Wednesday, March 19, 2014

New Player Perspectives: Session 2

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

A month had passed since Freyja's first game. Not ideal, I know, but both of our careers require a ton of extra work around Christmas. (She's a choral conductor; I'm a baritone.) I offered to recap the rules, but she elected to jump right in and pick things up as she went along. We used the same decks as in the previous session. 

In the first game, I kept a shaky six, she curved out, and things were over quickly.

For our second game, we played with hands unrevealed for the first time. It was a nailbiter, but she squeaked out a win from 1 life. 

In general, Freyja remembered and understood the rules just fine. The one major exception was combat math; she didsn't have an intuitive feel for power and toughness and how they interact with each other.

What did you enjoy about the games?
There's some amount of luck to it, depending on your hand. If you get a really good hand, that gives you an advantage, which is kind of nice.
In general, do you think games need some luck factor?
I think it's nice when you're first starting out, so you can either be, "Oh, [CENSORED] it, it was the game's fault," or "Awesome, I won a hand!" Whereas if it's completely skill-based, you're kind of [CENSORED] until you have your strategy worked out.
The phenomenon Freyja's talking about is called the self-serving bias. In a nutshell, humans tend to attribute their successes to internal factors, but their failures to external factors. However, this is a lot easier when there are obvious external factors to point at. In a game of chess, if you lose, you have nobody to blame but yourself. In Magic, there are myriad random factors that can be responsible for your loss. "If only I'd drawn that land one turn sooner!" "If only he hadn't pulled his one copy of that card exactly then!" This is important because it allows players to lose without feeling dumb or unskilled, which might turn them off from playing in the future.

Her second sentence refers to another vital aspect of game design: beginners need to have a chance of winning. If you've been playing Go for a year, there is literally zero chance that a first-time player will defeat you. In Magic, a first-time player can beat LSV if she draws well. Hooray for variance!

What did you not enjoy about the game?
Well, when we were playing closed hand and you whipped out your... uh...
Giant Growth?
*laughter* Yeah, that's what she said.
You didn't like that?
It gave it an air of unpredictability which was disconcerting, yet exciting.
When I actually cast Giant Growth mid-combat, she was horrified and said, "No! You can't do that!" It's interesting that her gut reaction also had a positive side to it. Tricks are indeed important for keeping combat unpredictable.

What was the favorite card of yours that you played?
The Bathetic Giant.
She meant Benthic Giant, but "bathetic" is a real word!

'Cause it gave me a really clear advantage at the end of the game. I was really able to knock you down fast. Also, I like that Haazda Snare Squad. That was handy.
What was the least favorite card of yours?
I liked them all. I guess the less useful one was Runewing, but it was useful anyway because I drew another card. I didn't like Griptide since it didn't really do anything for me, and there's no residual damage. [Note: she discarded it to Mind Rot.]
Here's a clear example of invisible strategic complexity. A Runewing that trades in combat is serving its purpose very well by putting its controller up a card. However, during the game, Freyja didn't want to let it die. Similarly, although Griptide feels no more effective than Unsummon at first glance, the fact that it sets the opponent back a draw step makes it a fine spell. The concept of "card advantage" contains a great deal of subtlety, and few beginners are aware of it.

What about cards that I played? Were there any that you particularly feared or didn't fear?
The poisonous spider. That was a [CENSORED].
Deadly Recluse was her nemesis yet again in these games. She was extremely reluctant to attack into it. Of course, many LSPs will hold back creatures from attack for no real reason; lethal blockers at common merely exacerbate this problem. (And it is a problem, since it slows games to a crawl.)

What was the experience that was the most fun? What would you remember?
When I went down to three life, and I thought the end had come, but it didn't. 
I don't know a single Magic player, new or experienced, who dislikes close games. Going to low life and surviving is exciting. Thankfully, the land/spell balance gives Magic a built-in rubber band effect, so design doesn't need to work too hard to make this happen.

What was your least fun experience?
The spider.
What about the rules was most surprising or unintuitive for you?
I think the blocking I had some issues with.
Were there any specific misconceptions of points of confusion about blocking?
I just didn't think through the numbers, and so I wasn't clear on that.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, Freyja hadn't fully understood the interaction between power and toughness. We'll see more about this in later sessions.

What else would you like to share about your impressions of the game so far?
I hate spiders.
You don't hate spiders in real life, right?
No, I guess not. I coexist with them.
Nothing inspires loathing like a blocker with Deathtouch, it seems. For the loss-averse new player, deciding whom to send into its jaws is a Sophie's Choice.

Anything else? Final thoughts?
Rest in peace, Vaporkin.
I had administered a Pharika's Cure to her favorite cheap flyer.

Are you looking forward to playing again?


  1. This is reminding me of a reddit post of someone with arachnophobia altering all his spider cards by coloring them in with black sharpie.

    Loving the ... experiment? ... so far. Looking forward to the next segment.

  2. The big question I'd like to tackle based on this session is "what can be done to alleviate loss aversion for new players or to train them out of it?"

    My first guess would be something like Runewing that rewards you when it dies (Trading a Runewing for a Recluse isn't a bad move, y'know), but it doesn't seem like that helped here—or perhaps that connection wasn't made because those cards weren't out at the same time.

    It's entirely possible there is no answer and it's just something they have to grow out of, but even if there's no silver bullet, there's got to be some way to facilitate the process. Hmm.

    1. What about introducing cards like Ball Lightning with a built-in short lifespan, so that players get used to making profitable trades?

    2. Disagree with the premise. New players REALLY do not need to be taught strategy - or, more accurately - the teacher shouldn't be pushing strategy on them unless that's the aspect that's keeping the player coming back for games two, three, and four.

      I always like to change some aspect of the deck after each game with a new player, specifically adding things that new players tend to be drawn to - Timmy cards, gold cards, legendary creatures, auras, etc. Things that fly in the face of developing strategy, because so many new players find those aspects more interesting than devining combat math and card advantage. Strategy isn't a draw for players (for the most part) when they're first learning.

      To avoid boring games stalling out, it's really up to the teaching player to sometimes make a less strategically sound decisions to remove the stalling element (attacking w/ Deadly Recluse instead of using it to discourage attacks)

    3. You definitely don't want to be pushing more information at a new player than they're ready for. I'm not suggesting a teacher should be teaching this concept, I'm wondering if the game can be designed in a way that makes learning easier.

      And I'm not saying anyone should be picking up on that in their second game.

    4. I'd certainly be interested to see if Undying helps. At the very least it could get new players to consider that it might be good if their creature died, but we need to pin down if they're having trouble considering that possibility or considering it and just overvaluing their resources.

    5. @zefferal I agree entirely! In fact, I did indeed make several "bad" attacks with the Recluse to keep the damage flowing in both directions.

    6. @Jay I think the fundamental reason trading a Runewing feels bad is that drawing a card doesn't impact the board directly. Cards that give a more visible bonus upon death (like, as Jules mentions, Undying) make it more obvious how good the deal is.

      Semi-tangentially, one reason she didn't want the Runewing to die was its gorgeous art. Maybe creatures who "want to die" need to look more like Mogg War Marshal!

    7. Something like Trumpet Blast or a similar "The Time to Attack is NOW" card may or may not help with timid attacks.

  3. I feel ya, Freyja. I hate that stupid spider too.

    Another theory, and I suspect it's why I love playing token-themed decks, is that having a bunch of dudes in play just plain feels good. As a consequence, when you have to trade off 3 dudes for 3 of your opponent's, you feel worse because you're losing dudes, and figuring out whether the resulting less populated board is favorable for you involves card quality evaluation that I wouldn't expect a new player to pick up on right away.

    For players who don't understand card advantage or aren't playing to maximize it, a card is a poor reward for a creature that you want to kill off because it's random and will often be worse than a 2/2 flier. Undying could help, except that it's yet another keyword mechanic; maybe a creature that makes a token when it dies, like Doomed Traveler? Or directly produces an effect on the field, like Pitchburn Devils?

    1. Is Doomed Traveler easier to process than Young Wolf because it doesn't have a keyword?

      Nice call on the feel-good of building your board, and on the importance of card evaluation skills to trading creatures.

      I was going to propose another possibility: Cards like Vampire Lacerator or Herald of Torment that give you a reason to attack (and that you mind losing less), but new players hate cards that hurt yourself.

      Maybe Unstable Mutation? (Would help if we word it less negatively:
      Impetus of War {1}{R}
      When ~ ETB, put 3 +1/+1 counters on enchanted creature. At your upkeep, remove a +1/+1 counter from ~.

    2. I also think "attacks every turn if able" is helpful.

    3. Yeah. And bloodthirst. And battalion. And inspired.
      Hmm, it's almost as if WotC has been working on this too.