One of the greatest strengths Magic: the Gathering lauds over the other TCGs is the customization it offers to players. Typically, most TCGs only have a few ways to play the game outside of a casual setting. MTG, however, has countless different formats which offer unique and interesting experiences to players.
While the myriad formats available in MTG are undoubtedly a major strength, they do present a rather large problem. Namely, for new players, all the formats can be rather hard to digest and pick between. Thankfully, if you’re struggling with this very problem, we’re here to help.
Throughout this article, we’ll be running through the pros and cons of MTG’s most popular and interesting formats. With simple instructions and an overlook of the format, this will hopefully help you find the perfect format for you! So, without any further ado, let’s jump right into the list! After a brief caveat first…
As a quick note before we start; throughout this article, we’ll be presuming you know the basic rules of two-player MTG games. Subsequently, we’ll also be going over the major rule changes for formats that don’t follow the typical rules seen in Standard.
On paper, Commander is currently believed to be the most popular MTG format to play. Somewhat remarkably, however, the Commander format also has a lot of stark differences compared to other MTG formats. Boasting a casual focus, unique deck construction rules, and a diverse metagame, Commander is definitely unique.
Through these differences, Commander players typically build their decks around fun, rather than pure function. This mindset is often bolstered by the existence of Rule Zero, which allows players to implement their own casual rules. Prioritizing the game experience over trying to win, Commander is undeniably a unique format.
Beyond just being unique, Commander is also one of the most approachable formats in MTG. This is partly thanks to the format’s sheer popularity, which makes finding games and new-player-friendly tables a breeze. Alongside this, Preconstructed Commander decks make it incredibly easy for anyone to just pick up a deck and play with friends.
How Commander Differs From the Standard Ruleset
While Commander undoubtedly has a lot of strengths, as we mentioned, it is a unique format. So much so, in fact, that if you’re looking to get into it, you may need a rundown of its rules and eccentricities. Thankfully, if this is you, we’re here to help, as below is a refresher on Commander’s rules and differences compared to 60-card constructed formats.
In terms of rules, Commander has a multitude of unique factors. Firstly, players start at 40 life instead of the traditional 20 – which creates longer games allowing players to set up wacky strategies. Secondly, Commander is a four-player game that introduces a lot of table politics and changes the effectiveness of many strong cards in competitive formats.
The crowning point in Commander’s uniqueness is the rules around deck construction. Commander decks must have exactly 100 cards between the maindeck and the Commander(s) being played. Players cannot have more than one copy of each card in their deck, with the exception of Basic Lands. Each Commander deck must be helmed by a Commander which sits in your Command Zone. This card can be cast from the Command Zone at any legal time for its mana value (you cannot cast a creature spell without Flash as though it did, for example, unless something else allows you to do that).
Whenever that card changes zones (changing control does not count), players have the choice to return the Commander to the Command Zone instead. They can then recast their Commander, but doing so will cost an additional two mana for each time it has been returned to the Command Zone this way. The rules have been a tad bit simplified in this explanation.
Finally, in an effort to support aggressive strategies, even though players have 40 life, any player who takes 21 combat damage from a single Commander will lose the game on the spot. Also, the color identity of each card in your deck must stay within the color identity of your Commander. If you have a mono-white Commander, for example, you cannot include Blue, Black, Red or Green cards in your deck. There is also a competitive version of Commander called cEDH is that is an area you are interested in exploring.
- Great format to play with a friend group.
- Can be relatively cheap to start playing.
- Casual play can allow players to be quite creative.
- Play experience is very customizable with the right group.
- Slower games allow for some crazy scenarios and high exploration.
- New cards are constantly being released for the format, allowing for an endless amount of possibilities.
- Easiest format to get a group together and play.
- Everything outside of Commander’s ban list (and cards illegal for sanctioned play) are legal in Commander, giving it a massive card pool.
- Game states can be very difficult to keep up with and understand, even for experienced players.
- High-powered Commander is very expensive.
- Some players do not like the social politic aspect of Commander.
- Absence of a Rule Zero conversation can create very lopsided play experiences.
- Games can be very long.
- New cards are constantly being released for the format, making it difficult to keep up.
Read More: The Best MTG Commander Decks for Casual Play
Should you want to try Commander in a more competitive environment, and with only two players, Dual Commander might be for you. With its own separate banlist that gets rid of high-variance cards that are a bigger issue in two-player formats like Sol Ring, Dual Commander is a rather unique experience compared to the main format. Like Commander, Dual Commander has its own separate council that overlooks the health of the format. They actively make changes to ensure that the format remains healthy.
Considered the flagship format of Magic’s two-player offerings, Standard uses the newest cards added to MTG. As Magic’s only rotating format, the legal pool of Standard cards has been changing yearly for quite some time, only allowing for the last two years’ worth of sets to be legal, at least until recently.
In an effort to rejuvenate interest in Standard, Wizards has recently changed rotation once again. Now, the legal card pool has been extended to a three-year rotation. This is intended to give the format’s cards more longevity, making investing in them more compelling for players. While it was skipped in 2023, rotation typically happens with the Premier/Standard set that releases in the Fall. For 2024, this set will be Bloomburrow.
While the recent change to rotation is designed to rejuvenate interest in Standard on paper, currently, the format is predominantly played digitally. If you’re looking to play Standard, booting up MTG Arena is definitely your best bet currently, as the format is thriving there. On paper, you sadly may struggle to find a game at your Local Game Store.
Thankfully, Wizards of the Coast is trying to fix the lack of Standard events in the coming months. Whether or not this will be a success, however, remains to be seen. Even with support, Standard is hardly the most compelling format right now, as the metagame is best described as “midrange soup”. Controlled by a few dominant strategies, there’s not much variety in the format at the moment.
- Very easy access with MTG Arena.
- Get to play with the game’s newest cards.
- Rewards deep decision-making.
- Cheaper than a majority of other formats to buy-in.
- Lots of support from Wizards of the Coast.
- While decision making can be complicated, board states are somewhat easy to understand.
- If you do not like Midrange strategies, you may be out of luck.
- All of the best decks play a lot of the same cards.
- Not very popular in paper.
- Because Standard is a rotating format, it ultimately is the most expensive format in all of MTG over more extended periods of time since you will eventually need to build a new deck.
Wizards of the Coast are aware of the weaker points of Standard at the moment and are trying to change the direction that the format is heading. As a result, Standard may be in for a sort of Renaissance in the coming months.
Read More: Best MTG Arena Decks
Pioneer is the two-player non-rotating format with the smallest card pool officially supported by Wizards of the Coast. All core sets released after Return to Ravnica are fair game in this format. Pioneer is not currently available on MTG Arena, but they instead have the Explorer format, which aspires to become Pioneer eventually. Unfortunately, there are some major disparities between the two formats at the moment, which distance them from one another.
With the exception of Pauper (and potentially Commander), none of MTG’s formats are really budget-friendly. That said, Pioneer is much cheaper than many of the other non-rotating formats the game has to offer, but a smaller card pool does mean that newer cards will have a stronger impact on the format. This creates change, which is good, but it also means that new strategies may cause more spending.
Otherwise, players are currently pretty split on the play experience that the format. Many powerful strategies support different archetypes (Aggro, Combo, Control, and Midrange), but gameplay can be surprisingly uninteractive. This means that decision-making has a smaller impact as long as you know all of the break points in your strategy.
For the record, Pioneer and Commander are my personal formats of choice, but players who want decision-making to have a strong, fairly consistent impact on your game at the format’s top levels may be frustrated with the current state of Pioneer. There will be a higher number of games you lose no matter what in comparison to many other formats.
- Cheaper buy-in than older formats (best decks still cost hundreds of dollars, which is better than older formats).
- A lot of different competitive choices to play.
- Some strategies aren’t too hard to learn.
- Not too difficult to find people to play with.
- Uninteractive gameplay means you will be losing (and winning) a lot of games regardless of what you do.
- Play/draw disparity is really bad.
- Near impossible to have a good matchup against all the best decks.
- Not currently available in its full form on MTG Arena.
On Paper, Modern is currently believed to be the most popular format outside of Commander. Allowing most cards to be used post-Eighth Edition, this non-rotating format has a huge card pool to brew and build within. That being said, however, due to the high power level, the format is incredibly competitive and worryingly expensive.
With decks costing upwards of $1500, the format certainly isn’t easy to get into. Thankfully, however, this investment is usually rather sound, as rotation rarely happens. Outside of direct-to-Modern sets like Modern Horizons, the format remains compellingly consistent, with minimal changes in the meta.
While the lack of rotation may sound rather dull, it allows the competitive nature of the format to excel. Valuing impactful decision-making and intricate deck construction, you’ll have to bring your A-game to each Modern match. Thankfully, to compliment the competitive nature, Modern also has a great deal of variety, even supporting niche breakout decks.
Ultimately, while Modern does have a great many strengths, it does come with some controversy too. This is largely thanks to the aforementioned direct-to-Modern sets, which effectively implement a forced rotation. Diving up prices and frustrating players en masse, unfortunately, the next direct-to-Modern set has already been announced. Hopefully, it won’t be as bad as before, but we won’t know for sure until it releases.
- Format is very popular. Not too hard to find someone to play with.
- Meta is very diverse. There’s a powerful strategy for almost anyone’s playstyle.
- Lots of room for innovation.
- Large card pool allows you to use many of your old cards.
- Gameplay rewards positive decision-making.
- Format is very expensive.
- Looming chance of artificial rotation means there is potential for the format to be expensive to keep up with.
- Requirement to play many of the same cards can make the format feel repetitive to some.
- Some card interactions are unintuitive and need to be learned.
- Not the easiest format to pick up and learn.
Legacy allows players to play any MTG card legal for sanctioned play in a two-player environment. This makes the gameplay incredibly fast, meaning turn-one kills are not only realistic, but somewhat common. Many MTG players who have been around for a long time absolutely adore the format. The introduction of cards like Orcish Bowmasters and the recently unbanned Mind’s Desire also has helped shake up the format, keeping invested players intrigued.
The main issue for many is that playing it in paper has a very high buy-in, thanks to the Reserved List. Once you get your Legacy staples, keeping up with the format is rather inexpensive, but getting to that point for many who have not started is a very expensive task. There is a ban list for this format, which differentiates it a bit from Vintage.
- Gameplay is fast-paced and rewards decision making.
- There is a healthy variety of decks to play.
- Once you acquire the expensive cards, format is cheap to keep up with.
- If you want to play Legacy, but don’t want to pay ridiculous prices for the cards, Magic Online is an option to consider.
- Getting into Legacy is an absurdly expensive task.
- Learning the format can be difficult, especially when many have been playing it for decades.
- If you do not like Force of Will, stay far away from this format.
- You will occasionally lose games on the first turn and you cannot do anything about it.
Read More: Magic: The Gathering 2024 Release Calendar
Limited is a drastically different experience from any other MTG format. Instead of bringing preconstructed decks to a table to play, you will instead be opening new Draft Booster packs! Who doesn’t love opening Magic packs!?
Using the contents of these packs, you will build a 40-card deck to do battle against your opponents. Don’t worry about Basic Lands, they are provided outside of the packs for you to include.
Limited formats have two popular variants – Sealed and Draft. Commonly seen during the prerelease of a new set, Sealed requires players to open six packs of cards from the same set (with the exception of Chaos) and build a deck from the cards opened.
Draft is a bit different, only offering three packs. Instead of building with whatever you open, there is a ‘Draft’ phase which requires players to sit in a circle of (ideally) eight. You will pick one card from each pack before passing it to your left. Each pack requires you to change the direction you’re passing your cards. Pack one will be left, two right and three left again. Since there is this additional aspect to Draft, this makes it the most challenging format to master.
- Lowest barrier to entry of any format.
- New cards!
- No collection required, so easy to start playing.
- Player mastery matters a lot more than the cards you get.
- Very easy to find players to Draft with.
- Available on MTG Arena!
- This is the hardest format to play (lots of room to master).
- Quality of the Limited format varies between sets. There are sets with bad Limited formats and good ones.
- You need to keep buying cards to play (unless you make a Cube).
- Sealed is a lot more luck-based than Draft. Its easy to open a bad Sealed pool and have your chances squandered from the start.
Pauper is the cheapest MTG format that the game has to offer. Buying the best deck in the format won’t even cost you $100 for the most part, meaning the barrier to entry is the lowest of any competitive format (except for Draft). Unfortunately, this can also make some Pauper cards surprisingly difficult to find.
Unlike other formats, Pauper restricts the legal card pool by rarity instead of when a set was released. Any card that has ever been printed as a Common (and is not on the Pauper ban list) can be used in the Pauper format.
The downsides to Pauper is, according to many MTG players, the gameplay. Many consider Pauper to be an absolutely miserable play experience, thanks to just how powerful Burn is in the current format. It can also be pretty difficult to find a group to play Pauper with in-person. If you do not have a Pauper community in your area, you’re much better off logging on to MTGO and playing a league.
- Format is incredibly cheap.
- Gameplay is relatively straightforward(?).
- Low barrier-to-entry.
- In the words of many, play experience is currently the worst of every MTG format.
- Not a lot of support.
- Can be tough to find other players.
Read More: Top 11 Best MTG Artifact Cards
Vintage is a no-holds-barred format where every single sanctioned MTG card is legal. There are some cards that players can only play one of in their decks (which is atypical of other formats), but it is still, by far, the most powerful MTG format of them all. Unfortunately, not a lot of people play Vintage because of how insanely expensive it is. It’s not rare for a deck to cost more than a car.
- You can play every single card, including a Black Lotus!
- The format is incredibly powerful. You can do some absolutely ridiculous things that even Commander cannot pull off.
- Players may need to put a mortgage on their house to afford a Vintage deck.
- Cards are incredibly difficult to find.
- Most players who are active in Vintage have been playing since the beginning. It can be tough to catch up to them as a new player.
While it may get an awful lot of hate online, Alchemy is a surprisingly popular format in MTG. This is thanks to the way it is presented to new players on MTG Arena. Without knowing about the other alternatives available, Alchemy is an easy format to get into. Currently, this is more true than ever before thanks to the release of The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth.
First things first, Alchemy is a digital exclusive format that is only available on MTG Arena. Alongside being exclusive to this platform, the format also uses digital-only cards, such as Priest of Possibility. For better or worse, you currently can’t use these cards on paper unless you make them yourself for casual games.
If it wasn’t unique enough that it includes digital-exclusive cards, Alchemy also features semi-regular rebalancing. Through this often unannounced process, Wizards of the Coast sharks up the metagame and improves underrepresented tribes. Typically, these changes do not have a major effect on the meta, however, they’re nonetheless interesting. As an important note, changes that affect Alchemy also affect the Historic format.
As a final note, unlike Standard, Alchemy has remained on the two-year rotation. Thanks to this, the format recently underwent a massive change following the release of Wilds of Eldraine. While Alchemy now feels more like its own format, this has come with its own problems as the meta is currently being dominated by a few powerful decks.
- Potentially has an incredibly diverse and competitive metagame.
- Includes plenty of unique and interesting digital-only mechanics.
- Features Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth Cards.
- Widely played online, making games easy to find.
- Receives additional cards alongside Standard set releases.
- No compensation for rebalances.
- Rebalancing may potentially ruin your favorite deck.
- Currently connected to the Historic format, making rebalancing difficult.
- Digital exclusive cards and mechanics aren’t to everyone’s tastes.
- Only available on MTG Arena.
Draft is one of the cornerstone formats to Magic. Almost every MTG set that releases has a Draft format associated with it (Commander deck-only sets and mini sets like March of the Machine: The Aftermath are the exception), and Draft has one of the most dedicated following of any MTG format.
Unlike the other MTG formats, Drafting does not require you to bring your own deck. Instead, you generally will purchase some Draft packs from your venue and play with the cards you open. After opening three packs and Drafting them accordingly, players build a 40-card deck with what they got and battle! The best Drafting experience involves Drafting among a group of eight people and playing until someone is undefeated – generally requiring three 50 minute rounds.
The barrier-to-entry for a normal Standard legal set Draft is the lowest of any format on this list, but you will always need to pay for product unless you build your own Cube for that specific Limited format. So, while Drafting a few times is the cheapest way you can possibly play Magic, they add up over time, and can eventually become the most expensive.
Because Draft requires both deckbuilding strategy and tight decision-making over much longer games, it is also considered to be the most difficult format in all of Magic. You can prebuild your deck to fight any sort of metagame you expect in a room. You can learn a Draft format and know what to try and play around in-game or what decks you should chase in the Drafting phase, but you ultimately have a different set of cards each time that has some level of chance involved.
- Very low Buy-in
- Don’t need your own cards
- Great way to build your collection
- Can feature very deep gameplay
- Most LGS have scheduled events
- Rewards dedication and strong fundamentals
- You always need to buy new cards
- The most difficult format in Magic
- You play with what you get; good or bad
- Can be difficult to arrange outside of scheduled settings
- If a Draft format happens to be subpar, you’re generally stuck with it for a few months
This Isn’t the End
These are many of the most popular formats that MTG has to offer, but it’s not everything. Other formats, such as Oathbreaker, Forgetful Fish, and Tiny Leaders, also exist, but are simply a lot less popular than the formats seen above. As time passes, we will add descriptions for more and more of these formats, but this, hopefully, gives a quick explanation of many of Magic: the Gathering’s most popular, and best, formats to try!
Read More: Top 14 MTG Best Pioneer Decks!