Magic is a hard game to pick up on. As a friend of mine that doesn't play said, most of my posts look like they're written in ancient Hebrew or Sanskrit to him. Explaining to a non-player why Tarmogoyf is one of the best creatures ever printed is like taking someone who's never seen any of the Star Trek franchise and using the phrase "you will be assimilated" around him. It just doesn't work without context. So, let's bring a little bit of context to the discussion. Let's teach anyone who wants to learn how to play Magic: the Gathering.

This series of articles will hopefully give you the tools to teach your friends how to play Magic or allow you to learn yourself. This article will go over the basics of the game and further articles will go over each concept in greater detail.

The Game

Magic: the Gathering is a strategy collectible card game. Most commonly played between two individuals or two teams of two (Two-Headed Giant), a game can involve any number of people at once. Magic combines the strategic intrigue of chess with the hidden information and social strategy of poker along with the skills to shift strategies to match earlier plays, much like bridge (Thanks, Zaiem!). Magic differs from all of these games in that the elements of the game (the pieces in chess, the cards in poker and bridge) are not static - no two matches of Magic will ever look the same because of deck customization. Of the thousands of cards printed, a deck will usually be sixty cards. The possibilities are legitimately endless, and it's this wealth of possibilities that attracts strategy game players and can overwhelm new players as they pick up the game. Don't worry about the strategies of deck building just yet - we'll get to that later.

The Cards

As I mentioned, Magic is played with cards, and a lot of information is contained on those cards. Let's take a look at one now:

Runeclaw Bear

Most cards will look like this, although some cards will look different depending on what set they're from.  Let's go over the information on the card.

  • Top Line (Name, (Mana Cost)) - The top line of the card contains two very important pieces of information - the card's name and mana cost.  This card's name is Runeclaw Bear, one of the common denizens of the forests of the game's universes. Its mana cost is in the upper right hand corner. The tree symbol is the symbol for green mana and the one symbol stands for one generic mana. To play it, you need two mana, one green mana and one mana of any type. We'll cover each of the different types of mana later.
  • Art Box - The art box contains the art for the card. Here we see a particularly angry bear, one that looks like it's been infused with some magical power, standing over a kill. Kinda gruesome. Art itself doesn't serve a purpose in the game world, but the art of Magic: the Gathering draws a large group of people in to collecting the game. In addition, any given set is printed in several different languages, so you might not recognize the card from the text, but the art doesn't change (for the most part).
  • Type Line (Card Type(s), Expansion Symbol) - The type line gives specific information about what kind of card this is and what set it has come from. The left side of the line is the type of card. Cards come in one (or more) of eight types:
    • Creature
    • Enchantment
    • Artifact
    • Land
    • Planeswalker
    • Instant
    • Sorcery
    • Tribal

    Each card type has its own rules associated with them. Runeclaw Bear is a Creature, the basic unit of combat in the Magic world. Creatures attack and defend as part of the goal of winning the game. Some card types also have subtypes, the information after the dash. This Creature is also a Bear. If you have a card that affects Bears, this card would be affected by it. On the right hand side of the type line, you have the expansion symbol. This tells you at a glance what set the card is from, and on newer sets, the rarity of the card. Runeclaw Bears are from the Magic 2010 Core Set, represented by the M10 expansion symbol. Its symbol is black, the color for common. Each pack comes with a certain number of commons, a certain number of uncommons, and either a rare or mythic rare.

  • Text Box (Rules Text, Flavor Text) - The text box contains the meaty information about the card that can't be communicated by the structure of the card itself. If a card does something other than what the rules say a card of its type normally does, that information appears in the text box in normal font. Below that, in italics, you can often fin flavor text, text that doesn't affect gameplay, but helps tie the card into the setting of the game. Runeclaw Bear has no rules text - he has no special function other than being a creature.
  • Bottom Line (Artist Credit, Copyright, Collector's Number, (Power/Toughness), (Loyalty)) - The bottom line contains collection information on all cards. You can see who drew the art on the card (and a lot of Magic artists have sites where you can see more of their work and order prints of pieces you especially like). Runeclaw Bear was drawn by Jesper Ejsing. This also gives copyright information on the card - if it doesn't have that information, it's either a much older card or a fake. There is also a collector's number for players and collectors to organize by. Runeclaw Bear is #203 in the M10 set. In the bottom right hand corner, if the card is a Creature, you'll see its Power and Toughness stats here in their own box. These numbers are used to determine the outcome of combat between creatures. Runeclaw Bear has 2 power - it deals 2 damage in combat. It also has 2 toughness - it dies when it takes 2 damage. Another card type, Planeswalkers, have a single number in the bottom right, their starting Loyalty. I'll explain Loyalty when we discuss Planeswalkers in detail.

That's a lot of information contained on one card, but the beauty of the design of Magic is that all the important information is readily accessible on the card. Once you learn the two fundamental concepts of Magic, card types and card costs, you can grab all the information you need about a card at a glance.

Up next, we'll cover card costs in detail and talk about the Land card type, as the two are very closely related. After that, we'll talk about the other seven card types, and then look at the rules of the game and go over a sample game. Please let me know what you think in the comments section or send me an email!