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By: Cheater Hater, Vincent Borchardt
Apr 27 2016 12:00pm
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Welcome back to the Modern Flashback Series! You may be wondering why I'm back a week early, as Time Spiral doesn't start for another week yet. As you will soon see, Time Spiral has a lot of pieces I need to cover, so I'm splitting the article into two parts. The first part you're reading now covers the design of the set, as well as many mechanics, while the second part will show up next week and cover the colors and archetypes. Now, onto one of the most complicated sets ever!
Time Spiral holds a special place in my heart, as this was the set where I started following the game in earnest. I don't remember why this set specifically held my interest—I knew of Magic through an old 7th Edition demo disc I got with a magazine (which I had purchased for its Pokemon TCG content), but the first real Magic content I remember was the preview for Lotus Bloom. I'm not sure if it was the nostalgia (as everyone knew what Black Lotus was by that point), or that I was finally starting to lose some of my interest in the Pokemon TCG (though that transition wouldn't happen for three more years due to inertia), or maybe the complexity appealed to me (more on that in a bit), but that's where I started getting into the game, mostly through reading articles and such, though the initial V3 beta for MTGO also helped. So yes, I'm the person who was attracted to Magic through Time Spiral, even though everyone else was scared away by it.
Why was everyone scared away from Time Spiral? To sum it up in two words, complexity and nostalgia. These two factors would combine in various ways to make a set new players just couldn't get into. Let's start with the mechanics of the set. The set introduced three new mechanics, and while Flash just renamed something already in the game, both Suspend and Split Second aren't the simplest mechanics to understand. However, the real problem is the rest of the mechanics. Time Spiral was a nostalgia set, and Wizards decided to bring back a lot of the most popular mechanics. However, since Wizards thought that since each of the mechanics had been used before, they only took up a fraction of the space of a new mechanic. As such, Wizards decided to put eight old named mechanics in the set, along with four mechanically-relevant tribes. Not only that, but this selection included mechanics as complex as Morph, Spellshapers, and Storm along with “simple” ones like Flashback or Echo. As such, a new player (or one who had not been playing that long—these mechanics were four to ten years old at this point) had to take in fifteen new mechanics and/or themes, in addition to all the evergreen mechanics that still existed.
It wasn't just the mechanics that were making the set complex, it was the set itself. While the set size was only 301 cards (compared to Ravnica which was 306 cards), there was a separate mini-set of 121 cards that was also inserted into the boosters. These “timeshifted” cards were all reprints, and even included other old mechanics that weren't in the main set. In addition to those old reprints, the vast majority of the new cards in the main set had flavor and mechanics inspired by old cards. While something like Lotus Bloom has clear inspirations, what is a Cyclopean Giant or Viscerid Deepwalker referencing? This didn't just extend to some weird things, but instead a lot of old parts of the color pie are being referenced as well. This means a new player who might have understood certain colors to do certain things now has to deal with a blue pinger (Fledgling Mawcor) or small fliers in red (Ironclaw Buzzardiers), in addition to all the weird things going on in the set. Of course, that just means it's my job here to try to explain all the important mechanics in the set, so let's start the long journey.
Akroma, Angel of Wrath Swamp Mosquito Stormbind
Timeshifted Cards:
Each pack of Time Spiral has a single Timeshifted card (represented by a purple rarity symbol) which is a reprint of an old card in the pre-Modern frame. This card could be anything, from a bomb on the level of Akroma, Angel of Wrath or Stormbind to a near-blank like Squire or Swamp Mosquito. In addition to reinforcing the many themes of Time Spiral block (like Madness, Slivers, or Shadow), the Timeshifted sheet includes more mechanics not in the main set, like Rampage, Threshold, and Poison. I'm not going to go over every card in the Timeshifted sheet, but you can treat it like a second rare slot—overall it means the variance of the format is higher, but the cards in the main set already do a lot of crazy things, so that isn't new.
Ashcoat Bear Viashino Bladescout Havenwood Wurm
While permanents that could be cast at instant speed isn't a new concept for Magic by any means, Time Spiral took it to a new level when it keyworded the ability. At common alone there are twelve spells with Flash, and combined with twenty common instants there are a lot of effects that can punish you for doing things into open mana. While Ashcoat Bear probably isn't going to punish you too much, cards like Havenwood Wurm or even Viashino Bladescout can completely turn combat around. I'll try to go over some of the relevant tricks at lower rarities when going the colors, but there are so many you're going to get blown out at least once or twice unless you study the card list—and even then a random Psionic Blast or Darkness from the Timeshifted sheet or rare like Word of Seizing will get you occasionally.
Durkwood Baloth Mindstab Rift Bolt
While Suspend may have a lot of words on it, the essence is very simple: you're paying less mana for a spell, but trading time for it instead. In general, you're trading a one mana discount for every turn you have to wait, but the haste you get on creatures means you're saving an additional turn. However, the biggest thing these cards give you is flexibility, as well as the ability to spend your mana on the first couple of turns on spells that will be meaningful later in the game. In addition, a lot of these cards are very big for common, even ignoring the cheap suspend costs. Overall, Suspend is a very good mechanic, and you'll want to play the vast majority of suspend cards you pick, with the notable exception being affects you wouldn't play anyway like Plunder or Divine Congregation.
Sudden Death Sudden Shock Celestial Crusader
Split Second:
History lesson time! Back when Magic was introduced, there were three different non-permanent types. Along with instants and sorceries there were interrupts, which could only be responded to by other interrupts. This is what most counterspells were, and while this helped bring some order to the chaos that was the original timing rules, the 6th Edition rules changes rendered them obsolete and thus all interrupts were changed to instants. As part of the nostalgia theme, Time Spiral introduced Split Second in an attempt to recapture the feel of interrupts. Split Second simplifies the rules a bit by not allowing any other spell to go on the stack while the Split Second spell is on the stack, and the keyword also showed up on permanents as well. While this is a clean way to implement the spirit of interrupts, it did have its problems. As Split Second does need to mention the stack (something most casual players never need to explicitly know about), it is an inherently complex mechanic, which is something Time Spiral does not need (though they were sane enough to keep it out of common). In addition, while Split Second wants to be “nothing can happen before this does”, the fact that Morph triggers don't use the stack makes for a very awkward interaction for the set (especially if your Sudden Death were to get Willbendered). As for the mechanic itself, it's fine—think of it as an upgrade on “can't be countered” and you'll have most of the uses for it, though the fact that it dodges combat tricks also helps when most of the Split Second spells are removal spells.
So that covers the new mechanics, but what about the old mechanics that were brought back? I need to cover those too, but since a lot of them have been brought back in recent years, I'll focus on where those mechanics differ from their newer incarnations, as well as their place in this set.
Clockspinning Spell Burst Wurmcalling
As a reusable spell, Buyback is an inherently problematic mechanic—and Wizards actually figured that out! There are only eight buyback spells in Time Spiral, and six of those are either rare or Timeshifted. Of the non-rare spells, Clockspinning is a combo card (as it works with suspended cards, spore counters, and even just normal +1/+1 or -1/-1 counters), and Spell Burst needs a lot of mana to be more than the below-average Spell Blast.
Mogg War Marshal Flamecore Elemental Thick-Skinned Goblin
Echo is another cost-discount mechanic, allowing you to pay a little less up front but making you pay that cost again on the next turn. With the exception of Hunting Moa on the Timeshifted sheet, Echo in Time Spiral is only in red, and there's a wide range of quality—Mogg War Marshal has a lot of power, but something like Flamecore Elemental isn't that much better than your standard 4/3 for 2RR. However, Thick-Skinned Goblin gives you an incentive to draft around Echo—I don't know if that's a good enough theme, but being a Goblin Piker means that the Echo synergies can just be a bonus as well.
Benalish Cavalry Blazing Blade Askari Cavalry Master
Flanking is a combat mechanic, and is very similar to Bushido (down to being tied to a creature type, as well as only showing up primarily in white), but with some important differences. First of all, Flanking never has a number, but multiple instances of Flanking can work (notably for Cavalry Master, the Flanking “lord”). Next, since it weakens the opposing creature, it works better against creatures with Deathtouch (which will become relevant later). Finally, Flanking only works against creatures without Flanking—this is the most obscure portion of the rule, and the reason why it probably won't come back anytime soon. As a mechanic it's fine, especially since you get it for nearly free on creatures like Benalish Cavalry.
Mystical Teachings Strangling Soot Think Twice
Unlike Buyback, Flashback is concentrated at common, with eight of the eleven Flashback cards being at the lowest rarity. The main Flashback cards are a cycle of commons with off-color Flashback costs, and with the exception of Ancient Grudge (which is still a sideboard card), all of them are high picks that provide a natural 2-for-1.
Dark Withering Gorgon Recluse Flowstone Channeler
Hey, this is familiar! There's surprisingly little Madness in the set, with only four commons, an uncommon, and Fiery Temper on the Timeshifted sheet, and with the exception of Fiery Temper all the Madness cards are black. Of course, while Dark Withering, Gorgon Recluse and Nightshade Assassin are all cheap, powerful 2-for-1's (or more) when cast with Madness, what's important are the discard outlets. While cards like Looter il-Kor and Lightning Axe (a common in Time Spiral—it was upgraded in Shadows over Innistrad for a reason) are traditional discard outlets, the more-unique discard outlets are the Spellshapers. Originally from Mercadian Masques, these creatures allow you to “cast” any card from your hand as a specific spell, but since the mechanics of the process involve discarding the card, it works well as a Madness enabler. Unfortunately the cycle of common Spellshapers in Time Spiral aren't that good, but they're still repeatable effects, and it's a good mana sink even if you aren't comboing them with Madness cards.
Coral Trickster Slipstream Serpent Weathered Bodyguards
Another mechanic we've recently left, there are some important differences between Morph here and in Khans of Tarkir block. Most importantly, the “five mana rule” does not apply; a 2/2 can die when run into another Morph (though only from four rares/Timeshifted cards—I'm surprised that the majority of cards already follow it). Second, outside of a rare cycle and some Timeshifted cards, Morphs only show up in Blue in Time Spiral. Finally, you can't really get blown out from the common Morphs: Coral Trickster, Fathom Seer and Slipstream Serpent are all fine cards, but nothing on the scale of the old Onslaught Morphs.
Drifter il-Dal Trespasser il-Vec Zealot il-Vec
Shadow is a combat mechanic, but it fundamentally changes the idea of combat by adding a third front (in addition to the ground and the air). As Shadow creatures can only interact with other Shadow creatures in combat, it means they are inherently aggressive by nature. Shadow is also scattered through the color pie: every color gets either a common creature with Shadow (or that can get Shadow) or a common way to defend against Shadow. As such, I don't know how aggressive you can get with Shadow, especially since there aren't the aggressive shadow creatures that were all over Tempest block.
Grapeshot Empty the Warrens Ground Rift
Storm is a mechanic with a lot of combo potential, but you shouldn't be comparing it to the Storm decks in Constructed or the Vintage Cube. Instead, look at the original Modern Masters, except with even fewer rituals. Like Modern Masters, the main combo with Storm is Suspend cards, where you're more likely to use a Grapeshot or Empty the Warrens with a Storm of two or three. Storm shows up entirely in red, but those two cards are the only ones you're likely to play in Limited (unless you really need the “can't block” effect Ground Rift provides).
Amrou Scout Amrou Seekers Knight of the Holy Nimbus
In Mercadian Masques, the Rebel chain spread through the entire span of mana costs, but in Time Spiral the range is much more constrained. Most of that comes from the lack of searchers: only Amrou Scout at common and Defiant Vanguard on the Timeshifted sheet. However, if you can get a couple of Amrou Scouts, the payoff is certainly there: Amrou Seekers is a decent evasion creature, Knight of the Holy Nimbus is a great creature overall, and there are some other more-situational creatures as well. All of the Rebels in Time Spiral are white, so you shouldn't have to fight that hard for the searchers at least.
Basal Sliver Gemhide Sliver Bonesplitter Sliver Shadow Sliver
Slivers are one of the most supported themes in Time Spiral, as there are five different cycles of Slivers through all the colors in addition to a couple isolated ones (Venser's Sliver, along with a couple Timeshifted ones). This is important because unlike the recent Slivers in M14 and M15, these Slivers affect all Slivers on the board, even your opponent's, and vice-versa. As such, the fact that there are so many Slivers running around means the random Spinneret Sliver or Basal Sliver you're running on its own merits as a creature either benefits from your opponent's more-focused Sliver theme, or gives your opponent's random Slivers abilities you didn't expect. As for the Sliver deck itself, it certainly exists, especially in triple-Time Spiral where you can get lots of the premium Slivers (Gemhide Sliver for fixing, Might Sliver and Bonesplitter Sliver for power, Two-Headed Sliver and Shadow Sliver for evasion). As such, it's focused in GR, though RGW can also be worth it, and there's enough fixing in Time Spiral block between Gemhide Sliver and Prismatic Lens so you can splash for the better gold Slivers and/or Shadow Sliver (which should generally only be played when you're going to win, as it has obvious downsides).
Thallid Germinator Deathspore Thallid Sporesower Thallid
Thallids are one of the more-fiddly mechanics in Time Spiral, as it involves keeping track of a lot of counters, then removing them to make tokens, then sacrificing them to get minor effects. While it doesn't seem like it's that powerful (outside of the obviously pushed cards like Sporesower Thallid), but that incremental advantage adds up over time, especially when combined with pump effects like Tromp the Domains and Fortify. However, this isn't really the time for Thallids to shine—while we'll get to a certain contender for most powerful Modern common later, the Thallids aren't even in white yet, meaning the synergies are harder to access. Instead, the off-color Thallids are in black with Deathspore Thallid and Thelon of Havenwood, and that leads to a less-synergistic deck.
Those are all the named mechanics and focused themes of the sets, but not anywhere near the end of the complexity of the set, as outside of these themes, most cards are doing something different (and weird things, as mentioned above). The set also manages to have twenty cycles in it, and even though a lot of them fit the “(mechanic) with (quality)” template (and most have been mentioned above), some are doing other crazy things (like the storage lands, or the instants with improved effects on your main phase). However, this article is going very long, so I'm going to save the color overviews and color pair breakdowns for the second part of this Modern Flashback Series article.

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