Magic: the Gathering is a very complex game. To a beginner it can often be overwhelming to try to learn everything, or even keep track of all the different things going on in just a single game!
Sometimes, winning and losing a game can be attributed to mana-flood or a series of painful mulligans. More often than not, however, the outcome will be based on one thing: information.
Information is king in Magic. Every move you make, spell you cast, even which lands you tap and which you leave up give an attentive opponent information about what spells you may have left in your hand and what your strategy may be. This goes both ways, of course; paying attention to what your opponent is doing can give away a lot of information.
Based on this knowledge, I offer the following tips to help you become a better Magic player.
Patience, Young Padawan
You will often want to cast all of your spells as quickly as you can. Unless you are playing a very fast, aggressive deck that has to win quickly or risk running out of gas, it is often best to resist this urge. Wait until the last possible moment to cast spells and activate abilities. Often this will mean using them at the end of your opponent’s turn. Having cards in your hand and untapped land means your opponent doesn’t know what you plan to do, and may play around a combat trick that isn’t in your hand! “Bluffing” these types of things is as applicable in Magic as it is in poker.
Also, this strategy keeps your options open for as long as possible, which is always to your advantage. By waiting to the last possible moment to activate abilities or cast spells, you maintain the ability to respond to whatever your opponent does.
Typically, you almost always want to play sorceries, enchantments, and creatures during the second main phase of your turn; that is, after combat, unless that spell will have a beneficial effect on your combat phase. Combat tricks, which are typically instants or activated abilities of creatures or enchantments, almost always want to be played during the combat phase, and typically at the last possible moment. Don’t play your Giant Growth until you know how your opponent is going to block!
The threat of a combat trick can sometimes be enough to bluff your opponent. Even when you have only one card in your hand, as long as you have untapped lands, your opponent has to make an educated guess about what you are representing.
Know Your Deck
You should have an intimate understanding of all 60 cards in your deck. If you’ve just jammed a bunch of spells, creatures, and lands together and called it a deck without much thought going into how it all works together, see my article Deckbuilding 101.
Understand how the deck works, the various interactions that make it tick, and its route(s) to victory through different match-ups and situations.
Be able to explain to your opponent clearly how any combos might work, and have an understanding of any rules you need to know. For example, if you have several creatures with the “Regenerate” ability, you should be aware how that keyword ability interacts in a variety of situations.
Does your deck make tokens? Have several of the types you will need ready to go.
Does your deck have tutors? Tutors are cards that let you go find other cards in your deck. These are powerful cards. When you play one of these cards, you should know exactly what card you want to go fetch; this is not the time to take a trip through your deck and see what looks like fun, this is the time to get exactly the card you need to turn the tide in your favor, and you should already know what that card is. Green decks often feature cards that allow you to search your deck for a land of some sort; know what land you’re fetching before you start searching.
Knowing your deck will help you make correct plays throughout the game, based not only on what is in your hand, but what you could possibly draw later in the game.
The mana sources you tap to cast spells, the sources you leave available, tell your opponent a story. Usually this story is about what is in your hand.
Experienced opponents have often learned to play around certain cards, especially if they know you have it in your deck. Leaving two islands untapped is usually a clear sign of a Counterspell. Having an untapped forest going into combat can herald a Giant Growth.
Keep in mind, however, that just because you have that combat trick or counterspell in your hand, doesn’t mean you have to use it. Save your counterspells for the spells that count. Save your Giant Growth for the moment you get to kill one of their creatures with it, or swing for the kill.
If you have dual lands on the board, you almost always want to leave those untapped if at all possible to keep your options open.
It is also important to know and understand the strengths of the different Magic colors. There are some powerful, cheap, common effects that are typically played in each of the five colors, and you should be aware of them, both when you are representing spells in hand, and when your opponent has untapped mana and cards in hand.
White often has situational combat tricks in the form of “destroy target attacking or defending creature” or “exile target creature with power 4 or greater”.
Blue favors counterspells to control the board and “bounce” effects that send creatures back to their owner’s hand. Casting spells into open blue mana can often be a tricky endeavor, but what your opponent chooses to counter (and chooses to allow on the board) can tell you a lot about how they play and even what is in their hand.
Open black mana can often mean murderous intent, as black is the king of instant-speed creature removal with cards like Doom Blade and its predecessor Terror being cheap, efficient and quite effective.
An opponent with an untapped Mountain or two may very well have a Lightning Bolt. ‘Nuff said. Burn spells are prevalent and powerful in red decks, and just one can often drastically alter combat math.
Green is similar to white, in that it often has situational instant-speed combat tricks. Giant Growth was printed in Alpha and every Core Set until M11, and most recently reprinted in Return to Ravnica. Also of note are cards like Plummet, which kills a flier, and Naturalize, which eliminates an artifact or enchantment.
Read the Flippin’ Card!
Look at, read, and clearly understand every card your opponent plays. If you don’t know how a certain rule works (for example, something obscure like Phasing or initially confusing, like Dredge), ask for clarification. Magic is an incredibly deep game with a ton of cards that do a lot of different things. No player who has just started can be expected to understand every keyword or ability from the get-go (even the ones that are spelled out, in detail, on the cards can be confusing sometimes! I still have a hard time grasping the strategy behind Dredge, for example.)
Try to do more than just read and understand the cards your opponent plays, though. Think about the cards you’ve seen from your opponent, how they fit together, and you can get a better idea of what kind of deck they are playing and what you can expect out of it.
Know what your burn spells are for. If you are throwing Lightning Bolts at your opponent’s face on turn two when they are still at 17 or so life, you’re doing it wrong. Burn spells are powerful because they double as direct damage and possible creature removal. In the early game, clearing a path for your creatures is generally a better use of a Lightning Bolt (or any other similar burn spell). In the late game, when life totals are low, a Lightning Bolt can be the final nail in your opponent’s coffin. At that point, don’t be afraid to use it as such.
Understand (and use!) Your Resources
You have a variety of different resources at your disposal in any given game of Magic. Which of these are available to you depends on how you build your deck. For new players, the two most difficult resources to use correctly are their graveyard and their life total.
The graveyard is the easier of the two to grasp, as there are cards that allow you to bring a creature from the graveyard directly to the battlefield or to your hand, and Innistrad block made excellent use of the “flashback”mechanic, which allowed you to cast spells directly out of your graveyard.
The life total, however, is not exactly an easy resource for newer players to understand how to use well. Black spells will often offer the player the option of trading life points for cards. I remember when I first started playing with my kids, they would often cast Sign in Blood (“Target player loses two life and draws two cards”) and target their opponent with it, wanting to hit them for two life but not realizing the advantage the two extra cards would give their opponent. Granted, that is the right play to make, if the opponent only has one or two life points left, but normally you want to trade your own life points for cards if at all possible.
Your life total is a resource that can be used. You don’t win the game for gaining twenty or a hundred life points; you win (typically) by reducing your opponent to zero life. It doesn’t matter if you are at 1 or 100 life. Don’t be afraid to take some damage to keep your creatures on the board a while longer in the early game, especially if they have useful abilities.
This is a game, right? It’s supposed to be fun. If you get so focused on winning that you forget that you started playing the game to have fun with your friends, your play will suffer. If you are so caught up in having to win that you get angry when you lose because of variance, or mana-flood, or your own bad plays, you lose a lot of the capacity to learn from your mistakes.
Every mistake is a learning opportunity. Every lost game is a learning opportunity. Even if you’re playing tournaments, Friday Night Magic or Pro Tour Qualifiers or Grand Prix, every x-2 drop is a learning opportunity.
Gaining the clarity to calmly examine your own play, figure out what you did wrong, what you could have done better, and how you will improve next time is a major key to getting better at this game. As such, take notes! Every game, make a note of mistakes made and how they could have been avoided (if at all!). And remember, sometimes there is no “out” to a situation. It happens to everyone.
Sometimes, you’re going to play a deck that completely, utterly destroys you. My Five-Color Goodstuff.dec is heavily built around enters-the-battlefield triggers. One night at the shop, I sat down to play a game, and one of my opponent’s first plays was a Torpor Orb (“Creatures entering the battlefield don’t cause abilities to trigger”). Every answer I have in the deck is in the form of an enters-the-battlefield trigger, even for problematic artifacts (my beloved Acidic Slime)! I had never even known Torpor Orb existed (okay, maybe I did, but I’d certainly forgotten about it!). Instead of getting mad, though, I sat back and tried to stem the bleeding as best I could with my suddenly overcosted, sub-par creatures, but it was a losing proposition; he was playing a bunch of cheap, incredibly powerful creatures that were cheap and powerful because they had enters-the-battlefield effects that were often detrimental to the caster and good for the opponent (which were now turned off because of the Torpor Orb in play). All of a sudden my Restoration Angels, Thragtusk, and Sun Titan didn’t look so hot in my hand. Even my Elvish Visionary made me sad. Even so, I learned an important lesson: in Magic, there’s an answer for everything. No matter how powerful your deck might be, there’s another deck out there that totally shuts it down.
So you might as well sit back and enjoy what your opponent has put together, see some cool cards interact in a new, unexpected way, and have fun!
When you are focused on playing the game just to play, instead of playing to win, you will often find that you will have a lot more fun, and as a result play a lot better! It is, after all, a game that we play to enjoy ourselves and our time with our friends.
Knowledge is Power
Knowledge is power in Magic. The more you know, the better decisions you can make during the course of any given game. Paying careful attention to the board state, reading all the cards, knowing how best to use your own cards (and sometimes your opponents!), and lots and lots of practice will help you become a better Magic player.
And don’t forget the most important thing: have fun!