The Fundamental Rules of Magic, Part 1

This is going to be a series of articles that are aimed at making you better at card evaluation.

Every year, a few cards are printed that are much more powerful than they initially appear. Treasure Cruise, Gurmag Angler, Nahiri the Harbinger – each of these cards was initially dismissed by most players, and then became a major Constructed card.

Two of the three (Cruise, Angler) I correctly identified as Constructed powerhouses early. This is because of my methodology – looking at cards through the prism of several fundamental rules of Magic. Any card that obeys all of these rules is inherently fair, and will not be in the upper echelon of Constructed cards in the larger formats.

Any card that breaks one or more of these rules must be taken seriously, even if it looks terrible. Those cards may simply be too expensive for a format, or the support for them might not yet exist, but they should remain on your radar.


The First Fundamental Rule of Magic:

1) Cards cannot impact the gamestate unless they have been drawn.

Dread Return is one of perhaps five cards on the Modern banned list that is never, ever getting back into the format, and Unburial Rites is a solid card in Modern.

This isn’t because returning a dead creature to the battlefield is too powerful an effect – Zombify and Resurrection both do the same effect for 4 mana, and Makeshift Mannequin does so at instant speed with a modest drawback.

Dread Return and Unburial Rites are so strong because a number of cards (most notably the Dredge mechanic, but also others like Gifts Ungiven and Quiet Speculation) allow you to get them into your graveyard without ever having to draw the card.

Of the two Dread Return is the stronger, not because sacrificing three creatures is a lesser cost than paying 3W (it generally is not), but because the incredibly hard-to-spell card Narcomoeba exists and has such synergy with it.

Dread Return and Narcomoeba (and Bridge from Below) are examples of cards that break this fundamental rule, by being able to have an effect on the gamestate without ever entering your hand or costing you a draw step. In Modern this interaction is so strong that it is not possible to have both Dread Return and Narcomoeba legal, nor is it possible to have Dread Return and Bridge from Below both legal. Consequentially Dread Return is banned in the format.


Some examples of other cards that break the First Rule. Notice there is a lot of Dredge here:

  • Raven’s Crime.
  • Life from the Loam
  • Demonic Tutor. DT (and other tutors) don’t break the First Rule by themselves. You must draw your tutor for it to impact the gamestate. However, it allows your other cards to break the First Rule in exchange for the mana cost and possibly other costs (such as life and/or card disadvantage) of the Tutor you use.
  • Panglacial Wurm. Notice that this card is still terrible, because in the formats where it is legal, there are not many gamestates in which paying 7 mana and a fetchland activation for a 9/5 trample creature is worth it.
  • Deathmist Raptor. This card can get into your graveyard at little to no cost, and is often better there than in your hand.
  • Soul of Innistrad. Don’t laugh – this guy is at the heart of many ‘not-good-enough-to-be-viable-but-almost-close’ combo kills in Legacy, and will undoubtedly see play if Hermit Druid is ever unbanned. All of these kills involve putting your entire library into your graveyard, then casting Ice Age forgotten enabler Songs of the Damned (possibly with the help of Recoup), then using that mana and exiling the Soul and put three creatures from your graveyard into your hand to win on the spot.

To summarise: Cards which are “live” in zones other than your hand or the battlefield should always be taken seriously, especially if they have efficient effects in those zones.


Late edit: I’ve added a little corollary to this rule in a new post,, which talks about how this rule affects the Commander format.


  • sirgog

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Magic, and the Fundamental Theorem of Poker

Ask experienced Spikes what the most skill-intensive card to play with or against in the history of Magic is, and you will usually get an instant that costs 3U as the answer.

Many will name Fact or Fiction.

Others will name Gifts Ungiven.

I agree with the Fact or Fiction people, but that argument is not what this article is about. This article is about applying poker theory to Magic.

Notice something about these cards? Both are extremely powerful, having long and proven histories in Standard, Modern or Extended, and even in Vintage once. Both are high impact cards and resolving one can decide the result of the game.

Both require high-stakes decisions to be made with incomplete information, and both have extremely high skill ceilings.

The results of the decision are sometimes immediately obvious – a player with a lethal spell on the stack splits a Flusterstorm against four non-counterspells, and the Fact or Fiction caster takes the 4 cards and then casts Mana Drain from their hand. Congratulations, you just got played.

But other times it does not become obvious who made the correct decisions until other decisions have been made, several turns down the track.


On the flip side, ask a less experienced player the same question, and they will usually name a Planeswalker. Planeswalkers also require high-stakes decisions to be made by both players, but because the hidden information aspect is less important to the card, the newer player can see more of the decision.

Games are won and lost on decisions to -3 or +1 Jace, Telepath Unbound, or whether to attack the Walker or the controller, but the players involved usually know if their decision was right or not quickly. This means they can identify the crucial moments of the game more accurately, and so more often associate them with the Planeswalker.


The highest skill ceilings on cards seem to come from those that require players to act on hidden information.

Compared to top players of other games, Magic players are terrible at doing this.

In Magic, hidden information is never totally hidden. It’s hinted at by decisions both players make. This should influence both how you play against acknowledged skill tester cards like Gifts, but also against cards that have nothing openly to do with hidden information.

As an experiment, play mirror match games against an opponent who plays with their hand revealed, and watch how often you win. If you normally split games with this opponent, it is reasonable to expect a 70-30 or better win record.


Poker players have a rule called “The Fundamental Theorem of Poker”.

I’ll quote it verbatim.

“Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.”

This is every bit as true in Magic as it is in poker.



Hidden information doesn’t just matter when the Spike conventional wisdom says it does – during the resolution of spells like Gifts Ungiven.

You should treat every card you play as a skilltester card, and always look for unexpected opportunities to puzzle together clues to hidden information, and to use them.

If your Modern opponent is visibly unhappy with their 6 card hand on the draw, but then undergoes a significant release of tension upon their Scry 1, that should tell you something. Maybe it’s time to do something really unusual, like ‘Scalding Tarn, mainphase crack for Island, Thought Scour you’.

That’s not the reason Thought Scour was in your deck – you play it to fuel your own Delve spells so you can deploy a threat like Tasigur for almost nothing. But your goal should be to play as close as possible to how you would play if you could see all hidden information your opponent has, or previously had, access to. And you have strong reason to believe that your opponent’s top card completes an otherwise incomplete hand.

Just as in poker, you want to be looking for hints your opponent drops about hidden information all the time, not just during big decisions.

You will never completely achieve this goal, but you can work toward it.

  • sirgog

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Introducing MTGBrainstorm

Hello all!


This site is being published to post strategic insights related to the Magic: The Gathering® trading card game.


Unlike larger sites that try to keep up with every minor metagame shift, it is my intention to post infrequent but more timeless articles. I work full time in a job with nothing to do with Magic, and this is a side project for me.


I started playing Magic in 1995, and shifted from a paper player to an MTGO player between 2005 and 2010. I now solely play online, but do follow paper news and events.


I’m a Spike at heart, but a Spike that feels the urge to innovate and that is willing to try off-the-wall strategies to try to make them work. I’d rather lose and improve from the loss than win and stagnate, and I’m at my happiest when winning with something the opponent never sees coming.


  • sirgog



This concludes the first article. Obligatory legal crap (sorry, important reading) follows.


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