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A Guide to Cycles | Magic: the Gathering's Secret Weapon



Intro


Cycles are everywhere in Magic: the Gathering, that is if you know where to look. Like a collection of hidden gems tucked away in every set, waiting to be unearthed by those with a keen eye for detail and I my friends am just that person. I have spent the last few weeks digging into countless cycles, poured over articles and interviews to bring you a comprehensive look at one of Magics greatest design tools.


What I found was far more than anything I ever expected. You see Cycles aren't merely an arbitrary set of five cards; rather they are a physical expression of the color pie, tools for defining factions, a method for guiding players, integral to weaving larger narratives, and part of Magic's greater Aesthetic. If that sound like a lot, that is because it is, and the deeper I got into the research the more I found out how important Cycles are to this game. So with so much depth to explore, why wait any longer?


Definition



So I know you want to get right into the deeper discussion at hand, and believe me I do to, but I do think that before we can get into the more abstract topics it 's important we define cycles, as they can take on many shapes and be tied together in varied ways. Cycles are a group of cards that share either mechanics, mana cost, type, power, toughness, flavor, or some other core concept or intent, all while spanning different colors or combinations of them, in their mana cost or their effect. Think of the Legendary artifacts from Eldraine. This connection then can take many shapes, as I like to call it. The first shape to look for when deciphering a cycle is whether it's a loose or tight cycle.


This category of cycles dictates the link between the cards themselves, with tight cycles being those cards connected by something concrete, such as type, name, mechanics and the like, these are the most common type of cycle you will encounter in Magic. While loose cycles are merely held together by flavor, or purpose. Think pivotal moment cards, or draft signpost cards. These kinds of cycles can be the hardest to spot but I find them the most interesting. The next broad category or shape of cycles are that of vertical versus horizontal cycles. Horizontal cycles are the most common, as this is the type of cycle that spans two or more colors or combinations of colors, while a vertical cycles actually spans rarity and often are of the same color, an example of this being the thought cycle, which take a single design concept and bump it up in rarity and power...


OK maybe power isn't the exact word I would use in this case, but hey we are not talking about how ridiculous old Magic design used to be. The next shape is that of cycles, mega-cycles and mega-mega-cycles. Not the best naming convention honestly, but this category denotes if a cycle is contained within a single set, spans an entire block or is not restricted by set or Block respectively. That said with Magic now dropping Blocks entirely this naming convention is more of a historical one. The final definition comes down to the size of cycles, as while most cycles come in five, and it's really what comes to mind when I say the word cycle, the reality is that cycles can be any number of cards over one.



As such they can be mirrors, like the white and black knight, they can come in fours such as the tainted land cycle, they can be a collection of three, most often seen with vertical cycles and they can come in ten's, which we usually see in sets based in Ravnica, with the most recent example being the surveil lands from murders at Karlov Manor. So as you can see things aren't so cut and dry when it comes to cycles, they can be horizontal or vertical, can be mega or even mega mega, they can be tight or loose and they can come in a varied number of cards, but the main point of a cycle is to spread a concept or shared feature across several cards as a way to express the colour pie, to tell a story, to define factions, to guide players, or to build upon the game's aesthetics. As you will come to see cycles play a major role when it comes to designing magic the gathering, even if you may not notice it at first glance.


Color pie



“... why are cycles so important for flavor? Because in Magic, the center of flavor is the color wheel. The colors are best defined not in isolation but in contrast with one another. Cycles allow us a perfect opportunity to show such contrasts” - Mark Rosewater

When you get down to the core of it, and ask why cycles are such a big part of the game, it all comes down to the color pie. You see cycles are the color pie, because at the heart of designing cycles is drawing out the inherent conflict between each color, by implementing a single concept in varied ways based on the color or combination acting upon it. In this way cycles are the pie given shape in a concrete form. I like the example of the Lorwyn five, a cycle of Planeswalkers from the Lorwyn set who provide an exploration of the methodology to each color. By using cycles in conjunction with the color pie the designers can then lay out how the color pie acts in a mechanical sense.


We talk a lot about the flavor and the philosophy of the color pie on this website and on my YouTube channel, but the truth is the mechanical color pie is the most common way players interact with the color pie. So it's important that these concrete expressions exists, to inform the player base on the methodology of the color pie through playing with the cards. The funny thing is that this literal representation, as showcased by the mechanical color pie, does feed back into the philosophy and flavor of it as well.



By witnessing firsthand through game-play, how each color interacts in a mechanical sense it becomes evident how each color and combination act upon the world around it, consequently, we gain a more comprehensive understanding of each colors through the patterns presented in cycles.


This is where the significance of cycles come in to play, as they allow the designers to take a concept and play with it in the perspective of a given color. An example that first comes to mind are the gods of Amonkhet, a cycle of deities that are an expression of godhood through each color, asking the question, “What sort of god would take shape on a Plane of death and trials” The designing of this cycle plays many roles but the most evident is in its expression of the color pie, of bringing it to life in a way that players can interact with it in a meaningful way. You see cycles are there first and foremost to enhance our perception and comprehension of the color pie. It lies in the cycles ability to unite a single abstract concept, under the influence of each color.


Factions



When the designers are building out a world, it's important that it's conveyed to the player-base in a meaningful way, no matter how deep their interaction with the lore is. As such the cards are the key component when it comes to defining a Plane, and it's factions to the player. This is where I find cycles to be used most, or at least have their presence most felt. You see by taking a single concept, whether mechanical or flavorful, and applying it to each of the sets factions through individual cards within a cycle, we get a chance to witness how each one would interact with that given concept. Really it mirrors how cycles are the color pie brought to life, their application towards factions bring it closer to the player. A great example of this comes to us from the set Streets of New Cappena.


This set lays out the leaders of each faction, their hideouts, their henchmen, their methods for removing rivals and more, all through cycles. This is a case where if a player interacted with only the set, and just played with its cards, they would understand the Plane without watching any lore videos or reading any short stories. These cycles not only outline the who, where and what of each faction but also provide a structured approach for game designers to explore the depth and complexity of each faction's ideology, motivations and methods.


All told through their shared concepts given shape across five cards. What's more is that the use of cycles allows for the exploration of the interactions between these factions, offering players an immersive experience that reflects the intricate alliances, rivalries, and conflicts within the games world for a given set. As you can see, just as cycles are the color pie itself brought to life, cycle can be applied on a more granular level to offer us insight into the factions and characters that make up the settings we visit on any given Plane.


Intent



There are cycles that aren't exactly tied together by either mechanics or flavor but instead by intent. A primary example of such a cycle is what is called the draft signpost cycle. This horizontal cycle comprises five to ten uncommon cards, all tailored for the limited format in mind. These cards are all linked, not by some common flavor or mechanic, but quite the opposite, their correlation is firmly rooted in the deliberate choices made by the designers. As each card within the cycle signal to the player what archetypes are available to draft their decks around.


The uncommon rarity being the most important part, as this ensures that players will come upon them in their drafting environment. This sort of thing showcases how cycles can be a tool that the designers can use to interact with the player and guide their experiences further in a game-play sense, pushing them to the intended avenues as decided by the core mechanics of a given set. Even outside of these limited focused cycles, the designers intent to guide the player into the archetypes they have in mind for a given set are ever felt in other cycles. Something like the Khans in the set Fate reforged, guide the players into specific sets of colors and ways of playing their constructed decks.


Pushing newer players along towards predetermined archetypes, or styles of deck building. Think of them more as guides, or signposts left by the designers, rather than something that locks down your creativity. For more experienced players it at least showcases what concepts to expect within the set, which can spark ideas all their own. I don't think of these as explicit must build around cards, but rather a way of the designers to speak directly to the player and inform them what the intent behind the set was.


Story



Cycles have long since been an avenue to express Magic's story for quite some time now. In Battle for Zendikar we were introduced to this concept with the pivotal moments cards, cycles of five not tied by any mechanical or strictly flavorful themes but rather in their showcasing of... well pivotal moments in the given story for a certain set, though these were hard to distinguish if you didn't ever grab a fat pack for the set, known as bundles now. As these fat packs each contained an insert which listed the pivotal moments cards for that given set. That is why in Kaladesh they shifted to more explicit cycles with the Story Spotlight cards.


Once again these were cycles of five cards each tied together by their telling of key moments in a set, but in a bid to help players put these cycles together without having to purchase outside bundles, they added the story spotlight tag to the bottom of these cards, with an x out of five to denote the cycle in easily identifiable terms. This was a major improvement, as Magic is at its best when a player can simply interact with the cards themselves to understand set, setting and story. This concept would then be carried on for several sets, but it became apparent that five cards just weren't enough, and a traditional cycle just wouldn't cut it anymore.


So in War of the spark they threw out the five card limit, allowing these cycles to be more fluid and accommodate the story at hand. Even more fascinating was that they split the War of the spark story spotlight cards into 3 separate cycles within one set, by grouping them in acts. Which is the one and only time we see this act structure, while the removal of the five card limit would carry on into present day. Seemingly expanding with each set, culminating in the set Murders at Karlov manor, which carries with it a whopping 31 card cycle of story spotlight cards.



Now sometimes the story told doesn't even get a spotlight, nor any markers of a greater plot but instead tell a smaller story of a minor character. One of my favourite instances of these and possibly the most famous is the curse cycle, which all feature a Planeswalker with the worst of luck. Which itself is a cycle within a cycle, and part of a larger “curse of cycle” that are all focused on the mechanic of enchanting another Player with a negative effect.


Stories have always played a big part in Magic's identity, and as such constructing the game with stories in mind really is what brings this game to life. Cycles can be more than mechanical or thematic ties but rather a story telling device. By placing these story beats directly into cards, we can experience the story firsthand, and explore its key moments while simply enjoying this game we love


Aesthetic



One might not think of it as such but cycles are an act of Aesthetics through symmetry. A design principle rooted in the abstract ways that humans take in sensory information in a pleasing way without even being directly aware of it. You see we instinctively are attracted to connections, and structure; to parallels drawn weather obvious or not and cycles fit neatly into how we experience the game from an aesthetic perspective. These are design principles baked into Magic: the Gathering, a game that is full of patterns, groupings and structure. Nothing is some accident thought up on a whim. There are rules that dictate how a set should be structured, how patterns should be applied, and cycles fit neatly into this idea. In this way the designers leverage cycles to craft a unique feel to the game through aesthetic patterns.


Mark Rosewater spoke at length about aesthetics' role in Magic: the Gathering, especially in how cycles play a major part of this aesthetic, in his article Zen and the Art of Cycle Maintenance, and while I recommend you read the whole thing, this part of it really stuck with me. “The idea behind it is that many of the things that determine the aesthetics of an item are not things that are conscious to the observer. What that means is that following all of the rules is important even if it's not immediately noticeable by the player. The overall effect will be.” This notion mirrored my own experience with researching this article, as when you are down inside of the set digging through its cards, some cycles can be hard to spot and yet they are there shaping my overall perspective on the set.  


But this concept makes it all the more satisfying to spot these cycles, like a puzzle that locks in its final piece to reveal something beautiful. It's not merely about functionality; it's about creating a visual harmony that resonates with players on a subconscious level. Just as in other forms of art, symmetry plays a crucial role in how we perceive and appreciate the design elements presented to us.



When cards are organized into cycles, whether overtly or subtly, they contribute to the overall aesthetic coherence of the game. Whether it's the symmetry of mana costs, card abilities, or thematic connections, these cycles create a sense of order and balance that is inherently pleasing to the player who is interacting with it. In essence, cycles serve as aesthetic anchors within the vast sea of cards, providing players with familiar patterns to latch onto and guiding them through the visual landscape of the game.


They are like the recurring motifs in a piece of music or the repeating patterns in a work of art, enriching the player's journey and adding depth to their engagement with the game. As Mark Rosewater said perfectly, adhering to these aesthetic principles may not always be consciously recognized by players, but their impact is undeniable. The thoughtful curation of cycles imbues any set with a sense of aesthetic completeness.


Conclusion


Cycles, as we've explored, are not just mere sets of cards linked by mechanics or flavor; they represent the very essence of Magic: The Gathering's design philosophy. From defining the color pie and factions to guiding player experiences and enhancing the game's aesthetic appeal, cycles serve as a tool for the designers to enrich the players understanding and enjoyment of the game, whether explicit or implicit. So I urge you to dig through each card in a given set, look for those patterns and discern for yourself what they are trying to tell you.


Thanks for reading my latest article, if you enjoyed it then consider becoming a site member, that way you can be notified when the next one goes live. With that friend, I will catch you in the multiverse, bye!

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