The Novice

How to Play Magic: The Gathering

Those who can’t do, learn. In this installment of our series in which the clueless apprentice with the experts, we learn lands, creatures, and spells from Magic great Jon Finkel.

Courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Inside Jim Hanley’s Universe, a comic book store at 33rd St. and 5th Ave. in New York City, every surface sings with a blazing sheen. Veiny pectorals superabound, emblazoned with bright, shining insignias. The racks burst with busy, paneled pages. But downstairs in the basement, the white concrete walls are unadorned. The air smells of mothballs. Near the stairway, two separate restrooms molder in disrepair. By the look of it, it doesn’t seem like a venue that would attract a large group of young people on a Friday night—but those bound to show up tonight aren’t your typical metropolitans.

It’s about five o’ clock, an hour before a tournament of the card game Magic: The Gathering is scheduled to begin. As of yet, the only other person here is a man in his mid-twenties wearing a fisherman’s hat and sitting alone, flapping feverishly through a thick binder of cards. When I walk in, he greets me with a quick, dismissive hand-signaling—he has no time to spare.

Magic: The Gathering is the original “collectible card game,” meaning it was the first game to combine the traditional collectibility aspects of baseball cards (i.e., cards with varying rarity, bought in randomized packs) with the imaginative play of games like Dungeons & Dragons (i.e., you get to fight goblins). Since its inception in 1992, Magic has inspired entire empires, both real and imaginary. Online stockpiles of fan-fiction elaborate on the complex storylines that accompany the game, involving dozens of characters on a number of mystical, inter-dimensional planes. More tangibly, every year brings the Magic World Championship, currently with a grand prize of $45,000.

The basic premise of the game is that two wizards, each armed with a repertoire of spells and an army of creatures, battle until one dies. This gives rise to the intricate network of effects that makes Magic such a difficult game for an outsider to crack. Because new expansion sets of cards are released all the time—thus adding to the pool of cards useable in game-play—anyone hoping to stay competitive must continually buy dozens of packs of cards. Annually, the game sells more than Monopoly and Scrabble combined.

My pocket rumbles. “I may not make it till closer to 545. I apologize,” reads a text message from my guide on this adventure, Jon Finkel, a World Champion and probably the most famous Magic player in America. Though tonight is just an informal weekly tournament and not by any means an organized championship, it’s still expected to yield about 20-30 of the city’s most fervent and unforgiving players. Luckily, Finkel agreed to meet me here tonight and to go over some basic strategies before the games begin.

I take a seat at a table behind the guy in the hat, and as he turns to peer at me I feel my face pinch into a polite grin. “Do you have any Mindlock Orbs?” he asks earnestly.

I pat my pockets. “Sorry.”

Step One: Preparing for the Tournament

Players trickle in one by one, jostling with backpacks and staking out territory at opposite ends of the tables. Each participant carefully sets his chapped white box of cards onto the table and determinedly begins to sort. From every direction I hear the bassy rip of shuffling, the pitter-patter of cards dealt into piles. Most of the players carry velvet sacks in which they keep colored plastic stones (for measuring strength and loyalty) and a spare clutch of 20-sided die (for keeping track of their life scores). Some even have special playing mats replete with ornate illustrations (dragons consumed in flames, embittered angels bearing crested shields), which they unfurl and align like table settings.

A trio of 12-year-olds slinks past me, small and goggled and blinking like moles. The guy in the hat sprawls onto the table to meet them, says he biked here from Staten Island because fuck the subway, and then quickly rattles off a salvo of cards he’s interested in trading for. As he speaks, I notice they’re all gazing into space with a kind of wistful absorption, enchanted by the combined mention of cards like “Banewasp Affliction,” “Scepter of Fugue,” and “Hellspark Elemental.”

I look up and see Jon Finkel walking toward me; I recognize him from the videos of his world championship win, and also from the illustration of “Shadowmage Infiltrator,” the card famously based on Finkel. Stubbled but well-kept, Finkel is built like someone who keeps barbells under his bed, and has the whitest teeth of anyone here. He grabs my hand, we fall into chairs, and training begins.

The first thing Finkel wants to know is what kind of tournament is happening tonight: constructed or draft? (In a draft tournament, he explains, every player chooses cards one at a time from a small random pool of unopened packs; in a constructed tournament, players compete with their personal decks.) While we wait to find out, I prod Finkel about what it takes to be a champion.

“Luck?” he guesses. “See—I won about 61 percent of my match-ups on the Pro Tour. There are a lot of people who win 58, 59 percent. So what does that mean? That I win one in 20 more matches than they do? Over the long run that actually works out to be a substantive difference, but it’s not that substantive, you know? Luck matters a lot…”

In terms of traits that all great players possess, he cites flexibility and alertness. “Magic is in some ways very much like an accounting game, in that you always have to be aware of how everything is interacting with everything else. That’s easier for some people than other people.”

Today Finkel is 30, and trades for a small but growing hedge fund. “Playing a game. That’s all I’m doing,” he says about it.

Emerging from the stairwell, a man with a mane of black hair carries a clipboard. It is Drew Wilkes, the tournament’s organizer (and an employee at the comic store). He stops at the head of the room and gropes his wolfhound beard. “Draft game it is.”

Step Two: Drafting

The drafting process is crucial—it determines your arsenal for the entire night. Another factor is what specific sets of Magic cards we’ll be drafting from, as each one demands its own special strategy; tonight we’ll be playing with one set called Conflux and another called Shards of Alara.

Right away Finkel advises me to go for a three-color “wedge,” meaning I should pick cards of three, “allied colors.” Then he lists, off the top of his head, a dozen cards I should grab if I can. I try to hold onto mysterious phrases like “Oblivion Ring,” “Agony Warp,” and “Vythian Stinger,” but I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Allied colors?” I ask timidly.

Finkel gives me a stunned look, then wipes his face like he doesn’t know where to begin.

He reaches across the table and sticks a card into my hand—pointing to the color wheel residing under the Magic logo. He explains that each of the five colors is like its own nation (green being based in Forests and so home to elves, centaurs, treefolk; red being based in mountains and so home to dwarves, goblins, fire spells; etc.). Some colors are allied and some, in keeping with Magic’s rich storylines, are at war. The cards of allied colors have built-in effects that naturally work well in unison. For example, a green Rhino that lives near mountains might have a special ability that makes all red creatures (say, your Sedge Trolls, Orc Conscripts, Firefright Mages, etc.) more powerful—which would work nicely if you were playing with a deck of green and red.

At the drafting table, the other players thump their fingers on the table rhythmically while they wait for the cards to be passed around, glaring hungrily at each other.

I look discreetly at my cards. Bryan was right about the shuffling, and I tell him so. He smiles painfully. “You probably shouldn’t have told me that.”

Finkel watches my picks from over my shoulder—and as I slowly begin to plod through dozens of cards I’ve never seen before, I can feel him there, silently judging. The first pick I make is for a black creature called “Shambling Remains”—a huge, thousand-armed mound of sutured human flesh whose Creature-type is a “Zombie Horror.” I feel good about this pick; if nothing else, it’s bold.

The second pick, though, isn’t nearly so easy to make. While all the other players are fluent in the latest sets of cards, and can make their choices more or less instantly, I have to read what each card does and then decide which is most worthy. It takes me a very long time. After a few minutes, Finkel seems to tire of watching me, and he sits down in a corner of the room.

When the drafting is over, Finkel doesn’t look happy. He takes the stack of cards I’ve just drawn (roughly about 40 cards) and quickly toggles through them. “Your first pick was good,” he grants me, “Wouldn’t have been my pick, but still—not bad.”

“It’s a Zombie Horror,” I point out.

“Your second pick wasn’t bad, either,” he continues, “But your third…” He suddenly looks away, as though he might lose control. Then he looks down at me impassively, flashing the card between two fingers. “You went with the Angelsong? Does this card even do anything?”

I look at the card again. On it, a dismounted, graying knight is smiling beatifically into a golden shower of healing light. The card reads: “Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt this turn.” Finkel explains how passive and callow this maneuver is—a card that could only serve to delay an inevitable loss. I nod along, frowning. Finkel whittles down my card choices into a useable deck, removing Angelsongs and the like. Whenever he throws out a card, he looks at it first and sighs.

The tournament is set to begin, but Finkel, holding up his iPhone, apologizes that he can’t actually stay to watch.

“You’re going?” I squeak, and he nods with a vigorous wince.

“You’ll do fine,” he says, clearly softening the blow of what’s about to happen to my deck.

As he leaves, a breezy excitement floods the room—players murmuring and shaking their heads in disbelief over Finkel’s appearance at the tournament. Next to me, someone turns to the guy in the fisherman’s hat and mouths the word “legend.”

Step Three: Drawing Your Hand

My opponent in the first round could be Magic’s diplomat at the U.N. A cheerful man in his early twenties, Bryan sports a thick pair of black-rimmed glasses and a mossy fur-growth that covers most of his neck. Upon my sitting down he extends an enthusiastic hand for shaking, his face twinkling with joy.

“Shuffling is very important,” he lectures, watching me until he’s satisfied. Then he claps his hands together once in excitement. The game has begun. Our decks, facedown in a pile, are now our libraries, from which we each draw seven cards that now become our hands.

Looking discreetly at my drawn cards, I see I have several of each major kind of card: lands, creatures, and spells. Bryan was right about the shuffling, and I tell him so.

He smiles painfully. “You probably shouldn’t have told me that.”

“Oh, right. Poker face,” I say, nodding.

Step Four: Setting Down a Land

It’s useful to think of a land as a kind of rechargeable battery for your magical wizard powers. Each spell and creature costs a specific number of lands—lands that you must draw from your library and then set down onto the board one at a time. These lands stay on the board permanently unless they are destroyed, but their power can only be used once every turn. The main dilemma with lands is that the luck of the draw doesn’t always grant you with the type that you need at any given moment (black spells require swamps, red require mountains, blue require islands, etc).

In my hand I have mostly black spells and creatures, so I choose to set down a land that will help me use them—a swamp.

When it’s his turn, Bryan draws another card from his library and then deliberates on it for a while, his chin perched on his fist. From his fan of cards, he then lays down a mountain—a move that puts him in perfect position to either cast a red spell or summon a red creature on his following turn.

Step Five: Summoning Creatures and Casting Spells

On my next turn, I put down an island, and, looking at my hand, find that I have a creature that only requires one swamp and one of any other land to be brought into play. So I use my swamp and my island (by rotating them, thereby signifying that I have used all of their power for this turn; this is called tapping), and lower something called a “Salvage Slasher” onto the board.

Salvage Slasher looks like he’s straight out of The Road Warrior and has a gnarled rusty saw for an arm.

“Are you done?” Bryan asks seriously. Whenever an opponent asks you that question, you know you’re in trouble. On his next turn he places another mountain on the board and then reaches out and tightens them both like nozzles (tapping them). “Hellspark Elemental,” he announces, and the twinkling joy returns.

Hellspark Elemental is a red incandescent spirit—and something of a badass, apparently. He has an ability called “Haste” that allows him to attack on the same turn he was summoned. I have no choice but to block his attack with my Salvage Slasher, who, despite his post-apocalyptic apparel, turns out to be a pretty ineffectual guy overall. Hellspark has a greater “power and toughness” level, and so prevails. I dispense with Slasher—moving him into my graveyard pile. Watching, Bryan makes an exploding noise with his mouth.

Step Six: Dying

Four turns later, Bryan and I have drawn and set down a number of creatures and lands. But Bryan has been smacking me for going on two turns with a flying owl named Parasitic Strix, something none of my grounded, non-flying creatures can reach high enough to block. When I can’t block a creature, the damage gets dealt directly to me as a player—taking away points from my overall life score. (I began with 20 points, then had 18, 16, etc.)

The author surveys his options. Credit: Dan Keezer.

This turn might change my luck, though—because now I finally have enough lands to cast one of my biggest spells. Taking a deep breath, I tap every land I’ve got and slam an Absorb Vis onto the board. Absorb Vis reads, “Target player loses 4 life and you gain 4 life.” Across the table, Bryan’s mouth goes slack. He searches his cards for something, anything to counter my spell with—but, alas, all of his lands are already tapped. Finally he looks at me, his eyes narrowing. I’m glowing.

But then on the next turn, a scorned, humorless, wholly unrecognizable Bryan proceeds to lay down such a torrent of heavy fire that it’s a challenge even to comprehend it. Three more carnage-filled turns go by before Bryan smiles at me again, long after he’s destroyed me.

Over the next two hours, my other matches proceed in similar fashion; one player defeats me with such speed that he has time to grab some McDonald’s before the next round; another finishes me without bothering to look up from his Nintendo DS.

Owls plague me. More than once, I’m trampled by a rhino, or buried in a stone avalanche. My sanctums perish and my archers are riddled with sores. In my final game, out of mercy it seems, a behemoth with an ancient name whales on me until I die.

Shortly after the tournament concludes and the winners are announced (Bryan wins second place and a plunder of nine new packs of cards), all the players gather up their gear and head to the stairwell. One by one they set off, heads buried as they climb up to the ground level—braced, it seems, for that other, much more perilous of mystical planes: Midtown.


TMN editor Matt Ray Robison is a fellow at the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He lives in Ann Arbor. More by Matt Ray Robison