how of hands: how many of you have ever taught someone to play Magic
I'm guessing most of you raised your hand (or would have, if you played along when internet writers tell you to do silly physical things like raise your hand). After all, Magic is fun, and at some point most of us have shared the game with a friend, family member, or significant other.
Now, keep your hand raised if you feel you didn't make any mistakes the last time you taught someone to play Magic.
If you've still got your hand raised, great. I'm guessing either you're forgetting about some tiny misstep (really, zero mistakes?), or you're actually correct—and probably a teacher. After all, when you're teaching someone to play Magic, knowing a lot about Magic is only half of the picture. Teaching is one of the most difficult and rewarding things you can do (right behind parenting and building ships in bottles, as I understand it), and just sitting someone down and pouring everything you know into one ear—while it might do the trick if they're eager enough—is not usually the best approach.
The subject of teaching Magic has been discussed a number of times on this very site and elsewhere. Mark Rosewater offered some good tips in the latter part of this article, and Doug Beyer approached the subject from a flavor-driven perspective here. Doug also provided some really handy links to several Anthony Alongi articles about teaching people to play. Knowledgeable and experienced writers have already tackled the sorts of decks you should use, the order in which to introduce the parts of the game, and how to help your new apprentice make the leap from training to the wider Magic world. The principles of teaching Magic have been pretty well covered.
So what about the principles of teaching?
I decided it might help to ask an actual teacher—preferably one who's familiar with Magic—about some broad ideas in education that could apply to teaching Magic. Happily, I had just such a teacher handy in the form of Laura Casperson, a paraeducator in the Renton school district whom I taught to play Magic last year. (What's a paraeducator, you ask? Paraeducators provide instructional support for classroom teachers, often in the form of classroom assistance and/or pullout programs. And now you know!) As a paraeducator, Laura has training and direct classroom experience that give her practical insight into how people learn.
In honor of Giant Week (and our favorite format, Two-Headed Giant Winston Draft), Laura and I decided to tackle this topic together. She'll lay out ten general teaching principles, and I'll loop back and apply them to teaching Magic, drawing particularly on my own experiences teaching her and others.
I consider myself very knowledgeable about Magic, but most of these principles are things I didn't even think about while teaching the game. It takes a lot more than Magic know-how to teach the game well.
1. Shut Up
Laura: One of my students, a fifth-grader, loved to tell me what to do. He told me who needed to get in trouble, who needed to have their name on the board, who needed to get sent out of the classroom, and exactly what I needed to be doing better as a teacher. Every day, he told me all this and more. I finally got tired of having my job dictated to me by an eleven-year-old, so one morning I told him that he would be teaching the class that day. He got a nervously excited look on his face and told me that he could do it.
It was one of the best classes I had with that group.
You see, not only was I able to show this student, with a visceral reality that words simply cannot get across, how hard teaching is, I had to spend the entire time with my mouth shut. I was a student, and I was trying to be a good student and set an example for the others, so I had to be quiet while the "teacher" was talking. And because my mouth wasn't running, my eyes and ears went into overdrive. I saw which students were picking up what information, what words students were stumbling over, what concepts students consistently missed, and some specific personality interactions that I just hadn't caught before. I was also able to see how well my student teacher performed as a leader of the class. (Answer: surprisingly well for such a noisy kid.) I learned more from that one session than I had learned from that group the entire month previous.
Shutting up is one of the hardest principals I've had to learn. I like showing off and I like being smart, probably like many of you. But teaching is never, EVER about showing off how smart you are. Teaching is an interaction between you and your student, and you have to learn just as much as they do and you have to learn it without the benefit of direct instruction. The best way to learn as a teacher is to shut your mouth.
Kelly: I'll freely admit that I'm the wrong person to give anybody grief on this one. I love explaining things, in excruciating detail if at all possible. That's one of the things I like about writing—I get to talk, and nobody gets to interrupt me until I've said what I have to say!
But I'll also freely admit that the soliloquy approach is almost always wrong for teaching. There's a strict limit to what your students can absorb at a time, and there's also a limit to what they can learn by listening as opposed to actually doing (more on this later). "Show, don't tell" is usually used in reference to writing, but it's at least as true in teaching. There are two big ways this can come into play in Magic.
The first pitfall here is the info dump. The immense depth and complexity of Magic are among its greatest strengths. With nearly ten thousand cards, fifteen years of accumulated history, and countless different ways to play, the total Magic experience is arguably larger than that of any other game in history. To experienced players, this is the depth and complexity of an Escher painting, unfolding in infinite variety along predictable patterns in rich and satisfying ways. To the novice, this can easily become a howling pit of insanity and confusion that threatens to swallow them whole. That said, exposing people to that depth and complexity is one of the best ways to get them hooked... you just have to do so very, very carefully. If you've just seen your first Hill Giant, you're not quite ready for Time Stop. If you're still getting comfortable with Tenth Edition, you're probably not ready for Ravnica. Don't try to tell your students everything at once. The mind-blowing complexity of the rest of Magic will still be out there when they're ready for it. For now, your job is to reveal it to them just a little bit at a time. It will unfold for them, bit by bit, just as it once did for you.
The other time this comes up frequently is during play. There are a lot of decisions during a game of Magic. A lot. Naturally, your apprentice is going to make some of them incorrectly. Don't feel the need to keep pointing this out, particularly if they're strategic rather than technical mistakes. Pausing the game to discuss the current situation is fine on occasion, but pausing the game for a lecture is awful. If they have questions, answer them succinctly. The sooner you can get through a game of Magic without explaining anything along the way, the better.
The most effective and satisfying way to learn is to see things for yourself. At every stage, tell them what they need to know—no more.
I'm not going to lie to you—this is the single hardest and most important thing on this list. If you only take one thing away from this article, it should be this principle: whenever possible, shut up and let your students learn. We'll come back to this point, and several of the other principles suggest strategies other than lecturing that should help you accomplish this.
2. Break It Down
Laura: When I teach my first-graders how to add, I don't start with teaching them that 8 x -12 = -96. I start by teaching them counting up—start at one number, "count up" the value of the second number, and where you end up is the answer. Once they understand that, then in second grade they start learning how to add strings of numbers. Then in third grade they start picking up the idea that multiplication is a way of quickly adding strings of identical numbers, and it is so complicated and brain-rattling that they spend two years practicing it. It is not ‘til sixth or seventh grade that the concept of negative numbers is introduced, and then and only then are students encouraged to attempt multiplication with negative numbers. The concept "8 x -12 = -96" needs to be broken down into its component parts and fed to students in pieces, with one piece building on another until the whole concept is formed. Even among students of the same grade, I have to remember that really big concepts need to be pulled apart into smaller, bite-sized chunks, and they need to be fed to my students slowly. When I'm teaching my fourth-graders multiplication, for example, if I write and solve an example of two-digit multiplication without first making sure they have a solid understanding of single-digit multiplication, they will be lost. If I solve the problem too quickly, without enough explanation as to the steps that I took to arrive at my solution, they will be lost. I have to break it down, explain each step one at a time, and (shut up long enough to) give them enough time to think about the information and process it.
Kelly: This is something most primers on teaching Magic already emphasize. Magic is complex, but it's easily divided into small, easily digestible chunks. However, it's easy to underestimate just how far you might need to break it down.
For instance, imagine playing a Grizzly Bears, waiting a turn, and attacking with it, then playing Giant Growth on it when your opponent blocks with a Hill Giant. That's very basic play—but how many things does a student have to learn before even getting to that point? Think about the things you take for granted when you play Magic and break them down into the smallest pieces you can. Remember, your students may be starting from scratch.
Show your students how the mana symbols in cards' mana costs match up with the ones on basic lands. Show them how to tap their lands to produce mana (it's okay if they don't exactly understand the difference between land and mana yet). Show them how to read Grizzly Bears‘ mana cost, and how many Forests they will have to tap to play it. Then show them what happens when they play Grizzly Bears: Grizzly Bears is now in play, but it can't attack this turn.
And that? That was step one of our simple scenario. To get to the rest of it, they'll need to know about the phases and steps of the turn (perhaps skipping upkeep and end step for now), what power and toughness mean, and how creatures attack and block. And let's not even get into Giant Growth just yet—that comes later. Practice attacking and blocking. Let them see how creatures attack players, not creatures, and what that means. Make sure they know that multiple creatures can block one creature, but one creature can't block multiple creatures (no need to mention Two-Headed Giant of Foriys and its ilk just yet). Demonstrate that creatures don't have to attack or block by passing on a bad attack, or (even better) letting an attack through. Try scenarios with different numbers of creatures and with creatures of different sizes.
Once they've learned about noncreature spells, the difference between sorceries and instants, and the most basic information about priority and the stack, they might be ready for that Giant Growth. Go slowly, and they will be.
The same goes for introducing every other element of the game. Vanilla creatures come before "french vanilla" creatures with just basic keywords, which in turn come before creatures with unique text and block-specific keywords. They'll be ready for theme decks before they're ready to play Sealed Deck or build Constructed decks out of a larger pool of cards. Take it step by step, and let them get as much experience and comfort as they need to before moving on—but do keep moving.
This also seems like a good place to note that you should keep rules advice and strategy advice as separate as possible, and go light on the strategy advice to begin with. First, the rules advice is laying groundwork for the strategy advice, and you need to lay that groundwork first. Second, students can become confused or frustrated when "this is how the game works" is punctuated by the occasional "this will usually achieve the best results." There are almost always exceptions to strategy advice, and you want to make sure your students know this so that they can experience the joy of finding them.
On one occasion, after Laura had graduated from Tenth Edition to Lorwyn, she attacked me with an Elf (I had no creatures), then played Imperious Perfect.
"I'm curious," I said, having not yet learned guideline #1. "Why didn't you play that before you attacked to do an extra point of damage?"
She glared at me. "You said to always play creatures after I attack!"
I apologized and corrected my earlier misstatement: "It's usually correct to play creatures after you attack, but you should always check to see if there's a reason to do otherwise."
Compare this to the rule that "creatures can't attack the turn you play them, unless they have haste," and you can see why it's good to keep these things separate. I'd given Laura two rules, but one of them was violable and the other wasn't. Presenting these ideas in different ways at different times could have saved some frustration.
3. Learning Style
Laura: Educators are starting to realize that not all students learn things in the same way. This is a fairly radical idea, but it is one hundred percent true. There are three main learning styles that have gained recognition: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Visual learners learn by seeing; show them how it's done, and they can do it for themselves. Auditory learners learn by hearing; tell them how its done, and they can do it for themselves. Kinesthetic learners learn by touching and doing; let them do it, preferably with manipulatives (objects the students can handle and, well, manipulate), and they can do it for themselves.
When I was in high school, I was taught by sitting in a quiet room and listening to a teacher talk to me. This worked for me, because I can learn reasonably well on the auditory spectrum. The shift now, especially in elementary school, is to incorporate all three learning styles into the curriculum—tell students, show students, and let them do it for themselves with guidance. When I work with my students, I need to be able to explain things six different ways until I find the way to explain it that makes sense to them. It doesn't matter if I can hear it or see it once and immediately grok it, it matters that my students can't. If explaining it doesn't work, I have to use examples, or draw a picture, or get out my manipulatives, or walk them through the concept step by step, or teach them a silly song (I know a teacher who did this for the quadratic formula, and a friend who still remembers the formula because of the song), or make up a story about the concept, or something else to help them make sense of what I'm trying to teach them. And sometimes I just need to throw them into some examples and let them fight their way out. The point is, I can't depend on a trick that works for one student working for another. I have to be flexible, I have to be creative, and, most importantly, I have to shut up.
Kelly: When you're trying to explain a concept and it's just not working, don't hammer your head against the wall by explaining it the same way over and over. Magic is often taught in one-on-one settings, where getting stuck in this loop is particularly rough—it means absolutely no progress is being made. Six might be going overboard, but you could do a lot worse than to think of, say, three different ways to explain everything. Off the top of my head, you could explain the mana cost of Grizzly Bears by saying:
"It costs one green mana and one of any color." (Auditory)
"It costs two mana total, one of which must be green." (Also auditory, but appeals to a different sort of logic)
"To play it, you tap one Forest and a second land of any type." (Visual / kinesthetic, with demonstrations)
Visual learners will understand that the symbol on Grizzly Bears and the symbol on their Forest match, whereas auditory learners may be more comfortable learning that these are both "green mana symbols." It's best to do all of these things, at least at first. Show them that the mana symbols match, explain that they are both green mana symbols and what each of them means, show them what you tap to play the Grizzly Bears, and then put some lands in front of them and a Grizzly Bears in their hand and tell them to play it. It might seem like overkill, but the "shotgun" method is the best way of making sure that you hit your students' learning styles.
You won't know from the outset how your pupil learns best, so be prepared to approach things from many different angles. In general, the mantra of "tell, then show, then do" is a good one, particularly if you have multiple options prepared for each one. As you go, you may get a better handle for what methods are working and what methods aren't, allowing you to focus on certain ways of teaching.
Laura: Most students learn with some combination of learning styles, sometimes even with different learning styles for different concepts. Maybe I can verbally explain a concept to a student and s/he will understand immediately, but maybe the next concept will leave him/her floundering until I draw some pictures. Either way, presenting the same information in a number of different ways helps reinforce the concept. The more senses through which you process information, the more neurons will connect in your brain, making the information more accessible and more meaningful. To that end, I have found that manipulatives are extremely useful in teaching a variety of concepts. One case where manipulatives have been invaluable is in teaching my third-graders how to subtract with borrowing. By seeing sticks of ten cubes and watching them get traded in for ten individual cubes, and seeing how many ten-sticks are left along with how many cubes are left, the concept is made clear as crystal. Another excellent use of manipulatives is with my kindergardeners. By showing them five objects and pointing to each one as I count up to five, I can show them how numbers work, how counting works, and what the connection is between numbers and objects.
Kelly: Magic has a leg up here; the cards themselves are natural manipulatives, and most people teaching the game instinctively use them as such to some degree. The lesson to learn here is that however much you already physically represent what's going on, you could probably do it more. Have lots of different example cards on hand. Whenever you talk about a scenario, move the cards around in demonstration, and encourage your students to do the same. Physically put spells on the table while they're on the stack—don't put them straight into the graveyard. Push attacking creatures forward into the "red zone" as you tap them. Line up blockers opposite the attackers they're blocking (but make sure it's clear that they don't have to block the creatures they're across from to begin with). Make sure life totals are clearly represented (this is just a good habit anyway) and different zones of play clearly delineated.
Dave Guskin, a friend and fellow Wizard, has been teaching a group of people to play Magic over the last several months. One trick he suggests is to play creatures facing the opponent, and have your students do the same. This not only lets the other player read them, it also subtly reminds beginners that the new creature can't attack. At the start of their next turn, they can turn it back around and use it normally.
Showing your students lots of cards also has the side benefit of exposing them to a wide variety of art, names, and flavor text. The creative elements of Magic can be a huge factor in hooking people on the game, and the more cards they see, the higher the chance that they'll encounter that one card that reaches out and grabs them.
A word of warning, though: whatever cards you put in front of them, most learners will try to read and understand. Don't show them Mindslaver or Warp World until they have the foundation to understand them. Don't be afraid to show them new things, but be prepared to spend some time discussing the concepts they haven't previously encountered.
5. Teach Me Back
Laura: When I was in high school, I got picked to be a "peer mediator." That meant that I went to a retreat in a cabin in the forest and I learned how to mediate disputes between students, carefully and impartially. Then I took my newly imparted wisdom back to high school and... never did a damn thing with it. But I did learn something important about social interactions: if you want to show that you're listening, repeat back what was just said to you. Bonus points for using that when you're confused about something and you need to ask for clarification. ("Let me make sure I have this right" is a key phrase.)
As a teacher, you can turn that around to your advantage. After you explain something, have your student explain it back. You will learn SO MUCH not only about what his/her level of understanding is, but about the difference between what s/he is learning and what you're teaching. (And oh man, be prepared to be shocked for THAT revelation.) Teach Me Back is harder to use in a large group, but it is ideally suited for the kind of small group or one-on-one teaching that you will be doing.
Just remember, when you're asking your students to teach you back, SHUT UP. I cannot hammer on that point enough. Shut up, let them talk, and correct them AFTER they finish getting their thoughts out.
Kelly: This is a wonderful method, and I employed it frequently while teaching Laura. After we discussed the order of the turn, I had her walk me through the phases and steps on each of her turns until she was comfortable with them. When we encountered a keyword we hadn't seen in a few games, I asked her if she remembered what it did. I quizzed her about when she could use activated abilities and why, what would happen if I played Shock on her Prodigal Pyromancer after she tapped it, what would happen if she played Giant Growth in response. As her understanding grew, I could throw tougher and tougher questions at her, gauging her progress based on her answers and adapting my questions to match.
Pay attention to your students' disposition during this process. If they're starting to get frustrated by all your questions, let up a little and just play some Magic. They can "teach you back" by playing correctly if they're tired of explaining.
6. The Joy of Discovery
Laura: I got to go to a teacher conference the other day. At one point, we got to play a sample game, similar to one we might have our students play. Players A and B both rolled a normal six-sided die. If the product of the two numbers rolled was even, player A scored a point. If the product was odd, player B scored a point. Before we started, we were asked if this was fair, and there was a general consensus that it sounded fair. Afterwards, we were asked the same question again. The vote was overwhelmingly indicating unfair. If we had been students learning about multiplication and probability, this game would allow us to discover for ourselves a basic principal of mathematics - the product of an even number and any other number will always be even.
There's a push in teaching right now, especially in the elementary grades, to have students learn for themselves in similar guided discovery activities. What I mean by that is that teachers are shifting their focus away from direct instruction ("Multiplying an odd number and an even number will always give you an even number. Copy that down.") to more investigative learning ("What happen when you multiply an odd number and an even number? Try it. Will it work the same way every time? Why?"). It keeps the students more engaged, encourages more critical thinking skills, and it makes the lessons vastly more meaningful. Just remember to Shut Up and give them enough time to think about what they're seeing.
Kelly: In Magic, the best way for students to experience the joy of discovery is to play Magic. Situations will come up during games that your learners never would have thought of outside of play, and that will lead them to questions and answers all on their own. Again, this came up all the time while Laura was learning to play.
When she asked me a question I suspected she already had the tools to answer, I asked it right back. This can get frustrating if used too often, but at the right level it can actually be really empowering for the student—Laura already had the knowledge she needed to answer the question, and the next time she had a question, she spent more time thinking it through before asking. Sometimes it turned out she didn't have all of the information she needed. If she asked questions during her explanation, I answered them as briefly as possible and let her continue, incorporating the new information.
And note that when we talk about the joy of discovery, we really do mean joy. It can be one of the most rewarding moments of learning to play.
Laura had asked to start using Lorwyn cards fairly quickly, and judging that she could handle it, I agreed. There are definitely students for whom this could have been disastrous, but she was picking things up really quickly, and we could always move back to Tenth Edition if Lorwyn proved too complicated. She took to the cards and mechanics quickly, but there were a few core concepts that I hadn't done a good job of filling in the blanks on. Chief among these was the use of tricks like Giant Growth—she had a good handle on when she was allowed to play them, but she wasn't quite sure when it was advantageous to do so. We stumbled through a few combat phases in which she paused, read her cards carefully, and opted not to try anything, a few more in which she attempted to use combat tricks when it was too late (or too early) for them to help, and a few more in which she saw me use combat tricks correctly and come out way ahead.
Finally, there came a game when I attacked with two creatures into a Lairwatch Giant, knowing she could only kill one of them with first strike damage if she blocked both with the Giant. She thought about it for a second, blocked both creatures with Lairwatch Giant—and wiped my board with the perfect Neck Snap I'd walked right into. She practically leapt out of her chair in excitement. All those awkward combat steps were absolutely worth it for that moment when she saw me make a play, looked at her hand, and saw what she could do to wreck me, by herself, without me telling her. It wasn't long before I was routinely losing creatures to well-timed Peppersmokes in Lorwyn and repeatedly being destroyed by simple Giant Growths when we played with the Elves vs. Goblins duel decks.
Laura: Aww, you make me blush.
7. Know the Material (and Have it Handy)
Laura: How many of you have ever been dungeon masters for RPGs? How many of you have tried to run a session without any prep work beforehand? I know I have. And, if they went anything like mine, they were not great. (Actually, if they were anything like mine, they were complete train wrecks. I hope they weren't too much like mine.) Teaching is kind of like being a DM. The more preparation I have ahead of time, the better the session will go. One time I was completely unprepared for my fifth-graders, and they ate me alive. I know that if I had taken even five minutes to think about what the heck I was going to cover that day (and remember that I had already made preparations), I would have been fine. I would have had a direction to go, I would have gone there, and I would have, by sheer force of will, been able to drag my students along. Since I didn't know what I was doing, I had nowhere to go, so my students got bored and frustrated and they acted out and got in trouble. Completely my fault.
As for knowing your material, well, if I don't know how to multiply two numbers together, how can I possibly hope to teach someone else the same thing? Not only do I have to know my material, I have to know it inside and out, better than I've ever known anything else, because I will probably have to explain it six different ways in the course of my day. I hear tell that Magic is a little more complicated than simple multiplication, but I'll pass that story to my second head over there....
Kelly: In Magic, this takes a few different forms. If you're going to start by playing preconstructed decks—either off the shelf or homebrewed—then when you sit down to start the lesson, those decks should be assembled, shuffled, and readily available, along with dice or score pads for tracking life totals. Don't waste teaching time looking for that card you wanted your student to see—have it set out beforehand, and have a Gatherer window open on a nearby computer in case other cards come up. If you're going to go over colors and card types, have examples pre-selected. If you're talking about deck types, have examples already assembled. Don't use a deck you already have if you can make a new deck before your student arrives that will be a better teaching tool. Basically, be prepared.
You should also have rules resources handy in case a question comes up you don't know the answer to. If it comes up, use this as an example to show your student how to look up answers when you're not sure—but don't spend too long at it. If you can't figure it out, make an arbitrary decision and get back to playing, then look it up later. Better yet, figure out in advance what sorts of issues are likely to arise with the decks you're using and make sure you know the answers.
Make these resources available to your students, too. Print out the keyword cheat sheet and give them copies. Consider printing out the basic rulebook. Write out the phases of the turn on a note card and give it to them. (The basic rulebook and keyword cheat sheet are available for download on the Rules Page.)
You should also, particularly when you're first starting out, have specific lesson plans in mind. Know what concepts you want to cover and what order you want to cover them in. You should feel free to deviate from this, but having a plan and not following it is a lot better than not having a plan at all. If it helps you, write down your plan. Unstructured "play time" is fine a little later in the process, but early on, it helps to have a specific agenda.
8. Know your Audience
Laura: Another part of teaching is paying attention. And I'm not just talking about looking to see which of my students is actually listening to me or not. I'm talking about watching the overall behavior of the group, the general tone and feel of things. If everyone is starting to get a little antsy and twitchy, maybe it's time for a stretch break. If everyone's bored with the topic, maybe it's time to switch things up a little. One of my groups had been practicing solving story problems in math for three weeks, and I could tell that they were sick of it, too. So I turned things around and had them write a story problem to go with the equation I wrote on the board. I was still going over story problems, but now things were mixed up and different. They were better focused and more able to pay attention.
The point is that I have to know my audience. I have to know what motivates them, what interests them, and I have to work that into my teaching style. I can't go on and on about what I find awesome about multiplication and geometry, because they don't care. I have to figure out what they like in my class, what interests them, and what bores them, and remember to incorporate the former two while avoiding the latter as much as possible. It's like learning styles, but more specific.
Mark Rosewater, in his recent article, encourages Magic teachers to take their students into a game as soon as they possibly can. "If they can get by without knowing something," he says, "don't tell them." He even encourages teaching as you play. While this may work for some teachers and some students, I can tell you right now that if Kelly had tried that with me, I would have walked away from the table and never walked back. As Kelly mentioned, it took me long enough as it was to learn when and how to use combat tricks (and believe me, I did a gorram victory lap when I finally foiled his Eyeblight's Ending with my Shields of Velis Vel). I can't even begin to imagine learning combat tricks when you don't know what in the world they are and can do and when to use them. Perhaps the correct strategy is to avoid the topic of combat tricks in favor of getting in a game quickly, but I would argue that that won't work for all players—some, at least, would rather have a fuller experience of the game than a faster experience of the game. The key here is to simply know your audience. If you think your student is fast enough to pick up on things as you go and s/he won't get frustrated at getting wrecked repeatedly by on-board tricks, confusing cards in hand, and rules technicalities s/he didn't even know existed, then teaching as you go is a fine strategy. If you have simple decks handy that don't involve confusing cards, fancy tricks, and weirdo rules interactions, then teaching as you go will probably work.
Kelly: Knowing your audience is critical, and it's the reason I'm wary of Magic primers that get too specific. This isn't limited to different learners getting it faster or slower, but it's related to that as well. Pay attention to how comfortable your students seem with the concepts you're teaching, and speed things up or slow things down accordingly. If vanilla creature combat was an easy sell, you might try throwing in keywords and unique abilities all at once; if it's proven a little harder to grok, you might just sprinkle in a few creatures with keywords when you decide to move forward. Ideally, you want to throw new concepts at them as fast as they can understand them—but no faster.
As Laura says, where one player may be comfortable being thrown into the deep end, another may prefer to carefully build up in complexity. Where one may want to discuss each play scenario as it comes up, another might choose to just play something and see what happens, learning by trial and error. One may find the core set boring and want to switch things up, while another might think that expert-level sets are confusing and want to stick with core sets. Try lots of different things and go with what works. Talk with your students about what's been fun and what hasn't been fun, and be willing to try different things based on their suggestions.
It's also helpful to gauge how much your students know when you start working with them. Sometimes you're starting completely from scratch, explaining the concept of a trading card game. Other times, you're dealing with someone who already had their first five games with someone else and is looking for more. You might even be teaching a lapsed player who is trying to figure out which of the things they remember were weird house rules, which ones were legitimate but have changed in the meantime, and which are still true, and that process can be at least as confusing as learning to play for the first time. Knowing where in the learning process your students are is a vital part of picking the right strategies to teach them.
Another important facet of knowing your audience is figuring out what excites them about Magic. Magic is a huge game with a huge community, home to kitchen tables and pro tour qualifiers, aggro, combo, and control, "Melvin" the rules nut and "Vorthos" the flavor goob, Kithkin and Giants, Time Spiral and Lorwyn, Limited and Constructed, Standard and Legacy, Draft and Sealed. There are as many ways to enjoy Magic as there are people who enjoy it, and part of your task as a teacher is figuring out what your new players enjoy and encouraging it. If they're fawning over the art, or guffawing at flavor text, show them some of your favorite pieces. If their eyes bug out when they see Terror, why not show them Damnation? If Spined Wurm is the height of creaturedom, what will they say when they see Avatar of Might?
The player psychographics of Timmy, Johnny, and Spike can prove useful here. As a broad refresher, Timmy is playing to experience something, Johnny is playing to express something, and Spike is playing to prove something. Figuring out what psychographic(s) you're teaching to can really help narrow your focus.
I've taught people in the past who looked at me blankly when I started talking about mana curves, playing four-ofs in Constructed decks to maximize your chances of drawing a particular card, or playing creatures after combat. They wanted to learn to play Magic so they could play it while hanging out with their friends, not so they could win. I dropped all the optimization chatter, told them their deck with the singleton Crash of Rhinos looked like fun, and set about making sure that they knew enough to navigate a social game without worrying about the finer points. They were pure Timmy, playing for the experience of playing, and by trying to teach them how to win, I was actually reducing their enjoyment.
Laura, on the other hand, is a Spike / Timmy. She wants to play fun decks that win, and when I talk about making her deck and her play as efficient as possible, she's all ears. Her short-term goal is to beat me at Magic consistently, and she's remarkably close to doing so. That said, she takes such a visceral joy in building weird decks, making spectacular plays, and having fun with friends that I wouldn't label her a pure Spike. Spike doesn't pile all of his Lorwyn dual lands, one of each Lorwyn and Morningtide lord, and changelings of all five colors into a "changeling lord" deck just to see what happens. Laura did—and the deck is hilarious, with better mana that it has any right having and a different draw every time. I make sure to point out how Laura can improve her play, but I don't push the issue (as I would with a pure Spike) if she seems to be having fun anyway.
9. Tone of Voice / Infinite Patience
Laura: I've mentioned a couple of times that I often have to explain something six different ways to help a student understand the concept. If you have never tried doing this, let me tell you, it gets old fast. I can't tell you how many times I have longed to say "Come on, just get the damn concept already!" (This is particularly true with my third-graders. Since when did subtraction with borrowing get so difficult?) But I don't. I can't. As soon as I say that, I have destroyed our relationship. Suddenly I'm not a friendly person trying to help them make sense of this part of the world, I'm someone mean and angry who is now punishing them for not being smart enough. Recovering from that kind of sting is nigh-on impossible. I refuse to do that to anyone. So, I swallow my frustration and I explain it again, and again, and again.
I have to keep all of that out of my voice as well. Consider the words, "Do you understand it now?" Said one way, they are a lifeline, an offer of support and encouragement with implied offers of more assistance. Said another way, they are a door slamming shut, full of impatience and frustration, with implications of insult. It may seem obvious now, but ANY kind of derision aimed at a student, whether said or unsaid, will shove a student away faster than anything else you can do. And if you find yourself getting way too impatient, take a break. Walk away for a bit. Change the topic. Be careful, though. "You know, I'm getting tired. Want to go for coffee?" is wildly different from "Okay, man, I just... need a break for a bit, okay?" Word choice also has a huge effect on teaching.
Kelly: When you're playing Magic, it's perfectly normal to get grumpy on occasion. The mana doesn't come together right, you make a dumb mistake, or your opponent gets on your nerves. During regular play, it's important to remain sportsmanlike, but you're under no obligation to be actually friendly.
Well, guess what? When you're teaching, you're not just playing Magic. You're also playing a vital advisory role to somebody who's already out of their element, and the normal rules for behavior simply don't apply. You might be the first Magic player they've ever interacted with, and while I hesitate to lay this particular angle on too thickly, you are serving as an ambassador for the game, in the same way that you serve as an ambassador for your country when you travel abroad. Think about your tone, think about your posture, think about your word choice. You can't control what happens when they exit your little play space and venture out into the wider world of Magic, but you can control what happens while you're teaching them. Be friendly, be open, and be as patient as you possibly can, and you can be a real force for good in this person's Magic-playing life.
Misunderstandings will arise, and they will be frustrating. Your students won't learn as fast as you'd like. The most obvious explanation to you won't be the most obvious explanation to them. And eventually, they will beat you, and you'd sure better be prepared for that! Don't approach these games like other games or these wins and losses like other wins and losses. Eventually, the people you're teaching will be full-fledged members of your Magic group and you can beat up on them all you like, but for now, your chief goal is to get them up to speed and having fun in whatever way you can.
That's not to say you shouldn't smash them now. Play for real (with a few caveats in the next section), but keep things upbeat. When they make a good play, point it out. When something funny happens, laugh about it. Smile. Have fun. Joke around. Don't treat them poorly when they don't know something. Don't push too hard when they're getting frustrated. And as Laura says, word choice and intonation make a huge difference. Think about the impression you're making, and do what you can to make a better one. When either of you is frustrated, nobody's having fun. That's when it's time to take a break. Don't feel bad about doing so—it's normal to get frustrated, and intelligent to realize you're getting frustrated and change the situation.
10. Keep Students Engaged and Have Fun
Laura: One of my favorite ways to keep students engaged is to take whatever we're learning and make a game out of it. The curriculum that I'm currently helping to reinforce excels at this. My first-graders play games about adding two numbers, my second-graders play games like Make Ten, Go Fish and Count to Twenty to add specific pairs of numbers or strings of three numbers, my third- and fourth-graders play a game I made for them called Multiplication Memory (sometimes Multiplication Go Fish), and I play the teacher-kid game (in which they score points when they behave well and I score points when they act up) with all of my students, across all grade levels. Anything to keep them interested and motivated in what I have to offer, because I know as well as anyone (and better than some) that an interested student is going to learn far more from me than a bored student.
Of course, what you guys are going to be teaching is a game...
Kelly: ...and that's a huge advantage, right? Well, yes and no. The good news is that your students are learning all this because they want to, not because they have to. However, this also puts a big responsibility on you. If your students aren't having fun, they have no reason to stick with it and every reason to walk away. Keep the flow of the game breezy, informative, and fun. Remember, this is a game. Have fun! If you're getting bogged down in rules technicalities or strategy tips, set the topic aside for the moment. Show them a cool combo or a neat card they haven't seen yet. Play another game. Keep things moving.
It's okay to fudge a little for the sake of fun. I always allow do-overs when I'm teaching. If they realize they wanted to do something else, back up. If they're not sure what to do, talk it out. Don't let them sink into option paralysis, but give them time to think if they need it. Don't put too much pressure on. The most important part of learning to play Magic isn't getting the rules or the strategy exactly right—it's learning to have fun playing Magic. If they walk out of your lessons able to pass a Level 1 judge test, great, but it doesn't matter much if they didn't have enough fun to stick with the game.
I don't like to pull punches while playing. It'll mean more when they finally beat me. That said, if I sense they're getting discouraged, I will make choices, particularly regarding hidden information, that keep the game from getting too un-fun. If I'm already ahead on the board, I might not Stone Rain their lone Swamp. If they've finally cobbled together the mana to play a spell, I might pass on countering it. This will never extend to actually throwing a game, but I do aim to make defeats less demoralizing when I can. Eventually, though, they'll have to accept that sort of thing as part of the game.
Tone and body language, from the previous section, play a huge role here as well. You're teaching, but that doesn't mean it has to be boring. Show them the things you think are awesome about Magic. Expand on the things they think are awesome about Magic. Be excited. Be upbeat. Make sure that they walk out of this not only with the knowledge and skills they need to play Magic, but with reason to do so as well.
Teaching Magic can be incredibly rewarding and fun. Armed with these principles, you should be ten steps closer to making sure it is.
Laura: Remember: shut up, break it down, pay attention to learning styles, use manipulatives, make them teach you back, let them experience the joy of discovery, know the material, know your audience, be patient, and above all, have fun!