Nina’s Note: Our older kids have been seriously involved in Magic The Gathering game lately. They go to weekly local play sessions and participate in tournaments. They also play at home almost every night. Initially, I thought it was a waste of time. Now I realize that the game is beneficial to the kids and can be extremely useful for our homeschooling. It helped my kids develop better social skills and reduced their performance anxiety. By playing together, they bond with each other and with their Dad and learn to work as a team when they help each other and teach the game to their younger siblings. My kids also show great improvement in their reading, math, and strategic thinking skills. So I asked Kon – who himself is an avid player and who introduced the kids to the game – to write this article describing the game and its benefits.
What is Magic The Gathering?
Magic The Gathering (MTG) is a strategy card game where the goal is to win by reducing your opponent’s life total to zero. Though skill is a key ingredient to consistent winning, luck can play a big role, as your initial card draw is randomized, so you have to play a hand you are dealt (or take new hands at the price of keeping one less card each time you do so). The game allows for generation of potentially unlimited resources by using a combination of cards, as well as ways to break up/interrupt your opponent’s utilization of resources, and because MTG has over 20,000 unique cards, understanding game rules and how they apply to card interaction is key to winning. For those who are into D&D and other fantasy games, card names and types bear some similarity, and having gorgeous card design and art is also a big plus.
Benefits of Playing MTG for Kids
Even though MTG is considered more complex that chess, even someone not familiar with the game can start playing relatively quickly. While chess typically requires a more formal setting to compete, MTG tournaments are set up informally at many local gaming stores, allowing children to join in and play with the adults. The gameplay itself encourages verbalization and interaction, so even the most introverted kids will feel comfortable communicating with others (including adults). There are plenty of high level/high stakes tournaments in MTG, since it is very popular around the world, but most people can play at their kitchen table and at the local gaming stores, as well as online.
MTG bears some similarities to a computer program, thus exposing the kids to the concepts of basic computing and algorithms. There are a number of phases, including the ‘initialization’ phase (untap/upkeep/draw), two main phases, a combat phase and an end setup/clean-up phase, and during each of those phases there can be a number of nested ‘subroutines’ that arise from various effects that can be played by both players (including on each other’s turns). Keeping track of the game flow is important, as is tracking your opponents’ game state in addition to your own, so MTG requires a high level of concentration over prolonged periods of time and attention to minute detail. With enough practice, these skills can be developed over time even by children who might not exhibit them on their own.
A typical deck contains 60 cards (100 for a variant called ‘Commander’) and a sideboard of 15. Some decks are more about strategy and timing, while other decks involve extensive numerical calculations, so in addition to the abovementioned skills, MTG develops rapid calculation abilities, as well as strategy skills such as the ability to select an optimal play from a number of alternatives.
Getting Started with MTG
While MTG is probably going to be too much for most 6-year-olds, 8 or 10-year-olds can get very comfortable playing at a fairly high level. It does take some time to get used to all of the rules, but constant play makes this simply a matter of time. There are many different types of MTG competitive formats, ranging from the cheapest (‘Pauper’) up to the most complex and expensive one (‘Vintage’). ‘Standard’ is probably the most financially accessible of the competitive formats, while ‘Modern’ and ‘Legacy’ have access to more powerful cards and strategies (but require more investments to get started).
For those children who are not competitive and are not interested in tournaments, a variant of MTG called ‘Commander’ is available. This is a non-competitive multi-player game where you can have anywhere from 1 to as many as 5 opponents at the same time, and these games can take hours to complete (depending on the level of competition). Starting with MTG can be as simple as buying one of the pre-made commander decks (which might cost about $30). One way to get access to many cards cheaply is to buy bulk cards on eBay, and for as little as $100 you can buy thousands of cards to play with.
MTG can be a fun game to play on an ongoing basis, and it can teach many valuable skills to small children including reading/comprehension (as having to read and understand multiple cards fairly quickly will make them get better), communication skills, thinking strategically, doing a lot of math on the fly, and getting used to competitive environment, as well as performing under pressure and time constraints, which are all valuable skills to have.