A kitchen table intro: Magic the Gathering

Let’s assume somebody is entirely new to Magic the Gathering. They heard rumors of a game ripe with fantasy elements, that was darker, crueler, but a little more interesting then most of the games they had heard of. This wasn’t Poke’mon or Yu-gi-oh… No, this game was like some proper dungeon crawler combined with the myth and lore of their favorite fantasy novels or movies. Maybe that player had played once many moons ago or had taken a stab at another trading card game. They just needed something fun and simple enough to learn. Simple to learn, yet could be complicated enough to keep them coming back.

That person, stumbled across a pre constructed deck at their local game shop and heard that it can be a lot of fun. Maybe they were at their favorite big box store and was curious in the packaging. They saw a bunch of decks posted up. They are emblazoned with mana symbols, a giant over sized card (foiled,) and a name of the deck with the words Commander. There is another that is a Duel Deck featuring 2 foiled creature cards and bold words like Angelic versus Demonic. Or other decks, neatly awaiting opening. Yet where does one just jump in? How does one play Magic the Gathering.

This is a guide going into how to play and what it means to playing Magic as a whole. This is meant for new players and will go over many of the steps. As far as a deck to pick up to jump in on, I recommend the Duel Decks. They tend to have a decent amount of value, they are easy to acquire and are designed to be played against another person. They also are easy to learn what the select colors want to do. The most recent Duel Deck is Mind Vs Might. It isn’t perfect, but it does balance raw spells versus creatures.

Assuming somebody is entirely new to Magic the Gathering, it is typically best to stick to Kitchen Table Magic and the basics it provides. Lets start with basic rules.

  • Players start at 20 life and lose when they have 0 life.
  • Players will follow a consistent turn order
  • Decks are allowed only 4 copies of a particular card with the exception of cards that say otherwise or basic lands.
  • If a player runs out of cards in their deck, and they have to draw, they lose the game.
  • Players start the game with 7 cards in hand. They are allowed a maximum of 7 cards in hand. If they have more they will have to discard at the end of their turn.
  • Cards with legendary on the type are only allowed one of per player.

These are basic rules and depending there are exceptions to literally every rule which will be explored at a later time. Typically most games will follow these rules and run along them. I will mention a notable exception when they are pertinent, but hopefully there won’t be many in a basic tutorial. There are typically 5 colors associated with Magic the Gathering and Generic Mana. White, Blue (often shorthanded to U), Black, Red, and Green. In addition, there is diamond mana which is a form of dedicated colorless mana. Generic Mana is colorless typically and can be gathered from any source. Most cards have a Mana Cost. I will mention converted mana cost a lot which is the total amount of mana needed for a spell. Most spells will require colored mana demonstrated by symbols and generic mana. There are variations on the costs and   That said, let’s explore the cards themselves

The Cards

Basic Card Layout:

card info


land info

These are often sources of mana. A player is typically allowed to play 1 land card a turn. They are considered a colorless permanent card. Turning a card (Or tapping) produces a mana of the color on the card. This feature has been around forever and they stopped putting the tap to add (insert mana type) mana on the card. For the most part they are incredibly straightforward. A player can include as many basic lands in their deck as they would like.

There are lands that produce mana of different colors, or different effects when tapped. These are considered non-basic lands and will be labeled as such. A land can only be tapped once per turn, at least until the land is untapped and tapped again. There is also the option to activate non-tap abilities even on tapped lands. Some lands will enter play tapped, or gain player’s lives, or have an ability attached to the card.


creature info

The creature card follows a very simple card layout. In fact, moving forward all cards have similar layouts. The upper right hand corner is the casting cost, or the amount of mana that has to be paid in order to summon it. Most creatures have summoning sickness the turn they are cast or enter the battlefield. Meaning most creatures can’t attack or do anything for a full turn after they are cast.

Creatures also have a power and toughness. Which is marked by #/# in the lower right hand corner. Inside the main box of the card where it says what the card is, or what it does. There are triggered abilities, enter the battlefield abilities, or cast abilities. There are also tap abilities and activated abilities. Most abilities are considered to be instant speed and can be activated at any point. Tap abilities are affected by summoning sickness where as abilities that don’t require them to tap can be activated regardless.

Creatures can attack and block other creatures. Typically creatures are tapped to attack a player during the combat step. They aim to attack a player or a planeswalker (see below.) Once a creature is declared as an attacker, the defending player being attacked has the ability to declare blockers. Blocking creatures can choose which creatures they block. Each creature can only block one creature and doesn’t require tapping in order to block. Once a creature has taken more damage than it’s toughness, it dies and is sent to the graveyard. Creatures are universally one of the easiest card types to be answered. Simply put, they die to removal or being attacked, or looked at funny. Creatures die  from about anything really.

They also have next to the card type line a hyphen followed by the creature type. This is important to note for multiple reasons, there are a collection of cards that check based on type or profession. Both are listed in that area.


artifact info

These are typically colorless permanents that can affect the board state. Either directly, or indirectly. They can have abilities as well and typically require generic mana of any color to cast. Some act as mana sources, others as removal, some buff abilities of cards in your hand or on the battlefield. Ultimately, artifacts are designed to enhance the cards in play and help benefit the one playing them. There is a couple of subtypes of artifacts. There are Artifact creatures, which are as they sound. Equipment: which acts as armor or weapons a creature can use to buff their abilities or powers. The equipping cost is listed on the card and will attach to the creature. There are important rules to note with this for later on. Look for them under the phases.

Finally, there is vehicles. It is the most recent addition to type which grants the ability to pilot an artifact for a turn to hit a player with. Each type has its own rules and timing exceptions.

Artifacts only go to the graveyard if the right conditions are met. If they are destroyed, then they are sent to the graveyard. Artifact creatures and vehicles are considered creatures which means they can die as a result of combat or an ability that deals damage directly. Equipments fall off of attached creatures when they die. The equipment stays in play despite the death of it’s wielder. That said non-creature artifacts typically only are destroyed if targeted by a spell or ability.


enchantment info

These are cards with a straightforward casting cost. Most enchantments are just enchantments, there are a small handful of Enchantment Creatures, however they make up an incredibly small slice of the number of cards available. The power level of enchantments are incredibly exponential. Many 1 or 2 drop (or converted total mana cost) are extremely weak. They may offer a bonus of an additional 1 or 2 actions towards a goal where as 8 drop enchantments are literally as close to breaking the game as one can get while still actually playing Magic. Enchantments are powerful in just being hard to deal with however are rarely win conditions in of themselves.

There are also enchantment – auras that are attached to creatures. These stay attached to the creature until the creature is removed from the battlefield, at which point the cards are sent to the graveyard. This happens even if a creature is exiled or bounced back to a player’s hand. The enchantment will fall off and goes to the graveyard.

They cannot be interacted with easily and few abilities can counter the constant global checks run past an enchantment. Typically it requires specialized cards to hit enchantments and only 2 colors in the color pie hit enchantments well.


instant info

Instants are a card type based around an actual spell being cast. They will have a physical mana cost, read that they are an instant, and have a stated effect when cast. These cards play out on the stack and are resolved immediately. Instant speed spells can be cast at anytime regardless of whose’s turn it is. They can be cast at any step in a turn, on any turn, and can cast in result of other spells or creatures being summoned. They can even interact and target creatures with abilities that are happening. They are extremely versatile cards due to the lack of timing cast restrictions. As a card type, they are the only ones capable of being cast at any time, again there are exceptions but those cards will say it clearly. I will touch on that shorthand for cards later.

However, they are often weaker than sorceries that use the same amount of mana. They often act removal spells, damage spells, or counter spells. Typically, they are cast as a result of other cards and are designed to give an effect to stop or prevent a threat from going further.


sorcery info

These are more powerful spells that are cast specifically on your turn. These have a set mana cost and can only be cast during the main phases of a turn (more on turn phases later.) Effectively, if you can cast a creature card at a time, you can cast a sorcery. These tend to be pretty powerful and have a wide set of effects. These average about 4 converted mana in terms of cost but can easily go up to 9 or 10 mana for truly insane effects. The benefits of sorceries is due to the power behind them as they resolve. There are ones that grant powerful effects for combat, insane actions for bringing back dead creatures, or destroying everything on the field.



The final card type are Planeswalkers. They are becoming a more premier card type in Magic and are the face cards now of what are considered the Intro decks. These are perhaps the most complicated card out of the cards created. They start with the casting cost which averages around 4, typically they require a heavy color mana cost. They enter with loyalty counters on them which are marked in the lower right hand corner. They have typically 3 stated abilities and only 1 ability can be used per turn. There are ones that create creatures and can physically become a creature to attack. Just remember that they would be affected by summoning sickness too for the turn they are cast.

One is a +X ability, that adds a loyalty counter when using that ability. Next is a -X, that typically results in an ability. The -X abilities have you pay loyalty to use the power. Finally there is typically an ultimate ability that costs quite a bit of loyalty and will typically break the game in your favor. They also grant an emblem which exists on you the player, outside of the battlefield. These are impossible to interact with and become part of the ongoing rules of that match. I will go into further details on Planeswalkers in a further post.

However, this power comes at a price. Planeswalkers are seen as a massive threat and thus tend to be dealt with quickly. There is little removal currently for Planeswalkers. Counterspells can hit them when cast, but once resolved they typically die due to being attacked. Creatures can be declared as attacking a planeswalker during combat, and creatures can be assigned to block them. Direct damage spells can hit planeswalkers and damage can be redirected to the planeswalkers. So typically, they are killed via damage and if one hits the field on your opponents side, you should try to deal with it.

A final note on Planeswalkers, a player is only allowed a single planeswalker with a particular type on the battlefield (in play.) If two planeswalkers are on one side of the battlefield with the same type, one must be sacrificed (put into the graveyard.) This is relevant in certain decks, but is important to note.



These are physical representation of cards generated by other cards. Normally, tokens are artifacts and/or creatures. They will have a power and toughness if they are creatures and can have given effects or abilities. Important to note, they do not have a converted mana cost. They have no listed cost and are easy to deal with. Tokens also do not die the normal way. They do die, but the moment the card is put into the graveyard, they are exiled. The tokens can be represented by anything and for most players they use a shorthand of movement to dictate that they have been removed.

Zoning: Laying out the match.

With Magic the Gathering, it is best to have similar layouts to the way the cards are organized. Most players will lay things out with a general sense of order and there are some key positions that matter to the way things are laid out. This is a general sense of the zones. Below is a quick map of how it should look.

game mat layout

The Battlefield

battlefield mockup

This is the most important zone. Everything in Play and available to do anything is on the Battlefield. Typically it is organized by players at their choosing, but most keep their lands together closest to them, with the creatures, artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers sitting in front. With the exception of lands that are typically in offset stacks and equipment that is put under creatures in such a way to where they are still showing, all cards should be clearly visible. Cards are played up right unless they are tapped where they are turned sideways to clearly show if they are in fact tapped. The game moves faster if this is observed and there will be less confusion. Dice are often used to represent counters on cards. And Dice can be used to show the number of a particular token creature on the battlefield.



This is where a player’s deck is. It is known as the library because the game imagined players as powerful planeswalkers cast spells pulled from a library and the term just stuck. It should be face down stacked neatly, typically in the upper right or left hand corner. When there are no more cards left in a player’s library, that player loses the game the next time they are forced to draw. Drawing from the library should always be the top card only and the deck should not be touched or messed with by players, unless there is a reason to.



The Graveyard is where all the cards that have been dealt with go. Creatures, artifacts, planeswalkers, lands, and enchantments end up in the graveyard when destroyed. All cards discarded or milled off the library or from hand end up here. Also, after instants and sorceries resolve the cards are sent to the graveyard. There are a plethora of cards that still function in the graveyard or can target cards in the graveyard for effects. The Graveyard is rarely a permanent end of the card in a game.

The Exile is a zone that is in some senses meta-physical. It is also typically up to the player to dictate where they will have these cards. Typically the cards are going appear to be tapped cards in the graveyard. They are cards that have been banished from the game. They are exiled and cannot return to the game. Exile is a powerful effect and should be treated as such. Exile also is a zone cards can go under specific reasons which I will touch on more thoroughly at a future time. Effectively, consider something in exile gone for good.

Player Counters

Players can be subject to spells directly and can receive counters based on certain cards. Typically a token card for the counter type will be put in place outside of the play area and dice will put on it to act as the representative number. This is also where Planeswalker emblems will go once they have been achieved. Nothing currently can interact with emblems and once achieved they do not go away.

Mana Pool

This particular zone doesn’t exist really except for online. Typically players track their available mana, but on complicated turns and multiple lands being tapped for mana of different colors the mana pool can become useful. It is recommended (largely by me) to keep a few dice handy for indicating how much mana of a particular color a player has available to spend to spells. Remember, in order to


A player’s hand is well straight forward. It is the set of cards a player has to be able to cast and play with. Ideal, the cards are held in hand where they are not visible to other players. Cards in hand can be the target of spells, but this is relatively rare.

The Stack

This is a complicated zone. There isn’t a good complete guide to the Stack and will require a brief explanation that can be expanded upon for hours. Effectively, it is a meta-physical where spells go when cast, abilities happen, effect occur. It is where players represent what is happening at the moment inside the game. The Stack ends up being quite complicated due to the timing and what cards are being cast and interacted with.

Simply, with the Stack, the rule is “First in, Last Out.” Meaning when a spell is cast, that starts the stack. If anyone casts anything else at that moment or uses an ability it goes on the stack. The stack fills until everything is complete and finally then, things resolve in reverse order. The spell cast first resolves last always.

The stack

Technically every spell goes on the stack, but counter magic is really the only thing that comes up with the stack or if somebody is winning through a complicated interaction. In truth, the stack is the hardest thing to learn and typically reserved for high level play.

Going through the Phases.

So turns play out in this order. Turn starts, untap, upkeep, draw, main phase, combat step, declared attacker, declared blockers, combat damage resolves, second main phase, endstep, discard, end of turn. It is relatively simple order of what happens. What makes it complicated is remembering what happens and when. We will approach this in sections.


Start of turn through Main Phase.

The turn always starts with untapping a player’s permanents, this is not seen as a physical phase and nothing can interact this this phase. Only the player can untap on their turn at this point. Instants cannot be cast at this time. Lands, creatures, artifacts. Everything untaps unless an effect says otherwise. The phase exists but proceeds immediately into the next.

Upkeep is effectively a phase where abilities and effects tend to render. Lots of “win the game” cards trigger during the upkeep. Draw effects and other abilities also occur during this time. It is important to note that these can be interacted with during the Upkeep. Instants can be cast, abilities can be activated. Sometimes an action during the Upkeep can win a player the game or cost them it depending.

The draw step is a like that of the untap phase. It happens and that is that. Draw steps cannot be interacted with. During it, a player draws 1 card from their library and that is all on their turn. If no cards are in the library during this step, and a player has to draw, they lose the game on the spot.

Finally, we enter the main phase. This is where cards become truly available for play. At this point a player may play their land for turn, they may cast any spell at their standard timing, and resolves what they can. Enchantments, creatures, and artifacts are cast during this time. Equipments can be transferred from creature to creature at this point, sorceries can also be cast during this time. Effectively, the main phase is where the bulk of cards are played.


Combat is resolved in 4 phases. First there is the actual combat step. A player declares combat, even if they are not attacking. Combat is entered at the end of the first main phase of a turn and proceeds immediately into combat. This is when combat step abilities trigger and go on the stack and players can move to resolve most removal to prevent combat from going further. During combat only abilities and instants can be cast.

The next two are pretty simple. The attacking player declares which creatures will be attacking. They must declare who they will attacking. Creatures can only attack players or planeswalkers. This is done by tapping untapped creatures (or stating which ones if the creatures don’t tap to attack.) Then the defending player can choose blockers and declare which creature will block on coming creatures.

Finally, damage then resolves. The attacking player can decided how damage is assigned to creatures if two or more creatures were used to block a creature. The resolution of damage is similar to the draw step or untap step where it cannot be effected by actions by players. However, passive abilities that trigger due to damage happen now. It is possible for a player to gain enough life despite taking lethal damage and still live. It is a matter of the life gained to outweigh the life lost.

Second Main and ending the Turn.

After combat, the player proceeds into the Second Main Phase of the turn. This is a second time in the turn that the Main Phase happens. Players can choose then resolve additional spells or use abilities during this time. It is a repeat of the previous Main phase. A player can choose to play a land card during this phase if they hadn’t played one during the first.

From there, it is the end step which leads into the end of turn. Players can choose cast any instants they have at this point that they withheld till end of turn. Sometimes there are reason to, but it is highly dependent on the deck. The Cleanup/discard phase is the actual end of turn. It is the hard end of the turn. Nothing can be cast during this and players must discard down to 7 cards in hand. Then the next turn starts.

A big final note, concerning mana. If lands are tapped for mana or mana is generated using other cards, when a player moves from one step to another, that mana disappears. It empties from a player’s Mana pool. If the lands were tapped and the mana was not spent, those lands still stay tapped. It is best to use exactly the mana as needed when needed.

Lets talk winning.

So nearly 4000 words into this and I haven’t mentioned winning a game of Magic. There are several major play styles to Magic, it depends on what colors a player is using and how true to a theme a deck really is. Ultimately there are only 3 things that for sure causes a player to lose the game.

  • A player’s life drops to 0 or below. This is an automatic loss for the player. Damage does check after the resolution of the stack, therefore as mentioned before if a player gains life they can potentially not lose. However, they have to have enough life. Also, the opposite applies, if a player pays life then is dealt damage dropping them below 0 they lose.
  • A player goes to draw from there library and has no cards left in their library. This can happen the next time a player would go to draw period, it doesn’t just happen at the drawstep of that player’s turn. A point of note, it counts per instance of card draw. So if a player is forced to draw 30 cards, and only has 27 they do not lose the game yet. They will only lose the next time they are made to draw a card if there are no cards available to draw from.
  • A player activate or triggers a “wins the game card” or “loses the game card.” There are multiple cards with the effects throughout the history of Magic. Some of them say specifically at the upkeep or endstep. Typically they are enchantments and will specifically check the board state to see if the condition is met on the player’s particular phase. Each one has their own rules and are clearly stated.

Most decks are built around these 3 themes. There are unique and interesting strategies aplenty in Magic and I will look to explore these further in time. Frankly, each one has a particular approach and interest to them. It is worth exploring in depth and understanding the thought process behind the decks and why people would choose one card over another. I will attempt to explain that all further.

I hope everyone found this enlightening. I plan on doing more during my spare time. Though this did take a lot of work to get this done, therefore I may make these posts every couple of weeks. At the end of the day, I hope everyone has fun and enjoys playing. This is a social game and it is ideal to understand that when going it. Try to enjoy it, and try to be kind. Have a nice one.


Eddie Martin
Barbaric Woodcraft



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