What They Teach You

Posted in Serious Fun on June 20, 2006

By Anthony Alongi

At least three times over the past four years this column's been up, I've dedicated a week to teaching others how to play Magic. (See here, here, and here.) They're among the more satisfying articles I've written here at the site, and readers agree: they've generated large amounts of positive feedback and stories from all of you.

I'd like to return to the topic today, but from a different angle. Instead of suggesting how you might teach newer players, I'm going to suggest what you might learn from newer players.

Why focus on that this week? Because here in America (and many other countries), it's the week following Father's Day. And as any father (or mother) will tell you, you get more as a parent than you give. Teaching Magic is like a brief, narrow slice of fathering: you're passing on a skill to a new generation, one you enjoy yourself and want to share. And if you do it right, you're likely to have a good friend later on.

But the gains can be even more immediate than that. While you're teaching your friend (or a family member, or anyone else) how to play Magic, you can learn at least four things that will help you – help you in this game, and in other things. I'll follow up each lesson with the best ways to learn it – i.e., the teaching technique you can use that will help both mentor and protégé at once.

Quick reminder: we'll be flitting back and forth between the ideas of Magic tutoring and fatherhood here. That's intentional.

The First Thing They Teach You


Scornful Egotist
Serving as a mentor, teacher, or parent to someone requires you to give something up. It's something you spend a great deal of your childhood and teenage years building, and you never let it go completely. What is it? Your ego.

You cannot teach Magic correctly, and still be the center of the universe. In fact, you can't even play it correctly, despite the way some people act.

Every human being can learn this lesson better. (If you're scrambling to write me an email insisting that you're a stellar exception to this sweeping generalization, thank you in advance for proving my point.) The worst thing you can do as a teacher is make it all about you: how you would do this play better, or how you wouldn't have lost that game were it not for manascrew, or how you learned such-and-such aspect of the game in five seconds because you're so brilliant.

The more time you spend talking about yourself, the less time you're spending talking about the game. The less time you're spending talking about the game, the less the other person is learning.

The best way to experience this lesson is to reverse roles with your protégé. You can do this after a bit of time teaching the basics. Ask the newer player to teach you the game now. Use open hands, so everyone can see what everyone else is holding. The basic rule of the game is, you cannot play or use any card that your opponent cannot explain to you.

If you've been doing your job right, you'll have a nice, high percentage of cards you can play. That's because your protégé will be able to explain all sorts of things back to you.

If your protégé struggles to explain even the most basic cards in your hand, you may want to reassess how you're teaching the game. Ask yourself a simple question: when you talk, are you limiting yourself to 20-second bursts? Any more than that, and you're probably glazing some eyes.

The Second Thing They Teach You

While we cannot consider ourselves the center of the universe to teach Magic correctly, we can't completely rip ourselves apart. After all, without us, no one else will learn this terrific game.

You are still very important, because you add value. A lot of people wander in an emotional sort of no-man's land until they have someone who looks up to them. Then they realize a purpose and straighten out their own lives. Sometimes, they even come up with a second purpose – say, a guy who changes his career because he wants to spend more time with his kids.

Demonic_TutorAs a Magic tutor, you may not go through a career transformation for the sake of the 13-year-old kid you just met at the local shop; but you might see something in yourself that you didn't before. You might decide you like teaching people and add that path to your career options. Young or old, you might be stellar at it.

The best way to experience this lesson is to find more protégés. The more you do it, the more satisfying it should become. And you'll get a great reputation at your local store: it's a nice feeling to have lots of people looking up to you, even as their skills might surpass your own.

On the other hand, if a greater number of students just becomes irritating, then you're probably not cut out for doing this a lot. That's fine. You're probably really good at skiing, or engineering, or something else. You can still help out the teachers by refraining from cynicism when you play their students. Pull back on the snorting, eye-rolling, insulting, and other behaviors. Look for more opportunities to nod your head in understanding, chuckle in sympathy, and/or shake hands after a game. You're still adding value there.

The Third Thing They Teach You

When I was a junior in undergraduate studies, I became an Economics major. The subject had really captured me right from the introductory courses the previous year. And I was quite good at it, though not a superstar or anything like that.

Majors at Carleton College are often asked to tutor younger students – I'm sure this is common practice at many schools at all levels, all around the world. I gladly did it, since I figured it would be a great way to meet new people. My reward for my volunteerism was the assignment of a bright, lovely young woman to my stewardship.

Because I was capable of behaving myself (by this time, I was dating my future wife, the beautiful but devious MaryJanice), we got a lot of studying done during those sessions. And there were at least three distinct moments where I can recall "strikes of lightning" – not for the protégé, who still did very well for herself, but for me. Not only did her grades go up in her introductory class – but my grades went up as well in the advanced stuff.

What was happening? In explaining the material to another person and hearing out their questions, I was forcing myself to look at the material a different way.

One of the most important learning tools around is reflection. When you reflect, you give your brain time to stretch and wrap itself around topics in new ways. You increase the chances you will remember things, and you rehearse opinions and judgments based on the facts you've learned. (One of the reasons why television can be so maddening to me is because it can offer wonderful opportunities for reflection in both fictional and non-fictional settings – witness stuff like the BBC's Walking with Dinosaurs or ABC's Lost – but too often won't, instead getting mired in garbage like "reality" shows like Big Brother 12 ¾, where the "reflection" that happens is no more than posturing and preening for the cameras.

Reflecting on Magic games requires us (and by "us", I mean "me") to do more than just complain about land-screw or a "lucky play" by an opponent. It requires us to dig deeper into the probabilities that our deck offers, and the choices we make during play. It requires us to assume we can do better than we've already done. And it requires us to help our protégés go through the same steps.

Reflection, in other words, brushes up against the first lesson from this article. They're both centered upon the concept of humility. It also brushes up against the second lesson from this article, which is focused on determination. You don't assume you're the most amazing achievement in human DNA. You do assume you can improve yourself, if you put your mind to it.

The best way to experience this lesson is to take a few moments at the end of each game with your protégé to reflect – not just on their play, but your play as well. Tell them about the mistakes you made. Tell them what you think you could do better next time. Show them that the journey of self-improvement never ends.

The Fourth Thing They Teach You

While the first three lessons are all a bit serious, the fourth one is more about relaxing and taking in the fun of what you're doing. Whether it's a game like Magic, a skill you want to pass on to a son or daughter, or something completely different, you're involved in it because you enjoy it. It helps you pass the time you have.

There is joy in this world. Magic has been a large part of it for me. Obviously, it has been for many of you as well. And I hope it will be for the lucky people you teach.

While I know I told all of you earlier not to spend too much time talking about yourselves, I hope you will find ways to share with them the really great times you've had playing the game. Pass on the excitement, as well as the mechanics. Build your own stories between yourselves, and take the time to celebrate them. You deserve this as much as your protégé.

Anthony Alongi has been playing various Magic formats for over eight years, and has been writing for much longer than that. He writes the JENNIFER SCALES fantasy series with his wife, MaryJanice Davidson.

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