Learning To Teach Magic: The Gathering – Learning Magic, by Katie Roberts
If you learned how to play Magic: the Gathering (“Magic”/”MTG”) a long time ago, it may seem strange to think that there was a time before you knew the simple joy of saying the word “go” with a load of untapped Islands on a table in front of you.
Personally, I learned to play Magic in an excellent situation, from friends who were experienced with the game, excellent at explaining it and very patient. I learned mostly by playing my partner’s cube, which gave me a fantastic casual environment in which to experiment with draft, deck building and play, an eternal love for Briarhorn and a realisation that I have absolutely no poker face.
Whether it was ten years or a month ago, think back to the time that you were very new to Magic. What were your experiences? What were the things that you thought were excellent, terrible, confusing, intuitive? Were you an experienced trading card game player, or was your gaming knowledge extremely limited?
What were you good at when you started playing? This may be difficult to answer, but I think that every Magic player brings something to the game that is invaluable. As each of us approaches the game from a slightly different angle, we contribute a vast array of mindsets, skill sets and perspectives.
Some of us have an encyclopaedic knowledge of card names; other people are extremely good at reading their opponent. Some people bubble with enthusiasm for the game itself and love to play, while others are highly competitive and will research and tweak decks to perfection. Some people love the lore, others just enjoy hanging out with friends and see Magic as a shared casual hobby which brings people together.
The diversity in talents among players brings so much to the game, all of which is equally valid. It’s what makes our community great; all of us can aspire to the talents of others while knowing that we contribute something unique. This isn’t obvious when you start playing, and may not be clear for a long time afterwards, but can give a unique sense of satisfaction.
Let’s go back to the discussion of our first experiences with Magic. The multiple talents of our community depend, of course, on people getting into the game. With the seemingly huge community we certainly don’t seem to be struggling to find fellow Planeswalkers. Picking up Magic of course requires a supportive and fun environment in which to learn, whether online or in person. If you are a Magic player who is reading this, I would assume that you had a blast learning the game, else you would not be where you are now.
Magic: the Gathering is far from simple to learn and far from simple to teach. When casually chatting about it to friends it’s easy to accidentally make the game seem inaccessible or overly complicated. People may be put off playing even though they might have enjoyed it; there’s a lot of hobbies to be enjoyed in the world, after all. It may be the case that every time you talk about Magic you explain it in a slightly different way. That’s fine. Describing Magic can be difficult, and it can be impossible to convey a true sense of the game in a short space of time.
Equally, teaching Magic can be difficult. Do we start with explaining the turn cycle, or the fact that you can build your decks out of thousands of possible cards, or that you are a powerful wizard casting spells and summoning creatures to defeat your worthy opponent? When there are so many games out there, how in the space of an hour can you convey that you think this one is the best and make someone feel excellent while playing it?
This is where diversity among players comes in. Everyone who likes to play Magic will enjoy it for slightly different reasons, and in turn contribute different things to the game. With the multitude of ways to teach Magic it would be best to focus on aspects of the game that are most compelling to a new player. We can make valuable educated guesses, but this is difficult when we don’t know what they will like about the game. More generally, we as Magic players can focus on getting across information that is most important to anyone learning the game.
What if we made a really great effort, as current players, to get better at teaching this excellent game? As always, the best way to learn something, including learning how to teach, is to repeat it. For each article in this series I will build a deck for a person and guide them through their first few games of Magic.
By teaching a load of people to play Magic and writing about what I learned, I aim to help make the reader of this article series better at teaching Magic: the Gathering. We as Magic players can improve our understanding of what people who are new to the game need from an introductory deck, and how to make the first few games the most fun and the least confusing.
3 Important Lessons I Learned Whilst Teaching Magic: The Gathering
Here are 3 important lessons I learned whilst teaching Magic to new players, I hope that you find them helpful.
1. Practice makes perfect
Although lots of us learned to play online, I consider MTG to be a game that relies highly on social learning. Even if you learned by reading the rulebook, you will have had interactions or rules explained to you by people along the way. It relies on the ability and willingness of people to explain concepts clearly.
I’ve taught a few people the basics of MTG. The first time was when I bought a Clash Pack for a friend’s birthday a few months after I was introduced to the game, and played these decks with her. As I started playing I became aware of how little I knew about the game, and even less about how to explain it. I second-guessed myself with how effects interacted, totally failed at explaining how spells resolve, and generally felt like I gave bad advice.
My friend is extremely smart and would undoubtedly quickly learn what I taught her. This made me even more worried about giving her incorrect or bad advice that would stick with her as she played in future. It didn’t help that I had bought clash packs containing cards such as Whip of Erebos, that, uh, well-known great card for new players….
This and my subsequent experiences of introducing friends to the game made me interested in what makes someone good at explaining Magic and how to be better at teaching it. Of course the best way to get better at something, including teaching, is to practice it over and over again and learn from mistakes after each attempt.
So, with a desire to get better at teaching Magic and a collection that I could do with trimming down, I set out to find people who wanted to learn the game, or at least would let me teach them and I practice my teaching on them.
2. Always play the first few games with hands revealed
As I was back in my hometown over Christmas, the first person that I taught for the purpose of this article series was my dad. He’s an excellent chess player and has won every single time that we’ve played. I admired his approach of teaching games to me when I was a child, he was great at explaining complex things and he would never let me win. He’s a programmer and an engineer and a fan of science fiction and fantasy, so I thought that he would appreciate Magic.
I built a blue-white deck for him to play that contained a bunch of flyers and Thunderclap Wyvern as an interesting payoff. The deck wanted to play walls and bounce spells in the early game to control the board and then win by casting large flying creatures and attacking with them. From previous experience I thought it best to build a deck with few keywords, as much reminder text as possible, and non-complicated effects. I gave this deck to him to pilot against my red-black madness casual deck. Whilst madness is a weird mechanic, I thought it would be okay to use as the deck was in my hands so he wouldn’t have to worry too much about the way it worked. I wanted to show off something cool that MTG could do without causing an overload of information.
I shuffled up the decks, and as always with teaching Magic for the first time, suggested that we play open-handed so that we can talk about our decisions. I explained MTG as a game in which you are a wizard, trying to defeat another wizard in battle. You win by reducing your opponent’s life total from twenty to zero, and you do this by playing creatures and casting spells. On each turn I explained what was in his hand, what he could cast, how, and why he might want to do this, so that he gained an understanding of what mana is, how combat worked etc.
3. Keep it simple: Teach the basics, nothing else
The major thing that I realised when teaching my dad was that the decks we were using were far too complicated. For this reason, the focus of my take-home message within this first article is managing complexity. Teaching someone to play MTG for this first time may involve somewhat of a brain-dump of information, more than they can realistically remember. It is important to wisely choose the information to communicate and not waste a friend’s mental capacity on obscured (albeit interesting) interactions that won’t teach them much about the core principles of Magic: the Gathering.
Playing open-handed within a first game of Magic essentially means piloting two decks in equal measure, and my dad would need to know why I was making my decisions as much as why he was making his. I had incorrectly assumed that I could get away with playing a deck with a complicated/weird mechanic so long as I was the one playing it. It would have been far better to just not include complicated mechanics at all, and make for a more positive play experience.
I needed to explain, for example, why I can use a discard outlet to put a creature onto the battlefield in the middle of combat. That’s far more complicated information than should be included in a first game. The madness deck had too many things that I could realistically explain without excessive information overload. For this reason, I started saying things like “okay, ignore the ability on this enchantment, I’ll just never use it” which isn’t something that would realistically happen in a game of Magic and is far from ideal, feels bad, and isn’t playing the game as intended. Rather than ignoring information on cards, I should have built a simpler deck.
In addition, when building the blue-white deck I had not viewed it through new-player eyes. Although I had tried to reduce the number of keywords and maximise reminder text, a lot of the cards had slightly different effects from each other which required continuous explanation. It’s easy for an experienced player to look at Thunderclap Wyvern and think “sure, this has Flash, Flying, and it gives other flyers +1/+1, seems like straightforward effects.”
However, an appreciation of this card assumes that halfway through a first game, the player understands at least:
• The evasive benefits of creatures with Flying
• The concept of combat tricks
• That +1/+1 relates to a creature’s power and toughness, respectively, and why this is useful
Rather than explaining the Flash mechanic, I think that a first game of Magic should focus on straightforward basics such as mana and combat. The decks that I used added complexity that was not necessary for a basic understanding of the game. This highlighted the value of building specific decks to play with people who are new to the game.
When teaching MTG it seems most important to clearly communicate the core rules and interactions that make the game playable, any overly-complicated designs just distract from your ability to teach these things. Any deck that you are likely to have lying around or routinely play Magic with would likely require explanations that distract from what a player really needs to learn in the early games. It seems like it would be a much better idea to just build decks with basic creatures, lands and a few different card types, and communicate the core rules of Magic: the Gathering.
What we think is cool and fun after two and a half years of experience with the game is likely to be different from what a new player thinks is cool and fun. Thinking back to my first ever experiences, simply playing creatures and attacking with them was enjoyable. Having secret information hidden from my opponent felt great, and curving out creatures by using mana effectively was a major goal. Complicated interactions that add card or tempo advantage, or are situational or “value” plays aren’t likely to add much in the eyes of a person who is new to the game or to competitive card games in general. This is another reason to not play with the madness mechanic in future introduction games.
To minimise confusion it is important to ensure that all relevant information is present and accessible all of the time. Mid-game I realised that I forgot to bring clue tokens and used Quality Street instead. Strawberry creams aren’t known for their clear reminder text, though are very tasty when sacrificed. All credit goes to the holiday promo card 2016 for giving me this idea. But despite the added tasty value of the tokens, a lack of on-board information can be confusing even to experienced players, especially when multiple token types are necessary.
Despite the distractions that came with playing with overly-complicated decks, my dad quickly picked up the core mechanics of each turn of the game, and now understands something about the game that his daughter spends most of her Friday nights playing. He gave constructive feedback regarding complexity of the decks, and suggested that next time I teach they should be much more simple. I will bear this in mind going ahead with the series.
The experience of teaching my chess-playing dad reminded me of my first ever experience of competitive Magic. It was in a convention centre in London, and there was a chess tournament happening in the same building at the same time. An upbeat middle-aged man wandered curiously around the MTG tournament and asked me and my friends what we were doing. After we described the same in brief, he said that explained where all the young people were nowadays. I guess the games attract people of similar mind-sets.
This first experience of teaching someone to play Magic: the Gathering for the specific purpose of writing about it taught me more than we could cover within this article. There was not space to describe how we could best teach about mana, or how much information we could give about the stages of each turn, or how we can explain instants, for example. These are all of course things that we do every time we teach somebody to play. Within each article we will focus on a different aspect of teaching in order to provide the most valuable information possible to the reader without repeating myself such that a reader would need to find sections of multiple articles to learn about a specific aspect of teaching.
Many thanks for reading. Through this article series I hope that we can become better teachers of MTG, because really, who wouldn’t want more of their friends to play? I welcome any suggestions for future article topics or ideas that you think could be useful.
Thank you for reading,