Learning to Play More Magic: The Gathering

Posted in How to Build on May 31, 2017

By Adam Styborski

Stybs has played Magic the world over, writing and drafting as part of the event coverage team and slinging Commander everywhere his decks will fit.

Magic: The Gathering is approaching its 25th anniversary. Over two decades of great games have been decided, but that's not the success story of players the world over. Every few months we get an Amonkhet—a new set—released, and the game is refreshed all over again.

Every day there's a new player looking to jump into the fun of the world's greatest trading card game.

Whether that's you (hello and welcome!) or someone you're sharing the game with, knowing where to start with Magic's most popular ways to play can make the difference between just being familiar and fostering a fantastic passion for shuffling up with friends.

Before You Let Me Google That for You

There are two main roads to playing Magic:

  • Limited—using sealed booster packs to build a deck and battle
  • Constructed—using selected cards from a specific eligible pool to build a deck

While it's possible to leap into the game with almost any format, history has shown a natural growth through starting with Sealed Deck, often the first Limited way to play we find today.

Sealed: Opening six booster packs, building a deck of at least 40 cards (including basic lands) and facing off against another Sealed deck.

The Professor, arguably Magic's most famous YouTuber, explored just what Sealed Deck entails. In just 10 minutes, The Professor provides an entertaining and informative breakdown of the honest issues with Sealed Deck construction:

  • Building from random cards can be daunting.
  • Choosing which cards to include, and why, is intimidating.
  • What do I really need to know about these decks?

Topics like "keeping a mana curve" and "playing spells that kill creatures" are in there, though video isn't the only format to follow.

Justin Bagnall's Sealed breakdown on Numot Gaming breaks down the famous BREAD acronym into succinct bites of takeaways. The lead-in story—attending a Prerelease and learning some hard lessons in good Sealed deck building—is one many players can relate to as Prereleases are consistently one of the first ways we jump into Limited.

Similarly, Reid Duke's 2014 series Level One took a look at Sealed, but with a different approach than The Professor and Bagnall. Duke, one of the best professional players in the game (then and now), laid the groundwork for the most challenging aspect of building decks for new players: evaluating cards. With pithy and easy-to-understand looks at card advantage, high-impact playables, and even evasion, discerning which cards should probably make the cut versus others starts with Duke's fundamentals.

Sealed is just the tip of the Limited iceberg, and as popular as Prereleases and Sealed Leagues (more on that later) are, it's Draft that captured the imagination of players around the world.

Draft: Opening three booster packs, one at a time, to choose one card and pass the rest and be passed another (slightly smaller) pack to choose another card from—all repeating until everyone's booster packs are empty—then finishing with 40-card decks (including basic lands).

GG Degree's video is titled literally: If you've never tried or been to a booster draft, his walkthrough describes the process clearly. Draft is often a level up from Sealed, as you get fewer cards and must choose them as you go.

Covering some of the details to keep in mind when drafting, Reid Duke's Level One look at the basic of Draft is a text-driven complement to GG Degree's video. Draft's additional complexities—timing, other players' decisions, and rapid card evaluation—can make it even more daunting than Sealed. Duke's look at synergy, identifying archetypes, and basics of signals should be the first step to getting into it.


If another video is up your alley, Maria Bartholdi of Magic the Amateuring focused on the ten best tips to put your drafts on the right path. She reiterated some of what Duke shared—signals, looking into archetypes—but goes into a little more detail and covers even more, like keeping track of previous picks going into future ones and using technology—streamers, Magic Online—to gain awareness beyond game-store adventures.

Technology Aside

A quick aside here about Magic Online: It's great and something you can use to understand these new ways to play and get practice in—make mistakes—without the pressure of friends all around.

Gaby Spartz, a popular Magic Online streamer, covered the basics of playing digitally. If Magic is new to you, then it's logical Magic Online is as well. With so many resources pointing to digital play as a great way to get going, taking the time to get familiar with it will be to your benefit. And for even more digital know-how, MTGO Academy's lengthy list of Magic Online lessons and tutorials covers just about every topic you might want to learn more about, and for a text-driven version that goes into more details than Spartz's video, the breakdown on Cardhoader is as pithy as it is helpful—just the facts, ma'am.

Once you're in there, Leagues will be one of the best ways to get practice in. Unlike scheduled events, Leagues—say, like those running right now for Amonkhet Draft or Sealed—let you play at your own pace, anytime you want. You can take time to build your deck or even get a second opinion on which card you should play. It's a powerful tool to add to weekly trips to your local game store.

Constructing a Start

Draft and Sealed are obvious jumping-off points since you just need booster packs to get started. But what do you do with those cards you opened? The answer is Constructed— building bigger decks from your collection rather than booster packs.

And the most popular Constructed format is Standard.

Standard: Building and battling 60-card decks with a 15-card "sideboard" (all including basic lands) from just the most recent Magic sets.

Standard underwent changes over the past couple of years, though it has remained remarkably consistent to its original vision. While The Professor's outline above points to upcoming changes (that occurred in today's past), the ability to play recent cards that are easier to find holds true.

Standard is a bit different from Limited in the sense that you can better see what you're likely to face down. As Standard is built from the best cards across several sets—excepting the rare banned choices—and seeing the top-performing decks that other players brought gives you a starting place.

MTGGoldfish is one place to look at who is winning with which decks. By collecting all the top-placing decklists, it's easy to look through what's successful and what you might want to try. Similarly, leaning on digital resources is possible thanks to the samples of League-winning decklists available from Magic Online.

(Spoiler alert: There are Leagues for just about every format, not just Limited.)

Choosing a deck is important since which deck you bring can help or hurt your chances of success. Since Standard is constantly evolving, many of the game's best players produce articles and videos about the format. A quick tour of sites like TCGplayer.com, StarCityGames.com, ChannelFireball.com, and more will always bring you to the most relevant articles about the format. Week to week, what's hot could be the next not, and finding your place in the mix is part of the exciting challenge.

Of course, deck creativity isn't limited by what professional players play: YouTube's inexhaustible supply of new videos always includes more deck techs than you can watch. Channels like The Mana Source and Strictly Better MTG, as well as the YouTube channels for all of the strategy websites shared above, consistently have new decks to share.

Digging into Standard doesn't mean just finding someone else's deck online, though. Building a deck around your own idea is another way to make the most of Friday Night Magic, one of the best ways to play at your local game store. While she's an expert developer for Magic now, Melissa DeTora previously walked through the simple steps of building your own deck as a professional player. The same concepts apply—mana curve and choosing cards that make a difference—but putting it together is open to whatever you can find in the format.

There are other Constructed formats, too, of course. Each carry their own quirks and rules—usually the cards that are eligible—but are another way to tap into a growing collection.

Modern: It's Standard, but it goes all the way back to Eighth Edition.

Modern is another famously popular Constructed format, and it's been reshaped several times by cards being banned—plucked from being eligible for decks—in recent years. Matt Gregory's breakdown of the challenges of Modern and how you can approach them is one way to look beyond Standard.

All the sources of Standard format information apply too, but there's some additional support. Modern Nexus is dedicated exclusively to Modern and can add to the repertoire of sources you use to learn more about the format.

Commander: Choose a legendary creature, then build a 100-card deck (with a ton of extra rules applied) to battle multiplayer mayhem.

Commander is even bigger than Modern—at least in terms of cards you can potentially pick to play—but it's decidedly in a different direction. If hanging with friends and making magical moment happen is your things, Commander might be for you.

There isn't a better way to introduce the extra rules of Commander than to revisit judge David Greene's classic breakdown. Commander spread through the Magic world thanks to globe-trotting judges, but don't let all the extra rules hold you back (especially since they change occasionally). I've had the opportunity to introduce Commander as well, sharing the rules, tips, and principles that set you up to jump in.

And it's worth noting Commander is a player-run format, driven by some of the original judges that helped the format some to life. The latest Commander info is always over at MTGCommander.net.

With a big deck comes bigger building challenges. Jimmy and Josh from the Command Zone podcast laid out an incredible guide to getting started, showing you how the mana curve and rules covered by other deck-building guides scale up to the 100-card world. Their entire YouTube channel is dedicated to Commander and is a great resource if everything Commander is anything you want.

Building Beyond

There are plenty more ways to play. Archenemy, Planechase, Legacy, Vintage, Team Draft, and Pauper, just to name a few. As you explore Magic and discover the wrinkles that you enjoy, look around for more information about unusual ways to play the game. You'll find there's plenty more waiting for you just a Google or YouTube search away.

Good luck finding your next deck!

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