Pattern Recognition #153 - Teferi Mechanics

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


21 May 2020


Hello everyone! Welcome back to Pattern Recognition! This is's longest running article series. In it, I aim to bring to you each week a new article about some piece of Magic, be it a card, a mechanic, a deck, or something more fundamental or abstract. I am something of an Old Fogey and part-time Smart Ass, so I sometimes talk out my ass. Feel free to dissent or just plain old correct me! I also have a Patreon if you feel like helping out.

So, Teferi, speaking of him not as a source of flavour, but rather as a mechanical instance to be examined. This means that I will not be talking of him through the lens of Disruptive Student, as while that card represents Teferi while he was a student at the Tolarian Academy, that card isn't, by definition, Teferi. It would be like looking at Nahiri, the Harbinger and using that starting point to try and connect Stoneforge Mystic as a relevant creature. Not happening.

Regardless, our first Teferi represents him at his weakest, Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. Yes, this is him at his weakest. When he's not a Planeswalker anymore. Merely a mere Legendary Creature. As such, his casting cost is considered 'prohobitive' by Wizards, as they seem to keep thinking that multiple mana symbols in a card make it harder to put into a deck. That somehow, is hard, especially when dealing with multicoloured decks.

It wasn't then, it isn't now. No, Teferi's casting cost isn't hard to get, and what is really important is that it's a total CMC of 5. This gets around Void Winnower as a bonus, but what really matters is that in Modern, he's actually a little on the expensive side. Not to say he doesn't or didn't see play, but Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir wasn't seen as a keystone because of the developing speed of Extended and later Modern. For Standard though? He was a cornerstone of any control deck, and still it.

That he has Flash, and has a body of 3/4 are almost irrelevant, though his relatively large toughness for a creature, let alone a Wizard is something that shouldn't be sneezed at. actually has to work to kill him, as he's outside of Lightning Bolt range, though not of the more recently printed Lava Coil.

No, what's really important about him are his two abilities. The first is that he gives the keyword Flash to creature cards you own that aren't in play. Not in your hand. Not in your deck. Not in your Graveyard, or in the Command Zone, but to all creatures that aren't in play. That means that with Teferi on the board - and he can show up at Flash speeds too - you can then start casting creatures, but only Creatures at Flash speed too.

Now, I've talked a bit about why unrestricted Flash is a bad idea with cards like Vedalken Orrery in the past, but Teferi in his own way is a little more balanced. First, is that he only applies this ability to Creatures. This is partly because of his historical lore about trying to find a way to summon creatures more effectively and quickly which led to the development of Phasing. Now, I've pointed out many times that for , creatures tend not to be an end in of themselves, but rather they are vessels for their abilities. This ability isn't as powerful as it first seems, though is it by no means weak when you accept that creatures aren't a large part of 's kit. They are there, certainly, but is more interested in the Instants and Sorceries as part of their largesse.

I think I used that word wrong, but eh, I can live with that.

No, the real powerhouse in the card is the last ability. Each Opponent can cast spells only any time they could cast a sorcery.

This here is the core of Teferi's power in the game, the one that causes the most issues as I will cover later on. Magic is a game of tempo, of give and take. Action and reaction. Teferi was the first real card... no, the first memetic instance of a card that said that this basic function to the game, this ability to react, no longer applies to you.

I've mentioned before how 's ultimate expression of control is in the taking of extra turns, and what we're seeing here is an ability that's a passive half-step in that direction. Rather than taking away a turn, or forcibly ending someone else's turn, what Teferi is doing here is preventing an opponent from acting with spells unless it is their turn.

You know what happens at instant speed on other people's turns? Well, let's start with combat tricks like Giant Growth, a Lava Coil to kill a particularly meddlesome creature, or, I don't know... maybe someone wants to cast a Counterspell?

Nah, who would ever do that against a deck?

That's just crazy talk!

Now, I want to point out here that when you look at the rulings regarding Teferi on his Gatherer page, you will note that one of said ruling specifically notes that Teferi's ability to shut down spellcasting explicitly denies the opponents to cast through other speeds, such as with a card with Flash itself, like, say, their own Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir. This also prevents opponents from responding to Teferi's player casting counterspells on their turn because the stack isn't empty.

Importantly though, Teferi doesn't affect abilities. And thank Urza for that. He can't stop a Disruptive Student or Ertai, Wizard Adept from acting, or a Nimble Obstructionist's cycling ability to take out an ability. It just prevents playing spells, so there are options that can get around Teferi's limitations, but you need to be prepared for them.

Our next version of Teferi is one of the most powerful Commanders in the game, and yes, my cEDH deck is built with him in the top spot. Teferi, Temporal Archmage came form the Commander 2014 cycle of decks, wherin each lead Commander was an Old Planeswalker and how they would now exist as New Planeswalkers. This was our first hint that Wizards wanted Teferi back as a Planeswalker years before Dominaria hit the tables, and also previewed in their own way, Nahiri, the Lithomancer and Ob Nixilis of the Black Oath, cards more associated with the then more immediately relevant Zendikar block.

But I digress. This Teferi is the most expensive one, costing , and enters with a starting loyalty of 5. He's already fairly tough for when he comes out, and usually has had enough time to develop a defense before hitting the table.

His +1 is in effect, a casting of Sleight of Hand, the ability to quickly sort out the top of your library in a way that you want, putting a card into your hand and another to the bottom of your deck. It's useful, but there are better things you could be doing.

The ultimate ability, at a colossal -10, creates an Emblem that allows you to activate Planeswalker abilities at any time you could play an Instant, and on your opponent's turn. At first glance this isn't all that useful, but the more you think about it, you're essentially getting quadruple the use out of a Planeswalker you control. Imagine being able to build up the +1 on Jace, Architect of Thought as a means to keep aggro decks down as you activate him on your turn, then again on the upkeep of your next opponent's turn, which means that until your next turn, all creatures your opponents control get -2/0. Then again. And again such that the poor person to your right is sitting at a -4/-0 malus while Jace is sitting merry with an additional 4 loyalty counters.

I really hope that guy isn't playing an aggro deck.

And even if he's not the Commander, but supplementary in someone else's deck, like say, Nicol Bolas, the Ravager  Flip, the ability to activate Planeswalker abilities multiple times just spirals out of hand.

But that's not his most powerful ability. Not by far. No, for Teferi, Temporal Archmage, it's his -1.

And it's all thanks to Core 2015, and The Chain Veil.

Imagine, if you would, a scenario in which you cast Teferi, then activate his -1. You choose to untap Sol Ring, Coral Atoll, an Empowered Autogenerator with a single counter on it thanks to tapping to cast Teferi in the first place, and an Island. You've just recouped the cost of casting Teferi, but it doesn't end there. You tap the Empowered Autogenerator, getting and the Sol Ring and cast The Chain Veil. You then tap The Chain Veil, the Coral Atoll and two Islands to allow Teferi to activate his ability again. He activates his -1 again, and this time you untap Sol Ring, Coral Atoll, Empowered Autogenerator AND The Chain Veil.

You tap all three mana producers for mana, floating some leftover an activate The Chain Veil again.

And you repeat this, each time, making more and more mana. Teferi reaches zero loyalty, and goes to your Command zone. You cast him again with the help of the mana you floated, and here's where the real kicker happens, which makes this guy a powerhouse in competitive EDH. Those activations of The Chain Veil are a static effect. For each activation, you can activate the ability of a Planeswalker an additional time each turn. Even if said Planeswalker wasn't on the battlefield when those activations happened. Teferi now has an additional FOUR activations this turn, allowing him to +1 twice to start going through his deck, then he can start another mana-producing chain to build up enough floating mana to cast him again.

And again.

And again.

A self-sustaining infinite mana, infinite draw engine. Teferi-Veil is a horrifyingly effective deck that can go off with decent reliability and just go "Yeah, none of you are ever gonna get a turn because mine is never going to end, and I am simply choosing the method by which I win.. Will I mill you all out with Jace Beleren? Will I dig myself to the point where Thassa's Oracle will win the game? Or just draw everything and Laboratory Maniac myself to victory?"

True fact, it was getting Thassa's Oracle in a prize pack that caused me to buckle down and build my own Teferi-Veil deck. Because Teferi-Veil is that good and bonkers.

Fck Jace, Teferi is the real best-mono- Planeswalker.

Moving on, we get our next Standard legal Teferi, with his printing in the set Dominaria. Now, before I get to the good stuff, let's talk Teferi, Timebender. This card appeared in the Planeswalker deck opposite one of the Chandras. This guy, like all such cards from the Planeswalker Preconstructed decks, is overcosted and underpowered. I mean, he can only untap one creature or artifact for starters for +2!

Look, I'm not going to waste my time on this guy save for two points. The first is that Timbender is the only Teferi to actually grant an extra turn. You see, Teferi's gimmick isn't extra turns. Rather it's something that I will get to at the end, but for now, when you play Teferi, don't expect extra turns. The other part was that Teferi wasn't actually the head of the deck, rather, his daughter, Niambi, Faithful Healer was, which lead to people to experiment with using her as a Commander or proto-Brawl Commander to act as a "Fetch Teferi" commander for a Teferi focused deck.

Nothing much happened with it.

No, the real power of Teferi finally came full circle with new players with the publishing of Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. This Teferi finally embraced on-card his tendencies, something that despite people at the time who only saw Teferi the creature and Teferi the Commander, Teferi has always been on his cards. It was just not having that colour on his card made sense under a design perspective, and it is a choice that I will not gainsay.

Teferi, Hero of Dominaria saw play as a cornerstone of WUx Control decks. His +1 not only replaced him from your hand on the turn you cast him, it also refunded you two lands that you used to cast him in the first place, essentially making his initial casting cost that of . So not only did he provide card advantage, he also provided mana advantage, something that is hard to come by outside of . Not impossible, but hard.

His -3 is the stuff of memetic legend, thanks in part to how it comboed out with another card from Dominaria. You see, gets on occasion, the ability to 'tuck' a creature into an opponent's library, being able to slid it down into the deck and delay when it will come back.

As the TolarianCommunityCollage puts it, Teferi can go Tuck Himself. And if you're confused as to how that works, consider how this interacts with Nexus of Fate. There was a very powerful archetype of control deck in Standard with Dominaria, one that didn't try to win so much as assure that the opponent was going to lose. At the core of this was how Nexus of Fate would shuffle itself back into the library. Between Teferi putting himself back into your library, and Nexus of Fate doing the same thing, you could generate infinite turns without running the risk of drawing out your deck, allowing you all the time in the world to whittle your opponent down or to wait for them to give up in frustration, something that occurred more often than not. Especially on Arena where it was relatively easy to get full playsets of both cards for your deck.

The real problem was Nexus of Fate though, and while Teferi certainly earned his fair share of ire, his abilities were solid enough that they came back as we'll see shortly.

Finally, his last ability was most definitely a punisher for letting him get that far. Just slowly exiling your opponents boardstate one card draw at a time in a colour that loves to draw cards? Well, let's just say that if your opponent actually lets you get that far, they deserve to lose.

But lastly, we get to perhaps the most oppressive Teferi in the game. Teferi, Time Raveler. So much so that I got permission to quote someone else about this guy.

Delathen said:

"(he) also (doesn't) incite apocalyptic rage in people when they get played.

Because, at least in the current standard, that's what Teferi does. He's a stalling wall that disrupts anything you do to counter enemy spells, he's removal with great prejudice, and above all he is the greatest enabler of the loathsome Agent of Treachery tomfoolery by disrupting your ability to stop it happening or ending the game before the 7 CMC (or these days the more realistic 6 for Gyruda or 4 for Winota) threshold.

Whenever I see someone play Teferi, I'll confess that a little part of me sneers a little "oh, you couldn't make a real deck and had to rely on bullshit" refrain. And yeah, I get it, controlling an opponent's options is absolutely a core mechanic of the game and in many cases necessary to provide some semblance of balance, yada yada. Crushing these decks is one of my few great passions in gaming of late. Specifically because of Teferi, because the way his card is played, he's a dick."

Teferi, Time Raveler combines the soft lockdown of Teferi, Mage of Zalfir with a +1 that lets him give all your sorceries Flash. I cannot understate just how powerful a combination this is, as a lot of decks simply don't have the ability to punch through and take out a 4 Loyalty Teferi with even a smidgen of defense as soon as he drops.

His -3 is a powerful afterthought, one that comes from his Hero of Dominaria version. He can select any non-land, non-Planeswalker and bounce it back to their owner's hand.

He costs which means he can start locking down his opponents far, FAR faster than his creature version, and is immune to Lava Coil as well.

Of course, I've also seen people mis-play him, dropping him on turn 3 with no defenses for him, immediately hitting the -3 on him, just for me to give him a 1 damage backhand on my next combat step, allowing me to recast my cheap cards with a smile on my face. Especially when it's my mono-red deck, and they have no idea how to respond to it.

Teferi, across all his incarnations, isn't an obvious "I Win" card. Rather, he plays much as his lore suggests, acting as a resource multiplier. A number larger than 1 for you, and smaller than that for your opponent. As a chronomancer, he is less about building up to extra turns, but rather acting in a more precise manner, bouncing permanents, or simply making things easier for you to act.

Teferi is control, but unlike Permission control, which seeks to shut the door on the opponent and how they act, Teferi across most of his relevance, has been a paragon of Tempo Control. He doesn't stop his opponents from doing something. Teferi instead makes it harder to do anything. He taxes, not only through denying opportunity costs like being able to act when its not your turn, to needing to replay a certain permanent to get traction under your feet again.

Teferi is powerful, make no mistake. He's not format warping, but he is definitely emblematic of the control archetype. He's at the edge of the curve when it comes to supporting his play style, and there's NOTHING wrong with that. All archetypes should have something they can point to and say "This is what I'm all about", and Teferi is that.

I love the guy, and I'll still punch him in the face when my opponent plays him because I know exactly how bad he can be because I temper my adoration with respect. And Teferi demands respect no matter if he's on your side or not.

I look forward to seeing him again, and what he will bring to the table. This summer sees Teferi, Time Raveler rotate out of standard, but if he really is the highlight Planeswalker for the core set this year? Well, out goes one control card and in comes more.

We shall see.

Join me next week when I talk about a subject of my choice. I actually have a few thoughts I need to work out, so we'll see what percolates.

Until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #152 - Teferi, Part 1

xtechnetia says... #1

Control player here. I've talked at length elsewhere about how much I hate Teferi, Time Raveler, but this article has some good history and exploration on Teferi cards so let me try and present a more encompassing viewpoint.

What Teferi does, in context isolation, isn't an issue. It's existed before - on Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir - and that's considered a fine card. The beautiful aspect of Magic design is that practically every aspect of gameplay is open to attack - that's why we have spells like discard, land destruction, and so forth. The stack is no different in this regard.

3feri is a collection of smaller problems that adds up to one major problem:

  • His static is asymmetrical. Prison static effects are usually symmetrical (Winter Orb, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben) for balance reasons - it means you can't just jam them into any deck, you have to build your deck to carefully break the symmetry of the prison. Now, asymmetrical static effects are a fine thing to have too, but have generally been higher costed (compare Leonin Arbiter and Aven Mindcensor) to account for this. 3feri is costed incredibly well for his power - years ago, a 1WU instant that matched his -3 would probably have been Standard playable!
  • He comes in WU colors. This is a major point that I think is overlooked by many. If he was 1WG or 1RG instead of 1WU, we'd probably be looking at a card fair creature decks could board in against control decks. Which is totally fine, control hosers have existed forever and fair creature decks are always a welcome sight in Magic. But instead he's 1WU, so coupled with the asymmetry of the static, that means that this supposedly anti-control card fits into control shells. This has several unpleasant implications, including the once-amazing mirror matchup now being reduced to "resolve 3feri first ez game".
  • He protects himself on the board with his -3. This gives him an amazing floor of being a pseudo 3cmc Time Walk, which is part of why he's so widely seen - because even against decks that don't particularly care about the static, he can still reset a threat while maintaining card neutrality (if they kill it with board presence) or advantage (if they use a spell to be rid of it). Contrast to the other widely-maligned curse walkers, Narset, Parter of Veils and Karn, the Great Creator - these do not protect themselves on board, making counterplay to the board much more feasible and the walkers themselves less of an auto-include.
  • He doesn't say "opponents can't cast spells on your turn" like Dragonlord Dromoka or Grand Abolisher. He literally says opponents can cast spells only at sorcery speed. This has the side effect of shutting off a ton of random stuff like suspend, cascade, and other mechanics that were clearly never intended to be shut off by the static, but are anyways.

3feri isn't "broken" in the traditional sense of the term, and doesn't deserve a ban (most likely) on raw power level concerns. But he's one of the faces of this new, post-WAR era of Magic and is an unpleasant, constant thorn in gameplay across every format from Standard to Vintage. Even if you're playing a fair creature deck that cares little for the passive, he's a card-drawing bounce that serves as a strong tempo play (or, if he survives, you're now vulnerable to instant-speed wraths and discard), and if you're playing a stack-interaction deck, you either answer this guy on the stack yourself or you probably lose.

tl;dr He just represents everything that I (and many others) hate about the current design era of Magic.

May 21, 2020 2:42 p.m.

You sure Lava Coil often happens at instant speed on other peoples' turns? You absolutely sure about that?

May 23, 2020 5 p.m.

berryjon says... #3

ClockworkSwordfish: Quicken says it does!~

Also, it was the first four-damage red spell that came to mind. Lava Coil can't target 'Walkers or players so I suppose a better example should have been.... Lightning Blast or more recently Flame Lash.

May 24, 2020 12:58 a.m.

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