MTG Arena Formats

I have a long history with online MTG. Although it was the paper cards that first made me fall in love with Magic, I’ve also played innumerable hours of online versions of the game. I first got on the Pro Tour via Magic Online, and I was the Magic Online champion back in 2011.

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However, I’ve always been a bit of a purist. I love tabletop Magic, and I love Magic Online because of how well it simulates tabletop Magic. As such, it took me a while to warm up to MTG Arena.

Magic Online is meant to be a direct analog to tabletop Magic. Whenever possible, the cards work the same way, the rules are the same and you can even pause to think (or bluff) in the same window. MTG Arena, on the other hand, is not designed with the same goal. MTG Arena is designed to be a fun, convenient, and user-friendly way to engage with Magic. However, there are places where it intentionally diverges from the tabletop game.

Perhaps the best example is the timing on Arena. If you don’t have a play you can make, the software will blow through all of the places where you’d normally get a chance to act, in the interest of creating a fast and efficient game. There are plenty of other places where the two methods of play diverge.

At first, this bothered me. I wanted to play some Magic, not some new video game masquerading as Magic. Thankfully, I learned to shift my thinking and start viewing MTG Arena based on its own merits. It is indeed fast, fun and user friendly, with its own skill set that makes great players difficult to beat and (in my opinion) worthy of admiration.

What about the places where Arena diverges most completely from tabletop MTG? There are Arena-only formats which don’t exist at all for tabletop or Magic Online play. They have a different selection of legal cards, with different banned lists. In some cases, cards are even adjusted from their original printing.


The first of these Arena-only formats was Historic. It’s been generally well-received, and I enjoy it myself. Almost every card that exists on Arena is legal in Historic, so it means your cards maintain their utility after they rotate out of Standard. Historic features engaging archetypes like Sacrifice, Izzet Phoenix, Control and Collected Company strategies. Tarmogoyf was even recently printed into Historic!



Next came Alchemy. Alchemy had the completely unprecedented feature that cards could be changed - often for power level reasons - from their original printings. This would be effectively impossible for tabletop play because you can’t change what’s printed on the cards; the ink dries! But online, it’s possible for the programmers to make changes as often as they like.

I was excited about the idea. With more players playing more games of MTG than ever before in history, formats get solved very quickly. Within a week or two, everybody knows the best decks, and it’s possible for competitive play to become repetitive and stale. For a high-volume player like me, the ability to make frequent changes could mean keeping things fresh and interesting.

In my mind, there was one big miss in the execution of Alchemy: the price. Staying competitive in Alchemy requires a tremendous expenditure of wild cards. The card pool is deeper, and cards are printed more frequently. And importantly, your Standard cards are legal in Alchemy, but your Alchemy cards don’t work the other way around.

For a player like me, maintaining a collection across Arena, Magic Online and tabletop is already expensive and exhausting. Now, there’s additional pressure to buy Alchemy-specific products whenever they’re released - it’s easier to just opt out. Unfortunately, so many people chose this “opt out” path that Alchemy never attracted as big a following as other formats. So now there’s a big barrier to entry, and not even much incentive to clear it!

I think Alchemy is (or was) a cool experiment, but it didn’t catch on in a big way.


Instead, the format I’ve been enjoying most lately is Explorer. Unlike Alchemy and Historic, Explorer is designed to mirror tabletop play. Every card that exists on Arena and is legal in Pioneer is legal in Explorer, and nothing more than that. Over time, Pioneer and Explorer should become closer and closer to one another until they finally overlap completely.

Explorer is fun as a standalone format, and also makes for effective cross-training for Pioneer players. Right now I’ve been loving midrange decks, sacrifice decks and Mono-Blue Spirits.

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Explorer will be a tournament format for the World Championship coming up in October. For me, this is the most important event of the year, so I’m hoping to put my best foot forward. This will involve coming up with a great Explorer deck!

As always, the greatest thing about MTG are the limitless possibilities, and the way each player can choose what’s most fun for them. If you love Historic, Alchemy or Explorer - great! More power to you. If you prefer to opt out of the Arena-only formats and stick to tabletop play, that works too. The point is just to have a good time, and find what works for you.

Author: Reid Duke

Magic: The Gathering Hall of Fame, Member of Team CFBUltimateGuard

Magic runs in the family for Reid. When Reid was five, his mom came home one day with two Magic starter packs for him and his brother Ian. They both hardly knew the rules but they muddled through as best they could with the rules inserts. 26 years later, Reid’s now one of Magic’s most successful and respected players in the world. Learn more about Reid.