Media Analysis, Medium Rigor, Nonfiction

Magic: the Gathering and Toxic Masculinity

Art Credit: Aleksi Briclot

I love Magic. I love a lot of the people who play it, too…. but there are days when I feel like the Magic community fucking sucks. It doesn’t, but I think we sometimes let an unexamined quirk of the culture ruin our fun with the game1.

The claim of this article is that Magic: the Gathering‘s fanbase has an issue with toxic masculinity2. This problem stems from attitudes towards competitive Magic (though it notably seems to have less of an impact on the most competitive players), and is perpetuated through a hazing and gatekeeping process that serious hobbyists unwittingly perpetuate as they attempt to welcome and help newcomers.

Have you ever asked for help brewing a magic deck and gotten a response like this3?

“Fun decks don’t stand up to competitive decks, if they did people would play them competitively.”

Or have you noticed how some people’s egos seem to be deeply tied up in their successes and failures at Magic4?

Or have you ever wondered why only one or two women attended a seemingly welcoming event at your local hobby store?

The oft-repeated dichotomy between ‘fun’ and ‘good’ represents a peculiar belief in the Magic community: The idea that the most competitive level of the game isn’t fun. I’ve heard some form of the bizarre adage “you can either build competitive, or you can build fun” repeated by people who are quite good at Magic for the entirety of the near decade I’ve played the game. If this were the case I’d have to ask: Why does anyone play competitive Magic?

I think a lot of people who play Magic competitively, or at least seriously, find the game to be fun. It’s a well designed, mechanically deep strategy game with a variety of formats that call to people with different interests and talents. You want to play with an ever changing landscape of interesting mechanics where a new and unique meta is always around the corner? Follow standard. You want to refine a deck for years while still following new cards as they come out? Maybe try your hand at modern. You want your brain to melt as you ascend to a dimension of facts and logic beyond human comprehension5? Maybe give legacy a try.

All of these seem exciting to me (though in practice standard doesn’t seem to jive with my attention span), and at least some of the people who do this professionally seem to agree. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, at time of writing the person who has won the most collective money at tournaments6, has this to say about being a pro:

“From a monetary standpoint alone, being a Magic Pro is not a good job. You can work many jobs and make $40,000 a year, and you don’t have to be the best in your neighborhood for that, let alone the best in the world.

There are, however, other reasons for playing Magic professionally—you are your own boss, you get to travel and know other places, you learn a lot about how to think, it’s fun, the people are awesome.” [1]

Not only is professional magic fun to play, like most other competitive games it’s fun to watch. At least, I’d imagine the thousands of people who tune in to tournaments regularly think so [2]. So can we conclude that the claim that the dichotomy between ‘fun and good’ has no merit whatsoever? Not exactly. There’s one compelling line of reasoning for this claim that we have to contend with first: Players who want to be good, but don’t want to let go of bad strategies.

The advice to choose between “fun and good” or “fun and creative” usually comes alongside advice like this: “The scrub would take great issue with this statement for he usually believes that he is playing to win, but he is bound up by an intricate construct of fictitious rules that prevents him from ever truly competing.”7 I spent a long time as a player that really needed to hear that last piece of advice. New writers are told to “kill their darlings”, and so too must new magic players they must kill their dreams of creating their own interesting brew… of course that’s not quite right.

The point of “kill your darlings” is to examine critically (and be prepared to cut) ideas that you’re attached to, because you often let your worst work slip in to the ideas that you are emotionally invested in. The idea is not to kill your creativity, or for you to stop loving your ideas and characters. The Magic scrub needs essentially the same advice: critically examine how you think about the game, and be prepared to let go of parts of it that you’re attached to (if they want to be good, that is). They do not need to be told that building competitively is uncreative, or un-fun. There are plenty of examples of people who are serious about and good at magic who think of the game as fundamentally creative, fun, and expressive (e.g. [1], [3], [4]).

So who is playing magic seriously enough to be pretty good at it, but isn’t being creative, and doesn’t find their deck fun? The fact that we hear this strange advice implies that there are people who experience magic this way, and that there are still more people who believe that is how they ought to play magic if they want to be good. So what is the value of being good if you aren’t having fun? If the pros are to be believed, it’s not that you get paid extraordinarily well, though I think a lot of people have probably missed that memo. While I do think a lot of aspiring competitive players have dreams of walking away with riches, I don’t think that’s the fundamental reason people continue to engage seriously with a hobby that they have convinced themselves should not be fun. My main thesis is that skill at Magic has, for many people, become a stand in for one’s intelligence and masculinity.

Magic: the Gathering reminds me a lot of chess, both as a game and as a social construct. Both are games of strategy, and success at both games is often seen as varying with one’s intelligence8. Both represent outlets for men who do not fit the mold of the strong man ideal of masculinity to express virtues they perceive as masculine (e.g. intelligence, competitiveness). And both spaces have historically been toxic to women. Seriously, in both games female champions are rare, and the men who play them frequently say that it’s because women are just bad at the game (e.g. [5], [6], [7], [8])9.

Art Credit: Zoltan Boros

I don’t think this is just because Magic and chess are male dominated spaces. I think it is because both games are seen as a test of one’s masculinity itself. This is the social function that being good at Magic serves while it is perceived as devoid of fun. Much like professional sports, men tend to get upset when they play Magic and get ‘beat by a girl’. Women in these spaces are constantly gate-kept, mansplained to, and tested on their knowledge. I have seen men explain basic concepts to veteran players who can’t get a word in edgewise more times than I can count. And if women prove themselves in these spaces they are often classified as masculine, or they are asked whether they learned to play from their boyfriends10. The implication: Even if we are forced to accept that someone who isn’t a man can succeed they must either possess manly characteristics, or a man must be responsible for their talent. Unlike many athletic sports where physical differences between the genders do become relevant at the highest levels of play11, the evidence that women are actually any worse at either Magic or chess seems pretty dubious to me. The more likely explanation is simply that, when a group finds a competitive environment toxic, they like it less and participate less. In a game where randomness is a factor, less rolls of the dice means women will place high less often (regardless of individual skill).

All this to say, I think tying masculinity and intelligence to success at Magic is something that the community unconsciously does. I want to point it out so that we stop doing it, and examine where our attitudes towards the game might be influenced by this idea. Sure, Magic is a test in strategy and reasoning. Being good at it is a skill you can be proud of. I think it’s also important to conceptualize magic as fundamentally creative and expressive [3], though, and to be wary of understanding goodness at Magic as a stand-in for other aspects of our characters. And for fuck’s sake women aren’t aliens, they’re people who enjoy the game too.

Footnotes

1 I don’t mean to imply that this essay addresses the sole issue with MTG. Monetary incentives, unexamined sexist baggage not directly related to the expression of masculinity discussed here, and the occasional poor design choice can also negatively influence the hobby. I might talk about some of those eventually, but that is not this post.

2 Inevitably, if anyone reads this, someone is going to get triggered by the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’. I’m a man. No, I don’t think all men are toxic, nor is masculinity writ large. Before you start railing about how this doesn’t exist, look it up (you . You might find that feminist theory actually addresses a lot of the emotional trauma that men are put through, and that “men’s rights activists” are actually wholesale ripping off feminism and just removing the bits that address the issues women experience in society.

3 I searched reddit for posts asking for deckbuilding advice, sorting by new at the time of writing, to find an example of what I was talking about here. The username on the post is missing because I have no idea whether the account contains personally identifiable information. I also don’t think the individual people who believe this adage are at all to blame for the problem. It’s also worth noting that there are usually more helpful replies on posts asking for help than there are ones like this. I want to discuss a specific problem that I think exists in the Magic community, not try to make it out like every member of the community is individually responsible for perpetuating that problem (though I do think we can benefit from addressing how it might affect ourselves and our relationship to the hobby, regardless of how complicit we are).

4 Yes, I’m aware that this happens for just about any game. Toxic masculinity has a place in most competitive games and sports, but some people are just sore losers. I hope that this essay convinces you that the specific kind of sore loser you often encounter in Magic is the product of toxically masculine elements of the culture around the game, but ultimately my claim here is rooted in anecdotal experiences with other Magic players. If this is not your experience with the community, I don’t have any raw data to convince you otherwise.

5 That was a joke. I’m making fun of how one’s knack for Magic is seen as a stand in for intelligence in a lot of circles (a central theme to this article). I actually think Legacy is super cool though (outside of the cost barrier). The joke is about the culture, not the format.

6 For clarity, he was not the top earner at the time of writing the quoted article (though he was among them), he was at the time I wrote this one.

7 Another excerpt from an internet comment.

8 I am skeptical of (general) intelligence’s validity as a psychological construct (because I don’t possess it, obviously). Anyway this footnote is a placeholder for when I inevitably write something about it.

9 Now, to the credit of the game designers at Wizards, I believe they are working hard to mitigate toxicity in the Magic community. Their attempts often miss the make in one way or another [9], but I get the impression that these attempts at inclusivity represent a genuine effort that goes beyond the performative (e.g. [10], [11]). Especially considering that a contingent of vocal fans seems to believe that any attempt at inclusivity is actually oppression for some reason. I think the art for Spike, Tournament Grinder is a good example of Wizards making a genuine effort while still sort of missing the mark. I get the impression the card designers really thought that by representing their archetypal competitive player as a woman they might shift the needle of perception, but they also chose to use a man’s art for the card, when the vast majority of Magic artists are already men.

10 This is a really silly thing to deride someone for, by the way. My girlfriend taught me to be good at Magic, and I don’t think that diminishes my ability as a player.

11 I am in no way making the claim that these problems don’t exist in sports, too, by pointing out that there is more precedent for gendered differences. I also want to highlight that peak female performance is not too far off peak male performance. In other words, unless you’re Usain Bolt or something, there’s probably a woman out there who could kick your ass. Even if you’re well above average at your sport for a man. In no competitive arena is the perception that men are inherently better than women true or healthy for the vast majority of individuals playing, even when it is the case for the top fraction of a percent.

Links

[1] https://strategy.channelfireball.com/all-strategy/mtg/channelmagic-articles/the-life-of-a-pro-player/

[2] https://themagicrain.com/2017/02/5-reasons-to-play-magic-the-gathering/

[3] https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/ways-play/what-i-love-about-magic-creativity-2017-02-17

[4] https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/creation-magic-gathering-2013-03-12

[5] https://www.euronews.com/2020/11/27/the-queen-s-gambit-why-there-has-never-been-a-female-chess-world-champion

[6] https://realwomenofgaming.com/2018/03/16/top-10-female-magic-the-gathering-players/

[7] https://twitter.com/olimpiuurcan/status/969224340297302021

[8] https://www.metafilter.com/172320/You-dont-look-like-a-Magic-player

[9] https://www.hipstersofthecoast.com/2020/06/wizards-bans-7-cards-that-depict-racism-including-invoke-prejudice/

[10] https://www.inverse.com/article/46827-magic-the-gathering-gets-rid-of-sexist-art-and-fans-are-mad

[11] https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/news/depictions-racism-magic-2020-06-10

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