What Cycles Teach Us About Magic Design
Cycles have been an important part of the game of Magic since the very first set, Limited Edition Alpha. What exactly is a cycle? Mark Rosewater defined a cycle in the article Zen and the Art of Cycle Maintenance as "a series of cards that are tied together mechanically." Cycles can also be tied together by flavor, though Rosewater notes that isn't always required. Perhaps the most famous cycle in Magic are the five boons from Alpha:
Over time, cycles have evolved and gotten more complex and more nuanced, but they still have the same goals:
- Provide mechanical identity for the cards in the set
- Add an aesthetic element to the set
- Allow space for something not normally done
- Establish signposts for archetypes and deck construction (mostly in Limited, but occasionally in Constructed)
- Create expectations for the players
How do cycles accomplish these goals? Let's look at the different types of cycles to try and answer this.
The Different Types of Cycles
Normally, cycles exist in the same rarity. We can think of these as horizontal cycles. Sometimes there are cycles that climb the chain in rarity. These are vertical cycles. One of the reasons the Invasion Block is one of my favorites is because it makes excellent use of cycles to convey the themes of the block. The theme of Invasion was multicolor, with an emphasis on allied color pairs and allied color shards in the first two sets. As we will see, the third set, Apocalypse mixed this up a bit.
The themes in the first set, Invasion, were expressed at common rarity in several ways. Most obviously, they were seen through two horizontal cycles. The first was a cycle of two-mana-value allied color 2/2 Knight creatures. The second was a cycle of mono-colored one-drop 1/1s with activated abilities in their allied colors.
Allied Color Knight Cycle
Each of the Knights has protection from their colors' mutual enemy. Galina's Knight for example has protection from red. This provides a mechanical identity, cluing us in that we want to be looking at allied color pairs. It adds an aesthetic element in that it is reinforcing Magic's color pie, one of the defining characteristics of the game. It allows space for something not normally done in that each color pair is getting a Knight with protection from its enemy color. At the time, protection was an ability used sparingly, most frequently appearing in white. The mechanical identity and focus on allied color pairs provides direction for deckbuilding, and created expectations for players for future sets in the block.
The Apprentice cycle are mono-colored 1/1 wizard creatures with two activated abilities, one in each of their allied colors. The cycle is unique in that it is a horizontal cycle, but each Apprentice is also part of a vertical cycle as well. The vertical cycle includes the Apprentices at common and Masters at rare. In addition to the in-set cycle, the Apprentices are part of not one, but two megacycles—cycles spread across more than one set. The first megacycle is a vertical cycle spread between Invasion and Planeshift. Planeshift introduces Battlemages at uncommon rarity. The megacycle shows the progression that an apprentice of each wizard order takes on their way up to master.
This provides an interesting and flavorful mechanical identity and helps tie together the first two sets of the block. The Apprentices are also part of a second megacycle, which will tie the first set in with the third set, Apocalypse.
Where Invasion established caring about allied-color pairs and shards, Apocalypse was all about enemy color pairs and wedges. To tie the two ideas together, The cycle of Apprentices from Invasion was tied together in a megacycle with a cycle of wizards called Disciples from Apocalypse.
Like the Apprentices, the Disciples are a horizontal cycle of mono-colored one-drop 1/1 Wizards with two activated abilities. Where the Apprentices have allied-color activated abilities, the Disciples have enemy-color activated abilities. Each group acts as a horizontal cycle in their respective sets but comes together to form a megacycle bridging the block together.
So far, we've looked at horizontal, vertical, and megacycles, but what other kinds of cycles are there?
Other Types of Cycles
In addition to the boon cycle, Limited Edition Alpha introduced a number of other cycles in the very first Magic set. A two-card cycle is typically done in mirror fashion, with each card mirroring the other in some way. The two most iconic mirrored cycles in Alpha are White Knight and Black Knight, and Earthquake and Hurricane.
Where White Knight and Black Knight are almost identical in terms of function, Earthquake and Hurricane have slight mechanical differences while still being a mirrored cycle. Earthquake does damage to non-flying creatures and Hurricane does damage to flying creatures, (both also hit players).
Alpha also introduced two other kinds of cycles, one which we see quite often, and one which is a little more unique. The first is colorless or artifact cycles. We see these most commonly in land cycles, like in the first dual lands, and in the recent cycle of legendary lands in Kamigawa Neon Dynasty.
These lands check off all the boxes in terms of flavor, mechanical identity, and new design space that you could want in a cycle like this. They've generated much hype, particularly Boseiju, Who Endures, which is probably the most desirable card in the set.
More unique than colorless or artifact cycles, which we see in nearly every set in some way, are mono-color cycles. A mono-color cycle is typically a horizontal cycle of cards all of the same color, which each have an effect on a different color. There's no better example of this than Alpha's Circles of Protection.
This cycle has been riffed on in various ways over the years but remains the defining example of a mono-colored cycle.
Three and four-color cycles share much in common with the cycles we've already discussed. For excellent examples of three-color cycles, I'd check out the Shards of Alara and Khans of Tarkir sets for examples. There's one last type of cycle for us to discuss, and it's the largest of them all.
As silly as the name may sound, Mega-mega cycles refer to cycles spread across numerous sets. The best example of a cycle of this kind is the mythic swords.
Stretching across dozens of sets, and nearly two decades of time, the sword cycle began with Sword of Fire and Ice and Sword of Light and Shadow both first introduced in Darksteel. The swords all share common attributes of mana value, equip costs, and granting protection from two different colors. Now printed in a horizontal cycle at mythic rare, the cycle is so old that the original printings of the first two actually preceded the existence of the mythic rarity by several years, (Darksteel came out in 2004, and mythic rarity wasn't introduced until Shards of Alara four years later).
Where each sword is unique, is that they have special abilities when the creature equipped with them deals damage to a player. The abilities are tied mechanically to the colors from which the swords grant protection. Sword of Fire and Ice, for example, grants protection from red and blue. When it connects, it allows you to shock something, and draw a card. Both abilities are right at home in the wheelhouses of their respective related colors.
The swords are resonant and flavorful, and each does something quite unique. What's more, since the first two were released, they have created an overwhelming expectation among players to see the cycle of them completed (There are eight at the time of this writing).
Approaching the End of the Cycle
So far, we've seen that cycles matter for creating mechanical identity, adding aesthetic elements, and providing shape to the sets they're in. We've also seen how they can shape the identity of Magic itself. Part of that is because cycles allow space to do things not normally done. Cycles can also lead to sometimes overwhelming expectations on the part of the players. The only piece which we have yet to discuss is how cycles help establish archetypes and impact deck construction.
How Cycles Matter In Limited
For Limited, the most important cycle in any Magic set of modern design is the uncommon Limited signposts. This cycle, typically of 5-10 cards, identifies the possible Limited archetypes available to draft or assemble in the set. I discussed the 10 Kamigawa Neon Dynasty Limited signposts in my article on Limited Preparation. As I said there, Limited signposts do a great job representing what a color or color pair cares about strategically. This can help guide you during a draft or during deckbuilding.
Do Cycles Matter in Constructed?
In my experience, cycles matter a great deal less in Constructed than they do in Limited. There are exceptions to this though. For example, in tribal sets, where the signposts will often be tied to a particular tribe or class, cycles can have a great deal of impact on Standard. One example of this was Dark Ascension-era Standard. The two-color lords introduced in the set all beefed up the decks of their respective tribes. While certain tribes were a good deal more competitive than others, mostly due to other cards of those tribes, the Dark Ascension lords all quickly slotted into their respective decks.
We've looked at a number of different types of cycles, what they are, and how those cycles shape the look and feel of the sets they're in. In some cases, we've looked at how those cycles helped shape the mechanics and aesthetics of Magic generally. Of all the types of cycles we've looked at, what was your favorite? What are your favorite cycles of cards from throughout Magic's history? What incomplete cycles would you like to see finished? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.