This is part 2 of my interview with K. Arsenault Rivera, author of the March of the Machines storyline. If you haven’t seen it yet, please check out part 1, where Arsenault Rivera and I talked about the process of working on a Magic set as an author and some of the big picture themes of March of the Machines.

In this second part of the interview, we got to talk about some things that are deeply important to me as a Magic fan, as a reader of fiction, and as a human being. Nissa/Chandra, aka Gruulfriends, is a ship that I care deeply about, and not just because they’re cute together (though they are, Chandra hearts Nissa 4ever).

Gruulfriends is a key part of how I got into Magic; hearing about Gruulfriends is how I found out that Wizards could tell stories about people like me–and also just, the kinds of stories I want to read.

Arsenault Rivera says so many of the things in this interview that I want people to know about being a queer fan of Magic. Along the way, she also says some amazing things about writing romance and desire, her literary influences, and even how a magical book ignited her spark. And of course, some fun facts to know and share about Nissa, Chandra, and even the hunky Adeline. 

K. Arsenault Rivera’s Queer Romance Origin Story

Okay, let’s do it. I’ve had my vegetables. Now I can have my dessert. 

Let’s talk Gruulfriends! 

I wanted to ask about romance. You’ve written romance, or at least romance-adjacent books before, and I think one reason why I like this set’s story so much is because it does read like a romance novel at points. That’s very much a compliment, to be clear.

There’s a lot of language that’s fairly subtle, but very clearly language of longing and desire, particularly with Chandra and Nissa. How do you do that? What’s your approach for communicating those kinds of emotions in fiction?

Joke answer, I have been gay for 31 years, and this is just the language we speak

That’s true.

Serious answer – that, but more involved. 

Growing up queer – I think you and I are probably in the same age band – there was a lot of media that didn’t quite have outright queerness in it. We could talk about queerbaiting all day, of course, but there was also a lot of fiction by queer people where you just weren’t really allowed to put it on screen, stuff like the adaptation of Fried Green Tomatoes where they’re not explicitly lesbians.

I think that growing up that way, and knowing from about the time I was 13 or so that I was queer, I was always looking for that in fiction, and that yearning meant a lot to me. That yearning could almost sometimes overpower the actual story itself. There’s a whole lot of stuff I got into just because one girl looks longingly at another girl at some point, and that definitely shows in my writing, because that yearning is something that I greatly enjoy being able to write. 

When it comes to a set like March of the Machine, like I said, I was trying to keep most of the focus on these human emotional moments. Say what you will about big battles and stuff like that, a lot of people do care about those, but a lot of Magic fans–especially franchise Magic fans–really care about Nissa and Chandra. I knew that confrontation would mean a lot to so many people. But I also needed to signal that these people mean a lot to each other, and that the things that Nissa’s saying are hurtful because she knows Chandra so well.

Really it was just diving into some of the same stuff I do in my literary fiction, or you might say my original fiction. A lot of that language that I use comes from…I read a lot of Heian poetry. I’ve got stacks and stacks of Heian poetry. Do you know much about the Heian period?


So the Heian period produced very many great poets within Japan. Part of the reason that happened is because poetry was part of society at that point. There were ritualized rules for it. If you were courting somebody, for instance, you would write them a poem, and they would write you a poem back, and the quality of their poem and the way that it answered to yours mattered more than your looks did. That’s how courtships were conducted. 

If you read stuff like The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, it’s just such a part of what they did. It was every day, It was always on the top of people’s minds. How they linked different seasons, for instance. Seasons are really big in haiku. You actually need a seasonal word in order for you to qualify as a haiku, otherwise it’s just a sparkling tanka.

All of those poems are so filled with love and longing and ephemerality that reading them always makes me feel like buzzing with literary feelings, I guess you would say. So I read them an awful lot, and a lot of my writing is informed, by the way, that those homes approach things.

They won’t say I was crying for you all night, but they’ll say I lean my head into the tear-soaked sleeves of my kimono, for instance.

So really that approach and those vivid images that are used are always something that I’m striving for, whenever I write fiction.

What’s your connection with Japanese literature?

So my first book is mainly focused on a secondary fantasy world. It’s primarily based on various East Asian cultures. I’ve liked Japanese fiction since I was a kid, but as I got older I started focusing more on…I guess you would say serious Japanese fiction. And a lot of that started…this is gonna sound fake. But I’m not even making this up. I was walking home one day right, and somebody had left a bunch of books out on the stoop. People in New York do this all the time, leave out books that are free for somebody to take. There was one book that as I was walking just kind of swooshed out of the pile, and it happened to be a book of Japanese poetry in translation, and I thought to myself, I hadn’t read that much of that, and I picked it up. I’m pretty sure it’s still on that stack [gestures off-camera] somewhere. 

That book fucked me up. There’s no other way to put it. I was just so struck by every one of those images that it really informed the kind of writer that I want to be. I wanted to make people feel the way that I felt when I read those poems. So after that I just got really, really into Heian period poetry.

So I read pretty much everything I could get my hands on. And now, of course, I read a lot of Japanese fiction. It’s what I tend to read when I’m working, because I can’t read science fiction or fantasy. I try not to when I’m working on it. But so I read a lot of modern, some contemporary Japanese fiction.

I felt like you were going to tell me that you picked up that book and your spark ignited.

That’s essentially what happened. My creative spark certainly ignited. I think it was that, and honestly I was super obsessed with Greek myth when I was a kid, like a lot of queers, and what those two things share in common is poetic language. Because the Iliad, the Odyssey, those are my poems, all of Sappho’s works are poetry. I think poetic language is something that I always come back to, and this grand scope that you can get some times in poetry.

Quintorius, a young elephant person, his eyes growing yellow with mana. He holds an book glowing in the same color, and bolts of power blast out of spectral scrolls all around him.

So I want to ask a Gruulfriends-adjacent question, about Adeline. I’ve written about how she’s really a huge deal, because her arc re-established clearly that Chandra has lady feels. Is that a story beat you were given, or is it something you brought to Wizards?

It’s something that Wizards asked if I was comfortable doing, and I was just like, “Are you joking? Am I comfortable doing that? Of course I’m comfortable doing that!” So I leaned into it. I’ve seen some speculation about Chandra and Adeline, and I would say, as the writer of Midnight Hunt and Crimson Vow, for me it feels like probably off-screen, Chandra is like, “Look, you’re a hunk, but I’m probably not going to be here too long. Is that okay?” I feel like there was probably at least a discussion there. Hopefully Nissa doesn’t have to go toe-to-toe with the Cathar, because Adeline is a problem in Legacy, and I don’t know if Nissa can handle that right now.

That would be a clash of the titans.

It truly would! A fun fact is that I actually did name Adeline. I read a lot of Gothic novels, is my other big thing, and so she’s named after the lead character in The Romance of the Forest, who is nothing like her. But I’ve always liked the name. So when they were like, yeah, we don’t have a name for her I was like, “I got it!” 

Something I’ve been curious about for a long time is, as a writer working in the canon, how do you handle Forsaken, in terms of Nissa and Chandra? Do you have a different version of how that turned out in your head as you write?

It’s choosing what matters for the present moment. What is on Chandra’s mind right now, what is on Nissa’s mind? Clearly, they’ve broken up. There have been some strange feelings about that. How do I delve deep into what those feelings are? What’s important about them? How do I set this up best so that both people will care about it and enjoy it, but also so that there’s stuff to play within the future. 

How did the decision to get Chandra and Nissa back together come about?

Chandra was always going to be a very important character in the set, and obviously she’s one of the face characters of magic, and with Nissa being one of the compleated planeswalkers, obviously there was always going to be a confrontation. There was a lot of collaboration with the story team about, ‘how do we best make that land?’

As the story went through its iterations of revisions, we realized how important that thread was to the whole story, and how much them getting together toward the end would tie together a lot of the story beats and really encapsulate a lot of what Chapter 10 is about. It was something that mattered very greatly to all of us at the story team. I was able to do this in-story, but that doesn’t mean that it was just me. We had Roy [Graham], we had Grace [P. Fong], who’s no longer with Wizards, but was incredible, and Miguel [Lopez] and Emily [Teng]. It’s a team effort, and it’s something that matters to all of us.

I don’t quite know how to ask this…why is it important? For Nissa and Chandra to get a happy ending?

This queerness is so important. It’s one of the most important things. I know that there’s all this discussion of, “Why do you have to keep having queer shoved into your into our faces in this mainstream stuff? I just came here to play a card game.” Sure, whatever. You’re just here to play a card game. But there’s a whole bunch of queer people who are playing this card game every day, where it’s a whole multiverse of possibility where people can be all sorts of things in all sorts of different places, and they need to see themselves. It’s more important that we are able to see ourselves in fiction, and that we are able to be not just seen, but given the same level of care as any straight romance would be.

Jace and Vraska got to bone on screen in this set. I think that Chandra and Nissa most certainly deserve a kiss. They’ve been together just about as long as it’s not a little bit longer than Jace and Vraska. So if you’re not bothered by Jace and Vraska, I would ask you why you were bothered by Chandra and Nissa.

By the same token, sapphics especially have had to deal with this phenomenon of “bury your gays” quite a bit, and that originates way back in the Hayes Code, where if you wanted to write lesbian fiction, you had to have one of them die, or get married [to a man], or something like that. We’ve seen that not just in Western media, but also in Eastern media. It happens a lot in anime and stuff as well, and in yuri manga. We’re just now getting to a point in society and in culture where you can be sapphic, and you can have a girlfriend, and things don’t go left for you. It doesn’t always mean that things are going to go left. And for me, as somebody who grew up in that world where things always did, it’s extremely important for me that we have relationships that work out.

Now, that doesn’t mean every relationship needs to. But it means that one like Chandra and Nissa, who meant so much to people, and Chandra who had her sexuality almost retconned at a certain point–it means so much to be able to see that, and to reaffirm that and go “Yes, we’re here.” Especially in the climate that we are in with obscenity laws being passed every day with queerness being attacked way more than I ever thought it would be in 2016 when I was celebrating gay marriage being legalized.

We just…we need this. We need these wins. And as a queer person, I’m always going to be here to provide at least a bit of those.

What’s the next boundary to push in in Magic, in terms of representation? What’s the next story to tell?

Well, I think that there are some axes that we haven’t seen in terms of representation. Something that some of the other folks in the Magic community, like radley and Dex, have pointed out is that we don’t have a trans masc leading character, and I would love to see that. I would love to see people like Niko Aris get more of a spot, get our non-binary representation out there. I want to see more stuff with Ashiok.

I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen to some of these people after March of the Machine, but I think that there’s space there to interrogate disability as well. And what happens when your body changes in ways that you don’t expect.

Obviously we have Teysa, and Teysa’s great, but you know Ajani lost an eye, and Nissa had a whole lot done to her, too. I think there’s space there to examine people’s relationships with their bodies in interesting ways.

Teysa Karlov, a pale white woman in an elaborate white dress holding a fancy cane and looking at the viewer with a knowing expression. The the Multiversal Legends version of the card ‘Teysa Karlov"

You left the door open for that with those two in a really interesting way, emphasizing the fact that Nissa and Ajani aren’t completely restored. There are definitely marks left.

It’s absolutely not an easy solution, either. Melira had to die for this. They used Venser’s spark for it. There’s so much that had to happen in that particular way just for them to be able to do this, and they didn’t even know if it would work, and we still don’t know if it worked entirely. Obviously they’re awake now, but there might be other ramifications coming. It definitely did take a cost, and that cost was, you know, Melira’s life, and Venser’s your spark, lest we forget

Something that I’ve been thinking about recently is how much the fact that the story of Magic doesn’t end affects the way it’s written. It really crystallized for me after Brother’s War, where Nissa and Chandra reunite for the first time. I was disappointed with that story at first because there was no big payoff, but on reflection I realized “No, this is great actually, because this is setting something up.” How do you go about that when you’re writing? Which doors to leave open? 

When you’re writing original fiction, a thing that will happen a lot, especially if you’re writing a long term work is you will mention something offhand, and then several paragraphs later–maybe even several books later–you’ll realize, wait a second. I already wrote a solution to this problem, it was in this one small thing I mentioned way the fuck back here. 

In IP fiction, especially shared universe IP fiction, we don’t always have the luxury of being the person who goes, “wait a second, I already had that solution.” Sometimes you’re just the person who puts the pieces on the table. I think it’s important when you’re writing shared IP–people like Gail Simone talk a lot about this–you don’t take all the toys out of the sandbox. You have to leave some toys in the sandbox. You could do stuff with them, you could build a sand castle with them if you want, but it’s important that if you’re taking stuff out, you’re also putting stuff in. I think that’s part of the reason that long-term character death is so hard in shared IP, because we find that there’s still stories we want to tell about these other characters, and we keep coming back to them.

I grew up reading comics, and I try to be a very conscientious person when it comes to shared work. I really love collaborative writing. And I spent a lot of time playing tabletop role-playing games where the policy is not to say, ‘this never existed’–you leave it there, and maybe build off something else later. So I think it’s just kind of a natural instinct for me to make sure that there’s stuff for people to build off of. I think that if you’re a good storyteller, there’s always naturally going to be some questions at the end of your arc. That’s what makes a reader really consider what you’ve put together, when they can think to themselves, “Well, what did that mean? What does that mean going forward?” Making sure that we have those questions, and that people can stay wondering about what’s going to come next, is both an important part of getting people interested in Magic products, but also fiction writing in general.

Stepping back from MOM for a moment – how has writing for Magic changed your relationship with Magic? Does it feel different to play? Do you feel differently about the lore and the story?

This is going to sound like a total cop out, but it hasn’t changed all that much, because I loved Magic so much to start with. I don’t know if I could love Magic any more than I do. I just…I love Magic: The Gathering so much. 

What’s your favorite format right now? 

Commander. I am a person who only plays Commander. The thing is, I’m not very good at magic, right? I’ve got a very straightforward brain when it comes to Magic, like I like turning creatures sideways, and I like making flavorful decks, and I like reanimation a lot. So those are the main things I set out to do in every magic game. My friends play these like super intricate decks, where tons of stuff is happening, and that’s just not what I do. 

I would say, if anything, writing for Magic has deepened my connection to the community, and it’s given me a lot more opportunities to play Magic. I’ve gotten the chance, very gratefully, to go to MagicCon, to hang out with people, and it gives me an easy in now. “Hey, do you like Magic: The Gathering?” 

One of the interesting things about Magic is that…I knew Seanan years ago, she blurbed my first book. But like we’ve become way better friends, because we’re both working on Magic now, and we talk about that a lot. So I would say the biggest change is just that I’ve been able to talk to more people about a thing that I really love.

With March of the Machines, it really was me desperately trying to cram every ounce of love I had for Magic into a set, and to convey just how much it mattered to me to be able to write something like that. I can’t even describe to you how much it meant.

I love Magic: the Gathering. I’m always going to love it. There’s space in the multiverse for everybody. And there’s space in the multiverse, for thousands more stories, and I hope that we get to tell them.

A muscular transmasculine person wearing an armored binder dashes forward, twin blades raised, screaming defiance. From the card ‘Death-Greeter’s Champion’. 

Thank you. One final question – tell me about your upcoming original fiction.

Shameless plug time–I have an upcoming book called Oath of Flame. That’s a contemporary retelling of Eros and Psyche, but with a bit of a fae court twist, where the Greek gods are kind of more like a fae court than they are outright Greek gods. It’s pretty cool–that is coming out from Forever Reads, probably in 2024.

Besides that, I have my first original series, the Ascendant Series. That’s The Tiger’s Daughter, The Phoenix Empress and The Warrior Moon. That one is a secondary fantasy centered on two princesses from various East Asian-inspired nations who have to team up, fight demons and kiss a bunch. And that’s actually the first time that I wrote sapphics having to come together amidst a plague that spreads via black oil, so it’s funny. I didn’t realize that until I was talking about Tiger while talking about Magic fiction. I was like, “wait a second!” If you liked what I did with Nissa and Chadra in this set, definitely check out Tiger’s Daughter, because it is jam-packed with queer emotions.

Dora Rogers (she/her) is a writer, game designer, and heart-eyes lesbo from Montreal. She is one half of Gal Pal Games, and you can find her solo TTRPG and interactive fiction projects on Follow her in all the places, or catch her on Arena playing questionable Vorthos decks in Standard.

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