Recurring Nightmares – Manipulation or Mastery

Warning – Spoilers ahead

What if tomorrow, you woke up to the news that Wizards had unbanned [card]Time Walk[/card] in Legacy? Aside from the mad scramble to get your hands on as many copies of the card as possible, would you give any consideration to whether or not this card is something your deck actually wants before you crammed a playset in and started walking? My guess is that you wouldn’t. Neither would I, for that matter. Having access to a whole extra turn for the low, low cost of two mana is something nearly every deck in the format could get behind – and if there wasn’t already enough incentive to run Blue in Legacy, you’d be looking at a real reason now.

What if you could play [card]Time Walk[/card], but the errata’d the card to cost seven mana? Since we already have access to three [card]Time Walk[/card]s at five mana and a Walk with Buyback at six – not one of which see actual play in real tournaments (aside from the one day a year Ali Aintrazi or I decide Turboland is playable – still got all these Korean [card]Exploration[/card]s after all) – it’s fair to imagine that seven mana is far too much to pay for your opponent to skip their next turn.

What if the [card]Time Walk[/card] was seven mana, but if you play it during your draw step it only costs two? And you can only play it the instant you draw it – and only if it’s the first card you’ve drawn?

Temporal Mastery

Whoah whoah whoah – That’s a lot of restrictions. Of course, you’d have to have those kind of restrictions on it, otherwise you’re just unrestricting [card]Time Walk[/card], and we’ve already established that doing so would result in an auto-4-of. We’re trying to make the card have just enough hoops to jump through to avoid that if possible.

The decision of whether to play a card like the aforementioned is not cut and dry as is the original Walk or the safe and fair version in [card]Time Warp[/card]. And I believe that this is the first sign that where one is Power and the other is chaff, this card has the potential to be strong, but maybe not insane.

For some time now, players and writers alike have been referring to cards that provide certain in-game effects as “Time Walks,” despite the cards not actually giving them an extra turn. It’s well established that while you may not actually get a full second turn after your current one, negating the effect of your opponent’s turn is similar in result to doing so. Therefore, a card like [card]Remand[/card], which can “undo” a turn spent investing in an expensive spell, and net you a card to replace the [card]Remand[/card] itself, is often referred to as a pseudo-[card]Time Walk[/card]. Of course, this doesn’t take into consideration that the opponent gets to draw a card for the turn, attack, play a land, and potentially play more than one spell during their turn. It also ignores that you do not get an additional land drop, you do not get an additional card, you do not get an extra attack, and you may or may not have more spells to play that turn. Pseudo, indeed.

Let’s establish the dream scenario before we go too far into discussion of the relative merits of Temporal Mastery vs pseudo walks.

Turn 1 – [card]Delver of Secrets[/card]
Turn 2 – [card]Delver of Secrets[/card] flips, play 2 [card]Delver of Secrets[/card] (17)
Turn 3 – Both Delvers flip revealing Temporal Mastery, you play it. Attack. (8)
Turn 4 – (extra turn 1) Dead.

Christmastown doesn’t get much better than that.

There are nearly infinite variations on that theme, not to mention ways for the opponent to interact with your board/the stack to disrupt this from being your line of play. Even a [card]Wasteland[/card] could potentially disrupt this course of plays enough to strand a seven mana spell in your hand for the foreseeable future.

And really, that’s the major risk you’re running – the risk that you’ll draw a Mastery in your opening seven, or on your first draw step, or second, when you don’t have the two mana available to play the spell. Suddenly it’s gone from one of the best possible draws to one of the worst, and you’ve changed your two mana Time Walk into a two card combo that is otherwise completely dead.

Much like everything in Magic and life, a risk/benefit analysis is the way to establish if that’s worthwhile.

The upside is obviously insane. The downside is manageable, and you’re already positioned in the best color to do so. Isn’t it fortunate that Legacy is full of card and library manipulation? In a format where upper tier decks can run cards like [card]Progenitus[/card], [card iona, shield of emeria]Iona[/card], even [card emrakul, the aeons torn]Emrakul[/card] – with no realistic hope of ever casting these spells in a normal game – it’s not particularly out of the realm of reality to assume you’ll be able to work around a spell like Mastery.

Because this is the format where [card]Brainstorm[/card] is ubiquitous, and where [card]Sensei’s Divining Top[/card]s are spun freely, it’s not unreasonable to assume that timing your [card]Time Walk[/card]s will be a strategic maneuver, and that you’ll be able to sufficiently work around the “drawback” of drawing a Mastery past your draw step each turn. If anything, this mechanic, and this spell in particular, could lead to the upswing in vogue of [card]Thought Scour[/card], [card]Predict[/card], and the “value” [card]Surgical Extraction[/card].

So you could be playing Mastery – but should you be?

If we were all going to point to the nut draw as the reason to play a deck/card rather than the average, Legacy would be 99% Belcher vs Dredge. There would be no reason to play interactive decks, as their goldfish was too slow. No one would EVER play Maverick. This is not that world, and we consider the average usage of a spell rather than the best case scenario. It’s far more expected that you’ll occasionally flip a Mastery on an empty board with no land drop to play than it is you’ll run it out with the stone nuts. Of course, we’ll hear far more stories about the latter than the prior, because it’s much more exciting and the mind will focus on those cases where the card was an absolute blowout, rather than a cycled [card]Street Wraith[/card]. In the same vein, we’ll hear many stories of how we were forced to mulligan into oblivion as our opening seven contained a pair of Masteries, our six had no land, our five had two Masteries, etc. Our nature is to recall the outliers, and to forget the average as commonplace.

Negating the nut highs and nut lows, we can assume that there will be a non-zero number of wins that would stem from the additional advantage gained by an extra turn to attack, or activate a Jace, etc. As such, we can weigh and compare this with some other similar spells.

Let’s assume, for the sake of the discussion, that we’re intent on playing the card in a deck that can capitalize on it in a number of ways. That is to say, we’ll be running sufficient lands to ensure that we’ll hit our third and fourth land drop if we decide to play Mastery on turn 3. We’ll be playing creatures in sufficient numbers that will allow us to benefit from an additional attack step. We’ll be running planeswalkers – including but not limited to [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card] (since his second ability is so fantastic at setting up Mastery – to ensure we net additional advantage from an extra activation. Perhaps a list something like this:

[deck]4 Delver of Secrets
4 Tarmogoyf
4 Brainstorm
4 Ponder
4 Force of Will
4 Lightning Bolt
4 Temporal Mastery
2 Spell Snare
3 Spell Pierce
3 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
4 Misty Rainforest
4 Scalding Tarn
4 Tropical Island
4 Volcanic Island
1 Taiga
2 Island
1 Mountain
4 Wasteland[/deck]

Obviously untested list is obvious. The intent is to give a context to the discussion, not come up with the next SCG Open winning decklist.

With this decklist, your goal is to be aggressive with your creatures while protecting them with your removal and counterspells until they can close out the game. The Masteries factor into that plan by decreasing the window you’d need to keep open for your creatures to push through the defenses of the opponent. Here’s the thing – by increasing the land count in order to facilitate Jace, you’ve reduced the number of spells you can run alongside Delver, reducing the probability that it will flip on turn 2. You’ve reduced the effectiveness of [card]Wasteland[/card] by removing [card]Daze[/card] (obviously this can be manipulated back into the list, but the land slots have to come from somewhere). Jace, while a powerful card in and of itself, does not actually do anything to advance your strategy of “attack them to death.” Temporal Mastery, when drawn, forces you to find and resolve either Jace, [card]Brainstorm[/card], or a [card]Force of Will[/card] to pitch it to – you will NEVER hit seven mana with this deck. If you do manage to flip a Mastery, you’ll be forced to play it on the spot, regardless of the implications of doing so. It’s not a card that permits you options, it’s a card that does exactly one thing. If your opponent plays around the card (as we’re soon going to have to do), perhaps they’ll have a [card]Spell Pierce[/card] or Counterspell of their own to negate it, or possibly have some method of defense to mitigate the effects of losing a turn.

Consider the following change to the deck:

-4 Temporal Mastery
+4 [card]Remand[/card]

This change opens up whole avenues, and not just in the sense that you get an additional set of counterspells. The swap of one for the other allows you to cut [card]Jace, the Mind Sculptor[/card] for more aggressive cards ([card]Nimble Mongoose[/card], additional removal, etc), because you’re no longer committed to the idea that you MUST have access to a [card]Brainstorm[/card] at all times, at the risk of having dead cards otherwise. Your tempo plan makes much more sense now, as you’re simply buying time – and the pseudo-[card]Time Walk[/card] effect of [card]Remand[/card] is effective enough, if not exactly the same effect.

Perhaps swapping the [card]Remand[/card]s for [card]Mana Leak[/card]s, or more [card]Spell Pierce[/card]/[card spell snare]Snares[/card], or [card]Daze[/card]s would serve as a better illustration – because the cantrip off the [card]Remand[/card] isn’t the important part, it’s the nulling effect of the counterspell, that forces your opponent to invest resources (and subsequently, turns) into spells that have no impact on the board state – allowing you additional attacks with your threats.

One thing that Mastery provides that few counterspells do is Reach. Normally, we’d make the comparison between [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] and [card]Swords to Plowshares[/card] in this instance. While Swords is much more effective at removing a blocker with four toughness, or offing a threat that’s going to kill you in a turn, StP will never kill an opponent at two life. [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], especially combined with [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] as of late, has the ability to close out games in a stalemate, or even when you’re behind on board. Many a blue mage can empathize with the feeling of drawing a [card]Mana Leak[/card] on turn 9 when all you want to draw is a threat. If that Leak was a Bolt, the game is over. If that [card]Remand[/card] was a [card]Time Walk[/card], you’d be able to push through that last bit of damage that you need.

Not for nothing – the fact that Mastery must be played when drawn means your opponent will have optimal information when deciding how to adjust to you gaining an extra turn. That means no sneaking through a blocker with a bluffed attack, only to Time Walk in the second main for the surprise victory.

Where Mastery fits on that scale of defense to reach is quite obvious. Mastery may in some specific circumstances allow you to find an additional blocker for the opponent’s alpha strike. More often, it will allow you to be aggressive, rather than more defensive. Looking back at the above decklist, we once again consider other options.

-4 Temporal Mastery
+4 [card]Chain Lightning[/card]

Here, we’ve replaced the opportunity for an additional attack with [card]Delver of Secrets[/card] for an additional removal spell/three damage when needed. We’ve substituted a reach spell for a reach spell. This would allow you some added flexibility in terms of what you can do with that three damage, and once again free up the Jace/land slots as necessary.

We’re alluding to something here that I’ve discussed in previous articles – but realistically, Mastery is much worse than other cards with similar effects – when you incorrectly compare the effects side by side, rather than holistically. [card]Chain Lightning[/card] will never draw you an extra card. [card]Remand[/card] will not do three damage to a [card]Mother of Runes[/card]. Mastery fills a role that is representative of some similar cards, but the fact that it has additional effects than them is why the discussion is interesting in the first place. It’s not so simple as “why don’t you just run another threat instead?” Sure, if you compare attacking with a Delver over the course of two turns versus attacking with a Delver and a Mongoose over one turn, the two line up well. However, if you compare the difference between attacking with one 5/6 [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] across two turns against attacking with the Goyf and a Mongoose over one turn, you’re no longer even – and the distance gets further the more variables you add into the equation. It’s easy to see that the more creatures you have in play, the larger the disparity between a [card]Time Walk[/card] and a creature. That’s why [card]Time Walk[/card] is good.

We’ve been focusing on the relative merits between Temporal Mastery and a creature/counterspell (pseudo-[card]Time Walk[/card])/burn spell, but there are other decks that are going to want effects like this.

A deck like Time Spiral Tide – which can easily cast this in either mode – may consider this spell as a method to eek out additional land drops without having to rely on splashing for [card]Explore[/card]. Other combo decks like TES are unlikely to run it because of the dis-synergy between it and [card]Ad Nauseam[/card]. Control decks like Esper Stoneblade are already set up in a way that can capitalize on the additional land drops/attack steps, but may not have the room available. I can imagine the idea of [card]Time Walk[/card] on turn 2 into [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] on turn 3 with [card]Spell Pierce[/card] backup would be appealing to them, and could make it worthwhile – not to mention how excellent a second attack step with a full boat of [card]Lingering Souls[/card] tokens can be.

Now, for the nitty gritty.

This card is good. It may even be VERY good. I will not go so far to say it’s broken, nor will I say that it will have a significant impact on Legacy as a whole. It does give blue decks a leg up on the Maverick enemy, however Maverick is already poised to combat this specific menace through its use of maindeck [card]Thalia, Guardian of Thraben[/card] and [card]Gaddock Teeg[/card]. Both of those are particularly effective at neutralizing the [card]Time Walk[/card] wannabe. Should it be determined that the drawback on Temporal Mastery is too small and easy to play around, and the card tip the balance of the format to a point where it is no longer interesting or fun, we’ve seen recent demonstrable proof that the DCI is willing to intervene. They are currently happy with the state of the format, and they seem to be fine with the fact that [card]Brainstorm[/card] is the best card in Legacy. This leads me to believe that in the case that action would need to be taken, our sacred cow will not have its proverbial head on the chopping block. Rather, the [card]Time Walk[/card] effect would be the more reasonable card to be removed from the format, as the hope would be it returns to its current, healthy equilibrium. We don’t have any Legacy Grands Prix in the second half of the year to be disrupted by the presence of unrestricted Power. So fear not, chicken little. The format is safe.


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