This topic has haunted me for the past eight months, no exaggeration. I've discarded more drafts of this article than I care to count, scribbled notes onto scraps of paper that I threw away, fished out of the trash, and then threw away again.
I've wanted to write about women in Magic, but it feels impossible. Writing about it involves walking the world's worst tightrope between reason and passion, between contributing something both meaningful and relatable. How do you talk about a need for change without leveling accusations, hurting feelings, or alienating some of the very people whose help is vital to making a difference?
There are barriers to women playing competitive Magic - unnecessary and difficult issues that prevent potential competitors from ever leaving the “kitchen table” - and these are issues we can and should address. While it's something that I'm passionate about, arguing the point sometimes feels like throwing myself against a brick wall because there are people who don't believe it's even an issue and who don't want to be convinced.
This article is for the people who can be convinced, for the friends of skeptics who want to help them understand, or for anyone looking for a semi-coherent argument. It's for women who feel confident about their place in the community and for those who are unsure about where or if they belong. Sure, it's even for the people who don't want to be convinced. But most of all, it's for anyone who loves Magic and who wants every potential planeswalker out there to feel at home anywhere in the multiverse because everyone who wants to play should feel comfortable doing so.
Women are not visible in the competitive Magic scene, and in my opinion, this lack of visibility lies at the center of why so few women play competitive Magic - because there are not more women at competitive Magic events, it is difficult for women new to the game to enter these environments.
Mark Rosewater recently answered a question on the gender breakdown in Magic on his blog. Wizards' market research, he said, showed a ratio of 62% male to 38% female in their player base. As many people noted, this percentage is way above female participation at Grand Prixs, SCG Opens, the Pro Tour, or even at FNMs. In these environments, female participation is more likely to range from one in twenty to one in one hundred players, or between 1 and 5 percent. It stands to reason that if these women aren't showing up to competitive events, then they're casual “kitchen table” players. What's keeping them from transitioning to competitive environments?
It's difficult to approach something new when you're also confronted with a room full of people, none or almost none of whom are representative of your personal identity. It's kind of like why no one over the age of seventeen will walk into a Hot Topic - it's just uncomfortable. Except instead of missing out on an ironic My Little Pony shirt, you're missing out on the exhilarating struggle of competitive Magic.
This lack of female visibility at competitive events is indicative of a larger trend in Magic; there is not enough Magic content written, recorded, created, or produced by women. The Magic community as a whole is very engaged in content, from reading articles to watching videos, streams, and event coverage to listening to podcasts. For as much quality content as there is available to players at any point in their careers, little of it is created by women.
Without better female representation, it is difficult to draw more women to events, and without more women choosing to participate in events the pool of potential content creators doesn't grow. This issue creates urgency in the need for female content creators. Having women on coverage teams is not a goal for the next few years, it is a goal for right now because if you don't start increasing female visibility now, in two years the gender breakdown in competitive Magic will remain identical to where we are at the moment.
Across a variety of tournaments, there are no women at coverage desks. The most prevalent argument I've heard in favor of the current male-dominated coverage teams suggests that there are no women qualified to do coverage because they lack the competitive track records of their male counterparts. While coverage teams augment their reporting with previous or current pro players, many (though, of course, not all) well-liked personalities had negligible or nonexistent Pro Tour appearances prior to their time behind the desk. This isn't to say that Pro Tour success should be a requirement for coverage team members - these broadcasters are chosen for their skill in front of a camera, in interviews, and in their respective roles of play-by-play or color commentary, and these qualifications are more critical to their success than meeting an arbitrary level of competitive mastery. Competent, articulate, and knowledgeable women abound in the current Magic community, and dismissing them on the grounds of competitive achievement alone is holding them to a different set of standards than their male counterparts.
The same lack of visibility prevalent in coverage also applies in the realms of streaming, podcasting, and writing. While these three mediums are more creator-governed than coverage, it's still important to note that, again, these are areas where it's difficult for would-be competitive women to find themselves represented.
A lack of visibility is an issue because it creates a barrier for entry into competitive Magic. It's particularly frustrating because when the topic of women in Magic crops up, there are inevitably a handful of people who believe that there aren't women in competitive environments because they don't enjoy competition or aren't interested in it, or who imply that there are no women capable of doing quality event coverage. For every barrier there is to playing competitive Magic - finances, time, travel - women face the additional barrier of walking into a world where there are few depictions of them as skillful, welcome, and respected members of the community. Some people may not believe this is a hindrance to a player truly committed to playing the game, to which I can only offer the advice that if it's not your barrier to climb you have little business in evaluating its height.
“Girlfriendification” is the shorthand I use for the things Magic players do that differentiate female players from the community at large and that contribute to incorrect or problematic perceptions of women. The word's origins lie in the common misperception that women at competitive events are there because they're dating a competitive player rather than because they're a serious competitor themselves. Men are by no means the only ones who contribute to this issue, as I absolutely and regretfully include myself amongst the people who do or who have girlfriendified other female players. It's a sign of how entrenched and how difficult-to-combat these perceptions and behaviors are.
The ways that we differentiate female players from the rest of the community are difficult to pinpoint and discuss because they vary so widely and are, in some cases, quite subtle. In the next few paragraphs I'll outline a handful of the ways we manifest this behavior, but it's a representative as opposed to a comprehensive list - I'm drawing a map of the continents, but the countries are too numerous to fill in in one article.
The first and potentially most detrimental behavior is discussing a female player's appearance in any public forum. Whether it's in a Twitch chat or with a friend at your LGS, this is harmful behavior with great potential to drive women away from competitive events.
It takes a lot of strength and determination to play in an event where your height, weight, makeup, or clothing choices might come under unwelcome scrutiny, and it's an inequitable burden on women since male players are generally exempt from this kind of scrutiny. While we don't have access to Twitch chat logs (which is probably more a blessing than a curse), a review of them would reveal a disheartening trend of commenting on female players' appearances and, in particular, body-shaming and insulting larger women while their male peers face very little of this type of critique or criticism. The same unfortunate behavior exists on a local level as well, a fact I would love to thoroughly reject but can't in light of first-hand experience of overheard conversations about specific female players' physical attributes and playmats featuring women wearing next to nothing.
Competitive events need to be free of any discussion and critique of appearance to be welcoming to female players, and to make this possible we have to check both our own behavior and that of our peers. Discussing appearance often singles out female competitors and differentiates them from their peers, and that constitutes another hurdle that women must clear on their way to feeling comfortable at competitive events.
Another divisive behavior entails asking women who taught them to play, if they came to the event with someone, or any question male players are less likely to encounter from their peers. It's disconcerting the number of times I've been asked or overheard another female player being asked “so, who taught you to play?” while almost never encountering this particular exchange between male players. I'll grant that the above evidence is both personal and anecdotal, but it still highlights a behavior we can all work to become more aware and critical of.
I'm a fan of getting to know my opponent a little between games, but I purposefully focus on questions that have no relation to my perceptions or assumptions about my opponent's playskill, such as where they're from, what their LGS is like, or what their favorite format is. Questions like “who are you here with?” belie detrimental assumptions about female players and differentiate them from their peers, when the time players spend getting to know one another should be used to create connections and foster a sense of community.
My final point revolves around our expectations of female players being different from those we have for male players, which further results in a difference in both general and individual treatment of female players. This article uses beloved TV characters Leslie Knope and Liz Lemon to illustrate better than I ever could how we're often comfortable with characterizing women as non-threatening walking messes as opposed to committed, motivated, and goal-oriented individuals. This macro trend can be seen in the microcosm of Magic. One of the most frequent examples I've encountered is people in Twitter or Reddit threads pointing out that they're more likely to see women playing at prerelease events and then chalking this up to a friendlier and less competitive environment, as if a competitive rules enforcement level might cause a woman to melt like the Wicked Witch in water.
Not everyone is a guts-and-glory, fight-to-the-bitter-end player, but gender has nothing to do with how serious of a competitor any given individual is. At the end of a match at an SCG Open last fall, a salty and unintentionally ironic player snapped at me, “that's a terrible way to make friends” (okay, he used a more adult word than “terrible”) before stomping away from the table. Months later, I'm still left with the unshakable feeling that something about me led him to the incorrect assumption that I played in the tournament for reasons other than wanting to win or become a better player. Maybe the fact that I'm a woman had nothing to do with this, but it's certainly one of the most obvious ways I differed from his other opponents that day. To make competitive Magic a welcoming place for all players, we must steer clear of assumptions about why women play Magic and treat them with the same seriousness and respect that we give to any other player seated across the table from us.
A Few Suggestions
One of the best ways we can make competitive Magic a more welcoming place for women is by increasing female visibility, and we can do this by supporting and amplifying women's voices in the Magic community. This is by no means a comprehensive list, so please let me know of any voices I'm missing.
- @_Elantris_(Follow her on Twitch here!)
- @GabySpartz (Follow her on Twitch here!)
- @halcansan (Follow her on Twitch here!)
- @Kathleen_LRR (Follow her on Youtube here! )
- @suzythegnat (Follow her on Twitch here! )
Watch, Read, And Listen:
Many of the women above both stream on Twitch and write articles. Follow them on Twitter to keep up-to-date with the content they're creating, and, if you found it helpful, informative, or enjoyable, share it with others. Listen to The Girlfriend Bracket, The Deck Tease, and Magic the Amateuring (full disclosure, I'm a host on this one), all podcasts created by women.
In addition, if you're a content creator yourself, take cues from players and sites already working toward balanced or neutral gender representation. Star City Games® structures their articles to use “you” and “they” when talking about both their audience and the competitive field, while other writers like Reid Duke use feminine pronouns for hypothetical opponents. Video creators such as Sam Black and LSV use “my opponent” when facing an unknown player on MTGO, and Cardboard Crack features many ponytailed players in its comics. These small changes in the digital world go a long way towards making space for and acknowledging women in real-world competitive Magic.
This is one of the most important and perhaps most difficult things we can do to make a difference. If you encounter or witness someone being openly hostile or derogatory toward women (or anyone else, for that matter), report them to the store or tournament organizer and let WotC know if the issue isn't addressed. If it's someone you know, be willing and brave enough to have an uncomfortable conversation with them about their treatment of others. Be kind and respectful, and believe that you will be able to change someone's mind about the portrayal, treatment, or representation of women.
Be A Cheerleader:
Encourage kitchen-table or casual players you know to give the competitive world a try. Acknowledge that, because of the issues outlined above, this may be difficult or daunting but, if competition is something they're interested in, it's a challenge that's worth it. Support them when they encounter negativity, and remind them that the good outweighs the bad.
I struggled through every draft of this article wondering if I was fabricating Nessies in the lake and monsters under the bed. If no one else experienced the barriers I've outlined above, however, I wouldn't have written this article. When I find myself mired in self-doubt, I remind myself that I care about these players, that I want them to have the best chance for success, and that I want everyone to be able to fight each match on the most level playing field we can create. A rising tide lifts all boats, and by making competitive Magic a more welcoming place for female players we'll create a more positive, supportive, and welcoming community for everyone and, no matter what your reasons for playing, that's a goal worth working toward.