tisdag 18 september 2018

Time is out of joint

On March 23rd 1994 Time Vault was banned from play in sanctioned Magic. It was the first card to be banned for power level reasons in any format. Of course back then there were only a single format, "Magic", so Time Vault was effectively removed from the card pool. It was all due to this particular interaction:
My French opponent anted a Time Vault at the start of the duel, but drew a second one to go off. Wizards' Tournament don't adhere to those new-fangled "restrictions".
Time Vault, Animate Artifact and Instill Energy. Make the Vault a creature with Animate Artifact, slap on an Instill Energy, and suddenly you have all the turns in the world. If you assembled these three cards in order and the opponent didn't have any removal, the gig was up.

Half a year after the initial release, a new three-card combo entered the card pool from the fringes of Arabian Nights and Antiquities:
Make Time Vault a creature with Poltergeist, untap with Saddlebags.
Antiquities was released only a few weeks before the Time Vault ban, so a speedy brewer might have had the chance to take that combo for a spin. But I guess that was mostly as a curiosity and didn't have much time to affect the local meta. Legends also brought a potential Time Vault combo a few months later, but at that point the Vault as we knew it had already left the card pool and its true power would stay away for well over a decade.
This one has some timing issues and won't go properly infinite unless you have two Time Vaults, but basically you play Song to make Time Vault untap as normal and then bounce Song with Time Elemental.
I've owned an unusually large number of Time Vaults over the years. Seven or so. And pretty much all of them have been in a condition close to pristine when comparing with other cards from that time. Being banned during a majority of the "sleeveless era" of Magic surely must have contributed. Fewer Time Vaults than Mahamothi Djinns were aggressively tapped on sidewalks in the mid 90s for sure.

Anyway. Flash forward to April 1996. Wizards of the Coast are actively issuing power level errata in this era, attempting to change cards so they correspond to "orginal intent". They issued the following statement regarding Time Vault:

Time Vault is reworded as follows to restore the card to its original intent:
"Does not untap as normal. If Time Vault is tapped and does not have a time counter, you may skip your turn to untap Time Vault and put a time counter on it. {tap}: Remove the time counter from Time Vault to take an additional turn immediately before the next normal turn."

This change removed all opportunities for combo shenanigans. Time Vault was unbanned and unrestricted in Vintage (and hence in Type 1.5, the predecessor to Legacy), and no one really cared.

Time Vault got some template updating in 1998, but the basic functionality was the same. Then in 2004 Time Vault got errata again. I think it was mostly seen as cleanup, but it removed one crucial safety valve that prevented potential combos:

Time Vault comes into play tapped.
Time Vault doesn't untap during your untap step.
Skip your next turn: Untap time vault and put a time counter on it.
{tap}, Remove all time counters from Time Vault: Take an extra turn after this one. Play this ability if only there's a time counter on Time Vault.

Yep. You no longer checked if Time Vault had a time counter on it before you tried to untap it. And you could untap it whenever you wanted as an activated ability.

At the time, we had no good way to abuse this potential loophole, but already the following year a card would be printed that made Time Vault a contender again.
Skipping 10,000 future turns doesn't really matter if we deal 10,000 damage to the opponent before they get to use them.
I loved this deck. I played a WR version of it to some solid results in the budding Legacy scene in Sweden. Also made a Stax Build with the combo - Time Bandits - ready for whenever the local store held proxy-10 Vintage tournaments. Josh Silvestri was one the first guys to recognize the combo btw, and Stephen Menendian was another early developer of the strategy.
My old Time Bandits deck. Lodestone Myr and Time Vault is another combo to deal all the damage. And skipping a few turns with a ticked up Smokestack and a Trinisphere in play is rarely a bad idea.
But dealing a bunch of damage was clearly not the intent of the card. Players had once again broken the Vault. So in March 2006 this errata happened:

Time Vault comes into play tapped.
Time Vault doesn't untap during your untap step.
At the beginning of your upkeep you may untap Time Vault. If you do put a time counter on it and you skip your next turn.
{tap} Remove all time counters from Time Vault: Take an extra turn after this one. Play this ability only if there's a time counter on Time Vault.

Yeah, that is fully useless. Both my Legacy and Vintage decks were suddenly unplayable. I did have two backup decks in Legacy though, one that would combo Brass Man with Quicksilver Dagger, and one that used Hunted Horror and the likes with Brand to steal back the tokens created for the opponent. But when it rains it pours, so WotC also issued errata for Brass Man stating that it could only untap once per upkeep, and changed the rules so that tokens were considered owned by the controller rather than the one who owned the effect that created them. So every deck I owned save for my super casual Thrull deck were made obsolete in the span of one month. Slightly heartbreaking.
I left for the US that spring, leaving my piles of cardboard back home. Running a bed & breakfast in San Francisco was an interesting change of pace. When I returned to Sweden in the late summer, I found that Time Vault had gotten errata once again:

Time Vault comes into play tapped.
If Time Vault would become untapped, instead choose one -- untap Time Vault and you skip your next turn or Time Vault remains tapped.
{tap}: Take an extra turn after this one.

OK. That we could work with. I rebuilt the old FlameVault deck and took this pile to a third place at the 2006 Legacy Nationals:
Mize Things. Written lists seems oddly strange these days.
I played that deck for a year or so, placed in the elimination rounds of the BSK Legacy next year again (with Rings of Brightheart replacing a couple of Transreliquats and some minor changes), and generally enjoyed life. Then 2008 happened:

Time Vault come into play tapped.
Time Vault doesn't untap during your untap step.
If you would begin your turn while Time Vault is tapped, you may skip that turn instead. If you do, untap Time Vault.

{tap}: Take an extra turn after this one.

Time Vault was more powerful than it been for well over a decade. That meant a ban in Legacy and a restriction in Vintage. So I finally sold my Vaults to build new decks, fondly looking back to the roller-coaster that was.

Eventually I traded for an Unlimited one to use in Vintage, and picked up one with black borders some time later. Though I've yet to sleeve up Time Vault combo in 93/94.
Berlin's TwiddleVault from Fishliver Oil Cup Ed. 0
Rather than "going infinite", this strategy attempts to "go enough" by using and recurring Twiddle to untap the Vault. Once the deck goes off it doesn't feel like much of a difference though. TwiddleVault has proved to be a pretty solid combo deck and an enjoyable part of the oldschool meta.

Hm. This post didn't really turn out as planned. It escalated to some sort of history of errata and combo decks with Time Vault. Here's what I planned to write about:
We have been so busy breaking Time Vault that we didn't look at the card by itself. Is Time Vault playable on it's own? When would we want to exchange one turn for another?

The turn is a fundamental structure in Magic, but something we rarely talk about in detail. A turn gives us opportunities, which we may or may not use.
Draw, go.
All turns aren't created equal. The only thing we can be mostly certain of is that we will use our draw step. Untap doesn't matter if we didn't tap anything important last turn. Upkeep isn't a big deal unless we have cards like Ivory Tower or Land Tax in play. Relentless Assault was one of the most sought-after cards in Visions at the time of the release, but if we don't have anything to attack with we might as well skip combat. That is why the (new school) card Lich's Mirror isn't an all-star even if it prevents us from dying, resets our life total, and draws us seven cards for a reasonable mana investment. After Lich's Mirror has been activated, we are forced back to operate with early game turns while our opponent keeps playing on late game turns.
More modern frames!
There is a scenario where Time Walk is mostly useless. If we spend a card and two mana to draw a card an untap two mana, we are not moving the game forward. Sure, we are not technically losing anything either, but we didn't do anything except loot away a Time Walk.

Slightly above that we have the "Explore Time Walk", were we also get to use our land drop. It is better, but usually not that good. The extra turn becomes a big deal first when we can use most parts of it, when untapping our permanents means something is coming and when the relentless assault of combat kills our opponent.

What Time Vault does, at face value, is that it skips a less impactful turn for a stronger one later on. A turn when a Howling Mine is in play is more valuable than one when it isn't. During a turn where we have no creatures, we will always skip our attack phase regardless. So skipping one of those turns may de facto only mean that we'll skip a draw step. We can then cash in that draw step later for another draw step, and additionally an extra combat and a more useful untap.
Even with combat mostly out of the picture, Time Vault shines in the control matchup. It is obviously nice to take an extra turn in the late game after a counter war when our opponent is tapped out, in particular if we have a Tome or two to make our turn better. And being able take the first turn after a midgame Timetwister is sweet. But cashing in a turn if the opponent taps out to use their own Tome in our end step is gravy. Now they don't have countermana up anymore. Or they wont use their Tome, which is probably even better for us in the long run.
This is all theory crafting, but one particular deck that I think could use Time Vault with "original intent" is Tax Edge. Tax Edge is mostly happy to skip an early turn, as we regardless want the opponent to make more early land drops than us. In mid- to lategame, getting an extra upkeep with a couple of Land Tax and Ivory Towers in play can then give the edge to win.
That pretty much covers what I had in mind. An ode to Time Vault, partly as a combo enabler, but also as a playable within its original intent. When a card have a history of brokenness in the way the Vault does, it is easy to forget how it plays in a vacuum and just look for interactions.

Time Vault has been high on the list of possible cards to unrestrict in the last few years. As the first card to be banned for power level reasons, it is by no means an obvious candidate to allow as a four-of. But it could be cool to test it out sometime down the line. Feel free to share your opinions on the subject.

7 kommentarer:

  1. Feels like a scary one to unrestrict. It may not be backbreaking by itself, but would TwiddleVault be too much? Would we see too many stasis decks? I have always had interest in stasis, but seriously how miserable for the opponent? Aside from that, time vault is easily one of my favorite arts in the game :).

  2. Great article! I think Twiddlevault would be far from problematic even with Time Vault unrestricted. The deck is a little bit too fragile, and Howling Mine is so dangerous to play on an empty board without going off. Powerball is likely the better combo deck still and that deck is not really Tier 1 either. Twiddlevault is a blast to play, though, and I believe it's far from perfected yet. You should try it out.

    Stasis is another thing, but I doubt unrestricted Time Vault would make it better than Tier 2. It's easily hated out, just like Twiddlevault.

  3. I'm usually a proponent of unrestriction in old school magic. But this particular candidate can lead to ridiculously boring matches (for one of the players ofc). So I wouldn't like to see a four-of. It could be an interesting experiment for 1-2 tournaments and that's it.

  4. A great tribute and an interesting summary of the Vault's story over the decades. Despite its drawback this artifact is still one of the most insane card ever printed and should be limited as a one-of imho. All hail the Vault !

  5. Great writeup as usual and a great tribute to one of my favorite cards. I would love to see Time Vault unrestricted event though I might not play 4 in any given deck as I see it now.

    For me, like Chaos Orb, the Vault is more or less an autoinclude in the decks I build :-)

  6. All that errata reminds me of my favorite line from Rick and Morty. "You broke your weak ass time!!"