Goldfish No More

Posted in Serious Fun on July 12, 2004

By Anthony Alongi

When a daughter plays to win

In less than a month, my daughter Christina will turn nine years old. While she's still eight, I'd like to take a week to point to her proudly as an example of how smart and wonderful eight-year-olds can be. Yes, it's a proud papa column – inevitable, perhaps. I'm surprised I lasted this long without one.

Of course, her strongest talent is playing Magic. (Okay, I had to bend the truth a little. Sorry. Good grief, I've only been a politician for one mouse click, and I'm already lying! Better set things right.)

Actually, her best talent so far is writing comic books. She's rifled through her mother's collection and occasionally mimics the genre. Of course, instead of dark heroes and overdeveloped heroines, she prefers to write about the fantastic adventures of Miss Dog. Miss Dog is a – well, yes, she's a dog, why do you ask? Except she can do very undoglike things, such as apprehend criminals and hold earnest community meetings among her canine brethren.

The inaugural issue, “Miss Dog Saves the Day,” is an instant classic, in this critic's opinion. I have the only copy, and I do not doubt it will someday be worth thousands of dollars. Presto! Instant college fund.

But back to Magic. Christina actually started the game when she was about six – I used the combat math to teach her addition and subtraction in context. We used tailored “creature-only” decks. Since then, I've gradually introduced more complex aspects to the game, and now we just play the decks right out of my collection. She still prefers red-green beatdown; but honestly, who doesn't? As I said, she's a bright girl.

Teaching my child Magic suits my conservative parenting style quite well. First, spending time together without television shows screaming or computer screens blazing contributes to actual quality time between father and daughter. We can talk about the game, or school, or friends, or anything else that comes to mind. I have no idea how many years of this I get before hormones hit and I lose her, so now's the time.

Second, Magic teaches her the “3 R's” – reading, arithmetic, and logic. (Okay, logic doesn't start with an R. Neither does arithmetic.) Logic is where we're currently focused. This means I take her through various combat possibilities, give her a full list of all permanents she can target with that Naturalize, and slow the game down enough so she can see opportunities to advance her interests.

Third, Magic is the sort of competitive pursuit where she can beat me without my throwing a game. I don't believe making intentional mistakes would help my daughter learn much; but at the same time, I don't want to bury her like I would at chess. (When we play chess, I handicap my starting board position, and play all-out.) Fortunately, I make enough real mistakes in Magic for her to steal a game here and there – and the ravages of simple luck help her earn a few more well fought battles. Also, she's not bad at all. She definitely needs conceptual help with instants and such; but she's almost Prerelease-ready. (Imagine the poor fool who faces this girl, whose father the floor judge “suggests” he take a mulligan. Ah, see, now I'm corrupt. The transformation is complete. To the polls!)

Christina's now at the point where she can participate in the occasional multiplayer game in our group, as long as I'm hosting. (Unsurprisingly, her mother won't let me take the kid out to another player's house, since that would mean a bedtime of about 2am. Somewhere during her childhood, we should probably instill a sense of respect toward curfews.) She holds her own reasonably well – and more importantly, she acts with admirable, if perhaps ill-advised, loyalty toward her father. I find this impulse of hers useful in free-for-all formats. In those cases, I'm always gracious and make sure she gets a fine second place finish.

(Okay, seriously. I've told her multiple times she doesn't need to protect me. I've also told her I may not have her best interests in mind during these games. But she's just too considerate and kind, and she can't bear to see her father getting beaten down by a Gaea's Skyfolk when she has a Shock sitting in her hand. As a father, I nurture that instinct as I wish to raise a fine, upstanding citizen of the world. The glorious chaos Magic wins are just a happy short-term side benefit.)

In any case, long gone are the days I can count on a game of Magic with her to be like playing against a “goldfish”, as we say in the business. Armed with her father's fastest deck, she flings Wild Mongrels and Fangren Firstborns with wild abandon. Just last week, I found myself down to 12 life by turn four and forced to play out a Masticore with no mana left open to regenerate it. Bang, down comes Flametongue Kavu. Worse, Fires of Yavimaya gives all of her creatures haste, and she doesn't miss stuff like that much anymore. I didn't last long that game.

I'm not the only Internet writer she's taken down – but I'll save that story for the appropriate opportunity.

I've done one or two columns in the past about teaching Magic (and in particular, teaching it to children). They were very well-received and rewarding to write. Based on more recent experiences with Christina, I'd add the following notes on sportsmanship to what I've already said. If you find yourself teaching a younger child to play, try to remember:

UndoTake-backs can be a great way to learn.
  • Shake hands after every match. Sportsmanship makes a difference, especially to someone half your size.
  • No whining. Give them credit for a win. Do not complain about “manascrew” or “colorscrew”. In fact, let's all remember that particular usage of “screw” isn't exactly in your local elementary school curriculum.
  • Allow take-backs, within reason. It's a fundamental principle of fairness in the mind of a ten-year-old. I make a mistake, I recognize a mistake, I want to try it again and do it right. Why quash that? At the same time, you want to gradually wean them from the practice, as their intellectual and emotional capacity deepens to where they'll remember a mistake better if they have to live with it.
  • No intimidation or trash talk. Save the head games for when you're with someone who's probably not looking up to you. (Don't worry – we're out there.)
  • Be available. Again with how they're looking up to you.
  • Make sure they're having as much fun as you are. They're not going to understand the beautiful irony of watching you search through your deck three times every turn for yet another killer card while they enjoy absolutely no non-land permanents. Play to win, yes. Play to crush, no.

Given the topic of the day, I thought a child-oriented format may be in order. In fact, why not base a format around a family structure? I know there are some families who do, in fact, play together. The draft format below should be adjustable to sizes other than four; just use good sense and don't be afraid to experiment. I speak in fairly basic terms, since some team members may be rather new to the concept of drafting.

Family Of Four

What you'll need:

  • 12 booster packs
  • basic lands (at least 10-15 of each type)
  • at least 160 card sleeves (optional)

For two children or two adults, split into two teams: an adult and a child on each team. (An experienced older child can certainly substitute for an adult.) The adult sits to the right of his or her child teammate. Each player gets three booster packs.

Everyone opens their first booster pack. Adults draft normally – that is, they pick one card out of the fifteen available. Children get a bit of help. After drafting their own first pick, the adult from that child's team helps him or her with the first pick. (That way, no one gives up a bomb. Also, the adult will be in better position to follow the rest of this format.)

For every pick after the first, the adult makes his or her regular pick…and then orders the rest of the pack so that the “three best” cards are on top, in no particular order. (Don't just select “one best” – you're trying to teach draft skills and decision-making here, just with a smaller set of cards.) Then the pack goes to the left. When the child receives the pack, he or she can set aside the other cards and just make a selection from the three given. After making a selection, the child puts the rest of the pack together and passes it left (to the “enemy” adult). On and on it goes.

During the second set of packs, the pass order is to the right, as with a conventional draft. Here, the child is still getting help from an adult – it's just the adult on the other team. In most families, honesty should not be a problem here. The third set moves just like the first.

Those of you experienced with 2x2 drafting will be pretty familiar with this format already. From here, it's exactly the same: teammates huddle in a corner and construct their decks. You can only use the cards you've drafted; teammates can't mix card pools. You might chat a bit about what got passed when, and whether the other team might not have a particular card to look out for.

Once you've assembled the decks (at least 40 cards, including land), you play the other team. Most 2x2 drafts have the players play in two sets of duels: each player gets to play each enemy in a best two-out-of-three match.

Or, you can play a “Two-Headed Giant” format, where you start with 40 shared life and all play in the same game. Really, there's no wrong way to do this. Be creative, and maybe even let the kids decide how they want to play.

What prize for the winning team? Depends on how cutthroat your collecting habits are. If everyone in the family has separate collections, the winners could have the first picks of the rares opened that day. If it's a shared family collection, perhaps the winning team gets to decide the next format, or have the losing team mow the lawn…hey, there's an idea…um, I gotta go teach my wife and son how to play Magic

Anthony cannot provide deck help to readers. Well, except for his daughter, who gets to have whatever she wants until the first night she breaks curfew.

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