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The Quest to Understand Magic the Gathering: First Impressions

When I was 10 years old I bought my first Magic the Gathering set. I was in Portugal at the time and, whilst on a day trip to Lisbon, I had come across a shop that sold collectable card games. Magic has not been my first goal, but rather I was looking for Pokémon cards. Growing up I had managed to stay ahead of all of the major releases and so was the envy of my friends due to different countries having different release dates on cards. When searching Portugal for something I could bring back to “wow” them, I was drawn in by a couple of different coloured boxes. The shop I had found sold different types of Magic the Gathering box sets, and I was hooked.

Or, to be more accurate, I was hooked for around two weeks. After that, I couldn’t find a store in the UK that sold them (I was only 10 after all) so I gave up, and returned to Pokémon cards. I don’t think I actually played Magic the Gathering once, which put me at a massive detriment for trying to continue the hobby forward.

Recently, having been reminded of Magic the Gathering again at the UK Games Expo, I decided to have a closer look. The rationale I said to myself was that I couldn’t write a board game blog if I didn’t at least understand Magic the Gathering. It is such a huge thing, after all, being a sensation across the globe. With that in mind, I took to Amazon to see how much a Starter Set cost.

The first thing that struck me was how many sets there physically were. There are 37 decks of cards listed under “Starter Set” for Magic the Gathering on Amazon UK. Thirty-seven. Thirty-seven different packs which, for a newbie to the Magic world, was kind of daunting. I had no idea where to start. That was until I saw the Duel Sets.

The Concept of Duel Sets

The Duel Sets are, I have to admit, a fairly nice idea and I seem to remember them back in’t’day with Pokémon. The idea was that two people could pick up and play, right out of the box – thus, inadvertently more people get hooked on a collectable card game – but that is beside the point.

Magic, it turns out, has a set of duel decks ranging in different styles and abilities and this seemed perfect. Rather than just seeking to understand the game I could play it with my partner (shh, she doesn’t know yet!) and really get to the heart of what it is about. Thus begins my quest to understand Magic. Being completely virginal (more or less) to the entire mythos, and certainly I have been out of the loop for 16 years, everything was like a foreign language to me. So, naturally, I did what all great bloggers did. I bought the cheapest in the hope nobody would notice.

That is how I have now become the proud owner of the Nissa vs Ob Nixilis duel deck.

Now, there are probably two types of people reading this article. There is the Magic the Gathering crowd, who are saying:

“Yes, I know Nissa and Ob Nixilis well. Nissa is a proud nature-mage who believed that elves are the pinnacle race of the multiverse. Ob Nixilis was a human Warlord who discovered he was the only sole survivor of a war torn world, manipulated by personal and real demons who tore him apart. ” (sources here and here)

Then there are those of us who can’t get past the word Ob Nixilis, simply because it is a fun phrase to say if not impossible for the uninitiated to understand. I fall into the latter of these categories, although I did have fun doing the research for quote above.

Ob Nixilis…Obbbb Nixilis…Ob Nixillisis…

The Babushka Doll of Boxes

So, picture this, I open the Amazon parcel and inside is a box. Immediately, it was an awesome design. It was not simply square, but instead slightly angled to display Nissa and Ob Nilixis in their full glory. Both cards are foil cards (or shinies) and are presented front and centre of the pack.

The box

Nissa vs Ob Nixilis

Nissa, from the looks of it, appears to be an elf in the same vein as those from World of Warcraft. She, or he, appears to be a planeswalker, a mage maybe, and is described as the Voice of Zendikar. Ob Nilixis, on the other hand, is essentially the Balrog from the Lord of the Rings. He is dark, foreboding, and striking a pose that makes him look like he is about to tackle someone to the ground. This may be Nissa, and would explain the “no, don’t do what I think you are going to do” look on her face.

The second thing that struck me, after the cool box, was the fact the box cannot be resealed. It is a “tear-open-and-forget” box which, as a board gamer, did not sit well. Games are meant to be resealable, and instantly I wondered how I should open the box to be able to store the cards. I don’t have any spare deck boxes, and didn’t want to purchase one.

Luckily, and to the credit of Wizards of the Coast, this was answered by two flat pack deck boxes. They fell out the back of the box once I opened it and withdrew the plastic insert inside. These displayed the art of the character on one side and Duel Deck logo on the other.

Inside the box there was also two custom D20s, with Magic the Gathering symbols over the 20 on each. The purpose for these is currently unknown as I haven’t read the rules yet, but as regular readers of this blog know, I am a fan of nice custom die. They are well made and feel satisfying to hold.

Deck Boxes and Die

Deck Boxes and Die

It was a box-ception – a box within a box. These second level boxes are a nice touch if not a little short sighted. How will the dice, the smallest components of the game, now be stored?

The Cards and the Artwork

There is no doubt about it – the cards and artwork of Magic the Gathering are absolutely beautiful. Both sides of Nissa and Ob Nixilis have very different feels, with Nissa being very woodland based and with Ob Nixilis being based around the concept of demons. These themed decks are a really nice touch and make it quite easy to pick a side.

The cards themselves vary an incredible degree. On Nissa’s earth side there are characters reminiscent of elves, ents, and wild beasts that roam the woodland. On Ob Nilixis’s side, there are demons, devils, and the foul creatures of hell. Each side is distinct and varied. When looking at the cards themselves it is easy to see why Magic has become the sensation it is and why so many people have been playing it for the last twenty-four years.

Even those who are new to Magic, or those who dislike the game, have to respect the artists and artwork. So far as that is concerned, Magic the Gathering is a marvel in its own right.

Excitement and Doubts

There seems to be an assumption that has been made by Wizards of the Coast and that appears to be that everyone will just love the game. This is something we often find with big brands, that they no longer feel the need to sell themselves because, well, everyone will love them anyway, right?

Well no, and there is surprisingly little within the box to get me excited about playing. Yes, the art is nice, but then again so is a lot of game art.

At the moment there seems to be a fairly high barrier to entry, and this is the thing that worries me. As a typical INTJ (for those who are familiar with the Myres-Briggs test), I struggle with abstract concepts like fantasy based names and that can be something that really gets in the way of quickly picking something like Magic the Gathering up. Ob Nilixis, if it wasn’t so fun to say, would disappear from my head almost instantly.

The box does nothing to quell those fears, that this will be a difficult game to get my head around – at least until the concepts are less abstract.

Luckily, there is a huge online community and a massive mythos to get involved in. What this means is that Nissa and Ob Nixilis have backstories that are available on the Magic the Gathering Wiki. The wiki (found here) is something I am sure I will be referring to a lot over the next few months whilst I try to understand this insane, wonderful, marvellous, terrifying, incredible game.

“I’m Going On An Adventure”

So here we go, the first pack opened, the adventure underway. Let’s learn how to play Magic the Gathering.


Okay, so what are your thoughts? Are you into Magic? If so then do you have any advice for those stepping into the world for the first time? What do you love or hate about the game?

If you have never played Magic then why not? Let me know your thoughts and comments below.


  1. Good read mate – I find the whole Magic thing very intimidating to pick up & play… I got given a free intro deck a few months back, and couldn’t make head nor tail of the instructions!! There seemed to be a lot of ‘assumed knowledge’ 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you 🙂 I know what you mean. I’m just about to give the instructions a go, but having listened to an audio book about playing the game I feel just as lost. This isn’t going to be an immediate pick up and play, but who knows? Maybe there is an in as a casual player…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the game has evolved over the years since i last played. Even back then i was not a major fan of the game, but being weak willed, still managed to try and complete a number of Magic sets. The artwork is very nice, and that is what really drove me.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. As someone who grew up playing tournament Magic, it’s interesting to see you coming at it from a board game perspective. I would agree that there’s nothing to really grab you in those intro decks, and the games they may offer you are fairly basic, to the point where you’ll likely tire quickly.

    Magic is most definitely a lifestyle game; you need to play it A LOT if you want to play in tournaments at all. FNM (Friday Night Magic) is probably your best bet if you’re looking for an entry level tournament, but even that has a fairly high barrier to entry, in all honesty. You need to be willing to invest both money and time to acquire good enough cards to be able to stand on even footing with other tournament players. Turning up with a duel or starter deck simply won’t do.

    All that being said, if you stick to just duel decks and collect them, you’d gain a lot of matchup variety, which may be enough to quench your thirst. Making the leap to tournament Magic is not something to be taken lightly; it can be expensive and time consuming. Make the decision early whether to commit or not. It’s best not to float in the “maybe” zone in my opinion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the advice! Always good to get a pro’s advice before starting attempting to get into something like this! I’m going to see how it goes playing the duel decks and then see how far I want to take it from there. Any advice on where to start with the mythos?


  4. I have not and the game seems like a bottomless labrynthine pit…kind of how I view a lot of GW stuff. Hey,it sells, but do I have the time to learn such a deep system? Probably not! I’m open to all kinds of games. I’m not into a marketing briar patch.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There are some games I think are cool as hell but don’t or won’t buy into. Magic is one of them. You can fool around and play a couple of buddies for a while but after that you’ll want to play Friday Night Magic, or some other organized play format that’ll allow access to promos and the like. Like TA said, all the way in or all the way out.

    For my money, the “Living Card Game” format (as opposed to Magic’s “Collectable” format) is a better deal as you always know what you’re buying and every card is available to you at a reasonable (as compared to Magic) cost. Android Netrunner is my favorite game that I never play. Like Magic, it demands your attention and a huge knowledge of your own cards, and hundreds of others unless you don’t mind getting beaten all the time at a game that’s taking up half or more of your gaming time. When I get some more gaming time I’ll go down the Netrunner rabbit hole again.

    It is worth noting that Richard Garfield in addition to Magic also created both the 1996 and 2012 versions of Netrunner and King of Tokyo/New York, and about 20 other successful games. He’s about the only guy in the gaming world currently who might equal or rival Gary Gygax in terms of single-handedly creating, defining, and guiding the proliferation of a previously non-existent or little explored genre. Magic singlehanded keeps a great many game stores afloat…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve been playing magic on and off for about 22 years. I love the game. You would probably spend less money addicted to drugs though. It’s an expensive hobby if you want to be competitive in tournaments.
    Standard which are the most recent sets is a good place to start playing.
    Modern which is every set after ’03 (i think) is very competitive BUT you can build a decent budget deck at around $30 US £25 UK.
    Vintage and Legacy… don’t even bother ! Hahahaha. Too expensive.
    I play most formats and enjoy all. It’s hard to justify spending loads of money on cards… but remember currency is printed on paper too….


  7. I am 37 and my fiancé taught me how to play MtG when we met 18 months ago. I had never played games before or really even knew they existed. MtG appealed to me because it is all about strategy .. from the building of the deck to the playing of your game it is complex and I really like it. Try playing in a casual group; there are people who take it really seriously and having come across a few, they will suck the fun right out of a game!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the advice. Deck building games do seem to have more strategy in them than most. I have to admit, since writing this post I am yet to play the game, but when I do I will ensure that it is with the right group of people.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I can relate to you about being into Pokémon before Magic. I’ve been playing Magic since 2013, and I’ve always picked up duel decks whenever they appealed to me. I had intention to pick up this specific duel deck, but I never got around to it. I would tell new players that the game is pretty deep in its interactions, but the game is not difficult to pick up. If you are with the right group of people, they can show you all the proper steps of the game and get into the flow. I learned that the hard way sadly, as my friend dumped me with a massive army of creatures. Also, I would recommend new players who are buying their first product to avoid the intro decks, or how they’re referred to as Planeswalker decks, as they do not offer in much of content, and has a pretty steep asking price. While the shiny and unique Planeswalker card can be captivating, they feel more like traps to get people to buy. The deck is comprised mostly of bulk commons and uncommons and that can’t stand on its own. But I have to admit that I have bought a few of them, with the intent of using the Planeswalkers in my commander decks (also I can’t help myself when they’re available for purchase during pre-release). I would instead recommend new players to a deck builder’s tool kit, as it offers much more content and helps new players get a way better jumpstart to their collection, as it gives them nearly 300 cards and four booster packs, versus the 60 card deck and two boosters of the Planeswalker deck and it’s only a four to five dollar difference. Welcome to the game, I hope you enjoy it as much I have.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Two possible suggestions if you want to learn the game: learn from someone at a local game store (Friday Night Magic) if they have it OR get the digital game on your iPhone or Android. The tutorials are fairly decent and will teach you in easy steps. I started playing Magic back in 93 (when the game first came out) and tried to learn from the itty bitty rule book that came with the cards. It was tough. There are just too many rules and fiddly bits to take in from just reading. Having someone explain it to you a bit at a time (whether a human or a video game tutorial) is much more likely to give you better results.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it surprised me that the rules are only on a folded sheet of A3 paper. Me thinks they make a few assumptions. That’s great advice though – I didn’t even think about the app as a way of learning it.


  10. I’ve been playing for nearly three years competing at RPTQs, Grand Prixs, PPTQs and more. These all lead to the Pro Tour, the second highest tournament for MTG as a game. I really enjoy the game, and as a player, suggest to try and get into the game with either a friend or enjoy the story/art side of MTG. It does require commitment though

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the advice 🙂 it’s always good to hear from a pro. I’m still worried about the financial commitment, but when I can I’m going to invest – at least in enough to try a few store tournaments.


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