The Ultimate New Player Resource – A Key Concepts Guide and Magic Terms Glossary
Hi! If you’re new to magic, or just remember being new, I’m sure a lot of the phrases people used tripped you up – magic very much has its own self-contained culture, and some really weird strings of words get thrown around within that. Sometimes, even when you’ve been playing for a while, some niche term might trip you up. Maybe you don’t play some formats, and can’t really follow the discussion that goes on in them because your buddies keep talking so much gibberish!
Well, this page is the solution to your problems! It’s mainly geared towards newer players: there’ll be a lot of phrases established players will already know, but we go way beyond a mere definitions here – I’ll be giving comprehensive explanations, covering not only words but entire concepts that might trip people up, explaining strategies and providing useful insider info.
There won’t be as many phrases as other glossaries – I’ll be mainly covering the useful and relevant ones you’ll see day-to-day. By the end of this, you won’t just know what the phrases mean; you’ll be shocking and impressing all your friends with your knowledge! At the same time, I’m going to avoid repeating things other resources on the internet already explain well, so there’ll be a lot of helpful links for you to follow.
If you don’t see the concept or term you’re looking for, I intend to follow this first instalment up and will link any future instalments, so you might be able to find it on other pages! Or as always, you can leave a comment at the end of the article with your question, and I will both explain and add that explanation to this page.
Note: If a non-heading is in bold, it may be explained elsewhere on the page and you can search for it.
Let’s begin! Remember, Ctrl+F is your friend.
Most Magic Constructed formats are played with decks of minimum 60 cards. In Commander, you must have a 100 card deck.
Magic Limited formats are played with decks of minimum 40 cards.
Constructed – Rotating
Standard – The bread and butter of Magic Arena, standard is a format comprised of a number of sets since the last rotation. See https://magic.wizards.com/en/content/standard-formats-magic-gathering for an updated list of the current Standard-legal sets. The Standard format is ever-changing, and has encompassed hundreds and hundreds of individual formats!
When people put set names in front of “Standard”, they are referring to old Standards generally – e.g. Ravnica-Theros Standard refers to Return of Ravnica block, M13, Theros block and possibly M14. It can be a bit confusing as to what point Ravnica-Theros Standard refers to since after each set release, the Standard format changes so much that this could refer to four different points:
- When only Theros, the first set of Theros block, was legal.
- When Born of the Gods and Theros were legal.
- When all three sets in Theros block were legal (the third was called Journey into Nyx).
- When all three sets and M14, the next year’s Core Set, were legal.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to differentiate and you are going to have to ask which of the four possibilities they’re referring to, if necessary (it normally isn’t).
Constructed – Nonrotating
Historic – Please see https://mtgazone.com/historic-format-guide/ for an updated list of the current sets legal in Historic, and general information about the format.
Pioneer – Please see https://magic.wizards.com/en/game-info/gameplay/formats/pioneer for an updated list of the current sets legal in Historic, and general information about the format. Pioneer contains every set including and after Return to Ravnica block in 2012.
Modern – Please see https://magic.wizards.com/en/game-info/gameplay/formats/modern for an updated list of the current sets legal in Modern, and general information about the format. Modern began in 2011, but includes sets up to and including 8th Edition – a set from 2003.
Legacy – Please see https://magic.wizards.com/en/game-info/gameplay/formats/legacy for general information about the format. All cards are legal in Legacy, except those on the banlist.
Vintage – Please see https://magic.wizards.com/en/game-info/gameplay/formats/vintage for general information about the format. All cards are legal in Vintage, except those on the banlist. Some cards are also restricted in Vintage – you may only play up to one copy of those cards in your Vintage deck.
Pauper – Pauper is comprised of cards that have been printed at common rarity at any point. Please see https://magic.wizards.com/en/game-info/gameplay/formats/pauper for additional information.
Artisan – Artisan is Pauper but for Magic Arena only. Artisan uses either the Standard or Historic formats.
Commander – Please see https://magic.wizards.com/en/content/commander-format for general information about the format.
Brawl – Brawl is a 1v1 offshoot of Commander. Please see https://mtgazone.com/brawl-format-guide/ for general information about the format. Brawl is mostly played on Magic Arena, where you can play every Wednesday currently.
Draft – Draft comprises a multitude of formats from throughout Magic’s history. All of them are played using the Booster Drafting method – please see information on this page: https://magic.wizards.com/en/game-info/gameplay/formats/booster-draft. I also recommend https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUqPxSYPfrA for an excellent video on how to draft. Generally you want 17 lands and 23 other cards per deck in most Draft formats.
Sealed – Sealed is a limited format where you open six packs to form a ‘pool’, and build a deck from that pool to play against other people. Generally you want 17 lands and 23 other cards per deck in most Sealed formats.
Each format has its own banlist. Please see https://magic.wizards.com/en/game-info/gameplay/rules-and-formats/banned-restricted for a full and updated list of banned cards in each format.
Rotation refers exclusively to the Standard Constructed format. Rotations are when all the standard sets get cycled out as a new one comes in – we had one just a couple of months ago, when the Ixalan block, M19 and Dominaria rotated out. Rotations happen each year, and the sets that have been in Standard for two years are rotated out – the next rotation will be in September 2020; M20 and Guilds of Ravnica block will be leaving Standard then.
When rotation happens, your cards from the sets being rotated out are no longer legal in Standard – you cannot play them in sanctioned Standard events anymore. Rotation always means the whole Standard metagame changes completely, and there’s a whole new and exciting format to explore!
When a format is “nonrotating”, this means that cards are not removed from it except by bans – old sets will never leave.
Rotation can be a bit daunting when you’re new to the game, but don’t worry – people on the internet will keep you well-informed of when they’re happening, and the next one isn’t for a full year!
Colors and Mana Costs
The Color Pie – Magic has five colours: these completely define the game of magic and there is really no escaping them, however you play it. The Color Pie refers to the five colors joining together into one whole, which you can see above. Allied colors refer to each color having a special affinity with two other colors – looking at the Pie above, Blue is next to Black and White; these are its allies and the other two are its enemies. There’s a huge amount of lore and mechanical implications for each colour which you can find on https://mtg.gamepedia.com/Color.
This is a generic mana cost. You may use any colour of mana to pay it. This can be any number or X. X means you may pay any amount of generic mana for this cost, and the more you pay, the greater the benefit.
Mana costs in short form
Mana costs are the colorless cost followed by the abbreviated mana symbols.
Hybrid mana is an easier way to pay the mana costs of cards which is deciduous i.e. it is not evergreen, but instead shows up time to time; it is not something Wizards of the Coast R&D plans to use in every set.
To pay a hybrid mana cost, you may use either of the costs in the hybrid mana symbol i.e. to pay , you may use white or blue mana. More rarely used is the option to spend multiple mana instead of a mana cost. To pay , you may pay two generic mana or one white mana.
is often abbreviated as W/U (and the other hybrid mana costs follow the same pattern).
Kitchen Finks costs or 1(G/W)(G/W) in shortform.
The Ten Guild Pairs
There are ten guilds in Ravnica, one for each possible two-colour combination. These have long become the main way in which magic players refer to these colour pairings, so they’re very important to remember! Don’t worry – as people refer to them more and more, you’re going to pick them up naturally anyway. There are five allied and five enemy pairs. You can find more information on each of the guilds at https://mtg.gamepedia.com/Ravnican_guild.
Tricolor Pairings (Shards/Wedges)
Shards refer to the tricolor pairings introduced in Shards of Alara, a set from long ago in Magic’s past. They each form an arc on the color wheel.
Wedges are named for the clans on Tarkir, and were named in Khans of Tarkir. Before then, they had old names which I have listed here for posterity, but they aren’t used nearly as often nowadays.
Abzan (once called Junk)
Jeskai (once called UWR)
Sultai (once called Bug)
Mardu (once called BRW or Brew)
Temur (once called RUG)
To find a card’s rarity, look here on the card. Garruk is a mythic rare.
See https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/quite-rarity-2018-03-12 for a list of the main rarities, the colours for each, and the key features of cards at each rarity tier.
Permanent vs Nonpermanent
Permanents are, as the name implies, cards that stay on the field permanently! Spells which go to the graveyard when they resolve, are not permanents.
There are five main permanent types in magic. Most permanents fall into one of the five categories – they do not necessarily have to be cards, as tokens (generally artifacts, creatures or both) generated by other cards are still permanents.
Activated abilities are abilities you pay a cost to activate – if an ability has a colon (:) between its cost and effect, then that signifies it is an activated ability. If there is no colon, the ability cannot be an activated one. Costs of activated abilities can include (having to tap the permanent the ability is on), a mana cost, and several other kinds of cost like discarding a card.
A triggered ability is an ability that triggers automatically when a set of conditions is met, or when an event occurs. Triggered abilities always have the words “when”, “whenever” or “at” in them, generally at the beginning of the text describing them. Enter the Battlefield abilities (ETBs) are a type of triggered ability that occurs when a card enters the battlefield – i.e. when Golos, Tireless Pilgrim ETBs, you may search your library for a land card, put it into play tapped, and then shuffle the library.
Activated and triggered abilities always go on The Stack, unless they are mana abilities.
When you cast a spell, it goes on The Stack. This is a zone where spells and abilities go when spells are cast or abilities are activated or triggered. On Magic Arena, you can see this represented by their hovering in the air and the other player having to press “Resolve” before they enter play. This is their opportunity to play something in response to that spell or ability – this will mean that whatever they play goes on top of the stack. The stack resolves in top to bottom order – so if I cast Shock on my opponent and they cast their own Shock in response, their Shock will resolve first.
A common way to interact with the stack is by using countermagic to prevent a spell or ability from resolving – if a spell is countered, it goes to the graveyard without its effect resolving, unless it can’t be countered (like Chandra, Awakened Inferno) or the counterspell specifies otherwise (like Syncopate or Remand). If a triggered or activated ability is countered, it has no effect.
There are several common actions that do not use the stack: playing lands, activating mana abilities, or paying costs. This means you cannot respond to these actions – if your opponent taps a land for mana, you cannot cast a spell before they gain the mana.
A Brief Glossary of Misc. Terms
Bait – This is an important anti-control strategy to keep in mind: it’s when you play a less important card before the card you really want to resolve/stick on the board, so that your opponent uses their removal/countermagic on that one, not the important one/s. Let’s say you’re Jeskai Fires and your opponent has 3 mana up in blue – you might not want to cast your Fires straight away, you might want to play some creature or planeswalker and force your opponent to counter that first. You need to make sure the bait is threatening enough/applies enough pressure that your opponent is inclined to counter it, or that it does enough if it resolves that it was worth playing.
You shouldn’t bait all the time though – if your opponent is favoured in the late game, you might just need to jam your important threats to pressure them before the game reaches that point. If they’re playing hand disruption like Thought Erasure, waiting on your spells makes you vulnerable to those cards.
Also if you have 6 mana, are playing two 3 mana spells in one turn, and your opponent is playing conditional countermagic like Quench or Dispute, you’ll be tapped out and unable to pay for the counter if you cast the bait spell first. If the counter you think your opponent has is hard or unconditional (like Sinister Sabotage), baiting is usually correct.
Blocks – so currently Wizards are producing single standalone sets only. They didn’t always do this – blocks are when several sets were situated on the same plane so people sometimes refer to them as a single whole e.g. the last block was Guilds of Ravnica block which had three sets: Guilds of Ravnica, Ravnica Allegiance and War of the Spark. This block is still legal in Standard!
Bounce – Bounce is when something is returned from the battlefield to its owner’s hand. This is an archetypal blue effect, and other colours rarely get bounce.
EDH – Elder Dragon Highlander. This is the old name for Commander, one of magic’s most widely played formats, and it still sees a lot of use to this day. Frankly, it’s a much cooler name than Commander so you should get your playgroup to adopt it immediately.
Evergreen – see https://mtg.gamepedia.com/Evergreen for an explanation of what evergreen means, and a full and updated list of Evergreen keywords.
Hand Disruption – this is the blanket name for cards that attack hands, and remove specific cards from them. Duress, Unmoored Ego and Thought Distortion are all examples of this – some hand disruption options tend to be more situational than others, and some are capable of hitting multiple spells/have other effects, but they are all hand disruption. Hand disruption has a few key features – it tends to fall off in the later game against many decks (though it can be useful even then against control, combo or slow decks) so you want to cast it at opportune moments, and it tends to not directly impact the board unless the disruption is just an added effect on another card, like Legion’s End. Hand Disruption tends to be bad against aggro decks – these have a lot of redundant pieces, and taking away one over another isn’t really useful. It is exceptionally useful against combo and control decks: combo decks are generally reliant. The window to cast hand disruption and net something useful is also larger against these decks, so it is more often a good topdeck against them.
Looting – this is when you draw a card then discard a card, in that order. This usually happens as the result of a spell or a triggered/activated ability. Rummaging is when you discard a card then draw a card, in that order.
Mana ability – This is any ability that generates mana and does not use the stack – generally lands are the most common permanent type that can do this, but there are other activated abilities that are mana abilities that can do this. Anything that happens alongside the generation of mana will also happen immediately (see The Stack) – for example your opponent will gain 2 life with The Great Henge immediately, if they tap it for mana.
Plane – These are the universes in which magic’s story takes place. We are currently on the plane of Eldraine, but there have been many throughout magic
Resolve – When a spell or ability resolves, it successfully comes off The Stack – this means it was not countered, and its effect occurs.
HARD Countermagic/Removal – hard in this case implies that the spell either isn’t situational, or the situation is so common that the spell is almost always having its intended effect. A card like Absorb can counter any spell any time you have the mana and there is a spell to counter on the stack, so that is hard countermagic. A card like Murder can destroy any creature any time you have the mana and there is a creature to target, so that is hard removal.
SOFT Countermagic/Removal – soft in this case implies that the spell is situational, or the situational is uncommon enough that it doesn’t always have its intended effect. A card like Spell Pierce is very situational – it can only counter noncreature spells, and your opponent may simply pay 2 mana to stop their spell being countered. This means that you very rarely want to cast Spell Pierce when they have 2 mana up – the hallmark of a situational spell is that you can’t cast it for its intended effect a large proportion of the time. An example of soft removal is removal with targeting restrictions – a card like Tyrant’s Scorn can only kill small creatures and is only capable of bouncing big ones (which is not removing them). A card like Liliana’s Triumph can’t choose which creature it kills – your opponent gets to decide what to sacrifice, hence it is another form of soft removal.
Rotation/Standard Rotation – see Standard on the Formats section of this page.
Tapped Out – If your opponent is tapped out, they don’t have mana up to respond to your spells and you’re either safer, or completely safe (depending on the format) from anything they might do this turn. This is generally when you want to jam the spells you really want to resolve, and not be baiting.
Topdeck – the card that was just on the top of your deck, and is the one you last drew.
When a card is described generally as a “bad” or “good” topdeck, it implies that you have reached the stage in the game where you are relying on the top card of your deck to continue playing the game – this is called “topdeck mode”. A good topdeck is any card that remains impactful in the late game. A bad topdeck at that point, is when you draw a land or a card that is ineffectual in the late game i.e. when both players have a lot of mana late in the game, Spell Pierce probably won’t be countering anything, so it is generally a bad lategame topdeck.
However, don’t be confused by when people call drawing Spell Pierce earlier in the game “a good topdeck” – they are referring specifically to it being a good topdeck in this situation, not in general.
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