Magic for the Masses: So You Want to Play Magic: The Gathering?

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In 2015, I’ve seen more people publicly playing Magic: The Gathering than I can remember. At restaurants. Coffee shops. Floors of university halls. Every Subway restaurant I’ve entered. The game hit comic store shelves back in 1993, two years after designer Richard Garfield started development. In the two decades since, there have been highs (Jace the Mind Sculptor) and lows (mana-inefficience). The 60-some Magic expansions have created myriad ways to play the game. The latest, Fate Reforged, was released last month.

My Magic buds and I pour hundreds of dollars into decks. Every week, we go round after round with our different constructed decks: Standard, Commander, Modern, Legacy. Five hours later, there’s a decent-sized bar tab. Someone’s avoiding eye contact and Googling the legality of a card combo (Pro tip: There’s an advantage in letting your buds knock back a few). Like the #emorevival in the music realm, Magic is everywhere again. If you need more convincing, check out South Park’s recent “Cock Magic” episode, where Cartman, Stan, Kenny and Kyle force roosters to play illegal basement M:TG matches. Last year Hasbro, which bought Wizards of the Coast in 1999, commissioned Game of Thrones writer Bryan Cogman to pen a Magic movie. But more than ever, my friends and I get curious table visitors. Not necessarily Magic-types either—like, dudes in athletic wear: “Y’know, I always wanted to learn that game, but it seems hard and…like, a money pit…and the only person I know who plays it is my weird cousin…”

It’s not hard to learn. It doesn’t have to be a money pit. I don’t know your family life, so I can’t really say anything about your cousin. But if that’s your impression of the game, this column is for you. It’s meant to serve as a gateway to Magic without breaking the bank. You can choose to do that later, but for now, you just need a desire to play and an equally excited friend or two. It also helps if you’re not Bob from accounting.


Getting Started:
First things first, you’re a Planeswalker. Take a second to bask in your new title and responsibility. Your powers make you capable of drawing on mana (generated by playing land cards) to cast spells. Your goal is to use a 60+-card deck to bring your opponent’s life total down to zero by casting and utilizing spells.

These spells have different categories (creature, enchantment, artifact, sorcery and instant) as well as different strategies defined by land types (island, forest, mountain, plains, swamp). Island players are attracted by wit and trickery. Much of the island allure is forcing your opponent’s hand—whether that’s preventing their spell before it hits the table or turning it against them once it’s out. Mountain players rely on pure brawn. It’s a color defined by fire, so we see hasty goblins and burn spells like the ever-handy Lava Axe. Forest players rely on slow, steady growth to bring out huge creatures for a crushing finish. Plains players call on the powers of the heavens—and here we see human soldiers, flying angels and one of the multiverse’s most powerful planeswalkers. Swamp, the black mana, is essentially the plains’ opposite and relies on the power of straight-up evil. Ronnie James Dio would play mono-black. Here, you’ll see demons sucking away your life total for their own benefit. Your deck can include anywhere from one to five colors, though the latter is highly advised against. Recently, with the Khans of Tarkir expansion introducing three-color clan cards, most Pro-Tour Magic decks include three colors.

Though we’re giving a basic rundown of the game here, the goal of this column isn’t to teach the game. But for the sake of being complete, Wizards of the Coast has released a six-part primer on how to play. The first video is below, and you can follow through the rest in the suggested videos section.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is another decent learning tool. It’s an online version of MTG where you can play online tutorials that will take you from your first draw step to the final, victorious attack. It serves as a fun entry point but as we noted last year, it’s a limited tool with low replay value. You can play Duels on iPad, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Steam and Android. Last I saw with Duels, there was little to no explanation on how to use or deal with a newer addition to the Magic world: a planeswalker. Check those rules out here.

What Cards Should I Play?
Two recent options that I believe give entry-level players the most bang for their buck are prepackaged duel decks or one of the new Commander decks. Out of the box, the Commander sets are more expensive, more complicated, but with better cards (plus you need a buddy to invest in one as well). However, long-term, I believe it’s the most fun format for casual M:TG play. Neither of these options fall under “standard” deck construction, meaning that these cards don’t qualify for most tournaments you might find in your area. But, cool it—we’re not thinking about that yet. In the meantime, we’re worried about getting you started, and these are my suggestions for an easy beginning:


Duel Decks
Price: $19.99 retail, two 60-card decks
Duel decks are two 60-card decks designed to battle with an even advantage. This is a huge draw for starter M:TG players because there’s no card or investment advantage. When you sit down with two duel decks, you understand that the winner will come from luck of the draw and card utilization alone. What’s better? Playing two evenly matched, cheap decks doesn’t have to make for weak play. One of the coolest sets of prepackaged duel decks was released this week, the Elspeth vs. Kiora duel deck. It’s retailing for about $20, which is the price of a popcorn-less movie night for two where I live.

Remember that white planeswalker I mentioned earlier? The super-powerful Elspeth Tirel!? She’s in this set as Elspeth, Sun’s Champion. As with any duel deck, the two huge draws are the advertised planeswalker cards, which each deck has been designed around. Elspeth is currently one of the pricier and most powerful standard planeswalker cards on the market. For many, the $20 price tag is worth it for Elspeth and Kiora, The Crashing Wave cards alone. With the Elspeth-led deck, you’re leading a mono-white soldier army against Kiora’s blue/green creatures. Team Elspeth looks to peck away the opponent with a team of soldiers, which grows fast with cards like Raise the Alarm and Dictate of Heliod.

Kiora’s deck, on the other hand, is set up to undo Elspeth’s work. You have cards like Aetherize, Whelming Wave, Plasm Capture and Man-O’-War that allow you to either delay or completely get rid of Elspeth’s small army. The hope is, you’ll be able to stall your opponent until you can use Kiora’s ultimate ability, which creates a 9/9 kraken creature every turn. Devastating. And because of her low casting cost—only four mana compared to Elspeth’s pricey six—there’s hope to accomplish this.


Commander 2014 Decks
Price: $34.99 retail, one 100-card deck
Commander, also called “EDH” for “Elder Dragon Highlander,” is a longer, more unpredictable approach to gameplay. In Commander, a legendary creature or planeswalker is the centerpiece for your deck. Unlike a standard 60-card game, this special Commander card may return to play after it has been killed, just for two additional colorless mana each time. The Commander decks are made up of 100 unique cards. Aside from basic lands, no one card can be the same in a Commander deck, which leads to wild, unpredictable play. Especially in group settings. Your draws will be less predictable, but this format allows strategies to be built around one constant piece—this Commander card. You can read additional Commander rules here.

My play group has been using the C14 builds since they were released in November. This year, Commander decks are focused to mono-colors—a welcome departure from the three-color builds the year before. Another change: for the first time in Magic history, five planeswalkers have been crafted to lead Commander groups. Before 2014, only legendary creature cards could lead Commander decks. If you’re just picking up the game, there’s a higher learning curve when it comes to Commander rules. Ultimately, I think this format is more rewarding. My brother, who hasn’t touched a Magic card in at least a decade, got the hang of the Commander strategy by his third or fourth turn, so I don’t think the format is too complicated for a new player to pick up. Commander runs a little more expensive at $35. But I do think this is the best investment for new players looking for fun, unpredictable play in the long-term.

As far as the builds go, my favorite interactions are between the Daretti-led red artifact deck and the Nahiri-led white deck. Black is a close third with Ob Nixilis’ life-draining combos. Blue is a little timid out of the box, especially when using Teferi, Temporal Archmage, as Commander in a one-on-one duel. Green grows and pummels with huge creatures. Often it annihilates because of it. But it feels a little one-trick compared to the others.

With the red option your Commander is Daretti, a trash-digging goblin king who turns scrap metal to horrible, terrifying artifact creatures. His abilities are poised for greatness. You can add loyalty counters to Daretti by discarding up to two cards a turn and then drawing two more. It’s a versatile uptick…and then you have this realization with his second ability, which removes two loyalty counters: by discarding high-cost artifacts and sacrificing low-cost artifacts in play, you can cast these cards without paying a mana cost. Feels a little illegal, right? I like it. With Bosh, Iron Golem and Feldon of the Third Path, the design of this deck is too tight to ignore. Throw in a Blightsteel Colossus down the line, and it gets rough for your opponents. Daretti’s ultimate ability is almost comical, bringing back every artifact you might have destroyed at your next end step.

The white “Forged in Stone” deck is more straightforward. It relies on the old plains strategy of flooding the field with creatures—both tokens and low-drop creatures—to build to devastating results later. Both Fell the Mighty and Deploy the Front can have tear-summoning results for creature-heavy competitors. Angel of the Dire Hour’s exile ability is brutal (and effective against Daretti’s ever-regenerating artifacts).

Between these options, you’re looking at months of fresh gameplay—if you’re still on speaking terms with your friends after exiling every creature they have, that is. Magic is a game I’ve loved for a long time, and here’s hoping it treats you well, too. Next month, we’ll take a look at building standard decks within the five different Tarkir clans—on a budget, of course. In the meantime, enjoy. And good luck.

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