As we approach Magic: The Gathering Arena's fifth anniversary, we want to look at the current state of Constructed and discuss how we approach our formats.
When we released MTG Arena, we had exactly one Constructed format: Standard. Five years on, we support six formats, effectively adding one new format per year. In that time, millions of Magic players have come to our game. Some have been playing Magic for decades, and others are just learning the game. Some players are eager for a churning meta, where they need to steadily tweak and change their deck to keep up, and others want stability, where they can pick a single deck and play it for years. MTG Arena's wide variety of players makes it beautiful, and the reasons we play are just as unique.
Our goal is to support as many play preferences as we can while maintaining healthy and diverse matchmaking pools. This is what drives our format philosophy. There's an inherent tension there: giving more players the mode they want will often mean creating new formats, but that will fragment the matchmaking pools, leading to lower player counts in them, longer matchmaking times, and worse matches (like more cross-rank pairing).
To solve this, we try to offer a balanced spread of formats to cover as many player motivations as possible, while keeping the overall number of formats low enough to support speedy, high-quality matchmaking.
Tabletop and Digital, Rotating and Nonrotating
We group our main formats around two axes: tabletop/digital and rotating/nonrotating:
(Brawl doesn't quite fit on these axes, and I'll talk about it more below.)
Our tabletop formats prioritize parity with how tabletop Magic is played, because we know many players want that similarity. For Standard we have total parity, and for Explorer, which is based on Pioneer, we're working towards supporting at least all the cards that are frequently played. When needed, the tool to maintain balance in these formats is banning cards, with those decisions matching tabletop. These formats are great for players who play in both tabletop and MTG Arena, or players who started with tabletop and want to continue playing familiar formats in the digital space.
Digital formats are where we lean into MTG Arena's digital nature, and we leverage some of the tools that only exist in digital play. Digital game engagement is different from physical games, particularly in terms of the very high rate of play and ease of sharing of knowledge, which means that metagames can get solved more quickly. Many digital games have developed ways to solve for this, and MTG Arena's digital formats lets Magic use those tools as well.
For our digital formats, Alchemy and Historic, we're able to use tools like rebalancing or more frequent content drops to keep the metagame heathier, more fluid, and more diverse. Our data show that these tools are helping achieve those goals and making these formats attractive and healthy places for our digital-focused players.
We will continue to maintain tabletop formats, because we know that authenticity and parity is something many players value. We also know that there are players who prefer formats that work at a digital pace, so we'll continue to use data and the tools available to provide healthy and evolving formats for them.
Here is a sample of play distribution among MTG Arena's main formats for a recent month. This only looks at non-event play, so the combined ranked and play queues, including both Best-of-One and Best-of-Three.
This shows a healthy distribution that may look a bit different from what you experience during your own play, when talking with friends, or when reading online. Because every individual has their own taste, and every community has its own leanings, this can be expected. The important thing to remember is that everyone is right about what they prefer, and our job on MTG Arena is to provide the best experience for as many players as we can. We balance our efforts across the whole player-base, which means we end up spending more time and resources on the parts of the game that impact more players. We love the wide variety of ways Magic gets played, and we want to support that variety as much as we can, but we cannot tackle everything all at once.
MTG Arena framing: tabletop analog that rotates to keep three years of cards for gradual metagame shifts.
Standard is the most popular format on MTG Arena, accounting for the largest share of games played in the various queues (Ranked, Play, and so on). The graph shown above is prior to rotation, so you can see Standard's share of play going down a bit while Historic and other modes climb slightly. Despite this cyclical pattern, Standard is still the clear leader.
Starting this year, we're extending the rotation window for Standard so that it includes three years of sets. We think these changes will help give Standard a more interesting mix of archetypes, more vitality, and more stability. (More on that in the Revitalizing Standard article.)
Standard on MTG Arena stays at total parity with tabletop Standard, matching all the rules, card pool, bans, and so on. This makes it a great format for players who value similarity to tabletop or players who are looking for a metagame that still shifts, but more slowly, so you can play and see a similar mix of decks for a longer period of time. Overall, it's a great format for all our players.
MTG Arena framing: tabletop format based on Pioneer and getting steadily closer to parity.
Explorer is based on Pioneer, and though it lacks the full card pool, it follows all the same rules, ban list, changes that Pioneer does. We're continuing to build out the card pool, focusing primarily on the cards that are important for the competitive metagame, but with a few other fan favorites sprinkled in as well.
When we introduced Explorer last year, we said it would take several years to get to parity with competitive Pioneer, and we're still on track for that. We think we will be able to achieve this in late 2024 or early 2025 with the release of Pioneer Masters. We know that this is a longer timeline than Explorer players want, but, as the graph above shows, our players are spread across a variety of formats, and we need to balance our work across all of them.
Currently Explorer fully supports a wide range of Pioneer archetypes, and many more are playable with some minor swaps to their usual cards. The addition of Khans of Tarkir later this year will help expand the format more, bringing Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, several key delve creatures, and more.
MTG Arena framing: digital format that rotates to keep two years of cards for a faster-moving metagame.
Working with the Magic design team on format management in the early days of MTG Arena, it was very clear that many MTG Arena players and tabletop players were looking for different things in a rotating format. From the tabletop players we kept hearing a desire for more stability, while the digital players wanted things to move and change more quickly. This was a key driver behind the creation of Alchemy—to create a format that moved at a digital pace and used digital tools to keep things fair, fluid, and fun.
Alchemy also gives us an opportunity for MTG Arena engineers to work alongside the Magic designers, so we can identify card behaviors that are new, but also straightforward for us to implement for MTG Arena. And, since these cards are only for MTG Arena, we can work with those Magic designers to tweak the language on the cards, which makes adding new cards to Alchemy easier than most any other format, and much easier than backlist sets where we must match cards that are already printed and immutable.
We've been happy with how Alchemy has played out so far. The metagame has stayed open and diverse, with a good amount of change, even week-to-week. We feel like this is creating an interesting and engaging format, and the play rate trends back this up, with both new and veteran players shifting to the format.
With the release of Wilds of Eldraine, Alchemy gained another difference from Standard this year as Standard shifts to a three-year rotation and Alchemy remains two years (more on that in the article Updates to Standard and Alchemy on MTG Arena). This difference will help diversify each format's audience and help Alchemy continue delivering a quickly-moving, diverse, and balanced metagame built to appeal to both newer players and digital-focused or high-play-rate veterans while Standard continues to match tabletop authenticity.
MTG Arena framing: nonrotating digital format with a curated set of cards to ensure balance, diversity, and fun.
Historic began several years ago as "the place to play with all of your cards on MTG Arena" and with a plan to use curated additions of cards to create a unique digital format with its own feel, decks, and metagame. We are extremely happy with the way Historic has grown into a fun, diverse format that sits somewhere between Pioneer and Modern in power level.
We're especially happy about the variety in the format, and love seeing decks like Shrines, Slivers, or thematic decks tying into a Universes Beyond storyline jump up the archetype charts. The strong play numbers for Historic, where it is our second-most popular format and growing, let us know that there are a lot of players that find the format fun as well.
Early in Historic's life, it went through several large changes, as additions like Strixhaven: School of Mages's Mystical Archive, the original Jumpstart, and other tabletop innovations upset existing metagames. Going forward, we're going to be slightly more careful with what we're allowing into Historic, because we think it's in a good place and doesn't need a large upheaval.
To be sure, upcoming additions like Modern Horizons 3 will have a large impact on Historic, bringing many powerful new cards. We like the fundamental power space that Historic is occupying, however, and we don't want to shift that by a huge leap, so we'll continue to manage what cards enter the format, as you saw with the pre-banned Enchanting Tale cards. Chiefly, we want to ensure that Historic stays balanced, diverse, and fun for a wide range of players.
Historic Brawl & Brawl
MTG Arena framing: fun & casual format with singleton decks built around Commanders.
The last time we talked about formats, we focused on discussing the four primary MTG Arena formats, but that left players wondering where their favorite format Brawl fit in. In the last twelve months or so, Brawl has grown notably, and now represents a decent-size chunk of our play. In particular, we are seeing more players who really focus on Brawl play as opposed to treating it as a "side dish" for their regular "main course" format. The play data above combines both normal Brawl and Historic Brawl, but Historic Brawl is the overwhelming bulk of the play.
With Brawl, we're generally looking to support a variety of playstyles, because we know that players enjoy a wide range of Commanders and power levels. We quickly saw that some Commanders are much stronger than others, so we use Commander-based matchmaking in Brawl modes to ensure players can find a fair and fun match with whichever Commander they want to use. Because of this imbalance, we have focused on casual, rather than ranked, queues for Brawl.
When we launched MTG Arena into Open Beta five years ago, we had one format in our queues: Standard. Now we have five. Clearly expansion has been the—ahem—historical pattern, but it isn't likely to continue at that rate. We think we've got a spread of formats that provide a good balance that covers player motivations and preserves healthy queues. While we have seen player interest in Modern on MTG Arena, especially after our recent announcements at GenCon regarding Modern Horizons 3, this isn't something we currently have in our plans. There's simply too large of a content gap there for us to close anytime soon.
That doesn't mean no changes, though. For example, both Standard and Alchemy will be seeing their roles shift a bit as we start to feel the impact of the new rotation schedules, and we may see things there that make us want to adjust. We are also starting to accumulate several cards that are too powerful or disruptive for Historic, which is something we are thinking about. We are also talking actively about what else we can do to help excite and support Brawl players as we see them become a larger segment of the population.
MTG Arena's format offerings will continue to adapt, and possibly grow, as players continue to shift how they are playing. Our goals will remain the same: provide healthy, active matchmaking to the widest range of players we can.