Teaching Magic

I recently got to help out with the Learn to Play area at SDCC, and a few months before that at ECCC. It was a very interesting experience, and teaching people Magic is one of new favorite activities.

For one thing, I was constantly busy. The worst part of normal large events is all the downtime when nothing is happening, and you just have to stand around doing nothing watching Magic. But in Learn to Play, the players have no idea how the game works, so every player commits an "infraction" every few seconds.

This would be my first suggestion for running a Learn to Play area: Never leave the players alone. Magic has quite a lot of rules, and someone who knew nothing about Magic an hour ago is unlikely to remember all of them, even if you just explained them. If you do something like pair them up against another new player, what's going to happen is that they'll each take the spotty information they do remember, talk about it with each other, and come to a mutually-agreeable set of rules to use to play their game. There's no guarantee that the set of rules they land on will bear much resemblance to how Magic is actually supposed to work.

It doesn't much help if you stay in the area and tell them to call you if they have a question. Even long-time competitive players have trouble calling a judge, and newer ones will often be even more shy.

One decent solution if you're low on judges is to pair up new players against experienced players who are willing to help out. This anchors the game to reality and means the new player isn't going to teach themselves an incorrect ruleset. However, just knowing the rules of Magic is not a guarantee that they'll be good at teaching Magic.

Teaching Magic

There's a difference between the knowledge level of the average serious judge and that of the average serious player. Judges tend to fondly look down on competitive players not knowing stuff like what a "state-based action" is or what order the layers are in, the same way a parent might chuckle and shake their head at a kid who says "Daddy, what are taxes?".And I'm sure the players regard us similarly, laughing with each other about how judges could possibly not know what "tempo" means, or the correct time to cast Gush. But the judge and competitive player actually have a huge amount in common, and are far more similar to each other than either of them is to the average human.

Here are some examples of things that are so obvious to any judge or player at a large Magic tournament that it would never even occur them to question whether it's a reasonable assumption to make of whoever they're interacting with:

Anyone who's been playing Magic for years and is trying to teach a new player, if they're not being extremely careful, will unintentionally make many of these assumptions about whoever they're trying to teach, leading to miscommunications and confusion.

XKCD comics

This is the Curse of Knowledge. We can't read other people's minds, so went tend to model them as "ourselves except the few minor differences that I can think of at the moment". This makes us expect a much smaller inferential distance than there actually is between ourselves and other people, and we don't realize how large the difference in background knowledge really is.

Trying to compensate for this doesn't guarantee success, since "trying to compensate for it" is just "try to model other people's minds, but better", which runs into the exact same problem one step upwards. Even after having spent a few hours interacting with newer players, I would still get surprised when they did things like ask me what it means to "tap target creature".

Correcting errors

In any teaching session, our approach to fixing mistakes should be very different from what we may be used to. In a tournament, there's an expectation that players will play correctly, and while tournament policy is understanding of mistakes, it's still treated as them doing something "wrong". In learn to play, that philosophy needs to go out the window. When they make a mistake, just nudge them with "it works this way" or "don't forget to do this". Avoid any implication that they have in any sense "transgressed".

We want to be polite and consistent. The 50th time they tap their creature to block should be handled the exact same way the first time was; with an upbeat "oh, you don't have to tap that", a smile, and continuing to play on.If you're the sort of person who will get annoyed at having to explain the same thing over and over, that's a very natural reaction, but you're probably not the best person for learn-to-play and I'd recommend requesting a different positive. Though they may not show it, they'll be annoyed enough at themselves for continuing to forget something you've already explained. The consistency is really important, since that's how people learn. It will be tempted to let some of the more minor things go, but that's how you entrench bad habits that will hurt them later.

For example, something that even competitive players often do wrong is draw their card before untapping their lands. This is usually not a problem, but if the opponent wanted to cast Vendillion Clique or Kolaghan's Command in their upkeep, now they're probably getting a Warning for Hidden Card Error. Once someone has been playing Magic for a while, it's very difficult to correct this behavior, because A) it will have become an ingrained habit that's hard to change, and B) they might get defensive if a judge tries to explain something to them that they perceive as "beneath" their experience level. But in learn-to-play, the player will never get upset at you for correcting them on something like that, since "the player doesn't know the basic game rules" is an assumption that's common knowledge between both of you, and there's no reason to get defensive about it. Similarly, they won't be confident enough in their knowledge of the game's strategic side to make arguments like "this doesn't matter".

Don't do things for them! If they forget to tap their lands or creatures, don't just reach over and do it yourself, remind them to do it. Doing it for them is A) potentially rude, and B) won't help them learn nearly as quickly. People learn by doing things themselves, not just by having it explained to them.

Similarly, when they make an error, correct it immediately, with no delay. Whenever you're teaching something, especially a physical action, the shorter the action-consequence delay, the faster they'll learn to do it right.This is why clicker training works so well, for example.

What cards to use

Your goal when teaching people is to get them to understand the rules as well as possible, so you want to expose them to a broad range of mechanics and help them get used to parsing complicated card text so they won't be overwhelmed when they encounter it later. Accordingly, the best teaching decks include cards like Space Beleren, Word of Command, Trickbind, Master of the Hunt, Captain Rex Nebula, etc.

Strike that. Reverse it.

Your goal when teaching people is to get them to have enough fun that they want to continue learning. If the game seems too complicated, they're going to feel like they can't learn it, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wizard's current new-player-oriented product is Jumpstart, and this is what stores will often have on hand. The best thing to do with those Jumpstart packs is take them and trade them to someone else in return for cards that you can actually use to teach people how to play. If that's not an option, you can open the packs, take out all the cards with more text then a well-known work of fiction, and play with whatever's left over.

When someone is first starting out, it's quite enough of a challenge to learn the turn structure, how combat works, how to pay for spells, and other core game rules. The deck can be nothing but basic lands and vanilla creatures, and maybe a few extremely simple instants and sorceries, like Giant Growth and Divination; that'll be plenty complicated enough. It doesn't need to be 60 cards, nor have a normal land/spell ratio. The only tactics you'll be teaching are things like "if you're at 20 with a 4/4 and your opponent has a 1/1 and no mana open, you should probably attack", so the non-rules aspects of the game don't need to bear much resemblance to a typical game.

After they've gained some familiar with the core game rules, you can start giving them some simple triggers and keywords, but be conservative. Remember that they way they'll perceive words like "first strike", "haste", "hexproof", and "vigilance" is similar how you perceive "absorb", "amplify", "coax", and "squad".One of those isn't a keyword, but I bet you don't know which one. Try to get versions with reminder text, so you won't have to keep reminding them what the keyword means and they can get used to the concept of reading the card to explain the card.

Keep. it. simple.

Whenever introducing new cards, keep the explanation as simple as possible. Artifacts and enchantments can be introduced as "creatures, but they can't attack or block". Activated abilities are just "you can pay the whatever it says in front of the colon to do what comes afterwards".

The same goes for game rules. If you try to start by explaining every step and phase of the turn, they're going to have no idea what you're talking about, and it doesn't matter anyway. Just start playing, remind them to do things at the appropriate time, and when the opportunity arises, let them know about things they can do that they might not have realized, like cast a sorcery after combat or cast an instant on your turn.

Of course don't stick to a rigid structure when it's unhelpful. If someone picks up the game really quickly, or says they'd rather learn in a different way, give them what they'd prefer. But in general you're going to overestimate the amount of information that you can throw at them before they get overwhelmed.

Don't get obsessed with a certain structure

At one event, they had a Wizards employee there to run the learn-to-play area. When that employee had to leave, the TO started turning players away, telling them "sorry, I know you'd like to learn Magic, but we can't teach you". This seemed terrible, so noting that the judges weren't actually doing very much, myself and another judge set up our own learn-to-play area and ran it ourselves.With the TO's permission of course.

At another, the TO ran out of Jumpstart and edited the schedule to say "sold out", again turning players away for no good reason. I again wasn't busy with anything else, so I just grabbed some cards out of the draft chaff box and kept teaching people with those.

The important part of a learn-to-play area is not using a specific product or rigidly adhering to a predetermined plan. It's having people who are friendly, knowledgeable about the game's rules, and enjoy teaching. As long as you have that, you can make it work with no other resources. Even when there aren't paid staff members available, often there will be more experienced players around who would enjoy teaching someone new.After all, everyone new who joins the Magic community increases the value of your dual lands. (You could offer them some booster packs for their help.)

Leave people with the tools to teach themselves

Don't let them leave without stuffing their hands full of free stuff. Bulk Magic cards are extremely cheap, and it's pretty much costless to give enough for two decks to every new player.At a typical Magic convention the draft chaff just gets thrown out at the end of the weekend anyway. This will immediately give them a positive impression of Magic, since most game communities don't give out that much stuff, and it means they can immediately start playing at home, without having to go to additional effort to decide whether they want to spend money.Do make sure the cards you're giving out are actually bulk. At ECCC I accidentally gave someone a foil Elesh Norn, which was about $50 at the time. The TO was a good sport about it, but I'm sure they would have preferred to keep it, and I shudder to think of what the player likely did with that card, unsleeved.

Make sure they also know where to go for questions. The judge IRC chatroom is a wonderful place for this, and the player doesn't have to memorize a URL; just tell them they can Google "MTG rules chat" any time they have a question and it will be the first result.

The Magic community is full of people who love the game and just want to help others enjoy it like they do. The non-Magic community is full of people who would enjoy Magic. All we need to do is connect those people together and give them the tools to succeed.

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