How To Build MTG Decks To Teach, And Going To Combat: Lessons I Learned Whilst Teaching Magic: The Gathering, by Katie Roberts
The week between Christmas and New Year involved video games, munching through Christmas chocolate and wondering occasionally what day of the week it was. And Magic. So much Magic. Does anyone else swear they just turn around one day and their house is suddenly covered in Magic cards? It definitely wasn’t me looking for a Thrummingbird. It must be the goblins up to tricks again. *Whistles innocently*
The search to find people who would like to learn Magic: the Gathering (MTG) had gone pretty well and a rough plan was in place for teaching over the next few weeks. The experience of teaching someone to play MTG for the purpose of this article series, which we saw published in my last article, had brought a bunch of interesting topics to mind. Teaching MTG seemed an even deeper topic than previously expected, and made me ever more enthusiastic to teach.
A friend of mine told me that his housemate would like to learn how to play and suggested that I teach him. He told me that his housemate was interested in the colours of black and red within the game of Magic: the Gathering, so I dug out these colours from my collection and started flicking through looking for inspiration.
Deckbuilding, keywords and goblins
Last week we learned how easy it can be to misjudge the complexity of the decks that we build for new players. Following the games that introduced him to MTG, my dad suggested that instead of using creatures with lots of lines of rules text and abilities I should focus instead on the basic mechanics of the game. In practice, this would mean including more vanilla creatures and other spells with clear abilities.
With the opinion that he was absolutely correct, we covered the issues of overly-complicated MTG decks within last week’s article. With this in mind, I set out to build a deck to give to my next student, and also a new deck to pilot when teaching MTG. This deck would be used for teaching over the following weeks unless the need to change it was apparent.
The issue of building decks with vanilla creatures is that you miss out on the tasty, tasty flavour of the colours of MTG. So much of the personality of MTG cards comes from what they can do, rather than their power and toughness values. Unless you happen to be green, of course…
Because my friend has suggested that black and red might be a good place to start when building a deck for his housemate, I guessed that he had explained some of the flavour of the colours of Magic. Therefore, building a deck that has personality would be important.
What better way to flaunt the personality of red as through the power (and toughness) of our ridiculous old friends the goblins. Goblins provide excellent comic relief within the game and hey, who doesn’t love them.
Note that avoiding complexity isn’t strictly the same as minimising the number of words on a card. Keyword abilities such as “trample” and “lifelink” on a creature with no other abilities may seem clear to us, but learning what every keyword does is not one of the first goals of learning MTG. It seemed preferable to include interesting creatures with abilities that were more intuitively clear to someone who hasn’t played the game before. A good example of this that happened to be lurking in my box of commons was Goblin Raider.
Aside from some excellent flavour text and a somewhat grumpy disposition, the only ability that this fine specimen of a goblin has is that he can’t block. As long as you know what blocking is, you can understand what this creature can do. Blocking is something that will always be explained to a new player within the first few games of Magic. Therefore, it seemed an excellent choice to include according to our deckbuilding paradigm.
This card also demonstrates some of the thematic of red within the MTG colour wheel: red decks like to attack rather than defend – if you’re attacking your opponent and are confident in your ability to win the race you don’t care so much about your ability to block.
That said, keywords are important, and they allow us to talk about the variety of excellent abilities that Magic cards may possess. When building these new decks I tried to minimise the number of cards that have keywords, and considered that keywords should in some way reflect the flavour of the colours of MTG. In the black-red deck three different creatures had keyword abilities: 2 x Thundering Giant had Haste, 1 x Pyre Hound had Trample and 1 x Shockmaw Dragon had Flying.
The deck was creature-heavy as the aim was to focus on casting creatures and attacking with them as core principles of MTG. It also contained a small amount of removal in the form of 2 x Unholy Hunger and 2 x Lash of the Whip, which demonstrated two of the many ways that your opponent’s threats may be dealt with outside of combat.
The finalised list was:
- 3 x Goblin Shortcutter
- 3 x Goblin Raider
- 3 x Goblin Fireslinger
- 3 x Gore Swine
- 1 x Pyre Hound
- 2 x Terror of the Fairgrounds
- 2 x Thundering Giant
- 1 x Shockmaw Dragon
- 3 x Lawless Broker
- 2 x Prakhata Club Security
The deck that I built for myself to pilot and to use to teach more people in future was green-white midrange. This deck contained more cards with keywords than the other deck, but I didn’t feel that it would be overly-complicated. 2 x Ranger’s Guile granted Hexproof, 3 x Supply-Line Cranes had Flying, and Trample was demonstrated by 3 x Spiked Baloth and 3 X Wildsize.
The goal was for this deck to focus heavily on combat, demonstrating power and toughness and how these may be modified using combat tricks. It was built to be more spell-heavy than the black-red deck, as combat tricks take longer to master than casting creatures. My opponent could learn why these are powerful while not needing to cast them himself. Like the black-red deck, this also contained vanilla creatures and cards with abilities that can be understood using the core principles of the game, such as Highland Game.
- 3 x Runeclaw Bear
- 3 x Highland Game
- 3 x Alpine Grizzly
- 3 x Spiked Baloth
- 1 x Rumbling Baloth
- 2 x Frontier Mastodon
- 2 x Great Hart
- 3 x Supply-Line Cranes
- 3 x Titanic Growth
- 2 x Giant Growth
- 3 x Wildsize
- 3 x Pressure Point
- 3 x Pay No Heed
- 2 x Ranger’s Guile
Neither deck contained any token-generators, eliminating the need to find the correct tokens, or if you read my last article, Quality Street.
As always, we played the first game open-handed so that we could discuss our decisions. Immediately, the improvement that was granted through providing simpler creatures was obvious. Compared with my previous teaching experience outlined in my first article, we spent much less time talking and much more time playing the game. I can imagine that this led to a happier and less information-overloaded opponent.
I explained mana as a tangible object. Imagine that tapping a land creates a green “ball” that you can pay to cast spells. My opponent quickly understood how the mana cost of a card related to the lands on the table, and how to use these lands to cast spells. This was incredibly rewarding to watch.
Most of our discussion in this first game focused on combat, which we will explore further in the following section of this article. This was exactly as was intended to happen, given the importance of learning the basics as a new player. The game ended when I cast a Supply-Line Cranes that my opponent didn’t have a way to kill and I demonstrated the benefits of creatures with Flying.
After this we played a normal match in which we couldn’t see what was in each other’s hands. My opponent put up an excellent fight, taking game two from me as I provided a tremendous example of mana flood. Explaining core principles cleanly in the first game gave my opponent the autonomy to make his own decisions in the following match, and this was great.
Goblin Fireslinger was the absolute star of the show. Demonstrating an activated ability that was separate from combat and could be used at any time (though we tended to activate his ability during combat anyway for simplicity), I received many, many fireballs to my life total throughout our match. The only keyword that came up in my opponent’s deck throughout the match was Haste, which was easily understood.
Some powers and toughnesses when learning combat
As we covered in my first article, one of my major goals was to better explain combat mechanics as a core principle. It was great to realise that a lot of the conversation within these games focused on combat rather than detailed and derailing descriptions of the abilities of individual cards.
As relatively experienced Magic players we can lose sight of how weird combat is when you first pick up the game. First of all there are the details of power and toughness, the fact that power is written first and toughness written second on the card. It takes time to form the muscle memory required to quickly interpret combat outcomes. In addition, the distinction between counters and buff effects can seem strange.
A great way to summarise power to new players is “the amount of damage that a creature does” and toughness is “the amount of damage that needs to be done to a creature in order to kill it.” A lot of the discussion was “right, so my creature deals yours two damage, your creature has two toughness so yours dies. Your creature deals three damage to my creature, my creature has four toughness so mine doesn’t die”. This was great, as it’s exactly what we want to spend most of our time talking about when explaining combat to someone for the first time.
Repeated combat interactions throughout a board stalled with creatures of various sizes meant that my opponent understood these principles by the end of the first game. This also allowed me to explain small aspects of value, for example trading up and trading down creatures in combat.
Then there are the various processes involved in combat. It takes time to realise that the necessity for a creature to tap during combat has an impact on your combat decisions in your opponent’s turn. Blocking itself takes a while to understand. It isn’t always intuitive that a single creature may block only one creature, or that Trample damage isn’t automatically assigned. The concept of double-blocking is great to explain early as it doesn’t actually add much complexity, but omitting this information may cause your opponent to make inefficient combat decisions.
As Magic players teaching people new to the game, it can be hard to decide how much to explain about the various stages of combat. By explaining blocking you are demonstrating in some way that there are various stages within the combat step, so you’ve always made a start.
Introducing combat tricks or removal requires further explanation of the stages of combat. If explained in full your description may start along the lines of “so I declare that I’d like to go to my attack step, then I pass priority to you, and then if you don’t want me to go to combat yet you can say so, otherwise I go to my combat step and declare my attacks, and then….”. You can see how long-winded and jargon-laden this would get if explained in full.
At the same time, removal and combat tricks are great right? You want to be able to help your friend make the best decisions possible in combat, so you want to give them some understanding. As I recall, I introduced combat steps to my opponent using a description that was as minimal as possible while still descriptive. I think it’s best to say to my opponent that they can play spells mid-combat, and can do this before or after blocking. The rest falls into place naturally, giving your opponent the power to make good gameplay decisions without much confusion.
Conclusion – Explain Everything
On this article we have built on what was learned last week about teaching Magic: the Gathering to new players, covering in particular complexity of decks and how to explain combat.
I had a blast teaching my opponent, and think that the lessons learned from my previous attempt contributed heavily to this. My friend sent me a message a few days later telling me that his housemate beat him 2-1 with the deck that I built, so I’d take that as success!
Thank you for reading,