Going Back In Time: Time Spiral Design Review



It's finally here! Time Spiral has finally arrived and it looks like it has lived up to the hype. The set itself has much to offer: a record nine keyword abilities used in this set (technically eight because Flash is "can be played as an instant"), cards that remind us of the old school days (like Magus of the Disk), and who can forget the 121 “timeshifted” cards that come along with the set? So much to talk about, but you have to start somewhere.

Going Back in Time

Rumors about what Time Spiral would bring started circulating months ago and many of them were confirmed with the release of spoiled Time Spiral cards. Abilities like Flashback, Madness, Buyback, Morph, Shadow and Flanking were coming back. While the news was exciting to hear, I was a little worried that the overall design of the set, and perhaps the block, would suffer because of it. Why, you might ask? Well ever since Invasion, sets have had themes. And that theme would leak into how tournament Magic was played. In Odyssey's graveyard-themed block, a good number of the decks out there were dealing with the graveyard. Now fast forward to Time Spiral. If there is no true theme, what would happen to tournament Magic? It would still survive, sure, but it would lack the flavor that has been there since Invasion Block. Fortunately, Wizards introduced us to two time-themed abilities: Suspend and Split Second.

At first, suspend seemed subpar compared to past abilities like Dredge and Graft, but the more you play around with suspend, the more you like it. This ability was actually done on All Hallow's Eve back in Legends. While the mechanic isn't exactly the same, the idea behind the card is the same. You pay less for the card, but it doesn't hit the table for a couple of turns. This ability fits the control game perfectly, because it lets you keep mana open to play your counters or removal while you have other spells suspended waiting to effect the game turns later.


Take that Psychatog!
Usually Wizards will wait for the first expansion to come out to start having fun with these abilities. But in Time Spiral they cut right to the chase. There are cards like Curse of the Cabal and Pardic Dragon that only come into play with a few time counters, but enable your opponent to put more on them somehow. Then you have cards like Deep-Sea Kraken and Greater Gargadon that come into play with way too many time counters, but has someway of removing time counters so your card can come into play a couple turns earlier than it should. Then there are cards where you get rewarded for suspending it vs just outright playing it. Ivory Giant and Nantuko Shaman are better if they come into play via the Suspend ability. Ivory Giant gets better because it will have haste and most likely be able to attack while your opponent's blockers are tapped down; Nantuko Shaman because you get to draw a card if it comes into play and you have no tapped lands. The easiest way to do that being to Suspend it first. And finally, you have cards with no mana cost that must be played using Suspend, but I'll get to those later.

If Suspend is the "control" ability, Split Second is the aggro ability. When you think about it, Split Second can be considered the polar opposite of Suspend. Suspend wants to slow down the playing of the spell, while Split Second wants to play it as fast as possible. Most people just consider this another version of "can't be countered by spells or abilities". But it does a tad more than that. Say you play Angel's Grace when you're at one life with lethal combat damage on the stack. Some decks could just Shock you or ping you for 1 to kill you before the spell resolves, but Split Second prevents you from doing that. Or say your opponent plays Sakura Tribe-Elder. Sudden Death lets you kill his Tribe elder without him being able to sacrifice it. It gets around cool stuff like the regenerate effect of Skeletal Vampire and the instant pump effects of Psychatog and Wild Mongrel So while Split Second's power might seem subpar to Suspend, its there. In fact, most people would agree that cards like Sudden Death will have a much bigger impact in constructed play than Curse of the Cabal.


Interblock design

Wizards of the Coast assured us that starting with Time Spiral they would design the block so that it fits with the previous one. No more contrasting Standard formats where you have an artifact themed Mirrodin Block and a Spirits and Legends themed Kamigawa Block. But talk is one thing... did they actually pull it off?

Well, we can't say for sure, but there is good evidence of interblock design. For example, you can find five flashback cards with a different colored flashback cost than its regular cost. And for the most part, the cards fit the flavor of the guild it represents. Mystical Teachings, for example, has a blue cost, a black flashback cost and it tutors your deck for an instant. This is something I think we can all agree the Dimir would do. Ancient Grudge has a red cost, a green flashback cost and destroys an artifact. Again, sounds like something the Gruul would do right?

They seemed to do the same for the Madness ability. As you may remember from Torment when Madness came out, they gave two cards to every color with the strongest madness cards being blue and green. In Time Spiral, the only madness cards are red or black. And it fits too considering how Wizards designed the Rakdos guild to gain an advantage from discarding cards. With Madness now a full-blown Rakdos mechanic, they gain an even bigger advantage from discarding their own cards.

Slivers made a comeback, but not in the regular fashion. You may recall in Legions how Slivers made a comeback. Sixteen slivers made their appearance: three in each color (common, uncommon, and rare) and one gold Overlord. In Time Spiral, they are pushing multicolor slivers again having introduced six gold slivers into the set. And finally, just look at the number of gold cards that appear in Time Spiral vs gold cards that appear in Kamigawa block. Twenty-seven gold cards in the set is MUCH more compared to the 2 that appear in the whole Kamigawa block.


Potential Design Flaws

Of course, we all know Wizards messes up every once in awhile. Just to name a few: Skullclamp, Affinity, Legions, all of Kamigawa Block. Wizards has made their share of mistakes. But did they make any with this set? They probably made small mistakes here and there, but there are two potential mistakes that might ruin the set. Then again, it might not.

Of the six returning mechanics, Buyback is the one with the most potential to cause problems. Buyback was huge in U/x draw-go decks back in the day. Playing Capsize and Whispers of the Muse with buyback could generate tons of card advantage if you had enough lands out. Its basically the equivalent of Boomerang on an Isochron Scepter, but instead of two cards its just one. The ability isn't broken per se, but it can be really devastating in certain situations. And with the arrival of Time Spiral, Whispers of the Muse is back and an interesting counterspell has joined the ranks of nifty Buyback cards. So will Buyback be the bane of the set? Obviously we won't know until we see what decks become good and what cards they use. If I had to guess though, I would say no. U/x draw go decks are no where near the strength they were back in the day. No Counterspell, no Force of Will or any really powerfully blue cards for that matter. If you want to abuse Buyback like it was abused back in the day, its going to be a tad harder to do it.

The second potential mistake regards the timeshifted cards, namely Psionic Blast and Disenchant. White hasn't had good artifact removal since Mirrodin came out, and Blue hasn't had any form of direct damage since Prodigal Sorcerer really. This blatant disregard for the color pie that Wizards seem to hold so highly has a lot of Magic players wondering why they would do such a thing. Red and Green already have artifact removal, with Disenchant in the mix that gives the ability to kill artifacts to over half the color wheel. The situation with Psionic Blast is even worse considering it's just a Blue Char; giving Blue direct damage makes the color only stronger. Was this a huge mistake on the behalf of Wizards? Honestly, I think if any of the two cards will cause trouble, it will be Psionic Blast. Disenchant is a couple blocks too late. There just aren't any good artifacts that are worth destroying in Ravnica or Time Spiral. Psionic Blast, on the other hand, makes random decks like Blue/White aggro possible again. It's going to be interesting to see how this card will affect the format.

Blast from the Past- Time Spiral Reprints and "Reprints"

I'm sure by now most of know that Wizards included a subset of 121 cards that they refer to as the "Timeshifted" cards. For those of you that don't, get your memory checked, because I mentioned it already in this very article (you might want to write it down too, to make sure you don't forget to do it). Anyways, all of these cards are reprints from earlier set. This is by far one of the most distinguishing features of the set. Stuff like Suspend and Split Second have been seen in some form in the past. But never in the history of magic have we seen Wizards reprint this many cards in one set (unless it's a core set, but those don't count!). The biggest effect will probably be seen in Standard, but since most of these cards are really old, they will probably have an effect on Extended too.

Not the same as the old Fires,
but close enough


The real fun is not in the Time Spiral reprints, but in the "reprints". The quotes are there because technically these are not full-blown reprints of cards from the past, but are new cards that carry ideas from previously existing cards. There are probably upwards of 50 cards that drew inspiration from a card in the past. Some obvious, some not so obvious. There are even cycles of cards like this, namely the "Magus" cycle of creatures with an ability similar to an artifact printed long ago. For example, Magus of the Disk almost word for word has the same ability as Nevinyrral's Disk, the only difference being that Magus of the Disk is a creature and is white. Remember those Suspend cards I mentioned earlier? They are all "reprints" of cards in the past as well. Cards like Ancestral Visions have the same exact effect as Ancestral Recall, but has a suspend cost tied onto it. Then finally there are cards that aren't part of cycles that basically do the same thing as a famous card from the past, but in a different way. For example Firewake Sliver does exactly the same thing that Fires of Yavimaya does, but only to Slivers. In the same way, Telekenetic Sliver does the same thing Opposition does, but you can only tap slivers to get the effect. So you can get the same feel of the old cards, but presented in a slightly different fashion.

Dark Ritual's Top Five Well-Designed cards

There are a couple cards that were just really designed well, and I want to give a shout out to them here (even though most likely I've talked about the card already). Before I move on though, I want to let you in on my judging criteria.

Simple Vs Complex: In the same set, Wizards will create something as simple as 2 for a 2/2 vanilla creature as well as something with a tons of abilities and a huge chunk of rules text. To be a well-designed card, you dont want to be too simple (everyone and there mother can make 2/2 bears for 2) but you dont want to be too complex either. Aim for the middle ground and you are good to go.

Does it fit with the Block Theme? Undead Warchief just wouldn't be the same if it was in Mirrodin Block instead of Onslaught Block. A well-designed card needs to fit with the block theme. In the case of Time Spiral, that would be the Time Theme. So you are looking for cards that might bear Suspend or Split Second mechanics as well as cards that give you a feel for old school magic.

At #5: Firewake Sliver - As with 3 out of the 5 cards on this list, the strong point of this card is that it just fits so well with the theme of the block. Fires of Yavimaya was a very popular card back in his time. Firewake Sliver bears a striking resemblance to Fires of Yavimaya, but just not as strong. I'm surprised they were able to make the power level of this Fires "reprint" strong enough that it will still atleast be playable in casual and perhaps limited, but weak enough so that it doesn't blow the old fires out of the water.

At #4: Curse of the Cabal - Again, its strength is in how well it fits with the block theme. It fits on two different levels. First of all you have a twist on the suspend ability. Your opponent will be able to react with the card while its suspended, thus adding a different level to the card. And secondly, its a "reprint" of Braids, Cabal Minion. As with the previous card, Wizards was able to make it so that this card was strong enough to be playable, yet weak enough so that its not necessarily better.

At #3: Reiterate - This card brings back the flavor of Fork, but with a new twist. I dont think you could ever print something that does its job better than Fork did. They tried with Reiterate, making it cost only 1 more than the original Fork, although they tacked on Buyback for 3.

At #2: Yavimaya Dryad - This card will probably be considered the new Wood Elves, but it got its inspirations from one of my all time favorites: Yavimaya Elder. Although this new card isn't the same as the Elder, it has its own use in tournament play. I like how Wizards specifically designed the card so that you can search for a forest and give it to your opponent, making your creature unblockable. In some situations, giving your opponent a random forest might not be a bad thing.

And finally at #1: Sudden Death - The card only has 10 words of rules text on it, yet it can do so much to change the game. But that's not even the half of it. This is the first time that Wizards has made a good removal spell that you couldn't respond to. And breaking rules is just plain fun.

Conclusion

Time Spiral is chock full of surprises. A great theme, two new keyword abilities as well as a couple of more that are back from previous sets, a splash of interblock design, cards that remind us of the good old days, and a whole subset of reprints, all coming together to make probably one of the best designed blocks in the history of Magic.

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