Monday, March 3, 2008

Teaching Magic

MaRo posted an article today on bringing new players into Magic. It was a decent article, but there is tons more to say on how to introduce the game. So here are my thoughts on teaching Magic - I’ve taught about 25 people to play and they’ve all stuck with it. Most have gone on to drafting, and some attend pre-releases.

Deck Building
Building the training decks is hugely important. Sadly, your trainees will never appreciate the effort you put into it, but if you get it wrong they’ll have zero chance of learning and enjoying the game.

Always start with mono-white versus mono-red. Magic is so deep, and there is so much flavor in the mechanics of most cards – but most of it fails the “KISS” rule. The absolute simplest setup for a new player to parse is:
Red cards hurt the other player.
White cards help you.

Keep the cards as vanilla as possible. Choose sorceries instead of instants; avoid keywords other than maybe flying, first strike, and vigilance. (Remember, the rookie has no frame of reference, so they won’t care that card X is strictly better than card Y. If Y is simpler, go with Y.) If you pick the most boring cards in your collection, you’re probably doing well.

Keep the cards as vanilla as possible (part II). No spells with X in the mana cost or any sort of alternate/additional casting cost!!! No artifacts – they’re meaningless until you’re using a multicolor deck.

The Intro Speech
“In Magic, each player represents a wizard casting magical spells. You’re trying to defeat the other wizard by reducing them from 20 hit points to 0. Each player has a deck of cards that represents magic spells. In the game, there are different “colors” of magic spells but for now we’re only using two – this deck is full of red cards that damage the other player; while this deck is full of white cards that heal you, with a few that hurt the other player. We each get one deck – which would you like to use first?”
(They usually pick red.)

The First Game
After drawing starting hands, reveal both and briefly describe the difference between “Lands” and “Everything else”. Make sure they have some lands in their own opening hand.
If you need them to mulligan, gloss over why and don’t even think about making them drop to 6 cards!!!

Write down the turn order for them. In fact, start off with just “Draw; Play a land; Play spells; End”
Then at the start of their 2nd turn, put “Untap” before “Draw”. Continue to fill in phases on their little cheat sheet as they become needed.

Don’t talk about strategy. Well, talk about strategy, but not what you – the expert – would consider strategy.
This is good: “You should try to attack me every turn because you want to reduce my hit points to 0.”
This is ok: “If you attack me while I have a stronger creature, my creature will block yours and kill it.”
This is not ok: “Hold on to your instants until as late as possible in the combat phase.”

Keep Telling Yourself…
Don’t try to win. There are all sorts of theories about whether you do harm or good by letting beginners win - but with 100% certainty you do harm by intimidating the rookie into quitting. Believe me, the rules of the game alone are already doing a good job of that. Furthermore, as a player gets close to losing, they start to panic and will stop retaining new concepts. Whatever "bad habits" you encourage in the player by taking it easy on them in their first few games are easily changed once they have a mental framework upon which to hang some strategy.

Avoid or gloss over as much as you can on every card. Don’t try to explain sorcery vs. instant until you have to; don’t show off and use instants at the end of the rookie’s turn before you untap.

Everything boils down to this: new players have no frame of reference. They don’t know that 3 damage for 1 mana would be good while 1 damage for 3 mana would be bad; they don’t know what creatures are; they don’t know what blocking is -- and once they do, it will be confusing that their creature can’t attack yours directly but yours can block theirs.

Try to introduce the smallest amount of “stuff” you can on every card. Don’t try to crush them. Regretfully acknowledge throughout the first game that it’s really hard to learn; as they start getting concepts down, start mentioning how much more fun it is once you start using other colors in the same deck.

Deleted Scene – Theme Decks instead of Deck-Building?
MaRo suggested in his article that you use 10th Edition theme decks for training. I’d never looked at them before so I took a quick glance at the red one. It looks pretty safe, but Incinerate should not be in a training deck. This leads me to a little section I like to call…

Why Incinerate should not be in a training deck:
It’s an instant.
In the rules text alone, Incinerate introduces four new effects to the poor beginner:
direct damage
direct damage to a creature or player
a means of circumventing regeneration

This is four cards worth of new material for the new player to parse - ideally, you’d introduce these one deck at a time. #2 is only cool after you’ve seen a spell that can only damage a creature and a spell that can only damage a player. Don’t even put a regeneration card into a deck until they’ve seen a few creatures die from combat and direct damage (let alone a card that circumvents regeneration!)

In fact, pondering why Incinerate was a bad choice for a training deck has led me to this idea: choose each card for a training deck the same way you would choose cards for a combo deck. If the card doesn’t directly serve the purpose of the combo, then try not to include it. Now, substitute “teaching exactly one new concept” for “the combo” and you have a good philosophy for training deck-building.

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