The Trouble with Magic and Me


From a young age, like many people, I’ve been interested in games. My siblings and I would argue over who got to be Mario and who got to be Luigi, whose turn it was to play Yo! Noid (yes, that was a real game), or who got to pick the next title to rent from the video store. When my friend Katie would come to my house for a sleepover, we’d sneak up in the middle of the night and play my brother’s borrowed copy of Strider (which I’m only recently learning is very similar to Metroid). I’d go over to my friend’s house just so we could play Super Mario Bros. on her SNES all day.

Whenever my family went on vacation, I would follow my brother to the arcades so we could play Street Fighter (Guile was my favorite) or Mortal Kombat (I wanted to learn ALL of Sub Zero’s moves). When the Sega Genesis first came out, it was all my sister wanted for Christmas, and we spent the next year playing the crap out of that Lion King game that came with it.

During my childhood, it was never suggested — and I never considered — that playing video games was a boys-only activity.

Flash forward past my middle and high school years (during which I apparently forgot about video games for the most part), to my first year in college. My passion for video Princess Garnet from Final Fantasy IX (aka the best RPG ever)games was reignited when my then-boyfriend brought over his PlayStation and we’d play Kessen into the wee hours of the morning. And once I saw his little brother playing Final Fantasy 9? I was completely, unbelievably hooked.

That was also the beginning of my trading card game (TCG) obsession. We played so much Pokemon that I ended up buying whole boxes of cards online. I had binders for every type of Pokemon, complete with color-coded cover pages, organized by rarity and name. I later forsook Pokemon for the Star Wars TCG, and then eventually learned about the satisfying complexities of Magic: The Gathering.

TCGs took a backseat after a while, though, when I began gobbling up every MMORPG I could find. I made an awesome group of friends and we traveled from MMO to MMO together. World of Warcraft, perhaps unsurprisingly, is where the bulk of my online gaming took place. My guild had a significantly large percentage of women — seemingly by chance — and for most of The Burning Crusade, I was escalated to GM. There were a few rather crude guys, but for the most part our guild was a safe and comfortable place for women.

Once again, in my 20s, I wasn’t really exposed the idea that video games weren’t for girls, or that we’re not as good at games (video, TCG, or otherwise) as guys are.

Maybe I got lucky. Maybe it was actually a setback.

One of the things that brought my husband and me together when we first met was playing MtG Online. From there we branched out to visiting a local shop for draft tournaments, and eventually started playing in standard tournaments a few nights a week.

I fell in love with gobblers, burning my opponents’ faces off, and the watching the way crazy strategies could play out (or go completely awry). When I would Top 4 and actually win prizes (ooh, treasures!), all the better.

There was nothing quite so satisfying as taking Top 2 with my husband and our matching mono red decks (in fact, he’s still heralded as “the best mono red player in Texas”). At one point, it got so bad (good?) that people stopped coming because they didn’t want to lose to us anymore, so we had to change up our decks. Oopsie!

But the more time I spent playing Magic with the general public, the more I began to understand the discrimination and isolation many women experience in the gaming community.

Miss Demeanor | Flying, first strike | During each other player's turn, compliment that player on his or her game play or sacrifice Miss Demeanor.

At first it was fun, being underestimated by my opponent. People saw me as a new player, so my match wins would often come as a surprise to the other person. I relished being able to outwit my opponents with unexpected deck choices and mind games.

It wasn’t until I started receiving certain commentary, however, that I realized there was more going on. My supposed newbie status wasn’t what was throwing people off; it was the fact that I’m not a guy. People would try to bully/sweet-talk me into letting them win. People would try to convince me to make bad plays, like I was an easy target. People would RAGE when they lost, and I would have to stick up for myself and not back down when I knew I was right or had announced something they “didn’t hear.”

After narrowly losing a mirror match (we were playing Tempered Steel at the time) against a seasoned player, I was told, “You’re one of the better females.”

Perhaps he meant it as a compliment, but it instantly made me uncomfortable. Why wasn’t a “good game” and a handshake good enough? Why mention my gender? (And why not “women” instead of “females”?)

One night I was playing in the final round and my opponent hit me with a double-whammy. In the end, I had to admit to myself that he was better at mind games than I was (and I wasn’t familiar enough with his decklist — also my fault). But the thing that made me want to crush him?

“Whew! I didn’t want to lose to a girl,” he quipped as he packed his deck away.

I’m still annoyed with myself for responding with a soft snicker and embarrassed silence, but at the time, I was kind of shocked numb. I’m a good player and the match win came down to one mistake I made (and will never forget). I was disappointed that I’d lost the match when I was previously undefeated, and had been paired down that round. He wasn’t concerned that he might have lost the match and gotten pushed out of the Top 8. He was worried that he might have lost a match to a girl. Good thing I’m not concerned about losing to guys, or I would hate playing Magic.

Oh wait. That’s actually what started to happen.

After a while, it wasn’t about fun anymore. It was about proving myself as a Magic player. If I lost, it was because I’m a woman (and thus obviously bad at Magic). If I won, it was because they were having bad luck that night.

I wanted to destroy that mindset among the players. I wanted them to see me as a good player. I wanted them to see me as more than an easy win. I wanted them to see me as an equal, as a peer, and as a challenging opponent. I know that not every Magic player thinks this way (we’ve made a core group of friends who rise above the rest), but the general atmosphere and attitude among players still pushed me to feel this way.

I didn’t just want to be seen as a good player. I wanted to be seen as the best player in the room. No excuses, no doubt.

I played only to win. If I lost, I was frustrated with myself. If I didn’t Top 8, I was embarrassed and would spend the ride home apologizing to my husband for sucking at Magic*.

Maybe I sabotaged my own success, though. When people talked about cards, or strategies, or new deck ideas, I wasn’t always able to follow the conversation or chime in (or understand all the jokes). I’ve never been as deep into learning about ALL the cards as my husband and our friends are. [Truth be told, I even became too lazy to build my own decks and just let my husband do that for me (but I would make the final decisions on card choices and sideboard composition; I didn’t want to go in blind).]

Sex Appeal |  	  Prevent up to 3 damage total to any number of creatures and/or players. If there are more players in the room of the opposite sex, prevent up to 3 additional damage total to any number of creatures and/or players. So I don’t have time to read about Magic all day long. So I don’t have every single card (which set it’s from, and its current trade value) memorized. So you might have to remind me what the mana cost is for Incinerate if I haven’t used it in a while. Does that mean I’m to be dismissed from the community? Does that mean I’m not a “real” player? Does that mean I’m a poseur for wearing my Simic t-shirt every week? (Dear god, does that mean I’m some sort of “fake geek girl”? Hint: No.)

I don’t know how different things would’ve been if I were a guy. I don’t know how different things would’ve been if maybe I was just more studious about Magic (my husband says everyone who likes Magic just naturally reads about it outside of the game — news, spoilers, new card mechanics, etc.; I contend that I can like a game but still not have the time or desire to delve so deeply into it).

In the end, all I know is that my need to prove myself killed my love for the game.

While I’m still a very active gamer, and I still want ALL the trading card games (have you SEEN Vanguard and the Madoka one and The Spoils and…?!), playing a game of Magic always comes with a large helping of self-doubt and trepidation these days. I hope I can shake that eventually.

For now? At least I’ve got Civ5 to keep me company.


*To his credit, he always insisted that I shouldn’t apologize for not topping, and that I was not a bad player. It was mostly my own self-deprecating attitude that pops up when I’m on a downward slope. (But his desire for me to be a top player largely influenced my own desire for the same.)

5 thoughts on “The Trouble with Magic and Me

  1. I grew up assuming that everyone wanted to play video games as much as they could; everybody sees a game and wants to play it, because video games are fun and everybody likes fun, right? I didn’t realize I was a “gamer” until I was older, because I thought everyone else wanted to play all the time too; I didn’t realize it was a characteristic of me specifically. I didn’t really get into the “community” or the public eye until I was in my early 20s, when community and (internet) public eye happened at the same time for me. I hated the expectation that I needed to prove that I didn’t suck, and I hated watching other girls desperately try to present a front of invulnerable iron clad skill, because this sometimes leads to creating unnecessary animosity with other people, and sometimes the zeal to prove you don’t suck leads you to actually look like you suck. (Even when you don’t.)

    So one day I just decided to refuse to try to prove myself. One of my hobbies became admitting unabashedly that I sucked at certain games or refusing to apologize for not being pro at everything. If someone tried to call me out for my kill death ratio, I’d make wild accusations that they didn’t even read quest boxes and mock their lack of story retention skills – not to fight judgement with judgement, but to demonstrate how silly it is to be measured by someone else’s priorities. I know my own gaming style enough to know that being measurably the best is not the thing I’m passionate about, so why should I let myself feel inferior because someone else thinks that’s important? And seriously, having a high ranking is not going to make me nearly as happy as running in like a cowboy and trying to shoot something in the face with a shotgun just to see what happens.

    I think there’s a definite player personality style to the question of whether you research and read obsessively about a game or not. I’ve met some people who play games everyday but have no idea what’s being discussed in regards to that game on the internet. And then there are the people who will sacrifice play time in order to read about the game. I don’t think either is “more hardcore” than the other.

    • The whole idea of girls not being gamers or whatever never really came my way until online games became so popular in the last decade or so. It’s like… it wasn’t even a THING until people started thinking it was a thing, and since everyone THOUGHT it was a thing, it BECAME this thing… even though it’s not even really an actual THING! (You know what I mean, right?)

      My whole life I’ve been pretty good at letting ridicule and stuff just roll off my back, and not much ever phased me. With gaming, though — especially Magic, I guess — it’s different for me because it feels more like an intellectual’s activity. (I know, some people are probably, like, smacking their gobbing gobs at that statement right now, but whatever.) With my job/career, it’s another area where I feel like I need to sort of prove myself. I feel inferior to most colleagues because I’m the only one without a degree — but in most cases, I don’t feel at all uncomfortable discussing work-related topics, because I actually have the knowledge.

      Anyway, it’s kind of the same thing with Magic. I might not have the credentials, but I don’t want to be dismissed because of that, because I *know* I’m good. It’s not really about being measured by someone else’s priorities. It’s just wanting to feel confident and comfortable as a Person Who Does That Thing (whatever it might be), and being accepted by the general population of other People Who Do That Thing. You know what I mean?

      But probably, I’m just kidding myself. I have *always* been an outsider, and I’m generally comfortable with that. I don’t know why, with games, it feels so different.

      • Well the other thing about Magic too is that its face-to-face. And you spend a fair amount of time actually sitting there looking at/being looked at by the other person, so I think that makes it more personal. Or it feels more unreasonable when someone refuses to see you as you see yourself. Like if someone judges you or applies some label to you on the internet, they are a dick, and its irritating, but its not the same, because face to face it seems like the person should know better, they should be able to SEE that you are smart, or knowledgable or passionate about the game. And also I do get what you’re saying about the intellectualism of Magic. I think there’s reading and researching about it, but there’s also just the underlying aspect of if you are a quick thinker and a good strategist that natural ability will be reflected in your play. So it is saying something about your personal mental aptitudes whereas performance in an fps video game might say more about your twitch reflexes.

        I’ve never actually been to a Magic tournament or really even played very much with people that I didn’t know well. Thom (then boyfriend now husband) and his group of friends taught me to play, but they were all really past their tournament phase by that time. So for me it was always a pretty low pressure environment (possibly a contributing factor to why I haven’t strived to be really good at it). But with games in general.. I’ve always felt a little bit of.. social disappointment about it for lack of a better term. Like I discovered there was a community for it, and I thought – oh, here I will really feel like I belong. But I never started feeling like I 100% belonged. There’s always a residual feeling, even when I’m enjoying myself, that there’s some kind of a barrier between me and the other people. I’m not sure if its related to the same thing that you feel, because I’m not really sure why I feel that way.

        • Hmmm, yeah, you make a good point about Magic being face-to-face instead of online. It’s a pretty different atmosphere. (And there’s a lot more room for people to say things they may not realize are offensive before they’re out of their mouths.)

          Playing casually with friends is different than a tournament setting, but even just playing *in public* can make me feel awkward. One of the shops we frequent, the owner has this reputation for being an all-around asshole. Whenever he’s around, I just find myself cringing because he always makes these stupid, sexist comments and thinks he’s being clever or funny or something. One time I was playing against a friend, sort of a mirror match, and it was this fun challenge to see whose version of the deck would pull ahead of the other. But the stupid store owner kept making comments about how the friend was losing because he was attracted to me, or just making comments about my appearance, etc. Ugh.

          At another shop, I always felt as if everyone who worked there was just glaring at me, like, wondering what I was doing there whenever I showed up to play. I couldn’t evoke a smile or even a friendly look from anyone in the shop, except for like one guy that we knew from another shop. And at that other shop, I was a little more accepted, but still felt like a second-class citizen. Apparently they already had their token female player and she was pretty good, so if she was there, I was like a nobody. Not to mention, ALL of those damn places have the worst bathrooms and if they even HAVE a women’s bathroom, it’s always very poorly maintained. Anyway, okay, I’ll stop ranting.

          I guess what I’m saying is, whether it’s sexist commentary, or just plain wanting to be accepted as a Magic player — I’ve never really felt like I 100% belonged either. Or even like… 80% belonged.

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