Chatter of the Squirrel – How to Build Instructional Decks

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Wednesday, March 26th – I’m generally garbage at teaching anything, and Magic’s among the most complicated things you can teach. I’d tried my hand at instruction before, to less than successful results. The rules of Magic have been etched so deeply into my cognition that it’s hard sometimes to isolate why some things work the way that they do.

Man. Teaching Magic is hard.

In what has to be the second or third instance of a tall blonde girl wanting to learn about our beloved game, a certain Anna “Not Nicole” Smith had chatted with me one day to ask if I could teach her the ropes. “Um…” I had said. “Sure.”

Truth be told, I was mortified. I’m generally garbage at teaching anything, for one, and Magic’s among the most complicated things you can teach. I’d tried my hand at instruction before, to less than successful results. Thing is, I’ve been slinging cards since I was eight or nine years old. The rules of Magic have been etched so deeply into my cognition that it’s hard sometimes to isolate why some things work the way that they do. It’s not at all intuitive to a new player, for example, why it’s important to “tap” anything, why the fact that a card is oriented 90 degrees sideways on the playing surface in any way conveys some sort of in-game mechanical significance. In my mind, however, sideways means can’t block. End of story. That’s just how it is. Point being I’ve never really understood what is and is not complicated to a new player, so my attempts at “teaching” have thrown a lot of information at someone at once.

Also, I’m a tournament player, so there are certain things I’ve always thought are really important to know that, most of the time, just aren’t. Explaining “the stack,” for example, is about as awkward as walking around town on ice skates:

“So there’s this thing called the stack.”
“No, it’s not like, physically located anywhere. It’s just the stack.”
“A stack of what?”
“Not like, a pile of dishes or the layers of a sandwich or something. Just the order in which spells resolve. Like if you play something, I can react to you playing it, you know? With an instant.”
“So the stack’s like where you put each of the cards when you’re playing a bunch of things at once?”
“Kind of. And you can use abilities of your creatures at this point, too…”
“So then I put the creature on top of the rest of the stack…”

Etcetera. Repeat as necessary, bash your head into a brick wall. But for a new player, they’re not going to be getting into counterspell wars. There might be a “burn your guy, Giant Growth it in response” exchange, but it’s not essential that they conceptualize the stack for that to happen. “You’re killing my dude, but I’m making it too big for that to happen.” It’s intuitive. But it took me years to realize the types of things that you do and do not have to explain at the outset.

Mark Rosewater recent article on Acquisition proved a veritable gold mine to me, though, and with his suggestions in mind (and not a few nudges from Ms. Smith, who never hesitates to call me out on my failed promises or lapsed memories) I resolved to finally do it right. I strongly advise anyone interested in this issue to read that article, by the way, as Rosewater probably has more experience teaching Magic than anyone else on Earth. It helps that he’s a fantastic writer too. In the interest of saving page-space, I’ll assume you’ve checked that article out rather than re-enumerate each and every principle he cites.

I want to spend most of my time talking about the two “sample decks” I constructed for our little info session. I know the suggestion is to go out and buy Tenth Edition theme decks to start out, but I know for a fact that 1) those can be hard to find, and 2) it seems silly to most people to go out and buy pre-existing decks when they have thousands of cards laying around already. They could conceivably re-construct those lists, sure, but I also think there’s some value in combining colors into a single decklist to help convey the notions of color identity, mana balance, and mana cost (e.g. why “1GG” can be substantially different from “2G” in terms of when you can cast a spell).

Also, I strongly recommend the “How to Play Magic” videos that Wizards has posted on YouTube. Anna viewed them beforehand, and not only did they get the basics out of the way – what mana is, what the card types are, etc. – they answered enough questions about non-game issues (why is a card laid out the way it is, what do those funny symbols in the upper-right-hand-corner mean, etc) that we were able to concentrate on actually playing a game. That makes the process more streamlined, but importantly it also makes it more fun for both parties involved. By game 2 I felt like I was actually battling. That’s crucial. If the game isn’t fun, people won’t care what you’re teaching.

Here are the lists I used. I’ll say at the outset that there are things I should definitely change about each of the lists, and I’ll cover those in a moment. While I think I did a fair job of balancing the decks – our final game count was 3-1 in my favor, but then again Anna had never played a single game of Magic, and as per Rosewater I didn’t talk much about strategy – the R/U is definitely stronger, for reasons I will attempt to explain. Think of these lists as a case study in one person’s effort to teach the game. The hurdles and obstacles I’ve encountered, along with the lessons I learned, can hopefully help each of you in your continued efforts to broaden Magic’s audience.

The decks (G/W was Anna’s, because she had been familiar with some of the cards from the instructional video, and because the R/U was a bit more complicated):


Skyshroud Ranger
Llanowar Elves
Goldmeadow Harrier
Tundra Wolves
2 Grizzly Bears
Leaf Gilder
Youthful Knight
Ghost Warden
Venerable Monk
Wild Griffin
Civic Wayfinder
Skyhunter Prowler
Stalking Tiger
Giant Spider
Skyhunter Patrol
Spined Wurm
2 Kavu Climber
Plover Knights
Craw Wurm
Enormous Baloth
Reya Dawnbringer
2 Giant Growth
2 Sunlance
Rampant Growth
Gaea’s Anthem
Moonglove Extract
Jayemdae Tome
Epic Proportions
Hail of Arrows
13 Forest
11 Plains


Cloud Sprite
Mogg Fanatic
Razorfin Hunter
Merfolk Looter
Stonybrook Angler
Goblin Piker
Prodigal Pyromancer
Bloodrock Cyclops
Squee, Goblin Nabob
Mudbutton Torchrunner
Serendib Sorcerer
2 Snapping Drake
Hill Giant
Aven Fisher
Thieving Magpie
Furnace Whelp
Earth Elemental
Iron-Barb Hellion
Sea Monster
Brute Force
Spitting Earth
Mind Stone
Prismatic Lens
Remove Soul
Counsel of the Soratami
Lightning Blast
Eternity Snare
13 Island
10 Mountain
1 Terramorphic Expanse

The fact that I put hours of thought into these lists and yet some things very obviously remain problematic reflects the difficulty of a Magic developer’s job. Man. I have nothing but respect for those guys.

Basically, you’ve got three goals when you’re trying to build an “instructional” deck.

First of all, and most importantly, you want people to understand what’s going on. To that end you need a lot of “vanilla” creatures, “French vanilla” creatures with a single keyword ability, or creatures whose functionality is printed on the card and integral to the basic game (pingers, tappers, pumpers, etc.) Even these last ones can prove annoying if they get to prevalent – a lesson that I learned the hard way, even though I went out of my way to make sure that the G/W deck would have plenty of removal to deal with utility creatures. It’s also important, I believe, to have a lot of creatures whose power and toughness isn’t equal, so that interesting combat steps emerge where creatures do something other than trade. Another one of those cognitive schemas that is ingrained in my head but is not at all evident (necessarily) to new players is the idea that power is the damage an animal can deal and toughness is the damage that it can receive. Frequently I see players treat, using the card Snapping Drake as an example, 3 as its “attack number” and 2 as its “blocking number,” so that when it attacks deals three and takes two to kill and so on. Veteran players understand that creatures have to “exist” outside of the attacking phase, but that’s not necessarily evident to someone who’s learning the game.

Second, you want to communicate the identities of the colors clearly and effectively. This can be subtle, but you want to show that Green likes big dumb guys, White (as the color of “order” and “trained soldiers” and the like) features more modestly-sized creatures with relevant abilities and a variety of utility spells, Red likes to throw fire, Blue is tricky, and Black kills stuff. Interestingly, the complexity of many Black creatures in combat (regeneration is awkward to explain, as is fear*) and the difficulty of explaining why initially you’d want to pay life to do anything left Black out of the equation, though I’m sure you can construct a good deck with Black involved. But it’s important for a player to get a hint of the colors’ identities and the myriad possibilities those identities open up.

Finally, you don’t want games to be blowouts. Each deck needs to have a strength and a weakness – or multiple strengths and weaknesses – that represent conflicting avenues of attack. I chose to make the Green-White deck susceptible to utility creatures, flyers (to an extent), and the R/U deck’s well-timed bombs (Persuasion, Evacuation) that it could get to if the game went on long enough. I tried to give the R/U deck a problem with fat and a general inability to deal with combat tricks (notice that the only counterspell, Remove Soul, can’t stop an Epic Proportions, a Hail of Arrows, or even a Giant Growth). I gave both decks, though, means of dealing with their perceived “problems”: the G/W deck had first-striking flyers, Giant Spider, and Hail of Arrows to stop the R/U deck’s aerial assault, and the R/U deck had tappers, Squee, and either Eternity Snare or Persuasion to manage any type of Wurm.

There were other subtleties, too. I thought sneaking in a Brute Force would hint at the ways the same card, mechanically, could manifest itself in different ways from a flavor perspective, and it seemed to me that including in the G/W deck several different means of mana acceleration would teach the lesson of how best to go about developing your mana. I also wanted to include some deceptively-bad cards (Venerable Monk and Cloud Sprite spring to mind) that seem fine upon first glance (gaining life is great!) but wind up having very little impact on the board. Finally, I wanted to give each deck some bombs that would create blowout situations while maximizing “fun”. Gaea’s Anthem turns your entire team into a bunch of giants, Reya Dawnbringer is a one-girl-wrecking ball, and Evacuation just has a “whoa!” potential that is powerful without being ridiculous. Resurrection I just included for the “ha-ha” value of making me expend all kinds of resources to kill some giant beast only to have it staring right back at me next turn, and Squee I put in at the last minute to hold off Green’s beasties and also provide a mini-combo with Sift and Looter.

Needless to say, I succeeded on some levels far more than others.

I actually think that, as an experiment, my two creations performed remarkably well. Nevertheless, I think we can all learn much more by focusing on the design’s mistakes rather than its successes. Several things, in retrospect, immediately jump out:

First of all, there is absolutely no reason why the R/U deck needs Razorfin Hunter and Prodigal Pyromancer, or Stonybrook Angler and Puppeteer. I wanted to make sure that those types of cards would get represented during a game, but it’s not like we’d only sit down to play one match. One would manifest itself eventually, and a glut of utility creatures can get annoying. I chocked Anna’s deck full of efficient means of killing these guys, but still, they’re must-kill creatures. Both to balance the power level and to fill out the curve (and because Hunter was the only gold card in either deck, a fact that I initially viewed as a boon but now see as problematic for a variety of reasons) I would replace the Hunter and the Puppeteer with a Sage Owl and a Lumengrid Warden.

Related to the “pinger problem,” the G/W deck has one or two too many basic one-toughness creatures. The Skyshroud Ranger slot, for example, is just wrong. I wanted to demonstrate the different means of accelerating mana, but the deck only has twenty-four lands and the card itself is, well, very bad. I think I should have made him either Vine Trellis or Sakura-Tribe Elder. Similarly, while I like Tundra Wolves as a teaching tool, against the R/U deck his ability is rarely relevant and his size is a liability. A Kithkin Healer or Alabaster Wall would introduce the fairly-simple notion of damage prevention while providing a more sizable body for a manageable cost.

In general, honestly, I think each deck could use a couple more vanilla guys. Part of this problem was card availability, and I didn’t want to explain the tripped-out frames of Nessian Courser or Fomari Nomad. I should have put a Trained Armodon in the G/W deck somewhere and a Horned Turtle, Hill Giant, or Giant Octopus in the R/U, probably in place of the Thieving Magpie.

Magpie, like the Ranger or the second pinger, is simply a demonstrably wrong card to put in the deck. It’s incredibly powerful, there is very little the G/W deck can do about it once it gets going, and it’s genuinely not fun. Even beyond that, it’s not immediately clear why the card is as good as it is, so the G/W player won’t value it that highly even if he or she can get it off the table. One of the things that’s so difficult to remember is that new players haven’t learned to prioritize card advantage, so cards that I thought were essential to maintain balance (Kavu Climber and Jayemdae Tome, for example) aren’t as immediately powerful to a new player as they are to most of us. Anna, for example, was distraught when from a neutral board position I had to use a Spitting Earth and a Lightning Blast to take out her Enormous Baloth, even though I had just two-for-oned myself and spent two of my premium removal spells. Something like Persuasion I knew might be problematic, because spending a ton of mana on a bearl only to have it taken away from you kind of sucks. I took that risk, though, to demonstrate 1) how powerful that effect can be and 2) for good-story value. Magpie provides none of those benefits while leading to exasperating games.

Finally, Hail of Arrows – which I expected to be an absolute, positive bomb and which I thought was comparatively easy to understand – proves to be neither of those things to someone unfamiliar with the game. We’re all used to the idea of White not being able to directly remove guys outside of combat, usually, but for a newer player it’s not necessarily clear what “attacking” means. Anna tried, for example, to kill all of my tapped guys with a Hail of Arrows for seven, which she could have done the previous turn if she had understood the timing. Moreover, while the idea of “X” is comparatively basic, the fact that players will ask you “what does X mean” totally erases the blowout potential of the card. “Hmm, I wonder what she’s holding…”

The most important lesson I learned, though, was that you can’t approach this type of deckbuilding like you would at a tournament. While you have to be cognizant of making gameplay fun, that’s different from tuning a list. I think it’s wise to give each list strengths and weaknesses, and ways to mitigate the other deck’s strengths and exploit its weaknesses, but it’s okay if it doesn’t always work out that way. The Eternity Snare in R/U, for example, was a concession to the G/W deck’s fat, but it wasn’t necessary. There were already other ways to deal with that problem, and in a slow format without enchantment removal Snare is a deceptively powerful card. It is probably what I’d pull for my second Hill Giant. Similarly, in a deck with Counsel of the Soratami and Sift, it’s really not important to have that many other means of generating raw card advantage. Doing so risks making the decks too powerful. Remember, even though you’re playing “Constructed,” games feel much more like Sealed deck. You have time to set up. Any repeatable effects, therefore, are potent, as are otherwise-clunky investment spells.

At the end of the day, though, the entire process proved to be a lot of fun. I joked that Anna was a natural – she had already started complaining about her mana problems two games in, like a true Magician – and she was making mostly correct attacks and blocks by the third or fourth game in. All it takes, really, is a little exposure, and a bit of willingness on our part to lay things out as clearly as we can.

Players can only learn if we’re ready and willing to teach them.

Until next week,


* What is an artifact creature? What’s the problem with Black creatures? So my giant city-sized Wurm is afraid of these dumb hands crawling all over the street? Etc.