Design Analysis: Magic: the Gathering

Magic: the Gathering is a Trading Card Game (TCG) also called a Collectable Card Game (CCG). It was, in fact, the world’s first TCG having been released in 1993. It was created by Dr. Richard Garfield Ph.D. and is published by Wizards of the Coast. Both the mechanics and flavor of Magic are so vast that to describe both concisely feels like a disservice. However, that is exactly what I plan on doing in this Design Analysis.


The basics of flavor for Magic is this; you are a Planeswalker. You have a Spark that lets you travel the multiverse to different planes. On these planes, you make bonds with the leylines of the land and learn spells that you can take with you to other planes. Sometimes you confront other Planeswalkers in magical duels where you summon mighty creatures and cast powerful sorceries. These confrontations are the games of Magic that you play.

Magic has a story that you can follow. Currently, it follows a Justice League-esque group of Planeswalkers that call themselves the Gatewatch. You have Gideon the righteous fighter, Jace the awkward intellect, Liliana the cunning necromancer, Chandra the hotheaded pyromancer, and Nissa the conservative animist. Currently, you can read about the Gatewatch through a series of short stories on Magic’s official website. The exploits of the Gatewatch bring us to a variety of different planes like Innistrad—the gothic horror themed plane, and Amonkhet—the ancient egyptian themed plane. These travels dictate the themes and cards for the next expansion of cards.


Jace, Chandra, Gideon, and Nissa. Art for the card Zendikar Resurgent. Illustrated by Chris Rallis

While the story has always followed the cards like we do with the Gatewatch, the stories of Magic weren’t always this easy to acquire and certainly didn’t always follow the Gatewatch. Originally, the stories were released as novels. If you want to read these original stories, you can get the Artifacts Cycles I and II. Magic continued with the novel writing well after the Artifacts Cycles. The novels never sold very well, Wizards even tried some actions to improve sales like providing the first chapter for free in some products. Nothing seemed to work the way they hoped but they still wanted to make stories. Wizards decided to try cheap short stories sold as eBooks but unfortunately this didn’t work out the way they hoped either. Now, we get our short story articles. Since they are free, they can’t have poor sales. They are released on their website regularly with a variety of authors who are employed by Wizards. This allows them to spread the work and keeps the story sustainable. It also allows for us to have sided stories to learn about a plane and its people rather than strictly following the Gatewatch each time.


“To see gods among the people, part of their daily lives . . . It’s inspiring.”

Magic’s art is widely regarded as fantastic and it has only gotten better as the years go on. The art is used to represent what is happening with the card, whether it is depicting a creature or showing the action of casting a sorcery. Another use is showing events that happen in the story. Recently, Wizards has started to print “Story Spotlight” cards. These cards have art, flavor, and flavor text directly related to an important event in the story for the set. For example, Gideon’s first impression of the newly visited Amonkhet is depicted on the card Renewed Faith.




One aspect of Magic that dips into both mechanics and flavor is the “color pie”. On the back of each magic card is a simple set of five colored dots. These represent the five colors of mana: white, blue, black, red, and green. The colors have elemental purviews:


  • White has domain over light, morale, healing, and law.
  • Blue has domain over water, wind, time, and illusion.
  • Black domain over and shadow, death, pain, and disease.
  • Red has domain over fire, earth, lighting, chaos, and emotion.
  • Green has domain over plants, nature, reality, and life.

The color pie is also an amazing tool describing character motivations:

  • White wants peace. It is moral and lawful. It believes the good of the many outweigh the good of the few and that the security of the group is worth the sacrifice of a few personal freedoms.
  • Blue wants perfection. It is logical and thoughtful. It believes that the logical decision is the best decision even if it doesn’t feel right. It also believes you are a blank slate ready to learn and that you have the potential to be whatever you want to be.
  • Black wants power. Black is amoral and realistic. It believes that anyone can succeed with opportunity. It also believes that you are responsible for creating those opportunities and, with enough motivation and willingness, there is no obstacle you can’t overcome.
  • Red wants freedom. Red is spontaneous and emotional. It believes that if you follow your heart all your dreams will come true (Please don’t sue me, Disney). It also believes that laws and rules that limit individual freedoms are unfair.
  • Green wants acceptance. Green is traditional and modest. It believes that you are born with all your possible potential and that you should embrace what you are born into. It also believes that you are following your destiny and straying from it is fruitless.

When it comes to flavor, the color pie is top notch. You can find the colors of characters in your favorite books and shows. The average human would have all five colors but in different levels. I’d say I’m mostly white, blue, and red with black and green trailing behind. What do you think your colors are?  The color pie is a vast topic, to learn even more you should read Mark Rosewater’s articles on the subject.


The basics for Magic are fairly simple. You play with a deck of Magic: the Gathering cards. You begin with 20 life points and drawing seven cards from your deck. Get your opponent to zero life and you win. Magic cards fall into two binary categories, the most relevant of which is “lands” and “spells”. Spells require “mana” to cast, lands do not. The rules allow you to play one land during your turn and you “tap” lands (symbolized by turning it sideways) to produce mana which is then added to your “mana pool.” You use the mana from your mana pool to pay the mana cost of spells, but you must use it immediately or it disappears from your pool. In spite of this, you get to “untap” your lands at the start of your turn, allowing you to reuse the lands. Lands are either “Basic” or “non-basic”. Normally, you are only allowed four copies of any one card in your deck, except basic lands which you can have any number of. Spells, however, have a much larger variety. There are: Creatures, Sorceries, Instants, Enchantments, Artifacts, and Planeswalkers. Creatures, enchantments, artifacts, and Planeswalkers along with lands fall into the category of “Permanents” while instants and sorceries are “non-Permanents”. The difference here is that permanents stay in play (called the “battlefield”) after you play them while non-permanents go to the discard pile (called the “graveyard”) after you play them. Each card type has its own rules and axioms.


Creatures are the primary avenue to victory. Each creature has a power and a toughness. During your turn, you have a “combat phase” where you choose which of your creatures you want to have attack your opponent. Those creatures are required to tap when they attack. When attacking, creatures deal damage equal to their power. However, your opponent can choose to block specific attacking creatures with untapped creatures they control. When doing this, blocking creatures deal damage to the attacking creature equal to their power and the blocking creature takes all the damage the opponent would have taken from the attack. If a creature had taken damage equal to or greater than its toughness, it dies and goes to the graveyard.

Instants and sorceries typically have an impactful effect and are then placed into the graveyard because they are non-permanents. The difference between instants and sorceries is timing. Sorceries can only be used on your turn and only during your main phases while instants can be used at virtually any time during the game.

Enchantments and artifacts are similar, they can have effects that are constant and affect many cards but artifacts usually always cost generic mana and have no color. Artifacts also typically can have single use abilities that require tapping while enchantments almost never tap. Both can have effects that are individual with aura enchantments and equipment artifacts. The difference here is that auras placed directly on its target when cast but die with its host while equipment can’t be placed directly on creatures requiring an additional equip cost but don’t die with the creatures.

Planeswalkers are a comparatively new card type, having been introduced in 2007. Planeswalkers are permanents that enter with “Loyalty counters” on them and have “Loyalty abilities.” These abilities are activated by adding or removing the designated amount of loyalty counters and are used at the same speed as sorceries and can only be used once per turn. The strangest rule with Planeswalkers is how to remove them. Effects and abilities that deal direct damage to players can be “redirected” to any Planeswalker that player controls. Also, Planeswalkers can be attacked. Instead of choosing to attack a player, you may also choose to attack a Planeswalker on the battlefield (blocking is done normally). When attacked, Planeswalkers deal no damage back like the way creatures would. When a Planeswalker is dealt damage, that many loyalty counters are removed. When a Planeswalker has no more loyalty counters on it, it is placed into the graveyard.

The flow of the game is also pretty straightforward. You begin your turn by untapping all your tapped cards and drawing one card from the top of your deck. After that is your first main phase where you will likely play a land from your hand and use your lands to play spells from your hand. Then, you move to combat where you attack. After that, there is a second main phase which is one last opportunity to play spells on your turn. Then it’s your opponent’s turn. If you can get through these concepts, you are already equipped to play your first game of Magic. However, there is one other important concept to note which is what truly makes Magic so complex; always read the cards because every card is likely to have an ability, even creatures, and their abilities constantly contradict the rules. These contradictions create interactions that require a massive rule book to keep track of. Don’t worry though, even professional Magic players don’t read the comprehensive rule book.

When it comes to mechanics we must again talk about the color pie. Since basic lands—the most common way of getting mana—only produce one specific color, you don’t have easy access to all colors. This matters because each color has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, Red cannot destroy enchantments but is great at dealing with creatures. Green has difficulties dealing with creatures but can easily destroy both artifacts and enchantments. There are many other examples if you delve into each color individually. The reason for this is essentially a separation of powers. If you need red or black to deal with creatures and green or white to deal with artifacts and enchantments, it prevents every deck from easily being able to deal with every problem. This creates both balance and variance in gameplay. Not to mention if every color can do everything, you essentially have no colors.

“When everyone’s super, no one will be.”syndrome

—Syndrome, The Incredibles

plainsLand and the mana system in general provide a variety of good for Magic. It controls the flow of the game and lets the game ramp up into a climax. Not to mention that it reduces game complexity by letting some of your cards have a simple linear function. However, having land randomly shuffled into your deck can cause in-game headaches for players. Sometimes, you just get unlucky and don’t draw enough land to make all your colors of mana or just not enough land all together. Alternatively, you could get unlucky and just keep drawing land when you need a spell. Nevertheless, even these headaches are good for Magic. These headaches keep variance in the game and is the kind of randomness that allows the less-skilled player to win sometimes. They also add skill and complexity to deck building. Knowing how to balance the colors your land can make with the right ratio of land-to-spells is a strategic component of Magic that many articles have been written about.

Magic is a game with amazing depth, but what is “depth” when we talk about games? A game that is “deep” is complex and requires accurate and intuitive understanding to grow as a player. There exists a vast array of websites dedicated to talking about Magic with content including strategy, the current meta, new cards, the story, and deck ideas. Almost any of these websites would be a better location to learn and grow when it comes to Magic: the Gathering. I, personally, would recommend the Beyond the Basics series of articles by Gavin Verhey (Wizards of the Coast designer) and the Level One series of articles by Reid Duke (Professional MTG player). However, I will be touching on two of the key concepts used to effectively evaluate cards and strategies.


Card advantage is a concept that is almost as old as Magic itself. It’s fairly simple, the idea is the person with more cards at their disposal is more likely to win. This only includes cards you have immediate access to such as the cards in your hand and the cards on your side of the battlefield, so don’t think this means you should build as large of a deck as possible. Some cards are straightforward for gaining card advantage, Divination’s effect “Draw two cards.” is card advantage; you are spending one card and gaining two.The opposite is also true, Mind Rot says “Target player discards two cards.” This is card advantage; you are spending one card and making your opponent lose two. These both are considered a “two-for-one” card, essentially you gained/removed two cards at the cost of only one card. This can also get more complicated, Smash says “Destroy target artifact. Draw a card.” This is making your opponent lose one card and you are gaining one card, again this is a two-for-one. However, certain cards are more valuable than others. Virtual Card Advantage is the concept that a card appears to be providing card advantage but does not affect the outcome of a game. Reid Duke uses the example of Dragon Fodder, “Create two 1/1 red Goblin creature tokens.” A spell that makes two creatures is feasibly card advantage but unless the two small goblins each trade with a card of your opponent’s, then they are no different than a Falkenrath Reaver. Alternatively, Revel of the Fallen God is much more likely to be card advantage that isn’t virtual, the number and size of the creatures it makes are much more likely to affect the outcome of the game.


Tempo is similar to card advantage. While card advantage plays on the concept that “no card goes wasted,” then tempo should be thought of “no mana goes wasted.” Proper use of tempo is the concept of always playing your land every turn and always using all of your mana every turn. There are many ways to gain advantage in tempo:

  • Using cards that provide a jump in mana such as a spell that puts a land in play or a creature that functions like a land.
  • Attacking aggressively and forcing your opponent to go on the defensive.
  • Using cheap permanents that your opponent is forced to spend expensive removal on.
  • Using cheap, typically temporary, removal to get rid of expensive creatures.

Tempo is only useful if you can push your tempo advantage. Gaining more mana is only helpful if you can play more expensive cards earlier. If you get an extra mana on your second turn but don’t have a four-cost card to play on your third turn, you didn’t make effective use of your advantage. If your opponent manages to survive your aggressive strategy into the later turns and stabilize a strong defense, you’ve lost your advantage. If you use cheap but temporary removal on your opponent’s creatures and don’t use that time to attack, you wasted your advantage.

Using the knowledge of card advantage and tempo, we can already get a sense of what makes a card powerful. Card advantage dictates that cards which make you gain more cards or make your opponent lose more cards are more powerful. If a card is a two-for-one, three-for-two, three-for-one, etc. it’s probably a good card. Tempo dictates that cheap cards are almost always more powerful than more expensive cards with similar effects. This is typically the case even though the more expensive card might have a greater effect or the cheaper card might have a more narrow effect or a drawback. These can sometimes contradict each other. Which is better, Slice in Twain or Naturalize? The answer isn’t straightforward. It depends on the deck that’s choosing between the cards and the decks you might use the cards against, or maybe you run both in your deck. These sort of questions prove the depth of Magic.


This brief look into the flavor and mechanics of Magic is just the tip of the iceberg. If you enjoy Magic or want to get into it, I highly recommend reading up more or even just going to your local game shop and trying it out. Magic has a little bit of everything. However, it does its little bits so well that almost any player can focus on just their favorite aspects. This ability allows Magic to be fun for a huge audience. Its creators are open to talking about Magic and actually clearly love doing so. Even though I criticized of Magic’s secondary market in a previous article, I still consider it to be one of the most near-flawless games ever made.



Featured Image: The Planeswalkers Pantheon
This image is owned by and copyright Wizards of the Coast LLC 2012.
Artist is Brad Rigney