A First Step Across the Plane in Magic: The Gathering

I’ve always been nerdy in that I like to read and wear glasses. But I’ve never been much for the big nerd (or geek) pursuits: I’m so-so on Tolkien and Doctor Who, I don’t care about Star Trek or Star Wars, and so on. I’ve never played “real” Dungeons and Dragons, and I only play RPG video games because I enjoy mindless violence. So it was definitely to my great surprise that I found myself spending a recent Saturday night playing Magic: The Gathering.

Magic: The Gathering (aka Magic or M:TG), is a card game, originally released in 1993. Wikipedia claims there’s a story underlining the game, but the basic story is really simple: You are a Planeswalker (wizard, magician, magic user, whatever), and you fight other Planeswalkers by casting spells. These spells often take the form of creatures. The strongest ones win.

I asked my husband, “Isn’t this basically what Pokemon is?” But he’s never played Pokemon.

Anyway, the Wikipedia synopsis goes into more detail about the warring factions and various worlds (planes). One can participate in tournaments and memorize lore. And I know I sound like I’m scoffing at all of this, but I actually think that’s really cool: you can become as immersed as you want. I had fun as a total newb (and I have no plans of learning anything beyond basic game mechanics), but people who like lore and mythos can dive in.

A green Magic: The Gathering card featuring a white unicorn and the title "Noble Quarry"
Magic: The Gathering card. Art by Michael C. Hayes. From Magiccards.info

A few weeks ago, my husband was invited to a games night by a coworker. Sweet man that he is, he asked if I could attend and was told yes. I misheard or misunderstood, and thought it was a night of Dungeons and Dragons. Not that I’ve ever played that, but that’s what I was mentally preparing for.

A snowstorm required rescheduling. While discussing the new game night, I finally realized (or learned): 1. We would be playing Magic 2. Actually, my husband would be playing Magic; since I don’t know how, I’d just have to watch.

Spend four hours watching a bunch of guys, only one of whom I know, play a nerdy card game? No thank you.

Thus began my crash course in Magic. The other players wouldn’t mind playing with a newbie, they just didn’t want to have to spend time completely teaching me the rules. I can totally respect that. So I had to cram like I was a freshman.

We headed to a local game store to purchase two intro packs. (Target and other such retailers sell them, too, but I try to buy local, and Ancient Wonders has a better selection.) Magic is a trading card game, so you can purchase individual cards/booster packs and create your own custom deck. Or you can buy intro packs, which are pre-made decks that include a balance of low and high powered cards. Perfect for newbies (me) and people who just don’t want to spend the time/money on creating a custom deck (my husband).

What was most surprising and pleasing was how beautiful the cards are. The art is lush and my cards, at least, seemed to be evenly split among male and female characters. And in general, the female characters were not overtly sexualized, instead wearing armor/outfits that actually looked protective.

A red card from Magic: The Gathering showing a female warrior in a long skirt with bare shoulders and midriff. Text says "Jeska, Warrior Adept."
A female warrior from Magic: The Gathering. I have no idea what’s going on with this outfit. Art by rk post. From Magiccards.info
A green Magic: The Gathering Card featuring a female warrior wearing armor. She sits on a white horse. The text reads "Lady Zhurong, Warrior Queen"
Now here’s a lady wearing some cool armor. Art by Miao Aili. From magiccards.info

My husband had played Magic (and Dungeons and Dragons) in high school, and luckily, the basic rules had remained the same. He patiently walked me through the steps: You have to put down land which equals mana, then tap the land to access the mana, and then you can cast a spell which is often actually a creature. Each creature has two ratings, one for how much damage they deal and one for how much damage they can take. The other player can then try to block or offer a counter-spell.

Also, each newly cast creature has “summoning sickness,” and thus can’t attack right away (unless they have Haste). I don’t know why, but I think that’s adorable. Poor baby monster is too sick to play, awwww.

A drawing of Cthulhu in pajamas, drinking tea.
Cthulhu has some hot tea. From ThinkGeek’s “Cthulhu Can’t Sleep” shirt.

The cards come in different colors, and the colors correspond to different playing strategies. I stuck with green and red cards, which tend to rely on brute force. My husband likes blue, black, and white, which tend to be more defensive. We’re the same way with video games: I want a sword, he wants to hang back with spells.

We played multiple games every day for a week. I lost a lot, but not every time. We returned to the store a few times, for sleeves (protect the cards and also disguise them, so you can’t tell which card is which), dice (to keep track of one’s life), land (you can just buy as much land as you want, for like five cents a card), and counters (because sometimes you can cast another spell that adds additional strength/damage to your monsters).

Finally, the big day arrived.

Instead of bringing our own decks, we’d be creating decks at the game night. Everyone paid the host who provided us with booster packs. We each opened a pack, chose a card, then passed the deck to the person to our right, and so on until all of the cards had been chosen. We did this three times. We then chose to keep 22-24 of the cards, added enough land to get our deck to 40 total cards, and were ready to play.

Besides my husband and I, five other players joined us. Only one other player was female, the host’s wife. I was a little nervous; she, at least, already knew how to play. But here I was, trying to insert myself into a male past time. I knew no one would call me a fake gamer girl or anything, not with my husband sitting there, but I was worried I’d be a target just for being so new to the game.

Everyone was very kind to me, more than willing to walk me through some of the trickier parts of the game. The other players were happy to have someone new to play with. I even won a few games, and my opponents were happy for me.

A green Magic: The Gathering card featuring a large, two-headed fanged snake. The text says "Nessian Asp."
My secret weapon: Nessian Asp. While choosing cards, another player said “Whoever is playing green, make sure to grab the asp.” I’m glad I did! Reach means he can attack flying creatures, and Monstrosity gives him more power. Art by Alex Horley-Orlandelli. From Magiccards.info

We played for four hours. That worked out to 12 or 15 games each. (With an odd number of players, we each took turns sitting out.) I had a blast. I don’t think I’ll ever get to a point where I’m collecting cards and attending tournaments, but it was a fun way to spend an evening. It sounds silly to be scared of a card game, but I was glad to take the first step out of my comfort zone and onto the plane.

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Natasha

History. Hindi cinema. Hugging cats.

2 thoughts on “A First Step Across the Plane in Magic: The Gathering”

  1. Ghehe. I only played a table top once and it made me very giggly (I think it was DnD) because I just have too much of an imagination and the GM was very over the top in his story telling. I don’t know if it’s for me, but I feel kind of an awe for the people that do hours and hours of sessions on such a game.

    1. This game, luckily, doesn’t have a DM to run it or anything. You just play the cards. I think I would come down with the giggles if I tried actual DnD.

      Actually, I’d be like Britta on Community. “We have to stop and help the goblins!”

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