How to Play Magic: The Gathering

Magic: the Gathering is my favorite game in the world. I loved it on the day I learned to play. I still love it today, twenty-four years into my exploration of the game. It’s simple enough to learn in one sitting, yet deep enough to spend a decade mastering. This article will teach you what you need to know to play your first session of Magic. Once you’ve done that, who knows where the game might take you?

The Object of the Game

Magic: the Gathering is a turn-based, strategy card game with many possible variations. Although it can be played in teams or in a large free-for-all, this guide will focus on playing against a single opponent.

The object of the game is to defeat that opponent by reducing their life total (which starts at 20) to 0. To accomplish this, you’ll use creatures, and back them up with a variety of other spells. But remember, your opponent will be trying to do the same to you, so in order to win, you’ll have to balance executing your own gameplan with a carefully crafted defense.

Types of Cards


Lands represent your resources in Magic. On each one of your turns, you may play one land from your hand onto the battlefield. Once there, these lands can be used (once each turn) to give you the mana that you need to summon creatures and cast other spells.


Think of creatures as your chess pieces. They can attack your opponent, defend you against attacks, or give you advantages in other ways.

Creatures can vary wildly in power level. At the bottom right corner of a creature card, you’ll find two numbers which represent its power and toughness. You read these numbers as Power/Toughness. Similarly, if a spell or ability includes something like, “+3/+1”, that indicates that it will grant three additional power and one additional toughness. A creature’s power is how much damage it will deal, and its toughness is how much damage it must be dealt in a single turn before it will die.

SoulmenderEmbereth PaladinVorstclaw

Observe that Soulmender has low power and toughness–it’s a weak creature. Embereth Paladin has high power, but low toughness, meaning that it deals a lot of damage, but is relatively fragile. Vorstclaw has both high power and high toughness, and will be a dominant force any time you have it on the battlefield.


Growth CycleMurderMind Rot

Noncreature spells can impact the game in an almost limitless number of ways. Some, like Growth Cycle, will bolster your creatures. Others, like Murder, will weaken or destroy your opponent’s creatures. Still others, like Mind Rot, will give you advantages in other ways.

Sorceries may only be cast on your own turn. Instants may be cast as a surprise at any time, including on your opponent’s turn, or when you’re attacking or blocking. Other types of spells like artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers are cast like creatures, and stay on the battlefield indefinitely. Cards on the battlefield are called permanents.

How to Cast a Spell

Casting a creature or other type of spell requires mana, which you get by tapping your lands.

When you tap a card in Magic, you turn it sideways 90 degrees to signify that it has been used, and cannot be used again until the next turn. When you see the word “tap,” or this symbol:

tap symbol

It means that a spell or ability will require you to tap one of your permanents.

Each of your lands can be tapped once per turn to give you one mana. So if a spell costs three mana, it will require you to tap three lands, and therefore (since you may only play one land per turn), it typically cannot be cast until the third turn of the game.

You’ll find a spell’s mana cost in the top right corner. For example:

Knight of the Keep

The (2) in the top right corner of Knight of the Keep represents two generic mana. The other symbol is the white mana symbol, which you’ll also see on Plains (a basic land). So to cast Knight of the Keep you’ll need one white mana and two more mana of any type. You can get this by tapping a Plains and two additional lands of your choosing.

Once you’ve paid a card’s mana cost, if it’s a creature you may put it from your hand onto the battlefield. If it’s an instant or sorcery spell, you may perform its effect and put it into the graveyard, where it can no longer be used again.

What Happens in a Turn?

A game of Magic might take any number of turns. When you’re just starting out, you can usually expect each player to get at least six or seven turns in a game, and sometimes as many as twenty or twenty-five! On each of your turns, perform these actions, in this order:

  • Untap your permanents. If you tapped any lands or creatures last turn, straighten them out again. Now they’re refreshed and can be used again.
  • Draw a card from your library (also known as your deck) into your hand.
  • Take your first main phase.*
  • Attack with your creatures, if you choose.
  • Take your second main phase.*
  • End your turn.

Your main phase is the time when you play your land, and cast your spells. Instants are the only cards that may be cast at a time other than your main phase. (But they can still be cast in your main phase if you choose)!

Attacking and Blocking

You reduce your opponent’s life total by attacking with creatures. When the time comes to attack (called combat, or the combat phase), you’ll select all of the creatures that you wish to attack with, and tap them. (Your attack happens all at once. You cannot attack with one creature, and then attack with more later in the turn).

Creatures attack your opponent; they do not attack other creatures. Instead, it’s up to the defending player to decide whether or not any of his or her creatures will block. Only untapped creatures may block, but blocking does not cause creatures to tap. Each blocking creature may only block one attacking creature. However, two blocking creatures may block the same attacking creature. If a creature is not blocked, it will deal damage to the opponent. If a creature is blocked, the attacking and blocking creatures will deal damage to one another.

Remember, instants may be cast by either player at any time during combat.

Finally, all attacking and blocking creatures will deal damage. Some creatures might die and be put in the graveyard, and your opponent might take damage that reduces their life total.

Two Notes About Creatures

Damage to a player reduces that player’s life total. However, damage to a creature only lasts until the end of the turn. Just like permanents becoming untapped, creatures get “refreshed” with a new turn. So the powerful Vorstclaw must be dealt seven damage in a single turn before it’s destroyed. You may combine multiple sources of damage to add up to seven, but only if it’s all in the same turn. For example, you could block Vorstclaw with a four-power creature, and then use an instant like Scorching Dragonfire to finish it off.

There is also a special rule that creatures cannot attack, or use abilities that require them to tap, on the turn that you cast them. However, they may block right away.

Example Combat Phase

Johnny attacks with Knight of the Keep and Vorstclaw. Jenny blocks the Knight with Soulmender and Corridor Monitor, but does not block Vorstclaw.

How to Play Magic the Gathering

Now creatures deal damage. Soulmender and Corridor Monitor both have 1 power, so they deal a combined 2 damage to Knight of the Keep. This will be enough to kill the Knight since it only has 2 toughness. The Knight has 3 power, so it cannot deal enough damage to kill both the Monitor and the Soulmender, and the best Johnny can do is kill the Soulmender. Vorstclaw was not blocked and will deal 7 damage to Jenny.

Knight of the Keep and Soulmender die and are put into their owners’ graveyards. Jenny takes 7 damage, reducing her life total from 20 down to 13.

Now Johnny continues his turn, and may play creatures and spells if he chooses.

A Magic Deck

Part of the fun of Magic: The Gathering comes from that fact that each player may build his or her own deck to play with. Each deck reflects its owner’s strategies and personality, and the limitless variety of possible decks means that every game of Magic is different.

Decks are either 40 or 60 cards, depending on whether you’re playing Limited or Constructed. A little over 40% of your deck should be lands (about 17 lands in a 40-card deck and about 25 lands in a 60-card deck). You may play with at most 4 copies of a particular card. The exception to that rule are the basic lands—Plains, Forest, Island, Mountain, and Swamp—which can be played in whatever number you like.

Starting a Game

  1. Each player thoroughly shuffles his or her deck. Each player should also have a way to keep track of his or her life total, such as dice or pencil or paper.
  2. Determine who will go first. If you like, you can roll a die or flip a coin. If you’re playing more than one game, you can alternate who goes first each time, or have the loser of the previous game go first.
  3. Each player draws an opening hand of seven cards.
  4. If you don’t like your opening hand (for example, if you have zero or only one land), you may take a mulligan. A mulligan means shuffling your hand back into your library (deck) and drawing a new hand. Once you’re satisfied, you choose a number of cards in your hand equal to the number of times you mulliganed, and put them on the bottom of your library. So if you mulliganed twice, you get to keep five out of seven cards that you like the most. If you didn’t mulligan, you’re all set with the full seven.
  5. Whoever is going first begins the game!

There’s a special rule that the player who goes first does not draw a card on his or her first turn. But don’t worry, it’s still a small advantage to go first!

Since you may only play one land per turn, and since most spells cost more than one mana, games of Magic can sometimes start out slowly. However, once both players get a couple of lands in play, you’ll start casting your spells, attacking, and blocking, and things will get exciting fast!

That’s all you need to know to play a game of Magic! Some of the peculiarities of individual cards and unusual circumstances can be difficult to master. However, I recommend learning those things gradually, as you go along. Even tournament players don’t memorize every little detail about the rules of Magic! For reference, I’ve included a short glossary of terms you’re likely to encounter as you’re getting started. To learn the rules in greater depth, you can find tons of resources on Wizards’ website.


Glossary of Terms

  • Ability: Permanents can have abilities that affect the game like spells. Some abilities trigger automatically upon certain events or certain conditions being met–for example, Lost Legion allowing you to scry when it enters the battlefield. Other abilities must be activated by paying a cost–like Soulmender requiring you to tap it to gain one life.
  • Battlefield: The battlefield is the game board. Lands, creatures, and other permanents that have been cast or played from the players’ hands are on the battlefield.
  • Cast: You cast a spell from your hand by paying its mana cost (tapping the proper lands). If it’s a creature, artifact, enchantment, or planeswalker, it will enter the battlefield and become a permanent. If it’s an instant or sorcery, its effect will happen, and it will go to the graveyard.
  • Deck: Your deck is the selection of cards (usually 40 or 60 cards), that you use to play the game. You may customize your deck before you play with it. Before each game, shuffle your deck and draw an opening hand of seven cards. Note that many players use the words, “deck” and “library” interchangeably.
  • Destroy: If you destroy a permanent, it’s put into its owner’s graveyard. If a creature takes an amount of damage (all in one turn) equal to or greater than its toughness, it is destroyed.
  • Discard: Discarding a card means taking a card from your hand and putting it directly in the graveyard. At the end of your turn, if you have more than seven cards, you must discard until you have seven. Sometimes spells or abilities will require you to discard cards. If you have no cards in your hand and one of your own abilities requires you to discard a card, you may not use that However, if you have no cards in your hand and one of your opponent’s spells or abilities would cause you to discard, you may ignore that part of the effect.
  • Draw: When you draw a card, you take the top card of your library and put it into your hand. You draw one card on each of your turns. Sometimes spells or abilities will cause you to draw additional cards.
  • Exile: In the normal course of play, as cards die or are used up, they go to the graveyeard. However, you’ll sometimes be instructed to “exile” a card, in which case it will not go to the graveyard, and will not trigger any ability related to something dying. Exiled cards cannot be retrieved or interacted with. For most intents and purposes, they’re “gone for good.”
  • Graveyard: The graveyard is where creatures and other permanents go when they die, and where spells go after they’ve had their effect. Each player has his or her own graveyard, separate from the opponent’s. Some spells and abilities can affect the graveyard, but otherwise, cards in the graveyard are gone and no longer affect the game.
  • Hand: You begin the game with seven cards in your hand, and draw one additional card each turn. Your hand contains the lands that you haven’t yet played, and the cards that you may cast as spells once you pay their mana cost.
  • Library: Your library is the stack of remaining cards in your deck that you have not yet drawn. Each turn, you draw one card from your library into your hand.
  • Mana: Lands give you mana. You use mana to cast spells. There are five different colors of mana, represented by these symbols: [image of mana symbols]. Generic mana costs, represented by the small gray numerals, may be paid using any type of mana.
    mana symbols
    Generic mana costs, represented by the small gray numerals, may be paid using any type of mana.
  • Planeswalker: Planeswalkers are a more advanced card type. They’re often highly rare and highly powerful. They start with a certain number of loyalty counters, and can use one ability per turn (during its controller’s main phase), that involves adding or subtracting loyalty counters. They’re not creatures, so they can be used on the first turn they enter the battlefield. Creatures can attack planeswalkers in an effort to kill them or reduce their loyalty. As you attack, you announce whether each creature is attacking the opponent or a planeswalker, and then blocking occurs as normal.
  • Permanent: All cards on the battlefield are permanents.
  • Sacrifice: Sacrificing a permanent means moving it directly from the battlefield to the graveyard. You can only sacrifice your own permanents, and you may not use spells or abilities to save them.
  • Scry: When you Scry “X” you look at the top “X” cards of your library (it will usually be one or two, as instructed). You put each card on either the top, or the bottom of your library, and if X is more than one, you may change the order as desired.
  • Spell: All cards other than lands are spells as they’re being cast. After you cast a creature spell, it becomes a permanent on the battlefield. After you cast an instant or sorcery spell, it has its effect and goes to the graveyard.
  • Target: Many spells and abilities will target a particular permanent or player. The target of a spell or ability will be the beneficiary (or victim) of its effect.
  • Trigger: Some abilities happen upon certain events, or certain conditions being met. For example, an ability might trigger when a creature enters the battlefield, or when a creature dies.
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