Magic: The Gathering

Magic: The Gathering (a.k.a "Magic" or "MTG"), created by Richard Garfield of Wizards of the Coast, Inc., introduced in 1993 created the collectible card game genre. Though the game draws heavily from traditional role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons for its fantasy motifs, the rules bear little resemblance to pencil-and-paper campaign rules; there is only minimal role-playing in typical play, so the game plays more like a strategy contest with an element of luck, like bridge. Games usually finish in well under an hour (compared to many hours, typically spread over a number of sessions, for traditional role-playing games). An online version exists.

Role-players were enthusiastic early fans of Magic, but the game achieved much wider popularity among strategy gamers. The commercial success of the game prompted a wave of other collectible card games to flood the market in the mid-1990s, although many of them were poorly designed and failed both commercially and in popularity. Magic: The Gathering remained the undisputed king of collectible card games until the late 1990s to early 2000 when an import game, also published by Wizards of the Coast, based on the Pokémon characters suceeded in outselling Magic: The Gathering. Eventually, as Pokémon's popularity faded, Magic: The Gathering returned to the top. As of late the top-selling collectible card game is Yu-Gi-Oh, another import game out of Japan, produced by Konami. In 2003, after Magic: The Gathering had fulfilled the ten-year existence required for induction, Games Magazine selected it for its Games Hall of Fame, making it the 23rd game so honored.

Table of contents
1 Game play
2 Deck Building
3 Card sets
4 Tournament Play
5 Playing Magic On The Internet
6 Patent
7 Related Articles
8 External Links

Game play

In Magic, two or sometimes more players play the roles of so-called planeswalkers (powerful wizards) engaging in a magical duel to the death. Every player has a number of life points; once these reach zero (depleted by damage) he or she loses. In addition, if a player's library, or deck, is empty when one needs to draw a card, that player loses. Some cards may also add a new win condition for the game. The last surviving player wins.

Players fight each other by playing (sometimes called "casting") spells from their hand. To cast a spell one needs mana, magical energy, which is generated by land cards. There are thousands of different spell cards, which come from collectible sets (hence the term collectible card game or trading card game). The types of cards are:

In detail, playing spells works like this: the player taps (by turning sideways) a number of land cards. ("Tapping" a card indicates that its resources are being expended for the duration of the current turn.) Typical lands produce mana of a particular type or color. There are five basic lands, and each produces a specific color of mana. Islands generate one blue mana, Swamps one black mana, Plains one white mana, Mountains one red mana, Forests one green mana. This mana is added to the player's mana pool. Then the player plays the spell card from his or her hand, choosing any targets the spell may have. The pooled mana must match the cost requirements of the spell -- for example Dirtwater Wraith needs one black mana and three additional mana of unspecified colors to cast successfully. The player loses one point for each mana left in the mana pool at the end of the phase. This is known as mana burn, and typically happens only rarely, as players will usually tap only what they need to play a spell.

The protocol for resolving spell cards and other abilities is known as the stack, or the LIFO (Last In, First Out) rule. The stack works like this: A player may play any number of successive spells or abilities when he or she has priority. However, none of these actions will resolve (that is, take effect) until the player with priority passes it to the other player, and that player passes in return. If the second player adds anything more to the stack, they go "on top" of the actions already there. When both players pass in succession, the top action on the stack resolves. If both players pass when there are no actions on the stack, the games moves on to the next phase. This protocol may sound complicated in writing, but in practice it is usually instantaneous.

Some spells have effects that override normal game rules (e.g. allow you to play more than one land per turn). Spell effects may contradict each other, and it is one of the more difficult aspects of gameplay to resolve these conflicts. A detailed and thorough rulebook exists to clarify conflicts. The golden rule of Magic is that if a card's text overrides a game rule, follow the card.

Each player has a library where cards from the deck that have not yet been drawn are kept; a hand containing cards drawn but not yet played; an area on the table for his or her lands, creatures, etc. that are in play (cards in play are referred to as permanents); and a graveyard where spent spells or destroyed permanent cards are discarded. Players may never look into the libraries and may see their own hands only, but may view all the other cards on the table without restriction.

Game play is turn-based. During a turn, the active player untaps his tapped cards (returns them to their upright state), draws one card, plays at most one land from his or her hand, casts as many spells as the player wants to and can afford (with mana), and may attack one other player with one or more creatures. In order for a creature to be used as an attacker, it must have been in play before the current turn starts. The attacking player taps the creature card by turning it sideways similar to the land card to indicate he is attacking with a creature card. An attacked player may declare some of her or his creatures as blockers. Blocked attacking creatures deal damage to their blockers (equal to their power) and are in turn damaged by them. A creature that amasses more than a specific number of damage points (its toughness) in one turn dies and goes to its owner's graveyard. Unblocked attackers deal damage to the player they attacked, reducing that player's life points. Damaged creatures that do not die return to full strength at the end of the turn. This is not true of players.

There are restrictions on when spells and lands may be played. Instants may be played during another player's turn and during combat. Other spells and lands are only playable before or after combat in one's own turn.

Deck Building

Preparation for a game takes place far in advance of actual play. Beginners may start out owning only a starter pack of sixty cards -- which is also the normal deck size and can serve as a first deck. Usually though, more and more cards are collected and traded so that serious players have a large trove of cards from which they have to select sixty (normally) for their next deck. Due to the many possibilities, two players seldom enter duels with the same decks (excepting Constructed tournaments, in which certain deck types tend to predominate).

Building a deck is mainly about balancing various aspects. First, you should be aware of the principal probabilities involved. Casual decks must contain forty cards minimum, and Constructed tournament decks must contain 60 cards. For the sake of simplicity, we will assume a sixty-card minimum requirement for this discussion. Larger decks are possible, but usually will not buy you much except unreliability (imagine the one card you need being buried in a library of 60, 80, or 100 cards). One normally cycles through the deck by drawing one card per turn.

Most spells have a color, which means that they require a number of mana points of a specific color to cast (they may require additional mana of unspecified color as well). Some spells (mostly artifacts) need only colorless mana, or mana not of any particular color; very few spells require more than one color. Normally, land will produce a single color of mana; most lands that produce more than one color have drawbacks. These two facts immediately lead to the prime rule of deck building:

Balance mana sources (lands) and effects (spells). Having a lot of black spells but few or no swamps will do you no good. More generally, there needs to be enough land to support your spells. Since land can be reused, a rule of thumb is to include one (suitable) land per two spells.

The five colors of the game (white, blue, black, red, and green) each have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, there are many red cards which can remove your opponent's cards from play, but few red cards enable you to draw additional cards from your library. The opposite is true of blue cards. For these reasons, it is often worthwhile to play two or more colors, so that the strengths of one offset the vulnerabilities of the other.

However, adding more colors than is necessary to a deck can result in inconsistent draws. In a deck with four or five colors, it is quite probable that the player will end up with lands of two colors, and a hand filled with spells of the other colors, and thus be unable to cast anything. Therefore, it is normally recommended to restrict one's deck to a smaller number of colors -- such as only including Island and Swamps, as well as only black and blue spells.

Card sets

Wizards of the Coast releases Magic cards in base sets and expansions. Base sets typically contain more than 300 cards. Expansion sets are usually smaller than 200 cards and are printed in limited supply. They expand the game by adding new cards.

There have been numerous base sets and expansions:

Base sets

  • Alpha (1993)
  • Beta (1993)
  • Unlimited (1993)
  • Revised (1994)
  • Fourth Edition (1995)
  • Fifth Ed. (1997)
  • Sixth Ed. (or "Classic") (1999)
  • Seventh Ed. (2001)
  • Eighth Ed. (2003)


  • Arabian Nights (1994)
  • Antiquities (1994)
  • Legends (1994)
  • The Dark (1994)
  • Fallen Empires (1994)
  • Ice Age Block
    • Ice Age (1995)
    • Homelands (1995)
    • Alliances (1996)
  • Mirage Block
    • Mirage (1996)
    • Visions (1997)
    • Weatherlight (1997)
  • Tempest Block
    • Tempest (1997)
    • Stronghold (1998)
    • Exodus (1998)
  • Unglued (1998, not legal in DCI tournament play)
  • Urza Block
    • Urza's Saga (1998)
    • Urza's Legacy (1999)
    • Urza's Destiny (1999)

  • Masques Block
    • Mercadian Masques (1999)
    • Nemesis (2000)
    • Prophecy (2000)
  • Invasion Block
    • Invasion (2000)
    • Planeshift (2001)
    • Apocalypse (2001)
  • Odyssey Block
    • Odyssey (2001)
    • Torment (2002)
    • Judgment (2002)
  • Onslaught Block
    • Onslaught (2002)
    • Legions (2003)
    • Scourge (2003)
  • Mirrodin Block
    • Mirrodin (2003)
    • Darksteel (early 2004, forthcoming)
    • Fifth Dawn (mid 2004, forthcoming)
An expansion-sized set called Chronicles, released in 1995, reprinted many previous cards that were becoming difficult to obtain but added no new cards to the game.

Tournament Play

Magic: the Gathering has grown a lot since it was first introduced in 1993 and a large culture has developed around the game. Magic tournaments are arranged almost every weekend in gaming stores. Larger tournaments with hundreds of competitors from around the globe sponsored by Wizards of the Coast are arranged many times every year. Large sums of money are paid out to those players who place the best in the tournament, and the winner receives sums upward of $30,000.

All Magic players who play in competitive tournaments become members of the DCI (Duelists' Convocation International). The DCI is the organization responsible for keeping track of how well players are doing compared to all the other Magic players in the world using the Elo rating system. A high DCI rating is the most reliable sign of an excellent Magic player. In addition, the DCI provides the materials for the training of competent judges to interpret the rules and ensure fair play at events.

Tournaments are divided into two types: constructed and limited.

Constructed tournaments are tournaments in which a player comes with a pre-constructed deck, built according to the restrictions of the DCI and the tournament type. (Currently, constructed tournaments are either Type 1, which permits the use of cards from virtually any Magic set, with the exception of those on the Banned list which may not be used and the Restricted list of which only one may be used per deck; Type 1.5, which bans both cards on the Type 1 Banned and Restricted lists but allows cards from almost every set as well; Extended, which currently uses cards from 'Sixth Edition', 'Tempest' and all subsequent sets; Type 2 or Standard, which currently uses 'Eighth Edition', 'Onslaught' and all subsequent sets; and Block Constructed, which permits only cards from the current block of three sets). Decks must consist of no fewer than 60 cards, no more than 4 of any card save basic lands, no more than 1 of any card on the Restricted list, and none of the cards from the Banned list. Also, a 15 card sideboard is permitted, from which a player may tweak his/her deck to better deal with a particular opponent.

Limited tournaments are based on a limited card pool. Three common types of limited tournaments are sealed deck, where players receive a sealed tournament pack of 75 cards, thirty of which are basic lands, and two booster packs of 15 cards; Rochester draft, where players each receive three booster packs of 15 cards, each pack is opened, the cards are placed upon a table, and the players draft one card at a time until the pack is exhausted and the next player's pack is opened; and a booster draft, where each player opens one booster pack, selects a single card, then passes the rest to the next player over. Therefore, in sealed deck tournaments, each player has 75 cards from which to build their deck; in drafts, 45 cards. Any number of basic lands may also be added to the deck. The decks in limited tournaments need only be 40 cards, to allow for the limited flexibility of the decks; all the unused cards function as the sideboard.

World Championship

The most prestigious tournament of all is the World Championship, where the best of the best play against each other until the world champion is crowned. World Championships are played over five days, and an invitation is required to be eligible for play. An invitation is obtained either by placing very highly in a National Championship, or having a high enough DCI ranking. The World Championships are normally held in late summer.

Pro Tour

Multiple Pro Tours are run every year around the world. A typical Pro Tour season begins in early autumn, with an event held roughly every six weeks until the end of spring. The locations vary each year, and these are large events with myriad side tournaments. They are also invitation-only events. Before the Pro Tour, a large number of Pro Tour Qualifiers are held, where invitations are handed out to the winners; players who have played in enough previous Pro Tour events also receive invitations. Winning a Pro Tour is every competitive Magic player's dream. Currently, each Pro Tour carries a total purse of $200,000, with the winner receiving $30,000. Beginning with the 2003-2004 Pro Tour season, the fifty top-ranked Pro players at the conclusion of the season will receive additional cash prizes totaling $635,000.

Grand Prix

Grand Prix tournaments are open to everyone, both amateurs and professionals. The payout isn't as big as for a Pro Tour and winning a Grand Prix is not as prestigious. But, they still attract international competition. Grand Prix tournaments are also held both in the United States and in other countries. Some recent Grand Prix events have been in: New Orleans, Los Angeles, Brussels, Yokohama, Taipei, Utrecht, and other diverse cities. Many players enjoy traveling to Grand Prix tournaments simply to travel and to see the sights around the world.


The Invitational is a tournament held for the 16 highest performers of the year. The winner of the World Championship, the Pro Tour player of the year, and several fan-voted players are among the contestants in a who's-who of professional Magic play. The prize of this tournament is not money but rather the opportunity to design a new card for an upcoming expansion. When the card is printed, it typically bears a likeness of the victor as well. Often the Invitational is held at a exotic location.

The Invitational winners and the cards they took part in designing so far is:

Other tournaments

Many stores that sell Magic hold at least a tournament once every week; large ones may hold as many as twelve. They are mostly for amateurs and is a good place to start your Magic-playing career.

The largest tournaments that a player not willing or able to travel can attend are Pre-Release tournaments, where a new expansion, or set, is released to the public in the best way possible: by playing it. This provides the most level playing field, as the cards have not been seen before by any of the players and the prizes are often very large, such as boxes of cards for the winners.

Apart from creating a new game genre, Magic also has many websites devoted to strategy, a number of local, state, regional, national and international championships, and line of fiction novels set in Magic's world.

Playing Magic On The Internet

  • Magic Online - Magic Online, the official Internet-based version of Magic, provides for play against other people connected to the Internet. It recreates Magic: The Gathering gameplay closely, enforcing an extensive and actively updated knowledge of the game rules, provisions for social and card trading interactions, visual presentation of the same card art as the physical cards, and near-parallel release of new card sets both as physical and online cards. Magic Online does not charge for time online or per game played. Instead, the online cards must be purchased. Prices for online cards are comparable to prices for physical cards, at least in the United States. Each player's purchased cards "reside" on game servers. The Internet-wide accessibility and lack of the need to congregate with other players in a tournament setting provide an alternative comparable, and in some ways exceeding, playing with physical cards.

  • E-League.Com - Magic can be played online free of charge through The software used is a freeware program called Apprentice, not affiliated with DCI or Wizards of the Coast. E-league has its own ranking system and player base.

  • Generic Collectible Card Game (in beta as of November 2003) - Generic Collectible Card Game (also known as GCCG) is a program intended to support online play of multiple collectible card cardgames like Magic online. It is a free open source program running on Linux, Mac OS and Windows. Every player starts with the same amount of money (not real money), that can be used to buy closed card sets or cards from other players. Players create decks with these cards and then play against other players for money, cards or fun.


Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Magic has nothing to do with the game itself, but with the patent, no. 5662332, that Wizards of the Coast holds on the collectible card game genre. There are those who feel that this patent is overextended and constitutes a seizure of the "low-hanging fruit" in the space of ideas belonging, rightfully, to the public domain. It has been alleged that many of the game mechanics predate Magic by years, if not decades, such as turning a card to an alternate orientation to indicate that its potentials are temporarily unavailable for use, modular structure (which appears in most role-playing systems) and the concept of a tradable, playable card game (there were games playable with baseball cards before 1993). All of these concepts are now patented by Wizards of the Coast and used in Magic: the Gathering.

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