She points to Teferi, a planeswalker and master of time manipulation, and the Amonkhet warrior Samut as prime examples of Black characters done well in Magic: The Gathering’s lore. Teferi’s latest adventure saw him solving ancient mysteries with his daughter Niambi. Both of them are portrayed in card art as undeniably Black, but the story centers a daughter and father reconnecting as she helps him begin to heal from the woes of his extraplanar travails.

“One of the things that I liked so much about Teferi’s story was that he got to be Black, while Blackness wasn't the crux of his story,” Parrish said. In these instances, the visual side of the card game’s storytelling established the characters’ Blackness and allowed the books and short stories to flesh out their needs and motivations - the things that make them humans rather than rough sketches.

So, what happened with Killian Lu? Rapp claims she spoke to Jontelle Leyson-Smith, director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Wizards of the Coast, who said the writing team was aware of fans’ criticism and was “taking it seriously”. Lu was reportedly written in part by an Asian-American woman, but nobody in the interview said the blame should be laid at their - or any writer’s - feet. (Dicebreaker reached out to Wizards of the Coast to further confirm these details but did not hear back by time of publication.)

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Kwan said the Lu situation was a clear example of what happens when a creative team does not have adequate representation at all levels. Either poor decisions made in the writing room aren’t flagged and fixed, or higher-ups insist on hackneyed, outdated characterisation that those below them don’t have the authority to call out as offensive.

“I think what we really see with this is the need to have more diversity in all levels of the creative processes, not just freelancing,” Kwan said, referencing Wizards of the Coasts’ recent overtures to diversify the pool of talent writing on and for its games. The results of these initiatives have been mixed, to say the least.

Kwan thinks it’s too late to fix Lu and extend an olive branch to Asian players. Despite featuring heavily in marketing and promotional material, Lu appeared in one short story as a secondary character - Kwan and Rapp can’t help but feel like they’ve seen this nothingburger of representation before. “Killian is the stereotypical person of color B-plot to five white characters,” Rapp said.

It really felt wrong to me to attempt to explore this kind of story using this medium.

Ultimately, this significant misstep has not hurt Wizards of the Coast’s bottom line and given it a reason to change, but all three said players should expect more from the story and not settle for cartoonish racial tableaus. For them, the publisher should rethink its approach to representation before its next attempt to tackle fraught and often traumatising storylines.

“Right now, the Ash that I am is like, ‘No, just leave it alone’,” Parrish said. “I'm pretty sure that there are other ways that you can, like, speak to me as a Black queer woman. I don't need you to somehow recreate in the Magic multiverse a Black person getting shot up by cops. I don't need that. I don't want you to do that. Just leave it alone.”

Fans don't believe wanting Asian characters free from tired tropes is asking for too much. | Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

At the same time, Parrish said she recognises the power in framing stories like this in a medium beyond news channels and Twitter feeds. Racist violence against Asian-Americans has skyrocketed in the United States in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Former president Trump and too many other elected officials pinned its global spread on China and East Asia in general, parroting dangerous conspiracy theories and emboldening racists to inflict harm on individuals.

Critical entertainment can humanise groups of people who would otherwise be targets of hate, but Rapp isn’t confident when Wizards of the Coast will be capable of tackling that kind of work. “I think that's dangerous water right now for Wizards,” she said. “It has not been shown that they can handle this well.”

Rapp thinks the company can start by aiming higher than Panda Express. “Let me hand back this sad orange chicken, please.”

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