Magic: The Gathering: Why Experience Counts

How much of a role in the game does experience make? What is it that prevents someone who just picked up a deck of Magic cards the other day from being a better player than someone who is a veteran at the game is? What are the parts of the game that require so much learning? The answers to this question can be studied by watching players of all different levels of experience play the game. I often play the game with players of widely varying experience. While playing, I see the factors that transcend the experienced player from the inexperienced player.

I spent the greater part of Sunday, May 16 in Long Island with my cousin and four of his friends. Being around the age of twelve, they are fairly new to the game and have not been playing as long as some of the older people with whom I play with more regularly. Jeremy, my cousin, is twelve years old and started playing the game around last spring. Having played around one year, he has begun to pick up some of the basic concepts behind the game. However, there are many things that he has not yet picked up.

The inexperienced player is often hasty and does not wait until the right time to use the resources he has available. For instance, a Lightning Bolt(1) drawn by this kind of player will be immediately used. If his opponent has no creatures it will be aimed at the opponent, taking away 3 life points. The more experienced player would save this card for later on when he may need it more. Even still, if the opponent had a creature in play, perhaps there may be a better creature to save the Bolt for. Being able to use resources properly is a key part of the game.

Being able to recognize what makes a card playable is another skill that is notable of an experienced player. There are many cards in the game which newer players see as "godly" while experienced players will see are not effective. Such cards may include large creatures. Creatures which are as big as 9/9 or 10/10 appeal to the newer player, because of the large size. However, creature cards like these require lots of resources to bring out, and the experienced player is sure to have a card in his deck to deal with this on the spot. Counterspell(2) is an instant which lets you pay two mana to negate the effect of any card being played (except a land, because lands do not count as spells).

The inexperienced player uses all of his resources into bringing one of these large creatures into play, only to have it countered. When a spell is countered it is placed directly into the discard pile. There are several variations of the Counterspell card, which are very common-use blue cards because they let the player control the game by denying the opponent spells.

Proper uses of spells that counter other spells are another mark of experience. Cards like Counterspell, Mana Leak(3), Forbid(4), Dismiss(5) and other cards like those require some skill. Deciding which spells to counter can be very crucial to the outcome of the game. A very inexperienced player will use countermagic at the first opportunity. A slightly more experienced player will wait but still often use it on the wrong opposing spell. The experienced player knows what spells are opposing threats, and can control the game well. Learning which spells are threats comes with time. There is no given formula which can determine which spells a player should counter; only within the game can situations arise which the player has choices to make within the situation. How a player reacts to these situations is what determines his level of experience.

Perhaps my most worthy opponent (and adversary) is Zev. Currently a junior, he has been playing for about the same amount of time as myself. Four years of experience have taught him very good deckbuilding and playing skills. Here is where the example of proper use of countering spells comes in handy. When playing against Zev, he will almost always have a card to deal with an opposing threat. He knows to save his Counterspell or Forbid for the biggest threats.

It will always seem that Zev has countermagic because when I am hoping he does not, he will, simply because he knows what to save it for. If I have a key card in my deck, he will wait until I play it before using his countermagic. How he determines what are the biggest threats is another complexity. First, if he knows what cards his opponent has in his deck, he can know what to save his countermagic for. He will have other ways of dealing with the smaller, lesser threats. Being able to deal with an opposing situation and presenting an effective opposition yourself is what lets you win the game. Zev is pretty good at this.

Both playing and deckbuilding skills both develop over time. Some players are better players than deckbuilders, and vice versa. Some people have different playing styles. All of these factors are what comprise the many aspects of many different Magic players. Each player has individual characteristics. While one may be able to build a great deck, he may not be able to play it to its full capacity. He may stumble and make wrong decisions within the game. This could mean he may counter the wrong spells, use removal spells such as Swords to Plowshares(6) inefficiently, or use the wrong mana in playing a spell. Using a Sword on the first creature an opponent plays may be the wrong move. Or rather, it may be the right move in a given situation. A player needs to determine this. Perhaps the creature played was a Birds of Paradise(7). By using the Swords on this opposing card, the opponent's mana production will be slowed down.

Conversely, the opponent might have better targets for the Swords. The player has to decide a few things. Will I be able to deal with any other creatures if I waste this removal on the Birds? Will the advantage I gain by removing the Birds now be worth my using this spell right now? The player has to decide whether it is an effective strategy based on the resources in his hand and deck and the resources he thinks his opponent has. Questions such as these will help him come to a conclusion about whether to play the card now or wait until later. Simply put, to play one's cards right is the way to win. Making the right decision is often easier said than done, though. Even the best of players face tough decisions. Is there always a best strategy in this game? In answering a question such as that, one can only turn to the logic of game theory.


  1. Lightning Bolt: Instant, R. Target player or creature takes 3 damage.
  2. Counterspell: Instant, UU. Counter target spell.
  3. Mana Leak. Instant, 1U. Counter target spell unless its caster pays 3 mana.
  4. Forbid. Instant, 1UU. Counter target spell. You can discard two cards to put Forbid back into your hand while playing it (referred to as "buyback").
  5. Dismiss: Instant, 2UU. Counter target spell and draw a card.
  6. Swords to Plowshares: Instant, W. Remove target creature from the game and its controller gains life equal to its power.
  7. Birds of Paradise: Creature, G. Tap for one mana of any color. 0/1, Flying (cannot be blocked except by creatures with flying).

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