One of the biggest boons about Magic: the Gathering over other TCGs in the industry is the customization that the game offers its players. Many TCGs only have a few ways to play the game, whereas MTG has countless different formats that allow players to engage in the game differently. While this allows for each player to find a fantastic experience that fits their preferences accurately, it can also make picking a format rather daunting for a new player. The goal of this article will be to give a quick pros and cons list for each of MTG’s most popular formats, while providing simple introductions to the format and what general play feels like for them. Let’s get into it!
A quick note; this article will assume you know the basic rules in a two-player game of MTG. As such, we will go over rules changes for formats that do not follow the same ruleset of Standard but will not go over the core rules for the game.
Commander is widely considered the most popular MTG format to play. There are a lot of stark differences between this format and many of the others that lead to this, the biggest of which being that Commander, for the most part, is a casual format. This means that most players aren’t trying to build the most expensive competitive decks that they possibly can. In other words, unlike many formats, Commander, especially with the popularization of the Rule Zero concept, prioritizes game experience over trying to win the game.
How Commander Differs From the Standard Ruleset
The following section explains, on a surface level, how Commander differentiates from a game of Standard MTG. If you know this already, feel free to skip:
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 which introduces a lot of table politics and changes the effectiveness of many strong cards in competitive formats. Thoughtseize and [rooltips]Duress[/tooltips], for example, are quite bad in Commander because the player casting the Thoughtseize and the player getting targeted are both losing a card while the other two players don’t. This puts the player casting Thoughtseize at a disadvantage.
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.
- Very easy 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: Commander Masters MTG Release Date, Leaks, Spoilers & More
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. The legal card pool has been extended to three-year rotating periods to try and strengthen the format’s card pool. Rotation only happens once per year, regularly with the core set that releases at the end of summer/start of autumn. While that set was originally going to be the upcoming Wilds of Eldraine one, rotation has been delayed for a year. At the moment, all Standard-legal sets released after (including) Innistrad: Midnight Hunt are legal in the format.
Why was such a massive change just announced for the Standard format? Unfortunately, while incredibly popular on MTG Arena, Standard is not the most popular format for paper play. While there is a lot of opportunity to interact with your opponent and make decisions that will impact the game’s outcome, a lot of Standard’s best decks feel terribly same-y at the moment. You can read more about that here.
- 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.
- Play/Draw disparity is quite high in the current format – meaning whoever goes first has a significant advantage.
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 (May 2023)
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.
The Modern MTG format is widely considered the most popular format outside of Commander. This non-rotating format allows players to use any cards from sets that were initially Standard-legal (core sets) that released after Eighth Edition. Wizards of the Coast has also released some sets that begin their legality in Modern (also legal in Commander, Legacy, Vintage, Pauper where applicable), which gives the format quite a unique flavor. This includes the upcoming Lord of the Rings crossover, which is also legal in Commander.
Some games end up being blowouts, but Modern generally values gameplay with a lot of impactful decision-making. The format is also relatively healthy, offering strategies that appeal to every MTG player, so long as you don’t mind playing the core cards at the center of the format. Even past that point, with new hit archetypes appearing almost every week, there is a ton of room for innovation in the format.
That final point brings up the most controversial part about Modern; even though it’s a non-rotating format, Modern Horizons Two injected cards that were so powerful in the format that it, essentially, created an artificial rotation. This means that, if one wanted to keep winning games of Modern, they were forced to pick up many of the new Modern Horizons Two cards because of how much more powerful they were compared to the rest of the format. Unfortunately, the excess demand for these cards (they are also very good in Commander and older formats) also make them very expensive.
- 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 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.
- A bit combo-heavy, but 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.
Read More: Magic: The Gathering 2023 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.
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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!
- 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.
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 to many of Magic: the Gathering’s most popular, and best, formats to try!
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