Making Introductions

Posted in Latest Developments on February 18, 2011

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

The most common way that new Magic players are created is by existing Magic players introducing new people to the game. This is a very natural thing for a Magic player to do, as Magic players tend to think that Magic is awesome. Whether they think the prospective player would like Magic a lot and want to show that they have good taste in games, or they just want someone else to play with, there are strong incentives for a Magic player to introduce a new player to Magic.

Even stronger than players' incentive to introduce Magic to new people, though, is our incentive to make those introductions exciting. Magic survives because people play it. The more people who play Magic, the faster it grows, the more cards make it out into the world, and the more resources we can spend to make it better and better.

Because of this, we have put a lot of effort into making introductory Magic products. Our current expression of that effort is the Intro Packs, which I have put a lot of personal work into. My first product deliverable as a Wizards employee was the Alara Reborn Intro Pack decks, and I built every Intro Pack from then until Scars of Mirrodin. I build the thirty-card sample decks that we give out at conventions and as part of Duels of the Planeswalkers promotions. I also helped write the Learn to Play insert that comes in every Magic deck product, and I recently wrote a very different version of that insert that focus-tested so poorly that nobody outside the building will ever see it. I've learned a lot about what makes introductions to Magic go well. Today, I'll talk about some things that I think make player's introductions to Magic go more smoothly.

Use Simple Decks

The biggest mistake I see people make when introducing friends to Magic is using their own decks unmodified. If you've played Magic for a while, you're likely blind to many of the complexities that you've already processed. Your new-to-Magic friend will not be. The decks that you play at your weekly multiplayer game or at Friday Night Magic are great for you, but almost certainly too complex for your friend's first game.

We think a lot about simplicity when building Intro Pack decks. One manifestation of this is that we try to keep at least three vanilla creatures in each Intro Pack deck, as it gives people a break from processing text. Another is that when we include a set's new mechanic in a deck, like kicker or landfall, we don't include another new mechanic. Once a prospective player has learned something relatively complicated like infect, we want to reward that person for it, not punish him or her with another equally complicated thing.

If you choose to build your own decks to introduce friends with rather than use ours, be sure to include plenty of simple cards like vanilla creatures, Lightning Bolts, and Doom Blades, and build the deck with a limited number of mechanics so that your friends are rewarded for their understanding as they gain it.

Include Spice

The second biggest mistake I see players make when teaching Magic is to use decks that are completely stripped down, offering no hints of Magic's true depth. If every creature a new player sees is vanilla or french vanilla and each spell has no more than one line of text, it's very possible that he or she will learn Magic faster, but not understand why you think it's cool. You will get a lot of value from including a smattering of cards that are splashy, complex, and memorable. Those are the cards that keep you and I playing, and eventually it will be those cards that keep your friends playing as well. Your goal should be to provide the new player with a first Magic experience that is mostly understandable, but leaves him or her with a hint of how much more there is to uncover.

One of the tools in Intro Packs that is very powerful for this purpose is the premium rare that shows through the packaging. While showing off a shiny foil card makes the product more appealing to buy off of a shelf, it has a very important function during early game play. Unlike video games, we can't do awesome graphic animations when you do something we want to draw attention to, but the foiling effect on the big Dragon or Sphinx or Angel that happens to be the strongest card in the deck is a reasonable facsimile. If a new player draws that foil card while playing and gets excited due to a combination of the card's effect and the foiling, that card has done its job.

If you choose to introduce friends with your own decks, you should include a small number of powerful and complex cards to balance out the rest of the relatively simple cards. Much like spices in cooking, a little bit goes a long way. Keep in mind that to a new player, everything is relative. All it takes to stand out compared to Wild Griffin, Augury Owl, or Centaur Courser is a Serra Angel, Air Servant, or Enormous Baloth. Moving all the way up to Angelic Arbiter, Sphinx of Jwar Isle, or Kalonian Behemoth will give you a card that your friend might bring up later as a highlight of the experience.

Use Two-Color Decks

One of the most complicated parts of Magic to new players is the mana system. Although Richard Garfield got a shocking amount of things correct, and the way that mana works mechanically is one of them, the notation that he used for mana often confuses new players. The mana cost is most commonly read by new players as "Three mana, one of which is green." This is incorrect, and is one of the humps you'll have to get a prospective Magic player over before playing Magic is natural to them.

Most of Magic's Intro Packs include two colors. I've found that Magic's mana notation makes more sense to people when they understand that the way the system works allows them to play cards of different colors in the same deck. The difference between and is much easier to understand when they sit in the same hand as cards that cost and . A hidden bonus that is hard to value, but I think is important, is that having two colors in the new player's deck gives him a larger variety of effects. If you provide red cards and green cards, that player may latch onto either red or green cards as providing appealing game play. If you only give the player cards of one color, you have half as much chance of hitting him or her with game play he or she enjoys.

If you use your own decks to introduce new players, I suggest that you include two colors, faithfully represent what each color is up to, and include cards of each color that cost one mana and that cost more than one mana. This will get your friends to understand the mana system faster and double your chance of them finding their favorite colors in that first game.

Include Some Cards You Don't Think They'll Like

This one may sound a little strange to you, but it's the real secret to getting your friends hooked. Magic offers something that few games do: infinite customizability. If you don't like a card, you can take it out of your deck and replace it with something you do like. This is a huge realization, and once someone understands that fully, they understand almost everything they need to begin their Magic journey alone. Unfortunately, to get them to understand it, you will need to motivate them to want to start changing their deck. If you really want to get your friend invested in Magic, your response to them asking why a card is good should be to offer to take it out of their deck and replace it with something they like more.

Just like we make sure to include positive focal points like the foil rare in Intro Packs, we also try to include some cards that a new player might eventually not like. None of those cards are worthless, and each of them serves a purpose in play, but we want to create that first moment when someone changes a card in their deck and it becomes theirs, not something that came out of a box. That moment can enable a lifetime of fun. It happened to me twelve and a half years ago when I took a Squee's Toy out of my "The Flames of Rath" Tempest theme deck, and I've been having a blast with Magic ever since.

If you choose to introduce people to Magic with your own decks, be sure to include a card or two that might prompt your friend to ask to modify his or her deck. If that happens, encourage and facilitate it. You might just gain yourself a new Magic-playing friend for years to come.

I've been working on Magic introductory products and experiences for quite a while, and today I've told you some of the things I've learned while doing so. If you want more of that, you might check out the last episode of The Great Designer Search, for which I served as a guest judge. The contestants were making Intro Packs, and I graded them on how well they did that job.

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