By Cait Martin Newnham
Kristy Murphy, 31, sifted through her large stack of Magic: The Gathering (MTG) playing cards. She paused to scan over a card before placing it in front of her.
“This one’s really famous and is known as the Britney Spears angel,” the Torontonian chuckled, pointing to the artwork on the card named Angel of Despair. It depicted an angelic, winged figure that closely resembled said pop star in her shaved-head era.
Murphy, an assistant to the director of admissions at Ryerson University, began playing the popular trading card game 18 years ago. MTG was first produced in 1993 – only two years before Pokémon. Both games are published by Wizards of the Coast and have continued to thrive since their inception.
According to Myles Davis, an employee of 401 Games on Yonge Street where MTG cards are sold and tournaments are held regularly, the MTG-playing population is diverse in age, profession and character.
“There’s the person you would expect, like the socially awkward guy, and they’re kind of what the main focus is on. Then you get people who are young professionals [and] enjoy it because it’s a hobby,” he explains. “There are even kids coming in and parents that are teaching it to them.”
There is one demographic of MTG players, however, who is underrepresented. Megan Penfold, 25, a MTG player from Hamilton, Ont., and Davis both estimate that the ratio of female to male competitors is one to 10, respectively.
“It has always been heavily male-based. At the time that I was learning I was the only female in the group,” Penfold says.
There are several ways to play MTG. Some formats involve two players trying to reduce each other’s life points from 20 to zero while other formats require several players. Avid players are drawn to pre-release tournaments, which are held three to four times each year to allow them to buy and play with new sets before their official release. The next round of pre-release events will be held for the new Battle for Zendikar set during the weekend of Sept. 25.
New MTG players need a willing mentor to introduce them to the game due to its complexity. With the sparse number of female players, women often get involved or reintroduced to the game through a male player who is prepared to invest time in teaching or re-teaching the game. This often ends up being a boyfriend, as was the case for Davis’ girlfriend and Murphy.
“I found that I would need to have my boyfriend or other people that I was playing with remind me of the different steps, [like] ‘Do I attack now?’” says Murphy. Her first introduction to MTG was when she was in elementary school, but she stopped playing when the game was banned because kids were fighting over cards.
Penfold says friends tried to teach her, but they were too impatient to do so properly. Because of this, she had a hard time understanding the game and became frustrated with constantly losing.
“It was hard to find somebody to teach me because there’s a lot to remember and that was a bit overwhelming at first,” Penfold says. “My friends just kicked the crap out of me.”
Another reason Penfold thinks few women are playing MTG is because of its nerdy reputation. But she thinks this could be changing because nerdiness has become a fad.
“When I was learning how to play we would play in the back of a library so no one would really see us or bug us. It was kind of a secret really, but when I was in college there were people playing right out in the open,” Penfold explains. “Superheroes and comic books are socially acceptable now.”
On the other hand, Murphy believes that women are deterred from playing the trading card game because they think the competitive nature of MTG breeds an aggressive environment. Penfold echoes this sentiment by explaining that “because it’s a competitive game where you are battling against another person,” it might not appeal to women.
Murphy says that the game’s competitive reputation is distorted.
“I find the gaming community, face-to-face, is really positive. I think there’s a big misconception about gaming communities because the online communities can be so negative and very abusive, so people think that all gamers are like that,” says Murphy.
Penfold and Davis notice slight differences between facing-off against male and female MTG players. “They don’t take themselves too seriously like male Magic players do, but are just as good,” Davis says.
Penfold feels socially awkward playing against females “because they’re like rare unicorns. I’m used to playing against guys and bashing them and swearing at them and things like that. I don’t want to do that to a girl. I’m not used to it. The few times where I have played in the tournament, most of the girls I play against don’t talk too much or are very shy.”
In spite of the many gender differences in the MTG community, initial interest in the game was sparked by the same thing for Murphy, Penfold and Davis: the artwork on the cards. There are hundreds of artist who have contributed to MTG since it began and some players will follow their favourite artists.
“I know a couple of guys that I used to play with who would not necessarily collect the best cards, but the cards that they like the art of the best,” Davis says.
Murphy follows the artwork of Michael Komarck and tends to collect angel and mermaid themed cards for their intricate. “It’s such a cool way for artists to be able to make art that people are going to see all of the time instead of it just hanging on the wall. There’s a lot of detail in that card,” she says, gesturing again at her Angel of Despair card.
Murphy says she hopes more women will become interested in the artwork and involved in MTG. But she’s not sure how to get female players involved who do not have a friend dedicated to the time-consuming learning process. She says the best strategy is to approach the introduction of women to MTG in the same way that other board games are presented.
“It’s interesting because I find, with board games, girls are going to Snakes and Lattes or cafés like that. Why wouldn’t they come to [401 Games] and try card games? Maybe it’s not as accessible to them — maybe cost. I don’t know of any places in Toronto that you can go to and you can get a pre-made deck cheaply and just try it out.”
The cultivation of a larger population of female MTG players in the male-dominated community will require the availability of mentors and tester decks for the new players. But Murphy, Penfold and Davis say the investment of time and money is worth it for women thinking about playing.
Interested in learning how to play MTG? Check out the infographic below for a breakdown of the rules.