Magical Hack: Fast-Forward

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Sean investigates Time Spiral, with the aid of the Orb of Insight, and predicts what trends the coming set will introduce for Limited play. Can the information revealed thus far serve as a sufficient barometer to predict the overall style we can expect to see played out? Sean reveals all…

With the conclusion of Grand Prix: Phoenix, the PTQ season for Kobe is officially at an end… unless there are a very few stragglers out there in the world’s PTQ circuit, because I didn’t check all the far corners of the world for a pulse before declaring Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension Sealed Deck “done.” Coldsnap booster draft has some small relevance soon, as there are a few National Championships that will be played out using that format still, but for all intents and purposes we can put down our analysis of Coldsnap’s “collect this!” theme and look into the future of Time Spiral as it slowly but surely unfolds before us. In these weeks leading up to the prerelease, I am going to be turning this article series into a “future of Sealed Deck” series, using whatever resources are available strictly through the means of “fair play” and presenting them to the readers in order to begin fleshing out the different elements of play that we are likely to encounter throughout our time with Time Spiral.

If it’s an official preview, such as we’re seeing now on MagictheGathering.com, it’ll be noted. If it’s published in a magazine, or distributed as a teaser “freebie,” it’ll be noted. Using the same level of discretion that is now found on MTG Salvation in the wake of the Rancored Elf lawsuit, we’ll be trying to figure out how past mechanics work together and butt heads when facing off in the world of a rapidly deteriorating Dominaria. The Orb of Insight is a key resource throughout all of this, and as more and more information is unveiled we’ll see more clearly what exactly we’ll be trying to parse come prerelease weekend… and in the frantic weeks of drafting afterwards. I for one am considering this article to be the first step down the path to the Pro Tour: Geneva qualifier season, as a mastery of Time Spiral Limited will be crucial in two months’ time when the Grand Prix circuit comes close enough to home for me to actually get off my duff and travel to it… and because the PTQ season for Geneva begins almost immediately after Time Spiral’s official release.

For starters, before we try to re-contextualize the old, let’s have a look at the new mechanics:

Flash – Also known as “Simian Grunt”. (Sadly, “Simian” and “Grunt” do not appear in the Orb of Insight.) This ability was first seen through the previews of Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, a 3/4 creature for 2UUU who can be played at instant speed, lets all your other creatures come play at instant speed, and downgrades all of your opponent’s spells to sorcery speed only. Presumably the other Flash cards (ha!) don’t have quite so dramatic an effect on how the temporal flow of the game plays out back and forth between two players, and are “just” critters that can jump out of nowhere as surprise blockers.

Suspend – “It’s like Echo, but with time instead of mana…”. You cannot pay me Tuesday for a hamburger today, but if you pay me for the hamburger today I’ll give you a 4/4 hasty flier on Tuesday instead. Suspend asks the question, how much is a turn worth? Clearly, if you spend an entire turn you lose an entire turn’s mana… but if you can still do everything else you want in the meantime, and just wait your turn for the spell to come through without any other costs to pay, you may find that a small buck gives a lot of bang. So far we are seeing 4/4 fliers for 1U (and three turns), and three-for-one discard spells for just B (and four turns). Considering that a Time Walk effect… with buyback… is already known, I wouldn’t be surprised to see U: Draw three cards (four turns from now).

Split Second – Welcome back, Interrupts! In the land of the Instant, the Interrupt is king! These cards “interrupt” play for as long as they are on the stack, firing off and closing the priority windows such that the only effects that are allowed to be put on the stack are the ones that trigger themselves automatically, like Counterbalance. For a modest additional cost, you get to make sure your spell does exactly what it’s supposed to without the opponent mucking around to intervene, because the time-stream on these cards is so altered that they work too quickly for an opponent to respond.

And from those old friends known to be returning, we have a reasonably comprehensive list borrowed from Mark Rosewater Monday article, “Blast from the Past”:

buyback – 7
echo – 13
flanking – 21
flashback – 23
madness – 10
morph – 18
shadow – 28
spellshaper – 6
storm – 5
thallid – 14

And of course:

sliver – 54
slivers – 26

Morph – The last time we had a Morph-based environment, a few key things were true because of it: it was a play-first beatdown format, and it was easier to get to a sufficient number of playables because you could always pick up a few off-color Morphs that were just 2/2’s for 3 colorless mana… not the best, but considering how the format was defined by the turn 3 play of a face-down 2/2, it certainly helped consistency and could always throw off the guessing game of trying to figure out if you could safely block the opponent’s first morph… or if you could safely let it through unblocked. Assuming that we are seeing Morph creatures at common (and with eighteen instances, that makes nine Morph creatures unless other cards have the word “Morph”)… we will likely see some that you have to block early because they will do painful saboteur-type things, and we will likely see some that punish you for blocking early by letting the aggressor use their mana to favorably unmorph a large creature.

Morph, as a whole, smooths deck consistency, and in specific the last time we saw it, it creates tension: balancing whether or not one can “safely” block a morph creature against the risk of something very bad happening if you let it through unblocked. Both of these aspects make it a beatdown-positive mechanic in Limited play. Morph was so format-defining that Shock, the fastest answer to a turn 3 Morph, was clearly first-pick quality because of its positive tempo effect on the game. Unsurprisingly, then, the word “Shock” seems to appear twice in the Orb of Insight, which could very well be once for the card name and once for “Shock deals two damage to target creature or player”. I wouldn’t bet on Shock Troops, myself.

Shadow – Of all the things we didn’t expect to see back in Limited, ever, Shadow is pretty high up there. Quite possibly #2, right after Rath Block’s #1 offender, Buyback. Buyback shows up a sum total of seven times, on two “known” Rares (Evangelize, from the MTG.com previews, and Walk of Aeons, from a French gaming magazine) and presumably on five other cards, likely one of each color, presumably either common or uncommon and costed so that they will actually come up in Limited play (instead of costing nine mana, for Evangelize, and six mana plus three Islands for Walk of Aeons). Shadow shows up 28 times… and the current rules text for Shadow says “Shadow (This creature can block or be blocked by only creatures with Shadow.)”. At two instances each card that gives us as many as 14 Shadow creatures, and if they are tending towards the common slot they will be very powerful in Limited play, even if they are “just” costed as if Shadow were flying, instead of undercosted as if Shadow were in some part a drawback of the creature.

Ninja Sliver
Creature – Sliver
All Slivers have “Discard a card: This creature gains shadow until end of turn. (This creature can block or be blocked by only creatures with shadow.)

Yes, this card would be absolutely awesome… and that’s just templating it off of Thalakos Drifters, the “fair” Shadow creature from Rath Block, instead of just a generic Shadow creature. If Shadow and Slivers overlap in any way at all, it’s going to be totally sweet… like ninjas are totally sweet… thus Ninja Sliver. Shadow, due to it providing downright unblockable creatures unless you have shadow creatures of your own, is likewise a mechanic that favors aggression. (Sadly, Ninja appears zero times in the Orb of Insight… sad, because Ninjas are totally sweet.)

Flanking – Remember Bushido? Flanking is basically Bushido, altered to be better when attacking and worse when blocking. When two creatures with Flanking duke it out, nothing happens. When a creature with Flanking blocks a non-Flanker… nothing special happens, thus Flanking is worse on defense than Bushido. But when a creature… or creatures… without flanking blocks a Flanker, each and every blocker gets –1/-1. Basically similar to Bushido, right? Well, there are a few corner cases: one toughness creatures just die, period. Each and every blocker gets a negative penalty… so if two creatures block, Flanking: 1 is already better than Bushido: 1. And if you are holding a creature kill spell that relies on damage or creature size to be effective (like, say, Last Gasp), Flanking gives you a better chance of killing off that pesky blocker before you lose your own creature. Flanking likewise favors an aggressive Limited format… as anyone who has been playing Mirage or Mirage-Visions Limited on MTGO might know quite well at this point, because “generic flanking creature” is basically first-pick-worthy in Draft so long as there isn’t something ridiculous in the pack (like, um, Kaervek’s Torch). Flanking shows up twice on each “generic” flanker, so that’s ten creatures with flanking so far, plus an extra instance somehow not yet explained.

Flanking is absurdly aggressive. So let’s see… we’ve got aggressive, aggressive, aggressive, and aggressive so far. None of these are necessarily present in great quantities… but mix them all together and we’re still looking at “aggressive”. But wait… there’s more!

Echo – Echo was an experiment in balancing casting costs, providing powerful effects or undercosted creatures with the drawback of having to pay for them twice. Echo gave us such all-star attackers as the 6/6 for five Winding Wurm, and the downright absurd Albino Troll. Even if we see Echo in a very different light than before, it’s still fundamentally by its nature a mechanic about getting undercosted effects for your mana cost, because you’d end up paying double that amount before everything was said and done. What a surprise… hey, look, another aggressive mechanic! And one that only shows up once per card, so thirteen potentially undercosted beaters, yay!

Stepping aside from our keyword patrol, and staying with the theme of looking at what does what when involved with creatures, a few other interesting words came up:

Slivers – And boy did it come up a lot. Admittedly, we’re looking at cards that say “Something Sliver” – Creature – Sliver, so 54 instances of the word Sliver gives 27 Slivers. Slivers only comes up 26 times, suggesting that the other two instances of the word “Sliver” are either on one Sliver that doesn’t share abilities with other Slivers (Metallic Sliver does not ping on the Orb of Insight, no “Metallic”…) or either one or two cards that deal with Slivers (but without using the word “Slivers,” so it’s not “Destroy all Slivers,” more like “Sacrifice a Sliver: do X” or “Destroy target non-Sliver creature.”

Slivers share abilities, and get better the more of them you have. And the more of them you have, the better they all beat down… hey look, what a surprise, aggressive tendencies show through again.

Rebels – The word “Rebel” came up a few times, and we’ve already seen a preview of a Rebel card or two, thanks to French gaming magazines yet again. This is not going to be just an innocent creature type randomly showing up… one of the cards previewed is the mirror image of Ramosian Lieutenant, a 2/1 for 1W that searches up the chain for three-mana or less Rebels. Now, ladies and gentlemen, we know why Glory Seeker made it into Ninth Edition instead of Fresh Volunteers.

Searching up Rebels isn’t the most aggressive thing in the world… but recruiting free beaters isn’t exactly a waste of mana, and the Rebellion springing forth from nowhere certainly helps the consistency of the beatdown if not necessarily upping its speed or outright aggressiveness. And don’t worry: the words “Lin-Sivvi, Defiant Hero” do not appear anywhere in the Orb of Insight. Of course, we’re assuming that the Orb of Insight contains everything we need to know about the cards in the Time Spiral expansion… and there are vague rumors flying around about set sizes not matching up, with one possible answer being that not every card you open in a Time Spiral booster pack is necessarily in the Time Spiral expansion itself. Rumors abound about a “Purple expansion symbol” and “Reprint” ‘mechanic’ that is very much so unclear… and may or may not spoil all sorts of fun with numbers as we mine the Orb of Insight.

Fortunately, Rebel only appears eight times, and each Rebel that searches the library eats two instances of the word. Mercenary appears zero times, maybe they are waiting for a higher bidder to come pay them more to be in a future set.

Spellshapers – I’ll admit it, most people out there don’t remember as far back as Mercadian Masques Limited, and many of those who do are trying their hardest to forget it as quickly as possible. In addition to the Rebel versus Mercenary versus The World “interaction” that came up when you drafted Masques Block, we also saw Spellshapers… another “consistency” mechanic, being creatures that have the ability to emulate spells of varying quality with the investment of mana and a card, letting you turn useless spells or extra lands into positive effects of some sort. Some of these Spellshapers were downright ludicrous… try beating a beatdown draw that includes an active Waterfront Bouncer – it’s not fun. On the one hand, it’s another “consistency” mechanic, like Rebels… not necessarily inherently aggressive, just good at smoothing out draws. In most cases, though, it turned out that Spellshapers helped improve upon aggressive draws, if the spells they were emulating were any good. Definitely beatdown-friendly, though not by default “aggressive.”

Spellshaper appears six times, and we know of one legendary rare Spellshaper, Jaya Ballard herself. If the other five are either common or uncommon, and thus likely to show up often enough to matter, they will help make decks more consistent, i.e. smooth the beatdown.

Leaving all the myriad aggressive-friendly mechanics behind, now that we know how in general the creatures are going to work (fast and aggressive, with lots of tempo-based mechanics in the mix) we’ll want to figure out how the spells work, right?

Madness – Madness is an odd one, especially taken out of the context of Odyssey Block where discarding a card for an effect is going to be common. Other than fueling one of the occasional Spellshapers, we don’t know if there are going to be ways to turn this on… or whether we’ll want to bother. Ten instances, two uses per card, it’s likely just a cycle of five cards with Madness, one for each color… a very small cycle in a big set, and even if they’re all commons, one that is still not big enough to really have a significant impact.

And now… for those who want to get a lot of spell for their card:

Storm – Again a somewhat small cycle, five cards altogether, and like Madness it’s probably a cycle of one card for each color. However, it’s probably quite a bit easier to get two or three uses out of this spell than it is to actually use the Madness cost of one of your Madness cards… and any time you’re allowed to get two or three spell’s worth out of a single card, it’s usually worth the cost in time or effort it takes to set up.

Buyback – Another small cycle, but one with two known Rares and five unknown cards, likely a cycle just like Storm and Madness, one card for each color, either uncommons or commons. Buyback was always stupidly good… after all, take a mediocre card and give it a reasonable buyback cost, and all of a sudden you’ve got a mediocre effect… that you can use over and over, for free. Anoint may not look like much, but back in the day it was a powerhouse. And a single cycle of a mechanic doesn’t do much… but put multiple mechanics of small size together, with similar themes of getting more for your card than an average spell would… now that’s Magic.

Flashback – Like Buyback, it’s a way to get more than one use out of a spell… you know, like Storm. Flashback shows up 23 times, and appears twice on each card with Flashback, so we probably have 11 Flashback spells and one enabler, or one of those Flashback spells or some other card in the set has a wacky trigger that goes off if a spell is flashed back. Eleven about sums up two cycles, meaning we can expect a sum total of four spiffy spells per color that can somehow be used to generate more than one casting of the spell, either by buying it back to the hand, re-buying it one time at a later date, or doubling and tripling or even quadrupling up the turn you cast it so long as it’s been an especially busy turn.

Our creatures appear to be pretty well focused on beating down aggressively, while our spells sight-unseen seem to be pretty well focused on controlling the board, just by the sheer nature of the fact that card advantage effects are going to be attached to quite a few spells… anything that lets you use it twice, or more than twice, favors a controlling outlook on the game instead of an aggressive one. So it seems we are going to have a few weeks to brush up on attacking for two, and we’ll just have to wait and see if the spells we’re expecting to see can keep up with the aggressive nature of the creatures we’re (probably) looking at. Of course, like I said this is sight unseen… except for the fact that magazine sources across the world, and similar peeks into the world, have revealed cards like this with reasonable reliability:

Knight of the Holy Nimbus
Human Rebel Knight
If Knight of the Holy Nimbus would be destroyed, regenerate it. 2: Knight of the Holy Nimbus cannot be regenerated this turn. Only an opponent may play this ability.

When spells fight with creatures, usually the creatures win in Limited play. Ravnica Block is a very unusual exception to that rule, thanks to its plentiful removal spells and plethora of synergistic cards that ask for the occasional unusual decision as you’re assembling your deck (either draft-wise or as a Sealed Deck). And everything we are seeing is suggesting that we will see the theme of “time matters” played out on a grand stage, as beatdown and aggressive tempo take the forefront in Future Sight Limited play.

So in addition to watching the spoilers with a keen eye for what’s going on around us as Time Spiral is slowly but surely revealed in its full glory, brush up on your beatdown skills and study up on the grand old tradition of attacking for two. We’ll be revisiting this topic, to be sure, as we get closer to the Prerelease and more cards are revealed… and then I’m sure we’ll discuss more in great depth after we’ve seen Time Spiral in all of its intricacy, to digest and understand everything going on with the Limited format it presents to us. But in a set that’s themed about time, should it be any surprise that tempo will be king and thus the fine art of beating down will be one that shall have to be practiced at length?

Coincidence? I think not.

Sean McKeown
[email protected]

Time here, all but means nothing, just shadows that move ‘cross the wall
They keep me company, but they don’t ask of me, they don’t say nothing at all
And I need just a little more silence… I need just a little more time…
Sarah McLachlan, Time