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Exile in Guyville: Thoughts on Women in Competitive Magic


I’m often surprised when I travel hundreds of miles away for a Magic tournament and end up sitting across from a player from my hometown. My Round 1 opponent at this weekend’s StarCityGames Open in Portland was a Seattle-area local; he played at my local game store’s Bellevue location, he said, and we both laughed about how difficult it can be to make it to one another’s stores in time for Friday Night Magic. Interactions like these are the ones that remind me why I play the game: I have pleasant conversations with opponents at just about any big tournament I compete in these days.

Captain Sisay
I noticed a handful of female players scattered throughout the room as I meandered around before the tournament. One of them, a young woman who appeared to be in her early twenties, happened to be sitting beside my opponent at the next table. Shortly after we all sat down, her opponent took his seat next to me, politely extended his hand to the woman, and introduced himself. As my opponent and I shuffled up our cards and gradually ran out of quips about Seattle traffic, I started to overhear bits of their conversation.

“So, are you here with anyone?” the man asked.

I froze. Please don’t let him say what I think he’s going to say, I thought.

The woman looked equally put off. “I’m here with some friends,” she said with some uncertainty.

“ . . . Boyfriend?” he replied. I didn’t catch her response—maybe she didn’t respond at all—but I did hear the man say, “I’m under the impression that most women who come to Magic tournaments are there with their boyfriends.”

I looked up and was surprised at how quickly the woman made eye contact with me. She shook her head slightly and sighed; her expression said, “Don’t you hate it when this happens?” None of my male opponents has ever asked me where my boyfriend was, but I could still empathize: Seemingly every time a male friend gives me a ride to a tournament, someone asks if we’re together.

I turned to the man sitting next to me. “I actually met my boyfriend through playing Magic,” I said.

The woman smiled at me. Her opponent looked embarrassed. I was still angry, however, and I misplayed my way through my first game of what would be an unsuccessful tournament.

Ambush Viper
Meanwhile, in Toronto, Gaby Spartz was having much better luck in Standard, making her first Grand Prix day-two appearance with Abzan Aggro. Though she’s best known for her successful Magic Online stream and her love of Ambush Viper, Gaby reached wider audiences last month when ChannelFireball.com published an article she wrote on improving women’s experiences playing Magic. While I agreed with most of her points—visibility is important, and men should call out other men who exhibit sexist behavior—I can’t say I related to all the experiences she shared in her piece. The most frequent compliment I receive from more experienced Magic players is, “You’re pretty good for someone who’s only been playing for [amount of time]”; I’ve never been told that I was good at the game “for a girl.” Several of my opponents have also complained about losing to me, but their grumblings always have more to do with our match history than my gender. I’m fortunate enough to belong to a community in which I’m respected for my play skill and where my gender rarely, if ever, factors in.

I’ve refrained from addressing gender in my writing for Gathering Magic thus far because I didn’t feel it was relevant or necessary. As I often say, “I’m not a woman who happens to play Magic; I’m a Magic player who happens to be female.” My love of the game and attitude toward it has nothing to do with gender. After reading Gaby’s article, however, I realized that women’s experiences playing this game won’t be accurately represented unless more of us add our voices to the conversation—one of us cannot (and shouldn’t be expected to) speak for all of us. Today, I’m here to speak for myself, but I don’t want to stray too far from the focus of this column—therefore, I’ll be discussing how being a female Magic player has affected my ability to prepare for and compete in larger tournaments.

Lightning Bolt
Gaby Spartz is one of many young women on the verge of breaking onto the pro scene. In the last year, two women—Jadine Klomparens and Jessica Buchanan—have Top 8’d Grand Prix and earned spots on the Pro Tour, and several more have finished in the money at SCG Opens and Invitationals. The problem isn’t that women aren’t succeeding in high-level Magic—it’s that we aren’t succeeding consistently. There hasn’t been a single woman listed in the Top 25 Pro Rankings since the system was instituted in Autumn 2013, and none of us has qualified for the SCG Players’ Championships or Worlds.

While I have yet to achieve as much as some of my fellow lady Planeswalkers, I, too, put up wildly inconsistent tournament results. For every tournament I spend cleaning up at the top tables, I spend at least two more slogging through the X–3 bracket. Perhaps it’s my inexperience showing—I’m still not quite three years into my Magic career, and it takes time to learn the nuances of the game, gain self-confidence, and develop good tournament rituals—but I can’t help but wonder if gender plays a small role in my struggles.

My most common complaint about playing Magic competitively is that I don’t feel I’ve had a strong support network of testing partners and traveling companions. When I first started going to Grand Prix, I was the token female member of my playtest group. While some of the men I tested with were quick to accept me into their ranks, others didn’t see me as an equal or take my opinions seriously. They often recommended I play “easy” or “linear” decks in tournaments—“Play Burn!” “Play Living End!” “Play Merfolk!”—and their lack of confidence in my play skill made it hard for me to develop confidence in myself. Other times, they’d convince me to pick up the deck that they were playing, but they’d consult with each other privately about tweaks and sideboarding options before a big tournament, leaving me in the dark. Whenever we traveled to larger events, I would listen to Exile in Guyville in my hotel room at night, feeling like Liz Phair understood what I was going through. I practiced all my moves, memorized their rules, and made myself their friend, but still lost most of my matches and felt miserable.

Eladamri's Call
As time went on and I started improving and winning more matches, the guys started showing me more respect. Oddly enough, I test with them less and less these days—partly because I still don’t feel I fit in with them, but mainly because I just couldn’t conform to their sleep-all-day-test-and-discuss-Magic-all-night schedule. I’ve tried to reach out to other members of my community for help testing for events, but to little avail—my acquaintances frequently don’t have the time, don’t share my goals or approach to testing, or just aren’t interested in helping me. On the rare occasions that I feel prepared for a tournament, I tend to do well, but most events I’ve competed in have played out the way SCG Portland did this past weekend: punt, draw, lose, drop.

Traveling to events isn’t easy, either. I can usually find affordable flights to far-away Grand Prix if I book them far enough in advance, but hotels can be pricy, and I’m often at a loss for roommates. For the first year that I played competitively, I either had to coax my boyfriend into attending tournaments with me to split costs or pay a premium for my own hotel room. Eventually, Robert lost interest in traveling to tournaments, so I had to become creative. At SCG Portland 2014, I stayed at a house in nearby Vancouver, WA with four of my male friends and had to put up with some uncomfortable questions from acquaintances at the tournament (e.g. “Where’s your boyfriend, and how does he feel about your lodging arrangements?”). This time around, I stayed in a house in Portland’s isolated Hillsdale district with two friends who had only come down to play in side events and see the city. I arrived on Friday afternoon, but I couldn’t get any testing in because my friends don’t play Standard and didn’t have decks on them. I often think about the testing houses that the (male) pros rent out before Pro Tours and wonder what it would be like if the female grinders of North America joined forces and adopted that model, but it seems like a pipe dream.

Fortunately, I am taking some proactive steps to improve my own tournament experiences. I’ve reached out to some of my female Magic-playing friends from across the country and hope to travel with them soon. Playing in more Grand Prix should help me up my game, but I’ll also need to prepare for all those tournaments—so I’m turning to Magic Online, Shaun McLaren–style. Previously, when Robert and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment, I would steal his laptop to play some disjointed games and end up disconnecting whenever I tried to execute a bot trade; now that we’re renting a house, we have a small office that can house a proper gaming PC. I’ll be investing in a couple of Constructed decks, playing in Daily Events whenever possible, and streaming my games. “Magic desperately needs more prominent female figures,” Gaby Spartz wrote. The more visible we are—on Twitch, on camera, in the community in general—the more women will see that Magic isn’t just a boys’ game, and the easier it will be for all of us to compete.

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