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Formats in Magic

Magic is a game which has been on the market for almost 30 years now. Many people attribute its longevity to deep decision-making, complex board states, great community, or beautiful art. However, as far as I’m concerned one of Magic’s biggest strengths is its plurality of formats. The same way you can play poker in a lot of variants – Omaha, Texas Hold’em, Seven Card Stud – you can also enjoy Magic in plenty of ways. 

Because Magic has got over 20,000 unique cards to choose from, these formats limit which cards you can use in each, making the card pool smaller and hence easier to build in. The idea of formats makes the game much more appealing than it otherwise would be. Different players enjoy different aspects of games and also operate on different budgets – that’s why splitting the whole game into a few variants is a great move to keep various players engaged.

Additionally, a player who’s tired of the format they predominantly play can switch to another one and re-explore Magic even though it technically is the same game. Moreover, one can play a big number of formats and thus be fully enfranchised and absorbed by the game – which is understandably great from the creators’ perspective as such players would consume even more products and devote more time. From the player retention perspective, with Magic being an over 25-year-old-game, splitting it into formats is an outstanding move to make all the cards playable and desired regardless of whether they were released a month or a decade ago.

Through this process, furthermore, players who leave the game have a reason to come back as, more often than not, their cards are still worth something and can be played in some formats. From the business perspective, players who are fully enfranchised and have put money into their favourite format can always spend more money on the game by branching out to its different variants which makes the whole game an endless pit of potential player spending.

What distinguishes formats between each other are the prices, card availability, power level, speed, or just pure preference of gameplay. In today’s article I will break down all the formats Magic has to offer and show what makes them unique.

Constructed and Limited

The first major distinction between formats of Magic is whether they are Constructed or Limited formats.

Limited is a form of playing Magic where all the players participating in an event have to build their deck there and then. People tend to enjoy it, because it makes the experience different every time. In addition, there is a lot of skill not only in piloting your deck but also creating it on the fly. You cannot build your deck at home, in advance. What you can do is familiarise yourself with the card pool of cards you might potentially receive. It’s basically learning and studying.

Constructed, however, is a mirror image of what I’ve just described. You come to a given tournament with a fully prepared deck and even a deck list, during competitive events. You can build your deck however you wish to, but you need to conform to the restrictions and rules of a given format: the ban list, card pool etc. Most of them boil down to a certain banlist, 60 card maindeck, 15 card sideboard, specific card pool determined by the time of cards’ release.

It’s up for debate which of the two is better as a competitive sport, spectator’s show, or form of testing skill. Nevertheless, both are immensely enjoyed by people all over the world.


Limited can be divided into two most popular formats – Sealed and 8-person Draft. Let’s break both down. Bear in mind, in both formats Basic Lands are provided by the tournament organiser and they don’t have to be opened in the packs.

Sealed – all the players receive 6 Booster packs of a given set. They open the boosters up, creating a card pool of 90 cards. From the pool of 90 cards, players are meant to create decks consisting of at least 40 cards, including lands. In practice, it usually means that you need to weed out the best 23ish cards from the 90 and add Basic Lands already provided. This format is always used for Pre-release events – casual tournaments showcasing the set which is about to be released. In addition, MTG Arena Opens and Grand Prix Main Events have often featured Sealed. It’s believed to be the format with most power level limited-wise.

Draft – it’s a completely different animal. With draft, you receive not 6 but 3 booster packs. You open one of them up, choose one card you want from among them, put it into your hand and pass the other 14 cards to the player on your left. When everybody has done that, now you have a pack of 14 cards from which you choose one. We repeat the process until you run out of cards. You do the same process with the second pack, but you pass to the right, and then same for the third pack, but again you pass to the left. Usually, people draft in a circle to make it more feasible. Below I present a graphic depicting the process.

In the end, you will have access to 45 cards, contrary to Sealed’s 90. However, you’ve had much more impact on how the process has gone for everybody at the table. People try to read signals to determine who might be taking cards of which colour or archetype. There are mind games involved. In addition, people sometimes try to stay open and potentially change the deck idea half-way through a draft. It’s a very exciting experience. Some players even prefer drafting itself to playing with the decks afterwards!

One of the ways to utilise the format is Top8s. When we deal with a prestigious Limited tournament, the top8 will almost certainly be Draft – conveniently enough there are 8 players which is exactly the number you want for a pod.

Furthermore, Draft is used for arguably the most casual and fun way to play Magic – Cube

Cube is a collection of cards that somebody has built and is used to draft with. For instance, you can have ‘Mono Red Cube’ and you draft decks only with your favourite red cards. On Magic Online, there are Modern Cube, Legacy Cube, and Vintage Cube which pull in a ton of players.


Let’s discuss Constructed formats now. There are 7 main Constructed formats with their brief descriptions:

- Standard – uses the most recently released Magic sets; it is a rotating format so every year the pool of legal sets changes;

- Modern – cards from Eighth Edition (2003) through today are all legal;

- Legacy – all the cards printed in magic history are legal except for some specific banned Cards;

- Vintage – all the cards printed in magic history are legal except for some specific restricted cards;

- Commander – 99-card deck, consisting of singletons with 1 commander; believed to be the most popular casual format in Magic;

- Pauper – restricts cards to only their common rarity;

- Pioneer – nonrotating format featuring cards from Return to Ravnica (2012) and forward.

In each of the aforementioned formats there are cards which have been officially made illegal.

The above descriptions apply, but we have to exclude these banned cards.

This format has a relatively low barrier of entry per deck, price-wise. However, over time the costs accumulate, because with each rotation, and possibly each set, you need to buy or change the deck. With such a small card pool, one set can have a tremendous impact on the format’s landscape.  

Nowadays it’s played heavily on Arena, especially by the pros. In paper, its presence has declined due to Arena.

Modern - The maindeck consists of at least 60 cards and the sideboard of at most 15; you can use no more than 4 copies of a card except for basic lands.

The format’s start point is 2003 and Eighth Edition – this is when the modern card frame was introduced. It’s 18 years of Magic’s whole existence – almost 70% of all the cards released, time-wise.

Now it’s the most popular non-rotating competitive format. While the cost barrier of entry is relatively high, one deck can serve you a few years, with minor upgrades along the way. Modern is known for its diverse metagame where there are 40 playable decks and you wouldn’t be surprised if any of them won the next tournament.

While the format uses cards from normal Standard-legal sets, sometimes there are products which inject cards directly into the format, called Modern Horizons

Chances are this is the format that your friends play at your local game store. 

Legacy - The maindeck consists of at least 60 cards and the sideboard of at most 15; you can use no more than 4 copies of a card except for basic lands.

A non-rotating format whose card pool includes cards from all Magic's history. It does not mean you can play anything - there are some bans in place.

People like the format due to its power-level, complex decision-making, and brisk gameplay but the prices of cards are too much for most people’s wallets. It’s because a plethora of necessary cards are on the so-called Reserved List, which is a list of cards that will never be reprinted. It keeps the cost of cards very high and thus Legacy decks cost $3000 to even $7000.

The format features some of the most iconic Magic cards such as Brainstorm or Force of Will and it certainly pulls people in.

Vintage - The maindeck consists of at least 60 cards and the sideboard of at most 15; you can use no more than 4 copies of a card except for basic lands.

All the cards from Magic’s history are legal - all of them. However, some are restricted, meaning you can only play up to 1 copy of the card. While yes, you can play the famous Black Lotus or Ancestral Recall, you can only play 1 copy in your deck. Because Magic has had so many powerful spells, a lot of Vintage decks almost look like singletons. The cost is prohibitively high - $50,000 is an average price.

Commander - arguably the most popular casual constructed format. It’s actually a fan-made format which has caught on and now has official Wizards’s support.

The deck consists of 99 cards + a Legendary which is your ‘commander’. There is no sideboard and the format is multi-player. Sometimes it’s called EDH - Elder Dragon Highlander.

Usually, 4 or 5 people sit down and play a long, engaging game of Magic with their favourite decks and commanders. Due to its long legality list, you can probably create a deck from whatever is in your Magic collection right now.

Be careful though. Some people play cEDH - competitive variant of EDH. You can get killed as soon as turn 1, 2 or 3!

Pauper - The maindeck consists of at least 60 cards and the sideboard of at most 15; you can use no more than 4 copies of a card except for basic lands.

The most affordable format of all. The deck can only consist of cards of common rarity which naturally translates into low prices - you can have a good deck for $50.

It’s not really played competitively in paper but its online scene is real and people love playing it. There has been some criticism that Wizards does not pay enough attention to the format though.

Pioneer - The maindeck consists of at least 60 cards and the sideboard of at most 15; you can use no more than 4 copies of a card except for basic lands.

Below I present a graphic which explained the format when it was first introduced.

It’s something between Standard+ and Modern Lite. In principle, you can reuse your Standard cards which have already rotated out and pair them with some of your favourite Modern cards.

At the outset, all the fetchlands were banned and for a good reason - to decrease the time when decks are being shuffled. I think it was an excellent decision.

Historic - The maindeck consists of at least 60 cards and the sideboard of at most 15; you can use no more than 4 copies of a card except for basic lands.

The only format that is purely played digitally.  You cannot play this format in paper but exclusively on Arena. Its legality rules are a bit complicated, but they basically boil down to ‘all the cards that are on Arena are legal’. In practice, it means all the cards which have been printed into Standard and supplemental products which put cards directly into Historic.

It’s also played as Best-of-One.

This concludes the break-down. I hope you’ve found it useful. If you need any more guidance, you can reach out to us and schedule some coaching or consultations. And as always - remember to hold my hand and pass the turn together. Cheers!