Current State of MTG Arena Formats, Summarized
MTG Arena started with one constructed format in mind: Standard. The restriction was, of course, due to card digitization limitations, as it is much easier to import a few rotating sets first, rather than dumping everything in one go. Five years later, we now have six formats. While players have vastly different opinions about their implementation, the fact is that MTG Arena has more or less stabilized its update rollout to cater to different types of game layouts.
To better clarify this evolution, WoTC has released two notes regarding the state of formats in MTG Arena (sources below). The articles elaborate on each constructed format, how it came to be, and what is in store for the future. Treat this article as a TL;DR version of sorts.
The Six Main Formats
Tabletop formats are the most familiar to traditional MTG players. These are the ones that receive similar updates across the board whether physical or digital. Standard is intended to be completely the same on both sides (updating concurrently), while Explorer attempts to emulate Pioneer by slowly adding relevant cards and (older) sets to the format (curated selection).
Banning is stated to be the main tool of balance for these formats, and will continue to be intended as the recommended starting point, especially for those who already play tabletop.
Digital formats, meanwhile, take advantage of the automated nature of the game, offering features and card effects that would otherwise not be practical when done on tabletop. These formats also utilize the easier level of engagement of online matches that results in high rate of play and better spread of knowledge, in order to get a better grasp of the metagame more quickly.
Format Play Distribution
Concluded as a healthy distribution, but nonetheless still caters to each player's taste, and leanings. Alchemy runs a bit low, but is nonetheless still catching up to Brawl. Explorer, as expected, sees the least amount of play, with its disparity between Pioneer still a considerable contributing factor.
Perfect one-to-one analog of the tabletop version. Rotates every three years. It is naturally the most popular format in MTG Arena. The format had a recent major change, in the form of a rotation year extension, which caused wildly mixed opinions within the community.
Tries to get as close as the pure tabletop Pioneer, though still quite far. As a result, some of the powerful and popular Pioneer decks cannot muster their full strength in Explorer. Despite this, the rules remain the same, even the ban list. WoTC estimates that it might take 2024 or 2025 to achieve full parity with Pioneer.
A digital-only format that rotates every two years (same as old Standard) within a supposed faster-moving metagame. Alchemy was a result of searching for the sweet spot of stability and change. It is also the primary format where digital-only card effects are mainly showcased. WoTC is so far content with the format's growth, and will continue moving forward its intended path.
Basically a nonrotating format featuring selected cards from classic sets. Updates may have the same name as an original card set, but would have curated content. As described, it sits firmly between Pioneer and Modern in terms of implementation and power level. This format is also where Universes Beyond sets are commonly advertised. Balance is somewhat more focused here, as the R&D team expressed their caution when choosing cards to be implemented. In fact, some of the Wilds of Eldraine Enchanting Tales cards were pre-banned to prevent unintended huge shifts in gameplay.
Historic Brawl & Brawl
These support competitive singleton decks built for Commanders, but made for regular MTG games. This makes it significantly faster-paced than what Commander games would typically feel like. Regular Brawl only uses Standard sets. Not much directional change here as well.
Still No Modern?
None, unfortunately, and it was quite explicitly stated as well. The card pool of the format is just deemed too big at the moment even to be considered on MTG Arena. Heck, the game already has problems with hit-and-miss Explorer updates, so we can assume digital Modern to be an entirely different nightmare.
As for newer formats, there's no word just yet. But it is quite unlikely, given what is already covered currently within the game.
2023 Rotation Update
These are the card sets that were released so far for 2023 (and a bit of late 2022). WoTC claims that all-in-all, these total to about 2,000 cards for different formats, players, and game variety:
- 5 Standard set releases – Dominaria United, The Brothers' War, Phyrexia: All Will Be One, March of the Machine, Wilds of Eldraine
- 1 Epilogue release – March of the Machine: The Aftermath
- 3 Alchemy releases – Alchemy: Dominaria United, Alchemy: The Brothers' War, Alchemy: Phyrexia
- 1 Alchemy set release – The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth
- 1 Remastered release – Shadows over Innistrad Remastered (and the monster that was Emrakul, the Promised End)
- 3 Anthologies – Explorer Anthology 2, Explorer Anthology 3, and Historic Anthology 7
- 7 Rebalance passes
A witness since the time the benevolent silver planeswalker first left Dominaria, ChrisCee has since went back and forth on a number of plane-shattering incidents to oversee the current state of the Multiverse.
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