Teaching Magic: The Gathering: Common MTG Rules Errors Made By New Players, And How To Correct Them
Usually, opportunities to teach new players to play Magic: the Gathering (MTG) are pretty infrequent. We might play a few games with an interested friend once in a while, but probably not that often. Because of this article series, I have taught the same number of people in the last few weeks as I taught in the previous two years.
Teaching a lot of people in a short space of time, we can’t help but notice small rules misconceptions and mistakes made frequently by new players. These are mistakes made when you have explained a rule but a new player misunderstands or forgets it. For example, you have told a new player that creatures tap when they attack, and somehow all their creatures have Vigilance.
Patterns like these are totally normal, even when teaching people who are great at games. It takes a while for a pattern to become muscle memory. These small, correctable errors are completely understandable, and some of them may be pretty interesting from a game design perspective. They can reveal what to some people feels intuitive about the game.
Once a new player has committed the basic rules of Magic to memory, they can start applying more mental energy to strategic decisions instead. So, fixing errors early on when teaching a new player is a pretty high priority.
When teaching, it is useful to have an idea of the misconceptions a new player may have about rules. Predicting these makes us better at spotting mistakes and also explaining them, because we’ve been equipped with an answer faster than a Leonin Shikari with a Cranial Plating. If we explain why mechanics work the way they do, we can try to shorten the amount of time that a new player spends making errors. As anyone who has every learned anything knows, understanding why a rule exists helps it stick in the mind far better than being told “because that’s the rule”.
So, in this article we will walk through some of the most common rules errors that I have seen very new players make, why I think these errors might seem natural to a new player, and what we can do to correct them as early as possible. Let’s make our friends’ first games of MTG as fun and productive as possible!
You may find this MTG Rules group helpful: mtgUK Rules & Judges Questions
Misconceptions when casting spells
Casting a spell involves rotating a picture of a tree by 90 degrees, adding a coloured, invisible entity to an invisible pool, and then deleting that invisible entity so that you can put a card in your hand onto the table. Sounds weird, right? All of these steps can seem totally arbitrary unless well-explained.
Making errors when learning to cast spells is very common, and here are some of the things that I have seen happen.
Not tapping mana to cast spells
“You need to pay mana for that” is something that most of us have probably heard at some point, possibly when casting your 17th boardwipe in a 2am EDH game. Forgetting to tap lands for mana is a thing that happens, although hopefully with less frequency as we get better at Magic.
Very new players, understandably, sometimes forget to tap mana to cast spells, putting the creature instead onto the table. While this can be corrected by “you need to tap mana for that”, this demonstrates a small error that could lead to future misplays. Tapping mana for a creature after a new player has put it into the battlefield, with no further explanation, subtly implies that this is correct sequencing and misrepresents how spells are cast.
When somebody forgets to tap mana for a spell, we could instead reinforce that mana can only be generated by tapping lands, and the game won’t let you put a creature from your hand onto the table unless you have generated enough mana. Thinking of mana like a tangible, solid object might help. If somebody is really struggling with it, think of using a die or counters to represent mana in a mana pool for a while. Explain that this is just a learning tool, unless your teaching assistant is Omnath, Locus of Mana.
Paying the wrong amount of mana for a spell
Misreading mana costs is something that I did as a new player, and can remember why I made this mistake. I have seen it happen with a bunch of players that I have taught, possibly for the same reason. Although we as Magic players can read mana costs at a glance, they can be easy to misunderstand when you are new to the game.
We know that Make Obsolete costs 3 mana: 2 generic and one black. We can see that this is represented by a circle saying “2” and a black mana symbol. When I first learned MTG, I remember thinking that this meant that a spell cost two units of black mana to cast. The disconnect between the generic mana symbol and the clearly coloured lands in front of me was odd. The fact that each circle itself did not represent one unit of mana felt weird, and actually took a little while to grasp. To compare, the mana cost of Necropotence would have been much more intuitive. (FYI, card comparison for mana costs only, please don’t think that I’m telling you to put Necropotence in your intro decks.)
If your new-to-MTG friend is struggling with mana costs, particularly if they think that spells are cheaper than reality, this could be the cause. Explain that the number in the circle is just to reduce the amount of text on the card, but represents the amount of mana that you can pay by tapping any type of land.
Creatures entering the battlefield tapped
This is another one that I have seen happen, but only after explaining the combat step. I think it comes from a misunderstanding of summoning sickness. Say you and the new player have both cast a few creatures and attacked with them. You have explained that a creature cannot attack the turn it comes onto the battlefield, and demonstrated that creatures tap to attack. Your opponent than starts putting creatures onto the battlefield tapped.
This makes sense – your opponent might think that not being able to attack the turn they enter is functionally the same as being tapped. Either way, they can’t do anything, and this is all that matters in your first few games of Magic. Of course, we know that if this were true, a summoning sick creature could not block, crew vehicles, or be tapped to pay mana for a spell with Convoke. If a new player puts creates onto the battlefield tapped, explain that they can block the same turn as they enter the battlefield, and then the rule might make more sense.
Misconceptions in combat
When teaching somebody to play Magic, I like to pour a lot of attention into the mechanics of combat. This means that I also notice a lot of errors that new players make during the combat step. To make sure that all creatures remain happily in their correct rotational position on the battlefield, let’s walk through breaking some habits of our friends who are new to MTG.
Creatures tapping to block
The last example from the previous section led us neatly into this one: the misconception that creatures tap to block. I have seen new players tap their creatures to block with them a load of times, leading to a far-more-horizontal-than-necessary board state. I think this come from an idea that tapping is somehow “using” the creature, or signifying that it is doing something. It is surprisingly hard to think of a simple answer to the question of why creatures don’t tap to block. I would actually just consider reinforcing that creatures don’t tap to block, and letting the player figure out the relevance of this as they explore MTG.
One option could be that creatures can do more when untapped, meaning they can block and then do something else such as use an ability which requires them to tap. We could demonstrate this by including creatures like Voyaging Satyr in intro decks, if we like. It may be useful to explain combat decisions as a trade-off. Attacking is something that players generally do when they think they are ahead in a game, and sacrifice the ability of their creatures to block incoming attacks by doing so, which balances the game in a small way.
Not tapping creatures to attack
In a similar way, creatures in a deck piloted by new players often spontaneously gain Vigilance. The declaration of “I will attack with these” is often not followed up by creatures turning sideways, potentially due to a misunderstanding of the cost of attacking. Turning cards sideways seems weird and arbitrary unless we understand the trade-off with not being able to block the next turn, so make sure that this point is clear.
Attacking individual creatures
Prey Upon is a great card for an obvious reason; it allows you to select which of your opponent’s creatures you want to attack with yours. It also makes MTG players interested in game design realise how bonkers this would be if it was part of the core rules of MTG. A common misunderstanding made by new players is that this happens all the time.
Maybe this is because it just feels flavourfully correct; sinking the teeth of your Typhoid Rats into an opponent’s Tarmogoyf just feels more like “attacking” than turning a load of creatures sideways and letting your opponent decide what to do. Maybe it is just a misunderstanding that has nothing to do with flavour. Either way, we can explain that choosing how to block is one of the most fundamental decisions in MTG, and important to make the game work.
Accidental trample damage
Hey, Trample is great. I am a massive fan of creatures that are as huge and green and smashy as possible. But I sure am glad that every creature does not have it.
When I have explained power and toughness, I have explained that power is the amount of damage that a creature deals, toughness is the amount of damage required to kill a creature. I have explained that when attacked, you can block with a creature, or not block and potentially take a hit to your life total. One thing that I have seen some new players do is to think that the additional attack damage above that necessary to kill a blocking creature goes straight to your life total.
I know it seems slightly odd that a squirrel token can single-handedly protect your planeswalking face from a Kozilek, Butcher of Truth, but it also creates comedy gold. Explain clearly to a new player that unless the creature has Trample, all damage is assigned to the very, very dead squirrel. Explain that chump blocking can be a powerful tool when the need arises.
Summary – be patient with rules
I cannot emphasise enough that even when Magic: the Gathering is taught clearly, even excellent new players will make rules mistakes. The muscle memory associated with knowing how much a spell costs, deciding whether to hold back your creature to block an incoming attack, or deciding which lands to tap for mana takes a while.
Give explanations that are as complete as possible and a new player will understand why the complex rules of MTG are the way they are. Be patient with new players, look out for mistakes and correct them every time they are made.
I hope this has served as a little checklist of things to look out for when teaching new players, and as a guide for how to help new players understand the core rules of MTG and avoid making mistakes. I see it as far from complete; after teaching more people to play it could become clear that some other mistakes should have been included here, or that some that I have talked about actually don’t happen very often. How go and have fun teaching!
You may find this MTG Rules group helpful: mtgUK Rules & Judges Questions
Thank you for reading,