Magic: The Gathering – Tips, Tricks & Strategies for New Players

Magic: The Gathering is the world’s first trading card game, setting the mold for the likes of Yu-Gui-Oh!, the Pokemon CCG, and more. It launched in August 1993, and ever since then, Wizards of the Coast has carefully refined and evolved the game into its current state, learning many lessons on game design along the way. There has never been a better time for new players to jump in.

Newcomers may feel intimidated at first, though. This game may be older than they are, and the card pool easily exceeds 15,000 cards with highly diverse abilities and strategic relevance, or lack thereof (not all cards can be strong). There are also multiple formats, levels of competitiveness, the five colors of mana, and peripheral topics such as card sleeves, deck boxes, dice, playmats, trade binders and more. Where to start?

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Understanding Card Types In Magic: The Gathering

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There are many ways to sort and categorize the cards in this game, but the most basic structure is card types, of which there are several (and a few were added after the game had already launched). Land cards are the main resource providers of this game, and they are put on the table and tapped (turned sideways) to generate mana, the energy spent to play all other cards (known in-game as spells). Lands are not spells, but they are always included in the deck and count as “permanent” cards (they don’t go to the discard pile/graveyard when used). With a few notable exceptions, all decks use land cards, which make up around 30-40% of the 60-card deck’s total cards.

Creatures are another major card type and compared to 1990s Magic, creatures are now stronger and more relevant than ever. They are permanents and spells; these creatures can attack the opponent to deal damage, the opponent may send out their own creatures to block and the creatures will do battle. Unlike in Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, however, creatures do not directly attack one another (though some spells/abilities allow them to deal damage to each other outside of the actual combat phase of the turn). Many decks are centered around their creatures, especially fast aggro decks or tribal decks, such as an all-Elf deck or an all-Merfolk deck or a Vampire build.

Instants and sorceries aren’t permanents; they are cast and apply their effects, then go straight to the graveyard (discard pile). These spells often support creatures in the game, but dedicated control decks will have a lot of them and few creatures.

Enchantments are permanents and will either sit on the battlefield and affect the entire game, or they are Auras that become attached to a permanent (typically creatures) and affect how they work. Artifacts are permanents that also modify the game, and they usually don’t cost colored mana to play; mana of any kind, including colorless mana, can be used to cast them. Some creatures are also artifacts, from the tiny Memnite to the huge Wurmcoil Engine or Darksteel Colossus.

Finally, Planeswalker cards are permanents that can be attacked as though they were players, and they can activate special abilities that don’t require tapping or paying mana. Such cards can heavily impact the game, but they are also inviting targets for the opponent, so they will need some protection.

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Understanding Deckbuilding & Archetypes In Magic: The Gathering

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How do Magic decks operate? The possibilities are endless, and they reward creativity, but there are some fundamentals that they all follow. Decks are generally made up of 60 cards, and 20-24 of them will be lands (control decks may have up to 27). The game has mana costs to balance strong vs. weak cards, meaning that an expensive spell can’t be cast in the first few turns, and cheap spells are less effective later. Exact mana costs vary, but they can all be described as a number or the converted mana cost (CMC). A spell costing {2} generic mana and two blue mana has a CMC of 4, for example. Players will want their deck to have a variety of CMC’s among its spells, which creates a smooth mana curve. With random card draw in mind, decks will want to access and cast cheap spells early on, then scale up to more costly spells later on. A deck will generally have more low-CMC spells than costly ones. For example: eight cards with CMC 1, eight with CMC 2, eight with CMC 3, and a handful with CMC 4 and up.

Aggro decks have many cards with CMC 1 or 2, and they can cast many spells per turn and try to overwhelm the opponent before they even get a chance to stabilize with their bigger spells or die in the attempt. Midrange decks are moderate ones, which are a bit slow at first but really shine in the midgame, with a healthy variety of spells in terms of cost and effect. These are generalist decks with no particular weaknesses, but they lack specialization. Control decks have a few “finisher” spells with high CMC. They contain many noncreature spells (or even lands) that slow down the opponent, such as killing or exiling their creature, countering their spells, drawing extra cards and making the opponent discard their best cards. Combo decks are quick and try to win the game with an infinite loop, where 3-4 particular cards play off each other in a specific way to win the game.

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The Colors Of Mana In Magic: The Gathering

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The game’s mana comes in five colors, as well as colorless, and the five colors behave in different ways in the game that reflect their general philosophies.

White mana is split between defensive cards/effects, early-game aggression emphasizing team play between creatures, and removal/control effects that usually punish large or aggressive creatures in particular (or exile permanents). White mana, if it’s not using “white weenie aggro” is fairly slow.

Blue mana is the control color, being able to draw extra cards (a potent effect), return creatures to their owner’s hand without destroying them, tapping cards so they can’t do anything, and countering the opponent’s spells before they can take effect at all. Blue is the must-have color for control decks and may be partnered with one or two other colors.

Black mana is about “power at any price,” and it can look at the opponent’s hand and force them to discard their best card. Or, black mana can unconditionally kill a creature or weaken them, and black mana can also pay life to draw cards (often a strong effect).

Red mana is the fastest, and it’s key for aggressive decks. It can cast spells to deal damage to targets or destroy artifacts, and red creatures often have high damage output and can attack sooner than most non-red creatures. Red can also shut down enemy blockers, but it has few defenses of its own.

Green mana is slow but strong, and more than any other color, it can get extra lands and other mana sources to play bigger spells than the other four colors can. Green strongly synergizes with land cards, big creatures and mana, which often destroys artifacts and enchantments. However, it struggles against enemy trickery, and few green creatures can fly (as opposed to blue).

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Magic: The Gathering’s Supplies & Community

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mtg products

The cards can be collected in many ways: by purchasing booster packs (this is best for booster draft Limited tournaments), starter decks (usually geared for new players), deckbuilder’s toolkit products, fat packs and, of course, buying individual cards from a game shop (this is the most price-efficient method). Players can even visit secondary markets to buy huge collections of gently used, assorted cards from experienced players and gain hundreds or even thousands of cards for an instant collection.

Meanwhile, new players can also (if they so choose) buy a playmat for games, which can not only look nice but protect their cards from the table’s surface and make a clean surface on which to play (and define the boundary of their game zone in crowded areas). Card sleeves don’t just protect cards; they look good, and they make shuffling much easier, and they make it easier for players to tell their cards and decks apart. Deck boxes can contain a deck safely, and retailers even provide entire duffel bags or backpacks designed for carrying deck boxes, dice and more. Players are urged to use either dice or pencil and paper to mark life totals, and they can use dice to mark counters in the game or keep track of various quantities (and roll to determine who goes first in a game). Finally, hardback binders contain clear plastic pages with pockets in them, where cards may be fitted in for display. Players can have a dedicated “trade binder” whose cards are all available for trade with other players, and it’s common for players who meet up to exchange trade binders and look for new cards for decks they’re looking to build. Such binders can fit in most backpacks or duffel bags and should be guarded carefully.

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