What Would They Play? Anastasia Romanov's EDH Deck

Welcome to What Would They Play?

I'm Charlie, I'm a storyteller, creative writer and author; I handle the historical sections of the articles.

And I'm Dan, a Commander player who is obsessed with building thematic decks. I connect the stories to Magic cards to create decks that reflect the vibrant tales of the past.

We take famous or not-so-famous figures from history and make Commander decks based on their lives, philosophies, and histories.

Our articles are meant to be part history lesson, part deckbuilding guide. We believe that decks can be expressions of personal philosophies, so a fun way to learn about historical figures -- and flavorful brews -- would be to speculate about what sort of Commander deck a given person would play, given their times, opinions, and philosophies.

It's like a history class, only using the medium of Magic: the Gathering.

This is meant to be an accessible glimpse at the people in question, not a rigorous or definitive biography; we have sources at the end of the article for that!

Let us begin!

Trigger warning: Trauma, mental health issues.

Who Was Anastasia Romanov?

Anastasia Romanov (1901-1918), the youngest daughter of the last tsar of Russia, was executed in 1918 with the rest of the Romanov nuclear family in Ipatiev House by soldiers in the employ of the Bolsheviks.1 This is a matter of historical record, but that did not stop multiple people from claiming to be her, and thus heir to the Russian throne.

Today's article is, appropriately, a bit of a fake-out.

Who we're ACTUALLY talking about today is famous for not who she was, but whom she claimed to be. We are going to be talking about Franziska Schanzkowska/Anastasia Romanov/Anna Anderson (1896-1984), the most famous Romanov impersonator. As someone who spent much of her life impersonating a dead woman, The Mimeoplasm is a fitting commander for her to use. There are themes of trauma, deception, and the illusion of power throughout her deck.

In her long and complicated life2 she would move between continents and patrons and in and out of the world limelight. In the end, her con was successful: she lived in material comfort for most of her days, even while her mental health unraveled.

"Little Miss Unknown" (1920-1922)

In 1920, Franziska Schanzkowska jumped off the Bendlerstrasse Bridge in Berlin in an attempt at suicide. She hadn't had a pleasant life up to that point. She'd worked in a munitions factory during WWI. During a shift in 1916, she received word that her betrothed had perished at the front and she dropped a live grenade in shock. The grenade went off and killed a foreman and gave Franziska a serious head injury. She recovered, but was described (understandably) as depressed and apathetic.

She was committed to at least two asylums during the period between 1916 and 1920 before taking her desperate jump off the bridge into a canal.

When she was rescued from the canal by a passing police officer, no papers were found on Franziska and she refused to answer questions or identify herself. This was not in and of itself surprising: Germany had a lot of refugees from the Slavic world at that time, and not identifying yourself was a common tactic to avoid being deported back to suffer under the Bolsheviks or the White Armies.

Franziska was committed to mental institution, where she remained for two years. She was labelled Fräulein Unbekannt ("Little Miss Unknown;" equivalent to Jane Doe in modern parlance). She spoke German with an accent that the staff called "Russian" but otherwise she kept to herself for about two years.

The trauma and possible memory loss of this period of Franziska's life is represented here, as it often is in Magic, through milling. Traumatize, Fractured Sanity, and Increasing Confusion straightforwardly put huge chunks of libraries into graveyards, providing fuel for The Mimeoplasm, and Shadow Kin provides some regular milling while also serving as a backup Mimeoplasm.

All that changed when one of the other patients--it's uncertain who--said that "Little Miss Unknown" was in fact Tatiana Romanov, a claim so outlandish it was ultimately investigated by people who had personally known the Romanovs. Some said that she was in fact Tatiana, others dismissed the possibility; one such quipped "She's too short to be Tatiana." But the seed was planted, and "Little Miss Unknown" then spoke up of her own accord claiming to be Tatiana's sister Anastasia Romanov, which finally catapulted her onto the world stage.

Anastasia Romanov/Tchaikovsky (1922-1927)

"Anastasia" was released from the asylum in the care of one Baron von Kleist in 1922. The police officer who had rescued her from her would-be fatal-plunge two years prior, Inspector Grunberg, who "Anastasia" also stayed with for a time, speculated that Kleist had less than altruistic motives for his hospitality. If the Bolshevik regime fell, it would be handy to have a claimant to the former Russian imperial throne on hand: it could be a real payday, should the monarchy be restored.

The newly declared Anastasia moved from household to household. She constructed the following story to explain her survival: The Bolshevik troops had shot the royal family in the "House of Special Purpose" in Yekaterinaburg, Siberia; that was true. Also true was that the first volley of bullets had glanced off some of the royal children due to the gems sewn into their clothes. However, "Anastasia" claimed that she played dead and later escaped with the aid of a sympathetic Bolshevik named Tchaikovsky and arrived in Germany, taking the name of her rescuer in gratitude and to keep a low(er) profile.

This was the story, and it worked to convince a fair amount of people. What the story didn't explain was why this "Anastasia" didn't speak any Russian and was vague on the details of regular imperial family life and a number of other vital points.

The ruse was working and continued to work: former Little Miss Unknown was the talk of Europe as Anastasia and was living in high style. The theme of deception is woven into "Anastasia's" deck with the Morph mechanic. When she attacks with a face-down creature and mana available, her opponents don't know whether to block that creature (treat it as an impostor) or not (treat it as a legitimate princess). Either way, there are Morph creatures that can make them regret their decision: deathtouchers, like Ruthless Ripper and Serpentine Basilisk, will make them wish they hadn't blocked; saboteurs, like Cabal Executioner and Riptide Entrancer, will make them wish they had; straight-up huge creatures, like Krosan Cloudscraper and Krosan Colossus, can work either way, depending on the situation, as well as providing fuel for The Mimeoplasm if they're killed or milled.

The more upper class Russian emigres--while not uniformly accepting Franziska's version of events--saw enough advantage, or perhaps wanted to believe just enough, to back it. Particularly notable were the efforts of the daughter of the Romanov's personal doctor, Tatiana Melnik. Melnik coached Franziska on the details of the lives of the Romanovs, their habits, customs, and manner of speech. She justified it as "filling in gaps" in poor "Anastasia's" memory. Even more confusingly, in the course of moving about Germany, the German government issued her ID under "Anna Tchaiskovsky" but filled out the other pertinent details from information on "Grand Duchess Anastasia" elsewhere on the paperwork. (Naturally, all of this only further increased Franziska's mental distress and further blurred the line between reality and fiction).

1927: The Cat is Out of the Bag, the Lie Refuses to Die

By 1927, some of the surviving members of the Romanov household had concluded through private investigators that "Anastasia" was in fact Franziska Schanzkowska. Even people with a vested interest in having a living Romanov heir--like offshoots of the family, servants, ex-military, etc. Even Prince Felix "I murdered an unarmed man in a basement, held gaudy parties in said basement for nearly a year afterwards to specifically brag about that murder and then tried to sell a tell-all book about the murder to get rich quick by claiming said unarmed man was literally Satan incarnate" Yusopov called the new Anastasia an obvious fake.

It didn't matter, though, or rather didn't matter enough to stop the rumors or disrupt the fame of the claimed heir to the Romanovs.

As academic Stefano Guzzini writes in The Concept of Power: a Constructivist Analysis:

"Categories we use for classifying/naming people interact with the self-conception of those people. Whereas it makes no difference to stones how we classify them, it makes a difference to people. Identification and identity thus become crucial terms for constructivism[and the attendant definitions of power]."

In short, the more something is insisted upon and repeated, even if the matter seems trivial, the more that thing exerts force on reality and imagination, warping it through language and expectation. It speaks to the sheer inertia and power of perceived power of royalty in that time that Franziska/Anna's lies, though especially blatant, succeeded in convincing people that at least the possibility of doubt existed.

Likewise, Franziska's creatures increase their power by attacking repeatedly. Some creatures, like Predator Ooze and Fangren Firstborn, get +1/+1 counters just for attacking. Others, like Guild Thief and Conclave Sledge-Captain, need to hit a player to get pumped up, though their other abilities help to make that happen (and, if copied by The Mimeoplasm, can result in massive commander damage hits). Sword of Truth and Justice, Sword of Hours, and Bone Sabres can grant that growth to any creature that needs it.

Broadly speaking, the people who supported Franziska's claim to be Anastasia fell into three categories:

  • The rich: those who might gain status or notoriety from hosting a member of a royal family, regardless of the claim
  • The cynical: knowing a princess, even someone who claims to be a princess, could be useful sometimes. These sometimes included people who had actually been close with the Romanovs, like the Botkin children, who were willing to embellish if it meant getting a leg up in the world--though what they legitimately believed is also up to debate at some level.
  •  The true believers: people who wanted to believe in the fantasy of adventuring, down-on-their-luck royalty. For some reasons, Americans were particularly vulnerable to this.

These claims were successful enough that a distant relative of the Romanovs put Franziska up in Seeon Castle in Germany in 1927.3

This caused a split in the White Russian diaspora: Anna traveled back and forth between America, adopting the name Anna Anderson to deflect attention, but still letting it be known she was a surviving Romanov and living in high style. Her increasingly erratic nature--short temper (one source claims she killed a pet parakeet in a fit of pique), high impulsivity, wandering around naked (including on rooftops)--led to her being committed to asylums a few times.

The Question is Settled (1928-1984)

While the surviving members of the Romanovs who had known the royal family personally concluded that Franziska was a fraud and declared it publicly, there were significant holdouts who believed her and supported her regardless of the facts.

Franziska moved back to Germany in 1932 and remained there until 1968. She and her associates kept themselves busy entertaining and counter-suing people for libel in an increasingly long-running legal battle about her claim to the much-discussed (but unconfirmed) Romanov fortune (which didn't exist). Still, she had support from the German aristocracy and lived in material comfort through WWII.4

She lived, in declining health, near the edge of the Black Forest from 1946 until 1968, before moving to Charlottesville, Virginia. Franziska/Anastasia/Anna came to Charlottesville on the advice of one of the Botkins, and soon married Jack Manahan5, a local historian.

The two of them lived somewhat happily--their neighbors less so.6 In early 1984, Franziska died of pneumonia in the hospital after a prolonged sickness. To the end, she maintained that she was Anastasia Romanov. However, time would prove them wrong.

Thanks to the advances in DNA testing, the question of a 'surviving Romanov' was settled with DNA evidence. Franziska Schanzkowska was not Anastasia Romanov--the bodies in and around the Siberian mine were indeed the tsar and his family.

Franziska Schanzkowska had about as much right and claim to the Russian throne and the wealth that the Romanov dynasty extracted from their subjects over the generations.7 That is to say, none whatsoever.

In the end, Franziska Schanzkowska was another victim of the monarchy she impersonated: the lie of divine right to rule ate up her life, her relationship to reality and her ability to ever see her family, isolating her and (in our opinion) worsening her mental condition while providing her a figurative gilded cage to live out her life in.

Franziska Schanzkowska's/Anastasia Romanov's/Anna Anderson's full Commander deck is below!

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  1. Douglas Smith notes in his biography of Rasputin that four of the Romanov children wearing lockets with pictures of Rasputin in the center during their execution and messy disposal that involved a mineshaft and a couple of hand-grenades, amulets against harm that clearly didn't work. Here's the link to our previous work on Rasputin.
  2. Franziska's mental health was constantly under strain: she was institutionalized several times throughout her life, and she consistently displayed what we'd call hoarding behavior re: trash and the like, so clearly she had some mental health issues alongside a rather severe and unpredictable temper. We don't know the full extent of her mental issues or how they affect her story, whether she was intentionally deceiving people or truly believed herself to be an orphaned Romanov.
  3. Franziska's ashes were sent to Seeorn Castle in 1984, the year of her death.
  4. There were moments of personal heartbreak: the Nazi government brought the Schanzkowska family to the alleged last heir of the Romanovs in 1938. If her family recognized her publicly, Franziska would be immediately jailed. So (presumably with a heavy heart) Franziska's own family claimed not to recognize their daughter and sister.
  5. Professor Jack Manahan was a character: in an obituary, a friend wrote: "He was, after all, royalty. Not because he was married to Anastasia, but because he was the king of us Charlottesville eccentrics. He was our monarch not because he carried a dog food bag for a briefcase, not because he lived in houses overflowing with books, antiques, dogs, and cats and not because, given the slightest opportunity, he could tell almost anyone the name of their uncle twice removed. No, he was king because he left us all more alive with his effervescent good nature, his odd acts of charity, his wondrously weird speeches, and so much more. He woke us up from the common-placeness that is the plague of our age." Jack Manahan died in 1990.
  6. Franziska became increasingly paranoid and erratic in her final years. She hoarded obsessively, kept countless numbers of cats, had a huge tree-stump in the middle of their living room, stockpiled potatoes against fear of famine in the winter, would scream in the car at odd hours and wouldn't touch metal while eating--and on top of all that, was convinced the KGB wanted to kill her. Jack, while a sweet man, didn't attempt to intervene with his unraveling wife, claiming in an interview: "All this is how Anastasia chooses to live." It should also be noted that Jack Manahan explicitly married Franziska because of her claim to be a Romanov--while he treated her well, he married her for title, not because of who she was as a person.
  7. The Orthodox Church wasted no time canonizing the Romanovs upon the discovery of their bodies at the end of the Cold War--not the first or last time that royalty has been canonized regardless of their actions or policies in life, no matter how large their body counts.

What Would They Play? is a collaboration between author Charlie Allison and game designer Dan Sibley. The series is part history lesson, part deck-building journal and aims to bring historical figures back to life through the lens of Magic: The Gathering. You can find Dan on Twitter at @VedalkenSamurai and Charlie on the web at www.charlie-allison.com and https://blog.pmpress.org/authors-artists-comrades/charlie-allison/.