Magic: The Gathering Gameplay Principles

These concepts are guidelines on how to win a Magic game and how a Magic game plays out. These often compete and at times even flat out disagree with each other. Currently, there is no circulated Theory of Everything on how to optimally play (or deck build for) Magic.


Who ever spends their mana best each turn will winEdit

This means if someone really curves out. Hitting land drops early game, spending all their mana each turn, ect… is going to defeat someone who stumbles. And will flat out kick the ass out of someone that is mana screwed or mana flooded. This concept is closely tied to tempo.

Every game there is an aggressive deck and a controlling deckEdit

This is a rule of thumb that generally holds true (in constructed) even if both decks are aggressive or controlling (more so with the former). In an aggressive match up, there usually will be a deck that isn’t faster than the other that game. Perhaps that deck is slower or maybe it’s just stumbling a bit. As such the pilot will have to do what his deck isn’t designed to do, control. He will likely lose, but if he tries to race he probably is more likely to lose. The aggressive deck and the controlling deck might switch roles during the game. As for limited, which deck is the controlling and which deck is the aggressive often goes back and forth so much (usually no more than once every few turns) that this rule arguably loses meaning.

Deck broad archetypesEdit

These five are the following broad archetypes that most decks go into. A deck might contain elements of more than one of these archetypes. aggro, burn, midrange, control, and combo:

  • Aggro: This deck is aggressive, consistent, and tries to win the game quickly mainly with creatures. If it doesn’t, it will probably lose.
  • Burn: Like aggro, but mostly direct damage spells to the face rather than cheap creatures.
  • Midrange: This deck runs mana acceleration early game and big creatures mid to late game. Or alternatively it is halfway between aggro and control.
  • Control: This deck stops other decks from doing what they want to do, typically until they have enough mana to play their win condition cards (of which there are typically very few). It then continues to use its control cards to protect and/or support its win condition.
  • Combo: This deck attempts to use cards that have such strong synergy it will likely win the game, if the combo is assembled. As such, they are typically vulnerable to disruption. They aren’t the most consistent deck and often use cards like serum visions to make themselves more consistent. If they are too consistent and fast, expect a ban (unless maybe it's vintage).

There are also some smaller archetypes that revolve around these:

  • Tempo: An aggressive deck that tries to disrupt the opponent while being aggressive (attacking their hand, countering their removal spells, killing their blockers etc.) More likely to be the control deck in some matchups such as against more aggressive decks.
  • Prison: Like a control deck but tries to proactively prevent the opponent from doing things rather than react after they have done the things. Often involves "lock" pieces (permanents which make it very hard for the opponent do do things by making their spells cost more, countering their spells when they play them, attacking their mana, attacking their hand so they don't have threats in hand, etc.). These are the kind of decks people are most likely to hate with the burning passion of a thousand suns.
  • Ramp: Tries to get a lot of mana a lot faster than it's supposed to, then play really big things. Often in either green or colorless (green has spells that put lands on the battlefield, and most of the broken ways to shit-ton of mana give you colorless mana). Ramp can sometimes be a form of control or midrange if just ramping isn't fast enough.
  • Dredge: Dredge is Dredge. To be more specific, Dredge abuses the fuck out of the graveyard with self-mill through the dredge effect, reanimination, flashbacking spells, cards in graveyards having effects, and swinging for the win with a sudden horde of graveborne nasties.

The only life point that matters is the last one.Edit

Corollary: Life can be a resource that can help you win the game. Many cards, especially black ones, are powerful, but cost life.

Card advantageEdit

Whoever has the most cards win. This is actually surprisingly bit messy and blurry. Tokens are often considered cards in their own right. Cards in hand are almost always considered cards for the sake of card advantage. Cards with flashback in a graveyard are sometimes considered cards in hand for the sake of card advantage. A card draw spell sets a player back in tempo but helps put that player ahead in card advantage. Arguably, looting (draw and discard, sometimes also refers to rummaging) and rummaging (discard and draw) is card advantage. Looting and rummaging do not help card quantity, but improve card quality. Same goes for scry (except of course the time between you decide the you like the card on top of your deck and getting scry:1, those are pretty much worthless). Certain interactions between players can put one ahead or behind in card advantage. For example, if a creature is double blocked, and all involved creatures die, this is a case of a “2 for 1” and it puts the blocked/attacking creature’s controller ahead in card advantage. Card Advantage is considered less important in short games.


Having a tempo advantage means you are advancing your game-plan faster than your opponent is advancing theirs, most often applied when your plan is to hit them in the face. Gaining tempo often involves doing things that don't get you much long-term benefit but slow down your opponent while you swing with creatures and/or assemble a combo. A classic example of a tempo play is "bounce" cards which return creatures to their owners hand. Bouncing an enemy creature is card disadvantage for you (you spent a card and your opponent didn't actually lose a card, it just went away for a bit), but it slows down your opponent since they have to spend time (read mana) replaying the card, which is time they could be spending playing more creatures or killing your stuff. Other things that give you tempo are cheep removal/counters (you can play them on the same turn you play threats, thus slowing your opponent down while you play creatures), and creatures that double as removal/counters (same idea. These cards are also good because they give you card advantage. You spend one card and get both a creature and a removal effect). Decks that play a lot of cards that give them tempo along with aggressive creatures are called tempo decks. Playing against a tempo deck is similar to having your arms held behind your back while someone punches you in the face.

Board StateEdit

Board State can refer to the state of an individual player’s side of the battlefield or the battlefield as a whole. This is usually very important in limited. It’s importance in constructed can vary considerably. (similar terms: board presence and board position) Being ahead on board state means some combination of having more creatures in play, having bigger creatures in play, having creatures that attack better in play, and other similar things.

How the game is divided upEdit

Note that neither of these care about life.

Early game, mid game, and late gameEdit

How many turns are you in the game.

Quadrant theoryEdit

Quadrant theory is very useful in Limited because of the importance of the board state. Quadrant theory should be on a player’s mind both during drafting (assuming the player is playing some sort of draft) and deck construction (assuming the player is playing limited). The more quadrants a card helps you in, the better.

  • Developing: This is the state in which both players have almost no board presence. Typically the start of the game or just after a player played a board sweeper
  • Parity: Both players have considerable board presence. Generally if one attacks the other will likely establish favorable blocks and acquire superior board presence. Creatures with evasion are important in this board state.
  • Ahead/winning: You have a board presence that is kicking your opponent's ass. This is the least important board state to care about when deciding which cards should go in your deck.
  • Behind/losing: Your opponent’s board presence is kicking your ass. Cards that fit in this category aren't exactly common. Wrath effects can usually help you out in this situation.

External linksEdit