Teaching in the Zone

I’ve been working with children for a fairly long time now. If you start only with my formal training, I first studied Applied Behavior Analysis at the Claremont Autism Center, and it’s been about eight years. I have done a whole lot of learning and a whole lot of teaching.

By coincidence, I seriously picked up Magic right around the same time. And as a judge, a volunteer at San Diego Comic-Con, and more, I have had a lot of opportunities to spend time with new players. More learning. More teaching.

In case you’re not aware—which I’m pretty sure means you’ve never tried it—teaching a new person to play Magic is hard—because learning it is hard. They become frustrated—or you become frustrated—and next thing you know, someone’s saying, “Maybe this just isn’t for me.”


Mark Rosewater has already written in detail on teaching new players, and he covers a lot of the basic ground—teaching only what they need to know, leaving room for questions, focusing on what draws their interest (Rosewater). Reading that piece isn’t necessary for understanding this one, but it does offer a lot of practical guidance.

I’ll be focusing on the overarching theme, tying a majority of the points together: meeting the new player where he or she is at. It’s important to recognize that there are two dimensions for learning a new skill: being able to do it and being willing to do it. Engaging teaching requires careful management of both.

The Zone of Proximal Development

In 1978, Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced a revolutionary concept for education. When defining children’s developmental level, he rejected a narrow focus on what activities that child could currently perform independently (34). It is also important, he proposed, to look at what the child can do when cooperating with someone more competent (33). He referred to the range between these two levels as the zone of proximal development, henceforth “the zone” (33)—essentially, the fuzzy and ever-shifting edges of the child’s development.

Given the fact that we can always develop new skills, this concept is considered relevant regardless of age. It has been applied to professional development for teachers (Ash and Levitt 1) and for therapists (Johnston and Milne 10). And given the complexity of Magic, the number of interlocking actions and concepts that new players need to master all at once, we can take many lessons from it as well.

This idea has since been tied to the educational concept of scaffolding: having the teacher manage the parts of the activity that are still beyond the learner’s ability. This is different than simply taking over in that it leaves the learner to process an amount of material that is not yet mastered but independently manageable (Wood, Bruner, and Ross 90). The ultimate goal is that the learners will solidly grasp ever-greater amounts of material, giving up more and more scaffolding until they are completely independent(Lepper et al., qtd. in Puntambekar and Hübscher 2).

Staying in the Cognitive Zone

One way to start this process is by simplifying the materials. When you were learning to read, you probably started with individual letters and then short words with no tricks, and only then were you introduced to the horrors of the English language such as fight and through. The cereal box and newspaper may have had words that made no sense to you, but your books and worksheets generally kept you working in a little pocket of near-competence.

Simplification is an important component of keeping Magic in someone’s current zone. This is why the promotional half-decks are so helpful for teaching—I find that most adults and many children can master the contents (the basic card types, the evergreen keywords) in one sitting with enough help. For the first game, I usually simplify it even further, declaring all creatures to be vanilla so the player can focus on the rules rather than vocabulary.

Polymorphist's Jest

To a certain extent, a person’s current zone is based on individual intellectual factors (Vygotsky 33): what he or she can already do independently with regard to Magic or transferable skills, how much he or she learns from a given amount of help, and if there is a ceiling to what his or her physical development can currently handle. For example, children and teenagers may be able to easily learn the rules, but most (not all) still need their frontal lobes to mature before they can strategize like an adult (Giedd, qtd. in Ortiz).

As teachers, it’s our job to be aware of this capacity and narrow the focus of what we’re teaching so that our learner has a challenging, but achievable goal in front of him or her. And remember that when someone is brand new, just remembering how to cast spells and what the keywords mean can be challenge enough. Getting through a game, no matter how much the learner depended on your reminders and advice, can be a triumph.

In the article that first introduced the concept of scaffolding, the authors said, “Well executed scaffolding begins by luring the child into actions that can produce recognizable-for-him solutions” (Wood, Bruner, and Ross 96). If our learner isn’t prone to tinker and experiment, we can guide him or her in setting up a strategy that will pan out well for him or her. When he or she spots a possible road to victory and begins moving eagerly down it, we’ve found his or her current zone.

Staying in the Motivational Zone

At the same time, simplification can take much of the punch out of learning Magic. Complexity is what drew many people in to begin with. Someone watched you and your buddies bashing your Commander decks together, and now you’re giving that person the Magic equivalent of See Spot Run.

So how do you let someone use some cool cards without shooting right out of the top of that person’s current zone? Instead of simplifying the process, you can narrow down the focus. Start where the person is most excited, and work outward.

When I worked at the Claremont Autism Center, we learned the difference between “backwards chaining” and “forward chaining” when teaching a multi-step skill. If you’re teaching a child to tie her shoes, forward chaining would teach the steps in the obvious order (Pratt), starting with the overhand knot.

The downside, we learned, is this: Once she’s learned to tie the overhand knot, her reward is . . . a knot. That’s not too exciting. In contrast, if you do all the parts for her up to the last step, you’ve set her up so that doing what she learned means her shoes are now tied! Mission accomplished! (Pratt) Suddenly, the step is meaningful to her. Similarly, if your learner is dying to go into the cool stuff, you can gloss right over the nuts and bolts. Fill it in for that person, and pretend he or she did it right.


Figuring out where to set the level of independence can be a challenge since so much depends on the individual. People have different interests and different levels of frustration tolerance. To capture these variations when looking at education, researcher Jere Brophy (77) suggested the concept of a motivational zone of proximal development to contrast with the cognitive one.

Focusing on the motivational zone can help you approach an individual problem. For example, imagine that two players are struggling to calculate combat math correctly. It is outside both of their current cognitive zones to do the calculations simultaneously with everything else, and they are rapidly becoming frustrated.

If the player is intent on mastering the skills and doing each step correctly, it may be helpful to set aside the decks and just matchup random creatures for a while. This simplifies the task by simplifying the materials, allowing them to master the skill before trying to integrate it. Doing the math correctly is already within their motivational zones—their ability to care about the skill (Brophy 78).

Careful Consideration

In contrast, someone who mainly wants to attack with Dragons (or who finds math overwhelming no matter what) might prefer for you to just tell him or her which creatures die. This simplifies the task by eliminating unwanted distractions, letting the player master the parts of the game that he or she is interested in. His or her motivational zone may eventually shift to encompass this skill when he or she grows bored of Dragons, or if he or she wants to start winning, or never.

If you think it will be helpful for the learner, Brophy suggested ways to scaffold motivation as well as problem-solving. These include explaining the benefits of mastering a given skill, reminding a learner of previously expressed goals, and pointing out his or her progress (84). This may be valuable for someone who joined eagerly and has now become frustrated. But it is also possible that an aspect of the game is just outside his or her motivational zone at the moment. We can check in with the person later, but often, it may be best to move on.

Putting It Together

Throughout this article, I have emphasized the current zone because zones evolve constantly (Wells qtd. in Chak 383). We had zones of proximal development in various areas when we were first being taught, and we have different zones now. No matter our current level, we still have areas we can learn from each other.

For example, “net-decking” lets people learn to strategize and play complex decks beyond their abilities to build them, and becoming familiar with them through could theoretically strengthen their understanding of how they should be constructed. It also does the inverse, letting deck-builders tighten their building skills by borrowing someone else’s play skill. The fact that we have distinct strengths and weaknesses means we are able to take turns being the “more competent one,” depending on the situation.

Safehold Duo

Teaching someone Magic, as with any challenging skill, requires constant monitoring and adjustment. When things start going off the rails, you can fall back on the zones—is a specific skill beyond what this person can master right now, and you should fill that part in so he or she can make it through the game? Can that person master it with support? Does he or she even care about mastering it? Alternately, does he or she understand each task individually, but doing them all at once is too much?

On top of that, it is important to be mindful of the ways your learner’s zones have changed over time: to constantly adjust your guidance so you are helping the person work at the top of his or her potential. And to be ready for the day when the learner gets to do the scaffolding for you.

Works Cited

  • Ash, Doris, and Karen Levitt."Working Within the Zone of Proximal Development: Formative Assessment as Professional Development." Journal of Science Teacher Education 14.1 (2003): 23–48. Web.
  • Brophy, Jere. "Toward a Model of the Value Aspects of Motivation in Education: Developing Appreciation for Particular Learning Domains and Activities." Educational Psychologist 34.2 (1999): 75–85. Web.
  • Chak, Amy. "Adult Sensitivity to Children’s Learning in the Zone of Proximal Development." Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 31.4 (2001): 383–395. Web.
  • Johnston, Lynne H., and Derek L. Milne. “How do Supervisee's Learn During Supervision? A Grounded Theory Study of the Perceived Developmental Process." The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist 5.1 (2012): 1–23. Web.
  • American Bar Association."Adolescence, Brain Development and Legal Culpability." Washington, DC: Juvenile Justice Center (2004).
  • Pratt, Cathy. "Applied Behavior Analysis: The Role of Task Analysis and Chaining." Indiana Institute on Disability and Community. The Trustees of Indiana University. Web.
  • Puntambekar, Sadhana, and Roland Hubscher. "Tools for Scaffolding Students in a Complex Learning Environment: What Have We Gained and What Have We Missed?" Educational Psychologist 40.1 (2005): 1–12. Web.
  • Rosewater, Mark. "To Teach Their Own."Daily MTG : Magic: The Gathering. Wizards of the Coast LLC, 18 June 2012. Web. 26 Jan. 2015. <http://archive.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/200>.
  • Vygotsky, Lev. "Interaction Between Learning and Development." Readings on the Development of Children. 2nd ed. Ed. Mary Gauvain and Michael Cole. New York: W.H. Freeman, 1997. 29–36. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.
  • Wood, David, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross. "The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving" Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17.2 (1976): 89–100. Web.

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