From the Magic’s humble beginnings in Alpha, the game has had many cycles. Alpha had 7 cycles and 3 vertical ones, one of the more notorious ones was its 1-mana “boon” cycle, giving Ancestral Recall to blue, Lightning Bolt to red and black Dark Ritual while giving Giant Growth to green and giving white… Healing Salve. Cycles that don’t share the same costs and abilities (like the dual land and original Moxen cycle) can be very hard to balance, much like the colors themselves. While cube cycles aren’t anywhere nearly lopsided, it difficult to make cycles work in a cube.
When writer and fellow commons cube designer Adam Styborski updated his commons cube to include a cycle of artifacts that can be used by any color, I wasn’t too thrilled with the addition of most of the spellbombs, most notably Necrogen Spellbomb. (I wasn’t really a fan of any of the Mirrodin spellbombs, mind you, but Necrogen was the most notorious culprit.)
However, at a random moment some time later, I thought about Pyrite Spellbomb. Instead of thinking of it as an expensive Seal of Fire or a slightly better Moonglove Extract, I thought of it instead with its second ability in mind, thinking of it as a 1R Volcanic Hammer that could be cycled for 2 (whose cycling ability and casting cost could be paid in installments at the cost of being at sorcery speed. Somehow, that works out.) After that, the card got better in my eyes. (Similarly, Dimir Infiltrator was a card that I underestimated at first when I thought of it as a 2 mana unblockable creature in a color pair that doesn’t usually care about unblockability. However, when I thought of the lack of tutoring in commons and the fact that 2 CMC is a sweet spot for UB (Terror, Diabolic Edict, Skittering Skirge, Counterspell, Into the Roil) I gained respect for it. Better than Recoil? That’s tough.) Thinking of cards in relation to other cards is pretty useful an exercise. When the Wizards Invitational 2007 Cube included Temple Acolyte, I thought that it was a terrible card, but when I thought about it in relation to Bottle Gnomes, it looked a lot better, since it shaves a mana off and has an ETB trigger at the cost of having a W in its casting cost and inability to chain via Volrath’s Stronghold, which is definitely an upgrade. (Granted, there was a lot wrong with the Invitational Cube, but Temple Acolyte was a good idea.)
When I thought of the rest of the spellbombs in this way, they didn’t look very good as even with cycling, Necrogen Spellbomb‘s 1B is just too much for a one-time discard effect (even if it can be used on the opponent’s draw step.) There aren’t many cubeworthy cards with cycling other than the cycling lands (which have been great, even the Urza’s Saga ones), Undead Gladiator and Wild Dogs – all of which have been pretty solid. Cycling cards, in addition to other cards like Burst Lightning and Indrik Stomphowler represent flexibility in that both cyclers and Pillage have different modes for different times. Turn 8 and you don’t need that Lonely Sandbar? Cycle it away! Granted, the flexibility comes at a cost – Burst Lightning is worse than Lightning Bolt at 1 red and worse than Lightning Blast when kicked, but it is good for two reasons. Its flexibility is obvious, but the other is that its “base effect” of Shock, while hardly amazing, is still good enough to use in a cube.
It’s very tempting to include a cycle or two of related cards which seem like they may be useful, but you have to be careful that you don’t use that cycle to justify a card’s inclusion. For example, I used to run a cycle of 2 color-aligned lands in my powered cube.
White: Kjeldoran Outpost and Kor Haven
Blue: Shelldock Isle and Faerie Conclave
Black: Volrath’s Stronghold and Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth
Red: Barbarian Ring and Ghitu Encampment
Green: Treetop Village and Gaea’s Cradle
What ended up happening was that while lands like Volrath’s Stronghold were great, Gaea’s Cradle and Urborg weren’t doing much. Cards in the 2nd tier of color-aligned lands like Ghitu Encampment and Kor Haven were performing well, but the Cradle and Urborg weren’t holding up their end of the bargain. However, since they were part of the color-aligned land cycle, I kept them in for longer than I should have (Cradle especially, which only performed well once.) Once I cut the weaker color-aligned lands, I never looked back. When I was running a color-aligned land cycle in my commons cube, I had to use the terrible Piranha Marsh for much longer than I should have, solely because I had no other options (Bojuka Bog was the only other option and that just wouldn’t work since its effect is so narrow.) When I decided to move lands to their appropriate color sections, I was extremely glad to get rid of the Bog (and in retrospect, cards like Khalni Garden and Sejiri Steppe weren’t really that great either, but I kept them in mainly on the strength of Halimar Depths and Teetering Peaks.) Trimming these cycles resulted in jettisoning these suboptimal cards, resulting in less dead picks and overall stronger cubes.
Humans are naturally drawn to symmetry and cycles encompass the Magic equivalent of symmetry, at least in theory. While maintaining balance is absolutely key for a cube (ie only having something like Treetop Village in a land section is a bad idea) – it is crucial that you do not include suboptimal cards solely to complete a cycle. Don’t run suboptimal cards!