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Magic the Gathering: Strategy

Updated on July 4, 2011
Know your magic the gathering strategy. Never attack Russia in the winter.
Know your magic the gathering strategy. Never attack Russia in the winter.

Magic the Gathering Strategy

Magic the Gathering is the world’s first and most expansive collectible card game. If you’re interesting in learning the rules, go HERE. This page regards the basic strategy in magic that will help improve your play. I’ve gone through a few decks on hubpages, but I realize there was no hub on general strategy. Once you have an understanding of how the game works, this hub is here to explain how to win. Crafting tournament winning decks come with time. What follows are the basic ideas that win games.

Magic the Gathering strategy principles

Principle One: the minimum size for a deck is sixty cards, so always make 60 card decks. (Every so often you can fib and toss in an extra card, or two). This is basic statistics. The less cards are in the deck, the best chance you’ll get the most powerful cards in the deck, and those cards are the ones that will win you games. It makes no sense to put filler in a deck. Moreover, you'd like to have cards that work together (this is just basic magic strategy) and you'll find card synergies come together best with fewer cards in your deck.

Principle Two: play test, play test, play test. While a great deal of magic can be done alone (looking up deck lists, creating your own decks, shopping for cards, etc), you can’t get any better at the intricacies of magic the gathering strategy, (even basic magic strategy), without experience. This is especially true when you play with a new idea. Also it’s worthwhile to run your decks against multiple deck types to see how it works in a variety of settings. You will see what cards and working or not after repeated games.

Principle Three: the mana curve. Cards have a variety of casting costs and given you play one land a turn (barring green’s mana ramping) you will want a variety of casting costs. If you take all the cards in your deck and place them into adjacent piles based on their converted mana costs, they should form a sort of curve. This mana curve should give you a good summary of how your deck will run. Let’s look at how this complex concept can be applied to the most basic strategy in magic.

Say your curve has a great deal of 2 mana spells and 4 mana spells. In such an instance, in every game you will not get maximum use from your third turn. I’ll give you a basic example of how that translates in game terms. 2 mana can get you a 2/2 creature, 3 mana can get you a 2/2 flyer. If you’re facing a creature heavy deck, a 2/2 is pretty worthless. As attackers, smaller creatures are really only useful until something bigger shows up. As blockers they often do best as chumps (sacrificing themselves to stop a much bigger creature). But our three mana 2/2 has flying. If you have sufficient blockers and your opponent has no flying creatures, that creature will be reliably doing 2 damage a turn. That’s a huge difference when your opponent only has twenty life.

So basically in magic it’s important to have a strong middle in your curve to make sure that you’re actively antagonizing opponents during those crucial opening turns. Now let's go beyond basic strategy in magic to discuss the curve in a real tournament. This was a Shards of Alara/Conflux draft. (If you need an explanation of the draft format click here.) For those unfamiliar with this expansion, it focused a great deal on multicolor decks, specifically tri-color decks. I was highly skeptical of the triple color set and thought a fast deck would be best in the format so I picked up a great deal of smaller creatures rather than big bombs. A good opening for me was: mountain, tap for Goblin Mountaineer (1/1 moutainwalk), then turn two, forest, tap for Ripclan Crusher (2/2 haste). Attack for 3 on the second turn. When most other decks were getting their threats out turn four I was doing some serious damage. Not nearly enough to be life threatening. However, losing life early in the game can become a cascade, because when you lose life you lose flexibility in your blocking (another truisim in magic the gathering strategy). Put simply, when an opponent can’t kill your creatures when they block, they have a tendency to just take the damage. The less life a player have though, the less you have that option. When it came to smack down time (turn 5, where all my 5 power creatures were) they were unable to cast those bombs that I had passed on earlier. Had I not put such focus on my smaller creatures my power 5 creatures might not have made it through.

So to sum everything up, my cheaper creatures put my opponent's life totals down. They also became worthwhile blockers when I was trying to have my power 5 creatures punch through. There's more to the mana curve than just pacing your spells. Your true aim is deck consistency. Previously I mentioned that basic strategy in magic calls for as few cards in the library as possible. This isn't just because you have a statistically better chance of getting your best cards (though this helps). No. You want as few cards and a smooth mana curve because you want the deck to be consistent. You should be aiming to kill someone the same way every time. (Though a less committed plan B can't hurt) Although you cannot predict how your deck will run in any given instance against any given deck, you should limit yourself to one main strategy. This may seem to make you a better player at the expense of fun, but magic has a way of being fun anyway. Otherwise you probably wouldn't be dedicated to finishing an article on basic strategy in magic.. If a deck strategy stops being fun you can just take apart the deck and build another one. There are more than enough decks ideas to go around, even on the cheap.

Card Advantage. It sure is easier to win at poker when you get six cards.
Card Advantage. It sure is easier to win at poker when you get six cards.

Principle Four: Card Advantage: players have access to the roughly the same number of cards. Basic magic strategy would dictate that you try to get more out of your cards than your opponents. This is called card advantage. The most direct way to up your card advantage is via spells that let you draw cards. They both add cards to your hand, and they effectively remove a card (the draw spell) from your deck. However, card advantage also comes from getting better than one-for-one trades. Say you have a card that eliminates a creature. You can make a one-for-one trade by casting your removal spell and removing their creature. But imagine you had a spell that killed two creatures instead of one. Now the trade is two-for-one in your favor.

Here are a few methods of getting card advantage over your opponent:

Discard: if your spell causes your opponent to discard more than one card, you gain advantage.

Force poor elimination: get your opponent to waste their removal on inferior creatures. Your opponent only has a limited number of kill spells.

Global Removal: there are spells that kill everything (even your own creatures). If your opponent is way ahead in the creature count, global removal solves the issue.

Destroy a Permanent with an Aura attached: When a permanent is destroyed, so two is the aura. It should follow that in competitive play auras are useless at best and counter-productive at worst. They really only belong in multiplayer or in dedicated enchantment decks where this weakness can be addressed.

Card Stealing: there are cards in magic that let you gain control of your opponent's stuff, from permanents, to spells, and even your opponent's turn. The classic card is Control Magic. It is an enchantment that lets you gain control over a creature. If you take a creature, the opponent loses a card and you gain one, a two for one trade.

Control: a control deck aims to shut down its opponent. If you can shut down a deck with far fewer cards than it takes to break your control setup, you have advantage.

Principle Five: Removal: Simply put, removal is much cheaper than having your own creatures. Take this example: I pay seven mana for Goliath Sohinx which is an 8/7 flyer. My opponent casts Doom Blade, which destroys any nonblack creature for two mana. Basic magic strategy would dictate that adding removal to your deck is well worth the investment. Playing only removal is a terrible strategy because you might not get as much removal as your opponent gets creatures or you might get more than enough removal and it will be unnecessary. All things being equal, you'd like enough creatures to stop your opponent from attacking. (Depending on your preferences 12-24 creatures. 12 for a committed removal/control deck, 24 for a deck that expects to win with creatures).

Basic magic strategy is to wait as long as you can.
Basic magic strategy is to wait as long as you can.

Principle Six: procrastination: as anyone who can play magic knows, when instant speed effects all seek to go off at the same time, the last card played is the first card resolved. Basic magic strategy then would dictate that you want to be the last player to put a spell or effect on the stack. This underscores a basic strategy in magic, which is that you always want to play your spells and abilities at the last possible moment. As an example, your opponent has just made an attack against you but sends off inferior creatures. You expect that the reason your opponent is doing this is that he has some deadly combat effect and wants you to block in order to unleash it. You have a Holy Day in hand, which reduces all combat damage to 0 for the turn. When is the right time to play it? The correct time to play the spell s is after you’ve declared your blockers. Once you declare blockers, you opponent will play his combat trick, say all his creatures get +1/+1 and first strike. Then play your Holy Day.

Outside of combat, instant speed effects are best left to your opponent’s end step. At this point your opponent can’t cast sorceries or permanents. It's just basic strategy in magic that you’d like your opponent to go through his/her turn with as little knowledge as possible in the hope of a misplay. Also, your opponent’s end step is right before your untap step. So your lands remained tapped for as little time as possible. However, one should note that the “last possible moment” depends on the situation. For instance, the card Mana Short empties the opponent’s mana pool and taps all their lands. Obviously you don’t want to cast this at the end of an opponents turn! The appropriate time to cast this spell is right after your opponent untaps, or the upkeep phase. You don’t want to wait until the player draws, because the draw might be an instant which your opponent may play in response to the Mana Short. You’ll find that different cards will have ideal casting times.

Though the focus here has been on duels, I offer a special note for strategy in multiplayer magic chaos games: waiting until the last minute becomes even more important. When a particularly threatening card is played, it is often the case that multiple people will have a response and the question is who will step up to the plate. It is your best interests to see if someone will remove the card for you. There are endless reasons why someone might be more willing to stop a card than you. To give but a few: the threat is greater to that player than you, they might have more removal and be ready to use it, the two said opponents might have an antagonism or know how each other's decks work, etc. etc.

So remember, except in the case of arriving at friend’s houses and epic tournaments, one should always procrastinate. The game rewards that kind of behavior, and working with the nature of the game is ultimately the best magic the gathering strategy. .


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    • Anita_Lumley profile image

      Anita_Lumley 6 years ago from Springfield, MO

      Cool hub on Magic. I haven't played in years, but I wish I had read this article when I did. Thanks! :)

    • starvagrant profile image

      starvagrant 6 years ago from Missouri

      Alas, magic is such a great game when you have time and money. If you were to return, be aware that there has been a rules revision about a year ago. Wizards wanted the game to be more intuitive and less rule heavy.

    • profile image

      Thomsd 4 years ago

      thx bro that realy helps....i didn't mean that in a sarcastic way

    • profile image

      Black Bros Games 4 years ago

      I also like to use the acronym BREAD when drafting I have wrote some articles at about it

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