Magic The Gathering

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Magic: The Gathering, created by Richard Garfield of Wizards of the Coast, Inc., was the first collectible card game, introduced in 1993. Though the game draws heavily from traditional role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons for its fantasy motifs, the rules bear little resemblance to pencil-and-paper campaign rules; there is only minimal roleplaying in typical play. No dice are used; games typically finish in under an hour (compared to many hours, typically spread over a number of sessions, for traditional role-playing games).

Role players were enthusiastic early fans of Magic, but the game achieved much wider popularity. The commercial success of the game prompted a wave of similar games in the 1990s, most notably a game based on the Pokémon characters.

Game play

In Magic, two or sometimes more players play the roles of so-called planeswalkers engaging in a magical duel to the death. Every player has a number of life points; once these reach zero (depleted by damage) he or she dies. The last surviving player wins.

Players fight each other by playing (casting) spells from their hand. To cast a spell one needs mana, magical energy, which is generated by special land cards. There are thousands of different spell cards, which come from collectible sets (hence the term collectible card game or trading card game). The most types of spells are:

  • Summoning spells: create a creature that can attack the other player or be used for defense. The creature remains in play until killed.
  • Enchantments: modify a single other card (creature, land, etc.) or the entire play environment. Enchantments persist until destroyed.
  • Artifacts: create an object that remains in play until destroyed. Artifacts may have continuous effects like enchantments or may only take effect when activated by their owner.
  • Sorceries: generate one-shot effects, such as dealing several points of damage or killing all creatures.
  • Instants: generate one-shot effects, such as dealing a small amount of damage or killing a specific creature. These differ from sorceries in that the scope of the effect is usually smaller, but there are fewer time restrictions on when these may be cast.
  • Interrupts: prevent or modify the casting of other spells.

In detail, casting works like this: the player taps a number of land cards. Each of these contributes mana of a specific color (an Island generates one blue mana point, a Swamp one black mana, etc.). Then the player lays down the spell card from his or her hand, designating any targets the spell may have. The pooled mana must match the requirements of the spell -- for example Dirtwater Wraith needs one black mana and three additional mana of unspecified color to cast successfully.

The general rule for spell cards is that once cast the effects (one-shot or permanent) on the card happen. Some spells have effects that override normal game rules (for example allow you to hold more than seven cards in your hand). Spell effects may contradict each other, and it is one of the more difficult aspects of gameplay to resolve these conflicts.

Each player has a library where cards from the deck that have not yet been drawn are kept; a hand containing up to seven cards not in play; an area on the table for his or her lands, creatures, etc that are in play; and a graveyard where spent spells or destroyed permanent cards are discarded. Players may never look into the libraries and may see their own hands only, but may view all the other cards on the table without restriction.

Game play is turn-based. During a turn, the active player draws one card, plays at most one land from his or her hand, casts as many spells the player wants and can afford (with mana), and may attack one other player with one or more creatures. An attacked player may declare some of her or his creatures as blockers. Blocked attacking creatures deal damage to their blockers and are in turn damaged by them. A creature that amasses more than a specific number of damage points (its toughness) in one round (complete cycle of turns) dies and goes to its owner's graveyard. Unblocked attackers deal damage to the player they attacked, reducing that player's life points. Damaged creatures that do not die return to full strength (heal) at the end of the turn. This is not true of players.

There are restrictions on when spells and lands may be played. Instants and interrupts may be played during another player's turn and during combat. Other spells and lands are only playable before or after combat in one's own turn.

Deck Building

Preparation for a game takes place far in advance of actual play. Beginners may start out owning only a starter pack of sixty cards -- which is also the normal deck size and can serve as a first deck. Usually though, more and more cards are collected and traded so that serious players have a large trove of cards from which they have to select sixty (normally) for their next deck. Due to the many possibilities, two players never enter duels with the same decks (unless they both used the same reference).

Building a deck is mainly about balancing various aspects.

First you should be aware of the principal probabilities involved. Decks must contain sixty cards minimum. Larger decks are possible, but usually will not buy you much except unreliability (imagine that one useful card being buried in a library of 40, 80, or 100 cards). One normally cycles through the deck one card per turn.

Most spells have a color, which means that they require a number of mana points of a specific color to cast (they may require additional mana of unspecified color as well). Some spells (mostly artifacts) need only unspecified mana; very few spells require more than one color. Normal land always produces the same color of mana. These two facts immediately lead to the prime rule of deck building:

Balance mana sources (spells) and sinks (spells). Having a lot of black spells but few or no Swamps will do you no good. More generally, there needs to be enough land to support your spells. Since land can be reused a rule of thumb is to include one (suitable) land per two spells.

When using all five colors it is quite probable to end up with lands of two colors, and a hand filled with spells of the other three colors, and thus being unable to cast anything. Therefore it is recommendable to restrict one's deck to a smaller number of colors -- for example only including Island and Swamps, as well as only black and blue spells. Relying on only one color may be unwise, though, as there are cards that take effect on a whole color which could render one completely powerless.

Game spin-offs

Apart from creating a new game genre, Magic also has an accompanying magazine, a number of national and international championships, and line of fiction novels set in Magic's world.

External references