This article is about the new Timeline event format published by Atomic Mass Games for Marvel Crisis Protocol. If you aren't familiar with the format, take a look at the rules before continuing. I'll also be referring to some comments made by the hosts of Alfredo's Size 3 Taco Truck: A Marvel Crisis Protocol Podcast in their recent episode on the topic of Timelines. If you haven't already, have a listen. If you don't listen to their show regularly, you should.
The Timeline format is designed for large, multi-day events according to its rules document. For all intents and purposes, this means conventions. It requires players to bring three totally unique Rosters with no overlap in characters, tactics, or crisis cards. This is to "encourage players to be creative and thoughtful."
The format also uses a subset of characters and cards that share some thematic element (in theory). This subset will change periodically, presumably yearly based on the naming of the current list. Players may only use characters and cards that appear on the current Timeline list when building their three Rosters for a Timeline event. These restrictions are supposed to get players to "think outside the box and ... find new and interesting Roster combinations" and "allow the format to remain fresh and interesting."
The Alfredo boys mentioned this on their show, but I think it's worth repeating that the two paragraphs above are really doing different things, despite both alluding to the idea of making players be "more creative." To some extent, they contradict each other.
There has also been a lot of talk, both by AMG staff and others, about how Timeline is supposed to be the Next Big Thing for competitive play. This concept forther complicates things because it assumes that either of the two things Timeline does are actually good for competitive play and that players want them.
Players and event hosts are often trying to come up with ways to make games more interesting and see a larger variety of models, cards, and strategies. It's pretty widely believed that having more creativity can make a game and a tournament more fun.
The two aspects of the Timeline rules do, in fact, make players be more creative with their Rosters. Building three unique lists that can't overlap will force those lists to be different (see every team event for evidence). Restricting players to a limited set of characters and cards does the same thing - lists will be different than if they had access to everything.
On the other hand, both of these methods will also cause the Rosters brought by different players to be more similar to each other. If everyone has to make three, then you'll see more of the same things simply because there will be more copies. In addition, reducing the pool from which players can choose their characters and cards will cause more players to arrive at the same thing for their "best" version of a given list for the format.
Adding these together will, I believe, result in a bunch of people bringing the same or very similar lists and players facing the same models and cards more often through the event than if they had just been playing standard MCP. In fact, making people bring 30 characters from a pool of only 75 will absolutely result in more repitition of models than a standard event where players choose 10 characters from a much wider pool. There Affiliations with fewer Leaders and even whole Affiliations that aren't legal to play in a Timeline event.
The number of players who regularly attend and do well in highly competitive events is small. That's true both in raw numbers and as a percentage of the people who play the game and it's true across all game systems. However, those players are a very vocal and visible minority. And for good reason! Even very casual players often like to follow the big competitive events to see how the top players are doing and to get tips on how to play the game better. This is also good for game publishers, since it increases interest in their game. See the MtG Pro Tour for the best evidence of that in tabletop gaming.
The first thing I noticed about the two aspects of the Timeline format is that both are reminiscent of more casual alternate formats than a competitive one. Restricting the character pool based on fluff is a classic alt-format thing to do, as is adding other restrictions to how Rosters are built. That being said, I want to take a moment to analyze how I believe Timeline will actually impact competitive events.
Requiring players to bring three Rosters and forcing them to use those Rosters in a pre-determined cycle will greatly increase the amount of time it would take a player to master the tools they bring to the event. In a standard event, players can theorize and practice their list against every possible opponent and learn how best to use all the characters and cards in each situation. In a team event with three unique rosters, the team can divide and conquer, so to speak, and protect players from their bad matchups. In Timeline, each player will have to try and learn how each of their three unique lists plays against each other possible list they expect to face at the event.
This is going to be more difficult, and that means only very serious competitive players will be able to do it well. However, I think it's too far. I believe this will result in a lot of games played between two players who don't know their list very well and/or don't understand how it plays into their opponent's list. It will look like a lot of beginner- or journeyman-level games at what is supposed to be a premier competitive event.
One thing that I think the Alfredo crew was trying to say but perhaps didn't get across is that this kind of event will reward, and therefore encourage, a very different kind of competitive play. Since the standard event prep of tuning your list and practicing will be much more difficult and time consuming, players will have less incentive to do that. Instead, the Timeline format will reward players who are able to react quickly and effectively to any situation as it happens.
There's the final question of if players actually want any of this. There have definitely been people asking for greater variety in characters and cards played, so I think the goal is fine. However, I think the execution will leave even those people unsatisfied.
This would be admittedly difficult, but I think the "proper" way to give players more variety would be to balance the game in such a way that there isn't ever a single "best" option when choosing Affiliations, characters, or cards. Players want a variety of options while remaining competitive. They don't (usually) just want the best things to be banned so no one can play them.
For all the talk about encouraging players to be creative, I think the Timeline format is, at least in part, a poorly disguised way to ban problematic characters from competitive play without actually having to issue any errata.
The Timeline format aims to make players be more creative with their Rosters. I think it does this on the surface, but will actually result in more players bringing the same lists. There are fewer things to choose from, so the likelihood that a single "best" list is found for any given Affiliation is even higher. Players have to bring three Rosters, so the number of times a given list will appear is even higher. And since building Rosters is hard, players will be more likely to use established resources rather than being "creative" when constructing their lists.
Timeline has been billed as a premier competitive format, but at best it simply rewards a different kind of competition than a standard event. Timeline events will be won by players who are good at in-game tactics rather than players who are good at pre-game strategy and preparation. Maybe that's what AMG wants?
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