Slow Mana, Fast Children: Time Spiral in Vintage

With Ravnica block proving fairly lackluster for Vintage, many players have become disenchanted with the idea of new cards revolutionizing the format. Wizards of the Coast has the unenviable task of trying to make a set attractive enough for Eternal players to purchase while not warping the Standard, Extended, and Limited formats. This delicate balance tipped in the direction of the “newer” formats over the last year; the single most-played card from Ravnica block plus the extra Coldsnap set is Dark Confidant, which served as the lynchpin of a Fish variant known as Sullivan Solution.

While Time Spiral won't revolutionize Vintage either, what it will do is provide a small set of new cards that may re-energize some older archetypes and cause unique problems for some of the most commonly played decks.

When Victory Road Dead-Ends

Since shortly after the printing of Darksteel in early 2004, the two most common win conditions in Vintage have been Tendrils of Agony and Tinker finding Darksteel Colossus. While various answers to these two win conditions are available, numerous drawbacks have prevented them from being consistent. Time Spiral offers several new answers for these two avenues to victory that may be the strongest yet.

Tendrils of Agony has always been vulnerable to Stifle as the two became legal simultaneously with the release of Scourge. However, combo decks have found ways to avoid Stifle. Grim Long can often Duress the Stifle out of its opponent's hand before winning, and the newer “Pitch Long” variant can Force of Will or Misdirect the Stifle onto a less interesting activated ability, such as that of a fetchland.

A few meddling kids can avoid not only Duress, but Misdirection as well. No, not those Meddling Kids, although it would be interesting to see how playing one naming “search” would affect most Vintage decks. These meddling kids are the Children of Korlis, which are likely to see sideboard or even main-deck play in U/W Fish variants. Having one of these in play effectively forces Long to find a Chain of Vapor or Echoing Truth before being able to win the game; sacrificing the Children immediately before the lethal copy of Tendrils resolves forces the Long player to either assemble a second Tendrils or amass enough storm to generate far more copies than normal.

They are somewhat less effective against Darksteel Colossus, but can still serve as a useful stall card while the Fish deck looks for another answer such as Swords to Plowshares or Azorius Guildmage. In other matches, they have the advantage of still being a 1-power creature for one mana so while they might not be an optimal card (for example, against Worldgorger Dragon combo that relies on recurring Ancestral Recall), they are rarely ever a dead card.

For Blue, two cards with the new split second ability can serve as additional answers to these win conditions. Wipe Away appears to be a particularly onerous card for most decks relying on Colossus to deal with. Even with a full complement of Mana Drain and Force of Will, there's little decks like Gifts can do to prevent that Colossus from winding up in its owner's hand, which is the worst place for it to be.

Wipe Away has myriad other uses as well; it disrupts Dragon combo in one of the worst ways possible, resulting in the Dragon being back in its owner's hand while all of his permanents are removed from the game, not likely to return. It also has some utility against Oath as a way to answer the two most commonly main-decked creatures: Akroma, Angel of Wrath and Razia, Boros Archangel. These decks often play cards that can protect themselves against common bounce spells; Wipe Away seems to be well worth the extra mana for its ability to circumvent them.

While still being vulnerable to Duress, Trickbind is invulnerable to both Force of Will and Misdirection, making it an excellent answer to Tendrils for blue-based decks. In decks where mana is at a premium (such as Fish), its additional cost may prevent it from main-deck play. However, in decks with more permanent mana sources, it will likely get the nod thanks to the addition of split second.

Mono-Blue's New Best Friend Phases In

Mono-Blue Control has been a non-contender in the normal Vintage metagame for a while now. With the ability of Control Slaver and Gifts decks to pull out a much faster win, the only justifiable reason to run mono-blue recently has been Back to Basics. The deck has always suffered from clunky win conditions: the deck can't really afford to ever draw a dead card like Darksteel Colossus, and Morphling can only be played during the main phase while doing nothing to disrupt the game.

Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir may be the perfect companion to those Blue split second spells. Despite having three blue mana in its mana cost, it's no harder to play than Morphling. Flash also saves the Blue player from having to consume mana during the main phase, something any control deck wants to avoid when possible.

Granting other creature cards the player owns Flash is not very useful for mono-blue, which typically runs Ophidian as its only other creature. The ability that makes Teferi so useful for this deck is its ability to seriously hinder the opponent's game. Resolving it is as close to an “I win” play as this deck could ever hope for against other control decks; it maximizes the mono-blue deck's plethora of counters while rendering opposing countermagic completely useless, as well as preventing the opponent from mustering any kind of surprise.

Teferi does lack some of Morphling's useful tricks when fighting decks such as Fish which rely on smaller creatures. While Teferi does have enough toughness to survive combat with any single Fish creature other than Jotun Grunt, it can easily be double-blocked by any of a number of 2-power creatures, potentially only killing one in the process. The lack of evasion and inability to boost toughness will require mono-Blue players, as they must often do with many other card choices in the deck, to make a metagame call.

Maybe Everything Is Chrome in The Future...

Chromatic Sphere has long been a staple of combo decks. These decks often have a need to turn colorless mana from artifact accelerants like Mana Vault and Mana Crypt into colored mana for playing other spells. Chromatic Sphere not only fulfills this function but also provides an additional card draw.

That card draw is a bit of a rules anomaly. Since the Sphere has an activated ability that puts mana into a player's mana pool, it allows players to draw a card while playing another spell or ability. The design team “fixed” this anomaly by printing a replacement that is often functionally superior: Chromatic Star.

The mana-fixing and card-drawing capabilities of Chromatic Sphere have been preserved, at the same mana costs as the original. However, the shift of the card draw from a part of the activated ability to a separate triggered ability offers increased utility in other decks, particularly those including Goblin Welder.

There are a few instances in which Chromatic Star would be the less desirable choice, most notably when a replacement effect stops it from going to the graveyard. The two most common in Vintage would be Leyline of the Void and Yawgmoth's Will, although Samurai of the Pale Curtain is also possible depending on how U/W Fish is metagamed. However, these few limited situations are not damaging enough to warrant running Chromatic Sphere first.

Chromatic Star will likely replace the Sphere in decks that only have room to run one or the other. In decks that were previously running additional artifact mana fixers such as Darkwater Egg in the rarely-played Meandeck Tendrils, Sphere will likely move into that spot with Chromatic Star taking over the primary position.

Not-so-fast Mana

Much has been said of Lotus Bloom, the third coming of Black Lotus (Lion's Eye Diamond being the second). With the first two 0-cost artifacts that sacrifice for 3 mana of any color being restricted in Vintage, the natural assumption is that the third could be just as broken.

It's appearing as if Lotus Bloom will not be as powerful as its brethren. It's slow mana in that it can't be harnessed earlier than turn 4 without an alternate method of bringing it into play. The first instinct for many players would be to pair it with something like Goblin Welder or Mind's Desire to circumvent the lack of a mana cost. However, in these cases the necessary question is why one would bother with Lotus Bloom when such cards could just as easily bring Gilded Lotus into play. Lotus Bloom also has effectively zero synergy with Yawgmoth's Will, unlike “true” 0-costed artifact mana accelerants.

Lotus Bloom may be broken at some point in the future; after all, it took years after the printing of Lion's Eye Diamond before the Long combo deck abused that card enough to drive the DCI to restrict it. However, in the short term, it will not see play outside of a few failed testing attempts.

Also in this category is Gemstone Caverns. Formerly known as “Unluckyman's Paradise,” the existence of this card has been known for some time, and Time Spiral is the set in which it finally makes its appearance. Unfortunately this card has been hobbled so much by the design process that it appears nearly unplayable in today's Vintage.

In any game in which the two “lucky” criteria aren't met (the player is either playing first, or doesn't have the card in his opening hand), Gemstone Caverns is abysmally bad: a legendary land that can only produce one colorless mana.

And when a player is fortunate enough to get one into play “for free,” there's still the risk of his opponent also playing one (or playing a Wasteland or Strip Mine and getting a two-for-one land trade, thanks to the additional cost.

While there are certainly some interesting tricks possible with Gemstone Caverns, such as having Stifle mana available against a combo deck when playing second, or simply being able to Brainstorm before one's first turn, the advantages are far outweighed by a drawback similar to that of the Leylines: it must be run as a 4-of to be reliable, and will often result in several dead cards in the deck.

Side Notes
A few cards that deserve a brief mention:

Flagstones of Trokair may see play in Stax-heavy metagames, as well as potentially playable in Blue/White Fish and to a lesser extent Bomberman (the only two legitimate decks in the format which need white mana).

Ancient Grudge is the most recent card in the line of Wizards' apologies for Affinity. It's most likely to see play in Oath where it can easily find its way into the graveyard, and is a far-superior replacement for the clunky Woodripper that deck occasionally ran as it doesn't slow down the offense.

Triskelavus is an interesting fusion of two historically popular artifact creatures: Triskelion and Pentavus. It may sneak into a couple of Workshop-based decks, however it doesn't fulfill the function of either of its parents particularly well. It can't perform blocking-and-returning tricks that were possible with Pentavus (effectively trashing non-trampling offense) and dealing direct damage is more mana-intensive than with Triskelion.

Mishra, Artificer Prodigy is too clunky to be useful with three different colors in the mana cost. Possibly its most interesting use is to allow its controller to effectively ignore Chalice of the Void by stacking triggers such that the artifact gets countered, then its player searches his graveyard and puts the artifact card that was just countered into play.

Krosan Grip has the problem of being in the worst color for Vintage. This effect is most often needed against decks like Stax, which doesn't play counters anyway. It can't really do much against Mindslaver if the opponent is smart enough to activate the Slaver immediately after it comes into play, and there simply aren't many enchantments of note that a green deck would need to worry about.

Magus of the Jar mimics the perpetually broken Memory Jar, but summoning sickness prevents it from being useful outside of tricks with cards that can both bring it into play and give it haste (Shallow Grave, I'm looking in your direction.) It's probably the card most likely to have someone try to build an entire deck around it.

I Remember... Doing the Time Shift

And now, as a public service, here are the highlights of the “timeshifted” cards for Vintage. These cards should all be readily recognizable to regular Vintage players... for those who aren't intimately familiar with the format but are thinking about getting involved, this can serve as an idea of what to watch for, especially as some are appropriate for “un-powered” decks.

Akroma, Angel of Wrath – The creature of choice for Oath of Druids-based decks
Icatian Javelineers – Popular choice for U/W Fish in Welder-heavy metagames
Voidmage Prodigy – A counterspell for Mono-Blue and Fish decks that doubles as a two-power creature
Gaea's Blessing – Included as a 1-of in Oath decks to prevent self-decking
Tormod's Crypt – The anti-graveyard sideboard card of choice for most Vintage decks
Gemstone Mine – The second most-played “five-color” land after City of Brass

My Only Friend, the End

With the attentions of some Vintage players turning to the recently announced Legacy format Grand Prix Columbus, and the slowdown in major unsanctioned tournaments such as the SCG Power 9 and Mana Drain Opens, the format is likely to enter a bit of a lull. This can hardly be blamed on Time Spiral, which is unlikely to inspire new decks but will certainly change the environment with its introduction of the counter-trumping Split Second.


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