4 Key Differences Between Pioneer, Explorer and Historic Magic Formats

confused about MTG Pioneer, Explorer and Historic Formats? Here are the differences and similarities

4 Key Differences Between Pioneer, Explorer and Historic Magic Formats

Magic is turning 30 very soon, and very few players can say they know all the different game formats out there. Fans of the community are creating new variants all the time, and everyone will have their likes and dislikes. There are official formats though, and just this year Wizards of the Coast introduced Explorer, an offshoot of Pioneer, for the digital platform Arena… but it’s somehow different from Historic?

It’s confusing to us too, so we’ve come up with a nice explanation to show the differences Pioneer, Explorer and Historic formats – all of which are cousins but have different characteristics.

Similarities Between Pioneer, Explorer, and Historic Formats

In terms of deck building requirements and starting life, Pioneer, Explorer and Historic are essentially the same.

  • Decks must have a minimum of 60 cards
  • There can be up to 4 copies of a card (called a playset), except for Basic Lands
  • In a best-of-3 match, a Sideboard of 15 cards is allowed
  • Players start with 20 life.

Differences Between Pioneer, Explorer, and Historic Formats

The main differences between Pioneer, Explorer and Historic formats in Magic are the eligible cards/sets for each, the platform/medium that they can be played in, and the ban list. They are all non-rotating formats whereby sets do not leave the format, but future Standard set releases are added into the pool.

graph showing the difference in card pools between Explorer, Pioneer, and Historic formats in MTG

To easier understand the set eligibility for these 3 formats, we just need to know how far back does each format go in Magic’s history. Pioneer format count anything from Return to Ravnica (2012) to the present, Explorer and Historic look at Ixalan (2017) onwards.

Here’s a table to better illustrate the differences:

Where to Play?Paper onlyArena (digital) onlyArena (digital) only
Set LegalityReturn to Ravnica (2012) to presentIxalan (2017) to presentIxalan (2017) to present
Card TypesOnly whatever is printed on paperOnly whatever is printed on paperIncludes digital-only cards and mechanics
Card RebalancingNoNoYes

If you’re playing exclusively on paper, then Pioneer format will be your only option among the 3. However, if you’re ready to try Arena or are already on the platform, then Explorer and Historic will be your choices.

One main difference between Explorer and Historic is that one uses only cards that are printed on paper (like Pioneer), while Historic includes the use of digital-only cards, otherwise known as Alchemy cards. In Historic, cards can also be modified after the fact, meaning certain cards will be adjusted to be stronger or weaker depending on the meta.

Ban Lists (Updated June 2022)

With different card pools and top decks that make up the competitive scene, naturally Pioneer, Explorer and Historic will have different ban lists. These lists are updated on a monthly basis, if there’s any.

Pioneer Ban List

The Pioneer ban list is considerably long, considering it’s not the largest of formats like Legacy or Commander. It includes all 10 Fetch Lands, plus certain key powerful cards such as Winota, Joiner of Forces and Oko, Thief of Crowns:

Explorer Banned List

As Explorer’s card pool is a subset of Pioneer, you’ll find that the ban list is shorter and also contains many of the same cards:

Historic Banned Cards

End Step

Depending on where you’re playing Magic, the formats might already be spelled out for you. Pioneer will be the official name for the format on paper, while Explorer and Historic will live online on Arena. The goal is to have Pioneer = Explorer in the years to come, provided they are able to add the backdated sets to Arena. That takes time and money.

If you’re keen to dabble in digital-only cards and mechanics, then Historic is perfect. Seek and Conjure are part of a growing list of Historic mechanics that are just not playable on paper. Expect power level of Historic games to be higher though.

Whichever format you choose, remember to have fun!

After playing from Tempest to Urza's Saga block, Ted took a 20 year break from the game before returning to the classic Plane of Dominaria in 2018. His favourite formats are Commander, Draft, and, grudgingly, Standard.

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