What Are The Formats?

Posted in Magic Academy on January 20, 2007

By Jeff Cunningham

Hello and welcome to Magic Academy! Today we'll be looking over the various Constructed formats used in competitive play.

ReshapeAs we've touched on, Constructed tournaments require you to build your deck beforehand. (For Limited tournaments, the cards are provided.) Depending on the format used at a given tournament, you'll have the option to draw from different sets to build your deck. Some formats allow only the most recent sets; others go back much fartrher.

The formats that allow a large number of sets generally stay familiar even as new sets are introduced. Formats that only allow newer cards, on the other hand, are constantly in flux. As new sets are released and become legal in these formats, older sets are rotated out.

Formats, and format rotations, are usually measured in blocks. A block includes one big set and two smaller sets that share creative themes. For instance, Ravnica Block contains Ravnica, Guildpact, and Dissension, while Time Spiral block is currently just Time Spiral and Planar Chaos but will later include Future Sight as well.


Standard, which allows the use of the two most recent blocks (between 4-6 sets) and the most recent core set, is the most common format, and is considered the default format. Most local tournaments use Standard format, as do several high-level tournaments.

Wrath of God
Standard tends to be a fairly healthy and diverse format, having a large enough card pool to facilitate several different decks but with a regular enough rotation to keep things fresh.

Here are some tips for getting started in Standard:

  • Even if a new block has just been introduced and the format has changed, you can always look at the last rotation's decks for ideas – usually there will be quite a bit of overlap.
  • Standard decks tend to goldfish (kill a dummy opponent) in 4 or 5 turns – that gives you an idea of how much time you have! (Aggro and Combo decks might aim to actually kill within this range, and Control decks might aim to survive or to take control within this range. We'll talk more about these deck types soon.)
  • With a variety of fair and straightforward decks, cards that are generally good (Wrath of God), rather than cards tailored to a specific format, can often be at their best in Standard.

Coldsnap, a recent standalone set, is an exception to the block structure, and will eventually rotate out of Standard with the Time Spiral block.

You can find a current list of Standard legal sets here.


BlockbusterBlock Constructed allows the use of simply the current block (1-3 sets). As far as competitive play goes, about one Pro Tour Qualifier season a year is Block Constructed (usually when all three sets are available). The format can be played year round on Magic Online, and sometimes tournaments can be found at local stores.

Block Constructed is unique in that it can be completely fresh. While other formats might change drastically with a rotation, several familiar sets will remain; with Block Constructed you're regularly confronted with a completely new card pool. One thing that's nice about playing with single blocks is that they are contained thematic units. Whatever the block's major themes – Mirrodin and artifacts, or Odyssey and graveyard-matters – you'll definitely sense it in Block, which can make for new and distinct playing experiences.

Block is generally the cheapest format to become involved in, as there are both fewer cards necessary to be competitive than in other formats, and the cards are newer and so more available (though also more in vogue).

Because of fewer possible natural synergies, Block is usually the format with the narrowest metagame. Generally there are only a handful of Tier 1 decks and a few “rogue” decks. (Sometimes a block's design will facilitate many decks, though, as was the case with Ravnica's multicolor-friendly block.)

Here are some tips for getting started in Block:

  • Block decks tend to goldfish in about 5-6 turns (barring certain decks in certain formats – Affinity!).
  • Learn the other decks in the format. There won't be too many of them, and you'll be able to work to design your deck to beat them.
  • Scour the set-lists for tech. As the shallowest format, decks in Block can successfully employ more traditionally marginal cards than any other.

As soon as the first set in a new block is released, it becomes the new focus of Block Constructed. Technically, though, old Block constructed formats (IE, Onslaught Block, Tempest Block) still exist but are just rarely supported. They're a lot of fun, though, and you can still play them on Magic Online if you can find an opponent.

You can find a current list of Block-legal sets here.


Long_Term_PlansStandard rotates after 3 sets. Extended only rotates after 3 blocks. At any given time Extended will allow the most recent 6-8 blocks (16-24 sets), and about 3 core sets. Base sets rotate out with the blocks they were released during. Extended is played a little more regularly than Block, with one Pro Tour Qualifier season a year and a bit more local and online support.

Extended, with its huge card pool and occasional massive changes, can be an intimidating format. There are a high number of popular decks, and these decks use all sorts of different cards and employ widely different strategies. The upshot is that since the format changes so infrequently, learning these strategies can be fruitful for much longer than in shallower formats.

Here are some tips for getting started in Extended:

  • Extended decks tend to goldfish in about 3-4 turns. Yikes!
  • With so many cards at their disposal, successful Extended decks tend to be much more than the sum of their parts. That is, rather than just being good all-around decks, they have several powerful internal synergies.
  • Extended decks must not only be fast and powerful, they must also be resilient. Make sure your deck can handle a measure of disruption, and has a plan for the long game.

You can find a current list of Extended legal cards and sets here.


Black Lotus
Vintage allows the use of all sets (50+!). However, it has an extensive banned and restricted list. “Banned” cards are not allowed in tournament play. Very few cards are banned in Vintage; generally, only silver-bordered cards, manual dexterity cards, and “ante” cards. Only one of each “restricted” card can be played in any given deck, rather than the usual limit of four per deck.

While Vintage is not supported at the highest competitive levels (Pro Tours, Grand Prix, Nationals, Pro Tour Qualifiers – the expense involved can be prohibitive), nor are the older sets available on Magic Online, it does enjoy a thriving community of its own. Vintage tournaments occur regularly but may need to be sought out. A major online Vintage forum is www.themanadrain.com.

With its complete card pool, Vintage is the most powerful format. Turn-one kills, while not the norm, occur with some regularity. Here, the game is pushed to its absolute limits, and sometimes barely resembles the shallower formats! Despite some cards' acknowledged overpower, they are considered hallmarks of the game (Black Lotus, Time Walk, etc.), and are allowed loose in Vintage, merely restricted and not banned, or not even restricted at all (Force of Will).

Force of Will
Because of this, many Vintage decks read like a laundry list of one-ofs of broken cards or have many regular four-ofs (Force of Will). Though Vintage has a larger card pool than Extended, then, in some ways it is more manageable. Unlike Extended's relatively level playing field, many cards are simply not on a high enough tier to compete with Vintage's mainstay cards.

Learning a Vintage deck may be difficult at first (they are fast and complex), but there is much crossover between Vintage decks, and with minimal format changes, much learning will have permanent application.

Here are some tips for getting started in Vintage:

  • Vintage decks tend to goldfish in about 2-4 turns. The range is larger here because many decks, even Aggro decks, forgo speed for heavy disruption. But a dedicated combo deck can do very nasty things here if left to its own devices!
  • Vintage takes the tenets of Extended to the Nth degree – strategies here must either be degenerately powerful or must have crippling answers, often both.
  • Become acquainted with the other decks in the format both to get a sense for the level of power and to make sure your strategy isn't easily nullified by a card all decks have regular access to. (Tutors are commonplace in Vintage.)

You can find a current Vintage banned & restricted list here.


Like Vintage, Legacy allows the use of all sets. However, Legacy does not maintain a restricted list, only a banned list, and it is generally much more conservative than Vintage. Hallmark power cards, restricted in Vintage, are banned in Legacy. However, a few cards that are restricted in Vintage are legal in Legacy, with other bannings making their prohibition unnecessary. Legacy sees some high level support (with a pair of Grand Prix tournaments last year) and shares a similar community with Vintage.

Though both Legacy and Vintage allow the use of the same sets, Vintage is primarily characterized by its power cards. Without them, Legacy plays much differently and perhaps more closely resembles Extended than Vintage.

You can find a current Legacy banned list here.


Two_Headed_Giant_of_ForiysTwo-Headed Giant:

Any Constructed format can be played multiplayer using the Two-Headed Giant structure, though this variation is both fairly new and fairly rare. Each match is a one-game battle between two teams of two. The players one each time take their turn simultaneously and share a life total, though their hands, decks, mana pools, etc. remain separate.

Because the game functions much differently in Two-Headed Giant, with multiple players taking turns simultaneously and a 40-point starting life total among other differences, decks used in Two-Headed Giant must be tailored to the format.

No more than four of any card can be played between both players on a team.

Team Constructed:

Unlike Two-Headed Giant, which features multiple players playing the same game simultaneously, Team Constructed involves three players per team playing individual matches against another three-player team. Though the four-card limit applies across the team, decks generally resemble what you would normally see if the format was single-player. Any Constructed format can be played as Team Constructed.

Team Constructed sees a fair amount of support, with a Pro Tour Qualifier season and a Pro Tour in 2006.


Accumulated_KnowledgeSet Release Dates: A new set generally becomes tournament legal (and, if it's the first set of a new block or a new base set, prompts certain rotations) on the 20th of the month. For instance, a set released on Feb. 2 would become legal on Feb. 20, whereas a set released on Feb. 22 would become legal on March 20. The Magic Floor Rules list the dates that upcoming sets become legal.

Ratings: Official Wizards of the Coast tournaments are sanctioned, and individual results are kept and tallied for DCI ratings. Block, Standard, and Extended tournaments are categorized under a “Constructed” rating, while Vintage and Legacy tournaments are categorized under an “Eternal” rating. Online tournaments have their own separate rating.

Official information can be found in the downloadable floor rules.

See you next week, when we'll look at the different types of Constructed decks.


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