Imagine you're standing in a room.
There are some paintings on the walls, books on the shelves, a place to sit. It's a cozy little room, and you'd be quite content to stay there a while. The room also has several exits, each of which leads into another room, much like—but not exactly like—this one, with different books, different wallpaper, perhaps other people to chat with or something to eat. If you're going to see those rooms too, then you won't want to dawdle too long in this one.
Each of these other rooms also has several doors. Right now, those doors are closed, but occasionally they open, as one of the other people in this labyrinth passes through them. When they do, you glimpse yet more rooms, with yet more things to do and yet more doors to open.
Now imagine all those doors opening at once. You look past the exits of your cozy little room and see not one or two other rooms, but hundreds, thousands, an infinity of doors and books and shelves twisting away impossibly in every direction, staircases up and down and long hallways branching off. And not all of the other rooms are cozy, either. Some of the further ones are downright strange, with objects and shapes and colors you've never seen before. Everything blurs to a distant vanishing point, and you get vertigo as your brain tries to make sense of the chaos.
Yeah, that's kind of what learning to play Magic is like.
There's an enormous gap between "This is a creature, which means it attacks and blocks" at the demo table and "Sac my Quest for Pure Flame, tap five Goblins, and deal 20 to everything with Skirk Fire Marshal" in a six-player free-for-all Elder Dragon Highlander game with Planechase.
If you're an established Magic player, it's easy to forget just how daunting it can all be. You've found the parts of Magic that entice you, and you've learned more rules, terms, card names, and rules of thumb than you probably realize to keep it all straight. You know the mana symbols and the notation for arranging them into costs, something like fifteen evergreen keywords, eight card types, the phases and steps of a turn, and numerous other specialized game terms like "destroy" (different from "discard"), "prevent," "counter," even "when" or "whenever," which don't have quite their English meaning (just ask someone who casts Torrent of Souls targeting a Siege-Gang Commander).
When you teach the game to someone new, there's a strong temptation to show them everything at once, to skip past the "boring" parts and get to the good stuff—in other words, to throw all those doors open and show them just how deep the rabbit hole goes.
As I hope my analogy demonstrated, this approach is, shall we say, flawed. One open door is exciting. Ten is daunting. A thousand is madness. It's important, I think, that someone who's learning Magic know the doors are there, and get a glimpse through them now and then. That sense of infinite possibilities is a huge part of what makes this game great. No matter whether you're trying to remember the steps in a turn or discussing the finer points of sideboarding in the Jund mirror in competitive Standard, you've always got something more to learn.
So when someone's just starting out, it's important to make sure that those first few doors are open and the rest remain safely closed. Today we're going to look at how to do that, with a focus on an oft-overlooked teaching tool: the humble intro pack.
Ahead of the Pack
If you're not familiar with intro packs, allow me to, ah, introduce you. Friends, this is intro pack. Intro pack, this is ... friends.
There are five intro packs for every new expansion set, each showcasing a different aspect of the set—landfall, say, or Vampires. Between the five intro packs, you'll generally get cards of all five colors and a good overview of the set's themes.
Each intro pack consists of four components: a 40-card intro deck, an ordinary randomized booster of the appropriate set, and two inserts, one teaching the basic rules and another showcasing the intro deck and how to play it. And yes, that's 40 cards—rather than 60—underscoring that the intro deck's purpose isn't to tear up your local Friday Night Magic, but to introduce you to the themes of the set (or to Magic in general).
The intro decks are designed with simplicity in mind. The whole point of them is that each one might be your first—think less a strongly connected serial like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, and more an episode like Star Trek or 30 Rock. If you're an experienced player, to your eyes they'll look simple indeed.
We were talking earlier about all of the things that you, as an experienced Magic player, have to know to be able to read cards? Well, each intro deck is going to do its best to keep this roaring bonfire of complexity contained. That means that you can hand one to a new player and be confident that it's not going to overwhelm them. At the same time, the deck will show off a particular aspect of Magic; it's not just a pile of creatures and sorceries, such as you might use to teach someone the very basics.
Intro decks are balanced to face each other—consistently within in the same set, and pretty reliably over multiple sets as well. That means you can sit down with any two of them and be confident that the match-up is close to fair. (Duel Decks are a more advanced take on the same concept, and a great teaching tool once your student is ready for the next level.)
If you're teaching someone, I recommend having multiple intro packs on hand—or taking your student with you to the game store—and letting that person pick which one they want to use first. Different things will appeal; I have one friend who, as soon as she learned about colors, always wanted to play the red deck because there was fire. When you don't have a years-deep well of Magic knowledge to draw on, "I like fire" is as good a reason to play a deck as any. Another friend of mine figured out pretty early that she really liked making people discard (ahh, a griefer in training!), and chose to play black decks when given the option.
Some of these initial preferences will fade, and that's OK. Some of them won't, and that's OK too. As I said, a big part of Magic is the sense of discovery. Learning to play Magic is as much about figuring out what you enjoy as it is about learning the rules—and in fact, I would argue, more so.
There are a lot of rules. Most of them are completely irrelevant to any given game, and many others are handled by shortcuts and colloquial understandings that gloss over the technicalities that don't matter. If your protégé is a future rules goob, that's something to encourage—but if not, it's much better to get to the business of actually playing than it is to make sure that he or she understands everything that's happening. New players don't need to learn all the rules; what they really need is a reason to do so.
Again, intro packs help with this by minimizing the number of rules that will come up during any given game. Rather than pausing to explain new concepts every few minutes, as you might be if you grabbed random decks, you'll get to focus on a few key concepts and get on with the playing. And the playing—I can't stress this enough—is the important part. Knowing the rules is a means to an end, and that end is playing fun and engaging games of Magic. The sooner you get them doing that, the more likely they are to keep doing it.
I like to play the first few games with both players' hands face up on the table. That way, you can discuss the merits or flaws of various plays as much as your student wants to. Your goal at this juncture shouldn't be winning, but demonstrating the flow of the game.
Once your student is comfortable playing games with one set of intro packs, try switching decks. At this point, he or she should be pretty comfortable with both decks. After the switch, your pupil will get to see how a different deck plays without needing to learn it from scratch. Trying out different decks will help your student figure out what parts of Magic appeal to him or her the most.
After you switch decks, you can try moving on to the other decks. If they're from different sets, you'll start to introduce your learner to new settings, keywords, and concepts, which is a good way to dabble in the wider Magic world. (And bear in mind that your student is experiencing all this in a very different order than you did. I have to laugh every time my friend Laura sees, for example, a Soul Warden, and says "Oh, a white Essence Warden!" She does not appreciate this, and while she was learning I tried not to do it too often...)
Building on Success
As I keep saying, simplicity is vital to prevent that vertiginous infinite-doors feeling. But it's also important to remember that Magic's sprawling hugeness is a big part of why people get hooked on the game. Richard Garfield's original vision for Magic, according to Mark Rosewater, was a game that was "bigger than the box," and that's very much what Magic is.
To go back to our door analogy, imagine that all the doors in the first room are closed except for the one that leads back outside. No matter how nice that room is, you're going to get bored eventually. You've looked at all the paintings. You've flipped through all the books that interest you. And if it seems like there isn't anything else, odds are good that you'll head elsewhere.
Generally, you're not going to have to work very hard to make sure that your student sees just how big Magic can be. But after an afternoon with a few intro packs, he or she will hopefully start to get comfortable with the scope of things. That's when it helps to crack the door a little.
There are many different ways to do this. One of them is to open a booster, conveniently provided with the intro pack, and introduce your new Magic player to the idea of deck construction.
(Some people try to start with deck construction, but I think that's an error. Someone who's just learning Magic has no idea which cards are good or bad, which appeal to him or her and which don't, or basic things like how many lands you want in your deck. You can teach all of these things, but the act of deck building doesn't really get interesting until you have an idea of how cards and decks actually play. I've tried to start building decks too early when learning other TCGs and it's extremely frustrating to realize that you have absolutely no idea what a deck "should" look like.)
Now your protégé gets to experience another Magic rite of passage, which is opening a booster pack. At the risk of sounding like the Action Figure Man episode "How to Buy Action Figure Man" (that's a Simpsons reference, young'uns), I think it's no coincidence that so many Magic players have good associations with the sounds and sights and even smells of a booster pack being opened. Good things come out of booster packs!
So let your pupil tear into that thing. If he or she has been mostly playing with one intro pack, I'd expect that he or she will naturally gravitate toward cards that would fit into that deck. If you've been showing off multiple decks, hopefully your student will start finding cards for different ones. If not, try a little prompting, based on what you see in the pack. Usually, though, newcomers will be gleefully stuffing that Malakir Bloodwitch into the Vampire intro pack before you can even say anything.
Don't worry about swapping cards out—at 40 cards, the intro decks start out small, so there's room to grow—although if there are cards in the intro deck your student doesn't like, by all means, they can come out. You should also introduce him or her to the idea of adding lands as you add spells (pretty important).
If you want to introduce the idea of trimming decks down, you could try taking two 40-card intro packs (either two of the same one or two different ones that share colors), mashing them together, and having your student work the resulting 80-card pile down to 60 cards. This is an advanced maneuver—again, because your student doesn't know yet which cards are less than stellar—but budding Spikes will appreciate it.
Obviously, intro packs aren't the be-all and end-all of teaching someone to play Magic, but they are a really solid tool. Plenty of people advocate the use of "teaching decks." Intro packs are a lot like that, but the smart folks in R&D have done the work for you, and there's a huge variety available—something like thirty and counting, as of this writing.
So bear all this in mind the next time you find yourself wishing there were some sort of package you could use to introduce people to Magic—an "intro pack," if you will. Your student will thank you.
For more on teaching Magic, check out my article Two-Headed Teaching, co-written with my one-time Magic padawan, who is trained as a teacher, like actually for real. For more about intro packs, see each set's respective page in the Products section.