Geek Speak

Getting Started With Magic: The Gathering

I want you to consider something stupid. I want you to consider a trip down the deepest, nerdiest rabbit hole you will ever find. I am here to convince you to turn pieces of cardboard sideways while pretending to be a wizard, and I can all but promise that if you give it a shot, you will thank (and curse) me forever. I am here to convince you to start playing Magic: The Gathering.

In the game, you take the role of a wizard who has to fight another wizard — or multiple wizards, depending — using spells, creatures and powerful relics. That said, the wizard part is just the hook — you don’t actually pretend to be a wizard, anymore than a game of Risk requires you to act like George S. Patton. You play cards that represent you shooting fireballs and wielding swords and summoning dragons and angels and goblins to do your bidding, and the cards are illustrated with beautiful and bizarre art. Behind all these trappings, Magic: The Gathering is an intense mental exercise in math and strategy and resource management that somehow manages to make things like math and resource management fun.

If you’ve only ever known it as “that wizard game the weird kids played at lunch,” you might wonder what the appeal of the game is. To put it as plainly as possible, Magic is The Greatest Game. Obviously, this is subjective, and strong arguments can be made for games like Chess or even Scrabble, but for my money — and deity knows I’ve spent a shitload of it on Magic — there’s no other game that can even come close.

Magic is deep — more than 15,000 unique cards allow for a lot of possibilities. It is complex, not just for the sheer number of cards but for the myriad ways that even a small number of them can interact. Most important of all, it is super goddamn fun. I’ve played games of all kinds, from hardcore tactical board games to casual video games, and every imaginable point in between. I’ve dropped more than a hundred hours each into solitaire, Tetris and Grand Theft Auto III. I’ve won hundreds of dollars playing poker, crushed bar-trivia nights and hosted a weekly HALO LAN party for almost two years straight. I’ve played chess with my cellmate and checkers with my four-year-old daughter. Add up all the fun I had doing all of those things, and maybe — maybe — you're approaching the amount of fun I’ve had with Magic over the years. It’s that fucking good.

If my cultish enthusiasm hasn’t turned you off yet, you’re probably wondering how to get started. Well, like any good drug dealer (it’s called cardboard crack by fans, and for good reason), the makers of Magic — the aptly named Wizards of the Coast — know the best way is to offer the first hit free. They also know that the complexity of the game, and its impossibly steep learning curve, are the biggest barriers to entry. To that end, they’ve created a cheap (free in the latest iteration!), digital version of the game that teaches you how to play. The newest version is available now in the iTunes store for iPhones and iPads, with versions for PC, Xbox One and PS4 due soon (sorry, Android users, you’ll have to make do with last year’s version, but at least it’s free).

The game offers only a small fraction of the total cards in the game — maybe a few hundred — and limits, or outright eliminates, some of the more complex interactions possible, but it does a fantastic job of teaching you to play by pitting you against an AI that won’t roll its eyes at your mistakes and, even more important, won’t lead you astray due to a misunderstanding of the rules. By the time you’ve sunk a dozen or so hours into the game, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea of whether or not Magic is for you, and then you can join the real cult.

If you’re a fast learner/total obsessive, you could conceivably be ready to play in this weekend’s pre-release. These are the most casual and noob-friendly Magic events, and even if you aren’t ready to start slinging cardboard this weekend, don’t fret — they happen every three months or so, so you won’t have to wait long. You can also head out to Friday Night Magic any given Friday night and jump in that way. In either case, I’d strongly suggest telling the store owner that you’re a brand-new player, since they’ll probably give you some free stuff (Wizards frequently distribute free intro decks for new players) and/or direct you to a friendly player who can help you ease in to the weird world of the game and its oddball, sometimes insular culture. In either case, Wizards' store and event locator can show you where to play near your home.

From there, the possibilities are endless. Maybe you’ll really get the competitive bug, and start working your way on to the Pro Tour (yes, there’s a professional Magic: The Gathering circuit, and lots of hardcore fans who follow it). Maybe you’ll find your way into a Commander playgroup, the game’s multiplayer variant of choice. Or maybe you’ll just find it a fantastic, ever-engaging way to spend far too much time and money while piles of cards collect on every flat surface in your house. 

Find me on Twitter, where I tweet about geeky stuff and waste an inordinate amount of time: @casciato.