Chatter of the Squirrel – The Truth About Cats And Dogs

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Thursday, May 21st – I was talking with Anna a few days ago about a big part of my Magic game that bothers me: I get really sloppy when I’m winning. She was interested to note, she said, that almost never was a guy fully on top of his game when he played against a girl…

I was talking with Anna a few days ago about a big part of my Magic game that bothers me: I get really sloppy when I’m winning. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I threw a game in the Top 8 of the Malaysia 5k because I lost focus and started chatting, but I would never have done that at all if I hadn’t possessed such a commanding board position. The discussion veered, though, once we started talking about how people get to the point where they allow themselves to lose focus in the first place. In fact, she brought the discussion somewhere it had never even occurred to me to take it.

She was interested to note, she said, that almost never was a guy fully on top of his game when he played against a girl.

What followed was a combination analysis and call-out, but it became clear to me that the exact dynamics of how – inherently or not, consciously or not—the presence of female players can affect a tournament environment. I mean, I’ll quit with the technical language. Magic players have a real tendency to act awkward, embarrassingly awkward, around girls. When you’ll really notice this is at like a European PT or GP, when scores of players are playing in the kitchen of a hostel or something, and the vocal stutter-step of the Magic gaggle when the German girl comes and asks “what is that card game everybody is playing” carries the effect of fingers on a chalkboard. It’s actually painful.

Eventually, given the difficulties of my translating and paraphrasing everything that was already said, I went ahead and asked her to write an article chronicling some of the awkwardness. I want to emphasize, though, that this is more than just a call-out of awkward Magic-guy behavior, more than just some insight into the day-in-the-life of the rare exotic breed that is the female Magic player. It’s a meditation on how we drop our guard, how we give ourselves mental excuses to lose, how we abandon our focus at the least opportune times.

I’ll be interspersing my commentary throughout the piece in everyone’s favorite little asterisked footnotes, as is the must-be-nice-to-have-the-actual-writing-contract privilege. Plus I’m bound to chatter a little more afterwards. Because, you know. That’s how I roll.

Without further ado, etc.

“You didn’t take the foil card? But it’s pretty!”

That comment was actually made during an actual draft to my roommate, a fellow female Magic player*. The sad thing is, the commenter was completely serious.

I’ve played poker for seven years. I am no stranger to the reality that often my fellow competitors will make assumptions about me based on both my gender and my age. It is not a particularly novel concept that Magic isn’t exactly bursting at the seams with female players. At our average FNM, the ratio is something like 10:1.

Do not be mistaken. This article isn’t about how male players ought to treat female players, or how I am personally undervalued as a competitor. The truth is, I’m not a particularly strong player. Generally, my opponents in Magic are correct in their assumption that I will make the wrong first draft pick, or will inadvertently let a creature resolve even though I know I ought to go ahead and cast Soul Manipulation. But these mistakes come about because of my relative inexperience – I’ve been playing Magic competitively for maybe six months – and not because of my gender. The point is not that I, personally, deserve more respect. The point is that relying too heavily on assumptions can cost you games. That perhaps instead of luck costing a good player a game against a novice, the real issue is the laziness that comes with “knowing” you should win. Zac recently linked me to a Malcolm Gladwell article in the New Yorker online titled “How David Beat Goliath.” The article discussed various game theory principles that allow an underdog to win, as well as the opponent’s typical reaction to the loss. For a long time, I hesitated to play in sanctioned events because I assumed my only shot of winning was luck, and what fun would that be anyway? A hollow victory at best, a victory that doesn’t mean anything. But it also isn’t true that every upset is the result of bad luck. Often there is some other factor: effort, thorough knowledge of the rules, etc., something other than pure ‘skill’ or ‘talent’ that can contribute to the outcome. I want to talk about one of those.

I am known to hate a bad beat story. This weekend, I took a few minutes out of my Saturday to wander around Regionals in Memphis. In the maybe ten minutes I spent at the site, I heard a number of “I can’t believe I lost to X” stories and zero “that guy really outplayed me” tales. The truth is, ‘bad beats’ come around far more often than is dictated by luck. One friend of mine** reacted so poorly I started referring to him as the “Phil Hellmuth of Magic.” Not because he wins as often as the poker legend – he certainly does not – but wow, is he just as whiny. “If luck didn’t exist, I’d always win.” Not really. This discussion is designed to point out how players most often fail against opposition that may not be as technically skilled or who are not running the best decks.

Almost every time I walk into a new poker game in some back room of a pool hall or warehouse off the highway, I am immediately asked “are you here to watch your dad play?” It’s not a completely unfair question. After all, I am a young female walking into a world in which I am visually out of place.

A similar thing happens to me every week at FNM. I’ve been playing at the Mid South Game Center for about 3 months, since my very first draft. I have never simply watched. I drive myself. Walk in alone. Leave on my own. Every week, without fail, I am asked “so, who are you here with?” Or, “does your boyfriend play?” People assume some boy must be my brother/date/reason for being at the store. He isn’t. Obviously, my boyfriend does play Magic, but he is not in the country, let alone at FNM. The truth is, while I have only really taken Magic seriously in the last three months, I first heard about the game over a decade ago when my cousin’s new husband*** brought some work with him to a family party.

That said, my intent is not to chastise players for their mis-evaluations or false assumptions about my play skills or motivations. In fact, I welcome them. In poker, I long ago learned to take advantage of my competitor’s prejudice. Every time I get in a hand, I hope my opponent thinks I’m some silly girl who just followed her dad to the felt. I love the idea that he may pay a little less attention, spend fewer seconds thinking through what his next play should be. I long for the rush of adrenaline that comes with a check/raise payoff whenever someone thinks I probably don’t know if a straight beats a flush. Bring on the stereotypes.

While I have not played Magic nearly as long as I’ve played cards, nor am I anywhere close to as skilled, I do appreciate the similar benefits that come with my male counterparts believing I’m simply killing time until my man finishes a match. This past Friday I played against an opponent who is unquestionably better than I am. He was running a much better deck. He won game 1 against me handily. The second game I won in large part because he made what he later admitted was an error in judgment, something he admitted he did because he didn’t think I would know what to do. Unfortunately for him, I’m aware of how Ethersworn Shieldmage works, and as a result, I killed all his guys. Had he been playing someone else, he likely would’ve taken more time or been more cautious. By contrast, I know my own weaknesses and never underestimate the opposition. I’m probably going to make some misplays, so I recognize that my best chance to win is to lull you into a state of comfort to the point where your hubris-driven mistakes outnumber my own.

It also helps that one big, unexpected play by me can throw an opponent into serious life-tilt mode.

When I watched my friend freak out at Regionals about the match he lost to a person he believed to be an inferior player, I told him “he puts you on tilt.” My friend of course disagrees, but this wasn’t the first time he had played, and lost, to this “inferior player.” It had gotten to the point where he, I feel, believes he is going to lose whenever he plays this person. Even if he does manage to play correctly, his attitude affects his opponent and allows someone who may otherwise feel intimidated to believe he just needs to gain a little momentum to win. There is no reason to give someone that knowledge.

There is also, of course, no reason to treat your opponents poorly. It certainly happened with “Phil” in his Regionals match, but it also happens to me on a regular basis. I’ve never been yelled at, but the quote I referenced at the beginning of the article is not an uncommon occurrence. Sitting down at a draft and having the people to your immediate right and left actually cheer because they believe they’ll get two first picks. Or having spectators come by and comment on what “the girl” is playing. I thought at first I was being paranoid, but my roommate gets the same reaction. It goes without saying, really: that reaction is insulting.

People also have this tendency to just douse you with unsolicited advice. All the time. Even if I say I don’t want it, whenever I do anything I’ll get 10 people giving me a look like I’ve made some huge error, which just makes me panic. Sometimes they are right, like when Cody and Jason looked on in horror as I ran Cruel Ultimatum with only 1 Swamp in the deck. That was awkward. But it doesn’t change the fact that if I were male, they would just let me fail and learn in my own time, or alternatively would just not pay attention at all. Instead people come up behind me while I’m drafting and make comments about what “she” is doing – like I’m not, you know, sitting there with a perfectly functioning pair of ears. Or worse, they pray I beat their buddy so they can mock him for losing to a girl.

I played a guy who was also 1-1 in the draft. He hasn’t played in 10 years and is brand new to this format. I beat him 2-0 because, in large part, he was trying to play five-color with serious mana issues. He had no removal and no way to deal with fliers, and I was playing Esper. After the match he started to tell me what he needed to beat me, did that thing where “If only I had drawn…” and showed me the two Black and one Blue spells he ran that required him to include Swamps and Islands in his manabase. I immediately told him to scrap those cards, sideboard in three on-color spells he had drafted, and trade out the Islands and Swamps for Forests and Mountains.

Nobody has ever asked me what I thought of their deck before. Or what I think of a particular card. Or wondered aloud to me whether they should run this card over that one. Which is of course fine, to the extent I am still learning all those things myself. But they always ask each other. No matter how terrible the player, a guy will be asked by another guy whether he should play X over Y. I don’t know that they even care about the answer. It is simply a way of bonding over the game, and it rarely extends to female players. As I mentioned, nobody hesitates to insert their two cents into what I am playing, but I never am asked what I think about their decisions. And I don’t even think it’s conscious, but it is something that you notice. Especially when they’d do well to listen to you.

Magic players have a reputation not unlike that of Sci-fi fanatics****. Skill at communicating with females, often a minority in said groups, is not high on the list of attributes. Why promote that reputation by alienating the few females who do show an interest? This isn’t a request to automatically start inviting the women from FNM to drink-and-draft on Saturday, or to join your playtesting groups, or whatever. Again, if skill is a factor, that respect has to be earned. But what you can do is treat the girls like you do the boys. Don’t assume they don’t know how to play or that they can’t hear you when you talk about them. Try to avoid making assumptions about their skill level before sitting down to a game. They might just be hustling you.

Thing is, it is quite different, almost out of the ordinary, to see female players at events in large numbers. But it’s not like they don’t exist. And I think we as male Magic players commit a serious – and often costly – error when we just categorically write them off. This can prove particularly awkward when it’s someone like Melissa who routinely plays in Pro Tours and is very likely to be better than you. I remember this one Little Rock PTQ – which Richard Feldman went on to win, actually – where a girl announced Pithing Needle against a Boros player, and the player failed to sacrifice his Bloodstained Mire in response. Surprised, she named “…Bloodstained Mire” and two turns later the game was effectively over, as the player had another Mire stranded in his hand.


In the PTQ that really kick-started my tenure on the Tour, triple-Ravnica Limited, I distinctly remember playing against a female player in the finals. I remember getting a few ‘must be nice’-s from some of my friends in the crowd – but she had made the finals of a Limited event against some very real opposition, and I made sure not to underestimate her ability (though even then it’s interesting to note that I had to make a point not to underestimate her; I wonder if that’s because she was female, or more generally because I am just a giant tool and tend to think everyone is terrible?) I went on to win the match largely because I gave her credit for combat tricks that I now believe people may have walked into without thinking earlier in the Swiss.

Maybe it’s appropriate to adopt a Mr. Mackey voice, or whatever, but: Prejudice is bad, mkay.

Particularly when it’s you that’s getting hustled.


(And Anna. Vecholls on the forums. Where Zac is going to get it for relegating me to parentheses.)

* I hesitate to add this comment because even I’m not sure what it means, but I think a lot of people have like conceptions of what ‘type’ of girl becomes a female Magic player, and I think the notion is a little ridiculous. That, you know, it’s not possible for people from all walks of life to play a game because it’s fun and they enjoy it. So. Anna is an insanely sharp Duke-educated lawyer slash competitive Poker player who develops television in her spare time for value. Her roommate, Katelyn, is a blonde textbook-measurements Hooters waitress who speaks three languages. Both of them, along with a political science professor who took his Fulbright in the USSR and the former Director of Student Information for Memphis City Schools, form a trivia team that’s competing for $5,000 later on this week in a city-wide championship. In short: I don’t really know what all of this implies, but I am positive that it very much so doesn’t fit a ‘type.’.

** Steven Strasberg, if you’re curious, because while Anna’s too polite to call a boy out, I certainly am not so nice. (You also could’ve pointed out that poor maligned strassyphil gets to sleep in between the females described in the above footnote, which might make the digs sting a little less… – Anna)

*** Magic Designer/Developer and The Game Inventor’s Guidebook author Brian Tinsman

**** For my own sake I am going to avoid digging at Anna’s favorite choice of gimmicky stereotype compadre, the obsessive-TV-junkie-forum-dweller.