Making the Cut - Cycling
(Niv-Mizzet Reborn | Art by Raymond Swanland)
Wizards: Cycling Commander, Please?
From the time I first saw the mechanic in Urza's Saga Limited to the time Astral Slide took over Standard, I've always loved Cycling. It was inevitable that this love would eventually spread into EDH, and I waited years for a Cycling commander to see print. However, when Amonkhet came and went with a return to Cycling but no relevant commander, I got tired of waiting and built the deck anyway.
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I've been tweaking this deck for about a year now, and in that time I've cast filler commander Cromat only twice. Total. Both times I was playing against a discard deck and playing Cromat was the only thing I could do. Nothing against Cromat, but he's just not relevant to the deck in any fashion except for providing a way to play all five colors.
For those counting, the deck sports 48 cards with Cycling, close enough to half the deck that, once you can Cycle cards for free (for example, with an effect like New Perspectives), it's fairly likely you can consistently draw the majority of your deck. That's only possible because we're playing all five colors and have access to the best Cycling cards in each.
There's a New Sheriff in Town
With the release of War of the Spark, however, five-color enthusiasts got a new option! Instead of the defaults of Child of Alara, Progenitus, or Ramos, Dragon Engine just to put some colors on the table, Niv-Mizzet Reborn is just an incidentally excellent five-color commander! While he's not the Cycling commander I've wanted for almost a decade, just using him to draw a few cards will be much more valuable than anything Cromat has ever done for the deck.
While I still don't expect to be casting Niv-Mizzet Reborn all the time, I can see a lot more situations where I'll end up casting him over Cromat just to roll the dice on his enter-the-battlefield ability:
No Offense, Doug, But This Still Seems Pretty... Bad?
So we're replacing one cardboard cutout of a commander with a more detailed mannequin who still doesn't have much to do with the deck. Can we change that, and have the deck take a step forward? Don't get me wrong, it's a theme deck, and by design, it has every land come into play tapped. It's never going to be a world beater. Still, how can we make it better?
Let's start by looking at what is already in the deck that can be drawn from our new leader Niv-Mizzet Reborn's triggered ability.
Existing Guild Gas
Seven cards total. That's not exactly a Grand Slam. Still, they're all fairly solid, and several of them are actually engines and win conditions when combined with the Cycling gas we'll need to fuel them. Let's see if we can't improve our odds by looking at the dual-colored Cycling cards we aren't currently playing.
Future Guild Gas
It's not hard to see why a lot of these options were skipped over in the initial building of the deck, but there are still a few that shine through enough to be worth considering. Ancient Excavation, for example, seems like it maybe should have made the cut in the first place, since this deck is all about digging and discarding. Shadowstorm Vizier is a two-color copycat of Vile Manifestation, a card that did make the final build, so perhaps it should be included as well. Treacherous Terrain is a late-game win condition and an early-game land-fetcher, easily making it the best card of the bunch, especially since this deck is always looking for help to close out a game.
But Now What Do We Cut?
Adding three more two-color cards would get us up to 10 possible hits on the Niv-Mizzet roulette wheel... but which mono-colored cards do we cut for them? Let's see if we can kill two birds with one stone by increasing not only the number of cards Niv-Mizzet could potentially find, but also the percentage of Cycling cards in our deck.
First, let's look at our nonland, non-Cycling, mono-colored cards and see what jumps out. As was previously gone over in my Narrowing Options article, it's rarely useful to go through piles of cards the same way twice, so let's go ahead and organize them by their mana cost this time through and see if we can't improve our mana curve while we're at it.
Several cards in this list are our direct win conditions, and several others are the engines that allow the whole deck to work. If Astral Slide stays out on the battlefield, for instance, we can usually just control the entire board state until we win.
Still, there are a few things that leap out as less impactful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cheapest card is first on that list. While there is a lot of benefit to having a one-cost option, Ruthless Sniper asks for more mana to make himself relevant. Rather than paying more mana, we can easily cut him for Shadowstorm Vizier, which will fly over enemies and can deal tons of damage in one explosive turn, and can do so without paying any extra mana.
After that easy swap, the options get a little more hazy. We just cut a one-drop, so now we'll see if we can cut cards at the top of the mana curve. Let's go straight down the line and give an initial impression on each card:
- New Perspectives: Put simply, we're not cutting this. New Perspectives is the best of the lot. 5/5
- Overwhelming Stampede: This might seem out of place in a Cycling deck, but a lot of the payoffs in this deck create tokens, so we'll want a way for them to trample over our enemies for the win. 4/5
- Psychosis Crawler: Speaking of direct win conditions, Crawler can drain an entire table if you manage to go off with free Cycling effects. 5/5
- The Mending of Dominaria: Any means of retrieving the numerous lands we've discarded is very strong, even if we have to wait. 4/5
- Worm Harvest: Of all the token generators in the deck, this one feels the weakest. Hybrid in the mana cost helps, but three colored mana of any kind is still rough in a five-color deck. 2/5
- Goblin Charbelcher: Given how thin this deck will get while it repeatedly searches for lands, Charbelcher can make for a potent finisher, often killing players outright. That said, it costs a lot of mana to do so. 3/5
- Splendid Reclamation: The best version of this effect in the deck. No waiting, no setup, just grab all the discarded lands and shove them into play. 5/5
- Toothy, Imaginary Friend: While Toothy is a bit pricey at four mana, its ability to extend Cycling ridiculousness is second to none, especially when combined with Astral Slide. 4/5
- World Shaper: A bad Splendid Reclamation is still a Splendid Reclamation, and there are a few ways that we can make it happen more than once in the deck. 4/5
Given the seat-of-the-pants ratings, then, it would be an easy call to go ahead and cut Worm Harvest for the other win condition we wanted to add, Treacherous Terrain. The only problem is that Worm Harvest is one of the dual-colored cards we're trying to maintain in the deck, to make sure Niv-Mizzet's ability has enough targets! Therefore, it seems safer to swap out Goblin Charbelcher, a slower, single-target damage dealer, since Terrain will deal damage to each opponent and will take more advantage of our new Commander.
That just leaves one more slot to cut for Ancient Excavation, a draw spell that will help us dig for more gas. Let's look at other cards with similar functions - the ones that let us keep the crazy Cycling going in one way or another - and see which one doesn't look as good as the Excavation.
- Grim Discovery: Two mana to get two cards back from the graveyard sounds great, though there's a low probability it only has one target, or that someone has exiled our graveyard. 3/5
- Life from the Loam: Like it or not, a Cycling deck quickly becomes a lands deck, and Life from the Loam is a staple for a reason. 5/5
- Satyr Wayfinder: The synergy with Astral Slide is nice, as is having an extra blocker, but Wayfinder is far from necessary. We have enough ways to fill the graveyard. 2/5
- Shadow of the Grave: This card gets the imagination going, but in actual play I've often found myself holding it and planning out a grandiose turn more often than I've actually been able to pull off said grandiose turn. 3/5
- Realms Uncharted: This card basically reads "go find two cards that say Cycling on them." Not a bad deal for three mana, especially since it puts the other two in the graveyard, for us to get back later. 4/5
- Tilling Treefolk: Compared to Satyr Wayfinder, this really comes out on top. The trigger works with Astral Slide, or you can just Cycle two lands and immediately get them back. Either way, you're smiling. 4/5
- Toothy, Imaginary Friend: Toothy quickly gets huge in this deck, often acting as a win condition if you've managed to get an Astral Slide or Archfiend of Ifnir to stick, or just drawing half your deck when it leaves play. 4/5
I have a feeling we'll be looking at this part of the deck again, but for now let's take our lowest-rated card and swap it out with no fuss.
I want to keep as many Cycling cards in the deck as possible, but there are also lots of two-color cards that synergize with our shenanigans even if they don't mention our build-around keyword.
As one of my favorite podcasts likes to say, none of us is as smart as all of us, so I'd like to take a few card ideas from other content creators who have tackled Cycling decks, including Willem-Jan's Cycling Yidris brew. Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't include a few new options from War of the Spark, too!
Some Additional Guild Options
To figure out what to cut for the above, let's once again sort our deck into different piles. We still want to keep as many Cycling cards as possible, so we'll organize our non-Cycling cards by function to see if we can swap any single-color cards for two-color options that serve a similar purpose
Lets go role by role and see if we can find an easy swap, or if life is going to be a bit more difficult than that.
I would say Heartwarming Redemption and Unfulfilled Desires fit into the Card Advantage category, so let's look for swaps there. The ratings given to Grim Discovery and Shadow of the Grave have marked them as potential cuts already.
I'm still skeptical on Shadow of the Grave, but it synergizes quite well with Heartwarming Redemption, and Ancient Excavation before it. With that in mind, then, let's take out Grim Discovery for our new Boros toy.
Now, what to swap for Unfulfilled Desires? Well, the remaining options in the card advantage category seem very necessary, so we're going to have to deviate slightly from the plan here. Unfulfilled Desires basically gives Cycling to all our cards, so let's look at the Cycling half of the deck really fast, specifically the mono-colored cards that also fill a card advantage function. To help, I'll also limit consideration only to cards with color mana in their Cycling costs, since they don't become "free" with Fluctuator, a key component to the deck.
Cycling for Advantage!
I don't even need to do a seat-of-the-pants rating to find the card that isn't really doing enough work: Vizier of Tumbling Sands. It's easy to imagine the upside that can come from unexpectedly untapping a permanent at just the right time, but even then, he's just an expensive mana dork. Unfulfilled Desires will just do a whole lot more as a powerhouse engine that digs for our important pieces and racks up triggers.
Living Twister is hard to pin down to a single category, but it's gotta go somewhere, so let's put it alongside Rakdos Charm, another versatile card that can also just end the game, a thing this deck needs very much.
Cutting win conditions is tough, though. Let's start with what we're not cutting: Lightning Rift, Faith of the Devoted and Psychosis Crawler are the major win conditions for the entire deck. Often you can cast any one of the three with some sort of engine on the board and win that very turn. That really just leaves us with two options on what to cut straight across:
There's not much fuss here. Psychic Corrosion is the only mill card, and Overwhelming Stampede is dead without a token generator. Switching these out will help the mana curve, too, so these feel like great one-for-one swaps.
Finally, Growth Spiral and Mina and Denn, Wildborn rather easily fit into the Mana Acceleration category. Unfortunately, there aren't really any obvious cuts in this category. Ashnod's Altar can sacrifice the tokens we make to pay Cycling costs, making it a necessary engine. Far Wanderings is an absolute powerhouse given how easy it is to hit Threshold, and The Mending of Dominaria, Splendid Reclamation, and World Shaper all synergize beautifully with our discarded lands. That just leaves Ramunap Excavator, which allows us to Cycle a land and then play it.
With the removal of Overwhelming Stampede, however, perhaps it is time to tamp down the token portion of the deck as a whole. We'd already considered cutting Worm Harvest earlier, after all, and Drake Haven and Crawling Sensation similarly feel underwhelming at times. While that would make Ashnod's Altar a bit less powerful, perhaps it would still be worth it to cut one of these token-makers rather than skimp on one of the excellent cards in the Mana Acceleration category.
We have four cards total to consider, and really only room for one of them to make it into the deck. Let's make this our poll for the day, then, as it's really the toughest decision we've had in the entire overhaul:
Even leaving out that final slot, the final count of dual-colored cards that our new commander can go fetch is up to 15 or 16, depending on Worm Harvest's fate. That's not a huge percentage, but I'm confident that it's still a vast improvement over our old friend Cromat. Let's end with a quick look at the final decklist (outside of the 100th card the poll will determine):
Spin Cycle 2.0
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So, what do you think of the Cycling archetype? Is it strong enough that it can carry a deck without a relevant Commander to thread it all together? Speaking of which, have you ever swapped out a commander before? Was it because a better commander was printed, or were you trying to avoid the hate by replacing a popular commander like Atraxa, Praetor's Voice or Meren of Clan Nel Toth with something a little less noticeable?
And of course, what do you have floating around in the side of your deck boxes? What cards can you just not find the room to include? Let us know in the comments, and we'll help you get to your best 99!