Explaining The Stack – Teaching Magic: The Gathering (MTG)
After two articles discussing rules errors and strategic misplays that new players might fall into, this week we’re back to teaching. When you post in a University Board Games Society group on Facebook offering to teach Magic: the Gathering, it turns out that you find that a bunch of people interested in learning. (Shocking, I know!) The offer of a free deck possibly sparks the interest of potential players, too, allowing them to continue playing from the start.
Until now, within this article series I have built a deck for each person that I have taught to play MTG (except for the time that I built decks with a new player using cards from both of our collections). While it’s great to give somebody a deck, what if they don’t often hang out with other MTG players? Considering that my collection can stretch to building an extra deck, I decided to build two decks for Hamza, the person that I was teaching this week.
I have always liked the idea of Clash Packs for new players. Two decks that can have cards swapped between them or merged into a better build provide a unique opportunity –a constructed product that actively encourages deckbuilding and creativity. I wanted to build something similar, so that a) my MTG student of the week can play against a friend, and b) to allow him to experiment with tweaking decks from the start.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to prefer building decks with cards from newer sets where possible. The archetypes are fresh in our minds, and if you’re anything like me, your cards are conveniently in an unsorted mound on that one table that I swore wouldn’t become overrun with Magic cards again (whoops).
I built two decks. One was a very budget build of Red-White Vehicles, and the other was Green-Red Energy. The ability to overlap spells was achieved quite crudely – all of the non-creature spells were red in both decks. If I had more time, or if I didn’t have a 9 to 5 where it is probably frowned upon to sleeve up Mountains during meetings, I would have loved to have put more thought into these decks. But this is real-life quick-fire deckbuilding; I didn’t have time to fine-tune.
Here are the lists:
3 x Dawnfeather Eagle
1 x Bomat Bazaar Barge
4 x Irontread Crusher
1 x Untethered Express
1 x Aeronaut Admiral
1 x Glint-Sleeve Artisan
1 x Herald of the Fair
2 x Spireside Infiltrator
2 x Frontline Rebel
2 x Gearshift Ace
4 x Audacious Infiltrator
1 x Consulate Dreadnaught
1 x Shock
1 x Precise Strike
1 x Wrangle
4 x Invigorated Rampage
2 x Chandra’s Revolution
2 x Destructive Tampering
1 x Siege Modification
1 x Hungry Flames
11 x Plains
13 x Mountain
2 x Chandra’s Revolution
1 x Furious Reprisal
3 x Chandra’s Pyrohelix
4 x Shock
3 x Built to Smash
4 x Druid of the Cowl
3 x Sage of Shaila’s Claim
1 x Thriving Rhino
4 x Aetherstream Leopard
2 x Outland Boar
3 x Aether Herder
2 x Lifecraft Cavalry
2 x Riparian Tiger
1 x Elegant Edgecrafters
1 x Aetherwind Basker
14 x Forest
An issue with building decks based on archetypes from a couple of sets is that they give you few uncomplicated cards. Earlier in this series I focused on building decks that were as simple as possible, containing few keywords and abilities and focusing on vanilla creatures. While the complexity of a deck should be restricted when building decks for new players, we can also build fun intro decks if we give them a clear game plan. Embrace interesting mechanics, but don’t include too many different ones. Describe the goal of the deck and it comes alive.
The big thing about the Vehicles deck was, uh, the vehicles. Quite literally. I mean, there’s a Consulate Dreadnought in there. But aside from the whole tapping to crew thing, the vehicles in this deck were chosen to be quite straightforward. The easy-to-explain game plan: play vehicles, crew them with creatures that were selected for their incredible barrel-roll skills (otherwise known as having 3 power), and crash in. Bonus points if your vehicles become airborne in the process.
The energy deck contained a lot of creatures with very similar abilities, gaining energy when they enter the battlefield and spending it when they attack. The game plan: gain energy, control the middle of the game and generate enough mana to cast your biggest creatures. These act as sinks for all that tasty energy you made.
The mana was balanced so that Hamza could swap non-creature spells between the two decks without needing to adjust the mana much. Non-creature spells were assigned to decks more or less randomly; some were in one deck but would probably be much better in the other one. I explained this to Hamza before playing, and talked about why I had built the decks the way that I had. He was pretty happy just to be given two decks. I handed him Vehicles to pilot (pun absolutely intended) and I played Green-Red Energy.
Playing the games
It turns out Hamza used to play competitive DOTA, an extremely complex online action/strategy game, which gave him a huge leg-up on strategic thinking in MTG. As always, we played the first game open-handed; he picked up the rules quickly and was making good decisions towards the end of the first game.
When teaching MTG, it is tempting to deliver a monologue of everything they would need to know to play their first few games. I’ve come to prefer acting like a tutorial mode of a video game, teaching as little as possible at the start of the game (card types, how to cast spells, you are a powerful wizard etc etc) and dropping in little bits of information throughout the first, open-hand game.
For example, I went over combat when one of us had an attack to make, and a few turns later added double-blocking. You can describe how to cast spells at instant speed the first time it’s relevant rather than when introducing spells as a concept. We can explain keyword abilities only when someone plays a card with them on, rather than going through each player’s hand in detail upfront. I like trying to cover all the basics by the end of the first game, having spaced them out evenly throughout to avoid information overload. That said, don’t stress if not everything is covered by the time one of you wins the game, just keep explaining throughout the next one.
Midway through our second game, played with closed hands, my opponent glanced at his side of the battlefield containing his Irontread Crusher and creature able to crew it, and looked back at his hand. He asked if a crewed vehicle is able to crew another vehicle. A couple of turns later, I have never been happier to have been hit for 11 points of trample damage by a Consulate Dreadnaught. With that Invigorated Rampage, he won the first ever proper game of MTG that he played. Watching my opponent work this out, after being totally happy with how I explained the rules, was one of my best moments of teaching MTG so far.
Explaining the stack
One of the great moments from our games happened when my opponent played a Dawnfeather Eagle onto his board containing an Irontread Crusher. Because the eagle can crew the vehicle with the +1/+1 trigger on the stack, making the Crusher a 7/7, this provided a great opportunity to explain what the stack is, and how it works.
Figuring out how much to explain the stack has been one of the most difficult parts of this whole series for me. Explain it badly or in too much detail and you risk confusing a new player with an abstract concept. Explain it effectively, to a player who has quickly grasped the rules, and it will help them make much better play decisions. I’m glad I explained it during my games with Hamza. He understood the stack quickly, and was able to make interesting decisions as a result of learning it.
“The stack is the game zone where spells and abilities are put when they are played and where they wait to resolve”
The definition of the stack according to mtg.gamepedia.com is “The stack is the game zone where spells and abilities are put when they are played and where they wait to resolve”. At its core the concept is simple. When someone casts a spell or uses an ability, it goes on top of the stack. Any player may then put another effect on the stack by casting another spell or activating another ability. This continues until no players decide to add anything else. Then the effects resolve, starting with the last one that was added, ending at the first. After each resolution, the players are given an opportunity to intervene again, allowing for some very complex sequences of plays.
It’s like making a load of pancakes and piling them on a plate – the first one that you eat is the last one that you made. Which is really not the best way to do things pancake-wise, so probably just put another plate on top, flip them over and eat them in the order you made them. Or put them in the microwave for a few seconds. Anyway, I digress. Mmm… pancakes.
Since picking up MTG, I have found myself wishing that a stack exists when playing other card games. In another card game, if your opponent plays a card on one of your things saying “destroy target thing” and you have a card saying “swap that thing with one of their things”, a Magic player may ask if a stack exists, possibly whilst twitching slightly. If the stack exists, we could play our card to swap these items in response and make our opponent destroy the item that they would have gained. When we play a lot of MTG, it becomes natural to want to respond to effects. The existence of the stack in MTG has made me habitually play cards with a questioning tone of voice when playing games that don’t allow instant-speed responses. In reality, the only legal response my opponent could have to me attempting to buy Mayfair in Monopoly is “uh-oh”.
The stack cleans up rules ambiguities, adding to the crispness of the game. It will always work in the same way, in every game, and effects that get around it do so clearly (split second). In my opinion it is one of the main reasons why MTG is so deep and interesting, and prevents rules ambiguities. It hasn’t always been this way; the stack was introduced in a rules shake-up during 6th Edition. Before that, I imagine people just threw cards at each other or something.
Stacks are a common programming concept; they are data structures that operate with the same “last in, first out” operation as playing MTG or eating pancakes. People familiar with programming concepts are probably more likely than others to intuitively understand the stack. Having learned MTG around the same time as learning programming, the first person to mention the word “stack” to me in MTG was probably met with “it’s attacking what now?”
Although the stack is easy to explain, in many ways it is one of the most confusing concepts in MTG. Many of the rules questions that I have asked have related to and been explained by the stack, centred on the question of “can I activate/cast this in response and will it have the desired effect?” applied to various situations.
For example, I remember asking “does it work if I cast Path to Exile on my opponent’s Death’s Shadow to remove it in response to his Fling??”. The answer is no, because the Death’s Shadow was sacrificed as part of the cost of Fling, meaning that the Death’s Shadow is already dead by the time Path to Exile tries to resolve, and the damage dealt be Fling still goes straight to my face.
In contrast, in my early days of MTG I remember asking if I could cast Path to Exile on my opponent’s Deceiver Exarch in response to them casting Splinter Twin, in other to stop their combo. This works the way I wish because I put Path to Exile on the stack above Splinter Twin, so the Deceiver Exarch ends up in the very very dead zone by the time Splinter Twin tries to resolve, which then doesn’t have a target. Again, it can be explained by thinking about the stack, but depending on our comfort levels with the rules of MTG this can require explanation.
So how and when do we explain the stack when teaching? My guideline of explaining effects the first time they become relevant in MTG falls down a little bit with the stack. One could argue that the stack becomes relevant in the upkeep step of the player who was on the play, although if this actually matters in practice then your intro decks are too complicated.
Maybe the stack should be explained the first time someone casts a spell at instant speed, since the strength of instant-speed spells is that they can be cast in response to something else. While this is a great opportunity to explain the stack, don’t feel pressured to do so if you don’t think your new-to-MTG friend is ready to learn it.
If the person I am teaching is still getting to grips with casting spells, combat or the stages of a turn when the first instant-speed spell is cast, I would not explain the stack. Instead, explaining that instants can be cast at any time is a pretty good stopgap. Although not quite correct, it will probably be a decent enough explanation to allow interesting gameplay until your friend is ready to learn it.
If somebody is comfortable with all they have learned during teaching, knows how to cast spells, attack and block, it may be time to explain the stack. I like to describe it as the place that spells go when we cast them. You can represent this using the table itself. Physically put the cards on top of each other, and take them off one by one when no more cards are added. When you remove each card, check the board state and resolve it.
Explain each step clearly rather than jumping to the end state skipping the steps in between. When you cast Thoughtseize, it goes on the stack. I can then cast Redirect, putting it on the stack targeting Thoughtseize. I choose the new target of Thoughtseize to be you. If you have no other plays, Redirect will resolve, targeting Thoughtseize . Thoughtseize will then resolve, and the new target will be you. You reveal your hand, choose a card from it, discard it and lose 2 life. Actual cause of my partner’s manic laughter halfway through a Modern tournament, for context.
The fact that a spell doesn’t automatically resolve when cast may be weird to new players, especially as the stack doesn’t exist in the majority of card or board games. Once explained, the real potential of MTG is unlocked. Somebody who understands the stack can cast spells with all of the power of the rules of MTG behind them. It’s an excellent lesson to learn, but sometimes an unintuitive one. Use your judgement when explaining it to a new player.
In response to the article ending, cast Last Word
Thank you for reading! I hope this gave you some ideas for building interesting intro decks and how to explain the stack. Until next time, have fun with all the counterspell wars. I’m off to make some pancakes.
Thank you for reading,