Magic Gatherings #18: Simplicity

By Harry Huberty on

About Harry Huberty

Harry blogs about games for GeeklyInc. He loves Magic: The Gathering, but he's always looking for new things to try, too. Find him on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_).


Do you remember your first game of Magic?

I’ll never forget mine. I learned about Magic in the August 1995 issue of Disney Adventures magazine—the literature of choice for the sophisticated ten-year-old, and also a giant advertisement I paid Disney to send to me. In between page-turning news of the upcoming Power Rangers movie, there was a short article on a weird-looking card game. I didn’t want to read about Magic at first, but it was summer and I got bored. Then I got interested, and when a friend mentioned he had a few decks, I asked him to teach me to play.

Our first game lasted for almost an hour, with my giant green creatures stymied by my friend’s [mtg_card]Drudge Skeletons[/mtg_card]. Fortunately (for me), even between my friend, the rulebook, and the Disney Adventures, I didn’t quite grasp the distinction between “mana pool” and “lands I have in play.” (Hey, lots of people do it.) So every time I tapped my [mtg_card]Llanowar Elves[/mtg_card], I assumed I got an extra [mtg_card]Forest[/mtg_card], to keep in play forever. This went on turn after turn; when we ran out of physical Forest cards, I started using tiny pewter soldiers as Forest tokens, stretching them out in a line across my friend’s bedroom floor. Eventually I had enough lands in play to hit my opponent with a double-digit [mtg_card]Hurricane[/mtg_card] for lethal damage.

The fourth grade finisher of choice.

The fourth grade finisher of choice.

I found myself thinking of that first game a few weekends ago, when I spent the weekend at Boston Comic Con running demos for my Friendly Local Gaming Store, Pandemonium. Teaching people to play Magic for the very first time brought into focus how much I’ve learned—and how much I’ve learned to take for granted—over the last twenty years.

Magic is a complicated, complicated game. Of course, that complexity is what makes it so interesting—still interesting—twenty years later, for someone who avidly reads about and plays the game. But with all that practice, it’s easy to forget what it was like to read your first mana cost. It’s not just the basic mechanics that have become second nature, but abstract theories like tempo, best practices like “hold instants” or “play lands and cast creatures in your second main phase,” and bedrock concepts like card advantage.

The brand-new players I was teaching, on the other hand, had a different set of challenges to navigate:

  • Learning to read mana costs, especially that the number of colored mana symbols—each counts just one—needs to get added to the number in the gray circle.
  • Learning that lands come into play untapped, tap to produce mana, can be tapped right away, and untap at the beginning of each of your turns. Just one land per turn, though.
  • Learning that creatures can’t be tapped right away, even though they can block right away. Creatures tap to attack, but they don’t tap to block.
  • When creatures do attack, they have to tap to do it. They can’t attack other creatures directly (even though creatures can do that in games like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Hearthstone); creatures in Magic attack players. And when they attack, you don’t have to pay their mana costs again—something a number of players had trouble with.
  • Keeping creatures’ powers and toughnesses straight. Power is always the first number, toughness is always the second. The creature doesn’t have to take lethal damage all in one go, but damage does heal up at the end of the turn.
  • Spells like instants and sorceries get cast, their effects happen, and then they go to the graveyard. They don’t hang out on the battlefield, though one player did try to attach a [mtg_card]Hydrolash[/mtg_card] to his [mtg_card]Jhessian Thief[/mtg_card].

Almost every item on this list comes from a misunderstanding a new player made during one of my demo games. Lest anyone question the sample, every person I interacted with was bright, and many were experienced gamers. But it’s important to note that there is a lot that experienced players have internalized. New players are learning all of this at once, and it’s a lot to learn.

It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

I didn’t go into battle empty-handed, however. To help intrepid game demo-ers like me along, Wizards of the Coast produces handy demo decks for exhibitors to use as teaching tools. They come two to a pack—two thirty card decks, each a single color—and are meant to be given to new players to keep after the demo is over. (That part is especially rad; everyone I played with was elated to get cards for free.) You can see decklists for those sample decks here.

Useful as they are, these decks each contain a number of cards which I think are a bit too complex for new players:

  • Too many triggered abilities. The blue demo deck includes a number of cards with Prowess, which seems like an awful lot to ask of new players. Assuming they can recognize “noncreature spells,” they have to remember to trigger the ability (though obviously no demo-er would punish them for missing triggers), and also keep track of that through the rest of the turn. For that matter:
  • Too much important information not explicitly written on the card. Here I mean triggered abilities like those on [mtg_card]Valor in Akros[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Charging Griffin[/mtg_card], which temporarily alter one or more creatures’ powers and toughnesses. When players are just trying to learn the basic rules of the game, having a card say everything it does—right there on the card—and having that be a constant throughout the game, is a big help.
  • Some activated abilities that rely on detailed knowledge of the turn cycle. I’m looking at you, [mtg_card]Akroan Jailer[/mtg_card]; explaining “beginning of combat” when I’m trying to clarify that you don’t have to pay four mana to attack with a [mtg_card]Charging Griffin[/mtg_card] is a bit much. [mtg_card]Volcanic Rambler[/mtg_card]’s ability actually works well here, though—it’s easy to understand, clear why you would want to use it, and doesn’t require giving up your attack. (“Should I attack” is a pretty basic question for new players, and having to weigh the tradeoff between attacking or activating an ability only adds complexity.)
  • Situational spells (like [mtg_card]Hydrolash[/mtg_card] or [mtg_card]Fiery Conclusion[/mtg_card]) whose application isn’t immediately obvious. I might also mention that the black deck includes [mtg_card]Flesh to Dust[/mtg_card], even though no creature in any of the demo decks can regenerate and no cards grant it. Why add the extra vocabulary?
  • Difficult Card Types. It’s cool to see artifacts and artifact creatures in the demo decks. It helps players understand that choosing colors limits your options, but even so, some cards can be used by anyone. It’s less cool to include equipment like [mtg_card]Veteran’s Sidearm[/mtg_card].
  • Not enough vanilla creatures. Vanilla creatures are a boon to beginners, who can take the relevant information piece-by-piece: mana cost first, while the creature is in their hand; then, once it’s in play, power and toughness. Ideally, the creature comes into play early—the first creature a new player casts should be the simplest one to understand. ([mtg_card]Yoked Ox[/mtg_card], unexciting as it is, is a good fit here.) Stuff like [mtg_card]Catacomb Slug[/mtg_card] isn’t getting cast until turn five, long after the new player has had to develop their board with [mtg_card]Malakir Cullblade[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Deadbridge Shaman[/mtg_card].

There are also some troubling power level disparities:

Welcome to Magic! Hope you like feeling ineffectual and helpless.

Welcome to Magic! Hope you like feeling ineffectual and helpless.

I played the white demo deck a lot, and never once did I cast this card. It’s great to have big creatures that can swing the game back in your favor if you’re behind—dramatic comebacks are a great way to get a new player hooked. But did they have to include a card with a recurrent triggered ability, one that requires sophisticated knowledge of the turn structure, whose utility isn’t clear if you don’t already understand how to attack? Particularly if it’s one that drags the game out and makes your opponent feel helpless? After all, Mark Rosewater’s first rule of teaching new players is “make sure they have fun.”

Lest I be too harsh, I want to recognize that there’s some reasoning behind the madness. In the first place, WotC’s decision to make the demo decks consist only of Magic Origins cards makes sense, as the demo decks are gifts to new players—you wouldn’t want to give them cards they can’t use. Giving new players a few powerful cards also makes sense from that perspective. (The decks do include a few cards from earlier expansions—technically Standard legal, though not printed in any current sets and unlikely to see play in any tournaments).

Like most expansions these days, Origins has only one cycle of vanilla creatures (creatures with no abilities) at common, and the developers used all of them in the demo decks. Moreover, what vanilla creatures there are has to be dictated by the Magic Origins limited environment. So in some ways, the goal of “make the demo decks easy to understand” is at odds with “give players useful cards to get their collections started.”

But given that the designers do add a few additional cards in the demo decks (like the aformentioned [mtg_card]Flesh to Dust[/mtg_card]), it’s a little curious that they didn’t use those slots to load the decks up with simple, staple effects to balance out the relative complexity of the Magic Origins cards. Something like [mtg_card]Oakenform[/mtg_card]—just the simplest expression of an aura—could have gone a long way.

A Different Set of Demo Decks

Playing a few games with Wizards’ demo decks got my gears turning. Magic is a great game, but a complex one. How could I most effectively teach it to someone who had never encountered it before? Could I reduce the complexity for new players? What are the most important things to emphasize? How do I make sure the game is still fun?

Wizards pondered these questions themselves after the Time Spiral and Lorwyn blocks, when they noticed that new player participation had started to drop off. They theorized that the game’s complexity was one big reason newer players were finding it difficult to learn and stay engaged. (It didn’t help that Time Spiral intentionally called back dozens of mechanics from throughout Magic‘s history.)

Wizards’ solution was a set of design principles they dubbed “New World Order,” aimed at simplifying the game’s complexity in its common cards. This included both simpler mechanics (on average) and simpler cards—more straightforward spells and creatures that were easier to understand, fewer activated and triggered abilities to create ice cream headaches from keeping them all in mind at once.

Inspired by these “New World Order” ideas, I decided to try it myself: I built two demo decks riffing on classic themes: a red-green deck stuffed with big monsters and a few burn spells, and a blue-black deck with some flyers and good defenders:

[d title="Red-Green Demo Deck" style="embedded"]
    2 Goblin Piker
    2 Leaf Gilder
    1 Centaur Courser
    1 Regathan Firecat
    1 Borderland Ranger
    1 Anaba Bodyguard
    1 Giant Spider
    1 Thundering Giant
    1 Stampeding Rhino
    1 Yavimaya Wurm

    1 Furor of the Bitten
    1 Lightning Strike
    1 Bathe in Dragonfire
    1 Natural End
    1 Hunters' Feast
    1 Explosive Impact
[d title="Blue-Black Demo Deck" style="embedded"]
    1 Maritime Guard
    2 Walking Corpse
    1 Child of Night
    2 Wind Drake
    1 Yotian Soldier
    1 Deathgaze Cockatrice
    1 Undead Executioner
    1 Air Elemental
    1 Rotting Mastodon

    1 Unholy Strength
    1 Debilitating Injury
    1 Divination
    1 Assassinate
    1 Mental Agony
    1 Extract from Darkness
    1 Sip of Hemlock

[If you prefer, you can see the decks on my account here (red-green) and here (blue-black).]

I built these decks around a few overarching design principles which I hoped would emphasize key points for new players:

  • Two-color decks. Showing off the color wheel, as much as I could, was important to me. I wanted newer players to be clear that each color is good at some things and bad at others. Moreover, I felt that having two colors would give players more practice reading mana costs—when all your cards are one color, the difference in cost between [mtg_card]Scrapskin Drake[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Claustrophobia[/mtg_card] is more abstract.
  • Almost all vanilla and French vanilla creatures. I saw so many new players have trouble remembering just the basics—power, toughness, mana cost, which creatures would die in a fight—that cards like Runed Servitor and Deadbridge Shaman seemed like too much. I limited myself to just one triggered ability in each deck, [mtg_card]Borderland Ranger[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Undead Executioner[/mtg_card], looking for cards that would have abilities that would each trigger only once.
  • Creature abilities to help players learn rules. It’s important to keep creatures simple, it’s also important to communicate that almost every card in Magic breaks basic rules—creature abilities are the most fundamental case of this. Plus, cool creatures are exciting! But inasmuch as we want simplicity, we can have this rule-breaking pull weight, by selecting creatures whose abilities remind the new player of the basic rules of the game. For example, most creatures tap to attack, but creatures with vigilance don’t. Most creatures can’t attack right away, but creatures with haste can. Most creatures don’t deal damage to players when they are blocked, but creatures with trample do. And so on. [mtg_card]Leaf Gilder[/mtg_card] was the most ambitious ability I included; I hoped that I could teach new players the difference between “lands” and “mana pool” a little more effectively than I had learned it myself.
  • If something changes, have a card to mark it. This is my effort to stay away from tricky abilities like Prowess, [mtg_card]Valor in Akros[/mtg_card], and the like. Each deck includes an aura or two which alters the creature—and the aura card hangs around as a reminder.
  • Keep the spell effects simple and clean as possible. I figured that direct damage spells and creature destruction spells would probably be the easiest to understand. Simple riders, like that on [mtg_card]Sip of Hemlock[/mtg_card], also seemed okay. Similarly, [mtg_card]Assassinate[/mtg_card] tests the ability to see a basic and important characteristic of a creature—whether it’s tapped or not. Lifegain pulls weight here too—more experienced players often overlook it, but for a newer player, it makes sense to want to gain life, since life is what keeps you from losing.
  • Have a little splash. Splashy rares are fun, but I wanted almost every card in each deck to be clear in its purpose, so that newer players could focus more on learning the rules and not worry so much about strategizing correctly. That said, I thought a few big spells ([mtg_card]Explosive Impact[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Extract from Darkness[/mtg_card]) could be cool, and could hint at the larger range of Magic spells that makes the game so fascinating for all of us.

So how did my decks fare? Well, but not perfectly. A few card choices turned out to be poor in practice: [mtg_card]Rotting Mastodon[/mtg_card]’s 8 toughness felt oppressive; [mtg_card]Mental Agony[/mtg_card] seemed a bit too feel-bad as I had it in my hand; [mtg_card]Natural End[/mtg_card], while cute, never really came up. I wanted to include [mtg_card]Child of Night[/mtg_card] as I thought new players would find lifegain neat, but it’s not the most resonant of vampires.

A few cards I wanted to include happened to be ones I just couldn’t find in my collection—[mtg_card]Volcanic Dragon[/mtg_card] as a curve-topper for red-green, and [mtg_card]Oakenform[/mtg_card] as a staple enchantment. Those led me to [mtg_card]Thundering Giant[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Furor of the Bitten[/mtg_card]. Not the worst, but I think I could have done better. I also think Deathgaze Cockatrice would have been better as [mtg_card]Typhoid Rats[/mtg_card], and [mtg_card]Extract from Darkness[/mtg_card] might have been a bit ambitious—maybe it could have been [mtg_card]Zombify[/mtg_card].

I also realized it’s important to build progressions into these decks—that is, to know beforehand how the game will play out, so that each player has clear choices and the game itself doesn’t stall out. I moved in this direction by making starting hands for each deck and stacking the top seven or eight cards, but I think I should have thought specifically about what each deck should do on each turn of the game, and planned accordingly. (As luck would have it, my first games with the decks were against precocious kid who absolutely insisted that we shuffle the decks beforehand because that’s what you do with a card game.)

The nice part about scripted games is that the demo-er can plan to introduce new concepts into the game organically, as new creatures are drawn. My [mtg_card]Maritime Guard[/mtg_card] versus your [mtg_card]Goblin Piker[/mtg_card]? Good for me. Wait, you drew a [mtg_card]Centaur Courser[/mtg_card]? Hm, that changes things. But here’s my [mtg_card]Wind Drake[/mtg_card]! And so on. Moreover, when you control the cards each player has, there’s no moment when you have to make suboptimal plays to keep the game interesting. No need to be pedantic; Magic players, even new ones, are smart.

For all these reasons, I can see why the Magic Duels game is such a useful too for teaching new players. The game can walk players through reading cards, casting spells, attacking with creatures, and so on, step-by-step. There’s no need to play with hands face-up or to dictate plays—the game can make its own suggestions. And the game designers control what the new player sees, so he or she can encounter new game concepts in a logical sequence along a manageable learning curve.

I’m glad I had the chance to teach a lot of people how to play Magic for the first time. It really brought back a lot of memories for me, and creating my own demo decks was a great challenge for the game designer in me. It’s a topic I look forward to returning to, especially as I try to make multiplayer variants like Commander more accessible and more fun for my friends.

What about you all? What was your first game of Magic like? And what’s the funniest story you have from teaching the game to new players? Sound off in the comments or let me know on Twitter (@cutefuzzy_)!



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