Broadly speaking, when you play Magic: The Gathering via its digital incarnation in Arena, you choose a format to decide whether you want to play with just new cards (Standard), a mix of new and old cards (Historic), or a mix of new and old cards but none older than the popular Return to Ravnica block (Explorer). There are other formats like Brawl, which lets you add more players, or Alchemy, which includes digital-only cards, but if you want to play a traditional one-on-one game of constructed Magic in Arena just like you would at the table, those are the three formats you pick from.
Until now. With the new Timeless format, Arena has yet another way to play. “We are creating Timeless as a home for MTG Arena’s most powerful cards”, senior product manager Dave Finseth wrote on the Magic blog. “As MTG Arena has grown, we have accumulated extra strong sets like Wilds of Eldraine Enchanting Tales and Strixhaven Mystical Archive. These cards did not have a great place to be played outside of their Limited formats without overrunning an existing Constructed format. Timeless will be a place to play these cards.”
That makes it sound a lot like Historic, which was supposed to be the free-for-all, use-any-card-you-own format. But over the years Historic has accrued a list of banned cards that are considered “a bit much” even in the free for all—enough that earlier this year there were two events, Historic No Banned List and Historic Basically No Bans, to let players bring back their overpowered faves for a limited duration. Those events were popular enough to spawn a permanent version, and that version is the Timeless format.
It helps that the new Khans of Tarkir set brings back fetch lands—cards that can be sacrificed to let you play land cards out of your deck. Being able to reduce the number of land cards you’ll potentially draw in the late game, after you’ve already built up a decent stock and would rather draw your most powerful spells, is one of those mechanics that sounds fair but is actually a wild shift in balance. In Arena those fetch lands have gone straight into Timeless, being pre-banned in other formats.
“We believe now is the right time to add a new format,” Finseth wrote, “as we have built up a healthy batch of these cards and expect more will be added from things like bonus sheets, The List in Play Boosters, and sets like Modern Horizons 3, coming in 2024.”
While Timeless doesn’t have banned cards, it does have a restricted list for cards that are so powerful you’re only allowed to have one in your deck and sideboard. The first three cards to be restricted are Channel, Demonic Tutor, and Tibalt’s Trickery. Expect more to be added as the format matures.
The proliferation of different Magic: The Gathering formats can be confusing—I can never remember which of paper Magic’s eternal formats is Vintage and which one’s Legacy—but at the same time each new format has a chance of bringing in new players. I never would have started playing paper Magic in addition to Arena if it wasn’t for how much fun Commander is, and I’m certainly not alone in that given Commander is now the most popular official way to play. Still, it seems to me like Timeless will appeal to the same people already playing Historic, and whether the two persist or one cannibalizes the other, well, time will tell.