Should You Cycle?

Posted in Beyond the Basics on May 4, 2017

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Ever since cycling first debuted nearly 20 years ago, one question has rung through the minds of people holding cards with this mechanic. One eternal, pestering question that could make or break the entire game.

If you've played any of Amonkhet yet, perhaps you, too, have felt this difficult decision enter your brain. As you playtest your new Standard deck or stare down turn three of a Limited game, you may have pondered this question. This one, simple question.

"Should I cycle this card?"

The question returns to players' collective consciousness about as often as cycling does. Which is to say: it's back!

Graveyard shenanigans and cycling triggers like Drake Haven aside, cycling is more or less about one thing: would I rather have this card in my hand or another random card from my library in my hand? That's the basis for the decision you are making here.

And like any decision in Magic, it can have major consequences.

I've been on both the offending and receiving end of cycling—or not cycling—deciding the game. Cycling away the large creature early when I really needed it late game or refusing to cycle my powerful creature away and then missing my land drops and playing a turn behind are both perfectly realistic scenarios. It can be a tricky decision . . . not to mention one that haunts you as the card in question stares back at you from your graveyard or hand.

Unlike many other abilities in Magic where you should usually just activate them if you have extra mana, cycling is different. It's not always correct to cycle a card just because you have the mana and you can, even when it's "free" to do so at the end of your opponent's turn when you're about to untap.

Over time, I've found there are four important questions you should be asking yourself when deciding whether or not to cycle. And they are:

1. Do I Need This Card Now?

The simplest, easiest to evaluate part of the cycling question: do you need this card right now?

You're playing a Standard blue-black control deck and it's late in the game, and you have nine lands at your disposal. You draw Fetid Pools.

In this case, it's pretty safe to say that you're better off cycling those Pools. (And right away—you'd rather see that card immediately than wait until the end of your opponent's turn.) While an extra land could certainly help you at some point—casting your Pull from Tomorrow for an additional mana, or casting a flurry of spells in a turn—it's very likely that turning that into another card from your library would be better.

There is a lot more to think about than just the immediate moment, but it's a fine place to start. In situations like this, where you really don't need the effect, it will get you to the answer. But more often, you're going to have to weigh it against my second question, which is much more difficult.

And that question is . . .

2. Will I Need This Card Later?

Here's where things get tricky.

Using cycling to its fullest usually means looking ahead in the game—sometimes many turns ahead—and trying to figure out if you're going to need that card or not. It's all those times in Limited you have Winged Shepherd in your hand on turn one and have to decide if you're going to cycle it or not. What are you going to need five turns from now?

Let's look at one example from Standard.

You're playing a black-green deck focused around counter synergies versus your opponent's take on a Temur Dynavolt Tower deck. There are no nonland permanents on the battlefield, and you both have plenty of lands. Your opponent has no cards in their hand, but is sitting at eight energy. In your hand, you have one card: Dissenter's Deliverance.

Should you cycle this card?

Well, on the board right now it doesn't do anything. If you cycle it away, you could easily draw a Verdurous Gearhulk and smash face.

On the other hand, if you cycle it away, your opponent could proceed to draw a Dynavolt Tower and start eating away at all your plays or a Torrential Gearhulk and start taking out chunks of your life total.

What's a Magic player to do?

Well, the first thing I'd look at are the particulars of the game: what life total is your opponent at, what are you at, and what have you both already cast this game?

If your opponent is at a very low life total, that means there are likely to be fewer turns left in the game and you want to go for the jugular. If they're at 4, for example, then any creature you draw likely presents a one- or two-turn clock. If they're at 20, unless you draw one of your biggest creatures, that creature isn't going to get the job done on its own. (And your opponent still has a ton of time to find their brutal artifacts.)

And then there's what has been played to look at. If your opponent's graveyard already has three Towers and two Gearhulks, their chances of finding another right off the top and quickly are significantly less than if all of them are still hiding in their library.

In this case, generally I would lean toward cycling. You really want to find a threat so you can establish yourself as the beatdown. But that could depend a lot. If, for example, your opponent already has several Towers in the graveyard and you still have more Deliverances in your deck, maybe you think you can just one-for-one match them in a long game on artifact-to-artifact-removal.

Let's imagine a slightly different scenario. This time, your opponent has no energy . . . but they already have a Dynavolt Tower on the battlefield.

It's an inactive tower, so it will take a few spells to get anywhere—but when it does, it could cause you trouble.

What do you do here?

In this case, I likely would kill off the Tower. Thinking ahead three, four, five, or more turns into the game, there's such a high chance that the Tower is going to cause problems for your deck if your opponent draws remotely reasonably that removing it is going to be a lot better than digging one card deeper.

And that leads right into question number three.

3. What Am I Hoping to Draw from My Deck?

There's a story that was commonly told to the point it became a proto-meme in competitive Magic circles during Shards of Alara block, the last time cycling was around.

It was a Sealed Deck Grand Prix in Auckland, New Zealand, and one match was deep into the midgame. The player we're focusing on has one card left in their hand: the huge cycling creature Jungle Weaver.

They have six lands, and it's the end of their opponent's turn. The board is pretty stalled, but a big creature would be enough to break it up. And the player in question . . . cycles their Jungle Weaver.

The quote that stuck (said by someone else) was "You could draw anything there . . . even another Jungle Weaver!"

What is the problem with this play?

There isn't much the player could hope to draw better than a Jungle Weaver!

Sure, they needed an extra land to be able to cast it, but pitching the Weaver to try to find it defeats the point. They would have been better off drawing for their turn. Either they find a land, which lets them cast the Weaver, or they find a nonland, which means they likely have something else to do.

Now, there could have been cases where that was right depending on their deck. If their deck really had a lot of bomb rares, maybe you could justify trying to turbo draw them. But most of the time, it's not the right thing to do.

Which leads us back to the question: what are you hoping to draw here?

Before deciding whether to cycle or not, I always like to mentally riffle through my deck and think, "What would I prefer to have here than this card?"

If the answer is very few or zero cards, you're probably better holding onto whatever is in your hand. Cycling your Amonkhet dual land and then missing your land drop is unwise in many decks. If you have five lands and a Winged Shepherd, I wouldn't cycle it away and then not be able to make a big play the turn afterward.

On the flip side, sometimes the answer is very much, "Yes, there are many cards I would rather have than this." In that case, there's usually a good reason to cycle it away. For example, if you don't have a third land and you have Cast Out in your hand, that would be the time to consider pitching it away. If you have your land drops lined up, I'd generally keep it.

And at last, we get to the final question!

4. Will I Have Time and Mana to Cycle This Later?

Cycling isn't free to use. (Well, unless you have New Perspectives active—in which case, go nuts!) You need to pay the cycling cost. And as a result, one major question becomes "When will you have mana for this?"

Remember the scenario I mentioned earlier about whether you should your cycle Winged Shepherd on turn one? Let's look at that here.

In addition to all the other factors at play, you should be thinking about the mana it takes to cycle and when your next opportunity to make this decision would be.

First, in this situation, I'd run through the three other questions first. Do I think I'll want the Shepherd in this matchup, or is a 3/3 flier weaker here than normal for some reason? How many better cards are in my deck—would I rather have a land here?

Then I'd think about the time it takes to cycle it away.

In the case of the Shepherd, it's a pretty low commitment: just a single white mana. That means that if I don't cycle it now, on any future turn where I have one mana left, I can make this choice again. It depends on your hand and how much you're planning to curve out (or if you really need lands), but that's a pretty low commitment to do some other time.

Of course, the corollary to this is that you're one card less deep into your deck than you would be otherwise. Even if you already can curve out properly, maybe there's a better creature you'd draw by being one card further. But that's the cost you pay to keep your 3/3 flier in your hand—which could be quite a huge deal if the game goes long.

However, in situations where the cost to cycle is much higher, like three mana, you're a lot less likely to just have that mana open again. If you have the opportunity at the end of your opponent's turn to cycle a Sweltering Suns and aren't sure if you'll need it or not, that's a reason to lean toward cycling a card.

Hitting for the Cycle

There are other reasons to consider cycling, too. As I mentioned at the beginning, if you have cycling triggers like Drake Haven, then cycling at every opportunity begins to make a lot more sense. If you are counting your graveyard in some way, or have a reanimation spell, you may want to cycle to put more cards in there.

Conversely, you may want to save your cycling cards to charge up a Flameblade Adept or to refill your delirium deck's graveyard after your opponent exiles cards from your graveyard. There are always unique situations.

However, in most cases, these four rules will help point you in the right direction. Go forth and cycle away!

Do you have any questions, or are curious about something written here today? I'd love to hear from you and talk with you about it! You can always reach me by sending me a tweet, asking me a question on my Tumblr, or emailing me (in English, please) at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.

Have fun with cycling, enjoy the fresh new Standard format, and I'll talk with you again next week!

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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