You may have hundreds of hours’ worth of games in MTGA but still be wondering how paper play works. In the past, most people have learned to play Magic through being taught by friends, who can show you how to do things like position your cards on the battlefield, properly communicate game actions and even shuffle your deck. If you’ve only ever played digital Magic, however, some of these things might be new to you – and in many cases, MTGA may have actually led you astray!
Today, we’re going to walk through what a paper game of Magic looks like, and talk about your responsibilities as a player to make sure everything runs smoothly. We’ll talk about how to start a game, articulating the game actions you take, what you need to pay attention to and keep track of yourself, and go through some ideas and tips from an out-of-game perspective to make sure the games are as free from issues as possible. Here we go!
For the experienced player, the pre-game actions you take while setting up will come so naturally that they probably don’t think twice about how odd they are – for a new paper player, sitting down across from someone who is shuffling their deck in an impressively complex manner before thumping it down in front of you and looking at you expectantly is probably going to be a weird experience. But that’s what will happen, and here’s what you do.
When you sit down from your opponent, you’ll prepare for the game by doing a few different things. Unroll a playmat, if you have one, get out your dice, life pad and pen or pencil. If you have a bag, put it under the table between your legs, and if possible, loop one of the straps under a chair leg as you sit down so it can’t be sneakily taken away without you noticing. Theft isn’t hugely common at Magic events, especially smaller ones, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Take your deck out of its box, and check your sideboard. Did you remember to de-sideboard from the last match? This will be, for my money, the most consistent mistake new paper players make, so make a habit of checking. Besides, it’s just good practice – before each match, quickly count through your 15 sideboard cards to make everything is in order.
Shuffle your deck. There are endless tutorials available online, but you want to use and learn only two of these techniques – the mash shuffle and the riffle shuffle. Do not use overhand, pile, or “smoosh” shuffling. Overhand shuffling doesn’t really randomize the order of cards, pile shuffling doesn’t randomize them at all (you’ll see people do it to count their deck to make sure they have 60 cards, but outside of that it’s a waste of time), and “smoosh” shuffling is messy and takes forever. Learn how to mash shuffle here, and riffle shuffle here, and use both techniques once you’re confident, and don’t worry about riffle shuffling damaging your cards. When done properly, it won’t.
Your opponent will be shuffling their deck as well, but as I mentioned, eventually they will plop it down in front of you. Why? Because you’re expected to “cut” their deck. To cut someone’s deck, pick up around half the cards from the top of their deck – you don’t have to be precise, it’s supposed to be random – put them down on the table, then take the bottom half of the deck and put it on top of the first pile.
This process is a normal, routine part of starting a game, designed as a simple check against anyone who might try to cheat by stacking their deck. You can also pick up your opponent’s deck and give it a quick shuffle, if you like. This is seen as “spikier,” as it’s usually done at larger, high-stakes tournaments, but it’s not that weird to do it in a casual game or in a small LGS tournament.
What is weird, however, is if anyone ever refuses to let you cut their deck. Outside of reasons to do with public health due to the pandemic, there is no reason for someone to refuse to let you cut their deck, and it’s both a huge faux pas and quite suspicious for a player to do so. When in doubt, call a judge and have the judge sort it out (we’ll talk more about judge calls in a future article), but definitely don’t just accept a player saying “no cuts.”
The most common way to decide who goes first, unfortunately, is a high roll, usually of one or two d6s. I say unfortunately because this is more time-consuming than it needs to be – it requires a minimum of two rolls, and then ties can prolong the process indefinitely. It’s much better to use odds/evens – pick up a die, offer your opponent the choice of odd or even, and then roll. It’s essentially the same as tossing a coin.
Some people have bizarre, overblown methods to decide who goes first. It’s fine to refuse this, as disappointed as they might be. They’re probably not cheating, but why risk it? Personally, I find it very tiresome when people bring weird “fun” ways to choose a starting player, and I’ll firmly insist on odds/evens. If you do use high roll, however, make sure you use the same dice for all rolls. They probably don’t have loaded dice, but again, you never know.
If you win the die roll or odds/evens and want to go first, say “I’ll start,” “I’ll play” or “I’ll be on the play.” Conversely, your opponent will “draw” or be “on the draw.” Strange terminology, perhaps, but it will quickly become normal.
Presumably, you know how to play a game of Magic – I’m not here to tell you to draw seven (most people “deal” themselves seven cards face down) or how to make your mulligan decisions. I’ll tell you this, however – between each mulligan, you have to shuffle again, like you did to begin the game. Oh yeah. There’s a lot of shuffling in paper Magic, especially in older formats with fetchlands, and it takes ages – that’s why it’s a good idea to get some practice in and learn to shuffle quickly and efficiently.
A paper battlefield looks similar to an MTGA battlefield, with a few exceptions. Your opponent’s cards will face them, not you, although you’re allowed to read their cards at any time (it’s good manners to ask before picking up an opponent’s card, however). If their cards are in another language or unreadable for another reason, call a judge and ask for “the Oracle text,” which the judge will then provide for you so you know what the card does.
Play your creatures in front of your lands, like on MTGA. Usually, however, people play enchantments, planeswalkers and artifacts in front of their lands, as well – still off to the side, like MTGA, but not pulled back in the same row as the lands. Finally, when tapping your cards, tap them a full 90 degrees, not the 45 degrees you see on MTGA. Paper cards are easy to accidentally nudge around, so make sure they’re unambiguously tapped.
As a game progresses, you’ll notice there is (or should be) a fair bit of verbal communication. It’s a good idea to get into the habit of announcing the game actions you take, to keep ambiguity to a minimum. Say things like “untap, upkeep, draw” as you start your turn and give your opponent a chance to interrupt in case they have an upkeep action or the like.
When you’re ready to attack, say “combat?” This indicates that you are passing priority to the declare attackers step, not the beginning of combat step, so keep that in mind when playing with something like Goblin Rabblemaster, which triggers before attacks. Your opponent will usually respond with things like “yep” and “okay” to you going through phases and steps, but sometimes they’ll just make physical gestures.
Combat in paper is more or less identical to combat in MTGA. Most people physically move their blockers in front of attackers to make things easier to parse, but there’s the usual attacks – blocks – damage rhythm. Again, be sure to give your opponent a chance to interrupt – even if they’re tapped out, it’s good manners to check with them before going straight to the damage step.
When it comes to casting spells, tap the lands required, then hold out the card above the table (or at what it’s targeting, if it has a target). Most people phrase the spells they play as a question: “Grizzly Bears?” “Lightning Bolt your 3/3?” It’s courteous to never assume your spell is resolving, or that your opponent never has a response.
If your opponent is tapped out and wants to keep the game moving, they may say something like “I’ll F6” to indicate they don’t have any responses to anything you play. This is an old bit of MTGO slang, as the F6 button passes priority for the rest of the turn – you, too, can say “F6” to speed up a game when you know you don’t have responses to what an opponent is doing (you’re not bound by it, however, so if you realize you do want to respond, you can just say something like “hang on, sorry, wait” and still respond).
Announce triggered abilities by indicating the card – usually touching it with a finger – and saying “this triggers” or something like that. You have to remember and announce your triggers – your opponent doesn’t have to remind you. If you’re playing Luminarch Aspirant, and you forget to announce the beginning of combat trigger, it’s on you, and in a real tournament you won’t get the counter.
The exception to this is with “detrimental” triggers – triggers like the life loss from Treacherous Blessing. You can’t “miss” these triggers. If you genuinely forgot, it’s okay – you’ll get a warning if you do it repeatedly, but missing one once isn’t the end of the world. Don’t be upset when your opponent calls a judge to tell them you missed a trigger – that’s how long-term cheaters are caught, so don’t take it personally. If you deliberately “forget” these triggers, however, that’s cheating, and you’ll be disqualified. Needless to say, don’t cheat.
A good opponent will adhere to all these communication techniques I’ve outlined above. If they don’t – if they just make plays without giving you a chance to respond, or play too quickly for you to keep up, politely ask them to slow down and be a bit clearer with what they’re doing. If they get cranky about this, that’s on them, not you. You have a right to understand what’s going on in a game, and unscrupulous players will attempt to intimidate you into going along with what they do for fear of looking foolish. Don’t fall for it – stand your ground and insist they play at a pace you feel comfortable with.
One of the biggest differences between paper and MTGA is how much you, the player, have to keep track of. If you cast a Giant Growth on a 2/2, the numbers on the card don’t change like they do on Arena – you have to remember it’s a 5/5, and truthfully tell your opponent if they ask how big it is. This goes for any question your opponent asks about open information – the power and toughness of a creature, how many cards in your hand/graveyard/deck, what your life total is, etc. You must answer questions like this truthfully, and you absolutely may not lie about these things.
When can you lie? When it comes to hidden information. If your opponent asks you if you have a counterspell in your hand, you can say whatever you want. Most people just give noncommittal answers like “maybe,” but when it comes to hidden information, you can lie your pants off if you want. Bluffing is a big part of Magic – pretending you have cards you don’t is a perfectly legal and often strategically advantageous thing to do (we’ll cover this in more depth in a future article).
Tracking open information, however, is crucially important and is the responsibility of both players. When the life totals change, legibly mark the change on your life pad and confirm it verbally – “I take three, go to 17, you’re on 20.” When you scry, announce where the scryed cards are going: “one top, one bottom” or the like. If a creature takes damage combat and didn’t die, you have to remember how much it took in case they have a burn spell to finish it off. It sounds like a lot, but it isn’t too hard to manage after awhile.
When playing on MTGA, the program will helpfully track revealed cards for you. If you Thoughtseize your opponent, the cards you know are still in hand will be face-up on the screen. If you scry something to the bottom, you can click on your library and see it there. This is not the case in paper. Once you’ve finished resolving Thoughtseize, your opponent can pick up their cards and don’t have to show you them again, and you aren’t allowed to pick up your library and look at the bottom card if you forgot how you scryed.
What you can do, however, is take notes. When you Thoughtseize someone, you’re allowed to quickly write down the contents of their hand. If they reveal the top card of their library to a Delver of Secrets, you can write its name down to help you remember it’s in their hand. When playing casually, some opponents will “play open” after a Thoughtseize, leaving the revealed cards face-up, but they don’t have to do this and you shouldn’t expect it. Taking notes is a good habit to get into if you want to play more competitively, but it may make you seem like a “try-hard” if you do it when playing casually.
If there is one takeaway this article should provide, it’s this: communicate as clearly as possible, at all times. Everything from giving your opponent a chance to respond to spells through to verbally communicating life total changes will help reduce ambiguity and make sure you and your opponent have a fair game of Magic. Without the client to keep track of everything for you – creature stats changing, triggered abilities, life total changes – it can be overwhelming, so make sure you take your time to understand everything properly.
Especially at a smaller, more casual event or in friendly games, tell your opponent you’re new to paper. There’s no shame in it, of course, and it may help them recognize they need to slow down a bit and not take shortcuts that seem obvious to long-term paper players. If an opponent seems to find it irritating or tiresome that you’re needing a bit of extra breathing room to stay on top of the game, don’t let it get to you. It’s their problem, not yours.
Most players, however, won’t be like this. Most players just want to have a fun and fair game of Magic, and at the LGS level will be more than happy to help you make sure you understand what’s going on. That tolerance probably won’t carry over to high-stakes events, where winning is a little more important, but when starting out you should be able to rely on good faith opponents helping to facilitate a good time for both of you.
Finally – ask questions! Even this (rather long) article isn’t exhaustive. If your opponent does or says something you don’t understand like it’s normal, ask what it means. You’ll learn a lot by observing how others play the game in paper, and unravel the mysteries of all the weird things paper players do by just asking what’s going on.
For instance – why do paper players always shuffling and flip the cards in their hand around? It’s a combination of being fidgety and also disguising what’s in their hand – if they draw and immediately play a removal spell without shuffling it into their hand first, for instance, that gives away information. Now you know!
Remember – at the end of the day, Magic is a game and it’s meant to be fun. This entire article series is designed to make sure that’s the priority: that you enjoy yourself while playing Magic. Armed with this information, you’re now in a position to navigate a paper game of Magic and the little idiosyncrasies that come with it – good luck, and have fun!