Wednesday, April 9, 2014

New Player Perspectives: Session 5

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

Finally, a game with no mulligans! Freyja decided to take her W/U deck back, leaving me with G/B. Lifelink creatures helped me get ahead in the race early, and she missed her fifth land drop for several turns. After some trades, I threatened to close out the game with Axebane Stag. She fought him off with Griptide, Voidwielder, and eventually chump block + Paralyzing Grasp. We hit a ground stall and played off the top briefly. She pulled a Moon Heron, but I had tons of life and found some Pheres-Band Centaurs, which managed to finish her off. Victory at last.

By this point, she was getting used to untapping before drawing, but it was still unnatural. We realized between this game and the previous one that power and toughness were still a bit mysterious in how they interacted. I clarified that mid-game, after which she understood blocking decisions much better. The sticking point was that the P/T comparisons require a "swap"; that is, you compare creature A's power to creature B's toughness, and vice versa.

What did you enjoy about the games?
Well, I felt much more at the mercy of the game this time. There was more realization that... [pause]
The game was much more interesting this time because I drew a really bad hand, and I didn't have land, so I think it was a lot more, "Oh, crap, I really have to think about what I'm going to do now." I feel like I had to work out my strategy a little more thoughtfully.
I left the false start unedited because it reveals another side of her reaction to bad draws. While she eventually came to think of her lousy luck as a reason to plan more carefully, her initial emotional response was a bit more negative. The brain tends to edit one's reactions as it goes along to form a consistent narrative. Had the game not ended up so close, that feeling of helplessness probably would have stuck with her as the dominant impression.

So being mana screwed was an educational experience?
Yeah. Definitely.
Mark Rosewater often speaks of mana screw being a positive force because it allows weaker players to beat stronger ones. However, it also adds variety in gameplay in other ways, as we saw here. Jon Finkel put it best: "Mana screw is good because it forces you to play the game from lots of different starting positions. Sometimes you don't have enough land. Sometimes you have too much land. Sometimes they don't have enough land. It makes the games more varied and forces you to think more broadly so you get better and better at playing in unexpected positions."

Was it frustrating not to draw the fifth land for several turns?
Yeah. I mean, I wasn't devastated.
What did you not enjoy about the game?
The fact that eventually it was dragging on because there was nothing either of us could do. "Oh, okay, I guess we'll just wait until we get a decent card."
We did end up with a ground stall and topdeck war. From my perspective, it didn't last that long; perhaps a few turns on each side. I suspect that for newer players, having multiple turns pass without the game state changing feels much more stagnant. Experienced players know that eventually somebody will draw a way to break through, whereas newbies think, "Oh, crap, are we just stuck here?"

How was the experience of losing?
It was fine because I felt like I did the best that I could, strategy-wise, with the cards that  had. Maybe you could correct me on that...
Here, again, is the theme of "I don't mind losing, as long as I believe it's not my fault." In this case, she had indeed played well. But even if she hadn't, she'd probably still feel fine about it unless her mistakes were pointed out.

No, actually, you did play things correctly. Minor technical things, but no big glaring misplays.

What was the favorite card of yours that you played?
The enchantment card [Paralyzing Grasp] where I permanently tapped your Axebane Stag.
Because I was basically assured death if you had it, because one more attack with the Axebane Stag would have killed me, and I would have had no chance to inflict damage on you. The fact that you had an Axebane Stag out there limited the things I could do productively.
What was the least favorite card of yours?
The Cat. Sanctuary Cat... well, that's a useless card, unless I drew it on the first turn or something. Even then I don't see the point. I guess it's a good chump blocker, but other than that, it's kind of just annoying.
I put in the Cat specifically to have something so terrible that she'd notice after the first few games. Once we get into deckbuilding, it'll probably be the first card she takes out.

You played both Inspiration and Divination that game. How did you feel about those?
Those were awesome, because I was screwed from the beginning with my lands. The fact that I got some good draw cards let me somewhat recover. It didn't lead to my ultimate victory, but it was enough to make the game more interesting.
Here, I was fishing for, "Why does Inspiration cost more?" No such luck.

What was the experience that was the most fun? What would you remember?
I pulled out that flying creature [Moon Heron] and you only had land creatures and I was like, "Ha ha ha, have fun with that." And it was at a point of the game when neither of us could do much of anything, so that was kinda fun.
What was your least fun experience?
The ground stalemate.
What about the rules was most surprising or unintuitive for you?
I needed clarification of the power and toughness relationship. For some reason I just didn't get that before, and I don't know why. I didn't really think it through.
You've never played any video games with Hit Points, have you?
No. Yeah, that wasn't very intuitive for me.
I think this was actually the crucial difference. The idea that creatures come with a number which represents how much damage they can take before expiring is not something we're born with: it's an exceedingly common trope from video games and RPGs. For somebody with no exposure to such things, the numbers' meanings were much less intuitive.

What did you learn about strategy from this game?
I did much better with not thinking "Oh my god, I hate that creature, I need to kill it. " I was trying to think about the best plays to deal damage to you, think ahead to my next turn and decide what cards I was going to play.
What else would you like to share about your impressions of the game so far?
The more I play it, the more I like it. The fact that I don't have to think about rules anymore is nice, so I can actually enjoy playing.
This is a strong endorsement for keeping the initial rules and vocabulary burden as low as possible. In the greater scheme of things, Freyja knows almost nothing about the rules. Like many players, she knows the bare minimum necessary to get through the game. The machinery underneath (phases, the stack, priority) is invisible to her, which is a good thing: it allows her to focus on actually playing and having fun!


  1. Stalemates feel a lot longer to new players than to players familiar with the game. New players tend to have to reevaluate the game state each time they draw a card. Old players can take short cuts and can more intuitively know if a card they draw will help them or not. They can even preemptively know their deck and know ahead of time what cards they can draw that will help. The act of having to reevaluate and realizing that nothing has changed is a much more defeating feeling than not having to put the energy into reevaluation.

    I'm not sure there's a design fix for it besides reducing on board complexity.

    1. Well, that and preventing board stalls from happening to begin with. Evasive attackers, strong removal, not too much toughness, etc. I wonder whether this is one reason Rise of the Eldrazi was unpopular with casual players.

    2. By the way, excellent insight about the energy needed for reevaluating the game state!

  2. It's interesting that her favorite card is one that neutralizes an opponent's attacker that you couldn't easily shake off, and her favorite play was when she had a creature that you could not block. While interaction makes sure there's an actual experience and sense of achievement, the most fun moments in the game are still when you get to do cool things without fear of reprisal.

    1. Absolutely. Magic is a game that's full of surprises, but a few moments of certainty during the game are necessary as well.

  3. I think that pT shorthand notation is probably one of the biggest design misses of MtG. Because they appear on the same line, in the same box, seperated by a single character, new players almost always assume that they're more related than they are. Imagine if the two were on different parts of the card.

    1. I never thought of it that way, but it's certainly true that the two numbers mean completely different and unrelated things. The frequency of +X/+X effects is probably what fools us into thinking of them as one piece.

  4. but it's sort of beautiful to the more experienced player how much raw information about a card can be conveyed by saying just three numbers.
    "four five for three" and I could probably write an at least 1 page paper on how those 4 words effect a game state.