Drawing Live—Lessons From Lessons

It’s amazing how players learn Magic. Think about all the words that comprise this great game of ours: every game term (tap, declare attacker, target, enchantment–aura, life loss, double strike, exile zone, trample, post-combat main phase), every slang phrase (bounce, mill, burn, flicker, flip, pump, trick, pool, ship, wheel), and every way to play it (Constructed, Limited, Two-Headed Giant, EDH, Highlander, Rochester draft, Winston draft, eight-man). That’s a lot of words to know. We take most, if not all of them for granted because we understand them. However, imagine that you’re back at level one. Imagine that you’ve never seen a Magic card before. How do you navigate this maze of words and ideas and emerge a Magic player?

I’ve taught a lot of people how to play Magic in the past nineteen years. I taught when I didn’t really know how to play the game myself, when I had no idea how to teach, and even when my student didn’t want to learn (I really wanted someone to play against). I always taught one-on-one. Presently, I teach more often and more people than I’d ever anticipated. My local game store, Twenty Sided (which you may have heard mention of on this blog before), hired me to do it every week. Accordingly, I’ve distilled everything I know about introductory education and Magic into a one hour-long lesson. Each Saturday, I introduce a maximum of five people to Magic, in a quiet room, by myself.

This past Saturday, I had to teach nine people how to play Magic—at the same time and in a crowded and noisy room, while grabbing several available friends to help at random times (check out Rich’s article for his experience). In short, this is not what I usually do, or have ever done.

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March 30 was the first International Tabletop Day, a celebration of all things gaming established by YouTube darling Geek & Sundry. Twenty Sided joined the festivities and opened its doors to the teeming masses eager to roll characters, trade wood for sheep, and unmask Cylons. The store canceled every regular Saturday event… except for my lesson, which was advertised as part of the event.

I was stoked! This was a great chance to introduce lots of people to the magic of, er, Magic. I expected that we’d get a bigger than usual turnout, was looking forward to the opportunity to get more exposure. Turns out, Wizards was excited for the event and provided a lot of free Magic product. Plus, the store made the lesson free for everyone. Combine a large group of players, many of whom have never played Magic; an opportunity to rectify that; a supportive community; no financial commitment; stir gently; and you have Learn to Play Magic selling out twice.

I’m not afraid of the challenge of changing things up on the fly. I’m an improviser—I’m used to making things up as I go along on stage (and, as the Bard said, “All the world’s a stage.”) My fear was that I wouldn’t do right by my students. I didn’t want them to walk away from the lesson confused or hating the game because I did a bad job.

I did the best that I could in the hour I had. I had made five beginner decks, one for each color—so we were short four decks. I determined which students had played before, paired them with each other (and superstar Rich), and gave them the more advanced decks that Wizards makes. I seated the absolute beginners closest to me. Then I gave my lesson, yelling over the rattle of a jam-packed Twenty Sided Store.

I taught the same words I always teach: tapping, untapping, color, land, creature, drawing, library, hand, battlefield, graveyard, power, toughness, damage, lethal damage, life total, end of turn. Every player learned a handful of creature keywords (flying, lifelink, deathtouch, haste, and trample were all demonstrated) and at least one new card type (instant, sorcery, and enchantment were seen). That’s 24 words they had one hour to learn as they played their first game. Think about that: They had two minutes to learn each word (technically less than that, since I wax philosophical about the color pie for a while). They had to remember all of these vocabulary words, learn the flow of the game, and still have mental energy left over to play.

I used my usual tricks—be nice, be patient, teach the bare minimum, teach only when more knowledge is required to progress the game, and make sure that I’m the source of knowledge rather than the players or non-teachers. After an hour, they’d finished their first games of Magic. I was wreck from juggling it all. A few students had to run, but most stayed. Then the real challenge began: We had product to give out. It was time to teach my very first introduction to sealed to five teams of players.

I grabbed Young Master Kulik and my best friend from high school, Sam. I quickly taught the basics of sealed as packs were cracked (a new experience for many). We helped them build pools (practically every new player opened a planeswalker, which is only the most complicated card type in the game—though also the most exciting), paired them off against each other (Sam stepped in and played against the fifth team), and oversaw matches. I imagine this is analogous to teaching people how to play in the kiddie pool, then kicking them into the deep end of a lake.

They swam magnificently.

They got it. They went from knowing absolutely nothing about the game, to internalizing the rhythm of the turn (untap, draw, play land, combat, cast creature, pass turn), to playing sealed decks with planeswalkers in two hours. I was always there to offer advice and answer questions, but I’d stopped holding their hands half an hour through my first lesson. They were playing on their own and kicking ass.

I’d been afraid that they wouldn’t enjoy themselves. I’d forgotten that this game, for all of its complexity, is pure fun. It’s a thousand games in one, with a different style of play and cards for everyone. I couldn’t have done it without Rich, Lirek, Sam, Luis, and Lauren—but we all did it! They learned Magic! They had fun!

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The lessons that my brilliant students taught me are that for all of the complexity of Magic—despite its myriad vocabulary words, rules, and cards—it’s not that hard to learn, it doesn’t take long, and it’s fun despite (or, perhaps, partly because of) the learning curve. The game presents a challenge that people rise to meet. Being level one means there’s lots more leveling to do.

If you’re interested in teaching Magic, go for it! I’m happy to write further about my approach and hear your thoughts on education.

And if you’re interesting in learning Magic, go for it! Find a friend, come to my weekly class, buy Duels of the Planeswalkers, or read articles. Learning is most daunting before you try. After you take your first step onto the path, this five-color road that stretches out into infinity, it’s all a Magical experience.

—Zach B.

twitch.tv/ZennithGP

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  1. […] to the tournament ahead of time. This gave me the opportunity to run a few test games against Zach (whose new column is definitely worth a read), who ran my FourTron deck against me; FourTron is basically my name for the RG Tron deck that runs […]

  2. […] faves HotC talk about teaching Magic and sharing the love at my LGS. Have you taught Magic to anyone lately? If not, […]



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