How to Teach Magic: The Gathering to New Players in 7 Simple Steps
Instructing the Novice Magician: How to be Mr Miyagi
One of the things I have always adored about Magic: The Gathering is the community aspect, ask any player and they’ll tell you how many great friends they’ve made over the years. It’s great to be able to enter a community that respects and enjoys your hobby as much as you do. Magic: The Gathering can feel like a very complex game, and something that is rarely– if ever at all –cover in articles is how we should introduce new players to the game that we all love. I’ve looked at the How to Play Magic: The Gathering handouts and they don’t tell you much if the person you are trying to teach Magic to have absolutely no knowledge of the game from the outset.
So what I’m aiming to do today is give some of you an idea on how best to approach the subject of teaching Magic: The Gathering to someone new, someone either interested or someone who you think might be interested in learning to play the game. I’m taught loads of people how to play Magic in my time and it’s a really fulfilling feeling to see someone enjoying themselves as much as we all do when we started playing.
This is for anyone who wants to teach a friend or girlfriend to play Magic, or gets asked how to play the game by an interested bystander (yes, we all know that happens a lot).
I really feel that novice players need as much nurturing and support as possible and shouldn’t just be mocked with the word n00b every 5 seconds because they love Venser’s Journal. So for anyone interested in teaching someone else to play the game we all know and love, here are a 7 simple tips that I’ve found very useful, and I hope you do too.
1: Learn by Playing
The best way to learn how to play Magic: The Gathering is to be taught in a live game atmosphere, with the cards in front of you. Don’t go trying to explain the entire thing in one go; people like to be shown things. The best way to achieve this is by creating some very simple starter decks. Build these decks using predominantly creatures, whatever the colour. The creature, as Magic’s archetypal permanent, is the easiest to explain, the easiest to grasp and the most interesting for the novice. With a creature, he or she has a game piece to play with and feels involved in the game. The best cards for these purposes can be found in Core sets: take a look at Magic Origins and maybe start thinking about which cards are the most interesting for a new player!
Building decks is also a positive idea because you can just fill them with cards which are easy to explain: Doom Blade is rather easy to explain but Spread the Sickness doesn’t appear obviously good to a novice who has few cards with proliferate. Added to this, try and use all five colours and illustrate their personalities to the novice: a Rampant Growth and a Craw Wurm both show a new player how Green likes lands and big creatures. Similarly, a White Knight is very interesting both for flavour and explaining basic keywords like Protection and First Strike. You could even build small decks of each colour. The only definite exclusions should be counterspells and Planeswalkers: Planeswalkers are so intensive that they should be treated in their own time as your novice improves, while counterspells aren’t fun at all. Explaining to a new player that you just played a card which doesn’t let them play their cards will most certainly put them off.
Stay away from any complex rules language: try to explain it in plain English (or whatever language you’re teaching in). Discussions about upkeeps, draw steps, end steps , the stack and so forth can get frustrating for a new player.
2: Play Slowly and Explain Things as They Happen
Start your game as usual but both of you should reveal your hands. You can then take the opportunity to explain what each card does, identifying creatures, lands and sorceries specifically before the game begins. Explaining the cards in your novice’s hand is much more useful as he or she can use what your telling them and put it into immediate context.
Next, go over life and how the game is won and lost. Make this very clear: every game must have an aim and your novice must know what they’re trying to do. Once you’ve explained, go first and take your normal turn (play your land etc.) but explain everything you do to the new player (one land a turn seems right to explain here). Go through the phases of the turn and what will happen, but don’t get ahead of yourself: don’t explain creatures and summoning sickness until you can cast one, don’t explain combat until it happens etc.
For the most part, allow them to play on their own; they will always ask you “Is that right?” so be positive and reassuring and, most importantly, explain why they are wrong if they make a mistake rather than simply criticising or even worst yelling at them. The key is to let them play as much as possible and explain everything as it occurs in game.
The combat phase is the best part of teaching: if you do attack from a strong board position, freely let them retake moves or help them decide how to block. Combat is an easy skill to pick up and you should try and create tricky situations for your student regularly to see how they think.
A word of caution: instants can make things terribly difficult for a new player to understand. Avoid the stack as much as you can because this can create confusion and it’s surprisingly hard to explain when there’s a chock load of instants. Things can get even more confusing when we get to abilities which do not cause a creature to tap. For the moment, if you do use instants, it might be best to treat them like sorceries until you feel confident that they can pick up how instants work.
A little surprise here: make mistakes. This sounds silly, but you should make attacking decisions that you would never make or poor spell casting targets so that your opponent can see how things shouldn’t be done. After a purposeful mistake, you can explain what you did wrong. This creates a nice rapport, showing that you’re not some superhuman god who is awesome at Magic: The Gathering. Once your student sees you are fallible, they can feel more at ease and probably shake off the assumption that they were going to lose from the outset. It will also help them improve as they can more easily see a mistake when it’s not their own.
One of the more interesting methods I’ve seen (depending on the learner in question) is the quintessential narrative-fantasy approach. This is really good for people who want to play Magic for the fantasy aspect, rather than the game per se. Explaining to someone the epic lineage of Rafiq of the Many might be going a bit far, but using the game to create a sort of narrative is quite cool. Whilst teaching my cousin the game, I found it helpful explaining to him the benefits of a Whispersilk Cloak while using the art and imagery to help create the idea of a stealthy zombie zooming in from unseen places to strike dangerously at me, his Planeswalker opponent.
Using the Wizards “You’re a Planeswalker” spiel is really useful here and creating a narrative as opposed to a competitive environment can help clarify things like the personalities of the colours of Magic, equipment or legendary permanents. It makes it surprisingly easier for your newbie to follow what’s going on. Vorthos types will no doubt really take to this approach but I’ve found it most effective when teaching children or younger relatives whose attention span might not be able to deal with complex rules discussions.
3: Be Patient, and Listen
A lot of the time, a novice will ask a question which will become clear later and, as I’ve constantly emphasised, show them, don’t just explain it to them.
A common question in combat is: “How do I stop your creatures?”
Instead of the inevitable long-winded explanation about blocking and how valuable it is, simply say “I’ll show you in a moment” and then you can go through combat and blocking then. If you get a question like “I got this card in a booster pack, what does it do?” and it’s an instant or counterspell explain at a later point: only explain things relevant to where you are in the game, not for the future. Explaining combat during upkeep or draw step and vice versa make little sense to the new player: explain combat during combat, sorceries during main phases and so on.
You need to be patient: yes, they will make mistakes. But stepping in at every error simply makes them feel less confident. If they Duress the wrong card, explain to them first why it might not be the right choice and what the right choice might be. Then let them decide to stick or not. Alternatively, let them do it and when you use the card they should have Duressed to destroy a powerful creature, you can explain why they should have taken the card then. The most important thing is not to do it for them. A forceful “I wouldn’t do that if I were you” makes your novice doubtful and unsure if he or she is doing anything right at all. If they make mistakes, point them in the right direction by all means but you shouldn’t shove them there. Let them see the options at their disposal.
The other helpful idea is to encourage them to ask questions. Sometimes, they’ll be stuck on a blocking decision and now entirely sure how to proceed. Show them a series of possible options and explain what’s good and bad about them. Then let them choose. Always let them choose.
4: Always Encourage, Never Criticise
This is the one thing people never do enough. Even if you suggested an option and they took the right one, make them feel like they’ve just won the Pro Tour. All the more so if they make a good play based on their on initiative.
One FNM, I was playing Standard constructed with a Mono-Black removal deck against a novice with his Intro pack Red/Black. He dropped a Lightning Elemental and was about to attack when he had a sudden brainwave. He Duressed my Doom Blade and hit me for a well deserved 4 damage. I was happy for him, given that he’d spent an entire game being killed off by cards he’d never heard of. Although it seems a rudimentary play, you could see that he was so appreciative that someone actually praised even the most basic of skills.
If you want your novice to keep playing Magic: The Gathering, you want them to have that sense of achievement in winning, making good plays and so on. Don’t go over the top: they’re still learning but they need to be made to feel like they’ve done well. If your novice makes some sick play in their first every dry-run game (it does happen!) don’t sit there with a scowl on your face and sulk. Magic is about having fun and sometimes, it’s worthwhile swallowing your pride, and adding a bit of positive enforcement.
5: Build Basic Starter Decks, and Keep it Simple
Never ever use your competitive decks: this isn’t much fun and ends up with the two of you fighting over the better deck. As I mentioned earlier, try and build a series of decks composed of Core/Starter set commons and uncommons. If you have rares that are fair and not too complicated, then by all means add a few but you shouldn’t use Mythics under any circumstances. Counterspells shouldn’t be made available to Blue and no Planeswalkers either. Non-basic lands are largely uninteresting so I’d ignore them too. I would also suggest that you don’t use cards which either invalidate entire strategies (e.g, Choke) or one’s which just win the game as soon as they’re played (Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, although why you’d put him in a Starter deck, I have no idea) as this will only train your novice to depend on certain cards above others.
There are a few other points to make: try not to stick to judiciously to the rule of 4. If you add a fair percentage of singletons or 2-ofs, your novice will see more cards and learn more about his deck’s colour.
40 card decks are best as your novice will see cards he or she is familiar with more frequency in such small decks. Added to this, try and build 2 colour decks to allow your student to explore different strategies.
Colour combinations with obvious synergy are probably best: a R/G Aggro I have found is one of the most basic and straightforward teaching decks because they have very obvious strategies. Similarly, a pseudo U/W deck with some obvious White and Blue removal could be interesting, but removal heavy decks aren’t very fun if your opponent likes using creatures. Black/Red is also healthy as is Green/White. Mono-coloured decks are also fine: a series of 5 decks can be fun to build with the novice in mind. But don’t go over two colours: “manascrewing” is not a particularly useful teaching tool. To avoid this, allow mulligans to 7 when starting your demo game.
Avoid instants if you can: things like Lightning Bolt or Doom Blade are fine, but you might be better off dealing with the stack at a later date. Cards like equipment and enchantments should be used in smaller numbers, but they are welcome additions. Stay away from complicated creature abilities: Fauna Shaman is a functionally useless card to a novice who only vaguely understands his deck and doesn’t see how Fauna Shaman can be awesome. You won’t need it. Something like Fireblast Dragon, in contrast, is much easier to explain.
Build your decks creature heavy: the easiest explanation is that creatures win games and that allows players to grasp combat very quickly. Most keyword abilities are fine (especially since reminder text in core sets is used judiciously) but avoid some of the more complex ones like Deathtouch and Protection. These create unnecessary confusion sometimes.
One of the things your deck building must do is accurately illustrate how the colours you’ve used work. Bounce is a really good Blue characteristic, as is drawing cards. Doom Blade, meanwhile, is an excellent Black card and acts as a great way to lead into explaining Black’s colour philosophy. Dark Favour and Distress from M12 are both excellent tools to explain Black. White is a bit harder to pin down, so maybe use some life gain or build a mono-White weenie deck to show how good fast White decks can be. Burn spells are obvious inclusions for Red, but never overlook the odd hasty creature (yes, you can even use Raging Goblin!) or maybe using Goblin Chieftain as a key enabler for a Tribal deck. Green is perhaps the easiest instructive deck: get some Craw Wurms, Carnage Wurms and Giant Spiders with a wee bit of ramp. Llanowar Elves and Birds of Paradise, while obviously Green, can be too complicated so it might be best not to bother with them. Creatures should be principally designed to attack, not to use complicated abilities.
6: Have Fun, it’s a Game!
This is obvious to a certain extent, but take a look every so often at your pupil and check that they’re following what’s going on. Chances are, they’ll have that constant umm… not sure what to do next face which we all used to have when looking at a Jace about to ultimate. After a while though, you’ll probably see that glee as they smash you into a million pieces with the training deck you built for them. If they look like they’re not enjoying themselves or never seem interested about playing after your demo-game, it’s best not to pry. Just like some people will never enjoy sport or chess, so some people will never get into Magic.
DO NOT PUSH.
People on the whole are very decent and if they don’t feel like playing, they’ll say so. Don’t worry about it: you haven’t failed as a teacher and there are plenty of other people just waiting to learn the game. Make yourself available for someone else!
Obviously, there are two outcomes. If your student doesn’t take to the game, just explain that you thought they’d enjoy it but that it doesn’t matter. Alternatively, they’ll want to play more. The first few times, keep using the starter decks I suggested you build: this lets your new student get a feel for a certain type of deck which they are attached to. If you have a series of these decks, it might be nice to let them try out a few different decks, explaining each as you go on. Let them pick the deck they like best and let them play it for some time to get used to it. Soon enough, they’ll have a good grasp of basic rules and strategies. They will of course like some cards more than others and if you’ve been good with your deck building, you should be able to suggest which cards are good and which aren’t.
Rules wise, the more games you play with cards your novice knows, the easier it is for them to learn the rules in context of their own cards. Say your novice is playing a R/G Aggro with Lightning Bolt: the next time they play Lightning Bolt is a perfect time to start explaining instants and how they work. Say they open Linvala, Keeper of Silence in their first Rise of the Eldrazi booster: now you can explain what activated abilities are and how they work. Let the cards (or your novice’s own questions) guide you on how to proceed.
Note you may be interested in joining the mtgUK Rules & Judges Questions Facebook group, where you can ask and get instant answers to any MTG rules questions.
The other advantage of using starter decks for a novice player is it stops them having to buy intro packs. Now I’m not adverse to intro decks, but the explanatory notes contained in each pack are somewhat frugal and don’t help much in terms of advancing them. Chances are, if your learner has got used to say a U/W control deck, he or she would be most likely to continue playing with that deck and the cards he or she likes in them.
Let them take the starter deck (if you use a core set, this is great because those cards are typically Standard legal anyway) and maybe start getting some boosters and adding cards, preferably from the same core set so they’ll see doubles of familiar cards.
You might be interested in these Starter Gift Boxes which are perfect for new players.
Something which I don’t think players ever do enough is donate cards: what is that box full of draft spares good for if not helping someone else get a leg-up into Magic? If you have some more cards from the core set where the starter deck is from, either hand them over as a gift to your novice or else let them peruse the piles and add to their deck that way.
The final stage is really to take your novice with you to wherever you play locally and guide them. I would recommend using the UK Magic Calendar to find Magic: The Gathering events in your area. The same rules stated earlier apply: help your novice through some casual games and explain new cards to them. If they are going to play a casual game against a new opponent, make sure you or your novice explains their level of ability: hopefully their opponent will put away that Legacy deck they were going to play and get out something fairer (I’d go as far to say that all seasoned Magic players should keep a spare starter-level deck with them for such occurrences!). Better yet scout potential opponent’s amongst your play group: I’d rather pick a casual player rather than a power-gaming PT Grinder as a novice’s first opponent!
You might find this “How to play Magic: the Gathering” video by Wizards of the Coast helpful.
I have found these related YouTube video guides by Tolarian Community College to be very helpful.
How To Start Playing Magic: The Gathering – A Beginner’s Guide To MTG
Teach Your Friends How To Play Magic: The Gathering! With Johnny! MTG (humour)
I hope this article has been informative and useful for anyone either considering getting into the game or anyone considering teaching the game to others. Magic: The Gathering is a great community hobby and we should all be privileged to help new players get their foot through the door and start enjoying it with us!
Thanks for reading,
To connect with the Magic: The Gathering community now, you will find these MTG community links helpful.
I really welcome feedback: feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can read my regular features on both Legacy and for Novice MtG players at