I’ve spent the last week here in sunny California, spending time with some old friends over the Thanksgiving holidays. They’re gamers themselves, and we’ve spent a lot of time playing games – Rock Band, Munchkin, Illuminati – but not so much Magic. Since I’ve been itching to play with actual cards for the last couple of weeks, it got me thinking about teaching them how to play.
As regular readers of this column will know, I learned to play Magic from the original Portal two-player introductory set. While Portal Magic is a far cry from the complex, complicated, involved game that we know and love, there are a lot of things that I think Portal does right in terms of bringing players into the game. Over the years, I’ve developed what I think is a pretty good line from where Portal starts through to a basic understanding of Magic that is more than enough to let a novice play casually… or probably in Friday Night Magic.
Phase One: The Portal Into Magic
I always keep two decks and a stack of additional cards available for teaching Magic. The starting decks have a lot of Portal cards, as well as some more basic cards, from base sets or other expansions. The criteria that I set for cards in the initial decks is: only vanilla creatures or creatures with flying as their only ability; only basic lands; no sorceries with weird timing or other conditions. That last one may seem weird, but it’s because Portal had cards listed as “sorceries” that were actually instants (and are listed as such now in Gatherer) like Mystic Denial. Portal definitely played fast and loose with the commonly-accepted definition of “sorcery.” I also try to stay away from Portal cards that use the Portal-only wording of “intercept.”
I split the colors between the two decks and try to pick cards that are indicative of the “feel” of each color. They could be looked at as nothing more than glorified draft decks, since I built them as forty-card decks with a mana curve and a spell-to-creature ratio that would perform well in a draft deck. Here are my current starting decks:
Goblin Sky Raider
Mass of Ghouls
Blade of the Sixth Pride
Black gets the short shrift and plays “support” color for both of the decks; I don’t have a problem with that since I think a lot of times we see Black in a support role.
I usually start by laying out the decks and explaining the three types of cards that we’re working with. In these decks, it’s very easy to see the differences between the card types – the lands have the giant mana symbol at the bottom, the creatures have power and toughness, and everything else is a sorcery. I explain the “one land per turn” rule and mana costs, and how the one land per turn limits what you are able to do in any given turn. I explain power and toughness on creatures, as well as “summoning sickness.” Is it still called that? Anyway -with that information, usually I then start with shuffling up the cards and playing a sample game, because the only other thing that needs to be taught in this section is how combat works.
Combat is best taught inside of a game. After one of the players has played out a creature, even if there’s no other creature on the other side, I explain attacking. It’s vital to the game and, with these decks, the only way either of the players can achieve victory. Once a blocker comes into the equation, I explain the rest of the combat step (declaring blockers) and how creature damage works on other creatures.
This is one time when teaching someone M10 Rules is easiest from the very beginning, and you can teach them how to order blockers before they have it stuck in their mind to divide damage.
At this time, I think it’s okay to play a couple of games, but the decks are simplistic enough that I usually move on if I think my new player is getting a little bored. Let’s face it, vanilla creatures are called ‘vanilla’ for a reason.
Phase Two: Evergreen Abilities
I separate out evergreen abilities into its own section because I think it’s so critical to teach new players how to evaluate cards early. It gets them a step into building their own decks, which is one of the things that new players will love about the game. I explain the different abilities and how they impact the game, and then let them choose which of the new cards they’d like to play with… and which ones come out of their deck.
I stick with the following evergreen abilities, as they are easy to explain in both flavorful terms, as well as in game terms: haste, first strike, protection, shroud, vigilance, defender, reach, and intimidate. (That slot used to be devoted to fear, but since it seems that Wizards is shifting towards intimidate, I started including Bladetusk Boar in the selection. I usually gloss over the artifact creature portion of the ability until the next section.)
Raging Goblin, Wild Colos
Ekundu Griffin, Halberdier
Duskrider Falcon, Karoo Meerkat
Deadly Insect, Humble Budoka
Ardent Militia, Bay Falcon
Intimidate and Fear
Bladetusk Boar, Severed Legion
Wall of Wood, Wall of Swords
Canopy Spider, Cloudcrown Oak
Combo guys like Skyhunter Patrol and Ambush Party are crucial to understanding card value and mana cost impact of these abilities. Why is Ekundu Griffin a 2/2 flying first-striker for 3W, while Skyhunter Patrol is a 2/3 flying first-striker for 2WW? Why is Halberdier a 3/1 first-striker for 3R, and Ambush Party is a hasty first-striker for 4R?
After a few more games with these new altered decks, I move on to introducing more card types.
Phase Three: Enchantments and Auras, Artifacts and Equipment
I explain both of the other permanent types in one go. This pattern of teaching Magic was developed before Planeswalkers existed, so they aren’t included – and while they ARE easy to understand (since their abilities are all at sorcery speed), I think I would reserve teaching Planeswalkers until the very end, since it’s important to understand how to attack them and that damage can be redirected to them. And I’d want to wait until I have access to more methods to handle them as well, so I’d teach them at the very end. (I do think that it’s necessary to teach them, since they have become a pretty common occurrence in Constructed Magic.)
To the novice player, artifacts and enchantments may seem very similar. They both remain on the battlefield and influence the game, but they aren’t creatures. (Usually.) Thankfully there’s a good flavorful reason that you can use to explain the difference: Enchantments are more magical, and artifacts are more machinelike. This also makes explaining artifact creatures a lot easier, since they’re just mechanical representations of creatures. (Usually.)
This is also the time to explain the difference between Auras and Equipment. Again, this one is so straightforward from a flavor perspective that it’s easiest to just stick with that: auras are magical enhancements that end when the creature dies, but a sword would just sit around, waiting for the next soldier to come along and pick it up.
Telepathy, Knighthood, Crosswinds, Flowstone Surge, Warped Devotion
Pacifism, Mind Control, Unholy Strength, Bloodshed Fever, Frog Tongue
Alpha Myr, Dragon’s Claw, Angel’s Feather, Dancing Scimitar
Leonin Blade, Bonesplitter, Lightning Greaves, Neurok Hoversail
I also like the auras with “extra” givebacks to the caster from Ravnica, like Faith’s Fetters and Flight of Fancy. I know that it involves triggered abilities, but we’re getting to the stack next, and there’s no way to respond to them yet anyways. Same goes for the charms like Dragon’s Claw.
Phase Four: The Stack and Instants
At this point, the game is still pretty simple. You take your turn, play your spells, make an attack, and then your opponent goes. I’m not going to say it’s like glorified Pokemon, but … it’s kinda like glorified Pokemon. Your only chance to interact with the other side is in combat. But they have to have the fundamentals down here, or else everything about the stack will confuse everything else that’s going on. You want your new player to completely understand combat and the permanent types before moving on to this; if it takes a few games (and some more card choice switches), then so be it.
I teach the stack visually, because I think it’s easier for a new player if they can SEE what is happening on the stack. And, at this point, you still don’t have triggered or activated abilities that can’t be represented by a card. I use Giant Growth and Lightning Bolt because they’re the perfect way to explain both the ORDER in which things resolve, as well as HOW that order can have completely different results – if I Lightning Bolt your guy and you then make him bigger with Giant Growth, my Lightning Bolt is effectively useless; but if you go to supersize your guy and I get to him a Lightning Bolt first, he’s crispy-fried before he gets the power boost.
Again, I try and pull out iconic instants to really hammer home each color’s flavor.
Phase Five: Activated and Triggered Abilities
Once your new player has a pretty good grasp of the stack and how instants interact with one another, the last thing I teach is activated and triggered abilities. I tend to stick with comes-into-play creatures (sorry, “enters the battlefield”) and creatures with tap abilities, as I think the one-shot abilities lend themselves to quick understanding without complicating putting mulitple activations on the stack.
Phase Six: Kitchen Sink
At this point, your new player should have a solid understanding of enough of the fundamentals of the game to start poking through your leftovers and trying to build a deck all on their own. You can now introduce them confidently to enchantments with activated abilities like Mobilization, or artifacts with triggered abilities like the Modular guys, or whatever. As I mentioned earlier, Planeswalkers should go in here as well. This is also the spot where you go over deck construction rules with them, paying special attention to any format-specific rules that they might play.
Then … give them a box of commons and uncommons from recent sets and let them have at it! Give them a box and a week, and get together again with them after that to see what they’ve built! Who knows – you may refind your own spark from that early stage of learning the game!
Until next week…
dave dot massive at gmail and davemassive at facebook and twitter