An Introduction to Magic: The Gathering

In Features by Heather9 Comments

A while back I bought myself a Magic: The Gathering Deck Builders Tool Kit in hopes of learning how to play the famous and long-celebrated card game. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get into the game with the kit and it eventually ended up merely gathering dust on my shelf.

I didn’t play much after that until one night when I discovered that a friend of mine was a keen player. Luckily, she agreed to take me under her wing and show me the ropes. Now, about 6 months later, I’m writing this article in hopes of passing on some of what I’ve learned. I do not claim to be an expert by any means, of course, but I’m certainly a very keen newcomer.


To pique your interest, allow me to give a brief, simple explanation of how the core of the game works. When playing Magic: The Gathering, you take on the role of the Planeswalker — a powerful being who summons creatures and casts spells and enchantments in hopes of defeating the rival Planeswalker. Each player has 20 life and a deck built of 60 cards that usually consists of 24 land or mana cards and 36 cards made up of creatures, spells, enchantments and so on. The aim of the game is to get your rivals health down to zero.

Throughout this article I’ll touch upon the history of the game, the types of cards, the game mechanics, how to build a deck, and how to play the game itself. I hope that this will be an informative article and that it will help you on your Magic journey. Or, even better, that it might inspire some of you to pick up the game for the first time!

Magic: The History

Magic: The Gathering has been around since 1993. It was created by Dr. Richard Garfield, who had originally approached Wizards of the Coast (an American games publisher) with a different game entirely called RoboRally in 1985 that at the time was too expensive to be made by such a young company. Over the years that followed Dr. Garfield ended up instead creating a card game that was quick and simple enough to play for people waiting in line at conventions.

Thus Magic: The Gathering came to be. It was originally debuted at the Origins Game Fair in Dallas, Texas. It was such an immediate success that all the stock — supposedly an entire year’s worth of cards — was sold before the fair was over. The game was off to an unprecedented start so positive that the rate of card printing had to be increased substantially.

MTG has evolved over the years to meet the needs and the demands of its fanbase, which now consists of over 12 million players worldwide. Part of this evolution involved entering the digital world in 2002 through the release of Magic Online. Magic Online encouraged players to register, collect digital cards, build decks, and duel other Magic Players all from the comfort from their own home (or wherever else they chose to play from). All that players needed was a PC and an internet connection.

Seven years later (2009) Duels of the Planeswalkers was released for consoles, and unlike Magic Online, Duels of the Planeswalkers pitted players predominantly against AI opponents with a challenging campaign mode. It also featured a puzzle mode and an online multiplayer mode, of course.

Magic: The Cards

Before you can play Magic, you need to get a hold of a pack of cards. Wizards of the Coast has designed several free starter kits that you can get from most card and tabletop gaming shops intended specifically for new players. These kits provide the best way to get into the world of MTG.

So, let’s suppose you’ve picked up your starter kit. Now it’s time to understand what your cards do and what the colors mean.

No cards can be played without mana. Mana is what is used to pay the “casting cost” of the creatures and spells in your deck. It’s one of the most important parts of the game.

The first thing you want to identify is the color(s) of your deck. There are five colors in MTG: white, blue, black, red, and green. There’s no limit to the number of color combinations for your deck — you could have cards of all five colors in your deck if you wanted to. My personal deck at the moment is green and white. It’s very common for players to use a combo deck with two colors, as these are both easy to play and powerful.

Each color in MTG signifies an ideological faction, and the culture of each faction defines the way the cards play as well as their relation to the other colors. Each color/faction has its unique strengths, weaknesses, and mechanics.

White: Peace, law, structure, selflessness, equality

Blue: Knowledge, deceit, caution, deliberation, perfection

Black: Power, self-interest, death, sacrifice

Red: Freedom, emotion, impulse, destruction

Green: Tradition, nature, connection, wildlife

You get mana in the form of Land cards. These differ geographically based on color: Plains for white, Island for blue, Mountain for red, Swamp for black, and Forest for green. On top of these, there are special Land cards that feature things like dual colors or the ability to search your deck for additional cards. All of these Land cards have truly terrific artwork. Frankly, all Magic: The Gathering cards have exceptional artwork!

It can seem daunting at first to know what sort of direction you want to take your deck. My advice would be to get a starter kit for every color (don’t forget they’re free!) and just have a go. See what works for you!

Once you’ve picked your color(s), it’s time to populate the rest of your deck. There are many different types of cards in MTG, all of which have different abilities. More complicated effects are always clearly described on the cards. However, each card also has certain bits of info you’ll need to understand.

Card Name:

  • Pretty self-explanatory.

Card Type:

  • This outlines what type of card you are playing: Creature, Enchantment, Land, Instant, Sorcery, etc. (These will be explained further on.)

Ability:

  • Different cards have different abilities. Some cards have multiple abilities, and some have abilities that trigger at specific points throughout the game. For example, Ruin Rat, as shown above, has two abilities. One is Deathtouch, an ability that makes it so any damage dealt by Ruin Rat is enough to destroy the target creature, regardless of how much health the creature has. The other ability, explained below Deathtouch, is a triggered ability. In this case, Ruin Rat’s death allows the player to choose a card that is in the opponent’s Graveyard and exile it (we will cover these terms and what they mean further on).

Flavor Text:

  • Most cards have some text focused on lore.

Mana Cost:

  • Mana is like the currency of the game. No mana means no casting cards. Ruin Rat is a black card, so it’s mana primarily comes from Swamp (black Land) cards. The cost for Ruin Rat is two mana. The “1” in its cost means that it needs one mana of any color, while the skull means it needs one black mana specifically. So, to play this card, you would either use two Swamps (if you were using a black-only deck), or a black and a white/blue/green/red (if you were using a multi-colour deck).

Card Set:

  • The card set symbol tells you which deck the card belongs to and how rare the card is. Black is Common, silver is Uncommon, gold is Rare, and orange/red/bronze is Mythic. The shape of the symbol indicates what set the card is from. Card sets are cycled out over time as new cards are brought in to keep the game fresh, so these symbols are important.

Power/Toughness:

  • The number on the left is the card’s Power — the creature’s offensive strength. The higher the number, the more damage you will deal to enemies. The number on the right is the card’s Toughness, which represents the amount of the damage your creature can take before it’s killed and sent to the graveyard.

That’s about all you need to know in terms of the anatomy of a card. Next I’ll go through some of the cards themselves to give you an idea of what kinds of cards you’ll come across in MTG.

Creatures

Creature cards are essentially your fighters. You cast them to attack your enemies and to defend your own life points. One of the wonderful things about Magic: The Gathering is the imaginative creatures they create and, as aforementioned, the beautiful artwork that is made for each card.

The distinct card sets that were released this year were Amonkhet and Hour of Devastation. These were inspired by ancient Egypt and featured creatures like the Sphinx.

Ahn-Crop Champion is a Human Warrior Creature with 4/4 Power/Toughness. To cast this card you need 4 mana, 2 of any color (the circled “2”), one Forest, and one Plains. It’s also a dual-color card; you can see this through the blending of green and white in the text box and around the image. The card has the ability Exert, which affects the game’s “tapping” mechanics. (We’ll discuss these further on.)

Gravedigger is a Zombie Creature with 2/2 Power/Toughness. It has a mana cost of 4: three mana of any color, and one Swamp. This is a great card as its triggered ability can be used the moment you cast the card, allowing for proactive play. This specific ability allows you to return a Creature from your Graveyard to your hand.

Enchantments

Enchantments are Spells that can remain in play indefinitely. Most have continuous or triggered abilities, and some have abilities that can be activated by whoever/whatever is controlling them. Enchantments are ideal for either cursing your enemies or strengthening your own units.

Trespasser’s Curse is a fantastic card and a real pain in the backside if it’s used against you. It only costs 2 mana to cast (one of any color and one Swamp) and enchants the opponent instead of any their creatures. They then lose one life while you gain one each time they summon a Creature.

Gift of Paradise is another great card. It’s an enchanted Land with a cost of 3 mana (2 of any color and one Forest), which is quite cheap considering what it does. When you first play the card, you gain 3 life. Each turn after this, the card can be used as 2 mana, which is extremely good value.

Instants and Sorceries

Instants are one shot, short term spells that can be cast at any point during the game — including during your opponents turn! They’re cards that can really swing situations in or against your favor. Sorceries, on the other hand, can only be played during your own turn, and go to the Graveyard as soon as they are cast.

Electrify is another great card. It costs 4 mana and deals 4 damage to a Creature that you choose. So if that Creature has a Toughness of 4 or less, it will be sent to the graveyard. You could also use Electrify on your turn to weaken a creature before following up with an attack by your own creatures.

Appetite for the Unnatural is the kind of card you want in your deck so that you can destroy something like Trespasser’s Curse. Appetite for the Unnatural would not only destroy Trespasser’s Curse, but would also give you 2 life!

As mentioned earlier, there are some common abilities that are shared by many cards. The following are some of the abilities you’ll come across most often.

Deathtouch:

  • Destroys attacking creature.

Double Strike:

  • Creature deals damage twice during the combat phase.

Embalm:

  • Embalm is an ability that can only be activated from the Graveyard. When activated, the card is exiled and a token copy of it (same stats but without the ability) is summoned.

First Strike:

  • The Creature with First Strike deals damage first (instead of damage being dealt at the same time by both creatures).

Flying:

  • Creatures with Flying can’t be blocked by enemies unless the enemies also have Flying or have Reach.

Haste:

  • Creatures with Haste can be used in combat immediately, while others must wait one turn after being summoned before being able to attack.

Lifelink:

  • When a Creature with Lifelink causes damage, the player gains that much life (even if the creature dies).

Reach:

  • These are the creatures that can block and attack creatures with Flying.

Trample:

  • Any damage left over after killing an opponent’s creature is done to the opponent’s life total.

Skulk:

  • Creatures with Skulk can’t be blocked by any creature with greater Power.

There are many abilities, and new ones are introduced with every new rotation of cards. I’ve simply gone over some of the most common here to give you an idea of what to expect. My personal favorites are Trample, Lifelink, and Haste. Build yourself a deck utilizing these abilities and you’ll be off to a great start!

Magic: The Deck

As previously mentioned, when building a deck you ideally want 60 cards even though you technically can go over this amount if you wish. The reason you don’t want to go over 60 is so you have a better chance of getting the cards you need to win a game.

Generally, you want 24 of these to be Land cards. You never want to have too little Land, but alternatively having too much and nothing to cast can be disastrous. This is why 24 is usually ideal, though you’ll want to play a few games with your deck and get a feel for whether you want more or less Land cards. The first deck I ever put together was a green and white deck with about 64 cards. The reason I had 64 was because I couldn’t decide what to cut out at first. After a few games I filtered out what wasn’t working and added more of what was, ending up with a solid deck of 60 cards.

So, you’ve got your colors set: 24 Land all of one color for a mono deck, or 12 of each color if you’re going dual. Now it’s time to fill out the other 36 spaces. These will consist of creatures, instants, enchantments, and sorceries. The trick with these cards is to find ones that synergize together. Typically, each deck will have a theme of some sort and cards that work with that theme. My green/white deck, for instance, is based around cats, and has cards that work well with these Creatures. Also keep in mind that there’s a limit to how many copies of non-Land cards you can have in your deck. You can have 4 copies of most cards.

The best way to start is to find a Spell, Enchantment or Creature that you really like and build from there. For me it was Crested Sunmare, a card that allows you to create a 5/5 horse for no mana at the beginning of each end step (a part of each turn) that is indestructible as long as Crested Sunmare is active. Crested Sunmare is already strong, but adding another 5/5 Creature to the board each turn that can’t be destroyed until Crested Sunmare is eliminated is extremely threatening.

I can not stress enough the importance of just trying things out and seeing what works for you. It’s all based on personal preference, particularly because the game is very well balanced and most decks can achieve success. Maybe you want to build a deck based around the mighty minotaurs. Or perhaps you’d like to build a deck focused on flooding the board with zombies, overwhelming your opponent. It’s up to you!

Magic: The Gameplay

Laying out your board properly is important to help both you and your opponent see what’s happening clearly. Here are the different parts of your board and their proper locations.

Library:

  • This is the portion of the deck that is kept face down, and where you draw cards from.

Play area:

  • The zone where Creature, Enchantement, and Land cards are placed and stay until removed.

Graveyard:

  • A player’s discard pile. When a card on the battlefield is removed, a card is discarded from your hand, or a spell card is spent, it’s put in the Graveyard. These cards are face up, and can be examined by any player at any time.

Exile:

  • Cards that have been exiled through specific effects are put here.

When playing, you can decide who goes first however you like. Personally I simply use dice.

Once the first turn starts, each stage of play is called a “phase,” and there are 5 phases per turn: the beginning phase, first main phasecombat phasesecond main phase, and the end phase.

The beginning phase:

  • The first thing a player does is untap all cards they have used the previous phases. Then, any abilities that trigger during the “upkeep step” happen, starting with the player whose turn it is. These abilities often involve cards that require mana payments every turn.
  • After this, the player draws a card in the “draw step.” As you can see, each phase has one or more steps.

The main phase:

  • This occurs immediately after the draw step. The first thing you do here is play a mana card if you have one in your hand. You should always do this, as you’re only allowed to play one mana per turn, and the more many you have on the board, the more cards you can cast.
  • Next, pay the costs and cast any cards you want to play. The mana you use to do so will generally be unavailable until your next beginning phase. Also keep in mind that all creatures have “summoning sickness” when first cast unless they possess the ability Haste. This means they cannot attack until the next turn, though they can be used for defense on your opponent’s turn.
  • Once a player is ready to attack, he or she may end their main phase by declaring that the combat phase has started, or by simply attacking with their creatures.

The Combat Phase:

  • The combat phase is the phase in which you will commit your creatures to an attack. Your opponent may also declare creatures that they wish to block your attack with. Only untapped creatures may attack, so the defending player may cast instant spells or activate abilities that will tap a creature, preventing it from attacking. When an opponent is declaring their blockers, once again, only untapped creatures can be used. Multiple creatures can be used to block one creature’s attack, but one defender cannot block multiple attackers.

Second Main Phase:

  • This is another main phase identical to the first, but you cannot attack after this one even with creatures that have Haste as there is no following combat phase.

End Phase:

  • The end phase is like the clean up phase. If any creatures have taken damage but not been destroyed, they revert back to their normal stats, and any nonpermanent boosts are removed. This is also where the aforementioned “end step” happens.

Okay, so now we’re ready to play!

To start you want to shuffle your deck and draw 7 cards. Bear in mind that you want to have a mix of mana and things you can cast in your opening hand, so if you pull a really bad hand, be sure to mulligan (redraw) for better cards. However, if you choose to do so, you’ll only be able to draw 6 cards. You can redraw as much as you need to, but each time you draw one less card overall.

Since we’re going first and we’re not untapping anything as the game has just started, we skip straight to the main phase and play a Land card. I’m playing with a green and white deck, so the first card would be either a Plains or a Forest. In this case, because of the cards in my hand, I would play a Plains, then use it to summon a Sacred Cat.

As you can see the Plains is turned sideways. This is what we refer to as “tapping.” By casting Sacred Cat we have tapped that plain of its power so it cannot be used again this turn (unless some other ability causes it to become untapped). Sacred Cat does not have the Haste ability, so it suffers from summoning sickness and cannot attack this turn. As such, at this point you would end your turn and allow your opponent to go.

Your opponent will likely have a similar first turn. They would play a Land card and if possible a Creature for the cost of one mana before passing the turn back to you. So now we start the beginning phase of our second turn and untap the mana used last round. Once everything is untapped, we draw a card, play another Land (play one every main phase if you can), and then cast what we can from our hand. This round we can launch an attack since Sacred Cat’s summoning sickness has worn off. We do so by tapping Sacred Cat.

If the opponent has no creatures in play to use as defence then they will take the damage directly and they will lose one life (Sacred Cat’s damage). Should they have a creature they want to use in defense, the victor will depend on who has the higher Power/Toughness. Sacred Cat is a relatively weak 1/1 card, so it would be defeated by anything with at least 1 Power and 2 Toughness. If the opposing Creature was also a 1/1 then both creatures would be destroyed and sent to the graveyard.

Keep in mind that once Sacred Cat has been tapped and used for an attack it cannot be used as a blocker, so an attack by your opponent next turn would likely result in direct damage to your life total.

As you can see in the picture above, to cast Crested Sunmare we had to tap all five mana cards that were on the table. Since this would be taking place around round 5, Sacred Cat has already been sent to the Graveyard. Now, thanks to Embalm, we’ll be able to cast its ability from the graveyard once we have the mana necessary. In the picture below you can see that we have tapped the mana needed to use Embalm, so the original card has been exiled and a token version has been summoned onto the battlefield.

The game goes on this way until one of the players has no life points left or they run out of cards to draw from. With the thousands of available cards, games tend to get very complicated and interesting, and a ton more can happen than the few scenarios I’ve illustrated here. But, with a bit of practice, it’s easy to learn the game enough to always understand what’s happening and even start to implement unique strategies of your own. It can seem daunting at first, for sure, but once you get the hang of things it’s well worth the effort.

I hope this guide has helped some of you gain a better understanding of the game. And I hope some of you will consider picking up this wonderful game now that you’ve learned a good bit about how it works. I’m certainly not an expert, and I haven’t gone over all there is to go over here, but I think this guide lays a solid foundation for new players.

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Heather

Keen into games, Magic the Gathering, brews and cats! Favorite games of the last few years include The Witcher 3, The Last Of Us, Fallout 4 and Dying Light!


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What an informative article! Now that I’m refreshed on all the rules, it really makes me want to play again!

Glorious Lumi
Glorious Lumi
Just a couple things: – The Play Area is not typically laid out as you have it in the diagram. The Library is always located on the same side of the field as the Graveyard, with the Graveyard being placed directly below the Library towards you. The Play Area itself then encompasses the entirety of the rest of the field. The Exile zone is “generally” located to the outside of the Library and Graveyard, and many people turn then 90 degrees to distinguish them from their Library, though many players will place them as you have it or will place them above the Library. The Play Area is also split up into two sections by the vast majority of players, Lands closest to you, and everything else closer to the… Read more »
Dylan
Dylan

Thanks for the article – very informative for new players. I would note that the “only 2 copies of a Mythic/Rare per deck” rule that you cite is not commonly used in my experience. It sounds like a local rule to help new players compete without spending a lot on expensive cards. I actually like the idea for more casual playgroups, but I wouldn’t want your readers to expect that this is the rule in most places.

Hyde
Hyde

Fantastic introduction. One thing to add is that the Commander/EDH format, while initially a bit expensive at $35 a deck, is a good, casual way to learn the game, too. The preconstructed decks are very playable out of the box and gives a wider selection of cards as the 100 card Commander deck may only use one of each card. (And most cards from Magic’s history are playable in Commander–so it is upgradeable–though I believe Commander cards are only playable in that format.) Oh, there is a Cats deck, as well!
Finally, if you are interested in a more detailed history check out Generation Deck by Titus Chalk.
Anyway, great article! Happy gaming!