Kaldheim is a realm of ice, snow, and heroes. And one of the two new Planeswalkers debuting in the set is a powerful javelineer from Theros.
Magic: the Gathering’s newest set is drawing closer, and you can practically hear the creak of wood, the howl of wind, and the grunting of vikings enough to populate a year’s worth of metal album covers. Kaldheim might be full of runes, mythology inspired by frost giants and Norse gods, and face-melting power ballads, but not everything is wrapped up in wintry wonder.
Two new Planeswalkers are debuting in the latest set, and today we’re here to talk about Niko Aris, the first non-binary Planeswalker in Magic: the Gathering.
Niko Aris is a Planeswalker from the Plane of Theros. Destined for greatness on the athletic fields of Theros’ many competition, Aris might have found glory in being a javelineer. They trained for years, but even as they mastered their chosen weapon, Niko grew up hearing stories and songs of great heroes who fought to protect the weak. And Niko came to questions their own fate, which came to a head when they purposefully lost a competition.
This brought them into conflict with Klothys, the god of destiny, during the events of Theros: Beyond Death. In that expansion, Klothys and her agents were confronting many who dared to defy their destiny, but the ensuing conflict helped ignite Niko’s Planeswalker spark, and they left the realm of Theros behind.
All of this goes into setting up Niko’s story in Kaldheim, as described by the creative time behind the new Planeswalker: Katie Allison (game designer), Chris Mooney (game designer), Allison Steele (digital product manager), and Lake Hurwitz (principal concept artist).
Allison describes the central question of Niko’s story as “what makes a hero?” Having escaped from Theros to the realm of Kaldheim, where being a “hero” can mean something entirely different from Theros, Niko will be confronted with a chance to define who they are.
“Are the virtues of Therosian heroes the virtues they want to nurture within themselves? It’s an exciting time in anyone’s life, and we get to watch Niko not only navigate the Multiverse but also their own quest for self-determination.”
Whatever the answers to these questions, Niko will be a powerful new planeswalker with an impressive array of powers that scream blue-white control. As Allison explains:
Niko can conjure shards of mirrorlike magical energy, which they can shape into throwable weapons of various sizes. These can, of course, serve as simple piercing spears or daggers, but they also have another exciting property. Each shard can be imbued with the power to absorb the first living being it touches (other than Niko), containing them in an extradimensional space for a limited time. They can trap an enemy at a crucial point in battle, hold someone for questioning, or even whisk an ally out of danger.
Extradimensional space sounds like exiling to me. They’re basically sent to the Phantom Zone, since they can only be spoken to as though through a pane of thick glass. Though this is only a temporary power, Steele describes Niko using one of these shards to smuggle an ally into the fight as well.
This makes Niko an interesting character–they’re decidedly blue, but they’re not the typical magic-driven illusion or control wizard archetype like, say, Jace or the like. They’re an athlete first and foremost. Niko is someone driven to define their own destiny and identity, which is partially behind the decision to make them non-binary.
Kate Allison describes the decision:
First and foremost, we wanted to design an interesting, heroic character whose non-binary gender is just one facet of their identity. A deeply important part, to be sure, but not the only thing that defines them. I’m personally very happy with where we landed with Niko, who feels like an awesome person with a resonant story and also happens to be a badass representation of my own gender.
While Lake Hurwitz, the principal concept artist talks about how Niko’s identity would change their aesthetic choices–notably that Niko would deliberately diverge from conventional notions of attractiveness, power, confidence, and stylishness.
Chris Mooney, who, along with Kate Allison, is non-binary, expressed how excited they were to see a character like Niko in the game:
As a non-binary person, the story that resonated most strongly with me was one about questioning the accepted norms of your world: there is an idea that society accepts as fact, but the more you learn about it, the more you start to question it. Eventually, you decide to challenge the idea yourself and discover that you have the freedom to move beyond it. This was the journey that we wanted to set up for Niko.
And though Niko Aris’ gender identity is a big part of their story, it’s not the main focus. It informs the arc that Niko is going through, one of self-determination and expression, but this drive to defy what fate has set out for you is something that any hero can relate to. We’ve all struggled to stand out in one way or another, and Niko’s gender identity opens the door to really explore that in ways that a cisgender character simply couldn’t.
As Kate Allison puts it, “Niko is not intended to be ‘the non-binary character’; they are a specific person with their own strengths, flaws, goals, and personality.” And in their quest to defy the fates and discover what it means to be a Hero, no matter the realm, there’s an exciting new star joining the constellation of Planeswalkers.
What do you think of the new Planeswalker? Let us know in the comments!