Hello, and welcome to the first part of MTGO Academy’s brand new tutorial series! This part will cover aspects of paper Magic relevant to online players. To keep abreast of the world of Magic: The Gathering considered in either its paper or online forms requires knowledge of myriad terms, rules, and community standards. But to play seriously on Magic Online (MTGO for short) adds even more to the list of need-to-knows. And we at MTGO Academy are here to explain all of the things that make Magic… well… magic! Part One of the series focuses on paper Magic and introduces many paper-based resources that are useful to players of Magic Online.
The Wide World of Magic
Magic is designed and maintained by Wizards of the Coast, a Hasbro subsidiary. Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is responsible for creating and developing new cards and products, marketing the game, maintaining the rules, and distributing the product. WotC also produces and maintains the digital portal for Magic: the Magic Online software. Common organizations (and their corresponding abbreviations) you will regularly read or hear about include research and development (Magic R&D), the DCI, (the tournament rule-making and governing body previously known as Duelist Convocation International) and the Wizards Play Network (WPN).
Magic has had a long, almost 20-year history; over the years, products, formats, events, and even non-WotC websites have come and gone. The following categories cover everything under the umbrella of Magic‘s current incarnation:
Over the years, Magic has been marketed through many, many different products, including Box Sets, Special Packs, Preconstructed Decks, and even novels based on the flavor of the game and its story arcs! This following taxonomy will take you through the main Magic products (Booster Packs, Intro Packs, Event Decks, etc.) and will also touch on special and preconstructed offerings (such as Duel Decks and Premium Deck Series). It highlights their costs and structures, but you can follow this link to the main WotC Product section for more specifics.
New Set Releases
Most years, four new sets are released. Today, new set releases are accompanied with the following products:
Booster Packs. These are the bread-and-butter Magic product, a staple that almost every Magic player (or Magic player’s mother) purchases at some point. Current boosters contain fourteen semi-randomly inserted cards, a randomly inserted basic land card and an additional insert (that may be a rules insert or a token). Of boosters’ contents other than the basic land and insert(s), one card is a rare or mythic rare, three are uncommons, and the other ten are commons. Since Time Spiral, occasionally a foil, also called premium, card (of any rarity level) replaces one of the commons (from Urza’s Legacy until Time Spiral, it replaced a card of the same rarity level), but this is fairly infrequent (about 1 in 7 packs has a foil card). Manufacturer-suggested retail price (MSRP) on booster packs is $3.99 plus tax in the United States. On Magic Online, rules inserts and tokens are not included among the contents of booster packs.
Intro Packs. These replaced the old preconstructed Theme Decks and contain two rares (one of which is a foil). Each intro pack has a specific deck built around a prominent theme and one Booster Pack intended to introduce players to mechanics and flavor from the newest sets. MSRP on intro packs is $12.99 plus tax in the United States.
Event Decks. A newer offering, Event Decks are 60-card preconstructed decks meant for immediate Standard Constructed tournament play. MSRP on event decks is $24.99 plus tax in the United States. You can read more about the Standard Constructed format below when we discuss common methods of organized Magic play.
Fat Packs. With the release of Mirrodin Besieged, Fat Packs now contain nine boosters (instead of the previous eight), 80 land cards (instead of the previous 40), a spindown life-counter, a player’s guide, a card storage box, and two 60-card deck boxes. MSRP on fat packs is $39.99 plus tax in the United States. These are not available on Magic Online.
Novels. Yes, the world of Magic fiction is still alive and well! If you consider yourself a fantasy aficionado (or enjoy the lush flavor of the intellectual property that is Magic: The Gathering), check out The Thran, the story of Yawgmoth’s descent from man to powerful lord of Phyrexia! Novels like this one are not available on Magic Online, but you can still find them online here.
Other Product Releases
In addition to the slew of products that accompany new expansion and core sets, WotC offers several specialty products for Magic. Some products offered in the last year include:
Duel Decks. When two iconic characters or factions clash, Duel Decks are born. Wizards has been releasing pairs of preconstructed decks intended to be played against each other for a while now, and they don’t appear to be slowing down. Duel Decks are two 60-card preconstructed decks that each feature a premium mythic rare card and some special, brand new artwork for cards included in them. Their MSRP is $19.99 in the United States.
Multiplayer Products. Recently, multiplayer Magic (games with more than two players) has been pushed by Wizards. Archenemy, Planechase and Commander are some variants that have seen official product releases. Archenemy decks are preconstructed 60-card decks and contain an additional 20 oversized scheme cards meant for “one-versus-many” multiplayer play; the product has a MSRP of $19.99 in the United States. Planechase decks are also 60-card preconstructed decks and come with an additional 10 oversized plane cards; their MSRP is $19.99 in the United States. The Commander decks are 100-Card Singleton decks using the Commander format deck-building rules and have a MSRP of $29.99 in the United States.
From the Vault. From the Vault products are premium (foil) box sets with fifteen cards from Magic‘s past (though sometimes one is from a future, unreleased set) with a particular theme. Several cards feature new, never-before-seen artwork. Past sets have included dragon cards, powerful banned cards, and artifact cards; FTV products have MSRP of $34.99 in the United States.
Premium Deck Series. This product offering features preconstructed decks in which all of the cards are foil versions! It should be noted that these are not sold on Magic Online (but they have been given away as tournament prizes for online tournaments). They have a MSRP of $34.99 in the United States.
The Trading Card Game Products section of the Magic: The Gathering website is a valuable resource for discovering the release dates of new sets and products. And knowing when sets and products will be released (and what cards are in preconstructed decks) is helpful for value-minded Magic players!
Once you are familiar with the most common paper (and, corresponding in most cases, virtual) Magic products, it will be time to consider the different ways the game may be played. The factors for determining how Magic is played include: the level of competition of play, the number of players, and finally, the deckbuilding rules (which are what define most play formats). To a seasoned player or collector, the deckbuilding rules for each format are common knowledge, but since they tend to dictate much of how Magic cards are used, we will spend some time explicating them.
Level of Competition. Magic is played casually and competitively. The definitions of casual and competitive are not easily agreed upon by players, but the majority of Magic games unfold in a casual play environment. The level of competition in casual play varies depending on the group of players. Tournament play’s level of competition usually correlates to the prizes available and the cost of entry, but it is worth noting that both casual and competitive players will participate in tournaments of different sorts.
Number of Players. Most tournaments are head-to-head, one-on-one play that involve matches played by (you guessed it) only two players. Many more players, however, can play in a single game of Magic. Some events at popular gaming conventions, such as GenCon Indianapolis, have massive battle royale games that involve as many as 64 players! But oftentimes, a group of friends that consists of far fewer players (perhaps three or four) sits down to enjoy a game
Formats. All Magic play formats fall under either of the following two principle categories: Constructed (in which you bring your deck to play) and Limited (in which you make your deck from sealed product as part of playing). Popular Constructed formats include Commander, Standard, Extended, Modern, and Legacy. Popular Limited formats include Draft and Sealed Deck. You can see a list of all WotC-supported (and many other) formats here (but be sure to note if any cards are banned or restricted in the format before preparing your deck).
Armed with knowledge of the nearly infinite possibilities of Magic play, we can begin to see why people would want to own so many different cards. The best and most synergistic cards in each format will combine to make the best decks; many of those “best decks” appear in major tournaments held around the globe!
Common and Popular Tournament Types
Tournaments can expose the most creative and powerful ideas to the public when it comes to deckbuilding. Any Tournament Organizer can run an event, but there are structured tournaments for all levels of competition. The most common tournament systems use Swiss pairing and single-elimination. Swiss events allow players to play a set number of rounds to get the highest score possible (a win is usually worth 3 points, a draw 1, and a loss 0). Single-elimination events remove players from an event after they lose their first match; many Swiss events have single-elimination Top 8 brackets (or Top 4 brackets for smaller events) to determine the ultimate winner.
But of course Magic can be played anywhere — at a gaming store, on the kitchen table, in the back of a lecture on the philosophical ramifications of quantum physics –but this section focuses on organized play. It presents a detailed description on popular, larger paper Magic events. The most common large paper events include Pro Tours, Grands Prix, Pro Tour Qualifiers, the World Championships, Nationals, Nationals Qualifiers, and large cash tournaments run by companies external to WotC, such as the Star City Games Open Series or the miscellaneous, thousand-plus prize pool-events sponsored by major dealers. Outcomes of these large events often affect the Magic Online metagame (and at times will redefine it).
You can follow all major Wizards events on their official Event Coverage homepage. For non-WotC tournaments, you should follow the websites of the tournament sponsors (as listed below). Seeing which decks perform and how often they do well is not only illuminating, but incredibly valuable to the money- or budget-conscious player, collector, and trader!
Paper Magic Events
Competitive paper Magic has been around for almost two decades, and a great deal of different types of events have come and gone. Current major events worth knowing about (and following) include:
Pro Tour. The Pro Tour is Magic‘s primary major tournament circuit. Players must qualify in order to play. Many players compete with the sole goal of making it to the Tour and staying there. Known as “making the train,” getting automatically invited to every Pro Tour is the pinnacle of success for many aspiring competitive players. The best and most cutting-edge decks pop up at the PT. Pro Tour events are now multi-format (one Constructed and one Draft format). You can find out about the year’s Pro Tours here. Note that individual Pro Tour events are often listed with a year or city to showcase where and when that particular Pro Tour event was or will be held.
Grand Prix. Grands Prix are very large, two-day, open events the winners of which qualify for the PT circuit and win other valuable prizes (including money). Any player may compete, but you can get byes based on your rating (if it is high enough)! Limited Grands Prix are Sealed Deck for the first day and Draft for the second day. A Grand Prix may be Limited or Constructed, and these events cover a wide range of formats.
Pro Tour Qualifiers (PTQs). PTQs are single-day, open events whose winners qualify for a particular Pro Tour event. Pro Tour Qualifier seasons are usually a single format, which evolves in terms of deckbuilding and play (i.e., metagame) over its course. Many successful pro players started at the PTQ level before they made it big; it’s a lot of work to compete but can be even more fun for those with the desire to win and win big while they’re doing it. You can follow the current PTQ season here.
Nationals. In the summer, various nations’ National tournaments are the big news in the Magic world. Players must qualify at Nationals Qualifier events to play at Nationals. Many defining archetypes emerge at these events, from Jon Finkel’s success with a Vampiric Tutor-based black control deck back in Mercadian Masques-Urza’s Saga Standard to the recent unveiling of Mythic Conscription in a European Nationals event. This is a multi-format event (with Standard and Draft being played). The schedule of offered Nationals events is online here.
National Qualifiers. It seems like Nationals Qualifiers are constantly changing– these open events (no invite necessary) used to be Regional tournaments, but have since changed to provincial qualifiers (and now even include some local shop qualifiers). Sometimes, very interesting decks appear in the Nats Q’s. check out information on these events here.
World Championship. This is the largest, most prestigious lucrative tournament in the world of Magic! Qualified members from each Nationals tournament compete as teams representing their nation, as well as the highest-ranked players from across the globe. Beyond offering team competition, the event is also multi-format (traditionally featuring Standard, Extended, Legacy, and Draft). Information on the World Championships is available here.
Large Cash Tournaments. Recently, there has been a sharp increase in non-WotC-run cash-prize tournaments (especially in the United States). Events such as the StarCityGames Open Series and TCGPlayer’s and Channel Fireball’s cash tournaments give players the chance to compete for the big pay day throughout the year (and not just at the big WotC events). Most of these events are open to any player interested, but some require invitation based on past performance at prior events.
Many local gaming stores also run FNMs (Friday Night Magic) and assorted random events like Grand Prix Trials (the chance to win three byes to a Grand Prix event, usually in addition to other prizes); sometimes these events are even offered on the side at other major tournaments. Some large events in which players must qualify to play even feature ‘Last Chance’ qualifiers, in which players attempt to ‘grind’ in order to play in the big tournament.
If Knowledge Is Power, Where Should You Be Looking?
Wizards has a few wonderful resources set up for Magic — the Wizards community and DailyMTG.com (aka, ‘The Mothership,’ updated at midnight US East every weekday) — that should be read or scanned daily. Finally, Wizards also hosts Gatherer, an awesome, intuitive, all-encompassing Magic card search page.
In addition to the Wizards sites, there are plenty of fan and business-run web sites that are worth knowing about!
Paper-Focused Third-Party Strategy Sites and Stores
The paper third-party website section features a non-exhaustive (but quite large) list of the major players in the Magic world and what their sites offer. Following, you will find many different sources and types of information– competitive and casual strategy articles and videos, dealer and aggregate card prices (for buying and selling), market trends, Magic news and press releases, tournament schedules and results, user-submitted deck list databases, and even rumors on upcoming sets! These sites, along with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, have just as up-to-date (if not more up-to-date, from time to time) and different information than the Wizards of the Coast pages in many respects!
But still beyond the previously-mentioned places, the Internet is saturated with sites for all types of Magic writers, players, and collectors! Finding a network of sites that caters to your tastes should be only a few short hours of work, but making a shortlist of must-reads will only take as long as it is required to skim this section (listed in alphabetical order in order to avoid bias)!
Blackborder.com. Blackborder is a paper card price guide that aggregates data from a plethora of online shops and features some strategy articles and videos. All of their strategy and video content is free to access.
ChannelFireball.com. CFB is a web shop for the paper card store Superstars Game Center. They offer free strategy articles and videos, featuring many successful Pro Tour competitors. CFB also hosts cash tournaments in the western United States.
FindMagicCards.com. FindMagicCards is another card price guide that aggregates buy and sell data from numerous web stores to provide customers with information on paper card values. It also features links to the shops that it uses for data.
Magic-League.com. Magic-League is an online league for non-Magic Online clients. Since all cards are free-to-use in other programs (and events are free to play), Magic-League features some interesting deck ideas unconstrainted by the prices of cards.
MTGCast.com. Hosts free Magic-related podcasts covering a wide range of topics. MTGCast has many Magic personalities among its hosts and featured casters.
MTGSalvation.com. Salvation features the largest Magic forum community on the internet. Their forums are massive, and they always track new set releases with a spoiler list. The site also features one of the best (if not the best) Magic: The Gathering wikis.
QuietSpeculation.com. Quiet Speculation is the evolved form of Kelly Reid’s Magic market blog. It has a great deal of free, miscellaneous articles and sells subscriptions to the QS Insider, a paper Magic market information service.
StarCityGames.com. SCG is a Magic superstore that offers both free and paid-subscription “premium” content. Many well-known Pro Tour competitors and Magic personalities have written for the site. In addition to their web store for paper cards, the company supports a touring tournament circuit (the Star City Games Open Series) that hosts cash-prize events almost every weekend across the United States.
TCGPlayer.com. TCGplayer is the current incarnation of the once-popular site Brainburst.com. It features free strategy articles and has a paper card price guide that aggregates data from a plethora of online shops. TCGplayer also supports a tournament circuit with cash prizes across North America.
This list is by no means exhaustive, but it contains a decent number of the major players in the paper Magic information game. Remember that these sites (and their writers) all have their own perspectives and biases, so you will have to pick through the information for what is valuable to you. With some research, you will surely add and remove a variety of sites to your “must-read” (alright, really it’s a “must-scan-for-relevant-information”) list. Also, not all prices are created equal. But one thing’s for sure, and that’s that the winning decklists don’t (often) lie!
Beyond Magic: The Gathering-focused sites, social networks and auction sites have valuable networking and informational opportunities. Make sure to browse eBay auctions, search for Magic blogs, ‘friend’ Magic minds on Facebook (or ‘like’ Magic-related stores and events) and follow personalities and other Magic accounts on Twitter to be exposed to the full range of paper Magic info (and, collaterally, to some info about Magic Online). MTGO Academy is @MTGOAcademy on Twitter, and you can ‘like’ our Facebook page to keep up with our own articles and updates!
We hope that you’ve found the preceding introduction to paper Magic insightful and helpful. Please leave any questions or comments in the area below and join us for Part Two, an introduction to the MTGO program and interface!