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A Beginner’s Guide to Magic The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering. Many consider this incredibly popular and successful trading card game to be the peak of nerd or geek culture. For over 25 years, Wizards of the Coast has designed, developed, and published the countless cards that make up the Magic: The Gathering catalogue. With such a large backlog and such a hefty legacy, it might seem daunting to get into the game, either as a beginner or a returning player who’s been away for awhile. What I’m going to show you is that it isn’t as hard as it sounds.

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Without further ado, let’s jump right into how the game works. Let’s start with how everything is set up. There are nine main “zones” in the game. There is the Battlefield, each player’s Deck, which is referred to as a Library, each player’s Hand, each player’s Exile Pile, and each player’s Graveyard. There is a single Battlefield, but one Library, Hand, Exile pile, and Graveyard for each player.

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The standard Library is made up of various cards, depending on what format of the game you’re playing. The average amount is 60 cards for most decks, with certain formats raising that to around 100. And that’s all fine and good, I hear you say, but what are the cards, and what do they do?

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Every single card is split into two primary categories: Permanent and Non-Permanent. Permanents, such as Lands, Creatures, Artifacts, Enchantments, and Planeswalkers, enter the Battlefield zone and only leave that area when something forces them to go to a different zone. Something such as combat damage, the damage dealt during the combat phase by creatures, can send a creature to its owner’s Graveyard zone, while certain cards can send permanents to your hand.

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The other variation, Non-Permanent, is relegated to two card types: Instant and Sorcery. These cards can be cast at different times than permanents, and do not remain on the Battlefield once they have resolved. Rather, once they have finished doing whatever their card text says, they are sent to their owner’s Graveyard, unless the card says otherwise.

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I know what you’re thinking: ‘Tyler that’s all fine and dandy, but what do those cards do?’ That’s what I’m here for. Let’s talk about Card Types. Starting with the most important card in the game: Land. A Land card generates Mana of six unique types: Blue, Black, Red, White, Green, and Colorless. Lands themselves are split into two main types: Basic and Non-Basic. Basic Lands are the standard type that you will find. An Island will generate Blue mana, a Swamp will generate Black mana, a Mountain will generate Red mana, Plains will generate White mana, a Forest will generate Green mana, and Wastes will generate Colorless mana.

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On the other hand, Non-Basic Lands often have unique abilities. The most common type of Non-Basic Land is a Dual Land: a Non-Basic Land that can generate two different types of mana. Other Lands have unique abilities, which range from generating more mana, destroying creatures, or even transforming into a giant demon once certain conditions are met.

To utilize a land, you must “tap” it. To “tap” a card, you physically rotate it 90 degrees to the right. This signifies that the card has been activated, which can mean various things depending on the card type and the abilities they have. In the case of lands, tapping them adds mana to your Mana Pool. Your Mana Pool is the total amount of mana you have available to cast Spells. Spells are Non-Land cards, such as the aforementioned Instants, Sorceries, Creatures, Enchantments, Planeswalkers, and Artifacts.

You’re probably wondering what all of this means. So, the easiest way to start it would be to go over these, starting with the permanent spells. Going even closer, let’s start with Creatures. Creatures have three primary statistics: Mana Cost, Power, and Toughness. If you look at the picture below, each of these statistics are labeled. Mana Cost is in the upper right hand corner, while Power and Toughness share the bottom right hand corner.

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Mana Cost is the amount of mana you need to pull from your Mana Pool, which is generated, as we discussed, by tapping Lands. In the example, the Grizzly Bear has the cost of 1 and one Forest symbol, which equals the Converted Mana Cost of two total mana. The Forest symbol indicates that one of the two mana used to cast the Grizzly Bear must be Green mana, generated by a Forest Land or other Green mana generator.

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In the bottom right hand corner, there are two numbers, separated by a slash: 2/2. These numbers are Power and Toughness. Power is the equivalent of damage, if the Grizzly Bear attacks, it will deal two combat damage. Toughness is the equivalent of health. If the Grizzly Bear blocks an attack, it can survive two damage before it is sent to its owner’s Graveyard. Toughness is unique in that it regenerates at the beginning of each turn. If a creature had, say, 10 Toughness, it could survive up to 9 damage dealt by spells and combat each and every turn without being destroyed.

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Next up, let’s talk about Enchantments and Artifacts. I pair these because, while they are unique, they are similar in many aspects. Artifacts are generally tools or machines with various purposes. Examples include stones and items that generate mana (referred to as “mana rocks”), items that make spells of certain colors cost less, and many more abilities.

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There is a unique subset of artifacts known as Equipment. Equipment can be attached to creatures, and provides the attached creatures with various unique abilities. One of defining aspects of Artifacts is that they are almost exclusively colorless; they usually have no requirement for what colors of mana are required to cast them.

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Compared to Artifacts, Enchantments are similar, but use colored mana. Enchantments can do similar things to artifacts, and like Equipment, there is a unique type of Enchantment that can be attached to creatures, but also Lands and even other players. These Enchantments, Auras, are different from Equipment as they are destroyed when the attached permanent (or player) is destroyed or otherwise removed from the game. Enchantments can be a lot stronger than enchantments, and have an even wider range of abilities.

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The last, and most complex, card I will discuss in this section is the Planeswalker. Unlike the other cards, a Planeswalker is a unique manifestation of a concept central to Magic. In the lore of Magic, Planeswalkers are incredibly powerful mages who can travel between the infinite planes of the Multiverse. Players are Planeswalkers, and the cards in your Library are collected from your travels across different realities.

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In the game, Planeswalkers are uniquely designed cards. Unlike other cards that you’ve seen, their text boxes are split into several categories, and they all have + or – values. In the bottom right hand corner is a single number, and as I’ve previously explained, the top right corner houses the Planeswalker’s mana cost.

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The bottom right-hand value is the Loyalty Counter value. A Planeswalker enters the battlefield with that many Loyalty Counters on it, and the abilities, those with + or – values, add or subtract Loyalty Counters. Once a Planeswalker’s Loyalty Counter value hits zero, they are sent to the Graveyard. The value can be reduced by abilities, but also by damage dealt by spells and combat.

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Now that we’ve covered all of the Permanents, let’s cover one important item before continuing on to Non-Permanents. There is a type of Permanent that has no cost, and cannot be played as a spell. These Permanents are Tokens. The most common type of Token is a Creature Token, created by spells or Planeswalker abilities. They have a Power and Toughness like any other creature, but they do not have a Mana Cost. One other common type of Token is an Emblem. Emblems are Permanent Tokens that are created by Planeswalkers that provide unique abilities.

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Now, onto Non-Permanent Spells. There are two primary types of Non-Permanent spells: Instants and Sorceries. Explaining these two types of cards will also allow me to explain the structure of a Turn in Magic. An Instant can be cast at any time, as long as you can afford the cost. These cards can do just about anything, ranging from destroying creatures to dealing damage or even negating other spells. Sorceries are much the same as Instants, but can only be cast during your Turn.

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The structure of the Turn is fairly simple. The very first phase is Upkeep. In the Upkeep phase, you untap all your tapped cards, then draw a card from your Library. The next phase is your First Main phase. The Main phase is where you can play Lands and cast all other Permanent and Non-Permanent Spells. Creatures that enter the battlefield without Haste cannot attack or be tapped until the beginning of the next upkeep. This is known as Summoning Sickness. The third phase is Combat. During this phase, you choose creatures to attack an enemy player or Planeswalker, and tap those creatures to signify your attack. After you have declared your attacking creatures, your opponent can pick any number of their own creatures to Block your attack.

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Creatures who are blocked fight the blocking creature, and each does damage equal to its Power to the opposing creature. This can end in one of three ways: Either both creatures die, one of the two die, or neither of them die. Following this, there is the second, Post-Combat Main phase. This phase is identical to the first Main phase, aside from what follows it. The final phase is your End Step. The End Step is usually ignored, unless someone wants to cast an Instant Spell or trigger a special ability.

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To close up this guide, I’ll go over one last thing: Common Keywords. Keywords are phrases on Cards with unique abilities. These phrases all have certain meanings that are meant to simplify certain abilities. Many of these Keywords change how things normally function or allow you to do unique things. Some of these Keywords include:

Trample: Combat Damage dealt by a creature with Trample that is more than a blocking creature’s Toughness is dealt to that creature’s controller. For example, if the 2/2 Grizzly Bear gained trample, and was blocked by a creature with 1 Toughness, the additional one damage would be dealt to the blocker’s owner.

Vigilance: Creatures with Vigilance do not become tapped when they attack. For example, a creature with Vigilance who also has the ability to be tapped for Mana could attack, and if it survived, it could then be tapped as a Mana Source.

Lifelink: Creatures with Lifelink give their controller life equal to the amount of damage they deal. There are certain creatures who can give spells Lifelink as well. For example, if a creature dealt 5 damage in an attack, its controller would gain 5 life.

Flying: Creatures with Flying can only be blocked by creatures with Flying and with Reach. Creatures that do not have Flying or Reach cannot block a Flying creature, but a Flying creature can still block a creature without Flying.

Reach: Creatures with Reach can block creatures with Flying as though they had Flying, but cannot avoid being blocked by creatures without Flying. A creature with Reach does not have the benefits of Flying! Imagine a creature with Reach as though it was an archer shooting at a bird. They cannot fly like the bird, but they can still attack it.

Haste: Creatures with Haste are unaffected by Summoning Sickness. This means that they can attack and be tapped the first turn they are on the Battlefield. Red, a color which focuses a lot of quick and consecutive attacks, has many haste creatures and haste-granting spells.

Hexproof: Permanents with Hexproof cannot be targeted by any spells or abilities controlled by an opponent. An example of this is simple: A creature with Hexproof cannot be targeted by a spell such as Shock, which deals two damage, if Shock was cast by your opponent.

Shroud: Unlike Hexproof, Permanents with Shroud cannot be targeted by any spells or abilities. Shroud is a more extreme version of Hexproof, and prevents even the creature’s controller from casting spells or using abilities that target it specifically.

Protection: Similar to Hexproof and Shroud, Protection prevents a Permanent from being affected by certain spells or abilities. For example, a creature with Protection from Blue cannot be targeted by spells or abilities that have a Blue Color Identity.

Deathtouch: Creatures dealt damage by a creature with Deathtouch is destroyed regardless of the damage dealt or their remaining toughness. Imagine Deathtouch as an instant death poison, a creature cannot survive the poison. This seems strong, but can be counteracted in a few ways.

First Strike: Creatures with First Strike deal damage first. This means that, instead of taking damage at the same time as another creature, they instead deal damage, and then take damage. This means that a creature with a higher Power or Deathtouch could kill a creature without taking any damage.

Double Strike: Double Strike is an improved First Strike. Creatures with Double Strike deal First Strike damage, and then deal standard damage. This means that a creature who survives the First Strike damage could still be killed by the second tier of damage. Double Strike essentially doubles the combat damage a creature deals.

Menace: Creatures with Menace are powerful attackers. They can only be blocked by two or more creatures. An example of the strength of Menace is as follows: You attack with a creature that has gained Menace. Your opponent only has one creature under their control, and therefore cannot block it.

Skulk: Much like Menace, Skulk affects what can block a creature. Creatures with Skulk cannot be blocked by creatures with a greater Power. This means that a 2/2 creature cannot block a creature that has one Power if it has Skulk.

Indestructible: Creatures with Indestructible cannot be destroyed by Combat Damage or by spells that Destroy a creature. These creatures can only be removed from the Battlefield by cards that Exile creatures, cards that reduce a creature’s Toughness to zero, and it could be returned to its owner’s hand. Creatures with Indestructible can also be sacrificed.

Scry: Scry is always accompanied by a number, or by X. Scry allows you to look at the top card of your Library and either return it to the top of your Library or put it on the bottom of your Library. If the value is greater than one, you can put the cards on top or on the bottom in any order.

Storm: Storm is an interesting ability that does not appear often in Magic, but it is important. Storm creates a copy of a spell for each spell you’ve cast on your turn. If you have a card that deals one damage with Storm, you deal one damage to a target, and then say you’ve cast 10 other spells that turn, you then deal one damage to 10 other additional targets. Copies do not need to share the same target. In the example, you could deal 11 damage to any number of unique targets.

Delve: Delve is an ability that changes how you can cast a spell. Delve allows you to replace Generic mana (The mana symbol that is grey with a number in it) by exiling (Removing from the game) cards from your graveyard. For each card you exile, it replaces one Generic mana. For example, say you want to cast a spell that costs 8, 7 Generic mana and one Blue mana, but the spell has Delve. This means that you can exile seven cards to replace the 7 Generic mana, and only tap one Blue mana source. If you wanted, you could exile less cards, as well, and play the additional cost.

Overall, Magic is a great game with a bit of a learning curve. I hope my guide has been able to assist you, but the best aid you could gather is from experience. Go to a Local Games Store, ask some people about the game, play a few rounds if they’ll let you. The average Magic player is more than happy to welcome you into the community.