So you’ve heard of this game called Magic: the Gathering. Maybe it was from a friend or relative, maybe you came from another game like Hearthstone or YuGiOh! or maybe someone you know saw this article and is low-key trying to encourage you to learn how to play so they have someone new to pulverize… I mean play with. Sure, let’s go with that.
What is Magic?
Magic: the Gathering is a trading card game created in 1993 by a mathematician named Richard Garfield. The game was later handed over to a company called Wizards of the Coast which continues to produce it under Hasbro to this day. It’s set in a fantasy world where many realms and planes exist simultaneously in different dimensions; a multiverse. Normally the inhabitants of these worlds cannot see or interact with each other but on occasion certain individuals will experience a life-changing event, causing something inside of them to ‘ignite’ and bestow them with great magical powers that they can use to influence the world around them. These unique types of wizards are called ‘Planeswalkers’ and as you may have guessed, their ignited spark is the key that allows them to travel from one plane to another.
Occasionally two planeswalkers run into each other and request to duel for amusement. That is the role you and your opponent take on when you sit down to play; you are a planeswalker using everything you’ve learned to best the other planeswalker.
Each player starts off with 20 life points and the goal of the game is to reduce your opponent to 0 before they do the same to you. The way you accomplish this is by playing land cards, which you use to play spells like creatures(which can attack and block) or sorceries(which can deal direct damage and restore lost points of life). There are many different cards that do things other than deal damage but it’s the most straightforward way to win.
The Five Colors
Planeswalkers can wield all kinds of spells but they can’t make something from nothing. Thankfully there is a special kind of magical energy that exists throughout the multiverse called ‘Mana’. Most of the time this energy lays dormant in the landscapes of planes and it can become tainted in different ways depending on the environment it has settled in. Planeswalkers can tap into these sources of mana and then use that mana as fuel to cast different types of spells.
White mana is produced by Plains cards. It’s the color of law, peace, discipline and morality. By pursuing white mana you can heal wounds, prevent harm, be more effective in combat, neutralize harmful afflictions and improve the morale of your allies. You can expect to fight alongside soldiers, angels, knights, clerics and spirits. Play white if you want to make sure there is an inherent balance in everything and make your opponent fight honestly under those conditions.
Blue mana is produced by Island cards. It’s the color of logic, wisdom, technology and opportunity. By pursuing blue mana you can expand your mind, meddle with your opponent’s plans, turn your opponent against themselves, make yourself elusive and influence the outcome of a situation. You can expect to fight alongside wizards, merfolk, inventors, sea monsters and sphinxes. Play blue if you want to be in control and have a say in what your opponent can or can’t do.
Black mana is produced by Swamp cards. It’s the color of death, ambition, power and amorality. By pursuing black mana you can make your enemies weaker, reanimate the dead, display dominance over your opponent and spread the influence of your will. You can expect to fight alongside zombies, vampires, horrors, rogues and demons. Play black if you want to get something done, regardless of what it takes to do so.
Red mana is produced by Mountain cards. It’s the color of fire, emotion, freedom and chaos. By pursuing red mana you can wield fire as a weapon, shatter the landscape, allow your allies to be more aggressive and force chaos upon your opponent. You can expect to fight alongside goblins, ogres, warriors, shamans and dragons. Play red if you want to keep your opponent on their toes and never give them a moment’s rest.
Green mana is produced by Forest cards. It’s the color of life, instinct, nature and interdependence. By pursuing green mana you can promote growth, discover the natural world in greater scale, break unnatural forces or objects, embrace the circle of life and call upon massive beasts to overwhelm your opponent. You can expect to fight alongside elves, beasts, elementals, druids and wurms(gigantic snakes). Play green if you are at peace with the world and wish to preserve it through survival of the fittest.
The Fundamental Rules
There are some simple rules that all players must follow when playing the game:
- You may only break the rules if a card says you can. A card like Divination allows you to draw an additional two cards from your deck even if you’ve already drawn one for the turn.
- Every player starts the game with 20 life points and anyone who is reduced to 0 or less life points loses the game.
- Players determine who will play first and this is most commonly done by rolling dice. The winner of the dice roll gets to decide who will play first.
- Each player draws one free card from their deck during their turn. The player who was chosen to play first skips their card draw on the first turn of the game.
- Anyone who must draw a card from their deck but cannot because the deck is empty loses the game.
- If a player is not satisfied with the hand of cards they will start the game with, they may take a “mulligan” by shuffling their hand into their deck and drawing a new hand of one less card(you will draw 6 cards on your first mulligan, 5 on the second, 4 on the third, etc).
How to Interpret a Card
A) Card Name: The exact name of the Magic card. Sometimes cards will reference each other or ask a player to name a specific card.
B) Illustration: Illustrations help players identify which cards are in play at a glance.
C) Card Type, Subtype and Supertype: Different cards do different things and behave differently. We’ll touch on this in greater detail in a minute.
D) Text Box: If there are any abilities or effects that are unique to a card, they will be mentioned in this box. The italicized text is just there for fun or flavor, to add to the immersion of the game. If italicized text is in parenthesis(like this), it means that it’s reminding you what an ability or game mechanic does. In this case we can tap(tap means turn sideways) Llanowar Elves in order to produce one green mana just like a Forest can.
E) Artist: A lot of the artwork in Magic is done by very talented artists. It’s not uncommon for players to track down their favorite artists and request them to sign the cards that they did the illustrations for.
F) Mana Cost: How much mana and what color(s) of mana the card costs to play. In this case Llanowar Elves costs one green mana to play.
G) Set Symbol: An easy way to determine what set a card was printed in and what rarity it is. A black set symbol means the card is a common. A silver symbol means uncommon. A golden symbol means rare. A orange-red symbol means mythic rare. Most cards can even come in foil versions with a shiny background, they are popular among collectors and can be worth a pretty penny. This version of Llanowar Elves happens to be a common card from Tenth Edition.
H) Power/Toughness: Respectively how much damage the card can deal in combat and how much damage it can receive before dying. If you were to attack a defenseless opponent with Llanowar Elves, they would take 1 damage because it’s Power is 1.
There are a few different types of cards in Magic and they all behave differently. It’s worth mentioning that all cards will remain on the battlefield after you play them from your hand, with the exception of Sorcery and Instant cards. You may also only play cards on your own turn, with the exception of Instant cards, which you may also play during your opponent’s turn.
Land: Your primary resource. Lands produce mana and you use that mana to cast spells and you start the game with them shuffled into your deck with the other cards. You may play up to one land per turn, only on your turn, before or after you attack and while nothing else is currently happening.
Sorcery: Your big, impactful spells that take a lot of concentration to cast. You may only cast Sorcery cards while it’s your own turn, before or after attacking and while nothing else is going on. Whenever I mention that something can only be played at ‘Sorcery speed’, those are the restrictions I’ll be referring to.
Creature: The main way that players deal damage to each other. If it’s your turn you have the option to attack your opponent with your creatures but you cannot choose to attack any specific creatures of theirs. If it’s not your turn then you have the option to block any attacking creatures and you can block whatever you want with whatever you want unless an effect or ability says otherwise.
Instant: Spells that are functionally similar to Sorcery cards but you may play them almost whenever you want, even on an opponent’s turn. A lot of the time players will favor Instant spells because they allow you to muddle the opponent’s plans by letting them think they are safe, go to make a big power play, only for you to pull the rug out from under their feet at the last second.
Enchantment: Magical effects that continuously linger around on the battlefield. Sometimes they come in the form of an inspiring song that boosts your troops, other times they come as a poisonous mist that punishes your opponent for every creature they attack you with.
Artifact: Objects of great power that planeswalkers can use to their advantage. Some artifacts are ancient batteries that can store or produce mana and other artifacts are cutting edge, scientifical breakthroughs. Some of them are simple things like a cursed trinket that weakens anything nearby and some can be powered up and used as a weapon.
Planeswalker: Remember the whole thing about bumping into other planeswalkers? Yep, you can actually call upon other planeswalkers that already exist within the Magic multiverse to aid you in battle. Most of them prefer to wield specific colors of mana that coincide with their personalities or ideals so if you want to call upon a planeswalker like Nissa, you will need to display your allegiance by using green mana to send her a cross-planar call for help. You may only control one of each type of Planeswalker at a time(you can control a Nissa and a Jace but you cannot control two Nissa’s).
A subtype is just a more specific attribute that can be assigned to a regular card type. Similar to how mammals can be broken down into smaller, specific categories such as “Animal- Monkey”, cards in Magic can be classified as “Creature – Elf” or “Creature – Zombie” and cards can have multiple subtypes like “Creature – Elf Druid”.
Creature – Elf Shaman: This matters when you have effects in play such as “Elves you control get +1/+1” because every creature you have in play that is an Elf will receive that bonus to their power and toughness.
Enchantment – Aura: A magical effect that needs to be tethered/bound/stapled to something in order to exist. An aura that needs to be put onto a creature might read something like, “Enchanted creature gets +3/+3” and that effect will stay on that creature until the creature dies or leaves the battlefield for whatever reason. Any auras that fall off are put into your graveyard.
Artifact – Equipment: Implements that can be picked up by creatures and wielded in battle like swords, shields, armor, vehicles, etc. If a creature dies while wearing equipment, it leaves the equipment behind on the battlefield for another creature to pick up later.
Supertypes are similar to Subtypes except they are located on the left side of the Card Type instead of the right. There are only a handful of Supertypes and I will cover the two that you are most likely to encounter; the others are a bit obscure and aren’t exactly mandatory to know about.
Basic: You will only see this on the simple land cards like Plains, Island, Swamp, Mountain and Forest. Some cards and effects let you grab a land card from your deck but only if it’s considered a Basic Land.
Legendary: This supertype belongs to permanents(especially creatures) that are very notable, powerful or important. Will Ferrell could be considered a Legendary Creature if that helps make sense of how it works. You cannot control more than one of the exact same Legendary permanent at the same time but each player may control their own copy of the same Legendary permanent.
Enough With the Boring Stuff, How do I get Started?
There are a couple decent ways to get started with Magic and each method works differently for different people. I’ve introduced many players to the game and tried different methods of teaching over the years and these are the best options I’ve narrowed down for the purpose of teaching and having a low/forgiving learning curve:
If you prefer to learn on a digital platform I recommend the Magic Duels video game. It’s free to play, does a very good job at covering the basics and it’s updated with every new set.
If you prefer to learn with paper cards you can do so for free my going to your local game store and asking if they have any Welcome/Sample/Beginner Decks. These are smaller decks with 30 cards that are meant to be given out for free. The rules state that players must use 60 card decks when playing against each other so you can mash two of these together and instantly have a full-sized deck to practice with.
Taking the Next Step
Once you’ve learned how to play with free products and a comfortable with the basics, it’s time to remove the training wheels and take your first steps into the multiverse.
In Magic there are over 16,000 unique cards and some cost more than others…as in hundreds of dollars more. So to help appeal to a wide spectrum of players with different interests and budgets, Wizards of the Coast divided the game into several methods of playing called ‘formats’. The most popular ones are:
Standard: Players may only use cards printed from the most recent sets, released in the past year and a half or so. Every few months the format rotates, meaning old cards become obsolete to make room for new cards. This means that it is a constantly changing environment to play in.
Draft: Players open booster packs of cards, choose one card they like from the pack and pass the rest to the person next to them. The person on their other side passes them another booster and they pick a card from that one before passing the rest. Once all cards have been picked players build decks using only what they pulled from boosters and then play games with those decks.
Modern: Players may use most cards printed from 8th Edition to the most recent set and these cards have a more ‘modern’ card frame compared to older cards. It does not rotate like Standard so once you have built a deck, you can play it forever unless something becomes too powerful and needs to be banned from play.
Casual: Casual isn’t really a format but it’s certainly worth mentioning because most of the Magic population has played casually to some degree. This is always an option if none of the other formats appeal to you.
If you’d like to know about formats in greater detail or find out what other formats exist you can visit this link.
I have plans to make a more in-depth guide to taking the next steps and outlining the pros and cons of each method of playing but for now I figured I’d mention the general paths you can take if you want to pursue the game further.
Magic is kind of like Chess in the sense that it’s simple to pick up but it can take a long time to master. Because there are so many cards, comprehensive rules, interactions and ways to play, there isn’t really a point where you can expect to know every single thing about the game and be a master at everything. I’ve been exploring almost every corner of the game since 2004 and I still haven’t found out how deep the rabbit hole goes. I’m pretty okay with that because getting lost in games like this is something I’ve always enjoyed doing and it’s a sense I hope you will learn to enjoy too.