I actually quite like the way Stardock does its betas. Other than that one GalCiv beta, that is.
I can understand why people have trouble grasping it though. If you followed along through the Demigod betas there was one update where the Torchbearer was "removed" and "replaced" with a General Demigod. If you're unfamiliar with Stardock's process (or early betas in general) you might assume that change is permanent and the Torchbearer is gone for good, rather than (presumably) just kicking back for a patch or two and having his shoes shined.
But I much prefer getting the next update to the beta and feeling like the game is actually taking shape, sometimes even in response to what the general public is saying about the game. I was in the alpha and then beta for another game that shall remain nameless and about the most significant change was it not crashing quite as often. Glaring issues with player abilities were ignored - and persist even post-release.
With Stardock there's a much greater feeling of "rejected" feedback being because the developer disagrees or thinks a different direction is genuinely better for the game. Not that they're just too damn lazy to implement something, or too arrogant to admit they're wrong.
If I could pay for Elemental now and get into the beta when it's ready, I'd do so. But being in another country I am at the mercy of the exchange rates. Without a solid start date I could end up paying $400 in local currency for the game.
I haven't yet decided if what you're creating is worth quite that much.
As for the idea of a "cloth map" approach? Why the heck not? I'd even suggest holding onto that idea and maybe reusing it at another point in the beta, if it's not too much a stress on the development timeline. It'd be interesting to compare the first "cloth beta" to one a month or two on?
Looking forward to the next Demigod beta and the inevitable Elemental beta.