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Let’s Learn Together // Magic: The Gathering

In our first Let’s Learn Together article, Jared walks you through a few of the key rules of deck building and getting started playing what is considered the granddaddy of all collectible card games. If you’re new to the hobby, or have been thinking about dipping your toes in the mana pool, maybe this will give you a head start on your fellow noobs.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it. Magic: The Gathering is one of the nerdiest hobbies you can ever find yourself involved with. In the hierarchy of geekdom, pretty much everybody looks down on MTG. Even the tweens playing Yu Gi Oh at your local card shop will treat you like the smelly kid in school. There’s a reason for that. If you’ve ever walked into said card shop during a Friday Night Magic tournament, the stench of B.O. and Aspergers is palpable.

also, there's a faint hint of Mountain Dew Code Red

I’m nowhere near a pro-level player. I’m just a guy who got turned onto the game a few years ago by some friends. By the time I’d bought my first boosters, I was old and crotchety enough to not give a shit about my non-geek friends who consider all card games to be Pokémon. If you can put your biases (and possibly pride) aside, you’ll discover that MTG is an extremely complex and rewarding strategy game. It’s also insanely fun if you’re playing with friends.

Before you go any further, if you are indeed a noob, you should familiarize yourself with the rules. I know it’s a daunting task to read through that whole thing. It helps if you have a more experienced player to tutor you through your first few games. The basics are easy, but the nuances in the bylaws can get overwhelming in a hurry if you aren’t familiar with them. The rest of this article is going to assume that you understand the fundamentals of the game: your deck, the types of cards that comprise your deck, the basic steps in each turn, and how you win the game.

Basically, this is my five rules if you’re a MTG rook. It’s the shit I wish someone would have told me before I started playing. It took a whole heaping pile of brutal losses to learn this all the hard way. Hopefully, I can spare you some of that pain.

1. THOU SHALT NOT BUILD A DECK OF MORE THAN 60 CARDS

This was the hardest lesson I had to learn, and I think it’s probably the first lesson every rookie has to come to terms with. The great thing about MTG is that there are so many cool cards. When you first start playing, you want your deck to have ALL OF THE CARDS. The main problem with that is that your deck will lack consistency. I can’t stress this enough. Consistency is key. Consistency wins games. This leads to sub-rule…

1.1 THOU SHALT NOT RUN SINGLETONS (unless specifically restricted by the card or rules of the game)

Think about it. I know Baneslayer Angel is a bad motherfucker. But if you only have one, and you’re actually running the 60 card minimum, that gives you less than a 2% chance of seeing that card during this game. If you’re running the maximum allowance of four of the same card, your chances go up to almost 7%. That might not seem like a lot, but it actually is when you consider the rest of your deck is governed by sub-rule…

1.2 THOU SHALT STICK TO THE 40% MANA BASE UNLESS THOU LIKETH LOSING IN A MANNER MAKING THEE WELL WROTH

Seriously. Just do it. It’s in every beginner’s handbook for a reason. In a 60 card deck, you run 24 land cards. You can tweak one or two either way depending on your mana curve (how expensive the cards in your deck average to cost), but if you stray too far one way or the other, you’ll either find yourself mana-screwed (holding a hand full of badass cards that you can’t play due to lack of land) or mana-flooded (enough lands to play the most badass of cards, but nothing in your hand save more lands). Neither one is fun, and both ways will lead to a loss that makes you want to punch an infant with a chainsaw.

2. THOU SHALT UNDERSTAND WHAT A SHITTY CARD LOOKS LIKE

This is another hard lesson to learn. When you first start playing, there’s a tendency to only look at a creature’s power/toughness or a spell’s effect. That’s all well and good, but you also need to pay attention to the card’s mana cost. Some cards do completely insane things, but also cost a ridiculous amount of mana to play. In tournament play (which we are certainly not discussing here, but can still provide good tips for beginners), the rule of thumb is to not play a card that has a converted mana cost (CMC) of more than five.

The reasoning behind that is that most one-on-one matches end by about turn seven. Even if you hit all your land drops each turn, by endgame you’re only going to have six or seven lands out. You’re rarely going to have enough mana to play Darksteel Colossus or Akroma, Angel of Wrath. Yes, there are ways to cheat these creatures out early, but those are more advanced tactics. Sticking with the basics, try not to clutter up your deck with a bunch of fatties that you’ll never have a chance to play.

Look, we all want to play Progenitus. The truth is that it's never going to happen. Never.

As far as other spells, you have to think about it this way. Your mana pool is money in your wallet. You want to get the most bang for your buck. Don’t waste mana on artifacts and enchantments that give your creatures abilities like flying or deathtouch. Just pick creatures that already have those abilities. They may cost one more mana up front, but you don’t have to waste an extra turn and more mana to get the same effects that these creatures already have.

Also, keep an eye out for cards that do more than one thing. Some cards trigger more than one effect when you play them, and some creatures bring in reinforcements with them. Look at a card like Grave Titan. For six mana, you’re getting a 6/6 creature with deathtouch. That’s already pretty good. But he also creates two 2/2 zombie tokens when he comes into play. Your six mana just bought three creatures worth 10 points of damage, with the promise of more 2/2 zombies to come for absolutely no cost.

You might be thinking that it’s easy to pick the best cards if you just go by their rarity (Grave Titan is one of the upper-echelon Mythic Rares), but that’s not always true. It will be harder as a noob, but be on the lookout for Jank Rares. In the MTG community, each new set contains at least one card that’s considered to be a Jank Rare – a rare card that truthfully kind of sucks. If you keep the basic principles I’ve listed here in mind (what the card is, what its CMC is, and what it actually does for you after you’ve paid the mana), it should be pretty easy to spot jankness from a mile away.

Don't let his smug looks fool you. Gwafa-Hazid, Profiteer is most certainly a jank rare.

3. THOU SHALT MAKE THY DECK WITH A PURPOSE

This seems simple enough, but it’s another pitfall that I wound up falling into at first. Now that you understand how to craft a deck and fill it with quality cards, you need to make sure your deck has focus. What do you want it to do? What is your win condition? If you’re a noob, generally speaking you just want to smash your opponent with giant monsters. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Stompy Green is a tremendously fun deck to play.

If that’s what you want to do, just make sure that your deck is comprised of big ass creatures and plenty of mana to play them. The rest of the cards should all be spells that let you play extra lands each turn, or that let you cheat out big creatures early. You don’t want to waste deck space on cards that gain you life or let you tap your opponent’s creatures. Each card in your deck should work in synergy to put land on the board and huge creatures afterwards.

Make sure you have a clear idea of how your deck is supposed to win the game, then tailor the cards to fit that goal. I know it’s hard, especially at first. There are so many cards that all do amazing things, and you want to try them all. Take a moment and think about how the card will fit in with your strategy. Experimentation is part of the fun of the game, but try to experiment with new cards that fit the overall strategy of your current deck. The key to your deck‘s success, as I said before, is consistency.

4. THOU SHALT PAY ATTENTION TO THE ENTIRE BATTLEFIELD, NOT JUST THINE OWN HAND

After those first three rules, you should have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to try to do to your opponent. Now, here comes the rude awakening. That guy (or girl…wait, what’s the uncontrollable laughter I’m hearing?) sitting across from you? He has the exact same idea. He wants to beat you. He has a plan too. It’s in his best interest to hinder you at every turn.

This is one of those things that’s only going to come to you with practice. Just like in poker, you can’t only play your own hand. You have to play the entire board. You might be holding an awesome creature, but maybe it’s not the right time to play it. Is your opponent playing a blue deck? Does he have untapped mana and cards in his hand? Chances are, he’s sitting on a counter spell. He’s waiting for you to tap all your lands to play that behemoth, just so he can tap a paltry two and completely undo your turn. Now you have no creature, no available mana, and are more or less defenseless until your next turn.

Pictured: counterspell. Not pictured: your aneurysm

As you gain more experience, those are the things you’re going to have to look for. Your own hand is obviously important, but so is your opponent’s. Look at how much land he has out. Check how many cards he has in his hand. Has he tapped all his mana? How many creatures does he have out? How many do you have out? Which of those creatures have the highest P/T? Do any of these creatures have flying or deathtouch? Paying attention to these details will be the difference between victory and defeat.

5. THOU SHALT HAVE FUN

This might seem overly cheesy, but it’s truthfully the most important thing. Playing competitively can get tedious. If your only goal is to win, you’re not going to have very much fun. Some of the best times I’ve had have been sitting around a kitchen table with my buddies, drinking beer, and bullshitting for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon while playing MTG. You’re going to lose. At first, you’re probably going to lose a lot. Don’t let that discourage you. If you have good friends to play with, they’ll all help show you the way. You can’t help but laugh when your friend kills you with a massive swarm of 1/1 squirrel tokens. Conversely, you also can’t describe how hilarious it is the first time you cast Pariah on Cho-Manno, Revolutionary and realize what you’ve just done.

These are the things that make MTG fun. If you want to get into competitive play later on, more power to you. For me, there’s few things better than good friends, good booze, and a few hands of MTG to kill time on a lazy afternoon. Don’t get discouraged. There is a steep learning curve at first. Once you overcome that, you’ll be slinging spells and talking trash with the best of them.

If you think you might be interested in MTG, but are hesitant to go out and spend your hard-earned money on the cards, we suggest downloading Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012. The game is available on XBLA, PSN, and Steam. It is an amazing entry point for beginners, and has a deep tutorial system.

2 replies on “Let’s Learn Together // Magic: The Gathering”

Very nice basics guide. Two questions, will this focus on Type 2 playing and riles only, or will it be more rounded, taking in Type 1.5, etc. etc. (Note: anyone that purely play Type 1 just has too much time, and money, on their hands).

I might also recommend some deck suggestions… examples include a sample beatdown deck, a sample burn deck… maybe a sample counterspell deck for the adventerous types… or even decks designed around those pesky planeswalkers.

I probably won’t focus as much on Type 2 specifically just because I’ve stopped playing Type 2. I’m not a huge fan of the last couple of blocks, and honestly I feel like Standard is a big part of what I just don’t like about the game.

I do like the idea of doing an article on basic deck examples, so I’ll probably do a few of those. I suppose it’ll wind up being more Extended than anything else, because it’s more fun in my opinion. That, and any cards worth playing from T1 are either broken, bullshit, or way too expensive like you said.

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