Let’s address the elephant in the room: Magic: The Gathering can be an intimidating game to learn for those who have never before played it. And it probably doesn’t help much that MIT last year dubbed it “the world’s most complex game.” After all, there’s a lot to it. What’s with this “mana” thing? Do the colors mean anything? What’s with the two types of text on the bottom half of the cards? What the heck is “banding?”
Thankfully, like pretty much any other tabletop game, once you get the basics down, Magic quickly gets easier to play and is increasingly enjoyable.
Looking to get started? Good.
First, the fundamentals:
Here are some tips and a rundown of the basics to help you begin slinging spells like a seasoned veteran.
Each player begins with 20 life (think of them as hit points or, simply, your starting score if it’s easier for you). This total can be added or subtracted from. Should your life points reach zero, you lose.
The minimum (and optimal) size for a conventional Magic: The Gathering deck is 60 cards. With the exception of basic land cards (they literally say “basic land” on them), you may not have more than four copies of any one card in your deck. You may also construct a 15-card side deck, called a “sideboard,” from which you may swap cards in and out of your deck between games of a best-of-three match. All swapped cards must be returned to their original decks after finishing a match. Also, if you run out of cards in your deck and, subsequently, cannot draw, you lose the game.
This, of course, refers to the cards in your hand. A game of Magic: The Gathering starts with each player drawing seven cards off of the top of their deck. Seven is the maximum hand size.
Your turn is typically where you can draw cards, play spells, initiate combat, and other things. Turns are broken down into different phases:
- Untap: Any “tapped” cards you have in play become “untapped,” meaning they go from being turned 90-degrees sideways to right-side up.
- Upkeep: Certain cards specify that specific things need to happen during the upkeep phase. Whether that’s paying a certain cost or an ability automatically firing off, this is when that occurs.
- Draw: This is, quite frankly, when you draw your one free card per turn.
- First Main Phase: This is one of the two opportunities to play cards from your hand during your turn.
- Combat: This is when you are able to attack an opponent with your creatures if you so wish.
- Second Main Phase: This is the second opportunity for you to play cards from your hand.
- End of Turn: This is when things that happen “at/until end of turn” occur. This is also when damage done to creatures is healed and when you discard cards from your hand in excess of seven.
There are several spell (card) types. Each type has its own properties such as when you can play them and how they’re played.
- Artifact: These are permanents (cards that stay in play after being cast) that represent magical items, equipment, animated constructs, and other such items.
- Creature: Creatures are your troops. Like artifacts, they are permanents. Unlike artifacts, however, they’re affected by something called “summoning sickness.” Don’t worry. We’ll get to that in a bit.
- Enchantment: These are also permanents. They represent persistent effects. Some enchantments stand alone and others (called “auras”) are attached to specific types of other permanents when played.
- Instant: These are one-shot spells and are discarded immediately after use. Instants are the only card type that can (by default) be played during anybody’s turn.
- Land: Lands can be played for free from your hand, one per turn. These permanents are typically your resource for mana (explained below), but certain lands can have other abilities aside from resource generation. Because mana is necessary to do most everything in the game, decks are typically comprised of at least one-third lands.
- Planeswalker: Storyline-wise, planeswalkers are some of the most powerful beings in Magic: The Gathering. They are permanents that come into play with a specific starting “loyalty” which, one per turn, can be added to or subtracted from in order to do perform specific abilities. If a planeswalker runs out of loyalty, they go away.
- Sorcery: Like instants, these are one-shot spells that are discarded after use. Unlike instants, sorceries can only be played on your turn. And, even then, only during your first or second main phase.
Think of mana as your currency. There are five colors of mana and one that is considered “generic” (ie: lacking color). The more mana you have at your disposal, the more you can do and the more expensive spells and abilities you can afford. Most commonly, mana is gained by tapping one’s lands to produce one of whatever color the card specifies.
Found on the top right of the card, the casting cost tells you the mana cost of the spell. The price, if you would. This is broken down by color. For example, the card Planar Cleansing has a casting cost of 3WWW. This means that you need to spend three white mana (WWW) and three mana of any color you want for a total of six mana.
Often, to use a permanent’s ability, you need to “tap” it in order to show that it is in use. Tapping is simply rotating a card sideways 90 degrees. Creatures tap when they attack. Once tapped, they cannot be used again for any purpose that involves it tapping again. Cards that are tapped get “untapped” (rotated back to normal) during your untap phase.
Creature cards (by default) enter play with a temporary condition called “Summoning Sickness.” Think of it as the creature being exhausted from traveling from wherever they were to where you are and needing a break before working. Essentially, all it means is that (for the first turn a creature is in play) the creature cannot attack or do anything that involves it tapping until your next turn.
Between your first and second main phase is the combat phase. Regardless of whether or not an opponent controls any creatures of their own, you chose to attack the player with your creatures (not their specific creatures). You don’t have to attack with all of your creatures (or attack at all). Whichever creatures you choose to attack with become tapped. Already-tapped creatures and those with summoning sickness may not be assigned as attackers. At the end of combat, attacking creatures deal their power (it’s the first number found on the bottom right of the card). A creature that shows “2/3,” for example, deals two points of damage and can withstand three.
Blocking is the other half of combat. When a player is attacked, they may choose to block those attacking creatures with their own untapped creatures. Attacking creatures deal their power (the first number in the “X/X” found on the bottom right of the card) in damage to the blocking creature’s toughness (the second number in the “X/X”) and visa-versa. If a creature’s toughness is reduced to zero, the creature dies and is discarded from play. Damage to creatures last until the turn ends.
When a card is discarded, whether from a player’s hand, from casting (playing) an instant or sorcery, or a permanent is destroyed, it goes to the discard pile. In Magic terms, that would be the “Graveyard.” There are certain cards that interact with cards in players’ graveyards.
If a card is in “Exile,” it’s effectively been completely removed from the game. Exiled cards cannot typically be interacted with during the course of a game.
There’s a lot more to the game, to be sure, but the above will get you going. For more information on the more advanced elements of Magic: The Gathering, game publisher Wizards of the Coast has additional information on their website.
Second, what’s on the card?
There really is a lot of information on a Magic card and there are different types of cards. Below are three examples – one each for creature, non-creature, and planeswalker – so you have a better idea of what you’re looking at.
Finally, where to start?
So, you’re interested in Magic: The Gathering but you’re not sure where to start? Luckily, Wizards of the Coast has released a number of ready-to-play products that are great for first-timers and novice players.
One option is to find your local gaming store and see if they have a Welcome Deck to provide you. Welcome Decks are free and contain to 30 card, beginner-level decks that can be mixed together to form one 60-card deck.
Another way to get the ground running is to purchase a pre-constructed deck. These tend to be more competitive/powerful than Welcome Decks and there are a few options from which to choose:
- Planewalker Decks (Note: These are soon to be phased out): Each deck features a foil (premium) planeswalker card and is built around it. Recent Planeswalker decks include Ashiok, Sculpter of Fears, Elspeth, Undaunted Hero, Rowan, Fearless Sparkmage, and Oko, The Trickster.
- Challenger Decks: Challenger Decks are individual, 75-card decks geared toward tournament play. Each deck comes with a 60-card main deck and 15-card sideboard and is intended to be playable and competitive at a local level right out of the box. The most recent Challenger Decks are Cavalcade Charge, Flash of Ferocity, Final Adventure, and Allied Fires.
- Duel Decks (Note: These are discontinued products, but still easy to find at most local game stores): Dual Decks are sets of two pre-constructed decks that are designed to be played against one another. Complexity varies, but the cards inside of them are neat and the decks tend to have decent synergy out of the box. They can be easily improved upon. Recommended Duel Decks for beginners and novices include Elpseth vs Kioria, Elves vs Inventors, Mind vs Might, and the Duel Deck adjacent Global Series: Jiang Yanggu and My Yanling.
- Magic Game Night: For those looking for a more social, causal experience, Wizards of the Coast has Magic Game Night. It’s an out-of-the-box introductory multiplayer Magic experience that’s designed more for family game nights than it is anything else.
And, for those who want to dive right in and begin their own Magic: The Gathering collection, a Deck Builder’s Toolkit is a great place to start. Each one is built around a specific set and contains 125 cards along with four booster packs and everything a new player needs to get off the ground with the game. Recent Deck Builder’s Tookits include those featuring the sets Core Set 2020, Theros: Beyond Death, and Ravnica Allegiance. Also, a bundle (such as the one for the upcoming Ikoria set) might be a good option as it contains basic lands, six booster packs, a life counter, and more.
If you’re a bit short on funds or simply don’t want to pay to play Magic, no worries. Aside from finding a generous friend to either lend or give you their cards, those with a Windows PC can (for free) download Magic: The Gathering Arena. It’s a free-to-play digital version of the game. While nothing can beat sitting down at a table with cards in hand, it’s a good substitute for the real thing and it doesn’t have to cost you one red cent if you don’t want it to.
However you decide to play, remember that the most important element in Magic: The Gathering is fun. It is a game, after all.