How to Play Magic the Gathering

I have a confession. Well, two confessions really.

First, when I was in 7th grade I used to tease kids who played Magic the Gathering, and I actually swiped someone's card and never returned it. I don't recall what I ever ended up doing with the card, but doing this has somewhat plagued my mind since. As restitution I decided I would learn to at least play the game I used to make fun of. So this past year I had a friend guide me through the game, which leads me to my second confession:

Magic the Gathering is not as nerdy as I thought, and I actually ENJOY it.

Whew. That was cathartic. I figure to continue my resolve to make things right I will now share with you how to play what I once thought was too complicated of a game. Here you go beginning MTG players, prepare to start an enjoyable and sometimes expensive hobby.

(This guide is intended to teach newbie players the basics of Magic the Gathering and does not go beyond being able to play a basic game).

How to Read a Magic the Gathering Card

A first glance at a Magic card may make you feel overwhelmed. There's a picture with numbers and symbols, and a brief description that might as well be written in Arabic. Let's break down the cards to understand what each part means.


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  • Card Name: This is just a name to distinguish the card from other cards.
  • Mana Cost: This is how much mana (land) you need to have to be able to play the card
  • Card Type: This specifies what type of card it is. Different card types do different things.
  • Card Art: An artistic representation of what the card is about. The art plays no significance other than to enhance the coolness of the card.
  • Abilities: Your card will have a special ability that you can use in the game.
  • Edition/Rarity: There have been numerous editions of MTG cards. This allows players to quickly see what edition the card is, as well as distinguish which cards are rare or common.
  • Card Artist: The person who enhances the card with coolness.
  • Attack/Block: The left number is how much damage a card can deal, the right number is how much damage a card can take.
  • Text: The unmarked italicized text under the abilities is just another fun addition to enhance the coolness of the card. It gives you a quote or insight into the card. Sometimes italicized text may also be attached to other abilities that your card can do, outside of its normal abilities. These usually come at some type of cost.

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Colorless mana. This means that any land card can be used to suffice the cost. The number in the center indicates how many colorless mana are needed.An example of a land based mana. This mana indicates one plains land is needed. Rather than have a number inside like the colorless, land based mana will stack symbols side by side. E.g. Two plains mana means two plains mana is needed.This is the symbol for tap. Tap means that you are using a card, whether by spending land to play a card or by attacking/defending. To tap you simply turn your card sideways. This shows opponents that those cards are actively played.
Colorless mana. This means that any land card can be used to suffice the cost. The number in the center indicates how many colorless mana are needed.
Colorless mana. This means that any land card can be used to suffice the cost. The number in the center indicates how many colorless mana are needed. | Source
An example of a land based mana. This mana indicates one plains land is needed. Rather than have a number inside like the colorless, land based mana will stack symbols side by side. E.g. Two plains mana means two plains mana is needed.
An example of a land based mana. This mana indicates one plains land is needed. Rather than have a number inside like the colorless, land based mana will stack symbols side by side. E.g. Two plains mana means two plains mana is needed. | Source
This is the symbol for tap. Tap means that you are using a card, whether by spending land to play a card or by attacking/defending. To tap you simply turn your card sideways. This shows opponents that those cards are actively played.
This is the symbol for tap. Tap means that you are using a card, whether by spending land to play a card or by attacking/defending. To tap you simply turn your card sideways. This shows opponents that those cards are actively played. | Source

Magic the Gathering Card Types and Colors

This is a card based game, so knowing what your cards do and do not is essential. To make it extremely simple we will start by dividing the cards into six different types and five different colors. The types are:

  • Land
  • Creatures
  • Artifacts
  • Enchantment
  • Instant
  • Sorcery

There is even more, but for a basic game you will at least need to know and understand these card types.

As for the colors there are five colors of cards. You can choose either to play one or more colors and will discuss the benefits and disadvantages of playing multi-colored hands below. The five colors consist of:

  • Green (Forest)- A strong focus on creatures and dealing damage and blocking basic damage
  • White (Plains) - Considered the protective card color, white is a good defense and can replenish life.
  • Blue (Island) - This color has the most flying creatures, which are difficult to block. Blue is also the color that gives you a chance to draw more cards.
  • Black (Swamp) - The destructive color allows the player to use a few abilities from other colors, but requires much sacrificing of cards to enhance abilities.
  • Red (Mountain) - Random chance is the game with red. Red comes out of the gate with guns a blazing, knocking opponents down fast. However, red is more difficult to maintain in the latter parts of the game.

The five basic lands: Plains, swamps, mountain, forest, and island.
The five basic lands: Plains, swamps, mountain, forest, and island. | Source

Magic the Gathering: Land

Land is the card the allows you to make things happen. Land cards are used to play other cards in your hand, so when building a deck you want to have a good ratio of land to other cards. I tend to think of land as my ability to purchase my cards, as well as purchase any ability my active cards may have. In the game the land purchasing power is referred to as mana. You cannot play a card if you haven't any land played

Here is an example:

The card below is a forest card creature. Using what we know about reading the card we see that it costs two green mana to play it. The number 3 to the left indicates any three land can be used (colorless mana), the two tree symbols to the right state that this card also needs two forest cards to play. Total amount of land needed to play: 5 (3 of any color, 2 green).

The mana cost is circled to point it out.
The mana cost is circled to point it out. | Source

Later you will learn the basic rules about how many cards you can play and will learn that you can only put down one land card per turn. Keep in mind that your land, once played, stays out and can continue to be built up for a larger reservoir of mana to be able to play larger costing cards, like the creature above.

This creature card is an example of a card that requires two land (mana) types to activate. A mountain and a plains. If you were only playing one color, this card would be useless.
This creature card is an example of a card that requires two land (mana) types to activate. A mountain and a plains. If you were only playing one color, this card would be useless. | Source

Magic the Gathering: Creatures

The creature cards are your damage dealers and damage takers. You as the player have 20 points of life that can go up with life giving cards, or down when damage is dealt by opposing players. That damage is generally done by creatures, though there are some instant cards that can cause damage.

Think of the creatures as your soldiers on the front line. You can use them each turn to deal out damage to opposing players. You can also use them to take the damage that otherwise would have whittled away your 20 points of life.

To know how much damage a creature can take and deal, locate the numbers in the bottom right hand corner of the card. There should be two numbers separated by a backslash.

  • The left number is how much damage a creature can cause
  • The right number is how much damage a creature can take

There are some things to consider when attacking with a creature:

  • The other player can block your creature attack with an active creature. Does the other player have a creature out? If not, it is most likely safe to attack. Since they other player does NOT have a creature out, they most likely will not block the damage, and end up knocking down their overall 20 points.
  • If the opposing player has a creature card, what are their creature's attack and defend scores? If the defend is equal to or more than your creature's attack, there is no point in attacking unless you have more creatures than they do.
  • Attacking a creature that can defend all damage then allows that creature that blocked a chance to turn around and deal your creature damage. This may result in it killing your creature, so be sure to check the attack/defend score.


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Magic the Gathering: Artifacts

Artifacts are cards that require colorless mana, so they can be used regardless of what color you are playing.

These cards incorporate all card types, except for land. The artifact to the right is an example of a creature artifact, and requires 4 colorless mana (4 of any type of land) to play the card.

As a beginner, you may want to focus first on playing color cards and slowly incorporating artifacts as you go.

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Magic the Gathering: Enchantments

The enchantments can make your creatures and items stronger. As you see, they still require a mana cost to play.

The particular enchantment to the right allows you to enchant a creature (must be already out in play) to give that creature a +2/+2.

So if you were to enchant the artifact creature above, the artifact creature has a +3/+3 (attack/defend), but when enchanted with this card will be +5/+5, making your creature must stronger. When you play an enchantment, slip it behind the creature you enchant and keep it there for the duration of the creature's life. This allows you to remember that your creature has been enhanced.

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Magic the Gathering: Instant

An instant card is exactly what it is named, as in it is allowed to be played at any time. This helpful, especially in defending.

Instant cards, like all cards, have a land mana cost, so make sure you save some land to use to activate an instant card.

To the right is an example of an instant card. This particular card destroys an enchantment or artifact. This would be a good card to play against an opponent that had the artifact creature above or to break an enchanted creature by destroying the enchantment. Note that if you destroy an enchantment it only destroys the enchantment and not the creature that was enchanted.

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Magic the Gathering: Sorcery

The sorcery cards are a variety of magical abilities. These cards are played during your main phase and range from dealing damage to drawing cards.

Sorcery cards are also a one time use card. Once you have used the card and its abilities you discard it into your graveyard (discard pile).

The example to the right is a sorcery card that allows you to find a land and put it into play. This would be especially helpful if you aren't having much luck with drawing land or need some more land to play a higher cost creature you have been holding on to.

Building a Magic the Gathering Deck

When building a deck there are a few things to consider.

  • What type of game am I playing? You can play a modified 40 card version to get the hang of things, or a 60 card standard version. Eventually you will want to be able to play a 60 card standard version, so you may want to jump right into the thick of things.
  • How many colors am I going to play? Typically in a 40 card game there is not enough land to let you work more than one color, so if you choose a 40 card game I would stick to one color. If you are choosing a 60 card game you will want to start with one or two colors. Beyond two colors requires more land to activate your other cards. The more land you have in your hand, the less creatures/artifacts/enchantments/instants you can have.
  • What color(s) am I most comfortable with? Take a look at what cards are available for each color to get a feel for the style of play each color provides. Testing the colors out in a 40 card game is helpful in learning the color strengths and weaknesses.
  • What color(s) is my opponent playing? To start out you may want to divulge what colors you are playing to get a better grasp of the colors and the game play. You may want to play the same color or a color you think could counter well.

After that:

  • (40 card deck) Choose 16 or 17 land cards with 23 or 24 being a combination of cards.
  • (60 card deck) Choose 24 lands and 36 a mix of other cards.
  • The remaining should be a combination of instants, enchantments, artifacts, and a stronger focus on having a good variety of creatures.
  • Your creatures should be a spectrum of low, medium, and high land mana costing cards. One or two mana costing creatures could get some creatures out and active early in the game, where higher costing creatures at five or above could only be played when you get enough land to play the card.
  • You don't have to do artifacts. You can focus on testing out just the colored cards and slowly integrating artifacts if you want.

Magic the Gathering Layout

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Basic Rules of Magic the Gathering

  1. Shuffle your deck
  2. Not looking at your stack, choose seven cards from the top, leaving the stack face down as a draw pile.
  3. Each player starts with 20 life (you can use a sheet of paper to keep track of loss or gain of life)
  4. Choose someone to go first (the player who starts does not draw a card until their second turn)
  5. Take turns completing the phases listed below

Other common rules:

  • A creature card cannot attack when it is first played. It must wait a full turn to be able to attack. However, it can block as soon as it is out on the table.
  • A player wins when he or she is able to knock down their opponent's life to zero.
  • At the end of each turn you cannot exceed more than seven cards in your hand.
  • You have your own draw pile, there is no communal draw pile. You will be drawing from the 40 or 60 card deck you created.
  • Some creatures will have first strike or double strike. First strike allows that creature to deal damage first, before the other creature, even as a defender. Double strike allows a first strike and then normal damage.
  • A creature with trample can deal damage beyond a blocking creature. An example is a +2/+2 creature with trample attacking a +1/+1 creature. Typically a normal creature blocking would take all the damage and die. But in an instance of trample, only +1 of the damage is blocked, leaving an additional +1, which would in the case of trample go directly to the target player.
  • A flying creature cannot be blocked, unless by a creature with reach. Since it cannot be blocked, all damage goes to the player. If you are defending and have a creature with reach, use it on flying creatures to block them.

Phases of Magic the Gathering

Phase
Step 1
Step 2
Step 3
Beginning Phase
Untap cards
Upkeep
Draw a card
First Main Phase
Play a land card (if available)
Play creatures, enchantments, artifacts by paying mana cost
-
Combat Phase (as attacker)
Choose which creatures to attack with, tapping them to show activation
-
-
Combat Phase (as defender)
Once attacker is done, choose your defense.
Block with creatures or instants
-
Damage Assignment
Start with one creature and see if it survived and/or was killed or killed another creature. Continue doing this until all creatures have been accounted for in assigning damage
If all opponents creatures have been exhausted and you still have creatures, assign that damage directly to the player, since no creatures can block.
-
Second Main Phase & End turn
If you have any active land left, you can play any other card before finishing up
Discard down to 7 cards, if necessary.
Next player's turn. Repeat phases for them.

Beginning Phase of Magic the Gathering

There are a few built in steps for the beginning phase. This phase is the first thing you do once it is your turn, whether you are starting a new game or your opponent just finished their turn.

  1. Untap cards - If you have anything 'tapped', your priority is to 'untap' it by turning it back upright. This indicates that all cards are fresh and are able to be put to use again this turn. This goes for land and/or creatures that may have been tapped.
  2. Upkeep - Most cards you will start out using do not require a mana cost to stay active, meaning you only have to pay once to have them stay permanently out on the table. However, some cards may require you to pay a land mana cost to keep them out and active. Use this time to pay any mana charge that may incur due to these types of cards.
  3. Draw a card (this does not apply to the first turn of the game)

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We will jump in at an already started game. This is your current hand. The beginning phase has already happened, as there are no cards tapped (turned sideways) and pretend you just drew the Fear card (located on the right).First thing is play a land. You only have one, which is all you can play. Your land mana count went from 3 swamps to 4 swamps, unlocking your ability to lay down the either one of the creature cards in your hand.You have chosen to lay down the Gravedigger card (+2/+2). The mana cost is 3 colorless or any color mana, and at least one swamp for a total of 4 mana total. You have 4 swamp mana, meeting that requirement. Tap all the land you will use for this card
We will jump in at an already started game.
We will jump in at an already started game.
This is your current hand. The beginning phase has already happened, as there are no cards tapped (turned sideways) and pretend you just drew the Fear card (located on the right).
This is your current hand. The beginning phase has already happened, as there are no cards tapped (turned sideways) and pretend you just drew the Fear card (located on the right).
First thing is play a land. You only have one, which is all you can play. Your land mana count went from 3 swamps to 4 swamps, unlocking your ability to lay down the either one of the creature cards in your hand.
First thing is play a land. You only have one, which is all you can play. Your land mana count went from 3 swamps to 4 swamps, unlocking your ability to lay down the either one of the creature cards in your hand.
You have chosen to lay down the Gravedigger card (+2/+2). The mana cost is 3 colorless or any color mana, and at least one swamp for a total of 4 mana total. You have 4 swamp mana, meeting that requirement. Tap all the land you will use for this card
You have chosen to lay down the Gravedigger card (+2/+2). The mana cost is 3 colorless or any color mana, and at least one swamp for a total of 4 mana total. You have 4 swamp mana, meeting that requirement. Tap all the land you will use for this card

Main Phase of Magic the Gathering

You drew your card, now it is time to start playing your hand. You are only limited by how much land mana you have in regards to laying down cards. However, you may only lay down one land card per turn, unless you have a card that specifies to find and lay down more.

  1. Play one land card (if you have a land, don't save it, put it down!) Remember, land cards are the mana that is used to play other cards, so creating a stockpile is key in being able to do anything.
  2. Play any creatures, artifacts or enchantments. Check the mana cost and tap the mana by turning the cards sideways to show you allotted that land to activate the card you put down.

Declaring Attackers & Blockers in Magic the Gathering

The attacker gets to choose the creatures they wish to attack with. When the attacking commences, the defending player can choose how they want to block the damage, whether by instants, creatures, or simply take the damage to keep their creatures from being killed. It is all part of the strategy.

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The playing field. We pick up where we left off in choosing our attackers by tapping them.This process happens. The defender is able to choose how to block.  In this case, one of your cards is killed.  Repeat this process with each attackers and blocker.
The playing field. We pick up where we left off in choosing our attackers by tapping them.
The playing field. We pick up where we left off in choosing our attackers by tapping them.
This process happens. The defender is able to choose how to block.  In this case, one of your cards is killed.  Repeat this process with each attackers and blocker.
This process happens. The defender is able to choose how to block. In this case, one of your cards is killed. Repeat this process with each attackers and blocker.

Combat Phase of Magic the Gathering

The combat phase can be the trickiest, along with the assignment of damage in the attack/defend phase because it involves mathematics to decide the best course of action.

The combat phase consists of the following:

  • Choose creatures that you would like to attack with

And strategy:

  • Check to see if opponent has any creatures. If they do, they will be able to block some if not all damage.
  • If your opponent has less creature than you do, it is possible that you will be able to damage the player's 20 points of life. It depends on what your opponents creatures abilities are, so make sure to read those.
  • If you attack, your creature will be tapped, meaning you will not be able to use it to defend when it is your opponent's turn (tapped cards remain tapped until your next turn). You might want to leave some creatures untapped to be able to block and defend during your opponent's attack phase.


Damage is assigned as illustrated in the photos. The attacker strikes first, unless a defending card has first strike (then that card would strike first).

If defending cards withstand the attack, they automatically counter-attack. Assign damage that defending counter-attacks caused. The counter-attack must be on the card that attacked first and using the same card that the defending player used to defend. In other words, the defending card and attacking card that are battling cannot attack or defend another card once assigned until the next turn.

Second Main Phase and Ending Phase in Magic the Gathering

The second main phase is the exact same as the first main phase in that you are able to play any card. However, land cannot be played unless you have a card that allows you to play a land out of phase.

The ending is pretty much the end of your turn. If you have more than the maximum seven cards, you are to discard down until you have only seven in your hand.

Winning in Magic the Gathering

The above cycle continues, drawing cards, building up your mana, playing creatures, attacking and defending until one player drops from twenty points to zero.

Once a player reaches zero, the game is over and the sole remaining player wins.

Best of luck in playing Magic the Gathering!

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Comments 6 comments

Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

These cards look similar to the Yugio and Pokémon cards my kids used to play with. I know there was a game involved but they seemed more interested in trading the cool creatures. Bravo on simplifying what always seemed to be such mystifying games.


nifwlseirff profile image

nifwlseirff 4 years ago from Villingen Schwenningen, Germany

My favourite rabid wombat deck would usually fail terribly, but it was still fun to play. Every now and again it had a spectacular win.


Robin profile image

Robin 4 years ago from San Francisco

Wow, what an informative and incredibly useful Hub. I've never played the game, but it looks intriguing!


cardelean profile image

cardelean 4 years ago from Michigan

I'm glad that you were able to clear your conscience Jared! Although I doubt that I'll ever play magic, you have put together a very comprehensive hub. If I ever decide to play, I'll look up your guide!


MountainManJake profile image

MountainManJake 3 years ago from Seattle

This is such a well done and complex game. I really wish I could get into this community because the artwork and play style of the game is amazing. Great hub! If I ever get back into TCGs I will definitely use this hub as a reference!


Katie 8 months ago

I don't know how to play propibly

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