Starting MtG

Updated on 2015-11-02
Updated on 2017-05-17 with more names for the psychographics

This question was brought up in our forums recently. It was pretty off-handed and the ensueing discussion wasn’t really indepth, but it made me think. What do I have for the starting player?

First, I’m not going to talk about the rules. I’m sure there’s plenty of places for that. The Mothership (DailyMtG) has its own material. I’m going to emphasize your approach to games in general.

The thing about Magic is that it can be daunting to start. Not only is the game pretty complex (although a lot of work has been done to make it more beginner friendly and your usual games don’t necessarily delve that deeply into the finer points of the rules), but there’s also so many different products and formats, they will discourage many. And then there’s the question of money… Which we’ll get into later.

Identifying Your Psychographic – What do you generally want out of games?

The special thing about Magic is that it can be different things to different people and the current design acknowledges that. They don’t only design for one format and one type of player, but they always try to reach a large population of fans. They talk about “psychographics” and currently they design for three: Timmy/Tammy, Johnny/Jenny and Spike.

Tammy likes to do cool, impactful things. She likes to cast big monsters or big spells that kill a lot of big monsters. Tammy doesn’t really care that this isn’t really always a good strategy. She’s really happy if she can have a really big Kraken every turn out of her Kiora, the Crashing Wave in a game once in a while. She doesn’t really put that much thought into making that happen as much as possible. If you identify with this, you might want to try EDH or Commander, as its now officially known.

Johnny likes to do cool things in a different way. Johnny likes to build a Rube Goldberg machine. Johnny is mostly interested in finding strange card interactions, which enable him to combo in unique ways. He isn’t happy to kill you by attacking with big creatures, unless he’s built it from the ground up. He’s more happy to kill his opponent with a unique combo that he can assemble only every once in a while, because it requires so many moving pieces. The best format for a Johnny is probably 60 card casual. There are plenty of Johnnies playing in tournaments and EDH, but most are probably happy testing their inventions on the kitchen table. Being a Johnny can be rewarding even without actual games. Scouring through the 13k+ cards on Gatherer (Wizards’s online database of cards) to find just the tools for your strange idea or just to pinpoint new interactions.

Spike is the tournament player. Most Spikes are happy not to build decks. They are happy to find them online, tune them if needed and then try their best to kick the asses of other people on tournaments (although some tournament players are more about just finding opponents, because they lack that support system otherwise). Spikes don’t care about cool. They care about subtle card synergies and streamlining their game plan. They care about the continuous challenge of identifying where the local metagame is going and reacting to it. For Spikes, the best place to start is probably drafting or sealed, where you can get into the game step by step by learning the cards and cultivating a collection. Then most Spikes move on to FNMs (international event every week supported by Wizards).

Then there’s Vorthos. Vorthos isn’t a psychographic as such, but its comparable. Vorthos cares about the “purity” and flavor of what happens in the game. He’ll build decks with each card being part of a theme, be it creatures of the same tribe, or just trying to push some concept.

The group you game in will influence your approach to the game, but there’s always room for different ideas.

The Formats

Casual is just Magic with basic rules. No limits to cards outside of the normal rules of only four per deck. For casual gaming, Wizards offers a set of Intro Packs for each set. Intro packs has some random content, but also has some semirandom content and one highlighted rare card, which usually isn’t the strongest in the set, but more geared towards the starting player. There’s also other help for casual players. Wizards releases Duel Decks a few times a year, which are very flavorful and generally pretty well balanced against each other. Duel Decks are not meant for tournament play and thus are not Standard legal.

Sealed is a format where you get six boosters from which to build a forty card deck (adding basic lands). When a set comes out, the prerelease events are always sealed format and in those events, they try to help out the new players a little by giving them a special booster which emphasizes a given color. This helps in deckbuilding, because you have identified a color you play beforehand. There’s also a four-booster, thirty card version of this format online, but I’ve never seen anyone play it live.

Drafting is closely related to sealed, but is more skill-intensive. In draft you open a booster pack, pick a card from it and then pass it on to the next player and then receive a new pack from the other direction to pick a card from. This way you collect a pool of 42 cards (plus any number of basic lands) from which to build a deck. This is a good place to continue after you have some familiarity with the game and the sets you are drafting.

Standard is the best constructed format to start with. Standard legal cards include the current block (blocks are produced these days in one big set of around 220 cards and one smaller decks of 165 cards), and the last two blocks. It can be expensive, with the most expensive decks costing in the range of hundreds of euros. However, you can play the format without putting that much money into it. There’s always a budget way to play and it doesn’t need to be that expensive. Wizards puts out an event deck with each new block, which is an affordable way to start. Many of them are definitely playable and can be tuned into a pretty good deck with a few euros. Making the deck really good is going to be expensive though.

Modern is a constructed format, which includes all the sets from 8th Edition onwards. This means all the cards since summer of 2003. They are generally (but not always) identifiable by the new card frames (Stone-Throwing Devils vs. Hero’s Downfall). Most truly competitive decks are very expensive, but due to the nature of the format, you don’t have to update your deck as often, so over time it might be less expensive than standard, if you are happy to play the same deck for a long period of time.

Then there’s Legacy and Vintage, but we don’t talk about those.

Commander or EDH is a multiplayer format which aims to let people play cards they can’t really play in other formats. Decks are singleton (only one copy of each card ), 99 cards and a commander (who has a special role). Players start with 40 life instead of the usual 20, so they have more time to build up their board to get bigger things done. Wizards has put out a pretty reasonably priced premade decks, some of which are pretty good, but seem to lack in overall cohesion as they have several competing themes.

The Big Question: Money

Yes. It can be very expensive, but you can probably find a way to play you are comfortable with. Sure, some players will put thousands of euros into a Vintage deck and then use thousands of euros more to travel to be able to exhibit it on a grand scale, and sure some players will have all-foiled EDH decks, which cost thousands in themselves, but this is part of the beauty of the game. You can beat those expensive decks. Not Vintage decks, no, but you can make a really competitive deck in EDH without spending much money.

The reasons are many. First, there is no “best” deck. Sure, people will talk about the best decks in many contexts, but they don’t really think those are the best decks. They fully understand that this is a nontransitive game (meaning that if A can beat B, and B can beat C, it doesn’t necessarily mean A can beat C), so what they are talking about is what is the best deck for a given tournament. There’s always a way to beat the best decks, its just a matter of finding a way to do it that doesn’t make you vulnerable to the second best deck.

Second: EDH is a social game and by playing it as such, you can always use the situation on board to your advantage. Just try to remain in a position where you don’t seem too dangerous, but neither are you clearly an easy target, and you’ll thrive, even if your deck is a bit iffy.

Third: There’s plenty of good cards, which are easily and cheaply available. Sure, there are some cards which are really expensive, but because those are generally the cards which are generally good in Modern or older formats, EDH players can usually dodge the bullet by using lesser known cards to their advantage.

Fourth: This is a game of luck, but its also a game of skill. Understanding the possibilities of where the game can go will give you a definite edge. This doesn’t cost money, it just takes experience.

There are even cheaper ways of playing. For example, pauper, where only common cards are legal. It gets generally played only online, but if you are happy with that, you can get a lot of mileage from your starting player package, which enables you to probably get a whole deck of cards, if you put some time into the process.

What you should do is use your social circle. You can loan decks to start with and you can also probably just raid the draft and sealed surplus your Spikey friends have. I try to unload those cards on my own circle of players and I’d gladly get rid of more of them. Those are not bad cards (at least not all of them), but rather they are just something I don’t need right now, because I have plenty of those cards already. You can actually probably build a pretty competitive deck from those cards. Not top-tier deck, but something you can win matches with.

Generally monored is the cheapest way to go. You can build a very cheap deck, which has the potential for very quick victories. There’s its own sense of accomplishment when you use your five euro budget deck to beat the expensive Esper controls of the world (with a price tag of maybe 400 euros right now) and its actually a pretty good matchup for the budget deck, because of its speed and explosive power.

Of course, if you’re comfortable with putting the money in, go for exactly the deck you want, but I have plenty of income and I try to play on a budget. Hasn’t stopped me from winning (although I have to note that my budget is a lot higher than five euros, my current deck was about 100 euros).

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