No Skeletons in China: Why Magic had to have alternate card art in China for over a decade


For a long time, art featuring skeletons and bare bones were not allowed on Chinese Magic: The Gathering cards.

Ever since the beginning, Magic: the Gathering has featured skeletons and other undead characters. For many players, especially those preferring black, it would be hard to imagine the game without them.

But for a decade-and-a-half one country didn’t get to have skeletons and some of those other undead entities. In fact, they went out of their way to hide it.

That country? China.

When Magic started moving outside of the United States, China was one of the top markets to go to. With more than a billion people, a gaming culture, and thawing trading relations in the 1990s, it was a no-brainer. 

While skeletons are not exactly forbidden in China, some places see them as bad luck or a superstitious bad omen. With tough censors, Magic, as well as other growing fantasy games such as World of Warcraft, decided not to take a chance and go the safer route and simply not even include them. 

So to comply with the tough censorship, Magic art for those cards going oversees covered skeletons up with flesh, chose a new image,  or cropped an existing image out of the skeletons way.

For a long time in the 1990s and 2000s, this was the norm.

This all changed in 2008. By then, China was opening up to the world more and more. The Olympics were held in Beijing, and after the success of films featuring China in the west, such as Kung Fu Panda (which actually caused a crisis for animated filmmakers in China about depicting their country), China needed to see what the world had to offer - warts and all. At the same time, a new generation in China no longer held traditional thoughts about skeletons. They were taking it more in stride.

China gradually lessened it’s censorship throughout the year as the world came to China. At the same time, WotC was launching Shards of Alara and decided that it was time to live a little dangerously. Cards with skeletons came out in the expansion … and China said nothing.

Since then, both Magic and China have been fine with it; signaling change as well as the fact that maybe it wasn’t a big deal at all.

It can be hard to believe today, but slightly more than ten years ago China was the sole country that managed to break Magic’s rule on only one version of artwork per card in each edition.

Evan Symon

Evan Symon is a graduate of The University of Akron and has been a working journalist ever since with works published by Cracked, GeekNifty, the Pasadena Independent, California Globe, and, of course, Magic Untapped.