Friday 9 August 2019
An Introduction to Playing Magic
This is not a normal article and is pegged at someone entirely new to the game. As such it is very much not for my usual readers. I am sure there is better learning material out there but I failed to find it... So, what is Magic and how do we play?
It is a game where two or more powerful wizards played by you and your opponents, or planeswalkers as they are called, fight it out. Mostly the game is played one against one and so I will assume that for the rest of the article. There are indeed many variations you can play and enjoy but I will only be looking at the standard incarnation of the game.
To defeat you opponent you typically reduce their life total to zero although other less common win conditions exist such as running your opponent out of cards (called decking), getting them to 10 poison counters, or just using a card that states the game is won or lost as part of what it does. Life totals start at 20 and can go up or down. You each take turns made up of a number of phases passing back and forth until a winner is found.
To start a game you will need a deck of cards which is usually 60 cards but can be set at a number of other limits. You are always allowed to play more than the limit of cards which might sound good but almost never is as you are also limited on the copies you can include of most types of cards. Typically this is one copy of a card or four copies. With decking being such a rare way to lose you are best off with the smallest deck you are allowed so as to maximize your chance of seeing your best cards.
Cards break down into two main groups, lands and spells. Lands are used to play spells and spells do the bulk of the things. You start by shuffling up your deck, determining a starting player at random and then drawing seven random cards. Each turn you draw a card and have the option to lay a new land and that is the fundamentals covered!
The game has some area of play or zones. You have your deck or library which just sits in a face down pile in front of you. You have your hand which is hidden from your opponent but visible to you. There is the "battlefield" which is where cards exist while in play and this takes up most of the physical room the game needs although starts out empty. There is a discard pile called the "graveyard". Cards may also be removed from the game entirely which is called being "exiled" and is rather more permanent than the graveyard is! These also both start with no cards in them.
To the left is a basic land. There is one for each of the five colours and they are one of the only cards in the game that you can always play any number of in your deck. You know this is a land and not a spell because it says "land" in the middle of the card between the picture and the text box. Lands have no casting cost either which is normally found in the top right hand corner of the card. As this card has nothing there, says land, and has a picture of a landscape and not a character or event it is all telling you as best it can that it is a land. The name is a clue too, which for all cards is found at the top left hand corner of the card. Each basic land will provide one mana per turn of the associated colour. To do this you "tap" them which is simply a way of indicated something has been used. It is done by turning the card sideways. The very first thing you do on each of your turns is untap all of your cards in play which are called permanents. This will include lands and this is why they can produce one mana each turn.
Spells are "cast" but land is "played" which is a minor technical difference but it does tie in nicely with lands having no casting cost. Remember you can only play one land per turn. This means under normal circumstances you can expect to have one mana per turn per land you have. This is because mana generated from lands needs to be used fairly quickly else it will just get wasted. Mana is not something you can stockpile, you have to stockpile things that produce it if you want to do that.
assuming you make a land every turn you will have one mana on turn one, two on turn two and so on. Mana is obviously the main currency of the game and the way in which you do stuff. The more stuff you do the better your ability to win and so having mana is important. This simple dynamic of starting with cards, drawing a card a turn and being able to lay a land each turn determines a huge amount of things in the game. It dictates both the number of total lands you want in your deck and the range of costs you want to have in your spells and much more besides.
To the right is a "non-basic" land. They are subject to the normal deck limit restrictions but otherwise function just like a basic land. You can still lay one per turn. This Salt Marsh offers you the option on two colours of mana but is a bit slower than other land. This is because you cannot use it for mana on the turn you make it as it enters play tapped and must wait for your next untap phase to be ready. This land therefore costs you tempo to use as it is slower than alternatives but it increases your consistency by making you better at casting the spells you want to cast. It provides blue or black mana which you normally get from the basic land types Island and Swamp respectively. The other two colours in the game come from Mountains which produce red and Plains which produce white. The arrow before the colon in the text box on the Salt Marsh to the right is the tap symbol, the previous Forest did not use one as it was an older and less refined card template. You will note subtle changes like that to cards from different time periods. The other symbols found in the text box of the cards shown are called mana symbols and they represent mana and the type it is. More on the colours later.
With mana and lands being such a big part of the game there is a bunch of terminology, both technical and slang, that is of use. With cards being drawn at random from your deck or "library" a lot rides on you having the right amount of mana at the right time and this is not always as under your control as you might like. Too few lands and you will not have enough mana to cast your spells, too many and you will not have enough spells to cast and simply run out of things to do. Hitting the perfect balance of spells to lands is the aim. When you get too few lands it is called a mana screw. When you get too many it is called a flood. These are usually the games where it is outside of your control. Wins or losses outside of screw and flood are the result of skill or a mismatching of decks.
On the basis that you roughly want to play a land and cast a spell each turn you will have run out of cards by turn seven or eight depending on if you went first or not. Going first is an advantage in almost all cases and so to offset this the first player does not draw a card on the first turn. This means that while they have a tempo advantage they are down seven to eight on cards from the outset. These are the two metrics the game is fought over, tempo and card advantage. The aggressor plays the tempo game and the control player the card advantage game. This is determined mostly by the decks the players have and the state of the game and barely ever due to who is the starting player. It is usually because both players have the same or similar deck if that the case. Both card advantage and tempo are still great things to have regardless of your role in a game.
Returning to my claim earlier about running out of cards by turn seven or eight which is not at all indicative of a game of Magic! Such things would require a split of lands to spells of 50/50 to statistically achieve that. Most decks want to aim either side of that mark. Either they will aim to be able to carry on doing stuff for ten, twenty turns, no trouble or perhaps they will be trying to have won the game in the region of turns four to six. In the former case you will need cards that draw you extra cards and that will mean you don't need to have quite as many as 50% lands to consistently make them. The alternative is playing cheaper cards and fewer lands with the intent of only getting to your third land or so reliably each game by turn three and then perhaps only getting to four lands total, infrequently by turn four. This means you compensate for your weaker cheaper spells by having more of them and getting them out quicker. This is another great way of determining if your deck is an aggressive one or a control one.
So with lands fairly well covered let us take a look at spells. These break down into many more types. These are creatures (or "summon" spells), instants, sorceries, enchantments, artifacts and planeswalkers. Creatures are the most common type. The Volcanic Hammer to the left is a sorcery as denoted in the same place we were told about cards being lands earlier. Instants and sorceries are cards with immediate effects, once the card resolves and the effect happens the spell is discarded in a zone called the "graveyard". All other types of spell will become permanents in play once they resolve. Things in play are considered to be on the "battlefield" and they stay in play until they are dealt with somehow. To cast this Volcanic Hammer we would need two mana total. One specifically red mana and one other of any kind. This is called a generic mana and all types of mana are generic as well as their specific type. To cast this spell we would then tap our two lands, at least one of which can produce red mana and then we would take this from our hand, do the three damage to the thing, or "target", of our chosing and then place the Volcanic Hammer in the graveyard.
Let us dip back to the phases of a turn before continuing with types of spell. There are five phases within a player's turn three of which contain some steps within them. Many steps and phases are passed through with no effect unless specific cards or games states require that they are used. While there are five phases with steps within them I am going to talk about the steps in the "begging" phase as if they were phases as they are slightly more distinct than the other steps. They are, in the order that they happen; The untap step where you untap all of your permanent cards on the battlefield. Then there is the upkeep step which is a period where many card will state an effect occurs but nothing happens there otherwise. Next up is the draw step where you draw a card from the top of your library. These three steps make up the begging phase but the terminology is not super important, just the order and the effects. Then there is the first half of your main phase. In this phase you may lay land and cast any spells you wish to. Following that there is the combat phase in which creature cards will attack, block and do damage to things. Then there is the second main phase where all the same things are again possible. You don't get a second land drop but if you didn't already use your land drop for the turn you can use it in this phase if you like. The two halves of the main phase are denoted "precombat" and "postcombat" for obvious reasons. Typically it is best to play things in the post combat main phase so as to deny opponents information for the combat phase but this is reasonably high level and not as simple as I have made it sound. Lastly we have the end phase in which any "until end of turn" effects fall off and you must discard down to seven cards. This latter thing rarely happens as you are playing more than you are drawing. It is usually only when you are mana screwed that you wind up discarding down to seven cards. While the end step is a bit like the upkeep step in that under normal circumstances nothing is going on in them however both can be fairly key stages of the game due to instant spells and effects.
Instant cards and effects are what make the game complicated! These are things that may be used at almost any time. The card to the right is an instant. It costs three mana total of which one must be blue. If in your turn you try and play a creature spell I can respond with my instant speed Exclude provided I can find the necessary mana to pay for it and your creature spell will go directly to the graveyard rather than entering the battlefield. While lands may only be played in the main phase of your turn they can be tapped for mana at any time. Using Exclude to counter a creature spell is an example of card advantage in that I spent zero cards total, the drawing of the card effect on Exclude replaces itself. My Exclude will be in the graveyard but my hand size will be the same. You however will be without your creature and your hand size will be one smaller. The tempo loss or gain in the exchange would depend on the total mana cost, or CMC which stands for converted mana cost, of the creature. If it was three like the Exclude then it would be even, more then it would be a tempo loss for you etc. Even that is a bit of a simplification as it also depends on your total pool of resources. If you have six lands but I only have three then you are more than happy to trade mana at an even or slightly worse rate as it still leaves you with more total. We will be returning to instants again later.
First let us have a little look at creatures. This card to our left is a simple example of one. It costs three mana, this time needing two of those to be specifically green mana. The only text it has is called flavour text and has no bearing on the game play at all. This creature just has stats which represent the combat prowess it has. These are the two numbers in the bottom right hand corner of the card in the frame of the card just outside the text box. The number on the left is "power" and relates to how much damage the creature will deal in combat. The number on the right is "toughness" and is a measure of how much damage is needed to kill the creature. Many things change in the combat step but this is broadly how it goes in the simplest of terms. Creatures attack and block in the combat step, on your turn you get to attack and your opponent blocks. Creatures cannot attack on the turn that they enter the battlefield but they can block. Attacking with a creature requires that you tap it. A tapped creature cannot attack. Blocking does not tap a creature but the creature does need to be untapped in order that it can block. In my combat phase I will declare attackers which can be any number of my creatures that are eligible to attack or none at all. Once I have declared my attackers my opponent can declare which of their creatures are blocking which of my attackers. Two or more creatures can gang up and block one of mine. Once that is all decided we move to damage. In this each creature involved deals damage to something. This is all the attackers and blockers and they do damage equal to their power. Unblocked attackers do it directly to the player and this is the primary way in which games are won. Creatures hitting you in the face! Blocked and blocking creatures do damage to each other.
If we both have a 3/3 Trained Armodon and in combat one blocks the other then they will trade. Both deals three damage to the other simultaneously which is exactly enough to kill the other. Killed creatures are removed from play and placed in the graveyard. This would be the same result if both were 2/1 creatures or indeed if one was a 3/1 and the other a 4/3. It just comes down to having enough power to equal or better the toughness. If I had a 2/4 creature blocking the 3/3 Trained Armodon however nothing would happen. Neither creature has enough power to match the other's toughness and so both survive the affair. A chump block is when you send out a creature to die with no hope of winning the combat simply to prevent a big creature going unblocked and doing a lot of damage to your face. Blocking with multiple creatures is a good way to avoid having to chump block and thus concede card advantage. If you attack with your Trained Armodon and I block with a pair of 2/1 creatures both of mine will die but so will your Trained Armodon. You get to chose how you deal your damage to blockers and so you will sensibly do at least one to each of my creatures but they will deal four back total which is more than enough. On their own these small creatures are no use against the elephant but together they can take it down. If they were 2/2 creatures and not 2/1s then they could double block and you would only be able to kill one of the pair. This is very efficient but can also be risky! If I try to double block with my pair of 2/2 creatures on your 3/3 and you have an instant spell that you can use to kill just one of my 2/2s before the damage is dealt but after blockers are declared then I will be left just blocking a 3/3 with a 2/2 which will kill it for free. Damage dealt to creatures lasts until the end of the turn when it wipes off. In this last scenario I would have the rest of my turn where I could potentially kill the injured elephant with a single damage but beyond that it will return to needing the full three.
Let us have a quick look at the five colours of Magic now. They are what gives the game it's elegance and character. Each colour has things it does well and things it does poorly as well as things only it really does at all. You are not restricted by how many colours you play but playing more will come at the cost of consistency. For each additional colour you wish to include in your deck you will need to ensure you have not only the mana to cast your spells but also the right colours of mana for them too. Remembering that basic lands only produce one colour of mana and that non-basic lands come with drawbacks and are not unrestricted in the amount you can play. The flip side of this consistency cost is that you have more cards to chose from to build your deck with so there will be more synergies between cards and more powerful cards overall too. A deck with only red sources of mana can only play red spells but it will never not have the right colours of mana.
There is almost certainly tonnes of literature on colour identity in Magic and it is not a mechanical aspect of the game so I will keep this as short as possible. Green is the colour of nature and growth. It has wild beasts, giant hydra and forest dwelling elves! It is great at having ways of increasing your mana generation potential. Green has limited disruptive capabilities and struggles to remove opposing creatures and so relies on having more mana and bigger threats to win games. Green is also the colour best at "fixing" other colours for you meaning decks using a lot of colours often base themselves in green so as to help them more consistently have the right colours of mana for their spells.
White is the colour or law and order. It does healing, damage prevention and protection effects very well. It excels at removing things from play regardless of their type! White has very efficient small creatures but less in the way of bigger things, those tend to be angels and they tend to be medium size but airborn flyers! White is not the good guys or anything like that, there is a good and bad side to all the colours if you want to think of it like that. The negative elements of white in a flavour sense are authoritarian, over zealous, restrictive and the like. In a mechanical sense their limitations are being poor at directly generating card advantage and having very little in the way of card quality or draw selection.
Blue is the colour of knowledge. It cannot destroy anything but it can counter spells being played and return or "bounce" cards back to hand or simply tap them down to prevent them doing much. It can even steal them so that you can beat your enemies with their own cards! Blue is great at drawing cards and manipulating them so as to have the best and most suitable ones. In addition to having the poorest removal blue has the weakest creatures as well. This weakness of creatures combined with strength in card drawing makes blue a far more common and natural control colour rarely taking up the aggressive strategy. Blue is easily the most polar colour having some of the biggest strengths and some of the greatest flaws. This means it gains more from being paired with other colours and is one of the weakest colours to use on its own.
Black is the colour of sacrifice and ambition. It often uses your own life total as an additional resource pool with which to play and empower cards and effects. Black is great at killing creatures and great at disrupting the hands of your opponent. Black has many zombies, demons and vampires! It is good at getting dead creatures back into play from the graveyard somewhat unsurprisingly! Black is poor at dealing with artifacts and enchantments but that isn't really the weakness of the colour. That is a more ethereal concept. The way black cards work and feel is just a little restrictive and awkward and that is what the colour struggles with. On paper the colour is one of the most well rounded and powerful.
Lastly we have red, the colour of chaos, madness and recklessness. The colour of lust and emotion. Red has a lot to do with fire and lightning as well it turns out. Red has the best tempo in the game as well as being the only colour that does much direct damage. Red has a lot of cards that just do damage to certain types of target and this is very powerful. It lets you efficiently deal with smaller creatures in the early game and then use it to finish off your opponents in the late game. Red is perhaps the most linear colour in that so much of the effects and flavour of the colour is damage but what with dealing 20 damage to your opponent being the primary way of winning the game this is no bad things for red. Red is great at dealing with small creatures but struggles with the bigger ones.
All cards explicitly state what they do on them and are essentially their own little amendment to the rules. If you know the basics of the game then the cards will tell you all you need to know beyond that. A lot of things that cards do however are defined by what are called keywords. These are a single word that describes an ability or mechanism that the card has and it is used to save space in the text box and time in reading and understanding what a card does. The most common of the keywords are creature abilities. I shall cover a few of the more common ones.
Flying - a form of evasion. A creature with flying cannot be blocked unless the blocker also has flying.
Haste - a creature with haste my attack or tap to do an effect on the turn it enters play. It is unaffected by "summoning sickness". Creatures with haste are an example of something you will typically want to play in your pre-combat main phase so that they can attack right away.
First Strike - a creature with first strike does damage before other creatures in combat. This means a 2/1 creature with first strike will kill a 3/2 creature and survive to tell the tale. First striking creatures can eliminate other creatures in combat before they get to deal damage.
Vigilance - a creature with vigilance does not tap to attack and can therefore also block for you in your opponents turn. A tapped creature with vigilance is still unable to attack.
Trample - a creature with trample will deal excess damage as if unblocked. If I attack you with a 5/5 trample and you block with a 2/2 then I will kill your 2/2 with two damage and then three will still hit you in the face.
Reach - a creature with reach can block a creature with flying. It does not however grant any evasive bonus.
Lifelink - damage done by a creature with lifelink will heal the card's controller for the same value.
Deathtouch - a creature with deathtouch will always kill another creature that it deals any damage to regardless of toughness.
Doublestrike - a creature with doublestrike will deal both first strike and normal combat damage. This means it has effectively twice as much power as it's power stat indicates.
Defender - a creature with defender cannot attack.
Menace - if a creature with menace is to be blocked it must be blocked by more than one creature or not at all.
Hexproof - this can be on things beyond just creatures and it simply means that it cannot be targetted by opponents.
Indestructible - does roughly what it sounds like it does! There are a number of get arounds of course but any conventional damage based destruction or any card saying "destroy" will not work on something that is indestructible.
Flash - this is an ability that affects casting and allows you to play the card at any time you could play an instant despite the card type it has.
Protection (from) - cards that have protection from something cannot be dealt damage by those things, blocked by those things, or targetted by those things. It might be a colour, a creature types, or even a card type that protection is granted from.
Scry X - this is an action you perform right away or at the described time that affords information and card selection. To scry you look at the top X cards of your library. You may put any number of those (that you do not want to draw) to the bottom of your library and put any remaining cards back on top in any order. Scry affords no tempo or card gains but it greatly increases your consistency and is a very useful ability. It is also very skill intensive to scry effectively.
The card type "planeswalker" is a little different to others. Thematically it is like getting a powerful wizard buddy to help you out. Planeswalkers are permanents that sit in play and do things for you. They operate with loyalty rather than other resources. To the right is a planeswalker. His starting loyalty is found where the power and toughness of a creature would be and in this case is five. When he has zero loyalty left he goes to the graveyard. You can do direct damage to planeswalkers to kill them or you can attack them with creatures. When declaring attackers if you have the option to hit planeswalker you have to state whether the creature is attacking the player or the planeswalker. Unblocked creatures attacking planeswalkers remove loyalty from them equal to the damage they would otherwise do. Planeswalkers have abilities which can be played in your main phases. The cost of these abilities is in loyalty and can be a gain or a loss. You can only do one per turn and only if you have enough loyalty which is then adjusted accordingly. You can use all your remaining loyalty and send your own planewalkers to the graveyard if you like. Planeswalkers are very powerful and will win games by themselves if allowed to stay in play for too long. They are however also quite vulnerable and slow to offer good returns on their cost so it is important to protect planeswalkers if you plan on including and playing them. Due to their vulnerability and slow return on power you will not find lots of copies in decks but once in play the game will tend to revolve around them.
Other than the main types of card already discussed (land, instant, sorcery, creature, planeswalker, artifact, and enchantment) you will find a variety of sub-types and super-types in the space between the picture and the text box. All creatures have at least one sub-type describing what race, and usually also the profession, of the card. For the most part these extra definitions for the card are only relevant due to the effects of other cards that might refer to them. The only one that has rules unto itself is the legendary super-type. You may only have one copy of any specific legendary card in play on your side. If you try and make a second you must dispose of one of them immediately. You are still entitled to multiple in your deck and both players can have the same legendary card in play. You can even have the same legend card by name in play if the cards are distinct. Several key characters return with different cards such as Jace Beleren who has subsequently been reprinted on many a card with such names as Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Jace, Architech of Thought and so on and so forth. As they are all distinct cards with unique names they do not incur the legend rule.
Cards can be multiple colours or even no colours at all. This is determined by the casting cost and what colours of mana it contains. Beyond what you need to cast such cards there is no mechanical difference for such things. Each of the various combinations of cards tends to follow the flavours of the colours involved. All of the ten two colour pairing have reasonably well defined feel to them as well. To the right is an example of a card that is a two colour, or "gold" as multicoloured cards are called. It is also a legend that is the same character as the previous legend shown. You could have one of each in play but not two of the same. Not super relevant as far as rules go and not an overly intuitive one either.
Tokens can also be produced by cards. These are things that represent cards in play that are permanents but not cards. A card might create a 2/2 zombie token which would function exactly the same as a 2/2 creature card until it leaves play. They only exist in play and are unable to be put into hands, libraries or graveyards. They cease to exist as far as the game is concerned once out of play. They can be represented any old way you like from dice to face down cards to purpose made tokens. Emblems are a rarer form of token that cause an effect on the game and they cannot be removed in any way at all (presently). Typically these are only created by planeswalkers and very infrequently at that. Tokens on the other hand are a common aspect of the game and will be made by a lot of different cards.
If at the start of the game you are unhappy with your hand you may take a mulligan. You reshuffle your hand into your library and redraw seven cards. You can continue to mulligan potentially up to seven times although it is impractical after about three goes as once you have settled on a hand you need to take a number of cards from your accepted hand and place them on the bottom of your library. Starting with a hand of less than four cards is really hard to from regardless of skill or matchup .The cost of mulliganing is a reduced starting hand size. The card cost is significant but no where near the significance of having a good mix of lands and spells so you can actually do stuff. The vast majority of mulligan decisions are made based on the land spell ratio and the cost of the spells you have drawn. Three lands and four spells is usually a pretty good place to be but all Mountains and blue spells means you won't be casting much either. You could also have four red cards that all cost five or more mana which again means you cannot actually do anything for too long. You would generally mulligan both of these three land hand examples I have given. Typically you will find people mulligan most hands with 0, 1, 5, 6, or 7 lands in them although knowing what deck you are facing and how your own functions will have an impact on this.
Now for our last bit of mechanical discussion - the stack! This is how we deal with the playing of cards and abilities that can be done at any time but in a game that is turn based. Spells and abilities go on the stack which is an imaginary pile of things that help us work out what is going to happen. When I cast a spell or use an ability a stack is generated and my spell goes into it as the first card. At this point my opponent gets a chance to respond with things that can be done at "instant speed". If they do not then my spell will resolve as intended and do its thing or be put into play on the battlefield. If however they do wish to do something then whatever that thing is will be placed on the stack next. If their action prompts you into more instant speed action then you will continue to build on this stack of things. When nobody has anything further they wish to do the stack will resolve from top to bottom, or last in first out way. There is a mechanism for who has priority and the passing of this priority so we know when it is our turn to put things on the stack but all this will be far easier to appreciate in game with examples and context and so I shall end this introduction here. This should be enough information to dive into a game and continue learning on the job so to speak.