Cycling Round the Track
Welcome to Cycling Week! Wait, you say, didn't we already have a Cycling Week in late March of 2004? Very good, we can't get anything by you. We did. But much as cycling was the first "block" keyword to be repeated so too is Cycling Week the first theme week to be repeated. (I can already see the letters pointing out all the other repeat theme weeks we've done.)
Speaking of repeating things, before I dive into today's topic, I want to encourage all of my readers who have any interest in what we're doing with this year's core set (and we're doing a few things unlike any previous core sets) to check out Aaron Forsythe's feature article today. While my column should be a fun read, Aaron's article is what everyone's going to be talking about. Seriously, check it out.
Back to the topic at hand: cycling. The challenge for me this week is that I've written an article on cycling. In fact, I've written numerous articles on cycling:
A Cycling Built For Two – This is the column I wrote during the first Cycling Week and it goes into good detail about how the mechanic got created and what the early versions of it looked like.
Cycling Cycling – This was the column I wrote when cycling returned in Onslaught. In it I explain why we bring back mechanics.
Birth of a Notion – This column talked about the evolution of landcycling as it was introduced in Scourge.
Enchantment Better Things, Part Two – This was one of my "talk about the design of individual cards from the new set" columns. Under the section on Lighting Rift I explain how we came up with the idea to have things trigger off of things being cycled.
When Worlds Collide, Part II – This column was just a few weeks ago during Conflux previews when I touch upon how basic land cycling came to be.
Zen and the Art of Cycle Maintenance – This column actually isn't about cycling but the word "cycle" in the title throws people. It's about designing cycles (most often five-card cycles, but there are other kinds; read the column if you're interested). A good column but not remotely connected to this week's theme.
You'd think my work would be done for today. I'm pointing you to over ten thousand words about cycling. But no, I have vowed to always stay on theme week topic (okay there was that one time but outside forces could not be avoided) and I always provide new content (provided it's not a holiday that Wizards takes off or the repeat weeks during winter break). As such, I am obligated to produce a cycling-relevant article today. What could I write about?
So I went back and looked at all the cycling cards we've done. Shards of Alara block is the fourth block to use the mechanic so obviously a lot has happened with it. And that's when it hit me. I've never written an article following the evolution of the cycling mechanic. That's what I'm going to do today. I'll start with Urza's Saga and then walk through each set with cycling cards and explain what design advances they had to offer. I might even throw in a story or two.
- In the Beginning
So where did cycling come from?
He's famous for playing the first game ever of Magic with Barry Reich. That and, oh you know—HE DESIGNED MAGIC! Yes, the creator of cycling also designed a few famous cards such as Island and Swamp. You might know him as Richard Garfield.
A Cycling Built For Two goes into greater detail if you want it. The short version is that Richard made the mechanic during Tempest design. Tempest design had too much going on in it so a bunch of stuff was cut to be used later. For cycling, "later" turned out to be the next year in Urza's Saga. (Echo, the other named keyword mechanic in Urza block, was also created in Tempest design—by Mike Elliott).
- Urza's Saga
This is the set where cycling premiered. In a freaky sense of premonition, we made the conscious choice to do the absolute bare minimum with the mechanic we could. See this:
That's all Urza's Saga did—thirty-four times. The cards we put cycling on was carefully chosen such that they were cards you wanted some of the time. These broke down into a few categories:
Some cards were answers that you sometimes needed. These kinds of cards don't always make decks because they too often sit idly by. These cards proved great with cycling because they allowed you to put them into your deck. When you didn't need them you cycled them. And when you did, it was amazing that you had them.
Some cards were things you were happy to see on turn one but not so much on turns five and six. Cycling allowed you to play them when they were relevant and trade them in when they weren't.
Other cards were the reverse. You wanted them in the late game but they were useless to you in the early game.
Lands are crucial at a certain stage and can be near useless at another.
The goal of the initial cycling cards was to get cards into players' decks that might normally not make it in. This is why I feel cards like Expunge were a design failure, as you seldom would cycle them, and even when you did out of necessity it made you feel so bad.
Urza's Saga did have one cycling card that wasn't like the rest though. This card:
Fluctuator was unique in several ways. First, it was the only card to have the word "cycling" appear its rules text that did not itself cycle. Second, it was the only card in the set that encouraged more than one cycling card to be played together. Cycling by its nature is very modular, meaning that each card does not make you want to play any other cards in particular. Third, it was the only card that peeked ahead at where cycling might be headed. Notice, for example, that the card doesn't make cycling free, it cuts the cost by . This show we were aware that there was a difference and that someday we'd make use of that difference. But other than Fluctuator, cycling was as basic as mechanics come in its first outing. This is not in any way a bad thing. It shows some actual restraint from design.
- Urza's Legacy
While Urza's Legacy had ten more cards with cycling, it added nothing new to the mix. Every card had cycling and nothing else in the set referred to cycling.
- Urza's Destiny
The word "cycling" only show up three times in Urza's Destiny on these three cards:
But unlike Urza's Legacy, design (in this particular case being me as I was the entire Urza's Destiny design team) tried expanding upon the boundaries of cycling. If you've just looked back at the three cards to see what innovation they hold you'll be scratching your head. The cycling innovation actually appeared on seven other cards in the set. These seven other cards to be exact:
The idea behind these cards was "cycling from play." You pay , lose the card from the zone in questionm and then draw a card. These cards followed a similar theme from the original cycling cards. They went onto cards whose importance can change over time. Heart Warden, for example, is great in the early game when you need the mana but can become useless later when you have tons of lands in play and what you need is an answer to break through a stalemate. Three of the cards (Marker Beetles, Plague Dogs and Yavimaya Elder) cross with another theme of the set, "leaves play" effects.
We talked at the time about putting something on the card to reference cycling but everyone felt that the cards were much cleaner written as is. They were, but what got lost was that no one (and by "no one" I mean practically no one; I'm sure I'll get a few letters from people saying "I got it. It was so obvious") saw these cards as having anything to do with cycling. Also by not directly tying them to cycling, they did not work with the cards to come that cared when other things were cycled.
During Onslaught design we spent some time searching for a cycling-like mechanic. In the end we came to the conclusion that cycling was a very good cycling-like mechanic. But to bring it back, we felt it was important to advance upon the design. As such, Onslaught introduced three new advances:
Cycling Costs Other Than
This first advancement was merely us taking the obvious step that everyone assumed we were going to in Urza's Legacy: cycling costs other than . This included cycling costs with colored mana in them. Note that we still restricted ourselves to cycling cost involving mana. (Non-mana costs as we will see comes later.)
Cycling that Comes with Effects
The next evolution was adding effects that happened only if you cycled the card. In general these were created to be smaller versions of the card's effect. No longer did you have to choose between an effect and a card. Now you could choose between the size of the effect, the smaller one essentially being a cantrip. It's interesting to note that at this point design was still holding firm to the idea that the cycling was the lesser effect of the card.
Another interesting story is that when we first came up with cycling effects, we had some discussion about how countermagic didn't work against them. Some members of Ramp;D felt that it was wrong, mostly because players might not get that counterspells didn't work. Others of us—I was in this group—felt like counterspells deserved having problem cards just like any other card in Magic. (Remember I was the man who designed Scragnoth, the first "can't be countered" spell.) In the end, we went with the cleanest, simplest version that coincidentally hosed control decks. We were okay with that.
Cards that Trigger off of Cycling
This last innovation was only on five cards (few people noticed that it was an uncommon cycle) but its presence was felt strongly. These cards did not cycle, they merely had an effect when another card cycled. These "cycling enablers" allowed player to build cards centered around having a lot of cycling cards. In the case of two of them, Astral Slide and Lightning Rift, they spawned tournament-level decks.
As we look over the sets, it is clear that certain sets include a lot more advancement than others. Onslaught was definitely one of the sets that advanced cycling the most.
Legions' only cycling innovation, and it was a slight one, was the Gelmpalm creatures:
This cycle had creatures that had a variable effect when cycled. The variant was based on how many of this creature's type were in play. The effect either boosted each creature of that type or created an effect that scaled based on the creatures' numbers. These cards linked the cycling effect through the creature type of the cycling card rather than the effect it created. Not a major advancement, but it definitely advanced cycling closer to some of the things that were coming.
Scourge had two cycling innovations:
The first was what I consider the big one. Instead of just drawing a random card, this mechanic allows you to control what you get. True, it's limited to basic land, but the mere idea that you could control what you "draw" was a huge step forward. This begins what I think of as the "tutor" vein of cycling design space. Originally, by the way, when Brian Tinsman (the design lead for Scourge) came up with this mechanic it wasn't tied to cycling in any way.
My contribution was that I had been burned by the "cycle from play" cards in Urza's Destiny. I knew that if the cards functioned like cycling but didn't reference it then players wouldn't see it. In addition, some interaction would be lost as the cards like Astral Slide that cared about cycling wouldn't interact with these cards. I strongly urged him to consider calling them "plainscycling" and such. Luckily, I was able to convince Brian and the rest of Ramp;D.
One of Scourge's themes was "size (a.k.a. converted mana cost) matters." As such, Brian was finding places to put big-costing spells into the set. Why not, he thought, also put some on cycling costs? The original Decrees were normal cards that had huge cycling costs with huge effects. To make them feel more like cycling (which traditionally was the lesser half of the effect) and to allow design to make more cards with even larger mana costs, Brian changed the spells such that they had a base effect even larger than the huge cycling effect.
One last card I do want to point out:
This card hints as some design space to come. The card has an ability active in the graveyard. These types of abilities work well with cycling as cycling gets the cards into the graveyard. Yes, synergy. Much more of this to come.
- Time Spiral
This set didn't really have any cycling, but as Twisted Abomination was on the timeshifted sheet, the completist in me felt I should list it. Obviously, when the only cycling card is a reprint, no innovation is going on.
- Future Sight
Future Sight by definition of its design was supposed to play around with the potential of existing mechanics as well as show off hints of others to come. As such, while Future Sight only had six cards with cycling, it showed off numerous innovations:
Nonmana Cycling Costs
Both of these cards cycle without mana, each of which is doable in decks not playing lands appropriate to the color of the card. In each case, the cycling cost was chosen because it felt right with the overall flavor of the card. The lesson having made these cards is that this is not the ripest of design veins. It's both hard to find a match between card and alternative cost and there are a limited number of alternative costs that work. In addition, some degenerative things can happen if you have too many cards that don't require mana to cycle.
The lesson of these cards is that cycling works well with discard- and graveyard-based mechanics. As cycling is a mechanic that will obviously return every once in a while we should keep our eye out for environments that have synergy with cycling.
Scourge's plainscycling and the ilk have definitely opened the door for cycling to have a pseudo-tutoring quality. Future Sight messed around with creature types but really any subset of cards shows potential merit.
- Shards of Alara
Shards of Alara introduced one major new cycling tweak:
The Resounding cycle played around with something Tinsman had fiddled with back in Scourge with the Decree cycle: cards where the big part of the spell was the cycling effect. This cycle gives cycling a kickeresque quality in that you can choose to pay more to enlarge the effect. To keep this in theme and to ensure that the effects aren't used until the late game, all the megacycling costs require eight mana including three different colors. The biggest danger from a design sense is making sure that we don't cross the streams too much with cycling and kicker. If mechanics become too much like the other each can lose their identity. This is why I believe we are going to be extra careful moving forward with cycling effects that are larger than their base effect.
The only other card to talk about is:
As we keep seeing, one of cycling's best attributes is its ability to synergize with other mechanics. This is definitely an area that will be exploring in cycling's future.
Conflux offers one twist:
These cards continue the tutoring line of cycling design as a different form of mana fixing. As I explained in my column when I first talked about basic landcycling, this is definitely us bleeding the color pie. By default this is green's domain and we have to be careful only to push into it when we have heavily colored sets with significant mana-fixing issues such as Conflux with its five-color subtheme.
- So Ends the Cycling
I hope you enjoyed today's jaunt throughout the history of cycling design evolution. Cycling is clearly one of design's favorite mechanics (we don't just use any mechanic four times in eleven years) and it is something that should be popping up every now and then. I was originally going to write a section about the future of cycling design but the decided against it as part of the fun of bringing old mechanics back is seeing what new things we do with it. For example, this fall when we bring back
That's all for today. Join me next week when I dust off the old podium.
Until then, may you know the joy of watching your own children grow and change.