Your Next Apprentice

Posted in Serious Fun on August 27, 2002

By Anthony Alongi

The game stinks when there's no one to play it with.

If you're in a struggling play group that can't get enough players together for an "Emperor" game, or if you go to a store where you always seem one short of an eight-person draft, or if you just want to introduce a good friend of yours to the game, eventually a Magic player's thoughts turn to teaching the game to the "Next Player."

Some new players need to learn via the Starter game... your friends have an even better resource.

It can be a great deal of fun to bring someone new on board. Our play group averages about one new player every seven or eight months, and it never really gets boring. We've had spectacular successes that stick with the group, and slightly less-spectacular instances in which we may have made mistakes. I've also had the pleasure of helping individuals and groups who want tips on learning or teaching basic game play. So I may be able to contribute something here.

To be clear here, I'm focusing on the absolutely new player. There are other wells out there to tap if you want more company--ex-players who may be interested in coming back, collectors who have the game pretty much figured out but just don't play, and so on. We'll tackle those another time. For now, we're starting at ground zero.

Step 1: The Hunt

While new players occasionally walk into the store and meet you by happy chance, you shouldn't count on that. You'll need to find that new player before you can teach him or her. Fortunately, the universe of possibilities is wider than you might think. Magic has creative, strategic, social, and collectible appeal. Not all of the potential players are in your local Dungeons & Dragons gaming group. The colleague at the office who seems bright and resourceful, your friends in chess club, the guys in your poker circle who enjoy a good bluff, the fellow dog owner you see in the park every afternoon who just started a book club, the buddy obsessed with baseball or football cards, and many more are all potential candidates.

You can seek those people out and you can be ready when they approach you. Does your group play in the school cafeteria? At restaurants? Other public places? If so, you know what I mean when I talk about the "passer-by" question:

"What is that game you're playing?"

Too often, the response is a mumbled mess of geeky jargon, like "Imagine a series of shifting universes where ultrapowerful wizards fight over mystical planes with . . . ." Whoops, you just lost 'em. Be ready with something a bit more slick:

"It's a strategy game you play with cards. It takes a bit of time to learn, but it's a blast. Do you want me to try to catch you up on what's going on here?"

Whether you use that script or one of your own, try to keep your explanation short and the sentences shorter. People won't think this is a cool game because you, or any of us, tell them so via a long list of reasons; they'll think it's a cool game once they can stop listening and start playing.

And, by the way, try to hit the same public places over and over again at regular intervals. People who may be interested will pick up your schedule and watch you, even if they say no the first time you offer to show them how to play.

Step 2: The First Game

Once someone sits down to learn the game, I recommend first teaching them one-on-one (duel) play, then team play, then chaos multiplayer (or other formats). Starting with duel keeps things simple and likable--the board will be less complex, and the new player (who's likely to lose often and early) won't be twiddling his or her thumbs waiting for a long nine-way chaos session to end.

You can gauge which cards and mechanics yor protégé is ready for.

This is the progression I've found most helpful for teaching someone new to the game:

• The goal (20 to 0 life--forget milling and poison counters for now, please)
• The phases/steps in each turn
• Creatures (save sorceries, instants, enchantments, and artifacts for later)
• Land ("So how do I get these creatures out? Oh.")
• The attack, including blocking and damage
• Creature abilities (triggered and continuous only, to start)
• Sorceries

Here are two simple decks you might want to construct and play with your protégé. No rares here, and I used four copies of each card because it helps new players to see the same cards over and over again. No, it's not patronizing; it's the first game, and you have many games ahead with this person over which to show him or her all of your clever tricks and combos.

UG-ly Beginning.deq

Download Arena Decklist

Baby Zebra.deq

Download Arena Decklist

Play the first game or two open-handed--it sounds obvious, but people often forget this basic idea. Most new players don't understand when they can play a spell, especially when colors mix, and they need your help.

Between these two decks, you are covering the essential flavors in almost every color: Green gets its strong creatures, blue gets its bounce and card drawing, white gets its life-gain and protection, and black gets its creature removal. These decks illustrate broad concepts you'll be able to teach the newbie, including mana mixing, comes-into-play abilities, protection from a color, card advantage, and even a bit of tempo advantage. That's really enough for the first few games.

Step 3: The Learning Curve

For the first day, and perhaps the second, you'll want to devote quite a bit of time and attention to the new player. If you're part of a group, forgo multiplayer play for a while and just work with the new player, or share teaching duties if your friends are willing.

At some point, it will make sense to introduce the new player to more advanced concepts like the following--again, in rough order of how you might want to teach them:

• Instants (meaning "the stack")
• Activated abilities ("instants on a stick")
• Enchantments (global)
• Enchantments (local--please don't rush these; they're more confusing than they're worth and still often not worth the bother)
• Artifacts (not the most complex mechanic of the game, simply the least necessary to learn right away)

The following two decks might give a good introduction to these new concepts (still rare-free):

GR-o Your Skills.deq

Download Arena Decklist

WU-hoo, My First Control.deq

Download Arena Decklist

Step 4: Team Play

Up to this point, I've recommended decks with only commons and uncommons. This is because I'm assuming your group is generous with those cards you do not need--you pass them on to the new player, right? Don't be stingy. Once you have four copies of a card, especially a non-rare, you have no reason to hoard them. The benefit you gain from strengthening a new player and challenging yourself outweighs any benefit of having four more Wild Mongrels. Pass 'em on, dude.

A good teacher can make all the difference in a new player's continued interest.

But eventually, the fledgling's going to have to leave the nest and learn to compete in the real world. If your group has a taste for multiplayer, I recommend team play--"Two-Headed Giant," or Emperor, or whatever. (I've gone over these formats briefly before, and we'll no doubt revisit them again in future articles.)

The great thing about team play is that it allows a new player to get the feel for multiplayer without feeling entirely alone. An experienced player can pick up a bit of slack. Here are three things to remember as the more experienced player:

• You can either give your teammate a deck of your own, or you can have him or her bring his or her own creation to the table. The latter is usually preferable.
When a new teammate makes a mistake, let him or her make it. Then, after the play has resolved, and/or the opportunity is lost, gently point out the mistake. "You know what's cool? When someone does [this] in response to [that] . . . that's a lot of fun. Something to keep in mind for next time!" is typically better received than, "You FOOL! You missed the opportunity of a lifetime! You'll be the downfall of us all!" A corollary here: If a new player asks for advice before making a play, it's up to the table to say how much you can coach him or her. There's no right or wrong answer here; it's different from group to group.
You will have to carry much of the load, but do not carry all of it. Most of this theme lies in deck choice. Do not play your Armageddon deck. Do not play your Pestilence deck. You're not trying to impress your new teammate; you're trying to work with him or her. Choose a team-friendly deck that will give your friend the chance to play his or her own game. Your new teammate might just surprise you.

If your group allows for coordination between teams, here are two decks you might consider constructing to work together. There are a couple of rares, but not many. The main point here is to take advantage of each other's Griffins, Wumpuses, and Horrors:

Puzzle Piece One.deq

Download Arena Decklist

Puzzle Piece Two.deq

Download Arena Decklist

There's a lot more to teaching a new player than what I've mentioned here. We haven't even touched on the chaos game, yet! The first multiplayer game for a player is an adventure in itself . . . and probably an article in itself, too. I'll do more lessons in future weeks. I welcome others' experiences and thank those who have already shared. There are a lot of newbies in a lot of good hands out there. Keep up the good work!

Anthony may be reached at

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