Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #87: Teaching Magic to New Players with OBSTRAT

Teaching the game is actually pretty easy. Just buy them a precon, or give them a deck made out of draft leavings with some land mixed in. Then pull out your best deck – for me, that’s my Keeper with the foreign foils, but an Illusionary Mask/Volrath’s Shapeshifter deck works just as well – and beat them to pieces a dozen times in a row. They’ll be really impressed with the game when they see how hopeless their position is, and how complex the interactions are, especially with the errata.

Remember to play fast – you want to really impress them with your skillz. Nothing makes people more interested than watching someone do something complex and repetitive while not understanding what is actually happening.

This is actually pretty easy. Just buy them a precon, or give them a deck made out of draft leavings with some land mixed in. Then pull out your best deck – for me, that’s my Keeper with the foreign foils, but an Illusionary Mask/Volrath’s Shapeshifter deck works just as well – and beat them to pieces a dozen times in a row. They’ll be really impressed with the game when they see how hopeless their position is, and how complex the interactions are, especially with the errata.

Remember to play fast – you want to really impress them with your skillz. Nothing makes people more interested than watching someone do something complex and repetitive while not understanding what is actually happening.

That’s why calculus is such a great spectator sport.

For those handful of people still reading, yes, this is an article about teaching new players. For the tourney players, however, I included some Extended strategy. Scroll down to OBSTRAT. You don’t have to read the rest of the article now, just bookmark it for when you finally get a girlfriend who asks you to teach her”that game you play.”

It’s not impossible. At least, not for most of you.

To teach Magic, you need to do some preparation, and you want to do this in advance. (Watching someone build decks, and write lists, is boring.) You want to build three or four decks. You also want to write out some cheat sheets. Actually, I print these out – my handwriting is terrible.

The first cheat sheet covers the parts of the turn. Set this next to the new player’s deck, so they can read it. More importantly, during your turn, announce each step as you take it. (This is really hard to remember to do, but it is important. New players gets confused enough without you skipping steps.)

Here’s the first cheat sheet

  • Untap

  • Upkeep Effects

  • Draw your Card

  • First Main Phase (cast creatures, sorceries, etc.)

  • Combat

a. declare combat

b. declare attackers

c. declare blockers

d. assign damage

e. damage happens

f. finish combat

  • Second Main Phase (cast creatures, sorceries, etc.)

  • End Step

  • do end of turn stuff

  • cleanup

These are not the exact rulebook wordings, but they should get the point across. You are going to have to explain these a bit, too. Do that before playing, while the newbie reads the cheat sheet. The cheat sheet is just a reminder.

A second cheat sheet worth preparing, although it won’t get used immediately, covers protection:

Protection from {something} (e.g. protection from Artifacts.)

Think DEBT – Damage, Enchantments, Blocking, Targeting

  • Does not take damage from a thing like that

  • Cannot be Enchanted by an enchantment like that

  • Cannot be blocked by a thing like that, although it can block a thing like that

  • Cannot be targeted by a thing like that

Before playing, you need to define some basic terms, like

  • library, hand, graveyard

  • life total, start at 20, dead at zero

  • Land, creature, spell

  • casting cost

  • how to cast a spell

  • summoning sickness

  • tapping something means you have used it (tapping lands, tapping creatures)

  • combat, attacking, blocking, blocking with multiple creatures, dead creatures

  • unblocked attackers do damage to the player

Don’t explain things that you don’t need to. New players playing beatdown decks don’t need to know that you can lose to decking, poison counters, or misregistering a deck, so don’t tell them. Keep it simple. If they really get into Magic, you can teach them that stuff later.

Now, onto the decks. Ingrid and I have built several, roughly equal decks, to use when teaching our friends to play the game. We switch the decks around during play. We have found that two-color decks seem to work well, since you can mix in creatures, removal and other types of cards.

For the first few games, we play decks of about thirty cards, with a mix of creatures and sorceries. Creatures with simple comes-into-play abilities, like Gravedigger, Hunting Moa, Flametongue Kavu, and Angel of Mercy are great, as are cantrips. Evasion creatures (flying, unblockable, fear) are great, but don’t include Trample, First Strike, Banding, Regeneration, Doublestrike, etc. at the start. As for sorceries, go for simple discard, burn and sorcery speed bounce in decks of those colors. Sorceries like Rampant Growth and Zombify are also worth including – just make sure the rules text is simple, straightforward, and the card does not have errata. Make sure you include enough land, and throw is some two color lands or Talismans as appropriate.

Make sure the decks are balanced. Each deck should have some removal, some decent creatures, some evasion, etc. It also helps to stay roughly within the color wheel. The creatures should be reasonably sized and costed – generally in the 1/1 to 3/3 range.

Use these decks to teach how to play lands, cast spells, attack and block. Cast your creatures during the first main phase – you will teach the how and why of combat tricks later, and can explain bluffing and second main phase then.

If you have an extra friend around, take turns with one of you as opponent, one as advisor. When Ingrid and I teach someone, one of us is the opponent, the other answers questions and gives advice – just limit the advice, don’t play the deck for them. We generally play the first couple games with our hands revealed, and talk about the decisions – especially the opponent’s decisions.

If you are teaching one on one, play at least the first games with both yours hands revealed. Make sure your explain the decisions you make for everything you do on your turn, especially choices like whether to attack, or which card to cast. Statements like”I cannot attack, because you could block like this…” are a great teaching tool.

For the first games, if the new player draws a bad hand, tell them why it’s bad, then have them shuffle and draw seven new cards. You can tell them about mulligan, but teach them how to mulligan later.

Tell them to ask if they have any questions – even questions like”Should I attack?” Don’t just answer”yes,” explain why they should or should not. The purpose is not to win, it is to teach the game.

Once the new player is comfortable with casting spells, attacking, blocking and so forth, then you want to add some new cards to the decks.

The next thing to add is combat-affecting Instants, like Giant Growth, Shock, Terror, and some damage prevention, like Embolden. I initially wanted to include some instant-speed creature abilities at this point as well, but Ingrid argued that instants are enough, at first. She is right. So we add three instants and two land to each deck. I keep these piles off to one side during the first games, then show the new player all the cards I am adding to both decks and explain what each card does. We also explain the basics rules for instants and abilities that can be used as instants at this point, and the basics of the stack. Then we shuffle the decks and play some more. (At this point, we are not playing with our hands revealed.)

We let the next game start as usual, but the first time combat could be influenced, we stop to explain what things the attacker has to consider. (e.g.”I could attack here, but if you have Giant Growth, you could make your creature big and kill mine.”) The next time the new player tries to cast a creature during his/her first main phase, I – or the advisor – then explains why good players attack first and cast creatures during the second main phase. (Put simply, if you have cards in hand and mana free, you may have a trick. No cards and/or no mana equals no tricks.) We stress that, even if they don’t have a pump card in hand, they can bluff.

I like to show the new player the first combat-affecting instant I draw, like Shock or Terror, and explain that I could cast it now, but then go on to explain why I should wait. After that, I can explain attacking and blocking options, and remind them that they know I have the Shock in hand, and to take that into account.

Keep changing decks around, so the games don’t get too stale. It is often a good idea to give the new player the deck you just played, so they can try the combat tricks you just used.

The next cards to add are some creatures with combat-affecting abilities, like Bottle Gnomes, Shock Troops, Alabaster Wall, Stinging Barrier, Nantuko Disciple, etc – plus an appropriate amount of land. When you show and discuss these cards prior to adding them to the deck, explain how they can affect combat. Remember to explain that creatures can block, then use tap abilities – and the block still happens and the creature still deals damage. Don’t start the explanations with combat tricks, however – start simple. For example, first explain that Shock Troops can be sacrificed to kill a little guy. Then, once that’s clear, introduce the concept that they can block, put damage on the stack and then kill something else. That’s actually pretty sophisticated, and something newbies have a lot of trouble with and questions about.

Combat is tricky, so do some explaining, but let them make their own decisions. However, if I decide not to attack, because of some card or ability they have may have, I explain that. It is obvious to good players why you don’t attack with Grizzly Bears into a Bottle Gnomes and active Nantuko Disciple (go ahead, look it up) but you want to explain it to the new player at least once. Part of teaching is making sure that you see what they see.

The next thing to introduce are counterspells and pure card drawing spells. It is probably worthwhile to have a separate counterspell deck built, instead of trying to add counters to the previous decks. Use counters, cards like Exclude, maybe Accumulated Knowledge, Impulse, Brainstorm, Glacial Wall, and one or two medium fliers, like Air Elemental. Let the new player play the Blue counterspell deck, while you play one of the decks they are familiar with. Talk to them about keeping counterspell mana open and playing instants at the end of your turn. Don’t bother playing around counterspells, at least at first. Let them counter the first few spells, until they understand what countering a spell does. Let them get the concept of a spell being countered firmly in play before you start talking about strategy a lot.

Finally, add creature enchantments, like Pacifism, Control Magic, and so forth, and Equipment to the original decks. At the same time, add a bit of enchantment and artifact removal and an appropriate amount of land. Just make sure you don’t add stuff the unbalances these decks. Bonesplitter and Leonin Scimitar are fine, but Loxodon Warhammer may be a bit too good for these decks.

It may seem strange to add creature enchantments and Equipment this late in the process, but there is a reason. You have to teach countering first, because the new player need to understand how to counter an enchantment or Equipment activation by removing the target. The concept of removing an enchantment’s target before the enchantment resolves is pretty sophisticated. At first, I tried to include these in the initial deck, but I kept finding that I had to explain too much to fast.

When they are ready, you can add concepts like Haste, Trample, Lure, mana creatures (avoid these until you have taught instants), First Strike and Protection. Protection is complex, so try adding some simple cards, like Shelter, to a White deck and let them play it for a while. Any time you introduce new mechanics, explain them carefully. If you don’t, you know the newbie is going to have a counterspell ready the first time you try to cycle a card. And take your time. The newbie is going to be trying to learn a lot, in a short period of time. Don’t push.

At some point, the new player is going to get a bit overwhelmed, and look a bit glazed. Before they get to burned out, I hand them a pure fun deck, and let them play that against whatever deck I have. Generally, I offer something like this:

4 Llanowar Elves

4 Fyndhorn Elves

4 Priest of Titania

4 Emperor Crocodile

2 Ancient Silverback

1 Verdant Force

1 Silvos, Rogue Elemental

2 Naturalize

2 card drawing – Collective Unconscious, Slate of Ancestry or Jayemdae Tome

2 Rancor

2 Overrun

2 Gaea’s Cradle

12 Forests

I’d keep playing the deck I have in hand and expect to get crushed pretty quickly. It’s kinda fun to play a blow-out deck at times, and after the new player smashes face with that, it’s generally a good idea to take a break for food or whatnot. Letting them go nuts and win big is a pretty good way of getting them back for more games, later on.


Years ago, the MTG-Strategy distro list had a rule that any post must contain some strategy – so if you wanted to complain about something, you had to append some strategy to make the post worthwhile. That strategy add-on was to be headed with the term”OBSTRAT.” Basically, OBSTRAT meant”start reading here.” So here’s some OBSTRAT.

The Rock is clearly a tier one deck in the post-bannings field. The core of the deck (Birds, Elders, Vampiric Tutors, Cabal Therapy, Pernicious Deed, Treetop Village, Llanowar Wastes, Wall of Roots, at least one Ravenous Baloth, etc.) is pretty well known. What is interesting is the last dozen or so cards that fill out the deck, and the removal cards. I want to talk about those.

First, here are links seven rock decks that did well in post-banning PTQs:

Pete Hoefling, T2, Charlotte (way to go, Pete!)

Berkely Gyder, T4, Charlotte

Adam Bernstien, T8, Houston

Marshall Arthurs, Winner, Butler, PA

Aaron Cutlers, T4, Butler, PA

Ward Warren, T8, Butler, PA (actually a Pattern deck, not Rock)

James Staley, T8, Butler (Rock world), PA

The removal mix varied. Pete Hoefling ran four Chainer’s Edicts. Arthurs ran four Terminate. Bernstein and Staley ran Smothers. Cutler ran one Smother, one Chainer’s Edict and one Diabolic Edict. All have some advantages and disadvantages.

The Edicts are not targeted, meaning that they are more likely to kill a spare Bird or Goblin than a serious threat. Chainer’s Edict is also a sorcery, with the disadvantage that you cannot float mana after an Upheaval to kill a recast Tog. Pete Hoefling deck coupled them with Phyrexian Plaguelords, however, which allowed him to kill Birds and Elves by sacrificing Ravenous Rats and Walls. That combination made it much more likely that a Chainer’s Edict would hit something useful.

Smother will kill Psychatog, Waterfront Bouncer, Slith Firewalker and many other common creatures, but it cannot kill Ravenous Baloths and so forth. Terminate can kill anything, at instant speed and for two mana, but it requires a third color, which is pretty bad if you hit decks with Wastelands and other LD elements. However, if you are going to face a lot of mirror matches, a card that can kill a Spiritmonger or Visara dead is worth considering.

I thought about discussing the optional cards individually, but that gets boring quickly. I’ll discuss match-ups instead.


The card you most want to resolve here is Haunting Echoes, and a few decks have run that maindeck. Withered Wretch is also solid against Tog, and you can often bait counters out with Elders to get Wretch to resolve. Back in the old Invasion / Odyssey Type Two days, Ravenous Rats were good against Tog, and may still work okay. Phyrexian Negator can also work to outrun Tog, but that plan can backfire if they are running Fire / Ice.

U/G Madness

Echoes is good against U/G Madness, but Withered Wretch is better. If you can resolve a Wretch early, you can stop Wonder, and Roar of the Wurm or Deep Analysis pitched to Wild Mongrels. Careful Study is the only method of using Roar and Analysis with Wretch in play (the active player gets priority first, and can get the spell on the stack before Wretch can target it.) Visara can be great once it becomes active, but Waterfront Bouncer can be a pain, and Gilded Drake can ruin your whole day if you cannot have Visara kill herself in response.

Phyrexian Plaguelord is an excellent answer to Bouncers. Plaguebearer is great against Bouncers and especially tokens, but it is not good enough against anything else to make the sideboard unless you expect a lot of U/G. A more reasonable option is Bone Shredder, whose Echo prevents stealing via Gilded Drake, but which can kill a Wurm and block others via flying.

Mirror Match

Spiritmonger is good in the mirror match. (You Deed during your opponent’s end step to tap their Monger, then beat down with yours.) Terminate kills Spiritmonger – that might be enough to justify the Red splash. Genesis provides card advantage (especially when regrowing Yavimaya Elder). Withered Wretch can get rid of an opponent’s Genesis. Phyrexian Plaguelord can also take out a Spiritmonger, at the cost of the Plaguelord and two other creatures. Haunting Echoes can be game breaking.

Red Dreck Wins

Wall of Roots and Ravenous Baloths are solid, and Baloth recursion via Genesis is really, really good. Engineered Plague can be a wrecking ball or a whiff, depending on their draws. The Plague can be set to kill Grim Lavamancers, Blistering Firecats or even Jackal Pups, but it is only good if you catch them with those cards in hand or in play. Flametongue Kavus can be good if you are running the Red splash, but the Wastelands and Rishadan Ports in RDW can really mess with your mana. Plaguelord is great, if you live long enough to get it into play, since it allows Walls to block a creature, and then kill a Firecat.

Mono-Green Beats

I first mentioned the Elves! in my article a few weeks ago, and it has done well in some PTQs recently (including winning in Madison last Saturday.) Perish shines against this deck, as does Phyrexian Plaguelord, which can kill off their Masticores. Watch out for their sideboard cards: Kamahl can turn all your lands into creatures, meaning that a Deed can kill a lot more than you might expect. This is probably the only other match-up where Plaguebearer can work, provided it doesn’t die to a Masticore. Massacre and Infest are also good. Dustbowl can work, but only if you can slow up the fast starts Elves!! can produce. Finally, Naturalize, Nantuko Vigilante, or Uktabi Orangutan can help against their Slates of Ancestry – if you don’t kill them, the game can rapidly get out of hand.


Hardly Tier one, but I played against two mono-Blue LD decks last weekend. Discard and Deed hurt them a lot, as do early Birds and Naturalize. Naturalize kills either the Ankh of Mishra or the Parallax Tide, as well as Isochron Scepter. Just watch out for Stifle – Stifling the Deed is bad, but Stifling the”return lands” trigger when Parallax Tide leaves play is brutal. (My opponent imprinted Stifle on the Scepter the turn before the Tide would leave play. I Tutored for Naturalize during my upkeep and avoided that problem.)

Twiddle/Desire, Aluren and so forth:

A couple Naturalizes is always good to have, since instant speed disenchant effects can kill Gilded Lotus, Goblin Charbelcher, Aluren, Ensnaring Bridge, and even Tangle Wire.

A few random comments: I like the three-color build, unless you expect a lot of RDW or U/G madness. If those decks can get a fast start, lack of the right colored mana can waste too much time. Genesis seems to belong maindeck – it is only a liability versus Gilded Drake, and Cabal Therapy or Phyrexian Plaguelord can solve that problem.

Living Death was long a standard in these decks, but that was because it could beat mono-Blue control. In the current metagame, mono-Blue counter decks are gone and nearly all decks run creatures, so the reversal effect of Living Death is not as useful. Pernicious Deed can do nearly everything, in terms of board sweeping, that Living Death can do. It only shines in Tog, and if you can resolve a five-mana sorcery against Tog, it should be Haunting Echoes, not Living Death.

Damping Matrix is pretty good in the Red splash version, since FTKs still function, and it can become a beatdown version. For other Rock decks, a Nantuko Vigilante in the sideboard can still kill Damping Matrix, since you can still flip morph creatures face up under Matrix, and the triggered disenchant ability still kills the Matrix. Nantuko Vigilante is also a good Living Wish target if sideboard space is tight – it can kill both artifacts (Ensnaring Bridge) and enchantments, and it beats for three.

Final note: I once ran a Rock deck with Utopia Trees in place of Wall of Blossoms (in a metagame that had no beatdown players), and added Armageddon. Being able to smash land bases was key. With Deed in the deck, however, Kamahl, Fist of Krosa can do the same thing. Beyond that, Spike Weaver, Uktabi Orangutan, Thrull Surgeon and many other old G/B Survival alumni see sideboard play, but lean toward the control match-up cards in the sideboard slots devoted to Wish targets. Living Wish is pretty slow against decks like RDW, U/G Madness and Goblins (yes, it still exists.)