Teaching Magic (Part 1)

Over the past few weeks, I’ve busied myself with a task that I was all too delighted to take on: I’ve been constructing five Magic decks that are aimed at teaching my family how to play Magic. This has been a lot more difficult than I first thought it would be, and because of that, I want to record the details of my adventure. Hopefully my ramblings can shed a bit of light on deck design given a set of constraints, and maybe you’ll learn something new!

The Design Constraints

Going into this process, I had to lay down a few ground rules that I thought wouldn’t cause an issue, but wanted to adhere to. They are as follows:

  • Each deck must only contain lands, creatures, and sorceries.
  • Each card in the deck must not refer to any card types that aren’t lands, creatures, and sorceries.
  • Each card in the deck must not posses any abilities that may be activated at instant speed, except for mana abilities or those that are close enough to mana abilities (for example, Arbor Elf and Voyaging Satyr are fine, but Kiora’s Follower is not, as it can be used for combat tricks).
  • If there are multiple printings of a card, choose the one with the most clear version of its rules text (try to use cards with bullets for choosing modes, “enters the battlefield” instead of “comes into play,” etc.)
  • Each deck must be two colors.
  • No random elements may be present other than the ever-present luck of the draw. This means no cards like Goblin Test Pilot, Ghoulcaller, Hymn to Tourach, etc.
  • Each deck must contain 24 lands and an equal amount of cards of its two colors (e.g. 24 lands, 15 green cards, 15 blue cards, and 6 gold cards).
  • Each deck must cost less than $10 (using MTGGoldfish pricing).
  • Most importantly, each deck must be balanced with the others; each deck must stand an equal chance of winning when pitted against any other deck. When all of the rules have been explained, I should be just as likely to win as my dad.
  • Optional: If two printings have the same rules text, choose the printing with the coolest art and/or flavor text to keep participants interested. Magic’s aesthetics are a really important factor as to why it’s such a cool game!

The goal of these constraints is to make the game simple to understand and play, while keeping the experience fun for everyone involved. Cutting instant speed out of the game entirely keeps me from having to explain the stack and priority. And while it’s important to understand how those two mechanics work, it’s hard to do so without listening to a long-winded and complicated discussion, which would lead to my parents complaining about how “this game has way too many rules!” I wanted to get my family members in a game as quickly as possible with minimal explanation, and minimizing the game seemed to be the best way to do so.

With all of these constraints defined, the next step was to choose the color combinations that I would use for the decks. I wanted a clear theme to coincide with each of the deck’s colors to show off the different play styles of decks. I also wanted each color to be represented twice across the five decks. I could have rearranged the color pairs to make a unique assortment, but I wanted to go with either the allied or enemy color pairs for the sake of simplicity. I tried to think of which themes would go with each color pair, and here’s what I got:

Allied Color Pairs

  • UW – Either a skies deck or a control deck. This would probably be a skies deck, as it’s not very fun to play against control when you’re learning how to play Magic. It’s also difficult to make a control deck viable without making it too powerful.
  • GW – Lifegain or token aggro, very simple.
  • UB – Mill. This could end up being too powerful and also have a bad matchup against any graveyard-based decks, so this could also be control.
  • BR – Either burn or discard. This would most likely end up being discard, because burn has the same problems that I mentioned above for control.
  • RG – Ramp using creatures and Rampant Growth effects, plus some Fireball effects to close out the game.

Enemy Color Pairs

  • WR – Small creature aggro with some burn spells for removal/reach.
  • WB – Either an extort deck or a zombie tribal deck enabled by the Amonkhet mummies.
  • UR – Classic spellslinger; burn, card draw, recursion, and bounce spells.
  • UG – Ramp using creatures and Rampant Growth effects (again), but with card draw to keep the gas flowing and sea monsters to finish the game.
  • BG – Graveyard shenanigans. Dump your library into your graveyard with Mulch effects, play creatures like Boneyard Wurm that benefit from a stocked graveyard, and have a slight reanimation theme.

After taking a look at my options, I eventually settled on the enemy color pairs. The allied color pairs had too many question marks for me and would lead to a lot of balancing issues. The themes represented by the enemy color pairs also seem very natural and intuitive, while maintaining a lot of variety between each other. Just goes to show that opposites really do attract!

So now it was onto the hard part: deckbuilding. This ended up taking me a few days and was much harder than you might think. I’m going to go through each deck individually and explain my card choices for each one.

The Decks

UR – Spellslinger

Decklist on ManaStack

This was the archetype that I had the clearest picture of when thinking of which ones to make. Classic small creatures, burn spells, bounce spells, a bit of card draw, scrying, and a little bit of recursion.

Zephyr Sprite: There were only two keyworded abilities that I wanted to use for these decks: flying and scry. Flying is very simple to explain and makes combat more exciting, and scry is something I need to explain anyway when talking about mulligans, so I’d like to have it on some cards as well. I knew I wanted a one-drop flyer in the spellslinger deck to show off how playing “protect the Delver” can win you games. This was originally Faerie Miscreant, but it turns out that card is quite powerful, so I had to downgrade it to a lowly Zephyr Sprite. I personally think the flavor text on Zephyr Sprite is superior, so there wasn’t much of a loss.

Volcanic Hammer: I wanted a literal sorcery speed lightning bolt, and that was it. It turns out there are a ridiculous amount of pseudo-bolts at sorcery speed, and most of them reference exile, regeneration, or something else, but I wanted this spell to be as simple as possible. Volcanic Hammer fits the bill quite nicely.

Steamcore Weird: I really liked this mechanic, it showed up in a few other decks as a result. With these decks you’ll almost always have both of your colors of mana, but it makes newer players think about how they’re tapping their mana and feel like they’re doing a lot with their cards.

WB – Zombies

Decklist on ManaStack

This deck would have been a really neat extort deck, but there were a few problems with it. There were only a few extort cards that didn’t have instant-speed or weird abilities, and that would leave me to fill out the rest of the deck with cards that supported the extort archetype. Cards with lifegain and such went well with the deck, but it was difficult to put together a list that didn’t include auras or wasn’t overpowered. This ended with me settling on zombies, which actually turned out better than I thought thanks to the Amonkhet block. A tribal deck helps show newer players why subtypes are important, and everyone knows what a zombie is, so it’s easier to pick up and play with than something like Slivers.

Castigate: I wanted hand disruption in some form among the decks, and Castigate had a few things going for it. It’s two mana, so you can’t easily play multiple in the same turn, it’s white and black, so it’s harder to cast, and it uses the exile zone, which I wanted to be touched on so that I can show the difference between the graveyard and exile.

Fleshbag Marauder: This card helps show off the concept of trading your expendable resources for an opponent’s more important ones. It also showcases sacrificing and death triggers with Festering Goblin and Festering Mummy.

Unbreathing Horde: Here’s the big payoff for running zombies. I could have gone with Soulless one, but Unbreathing Horde is easier to cast and introduces some cool mechanics like +1/+1 counters and damage prevention. I worry that this card may be a little wordy and therefore confusing, but I have faith in my family to overcome.

Unconventional Tactics: I had no idea this card existed, but it’s perfect for this deck. It gives the player a way to close out the game, is a payoff for running zombies, and showcases graveyard recursion.

WR – Go-Wide Aggro

Decklist on ManaStack

Frenzied Goblin, Accorder Paladin, Akroan Hoplite, Honored Crop-Captain, Renegade Wheelsmith: I wanted to introduce attack triggers, and this was a great deck to showcase them in. All of the cards that have these triggers are very simple to understand, and there’s not a lot of questions about what to do with them. They also give a lot of options to the player and enable the deck to push through some damage after the other decks set up their defenses.

Fireblast: I debated for a long time whether or not to include flashback spells. I eventually gave in because they’re a very simple way to show that the graveyard is just another zone, and Firebolt is a very simple spell to understand that doesn’t convolute the meaning of Flashback.

Tormenting Voice: A card that helps this deck refuel in a very classic red way. Teaching players to hold onto lands later in the game and rewarding them for doing so is a nice bonus.

Banisher Priest: I don’t want exile to be overused in these decks, but I want to show how much of a difference it makes to exile something rather than simply send it to the graveyard. This was originally Excommunicate, but that effect felt too similar to blue’s removal.

GB – Graveyard Shenanigans

Decklist on ManaStack

Entomber Exarch: This slot perplexed me for a while. I think originally they were Gravediggers, but I wanted to use those in the zombie deck. Then it was a Ghoulcaller’s Chant-type effect, but that felt a bit too powerful at such a low cost. I settled on Entomber Exarch because both modes are relevant, and being able to get a lot of value out of reanimating it felt awesome.

Ravenous Chupacabra: After the core of this deck was more or less in place, it still lacked a way to unconditionally kill a creature. I wanted a creature with an ETB destroy ability, but nearly all of them were either conditional (“nonartifact,” “nonblack,” etc.) or just way too powerful to justify being in this deck. Luckily, Chupacabra was recently printed and fits into this slot perfectly.

Vigor Mortis: I didn’t want hard reanimation to be rampant in the deck, but I wanted to have two cards showcase the effect because it’s powerful and feels really fun to do. I had Zombify at first, but those are surprisingly expensive. Vigor Mortis is the same mana cost but shows off that paying with different colors effect that I love so much. It’s also almost strictly better than Zombify, so I’m glad I took the time to find a replacement.

Hag Hedge-Mage: The deck needed more creatures that got value off of the graveyard, but I wanted an effect besides “oh look it’s big because you have your entire library in your graveyard!” Hag Hedge-Mage gets value out of the graveyard, introduces hybrid costs nicely, and lets me casually explain the difference between basic and nonbasic lands.

UG – Ramp

Decklist on ManaStack

This deck took a really long time to balance, and I’m still not sure that it’s correct. I’ll be testing this one a lot to make sure it’s not too consistent or powerful.

Llanowar Elves, Rampant Growth, Coiling Oracle, and Voyaging Satyr: One-drop accelerants are very powerful, and I wanted to show why, but not have them overpower the deck, hence there are only 4. Rampant Growth was chosen to show the difference between creature and sorcery ramp. Voyaging Satyr was chosen to further show the difference between land untapping and the other two types of ramp. Satyr used to be Kiora’s Follower, but I had to take it out because you can untap creatures before blocks for a combat trick, and that violates the rules. Coiling Oracle is just sweet value and provides ramp, card draw, and a ground blocker for the early game, which this deck is glad to have.

Glimpse the Future and Urban Evolution: One of ramp’s biggest weaknesses as an archetype is running out of gas because of the large density of do nothing ramp spells. I wanted this to be less of a big deal, so I added these cards. Glimpse the Future shows the power of getting to look at more cards and adds more diversity than just jamming more copies of Divination, and Urban Evolution is just straight gas.

Dungeon Geists, Angler Drake, Scourge of Fleets: This deck’s removal. These might honestly be too much, but I want this deck to win if games go long, and having a fair amount of removal in the top end is a good way to help that out. Scourge of Fleets is a very busted effect if you can go get a few Islands with Rampant Growths, but there are only two, so I hope it doesn’t end up being too powerful.

What’s in Part 2?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be testing out these decks and swapping cards as needed. I’ll also be looking into finding some cards to use as upgrades that I can add to the decks once my family has mastered the three basic card types. I’m thinking enchantments first, then artifacts, instants, planeswalkers, and eventually tribal, but I don’t anticipate that happening anytime soon.

Check back in about one month’s time to see how things went! I’m hoping that Magic will be a hit and my family will want more of it. See you next time!