There are currently four leagues available to play in Path of Exile. It’s sort of like PoE’s version of “servers”, where characters and their items only exist in a particular league and can’t be cross-traded or transferred (at least not in typical ways). You are able to talk to players from any league, but you’re otherwise unable to interact with them. If you plan on playing with friends make sure you are all in the same league!
Standard & Hardcore leagues
Standard and Hardcore leagues are the two most basic leagues that exist since Open Beta. They are often considered as “trash” leagues due to their age and inflated economy: many players have ridiculous amounts of currency hoarded and new players will have a hard time catching up with the ever-increasing prices of high-end items.
Standard is a casual league where all character progress is permanent and you can’t lose it in any way. In Hardcore league if your character dies, he is permanently transferred to Standard league along with all of his items and stash.
Domination & Nemesis
Domination and Nemesis are temporary, 4-month “challenge” leagues that started when the game was released on October 23rd, 2013. When these leagues end in February 23, 2014 all characters will be transferred to Standard league for Domination, or Hardcore league if you managed to stay alive in Nemesis. Domination is a softcore league like Standard, where characters who die can simply continue playing. Nemesis is a hard-core league and if your character dies he or she is transferred to Standard as well.
These temporary challenge leagues also have certain unique modifiers: in Domination there are “shrines” that grant the monsters around them powerful buffs, and if you defeat the monsters around it you its bonuses for a short time. In Nemesis every rare mob has a special mod which makes it even harder to kill than usual, making fights significantly harder.
Once these two leagues end new ones (with probably new names as well) will begin where players can start playing from scratch and in a fresh economy. Before Domination and Nemesis there were Anarchy and Onslaught, and in Anarchy for example “Rogue Exiles” started appearing which were later incorporated into other leagues as well. These leagues also function as sort of a beta-test for new features or items.
Which league to pick?
If you have friends playing the game first off you may want to make sure that you’re on the same league as they are. Otherwise you will not be able to group up for quests, farming or trading items with them. Hardcore leagues provide a strong challenge to players who want one, but if you’re just playing casually you may not want to worry about your character dying. It’s actually much more difficult for new players not to die in hardcore leagues so don’t get too bummed if you do. If you wish you could start in a hardcore league, and once you die your character will be transferred over to Standard anyway where you can continue playing where you left off.
As for the choice between a temporary Domination and Standard league, bottom line is that it doesn’t really matter. One of the key points with new leagues is that players can race to a certain level and display their achievements on a ladder, but new exiles will have a hard time trying to compete with veteran players. If you played Diablo 2 you probably know a bit about the ladder system. You can view the ladder for Standard and Hardcore leagues on the official site. You can find links to other league ladders in the footer on Pathofexile.com.
As for the economy, just because you started on a new league doesn’t mean items are cheap. In fact it’s usually exactly the opposite, due to less supply and higher demand items which you can obtain extremely inexpensively in Standard league are worth 5-10x as much in new leagues. Some of the best items in the game are still very costly in any league, but for new and casual players who don’t care about the ladder and don’t see Path of Exile as a competitive game Standard league is just fine.
More information on leagues: