Teaching Magic

Our local elementary school started a weekly "electives" program whereby parents and other volunteers could sign up to teach "anything" for the last 50 minutes of each Tuesday for six weeks. Some of the ideas provided were typical, like drawing or dancing, but others were stranger, like "taking things apart". I proposed teaching Magic to beginners. The Principal had *never heard* of Magic: The Gathering, and asked to see the cards. My wife, who volunteers regularly at the school, and plays a little bit of Magic, volunteered to take him one of her Eighth Edition pre-con decks. I had envisioned this episode as him breezing through a few Crossbow Infantry or Holy Day type cards and saying, "Fine."

But she took him the black deck. And left it. Groan. Of all of the images of Magic that I did not want to advertise was the Dark Side. I could just see this guy looking at one card after another and getting the impression that *all* Magic cards were like this. I was thinking I should have sent her in with the Teenage Girl Squad. Who can say no to teenage girls? Sigh. I never was good at marketing.
Thankfully we are fortunate not to live in the bible belt, and the course was approved. In New England, Rats, Bogs, and Gravediggers are OK. We have Ted Kennedy, for crying out loud!

After some load-balancing, we were finally assigned twelve kids: four each from 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades. For those not familiar with US grades, these are seven to eleven year-olds. My plan was to teach from Core Set cards only, and buy the pre-cons. The Parent-Teacher Organization, which was funding the electives experiment, budgeted $50 for each elective. That isn't enough to buy twelve decks, but we planned to sell them to parents of kids who liked it, and thus at least get the cost down to meet the budget. My wife agreed to assist in the class. In addition, we could get my eldest son in High School to come on most of the days. Now I only had one more problem, with about a week to solve: How do you teach Magic to elementary school kids?

I should note that my own two elementary school kids were not eligible. Both are very into the game, own DCI cards and have tournament experience. We wanted the class to be strictly for beginners. I insisted on this mostly because I dreaded the thought of some snot-nosed ingrate coming up with every exception for whatever I said, and generally ruining the class. I imagined everything I said would be countered with, "... but what if Mischievous Quanar is in play, and ...". Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh experience was OK. As it turned out, the course description that went home to parents dropped my "for beginners only" admonition, so I was immediately worried that Mr. Snotty would show up anyway.

My first idea on how to approach the game was the way the Starter set does. However, that requires a pre-built pair of decks, and more structure and patience than elementary school kids possess. They will drop the deck on the floor, put it back together, and not tell you about it. Besides, I had twelve kids. Trying to run six walkthroughs seemed like too much.

My second idea was to start by playing a simplified rules version of the game, where color didn't matter, power/toughness was combined, etc. Unfortunately this would be a nightmare to try and organize in a week, and I would fail at the very idea of the class: to teach correct Magic to beginners, not some version of Pokemon. I don't really care about sub-step orders like untap, upkeep, and draw, but I wasn't about to ignore the important things like the difference between Sorcery and Instant spells or the steps in the Combat phase. Tossing out the importance of colors in Magic seemed like a huge mistake, as it was one thing I was certain the kids would latch onto.

I decided to ask my kids what they found most confusing when first learning Magic. My eight year-old, who has been playing since before he could read, thought for a moment, then said, "Banding".

No help there.

Finally, I knew that I would be "winging it" to a large degree. I have taught robotics and mechanics to elementary school kids, and my first ideas of what would work were pretty far off. While these kids aren't stupid, they don't give you much time before they stop paying attention. Especially if they are excited. These elective classes were going to be a lark at the end of the school day, and I had to assume I wasn't going to be able to run a class that adults could handle. So I didn't want to plan too much, knowing the plan wouldn't last.

I decided on the following class outline shown to the right. I had five fifty-minute sessions (not six as originally planned). I had to get them playing proper games by the end. Clearly, a bunch of walkthroughs were in order.

Magic: The Gathering Curriculum

Day 1
- Opening Discussion
- What Magic is (a battle between wizards)
- What the cards represent (spells cast by wizards)
- How The Game Is Played
- 2 or more players
- You start with 20 life, first person to zero loses the game
- Shuffle the deck and take 7 cards off the top
- You take turns, first person does not draw a card
- You can play one land card on your turn
- You "tap" cards to use them
- You can play as many spells as you can pay for
- Unblocked creatures and damage spells lose life
- Cards Can Change the Rules
- How to read the cards: Name, Mana Cost, Art, Card Type
- Expansion Symbol, Rarities, Abilities, Power/Toughness
- Artist, Collector #, Flavor Text
- Open the decks, make a stab at opening plays

Day 2
- The Phases of a Turn
- Beginning: Untap, Upkeep, Draw
- Main #1
- Combat: Begin Combat, Declare Attackers, Declare Blockers, Damage,
- End of Combat
- Main #2
- End
- Start another game

Day 3
- Discuss points from last week seen during play
- The Zones of Play
- Library
- Hand
- Graveyard
- The stack
- In-Play
- Out of the game
- Play a game

Day 4
- Discuss things from last week
- Pass out fliers on buying decks to take home next time
- Play a game

Day 5
- Discuss next steps
- Play a game
- How it went
The first day went pretty much the way I feared it would. There were too many non-beginners, there wasn't enough time to go over what I had planned, and the kids were too excited to listen to much discussion anyway. One girl signed up, but she took one look at the rest of the class, said "no way" and left. You see how early it starts?

The oldest kids, 4th graders, were the main problem. Nearly all of them seemed to think they knew how to play, but in watching them they clearly were playing some kind of awful mix of Magic and the Japanese card games. What soured me (and my assistants) on this age group was their attitude. Just about every single one was disrespectful and annoying. They acted like they owned the class and the "little kids" were below them. You see how early it starts?

The first question was "Can we bring in our own decks next time?" To which the answer was, "No! You are beginners! You don't own any cards, you don't know how to play!" Sigh. I covered about half of what I wanted to. Then, some kid (4th grade, of course) raises his hand and says, "Are we going to get to play?" This turned out to be the standard pattern for every class: I would try to explain something for five minutes and then would come The Question: "Are we going to get to play today?" This was after I had just said what we were going to do!

The typical class started at about 2:25. I would try to explain one of the topics I had planned, and then would almost get through it before getting The Question.

We tried different strategies. Sometimes we paired everyone off, and other times we did a kind of team game with two people per side. Half the time, the kids would try to grab the cards out of the other kids' hands. My wife actually made a pair each hold half of their side's hand. I think having teams deciding each play together was more instructive, so I would do this more in the future. One on one matches were just too hard to police. We didn't have enough teachers to keep the games honest. One time I came upon a game and there was a Megrim in the graveyard. "How did that get there?" I asked. "I attacked with it last turn" was the answer. How does one answer that? Without keeping track of each game 100% of the time, they would quickly go astray. But they didn't know they were going astray. They were having fun.

Another time I happened upon a game where there were 3 forests in the graveyard - on turn 3. "How did those get there?" I asked. "We used them last turn."

Lessons Learned

The biggest common play mistakes these kids made were:

1. Not tapping. Neither to attack nor to produce mana. No amount of reminding seemed to fix this issue.

2. Not untapping. Sometimes, they would notice and correct it.

3. Attacking creatures. This was the biggest play misunderstanding. They would constantly try to attack creatures (with creatures from their hand, land, sorceries, etc). Some kids tried to attack enchantments. I took a whole ten minutes during the first part of one class to try and break them out of this. I was told by my kids that it is from Yu-Gi-Oh/Pokemon play.

4. Not reading the cards. They seemed to be amazed that sometimes the cards affected *them*, like Maggot Carrier. They were even more amazed that I knew what the card said without looking at it.

The younger kids were the ones more suited to the class. They were also more receptive to being "taught". They also needed to be watched more closely during games, because they would get stuck immediately if you weren't there. Even with me monitoring just two games I was unable to keep both games moving at a decent pace.

If I were to do it over again, I would do several things differently. First and foremost, I would not mix grades as much. While it may seem a minor age difference to an adult, kids are very different at this age level and they simply do not mix. Secondly, I think 12 students is too many at this age level for a single teacher and helper. I know, I know... my kid's teacher deals with 22 every day, but she knows what she is doing! Here I am, some engineer off the street trying to teach Magic to puppies. It's hard!

I still think going after ab initio (complete beginner) training is a good idea. The problem, of course, is that by the time kids are ready for Magic, they have probably already been exposed to Pokemon or YU-Gi-Oh. The play style is similar enough that they assume things are the same when they aren't. You end up constantly finding these differences and trying to train the kids to break out of them. It is worth noting that most likely they aren't playing those other games by the rules either.

One of the areas that I think could help a bunch was the decks we used. Being under time pressure, we bought fifteen pre-cons in a box from Star City Games. This gives you three decks of each color. Then we passed them out to different kids each time so they would get the flavor of the entire spectrum. This may have been a mistake. I think now it might be better to give everyone an identical deck for this kind of training. This way when they play a game they'll be familiar with all of the cards. I think this is the biggest step I can take to bring them along faster. It will also mean I can go over the "tricky" cards at the beginning of class, and take comfort in knowing that what I say applies to the entire class.

A real Timmy deck of vanilla creatures would also be great. It may seem lame, but keep in mind these are kids that are struggling to understand the mechanics of play. What would make it even better is if I could build a bunch of decks full of commons or cheap uncommons. I would end up paying a lot less for these decks compared to what I paid for the pre-cons (in fact, I could build the pre-cons for less). The pre-cons are nice because they are "official" product, and the kids can take them home at the end and feel like they got something real for their class.

Teaching a class on just about any subject forces you to think as a beginner, to see the subject in their eyes, and forces you to develop answers which don't require knowing everything else. Imagine trying to impart your knowledge of some deep subject to someone who doesn't even know the terminology required. It isn't natural. It requires you to build a mental model in their mind, part by part, so that they can use what you have said to get to the next level. In all of my net research on the subject of teaching Magic, I have never come across anything that really attempts to teach the subject from the ground up. I hope to be developing my own set of articles here to fill in that hole.

Teaching has rewards, of course. A few weeks after my class ended, I was at school picking up my kids when one of the kids came by. "Hey," he said, "You are the guy from Magic: the Gathering!" Yep. That's me.


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