I already had my Friday more or less planned. Write, walk, coffee, walk, smoothie, write, movie, dinner, read, sleep. It was going to be a nice, quiet, solitary day.
And then I sent a friend a message. The message read, simply, “do you want to teach me more magic next week?”
He wrote back saying I should come over right away.
And that’s how I found myself sitting around a square dining room table with three young, straight, white dudes (my friend, his cousin, whom I’d heard of but never met, and his roommate, who did not remember me until the fourth time we were introduced) in West Hollywood. The table was covered with four neoprene placemats illustrated with fantasy-scapes of heroes and dragons, and the small dining room was overflowing with boxes and boxes of playing cards. But not the kind of cards sleight-of-hand magicians use. We were doing a different kind of magic.
This was my first Magic: the Gathering draft, and I was woefully unprepared.
Just a few weeks back, on a routine hang-out with this same friend, we found ourselves in this same accidentally-Magic-the-Gathering-themed dining room, and because the topic of the game was unavoidable, he asked me (to his credit) if I had ever played. I hadn’t. But I knew this game.
There has never been a time in my life when I was not, in some respect, “one of the guys.” My father has a beautiful photograph, taken when I was just three years old, of me and three preschool chums sitting in a row in our classroom. One boy, Aaron, is preparing to attack the cameraperson. Two other boys look shy or disinterested. And then there’s me, smirking at the photographer. My father contends that this is a photo “of Marissa” and I am inclined to agree. This is my life story: sitting in a room full of dudes, smirking at the camera.
The dudes in question have, by definition, always been the type that can have a female friend and not be too weird about it. They are smart, creative, typically kind-hearted, and almost always deeply nerdy in at least one way, but usually more like four or five. My high school class was famous in our day for being one where the choir nerds, theater nerds, and academic nerds were all more or less the same usual suspect group of nerds. The fact that speech and debate competition season overlapped with show choir competition season was an annual fiasco.
My point is, I knew about Magic: the Gathering. But I’d never played. So my buddy, who is an excellent teacher, taught me how. He taught me to pretend I was some kind of master magician standing on top of a hill across from another master magician, and we both had a bunch of spells at our disposal (these are listed on the cards). We were going to use our spells, many of which summoned some sort of magic creature that would attack the opponents’ magical creature. Whatever that sounds like to you, dear reader, you are probably about right. It’s a great metaphor for a very strange, exceedingly complex game. It is very silly, and yet it requires an immense amount of strategy and brainpower.
It is the perfect game, I’m now realizing, for smart, nerdy dudes. But I enjoyed it, too, when I was being patiently taught the rules by my good buddy.
Back to this Friday, though. I showed up at my friend’s apartment and was immediately in a panic that took me by surprise. My friend and the other two guys were getting ready to start the draft. Not only did I not feel prepared for what we were about to do, but I also HAD NO IDEA WHAT WE WERE ABOUT TO DO. What’s a draft? How do four people play this game at once? How do you play this game at all?? Look, I’m an intelligent, self-possessed woman in her mid-thirties. I was, in fact, the oldest person in the room. But all I could think was how I had unwittingly plopped myself into the position of annoying, casual, noob GIRL.
“Girl” being the operative word. I hate to be seen as dumb in any setting (this intellectual vanity is one of my greatest character flaws, I’d say). But to be the dumb girl was a living nightmare.
First off, it was a mansplaining minefield. In this very apartment a year earlier, a new guy who I’d been having a great conversation with explained to me how the TV show I’d just named as my favorite was “actually anti-feminist propaganda” — and this after admitting that he had NEVER SEEN THE SHOW. At this point in my life as a woke woman, it’s honestly pretty hard to get off my high horse long enough for a man teach me almost anything — I’m primed to be rankled. It was different before, when my close friend was explaining a game I’d asked him to teach me about. Now, as he cleaned up excess cards, his cousin was gamely trying to teach me all over again from scratch, and I couldn’t even blame him. I mentioned that what I was struggling most with was “the etiquette of the game” and this was apparently funny to all present. As if! The game has a huge list of steps one must take, in a particular order, to properly execute one’s turn, but calling that rigamarole “etiquette” was apparently precious. And yet, that was what I needed a refresher on. What’s more, because I was openly ignorant of so much of the game, I also had to grit my teeth while familiar concepts were explained to me. Two 6-sided dice were rolled, and I was told that a 7 was “middle of the road.”
“What the highest number you can get when you roll?” I deadpanned, fully cognizant that 6 plus 6 equals 12. Alas, no one knew I was joking.
Truth be told, I had a million questions, and I made the mistake of expressing my unease. Perhaps in an attempt to calm me with humor, one of the guys shouted at me that if I asked any more questions, I was going to have to leave. This strategy, alas, represents the thing I least like about trying to hang with guys: they give each other SO MUCH SHIT. For fun. If you don’t like having your flaws ridiculed, you have to take your ball and go home. Surely, no one likes having their flaws ridiculed. But this is what men do. I cannot explain it, and I doubt they can either.
I thought about leaving before we began. I thought about crying. But I also thought about how bizarre this reaction was, especially considering the stakes (a game where, if you play your cards right, your vampires can fly up and kill your opponent’s flower-monsters). I had to push on. Plus, how would I explain my freakout to my friend? “I’m sorry I had to leave your Magic draft, I just couldn’t embarrass myself in front of the Magic bros!”
It was a good thing I stayed. Turns out, what I had signed up for was not some grand, four-way tournament of champions in a complex strategy game I’d barely learned some weeks earlier. A draft is when you open a bunch of Magic: the Gathering cards — think a pack of baseball cards, or the basketball cards I flipped through as a young Midwesterner. Each person picks a card from the pack, then passes it around the table. All we were doing was building the decks we'd play with. One of the rules is to only pick cards that are a particular color; another rule, apparently, is that you have to state aloud how much your deck is going to “own”, and do so frequently. After we built our decks — a lengthy, but enjoyable process — I played with my friend, who had built an unstoppable deck and carefully explained every step of my ass being handed to me.
I learned a lot more Magic over the course of those three hours or so. But nothing taught me more that my reaction to the whole situation. When was the last time I was so ill at ease? Why did the prospect of being the least knowledgeable person in the room fill me with such anxiety? Gender dynamics were at play, sure, but above all, I think my discomfort was about being unprepared.
Of course, there had never been anything to be afraid of in the first place. There was no mega-Magic-showdown on the books for the afternoon. Just four people with an open afternoon, passing around freshly opened packages of lore-covered cards. I left with no anxiety (except that maybe I should have been writing during those 3 hours). Instead, I was filled with that intoxicating feeling of having experienced something entirely unfamiliar for the first time. Talk about magic.