How to play Magic: The Gathering: A beginner's guide

From playing your first match to building a custom deck of your own.
Magic: The Gathering planeswalker Chandra Nalaar

Since 1993, Magic: The Gathering has spawned literally thousands of cards and countless playing methods. An estimated 20 million people play MTG around the world, making it one of the most widely-played trading card games of all time.

It’s also a cultural tour de force, the first collectible card game. Everything from the Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card games, to digital card games like Hearthstone have their roots in MTG’s innovative collectible booster packs and simple-but-deep duelling gameplay.

And that’s no wonder, because Magic: The Gathering is an excellent game. It marries social gaming, the themes and artwork of a fantastical multiverse, and the tactics and hardline strategy of something closer to chess.

Even better, publisher Wizards of the Coasts has ensured that it’s easy to play socially all across the world, with most local tabletop shops holding Friday Night Magic events weekly for newcomers and veterans alike.

That said, the series has collected so many products over its 25 year history - including more than 15,000 different cards - that it can be near-impossible to work out exactly how to start if you’re a beginner.

Here, we’ll be outlining the basics of how Magic: The Gathering works, what to buy to get started and where to move onto once you’ve grasped the basics.

So whether you want to play online or off, as a pair or in a group, here is how to get playing the Magic: The Gathering card game.

How to play Magic: The Gathering

Imagine you’re the grand battle commander (stupid voice and hat optional), and your creatures are your frontline. Any monsters you have on the table can defend you, taking damage in your stead.

The aim of the game is to kill the other player(s). You each start with 20 health points, which are typically tracked using a 20-sided dice, familiar to d20-wielding Dungeons and Dragons players.

Mechanically speaking: you each have a 60 card deck. This deck might be made up of one type of ‘land’ or colour theme - like Red, Black, White, Green and Blue. More advanced Magic: The Gathering decks can include any combination of colours, such as Red/Blue or Black/Green.

Magic: The Gathering trading card game cards

Both of you will draw a hand of random seven cards at the start. If your starting hand looks bad (for example, you’ve not drawn any ‘land’ cards), you can take a ‘Mulligan’, which lets you discard your hand and draw a new set of six cards.

Once you’ve decided on your hand, you both then continue drawing cards with each round of play.

In its simplest iteration, MTG cards are split into three types: lands, spells and creatures. Just to emphasise, these are the most basic cards. More advanced decks include things like planeswalkers - mighty wizards with special abilities and their own health pool.

At the start of every turn, you’ll need to lay down land cards to power anything else you need. The more powerful the card, the more mana it’ll require to run. Some cards require more than one type of mana, often in specific colours.

As such, games usually start with small units like goblins or fire kitties and gradually progress onto players laying down gigantic dragons and mythical horrors.

The land cards are split into five main elements that are linked to colours: Red, Green, Blue, White and Black. (Find out what the different mana colours in Magic: The Gathering mean here. [link]) Think of it as your juice; every unit in the game needs it.

Any monster or spell you want to ‘summon’, will ‘tap’ your mana. When a card is ‘tapped’ it is turned 90 degrees to the side, to make it clear that it’s in use. All cards can only be ‘tapped’ once per round. Creatures and spells also get ‘tapped’ in this fashion, but for different purposes. For example, a creature gets ‘tapped’ when it attacks, meaning it can’t block on the next round.

Beginner decks are built around one type of mana, but as you progress you can combine different mana to summon more unique units. Over time, players often opt to build their own decks - meaning a customised arsenal of units.

When learning Magic: The Gathering, it’s a good idea to select which type of mana you’d like to play - once you know what the different Magic: The Gathering mana colours mean thanks to our handy explainer, of course.

The creature cards are straightforward enough to read, displaying their defence and attack stats, what’s required to summon them and any special abilities they might have.

It’s similar with spell cards, except some of them are ‘instants’, meaning they can be used anytime - such as in response to another player’s move. This is where the bluffing element of Magic: The Gathering comes to the fore.

In essence, you draw random cards from your deck, lay down mana and decide how to use that mana.

It’s a real mix of strategy with a dash of luck, although obviously the better built your deck the luckier you’re going to be.

How to try Magic: The Gathering for free

For years, numerous shops have been offering Magic ‘Welcome Packs’ which give you a sample 60-card deck – one deck for each of the five magic elements. Head out to your local store to see if you can nab one of these.

Alternatively, you can give Magic: The Gathering a go online using the Magic Arena app, which is free to download and will allocate you some cards to get started.

Play with a friend: Official Magic Starter Kit/Duel Decks

Magic: The Gathering trading card game Spellslinger Starter Kit 2020

Alternatively, if you know someone who’s up for learning to play with you, you can’t go wrong with the Magic: The Gathering Core Set 2020 Spellslinger Starter Kit. This has absolutely everything you need to get a game going, and comes in at under a tenner. With this set, you can start playing straight away with minimal input.

This includes two 60-card decks, one for each of you. In this edition one deck is Red-themed, meaning tons of dragons, goblins and hefty firepower; while the other is White and allows you to command beautiful yet ever so deadly angels.

The White cards make for a far tricksier deck then the Red, and a good punt for players that prefer plotting over wild destruction.

You’ll also get a code that’ll activate the decks on Magic: The Gathering Arena - providing a useful way to build up both your physical and digital collections and let you practise online against opponents in-between real-world duels.

Even better, both packs come with their very own holographic card - meaning a Big Bad Boss-style beast for the both of you to deploy.

The starter set also includes ‘life counters’, namely two chunky 20-sided dice that track your health throughout the game.

There is also a rulebook, and a quick-start guide - which will take you both through the first few rounds of a battle in a pleasingly clean and swift way. It’s a pretty clear outline, and uses actual cards in the deck to clarify its points.

Lastly, these two beginner decks are perfectly capable of being built up into larger ones right from the off.

Other decks known as Duel Decks also follow these format, so do take a look and see if anything specific appeals. There are so many monsters and colour combinations available.

The next step: Official planeswalker decks

Magic: The Gathering trading card game planeswalker decks

Once you’ve mastered the basic rules and decided which element you’ll be wanting to play, it’s time to get into the 60-card planeswalker decks.

To be fair you could start immediately with one of these, but honestly, I find progressing from a basic deck to a planeswalker an easier learning curve. I think if you’d have shown me a planeswalker right from the off, I’d have literally started screaming.

These come in sets of one and two, depending on which ones you get. And like the starter packs, they tend to correspond to one element - meaning all the other cards in the deck operate off of the same mana.

Each one is based around a mythic wizard-hero card known as a planeswalker. These main characters play a big part in Magic: The Gathering’s ongoing lore. In terms of gameplay, it’s like having another player sit beside you.

They not only have a raft of special abilities, but get their own hit counters and are treated as separate to both yourself and the line of defence. They are also immune to lots of attacks that affect other creatures.

The planeswalker deck comes with 60 cards, and some also come with extra booster packs - random 15 card decks corresponding to each element.

You’ll recognise some cards here from the starter packs, but they also feature plenty of new ones that are more powerful.

Overall, these decks give you a bit more versatility and mechanical crunch, but are still very simple to pick up. Plus, adding planeswalkers onto the field really ups the ante when it comes to strategy.

Upgrade your deck: Booster packs

Magic: The Gathering trading card game booster packs

You can use card booster packs to try out the latest Magic: The Gathering sets, and expand a starter set at minimal cost. These little packs typically contain 15 randomly selected cards. Typically, they are split into four sets: one rare, ten commons, three uncommons, and one basic land.

So for example, the recent MTG set Throne of Eldraine covers the world of Arthurian myth and fairytales. You could use a booster to add some of those curious cards to your existing deck.

Some booster packs provide mixed mana, so bear in mind that not every card will match your chosen scheme. Others are split up by ‘theme’, meaning they’re all guaranteed to be a certain mana colour.

Recently, a new raft of booster types has been introduced, such as the ‘Collector booster’, which gurantees you the rarest and lovliest of cards.

If you want to spend all the money, thematic decks often come in beefy 10-pack sets. If not, treat yourself to a couple of boosters in your preferred theme and enjoy that sweet foil opening goodness.

Get social: Where to play MTG in real life

Magic: The Gathering Magic World Cup players

The easiest way to find where to play Magic: The Gathering is via the official Wizards of the Coast locator, which tells you what shops are running events. Every week, Friday Night Magic is run in stores and other locations across the world.

These social events are a great way to enjoy the game socially, and also eke out the rules with more experienced players. Staff at the locations are often happy to help you out, perhaps even playing a few hands with you to get you orientated.

Now that you’re up to speed with the basics of how to get started with Magic: The Gathering, check out our guide on how to build a Magic: The Gathering deck for beginners.

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Sara Elsam

Staff Writer

Sara has been writing since 2017, contributing news, features and more to outlets including Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, Variety, The Guardian, BBC and Tabletop Gaming magazine. The team’s resident expert in Dungeons & Dragons, they’re also a fan of all things horror and psychedelia both on and off the table. They are happiest rolling big dice, raising mobs and rocking out with their Bard-Lock.

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