How to Teach the Layers

Written by George FitzGerald

Written by George FitzGerald

The Layers, or more formally the Interaction of Continuous Effects, can often be a confusing concept for judge candidates. Whether they are a new player or a battle hardened veteran, it is often a hard topic to teach. My solution: The Layers Deck. We’ll use multiple methods to ingrain the layers and how they work into our judge candidate. The goal will be to get them to a level of understanding greater than what they need to know for the Level 1 Certification Exam.


There are multiple ways for the human brain to learn new concepts and retain information. Through the process of using The Layers Deck the judge candidate will be listening, talking, reading and writing about the layers. The combination of all of these techniques will help set that information more firmly into our judge candidate’s mind, so they will be able to better recall and make use of what has been taught to them. Learning doesn’t need to be serious and, if you can make it feel like a game that they are winning, you’ll be helping to up their excitement for judging. You may even find that this exciting and fun game that you’re putting on will draw others in who just might catch the judging bug.


The Deck

First, let’s review what’s in the deck. You can find a complete list of my current cards at the end of this article, as well as a reference card for using the deck. Each section of the deck is put into different colored sleeves, and it is compact enough to fit into a deck box.  The important part is to have physical cards for the judge candidate to see, to read, and to handle.

The first section of The Layers Deck is the Continuous Effects. These will be instants, sorceries, auras, and equipment cards. They will generally be cards that target or are attached to a single creature, though they can have effects that would affect multiple creatures. This is where we’ll get the majority of our continuous effects to demonstrate to our candidate. Within the Continuous Effects section, we try to cover the majority of the layers. The most common continuous effects are applied in Layer 6 (Abilities) and Layer 7c (Power/Toughness Modifying) and so they are the most common effects in the Continuous Effects section. There are a few cards that are selected to cover specific layers, such as Deathlace for Layer 5 (Color), Mind Bend or Trait Doctoring for Layer 3 (Text), and Twisted Image for Layer 7e (Power/Toughness Switching).

The second section of The Layers Deck is Creatures. These are the creatures that we will be applying the Continuous Effects to. We want to make sure to include a nice variety of creatures. We want vanilla creatures without abilities, creatures with abilities that don’t change anything and creatures with abilities that are also Continuous Effects. On top of that, we also will want to include creatures that have Characteristic Defining Abilities and creatures with uneven power and toughness. Having a variety of creatures will allow us to set-up specific scenarios to demonstrate different lessons that we’ll cover later in this article.

The third section of The Layers Deck is Global Effects. This section is optional for training Level 1 candidates, but can be useful for setting up more complicated scenarios. Alternatively, you can also include cards in here to demonstrate advanced concepts like dependencies in layers. This will mostly be permanents that have static effects that will apply globally to creatures.


Putting It Into Action

First thing when we sit down with our judge candidate, we will want to gauge their resting knowledge by asking general questions about what the layers are. This will include questions like “How do the layers work?” and “What order do you apply continuous effects?” When we are starting with a candidate that has little knowledge of Layers, we’ll want to answer these questions. Explain how the layers work and go through the order of the layers. Have the candidate write them down in order to reference them later in the exercise.

In the case of a more experienced candidate who already knows the layers and how they work, we’ll skip to the next part without having them write down the layers. With a candidate that already has a good grasp of layers, we’ll switch more to testing their knowledge instead of teaching the knowledge to them.

Being aware of your candidate’s knowledge level is important to allow you to present the information in the right way. With a candidate that is just learning, we want to be more patient and build them up. Start with asking questions, allow them to answer, and then give an explanation of the answer whether they are right or wrong. Build up to the point where they are starting to answer and instead of explaining it, you ask them to explain it. With a candidate that knows what’s going on, you’ll want them to answer and explain it themselves from the beginning.

After we’ve evaluated our judge candidate’s knowledge level, we can start into identifying the layers. Take the Continuous Effects section and shuffle it up. Reveal a card at random and ask the candidate to identify what layers the card applies to. This will get our candidate into the practice of identifying where in the layers the different effects are going to apply. This isn’t a very tricky exercise, but it is very important as a base for what we will do later. With candidates that have the layers written down, allow them to reference that to answer. Work your way through the section until it’s become clear that your candidate is getting the idea of how to tell which layers effects apply in.

Now that our candidate can identify effects and the layers they apply in, we can start putting the layers into practice. Take a creature from the Creatures section and “describe” the creature. To use Squire as an example, we would describe it like this: “Squire is a 1/2 White, Creature Soldier with no abilities.” What we’ll be asking our candidate to do from here is, as we reveal one card from the Continuous Effects section at a time, tell us what has changed about the creature as we play out effects on it. Then, at the end of applying effects to the creature, describe it again. Generally, we want to do 3-5 effects before picking everything up and starting with a new creature.

Here’s an example: We reveal a Squire and describe it as above. We then reveal a Giant Growth from the Continuous Effects. The answer would be “Squire is now a 4/5.” We don’t need to redescribe everything, only what has changed. Next, we reveal a Loxodon Warhammer. The answer would be “Squire is now a 7/5 with Lifelink and Trample.” Next, we reveal Snakeform. “Squire is now a 7/4 Green Snake with no abilities.” We can continue to add effects, or scoop it up and start with a new creature.

With this type of teaching, we are putting the physical cards together and getting our candidate to read the cards and put together the pieces of the puzzle to figure out what our creature has become. Having those physical cards is very important to the learning process by allowing the candidate to have something physical to read and to handle and move around if they need to help them visualize the Layers.

There are a couple of specific scenarios that I will purposely put together, once we are a few iterations in, to teach particular lessons. The first scenario is to teach Power and Toughness Switching. We need to create an uneven Power/Toughness, then apply a Switching effect and then apply another effect that has an uneven Power/Toughness Modification. For example, we start with a 2/2 Bear Cub. We then apply Loxodon Warhammer, Twisted Image, and Slagwurm Armor in that order. Candidates will often get tripped up by trying to apply all of the power/toughness effects in the same order they were introduced instead of in the order of the layers. You’ll often get an answer of 2/11 instead of the correct answer of 8/5.

Another scenario to teach is competing effects that add or remove abilities. For this, we can use Magebane Armor to remove Flying from a Creature, then use another effect such as Jump to give the creature Flying. This allows us to teach that even though the creature has lost Flying previously, Jump is giving it Flying after Magebane Armor has taken it away.


Epic Mode

The last exercise is aptly titled Epic Mode. With Epic Mode, we’re going to create a very challenging board state and let our candidate have a go of figuring out what everything is at the end. For this, we’ll need three creatures and nine cards from the Continuous Effects section. Lay out the three creatures side by side, indicating Timestamp 1, Timestamp 2, and Timestamp 3. Place one continuous effect below the first creature. This will be timestamp 4. Place another continuous effect below creature #2. This will be timestamp 5, then do the same with creature #3 and timestamp 6. Then continue back to creature #1 and follow the same steps until you’ve laid out all 9 effects. The target of each effect is the creature that it was placed below, unless it can target or affect multiple creatures. If that’s the case, it affects all legal creatures. This will provide a very complex state for your candidate to figure out. If they can work their way through such a board state, then they know more than they will need to know for the Level 1 Certification Exam.

There are also plenty of interesting interactions that you can introduce into such a scenario. For example, Timestamp 4 can be a Fencer’s Magemark on Creature #1. Then, Timestamp 6 can be Sudden Spoiling  and Timestamp 8 on Creature #2 can be Rancor . Sometimes, a candidate will try to apply Fencer’s Magemark to Creature #2 after Sudden Spoiling because it wasn’t enchanted until Rancor was put on it. However, the timestamp for Fencer’s Magemark is still when Fencer’s Magemark came into play, not when it began to apply to Creature #2, and would mean that Creature #2 would lose First Strike with Sudden Spoiling, and then gain Trample with Rancor.


Legendary Mode

Legendary Mode works exactly like Epic Mode with one small change. Either choose or randomly select one effect from the Global Effects section. This effect will be the first timestamp, followed by the creatures and then the nine continuous effects. This will add another level of difficulty to Epic Mode. I do not often go to Legendary Mode for L1 Candidates, but it is useful for L2 Candidates that need more of a challenge. You can use more Global Effects to up the difficulty even more.


Wrap Up

The Layers deck was developed during a time when the Level 1 Certification Exam required a higher level of knowledge than what is now required. While the bar is a little bit lower now, we still have a goal of training judges to know more than what they are likely to need to know in the real world. Employ this tool with your next judge candidate and see them blossom with Layers.

I would like to thank Michael Fortino and the gang at Armada Games in Tampa, Florida that originally came up with and developed the idea for the Layers Deck. I would also like to thank Justin Turner, Ben McDole, Bryan Prillaman, and Kim Warren for their mentorship and Justin Rix for proofreading. Lastly, I want to thank Evan Cherry and his team for their feedback on this article, as well as Ryan Dobesh for the idea of a reference card.


The Layers Deck

Layers Deck Pocket Guide
Layers Deck Pocket Guide
Effects Creatures Global Effects
Inside Out Squire Conspiracy
Twisted Image Valeron Outlander Darkest Hour
Deathlace Godhead of Awe Honor of the Pure
Mind Bend Mishra’s Factory Swirl the Mists
Trait Doctoring Tatterkite Gauntlet of Power
Lignify Doran, the Siege Tower Night of Souls’ Betrayal
Snakeform Tarmogoyf Dralnu’s Crusade
Sudden Spoiling Avian Changeling Humility
Fencer’s Magemark Glory Seeker Coat of Arms
Loxodon Warhammer Quicksilver Gargantuan Blood Moon
Magebane Armor Clone Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Nim Deathmantle Treetop Village
Runes of the Deus
Steel of the Godhead
Giant Growth
Nameless Inversion
Runed Stalactite
Slagwurm Armor

Alternate List Using Scars of Mirrodin & Forward Cards

This list is to offer up an alternative and uses mostly Commons and Uncommons from recent sets. It’s very easy to go through cards you might have laying around to find cards like these that will fit into the deck.

Effects Creatures
Accorder’s Shield Angel of Jubilation
Aerial Maneuver Angelic Wall
Agoraphobia Archetype of Courage
Angelic Armaments Clone
Bile Blight Crusader of Odric
Civic Saber Ghalma’s Warden
Dark Favor Mutavault
Drown in Sorrow Predatory Sliver
Enlarge Vizkopa Guildmage
Ethereal Armor
Feral Invocation
Fleetfeather Sandals
Trait Doctoring
Turn To Frog
Twisted Image