My gaming group enjoyed Dominion and Race for the Galaxy and I wanted to try a more traditional collectible card game. We had flirted with Legend of the Five Rings and Game of Thrones LCG. The former seemed more complex than the group were ready for (although by reputation it's a terrific game). I dropped the latter as I got through book three of the Game of Thrones novels and quit in a frenzy of frustration and irritation. That left us with Magic the Gathering (MtG) and after some research we tried a low key game variant.
The rules of MtG are fairly simple, Players have a deck of cards and draw up seven into their hand. In each turn they can play "land" cards. Each land gives the player a point of magical power which they can use to cast spells or do some other task. The cards in a player's hand also include creatures which can be summoned and a variety of spells which can help or hinder. For example, you might summon a fierce mouse for 1 point, or summon a dragon for 5 points of magic. But you might summon a mouse and then play another card which makes the mouse grow to seventy feet in height with flashing eyes and electric tentacles. Or you might cast a banishing spell and send your opponent's dragon off to limbo. All this "spell casting" is based on which cards randomly end up in your hand and can only occur if you have enough land cards in front of you to pay the cost in magical points.
Once a player has summoned and cast spells they can send their creatures off to attack other players. The opponent then has to use their own creatures to defend and little battles ensue. Any attackers that make it through inflict points of damage on the player and if the player takes twenty points of damage they are out of the game.
Our group had a terrific time with MtG. We found that early in the game the players mainly try and get some land cards on the table. This is a little slow paced and until you have the land and the resulting magical points you're not likely to be doing any great feats. In the middle of the game the players start summoning creatures and playing other useful cards. Things then speed up and by the end the players are banishing, summoning, casting enchantments and doing all sorts of interesting things. We had to refer to the rules every now and then but every question had a simple answer.
In terms of pros and cons we enjoyed the variety of cards available. Each player had a moment where they unleashed some amusing of devastating creature and many had subtle and interesting special abilities. We liked the simple rules. The beginning of the game moved slowly as we got used to the dynamic but by the end we were having some exciting battles. Some multi player games can be dull as each player takes a turn but MtG allows players to cast spells during other people's turns so there was no dreary downtime. Finally, by the end of the game we could see some strategic elements and the possibility of getting better as a player.
On the down side the game did start slowly and I think some players were frustrated that they couldn't use some of their cooler cards right away. Once we understood that you just don't expect to cast awesome spells immediately that issue was resolved. I'm not sure if you can "come back" once you start losing. On the other hand this game seems to play fast so I suspect that a loser can get back in with another game quickly enough. Finally, we all did feel the pull to immediately start shopping on EBay for rare cards. Once you realize that just by adding the hologram mythic rare special edition Chromatic Dragon to your deck you'd be unbeatable it's highly tempting to do so. We resisted the siren call.
Our group had a great time with MtG. As about a million people already know this is a great group game. It's family friendly. It can be played in a low key fashion although it often may not be. If a parent thinks they can avoid the trader frenzy this would be a great game for kids and teens and a good choice for groups of adult friends as well.
Pros: simple, fun, some strategic component
Cons: risk of trading frenzy, potential to be a black hole money pit
Beyond the Basics: a new edition each year plus it's an introduction to resource management games of which there are many