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How to play Magic: The Gathering

Wondering how to play Magic: The Gathering? These are the MTG rules you'll need to play your first game, as well as answers to your gameplay questions.

MTG artwork showing Strixhaven student mages arguing

Learning how to play Magic: the Gathering can be quite intimidating, but it’s well worth it. In this MTG beginner’s guide, we’ll aim to make it simple and give you everything you need to play your very first game of Magic: The Gathering.

Magic is a trading card game full of challenge, excitement, and endless variety. But it’s not exactly an easy card game to learn. There are many different versions of the game, so it’s not obvious where to begin, and the comprehensive list of MTG keywords might as well be an astrophysics textbook.

It’s easy to assume you have to know how to build an MTG deck or the intricacies of the MTG Stack before getting started. The prospect of diving in can be so scary that some players will call it quits before they even get going.

To ensure that doesn’t happen to you, we’ve prepared this no-nonsense guide to playing Magic: The Gathering.

Magic The Gathering artwork showing a tornado surrounding a mage

How to start playing Magic: The Gathering

In a game of Magic, both players will take it in turns to play mystical spells and attack each other’s life total with an ever-growing army of fearsome creatures. Over the course of a game, you’ll both get access to more mana, a resource which will allow you to play even bigger and better cards.

To play a basic game of MTG, you’ll each need 60 card decks. These will contain an army to wallop your opponent with, as well as powerful spells to turn the tide of battle.

We wouldn’t recommend building your own deck for your first game. If you’re interested in multiplayer, casual fun, these great precon Commander decks will get you started.

If you’re more interested in strategic, two-player matches, the starter kit below is a good option. Or you could try playing online, making use of the best MTG Arena decks.

Once you’ve got a deck, the next thing to do is shuffle your cards and play. You can find the basic rules online, but for now we’ll help you muddle through your first match.

How do turns work in Magic: The Gathering?

In Magic: The Gathering players take it in turns to attack each other and play their cards. But you don’t just sit around waiting for your turn to come back again – there are some sneaky tricks you can play on your foe’s turn, to thwart their every move.

We go into more detail on the exactitudes of different MTG phases here, but for now here’s the gist of what happens on your turn.

  1. Draw your starting hand: At the start of a game of Magic: The Gathering, both players draw seven cards to create their starting hand. If you don’t like your hand, you can perform a Mulligan, drawing seven new cards and then tucking one to the bottom of your library.
  2. Play lands: On each turn, you’re allowed to play one MTG Land card. These tap for one mana each, generating the resources you need to play your other cards.At first, we recommend playing a deck with only a single MTG color, as this means you don’t need to worry about the different types of lands. However, once you’re more experienced, you’ll be able to make a deck using any MTG color combination.
  3. Play creatures: Unless you’ve got an unusual deck, your game plan will probably be to finish your opponent off with creatures. Once you’ve got enough Lands in play, you can spend them on a creature.

    Creatures can’t do much the turn they come into play. Most can’t tap or attack on the turn you cast them, because they come in queasy with something called ‘Summoning Sickness’.

  4. Attack: On each players turn, they have an opportunity to declare which creatures they’re sending out to attack. When one player attacks with their creatures, the other has the chance to block.

    As well as creatures, there are all sorts of cards that let you pull off tricks and traps. You can zap your opponent’s troops with bolts of lightning or grow a weedy squirrel to an enormous beast just as combat begins.

You’ll keep at it like this – one player strikes, the other parries and ripostes – until eventually one of you is able to get an edge and reduce the other to zero life.

How to play Magic: The Gathering - the Zendikar Elemental Omnath

Don’t have a buddy to hand? We know persuading a skeptical pal to embark in a brand new hobby can sometimes be tough, so don’t fret. You shouldn’t be afraid to head to the nearest Magic-friendly Local Game Store and rock up with your starter deck. MTG players are usually extremely keen on helping newbies find their feet.

How to play Magic: The Gathering - the Rakdos guildmaster Judith

How to read an MTG card

There are several different MTG card types in Magic: The Gathering. Here’s a breakdown of your average creature card:

How to play magic the gathering - the mtg card bone dragon covered in numbers.

  1. Name: The card’s name, what it is called. Usually a card’s name is not relevant beyond being the main identifier for a card, but occasionally a card ability will require you to name a card.
  2. Mana Cost: This tells you how much mana you need to cast a card, and what color it must be. Here the number three refers to three generic mana of any color, and the two skull symbols next to it refer to two black mana.So this card has a total ‘converted mana cost’ of five, and to cast it, at least two of that mana needs to be black.
  3. Card type: This tells you what type of MTG card you’re dealing with. The main categories are Land, Creature, Sorcery, Instant, Enchantment, Artifact, and Planeswalker (and Battle, but that’s brand new).What category a card falls into has all sorts of ramifications for how the card works and when you can play it. For instance, most cards need to be played in your main phase, but instants can be used at any time. Sorceries and instants go to the graveyard after a one-time effect, but other card types stick around on the battlefield. Lands don’t have a casting cost, but you can usually only play one per turn.
  4. Card subtype: Some cards, usually Creatures, have a subtype as well as type. Here, the card has two subtypes: dragon and skeleton. If a card tells you it has a particular effect on all dragons, or all auras, or triggers when a dragon, skeleton, or goblin is played, now you know where to look.
  5. Set symbol: This part of the card tells you its MTG card rarity (shown by the color) and what MTG set it is from (shown by the symbol)
  6. Keywords: Now we move onto the card’s text box. First up comes rules text, which tells you how a card works. But on creatures, you’ll first find any ability keywords that work as a shorthand for how the card functions. For instance, flying creatures like this one can only be blocked by other flying creatures, or cards with reach.Interestingly, other card types like Sorceries and Instants will usually have any keywords at the end of the rules text.
  7. Rules text: This tells you all about what the card does. For spells like Sorceries and Instants, you should treat it like a set of instructions to be followed as soon as the card is cast.For Creatures like this one, the rules text tells you about any abilities the cards have. These might trigger on their own when a specific condition is met. Others, like this one, have an activation cost – which could be paying mana, or tapping the card.
  8. Flavor text: This is just for fun – it has no rules implications but it’s great for lovers of story. Flavor text ranges in quality and tone from evocative lore to corny puns.
  9. Stat line: Only Creatures have this section. It tells you about the Power and Toughness of a Creature. Power dictates how much damage the Creature can dish out, while Toughness is how much damage it can take before it’s destroyed. Note that damage goes away once your turn ends.

How to play Magic: The Gathering - wallpaper showing a dank space under a stone bridge

How to play Magic: The Gathering online

If you’d be more at home clicking cards on a screen than sliding them across a table (and want to get started with the world’s best card game for free), we’d recommend trying out MTG Arena.

It’s a less social experience than paper Magic, but a super accessible entry point. You’ll get your own guided tutorial and the opportunity to practice playing against a computer. Plus, you’ve got easy access to a dictionary of Magic keywords – simply hover your mouse over any card to read its text and learn what its abilities mean.

Check out these MTG Arena codes to help kickstart your collection, and our MTG Arena decks guide to know how to spend your Wildcards.

Magic The Gathering artwork showing the planeswalker Teferi

Experiment, explore, and enjoy

Once you’ve learned the basics of how to play Magic: The Gathering, the multiverse is your oyster. There are so many different paths you can take next; it just depends where your interests lie.

You may want to try other MTG formats, for example. There are many of these, but we recommend that new players try Commander or Jumpstart first.

MTG Commander

A popular format often played in groups of four, Commander is one of the most sociable ways to play Magic.

You can learn how to build an MTG Commander deck by yourself, but you can also buy a pre-constructed deck if you don’t feel ready for that much freedom. Wizards releases new pre-cons on a regular basis, so simply find a theme or MTG color combination that piques your interest, and get playing.

Commander will require a bit more of a monetary investment than you’ve put in so far, but on the plus side you’ll get to try out a version of Magic with more variety and ridiculous, bombastic moments than any other. Here are some of the best MTG commanders to try.

MTG Jumpstart

If you find you’re worried about getting crushed by more experienced players, we recommend the level playing field of the Jumpstart format. In Jumpstart, players open up two packs and bosh them together into a random deck. It’s not only a super quick and fun way to play Magic: The Gathering, Jumpstart will also give you a sense of the variety MTG has to offer and even give you a feel for deck-building, as you see how unexpected cards can work together.

We predict that before long you’ll have a towering stack of MTG cards in your collection. At that point, it’s handy to know how to build an MTG deck. And if you’ve got hold of some strong cards and want to up your game, here are some of the best MTG Standard decks to try out.

Either way, we hope we’ve filled you in to put you in a strong position for your first game of MTG – be it online or off.