Time Spiral Limited – An Overview

As we head into the prerelease weekend, excitement for the new set is at fever pitch. We say goodbye to Ravnica – and good riddance to Coldsnap – for Limited play at least. In preparation for a Brave New World of Time Spiral Limited fun, Josh looks at the sweeping changes in Limited philosophy that are required for a quick and successful adaptation to the new format…

I guess I’ve played in at least a draft or two of just about every real Limited Draft format (save Ia/Al/CSP, if that counts). Back in the day, there were always “storyline drafts” at Neutral Ground. People gathered for a six-round all-draft format; first draft would be Tempest block, then Mirage with an Urza’s Top 8 draft. It didn’t matter what the current format was, you could always expect to see the familiar faces of the people you’d expect to see. Everyone loved playing with the old cards, reliving glory days of Torching people out or casting Capsize with buyback, drafting Shadow creatures; Empyrial Armor on Freewind Falcon; beating kids who weren’t born yet with Legacy’s Allure; getting shipped 3 Pestilences in the Top 8… whatever it was, it made for fun games and good stories. That was quite a long time ago, things have changed since then.

To say I was down on Coldsnap Limited would be an understatement. I will admit that it is a strong Constructed set, even if for the wrong reasons.

Aside on Coldsnap:

The fact of the matter is there is no upside to three-pack draft of a set with 155 cards. When even England’s foremost Constructed mastermind is finding success, you know something is wrong. Redundancy is boring. Every pack looks the same; no, every pack is the same. People always end of up with obscene amounts of singular cards, making for decks that are unbalanced and games that are not fun. To shove this format down the throats of the professional Magic community (be they aspiring or otherwise) is, in my opinion, irresponsible. I admit that another two months of playing what might very well be one of the best three Limited formats ever would be unwelcome by the majority (yeah, right), but maybe we’d manage.

To make up for this, of course, they had to do something. That something is the Snow Mechanic. I feel the Snow Mechanic is literally too good for a set like Coldsnap. It provides little other than a distraction; half the decks until Time Spiral (and who knows what afterwards) sport Scrying Sheets, so of course in that aspect the set seems okay. All the good cards in the set are Snow, have Snow-abilities, or relate to Snow-permanents. Ohran Viper would be fine as a regular creature, but even Adarkar Valkyrie (arguably one of the better creature cards in the set, certainly popular and powerful – it’s already made an appearance in the Top 8 of Japanese Nationals, one of, if not the, first real Standard event to use the set) bears the Snow supertype. Only Cryoclasm, which might actually define Standard at one point in the upcoming years, escapes the word Snow.

I feel it was largely a disservice to us. That is, in a nutshell, all I have to say on the subject.

We do get to reap the rewards of putting up with the aforementioned set. We get a well-vaunted (and rightfully so, I might add) set. We get Time Spiral.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I can’t talk about, or maybe even acknowledge, spoiled cards (oops.) I can talk about officially previewed cards, and I will. I can talk about mechanics, and I will.

But really, this isn’t an easy article to write.

The problem is the information I have is fairly incomplete, if you didn’t gather that. Worse, the cards that are officially previewed are splashy rares designed to pique interest and showcase new mechanics (or old, as it were). This doesn’t leave me a terrible amount to work with, but that’s enough of that – you guys can judge for yourself.

So far, at the time of writing this, the cards spoiled by Wizards or other publications (Scrye, Inquest, etc…) number in the range of 40.

Some of them simply display the new mechanics or what we might expect, others are like the aforementioned cool rares like Tivadar of the Thorn – a lowly Silver KnightNekrataal Hybrid. Sure, he can only kill Goblins, but I imagine if you do manage to kill Goblin Warchief with Tivadar, your goblin opponent will probably lose immediately.

Of course, he is also great in Limited, but the odds of opening any rare are pretty slim, and it might not even be the best card in the pack. He doesn’t do anything special and he doesn’t have any of:

Creature – Spellshaper
Creature – Rebel
Creature – Sliver
Split Second

While he is a rare legendary creature, he isn’t a throwback to Nevinyrral’s Disk, or one of his (the Magus’s) four brethren. He is indeed nothing special, all things considered, at least for our purposes. A fine card, nothing more; you’ll be happy to have him in your Limited deck, but that’s about it.

The abovementioned list of abilities and creature types is probably incomplete. There are probably more mechanics being implemented, probably other mechanics being used, and the nostalgia will be tremendous for those who can appreciate it; for those who cannot, it will merely be fun.

Outside of Constructed – actual Constructed, and not Coldsnap Limited – it was nearly unheard of to mix these mechanics. Sure, having a buyback spell and a flashback spell in your deck at the same time would be nice, but for, well, ever up until right now, they were mutually exclusive. No one ever cast Deep Analysis and Mind Games in the same sanctioned Limited game. They still won’t, but what we can do now is both the closest and best approximation of what that will be like.

I debated writing up what all the mechanics do, and decided against it. I hope you are well versed enough to know, or savvy enough to find out; if you are neither, perhaps you should find another hobby.

Buyback, Storm, and Flashback are forms of card advantage. Let me be clear: sometimes you won’t be gaining card advantage, but instead you will merely be gaining value from your resources in such a way that mimics card advantage.

In the past, you could pay the kicker cost on Magma Burst by sacrificing two lands. This would enable your would-be Lightning Bolt to instead perform more like a Jagged Lightning; albeit one that could target a player once. Formidable. However, at most you’d be killing two creatures for the cost of three cards (two land plus Magma Burst.) Now you all know that three-for-two isn’t card advantage, but getting rid of two of your 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, or 15 lands (not that IPA games really went very long, but I digress) while removing the best two creatures you could, or simply getting in to the dome for three, while removing their last blocker – well you get the point – it’s a good thing. It’s getting the most from your cards, more than they were intended to.

Every time you buy back a spell, you are essentially trading resources for cards; whether it be mana in the case of Tempest Era buyback or sacrificing some other resource – lands, cards in hand, whatever it may be – to gain additional copies of the spell (granted, at a later date) should the spell resolve.

Flashback translates to the same thing, but on lay-away. And it doesn’t depend at all on the spell resolving; it merely has to be in your graveyard. This is very good and different; it counteracts discard strategies in some ways, especially if the card (with flashback) that you discard happens to draw cards itself. Of course, flashback isn’t limited to mana alone, or mana at all – other resources could easily be involved. Firecat Blitz required you to sacrifice Mountains, etc.

Before I talk about storm, I’ll just sum up. Storm is totally different.

With Flashback and Buyback in the format, it is reasonable to assume that if you draft those cards you should play a higher land count. Why? Well, like I said, you will very likely have something to do with your mana should your mana become excessively abundant. Okay, that’s one thing.

It also means that if you can’t compete with a long-game strategy designed to abuse long-term cards like cards with Buyback and Flashback, then you’d better have a good strategy for winning in the earlier turns of the game; before they can take advantage of their cards, it will both increase your chances of winning while simultaneously cutting their long-term-deck-advantage to zero, effectively neutralizing at least part of their plan. It might sound complicated, but it will become easier when you start applying it to real game situations later this weekend, or whenever.

I should also point out that beatdown mechanics aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive to control mechanics. The Shadow Creatures we’ve seen so far, like the Looter Il-Kor, will be effective in control and beatdown alike, but it really comes down to deck construction design implementation and execution when you consider mechanics in the abstract. Also, perhaps as a warning, I should point out that if you are playing a control deck and you go overboard on the long-term cards, you will probably lose a lot of games, very fast, to decks meant to beat you quickly. Common sense, perhaps, yet I still think it is worth mentioning.

Next, and as promised, Storm. Storm is similar in that it allows you to gain additional resources for, in this case, almost exclusively mana.

You cast a Birds of Paradise, you cast a Llanowar Elves, you cast a Sprouting Vines. You’ve spent GGG2. You’ve got, for that mana, three Copies of Sprouting Vines (GGG6 worth of spell), and Birds of Paradise and Llanowar Elves. This is quite the deal.

Now, Sprouting Vines is one thing. Indeed, every spell played before it nets you another card, but that is not always the case. You do, however, usually gain resources in some way when you cast a Storm card. I’ll give you another example, spoiled by Scrye Magazine – a card called Grapeshot.

Grapeshot deals 1 damage to target creature or player.
Storm (When you play this spell, copy it for each spell played before it this turn. You may choose new targets for the copies.)

The cheap cost of this card makes it a high pick. At the end of your sixth or seventh turn, you can play this with your remaining two mana and net three damage, divided any way you want. The earlier you play the card, the worse it likely will be, but this is not a terrible downfall. It is a way of looking at the versatility of the card.

Much like Scattershot before it, this card runs into a problem. Most creatures are not one toughness. And, unlike Scattershot before it, you can’t play this at the end of your opponent’s turn, after they’ve attacked you and played their spells. You can’t use it to finish off creatures that way… but you can, of course, attack them and play your spells, which is similar. But the issue here is that each card does not necessarily translate into a card, merely (and probably) just a part of one. Still good and versatile, it requires a different type of resource management to successfully take advantage of it.

That’s just three mechanics, and you can already see what role having them in the format will have on your interaction at hand. There are many more mechanics.

Shadow creatures mean, for beatdown decks, that your creatures will deal damage even into the later stages of the game – even when they are completely and utterly outclassed by every creature your opponent is casting, they will probably still get in, floating right past in their little shadow world for one or two damage. Plink, plink, plink, plink enough times, and your opponent will probably die. It works both ways; of course, if you are not drafting shadow creatures to attack with or block with, you might want to look for any shadow-defense that might be around (there will probably be some.)

I haven’t seen the whole set, not nearly. I couldn’t tell you how many Morphs there are in the set, I couldn’t tell you that in every draft you do you will be able to fix your curve at the end of each pack by picking up the worse off-color Morphs just so you have something to do on turn 3. Thankfully, this isn’t Onslaught block; at the same time, it also seems that playing a ton of Grey Ogres might not get you very far, because once again, this isn’t Onslaught block… but Morphs are back, good or bad, and having less of them around might make guessing which one it is a little easier. Then again, playing off-color Morphs might trick your opponent too, so it’s interesting if nothing more.

Rebels, Slivers, Spellshapers – all potential synergies to be gained; discarding Flashback to a Spellshaper, or just taking every Rebel in sight, or the same for Slivers if you can somehow support a five-color manabase (I don’t know what kind of fixing there is).

There is much more to talk about, but I feel it would be a disservice to you not to mention the new mechanics, albeit briefly, before we’re out of time.

Split Second: All this means is that the spell cannot be responded to. That’s fairly simple, yet it means a lot. Sudden Death, which is a Black Instant that gives a creature -4/-4 and has Split Second (for a cost of BB1) is quite lethal. Morphling, Arcbound Ravager, Psychatog, Wild Mongrel, Meloku – and more – none are safe; they’ll just die. Nothing you can do, sorry, it’s dead. Other variations on this theme are bound to exist; suffice it to say, the next time you go to Giant Growth your guy mid-combat, it might very well not be there, and there will be absolutely nothing you can do about it. That’s just one application that might come up. There are many more, but as the cards are undefined, so are the possibilities.

Suspend: Suspend allows you to trade one resource for another. In this case, you always trade time for mana. In some cases, the mana you get in exchange is innumerable. Paying one Blue up front and waiting four turns to get Ancestral Recall, one White and six turns to get Balance (This is awkward – Balance is imminent? Play around that!), 1R and four to get Wheel of Fortune; zero and three turns to get Black Lotus; if nothing else, in Constructed, it means Remand is really good. In Limited, it means you will have advanced information of at least one upcoming event, whether it’s a spell being cast or a creature being played (they have haste, too). That’s good – free information is always good. But at the same time, in the case of creatures, your opponent is getting a tremendous bargain. Early game mana is not nearly as valuable as late game mana in Limited – paying two mana on turn 2 for a five-drop on turn 5 is a quite the deal. You’ll see – at least, you’ll see it coming.

Flash: Lastly, Elephant Ambush world. No, not quite. It was bad enough getting wrecked by Teroh’s Vanguard way back when; it was even worse when in round 1 of a PTQ I walked right into Elephant Ambush because I simply didn’t know. It would be worse yet if every card in a set had Flash. Luckily, that isn’t the case. It still means that basically every time you attack with a creature, you will have to consider exactly what could happen. It’s a lot to think about, but nothing outrageous. It’s simply more combat tricks to remember in the long run. The only other thing is that each Flash creature represents potential “haste” damage that you hadn’t accounted for – except if they have defender – but again, I digress.

All of these mechanics, creature types and whatever else you can imagine – it’s probably in there too – make for some really interesting Magic. Once we have the cards in our hands, things will become clearer – indeed, I will surely revisit this topic at a later date, as will a number of Limited writers.

There is no doubt in my mind that this will be one of the most fun formats I’ve ever played… and like I said, I’ve played a lot. I think you will probably agree.

See you at the prerelease.

Josh Ravitz