MTG by card role

Stop thinking about cards and start thinking about card roles

gaming tip

The base rules of Magic: The Gathering are no more complex than any other card game, such as Poker or Bridge.


You start the game with 20 life pointns and a deck of 60 cards, unless you're playing the Commander variant, in which case you start with 40 life and 100 cards.

At the start of the game, you draw 7 cards into your hand.


On your turn, you:

  • Reset ("untap") all cards on your table (the battlefield) and draw 1 card into your hand.
  • You may play 1 Land card. A Land card is labelled as a Land, and produces mana when "tapped" (rotated 90-degrees).
  • You may play any number of cards from your hand, provided you have enough mana to "pay" for the cost of the card. The cost of a card is located in the top right of each card: a number indicates how much color-nonspecific mana you need, and mana symbols indicate how much additional of a specific color you need. When you use mana to pay for a card, you tap the Land card by turning it 90 degrees to indicate that it's been used up for this turn. When you play a creature cards by placing it onto the table (or battlefield), you must also tap it to indicate that it can take no action this turn.
  • You may enter formal combat against your opponent.
  • After combat, you may continue to play cards, provided you have mana to pay for them, until you formally pass the turn to your opponent.


In combat, you tap any number of your creatures. Creatures attack your opponent, never a specific card, but your opponent may choose to intercept or block your creatures with creatures of their own.

Tapped creatures cannot block.

Each creature has a Power and Toughness value, indicated in the bottom right corner of each creature card. When one creature's Power is equal to or greater than another's Toughness, it destroys that card, sending it to its player's discard pile (or graveyard). Damage during combat happens simultaneously, so it's entirely possible for two creatures to destroy each other during combat.

A creature can be blocked by more than one creature, too. Your opponent gets to decide the order of blocking, so resolve damage on the first card, and then on the second card, and so on.

When your opponent has no way to block, or chooses not to block, then the damage (the value of your creature's Power) is deducted from the player's life total.


Those are the rules of Magic: The Gathering, defined by sections 1 to 5 of the official rules document on

However, the base rules are only the foundation. In fact, sections 1 through 5 of the official rules make up only one third of the rules document. That's because by design, most Magic: The Gathering cards systematically modify the rules of the game.

Additionally, Magic: The Gathering generally encourages its players to build their own decks, which itself is an acquired skill.

When explaining Magic: The Gathering, I like to treat the game itself as a framework, because ultimately it's the player, through building a deck, who defines how each game actually plays. It's impossible to discuss every card in Magic's history (there are well over 25,000 unique cards), and every new set contains, on average, two new mechanics.

Card roles

What is possible, though, is to discuss the functions that different types of cards serve. By understanding the mechanical roles that any given Magic card may encompass, you learn what kinds of cards to look for when you purchase or trade them so you can build decks that make for an enjoyable game.

Before discussing card roles, though, it's important to consider a target budget. Magic designers use card rarity as a way to limit the potential power level of a Magic: The Gathering game. Cards with almost game-breaking abilities aren't printed in great number, so the demand and prices go up, and so they're not often seen in actual gameplay. Historically, however, once a rare and powerful card has become popular, the designers tend to borrow ideas from it, distributing the strategy that it represents among common and affordable cards.

In all of my categories for card roles, there are quintessential examples of the strategy. Those are usually the rare cards that set the precedence for the card role in the first place, and so they are almost always prohibitively expensive. For that reason, the example cards I cite are meant to illustrate a spectrum of cards that work toward, if not exemplify, the card role I've identified. I rarely bother listing the "obvious" card for a role, and instead limit my card lists to inexpensive ($2 and under) cards.

In all cases, my card list is incomplete and purely demonstrative. The best way for you to find cards, whether I've listed it or not, to fill a card role is usually an Internet search. Not just a few sites that track Magic: The Gathering cards offer lists of cards that fit a specific strategical need, or that can serve as a weaker and cheaper replacement for a popular rare card, and so on. Build a deck on paper first, and then purchase the single cards you need from your local game store or a reliable Internet game site.

Combat cards

Whether they take the form of a summoned Creature, an Enchantment boosting other cards, a Sorcery or Instant or Artifact, the bulk of cards in Magic: The Gathering perpetuate or mitigate inevitable combat.

General purpose cards cost a full spectrum of mana amounts and color. Some, you can play for 1 or 2 mana, while others require 4 and 5 and more. Some require just one color of mana, while others require a mix of colors, and others (mostly Artifacts) don't care about color at all. Many have special abilities, and may possess synergy with other cards. Strategically, though, these cards are mainly meant as "cannon fodder". They're the cards that get placed on the battlefield as a display of either offensive or defensive force. They're the weapons you use to intimidate and then destroy your opponent.

Combat cards are a necessity of the game because the main avenue to victory is direct combat. Whether or not that's the path you take, you'll probably be subject to it. At the very least, you must be able to defend yourself. Thanks to the way combat is designed, a player with enough 1/1 Creature cards can defend against, and even defeat, a player with big 5/5 and 7/7 Creatures, but be defeated by a player with Flying Creatures, who might themselves be defeated by a player armed with defensive Walls and an arsenal of spells dealing direct player damage.

In other words, Magic: The Gathering has enough variation in combat tactics that the cards you throw into battle are arguably less important than the strategy you develop with other card roles.


The base rules of Magic: The Gathering state that you can only attack your opponent. This means that you normally don't have the option to eliminate an enemy card that's causing you trouble in the game. Some cards, however, enable "card removal" by breaking the base rule and targeting a specific card.

There's usually a strict limit to what you can target.

  • Destructive Tampering is a Sorcery that destroys an Artifact.
  • Dissenter's Deliverance is an Instant (meaning it can be played at any time, even out of turn) that destroys an Artifact.
  • Fade Into Antiquity is a Sorcery that exiles (moves a card from the graveyard to the Exile zone) an Artifact or Enchantment.
  • Avenging Arrow is an Instant that destroys a target Creature that dealt damage on the same turn.
  • Hand of Death is a Black Sorcery that destroys any non-Black creature.
  • Flatten is an Instant that applies -4/-4 to a target creature, which could be enough to remove it, depending on the target.
  • Harsh Sustenance is an Instant that deals X damage to a target creature, where X is the number of creatures you control at the time.

As you can see, the means of removal may vary. What kind of card is considered a "removal" card depends in part on the situation. For instance, I wouldn't normally Flatten a removal card, but against a 4/4 creature that's exactly what it does.

Direct player damage

The base rules of Magic: The Gathering forbid you from attacking your opponent directly, but some cards cause life loss to a player. This is special noncombat damage (which may matter when you're up against a deck with abilities that trigger on combat damage).

  • Qarsi Sadist is a Creature that causes your opponent to lose 2 life when you sacrifice a Creature.
  • Firebrand Archer is a Creature that causes your opponent to lose 1 life when you cast any noncreature spell.
  • Painful Lesson is a Sorcery that causes a target player to lose 2 life.
  • Bee Sting is a Sorcery that deals 2 damage to a target Creature or player.
  • Foul-Tongue Shriek is an Instanc that causes a target player to lose 1 life for each attacking Creature you control at the time it is cast.

Life gain

Should you reach 0 life points in Magic: The Gathering, you lose the game. Some cards grant you additional life points.

  • Kheru Dreadmaw is a Creature that grants you life points equal to a sacrificed Creature's Toughness.
  • Anointer Priest is a Creature that grants you 1 life point whenever you play a Creature token.
  • Cursebreak is an Instant that destroys a target Enchantment while granting you 2 life.
  • Bargain is a Sorcery that earns you 7 life, at the cost of your opponent drawing 1 card.
  • Sacred Nectar is a Sorcery granting 4 life and costs 2 mana.
  • Temple Acolyte is a Creature that grants 3 life and costs 2 mana.

Mana ramp

The default source of mana is a Land card. These provide you with mana so you can play cards ("cast spells"). For a 60 card deck, anticipate requiring about 24, using a mix of colored and colorless mana.

The base rules prohibit you from playing more than 1 Land card on each turn. As a result, normally you can never have a mana base greater than the current number of turns you have had. In other words, assuming the best possible hand, you'll have 3 Lands that can produce 3 mana each turn by turn 3, and by turn 7 you'll have 7 Lands that can produce 7 mana each turn, and so on.

However, there are ways to acquire mana aside from Land cards. This is colloquially known as "mana ramp".

Non-Land mana

By playing both a Land as well as a non-Land card that provides mana, you gain more mana in one turn than is possible when relying on just Land for mana.

These cards tend to be Uncommon or rarer, and prices vary.

  • Sol Ring is an Artifact that taps for 2 colorless mana.
  • Sol Talisman Artifacts that taps for 2 colorless mana.
  • Meteorite is an Artifact that provide 1 mana of any color.
  • Prophetic Prism is an Artifact that provide 1 mana of any color.
  • Dromoka Monument is an Artifact that adds Green or White mana.
  • Devoted Druid is a Creature that adds 1 Green mana.
  • Oasis Ritualist is a Creature that adds up to 2 mana of any color.
  • Heartbeat of Spring is an Enchantment that adds 1 extra mana per Land tapped.
  • Gift of Paradise is an Enchantment — Aura that grants a Land card the ability to add two mana (instead of one) of any color to your mana pool (and also happens to grant 3 life when it's played).

Mana storage

Some cards generate tokens that can be converted into mana later. You have to wait for your extra mana to build up into something substantial, and once you spend it, you must start the process over, but it's a good way to increase your mana budget so you have it when you need it.

  • Mage-Ring Network is a Land card, so it doesn't ramp your mana base beyond the normal pace, but it gives you the option of building up a pool of stored mana in the form of storage counters, which you can convert to mana later.
  • Pirate's Prize is a Sorcery that produces one Treasure Token that can be converted to mana when sacrificed.
  • Brazen Freebooter and Burdened Aerialist are Creatures that produce one Treasure Token that can be converted to mana when sacrificed.
  • Captain Lannery Storm is a Legendary Creature that produces one Treasure Token with each attack.

Mana offset

Some cards provide a discount on mana costs.

Dual Lands, Taplands, and variants

Special Land cards can be tapped for one of two or more colors. This doesn't increase your mana, because the Land still only renders 1 mana. However, they can prevent you from coming up short on a specific color of mana in a multi-color deck.

Untapping lands

Some cards allow you to untap a tapped Land. As a result, you can tap the Land again during the same turn, producing two mana from one Land.

  • Voyaging Satyr is a Creature that, when tapped, allows you to untap a Land.
  • Arbor Elf is a Creature that, when tapped, allows you to untap a Forest.

Fetches, guides, and tutors

Some cards allow you to search through your draw deck (your library) for Land. There are details that make some more optimal than others, but all result in a guaranteed Land card either in your hand or on the battlefield. Given that normally you're at the mercy of the randomness of your library, this can help you build a good mana base in a reliable and predictable way.

  • District Guide is a Creature that allows you to find Land and place it into your hand.
  • Flower is a Sorcery that allows you to find Land and place it into your hand.
  • The Land card Evolving Wilds can be sacrificed (discarded to your graveyard) in exchange for a basic Land directly to the battlefield. The fetched card starts tapped, so you don't get to draw mana from it the same turn that you play it, but having Evolving Wilds cards in your deck gives you flexibility and increases predictability.
  • Beneath the Sands is a Sorcery that allows you to find a Land and place it on the battlefield tapped.
  • Map the Wastes is a Sorcery that allows you to find a Land and place it on the battlefield tapped.
  • Tutor cards are known for searching your library. They vary in price and abilities. Demonic tutor is a Sorcery that allows you to search your library for any card and place it into your hand, while Cruel tutor allows you to place the card on the top of your library with an additional cost of 2 life.

Card draw

Because you're often playing two or three cards on your turn, but you're permitted by the rules to draw only one each turn, there's a good chance that you will deplete your hand before the game is over. Some cards give you permission to draw more than just the initial draw-for-turn.

  • Notion Rain is a Sorcery that trades 2 life points for 2 cards.
  • Infiltration Lens is an Artifact — Equipment allowing you to draw 2 cards whenever its host Creature is blocked in combat.
  • Endless Atlas is an Artifact giving you an extra card each turn, as long as you control three or more Lands with the same name.
  • Sram, Senior Edificer is a Legendary Creature that grants you a card whenever you cast an Enchantment — Aura, Artifact — Equipment, or Vehicle.
  • Pirate's Prize is a Sorcery that allows you to draw 2 cards (and to create a Token that you can spend as mana).

The opposite of granting card draw is called, in Magic terminology, milling. When you Mill a player, you cause them to discard, either out of their hand or from the top of their library.

  • Mind Rot is a Sorcery that causes a target player to discard 2 cards.
  • Compelling Argument is a Sorcery that causes a target player to discard five cards from their library.
  • Sludge Crawler is a Creature that causes a target player to discard a card whenever it deals combat damage.
  • Implement of Malice is an Artifact that, for the cost of 1 Black mana, causes a target player to discard a card.
  • Coercion is a Sorcery that allows you to look at your opponent's hand and choose a card to send to the graveyard.
  • Millstone is an Artifact that causes an opponent to discard 2 from the top of their library (and is in fact the card from which the term milling is derived).


By default, a card that's discarded (sent to the graveyard) is functionally out of the game. After all, that's the point of a discard pile. However, there are cards that allow you to bring cards back from the graveyard. This is often called recursion by Magic players.

  • Resurrection is a White Sorcery that returns a target Creature from your graveyard directly back into play.
  • Gravedigger is a Black Creature that returns a Creature back to your hand.
  • Gravepurge is an Instant allowing you to return any number of Creatures from your graveyard on the top of your library.
  • Recoup is a Sorcery that doesn't return anything from your graveyard, technically, but it does grant you permission to play any one Sorcery directly from the graveyard.
  • Crystal Chimes is an Artifact that rescues all Enchantments from your graveyard to your hand.

There are opposite effects, too.

Control and countering

Some cards help you "control" the state of the game beyond its normal flow. This is as broad a category as general purpose combat, and could arguably include other strategies, particularly Milling and Recursion. But this category's diversity is why it deserves its own definition. There are many aspects of control, ranging from literally seizing control of an opponent's card, to preventing damage, forcefully tapping cards, and more.

  • Tyrant's Machine is an Artifact that allows you to tap any target Creature.
  • Winds of Qal Sisma is an Instant that prevents all combat damage during a turn.
  • Commencement of Festivities is an Instant that prevents all combat damage during a turn.
  • Act of Heroism is an Instant that allows you to untap a target creature.
  • Graven Abomination causes its target player to exile a card from the graveyard, reducing its chance of returning to the game.
  • Witness the End causes an opponent to exile 2 cards directly from their hand, skipping the graveyard entirely.
  • Negate is an Instant that negates any noncreature spell.
  • Statute of Denial is an Instant that negates any spell.
  • Hijack is a Sorcery that allows you to untap and take control of a target Artifact or Creature until the end of the turn.
  • Caught in the Brights is an Enchantment — Aura that prevents a target Creature from attacking or blocking.

Deck building

The categories I define are just one interpretation of the game of Magic. They are:

  • Combat cards
  • Removal
  • Direct player damage
  • Life gain
  • Mana ramp
  • Card draw
  • Recursion
  • Control and countering

Aside from "combat cards", the names of the categories I identify are widely used terms within the Magic community. The most efficient way to acquire cards within each category is to search the Internet for cards that fall within those categories, and then buy the ones that appeal to you as single cards from your game store.

There are other card categories. For instance, there are powerups (cards that place +1/+1 counters on others, for example), cards that force other cards to tap out of turn, cards to seize control of other Creatures, and so on. These, in my opinion, are avenues toward essentially the same goal: winning. The categories I define don't concern winning as much as they sustain the game you create by building a deck.

Look through Magic: The Gathering cards with these categories in mind, and you'll start to recognize them as variations of the core components of Magic, and you'll be able to make wise decisions on what cards to purchase for your next deck.

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