This Is the Magic

Posted in Serious Fun on December 13, 2011

I don't remember how I learned to play Magic. It's true. I know the two friends who taught me, and I remember one of the first cards I owned. But the actual demonstration and guided tour of the rules, functions, and cards is lost in a haze.

When I was a camp counselor, I remember teaching some of the children to play. I remember how eager and earnest and excited they were to try the game "the adults" were playing. I also remember, quite vividly, some of the hard lessons I learned while sharing Magic.

The past is a wonderful tool for comparison. I like to make things better as time passes, and honing how I share Magic was one of my priorities. All my love for the game wouldn't matter in the long run if I didn't have ways to help it grow.

I'm talking about teaching Magic.

    All the Right Moves

Last week's poll makes one thing clear:

Have you given, or do you plan to give, Magic as a gift for friends or family?

Giving the gift of Magic is a generous thing. It had been some time since I sat down with a totally fresh player, one who hadn't yet played trading card games or their derivatives. Meet Bill.

Bill is a great guy, not because of anything Magic-related (well, not yet anyway), but because he's a friendly face I work with. While I work closely with him, it's mostly remote; he lives a few hundred miles away from Washington DC in the hinterlands of Connecticut. As a back-in-the-day Dungeons amp; Dragons player and former comic book aficionado, Bill and I share similar interests. Fantasy novels and comic book movies, general gaming and its associated culture, and always honest hockey discussions are the things we usually fill our mutual free time with.

But Bill wanted to experience something different. After hearing about my travels and stories of sharing the game all over the country, Bill asked to see it for himself. So I fixed him up with a straightforward introductory kit assembled from obvious sources:

It wasn't the single box of previously opened cards packed with cryptic rules booklets that I remember early on. One of the greatest assets of the game today is just how easy it is to get started. Bill, in preparation for gaming, read the "How to Play" insert, opened his Magic 2012 booster packs, and came ready with a few questions:

  • Can you walk me through how turns flow?
  • What's the deal with the different colors of cards?
  • What's the deal with the different colors of [expansion] symbols on the cards?
  • How big are decks? Do you shuffle all the time?

As I've shared before, I feel strongly that letting the learner drive the discussion is best. Bill didn't need me to walk over every aspect of every different card; the rules insert did a great job of that. What Bill needed was clarification.

And, thanks to a little luck, Bill opened at least one card of every rarity. It let me answer some easier questions:

  • What's the deal with this [expansion symbol]? Why is this one orange and the others black, silver, or gold?
  • How do planeswalkers work?

I'd like to point out that the reminder text on cards such as Acidic Slime and Stampeding Rhino were written in a way that Bill understood quickly. While it's easy for experienced players, like me and perhaps you too, to skip over the italics or find them completely annoying, those little letters make a big difference in how players understand what's going on.

To play our first game we each used the stock intro decks Bill received. I gave him the choice, and he snapped up Spider deck. For our ease in walking through things, we played with our hands revealed. Bill chose to go first after winning our die roll. ("Is that right?" he asked. "Most players and decks want to go first, yes," I told him.) Our opening hands were:

Adam: 2 Island, 2 Azure Mage, Doom Blade, Gravedigger, Warpath Ghoul
Bill: Forest, Stingerfling Spider, Garruk's Horde, Rampant Growth, Runeclaw Bear, Crimson Mage, Arachnus Web

They quickly became:

Bill: 2 Mountain, Forest, Llanowar Elves, Overrun, Stingerfling Spider, Stampeding Rhino

Playing with hands revealed let me explain the concept of taking a mulligan to draw a new hand with one less card, and why you would do that (if you can't play anything, for example). Our games were fortunate in that they moved in ways that were exciting. Bill had first-turn Llanowar Elves followed by a second-turn Rampant Growth, leading to a third-turn Stampeding Rhino.

My turns were a sluggish Island, Island, Azure Mage as I drew nothing that looked like a land. Bill's deck also let him appreciate the power of the words "destroy" on cards.

When Bill drew Acidic Slime for the turn he paused, but didn't need to be told that destroying my Island was the sharp decision.

"I feel bad," Bill said.

"Yeah. It's rough. But in this situation it makes sense. Some players would simply give up. I'm going to continue battling."

And so I did just that by attacking into his Acidic Slime with my Azure Mages. He didn't block as he had Overrun, something that under normal circumstances I wouldn't know he had. The Swamp I drew that turn let me introduce how "combat tricks" work, with Stampeding Rhino taking the fall.

Bill used a second Rampant Growth to grab a third Forest, turning on his Overrun. With a second Doom Blade already in hand, I cast Ponder to see yet a third copy of the removal spell, another Swamp, and a Devouring Swarm. I chose to draw the land and keep a Doom Blade on top before crashing in again. At this point we were tied at 12 life each.

We talked through many of the thoughts I take for granted. I shared that I would continue to assume that he didn't have Overrun, and would feel safe with many removal spells. From Bill's perspective, it would be unlikely that I would have up to three Doom Blades; continuing to attack and cast creatures, setting up a lethal Overrun, was the plan at hand.

He liked that plan, especially because my plan was not going to turn out very well.

Bill's Lightning Elemental forced the second Doom Blade out, and a Garruk's Companion drew the third, but Bill still had plenty of creatures coming. By the time I could muster a third creature (Warpath Ghoul), Bill's Overrun for 14 points of trample-enhanced attacking were more than enough to take me out.

To recap, a fairly straightforward game walked Bill through some very complicated things:

  • How creatures with "enters the battlefield" triggers work (It's okay to use them without a target, and looking for the best one available when you do is always a good thing to do.)
  • Why you should or shouldn't mulligan (What your hand tells you, and making a plan from what you see.)
  • How instants work, and why you would use one (Removal spells, pump spells, and others each have different uses.)
  • Why blocking can be good or bad depending upon the context (He blocked well, by not blocking, and I blocked badly, by being unable to block until it was too late.)

There were more ideas, such as the process of combat and why you would wait to play things until the second main phase, but playing a game and discussing it openly takes very complex and abstract things and makes them concrete. There isn't always an easy analogy when taking topics at random, but when you see it in a game it makes more sense to everyone.

    Gone Fishin'

With a methodical, and victorious, game under his belt it was time to play with hands concealed and really jump into a game. The training wheels were off.

Bill was standing alone.

I chose to go first this time, and moved quickly to assemble Crown of Empires, Scepter of Empires, and Azure Mage. Bill started quick—another first turn Llanowar Elves—but didn't have another play right away after casting Rampant Growth for a Forest.

Of course, as soon as I think I'm in the clear, Bill rips Stampeding Rhino, Vastwood Gorger, and Arachnus Spinner in back-to-back-to-back turns.

It's funny how just a card or two can make someone smile. This idea goes both ways, too. While Bill was facing me down with a fierce array of all things huge, I had a plan at hand. Drawing an extra card through Azure Mage set up things for me.

I began to introduce some of the metagame aspects of Magic. I described his deck as a "ramp" deck, named after Rampant Growth–type cards. He made extra mana, extra early, and dropped the biggest guys in town. My deck is characterized as a "control" deck, where I find your weakness and take control of the game.

Frost Breath and Doom Blade took care of Bill's combat step for the moment, and he could only follow up with an Arachnus Web on my Azure Mage. I untapped and cast my own haymaker: Rune-Scarred Demon.

I didn't tell him what I went and found, but after he checked my duo of Scepter of Empires and Crown of Empires, he took a wild guess that I had added Throne of Empires to my hand. Fortunately for him, an Acidic Slime was the reply, taking the Crown to the graveyard.

I congratulated him on the good play as I cast the matching Throne. It was time for him to untap his brutes, and they immediately came crashing in. Thanks to his earlier attacks, I was at just 12 life and couldn't afford to let everything through.

He was bluffing! My Demon slayed the Vastwood Gorger, and I dropped to a still-kicking 7 life. Thanks to some hard work by Scepter of Empires, I dropped him to 12, attacked with my Demon, and cast Doom Blade on his Rhino.

With the Throne of Empires producing a token to stop his Great Sword-wielding Llanowar Elves, my Demon sailed through for the final 6 points.

Bill seemed to fall instinctively into the pattern so many of us do: peek at what the next card would have been.

It was a Mountain. With the Fireball in his hand, he would have been able to reach for the critical 7 life I had left.

Bill missed his chance to grab a Mountain. If he had, I would have been toast. Despite taking a loss, Bill was quote positive about the whole experience. In his own words:

Thank you again for your time and generosity. I really enjoyed learning from a pro! MTG is fun and maybe I will take a chance and try to play at our local shop! Here are some of my thoughts of Magic from a newbie perspective...

The combat system and turn system seems well devised and moves quickly. The art is fantastic and it seems that the devotees probably love the conventions and tournaments, etc.

Ok, my perspective on the 2 hands we played.

Hand 1:

Teaching is really effective with a patient, experienced teacher. It was helpful to begin playing "open" handed rather than closed. Thank you for spending the time to explain strategy, like controlling cards vs. maybe a more aggressive attack style. It seems that a very important concept to improve will be getting a grip on play style as it pertains to the different decks.

  • Not sure how fair it was, but the mulligan was helpful, thanks
  • It seems I was dealt a pretty powerful deck and collected Mana quickly
  • The Llanowar Elves opening (which I used in both hands) was effective and increased mana quickly
  • The Rhino was one of the stars for me, although your Doom Blades really kept me in line
  • It seemed that you getting slowed in mana production made all the difference

Hand 2:

We played "closed" handed and I mostly played on my own strategy. Opened very much the same way as Hand 1 but did not realize how important the red mana would become to my hand.

  • You took the Mulligan
  • I opened the same with Llanowar Elves
  • Built mana quickly, except a short draught around turn 6 to 8, I believe
  • My theme for this hand follows a Yogi Berra-ism, " gets late early..."
  • In using Rampant Growth for another green mana to play costly creature cards, I made the mistake of not selecting the red mana
  • Never found red mana in subsequent card draws, and could not use Fireball or Crimson Mage cards which required at least one red mana
  • The end result, I opened strong and had opportunity to win but could not get the Fireball in play
  • Note: The Scepter, Crown, and Throne of Empires were very powerful cards, but your flying Demon put me away
  • Insult to injury!! – The very next draw card was the first Red Mana after all the earlier draws!

I want to play again and will try and teach Donna tonight (she did a lot of role playing as a kid with her cousins). Thank you and I look forward to reading your blog. Please point me to any good beginner postings, information, etc!

Thank you for playing, Bill!

    It's the End of the Year as We Know It

If you're going to share the game we love with someone you know, I hope today's outline lays a sturdier foundation to build on. Just because cards seem simple, look boring, or feel old to you doesn't mean they aren't valuable tools and a wonderfully new experience for someone else.

While Bill and I ran out of time to game, he did crack open a few more of his booster packs. From Scars of Mirrodin came Wurmcoil Engine. With Chandra Nalaar in the mix too, his Red-Green Ramp deck is beginning to look quite fearsome! I know our next games will be even more exciting!

The next two weeks are repeats, but I hope you'll find the theme of "something to take away" to be valuable. Join us after the reruns when I break down the most requested information in Serious Fun: a compendium of casual formats.

See you just after the New Year!

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