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How to Play Magic: The Gathering

Updated on July 26, 2013


Trading card games have been around for a long time. But Magic: The Gathering laid out the framework for their success.

In 1993, the company Wizards of the Coast under lead designer Richard Garfield created the card game that quickly caught fire. The company became hesitant to advertise Magic: The Gathering because they simply couldn't support the frenzied demand with production.

Today with over twelve million players and a card library of over 10,000 unique cards. players invest thousands of dollars in deck building, play with friends at home or online, and participate in various tournaments around the world.

The rule set of Magic is ever expanding. The game offers unrivaled depth as new layers are sculpted and added. New creature types and card abilities are unveiled every year.

The basic rules though are simple to understand, and they will be enough to get you started.

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The Basics

  1. Each player starts with a life pool of 20. When a player receives damage their life total is lowered by the amount struck.
  2. Each player draws seven cards from their deck into their hand. Cards in your hand are kept hidden from your opponent. If you aren't happy with your starting hand, you are allowed to draw a new hand with one less card than before (a mulligan).
  3. There are two types of cards: lands and spells. Lands are used to "tap" into the resources used to cast your spells. Once land is tapped the resource is referred to as mana.
  4. Flip a coin or roll a dice to see who begins. The winner has the choice of starting first without drawing a card or starting after your opponent while getting the first draw phase.
  5. Each player takes a turn (detailed in the phases of gameplay below) until they either run out of cards or run out of life. In either outcome, the opposing player becomes the winner.


Lands and Colors of Magic

There are five different land types in Magic: The Gathering.

Each land type generates a specific color of mana. These colors each carry a unique gameplay style to utilize.

  1. Plains provide white mana. White is the color of order and law. Its spells rely on healing, damage prevention, and equalization. Some creature types associated with white magic are angels, soldiers, and clerics.
  2. Forests provide green mana. Green is the color of growth, life, and nature. Its spells rely on overwhelming your enemies with creatures or developing huge beasts of nature. Some common creature types associated with green magic are elves and beasts.
  3. Islands provide blue mana. Blue is the color of control, intellect, and redirection. Its spells rely on mischief - countering your enemies spells, taking their creatures for your own, and drawing extra cards to further manipulate the battlefield with guile and control. Some common creature types associated with blue magic are wizards and creatures from the air and oceans.
  4. Mountains provide red mana. Red is the color of fire, speed, and destruction. Its spells rely on dishing direct damage from your hand, razing as much damage as possible upon your opponents and their creatures. Some common creature types associated with red magic are goblins.
  5. Swamps provide black mana. Black is the color of death, disease, and selfish power at any cost. Its spells rely on bringing back your creatures from your graveyard, crippling your opponents, forcing discards from your opponents hands, and creature removal. Some common creature types associated with black magic are zombies and horrors.


Phases of Gameplay

There are five phases to Magic: The Gathering.

  1. The Beginning Phase begins your turn. You untap (move your cards vertically showing that they are in an active state) all your cards, pay any upkeep costs you may have, and then draw a card.
  2. The Main Phase allows you to play any cards from your hand you have the mana for. You may also put one land card per turn into play.
  3. The Combat Phase has five steps. First you declare you are attacking, allowing the opponent to react if he chooses. Then you declare which creatures you are attacking with. The defending player may then select which creature to block. They may block more than one creature to the same attacking target. Instants may again be cast from both sides. Damage is traded (calculated by the creatures attack power vs the other creatures toughness). If a creature reaches 0 life they are removed into their owners graveyards. If the defending player blocked with more than one creature, the attacking player determines the distribution of damage among the blockers. Instants may once again be cast at the end of the combat phase.
  4. The Main Phase returns and other cards may once again be played that weren't in the pre-combat Main Phase.
  5. And the Ending Phase is the last part of a players turn where certain "end of turn" events are triggered. Also if a player has more than seven cards they must discard down to seven cards.


There are five different types of spells in Magic: The Gathering.

  1. Sorceries are spells that can be cast only in one of the main phases of your turn. They are one time effects. After the card is cast it is discarded into the graveyard.
  2. Instants are spells that may be cast at any time even if it isn't your turn. Once the card is cast it is discarded into the graveyard.
  3. Creatures are spells that may be cast only in the main phase of your turn. They are placed into play in front of you, and are used to attack your opponent and defend your life pool. They stay in place until they are removed by death in combat or a spell removes them.
  4. Enchantments come in two variants. A regular enchantment is placed into play and remains there until it is removed by a spell. Its effect is continuous until removed. The second form of enchantments are placed directly onto creatures. This gives a creature card an effect and lasts until the enchantment is removed or the creature dies. Enchantments can only be cast during the main phases of your turn.
  5. Artifacts are put into play similarly to enchantments. These tend to have activated effects and can only be targeted by certain spells. These can only be played during your main phase although the activated effects are played as instants unless otherwise specified.


Deck Construction

Deck building is one of the most fun components of the Magic: The Gathering. Designing a deck with great synergy can take quite a bit of effort and it also might not exactly be easy on the pocketbook. With over 10,000 cards to pick from, the amount of selection in your strategy is unrivaled in the world of trading card games. Luckily e-bay is a great resource for buying that exact card you were searching for at a cheap price (or perhaps selling another great card you got but don't use in your deck).

There are some rules with deck construction in mind. You may not have less than sixty cards in a deck. You are only allowed four of the same card in a deck as well (aside from basic lands).

In most cases you will want to focus on one or two colors in a deck. Out of your sixty cards you will want to have ~23 land cards. Then look at the casting cost of your cards. You will want a spread of low, medium, and high mana cost cards to cast and to be careful not to overload one type in particular.

The MTG Magic: The Gathering 2014 core set just released a few days ago (July 19, 2013).

To get started I recommend one of the five available intro packs. Each pack comes with sixty cards that already have synergy with each other from the latest magic has to offer.

I would think about what colors you find the most interesting style wise and then pick the corresponding deck.

The 2014 Intro packs cost around $15.00 each and are named:

  • Lightforce: Featuring white and green cards.
  • Psychic Labyrinth: Featuring blue and white cards.
  • Death Reaper: Featuring black and red cards.
  • Fire Surge: Featuring red and blue cards.
  • Bestial Strength: Featuring green and black cards.

Understanding your Card

Let's take a quick look at understanding the card lay out. To the right we have an Undead Warchief.

In the upper right you see a 2 and pair of skulls. That means you need to tap two swamps and two other sources of mana (otherwise known as colorless mana) to play this card from your hand onto the board.

In the middle we see "Creature - Zombie" with a silver emblem to the right of it. This defines that this creature is a zombie, meaning effects that would affect zombies would apply to this creature. The silver in the emblem defines it's rarity. Rarity comes in three values: black, silver, and gold. Black cards are the most common while Gold cards are the most rare. The shape of the emblem also tells us which set this card came from.

Underneath we see the description box. This describes any abilities this creature has (a brief ability list will be listed in the next section). This box also contains lore information in italics that has no affect on the game.

Finally, at the bottom right of the card are two numbers. The first one is the creature's attack power, and the second one is its toughness or life.

Special Abilities

There are several special abilities that creatures may have in Magic: The Gathering, granting them special rules.

Some are explained directly on the card but here is a list of the most common abilities with explanations.

Defender - This creature cannot attack.

Fear - This creature cannot be blocked except by black or artifact creatures.

First Strike - Creatures with first strike deal damage before other creatures. If a first strike creature would kill its target, the other creature wouldn't get a chance to strike back before it died.

Flying - Flying creatures can only be blocked by other creatures with flying. Flying creatures can block nonflying creatures.

Haste - Creatures with haste can attack the turn they are put into play.

Landwalk - Creatures with landwalk cannot be blocked if opponent controls the land type specified.

Protection - Protection gives immunity from the specified source. For example "Protection from red" would mean all red sources of damage could not harm this creature, nor could a red source block this creature.

Regeneration - If killed, a regenerating creature doesn't go to the graveyard and instead returns to play merely tapped with its tokens etc intact.

Trample - Trample allows any extra damage a creature had to give to extend past its blocker to the enemy player.

Vigilance - A creature with vigilance doesn't tap when attacking, allowing it to attack and then block during the opponents turn.


Drafting Tournaments

Tournaments come in a couple of formats: Constructed and Limited.

Constructed tournaments allow players to bring their pre-built sixty card decks. You are allowed a fifteen card sideboard to modify your deck against your opponent after playing a game against him. The first player to win twice moves on up the ladder.

Limited tournaments allow players to bring no cards. Upon arrival each player receives six sealed booster packs. They must then construct a deck of no less than forty cards, using the remainder as a sideboard. This format forces some on-the-fly strategy development and keeps the competition on somewhat even footing.

If you prefer to play online, Magic: The Gathering now has an online client. You can participate in tournaments from the comfort of your home. Cards cost the same amount online as they do at a retail store. You can redeem your digital cards and have them removed from your online account and sent them to you in paper form.

Magic: The Gathering Online costs $9.99 to get started with no monthly fees or subscription costs. It comes with:

  • 300+ Magic 2010™ Cards (including five deck lists using these cards)
  • One Magic 2010™ Booster
  • Two Tickets for Tournaments
  • Five Basic Magic Online Avatars
  • A set of gold-bordered "Planeswalker" cards

You can sign up here:

Magic: The Gathering - Now on Android

If you want to play Magic: The Gathering on your phone, you can also get Duels of the Planeswalkers on Amazon for free on your android device.


Magic: The Gathering is the most popular trading card game in the world. There's a lot to learn, but you should now know enough to get you through your first game. Whether you play just for fun or to compete for the thousands in prizes at tournaments, there isn't a better choice than Magic in the trading card game world.

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And leave your comments below!


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    • toptendeals profile imageAUTHOR

      Jason Benedict 

      5 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida

      Thanks for reading Peggy. Hope you enjoyed it.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      You keep educating me about things of which I have never heard. Keep it up! Voted up and interesting.


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