A New Obsession is Born

A look inside Magic: The Gathering from the eyes of a beginner.


Anyone who knows me, knows how I game.  I have two ways of handling a game; I can both feign interest, and play it only when others are there to play it as well, or I actually get into it, and it gets dropped into a part of my brain I call “The Obsession Zone”.  Due to how my mind functions, I do not have what is known as a “gray area”, that area of moderation.  It functions most heavily in how I handle stressful, emotional, and social situations.  For example, if someone does something that has the potential to upset me, I either have absolutely no feeling towards it, or I go off the deep end and freak out.  Rational handling of a situation is a hard struggle.  This similar effect happens when dealing with my interests; it’s either all in, or not in.

I’ve done this very thing with things like World of Warcraft, Pathfinder, Minecraft, Borderlands, and Counter Strike, where I obsessively play, prepare, or spend towards the games like it’s the only logical thing for me to do.  It is also a large reason you will hear me say derogatory things towards other popular games, and people think I hate them.  They are gray area games, and I just don’t have time for that.

Recently, after a friend’s years of coaxing, Magic: The Gathering finally clicked in my head. I finally understood it, and enjoyed it.  Which inevitably meant, it had slipped into “the obsession zone”, and that it very much did.  It wasn’t long after that I had purchased my first set of cards, and have been doing so since.  I developed a wealthy collection in very little time, and have spent a good amount of time playing, honing my current decks, and building new ones.  Any time I am in a store that carries cards or accessories, I always check out what they have, and I keep very close track of the new sets that are released.  The other potentially negative result is there as well; I start bringing in all who I can into the game with me.  I brought in our editor during his visit last weekend.

There is a risk to all of this as well.  “The Obsession Zone” isn’t a permanent area for these “hobbies”.  There always seems to come a time when the obsession ends, and I drop the hobby all together.  Some last longer than others, but it seems to be about a three month turnaround, as observed by others.  What ends up happening here is I leave the folks behind that I convinced to join in on the madness.

With all that information given, I have a new addition to my “Obsession Zone”.  I have fallen victim to Magic: The Gathering.  Though, I have to say, it is actually a really fun game, and a really fun experience to have.  I have a small handful of friends right now that also play the game, so I am able to play pretty consistently.  Gaining a small collection, as I have, hasn’t been too painful either.  I owe a lot of that to generous friends whom shared their cards with me after I started collecting my own.

I avoided this game, like most, for a long time, to the disappointment of a few friends.  I had tried to play it back in high school, and I never really grasped the game.  One friend in particular made frequent attempts to get me to learn and play it.  It took him roughly three years, and a handful of attempts to play, before it finally clicked in my head.  Once I understood the game, I quickly realized the potential for fun in it.

The game is simple in its complexity.  Everything has a cost, and you have cards that represent this currency.  Referred to as “Mana”, the cards use Land cards to represent your mana pool.  From there, your goal is to cast spells and win the game.  This can be done with any assortment of Creatures, Sorcery Spells, Instant Spells, Enchantments, and Artifacts.  Using those things, your goal is to either drop your opponent down to zero health, or make him draw all of his cards in his library.

One of my biggest hang ups in the game was fully understanding the Mana system.  The cost of every spell is listed in the top right hand slot of the card.  Usually a number, followed by symbols that represent the color of mana.  I never understood fully what that meant, but once that hurdle was overcome, I was able to put my focus on the rest.  The mana system is a lot simpler than I was giving it credit for, and that is the reason I was so intimidated by it.  Mana is simply the number plus the total of symbols; e.g. a three follow by two skull symbols is a mana cost five, but two of the manas used must be black mana.

The rest is where it gets complicated.  When can you cast what? What order do you do things? Why do certain words mean something very specific to the game, while others are just taken at face value? Those first two questions are answered in tandem.  There are five to six phases to every turn; Upkeep, Draw, Main, Attack, Second Main, End Step. Upkeep is your untap phase, where you go through and turn all the cards you used (tapped) last turn back upright.  There are certain cards that also have you or an opponent do something during this phase.  Draw is pretty self-explanatory, you draw your card for the turn.  Main phase is where you do most of your casting; you play your land for your turn, and cast any creatures, sorceries or artifacts that you planned.  Attack phase is where you declare what creatures you are attacking your opponent with, tapping them, waiting for the opponent to declare his blockers (if any), and assessing damage.  Second main phase happens if you have cards you wished to play after the attack phase, and have the mana to do so.  Clearly end step is just a declaration that you are done, but it is its own phase because there are a good amount of cards on either side that have effects that only trigger during the end step.

The next complicated thing to understand is creatures, and their “power and toughness”.  All creatures have power and toughness, or in real world terms, damage they deal and health they have.  So if you have a 2/1 zombie creature on the field, he can hit the other player or their creatures for two damage, and has one health point before he dies.  The health is taken when that creature blocks or is blocked by another creature.  The damage of both creatures is then assessed, and if either creature takes more damage than he has health, he dies and goes to your graveyard.

For the remainder of the game, it’s all about reading comprehension.  A great deal of cards will have specific rules to them, which will address what exactly it is that they do.  That is where the, “Why do certain words mean something very specific to the game, while others are just taken at face value?” question is most relevant.  I will use an example of a recent game involving myself and a new player attempting to learn the game.  I placed a 5/4 creature with an ability called “Undying” into play.  Undying is an ability that brings the creature back to life once after being killed, with one more damage and one more heath than it had before.  My opponent had a card that destroyed a creature, based on specific conditions; the creature had to be nonblack and the creature could not be regenerated.  Taking the word “regenerated” at face value would seem like the creature cannot come back from the dead, at all.  However, in magic, regeneration is a very specific spell that many creatures and abilities possess.  Regeneration happens immediately after an attempted kill, stopping the creature from going to the graveyard, and keeping it alive and in play.  Undying’s ability is triggered when the creature reaches the graveyard, well beyond the “regeneration” trigger point, so it is unaffected by the secondary effect.

To say that you won’t encounter things like this would be a lie.  There will be times during your learning process that you will misunderstand the meaning of a word in reference to the game, and something will just not work the way you intended it to.  I still have these moments myself.  It’s all about learning from it, and becoming a better and better player as time goes on.  Don’t let silly things like that discourage you from enjoying the game.

I will step aside here and bring up my thoughts on the video game version of this card game.  It’s terrible.  It seems very rushed and crammed together, the rules are slightly different from the actual game, and you’re unable to do a lot of the more fun parts of the game through its electronic medium.  You lose out on the thrill of opening a booster pack to find that one card you have been waiting for.  Having the ability to build a deck exactly the way you want it.  Having a real life human opponent that you can play with and have fun with.  Take those things away and you take away a majority of the fun you can have with the game.

My recommendation to anyone wanting to give the game a shot is to buy real cards.  Go to your local geek shop and talk to the geek in charge.  I started with the current “Deck builder’s kit”, which gave me 300 cards to build a couple of playable decks, and I went from there.  There are decks that have already been built that you can start with if you just want to start playing right away, and there are “duel decks” that give you two playable decks you can play another person with right away.  So if you and a friend want to give it a try, you can purchase a duel deck, and play each other right away.

So, after many years of avoidance, I am now into magic.  I am building it a little place in my geekdom, and am making sure that everyone that can give it a try, does.  If you decide that it’s time you give it a try, contact me, I will help you along the way.  You know where I am.