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!