One of the great things about Magic is how infinitely customizable it is. With so many different and varied game pieces and such a long history, it's almost as if there are many different games residing inside the overall scope of Magic as a whole. Playing Vintage Dredge against Vintage Shops is going to look like a completely different game than playing Core Set 2020 Draft, much like playing a six player Commander game is going to look vastly different than a Standard Esper Control mirror.
It's this amount of fluidity that brings us back over and over again, and is why Magic has been going for a quarter of a century with no signs of slowing down. There's just such a huge sandbox to play in that it never feels like you reach the sides. Formats themselves constantly change, but if you ever grow tired of one there's always something else to try.
Of course, this brings problems as well.
The reason we have a few big "main" formats - think Standard, Modern, Commander - is that there needs to be some sort of uniformity in rule sets or else finding an opponent who wants to play the same game as you can be difficult. You may love playing Canadian Highlander with your roommate at home, but if you bring that Canadian Highlander deck to a local store it's pretty unlikely you are going to find anyone who also has a Canadian Highlander deck to battle you with. There are only so many players in each local store/event, meaning it can be hard to get two players who want to play a semi-obscure format in the same place at the same time.
This is where digital Magic vastly outpaces tabletop Magic. Sure, on average I prefer to play Magic in tabletop than digital because I like going places and interacting with people, but the ease and logistics of digital Magic allow for so much more with far less planning. Instead of only having the people in your immediate area available at times that are convenient to them, you've got every single Magic player in the whole world who's currently online to draw from. Now all you need to do is set up an interesting format for them to play, and give them some incentive to play it, and you're off to the races.
Magic Online - Chaos Draft
For the uninitiated, Chaos Draft is a wild and crazy format that also happens to be one of my favorites.
Chaos Draft is fairly simple in practice; assemble eight (or six) players as you normally would for a booster draft and proceed as normal. The only difference is that you will not be drafting the most recent set, but rather from a random pool of booster packs from all different sets over Magic's history. Typically the ideal Chaos draft has no repeating packs, meaning every pack you see will be from a different set. You could end up with three starting packs of Future Sight, Onslaught, and Iconic Masters, or any other awesome mixture.
The problem with Chaos draft is that logistically getting together a Chaos Draft in paper is quite difficult.
Not only do you need seven other players who want to Chaos draft all in the same place at the same time, but old packs are expensive. A booster pack of Urza's Saga is going to run you a cool $100 here on CoolStuffInc.com, and even more recent sets like Innistrad are going to run you $12. This makes getting an exciting spread of sets both difficult and expensive, which really hampers the fun of a Chaos Draft. It feels awesome getting to open that old Invasion pack and feel like you're touching Magic's history, rather than just feeling like you're opening last year's Standard packs.
Having Chaos Drafts on an online platform completely circumvents this issue, as well as the issue of needing to get people together to actually do the draft. Thankfully Magic Online does just that, bringing the Chaos Draft experience to us at various times as a break from Cube Drafting. This is awesome! These sorts of fun formats are much easier to do on Magic Online and for years I've been calling for more things like this. One of the biggest failings of online Magic early on was that it tried to just exactly mimic paper Magic rather than looking at unique things it could do and it's great to see this both on Magic Online and MTG Arena (which we will get to shortly).
My only complaint is the current pool of packs available for Magic Online Chaos Drafts, which has been curated to skip some early sets as well as remove all core sets and Masters sets. Aside from the fact that I think all sets should be available for history's sake, Masters set's high power level and synergies and Core set's great collection of baseline effects make putting together good Chaos draft decks easier and more fun, and who doesn't love opening a good Masters pack? Would love to see this changed.
Quick word on Chaos Draft strategy:
Chaos Draft is about thinking on your feet and trying to piece together synergy from across many different sets and themes. Because this isn't easy to do you want to focus more on power than all out synergy, while still finding nice little pockets of synergy to exploit. Make sure to try and have a good top end, and try to stay open and two colors while drafting unless there is very good fixing. The format is definitely slower than normal draft so don't be afraid to take the draw if you've got a lot of removal and/or your opponent's deck is slow. Good luck and enjoy!
MTG Arena - Standard Shakeup
While I've lamented for years about the lack of crazy, short-term formats for Magic Online, MTG Arena has not made the same mistakes. We've seen all sorts of crazy game modes that usually last for a weekend, giving us the chance to explore something new with everyone else for a short period of time.
The most recent was the Standard Shakeup, something they've done before and I expect they will do more often as it is great fun. The theme is simple, what would happen if all the top cards in Standard were suddenly banned? As players get tired of playing against Teferi, Time Raveler and the Standard metagame becomes more and more developed, players are always looking for that great week one, wild wild west format and this mode gives it to them. Of course, if this was actually what Standard looked like going forward it would be eventually solved as the new top cards would take their places in the top tier of the new format, but by running it for only a short time we get to have our fun and then move on. That's the best part of these fun, short lived formats - if somebody breaks it, that's awesome! The format gets broken and is then gone in a few days anyway, no harm done.
It's hard for me to properly emphasize how important things like this are for the health of digital Magic as a whole. Put simply, alternate game modes like this are very fun! Much of the fun and challenge of Magic is deck-building and exploration, which can feel stifled at times by the heavily competitive formats and the ranked ladder. There's infinite content and strategy available for any given normal Standard format, meaning that players can brute force their way into learning a top deck and do well. Having these sorts of think on your feet formats really get the creative Magic juices flowing.
I can only hope we see more of these events, though I wish they would last a little bit longer to ensure everyone gets a chance to play. With MTG Arena's first big rotation coming up we are going to have MTG Arena cards not in Standard for the first time on our accounts, which opens the door up for even more format possibilities. Things like Chaos draft could be a great way to get older cards into newer players hands, as well as formats that use cards both old and new. I've been advocating for Build Your Own Standard on Magic Online for almost a decade, a format where you get to choose a few different sets to build your Standard deck from and go from there, and hopefully we get there one day on MTG Arena.
If you haven't tried any of these more out there game modes on MTG Arena I highly suggest it. They encourage creativity, are a ton of fun, and are frankly a breath of fresh air when things get a little stale (like right now with pre-rotation Standard and pre-Hogaak ban Modern). The only downside when it comes to these events on MTG Arena is that people don't necessarily want to blow all of their wild cards on cards for an event that only last for a few days, which I understand. Maybe Wizards of the Coast can make these events phantom? Or allow you to uncraft any card you crafted for the event itself at the end of it?
There's so much that can be done with digital Magic, and I hope Wizards of the Coast keeps being unafraid to push the envelope.
Don't Fight The Future
Digital Magic is a huge part of the future of Magic. I would never want it to replace tabletop Magic as there's nothing better than being in a room with 500 other players and throwing down with something big on the line, but digital Magic has so many advantages over paper that they must be properly utilized.
Digital Magic is a different medium than paper Magic and these sorts of fun formats and events help to explore that medium in new and exciting ways. Let's keep it up Wizards of the Coast!