Formats and Rules

All Old School variants share a common base legal card pool consisting of every card printed in the following sets:

  • Alpha (Limited), Beta (Limited) and Unlimited
  • Arabian Nights
  • Antiquities
  • Legends
  • The Dark

This original card pool was the first version of Old School Magic, based on the first full year of the game (August 1993 – August 1994), and was invented in Sweden. In the U.S. and a few other other countries, Fallen Empires is also included.  There is also a list of certain banned (not allowed) or restricted (only 1 copy per deck) cards, with some minor differences among the format variants. The chart below describes the current banned and restricted cards in the various format variants:

Old School Magic Variants

Nearly all variants also use the full modern M:tG rules, and modern errata from “Gatherer” on all cards (except for Chaos Orb and a few obscure cards which have special errata).  Older players may remember the original rules (which included concepts like “interrupts,” combat damage being dealt in “stacks” and spells resolving in “batches,” dying only at the end of a step, etc.).  While we love old Magic cards, old Magic rules were less intuitive, more complicated and often ambiguous.  They evolved for a reason; modern Magic rules work more consistently and much better in general. 

For the sake of simplicity, sanity and especially being welcoming to newer players, virtually all Old School variants use full modern rules, with two exceptions: (1) Most Old School variants still use “mana burn,” which means that players lose 1 life for each unused mana when their mana pool is emptied at the end of each step and phase; and (2) in Old School tournaments, it is common to prohibit matches ending in a draw, and instead require the tied players to hold a Chaos Orb-flipping contest (or sometimes implement a modified Armageddon Clock) as a way to decisively determine a winner.


Old School (93-94) Formats

  • Swedish Rules (Original Old School Format)
    • How the Old School format originated. Popular in parts of Europe.
    • Full modern rules (including no mana burn).
    • Details for the rules available here.
  • Atlantic (ATL), Eternal Central (EC) and Pacific (PAC) Rules
    • Popular in U.S. and used in many web-cam tournaments.
    • In addition to the base card pool, Fallen Empires and the 1994 promotional cards are legal.
  • Channel Fireball / Bazaar of Moxen Rules
    • Official “sanctioned” Old School side-events are rare, but when they happen they use Channel Fireball Rules.  Similarly, Bazaar of Moxen is a tournament organizer for certain eternal format tournaments in Europe.  Traditionally they have been identical to EC Rules in the past.
    • Details available here for Channel Fireball rules, and here for Bazaar of Moxen rules. Given the events of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, who knows when (if ever) there will be sanctioned Old School tournaments again, but these are the last-known rules.
  • Other Variants and House Rules
    • Many local Old School communities are constantly exploring the Old School format, inventing and re-inventing different banning and restricted lists.
    • Some communities have also experimented with putting “errata” on how certain cards work (like Mishra’s Factory) to further explore the format.  The Baltimore Old School group is a good example of this.
    • Alpha40“: This variant permits only Alpha cards.  Decks are 40 cards (instead of the usual 60) and there are no restrictions (i.e. you can play more than 4 of anything).  Unlike most other Old School variants, Alpha40 games usually try and utilize the original 1993 M:tG rules as closely as possible–meaning you play the card exactly as originally printed (instead of modern wording).  Given the extreme rarity and cost of Alpha cards, this is fun but relatively small format.  More info is available here.
    • Revised40“: This variant is similar to Alpha40, but using exclusively Revised (3rd edition) cards.  You can play more than 4 of any card, but there are limits about how many total rares and uncommons can be in your deck of 40 cards.  More info is available here.
    • “Gentlemen’s Rules”: This refers to adding Library of Alexandria and Mind Twist, two of the most powerful cards in the format, to the banned list.
    • “1.5”: A re-imagining of WotC’s first attempt at a format with banned cards. The format has no restrictions (so you may include 4 of any card), but there is an extended ban list. This new format is still very much evolving. The current ban list is below:

Other Old School-ish Variants

  • Scryings
  • Old School 95
    • Allows all cards printed through 1995, including Ice Age and Homelands.
    • Details for Eternal Central’s version available here.
  • Old School 96
    • Allows all cards printed through 1996, including Alliances and Mirage.
    • Details for Eternal Central’s version available here.
  • Middle School or Pre-Modern (95-03)
    • Between traditional Old School 93-94 and 8th Edition lies 8 years of amazing Magic history, including such sets as Urza’s Saga, Mercadian Masques and Onslaught.  These sister formats try to capture the best of that era, allowing all cards printed from 1995-2003, including all reprints.
    • Although Middle School and Pre-Modern use cards from the same era, they are different formats with different ban lists and some different rules of play.  The Middle School rules and ban list are available here.  The Pre-Modern rules and ban list are available here.
  • Old School Commander or “Original Elder Dragon Highlander”
    • Modern deckbuilding and color-identity rules using modern errata.
    • Your Commander must be an original legendary creature from Legends.
      • If you really want to feel the spirit of the original version, choose one of the original Elder Dragons.
      • Some playgroups have expanded this list (to allow mono-colored decks) by errata-ing certain creatures to be legendary, such as King Suleiman, Sindbad, Uncle Istvan, Ali from Cairo and Niall Silvain.
      • If your playgroup allows 1995, there are also legendary creatures in Ice Age and Homelands.
    • Each playgroup can set its own additional rules.
      • You could allow 1993-1994 only, or add 1995 cards for some variety.
      • There is no centralized banlist.  Playgroups usually ban City in a Bottle, Karakas and Library of Alexandria.  Other potential considerations for banning include Ancestral Recall, Braingeyser, Mind Twist and Legend-specific cards like Willow Satyr and Arena of the Ancients.
      • For an extra challenge, try starting with your commander shuffled into your 100 card deck (the “Command Zone” did not exist in the 1990s), or you could even try building a “true Highlander” singleton deck where even basic lands are restricted to 1 copy per deck.  Check out this thread for some history.
    • Old School Brawl” is an Old School twist on the Brawl a/k/a “Standard Commander”  format promoted by WotC.
  • Old School Limited (Draft and Cube)
    • Unopened booster packs and other sealed product for the original 1993-94 card sets are extremely rare and expensive.  Most people will never get to open an Alpha starter deck or an Arabian Nights booster.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t recreate the draft experience!
    • Sometimes local game stores or just a group of Old School fans have pooled their money and purchased booster boxes of more-reasonably priced product like Fallen Empires and early reprint sets (such as 4th edition, 5th edition or Chronicles).  Drafting old booster packs this way and building decks with only what you pull is a fantastic way to experience Old School, and probably the most authentic.  Back in the 1990s – before websites like TCGPlayer and CardMarket existed – people just played with whatever they owned.  If you have the chance to play an Old School Draft, do it!
    • Some die-hard Old School fans have carefully collected and curated cubes exclusively of Old School cards.  For general info on what a “cube” is, check out this or this.  For an example, check out RagingRiver’s Old School 93-95 Cube (450 cards, up to 10 players).