Magic: The Gathering: A Description of the Game

The object of Magic is simple. You start with 20 life points, and when they are reduced to 0, the game is over and the other person wins. You and another person both have a deck of sixty or more Magic cards, which are used in playing the game. The cards can be from a variety of different sets, with (for the most part) no more than four of any one card. The players alternate in taking turns. Each turn is a sequence of events that involve drawing a card, putting cards into play, "attacking" the other player (using cards that represent creatures) and then discarding if necessary.

The basic resource in Magic is called mana. Mana comes from a Polynesian word meaning energy. Mana let you bring certain cards into play, and use abilities on cards already in play. Some cards require more mana to use than others do. There are five different colors of mana in the game, each representing a separate force. The forces represented are typical of an adventure gaming genre: White mana represents the powers of good. Blue mana is for the powers of the mind. Black mana is for the powers of evil. Red mana is for the powers of destruction and chaos. Green mana is for the powers of nature and wildlife. Each color's theme is represented in the cards of that color.

Thus a well-known adventure theme is presented in the cards, giving players something more than just a strategy game. It is a game with a theme, with the strategy hiding in the background for the more advanced players to take notice of. In addition, some cards do not have colors; these cards are either land (which produce mana), or artifacts (which are colorless and can be played with any kind of mana). All cards in the game are referred to as "spells" for game purposes, except for land. Lands are not spells and are not "cast". They are simply placed into play. I will often use terms interchangeably, however.

Another concept that the player must understand is the word "tap." To tap a card is to rotate it sideways, indicating that its powers have been used. This can be used to represent an attacking creature, a used artifact, or a land drawn for mana. At the beginning of each turn you untap all your cards, so you effectively can use their powers once each turn (and/or during your opponent's turn).

A spell's casting cost is the amount of mana you need to use in order to play it. It is located in the top right corner of the card. If a card's casting cost is 2R, for instance, that means that you must spend one red mana and 2 of any color to play it. Casting cost will be referred to a lot so this is very important to understand. The colored portion is specific, and the numbered portion is generic, and can be paid using any color mana.

There are different types of cards in the game: Land, Artifacts, Creatures, Enchantments, Sorceries, and Instants. All cards come in five different colors except for lands and artifacts. Lands are a special kind of card; you can play one each turn. Lands can be tapped for mana, which is used to play any of the other kinds of cards. Artifacts are colorless, which means you can use any kind of mana to play them. They may let you do anything from draw cards to affect cards in play.

Some artifacts are also creatures. Creatures can be used to do damage to your opponent (thus reducing his life total from 20 to 0). However, if your opponent has creatures of his own out, he can use them to block yours. Enchantments are cards played on an existing card, which modify what the card does, usually. An example would be an Enchant Creature card, which would be played on a creature. It might make the creature weaker, or stronger. Some enchantments are not played on other cards, and have a global effect on the game. Sorceries and instants cause a one-time effect on the game. Sorceries can only be played during your turn; instants can be played anytime.

At the beginning of the game each player shuffles his deck. The players roll a die or flip a coin to determine who chooses who goes first, then each draws seven cards. The player who chooses to go first does not draw a card on his first turn. The sequence of a turn is as follows:

  1. Untap phase: Untap all cards you control. This means to rotate them so they are all facing upward and not rotated (tapped).
  2. Upkeep phase: This is a maintenance phase. Some cards will make you do an effect during this phase, such as pay mana to keep the card in play, for example.
  3. Draw phase: Draw a card.
  4. Main phase: You can do these things, in any order:
  5. Discard phase: Discard down to seven cards.
  6. Cleanup phase: Any effect that lasts until "end of turn" wears off now. Any damage on a creature, which does not destroy it, wears off as well.

The attack works like this: You choose any untapped creatures you control that you have had in play at least one turn, and tap them. Your opponent either blocks them or takes damage equal to their power. If he blocks, both creatures deal damage to each other equal to their power. A creature has a pair of numbers in the bottom right corner. These are its power and toughness. When a creature deals damage, it deals damage equal to its power. When it receives, the damage is applied to its toughness. If it takes damage equal to or greater than its toughness it will be buried. That means it will be played in a pile next to your draw pile called your discard pile. For example, a Giant Spider has a power and toughness of 2/4. It deals 2 damage to a creature blocking or blocked by it, and if unblocked during an attack, deals 2 to the player it attacked. If it takes 4 damage during one turn, it will be placed in its controller's discard pile.

The game gets a lot more complex than this with the framework of the rules, but these are the basics. What the cards do is another story. There are a wide variety of abilities in Magic, and this summary is just the foundation. To fully understand the game, one must see it being played. Otherwise the rules are hard to make sense out of. It may seem daunting at first, but after many games, it becomes automatic. The strategy is immense, and the game leaves players with many decisions to make. These decisions are what make the game the strategic task it is.


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