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Explorer is the New Classic


A little over a week ago, Wizards of the Coast dropped a pretty big announcement for MTG Arena in its State of the Game for the program. The news was that we were getting a new format, which was in line with prior statements about wanting to produce another format closer to paper formats. Speculation was that we were getting Pioneer, but that only turned out to be partially true. What was announced was an entirely new Arena-only format called Explorer.

Explorer is kind of like Pioneer-lite. Simply defined, it's every Pioneer-legal card that's currently on the client. Now, that classification gets a little murkier than it seems at first glance. Obviously, this includes all of the general sets from Kaladesh Remastered all the way up through Streets of New Capenna as you'd expect. However, it also includes sets like the Historic Anthology and Jumpstart releases... but also not really. Cards like Craterhoof Behemoth and Allosaurus Shepherd aren't Pioneer legal, thus making them illegal in Explorer. However, cards like Young Pyromancer, Cryptbreaker, Kolaghan's Command, and Maze's End are. The Strixhaven Mystical Archives add a couple cards too, bringing the likes of Putrefy, Sign in Blood, Crux of Fate, and Doom Blade into the format, but not Counterspell and Lightning Bolt.

Young Pyromancer
Doom Blade
Kolaghan's Command

If this seems confusing, I don't blame you. There's been a bunch of oddball releases and some are legal but others aren't and the only way you can tell if by looking up the legality on a site like Scryall (here's a list of every Explorer legal card from the special Arena sets). Otherwise, you have to set the in-client legality to Explorer and check for yourself that way. Why the weird halfway solution, though instead of just going all the way?

The answer is a bit multi-faceted, but in simple terms: the addition of Alchemy - while a valiant experiment - ended kind of badly. Historic was made at first as a way to ease into Pioneer as well while still being its own thing - hence the Historic Anthologies and Jumpstart sets having Pioneer-legal cards in them. However, it became apparent that people loved Historic a lot as its own thing so Wizards went all-in on prioritizing that over Pioneer, where it would likely take years to add all the cards to the client.

The problem with this, however, is that with the addition of Alchemy came card adjustments made for a Standard environment that also impacted Historic. As a result, this ended up burning a lot of players on Historic, as their well-loved decks would suddenly be made obsolete at the drop of a hat. There were similar issues with Alchemy itself, with cards and whole decks changing frequently while not getting wildcards for the changes. This left players once more with basically just Standard and Limited and not much else. Heck, there even started to be a noticeable downward trend on Arena and an upward trend on MTGO for a bit in the wake of Alchemy's introduction.

We're left in this weird spot with the format, now. It'll become Pioneer eventually, but not quite yet. In the meantime, Explorer is a solid holdover that is its own thing a little more naturally than Historic, yet lacks a number of critical cards that you might expect in Pioneer. A lack of Hidden Strings and Pore Over Pages, for example, makes Lotus Field Combo not work at all. But just how long might it take to get a bunch of these core cards into the format? We can actually look to Magic Online for a bit of a frame of reference with all of this.

Nowadays, Magic Online is well known for being your one stop shop to being able to play virtually every format under the sun (except for the Arena-exclusive ones, of course). It's even become well known for being one of the only real ways to be able to play Legacy and Vintage nowadays with the cost of physical cards being way too high for most. It wasn't always that way, though. Legacy, despite having the same name as the paper format, was very different due to a lack of appropriate cards online. Similarly, Vintage just didn't even really exist and was instead called Classic for many years - much the same as we're seeing now with Pioneer and Explorer! How did this happen?

When Magic Online first came out, it was released roughly with Judgment in 2002. For those following along at home, yes, that is almost twenty years ago now! When it first released, it had only the sets of current Standard programmed into it, much the way Arena did when we first got that program a few years ago. This included Seventh Edition, Invasion, Planeshift, Apocalypse, Odyssey, Torment, and Judgment. Back then the game came in boxes at video game stores and you couldn't just download it and make an account, so far fewer people were playing it as well. It was a very different game than today!

For several years thereafter, Wizards would only put out Standard sets. The only times we ever got older cards were a special pack from a deeply ill-fated event called Chuck's Virtual Party (if you want to know more on that, there's a segment on it in this article) where you could get a copy of Morphling, Serra Avatar, or Sliver Queen. Because of this, while you were still able to play with a solid variety of formats, the older ones - including Extended at this point in time - weren't exactly reflecting paper play properly without those older releases.

This would change in 2005 with the release of Mirage, starting the slow release of older sets over a period of several years. The more important release, however, was Masters Edition in 2007. Masters Edition was a surprising online-only release that allowed players to access several pre-Mirage cards on Magic Online that had never been put on there before. In addition, it would give players a chance to play a Limited event with these cards as they likely never would have before then. The result was a bit lackluster to say the least, as older Magic isn't exactly known for being obscenely powerful without the full set of cards like the Power Nine and similar.

Over the next few years, three more Masters Edition sets came, thus filling in the majority of gaps without including every single card. There's a lot of really terrible and confusing cards from that era that are virtually useless everywhere, so it made sense at the time. A few cards like Pit Scorpion and Game of Chaos notably entered Magic Online through means of treasure chests and another set I'll get to in a moment, but for the most part - this was it. Coupled with a handful of cards from the various Duel Decks releases, we would eventually get a fairly accurate rendition of Legacy with the release of the Masques Block booster in 2011. Think about that - that's six years from the release of Mirage on the client and almost ten years from the original release of the Magic Online client. That's quite the slow drip!

It would be another three years after that before we would get Vintage Masters online as well. This set served several purposes for Magic Online. One reason was to get important Conspiracy and Planechase 2012 cards such as Dack Fayden and Council's Judgment online - as these were seen as sets that couldn't reasonably be released online. The most noteworthy thing about the set was that it brought the Power Nine to Magic Online. They wanted to find a special way to do it, so they claimed, and the thought at the time was that simply putting them in as rares in a Masters Edition release didn't feel right. As such, they were given a special one-time super mythic sort of rarity for the set - allowing Classic to finally turn into Vintage proper.

In short, it took Magic Online twelve years before it finally turned the format Classic - Vintage without key cards - into actual Vintage that we know today. So, while it's seen as a haven for Vintage, it definitely took it a long while to get there! In fact, Urza's Legacy - the first set I ever opened as a kid - being put online in 2010 is what brought me back into Magic itself after dropping the game completely for a few years before then. It took a long time, but eventually we got there - something that we can now say when looking at Pioneer on Arena.

It's unlikely that we'll ever truly see Legacy, Vintage, or even Modern on the client just because of the sheer volume of sets that would need to be added. It worked for Magic Online at the time because they only needed to go back and add about 6-7 years of sets, and the first couple years of those were heavily truncated into a handful of smaller releases. That's actually not too far off from what we're seeing with Pioneer now, as the span between Return to Ravnica and Ixalan - the first official Arena release - was about 5-6 years, and that's with several far more cohesive sets!

Now, that having been said, I doubt it'll take 9-12 years to complete like it did with Magic Online. When that game was released in 2002, Magic was a much smaller game with far fewer people playing it. Now it's a gigantic behemoth of gaming with more people playing it than ever before - far more than I imagine people could have ever conceived in 2002. There's a greater priority on getting the game to match its physical counterpart and I expect they'll be trying to get it going much faster. They can condense whole blocks into singular sets, release small mini expansions to add specific cards, or do the fabled Pioneer Masters release!

I imagine over the next year or so we'll see a tremendous swath of Pioneer-legal cards added to Magic Arena. In doing so, one might hope that we'll see actual Pioneer sooner than later, but we've been down this road before. It feels like a bummer now, but it's coming, and when it does that's all we'll be caring about. I hope we get to see a couple full releases - namely the excellent draft environment of Khans of Tarkir - but we don't necessarily need Magic 2014 or Magic 2015 in their entirety on Arena. Find the necessary stuff and implement that, and I fully believe that's exactly what Wizards intends to do.

Let me know what decks you're most interested to try in Explorer and - more importantly - what decks you hope to get to play eventually as it becomes Pioneer proper. I'll be back next week starting up my Streets of New Capenna Commander precon upgrade articles, so you'd better get ready!

Paige Smith

Twitter: @TheMaverickGal

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