Time Spiral is the best deck in Legacy.
What does it even mean to call something “the best deck” anymore? The phrase is thrown around like so much else that it's hardly recognizable mangled almost as badly as “strictly better” and “card advantage” and “your mom last night.”
Is it based purely on the strength of the cards in it? Because there have been moments where I was pretty certain Merfolk was the best deck yet Cursecatcher and Merfolk Sovereign are not Good Cards. Survival was the best deck for months after Columbus. Yes the deck that could find room for Aquamoeba but not Brainstorm that one.
Is it based purely on its matchups against the “best decks” – the accepted top tier of the metagame? Surely not. Plenty of Glass Cannons have preyed on the upper crust of any given metagame. Thing is Magic isn't a game where you get paired against Caw-Blade or Jund or Faeries literally every round. You have to be able to beat RUG Elves and Mono-Red.
So is the “best deck” title based on tournament results? Well here's where it gets tricky…
To a lot of people the clear rhetorical answer is “lol duh obviously Drew how can something be good if it doesn't consistently put up wins?” My reply would go something like “Well does everyone play exactly the deck they want to in a given tournament?”
Think about it for a second. Right around the Invitational last year what dominated MTGO Dailies? Valakut right? You couldn't actually read through a Daily deck listing without seeing Primeval Titans atop the standings. Did that mean that it was the best deck or even that it beat the various Jace the Mind Sculptor decks in the format?
Before you answer that keep in mind that Jaces at that time were between 90 and 100 tickets apiece online. Do you think everyone who was playing Dailies that didn't play Jace did so out of a deep-seated desire to not play the best card in the format? Unlikely.
Now let's come back to Legacy. According to a website that took the time to compile various set printing numbers there were just over 30000 Candelabra of Tawnos ever printed. Now then how many of those do you think rotted away in dumpsters got torn up proxied on forgotten lost worn out or otherwise taken out of that number? It's not as though people have had the same zeal for uncovering Candelabras as they have had for uncovering Tundras – until a month or two ago Candelabra was Just Another Reserve List Card.
Sorry another tangent: what percentage of Reserved List-era sets do you think have been destroyed somehow? Mothers cleaning the rooms of their newly collegiate sons coming across a box filled with cardboard cards just chucking the whole thing because “they're just cards?” People quitting and just throwing their cards out with their toy soldiers GI Joe action figures LEGO sets and K'Nex masterpieces? It has to be significant.
Yesterday Sean Morgan wrote an article for ManaNation.com discussing Legacy card availability. Our Director of Sales Ben Bleiweiss asserted in the comments section his belief that there are less than 250 playsets of Candelabras in circulation at this moment. Even if he's off by a few hundred it's not realistic to think that supply can keep up with even the most inelastic demand when it comes to this card.
The lack of broad access to Candelabra of Tawnos is a clear limiting factor in the overall playability of Time Spiral as a deck. While it won't be the most-played deck in the next Legacy event you attend those that do pilot it will be very competent knowledgeable players. Coming across a $1000 playset of cards is no mean feat after all.
So what makes the Time Spiral deck so powerful? Well for starters it's the only Legacy combo deck I've ever seen where its mana base is a strength instead of a liability. Really just think for a second…
Painter? Its mana base is soft to Wastelands artifact destruction and its own inconsistent colored mana availability.
The EPIC Storm? Again a three-to-five-color mana base that very realistically needs exactly one of each color to begin to go off making Wasteland a huge weapon against it and making Stifling their fetchlands astronomically better value. Oh and I guess it needs to resolve a fair bit of artifact and ritual mana so all those vulnerabilities can be lumped in with its mana base's shortcomings.
Belcher? Doesn't have a mana base making it the standard-bearer of an all-in deck: you're only going to get multiple uses out of your Chrome Moxen and your Taiga so I guess you have five whole “real” mana sources. I won't hold my breath waiting for one.
Dredge? It has no way of finding its lands. Sure sometimes you open the City of Brass Cephalid Coliseum Cephalid Coliseum hand and the heavens open and angels come down and fill your ears with songs about your perfection. However far more often you'll open on a Gemstone Mine cast Putrid Imp get it Forced get your Mine Wasted durdle around waiting to get to eight cards discard your precious dredger and get eaten by a
…and so on.
When I met Sam Black almost a year ago he and I discussed a broad variety of topics but eventually got around to talking about Legacy. I asked him “Why isn't Faeries playable in Legacy? It's been really good in every other format it's existed in.” His answer – and the process it revealed – astonished me.
He said “Well you could play Mono-Blue Faeries but that seems like a smaller version of Merfolk. You could play U/B Faeries but your mana base is iffy and you're still not doing very powerful things. Besides Merfolk has the best mana base in the format already; that's why it's so good.”
His insight sunk in and made a lot of sense to me immediately. Why was Teachings the best deck of its time? It had the best mana base and the best cards in the format. Cruel Control? Vivid lands and Reflecting Pool! And so on.
But as a lifelong fanboy of Tropical Island I suddenly found myself struggling to rationalize my affection for it. Surely this land that could cast my Brainstorm and my Tarmogoyf was better than the land that could only cast Cursecatcher and Aether Vial. Surely!
But no Wasteland is a $60 card for a reason. Merfolk is a deck that unlike many other decks in the format enjoys casting its spells with alarming consistency. Although it's doing something fairly underpowered for the format (playing Grizzly Bears and Gray Ogres that are all also Glorious Anthems) it does the same underpowered thing every single game while countering the one or two spells that it cares about.
So how does this relate to Time Spiral?
I believe that we are seeing a new “best mana base” arise in Legacy. The “twelve basic Islands” beginning is clearly a recipe for success although Time Spiral likes its shuffle effects in conjunction with its Brainstorms so it plays six fetchlands as well. This is a deck that as far as its lands go will only have to worry about “how many” and never “which ones.”
The resiliency of Time Spiral's mana base coupled with its relatively compact mana engine makes it a difficult deck to hate out. Yes it has won two SCG Opens in the last two months despite comprising less than 1% of the field in all of those. Yes it dominated its green midrange opponents – it was supposed to! However I've read multiple columns this week on StarCityGames.com calling for the DCI to re-ban Time Spiral.
Now regardless of what other columnists have been telling you Time Spiral is not worth re-banning. It's not too good and it's not destroying the format. The hallmarks of a bannable card are its overwhelming success and a dearth of good ways to interact with it. Survival of the Fittest had both since a turn-two resolved Survival was game over an overwhelming amount of the time. By contrast Time Spiral's fundamental turn isn't until turn four. Besides Time Spiral has two major safety features preventing it from becoming the next Survival.
First as I mentioned earlier Candelabra of Tawnos is really hard to find. The market seems to have settled on a pricing near $250 meaning that the deck cannot and will not be a widely played deck even if it is the “best” deck. Once people play the deck in more hate-dense field it will be easier to gauge its true viability and power.
Still there's nothing particularly degenerate about this deck. It's not winning on turn one and it's not immune to all the typical combo hate that people can play. It's just that no one is making it fight through Force of Will + Ethersworn Canonist or Arcane Laboratory + Counterbalance + Sensei's Divining Top. I don't believe that it's capable of posting positive win percentages against a field dedicated to hating it out. The most beautiful aspect of this entire situation though is that its minimal presence means that it's almost never worth it to play multiple slots of sideboard hate for Time Spiral since chances are slim that you'll ever play against it due to the availability issues surrounding Candelabra of Tawnos.
The second reason is that there exists a deck that has an astronomical win percentage against Time Spiral should it really become a format-defining issue. The David Gearhart creation of Solidarity a mono-instants-and-lands High Tide storm combo deck would have a very difficult time losing to Time Spiral.
You see in the Spiral mirror there are two basic approaches to actually winning the game: first you can Turnabout them on their end step choose lands and untap into a worry-free combo turn; or second you can wait for them to start going off cast a draw spell and respond with your own High Tide into Turnabouts and a Cunning Wish for Brain Freeze to mill them for their deck using their Meditate as an instrument of death.
Of course if you're playing Solidarity all you need to worry about is defending yourself against Turnabouts long enough to piggyback their High Tides and Brain Freeze them for their deck in response to any given sorcery. Bonus points awarded for Twincasting their Time Spiral and peeling a Twincast in your new seven.
Despite all this discussion of how easily Time Spiral can be beat I still maintain that it's the best deck in the format. Cumulative results don't mean a lot when a huge part of the potential sample size is simply priced out of participating with the deck. It's much more significant to look at overall participation with the deck and Top 8 or Top 16 conversion percentages within that small group.
Of course be aware that a major part of that group comprises the Hatfield Brothers who are both unbelievably good and could probably win Legacy tournaments with precons. Worth a mention.
So where does that leave everyone who doesn't own Candelabra of Tawnos? Well funny you should ask. A similar thing happened the last time there was a Legacy Grand Prix – a deck started doing well a few weeks before GP Columbus everyone talked about it a lot and its signature card went up to $250 and hasn't been back since.
Of course Aluren didn't do particularly well on balance. Since I didn't play it I'm not particularly qualified to offer possible rationales for its lackluster performance. I'm aware of a similar deck selection bias for Aluren as for Time Spiral though. That is the people who are smart and talented – the people who start Saturday in the best theoretical position to do well – are not likely to gain or lose too much of an edge through their deck selection whereas their superior play skill should let them win where others would lose.
On the other hand it's somewhat easy to see why Aluren didn't do as well as its proponents would've liked – Counterbalance is a very good card against the deck. Sure Aluren can resolve but Aluren cannot win if there is a two-drop or three-drop on top of its opponent's library and a Counterbalance in play. Given that two (virtually three) Counterbalance decks finished in the Top 12 of Columbus it's not hard to see where Aluren's downfall came.
But there's no such prevalence now. Even though Patrick Chapin wrote an article on why Counterbalance is ripe for a return to the format there was only one Counterbalance-based control deck that finished in the Top 16 of the Atlanta SCG Legacy Open. Although much of this shift is because Counterbalance isn't the all-encompassing control card it used to be part of it is simply that the some of the best players on the circuit were playing black-based disruption decks or green-based creature decks in Atlanta.
Whether or not people start respecting Time Spiral as a real threat in Boston remains up in the air but one thing is clear: Mother of Runes Noble Hierarch and Rhox War Monk aren't going to cut it for much longer. Figure out where you put your Ethersworn Canonists Chalice of the Voids Meddling Mages and Emrakuls. Stop playing nice guys.
Until next week