Time Spiral is finally here, in all of its complexity, so instead of warming up to look at how all of the different mechanics interact strictly on the theoretical plane, we get to dig in and get our hands dirty trying to figure this out. I’ll mostly be focusing on Limited play for the next few weeks, though I shall also be riffing on Constructed potentialities as we all start to get a feel for what you can and cannot do with Time Spiral. For starters, then, let’s begin at the beginning: a Time Spiral Sealed deck, much like one might obtain at the past weekend’s prerelease… and much like we will soon be getting for the upcoming Qualifier season.
- 1 Evil Eye of Orms-by-Gore
- 1 Essence Sliver
- 1 Merieke Ri Berit
- 1 Aetherflame Wall
- 1 Barbed Shocker
- 1 Benalish Cavalry
- 1 Bogardan Rager
- 2 Cavalry Master
- 2 Cloudchaser Kestrel
- 1 Coal Stoker
- 1 Deathspore Thallid
- 1 Dream Stalker
- 1 Drifter il-Dal
- 1 Drudge Reavers
- 1 Errant Ephemeron
- 1 Evil Eye of Urborg
- 2 Flickering Spirit
- 1 Havenwood Wurm
- 1 Herd Gnarr
- 1 Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician
- 1 Jedit's Dragoons
- 1 Jhoira's Timebug
- 1 Mindlash Sliver
- 2 Outrider en-Kor
- 1 Pit Keeper
- 1 Saffi Eriksdotter
- 1 Sage of Epityr
- 1 Sangrophage
- 1 Savage Thallid
- 1 Scryb Ranger
- 1 Stormcloud Djinn
- 1 Thallid Germinator
- 1 Thallid Shell-Dweller
- 1 Tivadar of Thorn
- 1 Tolarian Sentinel
- 3 Urborg Syphon-Mage
- 1 Vampiric Sliver
- 1 Venser's Sliver
- 1 Weathered Bodyguards
- 1 Wormwood Dryad
- 1 Yavimaya Dryad
- 2 Zealot il-Vec
- 1 War Barge
- 1 Hail Storm
- 2 Aether Web
- 1 Ancient Grudge
- 2 Call to the Netherworld
- 1 Careful Consideration
- 1 Clockspinning
- 1 Divine Congregation
- 1 Fortify
- 1 Lightning Axe
- 1 Locket of Yesterdays
- 1 Lotus Bloom
- 1 Orcish Cannonade
- 1 Premature Burial
- 1 Rift Bolt
- 3 Snapback
- 1 Spell Burst
- 2 Strength in Numbers
- 1 Sudden Shock
- 1 Volcanic Awakening
Right up front, we can break this down into a couple of different styles of play. White and Green, instead of being buddy-buddy with each other, are now in many ways opposed to each other. White’s focus is plainly on the beatdown, playing hard-to-block early creatures thanks to its heavy focus on the Flanking ability, and following it up with evasion creatures of a few different stripes: Shadow, Flying, and Amrou Seekers’ “White Fear”. Green seems to be the board control color, with more generic creatures early in the game and a keen eye for long-game power instead of early aggression, with its Thallid theme and big, swingy, expensive spells. Blue and Red get along very well with White, and in my experience so far they also get along well with each other. Black is likewise slower and more controlling, with a few Shadow creatures letting it compare to White and Blue’s wispy warriors but a tendency for expensive spells and mid-range creatures.
So in analyzing each color we will want to figure out how best to stack them against each other, because beatdown cards want beatdown friends and a slow controlling color will want a friend with a solid early game to let it last to the late game it will inevitably win. Tricks and removal are the keys to speeding up a slow but powerful color, and the key decision to be made will be between the best aggressive deck you can field, a solid mid-range strategy, or the most potent late-game deck you can assemble. With that said, we’ll be looking at both colors with an eye for how they work at different speeds… after all, it’s about time.
White’s fast cards give us a solid two-drop flanker, seven solid three-drops, and the amazing Cavalry Master… a Hill Giant with amazing benefits. To follow this first-striking, flanking, flying, and Shadowing assault we have Fortify, your choice of a solid defensive trick or powerful aggressive tool. Fortify is the War Cry of triple-Coldsnap ported directly over to Time Spiral, losing the “only in multiples” theme at the ‘price’ of being modal: it either helps your army survive, or helps your army kill. It helps your army kill very, very well… and in a color that is good at getting early threats on the table and usefully attacking.
Several of the same cards apply, as the en-Kor ability of Outrider en-Kor makes him an excellent blocker, Zealot il-Vec can pick off some of the quite excellent one-toughness creatures you can find floating around, and Cavalry Master is a solid Hill Giant that isn’t vulnerable to an opponent’s 2/2 flankers. Essence Sliver recoups life lost early to swing the race back in your favor… as can Divine Congregation and Jedit’s Dragoons, except for the fact that they basically stink. And the powerful race-swinger Weathered Bodyguards can turn attacks in your favor, letting your blockers pick off attackers without you yourself taking a blow… hopefully, with the Bodyguards surviving to boot.
Essence Sliver is also a capable attacker, being an efficient man, but a risk to play unless you have more Slivers than your opponent… or, better yet, your opponent has none at all. This is not a reasonable bet, so as an aggressive plan he’s more a liability than a benefit until you can be sure he won’t backfire, while the other race-swinging White rare, Weathered Bodyguards, is if nothing else an industry-standard 2/2 for three, fine for beating down. Which the White does very well, with even the “slow” quality creatures being 2/2 fliers for four with a built-in ability to protect itself.
Sage of Epityr is still not good enough to play, as you have far better attackers you can be playing and little benefit for playing ‘just’ a 1/1 for one. It’s clearly outclassed on turn 3, meaning you can’t guarantee more than 1-2 damage, and that’s when dropped on turn 1; after that, it’s just a bad Impulse with a bad creature stuck on, and only worth playing if you need cards to help inflate your Storm count for cards like Grapeshot or Empty the Warrens. Otherwise you have a turn 5 and turn 6 flier, not the definition of speed but still nicer than nothing, and three Boomerangs to clear creatures out of the way or save your own. Add a 2/1 Shadow and you’re done, nothing impressive for Blue’s aggressive tendencies.
“Counterspell with Buyback” takes a lot of mana, but it can be potent if you can get it running. Tolarian Sentinel is likewise excellent over a long enough time-span, trading in extra cards for expiring permanents and sometimes going crazy with Black’s Madness cards (thanks for the lesson, BDM! Just remember, next time… not the face!). And for bouncing your opponent’s permanents, there’s the token alternate-cost spell, Snapback… a solid Boomerang, as Limited play mostly focuses on creatures anyway and the optional cost is actually a useful thing to keep in mind, sometimes the mana is really tight and you have spare cards you won’t be able to play in enough time to actually be useful anyway.
Careful Consideration is good all around, slow or fast, but I’ve seen many Blue decks running it, fast or slow, and most of the time just playing another drop would complement the fast deck. Careful Consideration is probably one of the best Blue commons in the set, and any trained monkey can make that argument… but being good in the set, and good for your plan, are two very different things. My experience so far leads me to feel that it’s at best a late-game card, as you need to spend your early mana developing your board or at least massacring your opponent’s. So I like it just fine… and it will always make it into the beatdown deck if your Sealed Deck beatdown happens to be Blue, but unlike Compulsive Research I wouldn’t bend over backwards for this one. We’re playing in a very different world than the City of Guilds.
Speaking of developing your board, no one is going to argue that a 1/5 that bounces your turn 2 land drop is a good plan for beating down, and Clockspinning is expensive, slow, and controlling… when it’s even worth playing at all, more effective at holding off impending threats with spare mana than in accelerating your own Suspended threats (as you could just, um, cast more attackers instead if you wanted to beat down).
Ah, burn spells. Five for one mana is clearly worth a card, and the other three are reasonable to very, very good, all three helping for the aggressive beatdown and conveniently going to the face in case you fall short. Ib Halfheart may not be the quickest Goblin you’ll ever see, but he makes attackers that are tough for blockers to survive, nicely complementing an aggressive strategy… while Coal Stoker can sometimes speed your tempo, and at the very worst be a 3/3 for four at the cost of a few life. High risk, high reward. Barbed Shocker is unimpressive but has Haste, and it can punish a slow opponent by trashing their draw… not that you’ll really know, beforehand, whether offering them a sudden Windfall is going to hurt or help. Bogardan Rager costs six, but instant-speed pump to push four damage where you want it is not something to trifle with, even if it is expensive… after all, it’s expensive but comes with a meaningful body attached. Not quality when beating down, but perfectly acceptable as it fits the theme.
Several of the same cards work with a controlling stance, while Aetherflame Wall serves as a quality blocker and Bogardan Rager can swing games that suffer from a slow draw, killing fat creatures by itself or changing the math of a race when you’re behind. Volcanic Awakening can be tricky, especially if timed to “go off” the same turn your Suspend spells hit, but shouldn’t be put high on the list of priorities. This is beatdown Red, not controlling Red, but it can play either role well.
1/1s for one are bad, or at least the ones that don’t functionally attack are… and Mindlash Sliver is just a Black version of Metallic Sliver, except for the fact that it can trick you into being foolish (by actually using it). Evil Eye of Urborg is functionally impossible to block (I’d know, I’ve seen Akroma try it… it didn’t end well.) and takes life off in six-point swings, a solid finisher after the quicker critters have done their job. The impressive thing is a decent removal spell, plus three life-drain Ogres who can finish off the job started by early-game creatures. This isn’t very aggressive Black, but three Syphon-Mages can complement an aggressive stance.
And when we think of Black as the controlling color, it’s because Black is the color of creature-kill… but not today. Today it’s the color of one Deathspore Thallid to maybe slowly kill a one-butt creature every three turns or so, plus one Premature Burial… for those times when the right creature to kill happens to be the one they just played and none other. For control, however, you get to use the pair of Eyes, if that’s your thing, and recoup early losses with the Syphon-Magi… and as the game goes longer, you have a two-drop Gravedigger, and the ability to grow a more vicious sliver army when they kill opposing critters.
Black, then, is a pass. I can’t see it doing either of the things we want it to do well, and it isn’t even our “splash for removal” color, because it doesn’t have that either. On to the more “controlling” color – Green, Bringer of Thallids:
For the beatdown, you get a tricky 1/1 flier, a pair of Thallids that can make life a wee bit complicated, and the four-power-when-attacking Herd Gnarr (… if not more than four; who hasn’t flipped the Saproling Hermit in the middle of an attack yet?), plus a cheap Forestwalker who has the ability to give the opponent a Forest. Add to this a pair of Giant Growth-type tricks and we’ve got a decent start, just not enough to really say Green is our color for the beating of down.
… but for control, it seems more impressive. Hail Storm is ridiculously good, to the point where it’s a key card to consider in formats like Legacy if you happen to be a Green deck. Aether Web is an instant-speed trick that lets a creature block what ails ye, while also providing a permanent pump effect as well… solid, at least if you actually intend to use the blocking bit. You also have some bigger Green monsters, which is a good thing, and Yavimaya Dryad powering your curve up from three to five on turn 4 shows just how good of a card it is… and that’s before he turns his own evasion ability on, if both players have enough mana that getting one yourself or giving one to the opponent won’t change anything. Strength in Numbers is an excellent anti-beatdown card, as it can provide a defensive pump of reasonable size when you’re getting beaten down, in addition to its clear use as an aggressive trick thanks to giving Trample as well as considerable size… I mention this because for some reason I have seen people playing it as if it were on the level of Dogpile, which is to say “completely useless on the opponent’s turn.”
You have some solid fat, a powerful board sweeper, and some delay-type cards with three token generators. Green is reasonably good at a controlling stance, even if it’s nowhere near the best Green you could see.
Looking at the big picture, though, including the two artifacts and Gold cards, nothing is pulling you away from the allure of a W/R deck quite yet, so let’s have a look at a solid beatdown plus evasion color paired with our best removal color:
1cc: Lightning Axe, (Rift Bolt)
2cc: Benalish Cavalry, Sudden Shock
3cc: 2 Outrider en-Kor, 2 Zealot il-Vec, 2 Cloudchaser Kestrel, Tivadar of Thorn, Orcish Cannonade, Rift Bolt, Fortify, (Weathered Bodyguards)
4cc: 2 Cavalry Master, 2 Flickering Spirit, Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician, Coal Stoker
5cc+: Bogardan Rager, Weathered Bodyguards
For the last card we have a few reasonable choices, like Barbed Shocker, Venser’s Sliver, Aetherflame Wall, Essence Sliver or even splashing a third color thanks to Terramorphic Expanse. Splashing doesn’t seem like it will help, though, and I’m almost sad that there isn’t just a random off-color Morph to play to get card twenty-two to go with our eighteen lands, since this deck does practically nothing without its third land. With that in mind, I’d go with Essence Sliver as card 22, keeping in mind that it will be very bad indeed against Sliver-packing opponents… but it sharing the caring will be less problematic in Sealed Deck than in Draft, so playing the risky Hill Giant does more for the deck because it is clearly the best card not already played just due to arbitrary card power. This decision is made with the expectation to be sideboarding it out against Sliver-bearing opponents, or worse yet getting stuck with it in hand, dead and useless if not worse than useless against opponents with a reasonable number of slivers.
Blue didn’t compare as a beatdown color, and Black and Green weren’t even close to doing so. Black and Green both failed to provide a core color for controlling the game, though Green has a decent chance of doing so thanks to its deeper non-Eye cardpool and flat-out better removal spell (Disturbed Burial is nowhere near the quality level of Hail Storm). Starting with either as your skeleton shows you that your Sealed Deck is likely to be bad fairly quickly, while starting with an aggressive White core helps immensely, yielding the following deck:
1cc: Lightning Axe, (Rift Bolt)
2cc: Benalish Cavalry, Sudden Shock
3cc: 2 Outrider en-Kor, 2 Zealot il-Vec, 2 Cloudchaser Kestrel, Tivadar of Thorn, Orcish Cannonade, Rift Bolt, Fortify, (Weathered Bodyguards)
4cc: 2 Cavalry Master, 2 Flickering Spirit, Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician, Coal Stoker, Essence Sliver
5cc+: Bogardan Rager, Weathered Bodyguards
Lands: Terramorphic Expanse, 8 Mountain, 9 Plains
Beating down isn’t generally considered a good plan in Sealed Deck, but it’s an opinion that will have to change now that we are spiraling through time. We lack a deck that can work on its synergy, unless that synergy is the ability to attack without the opponent being able to block well… but that’s all the synergy you require when trying to make a good, aggressive deck. This particular problem was easy to solve; other card pools, I suspect, will not be… after all, I’m told it’s rare that White is the best color in a Sealed deck, as for some reason players seem to have a lot of Green monsters to throw in front of early flankers. Fortunately this is an evasive White deck with some built-in tricks, and a very nice curve.
Now that we have mused on Sealed Deck, then, we shall muse a bit on Constructed… unlike others I’ve seen around, I’m not looking to talk about nascent decks or go “LOL OMG this deck is teh best I am playing this at States I rulez0rz!” Just as I started looking at Time Spiral for Limited by looking at the ramifications of its mechanics, I’m going to look at things I saw when going over cards from Time Spiral initially and coming up with deck nuggets that I saw from that perspective.
Right off the bat, Flagstones of Troikar excited me. I like legendary lands a lot, and in my first reading of the card I thought this seemingly innocent ability had to be something you could take advantage of in a serious way. I spent the first hour or so after the Sunday prerelease trying to crack Flagstones in half, eventually realizing that if you could consistently play Flagstones turn 1 and a second Flagstones (or a Vesuva to copy your own Flagstones) you could get access to one White from the Flagstones, and two White from the two Plains you fetched into play!* Turn 1 Savannah Lions, turn 2 Paladin En-Vec, or two-drop plus one-drop, thoroughly excited me. White Weenie with a stupid all-Rare land base, in just a two-color deck, also excited me. After all, once you’re trying to use just the special abilities of your Lands to accelerate your curve, things get wacky:
This deck seemed truly awesome, with a really aggressive curve of amazing creatures, a long-game Rebel backup plan in case “just attacking” won’t work out, Azorius Guildmage, Icatian Javelineers, the searchable Zealot il-Vec and Psionic Blast for creature control, and Compulsive Research as a “reload” to get some use out of extra copies of Unluckyman’s Paradise, which by the way is ridiculous in beatdown decks (or, well, Constructed decks… and some Limited decks – I’ve had it in three of my four draft decks so far and liked it, a lot, in two out of the three of them after-the-fact).
Of course, after fetishizing about how to use Flagstones of Troikar as hard as possible, I read a key word: “tapped”. No three mana on turn 2, even if you intentionally blow it up. Ah well.
However, Flagstones is a humble card with plenty of advantage you can still take out of it. Right now players are talking about using it “as Wildfire defense” or “so you don’t get ruined by Smallpox,” rather than realizing that you can use it in a Wildfire deck or in a Smallpox deck, even if you aren’t actually playing White as your second color! Mono-Black Smallpox with four Flagstones and four Godless Shrines is probably better than mono-Black Smallpox without, unless you’re really getting great use out of your colorless land opportunities (Scrying Sheets, Mouth of Ronom, Quicksand, Ghost Quarter). Flagstones help to break the symmetry inherent in Smallpox, and look at it this way:
1. You can already cast Smallpox when they have a creature and you don’t. +1 card off this “symmetrical” card; you’ve just earned the cost of the card back.
2. You can already discard a Madness card, or play Smallpox as the last card in your hand. +1 card off this ‘symmetrical’ card; +1 card advantage> if you’ve done both 1 and 2 so far.
Considering you can Madness out a Coercion, Banishing, or two different creatures, one of which is a Nekrataal, I think even non-White Smallpox decks have to give serious consideration to Flagstones of Troikar. Likewise the same example with Wildfire: four Flagstones and a split of dual lands between Red and Green, if for example you’re working up a R/G Wildfire-Loam deck like plenty of people have been discussing, will recoup the loss of four lands and a card versus four lands and no card for the opponent into 4-for-4 instead of 5-for-4, before accounting for any creatures. Breaking even is amazing in a resource-denial strategy that uses symmetrical effects, and that’s even before accounting for decks that are actually White and want to use Flagstones of Troikar! And this is just the creativity you can squeeze out of one innocent, innocuous card, not even on the top fifty “interesting” cards we’re seeing out of Time Spiral.
The same example of a Smallpox deck works well as a B/W Rats deck… after all, losing a Ravenous Rat to Smallpox is perfectly acceptable, it’s already traded for a card… its existence is already neutral, and its death allows you to play Smallpox in a deck that otherwise uses a fair number of creatures. And here you get to actually use Flagstones for something you like to do, tap for one of your colors! Same for a R/W Wildfire deck, perhaps a kind of kitchen-sink resource denial deck or just R/W Ponza. And for those who are playing it fair, or using it to thin their deck (maybe) or otherwise protect against Stone Rains, Wildfires, and Smallpox, it’s already a better Plains: it can replace itself, thin your deck if you draw two of them together, and is immune to Cryoclasm.
This led me to thinking about how Standard is going to work out in the upcoming month leading up to States, and one key realization is that the high-water mark is now higher than it has ever been before. The “high-water mark” is the toughness needed from a creature to reliably survive the common removal in a format… and the commonly-played damage-based removal effects usually set the high-water mark at four, one higher than Last Gasp, Lightning Helix, and Volcanic Hammer if we’re looking at the Kamigawa-Ravnica-Ninth format. Char and Wildfire both do four, but most of the removal does three.
Now we have Psionic Blast, Char, Wildfire, and Sudden Death, all of which kill at four toughness. This is from all three colors where it might matter… Green can never kill anything without help from another color (Desert Twister notwithstanding), and White never cares about toughness, not with Condemn, Wrath of God, and Faith’s Fetters as its removal package. So, clearly, the high-water mark for creatures in Standard is set to five; if you want it to live, make sure it’s butt is big enough.
White Weenie traditionally sets the pace for Standard come States, or at least it has in “fair” formats; this year, you even have access to Disenchant without needing to splash, so it’s even more robust than before. Your list of evasion creatures is astonishing and impressive, with unblockable pro-Red creatures and 2/2 fliers for two sitting with two-power two-mana Rebel searchers and an auto-regenerating 2/2 flanker for two, plus a reasonable companion to Savannah Lions in the one-drop department thanks to the Timeshifted reprint of Icatian Javelineers, a creature that has even seen play in Vintage thanks to his ability to look like a reasonable facsimile of a Mogg Fanatic.
White Weenie will thus again set the bar for Standard in coming weeks, even if it is itself outclassed and out-gunned by the decks that develop around that starting focal point. The metagame begins where the first part of information is known, and thus the first enemy vulnerable to being attacked… so develop your White Weenie lists, and then develop the decks that are tuned to deal with it as a beatdown deck. Old favorites returning will be throwing everything for a loop, as ten years of Standard decks dance merrily to the forefront (or at least shamble forward to be counted, when there are only tattered skeletons remaining) in an environment that may very well have the best access to colored mana we’ve ever seen in a Standard format. Every two-color combination can play its Shockland, Painland, and Karoo, plus four copies of Gemstone Mine, without having to dip into Snow Dual combinations or worry about which one of their two colors they want to draw more of from their lands. Picking up a mostly-used Gemstone Mine with your Karoo is downright exciting, for those who remember how good it felt to get double use out of Tendo Ice Bridge.
This means, among other things, we live in a world where the color pie has blurred, time unwound itself and the mana will consistently come without issue so long as you invest a bit in the eight Rares and four Timeshifted uncommons from Weatherlight that you need for your two-color combination. Standard is so wide open that it is only the imagination that limits what you can do… and it is that boundless and nebulous potential that makes it such a challenge, and it is for this reason I think that the march to States will proceed as it did last year: with one known, obvious, presumed-good deck to start as the seed around which the metagame coalesces, and a nebulous and fluid metagame filled with high-caliber strategies packed to overstuffing with amazing cards.
It is a wonderful time to be a mage, wouldn’t you say?
smckeown @ livejournal.com
Time here all but means nothing, just shadows that move ‘cross the floor
They keep me company, but they don’t ask of me, they don’t say nothing at all…
I need just a little more silence… I need just a little more time…
Sarah McLachlan, “Time”
* Yes, I know. Wait for it… waaaait for it…!