On the heels of the newly released Time Spiral Remastered, today I’d like to take a look back at one of my all-time favorite Magic expansions, Time Spiral! It’s hard to believe that the original Time Spiral expansion came out nearly 15 years ago!
Even 15 years later, Time Spiral is still a set I remember with vivid fondness because it was such a unique and inspired expansion. The set also did so much to set the stage for what we now know and understand as the modern era of Magic. In today’s article, I’d like to share a few of the qualities that I believe made Time Spiral a novel release in its day, as well as some of the residual characteristics I see as enduring and iconic elements of Magic in the present.
One element of Time Spiral that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle (pun intended) is that the set heralded a long anticipated return to Magic’s signature plane, Dominaria.
With a few exceptions (for example, Arabian Nights, Portal: Three Kingdoms) the overwhelming majority of Magic sets released with the original old card face in the first decade (1993-2003) were set on the plane of Dominaria. When WOTC discarded the old card face and transitioned to the new card face with the release of Mirrodin, the changes were deeper than just aesthetic.
Mirrodin broke with the tradition that the setting of Magic takes place in the fantasy world of Dominaria and for the first time, boldly set the narrative on a distinctly different world with a completely new cast of characters.
The movement away from Dominaria as the central location of Magic was no fluke. The subsequent releases that followed Mirrodin, 2004’s Kamigawa block and 2005’s Ravnica block, doubled and tripled down on exploring new planar space and territory.
Time Spiral, which coincided with the release of Coldsnap (also set in Dominaria during the Ice Age) was the first major block since 2002’s Onslaught to return to the familiar, signature plane of Dominaria.
While the return to the familiar was long-awaited, the version of Dominaria encountered has changed and becomes increasingly uncanny as the block unfolds. In particular, the events of Tolarian exploration of multiplanar space-time in 1998’s Urza’s Saga block and Onslaught block and the coalition of the Weatherlight against Phyrexia in 2000’s Invasion block had dire consequences upon the fabric of the plane of Dominaria itself.
In a sense, the return to Dominaria in Time Spiral functions on a couple of levels within the underlying narrative of the story and also the game itself.
First, it reconnected the audience to the familiarity of the central location of Dominaria and all of the known keywords and rules learned along the way.
Second, it plays with the familiarity in unfamiliar ways by showing how the fantasy world of Dominaria (and the game itself) are rapidly changing and being transformed in substantive ways. In particular, we see these changes to Dominaria (and Magic gameplay) catalyzed and complicated by interplanar Magic.
As the characters in the Magic fantasy narrative are struggling to understand how interplanar Magic is changing their world, Magic players and fans were also trying to understand how the new cards and mechanics from Mirrodin, Kamigawa and Ravnica were transforming actual game play as well as the relationships between new and old cards.
In a sense, 2004’s Time Spiral block was a pivot point in Magic that drew upon the entirety of what was familiar and iconic about Magic as a fantasy game and connect that history to the present and future.
The flavor of Time Spiral block as a trilogy (Time Spiral, Planar Chaos and Future Sight) is quite elegant and beautiful. It’s somehow managed to be incredibly bold but also subtle and mysterious which isn’t easy to achieve.
The first set is rooted in the familiar nostalgia of the first decade of Magic releases – right down to the return of iconic, familiar cards with the original card face, inserted one per pack.
These “Timeshifted” versions of older cards (reprinted with the old frame) served a couple of functions. First, they directly invoked the nostalgia of the old frame and nostalgia is an important theme explored within the block.
Second, it introduced the notion of a “new rarity” or type of card inserted into packs. Since there was exactly one Timeshifted card inserted into every pack, it sort of equated to a new type of rarity for the purpose of draft or sealed Limited gameplay. Players could count on opening one Timeshifted card in each pack.
Third, it brought some signature cards back into the fold for a reprisal in Modern (a format that WOTC would unveil a few years later).
In addition to Timeshifted, old card face cards as a source of nostalgia, we also saw a direct play upon other iconic cards that play to fanfare:
Every card in the set is an homage to a previously released card in an earlier set.
The set also introduced some sweet new mechanics all of which play with the central themes of the block “time” or “timing” in a narrative sense, but also in a game play sense.
Or, split second:
Split second is a neat homage to an earlier mechanic, interrupt, which was phased out of design many years earlier. Essentially, an interrupt was a type of spell that was so fast it couldn’t be responded to by instants or other abilities. As such, split second cannot be responded to.
The defining element of the expansion is the absolute overload of keywords and mechanics from the old card face, Dominaria sets of yore. Basically, everything and the kitchen sink from the first decade of Dominaria cetric design was brought back for an encore performance in Time Spiral.
One of the largest critiques of Time Spiral, back in 2004, was that it was simply too complicated and overwhelming for newer players to comprehend and take in. The raw ambition of putting so many mechanics into one set, at the same time, made it difficult for newer players to learn the game because they felt overwhelmed (especially with regard to Limited play).
The counterpoint was that Time Spiral tended to be a set that was absolutely beloved (and is still remembered fondly to this day) by die-hard fans of the game. It drew so heavily upon the history and nostalgia of everything that came before it and returned to the familiar and beloved setting of Dominaria. As a long time fan of the game, it felt very rewarding to see so many references to older cards that I had loved and enjoyed previously being explored and presented in new ways.
The next release, Planar Chaos, was a representation of how the plane had changed as a result of the interplanar chaos that has transpired from our heroes and villains breaking the boundaries of space time and mingling with other planes.
Familiar modes of mana and magic had shifted as a result of the planar cataclysm taking place:
Even familiar characters have changed roles in this topsy-turvy bizarro planar chaos:
We also see the use of the “color-shifted card face” for the first time as a visual cue that these are spells resulting from the nature of mana being shifted as a result of planar chaos.
Fans had already seen some examples of alternate frames before…
However, it’s also of note that plane-shifted cards from Planar Chaos introduced alternate frames into an actual set. We’ll also see the notion of cards that “look” differently further explored in Future Sight.
Planar Chaos plays with the notion of presenting familiar things in an unfamiliar way. We all know Wrath of God, but seeing a black mana Wrath of God (Damnation) is a representation of a familiar object in an unfamiliar way. The concept of Planar Chaos is that it uses the familiar to destabilize our notions of what Magic is and what it can be.
Future Sight, the crescendo of 2004’s Time Spiral block is perhaps the wildest Magic set ever conceived. It’s a fitting conclusion to what is perhaps the most ambitious Magic block of all time.
If we view Time Spiral as a look back on what has been, Planar Chaos as an unsettling and uncertain version of what it has become, then it makes sense to view Future Sight as a glimpse of the infinite possibilities of what could happen.
In a sense, Future Sight was like an oracle spitting out tons of cryptic prophecies about what the future holds in store for Magic and the multiverse on various interplanar timelines. We see these glimpses of the future represented on Future-shifted card frames:
Many of the cards prophesied back in 2006’s Future Sight have come to fruition in subsequent expansions and we’re able to see exactly which planes they exist in the context of the Magic narrative. Others still remain a mystery to this day!
Many of the Future-shifted cards have been reprinted in various forms such as Modern Masters, but it’s still unclear where their actual place in the Magic narrative story will fall.
Other Future-shifted cards, such as the iconic Tarmogoyf, were the herald of new card types that were upcoming down the road.
The card Tarmogoyf referenced “tribal” and “planeswalker” cards before any such cards with those types even existed. Tarmogoyf literally prophesied these new card types released a few months later in Lorwyn block!
The thing that strikes me the most about Time Spiral block, as I look back and reflect upon it nearly 15 years later, is how brilliantly it links the past, present and future of Magic: the Gathering together.
Elements of Magic that are profoundly different about Magic, before and after, feel coherently entwined because Time Spiral block functions as a pivot point with regard to narrative and gameplay, tying all of these new and old elements cohesively together. For instance, the stage for the notion that the fantasy realm in which Magic exists is a multiverse traversed by planeswalkers is set by the interplanar chaos that unfolds in the Time Spiral block narrative.
The brilliance of Time Spiral’s design as a collection of sets is how it uses elements of the familiar and nostalgic and destabilizes and reframes them in completely new and novel ways in order to impart new sensibilities into what we perceive as being authentically “Magic.” It uses the past, the familiar and the nostalgic to give credence to the wild, game-expanding prophecies that were glimpsed in the tail-end of the block with Future Sight.
On that whole, I would be hard pressed to say any block of Magic expansions have ever replicated the feel of being so deeply rooted in the authentic nostalgia of Magic while also exploring so much new and game-changing territory with regard to game play and flavor. The duality, of feeling the same but also being so different, is what stands out to me as making Time Spiral block so incredible and memorable.