An Absolute Beginner's Guide To Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering can be intimidating to people who have never played it before. It seems like a game for enthusiasts and the cards themselves are so detailed it can be hard to wrap your head around the many elements of this game. What is mana? Do the colours mean anything? What’s up with the confusing text at the bottom (it's called flavour text, by the way)? But like most tabletop games, once you get the basic concepts, Magic becomes a lot easier and is extremely enjoyable. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Magic poster image from Shutterstock

Let's me just clarify that Magic: The Gathering is a complex card game with a rich history and a detailed back story. Remember Pokémon cards back in the late '90s? Well, Magic is similar, except more hardcore and rooting heavily in the fantasy genre.

We're trying to make Magic more accessible here, even for the absolute newbies, so we'll refrain from going too in-depth in terms of all the details. The best way to learn is to play the game with an experienced (and patient) opponent who can guide you through all the nitty gritty things you need to know, but a basic knowledge of Magic will make the process much easier.

Do bear in mind that Magic can become an expensive habit if you do want to take it more seriously. New cards are released regularly and, if you go by official rules, they're only valid for a limited amount of time. But if you're intending to just play casually, you'll survive with a one deck of cards.

Collecting cards image from Shutterstock

So let's get started on some of the fundamentals and go through some of the most essential jargon and rules you will need to know:

  • Points: Each player starts with 20 life points that can be depleted from an opponent's spells and attacks.
  • Hand: The cards in your hand. You start off by drawing seven cards.
  • Turn: Each player can play their cards on their 'turn'. There are a few phases and here's the simplified version: - If you have any cards that are 'tapped', untap them (we'll get into what this means in a second). - Check if any of your cards require you to do anything before you draw an extra card. Some cards, for example, gives you one life at the beginning of your turn. - Lay down one Land card (if you have any) and if you have enough mana, you can 'tap' them and play a card. - If you already have a card out on the table, and you can use it (see Summoning Sickness), then you can launch an attack. Or, if your opponent has launched an attack, you can block them with your active cards (more on that later).

  • Tap: Once you play a card, you 'tap' it to execute its powers. For example, if it's a creature and you want to attack your opponent with it, you need to 'tap' it by flipping the card to a horizontal position. Same goes for some spells you cast.
  • Graveyard and Exile: When your creature/minion dies or a spell is used, you put them in the graveyard pile. If a creature/minion dies and is 'exiled' by another player, then it goes into the exile pile. Cards in the Graveyard can be retrieved through the use of spells but for exiled ones, they'll need to be back in the Graveyard before you can resurrect them.
  • Summoning Sickness: For most creature/minion cards, unless otherwise specified, you can't use it to attack on the same turn that you played it. Instant spells can be cast immediately, regardless of whose turn it is; summoning sickness doesn't apply to them.
  • Blocking: Creature/minion cards have an attack and defence value, indicated at the bottom of the card. If an opponent attacks with a creature/minion card, you can use another creature/minion card to block the damage. Here's where you'll have to do some basic math. If the attack power of the opponent's card is greater than the defence value of your card, then your card 'dies' and goes into the Graveyard.

On a related note, some spells can cancel out or even reflect the damage. Damage to the player's life points is negated through blocking, unless the attacking card has a mechanic that specifies damage will still go through to the player (i.e. Trample).

What Deck Should I Pick?

At the core of Magic are the 'Lands', which produce mana specific to the colour on their cards. There are six types of Land: Plains (White), Island (Blue), Swamp (Black), Mountain (Red), Forest (Green) and Waste (Colourless). Most players will base a deck, which consists of 60 cards, on one or two types of Land although I've seen people use all of them at once. There are certain spells that you can cast and monsters that you can summon and each of them will have a different attribute that is dependent on the Land.

So what colour combinations should you go with? We put this question up to Will Chan, brand manager for Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes Magic cards:

"I get this question a lot and to answer it I need to provide a little context. In Magic, the five colours of mana have different strengths and weaknesses which lend themselves to particular play styles. For example, Green (aligned with the forces of nature) often has the largest creatures in the game while Red (aligned with fire and chaos) enables to you to cast devastating damage spells (Fireball anyone?). The best colour combos for beginners will be in the colours that fit with their play style, with the spells they most enjoy casting!"

Honestly, when I first started, I just picked two colours I liked: Red and Black. You can just get starter packs that combine two colours and are pre-prepared so that you don't have to agonise over what cards to use. It's all done for you. You don't even have to worry about the different mechanics that can impact gameplay and these packs are pretty well balanced so if you're playing against another player with a starter deck, it's a level playing field. You're welcome to substitute some of the cards with news ones you get but that can come when you've had a few matches under your belt.

If you're strapped for cash or simply don't want to pay anything for cards, there's also Magic Duels, which is a free-to-play digital version of the game. Personally, I like the feeling of handling the cards in real life, but this is still a fantastic way to get into Magic.

What Do All The Stuff On The Cards Mean?

Another thing you need to understand is what all the texts and icons are there for.

I'll use a spell card as an example:

Image: supplied

And here's an example of a creature/minion card, highlighting where its attack and defence values can be found:

Image: supplied

Having played a fair few games with absolute newbies, one of the most common mistakes they make relates to the number of mana/Land required to cast a spell. The number in the circle seems to throw them off. You have to remember: the amount of mana you need to cast a spell or summon a creature/minion is the encircled number plus the number of Land icons that are on the card.

For the Instant card above, you need one White mana plus one more mana of any colour so you need a total of two mana points to play it.

The flavour text on the cards are usually quite detailed but there are a bunch of mechanics that can be confusing. There's a lot of jargon and some terms can be a bit ambiguous. My advice for wrapping your head around the Magic lexicon is to learn by playing, even if you don’t know what everything means.

If you are stumped by a term during gameplay, just Google it. No, really. You can start by referring to this very handy Magic: The Gathering Glossary Wikipedia page which gives you an overview of all the terms used in the game. If you're still not sure if you're doing it right, get some clarity from long-time players on dedicated Magic forums or your local tabletop games specialist. There's a place called The Nerd Cave in Sydney and the staff are always helpful in answering questions about Magic and other tabletop games.

When you're playing with friends casually, it won't kill you if you accidentally misinterpret how some cards work. If you continue on with Magic and end up playing more experienced people, someone will correct you soon enough.

If You Dare, Give Multiplayer A Go

When I first started playing Magic, I avoided doing multiplayer because I thought it would get too chaotic and I didn't want to overwhelm myself. Now, having played a few multiplayer games, it's actually not that scary. In fact, it's quite entertaining, even for beginners.

Chan has some simple tips to make the most of a multiplayer game:

"Multiplayer Magic is my favourite – games become a part Magic, part politics with the art of diplomacy being as important as your play skill! We have a multiplayer lunch time league here in Wizards HQ and usually have games in pods with odd numbers of players (i.e.: 3 or 5 players). Odd numbers to keep players from forming 2 sides and games with more than 3 or 5 players tend to take longer than our lunch break, which makes the boss crabby, unless of course we let him win!"

Just Give It A Try And Have Fun

There's still a lot of other elements of Magic that I haven't gone through. But do you really want to spend any more time reading about the game? Go on. Go out there and start playing! Get your friends in on it too because you'll need victims opponents. That's the best way to learn and you'll have a ton of fun along the way.


    If you are a casual gamer or don't have a LOT of time to learn the game go play hearthstone.
    I think mtgo is a much better game but the learning curve, interface, cost and platforms make it undesirable to a new player. Hearthstone is slowly turning into MTG anyway.
    In fact I recently liquidated my whole MTGO collection for quite a tidy sum after it being dormant for a couple of years and trying to get back into it. It was just to hard and that's after playing a LOT of it in the early days. The interface is awful.
    disclaimer, I have got most of my physical cards still though hoping to play with my kids one day.

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