Sylvan Tutor: Basic Rules

In this series of articles we will be going over the various rules of Magic: the Gathering, in an attempt to both, teach new players the game, and help keep existing players up to date on possible rule changes. In these first few articles we will be going over the basics, so veteran players may want to skip ahead. This article will cover the steps of your turn, and some other basic gameplay. If you are new to the game, you may want to read our previous Sylvan Tutor on how to read cards, as I will be using some terms you may not understand.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the article.

Step One: Pre-game Prep

Before you actually start playing, there are a few things you must do. Firstly make sure your deck meets the specifications of your format (more on that here), this is something you should do ahead of time, to not slow the game down. You may also want to keep up to date with Wizards of the Coast’s official banned and restricted list, to make sure your deck is still allowed in the format, but again this is something you should do in advance.

Once you and your opponent are done unpacking your deck and other possible accessories, make sure you shuffle thoroughly and allow your opponent to cut your deck. This ensures fairness, and proper shuffling will keep your deck from clumping up and making your draws abnormal.

After that, you will need to decide who gets to go first. This can be anything from flipping a coin, to rolling a dice, to rock-paper-scissors. Just make sure the results are unbiased, and you do it in a reasonable amount of time.

You then want to make sure your deck is neatly sitting to your side (preferably the side of your dominant hand), and you have something to keep track of your life total (for most formats this is 20), you can use a spindown dice, pen and paper, or anything that suits your needs. Just make sure you can easily edit and read it.

The final preparation is one of the most skill intensive of all. Once everything else has been set up you and your opponent both draw seven cards, and then decide whether or not to mulligan. Take a look at your hand’s seven cards, and see if they fit your deck’s needs. Typically you want two or three lands, and something that you can play relatively early. What you want in your opening hand will vary from deck to deck, and you will learn what to keep, and what to mulligan as you play the deck more. If your hand is to your liking then you can go straight into the game, if not then you have the option to mulligan.

To mulligan, take your seven cards, and you shuffle them back into your deck. Then draw a new hand, but this time only draw six. You can repeat this step again and again, but every time you will draw one less card. After both you and your opponent draw your hands, and take any needed mulligans, any player that is starting with less than seven cards will get to scry one.

To scry, look at the top cards of your library equal to the number you are scrying (in this case it will always be one) then choose whether you want to keep that card on top of your library, or put it on the bottom.

After all that’s done, you are finally able to play! Now let’s get into what you do during each of your turns.

Each turn is broken down into five phases. Three of these phases can be then broken down further into steps. We will be going over these phases and steps in the order in which they occur.

Beginning Phase

This phase is obviously the beginning of your turn. If any cards say something like “At the start of your turn” this is when that effect happens.

After that the beginning phase has three steps.

Untap Step
During this step, you untap all of your tapped permanents unless stated otherwise.

Upkeep Step
Nothing happens during this step, unless another cards effect says to do something during your upkeep.

Draw Step
During this step, whoever’s turn it currently is draws a card. Whoever goes first does not draw a card during their first draw step (except for some multiplayer formats).

These steps happen in fairly quick succession – just make sure you do them in order, and remember any effects that take place during this time.

Pre-Combat Main Phase

During this phase you are able to play your land for the turn and you are able to cast non-instant spells (you can still cast instants if you want to). This is crucial as almost all permanents cannot be cast at other times (unless a special effect says otherwise). Permanents include lands, and any spell that enters the battlefield. This includes creatures, artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers. This is also the time you are able to cast sorcery cards which behave much like instants, but similar to permanents they must be cast during your main phase. It should be noted that you can only play sorcery speed spells (permanents and sorceries) while the stack is empty. The stack is something that we will go into more in another article.

Combat Phase

In this phase you attempt to attack your opponent with your creatures. It is important to note that any creature that you played this turn, must wait a turn to get ready before they can attack. This is know as summoning sickness, and it stops a creature from doing much the turn you cast it. This includes most activated abilities that involve tapping and attacking. Like most rules this can be circumvented by some abilities, namely haste.

With that out of the way let’s get into the steps of the combat phase:

Beginning of Combat Step
Technically nothing really happens during this step, but there are some spells and abilities that can only be activated at the beginning of combat, so it’s important to remember to do them now, and also give your opponent a chance to use any effects they may want to use now.

Declare Attackers Step
During this step you select which, if any, of your creatures you want to attack with.  You must tap any creature that you wish to attack with, unless something says otherwise. Once such effect you are likely to run into is vigilance which just says attacking does not cause creatures to tap. This let’s you use them to block (we’ll get to that in a moment) or use them for other things.

Declare Blockers Step
Your opponent (or you if it is your opponent’s turn and they are attacking) may assign any untapped creatures they control to block your attacking creatures. They may assign multiple blockers to the same attacker, or they may not block at all – it is up to them. Blocking does not cause a creature to tap.

Combat Damage Step
During this step all creatures simultaneously deal damage to their power to the defending player’s life total if unblocked, or to a blocking creatures toughness. At the same time defending creatures will deal damage equal to their power to the creatures they are blocking’s toughness. If multiple creatures are blocking the same attacking creature, the attacker chooses how the damage is split between them. If a creature takes damage equal to or more than its toughness, then it dies and is moved to the graveyard.

Some common combat effects that you should take into account are:

Flying: This creature can only be blocked by creatures with flying or reach.

Reach: This creature can block creatures with flying:

Trample: If this creature would deal more damage than a creature blocking it has toughness, the remaining damage is dealt to the blocking player.

First Strike: Creatures with first strike deal their damage before creatures without first strike. This may kill the other creature before it has time to retaliate.

Double Strike: This creature does first strike damage and normal damage (see above how first strike works)

Vigilance: Attacking does not cause this creature to tap.

End of Combat Step
This is another step where nothing technically happens, but effects that say things like “until the end of combat” end now.

Post-Combat Main Phase

During this phase you are able to do all the same things you could do in your first main phase, like play sorcery speed spells and play a land. But you can only play a land if you didn’t play a land during your first main phase, as you can still only play one land per turn. While this is technically not a rule, many players wait until after combat to play their sorcery speed spells, unless they will help them out in combat. This is because you want to keep as much information hidden from your opponent as you can, so if your opponent had the ability to do something deviating like destroying all your creatures, then they would want to do it before combat to not take damage. If you waited on casting extra creatures until your second main phase, you will still have a chance to recover.

Ending Phase

The fifth and final phase is broken up into two steps.

End Step
This is typically the last chance a player gets to play instant speed spells or activate abilities. Effects that happen at the beginning of the end step or say “at end of turn” happen now. After that you move into the final step which is…

Cleanup Step
A few things happen during this step. First, if the active player’s hand contains more cards than his or her maximum hand size (normally seven), he or she discards enough cards to reduce his or her hand size to that number. Second, the following actions happen simultaneously: all damage marked on permanents (including phased-out permanents) is removed and all “until end of turn” and “this turn” effects end. Neither of those two actions use the stack, so they cannot be responded to. Additionally Spells and abilities may be played during this step only if the conditions for any state-based actions exist or if any abilities have triggered.

After that it switches over to the next players turn, starting now with their beginning phase and untap step.

That wraps it up for this article of Sylvan Tutor. Now that we’ve covered the basics, next time we will look into some more advanced rules and techniques, so check back soon for our next edition!

As always, if you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please feel free to say something in the comments section below.

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