A Failure to Exile

Posted in Top Decks on August 20, 2009

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

This coming weekend is the first of two consecutive Standard PTQs in Edison, New Jersey. I am currently thinking about playing a Jund Mannequin deck of the style that Conley Woods brought to the US National Championships.

The reason that I mention this—a wee bit unusual for this column—is that I was doing some testing with the Conley Woods deck last week and found myself once again pitted against the increasingly popular Time Sieve deck. So it was Game 3 and I did what I really wanted to do: I was able to get off Thought Hemorrhage against the combo deck. I happily named Tezzeret the Seeker, and his two copies of that game-ending planeswalker found themselves in exile.

Thought Hemorrhage
Tezzeret the Seeker

I fully expected to see the concession dialog come up, but no such window popped. I supposed at the time it was the deciding game of a tournament match, and he thought maybe I would time out or something.

Now I was a little low on head shots because I had to make room for cards like Thought Hemmorhage, but I finally got a Kitchen Finks on the battlefield, and figured I would eventually win with that.

Imagine my surprise when seven turns later—not my turns, mind you—I was dead ... to a relentless trio of Ethersworn Canonists, one of which I had killed at least three times.

The lesson? I am not 100% sure. I actually hate losing and hate screwing up (did I screw up?) and not coming away with anything. I think maybe if I had named Open the Vaults instead he would not have been able to pull it out; I thought that I was taking away his main—and only realistic—way to win ... But clearly I was wrong.

So what about this Time Sieve deck?

If you read the above short account and still have some questions about what happened, then let's walk through the deck step-by-step, and hopefully next time ... you won't!

Time Sieve

The Time Sieve deck debuted as the first-place deck at Finland Nationals, in the hands of the 2009 champion Mikko Airaksinen.

Mikko Airaksinen's Time Sieve Combo

Download Arena Decklist

It has since had some fine Top 8 appearances in other National Championships and PTQs, but has not changed substantially from Airaksinen's version, at least not strategically.

Superficially the deck seems like an evolution of the Fog strategy; it is a Howling Mine deck with Pollen Remedy and Cryptic Command to slow down attackers. However instead of Howling Mines (and in the original's case, that one copy of Font of Mythos) powering up Fogs for Fogs' sakes (with the eventual goal of decking the opponent Turbo-Stasis style), this deck uses them to slow down the game so that the Time Sieve deck can actually move forward, set up, and execute on its game plan.

The early turns are typically spent playing Kaleidostone and Elsewhere Flask, or potentially Howling Mine. All of these cards help the deck draw into additional lands. This can be important because, though the deck has two full sets of Borderposts, it is still very light on land; Mikko's deck had only 16 lands.

Open the Vaults

These early artifacts help the deck draw not just into lands, but dig to the components of its operating game plan. The bet is to successfully play a Time Sieve with multiple artifacts in play. Time Sieve allows the deck to take an additional turn at relatively low cost. The Kaleidostones were all "free" cards, having replaced themselves already.

After taking an extra turn with Time Sieve, the deck uses Open the Vaults as a Replenish to bring all the artifacts back. Now remember that many of these artifacts are going to draw more cards when they reappear via Open the Vaults, as well. If the Time Sieve player enjoyed a true embarrassment of riches and did not have to sacrifice a Howling Mine along the way, then he could have picked up maybe 10% of his deck that turn. Between the Time Sieves, Time Warps, and Open the Vaults in this deck, the amount of Time Walking cardboard is about 20% of all cards; what that means is that if the deck has the mana to go Sieve-into-Open, it is unlikely that you will ever get another turn. The Sieve deck is just going to draw six cards a turn until it doesn't need any more turns.

So what happens next?

While you are not taking any turns and the Time Sieve deck is drawing all those cards and taking all those turns, your development is going to be exactly flat (and ideally, for the Sieve deck at least, most or all of your mana will be tapped); meanwhile the Sieve deck will continue to develop its board. Before too long, the idea is to get Tezzeret the Seeker into play and kill with it a turn later. Especially with Open the Vaults in the mix, there should usually be sufficient artifacts to add up to 20, given Tezzeret's ultimate ability.

Because the deck draws so many cards per turn from Jace Beleren, Howling Mine, and especially the play (or return) of Elsewhere Flasks and Kaleidostones, the Sieve deck draws so many cards that it should be able to take many, many turns consecutively; I have played against the deck in queues several times, and have yet to see it fizzle. Remember, in a worst-case scenario, the Sieve deck can "just" ding two loyalty counters off of Tezzeret and put another Time Sieve into play.

The ultimate ability on Tezzeret is the clear usual path to victory; that is why I was fairly certain of winning when I had connected with Thought Hemorrhage. However think about the fact that the deck is sol unlikely to fizzle when it starts going off. There are many Time Walks, and even when you can trade with Ethersworn Canonists with a Kitchen Finks—which is good for not just two bodies but the neutering of two attacks on top of those—that Open the Vaults (which is semi-necessary to continue to take those extra turns by recycling Time Sieves and returning those Elsewhere Flasks to play) will bring back the Canonists as well. In this unusual case, the ongoing card drawing engine / Time Walk machine went hand-in-hand with threat preservation.

The Time Sieve deck is probably not getting as much credit as it is due. I know I have called it "gimmicky" and I have heard some very good players decry what they perceive to be a disproportionate presence in the PTQs ("Why are so many people playing that?"). There are some very good reasons, actually. Like almost any deck, Time Sieve has its limitations and bad pairings. At the same time, it has compelling incentives, some very compelling.

Five-Color Kryptonite – The Time Sieve deck is a heavy sledgehammer against decks like Five-Color Control (and, as many pointed out, decks like the Architects of Will Grixis Mannequin that I once favored). The reason is that these control decks can't realistically afford to counter an Elsewhere Flask. The early plays out of the Time Sieve deck are all kinds of cards that simply don't warrant a permission spell ... But at the same time are helping the deck to generate incremental advantages. Main-deck, it can actually just lay out a Time Sieve if the mana looks awkward on the other side (say one Vivid land tapped, one Vivid land untapped) and then that Sieve is just going to sit there for a while, like the Dave Price death stare coming across the top of the table. At some point every artifact, no matter how irrelevant (say a Mistvein Borderpost) is going to become a must-counter, and the opponent is simply not going to have the mana or defense to counter ... and then the dominos will start to fall and the Sieve deck will not fizzle.

There are tremendous mana advantages that the deck can leverage against Five-Color Control, like in a deep turn with, say, seven mana in play, the deck can lay out a Time Sieve. The opponent is going to have to spend four or six mana to answer it (unless, which is not likely given the current look of deck lists) he or she has Negate. Once all that mana is tapped, the Sieve deck is going to have a clear path to play Time Warp with its remaining mana, and even if that gets countered and the opponent follows up with a Cruel Ultimatum, the Howling Mines will pull the Sieve deck right out of it the following turn (where now the Five-Color Control deck is the one with all the mana tapped) and then Open the Vaults (or whatever) will start a run of turns that simply won't end well (if at all) for the opponent.

Time Warp
Cruel Ultimatum

Teflon Mana Base – While the Time Sieve deck doesn't have a lot of lands, the ones that it does play are very tough to interact with. Unlike many combo decks, the heavy basic land count that lets the Borderposts work make the Sieve deck highly resistant to Anathemancer, limiting automatic opponent "I win" draws.

Irrelevancies and Virtual Card Advantage – The Time Sieve deck doesn't have any creatures. So Bituminous Blast is not good against it! And when I say Bituminous Blast, I mean all those cards that people play that do nothing but kill creatures (Path to Exile, Lash Out, and so on). So it can be difficult for opposing decks—especially in Game 1—to draw out of positional disadvantages. Moreover sideboarding can be tricky, especially for decks that don't have enough slots to take out all their bad creature kill. I know I have sided in Anathemancers (even given their aforementioned limited efficacy against those three nonbasic lands) just because a Gray Ogre was better than whatever Terminate (or whatever) I was taking out.

Bituminous Blast

Doesn't Seem to Fizzle – Once this deck gets going, it seems likely to keep going. Even sending Tezzeret—its primary path to victory—to the land of exile does not guarantee a win.

All of that said, there are of course a number of weaknesses that limit the Time Sieve deck's ability to dominate in a field as diverse as today's Standard. It is no fan of Maelstrom Pulse. A Borderpost-redundant opening draw can spell disaster. One Maelstrom Pulse will take out multiple Fieldmist Borderposts, so that can feel like the worst kind of Stone Rain. And of course there is "the classic" turn three against Howling Mines. You thank the opponent for the extra card, then ding the Howling Mine and he is down not just a net card, but his primary source of drawing into lands and combo pieces.

The other card that I have found to be effective against Time Sieve—that a wide variety of decks can play—is Lightning Bolt. Because the Sieve deck is a Howling Mine deck, it can really help the opponent to draw into those Lightning Bolts, meaning that, over time, it has maybe half the expected starting life total (depending on just how lucky the opponent gets). There have been many games where a Makeshift Mannequined Mulldrifter has gone all the way in a deck that is otherwise quite unlikely to beat Time Sieve, just because the Lightning Bolts flowed so plentifully.

The Time Sieve deck looks to be a real presence at this stage of the PTQ season. Do not be surprised if you bump up against it multiple times in a PTQ. Because its natural prey is the deck that has been doing—at least arguably—the best at this point in Standard play (Five-Color Control), the Sieve deck can wreak havoc if it graduates to Top 8 play.

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