Two weeks ago, Simone Aiken posted in the Lady Planeswalkers Society Facebook group to offer “a gift” to women attending Grand Prix Denver. The top-finishing woman this weekend will receive free lodging and airfare for the North American Grand Prix of her choice in 2017, courtesy of Aiken and her husband. “Pass it on,” she insisted. “Go forth and conquer, ladies.”
I caught up with Aiken this weekend to talk about what had motivated her to make such a generous offer.
“I want to see more women show up to events,” she says, “because the more women there are in the room, the more likely it is that women will place highly.”
She also wants to work toward ending a trend she’s noticed: many women who excel at Magic talk themselves out of pursuing the highest levels of competition. She’s met talented female players who haven’t tried to qualify for the Pro Tour because of the work involved, or because they questioned whether they were good enough for the effort to be worth it.
“I want to put a lower bar out there that is attainable, to get women to try,” Aiken says. “Because once you try… who knows? But you have to try.”
Aiken has been challenging herself to improve at Magic since she started playing in 1996. A self-proclaimed bookworm, she happened upon some Magic product while visiting a bookstore with her cousin, Jamie. The girls played together for years, and Jamie’s mother would buy them boosters and singles from the local game store. When they started visiting the store regularly, employees talked the cousins into playing in weekly tournaments, where they became one another’s biggest competition.
“When we went to a competition, we weren’t trying to beat the guys,” Aiken admits. “We were trying to beat each other, and the mechanism by which we decided who won was who beat the most guys.”
Once Jamie moved out of state, Aiken continued playing Magic in the same manner that one plays a video game. She wasn’t concerned about beating her opponents – she was trying to beat her most recent “high score.” If she went X-3 at her last tournament, she pushed herself to go X-2 at the next one. Whom she had to beat to get there was irrelevant.
“In a video game, beating the monsters isn’t the end goal,” she says. “They’re a metric by which you measure your own success. They may get faster and stronger, but what really matters is that you got to a higher level than you did last time.”
Some Magic players get intimidated when they have to square off against a particularly fearsome monster – a Platinum Pro, a Hall of Famer, or even the best player at the local game store – but that’s never been a problem for Aiken. She has a cognitive disorder called prosopagnosia, commonly known as “face blindness,” which makes it difficult for her to distinguish people’s faces. She recognizes close friends and family members, but strangers and acquaintances – including many of her opponents in Magic tournaments – are interchangeable.
Even after fifteen years of playing in the Denver Magic scene, Aiken says she hardly recognizes the local pro players and prominent grinders. “I can’t count the number of times that I’ll win a match and someone will come over to me and say, ‘Simone, that’s amazing!' because I beat some big name, and I’ll just say, ‘Okay?' because they’re just people. They draw cards and tap mana like everyone else. Some people are less likely to make mistakes than others, but that doesn’t mean they’re always going to win.”
Aiken’s lack of intimidation allowed her to focus on her personal goals and play in tournaments for fun. She says that while she always played in Magic tournaments, she didn’t truly adopt a competitive mindset until she met Jackie Lee. Seeing another female player in a sea of men reignited the sense of competition Aiken had felt with her cousin, Jamie.
“[Jackie Lee] was real,” Aiken says. “She wasn’t just a background monster, and she was significantly better than me. I wanted to play on her level, and I wanted to beat her one day. So I decided I wanted to make Day 2 at a GP, so I went to five in a year.”
The last three times, she came back to play on Sunday, and she hopes that the challenge she issued this weekend will inspire more women to achieve their own personal Magic goals. She spoke of women’s fear of failing at the highest levels of Magic competition, and the parallel fear that their failure will reflect on other women.
“If there are more women playing, you have more freedom to fail,” Aiken says. “I want to get women players to come together, and focus on each other, and come to events in larger groups, but I can’t achieve that on my own.” The gift she offered the women of Grand Prix Denver is certainly a promising first step.
Update: At the end of fifteen rounds, Jennifer Crotts had won Simone Aiken's generous sponsorship. She finished in 201st place with a record of 9-6 playing B/G Delirium and is thrilled to travel to more Grand Prix next year.