Introduction to MTG
A very basic yet verbose introduction to Magic: The Gathering.
NB: if you want a more official introduction, it can be found here.
Table of Contents
- The Golden Rule
- Game Overview
- Turn Structure
- Battle Setup
- Card Structure
- Core Card Types
- Using Lands
- Spells and Abilities
- Basics of Combat
- The Stack
- The Cadence of Releasing New Cards
- Boosters and Other Products
- Constructed and Limited
1. The Golden Rule
Cards are more important than general rules (if this guide says there’s an item #0, so be it). A lot of things said below could be followed by “unless a card’s effect says otherwise”.
2. Game Overview
In Magic®, you’re a powerful mage, called a Planeswalker. You have a card deck comprised of spells you have memorized and resources to cast them, called lands. Lands represent places you visited, so you can now tap on their power to acquire mana. You are engaging in a battle with another Planeswalker or several.
Players take turns, advancing their resources and casting spells; some actions can be taken on the opponent’s turn. Every player is assigned a life total of 20 points and loses when their life goes to 0 or below, or when they have to draw a card, but their library (deck) is empty. There’s a minimal or exact requirement on the library size and allowed copies of duplicate cards, depending on the format. The “default” (Constructed) format requires no less than 60 cards and no more than 4 copies of a card, except for basic lands (see below).
3. Turn Structure
Turns go through phases: beginning, first (precombat) main, combat, second (postcombat) main, ending. Some are further split into steps, so the beginning phase includes untap (making your lands and other stuff “available” again), upkeep (possibly some effects) and draw (taking a card off the top of the library).
4. Battle Setup
The game starts with an empty battlefield and players’ decks face down. There are also two initially empty areas for each player’s graveyard and exile, where cards that leave the play will be kept. The graveyard is the default zone for that, and there are a lot of ways to get cards back from it; exile zone is normally for cards that left the game for good but also works as a temporary holding zone for some effects.
To begin, each player shuffles their deck and takes 7 cards from it. If the hand taken looks bad, a player can take a mulligan by repeating the process, but then must put one card (or more, if more mulligans were taken) back to the bottom of the library. When both players kept their hands, the first player starts their turn but skips drawing a card.
7 cards is the maximum allowed hand size: as a part of the last step of the ending phase of a turn active player (whose turn just ended) discards enough cards to reduce their hand size to that number.
5. Card Structure
Card structure, top to bottom, left to right:
- Name, casting cost;
- Card art;
- Card types, card set symbol, and rarity (indicated by the color of the symbol);
- Card rule text and sometimes flavor text;
- (for some types) Power and toughness;
- Meta info such as artist name, Collectors Number, and the year of printing.
Casting cost is indicated using five copyrighted symbols for colored mana, and possibly a gray circle with a number, stating the amount of mana without a color requirement (the creature spell on the right requires one blue mana and 2 more unspecified mana). That number may be denoted as X, leaving the choice to the caster. Total spell cost is called “converted mana cost”.
6. Core Card Types
Five card types are called permanents, as they stay on the field until removed or expired in some way (and then they go the player’s graveyard).
- Land. Lands have no color or casting cost and represent mana sources. There are five types of basic lands: Plains, Island, Swamp, Mountain, Forest, which produce one white, blue, black, red, and green mana, denoted in writing as W, U, B, R, and G respectively.
- Creature. Represent spells that summon creatures to the battlefield.
- Artifact. Primarily represent magical items. Most often colorless.
- Enchantment. Primarily represent lasting spell effects.
- Planeswalker. Represent beings similar to players lore-wise.
Two card types are not permanents and will go to the player’s graveyard right after having their effect (or failing).
- Sorcery. Represent slower, often more powerful spells. Can be cast in the main phase.
- Instant. Represent swift spells that can be cast on the opponent’s turn and in response to other spells and effects (see “Stack” below).
Cards can have several types, e.g. Artifact Creature. Cards can have supertypes, most commonly Legendary (a player can only control one Legendary card with that exact name at any moment), and subtypes like one of a host of creature types, e.g. Drake. Enchantments normally have a “global” effect, but Auras, the most common enchantment subtype, affect one permanent.
7. Using Lands
A player can play one land per turn. Normally, a land can be tapped (an action represented by turning a card sideways) to add mana to the player’s mana pool. The mana from the mana pool can be used to cast spells. At the end of every step and phase unused mana from the pool is lost.
Basic lands are “special” in the sense you may put any amount of them in your deck. There is a lot of nonbasic lands, abiding by general rules on the allowed amount.
8. Spells and Abilities
All cards besides lands represent spells. Casting a spell, at the most basic level, requires announcing it, naming its targets, if applicable, and paying its cost. Casting a spell doesn’t make it happen right away, as it needs time to take effect. Other actions may be taken in response to spells being cast and these actions will happen first. This concept is realized via the Stack (see the details below). Lands are not spells and could only be “played”, not “cast”, and this action doesn’t use the Stack.
Some of the permanents have abilities as given in their rule text. Abilities could be described using a keyword (explained elsewhere) or a description. Most common types of abilities are:
- static, i.e. continuous, inherent to the object (e.g. flying),
- triggered, happening when a condition is met (described with “at”, “when” or “whenever”), and
- activated, that a player uses manually (written in the form “cost: effect”).
Static ability is in effect as long as the permanent is present on the battlefield (not before or after; though some abilities may work from graveyard if they say so). Activated and triggered abilities also need time to take effect, so they are put on the Stack, except if they are mana abilities — those that produce mana, with some exceptions.
Activating abilities is normally done any time an instant can be played (“at instant speed”), most notable exception being Planeswalker loyalty abilities (see below). If the cost of an activated ability of a creature includes tapping, it only can be paid if the creature was under a player’s control at least since the start of their current turn (otherwise it’s colloquially said the creature has summoning sickness).
Creatures have two numbers associated with them, normally written with a slash, e.g. 3/2 — power and toughness. Power is used to determine the amount of damage the creature can inflict, e.g. to bring the opponent’s life total closer to zero; toughness indicates how much damage a creature can take before dying. Damage may be dealt by spells, abilities, or in combat (see below).
Damage is marked on a creature and doesn’t lower its toughness, but if damage marked on a creature is more or equal to its toughness, it dies and goes to the graveyard. Marked damage is cleaned at the end of every turn. Power and/or toughness could be modified by spells or abilities. Some effects last temporarily, usually till the end of turn; such effects also normally use slash notation, e.g. +2/-2. Some indefinitely, till a creature dies; most commonly these use +1/+1 counters that add 1 both to power and toughness. If an effect lowers a creature’s toughness to zero or below, it also dies.
Planeswalkers are mini-mages and have their own health pool called loyalty, represented as loyalty counters. Loyalty can take hits from spells, abilities, or attacking creatures, just like player’s health. When loyalty goes to zero or below, the planeswalker is destroyed (lore-wise they agree to help you but leave if pressured too much).
Planeswalker activated abilities are called loyalty abilities and their cost is adding or removing some number loyalty counters (sometimes 0 though). These abilities can only be activated in their controller’s main phase, with an empty stack (“as a sorcery”). Only one ability of each planeswalker can be activated each turn. You can’t activate abilities that require removing more loyalty counters than the Planeswalker currently has.
Planeswalkers are normally Legendary, which is rather natural lore-wise.
You can also check the official explanation page.
11. Basics of Combat
Creatures can only attack opponents and their planeswalkers, not other creatures. Attacking with a creature is denoted by tapping it, so just like with abilities, a creature must be under a player’s control at least since the start of their current turn in order to attack. This also means you normally can’t attack and activate a tapping ability in the same turn.
After the combat phase starts, the active player determines attackers, then the defending player designates their creatures as blockers if desired so. An attacking creature can be blocked by any number of blockers. Only untapped creatures can block, but blocking doesn’t make a creature tapped, so one can tap it for another purpose later, even before creatures deal damage to each other.
When attackers and blockers are determined, and neither player wants to affect the battle, creatures deal damage: each blocker deals damage to the blocked creature, each attacker deals damage to blockers, each unblocked creature deals damage to its original target, simultaneously. However, if an attacking creature was blocked, it remains blocked whatever happens, even if no creatures blocking it remain on the field.
The volume of damage dealt is determined by a creature’s power: a creature will have that amount of damage marked on it, a player loses life equal to that value, a planeswalker loses loyalty counters equal to that value.
If an attacking creature was blocked by several blockers, the attacking player orders the blockers before damage is dealt, and then distributes the damage totaling to the power between blockers (no, the attacker doesn’t deal its power to each of them) with the restriction that at least lethal damage has to be assigned to blockers in the order they were put in before. Instants and abilities can be used between declaring the order of blockers and dealing damage.
12. The Stack
The stack is a collection of effects that are about to happen. Spells and abilities are put on top of the stack as the first step in being played and are removed from it as the last step of resolving. Strictly speaking, a card is only called a spell when on the stack.
Just as with stack in computer science, the last item put in will be in effect first. Players can add to the stack when they have priority to act, and only then. After the player with priority doesn’t add anything to the stack, priority is passed to another player. When all players pass in succession, the top (last-added) spell or ability on the stack resolves. If the stack is empty when all players pass, the current step or phase ends and the next begins.
Congrats, you finished the crash course of Magic: the Gathering gameplay. Read on for a few points on the Magic ecosystem or get back to the Arena part of the guide.
Wizards of the Coast design and release new sets of cards four times a year: three Expansion sets that advance lore and add new mechanics, and one Core set that normally doesn’t add new mechanics and is often of a lower power level. Sets add some 250–280 new cards; several cards are usually reprints. These sets enter Standard format (see item e). Every set has a 3-character code like M21 (Core Set 2021) or STX (Strixhaven).
With no regularity WotC release supplemental products such as Throne of Eldraine Brawl decks, that may or may not be intended for Standard.
During the last several weeks before another set release, WotC start “spoiling” cards from it, i.e. presenting new cards and reprints via various media and community members.
The main body of Magic cards is distributed in packs with randomized content, called boosters. Normally a booster contains only cards from one set. Cards in sets vary by rarity that determines how likely they are to be opened in boosters: there are Common, Uncommon, Rare and Mythic Rare cards.
A breakdown of booster contents had changed with time; currently a usual booster contains 1 Rare card, 3 Uncommon cards, 10 Common cards, 1 basic or Common-rarity nonbasic land, 1 token card (used to represent additional game permanents) and possibly some other material like rule reminder. Roughly every 8th booster contains a Mythic Rare card instead of a Rare. A booster may also contain a “foil” card of any rarity, usually in the slot of one of the Commons. Foils are real-life cosmetic items, if you wish.
Wizards also produce some non-randomized entry-level products like Planeswalker decks. These are low-power and mechanically light preconstructed decks intended to be played against each other, worth mentioning only because starting with Guilds of Ravnica these contain a code for redeeming a digital copy of the deck on Arena. Buying the deck specifically for that is not recommended, because cards in it are inefficient, in particular, Planeswalkers themselves are intentionally tuned down in power.
There are two major ways to play MTG: Constructed (bring a prepared deck) and Limited (build a deck from random boosters opened at the event). Both are played in many formats that differ by rules and card legality. Some allow all the cards ever printed (except explicitly banned), some only allow cards printed in a predefined pool of sets. Note that if a card is printed in a set legal for some format, any printing of that card is also legal to play (applies to Arena as well).
The most important format to know is Standard, where only cards printed since penultimate Fall release are legal. When the fourth set in a year releases in the Fall, four oldest sets leave Standard. This process is called [set] rotation and is well summarized here. For people new to card games, the set rotation might look like avarice. Consider though that developers release new cards not just for profits, but to keep things fresh, and would likely need to make them more powerful to be worth getting (“power creep”), invalidating old cards. Rotation solves it.
Limited is mainly played as Sealed, where you open 6 boosters and build a 40-card deck (including freely added basic lands), and Booster Draft, that involves picking cards from boosters one by one and passing the rest to a neighbor. Every player opens 3 boosters in this case. Read more about drafting. You’re allowed to play more than 4 copies of a card in Limited if you were lucky to open or draft more. Jumpstart is a newly launched Limited format that skips the deckbuilding part: you just mash together two 20-card thematic packs and play.
The way most competitive Magic events are run involves playing best-of-three matches with each opponent. In this case players can change their decks between games considering the opponent’s deck. Cards can be added from an additional 15-card sideboard or removed to it, respecting the minimum requirement of 60 cards in the main deck (in Constructed; in Limited, sideboard consists of every card out of the 40-card main deck). In amateur Limited, but not in Constructed, players usually can swap cards between their base deck and their sideboard between rounds as well.
Some card effects allow getting cards from outside the game. In a competitive setting (and on Arena) it means from the sideboard.