The Unders and Overs of Time Spiral Limited

Josh takes aim at the sacred cows of Time Spiral Limited, telling you why the cards you love aren’t as good as you think. (Some of his picks? Controversial, to say the least.) And as an extra-special bonus, he’ll tell you what cards aren’t being picked high enough!

When you read this article, the Draft day at Worlds will have already come and gone. With any luck, I’ll be sitting in contention to make Top 8 at Worlds, going into Day Three, just as I was last year. A good record in the Limited portion propels most players into the “okay or better” finish realm. Without a solid standing going into Day Three a lot of players might give up; they’ll play, but they won’t really try. Without a chance at the Top 8 (or leveling up or whatever their goal may have been for the tournament), Day Three is just a formality.

That said, the draft day is important.

When drafting a deck, there are a lot of subtle advantages to be gained. Most of them are advanced strategies that involve rating the cards in the pack and reading the players (or their signals), trying to get good cards late by making different picks. If everyone is mis-evaluating the same cards, you can safely pass them early and rightfully expect them to come back later.

I cannot teach you how to read a draft in an article, and I can’t really teach you how to read players either. All I can tell you is what I feel is currently being mis-evaluated and charge you with the task of making the best of that information.

In preparing for Worlds this year, I’ve done a ton of drafts online. I’ve gotten some odd cards passed to me, I’ve gotten 7th pick Looter il-Kor, and I’ve gotten uncommons passed to me that should never be passed that late. Similarly, I’ve had to pass cards I hate passing, since I’ve just outright made people’s decks insane… But hate-drafting is another important aspect of this format.

Each pack has a high percentage of playable cards — and that includes sideboard cards, which I will get to. Each pack might have only three or four unplayable cards, that means you could choose to have thirty or more playables and have great card quality all around, without being able to affect your neighbor’s decks that much. Or you could defensively draft, perhaps scrounging for the final card or two for your deck, but meanwhile simply removed eight good cards from the draft. That’s eight cards you won’t have to play against or worry about, eight cards your opponents won’t have the choice of playing.

About sideboard cards: they seem quite good in this format. Every match I find myself swapping a few cards which greatly affect the match (favorably, usually) – cards like Subterranean Shambler, Pull from Reality, Empty the Warrens (against removal-heavy decks) and the like. These cards are often better than the weakest cards in my deck, or cards which are specifically weak against my opponent’s deck. If I’m playing Aetherflame Wall, which I feel is underrated (the ability to block shadow creatures is good, but the ability to kill offensive creatures if they battle in is great), then it’s super annoying to play against and can crush an opponent’s Looter-reliant draw. That’s way, way underrated, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Wall is good against creatures, but if my opponent is playing Black/Red and his deck is primarily removal, a card like that could easily lose me the game if I draw it… So I don’t want it anywhere in my deck. I’d rather bring in a four-toughness creature or a storm card like Empty the Warrens, if I have them.

I suppose I’ll start with the underrated cards, since I’ve already mentioned the wall.

Spell Burst:
This is primarily a sideboard card, though occasionally I’ve maindecked it as a last card (23rd card). Most memorably, I’ve gotten this card 14th and 15th in a draft. That means no one even considered playing it, or that anyone else would. The card shines against morphs, where you are able to trade one mana for his card (Morph costs on the stack are zero) or, if you have the mana to spare, you can pay four mana to counter their morph without the loss of card. It is very easy to gain tempo with such a card, and the option of gaining card advantage makes this a real possibility.

Momentary Blink:
I’ve gotten this 12th numerous times. It’s easily one of the best Limited tricks ever; its interactions with morphs and comes into play / leaves play abilities makes it versatile too. Why, exactly, am I getting this 12th? I don’t know.

I suspect that it’s like when people started talking about how good Trinket Mage was, rather than just discussing in hushed tones at their evening sewing circles. Suddenly, Trinket Mage wasn’t coming back. I don’t mind, though.

Tromp the Domains:
Again, this is an obviously good card. It’s basically the same as Overrun, but it’s splashable. There are of course, times when it is worse than Overrun, and sometimes you simply can’t play it — even as a splash — those are the times when you should hate- draft this card.

It isn’t a 6th pick. I know, it’s green, but everyone was wrong about green! This is an excellent way to win a game and should be considered a higher pick than it is being right now.

Phyrexian Totem:
This card is literally a beating. It just sits there and looms large until it’s ready to come and play — but often when it brings the noise, it brings the noise. Now, I don’t really like Black in this format, which I’ll get to, but if you’re black and heavy removal this is a card you definitely want in your deck, even in multiples. In its off, time it enjoys adding mana to your mana pool as well as long walks on the beach and exotic cars, so really, it has no downside as it is functionally a mana source and a creature.

Nantuko Shaman:
This card is basically a 3/2 Striped Bears. It is slower than Striped Bears, not hitting play until turn 5 if you go the suspend route, but the option to play it as a 3/2 for three — filling the hole in your curve — is no small thing. In the Green mirror matches, this guy is pretty much garbage, as those matches usually come to the bigger guy wars, with your various 5/5s, 6/4s and 8/8s and what have yous and ins and outs…. But in all the other matchups, drawing a card off of this and then trading it for your opponent’s creature goes a long way towards getting ahead on cards and winning the match with whatever you play on turn 5, and so on. Shining the most against black decks, where if they trade with this they are probably losing.

It’s difficult to use in the later turns, but not impossible. Setting up a favorable Smallpox through a double block (or by simply not having a guy in play because you haven’t played one yet), is often easy enough. In the early turns, this can really wreck your opponent without wrecking yourself (since if it will, you probably don’t want to play it). Against faster decks, stealing their tempo is really good. If they are stumbling on mana, this will compound their problems.

I admit that the reasons I think this card are good are pretty obvious, just as it is excellent and well-praised in Standard. I am merely pointing out the fact that I don’t see enough people playing it and that I consistently get it too late.

Might of Old Krosa:
This card wouldn’t be that exciting if it cost any more mana than it does. At two mana it would be average but never played, at three mana it would probably just be bad…. But at one mana, this card is very exciting to me! And I don’t even really like combat tricks. I’ve warmed up to Strength in Numbers, but this card I can safely get behind.

It’s possible that you gleaned my affinity for temporal advantage based on what I wrote about Spell Burst above — but if you didn’t, I’ll reiterate that I feel tempo advantage in Limited is an excellent source of victory. The further ahead you pull, the further

This card also doubles as a finisher, as making your smallest guy into a 5/5 when they weren’t really counting on it probably kills them.

Zealot Il-Vec:
A lot of people have told me to cut this card from my deck, and I agree that it doesn’t belong in every deck. I also agree that I usually don’t play him if I don’t have rebel searching action, but if I do, this is one hell of a rebel to search out of your deck. He literally just comes over to your opponent’s side and kills his five-mana 4/1 First Striker, or, his four-mana 3/1 flyer. Dead. They didn’t even see it coming since they tapped on their turn and you searched him out. I get him too late consistently; I attribute this to people mis-evaluating Amrou Scout, though I never get him too late to warrant his inclusion in the list.

That’s the last card on my underrated list, but it sparks the overrated list nightly. Check this out.

Temporal Isolation:
Yeah, obviously. Why are you guys taking this so early? I admit that it is quite awesome if you put it on your opponent’s pinger before the pinger kills your board, I’ll give you that, but otherwise it’s a card that white doesn’t need.

The cards it deals with are not white problems so much as they are green problems — if you’re pairing White with Green (which is fine in this format), then this card is good enough to take early… Though I still wouldn’t love doing it on principle. Otherwise, this card is a million times worse than, for example, Momentary Blink. This card also interacts poorly with your shadow creatures like Zealot, and Looter, and especially with Cloudchaser Kestrel. Wow, is that ever embarrassing.

It’s not the Pacifism you were hoping for — or expecting, for that matter.

Errant Ephemeron:
Yeah, I know, right. What’s next? Well, you’ll see.

I cannot say that this is a bad card, and I can’t say that it isn’t awesome. It is awesome. It just isn’t that awesome. I don’t think it’s as good as you do. That’s all there is to it, but that also makes it overrated!

I find my two-drop slot gunked up. This guy is a little slow though still a good deal, has a lot of tough competition in blue — sometimes you want that Looter or Fathom Seer, it’s tough! He’s not that good.

The next card on my list was going to be Firemaw Kavu, which I think is overrated… But not by enough to warrant inclusion. Plus, I wanted you to read the rest of the article rather than pressing the back arrow, so we’ll just skip it.

Playing Seventeen Lands:
Not really a card as much as many or several, but it feels like defaulting to seventeen lands is wrong in this format. The best cards cost a lot of mana and are very powerful. The next best cards draw cards or have flashback or make good use of extra lands, one way or another. There are also many spellshapers to toss extra lands to in the late game. Of course, I’m not advocating that every deck should run eighteen lands, but decks with a lot of good cards shouldn’t take the risk.

The Storage Lands:
Since the rest of this list is pretty similar I’m going to talk about the storage lands first. Originally, I wasn’t sure about these, and after playing with them my initial impression was somewhere between “play them if you are both colors” and “good for splashing.” Later, I felt you should only play them if you are heavily in both colors, and eventually I started wondering just why it was these lands were so terrible.

Finally, I am here to tell you that you should not be playing these lands at all. Never. No, I don’t care if your deck has three Disintegrates. I don’t! If you draw this land in your opening hand, it will slow you down. If it slows you down, you might not live to make the best out of your 7-8-x-mana bomb, whatever. Stay away, very far away.

The Color Black:
I have come to decide that this is the worst color in the format right now. Every card is terrible, it seems, save one card — Strangling Soot — which you don’t often get passed, because it is splashable in any red deck, of which there are many. You need a really good reason to play this color.

Terrible. I am almost happy when they kill my guy with this card. It’s sooo slow – my guy already did something! How is this good? My suspend guy came in off of suspend, bashed you in the face, and then on your sixth turn you got the privilege of underdropping a morph or something, and killing my guy with this piece of garbage?

It’s removal, so I mean, removal is removal, and this is what we got, but it isn’t pretty. I don’t advise you to take this very high.

Corpulent Corpse:
Somehow, this one is too slow. I really like suspend – I think it is an outrageous mechanic and is very powerful. Often I take the suspend card over the non-suspend card when I’m drafting — that’s just how it goes — but this guy doesn’t ever impress me. I haven’t lost to it in a very long time, and I haven’t been happy to have it in play — though I generally avoid black, now. Very slow, not very good, this is another one where I am pretty happy if my opponent cast it.

That’s it for now.

There’s a lot of information here, and hopefully you can use some of it. If you incorporate any of it into your drafting strategy, then it was worthwhile. I think when it comes to Limited, people tend to form their own opinions very slowly and unsurely. It isn’t that they don’t know what is good and bad; it’s just that they’re unwilling to trust themselves. Hopefully this will help you over the long run.

Thanks for reading.

Joshua Ravitz