Returning to Magic the Gathering: A Guide for Born-Again Players

November 23, 2010. Tuesdays have a particular purpose: logging in to the Playstation Network to check out the latest releases. The “New Releases” link shows Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers for $9.99. With just over $12 in credit on my PSN account, I download the program. It was my first taste of playing Magic since 1999 (and the first time I thought about the card game since 2003 when I sold my previous collection).

Fast forward to mid-February 2011. By this point, I have played the game on almost a daily basis, collected the majority of the unlockable cards, and beat up several twelve year olds while dueling over PSN. My best friend Tom (a former player as well who lives in Decatur, Illinois) and his wife Jen happen to be in town for the weekend and we wind up playing Duels of the Planeswalkers for hours Thursday evening. After poking around on the internet Friday morning, we hit the link for “Friday Night Magic” on and find Alter Reality Games in Medina. That evening represented my return to “paper Magic” and a whole new look at the game I loved as a teenager.

Coming back to Magic was not as easy as I imagined it would be. From 1993 through 1999, I was largely a casual player. A group of people gathered at the local shop (the now defunct “Comics & Cards” in Twinsburg, Ohio) every Thursday night and we played various multiplayer variants like Generals and Chaos. What money I had went into the game, but back then playing something like Breeding Pit and creating tokens to sacrifice to Lord of the Pit was what you did. Few people at the shop had any care about tournaments and competitive play. Choosing to play a card then was based on fun (or on screwing around with someone else who you knew would hate you playing that card). It would seem that I would naturally fit into the EDH/Commander realm upon my return, but that is not the case.

Returning to Magic meant two things to me now. One, I could buy whatever card I needed within reason because I have a “real” job now. Two, I needed to find somewhere to play because no one around me plays Magic. Those two factors led me down the path to Standard and Alter Reality Games.

If this sounds even remotely familiar to you, then perhaps you have either already traveled this road yourself or you are about to. In a few short months, I have learned a lot of things about the state of the game and where to go from here. All of this information, however, ties back to one concept: Magic is still a game. There are no illusions in my head that I will assemble the best decklist ever and destroy the competition on the Pro Tour. What I do know, though, is that many things have changed since I last sleeved up a Scrubland and used it to help cast Juzam Djinn.

First and foremost, this game requires an investment. While money is the first thing that you think of when you hear the word, in reality it requires more time than money. The more time you have to playtest, the more experience you get. Without the luxury of having other people around who play Magic, I do my playtesting at ARG’s $5 Standard tournaments. This is something that I really should have considered a bit earlier in my newly reborn career because it has led to some poor decisions including taking a deck that never saw a single shuffle to a tournament against players who played in every tournament around and found the time to play Magic the Gathering Online. Regardless of how good you thought you were at deck building, you will not truly understand the requirements of the format until you get your butt handed to you and go 0-4 in matches with a deck that you thought would work fine. That being said, some of my best lessons came in match three or four (after going 0-2 or 0-3). If you are returning to Magic and follow this path, I encourage you to stick around and play out your night if you can. The games will certainly teach you something if you let them.

Time aside, it is time to discuss the financials. Now that CawBlade is gone, you can create a competitive Standard deck for around $300 (maybe less depending on what you are building). The internet is ripe with places to go to see decks that work (and some that people claim work). In my first tenure playing casual Magic, it was blasphemy to use someone else’s decklist, even if you made some changes. Now, with Standard being the primary format for me, the following information is essential: play the best deck you can afford. If you can swing the money to acquire the cards for a terrific Valakut build that recently won an open tournament, do it.

Have I sworn off deck building for myself? No. But I am smart enough to realize that I do not possess the knowledge about the format to use a homebrew at the moment. Hopefully, I will soon, but for now I am going to base my decklists off of ones that are proven to work while I continue to get the hang of the Standard format.

If $300 or so is more than you want to spend on 75 cards, that is fine. You can go the box route (which is what I did) and hope for the best. I bought box after box and tried to build decks that seemed to work the best out of what I had to work with. Great idea in theory. I purchased a box of Scars, a box of Besieged, and several packs of M11. I had some luck opening the packs and ended up with a good mix of cards to start with.

The problem was I did not have enough of the key cards to make anything consistently function. I started with a mono-G infect deck because I had playsets of Green Sun’s Zenith, Putrefax, and Mimic Vat. It was fun and did land me in a 4th place finish in my second Standard tournament. Then, however, the wheels fell off the proverbial bus. Caw Blade really took over and there was no way my build could compete. The next week, I ended up landing in dead last out of 21 players.

Over the weeks that followed, I toyed with the build. One week I added in White (thanks to a playset of Razorverge Thicket I picked up at a local shop), another I tried Red… What I came to realize (a revelation that culminated in an 11th place finish at the Case tournament June 26) is I did not yet have the experience to properly tune my deck.

Now, I have found a deck that competes well in the current format and I have cashed in many of my cards to acquire the necessary pieces to play it. What I hope to learn from this is simple – how you play Magic well. I know that no one deck will solve this or teach me what I need to know, but for now I want to see the game from less of an experimental angle and more of a learning the ropes to be successful angle. Playing against an opponent is one thing; playing against your own deck is entirely different.

To someone who is starting out or returning to the game, I suggest that you read up on your chosen format and that you first try out something that is proven to work. Then, after you understand the nuances of the format, start brewing up brand new unheard of ideas. The experience that you acquire through competing will be invaluable and you will spend your money more effectively. I learned this lesson by making mistakes. Hopefully, you can learn it by reading about them.