This past Emerald City Comicon, I spent a day volunteering to teach people how to play Magic: the Gathering with the Lady Planeswalkers Society. I've taught people how to play Magic before, but not in a convention-style environment. It was a lot of fun meeting new people and introducing them to one of my favorite games, but I realized that teaching Magic is quite different than teaching other games. Magic can seem daunting to new players, so unlike other games where an explanation of the rules is sufficient, you really need to show how Magic is fun to play. The hard part is that Magic is fun for different reasons for different people!
Before we start, I should mention that if you are wanting to learn Magic yourself, Wizards of the Coast puts out some great videos and tutorials for beginners, and I highly recommend getting Duels of the Planeswalkers. However, you may have a friend that wants to learn and they want YOU to teach them. Or maybe you have a friend that you've been wanting to teach Magic to and they've finally agreed to give you an hour of their time. In either case, the following is a simple guide with tips and tricks for successfully teaching Magic to new players. Note: I'm not going to write about rules and turn order, because as a teacher of Magic you should already be familiar with that. Rather, I'm going to give an overview of my approach to introducing the game to others.
Step 1. Get your decks ready!
You will want to have decks prepared in advance in order to jump right into the game. I like to use the 30-card Magic 2014 Sample Decks that are given away at PAX and other conventions, deck lists available here. Wizards of the Coast distributes these to stores and organizations for teaching Magic. If you don’t happen to have them lying around, don't worry, you can construct them or similar decks for relatively cheap. If you need to buy cards, I recommend cardkingdom.com. You can copy and paste the deck lists into the Card Kingdom Deck Builder (under MTG Tools on the side bar) and you'll be able to purchase the individual cards for all 5 sample decks for less than $25 (I did not include basic lands in my search, prices checked as of 4/15/2014).
Alternatively, Wizards of the Coast also produces Intro Packs which contain ready-to-go 60 card decks. These will run you about $10 each, but they are solid, fun decks for beginners.
Step 2: Induct your student as a planeswalker.
This is a crucial step because Magic isn't just a card game: it’s a battle between two powerful wizards! Describing the flavor of the world of Magic is a good way to have your student connect with the game. While showing them their deck, explain that it is a book of spells that they, as a wizard, have "gathered" from their travels through time and space. Yes, you are a time-traveling, dimension-leaping, powerful wizard. Who wouldn't want to play after hearing that?
This is also a good time to explain the color pie. Give your student a rich and vibrant description of what each color stands for, and if you have decks prepared in all 5 colors, let your student pick the color that they feel the most drawn to. It's also a good idea to let them be as hands-on as possible in the teaching process. Let them roll their own dice, shuffle their own cards, and take the time to appreciate the art and flavor text if they're interested in it.
Step 3: Give a brief overview of the rules.
Scaffolding is an essential part of conventional teaching, and so it is the same with Magic. Start with only the very basics, the more advanced stuff can come later. I like to explain life totals, lands and tapping for mana, show the different types of permanents and briefly cover instants and sorceries and that's pretty much it. Ask your student questions to get a feel for how they like to learn new games. Example questions are: Have you played other card games before? How do you like to learn to play new games? Do you like to read all the rules first, or do you prefer more of a learn-as-you-go style?
Questions like these will allow you to adapt your teaching style to your student. If they learn as they go, start playing and pause along the way to explain things. Be sure that they feel open to asking questions whenever they have one. Magic can be complicated at times, and it has many aspects that beginners don't really need to know about, so try to keep your explanations limited to the basics. Remember, this is about sharing your love of the game, not about mercilessly beating your opponent. That will come in due time, you just have to teach them how to play first!
Step 4: Start playing, but take it slow.
I like to play the first game with my hand open and displayed, with my cards turned upside down so my student can read them. This allows them to see what I'm doing and ask questions. Narrate your actions, especially for the first few turns. The turn phases can be especially challenging for new players. Mistakes are bound to happen, but instead of being a rules lawyer, try to explain why things happen in a certain way. For example, when a creature with deathtouch comes onto the battlefield, you may want to pause the game and give an example of combat with deathtouch creatures involved. Avoid Magic jargon-y words and speak in plain English whenever possible.
Step 5: Play at their level.
Playing at their level means being a gentle guide through the game process. Provide encouragement for good plays and remembering turn orders and triggers. Don't purposefully lose the game, but try not to overwhelm your student with advanced combos or tricks that will leave them more confused than when they started. Playing at their level may mean holding back a spell in order to show a specific combat interaction. Playing at their level also means not calling out misplays or suggesting complex tricks that are beyond their level of understanding. Let them figure them out for themselves, that's the fun of this game!
And before you know it, the first game is done! Congratulations!
If they are getting the hang of it and seem like they are enjoying themselves, let them set the pace for how many games and how much longer they'd like to play. Offer to change decks if they like. Throughout the whole process, try your best to make their enjoyment your priority. If they enjoy the game, they'll be asking to play again and then you'll know you've done a great job.
Keep walkin' those planes!