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Magic: The Gathering is nearly 25 years old and it can be a little intimidating to figure out where to begin. I'm going to walk you thru the basics of how you can buy cards and the different formats you can play, then end by making some recommendations based on what you want out of the game.
They make some great decks that you can literally take out of the box and start playing with. The most popular of these is the "duel deck" series, with a new set annually. Duel Decks are just 2 decks designed to play well and fun together. You should be able to switch decks back and forth and the better player will very consistently win - they're very balanced.
Any thing with a defined cards list you receive in each package we call a "boxed set" and they're usually to supplement or build decks on your own. The most basic of boxed sets is the Deckbuilder's Toolkit which is a great resource for beginners who want to start blending their own strategies.
These are the heart of the game. 15 random cards from a given expansion set - 1 rare (or mythic rare in 1/8 packs), 3 uncommons, 10 commons, and 1 basic land. There's also a 16th "token" or ad card that won't have a regular back, and thus doesn't count as a Magic card. Expansion & Core sets come out 4 times a year total, typically with 150-300 cards each. That's a lot of cards! Trying to start playing this way on a budget would be very frustrating.
Usually when you say "play Magic" folks assume you mean "constructed", or "I have a 60-card deck I made at home, let's play". In constructed, you can have up to 4 of any card that isn't a basic land and 60 cards is the minimum deck size. You can further subdivide this type of play into what card sets you're allowed to play with. For beginners, you only need to know TWO: "Standard" means anything printed in the last 2 years, and "Modern" means anything printed since July 2003 (this is when the card frames changed - anything older will look radically different to you). Stick to Standard - that encompasses anything you'll find in your local card store for MSRP ($4 packs).
In this style, everyone plays a 100-card deck with no duplicates and starts with double life (40). The idea is that this is a bit more casual and lets you build up more complex combinations. This is a bad format for a beginner to attempt to deck build. Buy one of the excellent "Commander" preconstructed decks to join in; that is a no-brainer. (This is technically also a "Constructed" format but I'm breaking it out because it's so completely different from the normal mode of play).
Called "limited" formats, a casual sealed game or draft are a tremendously good way for someone with a strong desire to grow in their Magic skills but not buy a ton of expensive cards. Sealed deck means you get 6 booster packs and as many basic lands as you want to build a 40-card deck. Drafting means you pick-and-pass cards from a booster pack; typically 6 or 8 people sit in a circle to do this, and open 3 packs a piece. You keep picking 1 card and passing the rest until there are no cards left, then make your deck and play a 3-round tournament.
Now that we have a foundation to talk the same lingo, we can dig into what you want to get out of the game. Here are a few common scenarios:
"I like playing boardgames with a few friends or significant other occassionally. Can Magic work like this?" Yes, it can. Buy the Duel Decks or any other preconstructed deck that tickles your fancy. This is exactly what they're for - a fun game without investing time or money in the meta game.
"I wanna have fun building my own deck and start a collection, but don't wanna drop a bunch of money." That makes good sense - in fact, it would be a really bad idea to jump into Magic by looking up expensive deck lists and buying singles. That would suck the fun out of the game for me too.
What you want is a Deckbuilder Toolkit (285 cards including 4 booster packs for under $20). When the next set comes out (4 a year), buy a Bundle Pack (10 booster packs, visual card guide & set storyline book, 2 deck boxes, and a life-tracking dice for $35). Getting a Bundle Pack is a super effective & practical way of toe dipping in the storyline of Magic's sets and getting enough new cards to try out the new set's mechanics.
"I don't wanna spend money unless I can have a fair, competitive experience today." I hear you! Get thee to a local card store and learn their sealed & draft schedules. Of these 2 formats, sealed is much easier format for a beginner because there is a whole meta game to a draft (keeping track of choices & figuring out what the folks on either side of you are choosing). That said, drafting is like getting to keep the "good parts" of lots of booster packs, so it can be super great for building up your card pool at home (you keep all cards after a draft or sealed - you typically pay to enter). These formats are great because you plunk down your $20 (or whatever it is) and have a great few hours of playing on a level (as in, no card investment advantage) playing field and walk away with a new addition to your card collection.
"This all sounds great, but what's a responsible way to really dive in if I don't mind making this a line item in my monthly budget?" My current strategy is this: For each expansion set I pick up a $35 Bundle and $90 Booster Box (36 packs). I typically use most of the packs for doing sealed or draft at home to get maximum value, and the Bundle extras let me keep up with the storyline a bit. Magic also produces 1-2 supplemental products a year like a Masters (reprint) set or sets that target drafting or multiplayer specifically - I typically grab these too. All told, I budget $60 a month on average to pick up new cards.
This strategy gives you at least 1 of most cards in a set (including a full playset (4) of each common and nearly a playset of each uncommon). This serves a lot of goals. It'll give you a nice pool to build multiple Standard Constructed decks, it gives you a few duplicate rares for trading (or doubling down on a deck strategy), and it'll also make for a nice Commander deck card pool eventually (tho I really do recommend buying the Commander products if you want to focus on that in the short term).
Split a booster box between you and a friend or two. 36 packs means it's easy to divvy up! Booster boxes are the most cost-effective way to buy cards so I highly recommend this approach. A Bundle and 1/3 box per expansion (4 annually, eschewing the extra stuff) brings you down to $22 per month. Suddenly this got real affordable, huh?
What am I buying for next weekend?
I hope this showed you a quick overview of Magic in 2017 and helped dispel the myth you need to spend your entire paycheck on Magic or plan decks all weekend if you want to have some serious fun with it. A lake is plenty deep if you wanna go diving, but there's more ways to enjoy it from the shallows & surface.
What's your favorite strategy for introducing new folks to the game? Did you take my advice and wanna report back? Let me know!
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