Beginner’s Guide to Magic the Gathering Rules of Play – Deck Strategies and Construction Tips

Introduction to Part Two

In the first part of this series we covered the anatomy of a card, the various card types, the phases of a turn, and the zones of play. All of these are basic knowledge you need to play the game. Yet that’s not all. You still need a deck, and that’s what this article is all about. Read on to learn about basic deck strategies and deck construction, different DCI-sanctioned and home-play game types, and feel free to reference the Lexicon, a short and sweet set of definitions of various keywords you’ll find on cards across each of the sets of Magic. With all that at your fingertips, it’s easier than ever to learn to play Magic the Gathering.

Basic Deck Strategies and Construction

The standard deck for Magic the Gathering will follow a few general rules. There are variations to this, but most preconstructed decks you buy and most decks you can build will look somewhat similar. Without a deck, you can’t learn to play Magic the Gathering.

First off, every deck needs lands. Twenty lands is the minimum for a deck to function well, but for many decks, especially those without mana acceleration enchantments or with high cost spells, you may want to even put as many as twenty-five lands. For mono-colored decks, they should all be lands of that color, maybe with a few non-basic lands thrown in for character. For decks of more than one color, split the lands fairly evenly between the two colors. Even if you only have a few cards of a secondary color, the more lands of that color you have, the more likely you will be to have the mana you need when you draw those cards.

Next you need spells. The rule for all of Magic is that you can have no more than 4 of any non basic land card. There are some exceptions; cards on the restricted list you can only have one copy of per deck. However, if you’re playing with friends, they may let you break that rule. The restricted list is mostly important for sanctioned tournaments. What spells you have depends on the type of deck you’re building.

For a deck focusing on a lot of small creatures, you’ll want the majority of your 35 spells to be low-cost creatures. Save maybe ten or so cards for creature control or for cards that make your creatures better. For this deck you intend to win by attacking with more creatures than the defender can block. On the other end of the spectrum, a deck that focuses on large creatures, you want to have 15 or so large creatures. The rest of the cards you’d want to divide up among mana acceleration cards (cards that make your lands tap for more mana) and low-cost support cards, to keep your opponent at bay until your big creatures come out.

For Control decks, most of your cards should be spells that keep the opponent from doing anything. Swords to Plowshares for white, Lightning Bolt for red, Counterspell for blue, Terror for black, and Naturalize for green are all good examples. What cards you don’t dedicate to control, you’ll want as win conditions. Large creatures like Akroma, Angel of Wrath, or direct damage for red burn decks work.

Combo decks are the third major type of deck, and the most varied and complex. The goal in building a combo deck is supporting your combo until it’s out. Defensive creatures, control spells, and spells that make your combo harder to break all help. The proportions of spells in these decks vary as wildly as the combos themselves. For an idea of how many combos there are, check out Magic Deck Vortex‘s combos page.

Want some more advanced deck ideas? Check out these. Or continue reading, to learn about different rules of play for Magic the Gathering formats. That’s almost the last step to learning to play Magic the Gathering.

Game Types

Formats are the various game types that exist in the Magic the Gathering Rules of Play. They come in two types; Constructed and Limited. Constructed game types are the types you’ll find at official tournaments, run by the DCI. Limited formats include sealed deck and booster drafts. These typically will have an entry fee and prizes in the form of cards. The other type of games are the casual games you’ll more likely find at Friday Night Magic at your local game store, or played between friends. A game of Vintage between friends is a great way to Learn to Play Magic the Gathering.

Constructed Formats are:

  • Vintage. Vintage is the most open type of game, allowing nearly any card to be played. Only a few cards are banned, because they involve Ante, subgames, or manual dexterity in flipping cards. Cards that are banned in other formats for being too powerful are restricted to one per deck in Vintage.
  • Legacy. Legacy is basically just like Vintage, except cards that are restricted for power reasons in Vintage are Banned in Legacy.
  • Extended is the first type that limits what cards you can use. Extended allows the most recent four years worth of cards, going by the release of expansions. Each autumn release, an old set rotates out as a new set is released.
  • Standard. Standard is the most common tournament format, and is a more limited version of Extended. It only allows cards from the most recent core set and two most recent blocks. The rotations happen once a year, usually with the release of the first set in a new block.
  • Block Constructed. This format is even more limited, and only allows cards from the most recent block, in addition to basic lands.

Limited tournaments are tournaments that provide the cards, usually for a fee. Decks in Limited tournaments only need to be 40 cards instead of 60, with the remaining cards acting as a sideboard. In a Sealed Deck tournament, players each receive six booster packs of cards from which to build their deck. In a Booster Draft, each player is given three booster packs to open. They select one card from each pack and pass them to the next person, and so on until all the cards are chosen.

For friendly games among friends, the most common format is basically Vintage, allowing players to use whatever cards they happen to own. There are a number of different possible game types, however. Among them are:

  • Singleton, where players are limited to one copy of each card instead of four.
  • Elder Dragon Highlander, which uses a 100 card deck and limits cards to one copy each, as well as featuring a legendary creature as a ‘general.’
  • Mana Drop, or Speed Magic, where players are not limited to playing one land per turn.
  • Two-headed Giant, where teams of two pair up and act as one player. They share a life total of 30 and take their turns together.

Had enough of the Magic the Gathering rules of play yet? Well you’re almost done; all that’s left is a lexicon of common keywords used in the game. Or, if you’re done here, check out these red deck ideas.

Lexicon: Common Keywords and Abilities

Keywords are abilities that many cards, usually creatures, have. They’re abilities common to many cards, and so they are given a single keyword to save space on the card for other text. Keywords can be activated abilities or they can be passive abilities, and new keywords are released with every set. This list is the common keywords that appear in most every set. For a more comprehensive list, check out this wikipedia page.

Deathtouch – A creature ability, Deathtouch means when a creature is dealt damage by a creature with Deathtouch, it is destroyed. This allows a puny 1/1 to destroy a huge 8/8 creature, although the 1/1 will be destroyed itself.

Defender – Formerly the passive ability that wall-type creatures had, Defender is "Creatures with Defender cannot attack." Just as it sounds, it is usually used on creatures with high toughness but little or no power; purely defensive creatures.

First Strike, Double Strike – These two abilities are similar. In combat, damage is dealt in two phases. First, creatures with first strike deal their damage, and that damage is resolved. Any creature without first strike, if it is dealt lethal damage by a first strike creature, will die before it can deal damage in return. Second, normal creatures deal their damage. The advantage is obvious; a first strike creature can kill a standard creature with no harm to itself. Double Strike is "This Creature deals both first strike damage and regular damage." This effectively doubles the creatures power.

Flying, Reach – These two abilities are adversarial. Creatures with flying can only be blocked by other creatures with flying or by creatures with Reach. Creatures with Reach are creatures that are not flying themselves, but can block creatures with flying. A flying creature can attack over the heads of non-flying, non-reach blockers, but a creature with Reach can be blocked normally.

Haste – Formerly "This creature is unaffected by summoning sickness." Haste means the creature can attack or use tap abilities the turn it comes into play under your control, instead of having to wait a turn.

Landwalk – Usually written with a specific land, such as Forestwalk or Mountainwalk, the Landwalk ability means that the creature cannot be blocked if the defending player controls that type of land. A creature with Mountainwalk cannot be blocked by a player who controls a mountain, and so on.

Lifelink – Creatures with Lifelink benefit their controller. Any damage that a creature with lifelink deals is given to that creature’s controller in the form of life. A 1/1 with lifelink will deal one damage and it’s controller will gain 1 life.

Protection – Written as Protection from (quality), a creature with protection cannot be harmed or targeted by something with that quality. Usually this is a color; for instance, a creature with Protection from Red cannot be damaged by red creatures and cannot be targeted by red spells. The quality can be other things as well; Protection from Artifacts, Protection from Creatures, and so on. One notorious card even has Protection from Everything.

Shroud – A creature or other card with Shroud is untargetable. Shroud means "This card cannot be targeted by spells or abilities." This shows up most often on creatures, but sometimes appears on other cards.

Trample – A creature with trample is usually a large one, 4/4 or more. Trample means that if the creature is blocked by a creature with less toughness than the attacker has power, it will deal the rest of it’s damage on to the defending player. A 7/7 blocked by a 4/4 will deal 4 damage to the defending creature and 3 damage to the defending player.

Vigilance – "Attacking does not cause this creature to tap." This allows the attacking creature to still be able to block and use tap abilities even during or after it’s attack.

RegenerateRegenerate is a creature ability with a cost, usually in mana, but sometimes in the form of sacrificing cards. A creature with regenerate, if it is dealt lethal damage, can shrug off the damage and remain alive if the regenerate cost is paid.

Set Keywords – Every new set of Magic cards printed has a few new keywords created specifically for that set, usually to enhance the flavor of a specific cycle of cards. These are many and varied, but they always have explanation text next to them detailing their ability.

So there you have it, a good glossary of keywords for this Beginner’s guide to Magic the Gathering Rules of Play. Hopefully this will help you learn just how to play Magic the Gathering.

Is Magic not your cup of tea? Check out our guides for Final Fantasy XIII or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2!

This post is part of the series: Magic the Gathering Rules of Play: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re new to Magic the Gathering, or just want to brush up on the basics, look no further than this Beginner’s guide. We’ll cover everything from casting cost to the battlefield, explaining the basics of the game. A perfect way to learn to play Magic the Gathering.
  1. Beginner’s Guide to Magic the Gathering Rules of Play
  2. Learn to Play Magic the Gathering: Beginner’s Guide Part 2