A Beginner’s Guide to Magic: the Gathering Part II - Formats

Ryan Normandin
June 30, 2017

(Part I can be found here)

Welcome back! My name is Charlie, and in the two weeks since Part I, I not only crushed at GP Vegas (4-4, drop, baby, not a losing record!), but I won yet another FNM! It’s results like this that qualify me to dispense wisdom to the masses; as a near-pro, you can rest assured that my credibility and writing chops is inimpeachable.

One of the greatest things about Magic is that there are so many different ways to play the game. In this section, I’m going to take you through the major formats and what you can expect from each.


“The casual ‘format’ is a paradox; you can only play if you have friends, but you will quickly hemorrhage friends once you start playing.” -LSP

This isn’t quite a sanctioned, real format, but it’s how the majority of players experience the game. It’s commonly referred to as the “arms race” format, and maybe this anecdote from my younger, pre-near-pro, more innocent days will help to elucidate why.


September 1st, 2004

Reiver Demon

“I’ll tap my Llanowar Elves to search my deck for a Forest and put it onto the battlefield,” announced my ex-friend, Josh. My stomach sank, for I knew what was coming. “Then, I’ll tap seven lands and play Reiver Demon.” Josh smirked. “All your stuff dies.”

Hot, angry tears welled up in my eyes. I threw my cards onto the table and stormed out of his house, practically sprinting back home. I was so sick of losing to his demon. I only had blue and white cards, which meant Josh just dragged out the game until he cast his Demon, always winning a couple turns later. I needed to find a way to beat it… I would do anything…

My mom saw me come in. “Charlie, what’s wrong?”

I composed myself, wiping the tears from my eyes. Calm and cool, I stared her straight in the eyes. “Mom,” I said, “I need a ride.”

“To where?”


I didn’t break eye contact. My voice was steely and cold. She needed to know I was serious. “To Fun Times Together Comics and Games.”

That was the first time I stepped into a card shop, having heard that Josh didn’t open his Reiver Demon in a pack, but in fact purchased it from a store that sold individual cards. It was there that I first heard two words that would lead to the end of my friendship with Josh and the beginning of my rise to near-pro status: Ravager Affinity.

It was in the dark, moist basement of Fun Times Together Comics and Games that I understood that you could buy not just singles, but could get entire decklists built by professional players. The deck was expensive, but I had some random lands and artifacts that made mana that people wanted to trade me for. I happily obliged.

I’ll never forget that day when I crushed Josh seven games in a row. I’ll never forget the look on his face as he realized that his reign was finally over. I’ll never forget the jubilation I felt when Josh claimed to be “done with that stupid game,” and I found two ripped halves of a Reiver Demon in his bedroom trash. It was then that I knew that I had utterly destroyed Josh, and was ready for something more than casual Magic.

So yeah. Casual formats are where nobody really knows the rules and everyone is having a grand old time until someone starts spending more money on the game than the other players. After that, the spending escalates, the savage thirst for more expensive cardboard intensifying until the playgroup is torn asunder, never speaking again. Savor your casual days, kids: they were truly some of the most wonderful memories that I still cherish today.


“The Commander format is a paradox; you can only play if you have friends and money, but you will quickly hemorrhage friends and money once you start playing.”-LSP

sway of the stars

This is basically Casual+. Casual players go through what I just described above, eventually finding themselves playing more competitively. But once they are doing so, they quickly become disillusioned. They are forced to play against the same, streamlined, efficient winning machines over and over. Where’s the innovation? Where’s the fun?! Why is no one playing Mechanized Production or Inspiring Statuary in Standard?! Furious at the repeated suggestions that they “netdeck,” which is a disgusting, innovation-killing, dishonest method of deck construction, they turn toward Commander.

In Commander, you take all the things that made Casual fun (high variance, big, flashy spells, and the destruction of lifelong friendships) and take them to the extreme. Be sure to carve (at least) a good three hours out of your afternoon though; a single game can take a very long time, especially when arguments erupt. You’ll also have to find the “right” playgroup for the format, one that jives with your style. Some groups hate combo, some hate control, some hate ramp, some hate other people, and some really just hate Magic. Once you find the playgroup that hates all the same stuff that you do, you’re good to go!


“Do you like opening packs? Of course you do. We know you do. Just make sure to sniff long and hard when you do. That’ll help you to keep enjoying opening packs.” –WOTC

Limited is tricky, as it is actually two formats! “Sealed” is where you get six packs, open them, and build a deck, whereas “Draft” is where you sit around a table with seven friends in complete silence while aggressively bending and shuffling new cards. You then take a couple and build a deck. Be sure to sigh audibly if there’s a kid at the table slowing the rate at which the cardboard is rotating! Cardboard likes to go fast, and to not enable its desired speed is unacceptable.

Limited is one of the best formats, but keep in mind that it is sometimes skill-intensive, sometimes high-variance, but never both! Any games you win are because you are an incredible player, wrecking in this skill-intensive format. On the other hand, if a highly-skilled near-pro like yourself is losing, it must be because the Limited format is high-variance garbage, your pool was garbage, or the cards you were passed were garbage. That’s why Limited is so much fun: you get to either prove that you’re the best or that the format is terrible!


“If you love casting Turn 6 unbeatable Mindslavers, dealing 10,000 damage with cats literally flipping coins a reasonably well-balanced, diverse format, then you’ll love Standard!” -PVVDRDR

Look At Me

This is the most popular format, and the easiest to find sanctioned events to play in. As someone who has been playing Standard for the last year and a half, I am well-versed in its complexities.

First, always check to see which cards are legal in the format. It’s usually cards from around the last two years, but Wizards likes to change this frequently. Every six months or so, Wizards likes to fiddle with when cards rotate. For example, right before Battle for Zendikar (BFZ) block was going to be phased out, Wizards realized what a mistake this would be. BFZ was hugely popular with the playerbase, providing fun, interactive staples like Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. In response to what I can only imagine was huge player outcry, they decided to slow the rate of rotation so that players would all have the opportunity to lose to these format favorites.

The other reason to check on card legality is because if there’s one tool that WOTC likes to use, it’s the banhammer! You see, in an effort to keep Standard fresh, they like to print the cards without any competitive testing. They like to check to make sure that players will be able to throw together a couple of fun tribal decks, but that’s the only real test it needs to pass; the pros will figure out the rest. Check out this real (no really, it’s real) deck Future Future League (FFL) built for Kaladesh Standard:


Future Future DeckWizards of the CoastR&D Deathcap Cultivator Servant of the Conduit Ulvenwald Captive Verdurous Gearhulk Combustible Gearhulk Noxious Gearhulk Evolving Wilds Game Trail Cinder Glade Swamp Mountain Forest Madcap Experiment Galvanic Bombardment Skysovereign, Consul Flagship Arlinn Kord Chandra, Torch of Defiance


That’s right, it’s Madcap Experiment! And what better way to abuse the 4-mana sorcery than to maximize variance around it! There’s a chance you could hit Skysovereign, (and never be able to crew it), Standard staple Combustible Gearhulk, or one of the actually playable Gearhulks! Additionally, it must’ve taken a lot of testing for WOTC to realize that the sweet spot for Galvanic Bombardment, which literally synergizes with itself, was 2. Those are the kinds of numbers you can only come to after hundreds of hours of testing. Wizards really gets that there’s nothing that competitive players like more than maximizing variance! Scrolling through some of their other lists, you can see that they enjoy making nonintuitive choices, such as running Combustible Gearhulk in all their red decks, but only 2 copies of Torrential Gearhulk in their build of UR and 1 copy of Gideon, Ally of Zendikar in their build of Vehicles (I swear this is real). It’s tuned, competitive decks like this that help to build players’ confidence in WOTC; if they’re having fun with wacky Standard decks, surely we will as well!

But back on track: I was saying that WOTC loves the banhammer like my dad likes to remind me that I’m an unemployed 26-year-old who has thrown his savings away on pretty cardboard rectangles. Someday he’ll understand that it’s not the prettiest cards that I dump my savings into, but the most powerful ones. And yes, those are obviously the most expensive.

Anyways, because Magic players just love to netdeck, and Magic pros are just so dang brilliant, people occasionally are able to find clever, counterintuitive combinations of cards that can be oppressive. When this happens, WOTC has no choice but to ban. For example, when WOTC printed Felidar Guardian after they had done their usual rigorous testing of the set, it took a full minute or two for players to realize it formed an infinite, game-winning combo with Saheeli Rai. Because WOTC has such a good handle on the Standard format, they were able to respond with a similarly snappy decision only three months later, a day after first saying they weren’t going to do anything. You might be surprised to learn that bannings like this have taken place every couple of months for the last year, so make sure you know which cards are legal before building your deck!

Now that you’ve figured out which cards are legal, try my foolproof method for choosing a deck and winning in Standard:

  1. Identify the most busted card(s).
  2. Try to cram all of said cards into a single deck, and get them into play as quickly as possible.
  3. Once said cards have been banned, play a green midrange deck.

And that’s about all you need to know to crush at your next Standard FNM! (Did I mention that I’ve used this method to win no less than three Standard FNM’s over the last two months?)


“If you love dealing 18 to yourself and then 20 to your opponent, you’ll love Modern!” –DDB

Modern is a format in which older cards are legal to be played. This leads to all kinds of janky, unexpected interactions. For example, the top deck in Modern, called “How Close can I Get to Killing Myself?” is one in which your goal is to lower your life total to between 4-6; if you can do that, you’ll probably win. Other decks in Modern include “Cheating,” where you play three specific lands and then a seven-drop to win; “One Card Combo,” where you sacrifice all your lands to kill your opponent; “Look, Ma’, No Affinity!,” a deck revolving around all the best artifacts that don’t have Affinity for Artifacts; “Please Don’t Cast Rest in Peace,” a deck which wins if no one cast Rest in Peace or other graveyard interaction; “Solitaire,” a deck where you ignore what your opponent is doing and just try to win by casting twenty spells in one turn; “I Hate Magic and Want You to Hate it Too,” a deck revolving around not letting either player do anything until one doesn’t have cards left in their deck; and “Burn,” which… um… burns you. With burn spells.

As you can see, the appeal of Modern is that you can really play any archetype or strategy and have a decent shot at competing. Just keep in mind that while Standard kind of resembles Limited, and Limited kind of resembles Casual, Modern is a completely different beast. The rules and parameters of the format are completely different. You can win games by putting all your cards in your graveyard, dealing almost 20 damage to yourself, curving out at one or two, and, most shockingly of all, without playing creatures! So even though I said in my last article that life total is a great indicator of who is ahead when you’re playing normal Magic, that’s less true in Modern. In fact, a random bystander who has complete knowledge of Magic’s rules and has played Standard, Limited, or casually would be completely unable to tell you who is winning, or even what players are doing, when watching a match of Modern. That’s why Modern is so much fun!


“Legacy is the best format; it’s not dying, and anyone who says it’s dying is a liar and probably hasn’t played Legacy. Legacy GP’s are super well-attended, that’s proof! I would say more, but I have to leave now so I can get to the nearest Legacy event 300 miles from here.” –Tom, 42 years old, divorced, playing Magic for 25 years

Beware the Legacy format! The card pool is deeper still here, and the deeper you go, the more fanatical the players become. Casual players play Magic, well, casually. Standard players like the format, but they’re really just trying to get into Modern. Modern players have strong opinions on how good Modern is and how bad Standard is, and some are probably trying to get into Legacy as well. But there’s not even such a thing as a “Legacy player” – only a Legacy Supremacist. Legacy Supremacists are convinced that their format is the only one worth playing, and that all others are terrible. There’s a couple ways you can test whether a friend is a Legacy Supremacist:

  • Do they respond like a normal human being when you use the word “brainstorm” in a sentence? (Twitching, smiling wistfully, or launching into a long story about idiots who Brainstorm on Turn 1 are not normal responses.)
  • Do they shudder when you state that you really need a miracle to pull off a win?
  • Do they laugh when you cast Serum Visions, and then mutter something about Brainstorm under their breath?
  • Did they laugh at you when you complained about Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy being too good a planeswalker?
  • Do they have a tattoo of a Phyrexian symbol on their wrist?

If any three of these are true, you’re probably dealing with a Legacy Supremacist. Tread carefully; all conversations will eventually turn to their cult’s beliefs about the superiority of their format. They cannot be reasoned with, and they cannot be saved. If one of your loved ones has joined the cult of Legacy Supremacy, don’t suffer in silence; reach out to a Legacy Supremacy Survivors’ group in the area. You’re not alone in thinking that it’s just not worth the time, effort, energy, or money; you shouldn’t have to deal with the fanaticism of a loved one alone either.


“Some people spend their millions on cars. Some on houses. Others on gambling, hookers, or drugs. But me? I prefer the finer things. I prefer… cardboard.” –Bandy Ruehler

I’m gonna be honest here: you don’t need to worry about this format. Whereas the number of Legacy players are very small, very insecure, and very passionate about their dying thriving format, there are only, like, ten or eleven people that actually play Vintage. Nobody really knows the rules, and nobody really cares. Basically, if you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.

Tiny Leaders – “Lol.” –everybody who didn’t fall for it

Frontier “Lol. Here, have another Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy.”  –Hareruya, stuffing its pockets with cash

What a diverse and exciting set of formats! As you can see, regardless of what your budget or level of intensity is, there’s a format for you. I hope you appreciate the amount of wisdom I’ve just dispensed; if I can keep tricking people into paying me to write these, I’ll be sure to produce a Part III dealing with different types of tournaments! Until then, may you crush tournaments like my dad crushes my self-esteem!