There's so much we Magic lovers take for granted about our game. It's not our fault—it's an immersive and expansive game—but one important aspect we often forget is that not everyone knows how to play, and it can be difficult to learn. You can't just buy a deck of cards, throw it at your friend, and expect him or her to understand how to play ... and, more importantly, to have the interest to play again.
At every large Magic event there are willing and able ambassadors to wade through the daunting Magic situations we handle with aplomb. Here at Magic Weekend Paris, I talked to one such ambassador, Steeve Aubert (yes, that's Steeve with three Es), a local Frenchman from Épinay-sur-Seine. I found him seated at a table beside a sign with the Magic logo and an inviting "Learn to Play!" inscribed beneath, while large portraits of Venser and Koth watched from behind. Steeve's here all weekend to demo the game for any visitors, friends, or people who just follow the waves of players into the event hall. I sat down with him to see if he had any tips to help improve my lackluster teaching skills.
Even just picking a deck, I saw I had room for improvement. Steeve told me to always focus on the characters of each color rather than the philosophy or play style. "Characters are much easier to connect with," he said. Rather than saying blue is about intelligence and manipulation, it's about Merfolk. Simple and elegant. We sat down, talked about life points, and shuffled up.
Having potential players pick up the cards before everything else is very important. "Saying what they will see is not as helpful as actually seeing it," Steeve explained. He started showing me the different types of cards, forgoing artifacts for the first game, then we drew a hand.
After a short discussion about mana as "energy" that the land creates, we were on to the steps of the turn. I've always found that part difficult, but it sounded so natural listening to Steeve. Forget about the upkeep, he said, the turn is "before and after the battle." The combat step was the focal point of the turn and you could cast spells before and after. This was when he taught me the difference between instants and sorceries, which he admitted can be tricky. Instants can be cast during the battle (even your opponent's) and sorceries are much more restrictive.
I expected combat to be daunting, but Steeve's tips seemed to be 1) don't get frustrated, and 2) focus on the blocking options—power and toughness is just simple subtraction. He analogized the creatures as "armies," and it was easy to grasp: "When the army marches toward you, you can choose to stop it," etc. Walking the players through blocking and attacking options (without going too in-depth) seemed a great way to highlight the open-endedness of the game, while not overwhelming new gamers.
Before long we were finished. "At the end of the first game, there will be many subtleties left unsaid, but that's OK," Steeve told me. "So no talk about the stack?" I asked. He stared at me gravely; I don't think my joke was funny.
There's no getting around that Magic is a difficult game to teach, but it's worth improving your skills. Steeve Aubert is a wonderful teacher and has great pointers we can use: Get to playing quickly, make turns about "the battle," focus on instant / sorcery distinctions and combat options, and accentuate the characters of each color. Steve himself learned from the Seventh Edition CD-ROM, and if he can turn into such an elegant teacher, I'm sure we all can too.