What is Magic: the Gathering?

Teresa asks:

I don’t know if I’m the first to comment on here because I haven’t seen any other things yet, but here we go. ^-^ Something nerdy I’ve always wanted to know more about is Magic: The Gathering Card Game. My soon to be brother-in-law loves it and it seems like fun from the one or two times I’ve tried to play it.

I love Magic, and Nate loves it more. He’s an M:tG judge, so he officiates matches at Magic events like tournaments.

So you want to learn about Magic: the Gathering (colloquially just Magic, MTG, M:tG, or mtg), huh? Cool!

First things first – what is Magic: The Gathering?

Magic CardsMagic is a card game, more specifically a Collectible Card Game, or CCG. These types of games typically mean that you buy random assortments of cards packaged as “booster packs” to add to your personal collection, and then build your own decks of cards out of that collection. You can also trade the cards with your friends, or sell them to third parties – either other players, or vendors who make a business out of the supply/demand needs of the individual cards for people who don’t want to try to get the cards they need randomly.

Some of the cards are more powerful than others, and so they show up less frequently in the random assortments, but these are often the most sought-after, so a secondary market has developed around providing these cards at their “expected” value.

The theme of Magic is that you are a powerful spellcaster known as a Planeswalker – you have the ability to travel from one fantastic world to another, challenging other Planeswalkers to a duel. When dueling, you harness the power of the world itself to generate the magic energy you need, known as mana. You use mana to cast the spells you know, which may be summoning powerful monsters to fight for you, or simply casting a basic lightning bolt at the opponent’s face. Sometimes, you can even call on the aid of other Planeswalkers as special cards in the game!

Okay, it sounds neat, but how does this actually work?

Short version: You and whoever you’re playing against bring some assortment of Magic cards to the table. Sometimes these will be decks that you have built and customized, other times they may be sealed randomized sets of cards meant to be either dealt randomly or to be revealed at the start of play and then you make decks “on the fly” based on what you see in that random assortment.

You’ll then shuffle and play a game (or two, or three usually) with these decks. Each player has 20 life, and the goal is generally to take the opponent’s life to 0, though there are other ways to win too. You have to rely on your wits, the strategies you’ve combined in your deck, a little deception, and a little luck to prevail!

Magic is a game of strategy first, and tactics second. You need to go into the game with a plan in mind, and then adjust the plan as you go based on what happens over the course of the game. It draws some light parallels to chess, in that you are constantly evaluating the relative worth of your “pieces” to your opponents’, and are trying to predict what will happen over the course of the next few turns to determine your best line of play.

Why would I want to play?

That depends! There are a lot of different reasons someone can get into Magic. Personally, I like the game because it makes me think, the art on the cards is usually pretty cool, and it’s a fun way to hang out with friends! Some people play for the thrill of competition, and the promise of great rewards for success (some of the largest tournaments offer thousands of dollars in cash prizes).

Other people like it for the “creative” aspect – figuring out interesting interactions between cards, and trying to exploit those interactions in interesting ways. There’s also a lot of different “types” of Magic you can play, with different unique little rules for each of them to make them special, but they all come back to some of these same core ideas. I also appreciate the fact that the game creates a sort of “universal language” for everyone who plays it – the game is played all over the world, and the fact that people from different nations can get together and play a game with only minimal difficulty is pretty awesome!

Is there anything dangerous about Magic?

The game itself is pretty innocuous – it’s a made up world that is ultimately built to facilitate a strategy game. That said, there are a few things that I think are worth bringing up so you can go in forewarned and forearmed.

  • The art is questionable sometimes. They’ve gotten a LOT better about this, but you still get the occasional “escher girl” or inexplicable boob physics, or potentially very violent imagery. If you have extreme phobias of certain things, it could be bad; some of the art even skeeves me out a little when it’s super evocative (particularly spiders or gore, though gore has mostly gone by the wayside these days).
  •  The game can promote addictive behaviors in some people. A lot of the thrill of the random cards is opening something super valuable, and “making money” off it, or in the pseudo-gambling of entering tournaments and trying to win prizes. It’s colloquially known as “cardboard crack”, and with good reason.
  • The community has deep roots in “boys club” territory. A lot of magic communities work very hard to be inclusive, and the official policies that Wizards publishes definitely make it clear that discrimination will not be tolerated under any circumstances, but you’ll still run into the classic conditioning a lot – people with scantily clad ladies adorning their accessories, making remarks and jokes that are inappropriate, foul language, etc. The game has been around for 20 years, and since it started with the target demographic of men 18-35, that culture has managed to prevail throughout the game’s history.

I want to re-emphasize though that Wizards and many local Magic communities both work very hard in a lot of cases to make sure that inclusion is a big part of the game going forward, and if you get involved in a community where something doesn’t seem right to you, mention it – the staff who runs the events will generally be on your side.

How can I get started?

If you just want to pick up some stuff casually and learn on your own time, an easy way to get started is with an Intro Pack – this gives you a fairly balanced 60 card deck that tries to introduce some of the mechanics from the current “set” of cards (sets are released approximately once every quarter). It also comes with a booster pack to give you a basic look at some of the cards you can also open or build towards. Intro Packs can be picked up from most any hobby shop, or even larger supermarkets like Target and Wal-Mart.

If you want to get involved in a Magic community, try finding a local gaming shop (LGS) in your area that hosts Magic events! In particular, Friday Night Magic, or FNM, is designed as the gateway experience to Magic tournaments and competitive Magic.

I hope this helps! Feel free to contact me on twitter, @Nullzone42, if you have other questions or just want to chat!


5 thoughts on “What is Magic: the Gathering?

  1. Really helpful intro, thank you. I have an unopened starter pack and a 10 year old on my butt everyday to give it a try. One more question though, the fear I have with it is that in order to really be competitive, you have to spend a bunch of money; e.g. to get the ‘good cards’ that will allow you to ever win you have to deal on the secondary market and amass an army. Thoughts?

    • Hey Liz!

      If you want to be competitive in a way where you’re winning tournaments and prizes, you’re going to be scoping out rare cards and spending some money on it.

      I play primarily with friends who aren’t competitive, so I have bought a few intro packs and a deckbuilder’s toolkit (which gives you a lot of card options) and built my own decks. I haven’t really bought a lot since!

      It’s not necessarily a matter of what you buy always. There are so many ways to use the cards together that if you have comparable sets, you’re going to be competitive with each other and be able to play pretty even games. Part of the fun is putting together the right card combinations!

  2. Fellow longtime player, longtime judge as well.

    Liz: The cardpool is amazingly deep, that means there are so many sets and so many different cards that if someone wants to get into the ‘top teir, super competitive tournament scene’, then yah they’ll have to fork out a lot of money and a LOT more TIME to test what they have. THANKFULLY, 99.999% of all MTG isn’t played at the Pro-Tour, and unless someone is going to drop down a deck and say ‘Here, this is what I’m testing for the next Tour stop, got something to compete?’, it’s not going to be a big deal to bring anything else.

    There are formats that appeal to all ranges, both in price and in style. Personally, I haven’t collected cards in years, but only go and draft (everyone gets a pack, picks one, passes rest, repeat until all cards gone. Open next pack. Repeat with a third pack, make a 40 card deck from these selected cards) which is a whole genre unto itself that no one has a ‘money card’ advantage in, since no one brings their own deck to start with.
    Also, there are often ‘Pauper’ games. Decks built on the premise of ‘nothing rare, and nothing expensive’, and they are highly entertaining!
    Next is the format for everyone who likes a wild ride, ‘Commander’. 100 cards? Single copies with no duplicates (except basic land of course)? A general who has their own rules? What’s not to like! You can build a good, competitive commander deck for peanuts.

    Keeping up with formats like ‘Standard’ (the recent sets only) gets very expensive. As does trying to get into ‘Vintage’ and ‘Legacy’, as they have all the super-rare, super-expensive cards. But these are only 3 of many many MANY different formats that people play.

    Finally, ‘casual’ is the catch-all of MTG. The ‘friends throw down at the table with no other agreed on rules but 60 cards and go’. This can be as expensive or as cheap as you want it to be. As your group wants it to be. I know groups that love to ‘powergame’ and it gets pricy. I also know others that intentionally set limits on themselves to not spend as much.
    Personally? I pride myself in building whacky decks out of ‘jank’ cards (read: not very good by themselves) that cost me very little, but take down the big expensive decks some of my friends like to bring. It’s an art form, and one I’ve earned a reputation for in my circles.

    A good suggestions for starting cards is some of the starters WotC have come out with. Or local card shops will still often have nickle-and-dime bins. Thousands of random ‘crap’ cards (some are really great gems in the right hands) that you can pick up in bulk. Also older players quite often donate chunks of ‘old stuff’ to new players to get them started. Personally, whenever I draft, I leave all my cards that I would otherwise ‘own’ at the end of the evening with someone who looks like they are just getting started. I got my value out of them (the draft tournament itself) and to someone else who wants to build decks and the like, it’ll be much more valuable to them.

    Hope that’s some helpful advice!

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