Between Mt. Gox and Bad Moons, my favorite hobby has more cultural visibility since its World Championship was broadcast on ESPN2 in 1997.

I'm speaking, of course, of Magic: The Gathering - a collectible card game (CCG) created in 1993 and the spiritual parent of Pokemon, Yu-gi-oh!, WoW:TCG, Hearthstone, Dominion, and legions of other games that have since vanished or faded into obscurity. While other CCGs have come and gone, Magic has maintained a devoted following and has, strangely enough, never been more popular.

Who the heck are you?

I'm TheWL, and have been playing Magic since 1995, and have played it competitively since approximately 2002. My best performance was coming in 82nd out of about 2500 in a tournament in Worcester two years ago. As an amateur hobbyist, that makes me a good player, but far from a great one. I met all of my best friends through this game - I consider it both a seminal and incredibly positive aspect of an otherwise slightly messed-up life. I've been preparing for a large tournament for the past week, so I thought I'd drop some knowledge while it's fresh in my brain.

What is Magic?

In essence, Magic is a 2-player turn-based card game where players play with their own customized deck of cards. The original conceit was that each player represented a wizard, and the cards in your deck represented an arsenal of spells you were flinging in a wizardly duel, whether by summoning creatures, throwing fireballs, or turning your opponent's mind to mush. But no matter. Each person starts with 20 life points and seven cards, and the goal is to use the cards in your deck to ensure that your opponent loses all of his or her life points before you do. The cards in your deck accomplish this by providing resources, interacting with other cards, providing more cards, or causing your opponent to lose life points (aka "take damage"). Some cards are extremely powerful but expensive from a resource standpoint, while others are less powerful but require fewer resources, and so can be played earlier and more efficiently. The tension between power and speed is perhaps the fundamental underpinning of Magic strategy.


Fine. What are these cards and where do they come from?

As a collectible card game, the point is, well, to collect cards. Cards are initially available in either randomized packs (known as boosters) or in preconstructed packs with known cards. One can also buy individual cards from various dealers. Each card likewise has a corresponding rarity: common, uncommon, rare, and mythic. Each booster contains 10 cards of common rarity, 3 cards of uncommon rarity, and 1 card of rare or mythic rarity. Boosters are of various "sets", collections of cards which are released about four or five times a year, adding new cards to the game. As you can probably guess, rare and mythic cards tend to be better, and so are more valuable both in a monetary and strategic sense. Some cards are expensive, some cards are cheap. In order to be competitive, expect to spend at a minimum $60 to make a decent deck to play with, although some decks are worth well over $2000.

I've got some cards. Now what?

From these cards that you buy, however you buy them, you make a deck of 60 cards, using no more than 4 of any one card except for the basic cards that grant resources ("basic lands"). What deck you make depends on two things: 1) what format you are playing and 2) what the hell you feel like doing. In Magic terms "format" defines the set of cards you are allowed to include in your deck. The most popular format, Standard, restricts the list of playable cards to those cards released in the most recent sets - this ensures both a low barrier to entry (money-wise) as well as a level playing field. Other formats, such as Legacy, allow you to play with cards from any set, except for a few cards which are disallowed because they are either too weird or too good.


Now that you know what cards you can make a deck with, you have to decide what the hell you want to do. Magic is a game of tremendous personal agency. Do I want to make a deck designed to frustrate my opponent's every move? Do I want to win by playing a bunch of giant dragons and hydras? Do I want to blitz my opponent and kill him or her as quickly as possible? Do I want to win by slowly grinding out a victory and eroding my hapless opponent's will to live? Or do I feel clever, and want to win games out of nowhere through ingenious combinations of cards?

Feel free to choose. All of these choices are not only valid, they are good.

So I've got this deck...

So you have a deck that's legal in a certain format. Great. Now go out and play. Some people prefer to sit around a kitchen table and play with their friends, while others (such as yours truly) go out and find tournaments to compete at and win prizes. Tournaments range from small Friday Night Magic events, which run weekly and generally have about 30-40 players and a prize of about $40 to the winner, to Grand Prix which can have over 4000 players (Richmond, the second largest GP of all time, had about 4300) and total cash purses well into the six figures. Still more prestigious is the Pro Tour, where qualifying players can win five-figure sums. However, one can only get to the Pro Tour by being in the top 8 (out of thousands) at a Grand Prix or winning a qualifying tournament.


But the prizes are irrelevant - what keeps me going in this silly, expensive, damnably complex game is the incredible competition and stimulation it brings. Magic can best be described as an amalgamation of chess, poker, bridge, and philately - taking elements from each and welding them into a nearly flawless gestalt. It just satisfies.

So what?

Chicken butt. You now (probably) know more about an incredibly popular yet arcane hobby than you did before you read this article. Leave your questions/nerd-abuse/invectives in the comments.