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5 great Magic: The Gathering formats you’ve never played

Allure of the Unknown.
Magic: The Gathering Eyeblight Assassin card artwork
Image: Dan Scott/Wizards of the Coast

Magic: The Gathering is a game that's bristling with different ways to play it. There are a lot of formats, and each of them caters to different people and brings something unlike anything else you’ve played in MTG.

Along with all of the popular MTG formats you've probably heard of like Standard, Commander or even Pauper, there are also a lot of variants that aren't as well-known. Just because these alternative formats aren't as popular doesn't mean they're not as fun, however.

Best alternative MTG formats

Most of these formats are going to be ones you may have heard of, but they all deserve a bit more love. They're fun because of the different restrictions and play styles that they allow - and the chances are that there are people you know who already play them in secret anyway.

Feast your eyes on each of these and walk away with some new ideas for your playgroup. The world of Magic: The Gathering is so much more than just what's officially supported, and the community has been consistently imaginative with how we can use the tools we have to do something fresh.


1. Tiny Leaders

Small Commander

Tiny Leaders borrows almost all of Commander's rules, but with smaller decks, cheaper cards and fewer life points for a faster, simpler experience. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Tiny Leaders is what you get when people want to play Commander, but have issues with the casting cost of most cards. As in Commander, you choose a general for your deck and then build a deck based on the colours they contain. Unlike Commander, however, you only need to have a total of 50 cards for your deck, and every card has to have a mana value of three or less.

There's no commander damage here either, and while you start with 40 life in Commander, you'll start with 25 in Tiny Leaders. As is often the case with restrictions like this, despite the more limited options, you'll still find plenty of powerful things to mess around with in the format, and the added restrictions and smaller card count actually make it a pretty good entry point into the world of Commander-esque formats.


2. Canadian Highlander

What if Commander had more rules?

Magic: The Gathering Lurrus of the Dream Den artwork
Canadian Highlander's card list is almost identical to Vintage; Lurrus of the Dream-Den is one exception that's legal to use in the alternative format. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Canadian Highlander is a bit like posh Commander. It shares most of its banned list with Vintage, and has the same basic rules and gameplay as normal Commander. The only main difference here is that there's a points list, because you can only have a maximum of ten points in your deck.

The aim of the points list is to limit certain strategies and keep things fairer, but without outright banning cards and therefore trashing specific combos and whatnot completely. This results in a version of Commander that can actually feel fairer at times, and the added restrictions add in a nice layer of metagame when you're building your deck.


3. Assassin

An excellent time for a big group

Assassin is an ideal MTG variant for bigger groups. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Speaking of metagames, Assassin is a great way to spice up things in your bedroom (or wherever you play MTG with big groups of people). You can play Assassin using whichever kind of decks you like, but the key thing here is that it is a very multiplayer format.

Every player in the game becomes an Assassin and has to try and take out a specific opponent to win the game. You can assign this using slips of paper with player's names on, pairs of basic lands or whatever works for you, but the key thing here is to try and amass as many points as possible. Each kill of a target is worth one point, and if you defeat someone, you get their target as your new target. You'll also get a point for being the last player. If someone gets given their own name, they're a rogue assassin and can target whoever they like. This is a blast to play, and the more players you have, the more chaotic it can become.


4. Peasant

Big Pauper

With decks limited to common and uncommon cards, Peasant is a budget-friendly MTG variant. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Pauper is a fun format where you can only use common cards in your deck. Other than that, it follows all of the normal rules you'd find in any other constructed format such as Modern or Legacy. The cards you can choose have to have been common at some point - which means even if it used to be uncommon but was printed as common once, you can use it. Peasant is all of these things as well, but you can have up to five uncommon cards in your deck too.

This doesn't seem like a big change at all, but it adds a lot of extra cards to the format. This makes for a really fun way to use some of the piles of cards that presumably litter your home and stop you from entering certain rooms. Put those all in a deck and you'll have a much better time of things. It's also a lot cheaper than many other MTG formats due to the rarity restrictions, which makes it a lot more accessible for players who aren't flush with cash.


5. Precon Leagues

It's an investment

All you need to start a precon league is one of the ready-to-play Commander decks released for the latest Magic: The Gathering set. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Our final pick is a bit different to the other formats on this list. Technically speaking, you're just going to be playing Commander - but the way you play it and the rules in-between games are what makes this one really special.

Every player in the group (ideally four), will pick up a different Commander precon - the ready-to-play decks released by Wizards for the format. For your first game, you'll just play the decks as-is and keep track of the placements; first place gets four points, second gets three, third gets two and fourth gets one.

After that, you take the most expensive deck - based on the cards within it, according to whichever price site you like (MTGGoldfish is good for this) - then allow every deck to change five cards, with that price as the maximum. From that point on, every match will up the budget by whatever amount you choose, and allow for another five cards to be changed. You can continue the league for as long as you want to, but it's generally worth doing it for at least a month because it allows a lot of entertaining changes to be made.

You can then add in bonus challenges and points rewards based on things like winning with the cheapest deck, killing everyone in the same turn or being the only player to accidentally kill themselves. The thing that makes this format really fun though, is that you have to use one of the legendary creatures from within the precon deck. Otherwise you'll just build up a different commander, and that kind of misses the point.


Jason Coles avatar

Jason Coles

Contributor

Jason spends a lot of time shuffling, sleeving up cards and playing decks that are bad. It's for this reason that he loves card games, even if they don't always love him. His poison of choice is Magic: The Gathering, but he'll play anything really, as it doesn't pay to be picky.

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