Last updated on September 22, 2023
Angel of the Ruins | Illustration by Viko Menezes
Today I want to look at one of my favorite mechanics in Limited: cycling. While there have been a multitude of cycling cards that also affect Constructed, cycling can help create compelling games in Limited while you might just run out of action or fail to draw a land on time in other formats.
The ability to exchange one resource for another gives players plenty of choice on how best to use their creatures, lands, and spells to find winning combinations (more info on the theory behind that here). A mainstay in Commander, Cube, Modern, Pioneer, and Standard whenever it’s printed, cycling is a powerful mechanic that greatly rewards thinking ahead and creates enjoyable games.
But what is cycling, and how does it work? Let’s find out!
How Does Cycling Work?
Curator of Mysteries | Illustration by Christine Choi
Cycling is a keyword ability that allows you to pay the cycling cost of a card to discard it. When you pay those costs, you put a trigger on the stack to draw a card. You basically pay a cost and turn one card into a different one.
The History of Cycling in MTG
Cycling debuted in Urza’s Saga and has become a popular and recurring mechanic ever since. While not quite evergreen, it’s appeared in multiple blocks across Magic’s history from Urza’s Saga to Onslaught, Time Spiral, the Alara block, Modern Horizons, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, and the Amonkhet block.
With 34 unique cards printed in Urza’s Saga, cycling was a core mechanic during its first printing. An additional 31 cycling cards were printed in Onslaught. As you can tell just from these first two sets, cycling tends to show up in large numbers whenever it’s featured. In the latest set to feature cycling, Ikoria, we saw 60 cards with cycling on them, nearly doubling those original sets!
This large number of cycling cards has led to over 200 unique cards in Magic’s history that have the cycling ability.
What’s the Point of Cycling? Is it Good?
Cycling gives you options with your cards. When your cards can act as one thing or can turn into something else, it allows you to make choices about how best to use them. If a card with cycling is bad in a certain matchup you can just exchange it for a fresh card off the top of your library. In matchups where that card is good, you can choose to not cycle it.
The other big advantage of cycling cards is finding land drops. Cheaper cycle cards like Hieroglyphic Illumination are used as a draw 2 in the midgame and a 1-mana cycler to help find lands early in the game. These kinds of effects have a lot of value in control decks where you probably want a variety of options at your disposal depending on the situation.
Cycling is a very good mechanic that helped create good Limited and Constructed environments in the past.
Is Cycling Instant or Sorcery Speed?
You can cycle at instant speed.
When Can You Cycle?
You can cycle a card any time you have priority.
Does Cycling Something Count as Casting a Spell?
Cycling counts as activating an ability, not casting a spell.
Does Cycling Count as Discarding?
Yes, cycling counts as discarding a card. Cards like Flameblade Adept use this synergy to trigger it as a bonus to cycling cards like Street Wraith. You discard the cycler as part of the cost so it’s in the graveyard when the ability goes on the stack.
Can Cycling Be Countered?
Can You Respond to Cycling?
Cycling is a triggered ability, so it uses the stack and can be responded to like any other ability that uses the stack.
Is Cycling an Ability?
Cycling is an ability of the card you cycle.
Does Cycling Use the Stack?
Cycling uses the stack like all normal triggered abilities.
Is Cycling a Special Action?
Cycling is a normal triggered ability, not a special action.
Can You Cycle a Card in Play?
There are eight permanents from Urza’s Destiny that can cycle from in play. Mark Rosewater, head designer for Magic, said that these cards are considered a variation of cycling. But cards with the cycling ability have to be discarded from your hand to cycle, so they can’t be cycled from play.
Can You Cycle Commanders?
If your commander is in your hand and you have a way to give it cycling or it already has cycling, you can cycle it. But you can’t cycle a commander from the command zone since cycling specifies to discard it from hand.
What is “Typecycling”?
Typecycling allows you to search for a specific type of card rather than drawing a card off the top of your library when you cycle. Cards like Sojourner's Companion can search for an artifact land, Vedalken Aethermage searches for a wizard, and Homing Sliver searches for slivers.
What Is Basic Landcycling?
Basic landcycling is another offshoot of cycling that can find a specific card when you cycle. In this case, you can cycle a card with basic landcycling like Ash Barrens to search for a basic land of any type and put it into your hand.
What Kinds of Cycling Lands Are There?
If you’re looking for an in-depth look at the history of cycling lands, we’ve got you covered. But I’ll also recap the cycles of cycling lands we have access to in case you’re in a rush.
Cycling Dual Lands
Cycling dual lands like Canyon Slough enter tapped and can produce mana of two different colors. They also have cycle 2 and saw lots of play during their time in Standard since they have basic land types and can enable lands like Dragonskull Summit.
Cycling Desert Lands
Part of what made Amonkhet Limited so smooth, cycling desert lands like Desert of the Fervent enter tapped, tap for a single color, and you can cycle them for and the color they tap for. These lands never saw play outside of Limited and decks that wanted to overload on cycling, but they do help smooth out mana bases in EDH.
Urza’s Saga Cycling Lands
Urza’s Saga cycling lands like Slippery Karst inspired the deserts. These lands enter tapped, tap for a single color, and have cycling .
The latest addition to the cycling lands, these tri-lands enter tapped, can tap for one of three colors, and can cycle for three mana. These see play in nearly every format and will be staples for years to come.
Onslaught Cycling Lands
Onslaught cycling lands like Tranquil Thicket that exist in older eternal formats and are the same as the Urza’s Saga cycling lands, except they cycle for one of the color they tap for. These are staples in EDH, and Forgotten Cave specifically saw play in Modern Dredge for years.
Best Cycling Cards
- Akroma's Vengeance
- Amonkhet cycling lands
- Angel of the Ruins
- Archfiend of Ifnir
- Ash Barrens
- Astral Drift
- Cast Out
- Cloud of Faeries
- Curator of Mysteries
- Decree of Annihilation
- Decree of Pain
- Dismantling Wave
- Edge of Autumn
- Forsake the Worldly
- Hollow One
- Ikoria Triome cycling lands
- Migration Path
- Nimble Obstructionist
- Ominous Seas
- Onslaught cycling lands
- Reconnaissance Mission
- Shark Typhoon
- Street Wraith
- Striped Riverwinder
- Tectonic Reformation
- Titanoth Rex
- Vizier of Tumbling Sands
Decklist: Grixis Control Cycling
Vizier of Tumbling Sands | Illustration by Josu Hernaiz
I played a Grixis () Control deck to a final’s appearance in an MTGO PTQ years ago in Standard. In my win-and-in I played against this terrifying cycling deck that lingered in the back of my mind ever since. I keep waiting to see a cycling deck of this style in Pioneer, but for now we must just enjoy the memories of the past.
There was also a rash of Jeskai () Cycling decks in more recent Standard. You can find a decklist here if you’re more into the new hotness and less into my nostalgia.
Cloud of Faeries | Illustration by Melissa A. Benson
I really enjoy cycling. I think that it’s had a positive effect on Magic as a whole by enabling several different Standard and Modern decks like Living End. It’s also one of my favorite Limited mechanics that ensures you get to play even if you have to sacrifice some spells to hit your land drops. That can be the difference between having a chance to win, or losing on turn 2 or 3.
While I understand that cycling can’t be in every set and it creates some overwhelming decision trees at times, I’m always happy to see cycling return. I don’t have any issues with it coming back in any upcoming sets.
I hope this guide on cycling has been helpful. Let me know in the comments down below what your favorite cycling cards are, and if you built any decks that revolve around cycling. Bonus points if it leverages a lesser-known cycling win condition, but I’ll still accept all you Living End players just the same.
Stay safe out there, and thanks for reading!Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: