One of Magic’s biggest first-world problems is the overabundance of ways that people have cooked up to play it. If you head to your local game store on a Friday night, you’re very likely to be able to play Standard or get in a draft with the latest set. And if you have a larger store in town you can usually play Modern, Commander, and maybe even Legacy throughout the week.
However, that leaves a large handful of formats that are awesome to play but just don’t show up on game stores’ rosters. These are formats that people often play regionally, online, or on their own kitchen table, but just don’t have the presence to become mainstays. Read on for a breakdown of what I consider to be the five sweetest of these niche formats, and why you should be playing (or watching) them whenever you get a chance.
Vintage is to Magic what Ferraris or Lamborghinis are to cars. It’s the most expensive, most intense Magic experience that there is, and it’s very unlikely that you (or I) will ever get to experience it directly.
Vintage is a format that allows at least one of most every card in Magic, including just straight-up busted stuff like Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, and Sol Ring. The games can be over on turn 1, or they can grind on forever, as players jockey to outmaneuver each other through pitched counterspell battles or wars of attrition. There are a number of very cool strategies to try out, such as Oath of Druids combo, Storm decks that kill with Tendrils of Agony, Stax-style decks powered by Mishra’s Workshop, Monastery Mentor decks, Doomsday decks, and more.
Vintage is undoubtedly sweet, but it only just barely makes this list because it’s unlikely that I will ever actually play it. I don’t play on Magic Online, and decks are far too expensive on paper to make it worth buying in (or even possible to consider, honestly). The cards are more affordable on Magic Online, but even there a good deck will run you about $700.
If you want to see what Vintage is like without dropping that much money, I highly recommend checking out the Vintage Super League video series. This Randy Buehler-produced series pits a number of Magic greats and Vintage notables against each other each week, with season six ongoing right now.
4. Two-Headed Giant
Two-Headed Giant (2HG) is the bee’s knees because it lets you see Magic through another player’s eyes. In 2HG, you play Magic with a partner by your side and a shared life total of 30. You take turns as a team and play against another team or teams. The ability to interact with a partner as you play Magic makes for some truly unique games.
If you and your partner have different playstyles, 2HG offers a great way to get inside that person’s head and see why they play the way they do. For example, one of you might be prone to making riskier plays that carry a higher reward, while the other likes to play it safe. Figuring out which of your plays makes the most sense is extremely satisfying, as is watching your plan blow up in your face and trying to pin the blame on the other person.
(No, don’t actually do that, it’s a terrible idea. Remember, you still want to play Magic with that person again!)
2HG’s also great for teaching new players how to play the game, as their partner can steer the ship and explain how different cards interact. Just be careful not to over-do it! Be sure to let the new player drive and make your team’s decisions from time to time, even if you think those decisions might not work out. After all, learning from your own mistakes is one of the most important, and sometimes even the most fun, parts of Magic!
3. Australian Highlander
I’m including this format with the caveat that I have never actually played it nor seen it be played. But man, does it seem like it could be the best. Australian Highlander reads like a cross between Commander, Cube, and Vintage, which are three of the sweetest formats in Magic. Of all the formats I’ve never played, this is the one I’d be the most excited to sleeve up a deck for.
Australian Highlander is a normal 60-card Constructed format that allows every card that’s legal in Vintage, but, just like Commander, allows you to include only one of each card in your deck (other than basic lands). Additionally, the most powerful cards in the format, such as the aforementioned Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus, Sol Ring, etc., are “pointed”. For example, Black Lotus costs 4 points. Channel costs 2 points. Snapcaster Mage costs 1 point. Each deck can include only 7 points worth of cards. This brings each deck into balance with each other while still allowing you to play any Vintage-legal card in your deck.
Because you don’t necessarily “need” to be playing the most extremely expensive cards in your deck to stay competitive, and because you only ever need one of any card, it seems like decks could be affordable enough to build without selling a kidney. I have a Blue-Red Splinter Twin list brewed up that I’ll likely spotlight in the future, if I can ever get anyone to play against it first…
P.S. While Australian Highlander’s cousin, Canadian Highlander, seems like it’s more likely to take off, I think I’d personally prefer Australian Highlander. 100 card decks are all well and good for casual Magic, but if I’m going to play 1 v 1 over the course of an evening, I want to only shuffle up 60 cards.
2. Cube Draft
Playing Cube Draft is akin to listening to your favorite band’s greatest hits album. A wave of nostalgia sweeps over you, and you begin to sing along as you grab Mulldrifter out of a pack, reliving those good ol’ days of creating a 2/2 flyer and drawing two cards.
Cube Draft is a format in which you create and draft your own booster packs out of cards that you already own. To do so, most people build a “Cube”, which is a color or archetype balanced pool of 360+ cards that you then distribute as packs before drafting. Most Cubes are singleton, though they don’t have to be, and most also include some of the best cards from throughout Magic’s history. I’ve drafted (or seen drafted) a variety of Cubes, some made up of only Commons, some made up of any cool cards the Cube’s owner just happened to have on hand, some made up of only cards from the Weatherlight Saga, and some (like Magic Online’s Vintage Cube) that include stuff like Black Lotus (or at least proxies thereof).
The best part of Cube Draft is that, if the Cube has been designed well, the drafts themselves are entirely enjoyable. There are little to no “bad” cards in most Cubes, so you can grab whatever cards you want at the start and try to create something that’s as powerful as a Constructed deck. When your deck turns out well in Cube Draft, it is extremely satisfying, especially if you managed to grab some of your old favorites while drafting.
The worst part of Cube Draft is finding enough people to do it with. For example, I designed my own Cube (a Modern Pauper Cube, proving that you can design a Cube on a pretty low budget) about a year ago, and have drafted it only twice, because I haven’t been able to get the required 6 to 8 people in the same room. Still, the couple drafts of it that I’ve done have been wonderful.
Pauper is number one on this list because, honestly, everyone should be playing it. Pauper is a Constructed format in which players can include only Common cards in their decks. Because of this restriction, decks are incredibly cheap to build. It’s possible to build about 10 different Pauper decks for the same price as you’d pay for a tier 1 Modern deck.
While it might not sound super exciting to build decks out of only Commons, the format actually contains a lot of very sweet cards, including some of the best in Magic. For example, all I really ask of my Blue-Red decks is the ability to play Lightning Bolt and counterspells, and in Pauper I can play actual Counterspell (which is more than I can say for Modern). Pauper’s current top deck is Mono-Blue Delver, but there are a variety of viable strategies that you can try out. There’s really something for any kind of player, although combo decks have been on the decline recently after dominating for a little while.
While Pauper should be played everywhere, it’s often tough for stores to support it in the real world. Because the cards are cheap, stores can’t support the format just by selling singles. And Wizards has yet to implement a ban list for paper Pauper, as right now the format is officially sanctioned only on Magic Online. Because there are differences between what’s been printed at Common online and in the real world, stores and playgroups often have to hash out a paper ban list themselves.
Still Pauper is super fun and incredibly deep, and I’m hopeful that it’ll take off in the real world some day. And if you want the fun of Pauper with the feel of Standard, you can also try out Standard Pauper, which is even cheaper and doesn’t have the same ban list issue as regular ‘ol Pauper.
I’ll be taking a deeper look into one of these formats in just a couple weeks…but which one? For the answer to that, you’ll have to come back next time. Until then, may you find someone to play your sweet niche formats with.