Three girls, one car, 1800 miles. On June 3rd I began my journey to Columbus, OH to play Magic: The Gathering in the Season Two Invitational of the Star City Games Open Series. The tournament is an invite-only, three-day event, and the grand prize is $10,000. If you remember playing Magic back in elementary school, and that one kid who always seemed to win no matter what anyone else did, then I want you to imagine a room filled with more than 700 of those players, and you’ll have an idea of what these tournaments are like. I wish that I could tell you that I took home that 10k, but the stars or the fates (or my playskill) didn’t align, and I was not crowned champion of the weekend. But, even those who aren’t the champion have their stories.

star city gamesOur story started with my journey from Columbia, MO to Chicago, where I picked up my friend Susan. Most of the time, I have to travel with a group of local guys to larger tournaments to mitigate costs and make the trips more affordable. Luckily, this time all of our schedules worked out to join our powers of womanhood for the weekend, and it was a phenomenal breath of fresh air. I met Susan at a tournament where we were seated next to each other at the player meeting. Since both of our last names start with “Z,” and we were two of the only girls in the room, we immediately became fast friends.

From Chicago we touched base in Toledo, OH to meet my friend Nicole, before heading south towards our destination. I met Nicole through a mutual friend in Magic, and we’ve been Snapchat buddies ever since. We were running on the edge of being late when we arrived in Columbus, and Susan had a moment of shining glory where she turned to me and said, “I can run.” Shoving her bags at me, she booked it down the sidewalk and managed to make it in time to register both of us for our seats in the Invitational.

there's some foodThe first day of the invitational is on a Friday, and it features eight rounds of play, with two different formats between the eight rounds. At the end of the first day, everyone with a record of five wins and three losses or better is allowed to advance to the second day of the tournament. There are other events during the weekend for those who don’t manage to make the cut for day two, so no matter how well you do in the tournaments, you can keep playing Magic all weekend. Most players do. Some people show up only to play in the other events, while other players supplement playing Magic with trading, altering magic cards, or showing off their expensive foil collection (foils are like regular magic cards, only shinier…and therefore pricier).

The air is filled with people talking about Magic, opening packs of cards, and preparing for their events. You can feel the excitement of being surrounded by others who love the same kinds of things that you do, other people who have traveled just as far as you (if not farther) to all congregate in the same location for a weekend of excitement.

For me, day one went very well. I lost my first round, but proceeded to win my next five rounds before I lost again. This put me in an excellent position going into day two and is exactly the reason why I love to play the game so much. Not only do I feel empowered, but playing Magic at the most competitive levels allows me to use all of my skills to navigate to a win. I’ve been playing Magic since I was ten or eleven, and it’s a comfort and staple of my life that has helped me through depression, eating disorders, and heartache alike. Playing at large tournaments, you can often gain an extra advantage from being able to read your opponent, a skill I’ve developed over the years.  And while “traditionally male” abilities are often lauded – like being aggressive and taking risks – I’ve found that my abilities to multitask, deceive, and empathize with my opponent give me an edge over players who underestimated me because of my gender.

Day one didn’t go as well for Susan. She took a few losses early and ended up dropping from the event after her fourth loss. In the Magic community, we usually call it being “dead” when you’ve taken too many losses to qualify for the next day or when you’re out of contention for prizes.

even more foodBut although she was “dead” in the tournament, her weekend was far from over. Susan and I only get to hang out when we attend the same tournament, and we get to hang out with Nicole even less often since she doesn’t really play competitively, so we were prepared to make this weekend count. We stopped by a local Kroger for ice cream, stout beer, and lunch supplies, and went back to the hotel to engage in Operation: Slumber Party. We made some changes to Susan’s deck for the smaller tournament she was attending the next day and made glorious ice cream-brownie concoctions in the plastic hotel cups. We all agreed: sharing a hotel with boys was nowhere near as fun. There’s always a moment of joy when you see another woman at a tournament, especially if she’s doing well. You share a smile and cheer each other on and often become instant friends even if you’ve never seen each other before. But there’s even more joy in being able to share your whole weekend with girl friends.

“I wish we could do this every time,” Susan told us.

“Agreed,” I said. “I guarantee that more women would go to events if they were all like this.”

We shared a moment of silence to ponder the possibility. For all the strides we’ve made at gaining equality at the competitive level, there are still battles to be won. After all, would you really be able to discuss the judge with the really cute butt with a group of guys? We fight for the right for all ladies who play Magic to discuss cute butts at their leisure!

After a night of slumber party madness, I arose bright and early (earlier than my hotel-mates, at least) to trek back to the convention center and begin my trudge through day two. I won my first two rounds and was pleasantly surprised by Nicole and Susan’s arrival with breakfast in the form of a Belgian waffle from Columbus’s North Market. There often isn’t time between rounds to find food, but luckily, I had the support of wonderful friends to supplement our packed sandwiches for lunch.

Unluckily, I lost the next two rounds in very close matches, which put me out of contention for top eight. A few more losses and my day and tournament was over, putting me just out of the reach of prizes (only awarded to the top 64 players). We used our spare time that evening to walk around downtown Columbus, and our topic strayed again to the differences between a tournament like the invitational and other tournaments.

One of the nice things about playing at this level of competitive play is there are generally fewer instances of male players doubting your skill or otherwise making gendered assumptions about your competency, since everyone had to earn their invite. Similarly, no one once asked if we were just there because of our boyfriends (a typical occurrence at other events).  It can be a huge hurdle for women who are trying to break into the competitive scene, and both of us remember when we were seen as “just someone’s girlfriend,” even when we were single. I’ve had many opponents try to condescendingly explain card interactions to me, or who have frustratingly exclaimed, “I can’t believe I lost to a girl.”

When you’re one of 20 women in the room, stuff like that can hurt a lot. You feel like shouting back, “Why does my gender matter more than the fact that I played really well?” But you don’t. Because the guy complaining about losing to a girl is shrugged off, but the girl who started yelling after she won a match? She’d be whispered about for years.

We ended our weekend with $100 of sushi between the three of us and a bottle of sake. Between mouthfuls of sashimi, we talked about relationships, the most ridiculous ways to respond to catcalling, and what it would be like to play Magic if you were a celebrity. The weekend was worth it, despite none of us winning any prizes, because of the time we spent together, and we couldn’t help wondering if guys get to experience this kind of enjoyment at basically every tournament.

elements i think“We need more of this,” I told Susan and Nicole on the ride back. “I want to share the joy that I find in this game with more than just guys.” Both of them nodded in agreement. And I felt a fire that I hadn’t felt since the last tournament weekend I’d gotten to spend with other awesome ladies. I’m playing because I love the game. But I’m also playing for all the wonderful women who don’t get to do what I do. Because tournament Magic isn’t about gender – it’s about crushing your opponents with 2.5”x3.5” pieces of cardboard.

Featured image via Kristen Plescow @ StarCityGames.com. Body images via Natahlia Zaring.