5 Steps To Start Playing Magic: The Gathering

You may have heard the name somewhere, or seen a blog article on a video game site. Maybe you’ve seen rows of high-priced cards in a case at your local game store. Magic is the longest-running trading card game in the world, even if it’s not the most widely-known hobby it has a fervent and loyal fanbase. So how does one enter this hidden world of magic spells, card trading, and competition? Here we’ll outline 5 easy steps to start playing Magic: The Gathering.

Step 1: Learning the Rules

The best thing to learn first about Magic is the rules. This is the foundation stone on which the whole scene is based.

Since Magic was first released over 25 years ago, the rules have evolved over time. There are a great number of subtleties in the rules, but fortunately new players don’t need to know all these subtleties to have a good time. Learning Magic in steps will make entry into a new world easier.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to learn how to play. First off, the game’s publisher, Wizards of the Coast, has a great series of videos on their website. Additionally, popular YouTube channels Extra Credits and Geek & Sundry have great videos as well to help people start playing Magic.

Secondly, for people with Windows PCs, Magic has a free digital version that comes with an interactive tutorial. Called Magic: The Gathering Arena, the video game has quickly become one of the most popular ways to play Magic, coexisting side-by-side with it’s paper counterpart.

Lastly, there’s the traditional way, used since the 90s: have a friend teach the game. Asking a friend to show what they love about Magic is always fun. Passing this passion on like a torch has been a cornerstone of the game since the beginning.

One last thing: MTG Gamepedia is one of the best sources for pure reference about Magic in every detail. This wiki is suitable for players new and old, and for quick lookups to deep dives.

Step 2: Tools of the Trading Card Game

Now armed with the rules, the other thing a new player needs is the tools. Physically, Magic is simple, all players need is a stack of cards to start playing Magic. The most basic playable Magic deck is a collection of at least 60 cards, with no more than 4 copies of any card (by name, and excepting Plains, Islands, Swamps, Mountains and Forests).

Starter Cards

Before we discuss deckbuilding basics, let’s discuss how to get these cards. There are lots of Magic products available and it’s not immediately clear what new players need to start playing Magic. Here’s a quick list of products for new players to look out for:

Welcome Decks Free Newbie Two 30-card half-decks suitable for learning, but not much else
Spellslinger Starter Kit $14.99 Newbie Two full 60-card decks, learning guides, life counter dice
Game Night Set $39.95 Casual Five 60-card decks, rulebook, tokens and counters
Planeswalker Decks $14.95 Casual One 60-card deck, 2 booster packs
Theme Booster $6.95 Casual 35 random cards of one color. Add 25 basic lands to make a full deck.
Commander Precon $39.95 Experienced One 100-card deck, oversized card, token cards. Contains strong, complex cards for seasoned players.

Deckbuilding

Many of these preconstructed decks are great to start with and learn the ropes. However, playing to defeat an opponent is only half of Magic. The other half is in the cards you bring to a match. Eventually new players will need to know how to tweak, customize, or even reconstruct their deck. For players just playing casual “kitchen table” Magic, here’s some quick deckbuilding tips:

  1. Stick to one or two colors. Each of the five colors in Magic has its own personality, strategies, and weaknesses. Players can mix and match colors in their deck, however, using more colors makes decks trickier to play. Decks that use one color (aka monocolored) tend to be very straightforward in their strategy, but lack versatility. Two-color decks are a good balance between versatility, focus, and consistency.
  2. Balance your land count. As a rule of thumb, roughly one-third of a deck should have lands. So, about 20 land cards in a 60-card deck. Some deck strategies may change this up a bit. Faster decks that use quick, cheap cards may want 18 or 19 lands, and decks that use multiple colors of cards may want 21 or 22.
  3. Pay attention to your Mana Curve. Magic’s one-land-per-turn rule is one of the most important rules in the game. That means, cheap cards can be played earlier in a game, and expensive, powerful cards can only be played later. A well-balanced deck will have a mix of both.

Step 3: Formats (optional)

There’s actually many different styles of Magic play. Magic experts have described Magic as not a single game, but an ecosystem of games. Each of these styles of Magic is called a format.

No Format, aka Casual Magic

Of course, players can collect, play, and have fun with Magic without formats. This is considered “casual” or “kitchen table” Magic. This is definitely the style of Magic with the most freedom, and the easiest way to start playing Magic.

Kitchen table Magic is great for a group of friends with similar card collections. However, it’s inconsistent in terms of competition. Playing with strangers can be unpredictable and lead to very one-sided matches.

This is why formats were invented. By adding some rules to deckbuilding, each format of Magic has a much more consistent experience. There are a variety of formats – and play experiences – to choose from.

If players just want to play Magic with little investment and just jam some games with friends, picking a format is entirely optional. However, it’s worth it to know what options are available for anyone picking up the game.

Draft

Draft (aka Limited) is a fun and useful format for players who know how to play, but don’t have a large collection of cards or expensive decks. Players bring new, unopened packs of a certain set, and in a pick-and-pass draft, build a “draft pool.” Then, instead of using their permanent collection, players build decks out of their temporary draft pool, so everyone is on an even playing field. Finally, players compete in a short tournament to see who has the best deck. After the tournament, players get to keep their draft pool and add it to their permanent collection.

Players pay for packs each time they draft, but players want to buy packs to expand their collections anyway. Draft is a great way to squeeze more fun out of buying packs. If draft sounds interesting, the popular YouTube channel Tolarian Community College has this video guide to the mechanics and strategies of drafting.

Commander

Commander is the most unique format for Magic, and introduces a lot of strange variant rules that make it very different from other styles of Magic. However, the game’s publisher has recently announced that Commander is currently the most popular style of Magic, and in this author’s opinion, probably the most true to the designer’s original intent for the game.

Commander is one of the least competitive formats. There’s more value in a Commander match in socializing with opponents, running heavily personalized decks, and making wacky plays than in winning (although winning is, of course, still important). Commander decks and matches tend to be much more complex than other formats as well.

A big reason for all this is that Commander is most often played with 3 or more players. Matches are free-for-all, with no teams and only one winner. As such, table-talk, negotiation and tactical diplomacy are big parts of the Commander experience. Coincidentally, this makes Commander more forgiving of cards and decks that are more interesting than optimal. Players with sub-optimal decks are less threatening, and given more leeway to do what they like. The Professor from Tolarian Community College has a great video about getting started with Commander Magic.

Competitive Formats

Of course, competition and tournament play are big parts of the Magic ecosystem. There are several formats that focus on head-to-head battles of wits, using 60-card decks, sideboards, and card pools of varying sizes. Competitive Magic is always played in “best-of-three” matches, where the first player to win two games against an opponent wins the overall match. Here’s a quick comparison of different competitive formats:

  • Standard – Uses only the newest cards. Card pools will “rotate” every autumn, when sets from two years previous are removed from the format. This keeps the tournament scene fresh and exciting. To keep track of what’s allowed in standard, What’s In Standard? is very helpful.
  • Pioneer – Uses sets going back to autumn 2012 (beginning with Return to Ravnica). Card pools are “eternal” and don’t rotate, so decks built for this format will be legal forever (excepting banned cards). The newest and most popular of the non-rotating formats.
  • Modern – Uses sets going back to summer 2003 (beginning with Eighth Edition). Another non-rotating eternal format, Modern is very complex and skill-intensive. Most popular competitive format before Pioneer was introduced.
  • Pauper – Uses cards from any era and doesn’t have rotation, but only allows cards that have been printed at the common rarity level. Nicknamed “Legacy lite” due to this, and is probably the most affordable competitive format.
  • Legacy – The oldest eternal format. Allows cards from any era to be used, but also the most expensive format. Features some of the most powerful cards and decks in Magic, and demands the highest skill from its players.

Step 4: Finding Players

Naturally, in order to play a game, players need opponents. Many players start playing Magic with their group of friends, and have a great time playing casually. Fortunately that’s not the only way to find other Magic players. Friendly Local Game Stores, known as FLGSs to many hobbies in addition to Magic, are an important hub for gaming communities.

As mentioned previously, many FLGSs will have a calendar of events on their website. FLGSs that support Magic will probably run several recurring Magic events a week. Most of these events will focus on one of the formats listed above, and are good ways to at least meet other Magic fans. Check out Level One Game Shop’s calendar, and Wizards of the Coast has an event locator that lists all Magic events anywhere.

Every Friday is a big deal for Magic players and their favorite FLGSs. Appropriately called Friday Night Magic, or FNM, these events are like local watering holes for Magic players. FLGSs host a variety of formats and events on Fridays, and sometimes have unique prizes for participants. FNMs tend to have a relaxed, less-competitive atmosphere, even when it features powerful formats. Friday Night Magic is a great way to meet local Magic players and introduce yourself to the community.

Step 5: Expanding Your Collection

Magic has forever been a game about collecting and trading cards, and expanding your collection is a big part of the hobby. There are a lot of ways to do so, and the options can be a little overwhelming. Here’s the more popular options.

Booster packs

Like a pack of baseball cards, booster packs contain a random assortment of cards. Booster packs embody the element of surprise – there’s no telling how valuable or powerful the cards within are. The primary type are Draft Boosters, because they are used in draft tournaments, and are what most Magic players buy. Theme Boosters and Collector’s Boosters are newer, and have their own audiences. Theme Boosters are great for casual players, while Collector’s Boosters have fancier cards for a higher price tag.

Booster boxes

As the name implies, booster boxes are simply the display box full of booster packs found in game shops. It’s expensive, but very often it’s the best value for getting a lot of cards, and probably some valuable cards as well. Buying booster boxes is common for players when a new set comes out.

Singles

For players who are building decks and looking for specific cards, the conventional wisdom is to simply buy the cards they need outright in the aftermarket. It’s faster and often cheaper than buying pack after pack. Many FLGSs will buy and sell Magic singles from and to customers, and will have their own unique collection. Check out Level One’s singles online at http://leveloneonline.tcgplayerpro.com/.

Preconstructed Decks

Preconstructed means that, instead of having randomized contents like a booster pack, the deck and cards will be the same in every package of the same label. Every Elspeth Planeswalker deck will have the same cards in it. Often, too, precons also have unique cards unavailable elsewhere, or even valuable reprinted cards. Commander precon decks are built in this manner, as are Challenger decks that encapsulate the previous year’s tournament-winning decks.

Get Ready For Your Magical Journey

Whew! That’s a long five steps. It makes sense, though; as said earlier, Magic is very much an ecosystem of games. There’s many different ways to enjoy Magic, but fortunately it’s easy to simply start playing Magic. Hopefully this guide will help players navigate this ecosystem and find out how to have the most fun with this venerable classic.

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