Wednesday, March 12, 2014

New Player Perspectives: Session 1

[New Player Perspectives is the ongoing story of my non-gamer girlfriend's introduction to Magic.]

Freyja prefers to jump in and figure a game out for herself, so I only spent about ten minutes explaining before we started. (I suspect this is a common trait- few people are willing to spend the 25+ minutes it would take to thoroughly explain all the phases, card types, etc.) She chose the W/U deck. We played with hands revealed for the first game, and I did a fair bit of explanation of what spells she could cast and why. Happily, it turned out to be an extremely close and exciting game. She won from 2 life.

The only concept which Freyja actually misunderstood at first was that attacking with a creature does not require paying its mana cost again. Besides that, there was the issue of remembering to untap before drawing. She also tended to use incorrect terminology: "using" creatures instead of "attacking", for example.

What do I take away from this? Well, I'd love to hop in the TARDIS and tell Richard Garfield to put the draw phase before untapping. Since drawing a new card is the part of the turn that carries the most new information, it's what people naturally want to do first. 

The other important observation is that terminology overload is a huge danger. At the very minimum, a new player needs to be conversant with the following game terms: tap, untap, land, creature, spell, attack, block, power, toughness, damage, destroy, library, graveyard, and battlefield. That's not counting terms that are pre-loaded from other card games (hand, draw, discard) or even the most basic keywords (flying, enchant). That's a lot of words! It really drives home the cost of terminology, and makes it clearer to me why adding keywords, especially evergreen keywords, shouldn't be done lightly.

Lastly, since Freyja didn't grow up playing card games, she's quite bad at shuffling. It's pretty hard for an experienced spellslinger to remember just how difficult and time-consuming shuffling can be. To me, this really highlights the importance of keeping shuffle effects out of common whenever possible.

Here's a transcript of our post-game interview, with some of my observations interspersed.

What did you enjoy about the first game of Magic?
I really liked the artwork. I really liked that the cards were easy to decipher, so once I learned how to read them it was like, "Cool, I can go."
Can you be more specific about how they were easy to decipher?
What type of card it was, the numbers at the bottom, the life [toughness] and... I can't remember the terms. The concept was easy to pick up on even though there was a bit of terminology that I didn't quite master.
As expected, the words "power" and "toughness" didn't quite stick.

What did you not enjoy about the game?
It was unclear how much strategy... I wasn't sure how successful I was going to be, and I didn't know how to predict whether a strategy would be successful or not, because I didn't know how to predict what you would have.
This is one of the downsides to any complex game: at first sight, a player won't have enough experience with the system to understand strategy. NWO shortens the learning curve so that players can start making meaningful decisions early in their experience.

What was the favorite card of yours that you played?
Probably Rebuke.
'Cause it wasn't that expensive, and I was like, "Ha! Take that, you [CENSORED]."
Is there anything sweeter than casting your first removal spell? Perhaps not.

What was the least favorite card of yours?
It was really hard to use Stealer of Secrets. It seemed like a really good card because you could draw a card, but its strength wasn't very good, because it was difficult to defend it. I felt like it was really good for you to get rid of, so it was hard for me to make use of that.
What about cards that I played? Were there any that you particularly feared or didn't fear?
The spider. [Deadly Recluse]
What about it?
I had a lot of flying creatures, so I had to watch out for your spider.
I'm not surprised that Deadly Recluse seemed so daunting to her. Because low-skill players are loss-averse, trading off a creature feels a lot more painful than it does to an experienced player.

What was the experience that was the most fun? What would you remember?
When I had a really nice array of creatures that I could use [attack with] every turn with some reliability to take lives from you.
Notice "lives" instead of "life". The idea of a number that represents one's health level is much less intuitive if you've never played a game involving hit points. On the other hand, a cat having nine lives is familiar even to non-gamers.

What was your least fun experience?
Once I got a good hand and had a nice array on the battlefield, that was fun, but learning the cards and trying to figure out which ones to play was maybe less fun.
Analysis paralysis is of course a larger problem for a new player, since they can't eliminate unwise or illegal plays quickly.

What about the rules was most surprising or unintuitive for you?
The tapping and untapping was annoying, but I only played once, so I think I would get used to it. It made sense once I got into, so it wasn't a big deal. I don't think anything was unintuitive. I guess some of the more complicated cards with special powers took a little bit longer to decipher.
What else would you like to share about your impressions of the game so far?
I like the variety of characters. They're interesting. As a new player, it kinda keeps it interesting, even as I'm slogged down by trying to figure out the strategy. They're really imaginative and fun. The Voidwielder is quite a hunk of a man.
I found this comment extremely enlightening. When you don't understand much strategy, having something cool to look at keeps the game engaging. This is exactly the sort of unexpected perspective I was hoping to glean from this experiment.

Anything else? Final thoughts?
Inspiration looks like he's the doctor from Back to the Future. That was pretty fun.
Are you looking forward to playing again?


  1. I think one of the best takeaways is how she describes reading a card as "deciphering" it. A lot of new players just lose interest if they have to do that too often without much payout.

    1. Excellent point. Those of us who are fluent in Magic-ese often forget that it's a foreign language for starting players.

    2. I actually really like the dagger and shield next to power and toughness in the Portal sets, because it makes teaching P/T so much easier. I'd also separate them so power is on the left of a card and toughness is on the right. N/M just looks like a fraction to new players and it takes some mental unbinding to undo that impression even before they can get that one number is offense and the other is defense.

      This is great stuff, Havelock.

    3. Thanks!

      It would be interesting to look at all the things Portal got right. Maybe in a future article...

    4. I love the term "intercept" in Portal because you automatically get that the extra damage doesn't "trample over" to players, whereas many people seem to expect that from "blocking" creatures.

  2. This is a really useful series, thanks for putting it together.

    When I first started playing, my friends and I thought you had to pay a creature's mana cost again to untap it during your untap step. (The card Vigilant Drake was thus highly sought out in my group). Seeing as how Freyja made a similar error, I wonder how common this type of misunderstanding is?

    1. Interesting! I have no idea, but I'd certainly be eager to hear from other readers if this is indeed a common misconception.

    2. I've gotten that once while teaching.
      Makes me wonder if a game needs to be made where that is how it works.

    3. In that game some people would make a mistake the other way around.