One of the best things that can happen to your playgroup is the addition of a new player. Every playgroup eventually needs new players if it hopes to survive. People move away or their interests change, or their life changes and suddenly someone is gone. Without new players, every group eventually withers and dies.
As someone whose group has changed several times in the 13 years I've lived in Boston, I wanted to walk you through the steps involved in successfully bringing a new player into your group. This topic was inspired by a new addition to my current playgroup. Andy is not only new to our group, but new to Magic! Andy is fitting in nicely and I'm looking forward to seeing how Andy changes the dynamic in our playgroup!
I met Andy while working at a recent temporary job. While I don't talk endlessly about Magic, it is a big part of my life. Many players hide the fact they play Magic, but I never have. Hiding your love of the game is the best way to ensure your group dies. You will never find players if no one even knows you play the game. While I do try to hide my obsession with the game, I'm happy to mention it casually. My job had only 30 co-workers and two of them had played Magic in the past! I would never have known if I had hidden it away.
Andy played Magic years ago as a pre-teen, but hadn't played since. He expressed an interest, so I brought a few of the 30-card starter decks and, like every good dealer, worked to get him hooked. We played a few times at lunch with the basic decks. He quickly got a handle on the basic rules and card interactions, which was exactly what I wanted. You do not want to overwhelm a new player with piles of card interactions and minutiae early on. For the new player, Magic is a great game where you cast fantastic creatures and spells; it doesn't need to be anything more than that early on.
I have heard some people suggest that you throw games to make sure the new player gets a taste of winning. I prefer to slow the game down and use moments where it appears a mistake was made, as teaching experiences. Suggesting Andy wait to play a creature until the post-combat main to give the illusion he might have a combat trick, is a great reason to back the game up and try again. Andy was losing more than he was winning, but he was having fun and seeing where he could improve. Perhaps with other people, winning is what gets them hooked, but I haven't found that intentionally losing a game has been helpful. Even the most basic players tend to see through that quickly and no one wants to be patronized.
Once Andy was mostly up to date with the rules again, we started using a few of my 60-card decks. These decks aren't too complicated; they tend to focus on a particular card interaction or synergy and try to win based around that. As regular readers know, I don't tend to build the most complex decks, and this works to my advantage when showing Andy various tricks in Magic. Some decks ramp mana, some are synergistic, some are combo machines, some are aggro, some are good stuff. After a week or so, Andy was seeing that Magic was a lot more than just what was in the 30-card decks.
By this point, Andy was looking online for everything Magic-related. When he asked about Commander, I knew I had him locked in! I brought a couple of my Commander decks and invited him to my regular group. He played my Nissa deck and after getting out 30 lands and playing The Great Aurora, I knew he would be coming back!
This is the point where things become a group effort. If your group makes things actively miserable for the new player, no amount of good vibes from you is going to keep a new player coming back. I am lucky in that my group is very welcoming. Andy was initially worried about not having a deck for the evening but I told him not to worry. We had more than enough decks and I would be happy to loan him mine while he found his footing. My group came through just as expected, with everyone offering one of their decks up!
While I don't like to discuss it much, the financial aspect is important and needs to be addressed. How good you are at Magic involves time and money. If I have a lot of time to spend on Magic, I will see card interactions players who spend less time don't see. I'll practice more. I'll learn about possible decks. It isn't perfect, but roughly, if you spend more time on Magic, you'll be a better player. If I have a lot of money to spend on Magic, I can afford better cards. I may not see all the interactions others see, but my decks tend to be filled with cards that do amazing things.
The players in most groups tend to find an equilibrium. The players tend to group at a level where everyone is similar. Whether that is due to spending more time or spending more money varies per person, but successful groups find that balance. Quite often players in groups will adjust their spending or time they spend deckbuilding to find a balance that works best for the group. I'm lucky that my group has found that balance.
The reason I mention this is that it can fall to the new player in your group to catch up, and that can be a real challenge in well-established groups. Even the new player who spends a lot of time with Magic can have problems since they are still new and even spending all your waking hours with Magic can still leave you way behind with experienced groups. Groups also tend to make everyone a little better, so a new player can be overwhelmed. When I build Commander decks, I tend to end up buying between five or 10 cards to complete a deck. After a few games, I make adjustments and perhaps I'll need to buy one or two more cards. I suspect many of you are the same way. This keeps the cost of a new deck relatively low. For a new player like Andy, building a deck can even involve buying more basic lands! Buying an entire deck can be cost-prohibitive for a lot of players.
One of the easiest ways to overcome this is to start a new player with decks from the players already in the group. Having the deck gets around a lot of the financial issues and often puts the owner of the deck into a position where they have something of a vested interest in helping the new player succeed with their deck! While Andy spent that first night using just my decks, he has had a chance to use other players' decks now. He is building his relationship not just with me, but with the players in the group, which is exactly what I want.
Naturally, Andy's collection is still relatively small. This can make deckbuilding tricky, but we've found a couple of ways around that – our group does the occasional draft as well! Two of the longtime group members have Cubes that we try to draft once a month. We also still enjoy a Conspiracy draft from time to time, so both options give Andy a chance to see more cards and build decks from a pool that isn't quite so imbalanced!
There does come a point when you do have to deal with the deck imbalances directly. While I'd like to say that I have orchestrated a perfect solution, I can instead say that Andy and my group seem to have found a great answer. Andy mentioned that he was going to start working on a Commander deck, so we encouraged him to post the list to our weekly email chain and we'd be happy to help him find cards. Most of the group has plenty of extra cards so I expected Andy wouldn't be stuck having to buy almost every card in his proposed deck.
While we were able to provide many of the cards Andy was initially looking to put in a Heartless Hidetsugu deck, more importantly, a few guys in the group, Josh in particular, offered suggestions. With some combinations of cards that are just better for the goals of the deck, and other suggestions to tighten up the focus of the deck, Josh had several good ideas for changes and presented them in a helpful way. On the following Thursday, several members of the group provided Andy with several of the cards he needed and he was ready to order the few cards remaining on his list! While I expect this first deck won't quite be on par with the average deck in the group, I'm looking forward to seeing how the deck performs! Heartless Hidetsugu will certainly bring some solid shifts in our metagame and provide some of the big moments we all want in our games!
I hope this walkthrough was helpful to those of you struggling to get a group off the ground or just bring in more players to your established games. I'm always interested in hearing other suggestions that have worked when getting new players into the group. We all want great games of Magic and that can only happen when your group of players is healthy and fun!