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Monday, October 20, 2014

kill reviews: time spiral

pt i: the magic block about magic

In any art form, it’s inevitable that people eventually make new works that are about the art form itself. This is generally met with gasps from critics trying to comprehend the paradigm shift, stunned admiration from college students taking an introductory class about that art, and eye rolls and hand-jerking motions from the general public.

Sometimes, of course, they become widely-hailed classics. Singin’ in the Rain, Slaughterhouse 5, Ziggy Stardust, and Watchmen are popular works that address their medium without alienating the masses too much. So, then, 13 years after the game debuted, in the eleventh block of expansions, we get a Magic block about Magic.

And it was the best.

Throughout these reviews, I’ve discussed a lot of ways that sets could be good or bad: Mirage had the best art, Urza and Masques had off-the-charts power levels at different extremes, Invasion revolutionized what blocks could do, and then Ravnica updated its ideas with the best block for Standard ever made. People who love drafting will tout Lorwyn, Rise of the Eldrazi, and Innistrad. People who care about the storyline will… enjoy… some cards, I guess.

Time Spiral isn’t at the top of any of those lists. The limited format was supposedly great, but I didn’t like it as much as others. Its standard formats with Ravnica and Lorwyn were tons of fun, but it had the good fortune of sharing those with other great blocks. The art was mostly fine; some of the updated pieces stand up well to the originals, some of them don’t.

What Time Spiral has going for it is that everyone reading this should pull up a full spoiler of each set in the block and look at every card in it. The true artistry of the block isn’t contained in the illustration below every card’s name, but in the design of the cards themselves. Every card can be understood and appreciated on several levels: there’s the low-level, card-by-card “this is a cool design for something to do” where the card is taken out of context and treated as any other. There is understanding the card’s place in the set, the mechanics it has in terms of how they relate to the other cards printed alongside it. Then, there’s the level that very few cards in any other set have: understanding their position with how they relate to Magic’s history, the aspects (usually specific cards) they hail back to, playing with Time Spiral’s status as a set about Magic.

The set was acclaimed by old-time players, pro players, and (as required by their jobs) the people who made it. Years later, this beloved block is held up as an example of something they can never, and should never, do again. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start from the beginning of the set.

pt ii: a look at amrou scout

The first card by collector’s number is Amrou Scout. Compared to other cards in the set, it’s a common with seemingly very little going on. It’s just a basic rebel with the standard rebel mechanic; practically a French vanilla creature in how often that specific form has been used. But we can go deeper than that.

The first set with the rebel mechanic also had a 1W rebel with that ability and no others: Ramosian Lieutenant. Time Spiral chooses to swap the power and toughness. Why? A 2/1 creature is generally considered a bit better than 1/2, but more importantly, it’s a more aggressive set of stats. It gives you a meaningful choice of whether you’d like to get in there for two damage, or have it stay back and tutor; attacking for one is much less impressive. Additionally, a 1/2 could plausibly stay back on defense against some crappy 1/1 creature to neutralize it, then still activate at end of turn. A 2/1 is going to lead to more interactive gameplay than a 1/2, because of the turns of attacking it encourages.

How does it relate to the rest of the block? The three-mana slot for rebels gives the tribe a lot of options. In the set itself, there are multiple two-power three-mana white rebels to tutor for that are useful in different ways. Then, as with many tutors, its ability changes as more cards are added to the pool: Planar Chaos gives this lowly 2/1 the ability to gain life with a temporary flier, hose a black deck, and even branch into black to destroy a big creature. Then in Future Sight, it can even get a bona fide removal spell. Just as Magic changes with the passing of time, the same common on Time Spiral evolves with the block.

But there’s even more buried in the card. Why is it a kithkin, of all things? Of course, it’s a reference to an old, obscure card, Amrou Kithkin. Why that? It could be anything. But if the card could be anything, from a flavor standpoint, why not give it that bit of added depth by calling back to Legends? It makes perfect sense that, in a set about Magic’s past, an obscure race would turn into the rebels. Oh… and multiple kithkin in the set, including this one, are illustrated by Quinton Hoover, the original illustrator of that card.

I didn’t start out wanting to talk about Amrou Scout. I had never thought one bit about Amrou Scout before sitting down to write it. But what better way to show the depth of the block than by taking the very first card?

pt iii: references

If anyone clicked this review hoping it would be an exhaustive run-down of every reference that Time Spiral has to old cards, they will be sorely disappointed. Other people have made things like this, and they’re rather useful. I know a lot of these callbacks, but not all; however, it’s fairly easy to tell that, on a card like Jedit’s Dragoon’s, it’s probably referencing something. Jedit is a cat, so they’re cat people. Radiant’s Dragoons was a card with the same ability and power/toughness. Looking that up wasn’t difficult.

Because of all these references, it’s led to a lot of handwaving non-criticism from people that look at cards like this as just a bunch of in-jokes. That’s not the best way to approach it. They’re Magic cards like any other, and you pay mana (or not) for them in order to put them to good use in games of Magic (or not). For people that really, genuinely care, they can look up where the idea came from, like looking up root words in an etymological dictionary. For people that don’t care, it could be named Elspeth’s Favdude, or however they name cards nowadays. It only matters to the people it matters to.

There are multiple ways to read a work like Ulysses. One can read it straight through, admiring the impeccably-crafted phrasing and sentences. An individual who’s supremely well-read, with knowledge of the Christian bible and Irish culture, might pick up some of the allusions here and there. You can also consult the extensive footnotes available in many copies of the novel, with explanations that rival in length the original text. Time Spiral can function in a similar way, playable by itself, or encouraging more attentive study and research.

Okay, it’s possible that comparing it to Ulysses will only encourage those who think that Time Spiral is as inaccessible as… well, no obvious reference is coming to mind, here, really drawing a blank.

How about The Simpsons? This was a good show. The writers and illustrators, in addition to making classic broad comedy, also put in tons of clever throw-away gags that some people wouldn’t get, and references that even fewer people would. It particularly liked alluding to the film version of A Clockwork Orange, including a scene of Bart reaching for cupcakes in a shot-for-shot recreation of Alex reaching for a woman’s breasts (the episode “Duffless”).

There were also bits where it went further. Alluding to a different Malcolm McDowell film, one shot of Bart showing up to school has his face wrapped in a black scarf, as in the 1968 film if…. This may have been lost on more people, seeing as that film wasn’t available in the United States in any form.

The point is, these sorts of subtle references don’t matter to people who miss them, but are wonderful to people that recognize them. Time Spiral’s references are intended to make older players chuckle when they see them, like parents catching a couple minutes of cartoons their kids are watching and getting jokes the kids don’t.

pt iv: the new keyword mechanics

Both of Time Spiral’s keyword mechanics play with time in some way, duh. Suspend lets someone invest a smaller amount into a spell to get it later, and split second makes it impossible to respond to.[1] Both of them were pilfered from other sets: suspend from Saviors of Kamigawa, and split second from Coldsnap. (This goes a small way toward explaining the seeming lack of interesting stuff in those sets.)

They’re both… okay. Suspend ended up more powerful than people thought it was at first glance, and meh-reading cards like Errant Ephemeron turned out to be all-stars in draft. The mechanic also interacted well with storm, which Modern Masters took full advantage of in its draft environment.

Split second is a lot more narrow. It does work on Stonewood Invocation, which would just be “please blow me out” for 3G without the keyword, but other than that, it doesn’t seem very necessary. Spells don’t have that many things that can interact with them other than on-board abilities, and specifically removing the ways to interact with spells via a keyword just makes the game, well, less interactive. Because of this, I’m overall not a fan.

I don’t think these mechanics’ functionality is very important, though, so we’ll move on.

[1] Yes, yes, morph triggers. I know.

pt v: the old keyword mechanics

Bringing back a shitload of old Magic mechanics shows off Time Spiral’s greatest strength: recontextualization. It takes something that we as players thought we had a good handle on, and puts it in a new context to make us reevaluate it entirely. Morph wasn’t something I was super high on in its first iteration, but Time Spiral does it significantly better. In fact, it proves something that should be rather obvious: a lot of keywords that dominated their respective blocks are significantly more interesting and fun to play with when they’re on a smaller number of cards.

Morph in Time Spiral (the set) only shows up on eleven cards, and aside from a rare cycle, it’s entirely blue. This means that it’s not something you have to guess at constantly every game in draft, it’s just an advantage you get as one of the blue drafters at the table. Similarly, black gets madness, red gets echo and storm, and green gets… thallids? I don’t think this is exactly fair, but it worked out fairly well. By more or less confining these mechanics, Time Spiral gets to show off what happens when they intersect. Buyback gets to play around with Suspend counters, Flashback gets allied-color costs that play well with Ravnica’s dual-color theme, and of course, every mechanic gets to recreate old cards in slightly different versions. These old mechanics, rather than being shackled to the few broken cards they were originally printed on and the masses of chaff, get new life in (hopefully) more balanced, interesting applications.

Bringing back all these old mechanics gives us a glimpse at an alternate Magic: what if, instead of block-specific mechanics, every new keyword just became another keyword that Magic had access to? The status quo is to simply throw them into the “Used Mechanics” pile in a year, maybe revisiting one or two of them seven years later, or making a narrower version of one with a new name. Mechanics like buyback, though, are good, fun mechanics, and if sets weren’t tied to the restrictions of only using a certain number, we’d certainly see kicker vs buyback vs flashback in most sets.

pt vi: the timeshifted sheet

121 cards: a single 11x11 sheet, distributed at one per pack. Perhaps the most brilliant, innovative decision in Magic is printing old cards as they were originally printed.

There is bias in selecting just 121 cards from old Magic to be included verbatim in new Magic, of course. The developers of the set surely spent long hours advocating their pet cards, and fighting against ones they hated. They all had to be fair in Standard, and there were probably a few considerations given for limited play as well. But despite the presence of obvious bias, the timeshifted cards feel like an honest look at Magic from years past. Magic was high-concept and wordy, it was dripping with flavor, it had weird ideas about what colors did, and the art veered between unspeakably gorgeous and completely incompetent.

By printing the exact same cards that people had seen before, it counterintuitively managed to bring people out of their comfort zone. Sometimes, it can be more difficult to reevaluate something old than to look at something completely new. Sure, Akroma, Angel of Wrath had been a haymaker back in the ramp-up-and-play-forever days of Onslaught Block Constructed, but how would it hold up in an era where players had multiple options for their 3/3s for two mana? Dragonstorm is just casual player bait, no one could possibly get to nine mana… right?

But recontextualization doesn’t just mess with people trying to solve a Standard format. By presenting people with old cards alongside their new ones, it implicitly raises the question: how does this compare? Would you rather all your cards kept that new frame, or would you prefer this old one? How do your new-fangled combo cards hold up to Ice Age combo weirdness like Enduring Renewal? When they reprint cards from Homelands, the question becomes: what would it take for you to run Homelands cards in your deck on purpose? The answer, of course, is the right supporting cast. Just by changing the cards surrounding these old ones, we change what the old cards are. That is the beauty of the timeshifted sheet.

pt vii: a look at squire

Judaism has a lot of traditions relating to Passover. One of them is to take out a single drop of wine from one’s glass for each of the plagues unleashed upon the Egyptian people, so that we might remember their suffering. This seems a bit silly, since if we really cared for their suffering and wanted to remember it, the wine drops would go on the white tablecloth instead of the porcelain plate.

It is with similar logic that, with any mass reprinting of old cards, we must remember the truth of what old Magic was like. Sure, it had its highlights, and the timeshifted sheet brings back plenty of them. But old Magic had more than its share of cards that were unexceptional, subpar, bad, or exceptional for being awful. To neglect this would be the worst kind of anti-intellectual nostalgic revisionism. We must be reminded of the pain that old Magic brought upon its players back then. This is why Squire exists on the timeshifted sheet.

It is a bad card. It is more than that: it is, in play terms, useless. Its presence next to Auratog on the same sheet highlights this. It isn’t the sort of bad card where you’d simply prefer that you had one that was rated higher on your pick order; it is the bad card that actively confronts you with its badness. You must address it. You must acknowledge that players looked up to Wizards and shouted, “give me Akroma!” and Wizards whispered: “no.”

There isn’t a printing of a card that’s said more about Magic, and Magic’s history, than this reprint of Squire. And it does all that with no rules text. That is efficiency.

pt viii: nostalgia

Time Spiral is the nostalgia set. That is pretty much accepted at this point. It’s also dramatically unfair to Time Spiral.

Nostalgia isn’t a very reflective, thought-provoking feeling. It overrides our intelligence with emotions, making our hearts swell as we mostly-inaccurately remember all the good times we had in the past. A lot of those older times probably sucked to get through, but nostalgia manages to smooth all that over, to merge it with the happier feelings until even the worst moments somehow seem pretty good in retrospect. Nostalgia sucks.

Time Spiral might evoke nostalgic feelings in the people who remember playing with a lot of the old cards referenced and reprinted, but as a whole, it’s much more revisionist and reflective than its nostalgic reputation would lead us to believe. As with Squire, it has no problem addressing the wonkiness and occasional outright badness in Magic’s past. Nostalgic is bringing back Lord of the Pit, but critical reevaluation is bringing back Pirate Ship. A nostalgic set would be rather boring, but Time Spiral has the good sense to fuck with Magic’s past instead of giving us just the sanitized, made-for-TV version. Nostalgia is I Love Lucy; reevaluation is a rebroadcast of a news report about white people marching in support of segregation.

pt ix: planar chaos

As Rosewater has noted, in the past-present-future model of the block, it’s pretty obvious what the sets about the past and the future are supposed to contain, while the set about the present is more ambiguous. It went with an “alternate reality” version of the present; specifically, an alternate version of the color pie.

While Rosewater didn’t lead the design of Planar Chaos, his fingerprints are all over this concept. Since he had become the head designer as of Ravnica, it was his job to institute block planning, and therefore, to decide what every set would be about. Planar Chaos as alternate reality was entirely his idea, because he really likes both alternate reality sci-fi and the color pie.

Whereas Time Spiral was a set entirely about old Magic, Planar Chaos is entirely about what different colors are allowed to do. It follows, then, that Time Spiral is interesting to people who like Magic (which is a large portion of Magic players, though not 100%), and Planar Chaos is interesting to people who really like to think about why certain colors are allowed to do what they do. What if blue was the color of vigilance instead of white? Well, I guess… blue creatures wouldn’t tap as often. Cool.

I really like thinking about this sort of stuff, but even for me, Planar Chaos is more interesting as a vague thought experiment than an actual set. Especially in constructed, where people are allowed to build decks around certain cards, there is very little difference between someone making a deck with the same card in two different colors. The difference between a blue control deck with Damnation and a blue control deck with Wrath of God is going to be that the former has a few other spot removal spells that are probably better than the latter deck would have access to (unless it has Swords to Plowshares or Path to Exile). This isn’t thrilling me.

There is some more interesting “alternate Magic” hidden within Planar Chaos. Malach of the Dawn portrays one of the only two male Angels in Magic, because in normal Magic, players really want to look at some wingboobs. In alternate reality Magic, people look at his extremely nicely ripped chest instead, with his arms so strongly extended… with holding… the… what was I talking about?

The most interesting part of Planar Chaos is highlighting the arbitrary nature of so many decisions made long ago in Magic. Wizards decreed that blue was the color of card draw that didn’t suck, but is there any good reason for this? Why don’t other colors have access to it? In Planar Chaos, green does that. Once the set is past, everything goes back to normal. But… why? You just showed us that the decision could have gone either way, really, and there’s no philosophical reasoning behind it. If it’s just precedent, then why don’t those get overturned on a regular basis just to shake things up?

There probably were more interesting ways to implement an alternate reality version of Magic in a small set, but changing up the color pie and very little else isn’t how I would choose to do it. It could be an aspect, sure, but they could have pulled the camera back a little further on this one. Time Spiral was 281 new cards, plus 121 reprints, and I consider Planar Chaos to be basically 120 new cards, plus 45 reprints. Especially considering how not-obscure a lot of the planeshifted cards were, and how many of the 120 new cards felt like they could have fit in Time Spiral, it seems like a letdown compared to the sparkling originality of its predecessor.

pt x: future sight

Future Sight had no such problems with originality.

My favorite cards have long been the unique ones, the oddballs, the one-offs that led to cool decks that did nothing ever done before in Magic. The concept of Future Sight seems to be to make a set consisting entirely of cards like this.

Future Sight is the greatest set ever made.

Instead of timeshifted reprints, or planeshifted almost-reprints, its alternate-frame cards are required to do things that have never been done in Magic. This is obviously a vague requirement, since new sets by definition attempt to print cards that do new things, but futureshifted cards practically knocked me off my chair the first time I saw them with how far they were willing to go. The cycle of Pacts, which cost zero and say YOU LOSE THE GAME, don’t even fit the requirements for being from the future. That is an exclusive club. (Okay, Bonded Fetch probably could have been normal-frame.) Enchanting spells in the graveyard? Keywords that only exist on one card? Enchantments that tap?

Long before I started this series, I had a favorite Magic-related metaphor: Future Sight is the Velvet Underground & Nico of Magic. Not many people bought it when it came out, but everyone that liked it immediately wanted to design Magic cards. In my case, it made me care about Magic design enough to start writing about it (well, years later). Future Sight, with its explorations of what was possible within the scope of Magic, proves that Magic does not need to be a conservative slog through sequels and minor variations. It can do new things. It can do a lot of different new things.

There’s no way I can explain that Future Sight is the best set except by instructing people to look at the cards. They are fun to look at. That’s it, really.

pt xi: new mechanics

The word “mechanic” is used inaccurately by a lot of people in Magic, and I’d include myself in that. Every time a card does something, that’s a mechanic. So, every new card has its mechanic. What people mean when they say “mechanic” with reference to Magic, though, is keyworded mechanic. And something that gets highlighted about Future Sight is how many new mechanics it had, including ones that only showed up on one card. This is usually offered as evidence that the set was confusing.

But what’s the difference between:

Transfigure 1BB (1BB, Sacrifice this creature: Search your library for a creature card with the same converted mana cost as this creature and put that card onto the battlefield. Then shuffle your library. Transfigure only as a sorcery.)

…and…

 1BB, Sacrifice [cardname]: Search your library for a creature card with the same converted mana cost as [cardname] and put that card onto the battlefield. Then shuffle your library. Play this ability only as a sorcery.

The difference is that the above is considered a “mechanic,” and the bottom one isn’t. The point is that these “new mechanics” were mostly just aesthetic changes, and nothing else. You could keywordify basically any card without changing the effect. It’s not really a big deal to do this, especially when it changes rather simple cards into futureshifted ones.

pt xii: a look at steamflogger boss

No card felt as inevitable for me to discuss as this one.

The shallow way to look at both Squire and Steamflogger Boss is just as a silly joke. It’s even possible that’s the extent of why they’re in the sets. But the Boss, by including text that’s absolutely meaningless, does a lot more than just make a joke.

First, let’s look at the rest of the card. As a Hill Giant, no one would even notice if it was in any given set (as a common, of course). It even has an ability that makes them better in multiples; if you get four of them out at once, that’s more than enough hasted power to kill someone in one attack. With this line of text, it would be a reasonable, if dull, uncommon.

But it has that text: assemble a contraption. To me, something like this is necessary if we’re going to look at cards from the future: of course they’re not going to make sense to us. Can you imagine showing Garruk Wildspeaker to someone from 1993? They’d be a lot more baffled than 2007 players looking at Steamflogger Boss. Planeswalkers would have even perplexed 2006 players without access to the rules updates about them.

The future will always be inherently nonsensical to people from earlier times, because they didn’t experience the in-between moments that helped people make sense of those events.

There’s another thing that nonsense text brings to mind: non-Magic people trying to make sense of the text on Magic cards. There was a time, dear reader, when you would have been as puzzled by the first line of text on the card as the second. To an ignorant person, the two are indistinguishable: they are worded in the familiar voice of games-rule-speak, and happen to use slightly different words. We only know that one of them works, and one of them is nonsense, because of the countless hours we’ve spent studying the arcana that is Magic. When we move on to something else that’s unfamiliar, whether it’s another game or (god forbid) something with real-world application, we’ll run into phrases that make as little sense to us as “assemble a contraption.”

It is an effective use of a line of text on a Magic card to evoke these feelings.

pt xiii: a look at sprout swarm

Yeah, this should have been rare. If you draft this block, replace Sprout Swarm with Scatter the Seeds.

pt xiv: slivers

In their third incarnation, Time Spiral block spreads slivers across all three sets. One of the best mechanics in Magic has its best version in this block. The slivers in each set fit in perfectly: Time Spiral gets the ones that grant old mechanics, or turn slivers into old cards (like Firewake Sliver turning them into something resembling Fires of Yavimaya). Planar Chaos got the ones with off-color abilities, and… okay, a bunch of slivers that could have been in Time Spiral. Future Sight gets the ones with newly-invented keywords, plus the Big Lord.

Aside from fitting in, what makes these slivers special compared to the Rath cycle and Legions ones? While those certainly enabled a sliver deck—a certain way it was possible to build slivers into something that would work—Time Spiral block grants the tribe such variety, such crazy-seeming effects, that enterprising deckbuilders can make slivers do practically anything they want. The obvious path seemed to be building around the white ones, because white had Sinew Sliver, and the red, which had the similarly straightforward Bonesplitter Sliver.

What ended up being the most effective? A crazy combo contraption with Dormant Sliver and Frenetic Sliver. If you wanted to instead play around with a hyper-aggressive Virulent Sliver idea, the tools were there for you to build around it or any other specific sliver, rather than throwing all the “good” ones in the same deck and pressing “blend.”

pt xv: a look at plague sliver

This is the best reason I can find that slivers should have stayed in their original format, where they affected the slivers of all players (it was probably a positive change overall).

What is this card? It’s a sliver, obviously, so it grants all slivers a certain ability. In this case, though, by the nature of how the sliver tribe works, it’s a hoser. Not only will it make your opponents slivers ding them for one life each every turn, this sliver itself will absorb all their abilities like a parasite. Clever, but just a better version of playing Venser’s Sliver against the same opponent.

The ability affects itself, too, putting it squarely among the legions of undercosted black creatures with a disadvantage to offset its low mana cost. It’s more, though. It’s in Time Spiral, so there must be a reference hidden here. Played by itself… it’s Juzam Djinn! They made a Juzam Djinn sliver! Doesn’t anyone else think that’s cool? It’s probably the closest they’ve gotten to a straight reprint of a card they’re not allowed to reprint.

pt xvi: the reason time spiral block matters

When discussions of this block happen from current employees of Wizards, their starting point is always the same: it didn’t sell well. All their other reasoning flows from that. The job of a Magic set is to sell product, and Time Spiral didn’t.

This is such a spectacularly bad line of thinking that I’m amazed I even need to address it, but since they’ve been saying this same thing since 2008, clearly something has to be done.

Art is not sales. Art is not defined by commerce. The greatness of art is contained in the work itself; art’s quality is not the amount of money it made, and it’s certainly not defined by its accessibility. We’re talking about creative endeavors here, not making spreadsheets to use in a powerpoint presentation for 50-something executives.

They might have regretted it later, but the designers of this block made art the way art should be made: they created the work they wanted to exist. They were unrestrained by ideas of “ooh, will this score will in market research studies?” or “will this continue Magic’s growth at an 8% annualized rate?” It’s been confirmed in their stories of the block afterward, but it’s obvious from looking at these cards that the creators of Time Spiral block took actual joy from its creation. This is where its greatness originated.

You have all been brainwashed. Every time someone couches a positive comment about Time Spiral in, “yeah, but its complexity turned away new players,” you are arguing against your own betterment. You are stating that great Magic sets, ones that advance the design of Magic and push these stupid cards from commercial product to artistic statement, should have their designs dictated not by what is best for the work, but what will maximize their sales in the one-week period after the set’s release.

Accessibility is a feature of art: some art is more accessible than others. It is going to be more enjoyable for a 13 year-old with no interest in film to watch Transformers than The Third Man. The former film made significantly more money. Does this mean that every work of film criticism that discusses the performance of Orson Welles needs to also mention that maybe it’s not as immediately interesting to the masses as a Michael Bay film? No. No no no. The Third Man is a masterpiece, Bay is a hack, and art is not commerce.

I’m shocked I even need to discuss this, but Wizards’s domination of the discussion of Magic design forces me into it. As I touched on back in Onslaught, their incentives are perverse.

I don’t mention this often because it usually doesn’t relate, but my day job is Magic. I work for a company that buys Magic product before release, and we both sell that product directly to customers as well as open it for singles. We open a lot of product for singles. When people preorder more singles, we have to open more product to get them. This makes us more money, and it means that Wizards sees more of the set selling. We sold a lot of Khans singles, which moved a lot of product from Wizards. Does that make Khans a great set a priori? No, it means Khans reprinted fetchlands and had a lot of other powerful cards. That’s a rather easy way to sell the cards. And people hadn’t even played with the set when all these sales were happening.

There are a lot of ways to sell more of a certain Magic set. Wizards does, in fact, have a marketing department whose job is to sell whatever the latest set is. Time Spiral selling poorly says more about marketing than it does about Time Spiral.

Duels of the Planeswalkers is credited with acquiring a lot more people to play Magic. Because it got released a few months before Zendikar, that mediocre set gets a lot of credit for greatness because a lot of people bought those cards. Zendikar also had a marketing gimmick of inserting random expensive out-of-print cards into packs, and the amount that people got hyped about that was stunning. And it had fetchlands. And it had full-art lands. Most of these things happened because they were frightened the set wouldn’t sell otherwise.

If Time Spiral had all those things, or some other expensive rare land cycle in it, it would have sold a lot more, and the conversation from Wizards would be completely different. They would be praising all the great things it did, because it must have, because it sold really well. Their reasoning is bad.

Here’s what often happens to creative people over time: they get older. They get tired. Their creative peak leaves them, they make the best ideas they have, and they keep working. They hammer out new stuff that resembles the old stuff in superficial ways, but lacks the creative spark that the old material had. They justify their existence not in making the best things, but in satisfying their bosses in order to pay a mortgage. I’m sure that eventually, I’ll transition into other writing from essays where I compare everything to Joy Division, like how Joy Division eventually gave way to New Order.

pt xvii: dailymtg articles over time

In Rosewater’s introduction of the word “grok” to Magic design parlance, he uses it to explain how Suspend might look really complex, but it’s such an easy thing to understand that people will get it, so it’s not a big issue. Four years later, he uses suspend as an example of something players didn’t understand in the introduction of New World Order.

What does this say about the rest of his concept of “grokking” certain mechanics or ideas? Were his premises flawed, or just the conclusion he reached from them? Should we throw out every concept Rosewater relied on in pre-New World Order columns, like when someone politically active has a radical change in philosophy?

If you want to learn more about Time Spiral and the internal reactions to it, first read the preview articles on DailyMTG about the set, then read his 2007 state of design. It’s probably, along with the aforementioned NWO column, the most important thing ever published on the site. As I read it, I can see Time Spiral’s rejection in favor of the current dominant conservative ideology of Wizards. While he somehow concludes that the block succeeded in 2.5/3 of his goals, he is harsher with it than any other (which makes me wonder what it takes to get a block to not succeed at those goals).

Much of the language in the article shares a lot in common with conservative politics: not messing with “sacred cows” is rather similar to the conservative embrace of core cultural institutions (religion, the military, etc), while the cry to “go back to our roots,” calling designs “new and flashy,” and finding innovations that “don’t shock” are similar to conservative reformers that want to take slow, gradual steps toward change, rather than big, sweeping new ideas.

Of course, those conservatives who bemoan the swift changes in modern culture are often secretly radicals; they are simply radicals of a different sort. They want to impose swift changes that implement what they remember of “the good old days.” In this case, it’s imposing a New World Order of top-down design and lack of complexity that’s like a twisted version of Alpha, but that sort of language could just as easily be from a Republican with a “common sense” approach to eliminating welfare policies, or reactionary male gamers bemoaning all these artsy-fartsy story-based games “that aren’t even games.”

I’ve thought a lot about what the eras of Magic are. I’d break them down something like this:

Early Magic: Alpha through Ice Age block. These designs were scattered and unfocused, due to how many different people and teams made the sets. Bringing it all back home to Wizards with Alliances created the standard for what sets would be.

Early blocks: Mirage block through Masques block. The power levels veered back and forth from set to set, and while they had ideas of what blocks were supposed to be like, they didn’t really have strong designs underpinning them.

Strong theme: Invasion block through Mirrodin block. These blocks are defined by choosing that they’re about something, and god damn, they are about that thing down to the very last card. Notably, they have to be about mechanical things. They can be overwhelming in how far they push their favored mechanic, leading to lots of block vs block-type battling in Standard decks.

Renaissance: Kamigawa block through Lorwyn/Shadowmoor. These blocks are where designers start looking carefully at sets of the past, theming their sets not on one big mechanical theme, but on vaguer, more high-concept ideas, from Kamigawa’s Japanese theme to Lorwyn/Shadowmoor’s night and day. This is Magic’s artistic height, where creativity is unreservedly expressed through cards.

Conservative era: Alara block through present. Instead of reevaluating earlier ideas and transforming them into something new and unique, like Ravnica did with the multicolored theme, the conservative era is about taking something done already and driving it into the ground. Ravnica had a two-color theme? Well, how about a three-color theme, despite it not making nearly as much sense. Then a sequel to Ravnica, then a sequel to the three-color theme one. This isn’t to say that this era hasn’t had its artistic highlights, but it’s unapologetically about taking fewer risks than the sets from the Renaissance, as foreshadowed by the 2007 State of Design article.

pt xviii: conclusion

So there it is. A block so wonderful, fun, and innovative that it sparks an internal conservative backlash against it, leading to the reformation of the entirety of Magic design.

Next week is Lorwyn/Shadowmoor, the last block in this wonderful era. But between now and then, there’s a lot coming up: a quick addendum on Coldsnap and its relation to Time Spiral, but also, something a bit more exciting. I conducted an interview with an important person in Magic’s early history, and I’ll be publishing the results later this week.

19 comments:

Fuhe Xu said...

"Future Sight is the greatest set ever made."

Amen

Wil said...

This was a fascinating read, and I plan to continue doing so.
Cheers.

Simon Levinson said...

For myself, Time spiral limited, and why it was great, is empitomized by one card: Herd Gnarr. Herd Gnarr screams time spiral. Firstly, it's a reference to some ultra obscure color hosers, the gnarrs, guys who gain +2/+2 when stuff happens. For Herd Gnarr, that stuff is friends come into play. On the surface, this is a pretty unexciting card, a green dude who is often a 4/4 for 4 when attacking. But, like the kithkin you mentioned, herd gnarr is a card that played well with so many things for so many reasons.

The thing about time spiral is there were a lot of ways to play multiple creatures in a turn, which is why mr. gnarr could be the linchpin of several different decks. he could be played as a build aruond me common, like amrou kithkin, or just as a decent dude, like the kithkin again. firsly, he played well with suspend. in green/red, you had a lot of ways of having a big turn. suspend your 5 drop on turn 1, then turn 5 coal stoker into empty the warrens with herd gnarr in play would result in a lot of damage. (indeed, storm was a part of Time spiral block drafts, though not to the level of modern masters). however, if you were greem white, instead of having an explosive storm of dudes, you had the fungi, which let you store up creature counters that could be used as instant speed gnarr pump whenever you wanted. sprout swarm also existed, but lets not get into that

what makes herd gnarr great is there were multiple ways of putting multiple creatures into play in a turn. A green red deck was more combo oriented, often focused on chaining spells together in a big turn, making gnarr huge. but green/white, on the other hand, had the much loved(?) fungus theme which let you store up counters. suddenly every fungus you had could grow your gnarr at instant speed

before the printing of modern masters, time spiral block felt the closest magic has ever come to a printed cube thanks to the density and interaction between unrelated keywords. it also had the most build-around-me commons of any set, excepting maybe rise of the eldrazi (i <3 kiln fiend). granted, this made it extremely complicated for new players, but the packs did say 'expert' set on them. : )

timothy McKenna said...

This article is great.

Noumenon said...

Question about your Patreon. Approximately how much does $1/review cost me? There are like 50 magic sets, so $50? Or I only pay for reviews written after I subscribe? How much is that? I'm looking to tip $x dollars more than subscribe, so if there are 12 reviews left I'll simply sign up for $x/12 per review.

Unknown said...

Any recommendations on said sites with Time Spiral block explanations?

KillGoldfish said...

You'll pay $1 per review that I write after this. $1 per block, not per set, not retroactive.

kranza said...

Another thing about Planar Chaos was the way that, in the midst of this alternative world version of Magic, they took the opportunity to correct and evolve the color pie in ways they would then proceed to use going forward. They took classic cards that had just been in the wrong color and fixed them (Prodigal Sorcerer-->Pyromancer), and introduced mechanics to new colors (white counterspell). It ended that a big part of the "what could have been" world was also "what should have been and now is from now on."

kranza said...

Also, Orson Welles was actually in one Transformers movie--the 80s cartoon. He played a planet.

KillGoldfish said...

My grandfather was also in that film (he was Kup)

David Fanany said...

I especially like your analysis of Zendikar's sales compared to Time Spiral's. I think there's a lot to it, though I still think that Wizards of the Coast sometimes just lies about things. They're not under any obligation to tell the truth to the public beyond a certain point.

Thaurwylth said...

>
> Next week is Lorwyn/Shadowmoor, the last
> block in this wonderful era. But between now
> and then, there’s a lot coming up: a quick
> addendum on Coldsnap and its relation to
> Time Spiral, but also, something a bit more
> exciting. I conducted an interview with an
> important person in Magic’s early history,
> and I’ll be publishing the results later this
> week.
>

No rush, yet, but a short comment about the delays would be nice. You surely know yourself that one of the most frustrating things about big gaming companies is that they only communicate back when they feel like it.

Your loyal fans are seething with excitement!

keratacon said...

http://markrosewater.tumblr.com/post/100928106858/if-you-were-on-a-deserted-island-with-1-other-person

Don't know if you saw that or not.

Connor Moran said...

Aaron Forsythe also just said in an interview that Time Spiral is his "guilty pleasure favorite set."

The people who make Magic don't hate Time Spiral. They love it, and that terrifies them.

Matt Limoges said...

I couldn't have been happier to chance upon this article!

Jeffery said...

Wow, I really enjoyed this article. I am so glad that I've happened upon your blog in recent times, as I'm still relatively new to magic (been playing on and off for a couple of years, but only as a filthy casual) and so these pointed reviews of the "old" blocks that I've not had the pleasure to experience are giving me a greater view of the big picture that I haven't seen before. Needless to say, I'm sold on the dream of Time Spiral. If this article were written in the times the block was fresh, I would have scooped up some boosters and ran with it. As it stands though, I'm going to hit up gatherer and gaze upon the cards in spoiler mode and admire the art that you say is there. Maybe I'll come to understand what this game is all about. I'm going to close with something Day9 said about MTG: you don't just "learn" the game. I think he said you can't really "learn" it. It's something you have to experience (mostly by playing Trumpet Blast at the wrong time).

Mario Pineda said...

Several comments about this:

1) Maro usually achieves his goals, for good or bad. The issue is that there's an overarching goal here, which is keeping Magic alive. "Did the block do what I intended it to do" and "Did the block do what was the best for the game" are two different questions. The fact that a man as stubborn as he seems to achieve his goals, understand that he was wrong *and then* change course deserves some praise.

2) In your Mirage review, you talked about how artists are not exactly a rich bunch. This is what people who constantly ask for a return to Lorwyn, Kamigawa or Future Sight don't seem to understand. I think we'll agree that Magic is better off with more players. Going back to a commercial failure is not the way to get there, so the best option is to meet halfway. "Time Spiral" is bad nostalgia; "Scars of Mirrodin" isn't. "Return to Ravnica", though, is, because I also think it really doesn't have that much to offer.

3) I find it ironic that you criticize Zendikar for lacking a defined identity, but fail to realize that's what happened with Time Spiral. The best way to sum up what it must have been like for people who started playing after Scourge is Aaron Forsythe's Random Card Comment of the Day about Thunder Totem and its cycle: "What in the world kind of uncommon mana stone turns into a 1/2 creature that lets you skip turns as a cost to get bigger? What does that even mean?".

4) I started playing in 1994; you started in 1997. I don't know about you, but I missed LOTS of references. When I saw some cards, I thought: "Yes, they're referencing something, but I don't know what it is." And I've been playing, reading, absorbing Magic for 21 years now. I do think Time Spiral block was a nice jest towards us, but you can't build a good future on obscure references to the past. It is preferable for art above average to reach a vast audience than for highly conceptual art to reach a small minority.

Henry Tuttle said...

You forgot to mention why Split Second exists. Before the 6th Edition timing rules, there was another class of spells called "Interrupts" which were, to put it simply, faster than instants (the chart that explains the old method of spell resolution can be seen here: http://archive.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/arcana/130 ). Split Second spells were an attempt at creating a modern version of Interrupts.

Tommy W. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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