"Dad, teach me Magic!"
I heard these four magical words for the first time this past weekend and about burst with happiness. I've been playing Magic nonstop since before my kids were born (Anna Marie will be 13 in December, and Aaron will turn 11 in July). Stacks of Magic cards, sleeves, and deck boxes have been a big part of the backdrop of their lives since they first became aware of their surroundings, and they quickly learned to be "careful with Daddy's cards." I explained that some of the cards were very hard to find and quite valuable and that if they wanted to draw on or cut up any of them, I had stacks of extra commons that looked cool they could have to their heart's content.
As they got older, I tried to explain a little bit about how the game worked, but for the most part they weren't interested in anything other than the artwork. Aaron did latch on to the power and toughness box on cards, and after I explained how power and toughness worked, he would often scoff at creatures like Birds of Paradise that were 0/1s. I remember when Rise of the Eldrazi came out I showed him Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. His eyes got big when he saw the 15/15 stats. "15!" he exclaimed. "But dragons are like 5/5 or 6/6!"
I smiled. Aaron didn't really understand much about the game of Magic, but he knew enough to know that the Eldrazi were some big monsters and to be awed by their size—as were we all!
Whenever I brought up the idea of teaching the kids how to play Magic, neither seemed very interested. A few years back I brought them to a big StarCityGames.com event here in Richmond I was unable to play in with the thought that seeing all these people in one big tournament with clocks and judges and spectators might spark some interest. God bless 'em, they politely followed me around and smiled at me as I explained stuff to them, but they were quite ready to go when I said my goodbyes to friends there.
One weekend I had Anna Marie (I think Aaron might have had a birthday party to attend), and I stopped by another SCG event here in Richmond with her in tow. This time I'd built two simple decks with the intention of teaching her to play, and after I'd gone around and checked in to see how my friends were doing in the tournament, she and I sat down and I taught her to play. She picked up on the basic rules pretty quickly, but I could tell her heart wasn't really in the game; she was playing because I asked her to, not because she wanted to. In the weeks and months afterwards, I'd bring up Magic to see if she was interested in playing some more, but she never was, so I dropped it.
Since then I've gotten the kids into a couple other games, including Munchkin, which makes my D&D heart quite proud (I have some hopes that Munchkin might be a gateway drug for eventually getting them into D&D). Last weekend I took the kids to a game shop in order to pick up the Munchkin 2 expansion pack for the game, and we went home to play. After we finished the game, Anna Marie asked if she could go on the computer to check in with some friends on an online game she plays, and when she left Aaron shocked the heck out of me by asking me to teach him Magic.
I panicked just a little bit because I didn't have any simple, kid-friendly decks ready to go. I also didn't have but a single Standard deck currently built. I did have quite a few Commander decks built, but giving Aaron a 100-card deck chock full of powerful cards from throughout Magic's history felt a little bit like throwing him in the deep end of the pool for his first swim lesson. Still, I didn't want to squander this opportunity…
Thinking through my Commander decks, I came up with a solution. I gave him my Marrow-Gnawer deck, which is stuffed to the gills with Relentless Rats. It's mono-black, which makes the mana considerations pretty easy, and it's pretty linear in its game plan: play and attack with lots of Relentless Rats while taking advantage of tribal/Rat support. It should also be pretty powerful in a one versus one game. To oppose him, I picked up my new Child of Alara / Maze's End deck, which is quite slow and should be quite the challenge to defeat the Rat assault. If I somehow managed to hold him off and win with Maze's End, it would provide a nice demonstration of an alternate victory condition.
We shuffled up, and I explained to Aaron that we were playing something a little different than regular Magic. It's called Commander, we start at 40 life instead of twenty, and we each have a legendary creature as our leader set aside that whenever we can cast him we can do so. When one of us goes to zero life, the other person wins!
"Okay, okay…let's play!"
Aaron took my hand and we jumped into the deep end of the pool.
I told him we'd play with our hands face up so I could help him with the cards and explain to him certain lines of play for his own hand and why I'm playing what I'm playing. He started with two Relentless Rats in his hand. I explained how that works, and he just shrugged…then he drew another one. And another one.
"How many Relentless Rats are in this deck?"
"About 40 or so."
I could see him trying to do some math in his head, and a huge smile crossed his face.
"So…these Rats are going to get pretty huge if I keep drawing them?"
"Yep, unless I kill them."
He played his first Relentless Rats, and then I played Kitchen Finks and tried to explain about persist. He nodded a little impatiently and played a second Relentless Rats. "So this is 3/3 now right? Attack!" I explained that I'd block with Kitchen Finks, kill his Rat, and then get my Kitchen Finks right back, but if he waited a turn and played another Rat, his Rats would be too big to block and kill. He was a little disappointed but agreed to hold back a turn.
I drew Sun Droplet and played it, explaining how it works, but he was impatient for his turn. He played his third Rat and attacked with the first two. I blocked, took four, and then gained two life as Kitchen Finks came back with a -1/-1 counter. I reminded him that if Kitchen Finks dies with a -1/-1 counter on it I can't persist it back.
On my upkeep, I got a life back from the Sun Droplet. I was actually glad to have played Sun Droplet because it demonstrates that there's an upkeep step at the beginning of each turn. I drew Saffi Eriksdotter and chuckled a little bit inside as I played it. He was certainly getting a lesson in the way his Daddy plays Magic!
On his turn, he drew another Relentless Rats. I reminded him that he's got five mana now and could cast his commander, but he wanted to cast another Rats to make them all 5/5! He attacked with three Rats, and I blocked two of them, then sacrificed Saffi Eriksdotter targeting Kitchen Finks, and took five points of damage. Kitchen Finks died and then came back all fresh and ready to persist, and I gained two life.
On my upkeep, I gained a life off Sun Droplet, drew for my turn, and chuckled as I saw Nim Deathmantle—now Kitchen Finks is never going away! I also had Composite Golem in my hand, so if I lived long enough (I didn't have six mana yet) then I'd have infinite mana available for shenanigans.
On Aaron's upkeep, I told him to hold a second before drawing his card so I could gain a life off Sun Droplet. He looked at my life total—which was still hovering around 40—and proclaimed, "Sun Droplet is annoying!"
He drew Jar of Eyeballs and read the card. I explained to him that each time one of his creatures dies you put two eyeballs in the jar. When you want to use up the eyeballs, you can empty the jar and look for a sweet card from the top of your library. He then picked up Marrow-Gnawer and read it. It gives all Rats fear, and when I explained what fear does, he knew what he wanted to do. He played his commander and sent his four Relentless Rats directly at me as my Kitchen Finks trembled in terror at the scary Rats. I ticked down my life total and loaded up the charge counters on Sun Droplet. During my upkeep, I gained life from Sun Droplet.
"How do I get rid of that thing?" Aaron asked.
"Well, there aren't too many things in black that can deal with artifacts."
"So how am I ever going to beat you? You gave me this deck on purpose so I'd lose!"
"You can still win through the Sun Droplet; you just have to dish out more damage than I'm recovering during our upkeeps. Like you just did last turn."
He sat back, looking skeptical and a bit dejected even though he was actually in a really good position right now. I drew and saw a sixth land, which let me play Composite Golem. Now I had infinite mana, but I didn't really have much action in my hand, so I demonstrated the combo to Aaron, made a mana of each color so I could cast Child of Alara, and ended up with Composite Golem equipped with Nim Deathmantle.
During Aaron's upkeep, I gained a life off Sun Droplet; Aaron let out an exasperated huff, and I laughed. He drew another Relentless Rats and seemed to perk up as he played it. "So my Relentless Rats are now…6/6!" He got ready to attack, but I stopped him. "Hang on. Creatures with fear can only be blocked by black creatures or artifact creatures. My Composite Golem is an artifact creature, and Child of Alara is a black creature because he's got black mana in his casting cost. Your Relentless Rats are big enough that if I block with Child of Alara it will die, and if it dies then I'll destroy everything on the board. All your Rats will go away."
"Aggghh! Well, if I can't attack and you just get all your life back with Sun Droplet, how am I supposed to win?"
"Read your commander again."
He picked up his card and read it. He then looked at his Relentless Rats. "So if I sacrifice one of these Rats, then I get to make a bunch of Relentless Rats? How does that help? You're still going to blow everything up."
He looked dubious about sacrificing his Relentless Rats. "But the whole point of the card is to play as many as you can to make them as big as you can. How can trading them in for little 1/1 guys help me win?"
"Because you're going to make a ton of 1/1 Rats and just send them swarming at me. I'll block and kill some of them but you're going to make so many more."
He went to sacrifice one of his Rats but I told him to wait and see which Relentless Rats I block with my creatures. So he attacked, I blocked two of them, and I told him to sacrifice the one blocked by my Child of Alara and gave him five 1/1 Rat tokens. He put two of his Relentless Rats in the graveyard and looked at my Sun Droplet. "So annoying!"
"There are some other sweet Rats in the deck."
He smiled and played Ratcatcher. "So now during your upkeep, not only will I gain a life with Sun Droplet"—Aaron scowled, and I laughed—"but now you'll get to search the deck for a Rat card!"
I explained Wurmcoil Engine and how lifelink works, and he groaned until I pointed out that he could just sacrifice whatever Rat I block with Wurmcoil Engine to Marrow-Gnawer and I won't gain any life. He looked at my growing army of 6/6 creatures and reluctantly sent his Rat army in, sad when I blocked his last three Relentless Rats and knowing they're about to die. He sacrificed the one blocked by Wurmcoil Engine and made eight more 1/1 Rat tokens. I adjusted my life total perilously low, in the single digits, and stacked up the charge counters on Sun Droplet.
On my turn, I got life off the Sun Droplet but didn't draw anything relevant. I went ahead and attacked with Wurmcoil Engine to gain some life. Aaron thought about blocking, but I pointed out that he hadn't taken much damage this game so why diminish his Rat army? I passed the turn back to Aaron, and he untapped and went to draw a card.
"Hang on! It's your upkeep. I gain life from the Sun Droplet"—he groaned as I adjusted my life total—"and now you get to search up a Rat."
"Here, I'll help you." We split his deck in two and started searching. "Ooo, I think you're going to want this one," I teased him. He pulled a few Rat cards and read them, but then I flashed him my card.
"Check out what kind of creature she is."
Aaron grinned. "Rat…Ninja! Yes, that one! What is ninjutsu?" I explained to him how it works, but he looked disappointed. "But I don't have…" (counted the mana cost and ninjutsu cost) "…eleven mana to do that!"
"No, you can pay the ninjutsu cost instead of the casting cost to put Ink-Eyes into play." Aaron's eyes lit up as I told him he could pay that mana when one of his numerous Rats get by unblocked and switch places with the 1/1 Rat token.
"It's like she's disguised as a normal ol' 1/1 Rat, but then when she slips by my defenders she jumps out—AHA! It's me!"
Of course, it was overkill doing all that because I'm dead on board to a swarm of Rat tokens despite my Sun Droplet loaded with charge counters, but I walked him through how to do the ninjutsu because what 10-year-old boy wouldn't want to sneak a Rat Ninja into play? I counted up all the damage and told him I was in the negatives and quite dead, and he laughed with delight.
Unfortunately, it was time to take the kids back to their mother's house, so we had to put away the decks and hop in the car. I could tell Aaron had a great time…but is the hook set? I'm not sure, but I think he really enjoyed himself. He seemed to pick up the rules pretty quickly and didn't seem intimidated by cards with walls of text (even if he didn't quite understand how some of them worked).
It appears that tossing him into the deep end of the pool wasn't so bad after all!
As I was writing this, I realized that I have not yet written about either of these two decks. For the sake of my editor's sanity [Editor's Note: You are too kind.] considering how many words I've already written, I won't do a full deck breakdown for both of them, but I didn't think it would be fair to you all not to give you the decklists. I think for the most part they're both pretty straightforward, especially (obviously) the Marrow-Gnawer deck. The Child of Alara deck is all about finding Maze's End, trying to accelerate its activation, and searching as fast as possible to win that way while trying to survive long enough to execute that plan.
- 1 Nezumi Graverobber
- 1 Ogre Slumlord
- 1 Pack Rat
- 1 Ratcatcher
- 35 Relentless Rats
- 1 Balthor the Defiled
- 1 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
- 1 Marrow-Gnawer
- 1 Xiahou Dun, the One-Eyed
- 1 Aether Vial
- 1 Cauldron of Souls
- 1 Coat of Arms
- 1 Culling Dais
- 1 Door of Destinies
- 1 Eldrazi Monument
- 1 Grim Monolith
- 1 Lightning Greaves
- 1 Nim Deathmantle
- 1 Runed Stalactite
- 1 Skullclamp
- 1 Swiftfoot Boots
- 1 Temple Bell
- 1 Phyrexian Arena
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Thrumming Stone
- 1 Demonic Collusion
- 1 Increasing Ambition
- 1 Patriarch's Bidding
- 1 Composite Golem
- 1 Darksteel Gargoyle
- 1 Phyrexian Metamorph
- 1 Wurmcoil Engine
- 1 Bringer of the Black Dawn
- 1 Carven Caryatid
- 1 Eternal Witness
- 1 Heartmender
- 1 Hornet Queen
- 1 Kitchen Finks
- 1 Knight of the Reliquary
- 1 Magus of the Candelabra
- 1 Masked Admirers
- 1 Oracle of Mul Daya
- 1 Riftsweeper
- 1 Rune-Scarred Demon
- 1 Seedborn Muse
- 1 Vampire Hexmage
- 1 Vexing Shusher
- 1 Weatherseed Treefolk
- 1 Azusa, Lost but Seeking
- 1 Child of Alara
- 1 Saffi Eriksdotter
- 15 Forest
- 1 Azorius Guildgate
- 1 Bayou
- 1 Boros Guildgate
- 1 Command Tower
- 1 Dimir Guildgate
- 1 Glacial Chasm
- 1 Golgari Guildgate
- 1 Gruul Guildgate
- 1 Izzet Guildgate
- 1 Maze of Ith
- 1 Maze's End
- 1 Murmuring Bosk
- 1 Orzhov Guildgate
- 1 Overgrown Tomb
- 1 Rakdos Guildgate
- 1 Savannah
- 1 Selesnya Guildgate
- 1 Simic Guildgate
- 1 Strip Mine
- 1 Sunpetal Grove
- 1 Temple Garden
- 1 Thespian's Stage
- 1 Vesuva
- 1 Woodland Cemetery
- 1 Mikokoro, Center of the Sea
- 1 Dark Depths
- 1 Amulet of Vigor
- 1 Chromatic Lantern
- 1 Crucible of Worlds
- 1 Darksteel Ingot
- 1 Expedition Map
- 1 Memory Jar
- 1 Nim Deathmantle
- 1 Scroll Rack
- 1 Sol Ring
- 1 Sun Droplet
- 1 Temple Bell
- 1 Burgeoning
- 1 Exploration
- 1 Greater Good
- 1 Rites of Flourishing
- 1 Seal of Doom
- 1 Soul Snare
- 1 Sylvan Library
- 1 Crop Rotation
- 1 Invulnerability
- 1 Krosan Grip
- 1 Moment's Peace
- 1 Sudden Spoiling
- 1 Vampiric Tutor
- 1 Damnation
- 1 Demonic Tutor
- 1 Evangelize
- 1 Gaea's Blessing
- 1 Harmonize
- 1 Life from the Loam
- 1 Rout
- 1 Scapeshift
- 1 Sylvan Scrying
- 1 Syphon Mind
- 1 Wargate
- 1 Wrath of God
If you have any specific questions about either of these decks, feel free to ask me in the comments below and I'll respond.
So I'm curious—any of you Magic parents out there have a cool story about playing Magic for the first time with one of your kids?
New to Commander?
If you're just curious about the format, building your first deck, or trying to take your Commander deck up a notch, here are some handy links:
- Commander Primer Part 1 (Why play Commander? Rules Overview, Picking your Commander)
- Commander Primer Part 2 (Mana Requirements, Randomness, Card Advantage)
- Commander Primer Part 3 (Power vs. Synergy, Griefing, Staples, Building a Doran Deck)
- Commander Starter Kits 1 (kick start your allied two-color decks for $25)
- Commander Starter Kits 2 (kick start your enemy two-color decks for $25)
- Commander Starter Kits 3 (kick start your shard three-color decks for $25)
My current Commander decks (and links to decklists):
- Vorel the Hull Clade (Never Trust the Simic)
- Emmara Tandris (No Damage Tokens)
- Varolz, the Scar-Striped (scavenging goodness)
- Doran, the Siege Tower (All My Faves in One Deck!)
- Johan (Cat Breath of the Infinite)
- Lord of Tresserhorn (ZOMBIES!)
- Borborygmos Enraged (69 land deck)
- Aurelia, the Warleader (plus Hellkite Tyrant shenanigans)
- Oona, Queen of the Fae (by reader request)
- Karador, Ghost Chieftain (my Magic Online deck)
- Karona, False God (Vows of the False God)
- Skullbriar, the Walking Grave (how big can it get?)
- Phage the Untouchable (actually casting Phage from Command Zone!)
- Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind (Chuck's somewhat vicious deck)
Previous Commander decks currently on hiatus:
- Yeva, Nature's Herald (living at instant speed)
- Nefarox, Overlord of Grixis (evil and Spike-ish)
- Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius (new player-friendly)
- Trostani, Selesnya's Voice (new player-friendly)
- Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord (drain you big time)
- Riku of Two Reflections (steal all permanents with Deadeye Navigator + Zealous Conscripts)
- Phelddagrif (Mean Hippo)
- Sigarda, Host of Herons (Equipment-centric Voltron)
- Bruna, Light of Alabaster (Aura-centric Voltron)
- Ruhan of the Fomori (lots of equipment and infinite attack steps)
- Ghave, Guru of Spores (Melira Combo)
- Glissa, the Traitor (undying artifacts!)
- Grimgrin, Corpse-Born (Necrotic Ooze Combo)
- Damia, Sage of Stone (Ice Cauldron shenanigans)
- Geist of Saint Traft (Voltron-ish)
- Glissa Sunseeker (death to artifacts!)
- Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer (replacing Brion Stoutarm in Mo' Myrs)
- Thelon of Havenwood (Campfire Spores)
- Melira, Sylvok Outcast (combo killa)
- Konda, Lord of Eiganjo (The Indestructibles)
- Vorosh, the Hunter (proliferaTION)
- Progenitus (Fist of Suns and Bringers)
- Savra, Queen of the Golgari (Demons)
- Uril, the Miststalker (my "more competitive" deck)