How to play Magic: The Gathering by Extra Credits

Marcel Danz
Sep 25, 2019 · 9 min read

This article is based on a video series recently posted by Extra Credits on how to play Magic: The Gathering (MTG). It is a basic step by step introduction to the core game mechanics and thoughts helping you to start your road to become a great MTG player. I will summarize the points given in their videos and add some thoughts to it.

Photo by Wayne Low on Unsplash

The Core Concepts of Magic

Learning to Play Magic: Core Concepts

MTG is a collectible card game just like stamps or baseball cards, but with a fantasy setting with wizards, orcs, dragons, zombies, vampires and everything else magic you could imagine. And way cooler because you can actually play with these cards against your opponent and obliterate him!

The goal of the game is to reduce your opponent to zero life points before he does the same to you. Or another way to loose the game is to run out of cards.

Each player has a deck of cards that contains three different types of cards:

  1. Instants: These cards can be played at any time during the game.
  2. Sorceries: These cards can only be played during main phase.
  3. Permanents: Literally everything else.

From this deck a player draws five cards in the beginning to his hand. Then the game unfolds in turns for each player. Each turn being divided into seven phases.

  1. Untap: Cards can get exhausted when they are used. This is indicated by “tapping” (turning them to the side) them. In this phase all tapped cards are untapped.
  2. Upkeep: In this turn everything that needs to be payed to stay on the board needs to be payed.
  3. Draw: Draw one card from your deck to your hand.
  4. Main Phase: Each turn in Main Phase a player can play a land. Which are cards that are when tapped generate Mana the main resource of the game. There are different colors in the game (white, black, green, red, blue) so you need to match the cost of other cards with the Mana you generate from lands. Creatures are Permanents that stay on the board until they die. You can summon them for their Mana cost but they can’t attack in the same turn because they have “summoning sickness”.
  5. Attack Phase: Creatures have a Power and a Toughness value with which they can fight against your opponent and his minions. During this phase you can declare attackers by tapping them. Then your opponent declares blockers or is letting the damage hitting him in his face. When a creature is blocked these creatures damage each other. When a creatures Toughness drops to zero it dies and goes into the Graveyard. Be aware creatures that got damaged but not destroyed replenish their toughness at the end of the turn.
  6. Second Main Phase: This is again a main phase where you can react to the happenings during Attack Phase.
  7. End Step: Here you need to discard cards from your hand until you hold seven or less. Then it is your opponents turn.


Learning to Play Magic: What’s in a Color?

MTG cards are divided into five colors: white, blue, green, red, and black. These colors represent elemental and psychological traits of the playing styles they enable. Each of those colors can be combined with each other to form new different strategies.

  1. White: The color of law and order with a strict moral code, walking between altruism and tyranny. You can play white defensively, summon a lot of flying creatures or small weak creatures that aid each other to be strong together.
  2. Blue: The color of reason and intellect. They use a lot of spells and counter spells to control their opponent until they can give him the final blow in one rush. Or just let him run out of cards.
  3. Green: Nature and growth is incorporated in this color. You will find a lot of big strong creatures that are very expensive, but also spells that let you ramp up your Mana production fast to play those creatures before your opponent is ready to counter them.
  4. Red: Rage, fire, passion and freedom are the traits of red. A lot of their decks are fast and aggressive. Using hordes of fast, small goblins and damage spells to obliterate their opponents before they even start to play. On the other range they also play big dragons that simply turn their opponent into a pile of ash (one might notice a certain love for this color ;) ).
  5. Black: The last color represents pragmatism and efficiency. These decks use their Graveyard and life points as resources while stealing their opponents life to win the game.

The Stack

Learning to Play Magic: The Stack

When playing cards in MTG they are put on a stack before they resolve. It is a Last In First Out (LIFO)stack. That means when I play a creature, but my opponent plays an Instant spell that counters the summoning. This Instant is in the stack on top of my creature and will resolve first. So my creature won’t be summoned and I wasted my Mana for nothing.

This was a simple example. In the video above you can see more complex ones. And believe me they can become very very complex and brain melting. ;)

This mechanic is what makes MTG the game it is. It introduces a lot of depth to play, but also a huge amount of complexity. This is why Hearthstone by Blizzard Entertainment removed the stack and reaction mechanics completely to make their game more accessible for the mainstream market.

Deck Building

Learning to Play Magic: Building a Deck

Your deck of cards is called Library in Magic and contains all the spells you want to play. Normally it contains 60 cards. This is the minimum amount of cards required in most tournament formats. It makes sense to have as few cards in your deck as possible, because the more cards you have the lower the value is of each single card. This is because each card has a lower probability to be played in a game when there are more cards in your deck. Hearthstone even reduced the number of cards in a deck to 30 to double the value of each single card.

In order to construct a strong deck in Magic you need to be careful to include enough Mana into it so you can afford everything you want to play. Usually, 40% of your deck should be lands. In a 60 card deck this means 24 cards are already filled with lands. Leaving you with 36 cards to choose freely. You see we are now down to the Hearthstone deck size of really valuable cards. Nevertheless, the amount of lands will vary a little depending on how expensive your cards are and how much Mana is generated by other cards in your deck.

You might already see a big flaw of this resource system at this point. What happens if I don’t get any lands in the beginning? — You concede. It sounds stupid but there is nothing that you can do to come back against an opponent that plays “on curve”, having all the Mana to play out his strategy.

Then there is the other side. What happens if you only draw lands and non of your value cards? — It depends on your deck. If your deck is slow and starts hurting late in the game with a lot of expensive cards then you might be able to come back from this bad luck and beat your opponent. Of course only if this player also has a slow deck and doesn’t hurt you too much until the point you can start playing your big critters. When you play a fast, aggressive deck on the other hand you can concede because usually you don’t have enough late game power to compete with your opponent on that basis.

You see there is a big problem in including your main resource generation mechanic into the deck.

  1. Your value cards are less probable to appear.
  2. The risk rises that your won’t be able to play your deck because you don’t get enough resources or too much resources.

Hearthstone also simplified the main resource mechanic to reduce the risk of such boring games where one player just concedes after the first few turns. In Hearthstone each player receives an additional Mana Crystal (lands in MTG) at the start of their turn until they have ten.

In Magic and Hearthstone alike there is another thing you should carefully consider when you build your deck. The amount of low cost cards. You might want to only include the strongest and biggest creatures in your deck. But you only have expensive cards in your hand at the beginning of a game you will only put down lands and then pass the turn to your opponent. You need some small creatures to defend you in the beginning so you don’t fall too much behind until your big critters hit the board. Usually, 15–20 low cost cards in your deck will get you into the late game.

This whole resource topic is a hot discussion because there are people that like the additional depth introduced by thinking about how much resources do I need to include and the other side that wants to play and reduce the chance of loosing through bad luck. I would be interested in your thoughts on the matter. Let me know in the comments below or join us on Discord.

Now let’s get to the interesting part. What are the most common deck styles. There are four: Combo, aggro, control and mid range decks.

Combo Decks: They are built around one specific combo or synergy of cards, and every card in the deck needs to answer a single question. Does this help me to play out my combo?

Aggro Decks: These decks consist only of cheap cards that can be played from the start and hit their opponent in the face. For aggro decks literally “face is the place”. They start hitting and don’t stop until their opponent is dead. Often these decks don’t see late game, and the strategy for lower decks is to slow aggro players down until late game where their power falls of against your bigger, stronger cards.

Control Deck: It’s slow and their idea is to slow down their opponent even more. These decks consist of card draw, creature removals and counter spells. In short everything that is annoying to the other player. A skilled control deck player is especially annoying for combo deck players, when they carefully take out the key pieces of the combo, leaving the combo deck player with no options.

Mid Range Deck: This class of decks is difficult to describe. They contain lots of middle cost middle power cards. Mid range players aim to get to the mid game and overwhelm their opponent there. Or when it comes into the late game they hopefully build such a strong board that even the big critters of their opponent can’t cope with this anymore.

There is a whole philosophy and religion around deck-building and the colors’ play styles. Have a look at this article, or this for more information about deck-building. And if you want to see what the community came up with have a look here. there are some pretty broken combos possible in MTG. What is the coolest you have ever seen? Let me know in the comments.


Learning to Play Magic: Psychology

This is where the deep depth of MTG come into play. Not only playing for yourself, but also reading your opponent and taking him into account. The psychology in MTG has two sides. First you need to make the best choices with the limited information you have, and then you need to get your opponent to make miss-plays.

To make the best choices you need to think about which cards are in your deck? What is on the board? What cards did you already play? And on the other side. What did my opponent play so far and what is he likely to play in his deck? This skill needs a lot of time and playing many games against different opponent. So get out there and play as much as you can!

The other side of the psychology is all about bluffing. Getting your opponent to second guess himself. As an example imagine it is your turn and you have a 2/2 creature on the board. Your opponent has a 1/3 creature which could block your creature. Your hand is empty and then you draw a land. In this situation it would be a mistake to play this land right away. This would leave you with no cards in hand and your opponent just blocks your attack. Instead keeping the land in your hand hidden from your opponent he can’t be certain of what this card is. Is it something that would destroy the blocker or not? Leading to a miss-play by him not blocking your 2/2.

You can also do this with the amount of Mana you keep unused. Letting your opponent to guess what counters you could play with this Mana. Forcing him to play more cautious. Even if there actually is no threat in your hand.

So much for the psychology in Magic: The Gathering. If you liked this post let me know in the comments.

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