A couple of years ago, I was walking through the streets of Seattle with Reid Duke. We were walking back to our hotel from PAX. Reid has really long legs, so I had to kind of hustle to keep pace with him, but he’s also this incredibly aware person that pays attention to what’s going on with other people, so it’s not like he was walking too quickly for me to keep up. I can’t remember who else was there, but I remember a key part of the conversation. Somewhere, it came up that I have two kids, and that my son Ethan was 4 at the time. Somebody asked if I was going to teach him Magic, and I said that of course yes, but that I wasn’t sure what would be the best time to start teaching him. Reid told me that he started learning to play Magic when he was five. We talked about that; about how to teach Magic to someone that’s that young; about the impact it had on his life to start learning Magic at such an early age.
Let me clarify, I spent several days with the Community Cup Team in 2013. Reid Duke is a quiet guy, but he is also one of the most genuine, intelligent, and kind people that I have ever met. When I saw him at GP Baltimore this last year, he made a point of talking to me, although the way time and rounds worked out, we didn’t get more than a couple of sentences. We had a couple of these one-on-one chats at the Community Cup, and I just could not have been more impressed with him as a person. I also got to work with him during our games and drafts at the event, and it didn’t take long for me to see that he processed the game in a way that was on a different tier from anyone I had ever met. When he went on to be one of the dominant forces of the game during that season, I was not at all surprised, and he is always at the top of my list for players that I want to see do well.
So when Reid told me that he had started learning Magic at such an early age, and when he talked about how learning to play the game had shaped his life in such a beneficial way, I realized that that was something that I wanted for my kids. Sure, I would love it if they love Magic the way that I do, and I would enjoy it if we could eventually play together, and go to GPs together, and things like that. But even if they decide that they don’t want to continue playing Magic, I would love to give them the kinds of experiences that led Reid Duke to become the kind of person he is now.
The day that I got home from Seattle, I broke out all of my old Magic cards, and I started pulling out everything that I thought a five-year-old would be able to understand, and then I started building decks. I waited about 3 months before I started teaching Ethan the game, but I figured that he was close enough to being ready, and there was no need to waste any more time.
Now that I’ve spent a year teaching Ethan how to play Magic, I’ve got some idea of what goes into teaching a young child how to play. One of my goals for this blog is to walk people through what I did to teach Ethan how to play, and then give you updates on his progress through the game.
One of the first things that I learned is that there are a few skills that a kid needs to have mastered in order to even play the game in the first place.
It seems like this would go without saying, but a Magic player needs to have a basic ability to read. The question is how much they need to be able to read in order to figure out what is going on in the game. You would think that Magic has a really difficult vocabulary, but it turns out that the game is made up mostly of the kinds of basic sight words that kids learn first, along with a collection of jargon words for abilities and mechanics that are specific to the game. Anyone learning the game has to learn what those words mean, things like library, graveyard, battlefield, exile, hand, and more. Yes, knowing those words beforehand allows you to access their metaphorical means and the resonance connects it to other games, but any Magic player is still going to have to learn what those words mean specifically in the game.
Ethan was able to read over 500 sight words by the time we started playing the game, but more importantly, he had mastered the ability to sound out words for himself. From there forward, I just have to explain what the words mean, but he’ll almost always remember those words on the second play. For those of you that know a lot about child development, you’ll notice that Ethan is quite a bit advanced for his age. We started playing when he turned five, but these reading skills are about what you would expect from an average child when they are about halfway through first grade, or when they are between 6 ½ to 7 years old. However, it is entirely possible for a child to learn these skills by the time they are five years old if they develop a little bit more quickly than average and if they are read to consistently through the first five years of their life. The reading part of the game has not been a challenge at all.
Magic: The Gathering requires a player to have a least a passing understanding of several math skills, including one-to-one correspondence, single digit addition, single digit subtraction, and logical comparisons such as greater than, less than, or equal to. One-to-one correspondence is a skill that most kids pick up in their first half of kindergarten, while single digit addition and subtraction is taught in the second half of kindergarten. This was a skill that we had been working on with Ethan before my trip to the community cup, but I knew that his Math skills weren’t quite developed enough for Magic. Of course, this meant that as soon as I got home, we started learning all of these math skills so that he would be ready by his fifth birthday.
Playing Magic has a tight rule structure. This means that kids need to learn basic concepts like the existence of rules that each player must follow, or the idea that each player gets a turn. These are skills that can be learned over the course of time, but they require practice and direct instruction. Games like Candyland or Sorry are great for teaching these concepts, and it often takes kids a few plays before the get the idea that each player has their own turn, that actions have to be taken in a certain order, or that the things a player can do are dictated by the structure of the rules. The good news is that we’ve been playing board games with Ethan since he was two-years-old, so he had this skill down pretty well. With that said, kids at that age have a very hard time remembering the structure and phases of a turn of Magic, so I’ve found that it’s key for me to just verbally talk him through the stages of the game each turn so that he remembers when to untap his permanents, draw his cards, play his lands, attack and block, and things like that.
This is Ethan, about to draw a Mist Raven to deal with my Gaea’s Embraced Centaur Courser
These are the basic skills that a player needs to understand the basic game of Magic, and it seems that the most kids are going to be ready to start playing Magic when they are somewhere around 6-years-old, though it’s possible to pick up these skills earlier if parents make an effort to teach the skills. It’s also important that every child develops at their own pace; some kids are just going to naturally be ready to learn the game at 5, while others are going to enjoy the game more if they simply wait until they are 7 or 8. It does seem, however, that the ages of 5-8 are a prime point to start learning the game.
This does not mean that kids at this age are going to be able to fully access the game of Magic. There are several developmental stages that they have not yet reached that open up other dimensions of the game, but I’ll discuss that in a future blogpost.
The important thing to know is that I’ve started teaching Magic to Ethan, and it has been wildly successful. He gets the game and he loves it. I’m excited to talk about his journey in learning the game and our experiences as a Magic playing family.