All Magic Formats Ranked 2018, Part 3: The Top 5

Well, at long last: Here it is, The Top 5 formats of 2018.

It was a huge undertaking but luckily I was up to the “Gob.”

Much thanks is owed to all who helped me along in various ways with the project over the past few weeks. Also, many thanks to everybody who took the time to cast a vote for the niche formats on Twitter: @BrianDeMars1 and/or Twitch.tv/DeMTG and to everyone who casted votes on the online poll.

It was neat to utilize so many different platforms to connect with readers and players from all over the world to create a list that wasn’t just my own opinions, but reflected the tastes and ideas of a broader perspective than one person could ever accomplish alone.

In case you missed the first two installments and want to check them out:

Every Paper Magic Format Ranked 2018, Part 1: Top 8 Niche Formats

Every Paper Magic Format Ranked 2018, Part 2: #10-6

A few straggler votes have come in since I finished part 2 and I chose to include them, which brought the total to 1,160 voters who voted for 3,030 formats. The average voter cast votes for 2.61 formats, which did reflect my assumption that most players enjoy a range of formats. Clearly, some voted for less than the maximum three, which means the poll was also able to incorporate a “specialist viewpoint” as well.

I’m going to leave the poll open for another few days, so any stragglers who missed out on voting can have a chance to make their voices heard. A few late ballots never hurt anybody, right…? I’m obviously not going to rewrite the article if some of the close races flip but I will publish the final poll afterwards so you can all see how it finished up.

As you’ll soon see, there were some hotly contested races in the top 5!

#5. Cube

336 VOTES

28.97% OF BALLOTS

And we got a HAWT one right off the bat. Cube edged out Legacy for the fifth spot (and top half bragging rights) by a slim margin of only 20 votes. We saw another close race (Premodern surpassing Vintage by four votes) back in part 2. Here’s the kicker:

SPOILER ALERT: Premodern’s four-vote margin isn’t the slimmest on the list! More on that to come…

The “Cube category” incorporated all types and variants, including but not limited to: MTGO Cube, Holiday Cube, Pauper Cube, OSM Cube, Chaos Cube, Combo Cube, etc. Basically, if you’ve gone through the trouble of cobbling together a spicy mix of cards and compel your friends to draft them with you, it’s a Cube and I’m counting it.

If you have a particularly unique brand of Cube that you’d like to plug, feel free to share in the comments. I’d love to hear about it.

The fact that “Cube” encompasses such a wide array of elements only plays into its popularity. I’ve played at least fifty different Cubes over the years and each one had thoughtful and unique elements.

A Cube is like a Magic player’s cardboard baby. Cubists put themselves into the creation and refinement of bringing something wonderful to life that makes the gaming community better for existing. To complete that analogy, foiling out a Cube is kind of like putting a child through college: expensive but a great investment!

Cube is a community activity that highlights the best qualities I associate with the gaming experience: creativity, friendship, fun, and new ideas. I’ve found that spending more time with Cube is a great counterbalance to the grind of competitive Magic. Cube is a format enjoyed by all. It doesn’t matter if you play at the kitchen table or on the Pro Tour—there is something Magical about drafting a well wrought Cube with some good friends.

Interested in building a Cube of your own? Check out Wizards’ primer about how to get started.

Only squares don’t enjoy Cube.

#4. Commander

420 VOTES

36.21% OF BALLOTS

The “Commander category” includes all formats that use a commander and the command zone: Tiny Leaders, 1v1, and multiplayer variants.

A quick narrative I’ve noticed embedded in the list:

10-6: Eternal Formats (Old School, Vintage, Premodern, Pauper, Legacy)

5-4: Casual Formats (Cube, Commander)

3-1: Competitive Formats (You’ll see…)

Cost of entry has played a big role in the diminished popularity of Eternal formats of 2018. I don’t say these things to pick on Eternal players. I am an Eternal player and I’m concerned. I play a lot less Eternal because it’s getting more and more difficult to find a friend to game with.

Hot Take: Pauper is casual and Eternal. If Pauper had just one Grand Prix in 2018 it would have easily surpassed several formats as a result of the exposure. I’d further hypothesize that even without any MagicFest support that Pauper will be a more popular than Legacy in the next year or so.

When it comes to quality of the community and gameplay, Eternal formats (Pauper included) are great and beyond compare. Do you know what else is great? Panda bears. Yet, just because something is wonderful doesn’t mean that it can’t also be endangered.

One last point: Casual formats are not killing Eternal formats. $500+ dual lands are.

Commander is the default Constructed format designed to appeal to the gigantic market of casual players. The format regularly gets its own new releases in the form of preconstructed decks and “Eternal sets,” which are secretly (not secretly) Commander sets.

I managed a game store for a few years and one of the most important things I learned from that experience was that grinders are the minority of Magic players. While the majority of coverage and content may be directed toward tournament players, the majority of pack and single sales are driven by casual mages.

Deep down, I’m more of a highlander than a Commander and that has a lot to do with my competitive deck building background. I enjoy building decks and trying to break the format. It’s very easy to “break the format” in Commander, but the reward of doing so is, more often than not, annoying to the other players. It’s hard for me to reconcile building a deck that is good, but not too good.

With that being said, I always have a blast when I borrow somebody’s back-up deck and join the game. In the past year I’ve really gotten in touch with playing Magic for fun again—it was something I lost grinding. All my early Magic memories are multiplayer games with my brother and cousins. When I frame it that way, it makes perfect sense that the multiplayer format has such a high ranking.

I refuse to call them commanders. They’ll always be generals to me.

I’ve gone “blue free” in Commander. The Rock in every format!

My general is Mazirek, Kraul Death Priest. Who do you run?

A Tangential Rant About “Casual Format” Before the Top 3

I’d love to get feedback from people who play a lot of Cube and Commander about how they feel about the term “casual formats.” It’s sort of the default way of referring to the non-sanctioned formats, but I can’t help but feel it’s highly imprecise.

To me, casual implies: “This is not serious.”

People don’t casually fine-tune Commander, Cubes, and Battle Boxes. They do it will skill and precision.

“Casual” also has a pejorative connotation that implies these formats are less important than competitive formats. I doubt Magic sales would reflect such an assumption. All of the formats and players are important, and part of the community.

I’ve been having an interesting dialogue on social media about the topic and have gotten some nice suggestions already:

Customizable formats.

Community formats.

Friendly formats.

Fun formats.

Recreational formats.

If you think the question is stupid and I’m being a snowflake, you are missing the point. If you leave a comment to that effect, I’m going wish you a Happy New Year and move on with my life because you’ve missed the point completely.

I’m not suggesting people burst into tears when they see Cube referred to as a casual format. For me, it’s an issue of: “I’m a writer and words matter. If there’s a better word, I’ll use it!”

For what it’s worth, I really like the ring of community or customizable formats because I think they emphasize the best unique characteristics of these formats, rather than suggest they should be viewed as “not serious”. I can call it casual, I can call it something else—I’d like to know what the people who actually play these formats like the sound of.

Me writing an article:

#3. Standard

422 VOTES

36.28% OF BALLOTS

Earlier, I alluded to a razor thin vote. Standard bested Commander by 2 votes. Talk about a photo finish!

Last year, I ranked the formats based upon my impressions of each and Standard was dead last on my list. In fact, I went so far as to say the lone redeemable quality the format possessed was that the cards were less expensive than Legacy.

Wow, this rotten apple is cheaper than a fresh one! Sold.

Standard was so bad. How bad was it? People invented new formats to avoid playing it. The great Standard mutiny of 2017 was a dark time for competitive Magic, but what a difference a year can make.

From zero to hero, Standard has surged back with a vengeance. In fact, Standard earned one of my three ballot votes in 2018, I feat I would have deemed impossible last year.

So, what changed? #MTGArena, for starters. The platform has made the format accessible and engaging to a huge audience.

The most important factor is that Standard is once again fun to play. Duh. I think it’s intuitive that most players enjoy formats where they have deck-building options and it feels like our game decisions matter. One important observable change is design related:

Thankfully, WotC finally got the memo that CMC 3 and 4 planeswalkers that win the game outright is awful design and leads to miserable Magic. In general, I’m happy to see that Wizards has dialed back on the hee-haw win cards and is again letting us play the game rather than have the cards play it for us.

I can build decks again. I’ve been crushing Arena with my sick Di-NAYA-Saur Deck. Standard is fun and feels like Magic.

If I had run back the list format from last year, I would have ranked Standard #1. I agree it would have been a cool “shock narrative” (last to first), but it would have been earned. Right now, Standard is my favorite format to play. We are into spoiler season and the format is still changing and adapting. IMHO, this is the best Standard format I’ve ever played.

Welcome back, Standard!

#2. Modern

495 VOTES

42.67% OF THE VOTES

Modern finished in second place with a comfortable buffer over the next most popular Constructed format. Despite Standard’s dramatic improvement and a shiny new online platform where it is the only supported format, Modern was not to be denied. A true testament to its viability, popularity, and staying power.

Modern is also the last deck that rounded out my ballot. I love the format. My only complaint about Modern is I can’t play and stream it on #MTGArena.

Modern has a huge advantage over every other non-rotating tournament format because it includes no reserve list cards. In 2018 I believe we saw slippage from Eternal formats that correlates to the prohibitive cost of entry. Modern, on the other hand, has been able to inject a steady supply of staples into the bloodstream via Masters reprints, which has raised the card supply to meet the growing player demand.

I’d like to emphasis growing. I’d also like to emphasize the importance of being able to grow without pricing out new players. Inclusion is key.

Formats don’t get replaced, but they can be displaced. Ask a Vintage player if Legacy replaced it. They will laugh in your face and say, “Nothing compares to Vintage.” With that being said, when it comes to formats, size does matter. How often you get to play has a lot to do with how many people there are to play with and there were a ton of people to play Modern with in 2018.

It’s impossible to talk about Modern without discussing how the powerful nature of the cards and linear decks creates polarizing matchups that some players find objectionable. Actually, it’s not as impossible as I thought. Noted, and moving along. I play the format a lot and I accept the power level for what it is.

In my estimation, one of the most interesting Magic questions I’m looking forward to seeing play out in 2019 is: How will Arena’s continued growth impact Modern’s popularity? Also, will Arena create its own non-rotating format like post-Modern and how will that affect the Modern market share of the player base?

In terms of Constructed, Modern is king of the mountain in 2018. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, especially in terms of paper play. Long live the king!

#1. Limited (Draft and Sealed)

553 VOTES

47.67% OF BALLOTS

The people have spoken and Limited has emerged with the most votes. I can’t argue with that, as there’s something very Magic about cracking some packs and building a deck with the contents. It’s Magic in a very pure form.

As is the case with any list, there is bound to be a little controversy. Ultimately, debating lists is what makes lists such a fun topic. Looking back, I regret making Draft and Sealed one category and I will change that the next time around.

My line of thinking was these formats are so similar in nature and often linked in terms of tournaments. For instance, Grand Prix and RPTQs Limited events feature both Sealed and Draft rounds, and both formats feature the same card pool. So there is significantly more overlap between Draft and Sealed, and Standard and Modern. There was also a pragmatic consideration where doing separate writeups for Sealed and Draft would involve saying a lot of similar things twice.

With that being said, I was shocked to see Limited finish first. Shocked. I was expecting to see the category finish either third or fourth. The upside of my misstep is that the result is unmistakable to interpret: a ton of people are enjoying Limited right now.

I’m also of the belief that set design for Limited has improved over the past three years. Better Magic design has been a recurring theme of the list and it’s a big reason why Magic is in a period of growth and renaissance right now.

I thought Amonkhet Limited sucked. It wasn’t even an issue of not liking the mechanics, so much as I played way too many games where I was pummeled by ludicrous, unbeatable rares and felt helpless—nothing I did mattered.

I was a vocal minority of 2017 professional players who advocated for Ixalan Limited. It was really aggressive but I thought the games and plays were much improved from the Amonkhet block.

The past year has been a treat. Dominaria, Core Set 2019, and GRN Limited have all been amazing. Each one had a good balance and an authentic feel.

People have been really quick to sing the praises of Standard in 2018 and rightly so. But it is also worth noting that 2018 also featured much improved Limited formats as well. While lumping Sealed and Draft together obviously benefited “Limited” in terms of not splitting its votes, it’s also worth questioning: does Amonkhet Limited beat out Modern?

My surprise at Limited’s #1 ranking has clearly underestimated how much MTG Arena has profoundly impacted people’s ability to play and enjoy these formats. It makes it significantly cheaper to do a Draft, which means that more people are able to do the activity more often, hence its greater popularity.

Also, getting to do it more allows people to understand it better and have a deeper appreciation of the format. Drafting on Arena has significantly changed how I play for the better. I get to do it more!

Whew.

All in all, 2018 was a great year for Magic. No matter how you chose to play—you chose well!

Arena was a game-changer and seems poised to continue to impact how we play for years to come. I welcome it.

I’d love to see your personal rankings and how they compare to the list. Feel free to split up Sealed and Draft, if you’d like to speculate on how the list would have looked without the “super group.”

Thanks to all who voted. I’m going to leave the poll open a little bit longer and I’ll publish final results next week. I wonder if more votes will tip some of the close races.

I’d like to wish you all a happy holiday season and a happy new year!

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