Ness Used the Ruler!
I’ve had two opposite experiences on the rules spectrum recently: teaching a new player and debuting as a tournament judge. Going to both ends made me want to talk about very different concepts and the decks that go with them. Since nobody can stop me writing about it, that’s what I’m doing. (They could avoid publishing it, but that’s different.) My cruelty knows some bounds. But then it ignores them! Muahaha!
Sorry. Got carried away.
Sorry. Went into Mike Flores one-line paragraphs. If you were fooled by the previous one into thinking I’m Mike Flores, may this extra line recompense you.
My brother-in-law lived with us for a few months this year, having moved out a couple weeks ago due to some awkwardly urgent timing in his life. My wife and I taught him Magic while he was here. Initially, it didn’t take hold, as he wanted to learn chess more (fine with that, too), but he gave Magic another go and was enjoying it before his departure.
Now, said brother-in-law—we’ll call him Ben since it’s his name and we would like to wear it out—doesn’t have a large background in strategy games. He has a background in wanting to learn strategy games, though, and he really could use the life lessons strategy games teach—such as resource management and critical thinking—so I wanted to get him into chess and/or Magic as far as he wanted to go.
But it’s trickier when the concepts underlying strategy gaming are relatively new. I came to Magic from chess; I didn’t get all the nuances, but I understood the ideas connecting the two games. This would be different, especially as board state complexity seemed to be the biggest obstacle the first time.
This is the deck that took hold with Ben, not just because he likes sea monsters (didn’t know that when I lent him the deck), but because it’s both straightforward and good:
This deck is incredibly easy to pilot while including most of the Magic basics. This is one of my favorite multiplayer decks, but it has high-quality inevitability that gives it a good shot in duels.
Normally, the deck wins by making it to six Islands and doing whatever it wants afterward. That tends to be Inundate followed by Stormtide Leviathan, but there are other options, such as combining Quest for Ula's Temple and Flow of Ideas to find and summon your best creatures, or even cheap beatdown with Riptide Mangler and Tidewalker (one of my favorite creatures of all time, or at least of all time counters). But the game plan is basic: Search for Islands at every opportunity, cast some defense, and let your late game take over. It wins big or goes home, but either mode is easy to run.
This turned out to be the most effective teaching deck I’ve observed for any player and any situation; I wasn’t expecting that. Contrasting it with the Solitary Fiends intro deck that Ben picked out as his first deck, I learned several things useful in teaching new players. A teaching deck should:
- Have a clearly defined, easily explainable game plan. Even if Magic concepts are new, offense and defense probably aren’t. The deck above wants to play good defense to buy time for the overwhelming offense. Military operations, crucial points in action movies, and so on often focus on the value of buying time until the awesomeness goes down/blows up. Those aren’t ideas of strategy games per se but of strategy, period, and that knowledge transfers into most specific iterations of the idea.
- Have as many four-ofs as possible. For every new card someone has to read in his or her own deck, there are as many in your deck. Four-ofs manage the information overload while increasing consistency. Play a lot of games with the same cards, and you see how a deck comes together. This probably is the biggest failing of intro decks; they might have a simple plan, but newer players have to read the cards and can’t take the macro view.
- Have a good shot at winning. While the game’s flavor is appealing, the window it’s dressing ought to do its job. I didn’t develop an interest in baseball from watching Little League or tee ball; I couldn’t have learned much about baseball from those games. A new player wouldn’t appreciate much at the Pro Tour level, but it’s still easiest to see how Magic works from seeing it actually work; if you can build a simple deck that also wins, do that. Many of the cards in Water Park are the best at their job, from Wall of Frost to Stormtide Leviathan, and that gives a truer read on the game than NettleSwine.dec.
- Have just enough of every part of a turn to get the basics of it. This sounds contrary to my other advice, and before this deck I wouldn’t have given it. But having the occasional thing to remember in an upkeep or at instant speed—ideally things easily done if initially forgotten—gets a player used to when those things happen. Quest for Ula's Temple, Riptide Mangler, and Shoreline Ranger’s islandcycling are good for this. Until you get to six islands, you always want to islandcycle Shoreline Ranger in this deck, as you need to play an Island on every turn. Likewise, if you have the spare mana to make Riptide Mangler bigger than it is (and that’s really fun with a largeish Tidewalker, by the way), it’s always correct to do so. Quest for Ula's Temple gets you used to upkeeps, end steps, and the importance of each end step (an overlooked part of the card fo’ sho’). They aren’t core to understanding the deck, but gaining that knowledge in the course of a plan you already understand goes a long way to really understanding Magic.
I’m a sucker for big blue creatures, and this deck was already fun for me. But it turned out to be an effective teaching tool as well. I gave Ben a bunch of my old cards before he made the long trek home. I have no idea if he’ll use them, but if nothing else, he gained a good appreciation of how fun and strategic Magic can be.
I’ve filled in a couple times recently as FNM judge while the usual one is away. I’m not a certified judge—I’m merely a rules advisor—but I’ve encountered enough unusual rules situations to know where to go with them. And there are plenty of corner cases even in these simpler, non–Tempest Efreet times. This year, I’ve experienced or heard about:
- With my Standard opponent threatening with Batterskull and enough mana to return it once: using my Havengul Lich and Heartless Summoning to cast a Phantasmal Image from his graveyard as a Havengul Lich, using the Image-Lich to cast my Sylvok Replica, sacrificing Sylvok Replica to blow up Batterskull, (in response to his bouncing Batterskull) sacrificing the Image-Lich with Replica’s ability to blow up Batterskull again, then casting the just-sacrificed Image as a Havengul Lich again;
- Losing to Mindslaver in Standard because Tamiyo’s emblem, which was about to let me go berserk with Mindshrieker, is optional, and my opponent returned no cards to my hand after casting my Sunblast Angel; and
- At Grand Prix: Vancouver, two players drew the first game when one’s Divine Deflection could redirect enough damage to kill both players at the same time; in a later game that round, one responded to Divine Deflection with an opposing Divine Deflection.
At Pro Tour: Dark Ascension, the Falkenrath Aristocrat version of the Humans/Angel of Glory's Rise deck could go infinite with a combo nobody saw coming, and that took a fair bit of commentator explanation to get across. If you Angel of Glory's Rise a Fiend Hunter, then exile your Angel of Glory's Rise to it, sacrificing Fiend Hunter to Falkenrath Aristocrat will put a +1/+1 counter on Aristocrat and let Angel of Glory's Rise reenter the battlefield . . . which will return the Fiend Hunter to the battlefield. Do this, and you can sacrifice Humans all day and resurrect them for free while obtaining an arbitrarily large Falkenrath Aristocrat.
There’s only one deck I’ve disbanded for not understanding the rules; it involved Bloodbond March, Caldera Hellion, and Cauldron of Souls. Had I understood at the time that you can’t devour creatures entering the battlefield simultaneously with the devourer, it would have made more sense, but while I can’t remember the janky version of the deck, it’s worth rebuilding in honor of rules quirks.
"Devour the Stack"
Bloodbond March isn’t normally rulesy—someone casts a creature and resurrects the others of the same name—but depending on the creature, it can be a complex process, and Caldera Hellion can make it plenty complex. If one Caldera Hellion is in your graveyard when you cast a second, you’re looking at 6 damage to the board, so how you devour might make a big difference. Of course, if all you’re looking to do with the Hellion is jolt some Stuffy Dolls, it doesn’t matter.
Falkenrath Aristocrat has plenty of Humans to combo with Bloodbond March while also offering indestructibility if Caldera Hellion shows up. Borderland Ranger was part of the Pro Tour deck; he and the Aristocrat know each other well. Magic 2013’s Disciple of Bolas is a card that needs exploring, and this deck’s as good a place as any to start working with it. I gladly would sacrifice a Thrinax to Disciple of Bolas on-curve for three cards, 3 life, and three Saprolings. Pit Keeper isn’t the normal choice for Gravedigger effects, but it’s cheap, it’s a 2/1 (important for Disciple of Bolas), and it’s Human.
Where the deck has its most fun is with two Bloodbond Marches. Normally, having multiple triggers to reanimate the same couple creatures doesn’t matter, but this deck is set up for mid-trigger wickedness. The easy one is that Caldera Hellions can kill themselves on the first trigger and come back on the second; two Marches, a Hellion in your graveyard, and a Hellion cast on the stack will result in 9 damage to everything (Stuffy Doll is a recommended accessory). Borderland Ranger/Falkenrath Aristocrat with multiple Marches gives you several lands and several counters. And should you be lucky enough to have multiple copies of Disciple of Bolas enter the battlefield at the same time, you can sacrifice them to each other.
Since Falkenrath Aristocrat’s playing the Demigod of Revenge role, you could build this deck around Demigod of Revenge if you wanted, in which case Stuffy Doll/Pit Keeper/Borderland Ranger probably would become Demigod/Cadaver Imp/Farhaven Elf. Since Demigod already has the Bloodbond March trigger, a for-profit sacrifice outlet could be quite the havocker. (A havocker is one who havocs. Real form of the word and everything.)
Magic offers a huge range of experiences, from the simple and straightforward to the complex and bedazzling. I love the latter, but it’s nice sometimes to step away from the Was-passiert-dann-Maschine and win by curving Inundate into Stormtide Leviathan. Magic’s genius always has been in its intricate variety, and having gone from teaching a new player all the way over to judging tournaments, there’s so much room in between for whatever you want.