Time Spiral: Hope’s Crusaders Review (Part 1 of 2)
Late Summer, 1993.
After spending a little extra time in Burlington, one of my best mates- Pat- returns home on college break, and he’s got something new to show us. We’ve all been part of the same Dungeons and Dragons gaming group for years, and this new fantasy-themed collectible card game, “Magic: the Gathering,” is an instant hit. We sit on the floor for hours upon hours, casting Craw Wurms and Drudge Skeletons, hurling Fireballs and healing up with Streams of Life. Black Vises come down, and creatures get boosted with Blessing. As it happens, the mall’s gaming shop has a box of booster packs for sale, and soon we’re oohing-and-ahhing over exotic and dangerous additions like the Royal Assassin and Mana Short. Someone gets hit with a brutal Mind Twist, and we crowd around the card reading it over. True to form, we keep our new cards secret from each other, reveling in the look on our hapless opponent’s face as we play our nastiest surprises. There’s no collected list of every card- no Player’s Guide, no Gatherer- so the only limit to what’s in those booster packs is our imagination.
I quickly develop a taste for a hundred-card fortress-style Blue/White deck, which hides behind Circles of Protection and cards like Veteran Bodyguard and Karma, sending over a Phantom Monster or Air Elemental for damage. I’m absolutely hooked, and we spend countless hours playing and discussing the game. Arabian Nights, Antiquities, the impossible-to-find Legends… Those were wonderful days. After Legends I’d move away and abandon the game, but the memories would stay with me forever.
Indeed, the game had made such an impression that I would return before long with 1997’s Visions, retiring again in ’99 at the end of Urza Block. A decade later, looking for a new hobby that wasn’t so isolating as World of Warcraft, I dropped into my local gaming store and on a whim bought some Zendikar. The rest, as they say, is history.
I didn’t idly decide to fill the beginning of this piece with my history of the game. Rather I wanted to illustrate the power of nostalgia, the wonderful memories I had of the game in its early days, memories which brought me back to it two more times after I’d left it. I remember all those early cards. The mystery of the booster pack. The gripping Weatherlight Saga storyline (at least through Tempest block). Here I am in 2011, recalling my earlies days in the game.
Late Summer, 2006
It was exactly this sort of nostalgia that fueled the design of the Time Spiral block, and this became both its biggest success- and greatest failing. The set was a hit with that segment of the playing population that had been playing long enough to understand the references and in-jokes from the earlier days of the game- the veterans. For the newer players, with no such nostalgic base to draw reference from, the set was considerably less impressive and often confusing. “Timeshifted” cards (defined as “cards from the past that have mysteriously appeared in the present”) were just different cards with confusing frames (for these, Wizards retained the old-stle frames while the rest of the set had the new). Tons of past keywords made cameo appearances on a limited number of cards. And the whole steaming mess was shoehorned into some odd story of interdimensional rifts in time and space.
To complement the theme of everything-old-is-new-again, four theme decks were released that built upon the concepts and mechanics presented in the set. Hope’s Crusaders is a mono-White weenie/tribal hybrid that takes advantage of a number of synergies in Soldier, Knight, and Rebel creature types from previous sets. We’ll begin today’s analysis with a look at the creatures, which make up the bulk of the deck (29 of the 37 nonland cards).
Hints of What is Yet to Come
Hope’s Crusaders provides a full-on creature assault, propped up as much by synergies between the different creatures as much as by any noncreature support (which is necessarily limited). Here is the deck’s mana curve for its beaters:
As you can see, the deck is heavily frontloaded, geared towards a dominating start in the early game with victory typically expected in the mid. In the one-drop slot we begin with a trio of timeshifted Icatian Javelineers. Originally from Fallen Empires, they’re 1/1 bodies that can throw out a single point of ping damage thanks to the “javelin counter” that they come equipped with (proliferate, anyone?). There’s also a pair of Brass Gnats, whose tradeoff for being colourless 1/1 flyers is that you must pay to untap them. They give the deck at least some presence in the sky, but aren’t good for much else here.
The two-drop slot is heavily loaded with Rebels and Knights. A trio of Knights of the Holy Nimbus pay tribute to an old Legends card, Clergy of the Holy Nimbus, which somewhat foreshadows the rhystic mechanic in Prophecy (granting a benefit to one player unless another pays mana to stop it). The Benalish Cavalry gives us another look at Benalia, the White-aligned Dominarian kingdom that was the land of origin for Gerrard Capashen, and is our first instance of the flanking keyword so prevalent in this deck. Introduced in Mirage, flanking encourages the aggressive style of play so critical to the success of a weenie/swarm strategy.
Finally, there are a pair of Errant Doomsayers, which have a very limited tap-down ability. These will tend to optimise in the early game, and be draws you’re probably not excited to see later on, when the things you’d want to tap down are probably in excess of 2/2.
Next we move to the three-drops, and there are plenty to choose from here! Need some extra offense? A pair of Outrider en-Kor not only have the flanking ability, but their damage redirection ability makes them rather hard to kill. Timeshifted Zhalfirin Commanders also have flanking, and have the ability to pump up other Knights- a bit costly, but useful all the same. The D’Avenant Healer builds on the classic D’Avenant Archer, adding a Samite Healer-style damage prevention ability at no additional net mana cost ( instead of , purely academic in a mono-White deck). Lastly, there are a pair of singletons in an Icatian Crier and the Cloudchaser Kestrel. Neither are particularly exceptional, but both enable other abilities of the deck to come on-line. The Kestrel forms the basis of a combo we’ll be looking at shortly, while the Crier can turn any card into a pair of chump-blockers which can be used to satisfy the requirement on Gaze of Justice.
Things start to get really tricky in the four-drops. There’s the Cavalry Master, a flanking Knight which gives all your creatures with flanking a second instance of the keyword (so that creatures assigned to block them get -2/-2 instead of -1/-1 until end of turn). A synergistic threat, the deck comes equipped with a pair of them. A pair of Foriysian Interceptors are superb blockers: 0/5 bodies with flash that can block up to two creatures.
Which would be great if this deck actually cared about defense.
Alas, both of these are squandered draws here. The best you can hope for is to use them as a sort of Fog-effect, blanking your opponent’s alpha strike to set up one of your own. Finally, there’s the Celestial Crusader, which also has flash as well as split second (meaning nothing can be cast or activated ‘in response to’ your playing this card). A 2/2 flyer for four mana, it pumps the team with a boardwide Crusade-style effect, making it a potentially wicked combat trick.
At last we get to the very top of the mana curve, and a trio of beaters that come with some nifty tricks of their own. The Ivory Giant can set up a game-winning attack by tapping down your opponent’s side, and can be cheated out a bit more quickly using the suspend mechanic. The Gustcloak Cavalier is overpriced, but refuses to die in combat. In addition to flanking and the ability to tap down a defender when he heads into the red zone, the Cavalier also leaves combat whenever he becomes blocked. Finally, the Pentarch Paladin puts the rest to shame with its reusable removal ability. This combos well with the Cloudchaser Kestrel, using the Kestrel to make a permanent White and then the Paladin to destroy it. Note that this isn’t limited to creatures- it specifies permanents.
Armed by Faith
The horde of beaters doesn’t come without a cost- there’s very little room left over in the deck for noncreature support, and it is quite limited. There’s a singleton combat trick in the form of Fortify, which can either add extra punch to your offense or bolster your defense, as needed. Gaze of Justice is your sole form of removal outside of your creatures, and its non-mana cost isn’t cheap. Not only does it demand the tapping of three White creatures you control, but being a sorcery it prevents those creatures from being available on defense as well. On the upside, the Gazes have flashback, so you’ll often get a second use out of them.
A Divine Congregation offers you lifegain (either now or suspended for later), while a pair of Thunder Totems provide both mana ramping as well as an extra body in the form of a 2/2 flying first-striker. Lastly, the deck’s second rare- Sarpadian Empires, Vol. VII– (a bit of a wink and a nod to the Fallen Empires set) gives you token creature generation. Its usefulness is fairly limited, as it costs you six mana to get out your first 1/1 token, but it can help ease the pain of the tapping requirement of Gaze of Justice, and give you some extra bodies in the process.
Taken together, the deck is a pathwork quilt of White swarming creatures with a wide variety of abilities- a sort of look at the Time Spiral philosophy in microcosm. In our next piece we’ll report back after having taken the deck into battle, and see how it held up.