How to Play Magic: The Gathering Part 8: Unofficial Formats

Last time I went over the officially recognized formats for Magic: The Gathering. This time I will go over some unofficial formats. Now I cannot possibly mention all of the formats out there since there are so many obscure ones and I’m pretty sure even some veteran players have never heard of some of them. But lets not waste any more time and dive right in.


Pauper, sometimes referred to as Legacy Lite, is a format that allows you to play cards from all of Magic’s history, minus a small banned list, but only cards that have been printed at the common rarity. Easily the cheapest format out there, decks usually cost around $40 to $60 to build. This format may not be unofficial for much longer though as pauper has been playable on MTG Online for years now and 2018 saw the first pauper events at Grand Prixs. Those events were also televised via Twitch and had an amazing number of viewers. Decks consist of the usual 60-card minimum and optional 15-card sideboard. Surprisingly, there is a lot of power to be found at the common rarity.


Usurper is a 5-player variant of commander. Players pick the deck that they want to play and then each player is secretly assigned one of five roles to play; a king, a knight, two assassins, and a rogue. Whoever receives the role of the king makes it known and is allowed to choose a different deck, if they wish. The king wins the game when the assassins and the rogue are defeated. Once a player is defeated, they reveal their role. The knights goal is to protect the king; if the king wins, the knight also wins if that player is still in the game. The assassins goal is to eliminate the king and the rouge wants to be the last man standing.


Emperor is a 6-player, 2-team format that can be played with 60-card decks or commander decks. The players sit across from each other, three on each side of the table. The two players in the center of their teammates are the emperors and their teammates are generals. Emperors have a reach of two, meaning that they can target players that are two seats away from them. The generals have a reach of one. The goal is to eliminate the other emperor and the idea is that you have to get through the generals before you can get to the emperor.

Tiny Leaders

Tiny Leaders is another commander variant. Instead of 40 life, you begin with 25. Rather than a 99-card deck, a 50-card deck and all spells need to have a converted mana cost of 3 or less. Tiny Leaders is also a 1v1 format rather than the 4 player free-for-all of EDH. There is also no special commander damage. Because of the requirement of spells costing 3 or less, Tiny Leaders is a very powerful and very fast format like Modern and Legacy.

Star Magic

Star Magic is best enjoyed with commander decks, but 60-card decks can also be used. A group of 5 players each pilot a deck that is only one color of mana and each color needs to be represented. In other words, one player plays a white deck, another plays a blue deck, a third player with a black deck, a player using red and the final player running a green deck. To keep this next part simple, players should be seated around the table in WUBRG order. The object is for a player to eliminate their enemy colors while protecting their ally colors. For example, the white player wants to eliminate the red and black players while protecting the green and blue players.


With the release of the Tarkir block in 2014, WotC introduced a new card layout. For whatever reason this prompted game stores to start a new format that restricted cards to those that had this new layout and that’s the only stipulation. Decks are still 60-card minimum, 15-card optional sideboard, 20 life, etc.

Big Deck

Like it sounds, big deck is played with a big deck. There is no maximum or minimum amount of cards to play, but you want around 250. Best enjoyed with 4 or more players, each player draws from the same deck. The most interesting aspect of big deck is that the deck contains no lands. That’s right, there are no lands in big deck. You have to decide if you want to use the cards you draw as they are printed or as mana sources. If do chose to use a card as a mana source, play it as a land and it can add 1 mana of any color in that cards casting cost. Due to this rule, you want to include cards of all colors and try sticking to singleton if possible. While the deck is shared, graveyards are maintained by the individual players.


While its not so much a format, it is worth mentioning cube. Creating a cube is like designing your own set of Magic. Used exclusively for draft play, a cube should contain hundreds of cards for variety and it needs to be maintained so that one color does not overpower the others. Balance is key to a good cube. To draft a cube, players pick three 15-card piles at random from the box of cards (don’t look at them), thus each player should have the equivalent of 3 booster packs. The draft then proceeds as any other draft would. You may wish to supply your players with lands, but don’t include them in the cards to be pulled from.


In the horde format, you will need a horde deck. A horde deck is made up of 100 cards, no lands, and should be roughly 60% creature tokens. For added fun and synergy these should be tribal tokens like zombies, elves, or goblins. The horde deck is also allowed 4 copies of nontoken cards unlike the player decks. Horde should always be played with at least 4 players and always with commander decks. The 4 players are on a team against the horde deck. The players life total is shared (add 20 points per player, 4 players = 80 life), while the horde has no life total. If the horde were to take life damage, remove cards from the top of the horde deck into the graveyard/exile. Although player life total is shared, mana is not. The players get two or three free turns to set up before the horde takes its first turn. When the horde takes its turn, flip over cards until you reach a spell. Any tokens are summoned and the spell goes on the stack. The tokens have haste and attack the players every turn if able. The horde cannot designate targets so players may block whichever creatures they choose, any unblocked creatures damage the shared life total. Due to this rule, try to avoid cards that require designating a target. If the horde must make a decision, it can be decided randomly by flipping a coin or a similar method, or coming to a consensus on what choice an actual player would make in that situation to get the best advantage. The horde has infinite mana so any abilities that require mana to activate may be activated as many times as would benefit the horde. The horde has no hand and if a card would be returned to the horde’s hand it can either be set aside to be cast again next turn along with the horde’s normal routine, placed back on top, or shuffled back into the library . The game is over when the horde deck is depleted and has no more creatures on the battlefield that it can attack with or the players are defeated.


Its a stretch to call planechase a format, but it is a unique way to play magic so I think its at least worth mentioning. Planechase is a product put out by Wizards of the Coast. The product comes with 5 decks (4 normal 60-card player decks, and a 5th deck made up of cards representing the different planes throughout the Magic multiverse) and a 6-sided planar die. The game proceeds as any normal game of Magic. Players may spend mana on their turn to roll the planar die, 1 mana = 1 roll. On a planeswalk roll, the top card of the planar deck is flipped over and the players have now planeswalked to that plane. The planes function like enchantments and can really switch up the gameplay.


Again, not really a format, but still worth a mention. Another unique product from Wizards, Archenemy comes with 4 playable decks and 5th deck made up of scheme cards. The three players team up against the 4th player who is the archenemy and has control over the scheme deck. Before the archenemy takes their turn, they flip over the top card of the scheme deck and set that scheme in motion.

That wraps up this post on formats. As you can see, there are lots of ways to enjoy a game of Magic. Feel free to experiment at some point and see what you come up with. Commander came about because a few judges got together between events, started experimenting, and the format took off from there.

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