Cycling in Amonkhet

Amonkhet shapes up to be a great set for the cube format, likely the best set in my history of cubing – 9 years! As such it is unavoidable to dissect the set review to smaller parts. The set is high in innovation and the most natural way to discuss the new contenders is to see the new mechanics separately first. I’ve written about the gods before, now it is time for a returning mechanic central to this set – cycling.

Cycling is a returning mechanic. It should be a known quantity. It was more pushed in Amonkhet than at any other point in history. Cycling just by itself accounts for a large part of this set’s share of cube worthy cards. Cycling is a nice thing to have from a cube builder’s viewpoint, it allows narrow and/or expensive spells to be played where they otherwise wouldn’t. Before I delve into the new cards, let’s have a look the previous cycling cards we had in magic, what that mechanic brought the cube format and what can we learn and expect from it.

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History comes in cycles

Cycling was printed in Urza’s block, Onslaught, Time Spiral and Alara. It was used much more than most mechanics in Magic. Despite this there are very few cube playables today with cycling. In my cube I counted Miscalculation and Edge of Autumn, with edge only good in large cubes. There are a few caveats to my claim. Typecycling cards such as Ash Barrens and Eternal Dragon do not count here. Neither does Blast from the Past, as few people play with gold borders.

If we look back to cards that saw play before, we have the classic Akroma’s Vengeance, Wild Dogs, the Barren Moor cycle, Starstorm, Unearth and Undead Gladiator. Some cards that have cycling triggers saw play. They were playing essentially more like spells or split cards, they did not have the pure ability so they are hard to compare to. Such cards include Complicate, Decree of Justice, Krosan Tusker, Decree of Pain and Gempalm Incinerator in tribal cubes. None of them seem like they have any chance to return, they are not even close.

Seems like we can conclude the mechanic is bad. As with all mechanics that do not work in cube we need to ask whether a mechanic is intrinsically weak/narrow or it just was not pushed enough. Ripple is an obvious example of the former while provoke is an example of the latter. Of course any card can be pushed enough to be playable in cube, but with the bad mechanics the card would also be playable without them. Tormented Hero is playable and Heroic, but I’ve never seen it matter. Cycling is not like that – every card in the above list was cycled, most rather frequently. The mechanic has potential. In Amonkhet it is pushed enough that there are high hopes for it, and so far it played well in the short testing I’ve done. Let us see what we can learn from experience with previous cycling cards in the format:

  • No card is worth it for the cycling alone. Not even the extremely easy cycling cost of Monstrous Carabid. The top end of the card has to be worth it some of the time and should be desirable not just at corner cases.
  • Cycling 2 is much more than cycling for one colored mana. Barren Moor sees some fringe cube play while Polluted Mire never does. In Amonkhet most cycling costs lowly one mana. By extension, cycling Akroma’s Vengeance was always hard and beyond awkward. It happened, of course, but when absolutely no other line of play was feasible.
  • Cycling is a tempo hit. Like how aggro decks do not bother with even Demonic Tutor, they do not like to cycle. You want maximal use of resources every turn, where every card does roughly the same thing. A more recent close analogy is cracking clues. If an aggressive two drop is hit by Declaration in Stone, the clue usually lingers until turn 6+. Historically cycling is easy in two decks. The first is blue counter based decks, where you anyway keep mana up most of the time, so using it for cycling if you did not use your counterspell is super convenient. The second home is ramp, which eventually has access to tons of mana yet is prone to running out of gas.
  • Cycling has diminishing returns in multiples. Even playing two cycling lands in the same deck, barring synergies (Life from the Loam or such) is rarely done. The tempo hits accumulate. You also have less information if you have 2+ cards in hand that you intend to cycle.
  • The card at face value can be weaker than usual. It can be seen with Miscalculation. Having that flexibility can and should make the second mode weaker. That is not a big deal and not ruling cards out of playability.

This time cycling is designed right. It is cheap, it is on spells pretty close to playability without it. This time the cycling cost is significantly cheaper than the spell itself, no more trashy two drops with cycling that costs two mana. Cycling is a great enabler to narrow cards that would be prone to sideboards without it. A final note in this already thorough background is that today we have better synergies for cycling cards, with delve, delirium, Snapcaster Mage, JVP, tarmogoyf, Torrential Gearhulk and more. Unfortunately, we did not get any fatties with cycling relevant for reanimator.

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White

Cast Out – solid playable

It feels weird cycling this, as it is one of the least dead cards ever. However it is expensive enough you should be doing so if you have a spare mana early and not regret it. Preferably you are a control deck with more answers in your maindeck so losing one is not a big deal. An Oblivion Ring is likely better still, just because it can answer everything a turn earlier. However instant speed is unique in white and quite great. It fills an empty hole among white’s versatile removals. Cast Out is seldom a card you are unable to make good use of. It seems like an upgarde Faith’s Fetters. Fetters can be better against aggressive decks, but only there and the tempo you can gain from Cast Out can outweigh it. Cast Out is obviously what you’d rather have in hand when you do not draw that 4th land, or conversely have too many removal spells in hand. This is a filler most decks will want. Might be good even in medium cubes. I don’t want to call this staple just because there are many options for white removals and they can be tailored for a specific mategame, but I really think every large cube should be playing this for the foreseeable future.

 

Forsake the Worldly – fringe playable to staple (in unpowered)

There are plenty of answers in white at three to artifacts, enchantments and nearly everything (Oblivion Ring, Council’s Judgment). As all of white’s removals at that cost exile, it not that exciting. Cycling 2 is heavy on the curve as well. You want much cheaper disenchants in a powered cube against fast mana. Exile will usually be unnecessary in that environment as you will have targets around consistently. The exile is still useful against Wurmcoil Engine, Daretti, Hangarback Walker and Purphoros. This is better than Revoke Existence and Seal of Cleansing, but I prefer the original Disenchant and Fragmentize in my list. I just cannot see it being a correct maindeck over a Banishing Light variant. In unpowered it is likely better than all Disenchant variants because it is harder to justify maindecking artifact hate. I’d still pick Cast Out over it, and Oblivion Ring itself so only play it in addition. In a large cube you’ve likely maxed out on the premium pieces and want more, so this should fine a comfortable home there for a long while.

 

Blue

Curator of Mysteries – playable

4/4 fliers for four have historically never succeeded in cube. This is the best such card by far. A middle-sized flier is problematic in blue. There are only few scenarios where you want a 4/4 flier in a control deck. Yet when you do, you glad you have that sphinx ready and the cost is minimal. Sometimes you just need a fat blocker in the sky. Sometimes a pesky planeswalker needs addressing. Other times, you are already in control and looking for a way to seal the deal. Usually blue decks cannot afford to pack generic beaters as the middle of the curve is too congested. But blue is the color that likes cheap cycling the most, especially if you pack some permission. Curator should really be cycled most of the time, yet it is still a great card. In a tempo deck it is by far better than for control too. It is very convenient with the new Liliana and has medium synergy with other reanimation effects. The scry triggers is not flavor text completely, it works well with looters. Blue has very competitive top end to its four drops, but it dwindles quickly. I significantly prefer it to Dungeon Geists or any other 4/3 or 4/4 flier for blue at four mana, and so far Curator was moderately impressive in testing.

 

Censor – low playable

This might not look pushed but it is, consider Spell Snip. Censor is probably close to the weakest conditional two mana counter you will play. Force Spike did not work here. It drops in value very quickly in the game. People really played around it, but it still meant you cannot be selective in what you counter. Add cycling and suddenly you get a very good card. The time window where this effect is great is small, but it will result in a 1U hard counter. You need it for the first few critical turns of the game. Perhaps the correct line of play with this card is to wait for a spell to counter, and if by the end of the turn you did not, auto-cycle it. Censor is a relatively painless way to cover one of your deck’s greatest weaknesses. It could even be better than Miscalculation due the cheaper cycling cost. We rarely get counters this strong. Of course you really do want some harder counters in your deck before this is a consideration, so it is never a priority pick or a bomb, but a great way to smooth decks and let other cards shine.

 

Hieroglyphic Illumination – fringe playable?

In my metagame and others cards that just draw for 4+ mana are decreasing in power. Even Fact or Fiction is not the bomb it once was. They can be as strong as you like, but paying that amount of mana and getting no board presence is harsh. Nobody has time for them anymore. HI is a way to add late game power yet feel without a heavy spell in your deck. It should be cycled like 80%+ of the time. In permission decks where you keep mana open anyway you can afford to pay the full price sometimes and earn some card advantage without risking having a dead card against certain matchups. This is still so much worse than what you should get for the full price however that this is a card I am unsure about. So far it disappointed me in testing.

 

Lay Claim – unplayable

The mana cost of the main mode is offensively bad. Cycling fixes the inherent narrowness of steal effects somewhat, but this has an expensive cycling cost and no real use or need.

 

Vizier of Tumbling Sands – niche

The cycling effect is potentially very strong. Untapping Tolarian Academy or Gilded Lotus will be a free way to generate mana, and even the body itself is useful there. The true use of the card though is with Time Vault. Do not play this if you have no clear needs for the card, you will be disappointed.

 

Black

Archfiend of Ifnir – niche

A self-discarding fattie is always interesting in black because it plays so well with reanimation. Still, this body will not win games alone. The ability is strong but very narrow compared to even Bloodgift Demon.

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Red

Sweltering Suns – niche

Red has many better mass removals. Earthquake and Rolling Earthquake are splashable and scalable. Pyroclasm is cheaper and splashable. Fiery Confluence and Chandra, Flamecaller do so much more. Many people also play Wildfires. Sweltering suns has cycling, but it is expensive enough to be a liability. Might be better than Anger of the Gods or Slagstorm, depending on the deck and matchup. Not a card I’d advise playing as red is generally the lighter color in control decks so the double red is tough.

 

Green

Dissenter’s Deliverance – playable to solid playable in powered cubes

Most of what Naturalize destroys is artifacts. It is hard to maindeck that card sometimes though. Green has plenty of more expensive ways to deal with those permanents. It leaves green weak to fast mana and other cheap broken cards before sideboard. Now we get a maindeckable solution. The question is mostly – will it be cycled ASAP by default unless there is a target on the table? If so it will not fill its role very well. Perhaps one of the most difficult cards to use properly as a result. There is usually little though behind Naturalize effects. DD gives choices. What are the chances to see a problematic artifact? Do you have other solution in your deck? What is the value of drawing another card right now? Green ramp decks have a single mana floating around plenty of times (Wall of Roots, turn two Three Visits) so this will be very easy to cycle. In general having more maindeckable artifact hate is a great boost to the health of the format. Even if I see a Jitte and no other artifact I might not want to side in a Deglamer, with DD I’ll simply always be prepared. It is a noteworthy green instant for Tarmogoyf and Emrakul.

 

Lands

The cyclands/BiCycles

This cycle gathered enormous attention from the cube community, although no nickname has been finalized yet. The lands are clearly pushed, they are novel and have plenty of synergy. Despite this and how much I love the idea behind them, they have disappointed me in testing and is a cycle I’d not necessarily include in its entirety.

First, we will look at them in isolation. Being able to cycle a land when you are flooded and need to dig for an answer is great, even if the cycling is not cheap. They protect you against floods. Because of this they are fine 18th lands, and then they protect you also against screws. As they also fix colors they are great boosts to deck consistency.

But entering the battlefield tapped is a serious drawback. Those lands do not play well in multiples as a result, or with the manlands cycle. Aggro decks seriously dislike lands entering the battlefield tapped and cycling 2 is of little appeal to them. I’ve tested a deck that had Canyon Slough, Lavaclaw Reaches and Smoldering Marsh. The drawbacks were accumulating. This can seem like an extreme example, but consider how likely such a mana base would be if it was a two colors + a splash deck. It is definitely NOT on the powerlevel of Horizon Canopy, a card I have played in aggressive white decks with no use for green before. It is important to realize that if that was all the lands could do they would not be exciting for cube but rather on the powerlevel of the temples.

But they have the basic land types. They can be search for by fetchlands. By that reason alone you would include them in many decklists. Some cards interact with basic land types. In non-green colors they are sparse – you have things like Vedalken Shackles, Koth of the Hammer, Snuff Out, Fireblast and Daze (double combo!). In green they are more numerous. You have the trio of Farseek, Nature’s Lore and Three Visits. Some cubes play Wood Elves. You also have strong cards that care about them – Nissa, Worldwaker and Rofellos. In short, the green lands of the cycle gain more by having basic land types.

If we look at what we can achieve with other cards, we start to see numerous synergies. None of them are great by themselves, but their sheer quantity does add up. There are the usual perks of cycling, which are hard to get from lands, such as delve, Tarmogoyf, Den Protector, delirium etc. Sun Titan can bring the lands back and so does Crucible of Worlds. They have great synergy with Life From the Loam (although it is quite expensive as far as draw engines go and is probably clunky in practice). Effect that bounce your lands gain value, such as Kor Skyfisher and Meloku.

So these lands are good. How do they stand up to competition? The easiest comparison is the tango lands. The tango lands do not enter that often untapped, especially not early and not in three or more colored decks. As such they were just fetchable duals. Cyclands fills that purpose equally well, plus giving options. Playing both cycles is also a possibility, but then, assuming you have shocks and duals, we start reaching a point of having too many fetchable cards compared to fetchers.

These lands are noticeably worse than shocks, fetches and duals. Some manlands are also untouchable, likely all of them are to be honest. They compete with the painlands mostly. Painlands are much better for aggressive decks, or playing that turn one mana elf. They also support colorless cards. As such, which of the two cycles is best depends on the guild it is in. In Rakdos the pain land is far superior. Not a major point at all really, large cubes should probably include all pains and cycling lands anyway. You should consider how many ETBT lands you can support though, and not go overboard with them.

Also, why allied colors again? Now every allied color pair has 4 fetchable dual lands compared to just 2 for the enemy ones.

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