Magic: The Gathering’s most popular formats explained
How to get started with Standard, Modern and more of the card game's biggest formats.
The different Magic: The Gathering formats are both numerous and a little confusing.
If you’ve only recently started learning how to play Magic: The Gathering and are still properly getting to grips with how to build a Magic: The Gathering deck for this magnificent trading card game, then you’re probably just using whichever MTG cards you think are cool. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, no matter what anyone else tells you. This is commonly referred to as ‘Kitchen Table Magic’, and it’s some of the most fun you can have with the game.
If, however, you’ve decided to step into the world of MTG organised play, then you’ll need to fully understand the differences between the most popular Magic: The Gathering formats. Lucky for you, that’s basically what this beginner’s guide is for, so you're in the right place. Read on to find out what you need to know about the MTG formats you should be playing.
What are the different Magic: The Gathering formats?
There are a lot of Magic: The Gathering formats. Like, a lot. There are, in fact, around 20 MTG formats spanning across the tabletop card game, the online versions and those specific to the physical TCG's digital counterpart Magic: The Gathering Arena. (As we found out, the first 10 hours of Magic: The Gathering Arena are a good way to learn the trading card game.)
A lot of these are merely different versions of other formats though, so we’re going to break it down to explain the ten most popular formats in MTG. These, in turn, are broken into different groups too.
Constructed decks have a minimum of 60 cards in the main deck and a maximum of 15 cards in the sideboard for matches that are best-of-three or beyond. You can move cards from your sideboard to your main deck in-between games to try and give yourself an advantage. All of these formats contain different sets and restrictions, but they all fit nicely into this particular box. Generally speaking, you can only ever have up to four copies of any named cards in Constructed, although some cards laugh in the face of this rule. You’ll also only ever be facing off against one opponent in a two-player duel unless you’re playing in a variation of one of these formats.
This format uses the most recent sets in MTG and is probably the one you’ll come into contact first if you start visiting your local game store for events such as Friday Night Magic. There are four new sets added each year, and every year when the autumn set releases the oldest four drop out - a process called rotation. As a result, it tends to be reasonably fast-moving when compared to other Magic: The Gathering formats.
Pioneer is the newest format on this list. It features every card from Return to Ravnica onwards and will continue to get bigger and bigger as a result. Due in part to its freshness, the list of banned cards in this format is likely to be very fluid for a few months. It’s a great way of getting some use out of the cards that rotate out of Standard too.
Cards from Core Set Eighth Edition and Mirrodin onwards - both released back in 2003 - are included in this format. It has a pretty sizeable list of banned cards, and every so often the entire landscape of decks shifts with the release of a new card. While buying a Modern deck can be a bit pricey, the advantage of doing so is that the deck is unlikely to ever stop being played. Well, assuming nothing gets banned.
Legacy gives you access to all of the cards from the entire history of Magic: The Gathering, aside from the list of banned cards. The cards banned on this list include many cards banned for power reasons in an attempt to make it more accessible to newer players. That being said, it’s still an incredibly expensive format.
This is probably the most expensive format around. It lets you play every card from MTG history but has a smaller banned list than Legacy. On top of that, instead of banning cards outright, cards tend to simply get restricted, which means that you can only have one of them instead of the usual four. It’s not a format you’re likely to play if you’ve just started playing but could be something to aim for if you decide you like the game enough.
Another format that can include any card ever printed, but with a far more unique twist. In Pauper, you can only use cards that have been printed at common rarity. You might think that this would hamper the power level of the decks in the format, but you’d be wrong. Despite how cheap decks in this format can be, it’s still possible to lose to an obnoxious combo long before you’ve cast your first creature.
While these formats can be played competitively, they tend to be more focused on having matches with your friends. Each of these two have you choosing a legendary creature card as your commander, and then building a deck using their colour identity. (So you'll want to read up on what the different Magic: The Gathering mana colours mean.) That means that if you have a commander who is red, you can only use red cards, whereas a commander with three colours gets access to all three of those colours. On top of that, you can have a maximum of one copy of any named card within them.
Possibly the most popular format in all of Magic: The Gathering, Commander (or EDH) has players build a deck with one commander at the helm and a deck consisting of 99 cards. The joy of this format is that the power level of the decks can vary wildly. It’s a fun format that generally features groups of up to four players duking it out and trying to keep each other in check.
Brawl is exactly like Commander, except you can only use cards that are in Standard, and you can only have 60 cards in total, instead of Commander’s 100. It’s a great way to use your Standard-legal cards in a different way and is another fun multiplayer format.
Both of these formats have you choosing from cards you’ve just opened to build a deck. They’re very popular as a result, because everyone is at the mercy of Lady Luck, instead of having the advantage of an expensive deck. You only need to have 40 cards in a Limited deck.
Drafting has a pod of eight (ideally) players each starting off with three packs of cards. You all open them at the same time, pick a card, then pass to your left until the packs are all gone. You then do the same with the second pack but pass right, then pass left again with the final pack. Your task is to pick the best possible cards to form a deck with. It’s fun not just because of the gameplay, but because you can actively try to figure out which cards your friends are picking, and then try and cut them off of that colour. It’s mean, but it’s fun.
In Sealed Deck, you open up six packs before building a deck out of them. Unlike a Booster Draft, you’re stuck with what you open, which can make this format a lot more luck-intensive than any other on this list. This tends to be how pre-releases are played as well and is an excellent way of boosting your collection if you’re just starting out.