We here at Hipsters of the Coast love Belzenlok—why wouldn’t we? We love him not just because he’s a massive card advantage demon—although that doesn’t hurt—but because he’s something rarer: a fun villain.

We run into villains in every set—from scheming anthropomorphic villains like Baral and the Cabal Patriarch all the way up to galaxy-altering superpowers like Nicol Bolas and Yawgmoth—but Belzenlok does something very different: he changes how we think about Magic’s history and our understanding of the game’s lore. In an uncertain era, where rumors can tear through the net and become common consensus before anyone is able to fact-check, where people can look at the same data points and draw opposite conclusions, where “big mood” means something, Belzenlok is the first “alternative facts” villain.

When Hipsters spoiled Cabal Evangel, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. “Oh, cute,” I thought, “They’re continuing the ‘Belzenlok as omnipotent influencer’ joke and ‘Shopped some flavor text into a vanilla card.” But no: Belzenlok has colonized history, brainwashed cultists into believing he is the most important entity in the multiverse. Belzenlok is Ozymandias.

As I mentioned in my last article, I was in a community production of Boeing Boeing last month. As I was leaving the theater one evening, an acquaintance waved me down to talk, said we were great, but that he couldn’t believe that “the villain didn’t get punished,” that he got a happy ending. “The villain?” I asked, unsure of who he meant to play that role in this absurdly frothy farce. “Well, yeah: you were the villain, weren’t you?” It made me pause and reconsider. From a modern perspective, yes: the character I played was villainous. He employed a secret system of schedules to keep three women cycling through his bed, each without awareness of the other two. That’s morally indefensible, epidemiologically irresponsible, and misogynistic as hell. In the script, though, it was portrayed as the brilliant scheme of a scoundrel and, as part of an ensemble cast in a wacky farce, you can’t be villainous—it was honestly an acting challenge to pull my personal feelings about the character back from what showed up onstage. Clearly, in this performance, I’d failed.

All of which is to say: villains are fun when their motivations are clear, when there’s some core of rational thought in their desires and designs, when they’re relatable, even in their depravity. Even Magic’s original Big Bad, Yawgmoth, had an identifiable arc and motivation. He’s essentially an alien intelligence, but a recognizable intelligence nonetheless. Yawgmoth is Magic’s first and worst villain: something so heinous that he transcends traditional morality and becomes something closer to a god of death. In his reign over Phyrexia and ascent to power, he committed genocide and assorted war crimes, oversaw the subjugation of entire species, built elaborate prison-planes, etc. etc. Dude is every boss fight from high fantasy rolled into one, and, most interestingly, sees flesh and/or human lives as just one more resource to be exploited. He doesn’t kill for pleasure, but to harvest. To see the destruction of human/elvish/etc. lives as a moral choice is absurd to Yawgmoth, like humans getting upset about the bacteria in the water they drink. Death isn’t a moral action, but an environment to him.

To contrast, let’s talk a second about Yawgmoth’s Vile Offering and nerd archetypes. In Noah Bradley’s masterful art, we see the culmination of the Weatherlight Saga: a warrior carrying a decapitated head, confronting a god offering him a woman’s naked body as a literal prize. That’s our hero, for the record. There’s a single death there: the death of Hanna, Gerrard’s lover. She was killed by a plague unleashed by Phyrexia to cull the ranks of the Dominarian resistance and her corpse Obliterated by her father, Barrin, as he destroyed the Phyrexian-swarmed island of Tolaria (Hell of a sentence, there). Her death—one of thousands—gave us a human understanding of a massive atrocity; note also that Gerrard’s grief, not Hanna’s death, motivates him, a subtle but meaningful difference from lazier “fridging” tropes. When confronted with the copy of Hanna (pictured in Jilt, fully clothed and awake), he recognizes it as a projection of Yawgmoth, not his dead lover, and rejects the “gift.” In Bradley’s piece, we aren’t there yet, and so the optics are different: we see a bold warrior, coming to claim a woman’s body. Fair enough, if Bradley wants to interrogate the hoary warrior’s claim archetype, the same attitudes that give us droit du seigneur and incel message boards, but the flat canvas of the card doesn’t give context enough to tell us that. Instead, I picture Gerrard and Feldon in a therapy group, trying to figure out why artificial simulacra of the women they loved aren’t fulfilling. It’s kind of simple, my dudes: reduce love to an object, and all you get is an objectionable love. We’re not supposed to see Gerrard or Feldon as villains, obviously—but there is some hidden chauvinistic barb hidden in their narratives. Obviously, this is fine, generally speaking: flawed characters are interesting, and flawed people doing the right thing for the wrong reason is the best many of us can hope for in our own lives. It still bears scrutinizing and discussing, especially when it underlines the difference between a flawed character and a villain.

Take Belzenlok, then—the closest thing we have, at the moment, to a Yawgmoth follow-up (or, in his own mind, a replacement). He’s monstrous, presumably—he’s a cult leader and he feeds on death and destruction to feed his hunger for power—but there’s something so innocuous about these Thanos-style genocide machines (Ob Nixilis, Nicol Bolas, etc.). We’re not asked to think about the logistics of genocide—perhaps because it makes us think of the chilly logistics of the state that murdered millions of marginalized people through bloody-hearted bureaucracy and go-along-to-get-along loyalty—so the stakes feel so much lower. These characters slaughter planes, sure, but so did Urza. Our minds can’t grasp atrocities without human stories: we can’t understand the scope of evil without the sacrifices of the Hannas of the world.

That can be warped, too. Look at us as a culture: we love slaughter. We listen to My Favorite Murder, we swap Dahmer stories, we spend the cache of “psychopath” like it was meaningless. “It could be us,” we think, one of the prey animals that these monsters thin from the herd. Christie Cleek, Sweeney Todd, John Wayne Gacy, MacHeath—the stories we tell and the songs we sing to keep the villains boxed into their roles. The thing is, serial killers are boring. True villains are the ones who operate with social approval everyday—the ones who only become villains with perspective, with changing social acceptance standards. Serial killers are antisocial; true villains create their own new societies. Personally, I’m not a villain, I don’t think—I just played one onstage—but there’s a little bit of villainy inside all of us, a secret rapacity that says “well, I’m owed this” or “I could do so much good from a position of power if I could just.” Magic’s villains may operate on a grander scale than most of our petty iniquities, but we find them compelling because something in them reminds us of ourselves: of everyone who’s found themselves willing to undercut a friend to impress a lover, of everyone who’s ever tossed a colleague under the bus to take their seat. Magic, like acting, gives us a safe outlet to channel the darker aspects of our personalities—the ambition and competitiveness that help us succeed, but can also take us from “flawed” to “outright villainous.” Stay on the right side of that line, if you can help it: our ecosystem doesn’t need any more predators.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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