Cycles are a major part of the game. A cycle simplifies understanding of set mechanics, as you can see what X does before trying to understand V, W, Y, and Z. A cycle gives meaning to the five colors. A cycle, especially of lands, can deliver core flavor in just a few words. And enough popular cycles in a set does more for sustaining value than perhaps anything else. Consider Lorwyn for a moment. You have several uncommon lords, you have multiple cycles of important lands, and you have the first planeswalkers. Each of those cycles has had casual and tournament demand, and the set’s well-remembered as a result.
This series is going to investigate Magic’s cycles in chronological order. Let’s define what I’m looking at:
- At least five cards. “Vertical cycles” – a common, uncommon, and a rare, such as Penumbras – aren’t what I’m after. “Horizontal cycles” – the Deathmark cycle of Coldsnap, the Ravnica block Guildmages, and so on – are the focus here.
- No cycles with just commons. These are harder to spot and often are WotC-admitted to be hole-fillers. Do you want me to write a lot about Gust-Skimmer?
- No land/artifact mana cycles. These tend to have the same thing true about them in every case: ones that fix nongreen mana are better than the rest. Um…Moxen and Signets are good. The sheer amount of these cycles, and the similarities to each other, advise that I leave them alone.
Because the only thing more fun than making huge lists is quantifying huge lists, I’m going to give each cycle a few letter grades:
- Playability. Was there anything redeemable about this cycle, in casual or constructed?
- Depth. Did the cycle have roughly even utility, or was it really about one card?
- Resonance. Did they tell a story together, or was it more cards that happened to make a cycle?
If I miss any cycles, let me know; I’m doing this as best I can from sets I don’t know that well. Gatherer links are as narrow as I can get them; I’m doing all-in-one links to avoid having a blue article. Here goes…
The Wards (White Ward, Blue Ward, Black Ward, Red Ward, Green Ward)
Each Ward is a white aura that gives protection from the color in its name for a single white mana. They inhabit dark corners of commons boxes in homes and in stores, preying on innocent newbies to be tempted to use them. They get decent marks for being clear as to what they do and for matching flavor to function, but they’re wastes of cardboard. It would help if they had good artwork.
The Charms (Ivory Cup, Crystal Rod, Throne of Bone, Iron Star, Wooden Sphere)
Much like the Wards, the Charms involved the chance for seemingly good effects – all you have to do is pay a colorless mana every time you cast a spell, and watch your life soar! Of course, once you understand mana curves (though it’s not like this was understood in Alpha) and the purpose of life gain, these don’t have any value. And the flavor’s worse than the Wards as well. I understand how clutching four of these could be sufficiently magical to gain you life based on color. But Wooden Sphere? That’s not even something you hold! Couldn’t they have made it a Wooden Staff or something in flavor with the other four? I suppose flavor complaints about this cycle is the least of my problems with it, but it bugs me all the same.
The Laces (Purelace, Thoughtlace, Deathlace, Chaoslace, Lifelace)
The extra mark for Resonance is due to the names; Pure/Thought/Death/Chaos/Life give a good idea of the early color pie (especially the Chaos emphasis, which seems to be more Burn in the current game). You can see from these three cycles how color battles were intended to be a major part of the game. But what are these things for? The main problem I see with them is that they’re already in their colors. I understand flavor-wise why Chaoslace is a red spell that makes target spell or permanent red; cool enough. But if you’re staring down a creature with protection from red (e.g. via Red Ward), Chaoslace isn’t going to help your stuff get through. And if you’re other colors, you don’t care that it has protection from red. So unless you’re running a janky combo (which was a lot harder then than now), these don’t have any business being in a deck. And these were rare to boot. Nothing like your friend getting a Black Lotus while you pull a Lifelace.
The Boons (Healing Salve, Ancestral Recall, Dark Ritual, Lightning Bolt, Giant Growth)
Four commons and a rare? No flavor to combine them? This is a strictly mechanical cycle – a single-mana instant that does three of a something. But what a cycle! Healing Salve is lame, but the others have been important in all levels of decks. Plus, the cycle is highly instructive as to how different getting things in threes is. Watch Lightning Bolt and Giant Growth in action enough and it’s clear which one’s better. Watch anyone put out something absurd on turn 1 with Dark Ritual and you never forget. Save something with Healing Salve and get laughed at. Play Ancestral Recall…in a sleeve away from any liquids whatsoever. (Whenever I’m playing with expensive cards, the fictional substance I invoke to be careful with them is peanut butter acid – acid to eat through the sleeves and peanut butter to stick to the cards post-acid. Now you know.)
The Pre-Seals (Balm of Restoration, Conch Horn, Implements of Sacrifice, Aeolipile, Elven Lyre)
Being from an unpopular set, I don’t think these have a combined name, but they seem to be artifact rare precursors to the Nemesis Seals, sitting on the field until cheaply useful. Surprisingly for this era, none of them are patently awful either. As with Healing Salve, the damage prevention one isn’t great, but at least you can blow it up when you feel like. Aeolipile seems to be the winner here as creature removal available to any color, but Conch Horn’s mini-Brainstorm for any color is at least playable. The flavor gets across the one-time use of each of these, and when you look at their converted mana costs and sacrifice effects, it holds together as a cycle. And Aeolipile is one of the fantastic early names of the game. All told, surprisingly high marks for a group I didn’t know was a cycle.
The Dewalkers (Great Wall, Undertow, Quagmire, Crevasse, Deadfall)
Great Wall’s gotten the most flak of the cycle for its context; only a handful of creatures naturally have plainswalk. That flak obscures the cycle, which is at least quite flavorful. You look at the art and read the ability and completely understand what’s going on. But while these at least have more playability than the Wards and are reasonably priced for the effects, they’re not the solution that they seem to be. I can see the in-playgroup annoyance of a landwalk creature owning your face. But this enchantment needs you to have a blocker capable of killing the landwalker before that matters too much. As odd as my decks tend to be, I think killing the landwalker with a general-relevance spell is the better option most times. But I really do like the flavor here. And the dude on Quagmire doing the Thriller dance is sweet, never mind that the names sound like a prog rock song cycle.
In developmentspeak, C and D stand for cycles with a specific mana cost. Legends had a cycle of legends – I assume it’s intended – with CCD and CDD costs, for lack of a better term. Setting them around the color wheel means that one cycle has WWU, then UUB, etc. in the costs, while the other has WWG, then UUW, etc. They are:
(WWU) Jedit Ojanen, Princess Lucrezia, Tor Wauki, Marhault Elsdragon, Torsten Von Ursus
(UUW) Hunding Gjornersen, Ramirez DiPietro, Barktooth Warbeard, Jerrard of the Closed Fist, Lord Magnus
Six of these are either vanilla or vanilla with rampage. Tor Wauki deals Crossbow Infantry-style damage in black/red, which is reasonably cool. Ramirez is first strike in blue/black, which isn’t worth seven mana but is a conversation starter. And Lord Magnus, as a first striking Great Wall+Deadfall, might be the most useful of the bunch. That doesn’t say much about the cycles, but there you go. I give props to Wizards for not making the white-blue ones awful just because of the color combination (they did that for a long time with other cycles).
Because they’re at least big dumb vanilla creatures, they’re not nearly as unplayable as some of these other cycles. They make commanders and they’re clocks. Barktooth Warbeard kills from commander damage in 4 swings! And their stunning uniformity ensures the cycle is deep if unremarkable. As for the resonance, they don’t resonate as a cycle, but the flavor text is too awesome-to-hilarious on a lot of these for me to give low marks. Did you expect “most flamboyant pirate” to be relevant flavor text? I didn’t think so.
The 3CD Legends (Tobias Andrion, Nebuchadnezzar, Boris Devilboon, Sunastian Falconer, Jasmine Boreal)
Two are vanilla, and one of them is timeshifted. Sunastian adds mana (which is a fine thing to have in a commander at least) and Boris makes multicolored tokens with specific names (which is at least cool even as the ability is overcosted). But Nebuchadnezzar stands above these as being roughly competent at something. There are better creatures to do this sort of effect, but as a commander you could do worse. How this one connects to the real-life king, I don’t know, but he’s definitely a legitimate playable, which gives this cycle better marks on playability than others, even as I marked off depth for having slightly worse vanilla creatures.
The Elder Dragons (Arcades Sabboth, Chromium, Nicol Bolas, Vaevictis Asmadi, Palladia-Mors)
Given that they inspired an entire casual format and one of them went on to become one of the premiere storyline villains of the present game, the resonance runs deep here. And each of them still are defensible, albeit clunky, choices for their ex-namesake format. 7/7 flyers are nothing to sneeze at, largely because they’d eat you for sneezing, but they even make up for their upkeep costs with handy abilities. With the exception of Nicol Bolas, you can even pick up white bordered ones for 50 cents, which makes them better budget options than the Shards of Alara commanders if you’re just breaking into the format. Even though many players couldn’t name more than Nicol Bolas from this cycle, they definitely know its influence.
And pro tip: Elder is still a creature type, so you could change something’s creature type to it. I don’t know why you’d need to, but since Elder doesn’t have sensible flavor by itself, it’s fun to turn random things into.
CONCLUSION/NEXT PART OF THE SERIES
It’s clear that the early designers loved some cycles, although they were having trouble separating the color pie and original game vision from cycle balance. Making creature cycles where each creature had the same power and toughness, like the Elder Dragons, helped a lot, and it sure was more interesting than a cycle of landwalk hosers.
Next part will cover at least Ice Age block and possibly Mirage block.