Magical Hack: It’s About Time – A Time Spiral Prerelease Primer

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Sean takes us through the strategies to expect at this weekend’s Time Spiral prerelease event, and provides a number of helpful tips for those getting funky with time, a la Marty McFly circa 1985…

Time Spiral will be bared for the world to see for the first time tomorrow, and veteran mages and newcomers alike are thoroughly confused as to what they are going to be seeing. Keeping up with the spoilers might help, it’s true, in the face of 422 cards with a wild array of abilities, mechanics, and interesting twists and turns. Still, even keeping up with the influx of data sees the well-informed reader mixing old knowledge of how these things used to work with contextual guesses about how one thing might play with another. This results in a thorough con-fusion of elements, as we learn that there is just too much data to process with such little time between now and the Prerelease. Starting with vague generalities, we’ve found trying to reach any detail more finely focused than the widest of possible lenses leads to very grainy images of how some blocks of cards will be playing with another. How, then, to go about this and make a prerelease primer?

Some elements can be blocked out, looking at all of the Morph creatures across the three… or is it four now?… commonalities can give a solid look at how Morph in general will interact whenever you or your opponent plays one. Guessing by sheer percentage share of cards, then you can estimate about how many Morphs your opponent will have and thus get a hint of how fundamentally busy each player’s turn 3 is going to be. You can also look at the returning cast, like Norin the Wary or Jaya Ballard, Task Mage. Just from the names on the “Reserved” placards, you can come up with rough estimates of what the legends traveling throughout the ages to meet up at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe are going to look and feel like. After all, Jaya casts Pyroblast and Incinerate, Ith activates the Maze of Ith, and who knows, maybe there’s a five-drop with the special ability to run from Lhurgoyfs… just not quite fast enough.

Working in anything other than broad strokes and grand chunks is not going to succeed, as a primer. For that level of detail, you’d have to know every card in the set, and unsurprisingly we don’t have that list available. Fortunately, you don’t have the entire set to contend with, tomorrow… just one starter deck and three booster packs, with which to do the best you can. The method of this primer, then, is to sharpen your eye to what is truly important, and put it in context with itself and the lessons learned most recently in Ravnica Block Limited. I cannot impart in a single article my experience drafting Mirage Block in 1996-7, Tempest Block in 1997-8, Saga Block in 1998-9, Masques Block in 1999-2000, Invasion Block in 2000-1, Odyssey Block in 2001-2, Onslaught Block in 2002-3, Mirrodin Block in 2003-4, Kamigawa Block in 2004-5, and still expect it all to make sense.

Knowing that Blue-Green tempo was a solid contender to the removal-heavy Black environment in Urza’s Block Limited is useless information to you… but it helps to explain why it worked, with big fat echo creatures and a spattering of countermagic to stop the Corrupts and Expunges and just trusting in their sheer size to protect them against opposing creatures. We need not knowledge but the distilled information that is the contextual lesson of all of these blocks we’ve seen in ages past… and to do that, we will have a look at the “tension” elements that are going to be the key decision-making questions to answer at the Prerelease.

Now or Later?

Remember, in Ravnica Block, how Sealed Deck often came down to the tension of more power versus more consistency? Manabases couldn’t be correctly made without a graphing calculator in your pocket, to chart “too much inconsistency” against “so much power available!” and find the happy medium. In Time Spiral Limited, the tension is Now versus Later. Time is officially a resource now, to be spent and bartered for maximum effect, and some of the more prevalent keywords accentuate how one might spend their today hoping for a better tomorrow, or pay tomorrow for your fat monster today.

Tension Point #1 – Suspend

Suspend is the mechanic that allows you to spend your present turns working for an amazing future, getting a significant price break on powerful cards if you can keep the game balanced long enough for those returns to both appear and do their job. Conceptually, for the purpose of Limited play, Suspend is a brand-new thing that is difficult to understand and almost impossible to correctly weigh; I have had the best success thinking of it as the backwards opposite of Kicker. Kicker spells could do a little now at low cost, but get better if you let them get more expensive; using time spent waiting to have the right to spend more mana gets you a bigger effect for your card. (Entwine has a similar theme, but was generally modal spells that did different things instead of “just” the same trick but bigger and better.) Suspend spells instead do absolutely nothing now, but ask for that small investment up front; wait a similar length of time, and the “high power” effect will come into play all the same. Mana and time were tied together in Kicker; they are likewise tied together here in Suspend.

Spending your early turns setting up your later turns is a definite risk, and so you will have to keep careful attention on your mana curve and figure out when you’re going to be able to slip these in on otherwise wasted turns. One-mana or two-mana suspend costs are a solid deal, because your earliest drops have the best chance of getting mucked up as the board grinds to a halt… if you are going to play the aggressive tempo game, Suspend is most certainly the exact opposite of your plan, but if you can live without your Grizzly Bear drop and still make your Grey Ogre and Hill Giant drop, the sudden appearance of the card in which your second turn was invested will be more than enough to make up for the temporary loss. Skipping your fourth turn to wait three turns for your effect is much more expensive than skipping your second, or even your first; not all turns are created equal.

Because not all turns are created equal, higher suspend costs (in terms of mana spent, or time invested) are something to shy away from. If you want to spend your fifth turn sending a card off into the future to show up on turn 8 or 9, that’s your prerogative, but when your opponent’s play instead is a Bramble Elemental-level card that’s going to cause your board position to deteriorate badly in the meantime, I wouldn’t suggest whining to me about it. Likewise, you will want to aim for spells that will be castable in the late-game if you don’t have the time to invest in them, so keep the suspend costs (the turn you’re likely to play them, in the early game, to get their future discount as quickly as possible) and the actual mana costs (how much you’d have to pay for them if you need them now, not later) firmly in mind. Consider both as parts of your mana curve, and don’t clog your deck with too many high-cost spells… the same rule as before, but with an added skill-tester as a twist.

Tension Point #2 — Investing Mana More Than Once

Echo and Morph are both means to get a cheaper card out quicker, as both (to some degree or another) allow you to break up the cost of a spell over two turns. A 6/6 creature without trample isn’t worth ten mana, but when it’s asked for half now and half later, it looks like an excellent five-drop… it will certainly be the biggest thing on the board, coming down so quickly thanks to its “leveling” downside that is supposed to make it “fair.” They are very different in what they do, especially since one smooths your deck’s consistency while the other gums the works up terribly. Morph is always a Gray Ogre on turn 3, and the extra mana investment comes at a time of your choosing to improve upon what you’ve already half-purchased… while Echo cards are always exactly what they look like, just bigger and badder for their mana cost than the average critter.

The curve-smoothing consistency of the Morph had a powerful effect on Onslaught Block, making the third-turn drop absolutely critical and generally rewarding draws that get you up to the higher cost range. This saw the inclusion of eighteen lands as a veritable necessity in that format, much higher than others we have seen like the Karoo-laden Ravnica Block or the artifact land-and-Myr-heavy Mirrodin Block. Sight-unseen, you should assume your deck is going to have eighteen lands in it, and unless something very odd is going on you’ll want to keep to two colors and a light splash as the heaviest splitting of your color commitments. This is neither Ravnica Block nor Invasion Block, tempting you to traipse all over the rainbow and making it possible to stretch past what are otherwise considered to be very reasonable boundaries.

Just because your two big mechanics here do similar things doesn’t mean they are exactly the same. Both eat into your tempo, asking for more mana either up front or at an undetermined later date. Having too much Echo is a bad thing, because your average Echo creature eats up two turns of development, not just one… and there isn’t actually such a thing as “too much” Morph, thanks to two key facets of how Morph works. The first is the above-mentioned consistency smoothing effect: the more Morphs you have, the better you are at guaranteeing that turn 3 will have something going on… and the second is the nature of anonymity. “The Morph game” is the adventure of attempting to determine what, exactly, that face-down creature is, either by keeping careful track of what Morphs your opponent has already played, what the commonality of the different Morphs are, and (for those who enjoy subtle nuance) the psychology behind putting down Morphs in a certain order.

Back in Onslaught Block, a Red deck playing a third-turn morph was probably putting down either a 3/1 first striker, or a 2/1 Goblin that would deal two damage to a creature if he attacked unblocked. The “trick” was to guess correctly which of those two you were facing, to risk losing your blocking morph against the first striker versus the risk of losing your morph to the Goblin if you didn’t block. The counter-trick is to know your opponent is going to read you “correctly” and intentionally play out of sequence, dropping the Goblin first and knowing your opponent wasn’t going to block, then dropping the first striker after a successful attack with the Goblin (without unmorphing) to convince the opponent that the Goblin was the 3/1 and the 3/1 was the Goblin… making for messy combat phases indeed when your two morphs crashed in the next turn and unmorphed to reveal his blocking Morph in front of the first striker and your unblocked morph killing the second, non-blocking morph. Like any mechanic that allows you to keep secret information, Morph has a layer of subtlety and finesse that is not often appreciated, and gets better as your ability to read your opponent improves.

Tricks like that are hard to make work, however, and require you to know basically what rules your opponent is using in dealing with your hidden threats. Better still, keep it simple and try not to fall for any such tricks yourself… and to do that, keep a pen and paper handy, and write down every creature with Morph your opponent plays during the course of the match. It’s one of those things every player should do but very few do, and keeping track of that information can prove quite crucial when you have to ferret out the right play involving a series of face-down creatures.

Tension Point #3 – Fast or Fat?

Inevitably, the choice is going to come down to small creatures that attack quickly or large creatures that have a sizable body. For the most part, the Suspend creatures are looking to have a large body at the cost of spending time instead of mana, clumping them in the “Fat” category, and a fair margin of the Echo and Morph creatures are themselves neatly labeled in the “Fast” category. Along with these known details, though, we have another pair of old mechanics returning: Shadow and Flanking. Shadow may not be quite so prevalent overall, but combined with its analogue twin, Flying, it can mean death to the slower decks that rely on slower but larger monsters to win the game… while flanking gives the initiative to the attacking player, even if the opponent is playing de-facto larger creatures, because flanking creatures bring the fight down to their level very well.

Whichever side of this decision you end up on, going for fast creatures or for bigger bodies, be very mindful of your mana curve. This was mentioned previously when discussing Suspend, specifically as to how to conceptually place a Suspend card in your curve when you are considering the ramifications of playing it in your deck and getting it to work out. Even if you do choose larger bodies, you have to pay attention to your early game, looking for quick removal or mana acceleration if you don’t have early-game creatures of your own. A player that plays a creature every turn for the first four turns generally beats the player who waits until their fourth turn to play anything of relevance, and most definitely does so if they have a removal spell or two ready to mop up the first blocker as they push across for more and more damage as you struggle to keep up. If you are going to decide it’s the fat-bottomed girls who make your rockin’ world go round, you still don’t want to be that guy, and that guy is very easy to be in a world full of complex interactive elements and tons of moving parts. Keep your wits about you and your mana curve as low as you can manage, even if you have to just play a few early-game morphs to trade for the opponent’s creatures.

If you are the aggressive deck, you are going to want to limit your colors very tightly. A two-color deck with eighteen lands gets to have nine lands of each of its colors, allowing you to play all of your cards out in exactly the right sequence… drawing the right mana consistently is a hidden sub-game in assembling your mana curve to play out according to the script you set for it. Splashing is acceptable but should be done only for clutch cards that can turn the mid- to late-game in your favor, like powerful removal spells or stalemate-breakers. 7-7-4 is worse on your main colors than 9-9-0, especially if you have many (or even any) early-game double-colored spells. It’s awesome to have a 2/2 flanker on turn 2… and it really, really stinks when it costs WW to cast and your second land is not the coveted second Plains.

Aggressive tendencies work out more often than is usually discussed in Limited, because a well-sculpted beatdown deck can consistently get the kind of draws that require the opponent to have the right kind of hand to stabilize the board… early plays, and the right colors of land now. Boros and Rakdos beatdown strategies were more viable than generally accepted, thanks to the fact that most players spent their first few turns in the City of Guilds trying to fix their mana, and regardless of all their fixing there was no promise they would have all the right colors for the spells in their hands… beating down quickly was the stress-test for what you could get away with in RGD Limited. Here, you have a lot of cards that favor the early attack, with Morph, Shadow, Echo, and Flanking all helping to push damage across in the early game. Flanking discourages blocking in the early game, and flankers can be very relevant attackers even as the game draws longer and longer, because an attacking flanker is still capable of fighting a Hill Giant to the ground, the industry-standard mid- to late-game solid creature. Shadow outright forbids blocking, and Echo likewise makes for a very relevant attacker early in the game as well as helping to push damage across later – your fat man is much, much bigger than whatever the opponent has likely mustered to that point. And in the case of Morph, the mechanic opens the door for the opponent to mis-play, since you know what your Morph is but they do not… like Flanking, it discourages early-game blocking.

It’s good to be the beatdown, and if you aren’t the one planning on attacking for two, please be aware that there are probably going to be a lot of people in the room who are going to give it a solid try. Many of them will have slivers, putting an unusually high value (and high danger!) to your own Sliver cards.

Tension Point #4: Double Your Pleasure, Double Your Fun

This is more of a corollary to Point #3 above, but you will find that there are a few different classes of spells to be had around there, some of which are keeping up with the time-traveling theme. On the one hand you have the fast spells… Madness spells that can maybe, just maybe, do something special really quickly, Flash spells that do powerful or interesting things at instant speed when you aren’t expecting them, and Split Second spells that are so fast that you can’t do anything at all in response to them*. And on the other hand you get the spells you can use twice: Buyback spells and Flashback spells.

These can mix and match quite well with the above tension point, as a “Fast” deck with “Fat” spells can be brutally punishing, as they may quickly get to the point where it is certainly worthwhile to spend their entire late-game turn and all of its mana just to use a repeating effect, as every time they do X it’s like they also cast a Lava Axe in your direction. And a “Fat” deck with “Fast” spells is likely to do very, very well for itself, holding off the early assault that is so dangerous and starting to drop its bigger creatures unopposed. Neither are quite so dangerous as a “Fast” deck with “Fast” spells, however, especially when those spells are going to work right… after all, tempo is king. And the marriage between a “Fat” creature deck and a “Fat” spell deck is going to work about as well as it sounds: too pendulous and slow getting moving to defend itself well against an incoming flurry of blows.

Pay attention to any repeating effects you may be lucky enough to open, because regardless of the speed of your deck a repeating effect is very powerful, as they directly equate to card advantage… you get to spend mana for the benefit of a card without having to spend a card as well, and it’s a wonderful thing. Any repeating effect, no matter how small, can be incredibly powerful… one of the most innocent, but difficult to beat, Buyback spells from Tempest Block was Anoint, essentially Healing Salve with Buyback at least as far as combat damage is concerned. Flashback and Buyback are powerful in that they do something for nothing so long as you have the mana to take advantage of them, the latter a potentially unlimited number of times and the former “just” twice… but always twice, which you can’t say if your Buyback spell is countered with its first use. Card Advantage won’t win the game by itself, but is very powerful when meshed with a keen eye for tempo.

There is a lot to figure out about Time Spiral, and clearly this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding enough to do well in the format. Fortunately, even standing on the iceberg at all is much better than being the guy who’s playing all seven-cost Suspend spells and crying out “Iceberg! Right ahead!” when the opponent plays a Grizzly Bear followed up with a Grey Ogre. We haven’t discussed proportions, or even individual cards… the prerelease is the place to be wide-eyed and surprised by everything going on around you, and talking about Individual Card X when we haven’t a clue that Card Y and Card Z are also around and the perfect foils to any Card X strategy is a pointless task. Fortunately, when it comes to the Time Spiral learning curve, you don’t have to be super-fast… just faster than the guy across the table from you, and only for a few rounds. The prerelease is a wonderful way to get a feel for how Time Spiral plays out by actually playing the cards… and your competition level is generally low, because the skill level is “generally friendly,” the rules-enforcement level is “be nice,” and the technology level is “I love lightning, it’s my best invention since the rock!

One last point to illustrate for this Prerelease Primer before I wish you good luck, have fun, and open a foil Akroma to beat down with out of your purple Timeshifted cards: RTFC**. It will save you time and sorrow, and we are looking at a very complex Limited format overall.

So… good luck, and may your time-shifted “second bomb rare” be the coveted Angel of Shiny Boobies!

Sean McKeown
smckeown @ livejournal.com

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing cause I’ve,
I’ve built my life around you…
But time makes you bolder,
Even children get older
I’m getting older, too…
Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide

* Lies, lies, lies. But close enough to true that in most cases the distinction won’t matter; you can take “special actions” like unmorphing a Morph creature in response, and triggered effects will still trigger, but that’s pretty much it, and as they are subtle corner cases it’s not really worth screwing up a very solid generalization.

** For those who didn’t click and see the words “Magic: the Gathering” giving the acronym away, it stands for “Read the F***ing Card.” And if you take only one piece of advice away from this primer, I’d suggest it be that one!