10 Important Things I Learned When Teaching People Magic: The Gathering
Like dismantling your draft deck whilst wondering how you managed to open three copies of Panharmonicon, many fun things come to an end. This article concludes my series on teaching Magic: the Gathering. It’s been a blast. I’ll think of some new content and plan to be back soon. Until I run screaming back to this site with a blueprint for the most structurally robust MTG card bridge or something, I thought it would be helpful to summarise this series. (Just kidding, I’d totally make a castle.)
So what are the most impactful things I’ve learned when teaching people to play MTG? Looking back on the last few weeks, I’ll try to answer that question.
10. There’s loads of people who want to learn MTG
My main hesitation starting this series was that I wouldn’t find enough people who wanted to learn to play MTG. I live in a relatively small city with a great MTG scene already; surely everyone who wants to learn already would have? Starting this series I could think of two people that I had discussed teaching MTG to previously, and aside from that I was stuck.
What if nobody was interested? Who would I teach? My hamster in his exercise ball once ran straight into my pile of sorted red commons, maybe he’d like to play an aggro deck? Right? Right?
I could not have been more wrong about finding people who want to learn MTG. In fact, I’m still trying to figure out how to find time to teach the people that I did not have time for within this series, and to contact people who friends mentioned wanting to learn. Got piles of commons without a home and a bit of time? In my experience, it’s pretty easy to find people to introduce to MTG. You’ll make people happy, trim down your collection, refine your deckbuilding skills and potentially make new friends.
9. The right deck is key
The first article of this series taught me a huge lesson in deck complexity. When teaching MTG I built a deck for my opponent that I thought was beginner-friendly, but hadn’t viewed the cards through the eyes of a new player. To make things worse, I played a relatively complex deck thinking that it wouldn’t matter because my opponent didn’t need to make the decisions with this deck.
Boy, did I regret it.
I had looked at Thunderclap Wyvern and thought “yeah, this card is great for a new player, although it has a few abilities they’re all pretty straightforward”. In a deck that didn’t contain so many ability-dense cards, all with different abilities, and played against another relatively complex deck, the Wyvern might have found his place. Here, the person I taught needed to add “Flying” to the keyword soup I had just served him, understand that +1/+1 effects occur continuously, but aren’t the same as the +1/+1 counters on the creatures in my deck so he couldn’t use dice, all whilst learning to attack and block. The game state got so complicated that I straight-up ignored my Stensia Masquerade because there was a serious case of information overload. Excellent. Well done me.
The next week, I got super scared of building decks that were too complex. On the advice of my unfortunate first student (who happened to be my dad), the next deck that I built for a new player was as simple as possible. I piloted a deck that was as vanilla as last-choice ice cream on a summer’s day. Teaching went swimmingly, but I couldn’t help but think we could make something more fun.
Over the following weeks I came to the conclusion that cards that do interesting stuff are fine for new players. There’s a few ways I think we can make fun, beginner-friendly decks, such as:
8. Keep the number of different effects to a minimum
A new player doesn’t need to instantly know what First Strike, Flying, Haste, Tromple and Mointainspalk do. (If anyone hasn’t seen the MTG cards generated by artificial intelligence, please please stop reading my article and go read some of those first, they’re hilarious.)
I think it’s great to include cards that do things other than have a power and toughness. For an intro deck I would try to keep these effects similar to each other, this way a new player can make interesting plays whilst becoming familiar with the rules of the game. A couple of weeks ago I build a Red-Green Energy deck for a new player. The deck was built around creatures that generate energy when they enter the battlefield and use it when they attack, and I tried to include as many creatures as possible that do this.
7. Include cards that require minimal MTG knowledge to play
Some cards mention effects, keywords, and card types that a new player might not know. Other cards do what they say on the tin, no questions asked. I love cards like Black Cat and Highland Game for helping me teach MTG. They trigger effects when they die, making games more interesting, but only require somebody to understand what gaining life and discarding mean.
6. Add synergy, but keep it uncomplicated
I built a blue-black artifact deck for my line manager when I taught him to play. I explained that the deck played artifacts and cards that benefit from you having artifacts. This was great; adding synergy to the deck meant that I could use individually simpler cards that still provided a new player with interesting decisions. This deck demonstrated that MTG involves combining cards in a way that their effect is greater than the sum of their parts. It required somebody new to MTG to play cards in a way that maximised their value, while keeping the synergy easy to spot.
5. Mix it up
Last week I made two decks for my student. The idea was that he could swap cards between decks without adjusting the mana to find which non-creature spells go well in each deck. It doesn’t matter if he always keeps them the same, but this approach offers flexibility if desired.
There is one more very important thing to consider when building a deck for a new player, and it deserves its own section. This is…
4. Everyone approaches gaming differently
Chances are if you want to learn MTG, you have at least some interest in games. In this series I have taught people who have previously played competitive chess, DOTA and Yu-Gi-Oh, and another person who listens to a load of game design podcasts. The strategic depth of MTG attracts a lot of people who know the basics of game rules and strategy. However, this is not necessarily the case. Everyone who has ever gamed started somewhere, and that place might be MTG.
When we play a tabletop game with someone who frequently plays tabletop games, there are some things that we end up not needing to explain. The best example I can think of is the concept of playing a card.
The concept that a card may exist in your hand, a deck, or in “play” is extremely common in games. A card only does something when it is in play. Taking a card out of your hand and putting it on the table signifies an action, and the card now does a thing. In some games, such as MTG, the table represents a physical space in the game. The card can remain there until somebody casts a boardwipe or your gaming party is crashed by a bored cat with a destructive temperament.
Everyone that I have taught MTG to has understood what playing a card represents, probably because I have only taught people who are used to games. However, I have seen this happen when explaining non-MTG games. The concept of playing a card is so natural to MTG players, and so transferable across games, that we don’t even think about it being unnatural. It’s like trying to remember how it felt to not be able to read. In theory, for many people to learn MTG, they will first learn what playing a card represents.
Other examples exist: the concept of a hand limit, a graveyard, the relevance of not randomly shuffling your deck. Somebody new to MTG needs to learn all of these things before they even learn what mana is. They are not behind in any way – people who play games get a headstart.
Imagine the amount of information that this person would need to learn in a first game of MTG compared with a person who plays games. Then think about how different their intro decks should be. We can introduce far more information into the deck for a gamer, because they already knew how to game. The non-gamer would probably benefit from a deck with vanilla creatures, low synergy and few card types; the gamer could use a deck that provides them with more decisions.
I guess my message is this: understand that your opponent might approach MTG differently to how you did, or how the last person you taught MTG to did. If you know your opponent is a Chess-Boxing champion who learns Starcraft strategies in their sleep and has pockets full of Poker chips, they’d probably appreciate a more complex deck than somebody who hasn’t played many games.
3. Remember why MTG is excellent
When we play a packaged-up board game we remove it from the box, read the rules and start playing. We make sure that everyone knows everything they need to know before starting. The idea of playing the game when you know half the rules is weird. Even among gamers, the concept that MTG tournaments require the presence of judges to reiterate the rules – that not everybody in the room will have ever read – may be more than a little bit odd.
This is why MTG is so well-designed. We can pick up a deck and play within five minutes, but it takes years, skill and dedication to make somebody excellent at it. The whole time, somebody will learn nuances in the rules that allow them to make stronger and stronger plays. The learning curve is extremely – well – curvy. When explaining MTG to friends they have often asked if I have to learn all the cards, or expressed that it seems way too complicated for them. On first glance, it’s easy to see why MTG may have this perception. In reality, we can teach them to play in a few minutes. And no, we don’t need to know all the cards.
When teaching MTG, remember that MTG is a game that can start small, go big, and be interesting along the way. Our friends see how much time and energy we devote the MTG, hear the jargon when we enthuse about it, understand how far we travel to play it. There’s an idea that MTG is the ultimate game of games, an all-encompassing passion that most other games cannot reach the level of. Whilst true, they are seeing the product of years of refinement of our strategies, not the start. Show friends that the start involves playing lands, learning to attack and block and cast spells. If we teach it well, MTG will seem more accessible.
2. Having a plan for teaching is important
Alright, I’ve rambled for too long about MTG being kind of alright as a hobby or something, let’s get back to practicalities. So you’ve built a deck for a new player and are going to teach them to play. Where do you start, and what do you want to explain? This question has been the focus of most of my article series, and it’s not an easy question to answer. I think there are a few things we can do to make the most of our time spent teaching new players.
I would say that the most important thing is to resist the temptation of explaining everything at once. We can make this easier by thinking about what fundamentals we need to teach in the first games of MTG. As long as the new player knows these things before playing games against any real competition, we have achieved our main goal of teaching.
The first thing that I explain when teaching MTG is that you are a powerful sorcerer/sorceress trying to defeat their opponent in an epic battle (because nerddom should always come first), by reducing their life total from 20 to 0. If anyone has an explanation for that part that doesn’t drop like a lead balloon after the sorcerer/sorceress bit, that would be great.
I then fan out a deck and explain briefly what the cards do. “Lands allow us to generate mana to cast spells, creatures attack our opponent and reduce their life total, spells do things like remove our opponent’s creatures, make ours better, and a load more things.” That’s basically it. Shuffle your opponent’s deck, ask them to draw seven cards – this is their hand – and play the first game open handed.
Treat the first, open-handed, game of MTG like you’re the tutorial mode of a video game. Have a mental checklist of the fundamentals and don’t put pressure on yourself to explain them all at once. Drop them in whenever they first become relevant.
So what are the fundamentals? In a first game of MTG, I would always aim to teach somebody when to play lands, how to cast spells, how to attack and block, the stages of the turn (untap, upkeep, draw, first main, combat, second main, end) and the difference between instant and sorcery-speed spells. Our game may end before anyone casts an instant (so we’re really winning at teaching efficiently if we cast Lightning Bolt for lethal), or more things may come up that require explanation, so we have to be a little flexible.
At the end of the first open-handed game, think about if there is anything else on your checklist that you need to explain. If there are keyworded abilities that didn’t come up in the first game, now might be a good time to look through the deck and introduce them.
In my experience, this works well. I don’t think I have needed to play a second open-hand game after explaining MTG using these principles; the people that I taught reliably got it. But if you need to play a second game open-handed, go for it. If you think there are more important things to explain early, go for that too. This is teaching MTG in a nutshell. Just thinking about how we teach MTG makes us better at teaching already – it’s too easy to sit down opposite a new player unprepared and with no mental hierarchy of what to explain first.
The more efficiently we teach the core principles of MTG, the faster a new player can make decisions and engage with the game. First impressions of games matter; if somebody perceives MTG as too complex or too hard to get into they might not play it again. Nobody should miss out on Progenitor Mimic that easily.
1. There’s some great people in the MTG community
Starting out, I was terribly nervous sharing my article on social media. What if I explained something incorrectly or made a point that is known to be incorrect? What if I received awful comments and found them hard to deal with? What if I accidentally pasted a link to a bog snorkelling tournament or a live stream of cats instead of a previous article?
The support has been overwhelming. I have struggled to comprehend not only that people on the other side of the world read my articles, but connected with me on social media just to tell me that they liked what they had read and that I have helped them. We read a lot of articles, and it takes an excellent individual to give direct support to the author. Huge shout out to the Lady Planeswalkers Society, the feedback that I received from members of the group has propelled me forwards the most.
Writing has been a great boost to the good ol’ faith in humanity.
Signing off – keep on teaching
That is all. Many thanks for reading and for the encouragement!