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Magic For Beginners
By James Voutsas
Magic for Beginners

Hello, my name is Jim Voutsas. I've been playing magic semi-seriously for about two years now (although I've just started to really get into the tourney scene a few months ago). I've had a lot of younger players ask me about some basic concepts of the game, which they didn't quite understand. I thought I might write my thoughts to paper, for anyone to peruse. A warning to most veteran players, you'll probably know this, but feel free to write me with any thoughts or criticism. Please take note that I am not a professional, but I have tried to absorb as much knowledge about this game as I could. I don't know about you, but I sure wouldn't mind making the Pro Tour. I recommend for anyone who isn't familiar with websites which discuss Magic strategy and things of this nature. Well, without further ado.

Basic Principles:

Upkeep - The phase that is in between your untap step and draw step. Many effects are triggered at the beginning of an upkeep. If a card says "At the beginning of your upkeep", you must place these abilities and effects on the stack BEFORE you can play any instants or activated abilities, and BEFORE YOU DRAW A CARD FOR YOUR DRAW STEP. However, if you have more than one of these effects, you can choose what order they go on the stack. I've found many newer players are confused by multiple "At the beginning of your upkeep" triggers. Don't be. If you control them, you choose the order they go on the stack. This is useful in some circumstances.

Stack - The stack seems to be one of the hardest things for newer players to understand, and to be quite honest, it isn't the easiest thing to explain without actually showing it to you. But I will try my best.

The stack is where all spells and abilities go before they resolve. Let's say you're in a heated game with a friend, and he has you down to 2 life. You decide to play a Stream of Life for 6 (newer player's favorite card)...

Stream of Life
7th Edition Common

Target player gains X life.

Your life total is 2. Your Stream of Life goes to a place where it will wait to resolve. This place is the stack. In our above example, you play the Stream of Life, and it goes to the stack. Now, because you have no other instants or activated abilities to play, you pass "priority" to the opponent. Your opponent now has the opportunity to play instants and activated abilites. Let's say your opponent responds with a Shock...

Onslaught Common

Shock deals 2 damage to target creature or player.

The Shock goes on the stack, ON TOP OF THE STREAM OF LIFE. Your opponent then passes priority back to you. You have no instants or activated abilities you want to play, so you pass. When both players pass in a row without doing anything, the stack begins to resolve FROM THE TOP DOWN!!!! Yes, I know you played the Stream of Life first. This is the way it works. So, in our above example, the Shock will resolve before the Stream of Life. When the game checks for state-based effects, you die before the Stream of Life even has the opportunity to resolve.

A few things to note about the stack:

Creatures, artifacts, sorceries, and lands can only be played when the stack is empty.

Instants and activated abilities can be played any time you have priority.

You have the opportunity to respond every time a spell is on the stack. Your opponent will never be able to play a spell without giving you a chance to respond. This is why instants are usually more versatile than sorceries.

If multiple spells are on the stack, each player has a chance to respond as each individual spell resolves. An example: Your opponent plays a big, nasty creature. You respond with Fact or Fiction. Your opponent has nothing to respond with so the Fact or Fiction resolves. Your opponent splits the piles and you choose. NOW, BOTH PLAYERS ONCE AGAIN CAN PLAY INSTANTS OR ACTIVATED ABILITIES. If you drew a Counterspell off of the Fact or Fiction, and you have two untapped blue sources, you are given the opportunity to counter said big, nasty creature. This is something which is handy to remember at times.

Sideboard - a group of 15 cards that tournament players use to pack cards which are useful against some decks, but near useless against others. Since all competitive magic tournaments are played in matches of no less than 3 games, the sideboard cards can be brought into your deck for games 2 and 3, to improve your deck's chances against a certain decktype. Please note that all sanctioned tournaments require a sideboard of either 0 or 15 cards. You can't build a sideboard with 19 cards, nor can you build one with only 7 cards. 0 or 15, that's it. Also, you must trade cards from your maindeck and your sideboard on a one-for-one basis, meaning for every sideboard card you add, you MUST take a card out of the maindeck.

Card Advantage - The concept involving the idea that whoever has the most cards has the most resources and, therefore, has a better chance of winning the game. Hence, cards which gain card advantage, both direct and indirect, are valued highly. Examples of cards which gain card advantage are Deep Analysis, Wrath of God, and Mind Sludge. Although every deck can utilize some of these spells, control decks seem to gain the most from card advantage spells. This allows them to make up for any previous disadvantages they may have suffered, whether they be "card" disadvantages or "time" disadvantages. Card advantage spells tend to be more expensive, which also fits best with control's strategy of building up and playing expensive spells.

I. Direct Card Advantage - When playing a spell results in more cards in hand after it resolves (i.e. Concentration),or when a single spell destroys(or removes from the game) more than one of your opponents permanents (i.e. Wrath of God), that spell is said to have "direct card advantage". This is a very easy principle to understand once it has been seen in action. A good example is destroying multiple permanents with one spell, such as destroying three of your opponent's creatures with one Wrath of God. You played one spell (-1) and your opponent lost 3 creatures (-3) which nets you a +2 in direct card advantage. (Note that the player casting this Wrath has no creatures in this example. Every creature you lose to your Wrath of God results in an extra -1 card advantage for you. This is why Wrath of God is most often best utilized in creatureless or near creatureless control decks.)

II. Indirect Card Advantage - When playing a spell results in your opponent's spells being useless or less than optimal, that spell is said to have "indirect card advantage". This is a somewhat harder concept to grasp than direct card advantage. An example of a recent card that gains indirect card advantage is Solitary Confinement, though at an interesting price, direct card advantage!!

Solitary Confinement
Judment Rare

At the beginning of your upkeep, discard a card from your hand or sacrifice Solitary Confinement.

Skip your draw step.

Prevent all damage that would be dealt to you.
You can't be the target of spells or abilites.

Solitary Confinement causes all burn, discard, and card-drawing spells that target you, as well as any creatures that could attack or target you, to be nullified as long as it remains in play. This results in "dead cards" in your opponent's hand or in play, leading to indirect card advantage. (Note that this particular spell practically nullifies the gain in card advantage with a steep upkeep cost. I thought this could prove a good point. Just because a card gains some form of card advantage, it might not be the right card for your deck. While this doesn't make the spell bad, it does make it less useful. This is a good reason why a card should be analyzed closely before declaring it is good for your deck, even if it seems to be at first glance.)

Time Advantage - Often referred to as tempo, this rather vague concept involves using one's early turns to gain an overwhelming advantage over one's opponent. This "time advantage" often involves utilitzing certain disadvantages to gain an overwhelming early lead. Aggressive decks most often utilize cards which offer a time advantage. Many of these cards have drawbacks, some more severe than others (hence, you "gain time" by playing a powerful spell earlier than a normal spell of the same power level would be played. For example,let's say you play a Grinning Demon, which is a 6/6 that costs 2BB. For those that aren't familiar with creatures and their relative mana costs, that is a highly efficient cost for such a large creature, and efficiency is key to a successful deck. But it comes with a fairly steep drawback of losing 2 life per upkeep. The aggressive deck must therefore attempt to generate a "time advantage" and kill the opponent before the upkeep cost becomes too much to handle). Some good examples of creatures which lend time advantage include the aforementioned Grinning Demon and Blistering Firecat...

Grinning Demon
Creature - Demon
Onslaught Rare

At the beginning of your upkeep, you lose 2 life.

Morph 2BB (you may play this card face down as a 2/2 creature for 3. Turn it face up any time for it's morph cost.)

Blistering Firecat
Creature - Cat
Onslaught Rare

Trample, Haste
At the end of turn sacrifice Blistering Firecat.

Morph RR (you may play this card face down as a 2/2 creature for 3. Turn it face up any time for it's morph cost.)

But not all time-advantage cards are creatures...

Memory Lapse
7th Edition Common

Counter target spell. Put that spell on top of it's owner's library instead of into that player's graveyard.

Visions Common

You may sacrifice two mountains rather than paying Fireblast's mana cost.

Fireblast deals 4 damage to target creature or player.

The above spells trade certain resources for speed. In other words, they gain they're controller a "time advantage" by trading useless(or sometimes, not so useless) early game resources for powerful creatures or effects, which are normally played no earlier than midgame. The controller will then hope to use this time advantage given by said spells to beat the opponent before the loss of those sacrificed or neglected resources becomes a liability.

Deck Archetypes - There are three main deck archtypes. I like to refer to these as mega-archetypes. Each of these mega-archetypes then have several sub-archetypes. The three mega-archetypes are Control, Combo, and Aggressive(also known as beatdown). Historically, the archetypes have had a rock, paper, scissor effect, with Control beating Combo, Combo beating Aggressive, and Aggressive beating Control. However, this hasn't always been the case, such as the 2002 Odyssey block constructed format. There was essentially only two mega-archetypes, that of control (mono-black control) and aggressive (green-blue madness). Combo was, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. A format like this is often skewed, favoring one archetype over another and generally making for an unhealthy metagame.

Metagame - A term used to describe the current state of a given format. For example, the current extended metagame (January 2003) is very open, meaning that many different deck types are viable. If one were to do an analysis of the current extended metagame, they might come up with something like this...

Tier 1:
The Rock and his Minions
U/G Madness

Tier 1.5
Sui Black
Oath(all versions)
Red Deck Wins
Tier 2
White Weenie
U/W control
R/G Beatdown
Mono-Green Stompy
Piledriver Sligh

Said person could attain such results by doing an analysis on the latest tournaments for the extended season. Several websites (my personal favorite is have tournament results, deck finders, and other tools which would be useful were one trying to figure out their local metagame.

Once said metagame is analyzed and understood, that person can then take the necessary measures when building a new deck(or modifying a current one) to beat the Tier 1 decks, or at the very least, make sure their deck doesn't roll over and die to the most commonly played decks in the format.

Mana Curve - The term mana curve refers to the deck's ability to utilize all of it's mana in any given point in the game. A deck with a good mana curve will generally do better than a deck with an unstable mana curve. An example mana curve follows for two aggressive decks...

Deck A
1 mana - 10
2 mana - 8
3 mana - 14
4 mana and higher - 4

Deck B
1 Mana - 4
2 Mana - 4
3 Mana - 6
4 Mana and higher - 20

As one can easily see, Deck A will have something to play on the first four turns far more often than Deck B. For this reason, Deck A will be far more successful than Deck B, simply because it utilizes all of its mana more often. Deck B, on the other hand, will often play land-go for the first few turns of a game (the worst thing an aggressive deck can do, but more on that later). Deck B will often be left with a hand of high-casting cost spells. The dragons and wurms of the Magic world are impressive indeed, but only if you are able to live long enough to get them into play. Therefore, a deck with a tight, efficient mana curve will win over a deck with no consideration for such things.

General Deckbuilding Strategies:

Aggressive - I would like to talk about something called a Fundamental Turn(I'm not sure who came up with the idea, but I've read some pieces by Zvi Mowshowitz on the subject, and I feel I can explain it in a simple way). For now, I will talk about the Fundamental Turn (FT) of an aggressive deck. This is actually quite an easy concept. The turn the deck wins (either by really winning or taking so much control it is essentially hopeless for the opponent) on it's most optimal draw is the decks FT. For example, a modern R/G Madness deck (if one exists) would probably have an FT of turn 5. If the R/G madness deck is going to win, you'll know it by turn 5 or so. If not, it usually loses because it runs out of steam. When building an aggressive deck, most formats require a FT of no later than 5 to be competitive.

Now, before you go build a devestating beatdown machine, take note that aggressive decks do have some problems. They often spill out their hands in the first 4 - 5 turns of the game in hopes of dealing 20 quick points of damage. If the opponent survives this first wave of assaults, most aggressive decks simply can't muster enough forces to throw a formidable second wave at the opponent. You can fight this by adding cards that draw cards, but that dillutes your aggressive strategy. Which brings me to another point about aggressive decks.

Aggressive decks should be redundant in what they do. So much so, that you want to draw essentially the same hand around 100% of the time. Aggressive decks need a lot of ways to deal damage. The only point of aggressive decks is to deal 20 points of damage, and to deal it FAST. Fact or Fiction is a REALLY good card, but I wouldn't recommend splashing blue in your monogreen stompy deck to add it. Why? You'll draw islands when you need to be playing out aggressive threats that cost Green mana to play. If you sit idle for just one turn, many control decks can take advantage of that time. If you sit idle for the first few turns, you'll probably lose. Again, why? Control decks will beat aggro decks given enough time. Every land a control deck plays is a step towards its eventual taking over of the game. I'll just put it this way... you try playing a R/G aggressive deck against a U/W control deck with 13 lands on the board, and tell me how you did. Far more often than not, you'll return to me with frustration in your eyes as your army was wrathed away and your burn spells were countered into nothingness.

So to summarize, a good aggressive deck should have a lot of low cost high threat creatures or direct damage, that it can play in the first few turns of the game. The deck should run a tight,efficient mana curve, and it should be redundant in what it does. Don't get fancy and add cards because they worked wonderfully in your monowhite prison deck. Analyze the card, ask yourself why your adding that particular card, what implications will it have on your draws, mana base, etc., and why is it better than the card that it's replacing. Big, fancy uber-spells usually have no place in fast aggressive decks.

Control - Control decks are my favorite mega-archetype of all. The ability for a control deck to confuse and alarm opponents is what makes me love it so. My opponents are too often staring across at me with any number of untapped blue mana sources, a look of hopelessness in their eyes. Which brings me to my first point about control.

Counterspells and control are tied hand and hand. The vast majority of control decks in magic history have had a blue base, and the counterspell mechanic is a BIG reason why (the other being that blue has the best card drawing spells of any color). The ability to deny your opponent's best spells is a powerful one indeed. As far as color powers go, it's probably one of the most powerful of all. Why? A counterspell is a spell that for 1 - 4 mana (depending on the type of spell) counters almost any threat in the game of magic. It keeps control alive until it's expensive and often devestating card advantage spells can be played.

A control deck not only needs to worry about threats on the stack. Most control decks can't counter everything the opponent plays. Usually, control decks will pack multiple creature destruction spells, because creatures are far and away the most threatening permanent in the game. Many will also pack enchantment or artifact removal in the sideboard, if not the maindeck.

A control deck must not only worry about answering it's opponents threats. It must also worry about winning the game somehow. Many traditional control decks have utilized a large flying creature that could be played after control has been attained. This strategy is better in some formats than others, and usually fails in a metagame full of extremely fast beatdown decks.

If your metagame is full of extremely fast beatdown decks, but you still yearn to play islands,I would recommend playing an Aggro-control midgame deck, which nearly always beats fast aggressive decks.

Well, I don't have too much experience with building combo decks, so perhaps I'll leave that to another writer and another article.
Thanks for reading. I hope you gained something from this.

Jim Voutsas

P.S. Of course, I learned all of these things from others. It pays to ask. I also have some recommended reading for those that want to get a grasp on the game:

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