How To Teach Magic: The Gathering To An Experienced Gamer – Learning to Teach Magic, by Katie Roberts
I work as a medical writer for the pharmaceutical industry, a field not obviously related to the games industry. Despite this, a remarkable number of my colleagues appear to either be highly interested in game design or have close links to the industry. This leads to some pretty excellent conversations around the office, and more-or-less everyone knows that I am a massive fan of Magic: the Gathering.
My line manager, in particular, is a long-term enthusiast of game design and an experienced gamer. I am yet to check out all of the game design podcasts and materials that he has recommended to me. One of our first conversations was about game design, during which I enthused about MTG and he remarked that he had never played it, but wanted to.
What better time than the present to learn! I explained that I was writing an article series about teaching Magic: the Gathering, offered to build a deck for him and teach him to play.
Card Advantage: Teaching experienced gamers how to play Magic: the Gathering
For the first time this series, I was aware that I would be teaching an experienced gamer and current enthusiast of games. I realised that it would be useful to change my approach to account for his level of experience.
A person’s level of experience with games in general, of course, will influence how they approach MTG. Concepts such as thinking about your next turn while carrying out your current one, wondering what your opponent might have in their hand, and playing out distinct phases of a turn are more natural to us the more experience we have with games.
Card advantage, tempo advantage and spotting synergistic effects will probably be more familiar the more that we know about games. Even if we are still picking up the rules of a game such as MTG, we might already be viewing our plays through tempo-tinted glasses.
It is believable, in this case, that an experienced gamer would want to learn MTG using a deck that allows them to spot interesting and powerful effects. In a world of excellent games, when teaching MTG, we should aim to demonstrate how great Magic can be. I therefore wanted to build a deck that is an interesting as possible, whilst at the same time being accessible to somebody who has never played MTG before.
Draft archetypes as learning tools: everyone wins!
Building interesting, synergistic decks using our entire collections for inspiration can take a long time. One way to get around this is, of course, to make use of the draft archetypes from a particular set. Whether they overlap heavily or are narrowly defined, sets are designed with archetypes in mind, and throwing together such a deck for a new player is straightforward if you pick one to build around. When I started working on this article the release of Aether Revolt was a couple of weeks away, so I focused on archetypes from Kaladesh.
Building casual decks out of draft archetypes is a great way to learn about the set if you have a few boosters lying around but can’t afford/make it to draft. The decks that we build in this way do not need to be perfect, and certainly do not need to be playable in Standard. Although we may have read about the set in detail, casual deckbuilding is a fantastic way to play with as many cards as possible.
You know that feeling of falling in love with cards that you drafted one time, and wish you had more of in your deck? You know when you draft a deck that is pretty great, but you wonder what it would feel like to cast playsets of the over-performing cards rather than whatever you can get? This is how my love of draft led me to play Standard.
I wanted to draft Red-White Dwarf tribal in Kaladesh so much that I used boosters I had accumulated to build a casual deck of the archetype rather than forcing a draft. This evolved over time into a more sensible, playable Standard Vehicles deck (RIP Smuggler’s Copter). Edit: I finally managed to draft Red-White Dwarf Tribal at GP Prague, I was so happy.
Building a deck for a new player based on a current draft archetype provides a way to demonstrate the relevance of MTG being released in sets, each of which providing a very different metagame, thematic, and feel. It provides a context for the decks that you build for teaching, rather than being seemingly built from an arbitrary assortment of the thousands and thousands of cards that span the history of Magic. The cards together tell a cohesive story of a set of characters interacting on a defined plane. Even if we don’t talk much about the lore surrounding MTG, a deck comprised mostly of cards from one set can be incredibly flavourful.
The deck for this article: a Tidy Conclusion
That’s probably enough rambling about the joys of casual deckbuilding. The archetype that I decided to settle on for my opponent’s deck was Blue-Black artifacts. This was partially chosen because honestly, I just really wanted to build this deck. I had opened a bunch of Gearseeker Serpent and was itching to put them to use, because I just love that card. I threw in a few cards from previous sets to make the deck work a little better, because honestly I didn’t make it to as many Kaladesh drafts as I would have liked.
It ended up as this list:
Island x 13
Swamp x 11
Select for Inspection x 4
Tidy Conclusion x 3
Tezzeret’s Ambition x 3
Dhund Operative x 3
Eager Construct x 3
Field Creeper x 1 (I couldn’t find a fourth Eager Construct)
Contraband Kingpin x 2
Foundry Inspector x 4
Ovalchase Daredevil x 2
Wicker Witch x 2
Foundry Screecher x 3
Weldfast Weaponsmith x 2
Gearseeker Serpent x 2
Hexplate Golem x 2
This deck seemed great for a new player who is experienced with games in general. It had a clear but rewarding game plan, and would hopefully present interesting decisions. The deck just had a bunch of artifacts and cards that reward you for having artifacts. They did this in different ways; Contraband Kingpin cares about artifacts entering the battlefield whereas Foundry Screecher just cares if you have one at all. This means that individual cards present different sequencing challenges to one another, but the synergy itself is comprised of two big groups of moving parts: things that are artifacts and things that are not. The deck was built to be forgiving, it rewards careful play but isn’t too punishing when you are learning the order in which to cast your spells.
Visually, artifacts benefit from being clearly distinct from other cards and this helps make an artifact-payoff deck great for a new player. Foundry Inspector made this deck work a little like an artifact tribal deck when played, which was quite a neat little sub-game. I had thought about building tribal decks for teaching MTG previously, but was concerned that focusing heavily on creature types on visually-similar cards would be a distraction for new players. The fact that artifacts are, well, so obviously artifacts, helps with this.
As far as possible, the cards still had intuitive rules text that required as little understating of MTG as possible to understand. However, this was difficult to reconcile with building a deck that is as interesting as possible for a new player. Instead of cutting down keywords, or building a deck that contained too many with no explanation, I just wrote down explanations for the keywords found in these decks and gave them as a small reference sheet for my opponent, should he ever need clarification mid-game.
I gave the deck to my opponent, and I piloted the Green-White midrange deck outlined in the previous article. Because the deck that I built for my opponent relied on synergistic effects, the explanation of my opponent’s deck was quite a bit more involved than previous teaching experiences. In addition to the basics, for the first time, I explained what the deck wanted to do. Discussing the artifact synergy felt great, it gave another level of interest to an introductory deck.
As always, we played a game open-handed to discuss our decisions. My opponent’s experience as a gamer was obvious, and he picked up on correct lines of play before the end of this first game. I found myself wishing that this introductory game would be over sooner so that we could play regular, closed-hand games.
After a while I completely stopped needing to offer gameplay advice. After my usual explanation my opponent quickly picked up the basics of casting spells and going to combat, and made some excellent sequencing decisions. The artifact synergy worked brilliantly as a way to make an interesting introductory deck for a new player without relying on knowledge of complex interactions that can only be learned by playing a load of MTG.
Getting into the zones
For the first time within this series, I built a deck for my opponent that mentioned use of the graveyard. The graveyard synergy was not heavy; the only card that cared about it was Ovalchase Daredevil. However, this got me thinking about explanations of the zones when teaching MTG.
Of course, it is impossible to teach a game of Magic: the Gathering without mentioning the graveyard. This is where creatures go when they die and where spells go when they resolve, and could be explained as just that. On basic principles, it is the place that contains all of the “used” or “dead” cards. For a new player, it is too easy (and completely understandable) to fall into the trap of considering the graveyard as some pile of spent cards that could as well be back in your deckbox.
However, we know of course that graveyards are far more fun than this. They provide a resource that some decks allow us to utilise. Whether we are bringing back Reassembling Skeleton or flashing back spells with Snapcaster Mage, graveyards are our friends. Explaining to a new player that a creature dying or a spell resolving does not necessarily mean the end of it is an awesome thing, if our introductory decks support it. It teaches someone that they may need to pay attention to the cards that they, or their opponent, have already used.
We don’t necessarily need to explain graveyard synergies to a person who is in the first stages of learning MTG. However, it is not particularly difficult to do so if we pick the right cards. Cards such as Ovalchase Daredevil that stay in the graveyard until a particular triggered ability are great for this because they are uncomplicated, and the relevant rules text is easy to understand without much prior knowledge of MTG terminology. This card will provide a new player with a benefit if they pay attention to their graveyard, but hopefully won’t punish them too much if they forget a trigger.
It is not uncommon for a particular feature/mechanic to seem arbitrary to a new player until the relevance is made clear. I have taught people MTG before who have placed their graveyards face-down, which is not an unreasonable assumption when they are unaware of the possibilities for interaction. Just explaining that a graveyard “goes face up” isn’t really a satisfying solution either, unless we explain the role that they play. Giving a tangible reason for why something is, generally, will help a new player to remember the rules and mechanics of MTG.
Going off-topic for a second, an excellent example that I have come across for the importance of really good explanations is tapping creatures during combat. When we explain that a creature “taps when it attacks” without any extra explanation, it is easy for a new player to forget because it seems arbitrary. Explain that by tapping it then cannot block next turn, and this is a resource that a player has to carefully manage next game, and a person may be more likely to remember it and also be more engaged in the game.
Spells that have Flashback seem like they could also be a good learning tool for this reason, as they sit around in a player’s graveyard until the correct situation (available mana and a relevant board state). However, explanation of spells that have Flashback requires explanation of a slightly weirder place: the exile zone.
I don’t think that I have ever mentioned the exile zone to someone that I am teaching MTG to for the first time. It hasn’t been relevant in any introductory game yet, and explaining currently unused game mechanics when someone is picking up the game for the first time seems unwise when there is already so much to take in.
The exile zone itself is not difficult to understand, it’s just a place where the ‘really really dead stuff’ goes, with fewer opportunities for interaction than the graveyard. I just don’t consider it worth explaining in the first few games of MTG because it may draw attention away from the mechanics that a new player needs to pay attention to. Once someone has a grasp of the game, it is not difficult to explain the exile zone. Unless you are teaching using a very specific deck, it is unlikely that a new player will make poor gameplay decisions because they don’t know that it exists yet.
Summary – some totally boss games!
Teaching my line manager to play MTG was brilliant. We’re playing Magic tomorrow, so I’d better dig out my casual decks again!
Thanks for reading, as ever, I hope this was helpful.