Formats define which cards you can use in your deck at a given event. There are two big families of formats: Constructed and Limited. In Constructed tournaments, you build your own deck from home, made with cards you own from your collection; in Limited tournaments, you can only use cards in a sealed product pool provided at the beginning of the event.
In constructed formats, players bring decks built with cards they own prior to the beginning of the tournament. Some rules are common to all Constructed formats:
- Each deck must contain at least 60 cards. There is no maximum deck size; the only requirement is that players must be able to shuffle their own deck without help.
- A deck can't contain more than 4 copies of each single card, except for basic lands.
- Players can bring a sideboard deck containing up to 15 cards. After the first game of each match, they can replace cards in their deck with ones from the sideboard, as long as the deck has at least 60 cards and the sideboard no more than 15.
Where constructed formats differ from one another is in the expansion sets they allow players to draw cards from. Some formats also have a list of cards that are banned from play. You can find an up-to-date list of the cards banned in each Constructed format on Wizards of the Coast website.
Standard is the most popular Constructed format, and it allows cards from the last 5 to 8 expansion sets. It rotates once a year, with the release of the second set of the year (or fall set in the Northern Hemisphere), the two oldest blocks rotate out. Here is what the rotation looks like:
These are the Standard-legal sets:
- Aether Revolt
- Hour of Devastation
- Rivals of Ixalan
Kaladesh will be legal for two years and rotate out of Standard in the second half of 2018. When Ixalan was released Battle for Zendikar and Shadows over Innistrad blocks both rotated out of Standard. In 2018 Dominaria will join Standard in April, and Core 2019 in July.
Modern is a non-rotating format that allows cards from 8th Edition onward. You may notice that 8th Edition is the set that transitioned from the classical layout to the modern one, but don't just assume that all cards with the modern layout are playable in Modern. Cards printed in special sets like Commander, From The Vault, Planechase, Archenemy, Duel Deck and Conspiracy are printed with the modern face, but they are not legal in Modern, unless of course they're a reprint of a legal card.
Example. Viscera Seer and True-Name Nemesis were both printed in Commander 2013. However, you can play Viscera Seer in Modern, as it has also been printed in Magic 2011, but you can't use True-Name Nemesis, that has been printed only in Commander 2013.
Also note that if a card has been printed in a legal set, all of its printing are legal, including older ones which sport the classic layout. Promotional cards are legal only if the same card has been printed in a legal set.
Example. Playing a Lightning Bolt from Limited Edition Beta in Modern is perfectly legal (and quite spiffy to boot), because Lightning Bolt has been reprinted in Magic 2010.
Note that Modern has a quite extensive list of of banned cards. The banned card list is updated four times a year, on the day after each new set pre-release.
Legacy and Vintage
Legacy and Vintage are collectively called Eternal formats, as they allow cards from all black- and white-bordered sets, including beginner sets like Portal. As the card pool is the same, the difference between these two formats consists in the different banned card lists. Legacy has a sizable list of cards banned for power-level reasons, whereas the only cards that are outright banned in Vintage are the cards that involve:
In addition to this, Vintage has a list of restricted cards. Players can have a single copy of each restricted card between their deck and sideboard.
Pauper is a Magic Online-specific constructed format, in which players must build decks using only cards that were printed at least once as commons. Its popularity is also growing in real-life tournaments; however, note that Pauper events can be sanctioned, but must be reported as Casual events - when you judge one, be vigilant that the organizer sanctions them appropriately.
Originally known as Elder Dragon Highlander, Commander is a casual multiplayer format. It was born within the judge community, but has now spread outside of it, to the point where Wizards of the Coast releases preconstructed decks.
Commander is a Highlander format, which means that decks can contain a single copy of each card, except for basic lands. Players start with 40 life rather than the usual 20, as this format is all about long games and ridiculously huge plays.
Decks must also contain exactly 100 cards, one of which must be a legendary creature, that is designated to be that player's commander. All other cards in the deck can't have a color identity that includes color not found within the commander's color identity. The color identity of a card includes the colors of all mana symbols that appear in its mana cost and in its text box, plus the color of any color indicator the card may have.
Example. Zur the Enchanter's color identity is white, blu and black, as these colors appear in its mana cost. Alesha, Who Smiles at Death is white, black and red, as its mana cost includes a red mana symbol and its text box uses a white/black symbol. Archangel Avacyn's color identity is white and red, as there are white mana symbols in its mana cost and a red color indicator on its back face.
Damnation is a black card: it can be used in your deck if your general is Zur or Alesha, but not with Avacyn. Unmake's color identity is white and black, so it is again inaccessible to Avacyn. Sunforger's identity is white and red, so it can be played in an Alesha or Avacyn deck, but not with Zur.
Commanders also have additional rules attached to them:
- They start the game from the command zone, and can be cast from there. Doing so costs more for each time they have been cast from the command zone before in the game.
- If they would be put into a graveyard, library or hand, their owner may choose to put them in the command zone instead.
- If a player is dealt 21 combat damage by a single general, he loses the game.
The full rules and the banned list for the Commander format can be found on the official website.
A variant to this format exists, to tailor it to one-on-one competitive play. This format is also known as French Commander, as it was designed and popularized in France. It uses a completely different banned list than multiplayer Commander and players start the game with 20 life rather than 40. The full rules and the banned list for the Duel Commander format can be found on the official website.
At Limited events, players receive some amount of sealed product, and they have to use exclusively cards in this limited pool to build their deck for the event. They have access to un unlimited supply of basic lands, excluding Wastes.
There are two main ways to play Limited, sealed deck and booster draft, but both share the following deck construction rules:
- Each deck must contain at least 40 cards. There is no maximum deck size.
- A deck can contain any number of copies of each single card.
- All cards in the limited pool that are not included in the deck form the sideboard. Players can also add to their sideboard how many basic lands as they want, even during the event.
At events run at REL Competitive, players must register their deck and restore it at the beginning of each match, exactly how they would in a Constructed tournament. At Regular REL, on the other hand, players can change their deck during the event.
In a sealed deck tournament, each player receives six booster packs, opens them and uses the contents to build his deck. It's just that simple!
For Regular events, the organizer is free to provide any assortment of boosters, as long as each player receives the same combination. Premier events have specific requirements: pre-releases are run using special packs provided by Wizards, and Preliminary PTQs use six packs from the big set or four from the small set plus two from the big one.
In a booster draft tournament, each player receives three boster packs, then they sit around a table. These tables are called pods, and if possible they should consist of eight players. If the number of participants is not a multiple of eight, you can have different numbers, but never less then six or more than eleven.
Each player opens a pack, selects a card from there, passes the rest to the player sitting at his left and takes the cards from the player at this right. This process is repeated until the cards from the first pack are finished. Then players open the second booster pack and draft it in the same way, except now cards are passed to the right. Then they repeat the process with the third pack, passing to the left again. The cards each player has chosen will be his limited pool for this event.
Normally, players should only be paired with players from the same pod. However, if you want to run a booster draft tournament longer than three rounds, it's advisable to perform cross-pod parings from round 4 onward.
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- These decks contain new cards. As you have read above, these cards are legal in Vintage, Legacy and Pauper, but not in Modern or Standard.
- This term obviously comes from the movie Highlander, since there can be only one of each card. Wizards doesn't use this term, to avoid potential copyright issues.
- This is a relatively recent change: until 2016, players used to start with 30 life. Part of the Duel Commander community has decided not to follow this change, creating a new format called Leviathan. To this day, Leviathan works exactly as Duel Commander, except players start from 30 life.
- To do this when using Wizards Event Reporter, you need to perform a new pod assignment at the end of round three, which will automatically group players in standings order, and then pair the fourth round. There is no way to change the pairing algorithm to Swiss once the tournament has started.