Recently, I’ve been posting more and more related to Magic: The Gathering. Most of the time, it’s with an eye to the competitive/tournament side of the game. While Magic has been popular worldwide for a long time, I figured many could use a background primer on what exactly the scene looks like, and how it operates.
Consider this a primer for understanding the competitive Magic: The Gathering scene at a basic level, and assumes no knowledge of any cards or how to play Magic. The goal is to get you familiar with how the scene and game is structured.
First, I’ll go over how Magic is structured from a card pool and business standpoint. Next, I’ll explain the basic tournament structure, going over the various tiers of event types. After that, there is a rundown of how typical tournament lists are structured, including a brief overview of the more abstract deck archetypes that have persisted throughout Magic. Finally, I will breakdown each of the popular formats, looking at what they are, their price, and what their metagames normally look like.
Structure of Magic: The Gathering: Sets and Methods
Given its longevity, Magic currently has a massive total card pool that can be quite intimidating. However, it also allows for creativity of deck designers to really find out combos or synergies between cards that have not yet been discovered.
The basic building block of Magic are the card sets. Each set has a name, as well as an associated symbol that is printed on each card. Traditionally, three sets would make up a “block”, which just meant that the three sets were thematically linked, had the same setting, etc. Grouping the sets by block allowed for proper division of formats, as explained further below.
Further, Magic has traditionally been played in-person with real cards (referred to as “cardboard”). Wizards built Magic on the concept of local game shops providing the boosters and cards to players who would play in the stores and at local tournaments. Many stores also crack open packs and then sell the singles separately, thereby allowing players to bypass opening packs one by one to find specific cards.
Recently, this has changed somewhat with the introduction of digital card games such as Hearthstone. Wizards has attempted to have a separate digital presence through its Magic Duels series, but most notably through Magic Online aka MTGO.
MTGO has been plagued by poor design and interface, and continues to be a work-in-progress for Wizards. Furthermore, MTGO requires players to separately repurchase their entire collection online. While the prices are much more reasonable to their cardboard counterparts, it still requires a significant investment.
The competitive Magic scene is built on its tier of organized events:
Friday Night Magic (FNM): FNM is the local card shops weekly events that make up the building blocks of competitive Magic. These events are typically small scale, and the power level of decks or access to cards is not quite as wide, resulting in some interesting “brews” winning some of these events. FNM typically plays Standard and Limited, and is the basic entry level of competition.
Grand Prix: Grand Prix are probably the next step up, although it’s quite a step up for most FNM players. Grand Prix are held throughout the year all over the world, and have differing formats. These events attract some of the best players in the world, and the skill spectrum is wide. These are weekend-long events that require a large fee to enter, but are also the path to the highest levels of competition. These events can have sizeable cash payouts to the top finishers.
Pro Tour: The Pro Tour is the top tier of competitive Magic. These are the best of the best, and the only ones allowed are those that are invited or otherwise qualify. These events are traditionally focus on Standard and Limited but have now incorporated some of the other formats as well. Winning a Pro Tour can pocket the winner a big chunk of change ($250,000 prize pool per event), and will also become a community figure. The metagame is shaped by the results of the Pro Tour, and it remains the premier level of event around the world.
What Typical Tournament Deck Construction Looks Like
At a competitive level, each deck consists of exactly 60 cards. Playing less is against the rules, and playing more is statistically a disadvantage. Each deck then has a “sideboard” of 15 cards. This sideboard can only be utilized in between games. A player can swap a card in the original 60 card deck for one in the sideboard between each game in a standard match of best 2 out of 3. Any number of cards can be swapped between the games, but each game 1 in a match must use the original 60.
Structurally, most competitive decks will stick to having 3 or 4 copies of its most powerful cards. While many decks will use 1 or 2 of certain cards, the general idea is to maximize your chances of drawing your best cards every game.
With that concept in mind, tournament decks have high synergy or take advantage of powerful mechanics. Most decks can start winning the game in the early turns, and their power normally lies in their ability to reduce variance and increase redundancy of their game plan.
At a basic level, competitive Magic decks fall into one of three types: aggressive (aggro), combo, and control.
Aggro decks are fairly straightforward – get small creatures into play as fast as possible and attack. These decks will run fewer lands, and play low cost spells in an attempt to end the game as soon as possible. If the game goes on too long, aggro decks are likely to lose. In general, aggro decks do well against control, as they play too many threats for control to properly address.
Combo decks are built specifically to pull off a combo of two or more cards. Normally, if a combo deck can assemble and then play its combo cards without being disrupted, it will win the game on the spot. Combo decks can sometimes be very difficult to play given the math and contingencies that must be addressed. In addition, combo decks probably make up some of the most hated Magic decks of all time, given that they simply win in a very one sided and non-interactive fashion. In general, combo decks do well against aggro, as aggro decks can’t typically stop the combo pieces.
Lastly, Control decks are built to sit-back and defend against early attacks and then build up into large game ending spells in the late game through a concept known as card advantage. Control decks will use removal and counterspells to deal with threats on the board, and will often play many instants in order to not “tap out” on their own turns. Big or evasive creatures will typically close out the game, which can be a drawn out affair. In general, Control decks do well against Combo, where counterspells and disruption can directly interact with the combo pieces, stopping a player from “going off”.
Standard Format Breakdown
The most popular format is called Standard (also known as Type II). Standard only allows cards for the newest sets, as determined by Wizards on a rotating schedule. Therefore, as new sets are released, that release will trigger the phase out of the oldest set or block currently legal in Standard. For instance, when Ixalan releases this Fall, the Battle for Zendikar blocks and Return to Innistrad blocks will no longer be legal in Standard.
Standard has traditionally been the most popular format. Using the newest cards, and having a rotating card pool makes it a choice for old and newer players. The availability of the cards is also the easiest, as the newest packs are the only ones in production.
Standard decks are typically defined by the “chase rares” and “chase mythics” of each set. Given the vast amount of cards (and the necessity of balancing the Limited format), the power levels of the cards in sets are not equal. Typically, the rarer cards are more powerful.
Despite this, Standard tends to be the cheapest format at any one time (roughly $100-200 for a single deck), as the cards are plentiful in accessibility, and the application for other formats is normally not yet known. More popular sets are used in Limited for drafts more often and thus the supply is greater for these sets. However, Standard can get pricey when considering it rotates, so Standard players are required to update their decks as new sets release. Depending on what type of deck you have, a rotation could decimate the key cards in your deck.
The Standard metagame is always the hot topic in the community. In times of perceived imbalance, many players will call for bans or printing of answers in subsequent sets. In the past, any banning of a card in Standard was an extreme outlier. However, recently there have been several waves of bans in Standard, owing to a breakdown somewhere in the card design process at Wizards.
When the Standard metagame is “healthy” it has several archetypes or decks that can fairly compete and will make various Top 8’s at events. Tier 2 decks will also stand at shot at defeating the Tier 1 decks some of the time, or perhaps even more with talented pilots. The Standard meta is typically set by the Pro Tour events, where the best players will attempt to “figure out” the format. However, when a known quantity or strong deck is played heavily, players can meta against the deck, targeting its weakness knowing they will match up against it more often than not in a specific tournament. This concept theoretically balances the meta.
Modern Format Breakdown
Modern is the format that incorporates every set released since the Mirrodin expansion. Therefore, the card pool is much, much larger in Modern, and there is no rotation as new sets enter the format. Sets that are currently legal in Standard are also legal Modern. Modern took the place of the old Extended format, which used a similar-styled cardpool, but rotated in a similar fashion to Standard.
Modern is quite popular and has recently challenged Standard’s hegemony given the perceived imbalance in the Standard meta pre-banning spree. The Modern metagame is considered heavily diverse, and as such is a draw for many people or want the variety.
Given its vast cardpool, Modern has to account for access to the older sets that are no longer in print. If a newer player was not playing when Mirrodin was released, they would be reliant on buying singles online or trading with people that have those cards. Wizards has attempted to remedy this situation with the printing of Modern Masters sets, which handpick format staples to reprint, therefore increasing supply and giving access to older cards while not affecting the Standard format. These reprinted sets are not legal in Standard despite the more recent release, and do not fit into any block or rotation schedule.
The price of Modern is substantially higher to enter than Standard. With older cards being more scarce, the prices can be absurd. The Modern Masters sets have done a great deal to reduce the initial barrier to entry, but it’s still quite steep. Spending $400-500 for a single deck is not unusual. This is partially balanced by the fact that the format does not rotate, and therefore you “know” your investment will stay productive from year to year.
The format is driven by its reliance on “fetchlands” which are used in conjunction with “shocklands” to build very efficient mana bases. Basically, the combination allows players to trade their life total to get nearly any color combination of mana in the early turns, which in turn allows players to play the most efficient low cost spells across several colors. Given that, the format tends to be quite fast with most games decided by turn 4 or turn 5.
Modern has undergone a series of initial bannings when it was introduced as a format. Wizards sought to kill most Combo decks that could end the game in the first few turns. It also unloaded on many of the staples that would seemingly edge out the ability to be creative with less powerful decks. The result has been fairly successful so far, with the meta the most diverse it has ever been, and many archetypes taking down tournaments.
I am the least familiar with the Legacy format, but it nonetheless deserves mention as the the third most popular constructed format.
Legacy uses ALL the sets printed in the history of Magic (other than some edge cases such as the Unglued set). Therefore, it has an extremely large cardpool and access to the most powerful cards from each set.
The format relies again on the “fetchlands” mentioned previously, but used in conjunction with the highly sought after dual lands. Dual lands allow for near perfect mana efficiency, and thus the format is extremely fast and also very very expensive.
Dual lands can go for hundreds of dollars, and are a near necessity to be competitive in the format. Further, dual lands reside on the infamous “Reserved List” — a list of cards Wizards has unilaterally stated would never be reprinted. Therefore, the Legacy specific set reprints cannot include probably the most important cards.
Despite this limitation, many people play the format online and in cardboard. While Legacy is not supported at the Pro Tour level (although that is changing with the Team formats), it still remains one of the big constructed pillars of Magic.
While the previous sections focused on the big constructed formats, the other highly popular format is Limited, wherein players “draft” their decks before playing.
Drafting involves sitting at a table with 7 other people, each with 3 booster packs containing 15 cards. Each player looks at the packs and selects one card face down, then passes the pack to someone on their left or right. This process is repeated until the all the cards distributed.
Drafting is a skill all to its own, given that you cannot communicate with the other drafters, but are given some knowledge based on the packs as the are passed around the table. If there is a suspicious lack of white cards coming your way from the right, you can be sure someone is picking all the quality white cards. Utilizing this info while making your own picks and setting up your own deck is quite difficult.
Once all the cards are picked, each player builds a 40 card deck with what they have, and all the basic land is provided. All the cards not used are in the sideboard.
Limited has somewhat more variance, as the only available cards are those that are opened. “Limited bomb” is a term used to denote particularly strong cards to draft, which can single handedly win games by playing them alone.
Limited is also rotated, in that the sets used for the 3 booster packs will be the most recent sets from the most recent block. Different blocks have different “speeds” for the format, so the preference for certain blocks is really up to the players.
A variation on Limited is Cube, wherein a player creates their own cardpool to then custom make the booster packs and then draft. These are popular online and casually, and are not a tournament format.
Limited can be expensive, as each draft requires the purchase of the packs and most likely an entry fee. However, online, it’s possible to chain together rewards for winning in draft leagues, which can translate into “free” drafts.
These are some quick thoughts on other formats that are not really tournament supported, and typically find the most life in casual settings or on MTGO.
Vintage is the premier power format, which allows the most cards (all sets are legal) and only restricts, rather than bans, the most powerful cards of all time known as the Power 9. Black Lotus, the iconic symbol of the Power 9, can fetch over $10,000. Due to this barrier to entry, Vintage is not a popular format.
On the flipside of Vintage is Pauper, which as its name denotes, focuses on price. Pauper only allows the use of commons in decks, and therefore the price per deck can be a lot lower. It also creates an interesting dynamic in that many common cards are weak, making the meta more diverse, and some creative strategies with a weakened card pool. Only really played on MTGO.
The Commander/EDH format is the casual all star. Decks are made of single copies of cards built around a chosen “commander”. The rules of Commander games are actually different than standard Magic rules, but the basic elements are the same. Commander is technically a newer format that Wizards is trying to develop on its own, where it was previously a community-created format.
Where to Watch the Game
The best place to watch Magic is on Twitch. Magic is in an interesting place right now as an e-Sport, and a whole separate discussion could go into those facets, but suffice to say, there are many dedicated Twitch streamers, and Wizards normally provides Twitch coverage of Grand Prixs, and full coverage of all the Pro Tour events.
Resources to Learn More
If you want to learn more about Magic and specifically the competitive side, check out these places for the most up-to-date and useful analysis:
Magic has had a long and storied history and with it, a thriving and diverse competitive scene. Hopefully now you understand a little more about how competitive Magic is structured, and can flip on a stream on Twitch to follow along.
11 thoughts on “Primer to the Magic: The Gathering Competitive Scene: No Experience Required”
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Great rundown & info! Having played MTG since 1996 we
have seen a lot of ups and downs. The recent rotation really
messed things up, then we hit a high with Amonkhet, and then
back to another low with Hour of Devastation, (more unplayable
planeswalkers anyone?) Magic seems to be printing too much
Commander and auxiliary product for its own good further
diminishing the focus of standard which draws in the most new
players. We have a large collection of standard, modern, &
vintage binders we are looking to get rid of before the holidays.
It is time to let some new players enjoy the game that has
brought us much joy over the years. (Tribal is always our fav.)
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I’m not a big Commander and auxiliary product player, but I guess it fills the gaps between releases. I’d really like to see more masters styled sets to increase supply of older staples.
These masters sets at $10 a pack are a complete money heist.
It is cheaper to buy the cards you need rather than buy $10
lottery tickets. A $1 rare in a $4 pack vs a $1 rare in a $10 pack
is a HUGE difference. Plus the modern masters boxes are only
1/2 boxes as they do not come with 36 packs. In essence you
are paying $500 a box, when a lot of these MM boxes have less
than $200 of value in them. I strongly advise against buying
these products all together and just buy the cards you need.
Go view some Modern Masters unboxing videos on youtube
and just watch people hemorrhaging money for dollar rares.
Modern Masters sets are essentially core sets with a $10+ price tag.
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I agree on the pricing issue for the masters sets. I know Wizards wants to “keep value” in the cards but $10/pack is a bit much. Especially when you are getting Seance and not enemy fetches.
Khans of Tarkir allied fetches are between $15-$20.
During standard they were as low as $8-$10. People
have short memory spans & are always chasing hot
garbage that is in fashion for 5 minutes, then complain
when they are priced out of modern. Doesn’t make sense.
I used to be really into Magic, to the point where I would follow along the tournament play, but never quite picked up all the nuances you provide here. Thanks for the basic level review!
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I’ve found that’s happened with several competitive scenes I’ve followed, notably Magic and Starcraft. I still play both (magic moreso) but pay more attention to it as an observer than player I’d say
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As someone who has just started trying to get into and understand Magic the Gathering, this is an ace article. Thanks for posting.
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No problem! That is exactly what I’ve been trying to provide. It’s difficult to surmise exactly what’s what in the magic scene, and I hadn’t really seen an article that detailed it from a more beginner perspective. Thanks for the comment!
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