A lesson about teaching from Magic: The Gathering

In an article on Magic: The Gathering strategy, Zvi Mowshowitz writes that

players, especially great players like Todd Anderson, hate to go down lines that leave them no control and no choices to make. Going all in on Pack Rat takes away a great player’s chance to outthink the opponent and leverage superior skill[,] instead putting the game into the hands of the opponent. It also isn’t as much fun.

Decks that force players down lines like this tend to be underplayed by better players and therefore underplayed at high-level tournaments where players instead seek out decks and cards that give them more play. When players have no choice but to rely on such strategies, top players tend to hate the format. It’s important to remember that your choice of deck and your choice of when to go down this path is the place you are leveraging your skill. A key part of a great player’s toolbox is not to be overly attached to being great and instead to focus on what gives you the best chance of winning.

Magic: The Gathering is a collectible card game where you build your own deck, choosing which cards to play and how many of each. What Zvi is saying here is that good players prefer to play decks that give them lots of decisions to make, because this allows them to defeat the opponent by taking advantage of their superior play skill. Good players therefore dislike playing something like the Pack Rat deck, because it only has a single optimal line of play and it doesn’t allow them to exploit their superior decision-making abilities. But Zvi goes on to say that when you play the Pack Rat deck, you are still taking advantage of your superior play skill; it’s just that you’re doing so at the point where you select which deck to play, rather than at the point where you choose to play the deck.

I was thinking about this article this morning because of what happened in my 9 am class. None of the students was talking and I didn’t have anything in particular to lecture about. There was no student presentation today, so I had to fill the entire 50 minutes. Out of desperation, I used one of the strategies outlined in Natalie Houston’s Chronicle article I announced that I was going to sit in the back of the room and let the students lead the discussion. And this had an immediate positive effect. The students started talking and making fascinating points. (For example, they spontaneously noticed the fact that the society in My Little Pony has rather disturbing class divisions. Yes, I am teaching My Little Pony this week, but that’s not the point.) It was like once I was no longer a commanding presence at the front of the room, they felt free to talk on their own.

This was tough for me, though, because I’m used to standing at the front of the class and leading the discussion. To return to Zvi’s quotation, I think I prefer to “leverage” my speaking ability and my superior knowledge of the subject matter by standing at the front of the classroom and asking leading questions. When I let the students talk among themselves, it’s like I’m giving up my ability to take advantage of my expertise in this way — just as when a Magic player goes with the Pack Rat deck, s/he is no longer able to leverage his/her superior play skill. I almost feel as though if I’m not leading the discussion, I’m not really teaching. But just as with the Pack Rat example, when I let my students talk amongst themselves rather than directing the discussion, I’m still taking advantage of my ability to teach. It’s just that I’m doing so not by leading the discussion, but by deciding when to lead the discussion and when not to.

One reply on “A lesson about teaching from Magic: The Gathering”

Good to see another MtG-playing comics scholar. I recently got into the game again with Return to Ravnica, after a long hiatus.

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