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February 10, 2016

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Intro to Formats

Hello, new player, and welcome back to the Multiverse!

This week we are going to take a look at the different flavours of Magic one can play. We are going to take a look at the different formats of Magic: the Gathering.

What is a format?

Magic is broken down into several different format environments, depending mostly on how old the cards in question are. While all cards in Magic are designed to be played together, you will quickly find that some cards in the game’s history are able to be mixed together to create powerful and often game-warping combinations.

Wizards of the Coast in their infinite wisdom chose to break down Magic into different formats, providing players casual and competitive players alike a variety of fun modes of play. Some of these formats can also make Magic more accessible and even the playing ground for new and long-term players alike!

In order to facilitate this differentiation, Magic is broken down not only by block or set, but also into two major formats known as Constructed and Limited. While there is a lot to learn about both styles of play, we are not going to have time to take an in depth look at all the subtle differences of each, so we’ll take a look at the most popular ones. With that in mind, let’s start by taking a quick look at Limited play:

LIMITED

Limited play is so named because each player has a finite card pool with which they can build their decks around. Limited comes in two major sub-formats, Draft and Sealed. While each has their differences from each other, they differ greatly from Constructed Magic in that they require players to build only a 40-card deck, rather than the typical 60-card deck from most Constructed fromats. Let’s take a moment to review how each of the two formats work.

SEALED

In Sealed, each player is given six booster packs from which to build their decks. More often than not, Sealed is played in the Standard environment, which is to say they use booster packs from the most current Magic sets. This is, of course, not a hard and fast rule. The most important part about Sealed play is that each player is building from the same basic card pool.

A player in a Sealed event will crack open their booster packs and will be given a short amount of time with which to build their decks. Skilled players in both types of Limited play become very adept at noticing synergies between cards in a timely fashion, and combining cards into a deck that will lead to the best results.

In the Sealed format, you will end up with 90 cards with which to build a deck with. Realistically, these are enough cards to build three separate decks out of. So if the combinations of cards that you select to start with isn’t working out for you, it is totally possible to build a whole new deck out of your Sealed pool.

DRAFT

The other Limited format, Draft, also has players building their decks out of a small card pool. In this case, the contents of three booster packs. Unlike Sealed, players share their pool of cards with others at the table in order to build their decks.

In Draft, booster packs are opened one at a time. A player will then select what they believe to be the best card in their pack and place it face-down in front of them. They then pass the rest of the pack to the player on their left. Then they select a new card from the pack that has been passed to them from their right. This process is repeated until all the cards from the first pack of cards have been exhausted. The second pack is then opened and a new card will be selected. This new pack is passed to the right. Once the second pack is again exhausted, players will open the third pack, which is again passed to the left. By this point, each player should have the bones of a working deck, with only a few cuts to be made until their deck is fully functioning for tournament play. While lands can be selected while players draft, each player can then add the basic lands they need to run their deck.

Unlike Sealed, deck builders have a meager pool of cards to work with by the end of the Draft. So, while some changes can be made between matches, the deck you Draft will ultimately be as close to a final deck as is possible without preplanning by the player.

CONSTRUCTED

There are a lot of ways to play Constructed Magic, so many that it would be impossible to list them all here today. Instead, I will take a look at the most popular ones available in store and on Magic Online.

STANDARD

For most new players, this is the format most start with, as they will have the easiest time accessing the cards. The Standard format consists of an ever rotating group of cards, all of which come from the most recent five or six sets, or the last three blocks.

Standard rotates when the next block of cards are released in order to keep decks and archetypes fresh. What is a block, you ask? A block is a group of two or three sets that tell a singular story within the Magic universe. The reason I say two or three sets is because Wizards of the Coast recently made the switch from releasing cards in sets of three to releasing cards in blocks of two sets. This choice was a healthy way of keeping Standard fresh, since having rotation happen more often obviously causes more change and can be difficult for players to keep up with.

Like many of the the other Constructed formats on this list, Standard works with a 60-card deck. Each of those decks are allowed to run a maximum of four copies of a single card with the exception of basic land cards.

MODERN

In the case of Modern, players are able to use almost every card from the Mirrodin block or Eighth Edition onwards. This gives you a great many cards with which players can work with. This inclusivity comes with both upsides and downsides for new players to the format.

The upshot, of course, is that when a player’s deck rotates out of Standard, it can still be played in the Modern format. If you find a combination of cards that works for you and beats others in your local metagame, you can play it in Modern tournaments until the cows come home. New cards enter the format once every three months, with the release of each new set. These new cards will give players new pieces to their puzzle, or perhaps provide new challenges to work around when playing against other Planeswalkers.

The downside is that this creates a known and rather strict rule for play outside of those codified by Wizards of the Coast. This is the fact that a typical Modern deck expects to win by turn five or six. This means that your deck has to be speedy when reaching its win condition or be able to shut down those quick decks fast, or players run the risk of getting steamrolled by their opponent every game.

Another downside can be the financial investment that comes with entering Modern. As most decks in the format have well established cards in them – many of which do not see reprints despite their popularity – you have to expect to compete with other players in order to get those cards. With a small number of cards ever seeing reprinting, this competition can lead to scarcity and thus increase the price for many Modern staples.

The final downside, the ban list. As some cards in Modern are considered to be too good, too unfair, or simply too overused, Wizards of the Coast maintains a ban list of cards which can be found on their official website. Many cards are included on the list as there would be little reason for a player that could run them to not run them. Other cards like Splinter Twin are banned in order to keep the play environment from getting stale.

Much like other formats on this list, Modern has a 60-card minimum requirement for all decks. Also, like most of the other formats, players can only use up to four copies of a single card in their decks.

LEGACY/VINTAGE

An Eternal format is one that allows all cards from Magic that have a black or white border and the standard Magic card back. It stays, as the name implies, eternally. Legacy and Vintage are, currently, the only Eternal formats. While both Legacy and Vintage are very unique formats, I am going to lump the two together for the purposes of simplicity. Vintage allows all cards from all sets, with the exception of the Unhinged and Unglued sets and certain list of restricted cards. The restricted list allows you to run certain powerful cards, but only one copy of that card. The most notable of the restricted cards is the fabled Black Lotus, which if played correctly can result in many turn one wins. Legacy also allows all cards from all sets, but has a separate list of banned cards and, therefore, has a more limited card pool than Vintage.  Just like the above formats, Legacy and Vintage both require you to have 60-cards in your deck, though Legacy has no maximum deck size.

PAUPER

Pauper has all the fun of Legacy with one major restriction: decks are only allowed to use cards printed at the common rarity level. While Pauper is technically an online-only format, it has been adopted as a regular format in many game stores.

The reason for the technical differences between online and paper Pauper is that when reprinting cards for Magic Online, Wizards of the Coast chose to change the rarity level of certain cards. For example Bottle Gnomes, were downgraded from uncommon to common with the release of Tempest Remastered. This allows you to play Bottle Gnomes online but not in paper Pauper. Some cards from Magic’s history have never been made available online, so they are excluded from the online game.

For these reasons the metagame online can be very different from that of its paper counterpart. Despite these differences between the two versions of this format, both are incredibly cheap to get into because of the use of only common cards. Just like Legacy, Standard, and Modern, Pauper requires you to use a 60-card deck, and only allows you to play four of a single copy a card in a deck.

COMMANDER

While Commander is the official title given to this format, it was originally known as Elder Dragon Highlander or EDH. This format was created by players and became so popular that Wizards of the Coast decided to take it up and re-named it. Unlike many of the other formats we looked at today, in Commander players are only allowed to use a single copy of any card in your deck. Players use a deck of 100 cards, rather than a 40 or 60-card deck. Players also have a higher life total, starting at 40 life rather than 20.

In Commander, players still get a seven card starting hand, though the mulligan rules can change depending on the play-group. Players have a commander – who is part of your 100 cards – who starts in the command zone. As players cast spells from their hand, they are also able to cast their commander from that command zone any time you could play a creature.

There are rules to how a player’s deck can be set up, and they mostly revolve around the commander. In addition to building the deck to work with the commander’s abilities, players will also have to build their deck around the commander’s colour identity. The colour identity of the commander is any mana symbol that appears in their casting cost, as well as any activated abilities on the card. The final restriction to a player’s deck is that their commander must be a legendary creature.

There is more to cover in Commander, however, I am not one retrace someone else’s steps. To learn more about Commander, I will direct you to some articles by our resident experts: Robert McEachern’s wonderful introduction to EDH series starting with the first one. As well, there have been some recent rule updates which make it a little easier for new players to get into the format. For more on that, please check out Pierre Dupont’s article here!

Well, that about wraps up our quick look at all the most popular formats in Magic: the Gathering. Did I miss your favorite format? Did I miss the nuances of your favorite? Let me know in the comments below! Do join me next time, where we continue to go over all you need to know when you are new to Magic.