Common Strategic Errors Made By New MTG Players, And How To Correct Them – Teaching Magic, by Katie Roberts
Teaching our friends to play Magic: the Gathering is about much more than explaining the rules. It’s also about teaching people to use the rules to win games. It’s the difference between knowing how to pay mana for Renegade Freighter and realising that you should Shock your opponent’s Aether Swooper instead because you have no flying blockers and are dead on board.
Last week we covered some rules inaccuracies that new players tend to make, and how to explain them effectively. When we give good rules explanations, we can move swiftly on from reminding a new player to tap their seven creatures when attacking and start cowering in fear when they cast Overrun.
This week, we will walk through strategic misplays that very new MTG players tend to make, why they might be making them, and how to explain the better plays that they could be making. So without further hesitation….
Playing spells in the first main phase (instead of the second main phase)
One of the first things that most of us learn when playing Magic is to do everything as late as possible. It’s a bit like many of us learned to do assignments in college, only with much less caffeine and regret.
The natural thing for a new MTG player to want to do after untapping their mana is tap it again. Seems correct, we told them to cast spells, so why wait. However, we know that is it good practice to attack before casting creatures, because our decision of what to cast might be influenced by the what our opponent does during our combat step.
Casting creatures in the first main phase isn’t any simpler or easier, than casting them in the second main phase. So unless you are teaching MTG using a deck full of Snare Thopters, encourage your opponent to play creatures in the second main phase. Do the same yourself and make it the default. It’s an easy way to teach the general practice of making decisions as late as possible within the game.
Tapping sub-optimal mana to play spells
Your new-to-MTG friend has two green mana and two black mana, pays two green for a Longtusk Cub and then announces that they are casting that fearsome creature “Windi-uh-never-mind” as they realised they didn’t consider the mana cost for their Winding Constrictor. Thinking ahead when casting spells is a core skill of MTG, and even more relevant when a new player is piloting a deck that wants to cast spells during your turn. As anyone who has played a non-zero number of games of MTG will know, not planning mana correctly can really mess up a game.
These misplays may also by inaccurate prediction of what will happen in a turn. A new player may not think that it matters that they tap one of their two blue mana to cast their Embraal Bruiser because they plan on casting their Hinterland Drake straight afterwards. But if you then try to Daring Demolition their Gearseeker Serpent, they may wish they held up their Failed Inspection.
If your new player friend is doing this a lot, suggest they step back and think about the whole turn before casting anything. We can teach that in MTG, it is best to tap mana in a way that gives us the most options for that turn cycle. “Look at all of the cards in your hand, and the mana requirements of each. When casting the first spell, tap the mana that allows you to play the next one that you expect to play.”
This “expect to play” doesn’t have to be very deep, or even correct. The skill of accurately predicting decisions will come with time. Teaching a new player to get into the mindset of thinking ahead is great. Predicting future plays and holding open the right mana to react is not something that we instantly learn, but one that we get better at steadily over a long period of time.
If a new player is really struggling with mana, grouping lands into piles on the table can be useful for a while. I wouldn’t encourage somebody to get into the habit of doing this, though.
Casting instants as sorceries
Sometimes, our opponents tap out and open up the opportunity for us to cast our pivotal Lifecrafter’s Gift on our own turn without fear of Negate. But generally, we know that the strength of instants is that they can be played more-or-less whenever we want.
New players sometimes don’t distinguish between instants and sorceries, casting them all at sorcery speed. Playing pump spells before going to combat is something that I have seen new players do quite a lot, and remember doing myself.
Of course, playing instant-speed spells requires someone to know the stages of a turn in detail, and a new player who casts Giant Growth in their first main phase may not have committed the stages of a turn to memory, but will get there. However, knowing how much more powerful an effect can be when played at instant speed could accelerate this learning process. We can explain that if Daring Demolition was an instant, WOTC would have to make it cost more mana, do less, or have some downside, else it would be too strong.
One way to deliver this message is to demonstrate the power of casting spells in response to your opponent’s. If your friend goes to cast a Chandra’s Pyrohelix on your Crackdown Construct during their turn, encourage them to keep it in their hand and hold open mana. Play your turn like you would have done without that information, even if that means casting your two copies of Audacious Infiltrator. Hell, even if you weren’t going to cast them, consider doing it anyway. Before the end of your turn, ask if your opponent would like to cast their Chandra’s Pyrohelix now. This will quickly demonstrate the power of instants.
If a new player struggles with this, act like a human manifestation of Magic Online. Set checkpoints – at every opportunity that you think it would benefit your friend to cast a spell at instant speed, ask if they would like to. This will demonstrate the range of opportunities for casting spells, and also the power of doing so.
Mistakes in combat
Chump-blocking too much/over-valuing life totals
This is one of the most classic and repeated errors made by new players. The friend you are teaching is on 16 life, you attack and they block with a smaller creature. Their creature comes down with a serious case of The Deads.
When we explain the game, we say that the objective is to reduce your opponent’s life total to zero. It is natural to think that losing life is always a bad thing, and that we should make conserving it our number one priority. This leads to an understandable reluctance to lose life. I have seen new players think that the natural target for a Sign in Blood is their opponent, showing how strong the reluctance to lose life can be. (Although killing your opponent with a Sign in Blood is basically a rite of passage in the world of Magic: the Gathering.)
Direct, numerical measures of “winning” are common in games. I may be wrong as my knowledge of football basically extends to playing Rocket League, but I’m pretty sure football commentators wouldn’t describe a team losing 0-3 as “effectively managing resources and holding out to the late game”. We never said “ah it’s alright, I have a brutal mid-game tech” when behind in a game of snakes and ladders. But someone piloting a Modern Jund deck could lose a quarter of their life total before they even knew what colours of mana their opponent was playing, and be fine with it.
The concept of resource management, and the ability to stabilise and catch up, is widespread if you look around the titles in your local game score. Games in which you win by collecting a certain number of Victory Points, such as Dominion, often require some “investment stage”. Good play involves letting the acquisition of Victory Points take a back seat while you focus on setting up the game. The reasoning is that you can acquire them more efficiently at a later stage of the game that you could at the start.
A new player’s desire to preserve life totals and willingness to throw creatures under buses may be related to how experienced they are with games. People who are well acquainted with game mechanics are more likely to see a life total as a resource, rather than a readout of whether you are winning.
The tendency of new players to overvalue life totals can be apparent at pre-releases. Unless you are playing a very specific deck, Chaplain’s Blessing is not worth a card in Limited. Newer players often put cards like this in their decks. Fortunately, the casual nature of pre-releases also provides opportunities for more experienced players to explain that they are over-valuing lifegain.
At its best, over-valuing lifegain can cause you to put a card in your deck that doesn’t do much. At its worst, it can completely define how you view resources and the concept of “being ahead”. So we should prioritise explaining that the number on your D20 isn’t everything when talking strategies with new MTG players.
Here’s a few quick things that we could do to help new players understand life totals:
- Explain that life is a resource. I like the analogy that the fall doesn’t hurt you, but the last inch will kill you. If you win a game on 1 life or 20 life, you have still won.
- Demonstrate that taking damage is fine, and will win you the game if not chump-blocking means you get to attack for more damage.
- Explain that it is generally bad to chump block if unless it will stop you from losing or win you the game.
- Use the example of fetchlands in Modern. Life is a resource that you can pay, whether that is proactively (Sign in Blood) or reactively (taking damage from attacks).
- Explain that cards that gain life are a one-hit effect, but a creature on board can cause you to lose that much life, each turn, until you lose the game.
Not thinking one turn ahead
I spoke to a competitive chess player yesterday who told me that he typically thinks 7 to 8 turns ahead within a game, which blew my little mind. When playing Magic, during my turn I typically think about what my opponent’s and then my next turn will look like. The further ahead we can cast our mind the better, and we have to start somewhere. I was pretty bad at this as a new player, thinking too much about playing my cards in the way that maximised synergy and not enough on what was happening to the game overall.
We often win games against new players when they attack with too many creatures – leaving them dead on board on the swing-back. This is usually followed by going to the lesser-known “ah, whoops…” step when we cruise in for lethal. Note that this isn’t about a new player learning to predict what is in your hand, it’s about when you have lethal on board and they play in a way that makes them lose.
When we are new to MTG, learning the rules and casting your spells correctly are more pressing goals than viewing the game one turn ahead. Get new players to start thinking about the next turn, though, because it will win them games. There probably isn’t a hard-and-fast rule to teaching this – it’s a skill that will develop with time.
Have you ever been in a game of Articulate and had your opponents say “ah, you’re a few spaces ahead of us, let’s scoop and go to game two”? Thought not.
Conceding is weird. It is common in competitive gaming because it saves time and prevents giving your opponent more information about your deck, but it just isn’t a thing in most popular games. Except maybe that one time when you got massively salty during a game of Monopoly and flipped the table because your brother got Mayfair – but I’m not sure that counts. There is no hidden information that you would be protecting by conceding a Monopoly game. Conceding the game early will probably save you a few days, though.
Naturally, people who are new to MTG and competitive gaming will not concede games, even when dead on board. Holding out for hope, even when your deck doesn’t contain any ways out, is understandable. Scooping is not intuitive when you’ve never forfeited a game before. MTG was my first experience of competitive gaming. I remember thinking that scooping felt weak, pessimistic, and denied your worthy opponent the joy of crushing your deck. It just didn’t feel like good sportsmanship.
Although not conceding is a strategic misplay, I think that being reluctant to concede is fine when learning. Playing out games in full helps us to learn how decks win, and I would not advise that you prioritise teaching a new player the advantages of scooping. Let them see how the game plays out in full.
Conclusion of teaching strategic plays – Less Mighty Leap, more Incremental Growth
Teaching good strategic play is hard – learning Magic: the Gathering is a continuous process. We may over-value life totals or not think far enough ahead no matter what level of MTG we play. Continuous improvement is a big part of what makes Magic fun. There are a million different aspects of MTG strategy that it’s important to learn early on as MTG players, and we can’t master them all at once. Guiding newcomers to pick up the game’s many nuances on their own pace is both valuable and enjoyable. Have fun helping your friends level up!
Thank you for reading,