So Many Insane Plays – Dear Mark Gottlieb, Please Fix Time Vault

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Monday, June 30th – Time Vault… a card that’s caused consternation in the Vintage community for years. It seems that, with every new set release, there are calls to “fix” this tricky and intriguing card. In an attempt to have this card returned to its original functionality, Stephen Menendian calls on Mark Gottlieb for aid…

Take a moment to read the printed text on Mox Diamond:

When Mox Diamond comes into play, choose and discard a land card or sacrifice Mox Diamond.
T: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.
Play this ability as a mana source

When Wizards released this card in Stronghold back in 1998, it had been five years since they had printed a Mox. In five short years, the Power Nine printings in Alpha had reached iconic status. I can only imagine the fan reaction at the time, ranging from shock to excitement.

Now, imagine you are a 12-year old kid flipping through a friend’s binder, mostly full of Lorwyn, Morningtide, and Shadowmoor, and you stumble across Mox Diamond. You take it out of the page and read it. You might think, “this could help me with my elf deck!” And if you are a particularly astute 12-year old, you might realize, perhaps inchoately, that the discard command is a “Comes Into Play” (CIP) trigger. Today, you can put such triggers on the stack and respond to them.

Thus, as printed, Mox Diamond would function like a Lotus Petal. You can play it, put its CIP trigger on the stack, tap it for mana, and then decide whether to sacrifice it or discard a land to keep it in play.

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? If you are a few years older, you might suspect that the card probably doesn’t work like that. If you happened to also stumble across a Lotus Vale, a card with similar templating, your conviction about that conclusion would grow. You’d be right.

But why?

In time, the number of Magic players will be able to answer that question will grow ever smaller, and eventually, sometime in the far future, generations from now, only expert judges will know the answer. The answer has to do with a fundamental rules change with Sixth Edition (6E). The Magic Rules universe can be divided into pre-6E and post-6E. With 6E came the stack and the universe of rules that we know now.

Under pre-6E rules, “comes-into-play costs had to be paid before any of a permanent’s abilities could be used.”* Thus, under pre-6E rules, neither Mox Diamond nor Lotus Vale could be used before you dealt with the CIP trigger.

So, Wizards issued errata to Mox Diamond to ensure that people couldn’t use Mox Diamond without paying for the CIP trigger first.

Here was that errata:

Oracle text:
As an additional cost to play Mox Diamond, discard a land card.
T: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

Although this errata dealt with the problem of people trying to take advantage of the rules change to use Mox Diamond like a Lotus Petal, it did not restore Mox Diamond’s original functionality**. Under pre-6E rules, Mox Diamond could be played with no lands in hand. Under this errata, it cannot. You can’t even cast it. Under pre-6E rules, you could also then decide not to pay the CIP cost so that you could have Mox Diamond go to your graveyard. You can’t do that under this errata since you can’t even play it. Under pre-6E rules, if your Mox Diamond was countered by a spell or an ability, you wouldn’t have to pay the CIP cost and discard a land. Under this errata, you would have to pay the cost before the card would hit the stack***.

Recognizing that Mox Diamond was not fully functional under this errata, in the last batch of errata coinciding with Shadowmoor, Wizards announced new errata on Mox Diamond.

New errata:

If Mox Diamond would come into play, discard a land card instead. If you do, put Mox Diamond into play. If you don’t, put it into its owner’s graveyard.
T: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

Now, as under pre-6E rules, you can play Mox Diamond even if you don’t have a land in hand. It just won’t come into play. Therefore, it will also go to the graveyard if you decide not to discard a land or don’t have one in hand to discard. Finally, if a spell (such as Mana Drain) or a effect (such as Chalice of the Void) would counter Mox Diamond, as under pre-6E rules, you don’t have to discard a land first.

Clearly as the case of Mox Diamond unequivocally demonstrates, Wizards is prioritizing original functionality over printed text. The printed text would allow Mox Diamond to function like Lotus Petal. Worse, the printed text of Lotus Vale would allow it to function like a Black Lotus. The new errata on Mox Diamond does not restore its original text, but strives to restore its original functionality****.

With those principles in mind, let’s turn to Time Vault.

Time Vault is a card that has received much errata over the years.

In 1993, some poor sod discovered that Twiddle could be used to untap Time Vault to take additional turns! At the Invitational, I had the opportunity to ask Mark Rosewater about Time Vault. According to Mark Rosewater, the problem combo was Animate Artifact and Instill Energy.

Stupefied, the nascent DCI (then known simply as the Duelist Convocation) restricted the card in the first banned and restricted list announcement in January of 1994. Unsatisfied with mere restriction, three months later the DCI slapped the banhammer on Time Vault with a resounding thud that reverberates today.

In 1996, Time Vault was unbanned, but with new errata designed to prevent abuse: In order to take an extra turn, you would have to tap Time Vault and remove a “time counter.” You could only add a “time counter” by skipping a turn. The idea was to provide a wording that would prevent the use of cards like Twiddle to take extra turns.

Time Vault was issued erratum again in 1998 and then again in 2004.

Most recently, in 2006, Mark Gottlieb, in an ostensible attempt to correct a decade’s worth of mistakes, errated Time Vault in an effort to return the card to its original templating. In response to this errata, Rich Shay and I wrote an article asking Wizards to remove power errata entirely.

Wizards agreed, citing our article. A few months later, Time Vault, along with Flash, was errated to remove the vestiges of power errata.

Although they were successful in removing the power errata from Flash and restoring its original functionality, they failed to do the same with Time Vault.

Today, Time Vault remains helplessly power errated and unfunctional.

When I asked Aaron Forsythe about it at the Magic Invitational, he said that they weren’t sure how Time Vault was intended to work. He said he asked Richard Garfield, but that Richard Garfield no longer remembered.

The truth was not hidden under a rock or obscured so only Richard Garfield could know it. Just as the determination of original functionality under pre-6E rules can be determined by looking at the rulings of the Rules teams at the time, so too, the original functionality of Time Vault can be clearly ascertained.

Here is a quote from Duelist #10:

“In the first two versions of the rules, Time Vault was restricted because of the infinite-turn combos it made possible. As players developed better ways to achieve these combinations, it was moved to the Banned list in March ’94, making it the first card banned for abuse. In early ’96, the Magic rules team issued errata for Vault eliminating the reason it had been restricted; thus rehabilitated, Time Vault was eligible for a full pardon in March ’96.”

Duelist #10 clearly documents how the judges, rules team and WotC communities interpreted the original function of Time Vault. There can be no argument: Twiddle untapped a Time Vault and allowed you to take an additional turn without skipping one. Instill Energy and Animate Artifact did it even better. Any wording that prevents these functions is power-level errata and a failure to restore original functionality.

This is not an isolated or solitary description of the functionality of Time Vault. Behold:

From The Pocket Player’s Guide (1994):

4. The following cards are banned from official tournament decks:

Contract from Below
Demonic Attorney
Jeweled Bird
Time Vault

The first four cards are not allowed because they clearly state to remove them from your deck if not playing for ante, and ante is not required to be wagered in an official tournament (see Floor Rules, Rule #6). Any future cards that make the same statement will also be banned. Shahrazad requires players to play subgames of Magic; this simply takes too long and holds up the whole tournament. The last card on the list can drastically unbalance game play by allowing a player to cycle through his deck very quickly.

From The Duelist #34 (February 1999):

Top 25 Combos:
Animate Artifact, Instill Energy, & Time Vault
The combo that got Time Vault banned weighs in at number 20. When it was originally printed, you could tap Time Vault to gain an extra turn, but had to skip a turn to untap it. Some ingenious player figured out that you could animate Time Vault and then enchant it with Instill Energy to untap it every turn (and thus keep taking turns until your opponent started screaming). Time Vault was banned, and later reinstated with errata that nullified this combo. (You now add a counter to Time Vault when you skip that turn. Hmm, how about Giant Fan?)

If that isn’t enough evidence to irrefutably convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that everyone understood that Time Vault was easily abused for infinite turnage, here is an excerpt that leaves absolutely no doubt.

Excerpt from the Duelist Supplement, which is now archived online, explaining why some cards were not reprinted in Revised:

Some cards that appeared in the Limited and Unlimited editions have been replaced in the Revised Edition with cards from Arabian Nights and Antiquities, the first two Magic: The Gathering expansion sets. There are several reasons for these substitutions. According to Magic’s creator, Richard Garfield, and the original design team, cards being replaced fall into three broad categories: There are the “mystifiers” – cards that were too confusing for most players, or led to too many paradoxes, or defied too many of the basic Magic rules. Then there are the “spoilers,” the cards whose effects were out of proportion. These cards had a tendency to throw entire games out of whack, and were only fun when they were on your side. It is no coincidence that many of these cards appear on the Duelists’ Convocation Restricted or Banned list. Finally there are the “retirees,” cards which are simply being phased out. Richard always intended for the card set to be fluid and for some of the old cards to be replaced by new ones. So some of the cards were selected for “retirement.” This is not to say they will never be back, or similar cards won’t show up in future expansions.

Time Vault — Spoiler

One would think, given the ambiguous language and strange wording that Time Vault might have been labeled a “mystifier,” like Illusionary Mask (the ultimate mystifier) and Word of Command. Such was not the case. The reason for not including Time Vault in revised was that it was a spoiler, like Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall.

Richard Garfield knew it then and we know it now. Restoring the functionality of Mox Diamond but not Time Vault is a logical inconsistency. With the release of Eventide just around the corner, we have another opportunity to do the right thing. The time has come to restore Time Vault to its proper functionality and remove its power errata once and for all.

Stephen Menendian

PS – For those of you concerned with the potential power of Time Vault in Eternal formats, especially with Voltaic Key, it should be no more broken than Painter’s Servant plus Grindstone, and certainly fairer than Flash, which existed in Vintage for a year without doing much more than annoying some people.

Footnotes and References:

* Quoted from this article.

** Polynomial P on the Mana Drain wrote an excellent article detailing all of the functional differences here.

*** For further functional differences, see the article linked in endnote 2.

**** Note that there do remain some functional differences between the pre-6E functionality of Mox Diamond and the new one, such as the fact that under pre-6E rules, Mox Diamond would trigger “whenever an artifact goes to the graveyard from play” trigger when you didn’t discard a land. Since Mox Diamond never comes into play unless you discard a land, those triggers will never happen.