Higher Education

Posted in Serious Fun on September 3, 2002

By Anthony Alongi

Last week, I discussed how to begin instructing a new Magic player. This week, I'll assume you've got your "apprentice" up to speed on the basic mechanics of the game. Whatever you (or I) have forgotten to cover, your apprentice has encountered and asked about. They left one week and actually came back the next. They've played a bunch of one-on-one "duel" games and a couple of team games, and they're doing more laughing than frowning. Time to move on to the next phase.

The next phase, of course, depends a lot on what this new player is like. If the newbie is simply looking to get better at the duel game, then there's a set of strategies you follow (and frankly, a good deal of the Internet Magic community is geared toward that person). If the newbie is looking to play more casually, and/or in groups, well, then we have more to talk about.

New players can get lost in the "big game."

From Two to Many

Up to this point, the novice has dealt with a fairly simple battlefield--one player (or team) facing down another. There is never a question of which way to point the sharp stick.

It's sometimes easy to forget what it was like for each of us in our first multiplayer games. We had no idea whom to attack first. ("I don't want to attack my brother-in-law. Eh, I'll attack this other player, instead.") We couldn't see a threat coming until it had 9/9 printed in the bottom right corner. We used all our resources to get rid of one player, and had nothing left for five others. We extended so far that large birds of prey began to perch on our shoulders.

I tout a "school" of multiplayer Magic that believes in constant, accurate threat assessment. It's the skill I think casual players need the most. In a tournament, threat assessment is limited to one player--you have to figure out which of your opponent's strategies is most likely to beat you. In multiplayer play, however, threat assessment expands beyond two to three fearful permanents or spells that work together under one opponent's mind.

To illustrate: In a four-player "chaos" game, you have a white deck and are facing a green deck with Child of Gaea, a black deck with Seal of Doom, and a blue deck with two untapped islands. Which is the biggest threat?

Veterans (and thoughtful novices) know that "it depends," of course. What are their life totals? How many cards do they have in hand? What else has everyone (especially the blue player) played? Whose turn is it, and what phase? And, perhaps most important of all, what are you playing? (You assess the above board differently if you have (a) Swords to Plowshares, (b) Disenchant, or (c) Armageddon.)

A player has to learn to see the situation above and notice why the Seal of Doom makes a difference, why the two islands make a difference, and most of all, why the green player with the fattie cares about them--or doesn't, as the case may be.

This is not the kind of stuff you can prepare a curriculum on. (At best, I'm told, you can write a series of rambling, semicoherent strategy articles on it over a period of three or more years.) But I'd like to give you a tool for teaching your friends what they'll need to learn on their own--six tools, to be precise, and recent readers will recognize my theme. No deck has more than 8 out of 60 slots devoted to rares.

araneae.deq (spider)

wanderer.deq (plankton)

beringei.deq (gorilla)

Other (3)
3 Centaur Chieftan
60 Cards

taurinus.deq (wildebeest)

crotalus.deq (snake)

columba.deq (pigeon)

Who plays which deck (or something like them) is irrelevant. (In a perfect world, you'd share the decks, and then talk about why each did what it did after each game; but this isn't exactly Harvard Business School, and we're not married to the case-study method.) The point is that the newer player sees the deck operate and learns what each dynamic does in a multiplayer game.

As they become more familiar with the strategies used in multiplayer--warning (snake), clearing (gorilla), surprising (spider), mooching (pigeon), helping (plankton), and outlasting (wildebeest)--newer players will get a better appreciation as to why certain forces work or don't work in multiplayer, when they work or don't work, and how these different forces interact with each other (e.g., Volrath's Stronghold with Bone Shredder or Scandalmonger and Ivory Mask, etc.).

There Is No "Sorry" in Magic

Beyond the strategic tool outlined above, I have only three things to recommend to you, the mentor, as your protégé transitions into independence:

1) There is no "sorry" in Magic. When learning, people make mistakes. I often see newer players feel embarrassed because they belatedly realized they targeted the wrong thing, or blocked in a way that lost them a creature.

Make sure every person you teach knows that they have nothing to apologize for. Have a list of your ten worst mistakes ready in your mind, or even on paper. Use them, one at a time, to counter whatever horrific situation your friend finds himself or herself in. That way, mistakes become a fun way into the game, rather than a humiliating path out of it.

2) Give positive feedback. You know what the most annoying thing about newborn babies is? They give you no positive feedback. They let you know only when something's wrong--their stomachs are empty, their diapers are full, their cribs are cold, whatever. They don't even smile at your for four months. Four months!!! Jerks.

Anyway, do the math here: Infant, feedback, parent . . .that's right, you're the baby! Now, how about a smile for mommy or daddy when they pull off an amazing play? How about props for the 'rent after their first victory? (Hint: "I was mana screwed; look at my hand!" = "WAAAAAAAAAAH!")

3) The rest is up to them. Your goal is to shut up during an entire game as early in their educations as possible. Take it from a professional: Analysis requires peace and quiet--at some point. There are some things your protégé just has to experience--and your Magic lectures circuit is probably not one of them, amigo.

It kinda sounds like I don't completely appreciate you, doesn't it? I mean, instead of coddling you and patting you on the back for being critical to the future of the game (and you are), I'm telling you to examine your mistakes, stop whining, and keep quiet so everyone can focus on the game. Of course, I'm not just telling you that to help your buddy. I'm telling you that because hey, whaddya know--it'll make you a better player, too. See? I like you after all.

A Final Thought: What Support Should Wizards Give You?

Several readers wrote in to ask about what support Wizards gives, or to give their thoughts on past efforts (for example, there used to be a "Guru" program with incentives for players who taught new folks). Here's my take on that sort of thing; and it is, to remind everyone, not an official Wizards statement.

While I would never begrudge anyone a benefit for bringing someone new to a game that is so wonderful, mind-provoking, creative, and downright fun, I am not sure I see the point of Wizards giving its players formal incentives or other support to get new customers. Well, let me rephrase that: I see the point (more customers are more customers, after all); but I don't see the efficiency of it.

Put the question another way: If Wizards has an extra dollar to spend, do you want them to spend it making the game better (e.g., bringing on new/additional designers and developers), or use it to cover administrative costs and prizes for players who are doing something they'd probably do anyway? One option improves the game for an already growing customer base. The other option does nothing to improve the game, for pretty much the same customer base.

Bringing on another player is its own reward. And, frankly, if we don't do it ourselves, we face a dying game. So Wizards can, and I suspect will, leave that job to us. Better for Wizards to focus on making the game something we want to promote. It's cold, it's calculating, and it's ultimately good business sense. (See, now, I don't like you anymore. I'm fickle like that. Deal.)

I have a habit of stating things a bit more strongly than I feel. (An immediate counterargument is that MagicTheGathering.com itself represents an investment in new customer education!) I enjoy articulating opinions, so if there's enough interest, you'll hear more about this in a future article.

Anthony may be reached at seriousfun@wizards.com.

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