An Introduction to Magic: the Gathering
In 1993, roughly three console generations ago, Richard Garfield created Magic: the Gathering, the first collectible trading card game. Being the first game of its kind means more than simply being chronologically before any other such game. It means that Magic: the Gathering created the idea of a collectible trading card game. It means that every other trading card game in existence, from Yu-Gi-Oh to Kaijudo to the Pokemon TCG, was created in an attempt to emulate the success of Magic: the Gathering. It means Magic: the Gathering is THE trading card game—the one that every other trading card game aspires to be.
Almost twenty years later, Magic: the Gathering is still going strong and shows no signs of slowing down. As of 2011, it had an estimated twelve million players worldwide, and over ten thousand cards had been printed. It has an extensive tournament scene, ranging from the Friday Night Magic weekly tournaments at local game shops to the Pro Tour where each year’s champion is awarded a $50,000 prize.
The complete rule book for Magic: the Gathering is roughly six hundred pages. But unlike the voluminous tomes required for games like Dungeons and Dragons, Magic’s rule book isn’t necessary to play the game. Wizards of the Coast, Magic’s publisher, doesn’t even sell the rule book. It exists only for the sake of tournament competition, and even there, it isn’t read by competitors, only judges. The reason for that is that the game’s rules are all written out on the cards themselves. New players are taught to play by a roadmap-style pamphlet included in intro packs, and learn the rest of the rules, one card at a time. This makes Magic a very easy-to-learn game, despite having a near-endless potential for strategic complexity.
Magic: the Gathering, as the name suggests, is about gathering magic spells and using them in a wizards’ duel. You, the player, are a “planeswalker”—a powerful mage capable of traversing the various planes of the Multiverse and learning new spells from each of your travels. The expansions of each year represent a different plane, and a different story taking place on that plane. The main characters of those stories are planeswalkers, like you.
Your magical arsenal includes not only the classic sort of spells seen in most other games, like fireballs and healing magic, but also enchantments that linger on the battlefield and subtly bend the rules in your favor, artifacts that you can activate each turn, and—most importantly—creatures. The most common path to victory is on the back of a summoned creature, be it a majestic dragon, an ever-multiplying swarm of goblins, or even a plucky farmhand with a pitchfork and a grudge. Most games are played under the unspoken assumption that the game will be won with a creature, but death by fireball is always an option, as well.
These spells are divided according to their color; each color of magic being not only a category, but a philosophy. White magic is the color of healing, and of law and knightly nobility. Blue is the color of curiosity, divination and illusion. Black is the color of necromancy and ambition at any cost. Red is the color of rage, passion and the dragon’s breath. Finally, green is the color of druidic magic, and of predator and prey. Each color has its own motivation, its own strengths and weaknesses, and its own mana. To cast a blue spell, you need not only enough mana, but enough blue mana. Most spells have both a colored and colorless mana requirement, so of the amount of mana a green spell might need, only half of it might need to be green, and mana of any color may be used for the rest. This must be taken into account when a player builds his deck. Using nothing but spells of the same color will ensure that all your mana is the color you need it to be, but it will also leave you open to your color’s weaknesses. Using multiple colors helps you be more well-rounded in your strategy, and allows you to use multicolored spells, but raises the possibility of having nothing but mana of one color and needing to cast a spell of another.
A game is typically played with a deck of at least 60 cards, with no more than four copies of any one card. Further details depend on the format in which you are playing. Many games are played on dining room tables, living room floors, and cafeteria tables among friends. Here, the only rules are whatever you and your friends agree on. At officially sanctioned events such as Friday Night Magic and the Pro Tour, the format is usually Standard, which allows only cards from the past two years of expansion sets. Older sets “rotate out” with time. This means that players must continue to buy new cards if they want to keep playing. Most players consider this to be a necessary evil, as otherwise the game would become a “solved game” in which one strategy, and indeed one possible deck configuration, would be recognized as the best and would need to be adopted by anyone who wanted a chance at winning. The rotating format ensures that, despite the millions of players spending long hours tweaking their decks and discussing their strategies with friends and Internet fora, the best possible deck configuration is never identified for very long, as new cards come in and old cards move out.
Learning to play Magic can be done in an afternoon, but learning to win at it can take years. Each year’s new expansions mean that even the tournament champions are never truly done learning. The sheer number of cards that have been printed and the various interactions between them, the various formats of play, and the millions of players, theorists, and potential opponents mean that Magic: the Gathering is more than just one card game. It is, if anything, its own genre of game. Few will deny that it certainly created a genre of gaming, and it still sets the standards for its genre today. It is an unfortunate oversight, then, that Structure Gaming has not until now been able to provide articles about Magic: the Gathering or other card games. It is my hope that we can rectify that starting now.