Jan Švelch: Meritocracy and Inclusivity in Magic: The Gathering

Top 16 players of the first major Arena tournament: Mythic Invitational in Boston in March 2019

Written by Jan Švelch, Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies. This post is a part of an ongoing blog series by members and alumni of the CoE. See the full list of published posts and the introduction to the series.

Despite its ongoing success, Magic: The Gathering is trailing in its mainstream appeal behind Dungeons & Dragons, which is published by the same company and has become a frequent reference in mainstream popular culture. While studying the transformation of the genre-defining card game into an esport, I encountered that its creators and players regularly discuss how the cis male-dominated tournament scene contributes to the public image of Magic: The Gathering. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons, voice actors from the tremendously successful show Critical Role help to portray it as a welcoming space for everyone interested in fantasy storytelling, rolling dice, and role-playing, although its cast is dominantly white and D&D’s rulebooks historically struggle with depiction of gender and race (check out Sarah Stang’s and Aaron Trammell’s work on the topic, including their co-authored article). On the other hand, MTG with its thousands of cards and complex rules prioritizes meritocracy as its ethos to a point where it can be seen as exclusionary.

Many players engage with MTG in a casual way (a term used by the community) instead of heavily investing in the most competitive decks for tournament play. Independent content creators have focused on this part of the community for years, but the publisher’s strategy has revolved around professional play as a major driver for sales. After all, MTG’s monetization model is technically pay-to-win and cards are thus valued largely based on their power level (and artificial scarcity). Tournaments showcase new expansions and function as promotional events for the underlying business of selling cards.

The success in the competitive scene was for long predicated on the so-called grind, involving a lot of travelling to sanctioned tournaments. This system benefited players with enough time to participate in these events and funds to afford the best decks. Despite these embedded structural inequalities, a player’s success in MTG is usually recognized as based on merit. Among the top competitors, skill and dedication are arguably more important than wealth, but the prerequisite for engaging in high-level play is to have sufficient funds and easy access to tournaments in order to acquire points for annual rankings.

Autumn Burchett winning a major Magic: The Gathering Tournament as the first non-binary player in February 2019

The situation has been changing with the introduction of the new digital version of the game – Magic: The Gathering Arena. The first major tournament played using Arena in March 2019 featured 64 players, out of which 26, mostly streamers, were handpicked by the publisher. While some fans have appreciated a more diverse playing field, which included cis female, transgender, and non-binary players, others have complained about the perceived favoritism. Furthermore, some of the professional competitors felt frustrated by the lack of transparency from the publisher, which recently revamped the organized play to more resemble an esports league. Following personal changes within the league due to cheating, allegations of sexual harassment, and protest, the three players in question, who had qualified for the league based on annual rankings, were replaced by people who would have not been eligible. While this decision contributed to more diversity within the league by adding a cis female and a non-binary person to an otherwise all cis male roster, some of these picks were again criticized. Along with these changes, the publisher also introduced 16 discretionary slots for all upcoming Arena tournaments to further promote diversity:

“The barriers women face when attempting to play competitively are significant. […] These discretionary slots will be used to invite a broader representation of the Magic competitive community to high-level play.”

– Elaine Chase, Vice President of Esports (full statement)

According to available estimates, women in particular are underrepresented in MTG’s competitive scene. While they reportedly make up around 38% of all players based on internal market research data from 2015, this translates to less than 5% of tournament attendees. The new official strategy to showcase cis female, transgender, and non-binary players causes resistance from various stakeholders, including professional competitors, partly due to the way these changes are being rolled out by the publisher and how they undermine the perceived meritocracy. While it is too early to predict any long-term changes to MTG’s competitive play, the recent efforts have at the very least contributed to better visibility of these issues.