Chapter 27-Magic’s Missing Tribe


Magic’s Missing Tribe  

WHILE PRO Tour Dragon’s Maze may have been a triumph for Josh Utter-Leyton, Luis Scott-Vargas and its eventual champion Craig Wescoe, it was not a triumph for diversity: out of the field of 388 players in San Diego, only two were women. Wizards of the Coast are reluctant to give out information on the demographics of their player base, but this was not a fluke. While in many ways, the demographic playing Magic has evolved to feel a little more self-confident, a little more mainstream, a little more mature, the miniscule showing of women at the Pro Tour is a sight that hints at the limits of the game’s gradual normalisation. The gaping gender gap might not be quite so bad at less competitive levels (Wizards does say 38 per cent of the game’s ‘fans’ are female — people who have played in the last six months or who have heard of the game), where wives, girlfriends and sisters (mine included) have often been cajoled into playing. But the lack of women in the game overall is a stark imbalance that persists in the Magic community, contrary to trends in other sectors. In June 2013, for example, the Entertainment Software Association released a report putting the proportion of female computer and video gamers at a whopping 45 per cent. Clearly, a decent number of women. like playing games, but Magic’s progress in attracting them remains at best stuttering and at worst glacial. For a game in otherwise rude health, that is a crying shame.  

Considering the game itself is one of mental dexterity rather than physical strength, Magic should at least, in theory, be able to provide a level playing field for men and women. But the hardcore strategy gamers the game was first aimed at – those who might be lingering between sessions of Dungeons & Dragons at conventions – were an overwhelmingly male-dominated audience. Despite Magic’s eruption into something like mainstream consciousness during its most heady and fad-like moments in the early to mid-1990s, it failed to pull in a new wave of female gamers, much to creator Richard Garfield’s dismay. “I had a lot of ideas about getting women to play games and I naively thought that perhaps what we did with Magic, making it less festooned with bikini babes, would bring them in,” he says. “I thought it was a good first step but it proved to not have much impact at all.” For a product so radical in every other way, it is a notable and frustrating blot on its copybook.  

There were, however, women involved in the game early on: Wizards’ vice president Lisa Stevens, Kathryn Haines, the editor of The Duelist, or a figure like Joanne White who founded the magazine Scrye. But as the game became tournament-focused with the Pro Tour’s creation, casual and competitive strands of the game split and seem to have left most of the small number of women. players stranded on one side of the divide. Beth Moursund, one of the most recognisable female names in the game’s history, says she is not surprised. She got into Magic having discovered a free Booster Pack in her goody bag at a convention called Dragonflight in 1993, a few weeks after Magic had gone on public sale at Gencon. She got hooked on the game, playing it casually, before becoming involved at Wizards initially as a ‘net rep’ – one of the numerous enthusiasts the company fielded on Usenet to help new players with rules questions. Moursund went on to write extensively for The Duelist, and became heavily involved in judging, eventually developing the game’s Comprehensive Rules alongside Bill Rose and Paul Barclay. And while she was immediately attracted to the complex interactions the game produced, she says in her experience, “Women seem on average to be more into the social type of games rather than the hardcore strategic games.”  

That much was also immediately evident to Sabina Browne, a tournament organiser from Richmond, London, when, having picked up the game around the time of Ice Age in 1995, she ventured to her first big event. “I nearly turned round and walked out the door,” she says. “I thought, ‘there’s no-one like me here’ and only a friend convinced me to stay.” Still, she sat down and played. and remembers her opponent trembling like a leaf as they dealt out their cards. “He was absolutely perturbed to be playing against a woman,” she says. “I think I won just on that basis.”  

While such anecdotes should have been consigned to the game’s past, the reception for women at the 500,000 Magic tournaments that take place each year has been slow to change. In that sense, the few women who have graced the game’s top tables should be lauded for their perseverance and the performances they have turned in (even as inane, misogynistic comments fly around chat rooms filled with, so it seems, almost uniquely adolescent boys or bigoted men). Melissa DeTora is the Pro Tour’s most impressive and consistent female player, one who has continually broken new ground for women with her performances. Having played on the Pro Tour on 11 previous occasions, cashed several times but never cracked the Top 64, in February 2013, DeTora stormed her way to the Top 8 of Pro Tour Gatecrash in Montreal. She became the first woman ever to reach the knockout- round benchmark and finally scotched any notion that women were inferior players. Still, as I watched and cheered her progress in front of the coverage, I saw posters on online platforms queuing up to denigrate her. “The first woman to reach the Top 8 and she has to be ugly,” wrote one wit. It was thoroughly deflating stuff, which brought to mind Joseph Conrad’s quip, “Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men.” Magic’s men in particular have struggled to temper their attitudes and welcome women into the community with courtesy and respect. Nonetheless, DeTora believes her sistren are following her example and taking up the game. “It’s not as rare as you think,” she says. “A lot of women play, just not competitively. If you go to gaming groups on college campuses, for example, you will find women playing Magic. If you go to a Pro Tour Qualifier though, then that is when there are few women.”  

THE QUEST FOR the Pro Tour remains as exciting and thrilling a motivator for a swathe of Magic’s player base as it did when it was first conceived and galvanised would-be champions everywhere. Certainly, that has brought with it a cut-throat atmosphere to the qualifying circuit, as many players give their all for a shot at the game’s big-money circuit. While many players are courteous opponents, there are those who will take any advantage they can, showing off their gamesmanship, testing the limits of the acceptable, probing for a psychological edge. While that might not appeal to everyone — male or female — there is evidence to suggest that is does appeal to more men than women. A 2007 Stanford University study for example determined that, when given a choice to compete, over 70 per cent of men will seize the opportunity to do so, compared to around 35 per cent of women.  

What is unclear, though, is whether this is a genetic factor or a consequence of socialisation; whether this is nature or nurture at work. However, in creating the Pro Tour at all, Wizards rejected the idea that a generation of brainy young men were innately pre-destined to be lonely flag-wavers for their high-school athletes. For Wizards (and the Magic community itself) to now nonchalantly chalk up women’s supposedly lesser desire to compete to nature would be a travesty: the Pro Tour’s legitimising effect changed the lives of young men who might have felt on a hiding to nothing by transforming their socialisation. Now, it must attempt to break barriers in what may be a question of opportunity and education for women, too.  

There is, though, almost an embarrassment within the game to suggest ways of helping women who may want to step up from the casual level to playing competitively. Magic’s great levelling effect (as a mental not physical game or sport) should make gender irrelevant, after all. Practically though, after 20 years, that has proved insufficient to capture a sizeable portion of female players – nowhere near the number of video gamers, for example. However level the playing field in theory, it has not proven the case for most women taking their first steps into a real-world Magic environment, where being the only female in the room at a tournament can be an isolating emotional experience. When a sexist remark is an easy way to ruin someone’s performance. When. a cheap shot at someone’s gender (or any other distinguishing trait) can win a game or discourage a potentially skilled opponent from ever returning. That is an uncomfortable facet of competition that has been recognised far more successfully in other similar games.  

Carrie Oliver is a British player who Top 32ed at Pro Tour Nagoya 2011, then the best finish by a woman at the Pro Tour ever. It was the culmination of a ride that had seen her go from bullied school kid, to computer gamer, on to accidental Magic player, before she honed her skills to the impressive level she reached on the Pro Tour. What is also noteworthy in her ascent to Magic’s upper echelons is her experience of competitive bridge — a ‘mental sport’ as much as Magic is – that she argues provides far better structures for supporting women that do want to raise their game to a tournament level.  

During her time at university, Oliver practised regularly with the England Under-25 women’s bridge team, whose name reveals the approach that card game has taken to involving both sexes at its competitions. Bridge, says Oliver, has both mixed open tournaments and separate women’s tournaments. The result is, by her estimation, a field that is split roughly 70-30 in men’s favour at open, mixed tournaments, already an unthinkable number compared to Magic tournaments. To put that into perspective, the proportion of women in the Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze field was a little over half a percentage point. The proportion at an open event like Grand Prix London 2013, which I attended with almost 2,000 other players, was even less. At a most optimistic count, including ambiguous first names such as Sam and Alex, the figure for that tournament was 3.76 per cent. Clearly that is a tiny amount – and while it is perfectly possible that it does accurately represent a competitive 35 per cent of the total, female Magic- playing population, it is a number that does not present a well-balanced, diverse community. That should be a goal in itself because, quite apart from anything else, broadening the game’s player base will allow it to continue to grow in future and ensure its survival. Therefore, upping the amount of women playing at all levels – with the knock-on effect of increasing the share of women at the highest level – is something Magic should be trying far harder to do, given two decades of relative failure to address the issue.  

 “When I did well at the Pro Tour, I had a lot of girls contact me and say they had been really inspired. That they wanted to get better, compete and do what I’ve done,” says Oliver. But what needs to exist for those women is a pathway to join Oliver and her Pro Tour peers. For that, Wizards’ current hands-off approach may simply not be enough. Indeed, says Oliver, “I get the feeling that Wizards of the Coast are very reluctant to single out women as a community. And, actually, I think they need to.” Although no-one wants to see women patronised with products or events catering to any kind of lower perceived skill level, a once-yearly women’s tournament with a decent prize pool, for example, (including byes for a future Grand Prix or a seat at the Pro Tour), comprehensive coverage and a positive, celebratory atmosphere could go a long way in creating new heroes for aspiring female players to cheer. It would also create a stepping stone into the highest levels of organised play for the female Magic community. While it is possible the average skill level at the tournament might be lower than some current events (precisely because it would operate as an initial way into competitive play for many women), it should be no less competitive within itself — after all, not only bridge, but women’s sports exist across the board. There is a hunger among every woman on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour or Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour to be the best in their field. And like their male counterparts, sportswomen compete with steely determination for status and spoils. Given the success of such a model elsewhere, Wizards reluctance to try it out seems intransigent as the community itself continues to prove stubbornly slow at changing its own composition.  

IF THE SLENDER ranks of women tournament players are in fact representative of the numbers playing the game at a more casual level, an effort to bring more female players in at the bottom of the Magic pyramid is clearly needed, too. For a start, that might include leveraging the marketing value of players like Melissa DeTora, Carrie Oliver and their fellow regular Pro Tour colleague Jackie Lee. In the time since Oliver broke through at the Pro Tour, it is something that, if Wizards have not overtly exploited, a plethora of other Magic websites have. Oliver began writing strategy articles for a major website – and very soon afterwards, every site worth its salt had some kind of female voice on its writing roster. “In some ways we took the initial abuse for the community,” says Oliver, referring to the acerbic comments she and other female authors have faced below the line. “But now it’s accepted: we do write for the Magic websites, too. And that’s a good thing.”  

The level of nastiness and casual sexism flung around in the online Magic space is sometimes written off as the disproportionately loud outpourings of a brash and toxic minority, but unfortunately goes hand-in-hand with similar behaviour at all levels of what remains a primarily in-real-life game. The computer games industry recognises what a problem online abuse is, as Michael Patcher, an analyst for Wedbush Morgan, told Forbes in 2009, “The biggest obstacle to growing the female gaming community is the trash talk that goes on in the online area.” With face-to-face still the main mode for Magic-card slinging, the effect can only be more intimidating to women trying to pick up the hobby. It is perhaps worth noting that even Wizards of the Coast’s director of organised play Helene Bergeot was threatened with rape — ‘jokingly’ – by one player on a public forum. He received a lifetime ban from sanctioned DCI events.  

While Oliver, meanwhile, has rarely been insulted to her face, friends she attends tournaments with have reluctantly had to mention to her the occasions when men have bad-mouthed her behind her back. She says the prevailing attitude at events remains juvenile and prejudiced: bragging players will tell their friends between rounds, “I played a girl, so obviously I won!” or be mocked. if they didn’t for “losing to a girl.” The same mutterings at games stores, clubs and events the world over add up to an intimidating atmosphere for any woman wanting to get into a new hobby that is, above all, supposed to be fun.  

Tournament organiser Browne, who runs a weekly Magic club, says players in her experience are often even stunned to discover their event is not an exclusively male affair. “They expect a male organiser,” she says. “They get strangely confused half the time when I appear. I think they do expect it to be fully male.” That might explain the bizarre situation acclaimed Magic artist Terese Nielsen found herself in at San Diego Comic Con a few years ago. As she stood at her booth, her artwork laid out before her, a young man stopped to peruse her prints. “Wow, these are really good,” he said to Nielsen. “When’s he going to be back?” Clearly, there is an education issue here, an experiential one, too. Not only does a mixed and diverse crowd need to become the norm to change attitudes, but also the community needs to police itself and hold its members to higher standards.  

But were it that easy, were Magic simply the level playing field it should be, this would be a non-issue 20 plus years into the game’s lifetime. And therefore, it is encouraging to see initiatives taking place at a grassroots level. One of them is the Lady Planeswalkers Society, which meets regularly at Card Kingdom, a Seattle game store which itself sets a new standard for a welcoming, clean, bright and social space. It even has a café attached where diners can play almost any game available in the store over a plate of nachos and a toothsome craft beer.  

The Lady Planeswalkers Society is the brainchild of Jennifer Meyen, a relative newcomer to the game who has also worked at Wizards of the Coast as an assistant brand manager for Magic. When Meyen discovered the game in 2010, she threw herself into it with vigour — attending store-held events like Friday Night Magic and even a Grand Prix and Pro Tour Qualifier in her first six months. Despite taking a brave and headstrong approach, she quickly found herself being made to feel like a bad player – rather than an inexperienced one on a steep learning curve. Though it should not have, her being a woman exacerbated the feeling. Meyen felt she was letting female gamers down, fulfilling the easy stereotype the guys around her had of the quality of women. players.  

Meyen recognised that while, through sheer bloody-mindedness, she was able to raise her game and not wilt in the face of the mostly male competition she was facing, it was not an approach that would suit most women curious about the game. Thus was born the Lady Planeswalkers Society (planeswalker being a type of character within the game and the loose role each player is supposed to assume) as an attempt to remove some of the barriers to women getting into Magic.  

A few years on, Meyen’s play-group meets weekly to play different formats and to teach new women how to play the game in a welcoming and friendly environment. There is no obligation for women to play the game this way – if they are already battle- hardened with a strong and supportive group of friends, they can of course jump feet-first into any tournament the store runs – but for those who would rather learn the game with more nurturing peers, this is the place for them. Crucially, when Meyen. runs small tournaments for her members, she allows any men to play who have accompanied a woman to the meet-up, the idea being to forge the links necessary for her players to become part of the larger, male-dominated community, too. “Including men helps us to be accepted by the Magic community as a whole,” she has explained on the Wizards website. “We are not an exclusive group outside of the community, but a subset within [it].” Now, the model is being taken up by similar play-groups around the world, as a positive way to empower female gamers and get them playing a game that so glaringly needs their contribution. While Meyen stressed her initiative was strictly unofficial, it spoke volumes that a Wizards employee identified the need to recognise and support women as a distinctive part of the community – while further up the food chain, inertia seemed to prevent the company from trying the same fresh approach at a competitive level.  

WHAT WIZARDS DO recognise, though, is the paramount importance of bringing new players into the game at all. Just as R&D have implemented a ‘New World Order’ to keep the game as accessible as possible, so on the digital front have they forged new ways for would-be players to encounter Magic. When Randy Buehler moved upstairs and out of the daily cut and thrust of R&D’s ‘pit’, he petitioned Hasbro for funds to get Wizards into digital publishing. Buehler’s plans were persuasive and saw him take up the role of vice president of digital gaming in early 2007. And while challenges both internally and in the wider economy would eventually see Buehler leave the company in 2008, one very important product did issue from his tenure: the arcade-game style Duels of the Planeswalkers. The game gave players a chance to play a stripped-down version of Magic against their machine — battling bosses with pre-constructed decks to unlock new, more powerful cards or entirely new decks altogether. The attractive graphical interface presented real-life Magic cards, but simplified some of the game’s actions (for example, choosing what mana to tap to cast spells), while also introducing players to some of the game’s harder-to-grasp concepts, like the abstract notion of the ‘stack’, used for resolving in what order multiple spells cast at the same time take effect. “While I am honestly surprised it took me as long to get funded and made as it did,” says Buehler, “I sort of knew that it was absolutely the right thing to do for Magic. We had to do it. And I think it’s certainly contributed to the continued growth of Magic.”  

Crucially, Duels of the Planeswalkers has also helped create the first bridge between primarily digital gamers (and that enviable 45 per cent female audience) and Magic. It was, in fact, precisely how Carrie Oliver first discovered the game, as a student who saw friends playing Duels of the Planeswalkers at their digs. Soon, it had invaded her shared house, too, and became a staple on the console beneath the living room TV, fiercely contested by her and one of her flatmates. He was more aware of the link between the digital game and the paper game and started purchasing a few cards that he showed to Oliver. Soon, the pair were making their first trip to a tournament, a large, regional Pre-release event (before they were moved in-store) for the expansion Worldwake in January 2010. Oliver emerged with a creditable 2-2 (two wins, two losses) record and was bitten by the Magic bug. Duels of the Planeswalkers had not just helped convert her from a video gamer, but also offered a pathway into the game that proved the perfect learning experience for her. Instead of ever feeling like a bad player, as Meyen did, she was playing against the game’s artificial intelligence — one that never smirked at her when she made a mistake, high-fived its buddies when it beat her or called her ‘lucky’ if she won. On top of that, it gave her a chance to learn some of the game’s intricacies before ever having to set foot in a specialist game store, most of which, though havens for the young men in them, are dingy, close-knit and elitist. “I think if I had had to go to games shops to learn the game cold, that would have been very intimidating,” says Oliver. “I remember even after playing in that first Pre-release, I wanted to play more and discovered there was a local shop where they had weekly Draft events. But it took mea few weeks to work up the courage to go. I had never been a role-player or table-top gamer, so walking into the midst of that group for the first time and saying, ‘I want to play Magic’ was quite scary.”  

In that respect, Duels of the Planeswalkers may well be the perfect first step for women into the Magic community. With that in place, though, it should be incumbent on players and Wizards to support their next steps — be it with play-groups like the Lady Planeswalkers Society, a high-level women’s tournament or simply the respect, acknowledgement and courtesy that human beings regardless of gender, race, creed, orientation, ability or any other trait, deserve. Currently, Magic is missing out on too much. richness – and failing to offer the same empowerment it offered a once maligned group of nerds and geeks to other minorities in its midst. There are now small victories – like DeTora’s Top 8 or transsexual women who play the game winning tournaments and writing about their experiences. But there are also lows, like the incessant misogyny slung around online, chipping away at the community’s fibre. While there is naturally confusion about how to proceed, and a reluctance from Wizards to single out a portion of an audience playing a game that should present equal opportunities to all, the harsh reality is that, empirically, it does not. There have been some encouraging signs from the Wizards marketing department, like a tie-in with new-media celebrity Felicia Day’s Geek and Sundry website, as well as the introduction of female commentators to the Grand Prix coverage roster. These moves can be a boon to all fans of the game. But as long as the DeToras and Olivers remain rare, Wizards must consider implementing a stepping-stone for women into competitive Magic – while the community itself needs to speak up about prejudice in its ranks and shed some of the defensive, insecure behaviour that can translate into intimidating aloofness at grubby game stores all over the planet. The long-term goal for all involved in Magic needs to be growing the game – and that means making it accessible to new audiences. Via video games like Duels of the Planeswalkers, by creating welcoming physical environments like Card Kingdom and nurturing play groups like the Lady Planeswalkers Society and by being advocates of a positive, enriching experience. Anyone who has played Magic should know what it has brought them in their lives. Why let others miss out? After over 20 years of glorious isolation, it is time to share it with others, rather than guard it jealously out of misplaced tribalism.