Magic: The Gathering's greatest strength is its flexibility. As head designer Mark Rosewater has said, Magic isn't really one game, it's "a bunch of different games that all have a shared rule system." We call those different games "formats," and over Magic's long history, there have been a lot of them—many of which are still going strong. Standard has always been one of Magic's greatest assets, and Commander was a major hit even before Wizards of the Coast began supporting the fan-driven format.
But what happened to Standard or Commander doesn't happen to every format, and they can't all be hits. Today I'm ranking three discontinued Magic formats and delving into why they died out.
Tiny Leaders was conceived in 2013 by fans as an offshoot of Commander. The rules were very similar, with a few stark differences. Instead of starting games with 40 life, players started with 25. Players used 50-card decks instead of Commander's 100, and players could only include cards with a converted mana cost of three or less.
This proved to be difficult to balance by 2018, as decks like Leovold, Emissary of Trest dominated the format at the end. The F.A.Q. for the format was not updated after 2014, and its ban list was updated for the last time in June 2018, when Najeela, the Blade-Blossom was banned.
As a format, Tiny Leaders was fairly fun to play between games of Commander while waiting for those games to finally resolve. Commander takes a while to play, as many players already know, so Tiny Leaders was a great way for defeated players to pass the time.
As it turns out, Tiny Leaders was not the only format to die in 2018. Block Constructed, once a great way to make use of fantastic cards that often didn'tt see play in Standard, saw its end that year as well.
This format was supported in a big way by Wizards of the Coast from its approximate inception in 1996 with the Ice Age block. The rules were similar to Standard, except that the sets in each respective Block never rotated (as they literally couldn't), and each block was its own format. This format received notice and major play in Pro Tour and Grand Prix events for years until they were phased out.
So what happened to knock Block Constructed off the map? Simply put, when Wizards of the Coast changed their set-release paradigm from three-and-one to a looser model starting with Battle For Zendikar and Oath of the Gatewatch, they ended "blocks" as we knew them. The format was finally dropped from play alongside the release of the Dominaria set.
Block Constructed was massively popular, but had a few shortcomings in the form of a lot of banned cards. Each ban list was specific to their respective blocks, and therefore there were a lot of cards banned overall. Even still, with 27 cards banned in Block Constructed the gameplay was simply better for it, something that can't always be said for rotating formats like Standard.
This format is still alive—but it could be in danger.
Oathbreaker, another fan-driven format, was created by WeirdCards, a Minnesota-based club that organizes Magic events to raise money for charitable causes. It, like Tiny Leaders, plays similarly to Commander in that it contains cards outside of the deck that dictate the deck's color identity, but the similarities end there. Instead of a legendary creature card as your commander, you have a planeswalker card and an instant or sorcery in the command zone. Decks are 58 cards thick beyond those two. There's no commander damage, which allows life gain to be a viable strategy, but life totals are also lower which gives Burn decks an edge as well. Overall, the gameplay of Oathbreaker is quite fun and can also be very competitive in the right circles.
From its inception and the spread of its popularity, players have been trying to bust Oathbreaker apart as another "solved format" like Tiny Leaders, due to its marginal similarities, but Oathbreaker has mostly stood firm. Those in charge of the format continue to monitor it and add/subtract from its ban list, as well as interact professionally with its player base.
However, the issue Oathbreaker has lies in its level of reach. Unlike Commander, it's not supported on Magic Online. Since the offline player base is smaller than the base for formats like Modern, fewer players are willing to invest in Oathbringer decks—which in turn, keeps the player base low. As a fan of the format, I'm confident that Oathbringer could take off if enough players were introduced to it and had a place to play. If not, it could end up going the way of Tiny Leaders.
Extended, also known by older players as Type 1.X, was a very cool rotating format for those disinterested with the speed at which cards were made obsolete in Standard. The finalized rules for the Extended rotation paradigm meant that blocks and core sets lasted for four years in the format, rather than their time in Standard, which was brief by comparison. Extended was fun to play, and perhaps a bit more financially forgiving than Standard or even most non-rotating formats like Legacy, Vintage, or even Commander, which was just coming into its own when Extended was discontinued.
It's not every day you can see black-red Goblins defeat a Dragonstorm combo deck but lose to Affinity in the same tournament.
So, what happened?
In two words, Modern happened.
Modern, created by Wizards of the Coast in 2011 to appease players with a new non-rotating format that didn't include cards on the Reserved List, allowed cards from Eighth Edition and the original Mirrodin block onward. By the end of Extended in July 2013, all Extended-legal cards and more were legal in Modern, meaning that Extended had nothing to set it apart.
Now, Modern risks the same loss of popularity with the advent of Pioneer last year. Talk about poetic justice—but now might be a good time to reinstate a renewed Extended format. Magic: The Gathering is getting more popular with each passing year, and with so many players in a kitchen-table meta (especially with the pandemic not ending soon in many places), players will often find themselves wondering what to do with their excess of cards. Perhaps now is the right time to bring that back.
Wizards of the Coast listens to players, as evidenced by the banning of Omnath, Locus of Creation in Standard, and similar moves to bring peace to volatile formats. This means that we as players have the power to bring these formats back if we so choose, or even create new ones. It's not like Wizards of the Coast can police how players play at home, so why not create a new format while stuck in pandemic isolation? Maybe it'll peter out like Tiny Leaders, or be obsoleted like Extended. But maybe, just maybe, it'll stick like Commander.