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Building a New, Casual Eternal Format – Timeline

The brand of Magic: The Gathering has existed for 30 years and features more than 20,000 different cards. One aspect of the game I’ve become interested in (as I’ve taken a step back from playing competitive tournaments) is how the game itself changes depending upon format, deck construction guidelines and/or play platform.

The “game system” of Magic remains consistent, but the game itself (the context of play) depends upon how and where we play. Clocks and timers may become viable win conditions. The relative value of cards and strategies changes depending upon if the game is 1v1 or multiplayer. Our expectation for the game changes depending upon an arbitrary label of “competitive” or “casual.”

I staunchly observe “casual” vs “competitive” to be a largely false dichotomy that is at best inaccurate and at worst disingenuous. Casual players also want to win their games and learn to play tighter and more proficiently. The real, most tangible impact of these labels tends to reflect stakes and how much a player is incentivized to model their play upon winning a tangible reward in the form of a prize. Paying an entry fee and receiving more or better prizes for winning more and playing “casually” are two things at diametric odds with one another. 

The greater the buy-in and discrepancy between prizes awarded to first and last place, the more a player is incentivized to play competitively. Regardless of whether it’s a player’s intention to play competitively or casual, incentives tend to override intentions. The best way to create a casual atmosphere is simply to remove the incentive driving competition and instead place the emphasis upon personal improvement, enjoyment and socialization. People will still want to win because winning is fun and a validation of personal improvement, but there’s no prize carrot incentivizing players to put winning before their own, or other’s enjoyment of playing the game. 

Creating space for truly casual Magic within the multiverse is something I’m deeply passionate about exploring and creating content for. Even when I was frequently attending Pro Tours, I always brought my Battle Box with me because what I really wanted was to play casual Magic with the best Magic players in the world. I enjoy relaxed casual play (and typically find it more interesting) than high stakes competitive tournaments. It doesn’t have to be one is good and the other bad – what I’m suggesting is that there’s an ideal time and place for everything. 

I invented the Danger Room/Battle Box format more than a decade ago and have kept it alive by sheer force of will for fans of casual gameplay to enjoy by continuing to write about it. It’s a great format and the more players that continue to build their own Boxes the more obvious that fact becomes. Despite recent content creator hardships, why is Brian DeMars still writing? It’s because Danger Room is a great format that’s so much fun to play that people play and enjoy it regardless of if WOTC even acknowledges it exists or not. There was no version of Magic I could sit down and play for fun with my college roommate, so I made one up. 

 

 

Header - Why We Need Timeline

I arrived at the idea for what I’m loosely dubbing “Timeline” by reverse engineering the things I’d ideally want in a format and then trying to create a context that allows those wants to come to life in a practical way. 

  1. I want a “casual” eternal 60-card 1v1 dueling format with a sideboard. 
  2. I don’t want to buy four copies of the exact same card when there’s an existing card pool of 20,000 cards.
  3. I want a format that does not ban the cards I already own to make room for new cards. 
  4. I want to play a format that is designed for paper gatherings and is blind to the existence of online Magic. 
  5. I want a format where I can build my own decks and I want them to be powerful. 
  6. I want a format where if I build a deck today, it will still be playable years down the road.

It’s bewildering that this idea didn’t exist as one of the most popular modes of playing paper Magic (especially given the popularity of a format like Commander) because there are fairly intuitive things in a collectible card game. These basic “asks” are the cornerstones and catalysts I sought to bake into a new format. 

One last piece of context before I start discussing how I’ve tried to balance these wants into a format: I’m aware of other fan-created formats that already exist, in particular Canadian Highlander. I’ll be the first to say that is a damn fine format and not surprising because it was fan created and I was very interested in using it as a model of a fan-created dueling format that is obviously good enough to have earned its right to exist (and as proof that fans like casual dueling formats). 

Canadian Highlander is a 100-card singleton format that does not use a sideboard and seeks to balance the powerful cards by assigning them a point value, thus trying to quantify and limit how much brokenness can be crammed into a busted eternal deck. 

However, I also observe that Canadian Highlander has a few elements that I think hold it back from truly filling the void of a casual dueling format. 100-card decks are annoying to shuffle, sideboards are one of the best parts of dueling, assigning subjective point values to powerful cards is not intuitive and it’s expensive to build a deck. 

Instead of assigning point values to restrict how much power can be taken, I’ve devised a different approach that uses a “Timeline” deckbuilding mechanic to inform which cards can or can’t be played together in legal configurations. 

 

Header - Introducing: Timeline

30 years ago, the DCI decided that 60-card decks with 15-card sideboards and a limit of four copies of a unique card was a good idea. The DCI also decided some cards were so powerful and game-warping they should be restricted to one copy per deck, or even outright banned. 

These rules made a lot of sense back in 1994 when there were only hundreds of unique card names (and not yet tens of thousands of options). Even at the beginning, players and fans identified there should be limitations placed upon playing the most powerful cards.

A Highlander format (not allowing more than one copy of a unique card) makes perfect sense to me as the best way to play a non-rotating, Eternal format that allows powerful cards. 

I’d like to take a stab at simply building the most powerful Magic decks and I know it would be fun to play. The problem isn’t that such a format isn’t cool or fun, but rather impractical and exclusionary because of the scarcity of the most powerful Reserved List cards and their absurd price tags. I can’t even advocate for playing the style of Magic I grew up with because it’s just not practical. 

If every card in Magic cost less than $10 to acquire, I’m pretty sure Highlander Vintage would be the most popular format. If price wasn’t an obstacle, it makes sense to me people would want to build the most powerful decks possible. The reason we don’t play that way has everything to do with the price of the cards and nothing else. 

There is basically no option to play with the powerful old cards that doesn’t involve spending tens of thousands of dollars to essentially stack a deck full of all the “power” cards. A set of Power 9, a playset of Workshops or Bazaars, a mana base with a bunch of dual lands or Tabernacle – the policy of not reprinting these cards and proxies essentially creates a matrix where these cards function as collectibles as opposed to functional paper game pieces.

I wanted to create an eternal Highlander format that doesn’t immediately break down into an arms race of playing with all of the Reserved List cards. The challenge of such a format (and making it into something that can be played casually nonetheless) is creating a rules system for deck construction that creates a new context for building decks that tries to remedy the damage done to the playability of eternal paper formats. 

Here’s a copy of my first draft of a “Timeline” Highlander deck list: 

The theme of the format is to build a deck that equally incorporates cards from each of the 30 years Magic has released new products (approximately two cards per year). 

Unfortunately, Magic “blocks” and Core Sets don’t break down intuitively by year. The first big set of a block came out in October and the two smaller sets came out the following year. Core Sets typically don’t have the same name as the year they were released.

Typically, a non-calendar “year” or “block” of sets will represent approximately three or four sets (depending upon size of sets and frequency of releases for a year). As you can see on the deck list, a player will be presented with a group of three or four sets and choose two cards from that “era” (these cards cannot be from the same set) to fill in available deck slots. 

Not only is every card restricted, but every set is also restricted to one card per. You may not take two cards from the same set in your deck. 

There’s also not a tremendously observable difference between having a deck with a Black Lotus or Sol Ring for the purposes of dueling. The real unbalance in a casual setting is the difference between a player who has a Sol Ring and a player who has a Sol Ring and a Black Lotus. Essentially, for casual dueling, I have no issue with letting players use whatever they want, it’s more an issue of how much that tends to be the problem. 

You’ll also notice the total number of cards comes to ~65 cards when we’re using two cards per year and that we’re actually trying to build a 75 cards deck including sideboard:

Plains (263)Island (265)Swamp (267)Mountain (269)Forest (271)

I really like the idea that these remaining 10 to 15 slots represent space that can be used to expand the Timeline for the next decade. For now, I think those slots should be required basic lands of the deck builder’s choice and those basic slots would be replaced by adding a new block of cards with each subsequent year. 

Basically, the concept is that you’re building a deck from the complete catalog of Magic cards and the limitation is upon how heavily you can draw from a particular set or era of MTG designs. The fact that you can’t take all the synergy cards from sets that offer a lot of specific types of synergies is actually a lot more limiting for deck construction than you’d think and leads to a ton of interesting deck building decisions where the player must choose between two excellent cards instead of default playing both.  

I also believe that the “platform” upon which the games are being played is what actually determines whether the format is being played “casually” or “competitively.” My objective is that everybody who builds a deck for this style of play would enjoy both the process of building and collecting a deck as well as playing that deck against other fan’s brews. 

One of the biggest things I’ve been paying attention to when creating my content is Commander and the idea of playing “casually,” which I discussed above. While I do believe Timeline is an inherently attractive premise for a format to be played competitively (once it’s been properly tested and refined), I see it as having even greater casual potential assuming there’s space to play it casually. I love to take my Battle Box to a pub or coffee house to duel with a friend. It’s not practical to try and strike up a multiplayer game in a café. 

I don’t have too many gripes about EDH as a format (other than it arbitrarily bans cards without a compelling reason other than to make room for more new cards). However, EDH’s most tangible upside is also its biggest Achilles heel; it’s a multiplayer format and it translates very poorly to 1v1 duels. I actually love playing multiplayer Magic and believe most competitive players (and especially content creators) would benefit greatly from learning how to be good multiplayers as opposed to rejecting the premise of playing multiplayer because it isn’t a gambler’s format and therefore isn’t useful. 

I like to compare my conception of what I’m looking for from “casual” Magic as providing a similar function to what a bowling league would have provided to my parent’s generation. If you want to strive for perfection, professional or monetary goals within the game – go for it! – but, the game itself is fun regardless of your ambition or quest for perfection. It’s actually a great thing for the hobby to create a space where players with a range of experiences and skills can come together and have fun together even when there’s a mismatch of skill or experience. 

Having local “pros” and “content creators” engaged with the casual fans and players in a positive way is actually good for everybody in the community from top to bottom. If you’re trying to aspire to professional or influencer cardboard goals, it’s very difficult to do without the support of other players within your community. If you’re a casual player trying to improve your knowledge and understanding of playing the game of Magic, it benefits you to interact with more experienced players and be exposed to new interactions. 

 

Header - Areas to Tune

I actually don’t like cards being banned from eternal formats. My experience playing eternal formats predates Vintage and Legacy. It was Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 restricted cards and Type 2 banned them. I feel like there are more than enough unique cards (even with Timeline’s one-card-per-set restriction) that an eternal format doesn’t require four-of playsets (and would likely be more balanced if it didn’t, and/or further restricted how cards can be grouped together). 

Another source of tension that adds some confusion to building a timeline deck is that WOTC doesn’t release things neatly or coherently over time. Blocks and Core Sets don’t break cleanly into years, some cards are not even included in actual sets, and some cards from earlier eras are featured as reprints in other products and editions. 

In its purest form and intent, I envisioned the era in which a card was created as being a mechanism by which the format is actually balanced. You can’t put Sol Ring and Black Lotus in the same deck because they’re both relics from the same period of card design. I also know that players will want to min/max their decks by taking cards like Mana Drain, Sol Ring and Strip Mine and on principle I think cards should go onto the Timeline when they were first created and not based upon reprintings.

My solution to this dilemma is that Timeline would use a “rookie card” policy to determine which set a card properly belongs to based on where it was originally printed. Sol Ring belongs to the Alpha to 10th Edition Core Set category and nowhere else. It’s not a card designed in the 2000s. 

As for cards that originated outside of a major set I’ve included on my deck lists sheet, we’ll need to figure out how to place them. 

True-Name Nemesis (Timeshifted)

We can pretty easily look up TNN’s first printing “rookie card” edition. Its first printing was in the Commander 2013 decks which was released on November 1, 2013. We’d simply figure out where that release falls and plug it in. Theros was released in September 2013 and Born of the Gods in early 2014. If you wanted to put TNN into your Timeline deck it would use one of the slots allotted to the time period associated with Theros block. 

I’m toying with the idea of simply creating slots for product lines with powerful, desirable rookie cards that exist outside of the mainstream blocks of expansions, such as Modern Horizons sets, Core Sets, Commander products and/or promos. 

Modern Horizons 1 & 2 and Commander decks (sets designed for Modern and eternal specifically) are a great example of why space should be set aside for these types of products, since they include cards that are across the board more powerful than sets designed for Standard. If a Spike would always take a Commander or Horizons card over a Standard card, it probably makes sense to set some limitations on how many “designed for eternal” cards players can jam into a deck. 

I think two total cards from Horizons sets and two cards from Commander products (but not from the same set) is probably a good balance to start with. Ultimately, I know the exact configuration of how players will want to build decks should be taken into consideration. I’m open to revising the rules for deck construction and configuration so long as it makes the format more accessible and fun to play. There are multiple viable ways for how to allocate space for these non-expansion staples and ultimately I don’t feel strongly about placing them one way or the other and would default to whatever works best in practice.

I don’t have the reps or data to feel strongly one way or the other, yet. I’m open to suggestions and even more open to suggestions from people who take the time to try fill out a deck list. Do you want more slots for specific stuff? Theorycraft is only as useful as it is practical. 

Rather than say the spirit of the format is this or that and become entrenched in some specific mode of thinking, I personally think the best way to organically create a format is one step at a time. There is clearly a vacuum of empty space for something that doesn’t exist (that should exist) to thrive. I’ve merely identified what the space is and begun sculpting something in the shape that fills the void, but ultimately the details are arbitrary and should be fluid enough to naturally take the form that players naturally want it to take.

It is unclear to me which method of assigning placement to products like decks and promos would be preferable and it’s something that requires more deckbuilding to properly assess. 

The point of a 1v1 casual dueling format is to bring players together to play in a way that is populist and fun for everybody without being exclusionary or offensive. While I think my conception of Timeline likely creates a matrix where cards don’t need to be banned for power reasons, I do think there are other reasons to exclude specific cards from the card pool. In particular, cards that WOTC have deemed to be offensive. The point of a casual format isn’t meant to be a soapbox for players who want to rub offensive cards (that should never have been made in the first place) in the faces of other players to hurt feelings. I’m not about that. 

Chaos OrbContract from Below

I also view cards and mechanics that don’t fit into our normal conceptions of playing Magic as cards to be avoided, but rather opportunities for playing format variants. In a casual context (where we are not playing competitively, i.e. competing for a prize), there is no reason my opponent and I couldn’t agree to play our match using Commanders, or use dexterity cards like Chaos Orb as written or with an errata both players agree to. Ante cards specify they are not to be included if players are not playing for an ante. The idea of ante as a mechanism for balancing the game is antiquated, but you can actually redefine what ante is to create a new variant. For instance, you play for an ante – but not “for keeps.” If you lose a game (and thus your ante), that card is exiled from your deck for the rest of the tournament. The player who wins the total most ante cards over the course of the event is the winner – but everybody keeps possession of their own cards. 

In a casual setting, I also see no reason why I couldn’t bring multiple dueling decks and play a different one each round. A spikey grinder could have a spikey grinder deck to duel other spikey grinders as well as a fun deck for dueling with new players. If there’s no prize carrot, players can actually emphasize playing fairly matched games for fun as opposed to focusing purely on the equity of winning a carrot. 

Last but not least, as far as anticipating problems with decks that are too powerful, I do have another restricting mechanism in my back pocket to break up undesirable configurations of cards that will never rotate or be banned. It’s a Restricted List within a format where every card and set is already restricted.

When I look at the Commander banned list, the real reason most cards need to be banned is they allow you to play too much of a good thing and not necessarily because the card is too powerful to be played with. I can only think of a couple of cards that I think are actually objectively more powerful and versatile than Mana Crypt. The only difference is that Mana Crypt and Sol Ring aren’t on the Reserved List. In fact, Sol Ring was on the Reserved List at one time and was removed. 

The Power 9 Moxen are a great example because one Mox is not distinctly better or worse than a Sol Ring, but a deck with five Moxen and a Sol Ring is much better than a deck with just a Sol Ring. We obviously can’t play more than one card from the original core set in my proposed “Timeline,” which solves that issue without requiring a single card be banned. 

 

Header - Summary

I would like an option to play casual dueling Magic where I can build my own decks with the cards I’ve collected and enjoyed playing over the years. I want to be able to build decks that I can enjoy and continue to work on over time and add onto, but not completely rebuild with four new copies of whatever hot new design makes my old card obsolete. I’m all about adding on and enjoying the sweet new cards, but not at the expense of throwing away the past (that I’ve already purchased). 

I want a format that I can take seriously without taking it too seriously; a format where people show up on a weeknight, order a few pizzas and focus more on jaming games together and less on trying to go 3-0. A casual format that doesn’t require four players to be played properly. I want to sideboard. 

As a content creator, people frequently ask me to duel but I don’t have a fun deck to play outside of multiplayer. I think it would be cool if other content creators had a Timeline deck that reflects their actual playstyle, flavorful cards they personally like and cards they are known for playing to duel with other creators and/or fans. I probably don’t have time to sit down and play a game of Commander with you in between rounds, but I’d be down to jam a game of Timeline and see what you built. 

I’m actually all set to start testing and tuning Timeline as a format. I’ve been spitballing the concept and rules for deck construction with friends for the past month and incorporating their suggestions and feedback about how to put all of these pieces fit together with the intent of creating a casual format that is fun and functional way for fans to play, collect and enjoy the cards they own. 

I’ll also add that building a deck that breaks my format is more challenging than it appears at first glance because the Timeline deckbuilding mechanic limits card choices in a completely novel way and has implications that are not obvious until you actually try to build a deck. It’s harder to break than it looks, which is promising.

I’ve also intentionally not included a deck list (although I’m working on several decks and so are other players) because I think part of the fun here is the opportunity to explore the unknown. You have access to using any cards you want and a sideboard to combat linear strategies but there’s no metagame yet. It’s a blank canvas (deck list) and you can make it into whatever you want it to be. However, no matter what you create, it will be a reflection of a strategy that you like to play across the entire history of the game – which is compelling to me as a player, fan and collector of Magic cards. 

If you design a list feel free to tweet it at me @briandemars1. I’m very interested to see if and how other fans would build dueling decks using a Timeline approach. 

 

5 thoughts on “Building a New, Casual Eternal Format – Timeline”

  1. ah yes because what casuals want to do when building a deck is consult arbitrary and confusing spreadsheets. I mean, Sol ring in 10th edition? What? Take a page from Maro and remove most of your peas bud.

  2. Again, I reject the premise that “casual” players only enjoy dumbed down or simple versions of playing Magic. I observe that assumption to be false. Cards go into slots that represent where they were first printed. All of the unique “rookie card” that would go in the Alpha – 10th slot are found in Beta Edition. Everything added 3rd Ed. – 10th is a reprint. I wrote it open ended because it’s unclear to me whether players would prefer to min max decks using reprint sets like Masters, or stick with locking cards into the set they first appeared.

  3. I threw together a first draft using only cards I own (so no power) it’s a pretty neat Doomsday/Tainted Pact/Thassa’s Oracle/Consultation list with a bunch of counter magic and discard to set up a big combo turn. It’s neat trying to navigate the decklist, I had to sacrifice a lot of fast mana to have access to reasonable cantrips and tutors. I had fun. I didn’t quite get it refined to a 75 yet, but I’m definitely going to keep messing around with it. Sweet idea!

  4. This looks quite fun; I really like building challenges like this.

    you’ve brought another entertaining format to the masses; we salute your efforts.

  5. Lrrs series Friday nights did an episode about a casual format like ur striving for where really powerful cards are pointed like in canlander I think the episode was “i resolve” check it out

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