To Teach Their Own

Posted in Feature on June 18, 2012

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

In two days, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 gets released to the world. It will be released on the Xbox, the Playstation, the PC through Steam, and, for the first time, on the iPad. I'm quite excited because I believe that Duels of the Planeswalkers is one of the best things to happen to Magic. The biggest reason is that it helps solve what I consider to be Magic's greatest flaw—it's high barrier to entry. What I mean by that is that Magic is hard to learn. Today I want to walk you through why this is true and then explain how you, an existing Magic player, can best teach a new person how to play. Finally, I'll show you why Duels is such a great teacher.

"Math Is Hard"

So let's say you have friends who've never played Magic but want to learn. Your friends turn to you as a Magic player to teach the game. I want to begin by exploring the many ways this could go wrong. What are the biggest reasons a Magic lesson goes awry?

#1—The New Players Get Overwhelmed

Magic is an ever-growing, ever-evolving game that next year will celebrate its twentieth anniversary. We have printed more than 12,000 unique cards. Our rulebook is 36 pages long. Wait, that's the basic rulebook. The comprehensive rulebook is 195 pages long. But wait, that's just the overall rules. If you wanted a full list of all the rulings for every card that has ever been released, that document ,if printed out on 8½" x 11" paper, is larger than multiple phone books. And that doesn't even get into things like tournament rules. Magic is a deep, deep rabbit hole. That's exciting if you want to explore it, but very scary when you first approach the game.

Explore | Art by John Avon

Most players who approach Magic don't know much but they do know there's a lot to learn. If they're being introduced by you, a Magic player, that means at bare minimum they know about the game through you. Players, once invested, seem to revel in the grandness of the scope that Magic provides, but this means you've probably made a lot of little comments over the months or years and they add up. Many people walk into a Magic teaching session already on the defensive. If they get overwhelmed, it kicks in this previous notion that the game is too hard to learn and they quit.

#2—The New Players Aren't Having Fun

The new players are excited to learn and you are excited to teach them. The game begins and you are intervening constantly to make sure they are keeping track of all the things that are going on. You make sure they understand their choices and the strategies needed to pick which one is the correct move. Because they are trying to learn, the new players soak up everything you are saying to them. Finally, the game ends. You ask them if they want to play another game? They say no. You ask why not? They say they didn't enjoy themselves. Maybe this game just isn't for them.

#3—The New Players Are Confused

Let's say the new players stick in there and try absorbing everything being thrown at them. They embrace the game's complexity and are working hard to try and get it. The first game ends and they don't know what is going on but they stick with it. Perhaps the session is two or three or four games. At the end of it all, they say thanks and then inform you this game isn't for them. Why? Because they still don't get it. They tried, they really tried, but the game is just too hard for them.

These three scenarios cover what I consider to be the three biggest mistakes made when teaching the game. I will now explain how to lessen the chances of each of these happening:

Lesson #1: Teach As Little As Possible

Let's start by getting a few important things out of the way. What is your number-one goal for the end of the first lesson? Wanting them to play a second game. That's it. No goal is more important than that one because if you don't succeed, odds are they will never play Magic again.

Simplify | Art by Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

What is important to teach them in their first game? Just enough that they can play what feels to them (not you, and that's important) like a game. Ideally, you want a little action, a little give and take, and them doing enough that they feel they were playing the game as opposed to watching you play. That's it.

So what do you have to teach them in Game 1? As little as needed to do what I explained up above. Is there anything you must absolutely teach them? No. If you can get through a game with them not understanding what you think are key components, great. Obviously, you'll teach them something. The lesson I'm trying to stress is that you needn't worry that you get to everything.

Usually, if you're teaching, you want to make decks specifically to teach. For these decks, I recommend the following recipe: a few exciting flavorful cards (they can be a little complex but not something that can't easily be explained in normal descriptive talk) and lots of simple support cards. Why not the absolute simplest cards? Because getting them excited is more important than them understanding everything.

Thraben Purebloods

Use cards that are straight forward but also have a little excitement.

Once we begin, I like to start by shuffling the decks and starting the game before I explain anything (this is after you let them handle the cards, but I'll get to that in a second). The reason for this is pretty simple. People are more receptive to learning when they are involved. Getting them into the game first means they are better prepared to get invested. "Okay, it's your turn. Here's what you have to do."

As you start playing, have all the hands face up. Explain that normally players don't see each other's hands but you're going to do this to teach. Whenever there is a decision to be made, first let the new player make the decision. The more they are affecting the game, the quicker they will pick it up. Once again, human nature makes humans prioritize things involving them. If they are apprehensive, give them more information to make the decision—although keep the information light. If they are still having a problem, make the decision for them. Keep the momentum of the game going.

Your job, by the way, is not to win the game but make the game play out as interestingly as possible. That doesn't mean just letting them win. It means making the best possible game experience for them. Whenever possible make sure your actions impact the new players. You want to create involvement between the two of you. The first game is all about investment for the new players. Keep them involved.

Lesson #2: Above All Else, Make The Game Fun

I cannot stress this following point enough: If a person doesn't enjoy a game the first time he or she play it, odds are that person will never play it again. People are willing to give new things a chance, but once they reject something once, it's hard to get them to try again. That is why it is crucial that you do everything you can to make the first play experience positive.

Mentor of the Meek | Art by Jana Schirmer & Johannes Voss

The corollary to the above point is the following: the most important thing you have to do when teaching Magic is make the first game fun. It's not conveying the rules. It's not making sure they "get it." It's not explaining strategy. The first game has to be about showing off the fun of the game. Now, what that fun is can vary greatly. You, the teacher, have to figure out what your student is enjoying and then move your lesson in that direction.

To explain, let me tell a story from my television-writing days. I just landed an agent and she sent me out on pitches to try and sell a script. (This series of pitches would lead to the "Roseanne" pitch.) One of my first pitches was to the show Home Improvement. For those unaware, Home Improvement was a family sit-com centered around the then stand-up comedian Tim Allen. When I pitched the show, it had just started, so there had only been about four or five episodes aired.

I prepared my ten pitches (basically, my ideas for different episodes I was trying to sell them), all of which were about Tim Allen, the star of show and who every episode I had ever seen had been about. Less than a minute into my first pitch, I was stopped by the head writer, who asked if I had any episodes about Jill, the wife. Now, I didn't, because no one had told me that's what they wanted and none of the aired episodes hinted at the show moving in that direction. But I recognized that's what they wanted, so I pitched ten shows about Jill, warping every idea I had to play up her role.

I bring this story up because teaching new players is much like pitching a script. You are trying to sell them something. That means you have to listen to them and pick up on what they are looking for in the game. The key to doing this is to focus on what they are doing. It's very easy when teaching to get in a zone and phase out your students. This is dangerous in any teaching situation but especially problematic here. Your students will give you hints about what interests them. You just have to pay enough attention to pick them up.

Here's a few tips:

Don't Rush

As long as your student is interested, time is irrelevant. Taking your time will do a number of important things. First, it keeps the person from feeling pressured. A big part of feeling overwhelmed is the sense that you are not keeping up. By slowing down, you lessen that fear. Second, going slow will allow you to pick up on what your student is enjoying. Third, when teaching, you want to focus on one thing at a time. The human brain works best when it can focus on a single task. Play to this strength and you will make your student's ability to learn much easier.

Alchemist's Apprentice | Art by David Palumbo

Get The Cards Into Their Hands Early

In the art of the pitch, you always want to play to the strength of the item you are selling. With Magic, one of the biggest strengths is the flavor. Magic cards have gorgeous art and fun names and fanciful flavor text. Before you rush into teaching, let the player have the fun of visually exploring the cards. It will get the player more invested and it will lead right into the next point.

Let Them Ask Questions

A lot of teaching is about keeping the students invested. Once again, we can play into human nature. You know what people think is interesting? Things that they bring up. Make sure your students have the chance to ask questions, because you answering their questions is ideal. It allows you to introduce information in a way your students are most invested to listen to. Those are their questions. They want to hear the answers.

Increasing Devotion | Art by Daniel Ljunggren

Make The Game About What They Are Interested In

Allow your students to pick their focuses and then you follow them. If they are excited to attack, don't inform them why it's not advantageous—let them attack. If they are intrigued by a certain mechanic, focus on that mechanic. If they love knocking down your life total, let them do that. Just remember, the first game isn't about them learning everything they need to learn. It is about them getting invested in the game. If they want to play again, there will be more chances for education. If they don't want to play again, what does it matter how much they learned?

Have Fun Yourself

When pitching, the most important rule is to be enthusiastic. If you want someone to love your story, you have to love it first. That same rule applies here. If you want your student to have fun, you have to have fun. The best way to demonstrate that Magic is fun is by actively enjoying it in front of someone. Just make sure your enjoyment isn't pulling you away from the more important task of making sure your student is having fun.

If the first game ends and your student is interested in playing again, you have made a crucial start to that person learning to play.

Lesson #3—New Information Has To Be Carefully Ordered

Most games tend to start from a similar point. Every Monopoly game has you rolling dice at Go. Chess always starts with the same arrangement of pieces. Dominion has you begin with the same ten cards. Magic doesn't really do that. For starters, the game has thousands of cards the players select from before they even begin. This means the pieces themselves change from game to game. The order of the cards you receive is random. The evolution of your mana, which dictates how you play, varies from game to game. In short, Magic is atypical. The reason this matters is that it is very hard to teach someone when every time you play, the experience differs so radically.

Call to Mind | Art by Terese Nielsen

Let's jump back to the human brain for a second. The human brain is a pretty amazing thing. It has the ability to absorb a humongous amount of information, but, and this is important, the brain still needs to hook information together to process it. I've talked about this concept before. It's something known as chunking. In order to speed up its learning, the brain needs to connect related things together. The reason is because the brain isn't good at concentrating on a lot of different pieces of information at the same time. It's one of the brain's weaknesses. So what does the brain do to compensate? It connects different pieces of information together to make it seem like less information.

For example, let's say I wanted you to remember ten numbers in order. The numbers are 2, 3, 7, 6, 2, 4, 8, 5, 0, 2. If you try and remember this as ten separate numbers, you're going to have trouble. Now, there are a bunch of tricks to help. First, you could turn the ten numbers into one number—2,376,248,502. That's a little easier but still hard. The easiest way for the brain is to break it up into three- and four-digit chunks. For example, (237) 624-8502. (For the non-Americans reading, this is how US telephone numbers are written.)

The reason I bring up chunking is that when teaching (anything really, but let's stick to Magic) you have to present your information in a way the students can chunk it together. Each piece has to be connected to things you've just taught them or that they already know. The reason this can be problematic when teaching Magic is that the information you are teaching comes up in a different order each game. This means that it's very easy to teach something new that is dependent upon something you haven't taught them yet.

Awakening Zone | Art by Johann Bodin

I've watched my share of Magic players teaching others and it almost always involves the phrase, "Oh wait, I forgot to tell you about...." This is yet another reason why going slow is important. You need to make sure your student is always caught up with the information. One of the tricks teachers use is to ask questions (see above). The fastest way to see if someone understands something is to have them explain it to you.

This also reinforces another rule from up above—teach the students as little as possible to allow them to play in each moment. There is a lot to process in a new game and Magic has more to process than most games. This means you shouldn't fill their heads with anything they absolutely, positively don't need to know. Also, always make sure they've comprehended what you said before you move on to the next piece of information. Ideally, as you're teaching them as you play, new information only comes up when it becomes relevant.

Finally, one last chunking trick. Connecting new information to old information creates the strongest chunks. People feel confident in what they already know, so if you can help them make the connections between old and new, learning will go faster. This is why metaphors, for example, are such a powerful teaching tool. Don't shy away from using things they know—games in particular since they're learning a game—to compare and explain.

Duel on the Hill

Now that I've walked you through the biggest pitfalls of teaching Magic, let's examine why Duels of the Planeswalkers does the job so well.

#1 The New Player Gets Overwhelmed

The key to preventing this problem is going at the proper pace for the person learning. When a person teaches, it's the teacher who tends to set the pace. With Duels (or any video game), the student sets the pace. Video games have no issue of patience. They will move at whatever rate the student is most comfortable with. Duels also gives the student the ability to opt in on information.

Rush of Knowledge | Art by Eric Peterson

#2 The New Player Isn't Having Fun

This is the one area where a human has an advantage. Computers aren't good at gauging when the student is having fun. Humans, on the other hand, are much better at it. This allows humans to zoom in on what seems to be working and adapt the teaching to the student. When teaching face to face, use this advantage.

While computers lack this skill, there are a few things they do that help in this area. For starters, computers don't make a student self-conscious. When someone isn't getting something, they start to feel ashamed, but shame only works when there is another human present. Humans understand that computers don't judge or have any feelings on how the student is doing, so there is no shame.

Also, a computer will let students do whatever they want. If a student wants to obsess on one aspect of the game to get good at it, the computer doesn't care. This total freedom to shape the play experience tends to help make it more fun for the student.

#3 The New Player Is Confused

This is another area where the computer's lack of humanity helps. Humans will only ask another human the same question so many times. At some point, they stop because they worry about the reaction it will create. Humans will claim they learn something they have not to other humans to save face. There's no such problem with a computer. Students can repeat actions as many times as they need without any worry. This freedom to explore both helps customize the learning experience and makes it more fun for the learner.

Sands of Delerium | Art by Charles Urbach

The computer is also much better at releasing information in the right order. It can be programmed to only teach certain things after others have already been taught. This requires extensive memory to do well and computers have humans beat in this category.

The point I'm trying to make today is that if you have someone interested in learning Magic, Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 is an excellent tool to start with. My nephew, for example, has become interested in the game and my advice to my sister was to buy him Duels for the iPad. It will allow my nephew to turn time into experience in the most direct way.

This isn't to say that face-to-face teaching can't also work well, but please remember my advice above. If you're going to teach, I strongly urge you to take my words today to heart.

"Can We Play Again?"

That's all I have for today. I hope this has given you some new insights on how to teach. If done correctly, it can be a great experience for both teacher and student.

Join me next week when I explain how R&D is building our core.

Until then, may your second games come easily.

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