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Duelist #4: Origin Stories

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Magic in the Classroom

by Susan Mohn

Magic or Economics?

You have a red/green deck. In your hand are: Grizzly Bears (1 ManaGreen Mana, 2/2 creature), Scryb Sprites (Green Mana, flying 1/1 creature), an Orcish Oriflamme (3 ManaRed Mana, gives all your attacking creatures +1/+0), a Craw Wurm (4 ManaGreen ManaGreen Mana, 6/4 creature), a Hill Giant (3 ManaRed Mana, 3/3 creature), Tranquility (2 ManaGreen Mana, destroys all enchantments in play), a Shivan Dragon (4 ManaRed ManaRed Mana, 5/5 flying creature, Red Mana:+1/+0 until end of turn), and Instill Energy (Green Mana, allows you to uncap target creature one additional time on your turn). You also have one Mountain in play. Which do you discard?


Magic or Math?

You have one Plains and one Island in play. You really want to Feedback (2 ManaBlue Mana, 1 damage to controller of target enchantment each upkeep) your opponent's enchantment. In your hand is a Benalish Hero (White Mana, 1/1 banding creature), a Phantom Monster (3 ManaBlue Mana, flying 3/3 creature), a Pearled Unicorn (2 ManaWhite Mana, 2/2 creature), a Circle of Protection: Blue (1 ManaWhite Mana, 1 mana protects you from one source of blue damage), and a Sol Ring (1 Mana, tap to give 2 colorless mana per turn). What should you do?

Magic or Math?

I have three Mountains and two Islands. I want to put both a Feedback (2 ManaBlue Mana) and a Hurloon Minotaur (1 ManaRed ManaRed Mana, 2/3 creature) into play this round. If I use three lands for the Feedback, I won't have the three I need for the Hurloon Minotaur. Hmmm....


For years teachers have used games to help convey new ideas. Students interacting in a game get involved with its subject and therefore learn it that much better. In recent years, forward-thinking teachers have used roleplaying and other adventure games to teach traditionally challenging subjects. Now educators are starting to realize the possibilities in a game that relies on analytical thinking and creative problem solving: Magic: The Gathering.

One person excited by the educational possibilities of Magic is Jeff Brain, a teacher in the San Francisco School District. Working in the Computer Lab at the elementary level (K-5), "Mr. Brain," as the kids call him, started using Magic in the classroom in the spring of 1994. Since then he's used the game to teach a variety of subjects, from storytelling to statistics.

"One of the strengths of Magic as a teaching tool is that it allows me to crass between different areas." says Brain. "Take database management. I'll give them five or six cards to build a basic database. The students don't have to know the game well, so it's a good starting place for them. I might ask them: What do a Wolverine Pack and an Air Elemental have in common? They both have a toughness of 4, so the kids can search for that in the database, and lo and behold, Wolverine Pack and Air Elemental turn up. Using cards from a game that kids like and are familiar with as the data elements to be compared gives the kids something that is much more tangible and real.

"This is the real beauty of using games for teaching. It's wonderful for stretching the students, and it's grand for the student who's having difficulty integrating numbers or working with the computer. Magic helps to familizarize them with numbers and storytelling in a comfortable way, because playing cards are very familiar. The student is exposed to a variety of math problems and problem solving all at once.

"In the spring I'll be doing a four-week course on gaming, statistics, and probability in which I'll be using Magic and RoboRally heavily. We can constrict a hand of eight cards, and allow for one animal—a Shivan Dragon—and seven Mountains. So the question is: what are the chances that if I shuffle those cards the Dragon will show up? We shuffle and draw and figure out what the probability is. It becomes fairly apparent that it's one in eight. Then we add a Dragon, remove a Mountain, and do the exercise over again, and it becomes two in eight; then we try four Dragons and four Mountains, and so on."

Brain also believes that Magic offers a valuable teaching tool for the humanities. "It fits right in the slot of Social Studies, especially in the California school system's curriculum. Magic is a really good way to teach fair play, to develop a group dynamic, and to teach students to work as partners."

Mr. Brain also uses the game to work with myth and storytelling, especially in the curriculum for fourth and fifth grade language arts/social studies.

"When you break the colors of Magic down, you can look at how primitive peoples start using color to describe certain elements, such as red for fire and green for growing things and blue for water or air. These are good as writing prompts. A lot of the fourth and fifth grade teachers are talking about process writing and personal myths in the social studies/language arts, and they use Magic to assist in this storytelling. Sometimes we use just the color text on the cards as a writing prompt."

This use of games to prompt and increase learning is self-rewarding. Not only do the students learn new tools and new ideas—the teachers do, too.

"I didn't think about using Magic originally as a database tool; one of the kids thought of it on his own, and I realized this is a good tool. He builds his database and shares with other students who then add to that database. This is an education that is lifelong—I don't think any of us were creating databases in fifth grade."

Mr. Brain cautions that there are some issues to consider before including games in a curriculum.

"I'm wary to some degree—I do use some self-censorship because of the public nature of my position. I am not using some cards— if asked about them, I say we will talk about that after school. I think it's very important that we use intelligence and judgment in what we use to teach. Mixing our hobbies and our teaching is something we need to be very careful with— we have a great responsibility for the impact we can have on the students we teach."



Wizard's Chess, by Tom Hazel
Magic in the Classroom, by Susan Mohn
According to Mr. Pling, compiled by Scott Hungerford
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