I play Magic the Gathering with my kids a bit. But, the games are often very one sided (in my favor) as they haven't mastered all the rules, and intricacies of game play. For most board games, I can come up with reasonable handicaps when playing with them. I haven't found a way for Magic the Gathering that feels right. Things I've tried include:

  • Having them add 3-4 land to their initial hand (so they start out with 10-11 cards). (not enough advantage if game goes long)
  • Making sure they draw a land if they are mana screwed. (Not enough advantage if game goes long)
  • Having them draw two cards per turn (way too much advantage for them)

Are there any other house rules that you have used to address this situation?

  • 4
    Have you tried just intentionally losing?
    – corsiKa
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 16:54
  • 4
    Forgoing some more technical/clever/advantageous plays can help you get where you want. Another simple option would be to use weaker decks and give the kids stronger ones. This also gives you a chance to try out some janky stuff you normally wouldn't attempt :)
    – DanielSank
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 21:32
  • 6
    @corsiKa, That goes 180 degrees against the way I parent. I never lie, or deceive my kids. Ever. They know I'm doing my damnedest to beat them, and they know that when they win, that they've won "honestly." (Within whatever handicap we've come up with.) That's extremely important here.
    – John
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 18:51
  • 5
    @John Then just use weaker/jankier decks. If you're super intent on treating your kids that way then straight-up tell them something like this: "I keep kicking your butts because I know this game better. That's not super fun for either of us, so I'm going to use a weaker deck for now. As you start beating me, I'll up the deck level until we're on even ground. Bring it.". There is absolutely nothing dishonest with handing someone a pair of training wheels and telling them they're going to need them for a short time.
    – DanielSank
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 19:14
  • 2
    @John but you're not. If you were doing your damnedest to beat them, you'd play a Tier 1 deck and not give them any handicaps. You've already rigged the game so heavily in their favor. If anything, you're not doing it honest at all by allowing them to cheat with house rules. A soccer coach doesn't teach the team to play soccer by constantly dominating them on the field... this isn't any different...
    – corsiKa
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 21:04

11 Answers 11


My friend and I have used the following and we think they work pretty well.

  • Start with a lower life total. Start yourself off at 10 or 15. As the kids get better, slowly increase it until you are back at 20.
  • Remind the kids about all their triggers or abilities they should be using. Especially when learning, having someone remind you to activate a useful ability at the end of an opponent's turn or that a trigger with a "may" in it has happened is quite helpful in learning how to keep track of a lot of things at once.
  • Use simpler decks. When teaching someone, introduce only a few concepts / interactions at once. Starting with green fatty vs. white weenie lets someone learn the basics of a turn and how combat works without (usually) too many tricks via instants, etc. Once they have a pretty good grasp on that, introduce something else. Work your way up to the more complex things so as not to overwhelm them.
  • Stack their deck a little. We will occasionally "fix" a child's deck when they aren't getting lands or creatures or something. We don't mind because we aren't looking to win, we are looking to teach and practice.
  • Don't play as aggressively as you normally do. When I play against my friend, it is no holds barred, all out play. Against his kids, I might "forget" to use an ability or play a spell that would save a creature. Not always, because they do need to learn how to deal with those things, just not every time.
  • Give the child a stronger deck. Fighting an uphill battle gives you a little bit of a challenge. You need to use your experience to overcome the power difference.
  • 12
    +1 for "too many tricks via instants": My first thought was "don't play decks where they keep walking into traps while they're trying to work out how to play". Against a new player, Giant Growth is effectively a removal spell.
    – deworde
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 20:26
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    +1 for "Don't play as aggressively as you normally do". This has the major advantage that the learning players are playing with all the usual rules, life totals, etc. in effect. By "playing down" a bit, you're allowing them to play the real game just with an easier opponent. A friend of mine taught me to play Smash Brothers like that. We never used in-game handicaps; he just played slightly better than me for years until now we push each other to the top of our game.
    – DanielSank
    Commented Feb 28, 2016 at 21:35
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    @DanielSank, see my comment above. The rest of these ideas I like. Although the stronger decks in our house, are typically the harder to play.
    – John
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 18:53
  • @John Regarding "...although the stronger decks in our house are typically the harder to play", just use weaker ones yourself. Pick some janky combo deck you've always wanted to play and give it a shot. Or, if you're beating your kids because you have a better mastery of triggers and activated abilities why not just use something more straightforward? I spent some time cultivating six decks can have interesting on-par games with each other without crazy tricks precisely so I could play with friends etc. who don't play much. Give it a shot :)
    – DanielSank
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 19:18
  • 4
    It is a struggle but you can engineer matchups where two simple decks have a 70-30 or worse match up. Handicapping in deck construction leads to a much more natural game play and is probably a better teaching tool than any of the other suggestions. It's largely what I try to do when demoing at cons, pick the deck that will naturally lose. Throwing games when teaching can make people feel bad.
    – LovesTha
    Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 23:51

How complex are your decks? For teaching kids, you want simple decks: big green fatties, red burn, blue fliers, black removal, white weenies, etc.

Most of the time when I want to handicap myself, I intentionally use a weaker deck against a stronger deck.

You could also keep a cheat sheet of the phases of a turn, so that they make sure to go through all of them.

  • I totally endorse this approach. I've taught a number of people Magic using fairly simple decks where their deck is much better than mine. My preferred starting match-up is a tribal deck (like Slivers) for the new player vs a green fatty deck for me because it lets them grow superlinearly in power compared to my (slow) linear growth. Also, here's a steps and phases chart I made specifically for teaching new players: boardgames.stackexchange.com/a/20862/9999
    – Zags
    Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 1:26

The closest thing to an official recommendation is a gimmick format from the Invitational, called "Auction." Players would bid for decks they wanted by offering to play them with reduced starting life and hand size.

To avoid deviating too much from the game's standard parameters, you can mix penalties for the stronger player with bonuses for the weaker player, e.g. an extra starting card and 5-10 life. (Even Auction, targeted at pro-level players making careful optimization decisions, starts the bidding at 8 cards / 30 life for this reason.)

Why are we adjusting both life and cards? Because different decks value them differently. Consider how differently a burn deck plays when you start at 10 life, for example. There are matchups where a life gap or a card gap might not matter much, but that's seldom going to be the case for both.

Try starting with 6 cards + 15 life vs. 8 cards + 25 life. Adjust by a couple of life points or a single card at a time until you find the right "handicap."


Rules are important

Do not do things abnormal to the comprehensive rules. This runs the risks of creating bad habits or an expectation of leniency when they start playing with others. Allow their deck to be naturally random, as this is a concept that will accost them through out their time playing; softening it may ease their entry, but it establish road blocks later on. A caveat to this is adjusting life totals; 25v15 is a good starting easement.

Simple Deck Concepts

Construct decks that would be balanced to introduce the basic themes of magic. Survivable White Weenies, Cheap blue Flyers or illusions, Red hasty throw-aways, green ramp into fatties.

From there, transition towards an introduction of allied pairs and their mechanical agreements. Start with Green-White, progress through Red-Green, then Black Red. Tread with caution around White Blue and Blue Black, each has a penchant for being more responsive than active.


Try using lower power level decks. As an idea, maybe you would want to only build a common only deck for yourself or build decks around bad rares.

Another suggestion is to try playing archenemy but without archenemy (scheme) cards. Archenemy is a 1 vs many (about 2-4) where the 1 starts with 40 life and the many all take their turn together (like in two headed giant) but have separate life totals. The reason I say play without archenemy cards is because they are very powerful and this would probably tip the balance in your favor again. Rules about the format can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic:_The_Gathering_Archenemy

  • We play our own variant of Archenemy often. I forgot to mention that one, when multiple kids want to play, that's often a good approach.
    – John
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 18:54

As others have mentioned, you want to keep the interactions simple. Against newer players, Giant Growth is basically a removal spell, because they never see it coming. Doom Blade is bordering on a Wrath effect.

Consider either buying (or building) one of the pre-con Intro decks, which are designed to support introductory play.

At least look to them for guidance, they're low on instant speed effects, low on repeatable triggered or activated abilities (enter-the-battlefield effects are different because they happen once and at a time when the caster doesn't need to be reminded) and high on simple, obvious effects.

  • Pre-Con intro decks was how I started teaching them, and that was a very excellent method to introduce them into the game, and to explain deck building concepts. The intro decks are specifically made weak, so that it's easy to see how to improve them.
    – John
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 18:57

My friends and I teach people how to play at just about every social gathering I go to. One of the most interesting things I have found is that players are often significantly better when they are using a deck they find fun, maybe help them construct their own decks, finding out what works for them.

As for handicap rules, I don't prefer them, as they give an advantage that they may be reliant on in future, but I do have some ideas:

  • All players play with their hand revealed.

This is especially good for teaching players, as it allows you to advise them on what to do next and to help them formulate strategies they may not otherwise think of with their current deck. It also allows for easier reactions to anything that may be surprising, such as counterspells.

  • Provide a monologue of the current game and the ways it could go.

Admittedly, this can get tedious and annoying, but it helps players to further understand the effect from their triggers, casted spells, attacks, etc. By talking with them about the effects that their actions may have on the game, they can understand it better and in more depth.

On the subject of remembering rules and understanding cards, practise absolutely makes perfect. However, if you decide to do joint deck building, then consider trying to ease them in with more complex spells. The revealed hands can let you know when to help them (and gives an advantage for anyone with discard cards). The game monologue, by making all events obvious, can advise them on what to do next and helps to prevent mistakes.

That's just my two cents, have fun!


Start with a land in play. Being one turn ahead on the mana curve is a big advantage early and mid game, but not an insurmountable handicap.

Choose a deck type you don't play normally, and restrict yourself to that type. You'll have cards less suited for the archetype, which means that both you and your kids will be learning strategies and designs - putting you both on the same level.

'Forget' to cast spells now and then. Like a GM, you can keep your abilities completely secret, and it's easy to bluff that you were holding back in case of a bigger threat.

  • Your first two comments are good. Hadn't thought of the first one, and do the second one often. I'm fundamentally opposed to your third approach (see my other comments). But, understand where you're coming from.
    – John
    Commented Feb 29, 2016 at 18:58

I don't like any of your suggestions because they mess with the mechanics that you're trying to teach them.

  • Two Vs. One

  • Increase their health total, do not decrease yours. You having 10 life would introduce win conditions that shouldn't exist.

  • Allow them to mulligan without penalty until they are satisfied with their starting hand.

That is one of my standing house rules to affect better games and avoid non-starters. Shuffling old Magic cards is iffy at best; you might want to shuffle for them. When we wanted to do a build check, it was acceptable to stack the deck one land for every two cards. I do this at the end of every game anyway with the cards that are in play and then shuffle.

There's also the two libraries way, that I was never a fan of: you can choose to draw from your mana library or your spell library.

It should be easy enough to make a deck with an advantage, you just need to remove the luck of the draw so that you can focus on game mechanics. I suggest that your deck either have no endgame, or one so unlikely you'll seldom win. Something so convoluted that you're willing to get romped so that you too can enjoy the game and get the occasional win.


Some other ideas off the top of my head:

  • At the beginning of your upkeep, you may scry 1.
  • Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, you may scry 1.
  • Your creatures get +1/+1.
  • You get a free mulligan.
  • Your spells with converted mana cost 3 or more have their cost reduced by {1}.

Some of these will depend on the decks you guys are playing, but they'll still let you play your best decks to the best of your ability.

  • Appologies, The wording has changes, and I mis-read it. :)
    – GenDemo
    Commented Jun 15, 2022 at 5:56

MTG is a game that relies heavily on momentum and positive feedback loops. The faster you're already going, the more ground you'll gain next turn.

If you're tripling your board state each turn while they're only doubling (due to your difference in skill), starting with half of the board state they do essentially gives them the equivalent of a two turn lead. This is an example to show how a weakened board state, like having less land, can replicate a static bonus, like getting 2 free turns.

This can easily be applied without changing any mechanics or rules by repeating a common player mistake: Having an incorrect mana-to-cost ratio in your deck.

So just remove like 20% of your mana and replace them with 3- or 4-cost cards. It'll show them real mistakes that they can avoid making, while also forcing you to deftly play around the handicap. You might still win, but it'll be a much more uphill battle.

  • 1
    It's an interesting idea, to handicap your deck by putting in harder to cast spells. Said another way, "play a weaker deck, have them play a stronger deck." That's definitely a thing. I have played preconstructed commander decks, without a commander, against young players making their own decks from scratch.
    – John
    Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 4:25
  • 1
    @John For me, personally, I am really only having fun when I'm playing at my hardest, and sometimes weaker cards are too simple for me to stay engaging. The key element of this kind of solution is that it still allows you to play the game at your best by simply just ignoring the mana-to-cost ratio a bit. That way, they can play their deck, you can play your hardest, and all it takes to do is swapping out like 4 lands for some 4-costs of your choosing. Or, do like how folks are taught to shoot: Every time you hit the target, take a step back. Or, in this case, when you win, remove a land. Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 16:11
  • That is an awesome idea, and excellent analogy!
    – John
    Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 23:38

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