Design Class – All of These Things Are Just Like Each Other

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I have an unhealthy obsession with card cycles.

Like really, really bad.

For my GDS2 entry, four of the ten cards I submitted were part of cycles:


And since this week’s GDS2 contest dealt with cycles, I’d thought I’d talk about them. Seems logical, right?

What’s the deal with cycles? Aren’t the designers just lazy?

At first glance, cycles may seem like a lazy way to design cards. “I like this card, why don’t I design 4 more just like it. There we go, that fills up the quota of cards for the set. My job is done.” (Goes home, counts money).

I’m sure that for most of us, Magic wasn’t our first card game; it was actual playing cards. Guess what, that’s all cycles baby:

While sure, they don’t have different rarities in regular playing cards, there are cycles for suits (Ace through King) and for books (A card for each suit). We have grown up expecting to see cycles in our games. Bridge, Poker and even Go Fish can’t happen if the cards aren’t in cycles. While some other card games (Fluxx, Dominion, etc.) aren’t built on cycles and they have constructed their games because of this fact. Those games are built on the complete randomness and while their decks are known qualities, if you need an out you need a unique out. As you play those games, you can clearly feel the lack of cycles.

Magic is different. The decks that we play with aren’t a set pre-constructed defined set of cards. Each deck can be (and outside from tournament play usually are) completely unique.

We’re not talking about decks; we’re talking about sets.

So, imagine that that deck of 52 playing cards is a set. This expansion “Playing Cards” was the first small set of a block called “Normal Games” and included the large set of Uno. (That was sarcasm). Imagining that Playing Cards was an actual set in Magic wouldn’t be too hard in terms of wanting to design it, adding another color (suit), and figuring out the rarities. It’d be a little awkward, but it could fit in there.

But actually we need cycles in Magic; it’s how our brain can function with so many different variables thrown at us.

Look at all the information you know because of this closed set of Playing Cards. If you have an Ace of Spades in your hand, there are three Aces you don’t have still floating out there. Depending on the game, you know it’s the high card in the suit (and one missing from that suit), it might be the trump card you need to take the hand. While this may seem like common knowledge, it’s actually the basis to help your mind go through all the variables.

If I ask you to describe you the Titan cycle from M11, what are you going to say?

4CC, 6/6 Mythic creatures with enters the battlefield and attack triggers and an added mostly combat related mechanic.

Since Blue doesn’t do much with combat mechanics (and flying wasn’t the goal of this cycle), that’s the only card from making this a perfect cycle (we’ll get to that in a minute).

M11 was 229 non-basic land cards, each one of them different. When I mention “Titan” you easily picture 5 of them. That number of “almost” unique cards shrinks to 225 you have to memorize. Sure, each one of the colors have different abilities, but the templating for the Titan recall in your mind has been set. If I say, “With the Green Titan on the battlefield,” your brain will recolonize the template from the cycle and recall the particular details of it much quicker. Even if you don’t know what sets each of them apart, it’s much easier to try and figure it out.

But this doesn’t always apply to splashy Mythics that sell sets (though, that’s a reason why we get cycles at Mythics and Rares). How about one that makes drafting easier? Here’s an easy cycle to remember when drafting the ultra-complicated Scars of Mirrodin:

Yes, the Smith cycle. Each of these are 1C, 2/1 and have a triggered ability whenever you cast an artifact spell. Again, not perfect since 3 of these require a payment of mana, the recognition of the similar art and name helps your brain process quicker when  you see this card in a booster pack or on the battlefield.

Basically, you have less memorization to do and it’s easier to recognize at a glance.

Of course, those are perfect or near perfect cycles. Those are my terms (I haven’t seen anyone from Wizards use a phrase, maybe the term tight cycle, though I would image they have a term like it), but it describes how close the cycle of cards are from becoming pretty close copies to each other. Of course, it differs from what each color/rarity does (the nature of a cycle), but in terms of casting cost, power/toughness (if necessary), and what makes the cards similar is how “perfect” they are. Example of a “perfect” cycle:

All have the word Leyline in it (not necessary for a cycle, but it does help if there’s a common name), all cost 2CC, all are Enchantments and all have an opening hand clause. The abilities of each enchantment is what makes them different and it works.

Contrast that with an “imperfect” (loose) cycle:

Different card types, different casting costs, different power/toughness, different everything. It seems as if I just grabbed five cards from a set. Only, they all require a colored mana to get the most out of the card. Tom LaPille spoke about creating that cycle here. A very loose cycle, yes, but it’s still a cycle. While it’s not as spashly or memorable as most other cycles, all of these are tied together with a common mechanic (actually, this is one of the loosest cycles I can recall).

But, not all cycles have to be perfect. In fact, the game can get quite stale if they are all perfect cycles. That doesn’t allow the game to be interesting, or fun. By having the different styles of cycles available to you, it give the game some sort of variance, but still available to keep it all together and easier to remember.

The one exception to have different prefect cycle strengths are dual lands. The only time where the lands were different from each other was Future Sight, and that was only to demonstrate possible lands that could be printed in the future (For Lorwyn, it was based on creature type, which made sense in the block, but they were all set up to do the same thing: enter the battlefield tapped unless you revealed a matching creature type). Again, this has something to do with the memorization and recall, but it also has to do with keeping the cards balanced. You have to A) test each individual land if you keep them different from each other and B) gives other colors the benefit of an advantage of having that dual land versus the other colors. It’s generally not a good idea to do depart from this cycle (and I said cycle, if you want a single or two lands that separate out, that’s different).

Take a look at most amateur designed sets. For the most part they really don’t have cycles, and if they do they’re at rare trying to be the set’s main iconic cards. They’re over flashy, complicated and completely unnecessary. Of course, that’s not always the case (a bit of generalization there) but you can easily pick them out. Your set doesn’t have to be all cycles either. Imagine an environment where close to half of the cards were part of cycles. I bet some of your can: it’s called Shadowmoor. Out of 229 cards (again, minus basic lands), an even 100 of them were in cycles. Here is a member of each cycle (A White version of it because I don’t want to upload 100 images):

Click for full size

While you see cycles more often in multi-colored heavy sets (to keep the balance and focus), sometimes it can be too much. Yes, there has to be a balance between hardly any (a good number of amateur created sets) and too many (Shadowmoor).

This wasn’t everything that couldn’t be written on cycles; in fact, MaRo did a great job years ago and I did my best not to repeat what he mentioned. Even if you don’t like the concept of cycles, they are a necessary part of Magic. They help you draft better, and recognize the cards quicker, as well as retaining the concept easier. Subconsciously, you accept cycles and want them.

Since I clumsily have no snappy ending, I instead leave you with this classic Magic Lampoon image:

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4 thoughts on “Design Class – All of These Things Are Just Like Each Other”

  1. My favorite cycle is the quests in Zendikar, because, like playing cards, it’s a traditional cycle and a vertical cycle at once. Let’s look at best and worst (in my opinion):

    Common: Best: Green. (If only because the minute you finish it, you can crack all your other expeditions.) Worst: White. A good lifegain card has to do something else, and adding tempo issues and the possibility of a Back to Nature if I play with a lot of enchantments (and since I’m playing white, I get some of the best enchantments), no amount of lifegain can fix that.
    Uncommon: Best: White. Just because it gets around even more than Stoneforge. I remember at my first Standard tournament after Scars of Mirrodin came out, and I used turn 1, Quest for the Holy Relic, Memnite; turn 2, Glint Hawk, Memnite (again), Glint Hawk, Memnite (again), search for a Sword of Body and Mind. Turn 3, attack with all three, seven damage, mill 10, get a puppy token. Turn 4, attack with all four, six damage, mill 10, lose Memnite, trade puppy with another 2/2, get another puppy. Turn 5, attack with all three, eight damage, win. (Oh, and mill 10 and get a puppy.) Worst: I want to say Quest for the Ancient Secrets, just for being pretty much strictly worse than Feldon’s Cane.
    Rare: Best: Bloodchief Ascension: An infinite combo, and works great in mill decks. I love this guy in Modern, BTW. All the ISD milling, and Pipering out Geth? Yeah. Second best is Archmage Ascension. Worst: Pyromancer Ascension. In addition to being useless in singleton games, it’s very linear. Also, I really don’t like red exploiting the graveyard, except as a power-only ‘goyf. (“You killed my father. Prepare to die.”)

    In color matters blocks (Invasion, Ravnica, Shadowmoor, Alara), cycles are part of the territory.

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