The Kitchen Table #309 – Helping Melanie Learn Magic

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Wednesday, October 28th – A few weeks ago, I was bored. I hadn’t played real life Magic in a while, instead playing online exclusively, and I wanted to get back to shuffling and playing, talking and conversing. Magic is not about the mechanics of the game. Attack, tap, draw, deal damage = ho hum. Magic is about the people you meet and the good times you have with them. No amount of online play can ever scratch that itch.

Hello, and welcome back to the Kitchen Table, an article for the casual-itch that all of us have to scratch.

Today I want to talk about something outside the normal, beyond the usual. I’ve actually done a few of these articles recently. A few articles ago I talked about your personality type and Magic. Then I wrote about a piece of Magic software and how I played a Quest. Now, I am talking about something different again.

A few weeks ago, I was bored. I hadn’t played real life Magic in a while, instead playing online exclusively, and I wanted to get back to shuffling and playing, talking and conversing. Magic is not about the mechanics of the game. Attack, tap, draw, deal damage = ho hum. Magic is about the people you meet and the good times you have with them. No amount of online play can ever scratch that itch.

Just a few days ago, we moved in my 450 freshmen. I have about 120 in the Honors Program. If Wayne State is like my other schools, that means there are likely to be some Magic players among this population, plus perhaps a few in the general public. It’s been my experience that the more cerebral Magic tends to be played by those with higher grades and such (it is not required, certainly, but it tends to be so).

I wanted to see how many Magic players I had, so I created a flyer. I put a picture of a Serra Angel on it, and then put “Get your Magic On” on the top, and had details about the day in my office to come play. My goal was to create a list of Magic players in the residence hall and then distribute it to them, so they could meet each other and play Magic any time, day or night.

I remember, back in the day, when you had to teach everyone to play, because so few of us did. All of your friends that played BattleTech or Dungeons and Dragons or whatever; you taught them to flip cards. Everybody was a Magic Evangelist back then.

I also remember my first few weeks in college. I knew practically no one at a large state school. Then, one day while walking through my residence hall, I passed by an open door and there was a D&D poster on the wall. I stopped and introduced myself to Damon, who introduced me to others, and through that, I found most of my college friends. If I could do that for some of my residents, over Magic, that would be great.

As part of my Magic Day 2009, one of my RAs swung by my office to learn. She had played a couple of times before, a while back, and had enjoyed herself, but by now she had forgotten the rules. She wanted to try and pick it up.

It took me completely by surprise. I was stumbling. The last time I taught someone how to play Magic, there was still a 19 in front of the date. I normally carried the two Portal starters with me, to help teach, but that was a long way away, and a dozen years ago. I had four decks on me at the time. Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy, my Limited 250, and the decks from Chandra vs Jace. With such limited options, I went with Jace and Chandra, but the cards in that are not good for teaching. There are all of these extraneous abilities like Evoke or Suspend or Cycling that make the game more interesting, but much more difficult. I didn’t even play my creatures with Morph.

We take for granted that Magic is learnable because we learned it. However, I learned it during an era when these were the only keywords in print:

First Strike

Since then, we’ve added haste, vigilance, reach, deathtouch, defender, indestructible, fear/intimidate and double strike to the list. And then we have tons of them in the expansion sets, from flanking to bushido and rampage to echo. Then we add all of the keywords for other cards, like sorceries, lands, and more. We added Equipment, Tribal, Planeswalkers, Arcane, Traps, Snow Mana, Legendary Permanents, and so many other things to the game.

Now yes, some awkward parts are gone. The Damage Prevention step sucked. That was a poorly designed rule. Interrupts are gone. Mana burn is now gone. So sure, a few things got simplified. Yet there can be no doubt that Magic has suffered severe Complexity Creep. The game is much more complex than it was 15 years ago.

And that brings some serious problems. As early as 1997, Wizards saw a need to have a simpler set to introduce new players, and released Portal, the expansion for getting new players interested. That was just three years into the game. Think how far we’ve come since then.

And now, I have to try and help Melanie learn the game. It’s my responsibility as a Magic player to show her how awesome the game is, because the game needs new players. If everybody currently playing the games keeps playing it, and tons of cards are sold, and many sets are made, but no one new is brought to the game, how many more years would Magic have? Five? Ten? Twenty? Thirty? Then it dies out. Then Magic is a thing of the past, and every article I’ve ever written, every game I’ve ever played, every card ever made will fade into time, and become as nothing. My articles will be worthless, and I’ve written too many articles to give it up now.

So yes, I’m happy to teach Melanie how to play Magic, but I didn’t have the decks, and I didn’t have any recent experience at all. I grabbed Jace and Chandra, and gave her Chandra, and we shuffled and began to play, with me explaining the basics along the way.

There were times it was flat out awkward. How do you explain Flame Javelin’s mana cost? Fireball = ick. I remember everyone having a problem with that one when they first learned. How do you deal with Chandra Nalaar herself? Do you really want to play Willbender or Brine Elemental as a morph and then morph them up against someone in her first game? How do I explain suspend on Ancestral Vision?

So we muddled through, but I doubt I was effective. I wasn’t prepared. Then, during my lunch, I grabbed five decks from my massive box of preconstructed decks:

World Aflame
Army of Justice
Custom Creatures
Lofty Heights

This gives me a core set starter at 40 cards each for each color.

7th Edition Decay gives me: An Enchantment with an activated cost (Greed), a creature with an enters-the-battlefield ability (Gravedigger, Dakmor Lancer), A creature with an activated cost (Fallen Angel, Blood Pet, Carrion Rats, etc), mass removal (Carrion Rats), a damage sealing sorcery (Corrupt), an artifact creature (Phyrexian Hulk), a creature with a cheap cost, but a disadvantage (Serpent Warrior), Discard, creature removal (Dark banishing), a shade, regeneration, flying, and that’s it. No more keywords like fear or swampwalk or first strike. You get some basic concepts, instants, sorceries, artifacts, one enchantment, and creatures. It’s a good first deck.

9th Edition Lofty Heights gives me: a creature with a tap ability (Puppeteer, Archivist), flying, creature with an activated ability (Aven Windreader), enchantment (Telepathy), countermagic (Mana Leak), bounce, an aura that steals (Confiscate), and an artifact that taps to deal damage. You get just one, single keyword, and then a few concepts like counters, bounce and card drawing.

9th Edition Custom Creatures gives me: Enchantment aura that also teaches Regeneration, instant artifact/enchantment destruction, an activated ability on a creature (Bottle Gnomes),artifact creature (Bottle Gnomes), CIP ability (Kavu Climber), tap ability (Llanowar Elves), Aura for land (Overgrowth). No trample, forestwalk or anything else.

9th Edition World Aflame gives me: land destruction (Demolish), artifact destruction (Demolish), burn, an X spell (Blaze), mass removal (Wildfire), haste (Magnivore), creatures with different p/t (Magnivore), artifact creature (Dancing Scimitar), CIP (Anarchist). No flying, no firebreathing, no mountainwalk, nothing else.

9th Edition Army of Justice gives me: Enchantment (Glorious Anthem), pumping all creatures (Glorious Anthem), tap ability (Infantry Veteran, Crossbow Infantry), flying, vigilance (Veteran Cavalier), CIP (Venerable Monk), artifact creature (Phyrexian Hulk), damage prevention (Mending Hands), pump (Righteousness), creature removal (Chastise), auras as creature removal (Pacifism). I’m surprised they thought Righteousness was fine here but not Giant Growth for the Green deck.

All of these precons are simple. Yes, you or I might not want to shuffle them and play on a regular basis, but they appeared to me to be good tools to teach the game to a newer player. I know, one of these is not like the other (the 7th edition Decay against four 9th edition decks, but that’s what I could find quickly).

Here are the keywords in the Jace deck: flying, morph, suspend, defender, affinity, scry, evoke

Chandra Deck: haste, flying, affinity, flashback, hellbent, scry, evoke, mountaincycling (some might argue that hellbent is not a true keyword). If you play these two decks against each other, the list gets quite long for a new person. The decks weren’t meant to be played like that. But, if I play Decay vs Custom Creatures, here are the keywords involved in that match:

Flying, regeneration. Two decks, and only two keywords are used. No precon has more than two keywords. They appear to make good teachers.

A few days later, Melanie swings back by for some more magic, and she grabs Custom Creatures and I roll with World Aflame. She wins pretty easily through her beef which I am unable to stop, and I show her techniques like how to double block and when to do it. She keeps her deck and I roll with Decay, and we play a second game.

A week after that, we play for an hour in my office. She starts with the Lofty Heights deck, which she does not like at all while I rock Army of Justice. She ends up decking herself with Archivist and Thieving Magpie. By the end of the game, she has learned a lot of timing rules, plus she can now double block when it works to her advantage.

Our next game is Decay for her versus Custom Creatures for me. I show her the nature of card advantage through the use of cards like Kavu Climber, and Verduran Enchantress, and then talk about her use of Archivist and Thieving Magpie the previous game. In both games, the power of card advantage is demonstrated, and I think she grasps the concept in raw numbers. Later I can show it to her with Wraths and stuff.

Melanie is learning Magic. We probably play for 30 mins to an hour each week, and we have fun. That’s what Magic is all about — spending time with someone and talking to them, asking how their day was, and having fun with your friends or co-workers while also flipping some cards. Magic is a tool to facilitate conversation, communication and camaraderie. It brings us closer together.

It was a little interesting to try and help Melanie learn the game, but it has been so long since I have done it last, that I really look forward to the challenge. Perhaps soon I’ll move to a few other precons. And from there to a few more precons. Perhaps by then she’ll love the game and want to build her own deck, and I can hand her some cards and have her go to town. On the other hand, perhaps it will be nothing more than a pleasant diversion. Who knows, perhaps she’ll will come to love it, play it at tournaments, and become an avid Magic player. However, you want to know something? At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Magic is there for her now, for whatever she wants it to be. It’s enough.

Until later…

Abe Sargent