The holiday season for me means catching up with old friends and family that I rarely get to see. Just as I want to hear about my cousin’s baby daughter, and the book that my sister is writing, and my high school friend’s travels abroad, these people also want to be a part of my own life. While 49 weeks out of the year I work toward making you, my readers, even stronger tournament players than you already are, at this time of year my focus turns toward introducing Magic to those who have little background in the game.
Magic has given a tremendous amount to me over the course of my life. I believe that long-time players like myself have a duty—a duty both to the game itself and to the all of the people out there who could one day enjoy Magic for themselves—to teach the game and foster the community whenever possible. While I would never force Magic on someone who wants no part of it, I like my friends to know that I’m available to teach if they ever want to learn.
A number of my old friends have played Magic at one time or another in their life, and still more of them simply enjoy learning a fun new game whenever there’s a chance. Very few however play Magic regularly, typically doing only a couple of drafts per year and usually only when they’re hanging out with me. A Christmas Eve draft at the Duke family kitchen table might feature a range from myself, a platinum pro, to my brother, a Wizards of the Coast developer, to an old friend who hasn’t played in years to somebody’s girlfriend or little brother who came along and has never even seen a Magic card before! With such an eclectic group, my first priority is to make sure everyone has fun and that those who have the potential to enjoy the game don’t wind up getting frustrated and giving up.
So this article is for the experienced player who wants to be a better teacher of Magic and a better ambassador for the game. It’ll also include some general tips for balancing a life of gaming with your friends and family who can sometimes seem like they belong to a different world. Plus it never hurts to get a refresher on your fundamentals.
One day during my third year of college I closed Magic Online and emerged from the darkness of my dorm room. I rubbed my eyes and strolled across campus to meet a small club of Dartmouth Magic players. To this day I count the players in this group among the smartest people I’ve ever met. One wrong move and these guys and girls could have buried me under graduate-level calculus and physics formulas or have Good-Will-Huntinged me straight back to my Gordon Wood textbook.
However, unlike me they had not been playing competitive Magic for their whole life. Regardless of all things, concepts like card advantage, tempo, and proper turn sequencing are not going to come naturally to someone unless they have an extensive background in gaming. Despite my modest talents relative to the other members of the group, I quickly became the person that everyone else would direct their Magic questions to.
After years of playing, many decisions—like which land to play on turn 1, what hands to keep or mulligan, etc.—become second nature and automatic; you begin to take things for granted. These things will not be automatic for a new player. Start with the assumption that they know nothing and never berate a new player for making a mistake. In fact, it doesn’t hurt to compliment someone on a basic move just to help them feel as though they’re getting it.
Dial It Down
One non-Magic interest that I had during my college years was Jiu-Jitsu, which is a martial art with a focus more on the wrestling aspects and less on punching and kicking. The particular club to which I belonged set aside the last fifteen minutes of every class for sparing—friendly, easy matches where the goal is learning, not hurting one another. Much the same as any Magic tournament, there was a huge range of skill and experience levels.
Jiu-Jitsu is not an easy thing to learn, and there’s virtually no chance of a novice beating someone with years of experience regardless of their size, athleticism, competitiveness, or anything else. Consequently, it can be tremendously intimidating to try to learn from scratch; nobody wants to get smashed into the ground and beat up for two years before they feel like they can compete. It can be tremendously intimidating if there’s not a fun and welcoming atmosphere, just as it can be in Magic.
We were taught that when we were mismatched against someone smaller or less experienced that we should dial it down, which means reducing your level of competitiveness to a level closer to theirs. Maybe it means not employing all of your strength, maybe it means trying moves that you’re not very good at, or maybe it means intentionally putting yourself in an unfavorable position and seeing if you can escape.
Dialing it down doesn’t mean that you’re pretending to be bad or that you’re trying to bolster someone else’s feelings; it just means that the goal is for everyone to have fun and learn. The same should be true when you teach Magic to a new player.
Here are some suggestions. When you play against a new player, let them play with the better deck. If you’re doing a draft, try going for an unusual archetype. Maybe mulligan to six once in a while even though your hand might be keepable just to challenge yourself.
Letting a new player win is optional, but letting them play is not. At least once in a while let them feel like a game is close. When you win, there’s no reason why you need to reveal your hand and show them that you still had three counterspells left in reserve.
My father—as a man who grew up before the era of smart phones, GPS, or Google Maps—prides himself on his flawless knowledge of every road and highway east of the Rocky Mountains. A typical conversation I might have with my dad goes like this:
"Well, son, there are a number of ways you can get to your Aunt Carol’s house:
You can turn left on Pine Hill and take the back roads . . . " and here he would explain in painstaking detail an impossibly complex 45-minute drive. He’d tell me which turns were unmarked, which roads were unpaved, and a hundred other details that I would most certainly be unable to remember.
"Or you can take the highway. You can avoid the tolls if you take 87 South for twelve miles, exit on to 17 West, and then get back on going north . . . " Ugh.
"Or you can tunnel under the mountain, through the abandoned dwarf city of Moria . . . "
"Or I can teach you the spell that parts the mists surrounding the Isle of Avalon . . . "
"Thanks, Dad," I’d say, "I think I’ll just take Route 84."
Don’t overexplain! I believe that for intelligent, knowledgeable people—as I know my readers are—it’s somewhat natural to be overly thorough when explaining something, especially something that you care about. However, it’s not the best way to teach.
Three things can happen when you give someone too much information. The best-case scenario is that they still absorb some portion but not all of what you said. In this case, you’re simply wasting your breath. Alternatively, you can overwhelm them, and they might not remember any of what you said. If I asked you to remember the number fourteen, you could probably do so even if I was to ask you an hour later. If I asked you to remember a ten-digit phone number, it’s unlikely that you could tell me the seventh and eight digit of that phone number after an hour. Finally, the absolute worst-case scenario, which is crucial to avoid, is that you cause your student to feel frustrated and want to quit.
This article is about teaching Magic to a potential new player, but this can stand as a general tip to anyone who asks you about Magic or what exactly the game is—something that happens to me a lot this time of year. Some people have no background in such a thing and might find it strange, but that’s no reason to be scared to talk about it. I have a policy that I never lie about Magic or try to hide any aspect of the truth; after all, nobody is going to think you’re cool if you yourself are embarrassed about what you do.
However, you don’t want to talk somebody’s ear off about something they don’t understand if they aren’t interested in hearing about it either. Don’t overexplain; just give a short and simple explanation. "Well, Magic is a strategy card game," and then you can offer one more fact about the game, like a fun trip you took to play a tournament, one aspect of the game that you enjoy, or some parallel to another area of life that this person might appreciate. After that you can give them a chance to ask a follow-up question or change the subject as appropriate.
Returning to the case of a potential new player, whenever there’s a chance for a Magic lesson, I try to give them one or two tips at a time. This way they’ll remember them effectively, they won’t feel frustrated, and they’ll have the exact mentality that’s best for learning, which is "I’m doing well but still have room to improve."
Let Them Play
This leads into another important point, which is that you can’t hold someone’s hand through every single decision. Make yourself available for help when they want it, but let them play for themselves and discover some lessons on their own. If I do a draft with five inexperienced players, maybe two or three will ask me to help them build their deck, and two or three will want to do it on their own. Either way is fine. The important thing is not to micromanage and take away any of the fun from players eager to try things on their own.
Similarly, when you’re actually playing or watching a game, it’s okay to let someone make a mistake here and there. Don’t overexplain; just focus on one or two big-picture things that you can teach about. You probably don’t need to criticize someone for playing their land before they attack when they’re first learning the game. You don’t need to go into detail about whether they should Doom Blade on their main phase or during combat. For the most part, you should let them play their own game and be available to help when they want you.
The Most Basic Concepts For A New Player
For a completely brand-new player, the story might be different, but from my experience with most of my friends—occasional players—they prefer Limited to Constructed. There’s not much that’s more fun than hanging out with a good group of people and drafting. I find it a good way for people to learn the game.
Mana is one of the more challenging and frustrating aspects of Magic for a new player. Someone gets mana screwed, and they feel helpless. They draw too many lands, and they don’t understand why they’re losing. It’s important to teach people right off the bat that these things are part of the game and you’re not supposed to draw exactly five or six lands in every game of Limited that you play.
Teach them to aim for two-color decks during drafting, to play seventeen or eighteen lands in a forty card deck, and to try not to overdo it on expensive spells.
Regarding mulligans, it’s easiest to teach a new player to keep any seven-card hand with between (and including) two and five lands and to mulligan otherwise.
Limited is about creatures and more specifically about trading creatures. You want to let your friends play their own game, so if they really like some Equipment or enchant creature or combat trick of course they should be allowed to draft it. However, I always tell them, "If you’re in doubt between picking a creature and a noncreature, just pick the creature." There’s not really such a thing as having too many creatures in your Limited deck, but there is such a thing as too few.
Teach them that if a card isn’t a creature and doesn’t directly kill a creature then it needs to be very special to put it in your deck. If new players can avoid the common pitfalls of playing with cards like Angel’s Mercy and Tome Scour, then they’ll have a huge leg up right off the bat.
Card advantage is an idea that should be lightly touched upon, but it’s good to avoid unfamiliar vocabulary words and just speak in generalities. "Sometimes you’ll have to use two cards to kill one creature. If you have to do it, you have to do it, but that’s a pretty bad trade and should be avoided when possible."
More generally you should teach new players about long-run planning and that they’ll have to be aggressive at some point if they want to win the game.
For the most part, these ideas will come later once new players have a grasp of the rules and a handful of games under their belt.
What’s In It For You?
So far I’ve framed this article in the light of some moral duty to share Magic with your friends and family. However, you also stand to gain a lot yourself from teaching Magic to new players.
As a tournament player, you need to cultivate two distinct skills. The first is beating other skilled tournament players as often as possible (hopefully over half the time). The second is beating inexperienced players as often as possible (hopefully over 60 percent of the time).
I consider these two distinct skills that require different choices in deckbuilding, sideboarding, mulligan decisions, long-term game plan, and short-term tactics. I could write an entire article about how to treat the two situations differently, but for now suffice it to say that learning how new players are likely to think and how they’re likely to act can only help your tournament career.
Sometimes too you’ll light a spark in someone who will someday wind up becoming a talented player and having something to teach you! I have a very old friend, Andy Boswell, who played Magic at age ten but quit the game for over a decade. A few years back he began to slowly get back into it—occasionally at first—and eventually started coming to play at the local store with me.
Flash forward to the present day and Andy is a Pro Tour player and one of my most valuable testing partners. Having a skilled and trusted friend close by has contributed in a huge way to my preparation for Grand Prix and SCG Tour® naments this year. If I’d been less patient or less encouraging when Andy was first getting back into the game, who knows if it might have had a tangible negative impact on my professional career.
Well, I need to wrap things up, as Andy and I are putting together a Theros draft for this evening. I’m not sure who exactly will show up or what the level of competition will be, but I know we’ll have a lot of fun. Maybe this holiday season you can let your friends know that you’re available to share with them a game that you love—perhaps a big part of your life—if they ever want to learn.