Which Magic Format Should I Play?
Formats are a strange thing in TCGs. When card games in the 90s were just forming, there wasn’t really a concept of different types of play. Almost everything was Kitchen Table, and even at premiere events for Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Magic: The Gathering, you were usually either playing draft / limited, or… not that. Fast forward twenty years or so, and Magic has delineated play into a dozen formats across multiple platforms, while other TCGs on the market haven't. For Pokemon TCG, you’re either playing Standard or Expanded, with Legacy not being supported in any official capacity. Yu-Gi-Oh has a lot of formats, but only on technicality, as each ‘format’ is different iterations of a global ban and restricted list. The formats in Magic are designed to create unique play environments, and differences in format can change gamerules entirely.
For newer players, this can be confusing- especially if they come from another TCG environment. Each format has its own banlist, like in Yu-Gi-Oh, but each format ALSO has sets from a certain release period like Pokemon TCG. In addition, some formats like Commander now change the core rules by changing the life totals, mulligan rules, deck size, and introducing new zones. Now, with the advent of Arena, there are formats using cards that are only accessible in these digital formats. I want to break down the most accessible and popular formats in each means of play: Paper, Arena, and MTGO.
Paper: Standard, Pioneer, and Commander.
Paper is probably the easiest to start with, and with many LGS stabilizing after the 2020 pandemic, Paper Magic is finally accessible again. In addition, Wizards of the Coast is finally returning competitive Magic to game stores through the Pro Tour and Regional Qualifiers. If you’re interested in eventually making your way to the Pro Tour, then you’ll need to brush up on Standard: the premier competitive format for Magic. Standard sets the baseline for all other formats, being around since the transition out of Type-1 and Type-2. Standard is played with minimum 60 card decks, in 1-versus-1 matches with life totals beginning at 20. Standard is a rotating format, meaning that the sets that are legal will rotate out as new sets enter. Since the transition from block structure with Ixalan, the number of Standard sets has been in flux, but you check what is legal in Standard over at the mothership. I covered a current Standard deck two weeks ago, so if you’re interested in getting into casual or competitive you can start there. Due to the regular rotations, your decks will be in flux and you may find yourself having to purchase or trade for more cards to keep your decks competitive.
If you’re less interested in a rotating format, and would rather prefer an eternal format, look no further than Pioneer. Pioneer was announced back in October 2019, and despite having a queue on MTGO, the format struggled throughout the 2020 pandemic. Now with the return to Paper Magic, Pioneer has really flourished. Including all sets from Return to Ravnica onwards, Pioneer has created a dynamic playspace that is ironically more modern than the Modern format. A Pioneer deck will never rotate, only losing cards in the events of bans. This makes for a format with a more diverse and intricate metagame while keeping costs low. For players interested in jumping into Pioneer, a new set of Challenger decks have recently shown up on Amazon. Challenger decks are official Wizards precons designed to work out of the box in their format, to let you begin playing with powerful, competitive ready decks. Though, historically these decks have required upgrades and additional copies of impactful cards.
I’d be remiss not to discuss Commander here as well: 100-card Highlander, meaning you can only use one copy of each non-Basic Land card in your deck, Free-For-All against 2+ other opponents, and beginning with 40 life. The most popular format by far, Commander as a format has warped the way Wizards approaches represents, set design, and card balance. There’s a lot to be said about Commander, most of which is outside the scope of this article, but having a Commander-ready deck is always good. Commander is popular at high and low levels of competition, and most people who have recently gotten into Paper Magic have gotten in from their friends showing them Commander. There are a few competitive Commander events, such as Commanderfests, but the format is mostly social.
Arena: Explorer, Alchemy, and Historic.
The other main way that Magic has been earning new players is through MTG Arena, and Arena comes with its own formats. Cards enter the Arena ecosystem either through set releases, or through anthologies, Arena specific sets released to adjust the online formats. Due to the fact that many of the cards from Modern, Pioneer, or Legacy aren’t even programmed into the game, new formats have been created around what cards are implemented… as well as the few Arena only cards. We’ll get there.
Standard is alive and well in Arena, offering Best of 3 and Best of 1 flavors and a lively ladder to climb. But for non-rotating formats, you have two options: Historic, and Explorer. We’ll begin with Explorer, as there’s some… baggage with Historic. Explorer is Arena’s equivalent to Pioneer, and offers all cards from Ixalan forward. It’s designed to be true-to-paper, mirroring the Pioneer experience but with even more recent sets. The format is the most recent to be created, and is still in the formative stage of its meta-game. Most of your Arena collection is legal here, so if you’re wanting to get into a fresh new format you can also play in Paper, Explorer is your jam.
Historic / Alchemy
And sooner than I expected, I need to talk about Alchemy. Alchemy is a catch-all for cards exclusive to Magic: Arena. Digital-only cards, with no equivalence in Paper. The idea is to rebalance Standard cards, create a dynamic meta-game through buffs and nerfs, and to recreate the digital atmosphere of other online TCG’s like Hearthstone. Reception has been mixed, doubly so when the original non-rotating format of choice on Arena, Historic, was turned into the non-rotating Alchemy format. There’s an Alchemy format for Standard, and all of the Historic queues were turned into Alchemy Historic queues. This… was very mixed, especially since some sets were added to Arena explicitly for Historic though the Historic Anthologies. I’ve been exploring the format for awhile, but I’m not quite ready to discuss it yet. Either way, if you’re coming from other online card games, it may be worth exploring Alchemy and the unique ‘digital-only’ space it offers. There’s also Brawl and Historic brawl, 60 card equivalents to Commander that are only 1-versus-1, and unfortunately lack the ‘magic’ of the social EDH format.
MTGO: Modern, Pauper, Legacy, and Vintage.
Finally, there’s MTGO: the home for the older formats that rarely see a tabletop. Outside of Modern which is still enjoying some presence in Paper, most of the formats in MTGO are usually only played here: including Pauper, Legacy, and Vintage.
Modern was the primary eternal format for a very long time. From Mirrodin onwards, Modern was what Pioneer is now: a place to play the decks that rotated out of Standard, with powerful includes from older sets and the occasional newer include… that is until Modern Horizons. Modern has always enjoyed a power level above Standard, and while it never was as busted as formats like Legacy, EDH, or Vintage, Modern was respected as being powerful without being broken. Modern Masters, Modern Horizons, and Modern Horizons 2 are a set of “Master’s level products” that served the purpose of reprinting needed cards for the older format without printing them into Standard, thus maintaining the difference in powerlevel between the formats. Though, the Modern Horizons sets would go on to introduce new cards legal in Modern, and thoroughly warp the format around these new pushed staples. Modern is still fun, and despite direct card printing from Wizards, the format is relatively healthy. Entering the format is expensive, but there are budget decks available too that occasionally snag trophies in MTGO.
For the exact opposite in price, players can look to Pauper. Pauper is another format that changes the rules on deck construction: everything is like Standard, Modern, or Pioneer, but your deck may only include Common rarity cards. This means that the power level is much lower, and what passes for a late game threat is wildly different. Pauper enjoys many reprints, and good card availability keeping the price of the decks low. I’ve been enjoying a 5-dollar maximum deck on MTGO for the last few months. The format is non-rotating, and allows you to play commons from all throughout Magic’s history. This is a great place for newer players to learn more about older sets, and to begin learning to play on MTGO.
Legacy / Vintage
Legacy was created around the time of Modern, and allowed for all cards printed to be played. The truest eternal format, like Pauper, the only cards not allowed are those on the ban list. Legacy is home to wild combos and powerful decks, and enjoys access to current supplemental products as well. Less played than the other two previously mentioned formats due to price, Legacy decks are rarely seen in paper, and finding a Legacy game outside of MTGO is a hard ask. Meanwhile, the only people playing Vintage in paper are the players who were cracking packs of Alpha and Unlimited. All cards legal, minimum ban list, and card prices outside of anything reasonable. Legacy exists more as a high-roller’s club, with matches still firing on MTGO, but never anywhere else. Most players will find the Legacy cube drafts their only experience with this format.
So… what should you play? It mostly depends on where you play, and how long you’ve been playing, but I would say this: For new players, play Standard. For players who have a bit of a collection from the recent sets, play Pioneer or Explorer. For players that have been around awhile and don’t have a collection, try Pauper. If you do have a collection and have been around awhile, hop into Modern. And if you wanna just play Magic, almost everyone has an EDH deck ready to go!