Barbara the Relentless

Posted in GRAND PRIX SEATTLE-TACOMA 2015 on November 7, 2015

By Hallie Santo

We all remember the first person who taught us to play Magic. Many of us, who learned the game as children or young adults, had a friend, classmate, or older sibling who taught us how to tap lands and cast spells. Now that the game has been around for over twenty years, it's even becoming intergenerational, with parents and teachers who picked up the game in the nineties sharing their spellcrafting knowledge with a new generation of Planeswalkers. After two years of teaching Magic at conventions like PAX Prime, I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon: legions of women are getting into the game after learning to play with their children.

One of these Magic-playing moms is Barbara McCann, who's competing in her first Grand Prix in Seattle-Tacoma this weekend. "My daughter goes to a private school for kids with ADHD, and one of her teachers thought the game would be a great way to engage the kids," she says. "Most of her classmates are boys, so she didn't always have other girls to play with... so she taught me. I didn't understand the game at first, but I really wanted to learn it so I could play with her." Before long, Barbara and her daughter, Rosie, were playing in local Magic tournaments together—and occasionally playing against each other. The game grew on Barbara, and she continued to play and collect cards even after Rosie's interest waned.

"Magic definitely filled a void for me," she says. "When I was younger, I was always told that girls couldn't play 'boy games' or couldn't be competitive. I've always been a tomboy and even collected baseball cards back in the day, but it always seemed like the boys were speaking a different language that I wasn't privy to."

Once she reached adulthood, however, Barbara gained the courage she needed to pursue her passions. In her early thirties, she joined an indoor rock climbing gym and asked for a personal trainer to help her learn proper technique—a request that she says was unheard of at the time. Barbara got a trainer and went on to master the sport of rock climbing. She became the head of the Seattle Mountaineers, where she frequently led groups of men on climbs, and authored a chapter in the climbing guidebook Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills.

"My friends and family call me 'Barbara the Relentless'," she says. "Whenever I get into something, I get really into it."

After originally learning the game to play with her daughter, Barbara McCann continued to explore Magic and took the dive into Legacy's depth in preparation for Grand Prix Seattle-Tacoma.

Once Barbara found Magic, she brought the same enthusiasm to the game that she had brought to rock climbing in the nineties. Twice a week, she would travel across town after work to attend the Lady Planeswalkers Society and Friday Night Magic at Card Kingdom in Seattle. As the year went on and the Standard metagame solidified, Barbara started to look elsewhere for new challenges. Weekly Legacy and Modern tournaments at the store piqued her interest, so she began acquiring format staples.

"I just wanted to be able to play as many formats as possible," she says, "so I looked up decklists online and tried to find a deck I could play in both Modern and Legacy. Merfolk seemed like an obvious choice."

When Barbara learned that a Legacy Grand Prix would be taking place near her home city, she picked up a play set of Force of Will and began relentlessly studying the format. In August, she started what would become a new routine for her: attending Card Kingdom's popular and competitive Monday Night Legacy tournaments. After winning the first round of the tournament, she found herself playing in her first on-camera feature match in Round 2 on the store's Twitch channel. "Someone must have thought I was a good player, because then they put me on camera!" she laughed. "I didn't know what I was doing and had never even heard of [her opponent's deck] Tin Fins." After losing the match, she did something many Magic players have done before her: she recruited her opponent to help her playtest.

For three months leading up to Grand Prix Seattle-Tacoma, Barbara held three full-time jobs: psychologist, mom, and Magic player. Any spare moment she had, she devoted to Magic—she organized testing sessions at coffee shops for other Lady Planeswalkers Society members to learn their Legacy decks for the Grand Prix, and even sought out local game stores to visit when she was out of town on business trips. She devoured Legacy tournament coverage and studied the top decks in the format. All the while, her more seasoned compatriots at Monday Night Legacy were there to guide her; they answered her questions about how their combo decks went off and advised her about lines of play and sideboarding options.

Barbara seemed calm and in control as I watched her play in an On-Demand Legacy event yesterday. It was her first time playing against Elves, and while she had to read all her opponent's cards, she absorbed the information like a sponge and knew just the lines to take. In the deciding Game 3, she patiently waited for her opponent to play a Gaea's Cradle, then immediately destroyed it with Wasteland. She attacked with confidence with Cursecatcher and Silvergill Adept, but wisely let her Lord of Atlantis stay behind. Each time her opponent cast Natural Order, she was ready with a Force of Will and a blue creature to exile.

"Do you think I made any mistakes?" Barbara asked me after the match was over. She's always looking for subtle ways to improve her game, even when she wins a match.

I shook my head. "You played that match very well," I said. "I don't think I would have done anything differently."

After the day's matches had concluded, I asked Barbara what further goals she had as a Magic player. "I just want to continue to get better and better," she said. "I'm very competitive, and I want to walk into a room [at a tournament] and know that I have a good chance of winning. And now that I'm getting close to retirement, I'll have even more time to dedicate to playing.

"I've been saying for a while that I'll be teaching people to play Magic in the retirement home," she quips. "When you go to retirement homes, you always see all these people playing Bingo, and I think it would be great if the Baby Boomers learned to play Magic. I think they would love it."