Magic: The Gathering is missing an entry point for new players

Recently a friend of mine who plays Magic: The Gathering wanted to give the Yu-Gi-Oh card game a try. I took a break from Yu-Gi-Oh for a while and wanted a refresher too. The options for getting started have improved a lot since I last looked.

Master Duel is so much better that Duel Links. It's the complete game, with tutorials that teach you how to play. I don't think the tutorials are amazing, but they're enough to get you started.

The rule book is available for free on their website, along with a Beginner's Guide. With these and the apps, you'll be able to pick up the game on your own. Everything you need to know to play is contained there.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Rulebook & Beginner’s Guide

I always felt Yu-Gi-Oh wasn't always very clear. Especially with the new rules, it could feel opaque. There's concepts beginners will struggle with, such as the difference between destroying and negating a Spell/Trap card.

Magic by comparison looked like such a clean game. Barely any text on the cards. Systems like "first in, last out" for resolving effect chains is way easier to grasp than spell speeds. Similar mechanics across all cards that can be combined as you wish without relying on archetypes. A board that doesn't require managing zones.

Looks fun. So, how does one get started?

I have some experience with Magic. I used to play it as a kid. I enjoyed it, but everyone was playing Yu-Gi-Oh instead. I had to play that one if I was going to have anyone to play with, so I left Magic behind. A lot in the game has changed since I last played (over a decade ago), so I want to start at the very beginning and learn from there.

I decided to try MtG Arena. This is Wizards of the Coasts official app for Magic. It says it comes with tutorials and will teach you how to play.

It starts off with a big data download and forced account registry. Fine. That seems standard for these virtual card games. Have to for Master Duel too. I set that up, then put my phone on the charger to let it download.

Unfortunately the app starts playing right away after the download finishes. I missed the opening because of this, so now I'm completely lost on the story.

It starts with a set of 5 tutorial games. A navi-like companion guides you through the games, giving you "advice", which for the most part is just telling you what to do without the why, then hovering over which action to take.

Sometimes windows pop up that try to tell you what's going on, but they favor pictographic animations rather than descriptive text. If it wasn't for my previous experience, I would have never been able to decipher these, like the animation trying to tell me that when creatures fight, they both take damage at the same time. I thought it was just the combat animation and was confused why it was stuck in a loop. I didn't even realize it was supposed to be tutorial information at first.

The story seems to go between characters, claiming each one will teach you a different lesson. "Let's go meet with this person! They'll teach us about tactics." Great! I'd love an overview of what the basic strategy in this game is expected to be! But then it's actually a goblin just attacking you, or a merfolk speaking in empty wisdomy sounding phrases while your navi-like companion groans about it. It's not teaching anything.

On top of that, I felt like it was actively teaching me *wrong.* I had cast a sorcery last turn which let me summon some 1/1 creature tokens. On my opponent's turn, they were attacking. I wanted to use these tokens to block. I kept tapping on them to assign my blockers, but the game just wouldn't respond. I tried holding down to open the close up view of the card to check if input was working at all, and sure enough *that* worked. I closed it and tried again to assign my blockers. Still wasn't working. I began trying to think why it wouldn't work. Can creatures with summoning sickness not block? Is it because they're tokens? Then finally, *finally* after I had tapped them exactly *a dozen times* (I was counting), it let me declare them as blockers. Now I'm left guessing all the time what is a rule, and what is a glitch?

That same combat, I had an instant in my hand that I wanted to use to give my 1/1 creature tokens a chance to defend against and destroy the attacking 2/2 creatures. Nope. Combat just flew by with no window to react. I'm certain I had the mana to cast it. Everything else I've seen about rules say I should have been able to do that. But the game said no.

After the third game, I gave up on trying to learn through the app. I figured fine, I'll go read the rule book, then come back and use the app as practice. Finding the rules wasn't hard, but to my surprise, the official website tells me the rules are NOT meant to be read??

And no wonder! The rules are a whopping 278 pages long! Compare that to Yu-Gi-Oh's 56 pages, which is more like 10 because of the smaller page size and graphic aids. People joke that Yu-Gi-Oh! is like reading a novel, when Magic is the one starting off with an epic!

The "Comprehensive Rules" are meant as a reference for rulings, rather than a way to learn the rules for playing the game. Fine. The page links to "Basic Rules" instead, which I thought would be like a quick start guide. Great. That's what I'm looking for. Just enough to understand and get started.

But, wow. This is one of the worst written introductions I've ever read. They don't explain the concept of the game. They don't explain what your objective is while playing. ("The most common way to win the game is to attack with your creatures." Okay, but why?? This makes it sound like all you need to do to win is attack once!) No win condition. No explaining what the different card types are. No indication on how to start a game. Not even what *life* is. Y'know, *how to play the game.*

It includes *some* rules, but nothing that would make sense out of context. It does explain turn order (at the very end). It almost explains what a permanent is. How to cast a spell, but won't tell you what a spell is. How damage is calculated during combat and the spell stack, but not the entire combat rules.

To emphasise: the page titled "HOW TO PLAY MAGIC: THE GATHERING", which was linked from the rules page as the basic introduction to playing the game, does not tell you how to play Magic: The Gathering!

By comparison, even the Wikipedia article is a better introduction than the official materials.

[Wikipedia] Magic: The Gathering rules

Well, okay. Another option is the video "How to Play Magic: The Gathering" on the official Magic: The Gathering Youtube channel.

[Youtube] How to Play Magic: The Gathering

It is an improvement. They explain that you win by lowering your opponent's life points. (I guess mentioning the other two possible win conditions would be too complicated to start?) They give a simplified overview of the turn phases. And finally, they even explain how to start the game! This is the best official entry point WotC has to offer. This should be where they point new players.

Yet it still pales in comparison to the introductory video by Tolarian Community College. Yes, it's a bit longer, but it gives you far more information. It's not simplified to a point of being inaccurate. It includes very important things beginners need to learn like what the types of cards are. Finally, I can confirm my hunch that a "spell" is any card that has a mana cost! There are a few things I would have changed about it personally, but at this point I'm not going to be that picky. It gets the job done fairly well.

It's information dense. A new player is not going to grok everything they need from a single watch. But more importantly, it's a complete package. New players can rewatch the video to get clarifications on things as they're learning. They do not need to search around elsewhere blindly to find it, or guess at what they are missing. Something WotC has failed to provide.

[Youtube] How To Play Magic: The Gathering (MTG) Learn To Play In About 15 Minutes!

I'm surprised the game is still as popular as it is. With how much friction there is to learning it, the potential player base is going to find other hobbies. I've given the game way more of a chance than most people would have. This is likely a factor in what led to Hearthstone becoming as successful as it is, and why people perceive it as a more "modern" game. Magic's rules aren't antequated; they're poorly presented.

It's kind of shameful that one of the largest subsidiaries owned by one of the worlds largest toy companies is unable to provide a good introduction to their own game after 29 years of development. It's up to the community to step up and fill in the gap left by this multi-billion dollar company.

When it comes to on-boarding new players, Konami wins with Yu-Gi-Oh, hands down. I'm still going to give Magic more of a chance, but it's solely because of the social aspect of having a friend who's playing it. I'm just shocked what a mess Magic turns out to be.