How Not To Scare Off N00BZ

As the more astute readers may have guessed, I'm stationed in Iraq. With the next Pro Tour: Baghdad a good 30 years off and the nearest Friday Night Magic somewhere in Europe, I find that the amount of Standard Magic practice I get is governed both by the reliability of the current MODO build AND how fast the hamsters run in the Iraqi Server cages.

Spartans don't play silly card games!
In the shade or otherwise.
As you can guess, getting in any decent Magic play happens about as often as the Shi'ite and Sunni leaders get together over ham cutlets and reminisce about sending their daughters to Yale. Which means that to play any Magic at all, I'm forced to track down or recruit new players from my friends here in the military.

My...infantry friends from our pure...infantry unit.

Not easy.

Pushing aside how a nerd like me even ended up in the infantry (let's just say that even a nerd can have a little bit of Spartan in him), we turn instead to the topic of introducing people to Magic...people who may have no experience with "nerd games" beyond Counterstrike or Rainbow Six.

Luckily, joining us today is one of my few friends in Iraq, "Tom." Tom was originally infantry like me, until a roadside bomb left him the sole survivor of his truck and the owner of a funked-up back. Now a medic, he still boasts about his ownership of "Nightmare Customs Ltd." (an automotive body shop) and the fact that, after only 3 months of Magic schooling from yours truly, he went home on leave to earn $500 in a local Legacy tournament.

But more on that later.

As I mentioned, Tom didn't start playing Magic until April of this year, when writer Chris Romeo was generous enough to donate 5,000 free cards through the mail, just to support the troops. (If you want more details, watch Evan Erwin's Magic Show #37.) I had a very sudden need to track down other players; and consequently, Tom had a very sudden and needy friend.

ME: When did you start playing Magic?

Tom: I tried playing one game maybe ten years ago, but couldn't get the hang of it. Then came April of this year, when you knocked on my door, mentioned the 5,000 cards that you were getting in the mail, and asked if I wanted to play when they arrived. I gave you a blank deer-in-headlights look and said, "I'm bored, sure." And then you skipped happily off down the hall.

ME: I was hoping for a slightly more manly description than that. Couldn't you at least say, "sauntered off down the hall, smashing skulls along the way?"

Tom: No, it was definitely a girly skip.

ME: Moving quickly along...what did you find was the most helpful about what/how I taught you?

Tom: You knew what you were talking about. Some of the guys I've spoken to up at the office will go on about how, in a given situation, if they draw this card and this card and this card and if the other person has this card, then you play this card and win automatically! And I said, "And why would I care about this one-in-a-billion chance?" "Because it's happened to me twice!" "Were you playing against the same person?" "Well, yeah..." [shakes head] Something about this game brings out the inherent stupidity that is common to most males. And girls too, of course; I wouldn't want to discriminate.

And so we come to the First Rule of Successful N00BZ Indoctrination.

I know that rule about Layer 6e
is in here somewhere!

1. Know Your Stuff.

After all, it's kind of hard to teach Magic to a new player when you don't understand it yourself. But don't worry. You don't need to be a certified DCI Judge or have the layers system memorized, but you should at least be able to explain what "damage on the stack" means or what happens during the Cleanup phase.

Case in Point:

The following situation (or one very much like it) happened in a recent free-for-all game. Our friend "Nicholas" was playing a zombie deck and had a Shepherd of Rot, a Severed Legion, a Zombie Trailblazer, and a Soulless One out as a 5/5. Someone else played Wrath of God (yes, a few of us have actually shelled out the $10-$15 apiece for these valuable board-resetters). Knowing he's about to lose all his creatures, Sutherland taps his Shepherd of Rot in response to deal 4 to everyone. In response to HIM, I cast a Sulfurous Blast. much damage is dealt directly to each player this turn?

This is the sort of thing you're going to have to both a) slog through yourself, and b) be able to explain clearly to everyone else. (BTW, assuming nothing else happens, the answer is 3...2 from the instant-speed Blast and 1 from the resolving Shepherd of Rot ability that only counts the remaining Soulless One.) Also keep in mind that your newer players might not understand what "in response to" means and when it's being used (i.e. spells or abilities that are still sitting on the stack and haven't resolved yet). You didn't start out knowing every nuance and ruling in the game; neither will your students.

Some good weekly columns both you and your friends can read up on are Chris Richter's column over on, and our very own Cranial Insertion, with which you should already be familiar. (If you're not, then shame on you!)

Hopefully, this whole idea of "studying up on Magic" is preaching to the choir. However, there is also such a thing as teaching TOO much too quickly. This is harder to notice.

ME: We both know there's an Encyclopedia Britannica’s worth of information you could learn about Magic. Did you initially feel flooded with information regarding Magic history, formats, tournament decks, rare combos, and basically everything else I've learned in the past few years?

Tom: Yes.

I just want to play Akroma! I don't need
to know her whole back-story too!

Tom's blunt answer leads us right into our next rule:

2. Don't Data-Dump!

A 138-page rule book. Over 8000 cards and counting. Fifteen years of tournament/play history. Just as many of a fantasy back-story behind every card you play. Teaching a new player Magic without inadvertently flooding them is about as easy as the first turn of a tournament-level Vintage match. Because, let me tell you, he could have ANYTHING in his hand...Force of Will, Chalice of the Void, Gifts Ungiven, and you have to be able to play around...oh, wait, there I go again.

Tom: If you're teaching someone who's new, you have to give them a LOT of leeway and patience. For some people, there are a LOT of details to pick up on right off the bat that might intimidate. Once you get the hang of the basic mechanics of the game, it's pretty simple; don't muddle them when you don't have to.

Here's another idea: only talk about specific concepts or situations when they come up...not when they scamper across your brain. You may understand that a Moonlace can turn a summoned creature colorless, letting you get past an Iridescent Angel...but unless you're in a game where all 3 cards are in play/hand, you're probably going to confuse more than help. Recently I tried explaining to a new player that the Stampeding Serow were in his deck SPECIFICALLY to interact with his Carven Caryatids or his Civic Wayfarer, and weren't supposed to be dropped just whenever he felt like it. Realizing the point was somewhat subtle for a man who was just learning to cast his first creature, I decided such lessons were best left for later.
One of the best means, I've learned, to introducing a completely fresh player to the ideas in Magic is through the preconstructed decks, like the Edition decks (i.e. 8th, 9th, 10th) or themed decks (from the expansions). We were lucky enough to have another distributor in the States send us 12 theme decks for free. (They included such goodies as 9th's World Aflame, Guildpact's Izzet Gizmometry, and Coldsnap's Kjeldoran Cunning.

In particular, the "edition" decks might be your best bet, as they were specifically designed for new players. They also have handy-dandy little reminder texts, letting new players teach themselves. However, their drawbacks are their low power levels and high indexes of "boring." (In World Aflame, for example, 6 out of the 10 creatures are "vanilla"...i.e. no special abilities). Not a lot to memorize there, except perhaps Balduvian Barbarians' most excellent flavor text. But the decks are excellent places to start, and might be easier to pick up than your incredibly-subtle Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir counter/control deck.

In our own group, for example, "Kyle" has had particular success with the Ivory Doom deck. Finding that he particularly enjoyed the mechanics of the deck, he asked for only a little advice, then set off to pimp his ride as much as his budget allowed. (And let's just say, if he isn't taken out quickly, his Master Apothecarys hold down the fort until his Akroma, Angel of Wrath rules the board.) Even I owe some of my personal development to the edition/theme decks; the first deck I remember really enjoying and tinkering with was the Golgari Deathcreep deck.

Tom: Oh, and one other thing: giving a new player a whole bunch of Jeopardy answers about the game isn't going to help them. Once they're developed and they can play without training wheels, then perhaps they'll start getting curious about some of the cards. Knowing the history of the artists, where the artists were born, what jobs they held down in college, and if they like one really cares! Except perhaps some of the freaky [expletive deleted]ers in the game shops that I wanted to punch in the face. They'd start going on about the private life of such-and-such an artist and I'd tell them the only thing I wanted to hear out of their mouth was "You won."

Me: You've got quite a lot of tact.

Tom: Apparently, you don't need tact to win.

Me: And so, another Geordie Tait is born.

Okay, so now we've learned that Magic is a five-course meal best served in bite-sized portions. We've collected a few cheap and simple decks for welcoming new converts into the fold. Now what?

3. Encourage Proper Play.

Now that we're committed to actually teaching someone the game, actually teach them the game. This requires both a measure of patience and some Here's an example.

Case in Point #2:

The aforementioned decks have not always had the same players. One night, "Leander" was using the same Zombies deck now used by Nicholas. Not yet accustomed to his deck or all the card abilities, he attacked into Kyle with a Zombie Trailblazer, thinking it was already unblockable. It took a few minutes for me to both explain what "Landwalk" was and how best to activate and use it with his card. Ultimately, we let Leander take back his declared attackers. We didn't mind; after all, it's all part of the learning experience.

The next turn, Leander tapped a second zombie card to give his Zombie Trailblazer Swampwalk, then attacked into me. Having nothing but Mountains, I immediately blocked with a Pain Kami to kill it. After all, he'd already used up his freebie; now he had to deal with his mistakes. It's all part of the learning experience.

Even Alfred Hitchcock finds a place in Magic.

To his credit, Leander has been steadily picking up and applying new concepts. Recently switching to a W/U "fliers" deck that more suits his style, he's learned how to leave mana untapped for instants like Otherworldly Journey and Perilous Research. Plumes of Peace gave him a little trouble...first he had to understand the difference between actually playing the card and just using its activated ability while in hand. Then he had to learn that he could only Forecast during his "Upkeep," and that if he drew a card, it was already too late. However, after a few trial-and-error games, he's finally gotten the hang of it, and will even yell at his teamy in a Two-Headed Giant game NOT TO DRAW if he's about to Forecast it. It's really quite entertaining.

It usually takes only one "TOO BAD FOR YOU!" for a new player to learn from his mistakes.

Now! Back to our gripping conversation!

ME: So, Tom, you began playing sometime in April of this year. For the next three months, you played a mono-Black Thief of Hope deck almost exclusively. Did this single-mindedness help or harm you?

Tom: Well, on the one hand, playing my one deck obsessively helped me learn how that deck worked, all the possible tricks in it, and how to react to other decks. But I wouldn't recommend staying strictly with one deck like I did. If I were to pick up someone else's deck, I may know what cards are in it and how to play it in theory, but I'll still get my butt handed to me by any newbie. Personal opinion: If you have experience with picking up a random deck, rifling through it, and making combinations on the fly with the cards that show up in your hand, that will help your development a lot more. A lot more than playing exclusively with your one "pet" deck.

ME: Did you find our current playgroup helpful or harmful?

Tom: In the beginning, all of us were constantly changing our decks to mess with each other, making me learn how to adapt on the fly. You'd start using Genju of the Spires, so Kyle would use his Battlefield Clerics to prevent the damage. Then you'd add Ryusei, the Falling Star and Sulfurous Blast to take out his side even if his Clerics went active, and he responded by adding Master Apothecary and Patriarch's Bidding. To which, more than one person switched his deck to a Tribal basis. It's when people hold on to the deck list they've been playing for the past however-many months because they're "used" to it or they get angry when they get beaten and just stop playing instead of going back to the drawing board that no one learns anything. Or has any fun, for that matter.

So Magic is a lot like...say, sports. If all you do is practice your 9-iron swing, you'll be in for a world of hurt when you have to break out that sand wedge.

4. Offer a Diverse Learning Environment.

If the only deck you play is a Green "Beats" deck and all your friend plays is a White life-gain deck, there's only so much the two of you can learn. Look at the metagame when Mirrodin was Standard, before the banning. Either you played a form of Affinity for Artifacts (usually "Raffinity"), or you played against it. There was very little evolution outside of those two archetypes, and it showed. The same can arguably be applied to the Eternal formats, Legacy and Vintage--only about 3 or 4 decks consistently dominate, and other than seeing how new cards can make them more resilient (Trinisphere, Pact of Negation) or temporarily break them (Hulk-Flash), the evolutionary pace is fairly slow. Unlike the current Standard, which seems to invent half-a-dozen new tournament-placing decks between each expansion.

The point is simple, and it's this: keep things interesting. Make more than one deck. Actively seek out new people to invite over (more people means more points of view). Research crazy new cards to add to your deck. Order one of those inexpensive, several thousand card collections from EBay to slap quick decks together with. (I've done this, and it's a fun blend of Constructed and Limited.) Try new formats, like Attack Left or Singleton.

After all, there are only so many things you can learn in a metagame that doesn't change.

(And, just from personal experience, stay away from those tempting mono-Blue permission decks. They only work well one-on-one, and when they do, the other person doesn't actually learn anything. Other than how to respond to a single archetype. An archetype that doesn't even allow them to learn how to use their own deck.)

5. Leave Your Ego at the Door.

ME: Okay, so we know I dumped a lot of information on you pretty quick. Is there anything I actually did right?

Tom: You didn't piss me off. You didn't lose patience. You never set me up to get screwed. (You're welcoming someone into the community, people! Give them a freaking gift basket! Don't chain them to the back of your car! Wait...that didn't sound racist, did it?) Your own personal win/loss record really doesn't's about getting someone interested enough in the game to come back.

It's spelled "Jetting Glasskite," but it's
pronounced "Neener Neener."

Case in Point #3:

Kyle, probably our most devoted player right now (if the amount of money he's spent on his deck is any indication), once targeted a Jetting Glasskite with a Mortify. It was the first spell/ability to target it this turn. It fizzled. No subterfuge, no trick up his sleeve...just a blatant mistake.

Did I mention he was on my Two-Headed Giant team at the time?

We won that game only because of a later mistake from the other side; by all rights, we shouldn't have. But, ultimately, it wasn't an issue. We understood it was our/Kyle's mistake, and no one's going to learn if there are eternal freebies for blatant mistakes. Even you.

Cultivating a new generation of players is more important than a "Ha ha I win yet again!" at the end of every game. Just take a look at our recent "Magic Day" and its results. Introducing new players is how we diehards keep our game alive. It's what prevents Magic from slipping away like so many other CCGs (cough cough Hecatomb cough), reducing us to swapping worn-out cards in poorly-lit corners of our local game shops, reminiscing about the day Invasion first hit the stores. Which, to be honest, we do anyway.

And although you may be the most experienced player in your group, even you (shocker of shockers) aren't infallible. If you realize you've just made a blatant error (tapping lands incorrectly, forgetting to draw at the beginning of the turn, missing a crucial triggered ability), point out the mistake you made, but don't go back on it!

Consider this: your opponent completely misses that he can swing for lethal with a flying, pumped White Shield Crusader and passes to you. Assuming, of course, that you haven't already pointed this detail out on other occasions, back up the game and have him actually do it. Sure, you'll "lose," but you'll simultaneously teach those around you and earn their respect. Which goes a long way toward getting people to return after the first time.

This may be the hardest idea for some tournament players to stomach--the fact that there actually IS something more important than winning.

6. Let New Players Make Some Decisions on Their Own.

(I take that back...sometimes this is the hardest one to stomach. At least for me.)

Ultimately, your actions help shape a new player's development. What you're trying to create is a new, independently thinking player who could take his skills to a local tournament and place reasonably in it. And two independent thinkers, by definition, will disagree with each other on something.

If your progeny has become confident enough to start making his own decklist choices...let him.
If he wants to up his deck count to 65 and his land count down to 22...let him.
If he wants to add Squire...bite your tongue and let him. He'll learn soon enough.

And who knows? He may even surprise you. Here's the perfect anecdote:

Case in Point #4:

ME: So. Tell me about your "experience" during Army mid-tour leave.

Tom: In June of this year, I took my 15 days of paid leave from the Army to go back to the States. While I was in Greenbrook, NJ, I was driving past this local game store one Friday night when I noticed a sign advertising a local [non-DCI] tournament. By luck, I had my deck in the car with me, and I thought, "Why the heck not?" I went in and paid the $25 admission fee, expecting to have my butt handed to me. At the very least, I'd be able to say I'd seen real tournament decks in action.

What I didn't expect was to walk out with $500 dollars and the first-place prize.

ME: And how did that make you feel?

For all you curious readers, here is Tom's decklist he walked in off the street with:

Tom's Thief of Hope DeckMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
Creatures (25)
4 Thief of Hope
4 Kami of the Waning Moon
4 Wicked Akuba
4 Bile Urchin
2 Keening Banshee
2 Kami of Lunacy
1 Gibbering Kami

Other Spells (20)
3 Hideous Laughter
3 Death Denied
3 Rend Flesh
2 Devouring Greed
2 Horobi's Whisper
2 Chill to the Bone
2 Swallowing Plague
2 Pull Under
1 Sudden Death

Land (21)
17 Swamp
4 Rakdos Carnarium


For a rare-free deck whose most expensive card is the single-copy of Sudden Death (which usually sells for $.99), this deck actually has an amazing amount of synergy. Kami of the Waning Moon + Wicked Akuba makes life painful for most decks, and a well-timed Devouring Greed can completely end a game. Soulshift is a free way to keep one's hand full after your creatures have done their job. And Thief of Hope, the deck's namesake, easily stalls aggro decks and can bring an opponent down within easy-kill range. Combined with the impressive amount of various removal and a pretty decent amount of graveyard return, this is a deck you don't want to let get off the ground. (I know...from experience.)

Yet a few things will stand out to even the casual observer. Like the presence of only 21 lands. For 66 total cards. The complete, utter lack of a sideboard. Yet this exact decklist carried Tom through to win the championship. How is this even possible??? Let's read on!

ME: I gather the feeling that if THAT deck won, this wasn't exactly a Pro Tour-level setting.

Tom: Well, it was just a local game store, so there were only 15 other people. I was the only one with a predominantly-Black deck. I saw someone playing a [then still-legal] Hulk-Flash deck, but he lost to someone before i had to face him. His version seemed rather draw-dependent anyway.

ME: Still, you went undefeated.

Tom: I never had to mulligan a draw; I drew the perfect number of lands and creatures each time. The other players' decks weren't prepared for mine; they'd pack artifact or enchantment removal, for example, when my deck uses neither. Plus, I was able to pull off some good combos. In my second match, I hit my opponent with a Devouring Greed for all but 2 points, then Soulshifted a Bile Urchin back to my hand and played Death Denied for another one. That was game. I also played against a version of Green beatdown, but his Silhana Ledgewalkers never got enchanted. They just blocked and died as 1/1's.

ME: I take it you didn't run into any Blue control that Bounce/Ebony Owl Netsuke deck I was testing against you that one day.

Tom: And a good thing, too! That day, I wanted to [expletive deleted] your [expletive deleted], and then [expletive deleted] down your [expletive deleted]! That deck has been banned from my presence, as I will light it on fire and dance around it in a festive manner.

ME: Well then, lucky for you no one brought one to the tournament.

Tom: Lucky for THEM, you mean.

ME: Tell me about the final match. Everyone wants to hear about the final match.

Tom: It was different--it was a single game, each player starting at 30 life, all out and no holds barred.

ME: Hmm. Definitely not a DCI event.

Tom: Hey, it was a little local thingy, and it was fun. My final opponent used a Goblin deck, which I hear is popular in Legacy or something.

ME: Something like that.

Tom: I traded my smaller spirits with his creatures and used Thief of Hope's ability to hold off the damage. This game was the one where I actually drew and played all 4 of my Thief of Hopes; that sort of life-gain can make life very difficult for an aggro deck. In the final turn, I was at 22 life, and he was at 20. I had 4 Bile Urchins, 4 Thief of Hopes, and a Kami of the Waning Moon on the board. I played--surprise, surprise--Devouring Greed to deal all 20 damage at once. Even if he'd been able to survive somehow, I still had a Death Denied in hand with enough mana to use it.

ME: I get the feeling he was none-too-pleased.

Tom: Something like that.

So a "newbie" I'd taught for only three months went home to earn $500 in a local tournament. If there's a better incentive for a new player, I don't know what it is. (Except, perhaps, also having an article written about him.) It's a "win" in my book.

Quick review!
1. Know Your Stuff. You have to understand Magic yourself before you can pass it on.
2. Don't data-dump! steps. This is not a cram course.
3. Encourage proper play. People won't learn the game if you don't enforce the rules.
4. Offer a diverse learning environment. There's nothing to learn in a group that doesn't change. Keep things interesting.
5. Leave your ego at the door. It's not about winning; it's about making new friends.
6. Let new players make some decisions on their own. Independent thinkers by definition disagree. Deal with it.

Remember, these "rules" are really more bits of advice than they are hard and fast directives. Look over them, think about them, and apply them as you can to your own playgroup. Then write about them in the forums! I look forward to whatever you have to say.


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