Some of the best fanfiction in the world is the kind that explores an author’s Very Special Interest. I’ve read novel-length fanfiction that puts characters in competitive whitewater kayaking communities, hyper-realistic coffee shops, real-life academic programs, localized bike repair shops, and more. The level of detail put into these stories is truly staggering, and, for some, it’s too much.

I love learning about Very Special Interests through fanfiction, though, especially when the author has a firm grip on the characters and can make them totally believable in these alternate universes.

That’s how I stumbled into Pony Regrets, a Bellamy Blake/Clarke Griffin (The 100) AU series by Chash. The characters meet at a My Little Pony: Competitive Card Game tournament at a local game shop, then fall in love and compete on the national level.

Chash was a beta tester for new cards at the time, and the knowledge she included in the fic was incredible. She wrote it because one of the friends she made through the MLPCCG told her to, which is relatable. He also picked the title and told her to write the sequel, so I guess I’m thankful to both of them.

This fic is pretty great. My intense fondness for My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (in spite of the bronies) made me want to read the story initially, and the quirks of it made me want to read the entire series. Eventually I convinced my partner to read it too, because I wanted to play the MLPCCG.

As it turns out, the author of the series is based in Boston—just an hour and some change by train ride from where we live in Providence—and a new card set was being released not long after I convinced my partner to read the fic. The game shop where Chash played was hosting a pre-release event, and we decided to go.

Photo by Samantha Puc.

For a game about cartoon ponies, the MLPCCG is surprisingly complex. You have a Mane card, then 10 problem cards, then 45 other cards (friends, critters, events, accessories, troublemakers, etc.).

The basic scoring mechanism is solving problems with your friends. The first player to reach 15 points wins the game. You score each time you confront a problem (i.e., place enough “friend” or “critter” cards at a problem to fill its color requirements) and each time you win a face-off against your opponent (i.e., when you are both confronting a problem, and therefore, have to fight, or when you are confronting both your problem and your opponent’s, regardless of their status). Some cards also offer special abilities or scoring ramps to help you get ahead, and different colors do different things.

There’s a significant amount of “pony math” involved in this game, and strategy is difficult to learn when you first start out. There’s a running joke that the MLPCCG is like “Magic: The Gathering for people who are bad at Magic: The Gathering,” but for me, it was an introduction to the world of competitive card games and tabletop gaming.

Although my dad collected MTG cards when I was a kid and participated in tournaments, it was never something he shared with me. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have been interested. But as an adult, MLPCCG got me interested in app games like Hearthstone and Elder Scrolls. Meeting players taught me some very, very basic knowledge of roleplay games like Dungeons and Dragons. And it was fun.

When I covered the inaugural HASCON for Rogues Portal, knowing how to play MLPCCG gave me an edge when I beta tested Magic: The Gathering Arena. It also helped me learn how to play the original MTG, because I was familiar with some of the card mechanics and how fixing colors on a play area works.

Photo by Samantha Puc.

There’s a lot of gatekeeping when it comes to tabletop gaming, especially competitive card games. I’ve encountered it when talking to MTG players and folks who’ve grown up playing; there’s this idea that because I’m a woman, and because I got into the niche through a game originally targeted at young girls, that I can’t be serious or competitive or good at card games. I don’t really have time for that.

Similarly, media that is produced by young women is also scoffed at, like fanfiction. Though obviously not all fanfiction authors are women, the majority are, and as such, it’s become a genre that is frowned upon not only by published authors whose work is used in fanfiction (George R. R. Martin, for example), but by the writing community at large.

It seems to me that “established” gamers, writers, whatevers, particularly if they’re men, feel overtly threatened by the potential success of young women. To that I say: good. Terrible men have run these spaces for too long. It’s time someone else got a turn, and I’m happy to be a part of that in whatever way I can.

Samantha Puc at HASCON 2017. Photo by Samantha Puc.

The MLPCCG is a super fun game that’s incredibly competitive and difficult to master, which is something I’m still working toward because I enjoy it. I get a little thrill every time I surprise a seasoned player with a move, because it feels good to prove my worth even in something that ultimately has little bearing on the rest of my life.

It continues to surprise me how much good fandom has done for me. Getting introduced to one of my favorite hobbies (and all of the things that has introduced me to, like role-playing games) through fanfiction doesn’t come as a surprise to me, but it does to people I tell about it. Learning about something that is so protected by geek boys through fanfiction feels like sticking it to every asshole who’s ever put me through a Fake Geek Girl Test when I so much as dare to mention Wizards of the Coast.

That’s pretty satisfying, too.