Melissa Li Says ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Is Making Huge Gender Strides

I can’t lie: Growing up, I dabbled in Magic: The Gathering. I owned one measly deck, but I adored the artwork and cryptic quotes. Yet even as a sixth grader, it felt like a Man’s World; boys gathered zippered cases of precious cargo, cackling over the casting of their mana and feverishly building their decks for lunchtime tournaments. And yet, as James Brown so famously warbled — it wouldn’t be nothing without a woman or a girl.

Mel Li Wizards of the Coast

Self-described as “the world’s best strategy game” that invented the very notion of a trading card game, Magic has evolved into a powerful beast the likes of which could inhabit its own world. Now 23 years old with 15,000 unique cards, Magic continues to captivate the world with its intricate and beautifully wrought world of castings, spells, and conjuring creatures. (There are around 20 million fans and active players, and Magic is currently printed in 11 languages and played in over 70 countries.)

We caught up with Melissa Li, one of the creators behind the latest deck to drop — Eldritch Moon. Li joined Magic’s story team in the summer of 2015; she contributes to Uncharted Realms, serves as the creative lead for upcoming Duels expansions, and is a contributor to a number of yet-unannounced projects. (Gird your loins.) Prior to working with Wizards of the Coast, she was an engineer for the research and development of biomedical diagnostics. (Of course.)

As Li says:

“To all those geeky folks out there who might be concerned about being considered ‘weird’ — embrace it and know that you’re not alone! We live in a beautiful and unique era where being into fantasy and sci-fi have a strong community that you can be part of. Games and fandoms are part of this community that help other geeks find and relate to each other, and that’s a wonderful thing.

So without further ado, here’s one of the brilliant minds behind the latest evolution of Innistrad talking about the game she loves and the push toward gender parity in a man-dominated world.

The last protections over Innistrad have faded. Ancient powers reach forth to corrupt the plane, and now Innistrad’s fate rests in the hands of unlikely allies . . .

So what exactly are you up to over there at Wizards of the Coast besides casting dark magic?

Before any of the cards in the set get made, I’m part of the team that helps figure out what new or returning worlds will be shown in the next card sets and exactly what those look like. I’ve worked with a few design teams on designing cards in upcoming card sets and writing the art descriptions/flavor text/titles that also show up on them. I also work on adapting our stories for our Magic Duels digital game and on writing some of the weekly fiction that’s shown on our website. It’s a lot of different things and I’m lucky to have some crazy talented collaborators!

Emrakul the Promised End - Jaime Jones
Emrakul, The Promised End by Jamie Jones

How often are new decks released? How big a deal is Eldritch Moon? What can people expect from this card set? How is it different than its predecessors?

We have four main sets released each year, as well as several specialty products, which means that there’s a huge number of different types of decks you can make with them. I’m a huge fan of Innistrad’s creepy vibe, and the characters in this block are some of my favorites! We’ve got two ancient powerful beings, an interdimensional monster, five somewhat mismatched heroes forced to work together, and a horror-themed town that gets ever-more horrible. What’s not to love?

The card set itself deals a lot with the influence of the big interdimensional monster, Emrakul, who has taken over the world (or “plane,” as we know them in Magic), to transform the denizens and warp their minds. You have cards that combine and “meld” together, creatures that can have monsters “emerge” out of them when they die, and cards that express the tensions between our mismatched heroes.

One of the things that I’m most proud of in Eldritch Moon is how well I think the cards reflect the story of what’s going on in this set. And there’s a ton of awesome female characters here. We’ve got Tamiyo, an intrepid scientist who’s got to figure out how to save the plane; Liliana Vess, our reluctantly heroic necromancer who bails out the other protagonists; the werewolf Arlinn Kord, who protects her pack from corruption; and the virtuous knight Thalia, who is desperately trying to keep order as the world descends into madness.

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The Oath of Liliana by Wesley Burt / Liliana, the Last Hope by Anna Steinbauer

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What kind of child were you? Where’d you grow up? And is any of that relevant to your obvious love of fantasy and science fiction??

Growing up I was a pretty active kid, but also really into fantasy and things that felt larger than my suburban San Diego neighborhood. I think one of the most frustrating things about being a kid is that you have this unlimited imagination for great things, while at the same time you might not know enough yet about how to actually do many of those things. That’s where fantasy and sci-fi come in — they help give you a place to put those big dreams. Luckily I had a really cool crew of friends at that age who showed me some of the great cartoons, comic books, novels, and games back then, like Batman: the Animated Series, Kabuki and X-Men titles, the D&D/Dragonlance universe, LucasArt adventure games series on PC, and of course, Magic: The Gathering.

I think being into fantasy and sci-fi stories is really important for people of all ages. It’s speculating about what life as another person or life in another environment might be like. It makes you question why certain things are the way that they are in the “real world,” and expands your mind into what might be possible. Role-playing is healthy too — trying on different personalities to see how you like them is an important part of deciding what kind of person you want to be and being empathic toward different people. It’s a process that I think is great to start out in kids and carry through for our entire lives. Prior to working on games, I was a scientist/engineer, and I was always amused by the respect that technical people had for the alternate realities shown in Star Trek and that sort of thing.

Tamiyo, Field Researcher - Tianhua X
Tamiyo, Field Researcher by Tianhua

I have to say that while many of my male friends still play Magic (with fervor! at tournaments! and often in my living room!) I don’t know any women who gather and play. Am I just in some weird dude-heavy bubble or is that representative of the gender breakdown in playing Magic?

Personally I’ve seen a range on gender balance over time and location. I’ve lived (and played Magic) in a bunch of different cities since high school. When I was out in Atlanta a while back, it was mostly guys with a few ladies. But then when I moved out to Seattle (a very gamer-friendly city) a few years later, I suddenly saw a lot more ladies and non-binary folks across the table at game stores around town and in the group that would play at my friend’s place. I think the gaming world as a whole has been changing a lot to become more inclusive of different genders, ethnicities, ages, etc. in the last few years, so it makes a lot of sense to me that Magic has made big strides in this area, too.

Dusk Feaster

Dusk Feaster by Anastasia Ovchinnikova

What say you about the commonplace over-sexualization of women in many video games, fantasy/science fiction, role-playing, etc.? Do you think there is some kind of compromise that doesn’t celebrate the conflation of sex + violence but doesn’t strip some characters of their sexuality or delectable va-va-voomness? Would gender parity be sexualizing the men just as much? I don’t want to sterilize women but I also am sick and tired of all the heaving breasts and preposterous backsides…what do we do?! *Wrings hands.*

Oh I totally feel you on this! I think because the gaming industry used to be mostly men, the way that women were shown in games was pretty strange for a while.

First off, I’m really excited to see games start to show women in a variety of roles and backstories that aren’t just how they relate romantically or sexually to some other character. I want to see characters treated like real people, with believable motivations and life goals.

But at the same time, I think you can absolutely have women who are badass and cool and yeah, sexy. The important thing to me is that those ladies are in control of that sexuality. They aren’t helpless damsels who need rescuing, or who are looked at with a “male gaze” that is making them sexualized if they don’t want that. If they choose to be sexy (and that’s a very important “if” that’s up to them), they do it in a way that isn’t making them victims. I think all this applies to guys, too — while the role reversal might be novel, I don’t think that alone could keep my interest for very long. I mean, characters based on sex just aren’t that interesting — you gotta have something interesting to say too, y’know?

When we make cards for our game, we focus on showing ladies doing cool things (slaying monsters, casting spells, investigating mysteries), some of whom are sexy because they end up looking good doing it, not because it’s their “job.”

What has your experience been as a woman in this field? Do you have terrifying tales a la Anita Sarkeesian or have you found this particular niche welcoming/inclusive, etc.?

I think our game has a HUGE advantage when it comes to bullying like that — when I play against other people, I’m right across the table from them. When you’re face to face in person playing with someone and talking to them, it’s much harder to dehumanize them. Another benefit is that if they want to say something, they’ve gotta say it to my face and chances are I’ll probably respond to them. Actually one of the primary reasons that I play Magic is that I love the community. The friends I’ve found through the game have been overall really fun, welcoming, progressively-minded folks who don’t make a point of gender.

Screen Shot 2016-07-25 at 4.26.43 PM
Werewolf Arlinn Kord

What’s your favorite Magic character or card of all time? Why? What character or storyline would you love to create, but haven’t yet?

Ooh, my favorite cards to play with are ones that start conversations with the people across the table. Especially the ones where you get to play mind games with your opponent. So there’s this card called “Oracle of Bones” that forces your opponent to try and figure out whether you have a certain type of card in your hand. If they guess wrong, you can cast that card for free! And even if they’re right, you still get to have a sweet creature. Also our plane of Theros (Greek mythology world) was one of my favorites.

For favorite characters, I’m a huge fan of Tamiyo (one of the protagonists of Eldritch Moon). She’s a wandering scholar who carries around folk-tales type records from all the places that she’s been, each of which have powerful spell effects. Storytelling as literal Magic is pretty on-point.

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Images courtesy of Wizards of the Coast

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