Magic: The Gathering is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, and you don’t have to look at publisher Hasbro’s financials to prove it. The 26-year-old strategy card game is alive, kickin’ and as accessible as ever to those curious about picking up a new hobby.
Part of what’s fuelled the game’s resurgence is a shift in how it’s viewed. Magic: The Gathering, like its sister franchise Dungeons & Dragons, is no longer an activity targeted at children and basement-dwellers. Really, it never has been. Magic: The Gathering is a card game to play Sunday morning at a coffee shop or Saturday afternoon in a draft at a friend’s house with some beers. A game of Arena is a quick lunch break. Magic is a community-building tool and a brain challenge on the level of chess or poker.
Here’s how to get into Magic: The Gathering if you’re curious but don’t quite know where to start.
Before we get started, a quick note: There’s a prevalent idea that Magic: The Gathering is a game won by kids with rich parents who buy them fancy cards. It’s true that it can be a money-sink. Hell, infamous price gouger Martin Skhreli was in the market for a rare Black Lotus card, one of which went for $166,000 earlier this year. Lots of people have invested big money in Magic, turning the game into a deck-measuring contest.
That said, there are cheap ways to play that won’t burn a hole in your wallet. I’d say that Magic is significantly more fun this way. The advice I offer is aimed at players who aren’t looking for the three pricey cards that will win them every game. It’s for people who want as low a barrier as possible to ease into a new hobby.
You have two options here: physical cards or digital ones.
If you want to play with your IRL friends, I suggest purchasing a premade deck online or at your local hobby shop. Challenger Decks include 60 cards (the minimum deck size for standard play) and can be played immediately after opening the box. They’re a great way to get started and cost $30 each. They also come with something called a “sideboard”: 15 cards that you can exchange with cards in the premade deck for a more customized play experience.
Lots of hobby shops have something called Welcome Decks, which are free if you ask for one, too.
Magic: The Gathering Arena is free-to-play on PC (with a Mac version said to be on the way), and it comes with a huge number of premade decks that you can play endlessly against bots and other players online. You can download it here. I’ve played with these decks a lot and they’re majorly fun and varied, so you can taste-test all sorts of deck strategies and mechanics. To build your own decks, you can earn packs of cards by playing, purchase packs or exchange “wild cards” for specific cards you want.
Magic: The Gathering cards generally belong to one of five colors, each with its own theme: white, black, blue, green and red. A lot of Magic decks, including the premade ones, include cards from two of these colors. It’s good to envision what sort of play style you’re interested in pursuing before making a big purchase.
Green is governed by instinct and interdependence. Lots of green decks ramp up to powerful behemoths that swing at enemies for big damage. Green also includes reinforcement spells that give creatures strength and the ability to trample over opponents’ defenses.
White is governed by order and morality. Defense and life-gain are big tenets of white cards’ strategy, and a lot of white cards help reinforce a larger group dynamic. Sometimes, those groups include swarms or “weenie” creatures, which are cheap and effective.
Black is governed by parasatism and amorality. Its cards are full of abilities that let you destroy or leech from creatures, return creatures from the dead and sacrifice smaller creatures in the name of greater strategy.
Blue is governed by logic and technology. A lot of people offhand refer to these decks as “control” decks, as blue strategies are often less focused on creatures than on spells: countering opponents’ moves, drawing cards, trickery or milling decks.
Red is governed by chaos and impulse. Red decks tend to do direct damage to opponents and throw out aggressive, fast creatures with a burn-fast-and-bright strategy.
There are two ways to play Magic: constructed and limited. Constructed play is when two or more people play decks they’ve already made against each other. We covered that.
Limited play is when two or more players—generally many, many more—open packs of Magic cards and assemble decks on the fly. It’s best not to get attached to a certain color before starting a draft, since in this format, you’re just going to have to work with what you get. One version of that deck assembly process is called a “draft.” In a draft, players open a pack, take out one card and pass it to their neighbor.
In what is called “sealed,” players can assemble decks using several packs. This may be a better first step for new players, since it’s a more solitary endeavor and doesn’t rely on your knowing immediately what the best card in a pack is. (That’s actually a hard skill to pick up!)
Hobby shops host drafts and sealed events, but I don’t recommend jumping into one there without having ever played. There are a lot of X factors that could lead to a bad time, since at hobby shops, there are established rules and manners that may be intimidating to a new player. If you still want to give it a go, pre-release events tend to be more newbie-friendly.
The safest option is to grab 4-10 friends and a booster box and do a draft or sealed event at someone’s house. (Remember to split the cost.) Or, you can play a draft in Magic Arena.
Here’s how to make a draft deck:
The basic rules of Magic: The Gathering are relatively simple. If a player’s health, which starts at 20, is knocked to 0 or below, they lose. A player can also lose if they have to draw a card from their deck when their deck is empty.
To play a card, a player must pay its mana cost, designated on the top right corner. Mana is a resource that can be white, black, red, blue, green or neutral. There are several card types, including creatures, instants and enchantments. Creatures can attack opponents for damage and opponents can block with their own creatures.
Magic Arena has a great rules tutorial that’s slow and patient. There are parts of Magic: The Gathering that are more easily learned in the digital card game, like the combat phases, because they’re more clearly delineated.
Here’s a video of the basic rules:
While the basic rules are easily ascertainable, Magic: The Gathering games get complicated fast. On top of special abilities lots of cards have, good strategy for the game can be harder than chess. I definitely recommend sitting down for a couple games with someone who knows how to play. Playing is the best way to learn.
There are exceptions to almost every rule of Magic: The Gathering strategy, so along with learning the most important play guidelines, make sure to learn those exceptions, too. Magic: The Gathering had a series of blogs some years ago called “Magic Academy” that still really hold up!
Some important ones to hit:
- When To Attack And When Not To Attack
- Chump Blocking
- When To Cast An Instant Spell
- When To Mulligan Your First Hand
Another great resource is pro player Reid Duke’s course on good Magic: The Gathering play.
There’s a stereotype that Magic: The Gathering players who go compete at hobby shops are insular and, er, maybe a little weird. Sometimes that’s true. It hasn’t been my experience. Lots of people are excited to help out a new player and share their passion. Only one or two of them might chuckle when you pass the draft pack to the left instead of the right. Stores’ vibes vary wildly, so it can be good to check out one’s Yelp page or ask around before heading over.
Friday Night Magic is a weekly event run at thousands of hobby shops across the country. You can find a local store here.