Everything You Need To Know About Playing MAGIC: THE GATHERING (in a Ten Minute Read)
So, Magic: The Gathering has got your interest, but you don't know what it is about or where to even start? Here's what you need to know! First, I'll cover how to play the game, then provide advice on getting started.
In Magic, players are dueling wizards, or planeswalkers. Each player has a deck, called their library, which contains a variety of collectable cards representing spells or potential magical power.
How to win the game
The goal is to reduce your opponents life points to zero; when that happens, you immediately win! Also, if your opponent cannot draw a card because their library contains no cards, or if they concede the game, you immediately win!
How to play the game
In a basic Magic game, players start with 20 life and (at least) 60 cards in their library.
The game begins by each player shuffling their library and drawing 7 cards. On each player's turn, they will play though five phases. Remembering these phases may seem overwhelming at first, but it will become second-nature after a few matches.
1. Beginning Phase - Untap, upkeep, and draw.
To start, the active player untaps any tapped cards in play by turning them upright (more on that below). Any effects from the active player's cards in play that say "during your upkeep..." happens here. After that, the player draws a card from their library into their hand. Note that at the start of their first turn, players will not have any cards in play yet, and the first player skips this phase on their first turn.
2. First Main Phase - Cast cards into the battlefield.
In this phase, the active player may pay the cost of any card in their hand to put it into play in front of them, this area is called the battlefield. Most cards stay in the battlefield until removed or destroyed; these are called permanents. There are certain cards that are not permanents, however, and will go away after playing. More on that below when discussing the card types.
The currency used to pay for cards is mana, which comes in five different colors: white, blue, black, red, and green. Each color has its own unique flavor in the game, as shown in this linked graphic.
The primary way to gain mana is with land cards. During a player's turn, one land may be played to their battlefield. Land cards are not spells and have no cost.
To gain mana, a player taps a land by turning it sideways, which adds one point of mana in its respective color to a player's mana pool. Tapping is a mechanism to indicate a particular card has been used. A player can tap as many lands as they have available, and may cast as many cards as they wish, provided they have the mana to pay for it.
With mana in their pool, a player can now cast spells!
Let's take a look at one of the types of cards you may cast. This is a creature card.
Every card will have a unique name. This card is Shivan Dragon.
The mana cost is indicated at the top right corner. With Shivan Dragon, the mana cost is two red mana, and four colorless mana - indicated by "4" in the gray circle - meaning the mana can be from any color.. The total converted cost of this card is six mana. The mana and border indicate the color identity of Shivan Dragon as red. Some cards are multi-colored, or even colorless.
The type bar in the middle indicates the type of card (Creature), and the kind (Dragon). Also on the right is the set icon: a visual indicator of which set the card belongs to and the respective rarity. This is a rare card (indicated by gold) from the Magic 2010 Core Set. Many cards are not unique to a certain set, so you may see the same card with a different set icon, or even different art.
The box under the type bar explains the card's abilities. Some abilities are static, that is, it is always "on". Some abilities will have an activation cost, that is, mana needs to be spent and/or the card needs to tap to activate an ability. Shivan Dragon has the static ability flying (can only be blocked by other creatures with flying or reach) and, if 1 red mana is spent as an activation cost, +1/+0 is added to Shivan Dragon's power and toughness respectively until the end of the active player's turn. Think of it as magically giving the dragon extra fire-breathing power!
Speaking of power, the box in the lower right corner is the creature's base power and toughness. Power is how much damage it dishes out; toughness is how much damage it can take. More on this during the Combat Phase.
Other cards you can cast includes sorceries, artifacts, enchantments, instants, & planeswalkers.
Sorceries are one-time effects that a player may cast during their main phases. These cards are not permanents and go to the player's discard pile, or graveyard, after the effects are applied.
Artifacts are permanent cards that provide abilities to the player when activated or when certain game conditions trigger its ability. A specific kind of artifact is equipment that can attach to a creature card to enhance it's abilities or stats. Usually, there is an additional mana cost to attach. Most artifacts are colorless.
Enchantments are permanent spells that may help a player or hinder their opponent by changing certain play conditions. A common kind of enchantment is an aura that attaches to a creature, just like equipment cards. Auras can be a boon or a bane to a creature.
Instants are super-fast sorceries; they can be cast at any time, even during an opponent's turn. Whenever a player plays a card, activates an ability, or declares attackers/blockers in the combat phase, an opponent may spend the mana cost and cast an instant. Then the player may respond with an instant of their own, and so on. The cards cast form the stack which determines the order in which effects happen, or resolves, The top card of the stack, i.e., the last card played, resolves first, then the next in the stack, until the stack is depleted. Instants are not permanents; they are put into the graveyard immediately after resolving.
Planeswalkers are allies with powerful activated abilities. They are not creatures, and they don't participate in combat (although they may be attacked.) Instead, they come into play with an amount of loyalty points as indicated in the lower right corner. Planeswalkers may be cast during the main phases, The active player may add or subtract loyalty points to activate the plainswalker loyalty abilities as indicated. Loyalty points also serve as the toughness stat for a planeswalker. If a planeswalker is reduced to 0 loyalty points through loyalty activation or combat damage, they go into the graveyard.
3. Combat Phase - Attacking and blocking.
It's clobberin' time! The active player may choose to attack by declaring who or what is attacking and tapping the respective cards. The defending player has a choice, to assign their own creatures to block, or take the full damage. Note that players never attack creatures; attacks can only be directed to players or planeswalkers. If the defending player chooses to block, they may do so with any of their untapped creatures. Blocking does not cause a creature to tap. Once all attackers and blockers are declared, damage is immediately assigned. Creatures deal damage equal to their power, and can take damage equal to their toughness. If a creature's toughness is reduced to 0, it is sent to the graveyard.
For example, I attack with a 2/4 Giant Spider, and my opponent blocks with her 2/2 Silverbeak Griffin. My spider will deal 2 points of damage to the griffin, and the griffin deals 2 points of damage back to the spider. However, the griffin toughness is 2, so after damage is resolved, the griffin heads to the graveyard. The spider survives, although it is now a 2/2 creature until it heals at the end of the turn. Of course, instants can be played to adjust outcomes. If my opponent casts the instant Diminish on my spider before resolving the battle, her griffin would destroy my spider instead, as Diminish makes a target creature 1/1 until end of the turn.
Any creature that isn't blocked applies damage to the defending player or planeswalker. Once all damage resolves, the combat phase is over.
4. Second Main Phase - Cast cards into the battlefield.
This is exactly like the first main phase. If the active player hasn't yet played a land card on their turn, they may do so now. This is the final chance to get cards into the battlefield before the ending phase.
5. Ending Phase- End step and cleanup step.
First, card effects that say "At the beginning of your end step..." or "at end of your turn" happen here. All creatures heal from damage. If a player has more than 7 cards in their hand, they must discard cards of their choosing until they get down to 7. Finally, all card effects that say "until the end of your turn..." end here.
It is the next player's turn, and we start back at the beginning phase. Play continues until someone wins!
How to get started
Magic was designed from the get-go to be a social game, so the best way to learn is from someone who already knows how to play. Most game stores that actively support Magic through event and tournaments will have a supply of free Welcome Decks for new players. These packages will have two small 30-card decks and a quick-reference style rules sheet. Also, before the release of a new set, many game stores will host a Magic Open House, where new players can come and learn from experienced players.
After playing with a Welcome Deck, the current Core 2019 Planeswalker decks are an easy next step, they are inexpensive (around $11), and integrate with the 2019 Welcome Decks.
There are other preconstructed decks, or precons, available like Duel Decks, which includes two specially balanced decks for head-to-head play, or Commander, a 100-card variant of the basic game.
How to play the game outside the game
After playing with precons, a casual player may want try their hand at building their own decks.
There is an intimidating amount of Magic products. Each of those expansion sets you see on store shelves represent different realms or “planes” visited by the Magic storyline. Each set can contain anywhere from 150-250 unique cards.
Generally, a core set has cards with frequently used or simple mechanisms, while expansion sets will often introduce new abilities and advanced mechanisms. Sets are released on a quarterly basis. As of this writing, Core 2019 is the most current set.
Being a collectable card game, Magic's primary product is $4 booster packs. Each randomized blind buy pack will contain 10 commons (black/white set icon), 3 uncommons (silver set icon), 1 rare (gold set icon), and 1 basic land card. About 1 pack out of 8, a mythic rare (orange set icon) will be in the place of the rare. About 1 pack out of 6, there will be an shiny foil card of any rarity. Rares and mythics are not necessarily more powerful cards, but cards with complex or disruptive mechanisms, as opposed to the generally simple and foundational elements of commons. Of course, rarity also has the effect of creating a secondary market for card singles. Single card market prices change daily, depending on collectability, usefulness in current tournament formats, popularity, speculation, synergy with other cards, and popular published deck lists.
A good route for beginners are Deck Constrution Kits and Booster Bundles. The bundles contain 10 boosters of a specific set, a pack of 80 land cards, a spindown life counter, and a how-to-play guide for about $40. The construction kits have 125 "semi-radomized" cards from current sets, 100 land, and 4 boosters from various sets, usually $20.
After building a deck, or maybe NOT building a deck, you may want to test your new Magic skills with other players at events - and win prizes and special promo cards to boot.
Organized play in Magic is divided into two types of tournaments: constructed and limited. Constructed means you bring your own deck; limited means you make a deck on-the-spot using boosters from the most recent set. There are sub-types of constructed tournaments that dictate the pool of cards that may be used, or have special rules for deck construction. Here's all about formats. A popular event is the weekly Friday Night Magic (FNM), hosted by sanctioned game stores. The formats may vary store to store, but often FNM is constructed. You will pay a buy-in fee, usually $5-$6, for prize support.
There are things I didn't cover here for brevity, like casual formats, but my hope is you got a good idea on how to play Magic and where you can go from here. GAME ON.