In February of 2020, the first season of the fledgling Venus and Mercury League brought together 24 women and non-binary Magic players for a few weeks of competitive play. Today the VML, now a league for all players of marginalized genders, is in its sixth season and reached its registration cap of 64 players in just two days.
It's also sending two players, Arya Karamchandani and Doria Keung, to this weekend's Innistrad Championship via invites awarded through the VML's one-shot tournament and season five league play.
"I participated in season one and really enjoyed the concept and felt pretty passionately about some of the directions and goals that were being achieved," said Carolyn Kavanagh, who, alongside Haiyue Yu, spearheaded the changes that expanded the scope and inclusivity of the VML.
"We decided that it should be headed by people of marginalized genders, and we promoted ourselves, essentially," Yu said. "It was really after that, during season two, that we started doing a lot of the work that is defining of the VML now."
That work included official sponsorship from Wizards of the Coast, which led to a Championship invite for each season's VML winner, starting with season three. But aside from the tangible addition of invites to Magic's top events, the VML provides something intangible but even more important for players of marginalized genders finding their way into the competitive scene, and that's a safe and welcoming community.
"From the very beginning, the idea was that we wanted to tackle the lack of people of marginalized genders in the competitive Magic world," Yu said. "We know that casual Magic has many people of marginalized genders that participate and that are represented well in famous content, but at the top of competitive play it's a different story."
"[The VML] was the reason I got into competitive Magic, honestly," Karamchandani said. "If that community hadn't been there, I would've had zero interest in trying to get into competitive Magic. But knowing that there were all these awesome folks of marginalized gender who cared and were competing and were really supportive throughout, it made me actually want to be involved."
"The community that you get through the VML is the most positive out of any that I've seen or been a part of, and I think that that's been a really big motivating factor to do well," Keung added.
"Something that always makes me really happy is people always say that playing the VML makes them want to play more Magic, makes them want to play more events, bigger competitive events, that people feel like they were able to access a space that they were welcomed in and could be their competitive Spike-y selves without it being questioned," Yu said. "Every season when I read those survey responses, it's just…that's why we do it."
Karamchandani won Season 4 of the VML, which earned her an invite to the Kaldheim Championship, and her Magic journey snowballed from there. She went on to play in the Strixhaven Championship after qualifying via a sealed MTG Arena Qualifier Weekend, and then followed that up with winning the VML's one-shot tournament to return to yet another championship this weekend.
Keung, on the other hand, is at the start of her competitive Magic journey. The Innistrad Championship this weekend will be her first premier event, and she's still navigating the waters between being an aspiring competitor and having achieved that particular goal.
"Competitive play is still pretty new for me," she said. "I think that the main challenge is staying motivated. When you move from casual play to competitive play, the goals change a bit. I think setting those goals and actually tracking moving towards the direction that you want to be going in can be quite difficult. Staying motivated has two aspects. One is setting new goals for yourself, and then the other is not being too down on yourself when you take losses."
Keung's winning season in the VML helped her adapt to the landscape of competitive Magic by aiding her discovery of the tools that led to her success.
"I put a lot of effort into the last season for the VML. It felt very legit to me, if that makes any sense. I felt like I had a schedule set up and someone that I worked with and I went through decks with every week. Having the routine and setting up these processes has been something that I'm very proud of."
Providing more of the kind of support that helps players successfully move into the competitive Magic sphere is on the VML's radar.
"We actually built a mentorship program this season in the VML, which is our attempt at trying to create something that could organically become a network or a stream of connections, where we've asked people who are more experienced to take on a mentee of somebody who's new to the league or who just feels like they need help," Yu said.
"With the VML it provides for me, and I think also more generally, a community of really awesome people who are all invested in playing competitive Magic, but also there's a lot of focus on how welcoming the community is," Karamchandani added. "It's this community that's there for testing or meeting up at events and is really good at getting people into that level of wanting to compete. I mean, it did for me."
As the VML introduced players to Magic's competitive scene, it shed more light on a problem that players of marginalized genders have long been familiar with but doesn't get the same kind of attention as flashier topics like event invites.
"You can give as many invites to people of marginalized genders as you want, but if those people don't have testing teams, they don't have support networks, they don't have travel buddies, they don't have, you know, people to make their lunch while they sit in a PT testing house for eight hours a day, then you're essentially setting them up for failure before they start," Yu said.
"It frustrates me a lot that there are all these networks that are filled with men who invite other men, and people of marginalized genders just don't get invited to those groups or those networks. So, I think the biggest gap for me, for the long-term success of people of marginalized genders in the competitive space, is that we have to build those networks ourselves."
"For me the biggest hurdle going from sometimes playing some small tournaments to wanting to play the Championships was that it feels like a lot of Championship testing happens in in-groups," Karamchandani said. "If you know someone, then it's often easier, or at least very doable to get on a good testing team. But if you don't know anyone then it's really hard to find people to test with."
As Keung said, "it always comes down to playing good Magic, of course, but a lot of the things that help people succeed are almost tangentially related, like the support network and finding the right meta. Figuring out those things takes more than one person, usually."
Enter Sanctum of All, a testing team initiated by Karamchandani that, while not composed exclusively of players of marginalized genders, has an open invite to those players.
When she qualified for the Kaldheim Championship, Karamchandani fell into testing with Autumn Burchett and Chris Botelho, which worked out so well that they tested together for the rest of the season. In her search for a testing team, though, Karamchandani also had a second, and this time problematic and disheartening, experience.
"I posted about it on Twitter after I won the VML, and I was invited by a group of people who had all happened to qualify for that championship through PTQs. And some of the people in that group were lovely, but there were some people who were constantly casually sexist and made it really hard to work with that group."
So, she didn't work with them, and while her testing with Botelho and Burchett was a great fit, it also meant testing long hours to accommodate different time zones and the limitations of a three-person team. Karamchandani also knew that while she had a solution, other players of marginalized genders in the Innistrad Championship and beyond would face the same barriers to entry in testing teams.
"I wanted other competitors of marginalized genders to not have to deal with that again, and so that's the idea behind Sanctum of All. The focus isn't even really on providing a stronger testing team or a better testing team than a lot of the other options out there. It's that a lot of folks of marginalized genders don't have any other options out there, and this is supposed to be one that's open to everyone."
It's already making a difference for players like Karamchandani's fellow VML qualifier Keung.
"Having a testing team like Sanctum, this is the first time that I've worked with this many high-level players in one setting, which is huge," Keung said. "I don't think that that's lacking in the competitive Magic scene in general for players. I mean, people have been in testing teams for forever. But for me personally, this has been the first time that I've worked with players who have qualified for PTs and are in the MPL."
And while Karamchandani didn't set out to assemble, in her own words, one of the strongest testing teams out there, that's still what she ended up with. Sanctum of All has two Mythic Championship winners in Burchett and Thoralf Severin, new addition to the MPL Chris Botelho, and Marcela Almeida, who placed second in the Magic Online Champions Showcase Season 2, among other incredibly talented players.
"I'm hoping it grows, that we have more people on the team, that we have a regular team," Karamchandani said when asked about the future. For now, most of her thoughts and goals are tied up in Sanctum. "I don't know how success and the future will affect how the team actually works. My goal for the medium future is to have the team grow and be able to function reliably. And then for the distant future is to have the team no longer need to exist."
It's a goal that looks far into the future, and that has faith in the work of the VML, Sanctum of All, and whatever might come after them to do the long, slow work of changing the fabric of competitive Magic. While Karamchandani envisions a time when players of marginalized genders are so populous that they're welcomed on any team, Kavanagh and Yu are focused on who the VML can reach and serve to make that happen.
"My dream is to have at every large event a VML space, which can serve as somewhere for people of marginalized genders to check in and come and if they need help or if they need to get away from it all for a minute, whatever it is, to know that they have somewhere they can go to if they run into any problems, issues with people, that they know someone will advocate for them," Yu said. "It's incredibly intimidating taking that next step from playing on MTG Arena to the store, and then from the store to the PTQ or GP, and I'd love to break down those barriers. When I went to my first big event I walked into a room with like, 2,000 men and 50 women and it was one of the most shocking experiences of my life."
"I guess my super large goal is that we do so much with the VML that you walk into an event, and you don't automatically process that information by accident," Kavanagh added. "Obviously this is like a pretty crazy, fundamental switch in our society before that will happen, but that is in general what I've always been working towards. Trying to get away from, oh, this time there were X number of players that I can relate to and just trying to even it out, so it's like not even part of our conscious thought anymore, that would be my world."
"I do think the VML can do that," she continued. "Think about where we were two years ago. It was unheard of that 64 players of marginalized gender would play in a tournament together consistently. Clearly we can do this. We can get there. It's just having the space and the funding and the energy of people wanting to see change."
You can watch Karamchandani, Keung, and the rest of the incredible field battle it out at the Innistrad Championship, beginning at 9 a.m. PT December 3–5, at twitch.tv/magic!