“I started playing when I was 11,” the guy at my favourite burrito joint says as he squeezes the chipotle onto my burrito, “I had a friend who played it and told me that I should give it a go, and I haven’t stopped playing it since.”
When I was first asked to write about the latest releases in the Magic franchise, I had never even seen a game played, let alone played a game for myself.
To be honest, I had always imagined Magic: The Gathering as a kind of secret, exclusive club game; played in gloomy basements by slightly shiny-faced unsociable fanatics who probably had’t seen sunlight in at least six months.
But as I asked among my friendship circles, I was shocked at the number of people I knew who used to (and in many cases, still did) play the biggest trading card game in the world.
A science teacher at a high school; a salesman at a homewares store; the finance officer at an aboriginal health service; the receptionist at a University college. People from all different lifestyles, they had all played Magic before – and not a gloomy, greasy, pale fanatic among them.
So then I started asking random people who I would strike up a conversation with. The guy at that burrito joint, the chef at that café, the girl at that book store. It seemed like just about everyone had a story to tell about when or why they started playing (and some of them even had a story about when or why they had stopped).
So many different people from so many different paths in life with almost nothing in common except for the fact that they had all played this particular card game. How had I not seen this before? How had I managed to go so far through my life without having, at the very least, dabbled in the Magic arts?
Why Should I be playing?
To me the most appealing part about Magic: The Gathering was summed up perfectly by my burrito building buddy when he said that Magic, the game, is as simple as you want it to be, or as complex as you want it to be.
The primary focus of Magic is, of course, the duelling. Duelling is where two to four players pit their decks against one another in an attempt to knock out your opponents health and win the game. If you’ve ever played Pokémon, this concept should be extremely familiar to you.
The whole game is set up to be super easy to pick up, while still being tricky enough to master to keep it interesting. Luckily, each card prints exactly what it does right there on the card, so even novice players have something to fall back on if they’re feeling confused.
Duelling Magic cards lies at the heart of the Magic experience, but it is by no stretch the whole of the experience. In the beginning, Magic cards were simply designed to be played with, not to be collected – but over the years that has changed, and the cards have become collectibles in their own right.
And in between the two lies deck building. Not quite collecting, but not quite duelling, deck building is the process in which you, well, build your deck. Each game is played with a deck of usually 60 cards, so deck building is the art of finding the perfect combination of 60 cards to represent you.
Many veteran players have more than one deck – some even have heaps of decks – and this is where Magic becomes a truly complex game. You can build decks with colour themes, or strategy themes. Decks that favour monsters, or elves, or spells. Decks that are aggressive and built for attack, or decks that are made for the long play, focussing on defence.
So whether you’re in it for the win or you’re just there for the fun of the game, maybe you are a collector, or maybe you just really like the art, Magic has you covered.
Okay, but why should I start playing now?
Now is the best time to get into Magic: The Gathering for a few reasons, but the biggest reason would be the latest deck expansion, Origins.
(Think of deck expansions as DLC for your card collection. Expansions add new story and game content to your current library and help to keep magic fresh and new so that newcomers and veterans alike are always discovering something different!)
To explain why Magic: Origins is such a good jumping on point for the game, I’ll have to go back and explain one of the pivotal aspects of the massive, over-arching story of Magic: The Gathering – the Magic multiverse and the many planes of existence.
Magic: The Gathering is not set in a single universe, but takes place across a myriad of universes, often with new deck expansions used to introduce a new universe, or “plane,” to the ever expanding Magic multiverse.
So why is this important now? Well, the fact that you, as a player, are able to experience all of these different planes of existence makes you what is known as a Planeswalker. In the Magic lore, you are a powerful wizard who can walk across all these planes on a whim. Pretty cool.
But we players aren’t the only beings able to traverse this area between wolds. Within the Magic story, there also exist other hugely powerful Planeswalkers for you to duel with or against – and it is these in-universe Planeswalkers that make the Magic: Origins expansion the perfect place to jump into the Magic set-piece.
Planeswalker cards were first introduced into Magic libraries back in 2007 as a part of the then-latest deck expansion, Lorwyn – Planeswalkers as a concept had existed in the Magic mythos before this expansion, but this is when they got their own dedicated cards.
This original introduction saw the first appearances of Planswalkers Jace Beleren, Liliana Vess, Chandra Nalaar (as well as two others who we don’t need to mention here). Then in 2009, Nissa Revane and Gideon Jura would be introduced into the Magic multiverse.
It is these five these powerful characters that Magic: Origins takes us back to the very beginnings of – back to before they were powerful, to a time before they had even become Planeswalkers. The whole point of Magic: Origins, then, is to explore what changed these beings from mere mortals into some of the most formidable characters Magic has to offer.
If ever there was to be an expansion to set the stage for newcomers, Magic: Origins, with its going back to the very beginning of the Planeswalker journey, is it.
And for anyone looking to take that step further into the Magic: The Gathering saga, and experience more than just the card game, the five Origins Planeswalkers’ humble (and not so humble) beginnings are explored in even greater detail in a series of origin stories available on the Wizards of the Coast website.
Yeah, that does sound cool. But you said there were a few reasons. What else makes now so great?
To coincide with the release of the new expansion, Wizards of the Coast also released a free-to-play digital version of the Magic: The Gathering card game, called Magic Duels. The game is currently available on iOS, Steam and Xbox One, with a PlayStation 4 version still set to come out later this year (Android users don’t get the new-and-improved Magic Duels app, but they do have Magic 2015, an older, similar app available on the Google Play store)
Magic Duels is split up into sections for story play, free play and tutorials, which is perfect for newcomers to the franchise in that it is set up to essentially be a tutorial system for the physical card game.
Whole segments are devoted to explaining how each aspect of the game works in an easy to understand fashion before letting players move onto the more in-depth story mode – which then delves into the Planeswalkers’ origins from which this expansion gets its name.
And for veteran card players, Magic Duels also offers players the chance to collect new cards, build a deck, and test it in battle – completely digitally. So if you want to see if that card combination or new strategy will work for you, this app/game is exactly what you need.
Once you’ve played a few rounds of Magic Duels, it’s time to head into your nearest game shop and pick up some physical cards!
The best pack for new players would be either the intro pack (if you have a friend who has their own cards to play with) or the Clash Pack (if you’re starting up with a friend at the same time). The Intro Pack contains a whole 60 card deck which has been balanced to provide a fair idea of what a typical game will run like. While these decks will never hold a candle to a personally built deck, they help to give you an idea of how a deck can balance out.
The Clash Packs are like two Intro Packs in one. So you get two 60-card decks or similar but opposing elemental allegiance, with the idea being that you can duel with them straight away. This pack is perfect if you have a friend (or parter, or sibling) who wants to learn with you. By getting two decks already built, you can each try both decks and see which particular playing style suits you best.
On top of these two sets, there is also the Deck Builders Tool Deck builder’s toolkit and Fat Pack. Neither of these packs come with pre-made decks, but instead contain a handful of booster packs (randomly selected packets of cards), which are designed to get you started with building you very one, personalised decks. I would save these ones until you’ve played a few games with a pre-made deck first.
Okay, so what next?
Game and hobby shops across Australia work with Magic distributors Wizards of the Coast to run Friday Night Magic most (if not every) Friday night. These nights are open to absolutely everyone, whether you’re planning on playing in their officially sanctioned tournaments, play with some friend, or just check out some new cards or meet some fellow Magic enthusiasts.
My local card and board games shop plays host to Friday Night Magic every Friday night, and it was at one of these nights that I bought my first intro pack and played my first game. And promptly lost.
But to my surprise, there was no ridicule. No elitism. My opponent came around the table and became my mentor, showing me where I’d gone wrong and giving me tips on how to do better next time.
This kind of support network was completely unexpected. My game shop is even the home ground for the Lady Planeswalker Society, which was established as a group specifically for girls looking to get into the Magic community. These sorts of groups can be found convening at almost all Magic hotspots, and will always offer a friendly welcome and a helping had to any newcomers trying to break in – both guys and girls.
Ultimately, while I went out looking for the secret, exclusive club in a dank basement what I actually found was very different. Instead, I found a community of like-but-different people who didn’t hesitate to welcome me with open arms into what is apparently a not-so-exclusive club after all.