Cycling through Amonkhet

Posted in How to Build on May 9, 2017

By Jacob Van Lunen

Jacob Van Lunen began playing Magic in 1995. He has participated in organized play at every level of competition and was a member of the winning team at Pro Tour San Diego in 2007, thanks to an innovative draft strategy. As a writer, Van Lunen has had more than three hundred Magic strategy pieces published

Let's talk about cycling! Cycling is one of the most nuanced mechanics in Magic's history. Amonkhet brings back this storied mechanic and, as a result, introduces what many believe is the best Limited format in recent memory.

Cycling allows us to play cards that might otherwise be too match up–dependent by letting us to pitch those cards for replacements. Knowing when to cycle a card, when to cast it, and when to hold it will be one of the biggest factors to success when playing with Amonkhet. Today, we'll be discussing how we can maximize our success with this latest batch of cycling cards.

The first situation we'll be discussing is the early game. Oftentimes, we'll be spending the first one to three turns of a game hoping to draw additional lands. We should be cycling as aggressively as possible to find our third land in the earliest stages of the game. In these situations, we can keep mana open to represent inexpensive tricks until our opponent's end step, at which point we can use that mana to cycle. When we would be passing our turn without hitting an early land drop, we should instead cycle on our own turn in hopes of finding a land so we don't fall too far behind in resource development.

Things get more nuanced as we enter the middle-to-later stages of the game. Now we need to start reading our cycle cards to determine whether we should be holding them or trading them for fresh cards. We'll need to ask ourselves a few questions before we decide. Am I currently in a winning position? If so, then how much does playing this cycling creature or holding this cycling spell affect or protect my winning position? Am I losing? If so, then how much does playing this cycling creature or holding this cycling spell affect my chances of getting back into the game? If the answer to either follow up is "very little" or "not at all," then it's safe to say we should be cycling. We need to think about the content of our deck and imagine best-case scenarios when we're losing and mathematical likelihoods when we're winning.

We should be cycling during our turn if we'll have enough mana leftover to cast a card we could potentially draw and want to cast. We should be cycling during our opponent's end step if we'll be using all our relevant mana to do so.

In many Limited games, we'll find ourselves in a unique situation without the necessary tools to take advantage of it. For example, let's say our opponent is casting Cartouche of Strength on their creature with a Trial in play. If Cartouche of Strength resolves, then our opponent will kill one of our creatures, make his creature bigger and better, and get another card in the process. We may have a few instant-speed removal spells in our deck that could turn this situation into a blowout in our favor. In situations like this, it is always correct to cycle, assuming you have the mana to both cycle and play your removal spell. This is likely the turn of the game where the winner will be decided, and it's more important to find our timely Magma Spray or even Winds of Rebuke than it is to potentially cast a Greater Sandwurm in two turns. When our chance of hitting a specific card or set of cards is very small, then we need to ask ourselves how likely we are to be victorious without one of those specific cards right here and now. The lower our chances of victory, the more it is worthwhile to cycle.

Sometimes, we'll be accruing additional advantage by cycling. Limited decks built around cards like Archfiend of Ifnir, Faith of the Devoted, Drake Haven, Horror of the Broken Lands, and Pitiless Vizier are quite powerful when drafting Amonkhet. With these decks, it's often correct to hold some cycling cards in our hand to take advantage of the triggers we'll be enjoying when we cycle them. We'll want to be playing a lot of cycling cards when drafting these decks, and thus we can usually get away with playing very few lands. I've seen successful decks that play as few as fourteen lands in this format thanks to functionally making their deck ten or more cards smaller by having cheap options with cycling.

There are a lot of fun tricks we can play on our opponent when piloting these Draft decks. One that I've employed on multiple occasions is cycling Vizier of Tumbling Sands to untap Pitiless Vizier when my opponent declares their attackers. By doing so, I'm able to draw a card and eat one of their creatures. This is especially safe and powerful card advantage because we're dealing with a card our opponent already paid mana for, and skilled opponents wouldn't dare try to use most of their removal spells on Pitiless Vizier in fear of turning something like a River Serpent in our hand into a one-mana Dismiss.

There are also several ways that we can use cycling to create more passive card advantage. Sacred Excavation is the most obvious of these, though the card is rarely strong enough unless we have very powerful cards like Curator of Mysteries or Archfiend of Ifnir that just happen to have cycling. The most playable and likely source of passive card advantage through cycling comes from Wander in Death. Oftentimes in the midgame, we'll find ourselves with one creature in our graveyard and a somewhat stalled board state. By cycling a creature from our hand before casting Wander in Death, we end up with an extra card and don't need to expose another creature in an already stalled state of affairs.

The most powerful Constructed card with cycling in Amonkhet is Censor. We'll likely be seeing a lot of Censor in the new Standard, and it might even make some appearances in Modern. Censor exactly fills the mold for a successful cycling card. In the early stages of the game, Censor is essentially Counterspell that's easier to cast. We can leave open two mana and see if our opponent taps out, then simply cash in for a different card if they don't. If our opponent's strategy is generally sorcery speed and they pass the turn without a play, then that might mean we want to hold Censor for a juicy target on the following turn. We probably want to hold Censor until our opponent starts casting spells without tapping all their lands.

Drake Haven is the best build-around Constructed card that for cycling. A lot of players have already begun experimenting with this powerful engine, and depending on the format's progression, it may have the potential to be a major player in Standard. What makes Drake Haven so powerful in Constructed is that it allows us to never use another card to attempt to win the game. Instead, we can simply draw extra cards while spending a bit of mana to create a constant stream of threats.

Let's take a look at what a Drake Haven deck might look like in Standard.

Standard Drake Haven

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This list is based on Neal Oliver's Drake Haven deck from ChannelFireball. I was intrigued by Oliver's use of Engulf the Shore and Corrupted Grafstone, and wanted to take advantage of those innovations. One thing that seems like it may come up a lot in the new Standard is Hieroglyphic Illumination's interaction with Torrential Gearhulk. Glimmer of Genius is a very strong card, but there were always a lot of games where we never had a chance to cast it before we have mana for Torrential Gearhulk. Now, with Hieroglyphic Illumination, we can simply pay one mana that we have leftover on turn five and still get a ton of value out of our Torrential Gearhulk.

Cycling is one of the most skill-testing mechanics in the history of Magic. The presence of cards that can be exchanged for new cards at a cost makes Amonkhet one of the best Limited formats ever. If we're using cycling effectively and taking every advantage we can get, we'll be sure to win a lot of matches in the coming months.

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