The ABCs of Gaming: M is for…

Moving on to the Ms in the ABCs of Gaming.  M is for…

image by BGG user EndersGame

Magic: The Gathering was published in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast.  Richard Garfield, the designer, purportedly made the game to raise money so he could then publish RoboRally.  Too bad it didn’t really catch on…I’m kidding.  Since its initial release, Magic has become as synonymous with geek culture as Dungeons & Dragons.  It sparked the creation of the collectible card game genre, and still has new cards and sets coming out to this day, nearly twenty years later.  It’s a game for two players aged 13 and up that generally takes twenty minutes, and can be played casually or on a professional tournament level.  It came in first place on the M poll, narrowly defeating second place Memoir ’44 (21.4% to 19.6%).

Now, full disclosure here – up to this point in the series, I have made it a point to play each winning game at least once.  However, I have never once in my life played a game of Magic.  I know, take away my geek card.  I’ll talk more about that later, but just know that I’m coming at this from a completely clueless position.  I’ve been trying to learn from the rules and from videos, so we’ll see how well I do.

One of the difficult things about Magic is knowing where to begin.  Obviously, I’m not an expert, but the least you need to play is a basic core set.  Each player will construct a deck of 60 cards.  There are about 10,000 to choose from at this point (probably much more).  You’ll also begin with 20 life, and you’ll have to provide your own way to track that – tokens, paper and pencil, whatever.

Building your deck is probably the most crucial part of the game.  Unlike modern deck building games, your deck is built before the game begins.  There are five different colors of mana, and each will power a different type of spell:

  • White is the color of law and order.  It is a team color, so you’ll be using it to build armies.
  • Blue is the color of trickery and manipulation.  It’s a mental color rather than a physical one.
  • Black is the color of death and power at any cost.  All sacrifices are OK with black.
  • Red is the color of fire and frenzy.  It’s the opposite of blue – you have to fight.
  • Green is the color of nature and growth.  This is the color of large creatures.

You’ll also need to know the different card types you’ll encounter:

  • Lands are permanent, and are used to make the mana needed to cast spells.
  • Creatures are also permanent, and are used to fight.  They can’t be used in the turn they are played, but once they have begun a turn on the battlefield under your control, they can be used.  Each creature has power and toughness numbers for offense and defense respectively.
  • Artifacts are permanent magical relics that can be used to beef up your side.  Some are equipment that can make creatures more powerful.
  • Enchantments are permanent spells that can be used until they are destroyed.
  • Planeswalkers are permanent allies that help you in battles.  They are different than creatures, and have loyalty points that activate effects.
  • Sorcery is a spell that you cast, then discard.
  • Instants are also discarded after use, but can be used at any time, even during your opponent’s turn.

To play, you’ll create a deck.  General guidelines suggest that lands and creatures make up most of the deck (40-50 cards).    Your opponent will have their own deck which will most likely look completely different than yours.  You’ll then battle until one person runs out of their 20 life.  Each player’s turn follows a certain sequence.  In the first part, you’ll be able to untap all of your tapped permanents.  “Tapping” is a phrase used in magic circles that essentially means that you have used the card and rotated it 90 degrees.  Untapping means that you’ll rotate it back.  You’ll also perform any upkeep actions and draw a card from the library (you start with a hand of seven).

In the first main phase of your turn, you can cast any number of sorceries, instants, creatures, artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers you want to, paying the cost in mana by tapping lands.  You can also play a land, but only one per turn.  Any abilities you want to use can also be activated.  Your opponent may also cast instants and activate abilities.

Next is a combat phase.  Both players can cast instants and activate abilities.  You’ll choose some untapped creatures or planeswalkers to attack as well as a target.  The attacking creature(s) is then tapped.  Your opponent chooses which untapped creatures will block.  Assign damage.

Combat is followed by a second main phase, when you can play any number of cards (including a land if you didn’t play one at the beginning).  You’ll then do any end of turn activities, discard down to seven cards, remove damage from creatures and get rid of any lingering effects that only last until the end of your turn.  You opponent then goes, and the game continues until someone has reached zero life.

Now, I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the game.  It’s impossible to know how a game like this actually plays without seeing the cards and watching them work.  I know a lot of people love the game, and it has become a kind of addiction.  I remember seeing people play it in the cafeteria at school when the game first came out.  There are organized tournaments, including tournaments where people have to play with decks that have never been opened.  The game has had a marked influence on the hobby and on popular culture.  Deck building games would not exist without Magic, and we probably wouldn’t have properties like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh out there either.

I’ve never played the game, but it’s not from a lack of interest.  My problem is that I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life NOT playing Magic.  There are so many cards out there that, even playing casually, I wouldn’t know where to begin, and I’m sure I’d be crushed by the experienced player teaching me the basics.  I also really don’t like the collectible model.  There’s no doubt that this is a cash cow for Wizards of the Coast, but it’s a money suck.  You have to drop wads of cash on boosters to improve your deck beyond the basic starter decks out there, and that’s always a gamble since you don’t know what you’re getting.  Still, that’s the fun part for a lot of people – the thrill of the hunt and trading between players is part of the experience of the game.

In this poll, I voted for Memoir ’44, but I am comfortable with the victory by Magic: The Gathering.  It has shown great longevity and has been very influential, so I think it’s deserving of a slot among the most deserving games.  Let’s look at the rest of the field (I list the domestic publisher for each):

  • Memoir ’44 (2004, Days of Wonder, Richard Borg – 19.6%): This is the third game in the so-called Commands & Colors series, a group of games that uses the same basic card mechanisms to drive play.  I’ve played a couple of scenarios of this World War II version of the system, and it’s a lot of fun (and I don’t usually like war themed games).
  • Merchants and Marauders (2010, Z-Man, Kasper Aagaard and Christian Marcussen – 8.9%): A piratey adventure game that has gotten some very good reviews, as well as some kind of so-so ones.  I’ve wanted to play, I just don’t really want to dedicate three hours to it.
  • Modern Art (1992, Mayfair, Reiner Knizia – 8.7%): This is a pure auction game that revolves around acquiring the best art collection.  I don’t really like auctions, and I’m not a Knizia fan, so this one doesn’t really appeal to me.
  • Die Macher (1986, Karl-Heinz Schmiel, Valley Games – 8.3%): A six-hour game about German politics?  This is one of those gold standards in gaming that I really should play at least once in my life.  It was also the highest ranked M game, so a fifth place finish is kind of surprising.
  • Macao (2009, Stefan Feld, Rio Grande – 7.8%): This is a dice rolling economic game that is set at the end of the 17th century.  Stefan Feld is really a rising star in the gaming world, but I haven’t played too many of his games.
  • Mr. Jack (2006, Hurrican, Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc – 7.2%): This two-player deduction game concerns the identity of Jack the Ripper.  I’ve wanted to play it, I just have never had access to a copy when someone else wanted to play.
  • Other (6.3%): Nominees for Other included Mag Blast, Magic Realm, Magna Grecia, Magnum Sal, Maharaja: The Game of Palace Building in India, Mahjong, Man O’ War, Manhattan, Manila, Martian Rails, McMulti (which will soon be rereleased as Crude: The Oil Game), Merchant of Venus, Metropolys, Meuterer, Middle-earth CCG, Mission: Red Planet, The Mississippi Queen, Mister X, Monsterpocalypse, and Mystery Express.  Of those, I’ve played Merchant of Venus and Meuterer, both of which are very good.
  • Mansions of Madness (2011, Fantasy Flight, Corey Konieczka – 6.0%): Lovecraftian mythos in a deduction style one-versus-everyone game.  My one play of this game was kind of…meh.  It just felt all too scripted for me.
  • Middle-Earth Quest (2009, Fantasy Flight, Corey Konieczka, Christian T. Petersen, and Tim Uren – 3.8%): An exploration game set in Tolkien’s world.  I’ve heard good things, but don’t really know too much other than that.
  • Maria (2009, Histogame, Richard Sivél – 2.1%): This game is based on the War of Austrian Succession.  I’ve barely even heard of it, but it was ranked highly enough to make the poll, so there you go.

We’re done with the Ms, and that means we’re halfway through the series!  Huzzah!  See you next time…thanks for reading!

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