Magic History: Time Spiral

Magic Untapped takes a look back at the set Time Spiral.

Wizards of the Coast's popular and long-standing collectible card game, Magic: The Gathering, has been out since 1993.  That stated, it's nice to look back at older sets to reminisce and see just how much the game has changed over the years.

In this video, we look back at Time Spiral, the first set in Magic: The Gathering's Time Spiral block. 

Check it out:

Video Transcript:

It’s now October 6, 2006, and the debut the 40th expansion Magic: The Gathering history. With it comes a big ball of wibbly wobbly, time-y wimey… stuff. 

No, really.

The theme of the entire block is time.  And Time Spiral, the first set in the block is all about the game’s past.  We’re talking homages to old cards, old characters that are only just now getting physical cards, the return of a bunch of old keywords and mechanics, old frame cards making their debut in contemporary Modern and Standard… you get the idea.

But before we get to that, let’s talk a bit about the Time Spiral story (which can be fully experienced by reading the Scott McGough novel of the same name).

It’s been three hundred years since the Phyrexian Invasion of Dominaria and subsequent defeat of Yawgmoth.  During those events, the powerful planeswalker and time mage, Teferi, phased parts of the world out of existence in an attempt to keep them from harm.  This includes Zhalfir, Teferi’s home kingdom, and part of the continent of Shiv.

Shiv, it seems, is returning back to the correct time stream and back to reality.  Problem is, things have physically changed in the three centuries the landmass has been missing and it no longer fits into its rightful place, the friction being caused threatening all of Dominaria.

Teferi and his longtime friend, Jhoira, return to the plane to seek answers and aid because, being that Dominaria acts as a lynchpin for all of the multiverse, it’s not just one plane’s existence being threatened – it’s feasibly all of them.

The duo first makes a stop in the Skyshroud forest whereupon they learn that Dominaria is all but devoid of mana thanks to the massive temporal rifts that have opened in places across the globe draining the land of its energy.

One such rift is actually directly over Skyshroud and was caused when the planeswalker Freyalise successfully transplanted the forest onto the Keld region of the land during the Invasion.  Teferi asks Freyalise, who acts as the forest’s patron and protector, to assist him in investigating and repairing the rifts.  Still angry at the time mage for what she feels is his abandonment of the plane during the Invasion, the elven planeswalker refuses.

Regardless, Teferi begins to look deeper at the rifts.  While doing so, he meets Radha, a half-elf who seems able to draw mana out of the rifts similar to how the rifts draw mana out from the land.  Determined to focus not on her elven side, but rather her Keldon warrior ancestry, Radha is not too keen to assist Teferi despite the planeswalker’s god-like status and near infinite power.

Teferi, however, promises to teach her ancient Keldon knowledge in exchange for her assistance.  The half-elf agrees and, together, the group ventures to the dark continent of Urborg intent on studying the stronghold that was overlaid there at the onset of the Invasion, as well as the rift above it.

On the island nation, the three encounter an Urborg native of interest.  His name, they learn, is Venser.  And he’s an artificer who, his entire life, has lived under the rule of Lord Windgrace, a planeswalker with a keen disdain for artifice.

In Venser’s company, Teferi notices that both the artificer and the half-elf, Radha, contain within them a planeswalker’s spark, but that their sparks seem radically different from his own.

The time mage’s interest then gets drawn toward a strange device of the artificer’s creation.  Venser calls the device an “ambulator.”

Built from leftover parts from discarded Phyrexian artifacts, the machine essentially mimics the plane-traveling ability that comes natural to planeswalkers by drawing upon the massive amount of mana that has been absorbed into the rift above Urborg.  The artificer fires the machine up, but Teferi’s powerful presence conflicts with that of the Urborg rift, which has suddenly become erratic and violent.

In an attempt to save his companions, Teferi planeswalks directly into the rift.  The maneuver proved an unfortunate one, however, as instead of saving the group, they, too, are pulled in.

Inside the rift, the group finds themselves falling through cracks within their reality, allowing them to witness various devastating events throughout Dominaria’s history that caused the various temporal rifts to form in the first place, such as the activation of the Golgothian Sylex at the climax of the war between the brothers Urza and Mishra, Karona’s paradoxical existence on the island of Otaria, the obliteration of much of the island of Tolaria, as well as of the Academy that once stood on its shores, and so on.  They also see first-hand the locations of not just the two rifts they’re aware of – Skyshroud and Urborg – but also of six others: Shiv, Zhalfir, Otaria, Tolaria, Madara, and Yavimaya.

Then, everything abruptly stops.

Radha, Venser, and Jhoira awaken on a beach on Madara, an island nation far to the south of where they had just been.  Teferi, however, is nowhere to be seen.

That’s when they are drawn into conversation with a mysterious disembodied voice.  Introducing itself as Sensei Ryu, the voice tells the trio that it had noticed them tumbling through reality and pulled them to Madara for their own safety.  Having earned their gratitude, Ryu then tricks Venser and uses both his and Rahda’s latent sparks to appear before them in corporeal form, though not in a form that any of the group had expected.

Ryu reveals himself to be Nicol Bolas, an extremely powerful and manipulative draconic planeswalker that had been imprisoned in limbo between the planes.

Now reborn, the draconic planeswalker planned to “reward” Venser and his traveling partners, Radha and Jhoira, for their assistance in his release.  Were it not for Jhoira’s diplomacy and the sudden appearance of Teferi, who had found his way out of the rifts, Bolas would have succeeded.

Teferi challenged Bolas to a duel.  His companions watched helplessly as Bolas easily defeated his opponent, getting into his head and tearing his mind apart.  A dying Teferi shares his knowledge of the time rifts with Bolas and, realizing the severity of the issue, the dragon allows Teferi to live so that he may deal with the multiverse-threatening temporal rifts.

Bolas then planeswalks away, swearing vengeance on those who had tricked and imprisoned him to begin with.

Radha then requests that Teferi allow her to go back to Keld.  The weakened planeswalker dismisses her company, then takes the remaining members of their group, Venser and Jhoira, with him to Shiv.

Back in Keld, Radha feels she now knows what she needs to do to become a true Keldon.  In defense of the Skyshroud Forest, she begins fighting against (and, soon, defeating) the Gathans – illegitimate Kelds from the past that had been brought to current times thanks to the time-altering rifts.

With her victory, Radha found herself becoming the new Keldon Warlord and, in doing so, finds her connection switching from the rift above Shiv to the land of Keld.

Teferi, noticing the change, attempts to forge his own connection with the Shivan rift.  With all his might and will, he channels everything he has into the rift – even his own lifeforce – intending to sacrifice himself if necessary if it means closing the rift and ensuring Shiv’s safety.

To Teferi’s credit, it works.

The temporal rift above Shiv closes and Shiv phases back into reality without incident, but not without cost.

Teferi, a powerful planeswalker with infinite power, is now anything but.  As the Shivan rift closed, Teferi’s planeswalker spark went with it, leaving Teferi mortal and, despite all his talents, no longer a man of infinite power and capabilities.

Thus ends the story of Time Spiral, but don’t fret – there are still many more rifts to close and two more books to go before all is said and done.

But that doesn’t mean we’re done with Time Spiral quite yet.  Unlike Bruno, there’s a lot for us to talk about here.

Utilizing an hourglass as its set symbol, the 301-card Time Spiral was essentially a celebration of Magic: The Gathering’s past.  As such, nostalgia plays a very big role as it brought back many creature types from previous sets and blocks such as Thallids, Slivers, Kavu, and so forth, as well as new incarnations of old cards.  Nostalgia, however, wasn’t the goal of the set.  In fact, it kind of just happened by accident.

<MARO DTW: “We didn’t set out to…magic’s past.”>

Eight keyword abilities from Magic’s past returned in Time Spiral with some such keywords not having seen prints since 1997: Buyback, Echo, Flanking, Flashback, Madness, Morph, Shadow, and Storm.  Various old non-keyword mechanics also made their return, such as slivers, rebels, and whatnot.

And, there was also a cycle of cards that are call backs to specific powerful cards from Magic’s past.

Known as the Magus cycle, these creatures had abilities that mimicked those of Cursed Scroll, Nevinyrral’s Disk, Memory Jar, Mirror Universe, and Candelabra of Tawnos.

The Maguses, by the way, are just one of a whopping 20 cycles printed in Time Spiral, as well as one of a handful that have callbacks to specific previously-made Magic cards.

Another such cycle is the set’s collection of the buyback spells:
•    Evangelize, which emulates the ability of the card Preacher from The Dark;
•    Walk the Aeons, inspired by the original Magic card Time Walk;
•    Demonic Collusion, which is a spin on the card Demonic Tutor;
•    Reiterate, which is essentially the card Fork (but with buyback), and;
•    Wurmcalling, which owes its direct inspiration from the Odyssey card Ivy Elemental.

We’ll get to that third and final callback cycle in a moment, but, before we do, we’d like to mention a few other notable cycles found within Time Spiral:
•    Spellshapers, creatures with an activated ability that resembles that of a card from Magic’s past, such as Icatian Crier creating citizen tokens, which is itself an homage to the card Icatian Town from Fallen Empires;
•    Totems, uncommon artifacts that can tap for mana and also have a secondary ability that temporarily turns them into a creature on Magic: The Gathering’s reserved list (meaning this’ll be the closes anyone will get to having a reprint of their original forms), such as Phyrexian Totem turning into a Phyrexian Negator;
•    Two-color legendary creatures from Dominaria’s past, all of which are seeing a physical card for the very first time such as Kaervek the Merciless, who was the major antagonist during the Mirage storyline, and;
•    A 20 different sliver creatures across five different mono- and allied-color cycles.

There were also a few cycles that featured the two (okay, technically three) brand new abilities that debuted in Time Spiral: Suspend, split-second, and flash.

Suspend is an ability that provides an alternate way to play a card.  With the ability, players pay a cost, then exile a card in their hand from the game with a specific number of “time” counters upon it.  In each of that player’s upkeep steps, a counter is removed and, once the final counter is taken off, the spell resolves.

Time Spiral boasts a cycle of rare spells (plus one artifact, Lotus Bloom, which was also the set’s pre-release card) which feature the suspend ability.  Each card (in theory) is uncastable from the hand because none of them have a mana cost, meaning that they are designed so that they have to be suspended in order to be cast and, once they fire off, they mimic an effect of some of Magic: The Gathering’s most powerful early-day spells, such as the card Ancestral Vision providing players with the same ultimate payoff as Ancestral Recall.

When a card with split-second is played, nothing else in the game is allowed to happen until that specific card’s ability resolves.  This essentially makes it impossible for a player to react to whatever the split-second card is doing, so good luck trying to win the game with a top-deck Lightning Bolt if your opponent has Angel’s Grace at the ready.

As for flash, which allows a card to be played at instant speed even if it isn’t specifically an instant card, it really isn’t a new mechanic at all as many cards in the past have had the ability, such as Alexi’s Cloak in Prophecy, Vine Dryad in Mercadian Masques, and Ward of Light in Mirage, let alone other cards that granted the ability, such as Weatherlight’s Winding Canyons and the card Flash from Mirage, from which the ability got its name.

Interestingly enough, suspend and split-second weren’t even initially designed for Time Spiral.

<Maro DTW: “Both key mechanics in the set…all year long.”  >

And split-second came about thanks to a set that was being designed and developed at the same time as Time Spiral: Coldsnap.

<Maro DTW: “And Coldsnap had come up…mechanics.”

Also, hybrid mana, which had been introduced in the previous block with Ravnica: City of Guilds, was briefly a part of Time Spiral before being brought back to Ravnica.

<Maro DTW: “When design started for…we would lose it.”>

But losing hybrid mana wouldn’t really be a loss for Time Spiral as the set still had more than enough going for it.

In fact, Time Spiral isn’t technically just one set as there’s actually a second (sort of “sub-set,” if you would) known as Timeshifted cards.

Timeshifted cards in Time Spiral is a collection of 121 pre-Mirrodin reprints that, unlike the rest of the set, appear in the original old card frame that the game had abandoned beginning with 8th Edition in July of 2003.  In fact, there’s at least one card from every set and expansion released from the game’s 1993 debut through Scourge, which came out in May of 2003.  Wizards of the Coast even made sure to include one card that never actually came out in a set of its own:  Arena, a card that was previously only available as a mail-in redemption offer with the Harper Prism Magic: The Gathering books that came out in 1994.

The idea (creative-wise) was that these cards were meant to reflect the temporal chaos afflicting Dominaria and that it wasn’t just the story that this chaos was affecting – it was even the cards themselves.

Each pack of Time Spiral included one Timeshifted card and (with the exception of a few aesthetic differences here and there) were more-or-less exactly the same as their original printings, save for the set symbol which (this time around) was a special purple-colored hourglass and having formatting being updated to match current standards.  Though, there is one Timeshifted cards that technically has new artwork.

Consecrate Land is a card from Magic’s original run in August of 1993.  As with a number of the card arts from that time, Wizards of the Coast no longer had a copy of the original artwork set aside for future use.  As such, the company contacted the original artist, Jeff A. Menges, who painted as close to an exact copy of his original artwork as he could.  And it’s that new version of the artwork that actually appears on the Timeshifted version of Consecrate Land.

Also, the Timeshifted card Voidmage Prodigy uses artwork not from its Onslaught original printing, but rather from the version given out as a promo in 2003.

As for the full assortment of Timeshifted cards, they ran the gamut from the nostalgic to the obscure and the powerful to the laughable.

<MARO DTW: “One of the reasons bad cards…what you could get?”>

And what could you get?  Well, between the normal Time Spiral cards and the Timeshifted ones, there were plenty.

•    Academy Ruins (which is a representation of the old, destroyed Tolarian Academy and features an ability inspired by the card Volrath’s Stronghold) is a popular card in mono-blue Tron decks is a key piece in Magic’s  Mineslaver lock combo;
•    Ancestral Vision, an inexpensive-to-cast and fairly popular card draw spell;
•    Ancient Grudge, a quality anti-artifact spell with flashback;
•    Dread Return, which is often found in Reanimator decks;
•    Empty the Warrens, one of a number of solid win conditions for Storm decks;
•    Gemstone Caverns, a card designed by Tsuyoshi Fujita (winner of the 2005 Magic Invitational) and one of four Invitational cards to make it into the set, with the Timeshifted cards Avalanche Riders, Shadowmage Infiltrator, and Voidmage Prodigy joining it;
•    Krosan Grip, still a popular and powerful sideboard card;
•    Lotus Bloom, essentially a Black Lotus with suspend, the card can often be found in Storm decks and is also rather popular in EDH;
•    Smallpox, a variation of the Ice Age card Pox and a must-include in Legacy and Modern Pox decks;
•    Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, which represents Teferi after losing his spark to the Shivan Rift. Popular in control decks of the time, Teferi saw a good amount of tournament play and combos very well with the card Mystical Teachings, also from Time Spiral.
•    Dragonstorm, a card that was all but ignored when it debuts in Scourge a few years prior, but became quite popular thanks to the printings of Lotus Bloom and Bogardan Hellkite, and;
•    Tormod’s Crypt, a still very popular sideboard option against graveyard strategies.  This Timeshifted reprint was the first time the card received a reprint since Chronicles in 1995.

And there are, of course, a number of cards that are callbacks to some of Magic’s early days, such as (for example):
•    The legendary land Kher Keep, which is a direct reference to the Legends cards Kobolds of Kher Keep and Rohgahh of Kher Keep;
•    Rift Bolt, which is a Lightning Bolt with suspend;
•    Sapardian Empires, Vol. VII, which refers to flavor text found on a number of different cards from the set Fallen Empires.  The artifact can also create the various token creatures found within that set;
•    Sprite Noble, which is essentially a color-shifted version of the Homelands card Faerie Noble seeing as the faerie creature type had been mostly moved into blue from green;

Really, there are so many to list that one can easily spend another ten or twenty minutes on the subject (which we won’t be doing here).

The amount of things going on in the set, however, would prove to be Time Spiral’s biggest black mark.  Simply put, while most long time Magic players loved it, many newcomer and novice players found it a bit too robust.  And it’s in that regard that some at Wizards of the Coast found the set to be a bit of a bust.

<Maro DTW: “We did not take into account…is a positive for me.”

So, what do you think?  Is Time Spiral one of your favorite sets?  Either way, let us know in the comment section below.

And be sure to subscribe to Magic Untapped here on YouTube and support us by tossing a buck in the Magic Untapped tip jar on Patreon.

Thank you for watching.

Barry White

Barry White is a longtime Magic: The Gathering player, having started in 1994 shortly before the release of 'Fallen Empires.' After graduating from the University of Nevada, Reno, he went on to a 15-year journalism career as a writer, reporter, and videographer for three different ABC affiliate newsrooms.