A card game for two players that has maybe a little bit of the flavor of Magic: the Gathering

I don't know how or why I ever came up with the thought of trying to create a set of rules that would let two players play a game like Magic: the Gathering using a regular deck of playing cards. The idea is not particularly inspired. Magic: the Gathering has complex game mechanics, and a lot of the fun comes from constructing your own decks out of the available pool of thousands of different cards. But sometimes I just get these ideas, and then I seem to be compelled to follow them through to their logical conclusion whether it makes any sense or not.

Note: For the rules to a game that started out with a similar idea, but in a Solitaire format, check out Royal Assassin.

That being said, I think this set of rules does pretty well, surprisingly enough. Best of all, if you know the rules of MTG (which this page assumes) you can print out the small card-size 'cheat sheet' at the end of this page and carry it around in your billfold, so if you're ever stuck somewhere far from your Magic cards with nothing but a deck of standard playing cards and a partner who's willing to learn (as in, say, a POW camp), you can still play a game that's passably similar to Magic.

Note: If you don't like my rules, by all means make up your own. My strongest hope is that this page inspires some tinkering!

What's Been Left Out?

Obviously, in a game environment this much smaller than MTG, lots has been omitted. Here's the short list of omissions:

I'm sure there are lots of other important omissions that I just can't think of now. Suffice it to say, this game is, at best, a subset of MTG.

The Colors of Magic

Magic has five colors, and each color has its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as two other colors that are 'friendly' to it, and two that are its mortal enemies. Because playing cards only come in four suits, I've come up with a modified friends/enemies scheme that looks like this:


Suits that are adjacent horizontally or vertically are friendly; those that are diagonal are enemies.

The intersting thing about this scheme is that it makes any two suits of the same color enemies, and both suits of the opposite color friends, so it's easy to remember. The color names in the boxes are the more-or-less equivalent MTG colors.

The creature names are my favorites in each MTG color; if you like others, feel free to substitute your own.

Note: The 'element' names—Fire, Air, Earth, and Water—are just for fun, and as a possible rationale for the friendly/inimical nature of the suit relationships.
Note: If you use a special five-suited deck, you can create rules that faithfully emulate the Magic color alignments. But the whole idea is to be able to pick up a deck of cards and play anywhere, so I don't see the advantage. If you have to use special cards, why not just play MtG?


Since there isn't really any way to build a deck and still have enough cards left over to play with, I think the best alternative is a form of Rochester draft for creating starting hands. Here's how it works:

  1. Each player is dealt five cards. This is his starting 'pack'.
  2. Each player takes one card from his starting pack and passes the rest to his opponent.
  3. This process is repeated until each player has drafted five cards.
  4. Repeat with another pack of five apiece.
  5. Each player now has ten cards.
  6. Each player discards three cards to create his best opening hand of seven.
  7. Discarded cards form a nucleus for the graveyard.
  8. One player then plays first, skipping his draw.
  9. Second player to play gets a draw phase.
Note: Drafting with two players means you know all but one of the cards your opponent has chosen, and you know which three he has discarded. No room for surprises. It might be better for each player to be dealt 10 cards, trade with each other until one says "I'm done", then discard down to seven. Or you could deal out 15 cards each (or so), create a hand of 7 cards, then shuffle the discards back into the deck. If you do this, turn up the top card to start the graveyard.

Face Cards are Creatures

The game of Magic has evolved well beyond its origin as a duel between two mages summoning creatures. But that's the format that best fits the game's adaptation to the extremely limited environment of a deck of playing cards. So Jacks, Queens, and Kings are your creatures. Just to continue the theme (and since they're generally ranked higher than Kings) Aces are also creatures. By adding the two Jokers to the deck, we can create two more creatures for a total of 18 in a deck of 54, which seems to make it relatively easy to get them into your hand.

Creatures in MTG need a power, toughness, and casting cost. In this game it's easy, because they're all equal (except for the Jokers). Here's the scheme:

CreatureCasting CostPowerToughness

Don't worry—there are modifiers that make this more interesting.

Jokers are a special case. One Joker usually has a larger picture than the other; we'll call this the 'Large Joker' while the other is the 'Small Joker'. (If your Jokers aren't different, just mark them with a pen.) The Large Joker is essentially a Keldon Warlord: his power and toughness are equal to the total of all the creatures you have in play, including himself. So if you have a Joker and 3 other creatures in play, the Joker is a 4/4 creature. The Small Joker is a Shapeshifter. It casts for 5, so you have 5 assignable 'points' to work with. At the beginning of each upkeep phase, you decide how many points go to power, and you get 6-N points left for toughness. (Of course, you have one additional base point of power at all times.) So you can make it a 5/1, 4/2, 3/3, 2/4, 1/5, or 0/6 creature on any given turn. (Note that our Shapeshifter is one point weaker than the MTG Shapeshifter, but it also casts for one less mana.)

Note: The 'Keldon' is not red, nor is the Shapeshifter an artifact creature. Neither term has any meaning in this game.

Special Abilities

It's impossible to work into this game all the various special abilities that occur in MTG, so I've chosen some of my favorites and tried to assign them in an order that makes at least a little sense, given the color reassignments. Each face card (except the Jokers) has a special ability, as does each suit.

JackFirst Strike
DiamondsNo Tap

These abilities work generally as they do in MTG. The Queen's 'Protection' works only against her opposing suit; i.e., the Queen of Spades has 'Protection from Clubs'. The shaded abilities all have costs, as they do in Magic, and these costs must be paid in self-colored mana. For example, Regeneration will cost a Spade one Spade mana. (Regeneration also taps the creature being regenerated, just as in MTG.) The pump effects give +1 pt. for each self-type mana tapped. For example, to pump a Club's toughness by two points, you'd have to pay two Clubs mana.

Alternate Rule: It's also fun to give the Kings a 'Lord' attribute instead of trample. This gives them the ability 'All (name) get +1/+1 and (land)walk'. The (name) is the name of the creatures in that suit, and the (land) is their home land type. For example, the King of Spades would become the 'Zombie Lord' and all the other Zombies (all Spade creatures) would get +1/+1 and Spadewalk. I didn't make this the default because it makes them superpowerful in this environment, but hey, it's just a game.

This scheme gives each creature two special abilities. For example, the Ace of Clubs has Flyng and pumpable toughness.

There are also a few easily identifiable face card characteristics that can be exploited to grant special abilities to some cards:

Ace of SpadesSpectre

The two one-eyed Jacks and the one-eyed King serve as Timmys (Tap to cause 1 point damage to target creature or opponent). The Suicide King (King of Hearts) has the stoning ability like a Cockatrice (Whenever any creature blocks -this- it is destroyed at end of combat.) The Ace of Spades has the Hypnotic Specter's power (Causes your opponent to discard a card whenever it damages him in combat).

These special cards end up with three abilities, making them highly desirable.

Number Cards Are Lands

By now, I'm sure you're wondering 'What about mana?' Okay, here it is: number cards are lands. You can lay down one per turn, and tap each for one mana of that suit. For example, you could play a two of diamonds, tap it for one 'diamond' mana, and put a Jack of Diamonds into play.

Every spell cost has to include one mana of its own type. Any cost over and above the first is generic. Aces, for example, cost four to cast. The Ace of Spades would have to be cast using at least one 'spade' mana point. The rest could be anything. This rule holds for all spells except Jokers. Since they are 'colorless', you cast them for five generic mana.

Number Cards Aren't Lands

But now we've used up all the cards, and all we have are creatures and lands. Now what? Easy. We simply let you play number cards as spells, too—your choice. Any number card can be played as a spell instead of as a land. The cost, type of spell, and effect is spelled out in the following table:

Spell Type Cards Characteristic Target Cost
Move Cards Sorcery 2-10 Pips Zones 1
Counterspell Instant 2,3,5,7 Primes Enemy 2
Balance Sorcery 4,8,9 Powers Friendly Factor
Enchant Creature Enchantment 2-10 Name Friends 1O,2E
Heal Instant 2-10 Center Self 1
Burn Instant 2-10 Columns Enemy 1+(X-1)

Obviously, we're going to have to explain some terminology here.

Move Cards (Sorcery)

Rather than specify different spells that let you draw, make your opponent discard, etc., we've grouped them all into a category called 'Move Cards'. Any number card can be played as a move cards spell for a cost of one mana of that card's type. For example, you could play the Nine of Spades as a move cards spell by tapping a Spade 'land' for one mana. The particular effect of a move cards spell is determined by looking at the pips (spots) on the card. How many are on one end of the card, and how many are on the other? Take a look at the Nine of Spades. There are five pips pointing up and four pointing down.

This is easy to see in three of the four suits, but you can't really see this relationship in diamonds because diamonds point both ways. The nine of diamonds looks symmetrical. But think about what would happen if you tried to divide the spots into two groups as equally as you could. You'd still have to create one group of five and one of four, so the relationship stands.

But now you're thinking, 'Hey! What about even cards?' You're right. Look at the four of clubs. Yep. Totally symmetrical. No problem. They're equal. So what? There is a bit of a problem with diamonds again, though. Look at the six of hearts and the six of diamonds. It's obvious that for the six of hearts the values are 4 and 2, but how about the six of diamonds? The values should be the same, but its not immediately clear. So you just have to remember somehow. Here's what I've found useful: imagine cutting the card in half, straight across the middle without cutting through any spots. To do so, you'd have to cut one side or the other of the two central spots, leaving 4 on one side and 2 on the other. This visual image works every time. Thankfully it's easier to see in the three other suits.

So what difference does all this make? Now we have to talk about 'Zones'.


The folks over at Wizards of the Coast now define different 'Zones' in the playfield. Here's a chart of the five Zones in this version, with a number assigned to each:

Zone Number
Play 1
Hand 2
Out of Game 3
Graveyard 4
Library 5

The number of pips on each end of a card played as a 'move cards' spell determines which 'Zones' are affected. For example, a Six has 4 pips in one group and 2 in the other, so it moves cards between Zone 4, the Graveyard, and Zone 2, a Hand. You could use it to either move a card from your opponent's hand to the graveyard (in other words, discard), or from the graveyard to your hand. Some number cards are more useful in this respect than others. For example, a Nine affects Zones 4 and 5, the graveyard and the library, not a very interesting combination when you share them in common.

Counterspell (Instant)

Prime number (2,3,5,7) cards can be used as Counterspells against spells of the opposing color for a cost of 2 mana (remember, one has to be in the same suit as the spell you're casting). For example, you could cast a two of diamonds as a Counterspell when your opponent summons a Jack of Hearts.

Note: Why primes? Because I'm making up the rules, that's why! :) Seriously, I had to have a way to limit the number of Counterspells to something reasonable. By making only primes eligible, and by limiting Counterspells to the opposing suit, I think it works.

Balance (Sorcery)

Powers (4,8,9—each is an even power of 2 or 3) can be cast as Balance cards among permanents of friendly colors. For example, you could cast the four of spades as a Balance, and you and your opponent would balance the total number of red cards in play, each removing the appropriate red lands and creatures to achieve this. The number of cards in hand is also balanced. This mechanic is only half as powerful as the MTG balance, but with a potential for twelve balance cards in the game, it's more... uh, balanced in this environment. Cost of the spell is equal to the factor of the card, which is two mana for 4 and 8, or 3 for 9.

Enchant Creature (Enchantment)

Any number card can be played as a creature enchantment on a creature of a friendly color whose name has the same number of letters in it as the spelled-out number of the card. Here's a table:


For example, the seven of diamonds could be played on Queen of Spades or Clubs. The effect is to add the attribute of that suit to the creature. In this example, the creature would get 'Does not tap to attack'. The cost is one point of mana for odd cards, and two points for even cards.

Heal (Instant)

Any card (2-10) may be played as a 'Heal' spell (though the four and six won't have any healing effect). A healing spell heals damage equal to the number of pips in the center column of the card. The target must be a card of the same suit, or the player himself. For example, the two of diamaonds could target the Jack of diamonds to heal two points of damage. Casting cost is always one.

Burn (Instant)

Any card (2-10) may be played as a 'Burn' spell. Legal targets are the opposing color and your opponent. Burn spells do damage equal to the number of columns of pips on the card. The casting cost is one self mana plus (X-1) generic, where X is the number of columns of pips.


Lots of fine points will come up while you're playing this game. Work them out equitably as you encounter them. I'm sure lots of these rules are broken. For example, I'm worried about the number of potential balance cards. There are lots of reasons not to play a number card as a balance, and I think that will mitigate things, but playing 100 games might reveal a fundamental flaw.

Alternate Rule: If you have no cards in your hand, you may play one land card per turn as though it were a card in your hand. (Obviously, this has to happen after you've played your draw card for the turn.) This rule really helps liven up the late game.

That's it! Have fun.

Cheat Sheet

Here's a pocket-size (dependant, of course, on how your print properties are set in your Web browser) cheat sheet you can print, clip, laminate, and keep in your billfold. It doesn't cover all the rules, but should be a good enough crib to get you out of most situations.

EnchCr Targets
4,5,9 J,K



Play 1
Hand 2
Out/Game 3
Grave 4
Library 5
J1st Strke
DNo Tap
LgJoker=Keldon */* | SmJoker=Shifter 5: */6-*


The rules to DuelTM are licensed under Creative Commons License and are copyright © 1996-2005 by Mark R. Brown.

Magic: the Gathering, © and a trademark of Wizards of the Coast, Inc.