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I've been playing MtG since Ice Age (mostly with friends) so I'm now sitting on a massive duffle bag of cards, plenty of decks, and quite some experience of the game.

I want to teach the game to someone completely new. I know there once was a set called Portal which was designed exactly for that purpose, is it a good resource for teaching?

It seems like a lot to explain mana, phases, the stack, capabilities, planeswalkers, and all that at the same time using a full compliment of modern cards :-) Which terms are key and must be taught? Which can be avoided for a few games while I get them hooked?

I'm happy to buy starter decks or to print out some proxies to get my friends started.

So, what's the "recommended" way to teach someone MtG starting from the basics ?

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This article on the Magic site today offers some good tips for introducing new players to the game! wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/ld/130 –  thesunneversets Feb 18 '11 at 21:21
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6 Answers

up vote 25 down vote accepted

Have to say, I hated Portal. If someone can't cope with the word "block" (Portal used "intercept" instead) or the concept of playing a spell at instant speed, they're not going to get on with Magic in the long run. So why even bother with a watered-down version?

Modern Magic Core sets, like M11, are pretty well designed so that they contain everything that makes the game great, while remaining pretty accessible to a beginner. Sure, there are some moderately advanced concepts in the set... but they tend to be restricted to uncommon or rare cards. The commons are pretty straightforward, and have important rules clearly reiterated on the cards, in the form of reminder text. You don't have to worry about explaining at great length how Flying works: it says so on every common card.

Sure, Magic is a pretty complicated game. However, it's gotten a lot easier from the worst bad old days of interrupts, mana burn, damage on the stack and the subtle difference between "destroy" and "bury". Anyone who can cope with Settlers of Catan shouldn't have a problem getting their head around Magic! All you really need to explain is one land a turn, sorceries only in your turn outside of combat vs. instants at any time, and the fact that you have a window to do things after attackers are declared, and then after blockers are declared, and you've explained 90% of the "intricacies" of the game.

Don't sell your friends short - let them into the full and wonderful game. If you must simplify it, then build some decks with only simpler cards in them, and play with those, gradually introducing more concepts as you go along. But I really don't think there's any call for Portalizing the game. Anything that is in a modern Core Set has been proven to be "grokkable" even by beginning players by extensive WotC market research. I think people respond better, in general, to you giving their intelligence the benefit of the doubt, rather than patronizing them with a vastly reduced experience!

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+1 - While I miss mana burn and damage on the stack, it certainly has made things friendlier to newcomers, I think. –  LittleBobbyTables Jan 30 '11 at 5:24
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I had success in the past with making successive ses of learning decks. Start with 1 color, basic land and only creatures. Then add in enchantments. Then sorceries. Then instants, then two colors, then artifacts. –  Neal Tibrewala Jan 30 '11 at 7:43
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@Gyom: Try removing the uncommons and the rares from a pool of cards from a modern Core Set. I'm pretty sure all the concepts on the commons are both simple and annotated with handy reminder text. And then you can add in uncommons and rares as your pupil's confidence level grows! –  thesunneversets Jan 31 '11 at 18:20
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@thesunneversets: I think removing all of the uncommon and rares may make the game a little easier to run, but it would also remove a lot of the things that may get a new player to become excited about the game. So I would recommend judiciously remove some of them depending on their complexity and ungrokkability. –  adamjford Jun 22 '11 at 15:32
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+1 for the Portal hate. Several absolutely terrible design decisions (pointless terminology shift, clunky card texts, no stack interaction whatsoever) make it useless as an MTG teaching tool. Players absolutely need to learn about Instant-speed play by their second or third match; it's much harder to integrate that information into your understanding afterward. –  Alex P Oct 17 '11 at 2:52
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Summary: This article by Mark Rosewater detailing the common issues with teaching Magic and showing how the Duels of the Planeswalkers video game mitigates a lot of them, at the same time providing a handy guide to how you should approach teaching. According to MaRo, Duels of the Planeswalkers has taken the place of the core set as the "Casual Intro" tool, and the Core Set is the next move from there. Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 is the current release, also available for X-Box, PS3 and iPad.


Magic's R&D have spent the last 5 years modifying the system to make introduction easier, and there are some great articles by Magic designers and Magic developers on how to do exactly what you want. Also, for guidance on how to introduce any game, I can't recommend the "Extra Credits" episode, Sharing Our Medium enough. It's focused video games (which may in fact be where you want to start, see below), but a lot of the general ideas translate really well.

How To Play

Setup

  • Know your audience: Don't give your tactical mate a Green-Red Raargh deck, and don't give your 12-year old cousin who likes explosions a control deck where they don't hit anything. Better yet, before playing spread a couple of starting hands from the decks out in front of them and see what they gravitate to. You can even adjust this during the game, focusing on the bit they're into. If they like the art, let them root through the deck.
  • Use Simple Decks: Obvious, but tricky. What makes a card too complex? What makes a deck too complex? A simple-sounding mechanic (+1/+1 for every creature in graveyard) can become really complicated with a bit of graveyard manipulation. Tom LaPille's advice here is great. Flying's pretty obvious, Milling, not so much. Don't introduce multiple win paths until you think they understand the basics.
  • Choose something that opens big: For Magic, this translates to which decks you choose to start with. It sounded counter-intuitive when I first read it, but Tom LaPille makes a good point that the starting deck should be two-colour. His reasoning is that it makes it easier to understand the mana system, but there's another good reason: Gold Cards are cooler. By contrast, monoblue denial decks are the least cool thing ever, especially as an opponent.
  • Add a little bit of Awesome: One mega card and a couple of things at the "Serra Angel" level. Some vanilla's and basic spells, a couple of things that are obviously good things to have(TM), all built around one major player. Basically that's what a purchasable Intro Deck is.
  • Allow them to control their deck: Obviously, they need a pre-built deck to start with, but give them a sideboard of cards they might like. Include some cards they're not going to click with so they can choose to swap them out. Play in the same colours so they can trade with you for that card that they really love-hated.
  • And then, once they've built their deck? Let them walk away with it. Obviously, you need to make sure you didn't show them any card you wouldn't be prepared to give them, but by giving it to them, you now have an opponent to play with. And who knows, they might return the favour come the next block release.

Play

  • Start Playing Quickly: "Cards have costs. Lands allow you to pay the costs. You play spells, attack with creatures, I block, then you get another chance to play spells. Then your creatures heal up, and it's my turn. Your creatures can't attack on the turn they come out, to give me a chance to respond. If you have a card with the type "Instant", you can play it on my turn at any time. Okay, let's get started." - Obviously you'll want to be interacting with them more, but the information above is all you'd need. And yes there are some minor over-simplifications in there. That's deliberate.
  • Don't Worry About Them Making Mistakes: YOU ARE NOT PLAYING TO WIN AT MAGIC. Repeat it. REPEAT. IT. The game you are playing is "Convert My Friends to a Game". If losing puts them off it, you need them to win. If winning suspiciously makes them feel patronised, you need to adjust for that. If being mana-screwed puts them off, allow them to mulligan without losing a card till they've got a hand where they can see where they're going with it. And most importantly of all: If they make a mistake and play a card which they shouldn't have, allow them to take it back, and then play as if you haven't seen it. Don't not attack because you know they've got an attacker-killer. Don't not play your creature because they've got a Wrath of God. Surest way to make them not like the game.
  • Don't Be Afraid to Tweak the Rules: When playing a game with someone new to it, hidden information actually drops in value for the new player, to the point where it's actually a drawback. Not only do they not know a good move, they're hesitant to ask you about their move, then get annoyed when they realise they made a bad move. Easiest way to solve this? Draw face-up. If you're following the advice I told you to repeat above, you won't be trying to memorise their hand for your own advantage, so there'll still be a trace of hidden information.
  • Make Sure They're Having Fun: Seems obvious, but don't confuse your own fun with theirs.

Post-Game

  • Make Them Feel Good: Best way to do this is to listen to them. Answer their questions. If they've been mana-screwed over, tell them about your most childish mana-screw strop. If they like a rubbish card, don't criticise it.
  • Another Game?: If they've had a good time, offer them another game with the same deck. If they lose badly, swap decks and try again. If they decide that a card sucks, trade it and play again.

Different Player Types

Board Gamers

Most board gamers have heard of Magic, in the same way that most footballers have heard of Manchester United, and almost all board gamers want to be introduced to more games. It helps that Magic's quite quick, especially by board game standards. So a lot of the heavy lifting's done for you. Try reading Mark Rosewater's "Timmy, Johnny and Spike" to work out which type of player they are in other games, and then bring out the deck during the setup phase for Mansions of Madness. As for what to use? Probably one of the latest intro decks or the duel decks. All pre-built decks are designed for intro use (see New World Order for how they use rarity to help with this)

Video Gamers/Casual

In my personal opinion, the best thing to buy for a "true casual" player would be the latest version of the Duels of the Planeswalkers game. It was clearly designed as an intro system, and it's got a good subset of the core rules, and because they're computer determined, (including the default decks), it's less intimidating in terms of making a mistake. It also avoids some of the disadvantages of competitive play:

  • You can play on your own to show them how it works. Even better, as you play, they can start "back-seat playing", and as they get more into it, you can then hand over the controller.
  • It allows them to play against a consistent opponent in the AI (and at the early levels, a deliberately beatable opponent).
  • When they lose against the AI, they can just jump straight back in, no shuffling, no post-game argument.
  • The rules don't change on them. You don't forget the new changes to the Legend rule, or that Damage is no longer on the stack. Their mistakes are their own. Just make sure they always hit to stop the "instant clock".

Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 just came out, available on PC & Mac, and Wizards has clearly realized they're onto something with this.

Another option is to get them into a Free-to-Play TCCG that isn't Magic. My wife is now a chronic Solforge addict (70 hours and climbing). She wants better deck control and the ability to takeback after a play mistake? If only I had this deck of a very similar game right here...

Sources: Making Magic, Latest Developments, Extra Credits

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The game is actually called Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012, and saying an Xbox game is available on PC and PS3 seems kinda awkward. :) –  adamjford Jun 22 '11 at 15:46
    
Agreed. Edited. –  deworde Jun 22 '11 at 18:18
    
I don't agree that teaching the PC version of the game is the easiest way to introduce a new player to the card game. Additionally as these games get dated, they don't keep up with modern rule changes. –  Stephen Sep 20 '11 at 13:39
    
@Stephen I expanded my answer to cover why I think I'm right. –  deworde Jan 29 at 9:23
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Wizards has a new product released this month (September 2012):

Booster Battle Packs (MSRP $9.99)

Each Booster Battle Pack contains:

  • Two 20-card semi-randomized decks
  • Two 15-card Magic 2012 Core Set booster packs
  • Magic "learn to play" guide
  • Rules insert

The ad copy says:

Each pack contains a pair of semi-random decks, each with land appropriate for the deck's two colors. To play Booster Battle Packs, each player selects a deck, opens a booster chooses up to five cards from it, and shuffles them into their deck, then the spell-slinging begins. Since each pack will have four different colors, the two decks won't overlap. And when you add the booster to the equation, Booster Battle Packs create nearly limitless limited play options.

So, that's a pretty affordable way to get your feet wet. Don't drown.

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I believe this product is currently called "Fat Packs" –  Stephen Sep 20 '11 at 13:40
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I believe they're called "Booster Battle Packs"! Fat Packs have existed for ages, are slightly less focused at providing an out-of-the-box introductory two-player gaming experience. –  thesunneversets Sep 20 '11 at 15:23
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A totally different approach would be to download the old PC game "Shandalar", it was produced by wizards of the coast and should be freely available nowadays as it is quite outdated. I played this before going out and buying a lot of decks and boosters etc. it was definitely a big factor in drawing me to the card game.

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The original MtG computer game (with the two expansions) isn't a bad way to learn (especially given that you can actually build a deck, as opposed to the way the current version works) ... just keep in mind that "freely available" isn't necessarily the same as "legally available". –  Dave DuPlantis Jun 22 '11 at 13:04
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Problem is there would be a HUGE learning curve when you transition to modern rules (the stack, no interrupts, combat), and there would be no familiar cards whatsoever (except maybe Giant Spider and Lightning Bolt.) I say this even though I loved Shandalar to bits back in the day. :) –  adamjford Jun 22 '11 at 15:59
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The game won't run out of the box on a modern system - it requires Windows 95/98. It's been a while since I've tried, but I'm not sure the built-in compatibility shims are sufficient to overcome this. Also, the name of the game is "Magic: the Gathering" - Shandalar was the setting. –  BenOfTomorrow Aug 17 '11 at 21:15
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Shandalar is not a good resource to teach the game to new players. It's a great nostalgia piece for those of us who played the old rules, or to show someone how it used to work. –  Stephen Sep 20 '11 at 13:39
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Wizards has released ten 30-card sample decks (2 in each color) designed for exactly this. Unfortunately, they do not appear to be a product. I saw boxes full of these given out at conventions as freebies.

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I went to the Magic guy at my FLGS and asked for them, telling him I was going to use them to teach new players. He gave them to me for free, as long as I told them to drop by his store. :) –  adamjford Sep 19 '11 at 18:03
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I have found one simple word switch that is a helpful teaching aid. Substitute the word mana for money. You can't do anything without money. The more money you have, the greater your options become.

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This does not add anything significant to the existing answers. You might improve this answer by expanding upon it, especially with use-cases and examples of this technique's success. –  Brian S Jan 28 at 22:39
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