n.b. this post, alongside all the others titled ‘From the Vault’ were written by Ceri for the LilianaMarket blog. This one was originally posted 18 April 2018.

Last weekend, Jessica Estephen was the first woman to ever win a Magic Grand Prix. Team LilianaMarket vice-captain Ceri Taylor celebrates Jessica’s and others’ successes and reflects on why watching people you can identify with do well can inspire you to try harder to be successful yourself.

Coming out of the cinema, I looked at my friend’s 21-year old daughter and realised that I wasn’t the only one feeling emotional… Neither of us are particular fans of action movies; so what was it about Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017) that had caused us to well up? Apparently, we weren’t the only ones!

Warrior token by MtG artist, R.K. Post

When it comes to action movies it’s not often the case that the central character is a woman, and that their body is not there to be looked at, but there to fight. Watching Wonder Women made us realise that we’d been missing out on seeing characters we could feel some gendered familiarity with in those kinds of roles. Our emotional reaction to the movie was a visceral response to its total normalisation of women’s strength and ability, tinged with sadness that this felt like a novel viewing experience.

The Geena Davis Institute, which conducts research around the issue of female representation in the media has the motto, “If she can see it, she can be it”. So, do I want to be Wonder Woman? No… But I would rather like to be a successful competitive Magic player. And these last two weekends have certainly delivered the feminine inspiration needed!

At GP Seattle, Miranda Keith top 8’d the Legacy GP, having gone 13-2 in the swiss. Meanwhile, Kendra Smith (better known for playing Pauper) X-0’d day 1 of the Seattle Standard GP. The same weekend I got to watch fellow UK player Chloé Beadell beat SCG Pro Todd Stevens on camera over at SCG Open Milwaukee. By the end of the weekend I was feeling happy and inspired by their successes.

Screengrab from the SCG Milwaukee Open, 2018

But this weekend topped even that! I woke up on Sunday morning to see that Jessica Estephen and her teammates Ryan Lewis-Johns and Lachlan Saunders had won the Unified Modern GP in Sydney. The first woman to ever win a GP! Later in the day I saw that Jadine Klomparens had come 16th in the Modern GP in Hartford. Then, I woke up on Monday morning to find out that UK player Autumn Burchett had won the sealed MOCS open!

@jesstephan on Twitter

Jessica isn’t the first women to do well in Magic; shortly after I first started playing Magic I became aware of the successes of Melissa DeTora and Jackie Lee. However, it feels like women have become increasingly visible at competitive Magic events. Event coverage has been part of this, increasingly showing women on stream, and using commentators like Maria Bartholdi. But it’s also because women are doing better at competitive events. According to data collected by Play it Forward in 2017, the percentage of women or non-binary players in day two of US GPs increased over the year in every format except Modern.

Play it Forward is an initiative established in the USA to,

“…promote and cultivate women playing Magic: the Gathering at a competitive level by raising awareness of, and providing aid to, the hundreds of pro-candidate women already out there. Also by motivating additional women to join their ranks.”

It’s important to note that Play it Forward is not affiliated to Wizards, it’s a voluntary activity established by, and for, women and non-binary players. What they do, alongside collect data, is publicise successes by granting donated prizes to the highest placed woman or non-binary player at selected GPs. The prizes started with a playmat, but as the initiative has become more well-known they have become more impressive, including mentorships from high-level pros. Initiatives like this, and particularly the greater publicity given to women who are doing well, has been really important to me as a source of inspiration and encouragement.  

Why does all this matter to me?

The reason it matters to me is not just because of the pleasure of seeing people I can identify with do well. The increasing visibility of women in competitive magic also has important potential effects on my ability to do well at tournaments. The reason for this is that tournament performance is not simply based on play-skill. For women* attending competitive Magic tournaments the concept of ‘stereotype threat’ is a real issue.

So, what is ‘stereotype threat’? Various studies (e.g. those reported on here, here and here) have shown that when people are in a minority that is stereotypically assumed to be worse at a particular thing (e.g. doing maths or being competitive), that assumption has a negative effect on their performance. The effect is increased when they are reminded (even in subtle ways) of their minority status immediately prior to the test/tournament etc. A reminder of their minority status may simply be realising that they are a numerical minority in the room, or may be more evident, such as overhearing comments that remind them their involvement is novel to the others present. It doesn’t have to be an overtly sexist comment, although of course being on the receiving end of that will likely have an even more negative effect.

Another factor is overall numbers. The tiny number of women playing competitive Magic means that whatever their play skill they’re very unlikely to top eight a large event. I mentioned above that the number of women day two-ing US GPs in 2017 increased, but we’re still only talking about an increase from just over 1% to approximately 2.5% for Limited, and about 0.75% to 1.5% for Standard (data from Play it Forward). Numbers are important, as Play it Forward organiser Simone Aiken explains:

“Right now competitive women are 0.5% of competitors in a typical GP. So for every 100 matches 99 will be won by a man and the last match might be won by a woman. In a game where even world champions only have a 67% win rate this kind of numeric disparity virtually guarantees that the top 8 will be men. You can run simulations where women have an 80% chance to win a match against a man but with 2000 players and 10 competitive women the top 8 is still frequently all male… It isn’t changing the skill dial that gets women in top8. It’s changing the headcount.”

Consequently, Simone interprets the increase in the percentage of women day two-ing in 2017 to a roughly equivalent increase in the overall number of women attending GPs over the same time period.

There are also practical reasons why more women in competitive Magic makes it easier for us to attend and enjoy events. Simple things like having people to share hotel rooms with can cut costs. Also, as Chantelle Campbell explains, attending events with other women players, even if part of a mixed group, makes it much easier to picture yourself as ‘a Magic player’ first and foremost, rather than the odd one out, which leads to a much more positive experience overall. As part of Team LilianaMarket, I get to work with a great group of people; but however great the guys are, having Harriet on the team with me is an integral part of it being a comfortable and enjoyable experience.

The last two weekends have been truly inspirational, and watching Miranda’s, Kendra’s, Chloé’s, Jessica’s, Jadine’s and Autumn’s success has really spurred me on to keep working on Magic, and one day join them in the top-end standings. I’ve seen it, now I want to be it!

*And likely other minorities too, but I don’t have the personal experience to comment on that.