Commander is perhaps the most complicated format in Magic. It involves zones not normally relevant in most formats, there is a wide variety of viable deck archetypes, and its multiplayer nature creates a priority and timestamp nightmare. For these reasons, I do not recommend using it to teach new players how to play Magic. I also do not listen to my own advice.
I learned to play on the Commander format, and I love to teach new players how to play using Commander (because that’s what I know, and that’s what I have decks for). So, today’s blog is going to be about teaching new players how to play Commander.
First thing: don’t make the new player feel stupid if they don’t get something right away. What may seem obvious to you, as an experienced player, may not be intuitive to someone who’s never played the game. If they get something wrong, it’s really your fault for not explaining it in a way they could understand. Think back to when you first played Magic, and all the weird things you thought about the rules. I’m now a Level 2 judge; I tested for Level 1 not long after the person who taught me how to play, and scored much higher on the test than him. When I tested for Level 2, I scored 100% on the exam. I’ve judged events ranging from Casual to Professional REL; the pro players trust me to know the rules better than they do. The first night I played, I never cast my commander, because I was afraid the other players would attack her. Somehow I’d gotten the idea that creatures could be attacked directly. I’d never played any other sort of trading card game, although I suppose I might have internalized what I’d heard from friends talking about them. I also was under the impression that commander damage applied to all damage taken from the commander (Ruric Thar was much better back then), and the 21 limit applied to the total damage taken from all commanders, including your own. (I know where these impressions came from: no one had specified that it had to be combat damage from a single commander; what they’d said was damage from a commander counted as commander damage, and if you took 21 commander damage you lost the game. Absolutely the fault of the people teaching me, especially since when the format was created, non-combat damage counted too, so it’s likely that new players would intuit the rule that way. Since, you know, that’s how the creators of the format originally thought it should be.) The point is, even though I’m now knowledgeable enough about the rules to teach L3’s about certain interactions, I wasn’t always that good. Nobody starts inherently knowing how the game works, so don’t blame new players when they make mistakes.
Keep in mind common errors. In addition to the ones I’ve already mentioned, I’ve seen players thinking they have to tap their creatures to block (I think I myself was under that misapprehension at first), miscounting mana costs (oh there’s just one green symbol on this, I only have to tap this one forest; well, no, there’s also a 2, so you have to tap two other lands as well), and miscounting permanents. A little more on that last one—one of the cards in the deck I use to teach new players is Drove of Elves, which has power and toughness equal to the number of green permanents in play. Players will forget to count Drove of Elves itself, will fail to count Tanglewurm because it’s not an elf (the deck is elf tribal), will try to count their lands along with other permanents (lands are by nature colorless), or will fail to count the tokens, because they don’t have mana costs. A good teacher will be prepared to head these off at the pass—whenever it becomes relevant, ask the player how big their Drove of Elves is. When the player tries to cast a spell, ask them how much it costs. When they answer incorrectly (because they will), correct them gently—”Actually, the Drove of Elves is a 5/5, you probably forgot the +1/+1 from Elvish Archdruid.” Or, “That spell actually costs four, not three, it’s got this 3 here which means three of any color, plus this one green.” Remember, Magic is supposed to be fun, and most people don’t have fun when they feel dumb because their mistakes are being pointed out. But, if it’s clear that you see and understand where they went wrong, it becomes a learning opportunity. Repeated assurances of, “Don’t worry, you’re doing fine, everyone makes mistakes,” will go a long way to making them feel good about themselves even when they don’t get things right away.
Another important thing: choosing the deck that they’ll be using. I use my mono-green Ezuri, Renegade Leader elf tribal deck. My reasoning is that it’s a single color, which reduces the complexity significantly, it has a fairly straightforward win condition (play a bunch of elves, pump them up with Ezuri’s ability, and trample over your opponent’s blockers), and it’s also the first deck that my friend who made a habit of misreading and misplaying his cards was able to play without mistakes. While the comedic flowchart on what to play would indicate that a new player should perhaps play goblins, rather than elves (since you choose goblins over elves if you tend to miss triggers), my elf deck doesn’t have a lot of upkeep (or other) triggers, and my goblin deck is actually slightly more complicated than my elf deck, along with being much easier to disrupt.
I tend to teach using one-on-one, ignoring the difference in banned list and simply using my multiplayer decks. Normally I don’t like playing one-on-one, since it’s a completely different format at that point, but it simplifies things for teaching new players. Having only two people to wrangle, one of whom is myself, makes it much easier for me to control the different variables. I don’t have to make sure that another player is having fun while training up the new player, and I don’t have to worry about another player making the new player feel dumb or unwelcome because they’re having a hard time understanding the game. Also, the new player might feel self-conscious for slowing down gameplay in a multiplayer game.
New players don’t want to be handed the game—that’s condescending—but winning a game is a rush, and will mean they associate the game with having fun. My first night, one of the games came down to me versus the person who taught me. It looked like I had the game in the bag—he even said he couldn’t see a way to beat me—until he looked at his hand one last time, saw a way out of certain doom, and took it. If, instead, he’d been slightly less competitive, and just passed turn, I never would have known the difference, and could have come away from the night that much more psyched about playing, because I’d actually won a game. Instead, I was left with the bitter knowledge that he could have let me win, without letting me know he’d let me win, but instead chose to win himself. Clearly I chose to continue playing, but that was more a testament to my personal stubbornness than to this person’s ability to teach new players.
My strategy for letting the new player win without letting them know you’re letting them win is to pick a deck that’s just not as powerful as the deck you’ve handed them. If you’re doing one-on-one, it’s pretty easy to guarantee that they’ve got a good shot at beating you. One recent game I played to teach a new player, I played my janky pirates deck. It’s not a bad deck, but it’s not on par with my other decks; to put things in perspective, the commander is Ramirez DiPietro. Usually he just sits in the command zone looking fabulous. Another time, a few months ago, I played Scion of the Ur-Dragon, under the theory that my five-color deck would be rather a lot slower than the mono-color deck I’d loaned to my cousin. We played two games; in one, I beat him, and in the other, he completely destroyed me. For the rest of the vacation, he was bugging me to play. That is, of course, the goal in teaching new players: to make them eager to play the game again.
Basically, the thing to remember is, you want this person to want to play the game. You want to provide them a challenge, but not so much of one they feel discouraged. They’re going to make mistakes; use those mistakes as a teaching opportunity, but make sure you both understand that making mistakes is natural for new players and nothing to be ashamed of. And, most importantly, if you have non-Commander decks, perhaps consider using those to teach rather than your super-complicated three-color combo Garza Zol Commander deck.