Creating Niko Aris

Posted in Feature on December 14, 2020

By Gerritt Turner

I'm Gerritt Turner, senior narrative designer for Magic: The Gathering, and today, I have the incredible privilege of introducing you to one of the two new Planeswalkers debuting in Kaldheim: Niko Aris! Joining me are several members of the Creative team responsible for conceiving and designing Niko: Katie Allison (game designer), Chris Mooney (game designer), Allison Steele (digital product manager), and Lake Hurwitz (principal concept artist). Together, we're going to talk about who Niko is as a character and what we were thinking about during the process of creating them. So, without further ado, let's get started!

Niko Aris
Niko Aris | Art by: Winona Nelson

Gerritt Turner: Hey everyone, thanks for joining me! Let's kick things off with the basics: who is Niko Aris and what's their story?

Chris Mooney: Niko is a new Planeswalker from the Plane of Theros. Early in Niko's life, an oracle foresaw a great future for Niko: they were destined to be a great athlete, an undefeated javelineer who would never miss a shot. Niko trained and competed for many years, but in all that time, they heard stories and songs of heroes who would fight to protect people and began to question the destiny prescribed to them. Eventually, Niko decided to challenge fate itself and, to the shock of many, purposefully lost a competition. The realization that they could control their own fate set Niko on their new path: a young Planeswalker seeking to become a true hero like they had always dreamed.

Allison Steele: During Theros Beyond Death, Klothys, the god of destiny, arose from the underworld. Her goal was to reweave everyone's fate and reinforce it, to ensure that things are as they should be. Klothys sent her agent of fate, Calix, after Elspeth to try and stop her from leaving the Therosian underworld, but he wasn't the only one: Klothys's agents were sent after many people who dared to defy their destiny, including Niko. Their defiance in that final competition was too much, and an agent was sent to guide them back to their "true path." During that confrontation, Niko's spark ignited, and in a moment of fear and rebellion, they planeswalked away from the reach of anyone on Theros.

GT: Now that Niko is out from under destiny's thumb, what does Kaldheim have in store for them?

Katie Allison: We're meeting Niko early in their story, so, to some degree, they're still figuring that out! They know they want to be a hero—to fight on the side of justice, save lives, change history for the better—but they're quickly realizing that real life doesn't divide neatly into good and evil. And on Kaldheim, being a "hero" can mean something pretty different than on Theros. I think the first big part of Niko's journey will be trying to figure out what being a hero means to them while trying to help anyone they can along the way.

AS: Exactly, the first big question they need to answer is "what makes a hero?" 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.

CM: For many of our Planeswalker characters, they start their journey at their lowest point, and they must set out to find or reinvent themselves. By contrast, Niko's journey begins at a point of personal triumph. They've been waiting for an opportunity to make a positive difference on their Plane, and they've just learned there are a whole lot of Planes that need them!

GT: I love that Niko bucks the trend of the "chosen one" and instead becomes a hero in spite of destiny. Their determination to become more than what destiny chose for them feels like a powerful reflection of real-world heroism. However, we know the Multiverse can be a dangerous place for a brand-new Planeswalker (or an experienced one, for that matter). What powers does Niko have that will help them on their journey?

KA: 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.

AS: Once inside, the target is trapped for a short time, unable to affect the world. They can be seen and spoken to as though through a thick pane of glass, but that's it. The shards can't hold anyone forever, though; a normal person might be able to break out in minutes, but if Niko went up against a powerful foe, it might be only a few seconds. In a story, you might see Niko smuggle an ally in secret while appearing to be alone or throw a shard containing an ally across a battlefield. Imagine Niko "missing" and throwing a shard behind an enemy, only to have Garruk or Ajani burst out and flank their foe. This power could also be used to trap an enemy just long enough to toss the shard into a jail cell.

KA: We wanted a power set that would enable Niko to make creative use of both their cleverness and their physical prowess. Niko is an athlete first, a mage second. We wanted to create a set of abilities that was effective because of how they used it, not a cannon of raw power.

GT: Niko's powers really showcase their creativity and tactical thinking. What was the thought process behind their powers, both from a mechanical and a visual point of view?

Lake Hurwitz: Visually, it was very important to us that Niko's powers serve as a point of view, a way of looking at the world around them. They have strong values and a strong personality, so other people will see something of themselves in their actions. We wanted to make sure that we captured Niko's ability to show people things about themselves that previously might have gone unexamined.

CM: From the start, we knew Niko was going to end up being a blue character, but we wanted to find a power set that was unique and visually dynamic. A lot of classic blue power suites are already being used by other existing Planeswalkers, but one aspect we hadn't yet explored was (for lack of a better name) "projectile accuracy." Blue characters in magic often focus on the cerebral or academic, but a somewhat unexplored aspect of blue is its capacity to refine specific skills through practice and training. A hyper-accurate weapon-throwing character felt like a cool power set that fit blue but was distinct from existing characters. It also tied in very naturally with the athlete direction of Niko's origin.

KA: As Chris mentioned, we were designing a blue character who wasn't the typical knowledge-obsessed mage fans often expect. A common blue characteristic is a never-ending pursuit of self-improvement. And what is diligent athletic practice if not a quest for self-improvement? Niko's fitness, dexterity, and incredible aim come from years of practice and discipline; even if they lost access to any magic whatsoever, they'd still be able to throw a javelin (or whatever else was at hand) with deadly accuracy.

GT: We've talked a lot about Niko the athlete, and I bet some people are wondering why we chose "athlete from Theros" as their origin. What was on your mind as we were developing Niko's personality and story?

CM: When we were developing Niko's origin, we wanted to tell a story that could express the shared experience of non-binary people without focusing on their gender identity. This was partially to ensure Niko was a character that all kinds of people could find relatable, but it was also to ensure that Niko's character was not entirely enveloped by this single aspect of their identity. Our approach was to try and create an origin with a familiar emotional core that we hoped would resonate with non-binary folks.

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.

We looked at several existing Magic Planes to be Niko's potential home, but in the end, Theros was a very natural fit. Theros is a Plane where the concepts of fate and destiny are very important, but we've seen through the events of our two visits to Theros that fate is not always set in stone and that the actions of individuals can change their destinies. It felt like the perfect place to tell a story about a person learning that "the way the world works" is not, in fact, the way the world works.

As for Niko's athletic origins, we knew that we wanted Niko to have a foretold destiny (that they would eventually challenge), and a professional athlete felt like an archetype that fit well on Theros and was new among our cast of characters. It also lent itself nicely to Niko's skills being developed through years of rigorous practice and training.

KA: 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.

AS: At their core, Niko is everyone who's been told they should be one thing but knows that they're supposed to be something else. I'm really happy that we landed on something so universal. I think lots of people (dare I say most people?) know what it's like to defy unwanted expectations, and so most people will be able to relate to Niko on that level.

LH: Character design means really understanding the personality and values of the person you're making, so as part of the design process, we put a lot of effort into understanding how Niko's identity as a non-binary person would change their aesthetic choices. Normally, when creating a character that conforms to traditional gender roles, the choices made to accentuate attractiveness, power, confidence, and stylishness follow relatively narrow patterns that have been culturally and socially constructed. With Niko, we made sure to explore aesthetic choices that they would make to deliberately diverge from those conventional notions.

GT: It's always an exciting moment when Magic adds a new character to its roster of Planeswalkers. As part of the team responsible for creating Niko, I've been anticipating the moment when we finally get to see Niko on cards and in stories for a looooong time. Now that they're finally out there in the world, what do you see as Niko's importance to Magic?

CM: I am incredibly excited to see a non-binary Planeswalker in Magic. It's always nice to see someone like myself represented in my favorite game, but it's even more special to me that Niko might help to introduce or normalize the idea of non-binary people among fans of all ages. Magic is a game that has thrived for many decades by constantly adapting and changing with the world around it and the people who play it. I'm thrilled to see what Niko will do and how they will lead the way for even more diverse characters to join our game in the future.

Magic has had non-binary characters in the past, and I'm certain we'll see more in the future. One of my favorite parts of a fantasy franchise like Magic is that we can feature non-binary characters from all sorts of different backgrounds, like Niko and Hallar, who come from traditional gendered cultures, but also Yahenni the Aetherborn, who comes from a culture where there's no gender expression at all. I find both kinds of non-binary characters to be relatable in different ways, and I'm glad we have the chance to explore them.

KA: Obviously, as a non-binary person myself, it's incredibly meaningful to see a non-binary hero joining the Planeswalker ranks. I think the power of representation is easy to underestimate—after all, it's not like I can't relate to male or female characters—but there's something truly special about starting to see pieces of your own identity in the epic stories you love. Niko is not intended to be "the non-binary character"; they are a specific person with their own strengths, flaws, goals, and personality. In the long run, my hope is to represent as many different non-binary (and other) experiences as we can, to give as many fans as possible the chance to see themselves in our stories.

GT: I think everyone who worked on Niko found a personal connection to the character that made the development process special. Are there aspects of Niko's character or the process of creating them that were especially meaningful to you?

KA: Well, obviously there's the whole gender thing, but that's not all. Niko is a planner who'd always prefer to fully understand a situation before getting involved. Now that they're out in the Multiverse dealing with all kinds of brand-new dangers, they're reckoning with the reality that you don't always have time for that, and sometimes you just need to trust your gut and act. I really relate to that! I'm the kind of person who saves every six seconds in video games and reads ten reviews before committing to watching a movie. Yet some of the best, most meaningful experiences of my life have come from times when I let my impulsive side lead the way. Unfortunately, I do not relate to Niko's masterful physical coordination. I tripped over my own foot this morning.

LH: To me, Niko represents the power of making a choice to express yourself, rather than to express the expectations put upon you by others. There is so much pressure to follow the well-trodden roads and lead the exact same lives that others are leading. Niko is in many ways a paragon of what Magic is all about—finding the power within.

CM: It feels a bit like cheating here, because I definitely put a lot of my own personal thoughts and feelings about my journey into the inspiration for Niko's origin. Something I find very inspiring about Niko is their expression of their blue color identity. I think blue can often be cast as smug, condescending, and intellectually elite. Those things are fun to play as sometimes, but I think Niko is helping to express some of the more positive and aspirational sides of blue: the desire to learn, the dedication to improve oneself, the discipline to practice skills, and the curiosity to question the parts of the world other people might take for granted.

AS: There's a lot of me in Niko. At one point, while discussing their color identity, I said that I thought of myself as having the morality of white with the methodology of blue, and that helped guide us to put Niko into a similar spot. As far as Niko's gender is concerned, I don't have non-binary lived experience to draw on. Being a binary-gendered woman, the closest I have is the vaguely adjacent experience of being trans. So instead, I applied lessons we learned from making Alesha back in Fate Reforged (of which I was a central part) and took my cues from the non-binary folks in the room. What themes hit especially hard for them with respect to their gendered experiences? It was an interesting challenge to carry with me the priorities from a project from five or six years ago, but the team gelled very quickly, and there was a wonderful dynamic where we were all riffing off each other and arguing constructively until someone had a brilliant idea that brought us back together. Working with Chris, Katie, Gerritt, Lake, and the rest of the team on Niko was a fantastic experience, and I hope the love and respect from that writer's room comes through in their character.

GT: As much as I want to keep nerding out about my new favorite Planeswalker, we should probably wrap things up. Thanks so much to Katie, Chris, Allison, and Lake for sharing your amazing work and thoughtful insights. And a big thank you as well to everyone else who had a hand in creating Niko!

I hope this sneak peek behind the curtain has gotten you as excited as we are about Niko! Keep an eye out for info about the upcoming Kaldheim preview season as more is revealed in the days to come.

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