Academy: A Magic TCG Format

In this format, you play young planeswalkers starting to learn spells and test them against each other
Art by Star Academy

Magic’s Limited formats were a huge influence on deck building games, such as Dominion and more directly, Ascension. In those games, building your deck is part of the game itself. What if we brought that innovation back into MtG as a cube adjacent format? Here are the rules:

  • Your starting deck consists of one of each basic land, three wastes, and two Eager Cadets.
  • Start the game with a 5 card hand and 20 life. There are no mulligans
  • You may cast cards from your hand without paying their mana costs. You must still pay mana to activate abilities or cast spells from the graveyard.
  • You do not play lands as normal. Instead, you may discard a land to activate one of its tap abilities. For example, you could discard a Mountain to add one red mana, or an Azorius Chancery to add a blue and a white mana.
  • There is a center row of 10 cards. You may pay the mana cost of any of those cards to put it directly into your graveyard. That card is then replaced with a new card from a shared deck.
  • At the end of each of your turns, discard your hand and draw 5 cards.
  • If you would draw a card with an empty deck, shuffle your graveyard and it becomes your library.
  • Owner and controller are synonymous. Changing control changes owners. Exile is a shared zone.

Always Available

Besides the center row, there will be some cards you can always buy. They will allow you to sink mana into something when the center row has nothing for you. They’ll also allow you to bend your deck towards a single color, and work towards getting more than 5 mana maximum on a turn.

Any Basic Land[1]Discard: Add [M]
Karoo Lands
Karoo[3]Discard: Add [1][W]
Coral Atoll[3]Discard: Add [1][U]
Everglades[3]Discard: Add [1][B]
Dormant Volcano[3]Discard: Add [1][R]
Jungle Basin[3]Discard: Add [1][G]
Stonework Puma[3]Is a 2/2 creature

How to build the center deck?

The deck I use is the size of a small cube, around 200 cards. But what to include?

As the game goes on, your deck will clog up with spells that don’t add mana, making it progressively harder to buy new cards. What we want is for your ability to buy new and more expensive cards to increase as the game goes on. Each color will have its own strategies for that. Other colors have less access to these strategies.

White. High permanent count. Most of White’s cards will be permanents, so as long as you can keep them alive, they don’t get shuffled back into your deck.

Blue. Card draw. Blue will have draw spells that can get more lands into your hand

Black. Self Exile. Black will allow you to exile cards from your graveyard, trimming away your bad cards to improve your draws. 

Red. Rituals. Red will have instants and sorceries that add lots of (usually red) mana, for explosive single turns.

Green. Permanent Ramp. Green will have permanents that can add mana each turn. They’re vulnerable to removal, but can also snowball into big purchases. 

Colorless. Artifact creatures so that everyone can have at least some creature presence. Mana filtering, like prophetic prism. A few “combo” artifacts like the Stations, to allow a true colorless build.

Mana Costs. As you can see from the rules, a player with a starting deck can afford at most a card costing 4M, and more likely 3M. So the bulk of cards should concentrate between 2M and 4M. 

Cards with costs like 2MM, 3MN, and 5M will become accessible in the next phase of the game, after the first or second shuffle. This is where the bulk of your midgame should occur. Double and triple pip cards should be much stronger than their single pip CMC counterparts. You may have to weaken the single pip section to achieve this.

Then a smattering of cards with higher CMCs and more restrictive costs make up the endgame cards. These should be strong cards with unique effects.

Other guidelines. Shy away from instant speed draw spells, they lead to bad play patterns in combination with instant speed interaction. Don’t mix self exile and card draw in the same color. Leave out any card that can exile an opponent’s cards, it’s deeply unfun.

Some mechanics don’t work or aren’t very good. Cycling is very weak. Alternate costs like madness, evoke, and miracle do nothing. Echo is very weak. Morph, sadly, is a somewhat nonsensical inclusion. Landfall and anything that targets, counts, or interacts with lands are all out, due to the change in Mana mechanics. X Cost spells also don’t work, unless you’re willing to draw on your cards. That might be cool as hell though, so don’t rule it out entirely.


There are some mechanics that change function drastically in this format. I think it’s a good idea to include them, as longtime players will enjoy seeing mechanics play in new ways. 

Donate. You probably don’t want a ton of this, but these effects can be powerful and fun. Giving your weak permanents away loses you tempo, but can gum up an opponent’s deck and thin yours.

Shuffle. The set of mostly green cards that shuffle cards from graveyard into library play an interesting role. They can make your last few hands from a deck very strong, and if you get enough density you can strand all your bad cards in the graveyard forever.

Scry vs Surveil. Similar mechanics, huge workhorses. They’re the same here. I think Surveil plays better, because scry does very little when your deck gets small.

Kicker. Kicker is a great mechanic for this format. Remember, you don’t have to pay the mana cost, just the kicker, which can strongly change viability. Something like Josu Vess can be a very powerful late game card. Kicker costs of 1 mana can be great “curve fillers”, a good card to have when you have say, four mana but want to buy a three cost card.

Pull from Eternity. Not a mechanic, but a cool unique card. Because of the shared exile, allows you to snag the cards others get rid of.

Cost Reduction. I’m torn on these. You would have to get over the complexity hurdle, since the cost reduction would have to apply to “buying” the card, not casting it. Delve of course, is right out as being far too strong. But affinity might play very well, and be a payoff for certain builds.

Storm. Storm is both better and worse in this format. Your lands don’t count for it, and your deck is going to have a lot more lands than normal. Much easier to fizzle out. And because you control the number of draw spells and cantrips, you can control the power of storm. Because cards recur so easily, I’d avoid direct damage like Tendrils or Grapeshot. But Mind’s Desire, Empty the Warrens, and Hunting Pack could be very fun inclusions. Shoutout to Sprouting Vines, which is a perfect card for this format.

Board Wipes. They’re as necessary in this format as they are in most formats, but you have to carefully control the volume. If a person can play a wipe every turn, the game will grind to a halt. They’ll never run out, as they keep shuffling. The best valve, is to keep them all conditional. Damage or -X/-X based, or based on other criteria, like citywide bust. There should probably only be a single unconditional wrath in the stack, perhaps Fumigate is the best candidate. 

Level Up. Most of the level up creatures are a great fit. They can work as curve fillers, like kicker, or mana sink build arounds. Getting a transcendent master to level 12 could be a game winning play.

Graveyard Mechanics. 

These deserve a full category, since the graveyard is very different. In a normal game, it grows unless you use some of it up as a resource. In this mode, it grows and shrinks naturally. 

Threshold. This will turn on and off as you shuffle your graveyard in to draw cards. Becomes more of a day/night mechanic than a threshold one. Encourages you to keep your deck big to prevent reshuffling.

Escape. Escape is a prime self exile mechanic. The cost of exiling cards becomes the true benefit, while the mana cost becomes a real struggle, as it prevents you from buying new cards.

Reanimation. Reanimation becomes weaker, as it’s harder to keep cards in your graveyard. Plus, all your cards are free, so you’re not cheating on Mana. 

Raise Dead. On the other hand, returning cards from graveyard to hand is much stronger, since you can cast for free. Raise Dead and Gravedigger are very strong cards in the format.


In my next post, I’ll put together my list, to give others a better idea of what I’m aiming for. If this format ends up being fun for other play groups, I’ll put together a collection of people’s lists. It’s still very much in infancy in terms of playtesting, so leave a comment if you have questions or suggestions. 

One thought on “Academy: A Magic TCG Format

  1. This is pretty darn nifty! I don’t really have the variety of cards needed myself, but then again that’s what friends are for.


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