Basic Rules

This post is about the basic rules of Magic. For Commander-specific rules, you’ll need to wait for my next post. Also, these rules are meant to be a basic overview, kind of a guide for brand-new players. A lot of things are simplified, exceptions aren’t discussed, and if you try to rules-lawyer someone for not following these rules exactly, you’re probably the one who’s wrong. Basically the goal here is to have an easy-to-understand set of instructions that will allow new players to get into the game. The hope is that a bunch of people who had never played before could read this post and play a game that is recognizable as Magic.

First rule: Read your cards. If Mikaeus the Lunarch says, “Tap, Remove a +1/+1 counter from Mikaeus: Put a +1/+1 counter on each other creature you control,” you can only remove those counters one at a time; you can’t use his first ability to load him with counters, then remove them all at once to make all your other creatures huge. If you have a card that says “Destroy target creature,” you can’t even cast it with no creatures on the battlefield to target.

That being said, if you misread your cards, don’t worry. I’ve been playing for two and a half years, I’m a qualified Level 1 judge, and I still sometimes misread my cards. I usually just laugh it off and undo whatever illegal play I was about to make or just made. Just the other day I thought a card said to move all counters from target permanent to another target permanent, but it actually specified creatures, so sadly I wasn’t able to kill Domri Rade by moving his counters onto Venser, the Sojourner. (Insert requisite joke about how those who can’t play, judge, here.)

So, you know to read your cards. That’s seriously the most important thing in Magic. Hopefully you have internet access and can look up whatever keywords are on the cards that aren’t actually explained on the card itself, like flying or trample. Remember that text on the cards overrides the rules of the game. What do you need to know about the game?

There are several zones you need to be aware of. Your library is basically your deck, minus whatever cards you’ve drawn and/or played. Your graveyard is the pile of sorceries and instants you’ve cast, together with creatures, artifacts, and enchantments that have been destroyed or have died, and any cards you’ve had to discard. There’s another zone, exile, which will be fairly clear once you come across a card that mentions it. The main playspace is known as the battlefield. For Commander, there’s a final zone, the Command Zone, where your commander chills until you’re ready to cast it. The Command Zone is also used for planeswalker emblems, but that’s only relevant in that there’s nothing in the game that can interact with said emblems once you’ve acquired them. (Again, this is something that will be much clearer if it becomes relevant. Until that happens, don’t worry about it.)

To begin the game, you draw seven cards. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, you’re allowed to take any number of mulligans, where you shuffle your hand back into your library and draw one fewer card than you just shuffled in. You and the other player or players randomly determine who goes first (or who chooses the starting player, if the winner of the die roll doesn’t actually want to go first). In a two-player game, the player to start the game does not draw for his or her first turn; in a multiplayer game, the first player does draw at the start of the game. Your maximum hand size is seven; at the end of your turn, if you have more than seven cards in your hand, you have to discard down to seven.

Next thing to remember: Untap, upkeep, draw. That will (hopefully) keep you from missing your upkeep triggers. In Commander, since it’s casual play, you’re usually fine doing things slightly out of order. Depends on your playgroup, though. A more competitive meta might say that because you drew before paying the 2UU for your upkeep trigger for the Pact of Negation you cast last turn, you missed your trigger and thus lost the game.

So, you’ve got seven cards in hand, you know to untap your stuff, then resolve your upkeep triggers, then draw for turn. What next? Well, next you go to your main phase, where you can play lands and spells. You can play one land on each of your turns. Lands produce mana, which is necessary to pay for spells. The mana cost of a spell is located in the upper right-hand corner. The total cost, usually referred to as the converted mana cost, is equal to the colorless number (if there is one) plus the number of colored symbols. For instance, Lorthos, the Tidemaker costs a total of 8 mana, three of which must come from a blue source such as an Island. In order to cast him, you would need to tap eight lands. (Yes, there are other ways to add mana to your pool; we’re keeping this simple for the new players, remember?)

During your main phase, you can cast any number of spells, as long as you have the mana to pay for them. After your main phase, you move to your combat phase. This is where you can send your creatures to attack your opponents (or planeswalkers your opponents control). We’re going to speed ahead a few turns here, and assume that you’ve got some creatures on the battlefield. With multiple opponents, you need to declare which player or planeswalker each creature is attacking; you can attack multiple players with different creatures in the same turn. You cannot send your creatures to attack your opponent’s creatures. That’s a big one; in some other games, you can attack the creatures directly, but not in Magic. You also cannot attack with creatures that have entered the battlefield this turn. Those are affected by summoning sickness. It’s kind of like they just came out of the Stargate and are disoriented. That disorientation will continue until your next turn. Creatures affected by summoning sickness cannot attack, nor can they activate abilities that have the tap symbol in the cost.

Once you’ve decided which creatures are attacking, tap those creatures. (Tap means to turn a creature ninety degrees clockwise.) Your opponent then decides how to block. Only untapped creatures can be declared as blockers; however, summoning sickness doesn’t matter when deciding how to block. When a creature is blocked, it deals damage to the creature blocking it rather than the player under attack (known as the defending player); that creature also deals damage to it. Each creature can only block a single attacking creature, but any number of creatures can block the same attacker. Unlike attacking creatures, blocking creatures do not tap.

Finally, damage is calculated. A creature deals damage based on its power. That’s the number in the bottom right-hand corner before the forward-slash. The number after the slash is the toughness, which indicates the amount of damage the creature can take before it dies. For example, if a 1/1 is blocked by a 1/1, each deals 1 damage to the other, and they both die. At that point each creature goes to its owner’s graveyard (remember me mentioning that zone earlier?). If a 1/2 is blocked by a 1/2, each deals 1 damage to the other, but because each has 2 toughness, 1 damage isn’t enough to kill it, so both survive; however, if at any other point in that turn either creature is dealt 1 more damage, bringing the total damage to 2, it will die.

Any creatures that are not blocked deal their damage to the player. So, if you’re attacking with a 2/3 and a 3/4, and they’re not blocked, they’ll deal a total of 5 damage to the defending player. That damage translates to loss of life; if the player is at 20 life, he’ll go down to 15. If he’s at 5 (or less), he’ll go down to 0, and lose the game.

Now it’s your second main phase. Maybe now’s the time to play that Mardu Hordechief and get that raid trigger. Or maybe you were so eager to attack you forgot to play your land for turn; well, you can do that now. But wait! Your opponent doesn’t want you to get that warrior token from the Mardu Hordechief, and plays a Cancel. That’s an instant, which can be played at (almost) any time. It has a target—target spell—which in this case is your Hordechief. Your Hordechief is countered, and rather than enter the battlefield and get you that warrior token, it goes directly to your graveyard. The Cancel also goes to its owner’s graveyard. (I heard a story about someone who thought instants and sorceries kind of hung out on the battlefield, reactivating every turn. That’s not how it works. You cast it once and it’s gone.) Then you pass turn, count the number of cards in hand (four is less than seven, so you’re fine), and let the next player take his turn. At that point all damage dealt to creatures re-sets, so that 1/2 that blocked last turn and took a damage can attack this turn and be blocked by a 1/1 and not die.

And that’s pretty much all you need to know to start playing Magic. Go forth my children, and have fun. And don’t forget to read your cards!

New Tuck Rule

There’s been a lot of talk about this new Commander tuck rule, with people arguing back and forth over whether it’s good or bad for the format overall. Newer, less competitive players seem to like that they’re guaranteed access to their commanders. More cutthroat players complain that their commanders are now on the chopping block. Personally, I don’t like it, but then, I don’t like any official changes to my format, which I play in part because it’s more casual and fun-oriented.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, the new rule is basically that, if your commander would move to any zone other than the battlefield, you can choose to send it to the Command Zone instead. This is a change from the old rule, which only covered commanders going to the graveyard or exile. The main consequence is that now, if you try to shuffle a commander into its owner’s library, that player can choose to send it to the command zone instead, in order to maintain access to it.

That being said, let’s look at the actual impact of this ruling, and the reasons it came down. First, the reasons. According to what I’ve heard, the reasoning is twofold: they wanted to make the way commanders behaved when changing zones more consistent, and they wanted to discourage the use of tutors, because players were just tutoring for their commander when it got tucked. The first reason explains why this rule applies to the hand as well as the library, and is completely understandable. We want the rules to be as elegant as possible, to make them easier to learn, remember, and comprehend. Whether or not you think that warrants making a rules change, it’s difficult to argue against that reasoning behind it.

The second reason is on a far less solid footing. While it’s true that players will tutor for their commanders when the commander gets tucked, that’s an example of correlation not demonstrating causation. I run tutors in my Olivia Voldaren deck, and while I did once tutor for my commander when she got tucked, that’s not why they’re in the deck. I run them to tutor out Havoc Festival, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is my favorite card in the entire game, and possibly Urza-tron to accelerate my mana. Other decks I run tutors in are Garza Zol and Damia, which are combo decks and thus require me to tutor for the remaining pieces of my combos once I get the first one out. (On a side note, I actually played Damia last week. I got down Inexorable Tide, Ring of Three Wishes, and Seedborn Muse, and had a nice little combo going where I could tutor for a new card on each player’s turn. If someone had tucked my commander, I probably wouldn’t have bothered tutoring for her, since I had better things to dig out of my deck.)

When I’ve played against people who ran tutors, probably 95% of the time they used them to tutor for their win condition, rather than their commander, because their commander was already in play, or still in the Command Zone. The truth is, tuck just doesn’t happen often enough for it to be a major factor when constructing a deck, at least not in the metas in which I’ve played. So, as noble a goal as reducing the number of tutors to preserve the purity of the singleton format may be, imagining that changing the tuck rule will accomplish that is nothing but wishful thinking.

Now for the impact on the game. This boils down to the opposing arguments of “I want to be able to play my commander in a particular game” vs. “I want to be able to play my commander at all.” Immediately after the ruling, several commanders were discussed as being potential candidates for the banned list. Prossh and Narset were already on the chopping block, so if they make the cut it may be due to forces in place even before the new rule. Skullbriar, of course, is a prime candidate, because the two main ways of dealing with him, bounce and tuck, effectively no longer exist. (My favorite way of dealing with Skullbriar remains a combo with Dominus of Fealty and Zedruu the Great-Hearted: Steal Skullbriar on your upkeep and give him to another player. The Skullbriar player then used his one kill-spell to kill his own commander so it couldn’t be used against him, and failed to draw any more removal for the rest of the game. Since he knew re-casting Skullbriar would only lead to a repeat of what happened last time, he never re-cast his commander. Incidentally, this is also why running multiple removal spells is a good idea—see my previous post—although in this case a board-wipe would have worked just as well.) Other names have been bandied about—Zur the Enchanter comes to mind—although I think the only people who will be upset if he gets banned are those who actually run him as their commander, and anyone who would run Zur is a terrible person who deserves to suffer. (As I recall, Uril, the Miststalker and Derevi were also potential bans.)

A lot of people are drawn to Commander because it’s a casual format, which makes it less susceptible to the deck-destroying ban-hammering that plagues formats like Modern. Even when a ban does affect Commander, it’s usually one card in ninety-nine, easily replaced without significantly affecting the play of the deck. In any given game, you probably weren’t going to see that card anyway. (Unless you’re running a bunch of tutors specifically to tutor out that specific card, which is your win condition, in which case that probably explains why it got banned.) Where we see problems is when the commander itself gets banned. Since most people build their decks around a particular commander, suddenly their entire deck is useless, and they sank all that money into it for nothing. That’s not to say commanders should never be banned. Cards are designed with formats other than Commander in mind, and sometimes you get another Rofellos who’s just broken in the format. Narset is shaping up to be an example of that. (Although that fails to explain Prossh and Derevi, who were specifically designed to be played as commanders.) The point is, sometimes commanders need to be banned. It’s when the reason for the ban is a rules update that things get sticky. At that point you need to consider whether the change is causing more problems than it solved.

One post I read put it rather well. The writer said he’d rather run the risk of his commander being tucked, which happens maybe one in six games (from which I’d wager he plays a powerful commander in a competitive meta, since it’s probably been twenty games or more since my commander got tucked), than not be able to play his commander at all. I would say the desire to continue playing a deck in which you’ve invested a significant amount of time and money trumps the desire to avoid the risk of losing access to your commander. That risk will always be there. Several months ago, I was playing against a Kaalia deck, and simply killed Kaalia every time she came down. Eventually I leveled up a Guul Draz Assassin, and the Kaalia player stopped playing his commander, since I’d just kill her again on my turn. Even if he’d been running removal and had managed to kill my Guul Draz Assassin, I’d have just kept saving my own removal for his commander until she became too expensive to cast. He became very upset, because his deck did not function without the commander. But that was his choice, to build a deck that needed its commander in order to do anything. If I choose to make a deck with fewer lands so I have more room for powerful spells, I don’t get to complain when I get mana-screwed. Yes, you should have a reasonable expectation of being able to cast your commander, and building a deck with your commander in mind is a viable strategy. But if your deck needs your commander to function, it’s not the rules committee’s responsibility to protect you from the consequences of your own decision.

Therefore, I come down firmly on the side of those who are upset by this decision. It makes it more difficult to interact with certain decks, and doesn’t actually do what the new players want, which is guarantee them access to their commander. In the end, nobody’s really happy.

However—and this is important—it does tighten up some inelegance in the rules. While the immediate impact—the potential ban of certain commanders—is undesirable, the long-term impact is most likely to be positive. It makes the game make more sense, making it more accessible to new players. Tuck spells still tuck everything but the commander, just like kill spells kill anything but the commander, and exile spells exile everything but the commander. A tuck spell will still get Avacyn off the battlefield, leaving an opening for a boardwipe. The existence of tutors means the only commander really affected by this is Skullbriar. (No matter what color your commander, you can run, at the very least, Ring of Three Wishes.) And, specifically because this is a casual format, players have the option of deciding how or if to implement the rule. If some commanders do get banned because of this ruling, players wanting to continue playing those decks could offer to promise to choose to send the commander to their library or their hand, rather than the command zone, if such a situation arises, in exchange for being able to play a technically banned card. Alternatively, they can try to find a replacement commander for their deck—I was going to use Narset as a commander for my Jeskai deck, but upon reflection Shu Yun would probably be a better fit for what the deck wants to do; and Angus Mackenzie would hands-down be a better commander than Derevi for my pillow-fort deck. We’ve whethered rule changes before, and we will again. This one isn’t nearly as bad as the naysayers are making it out to be.

And hopefully they don’t actually ban any commanders. Except Skullbriar. That card is just unfair.