Back when I was in High School a friend of mine introduced me to the game of Magic the Gathering (which I will refer to as Magic from now on). This was right around the time of the Tempest Block, for those that were curious…I feel like I’m dating myself here. Anyway, the only card games I knew before this were your standard trick-taking variety. I’d never even heard of a collectible card game (CCG), unless you count Pogs as a CCG.

Magic is a card game where two competing wizards, or planeswalkers, employ spells, artifacts, and creatures to defeat their opponent. First published in 1993, in a very limited print run, Magic caught on quickly and has continued to thrive throughout the last two decades. Many formats exist but Standard, or Type 2, probably remains the most popular. This includes the most recent core set, the current block, and the last completed block. A set is an expansion of approximately 200-300  unique cards. A block is basically three combined sets, not including core sets. Blocks also tend to have an underlying theme to them and typically use mechanisms unique to that block.

Interestingly enough, creator Richard Garfield originally met with Wizards of the Coast to discuss his new game RoboRally. For those that don’t know, RoboRally is a programming board game about robots that is still very popular in the board gaming community. Wizards of the Coast, however, wanted a small portable game that could be played during the downtime of gaming conventions. And so, Magic was born.

Thanks to our friendly local gaming store, The Gathering Place, for letting us borrow some of their rarer cards for our pictures. They have many of these available for purchase at their store as well as weekly Friday Night Magic tournaments. For more information make sure to visit their website.

THEME

If the amazing artwork and flavor text on the cards themselves didn’t draw you into the theme of this game then maybe the novels and anthologies will. That’s right. Magic has an entrenched lore behind the creation of their cards. Many characters and creatures are reoccuring throughout the storyline. You can read about the two warring brothers of Urza and Mishra. Follow the Planeswalkers as they travel through the multiverse to battle the Phyrexians and Eldrazi. Maybe you like exploring new worlds magically split into culturally distinct shards. Or…Nicol Bolas! There is a lot of backstory behind this game and I love it.

Planeswalkers had become such a huge part of the storyline that after 14 years of Magic, Wizards created a Planeswalker card type in the game to establish their presence there as well. I can’t tell you how exciting that was at the time. Not only were important characters such as Chandra and Jace going to have their own cards but they were being introduced as an entirely new mechanism. The Planeswalker cards changed magic and added new depth to the game.

COMPONENTS AND ART

Originally the artwork for Magic was commissioned from various artists with little guidelines. Artist interpretation led to incohesion of the artwork as a whole. Sometimes the artwork didn’t even reflect the abilities on the card itself. While the old art is very nostalgic, this problem has since been corrected with each block having it’s own look and feel that reinforces the theme.

As far as components go, cards are really the only thing to this game. Card quality is pretty good too. Many businesses skimp on quality when mass producing games but not Wizards of the Coast. They know their product, and they know it well. You’ll be shuffling cards quite a bit and a nice cardstock is needed for this. Even so, the black borders will still show wear after multiple plays so you’ll probably want to sleeve your cards. From a graphic design standpoint, though, the black borders really make the cards pop. I enjoy seeing old cards reprinted in the black border since the white border they used to use got dirty over time.

MECHANISMS

Player Elimination
Though this is pretty obvious, I thought I’d include this in the list of mechanisms because it is the overarching theme to Magic. Eliminate your foe. That’s what we want to do. Now how you get there is what makes Magic enjoyable. You could rush with small creatures or strike them with a bunch of Lightning Bolts. Maybe you enjoy locking someone down with control. Combos are always exciting to pull off too. The flexibility to how you take out your opponent is what makes Magic so great.

The flexibility…is what makes Magic so great.

Deck Building
Speaking of all the different strategies, building your deck is half the fun. You can be casual about it and grab pre-made decks off the store shelf or you can maximize your efficiency by analyzing power combos and card ratios. Each color, or mana type, in the game plays differently. Combine that with the different attack strategies and you have so many options to cater to your playstyle.

Truth be told, there are thousands of cards and millions of combinations. Building a deck can be a bit overwhelming. Finding out what works best can be time-consuming and costly. Obviously, cards that statistically improve your deck will cost you more money. That doesn’t mean you can’t go against the grain and win with commons but for someone just starting out I would suggest buying the Duel Decks. They come with two decks already pre-constructed and are balanced against each other. They’re also not that expensive and will help you learn the ropes.

Also, this is not the modern deck building of, say, Dominion or Star Realms. You won’t be adding cards and building your deck as the game progresses. In Magic, you must already have your deck made before you play. This is more similar to something like Mage Wars.

… it’s one of my favorite past times…

Hand Management
Managing the cards you draw is a big part of Magic. Playing a card at the right time can really turn the game in your favor. Likewise playing one at the wrong time could possibly lose you the game. You really have to take in everything that’s going on and what possibilities could arise. Many times it’s about weighing the risks vs rewards. There are a lot of variables to keep track of. Knowing your deck is key.

Variable Player Powers
Rules, rules, rules. There are a bunch of these in the game of Magic. So much so that tournaments have to have a dedicated judge to make sure that the game is being played properly. Don’t let that detract you, though, even I have problems understanding all the interactions of each card.

I mention this because every card you play does its own thing. Each one behaves differently. Possibly even having multiple rules associated on a single card. It’ll take some time to learn all the keywords if you’re coming in fresh so keep it simple starting out. Once you’ve familiarized yourself you’ll begin to love the interaction between the cards. You’ll find strong combos. Discover tricks and new strategies. The variability of what you can do will always keep you on your toes and allows the game to stay fresh.

RATING:

Try this game if you like:

  • Ascension
  • Epic Card Game
  • Mage Wars
  • Pokemon
  • Star Realms
  • YuGiOh

FINAL THOUGHTS

Magic the Gathering is #2 in my top ten list and for good reason. It has strategy, variability, and depth. It has a great storyline and beautiful artwork. It’s customizable. It can be a real brain burner or a casual game between two friends. It’s also easily accessible and supported by many hobby and retail stores. Or maybe I love it so much because it’s one of my favorite past times with old friends. Many memories were made before and after school playing Magic.

The only knock I’ll give this is that it can be expensive, especially if you want to be competitive. That’s the only reason I took away half a mug in my rating. It’s also the reason I suggest playing it rather than buying it. Try it out with a friend before you go all in. If you don’t know anyone that has it go down to your local game store, I’m sure someone there is already playing it and would show you if you asked. If all else fails buy one of the cheap Duel Decks and ask a friend to learn with you.

Lastly, I’ll give you a fair warning. Once you discover how awesome this game is, and I believe you will, it can become very addictive. Be mindful of your budget. Don’t spend more than you have and don’t let it ruin your relationships. Enjoy it, though. Build memories of your own. I know I’ll keep playing and coming up with new decks. It’s a never ending process.