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August 12, 2014 - Arran Slee-Smith

Jumping into Magic the Gathering

Magic the Gathering is a collectible card game by Wizards of the coast, based on deck building and outwitting your opponent.

There was always one hobby I vowed I would never start, oh well too late now, if you can’t beat Magic the Gathering players with clubs, join them.

Magic the Gathering for me summons up (heh) bad memories of secondary school (high school to you foreigners or kids who have watched too much American TV), with the nerdy kids (myself included) huddled around a table playing, a then relatively unknown, card game named Magic the Gathering. I only ever watched back then, but it was enough to put me off the collectible card game for over a decade. The card game would always end the same way, the inevitable outcome sometimes swift or plodding, but always the same. The kid with the most pocket-money would come out the victor.

That one sentence really sums up Magic the Gathering quite well. The more you invest the more you increase your chances of winning. For some reason, along the way I forgot this and allowed myself to be drawn to the sirens call. Unlike other games I play, like Flames of War (once in a blue moon) or Warhammer 40k, the investment seems less tactile. Your money goes into a piece of expensive paper, instead of a nice model that you have to assemble and paint. I will never be proud of owning a Magic the Gathering card, but I will always be proud of displaying a well painted miniature, long after I have stopped playing the game (as I have with Warhammer).

Magic is immediate and easy to play in a lunch break or in a few hours after work at the pub, you need very little to play and building an army is as simple as pressing buy on a website. Cards in magic can be bought in three ways, you can buy them in booster packs, which are semi random, you get a selection of cards, and guaranteed 3 uncommon and one rare/mythic rare, you can buy them in box sets, which usually include a set of cards selected by the designers to work in synergy together. Or you can buy the cards individually.

Magic is immediate and easy to play in a lunch break or in a few hours after work at the pub

Thus begins my biggest irk with Magic the Gathering. Booster packs are worthless. The way magic the gathering is designed means that one deck can be better than another, you get cards that work well with each other and you exploit them until your opponent is destroyed. Booster packs give you a random selection of cards that are unlikely to give you anything useful to your deck. They also aren’t cheap at nearly £4 a pop all but negates any reason to buy them. You could buy 4 booster packs and never have enough lands, creatures and spells to make a deck or you could buy a boxed set and/or individual cards and know exactly what you’re getting. The ability to buy individual cards makes booster packs worthless.

The best, cheapest and easiest way to get into magic the gathering is to buy each card individually.

Buying cards individually is generally the way to go when starting magic the gathering, it helps level the playing field against the more cheesy deck builders and saves you money, single cards in magic the Gathering generally range from a few pence to a few quid, however rare cards and mythic rare cards can vary from a couple of quid(£) to insanity.

People will charge extortionate amounts of money for rare cards, thousands of pounds even, for pieces of cardboard that hold no more power then destroying an imaginary enemy in a fictional card game. Buying cards individually also removes one of the exciting elements of collectible cards/stickers, opening that fresh pack and not knowing what your going to get, for that I feel Magic has lost its way a little. Though the internet and ebay would inevitably lead it this way, it seems Wizards of the Coast, who develop the collectible card game, has done nothing to discourage this practice. They even aid it in some ways, by only printing new cards, making older cards rarer and more valuable as time goes on.

Magic has one thing going for it however, its damned fun. Building a deck is the core of the game, you add creatures, instants and enchantments to your library (your deck), and draw them randomly during play. Depending on how well built your deck is and a little bit of luck you will play cards in order to defeat an opposing player(s) who is doing the same to you.

Each card has a “Mana” cost, which is limited by the number of lands (also shuffled into your deck) you draw during the game. Too much mana and no creatures you might be doomed to take hit after hit and watch your army crumble without reinforcements. Too many creatures and not enough lands and you won’t be able to play anything from your hand and your health will disappear quickly. The same can be said about too powerful spells, if they are too high a cost you will be in trouble in the early game, too many low-cost creatures and spells and in the late game you may not have anything strong enough to counter your enemies monstrous creatures.

Spells are also limited by the colour of your Mana, based on 5 “elements”, blue, red, green white and black, you can only play certain cards if their indicated cost corresponds to the colour of your mana on the table. Deciding what lands and creature spells make it into the deck is about deciding how much you want to leave to chance. Adding a single awesome card to a 80 card deck and hoping to draw it at the right time to turn the tide of battle will more often than not lose you the game. Minimising the risk and adding a balanced mix of adaptable cards will give you the upper hand until the moment is right to play your best cards.

When the decks are balanced Magic the Gathering can be a challenging duel between two opponents, filled with strategy and deception.

Magic the Gathering is not all about the cards you have in your deck however, skill is involved like any wargame or strategy game, knowing when to play a hammer or when to play a nail is part of the challenge. When the decks are balanced Magic the Gathering can be an epic duel between two opponents, filled with strategy and deception. When the decks are unbalanced or there is a poor draw in-favour of one side the game can become little more then a hopeless struggle to delay the inevitable, fortunately those games will be over quickly and you can reshuffle and redraw in no time at all.

As a side note,  I have lost far more games than I have won and I have enjoyed every moment of losing. Losing lets you see the flaws in your deck and gives you the opportunity to repair those holes or correct your strategy. But more often than not, my games have been lost because I attacked when I should have held my units back to defend in my opponents turn.

While not happy that I have fallen in with the Magic the Gathering crowd, I will accept my fate and become one of them, infected with the “ooh shiny card” syndrome that will inevitably become my downfall. It’s a very fun and challenging game that is easy to get into and very difficult to master.