Let’s jump right into the title question! It’s clear that I didn’t give Cycling enough credit to start with; at the beginning of the format, it was busted and I missed that. I’ll try to explain why that is in-depth; feel free to skip to the tl;dr or the actual grade changes if you’re not interested! There are a few main two reasons:
a) I felt like it would be hard to get the good pieces; they were mostly uncommon and I felt like people would be snapping them up since most of Cycling’s uncommons are good in other decks. It’s very difficult to rely on getting multiple good uncommons in a human draft if other people want them, and that was on the forefront of my mind.
b) I felt like the ceiling wouldn’t be that high for doing so. The format seemed really high power and Cycling was a really slow deck; I felt like the other decks would be able to keep up and cards like Zagoth Mamba and Suffocating Fumes would be good at hating it out (which is true, they are).
c) Relatedly, if your cycles aren’t having a real impact each time, if you’re not building towards something by say having a couple of Prickly Marmosets or some of the uncommon payoffs, the cycling deck doesn’t accomplish very much, and I felt like that would be the case oftentimes when people forced it. Cycling isn’t deep enough to support more than 1-2 drafters because the uncommon payoffs are so important and hard to come by in multiples at that point; this early impression I stand by.
Is Zenith Flare busted?
In essence, both my misgivings about cycling came from underestimating Zenith Flare, and that’s because tier lists are really finnicky things. Those who know me will have heard me say that draft is such a variable thing that ratings rarely paint the full picture, but that’s even more true for Zenith Flare; when I first rated Zenith Flare, before the set had released, I had to make several assumptions, which I’ll tell you about. Full disclosure: I gave the card a high D, adjusted it to C- the day after multicolour reviews came out and then raised it from there gradually to C+ and now I have like four different ratings for it which I’ll get into; remember it’s still only two weeks into the set so I had to gather evidence before I could bring all this to you.
My calculations using a hypergeometric calculator (here’s my guide to what these are) showed that Zenith Flare was bad at most stages in the game unless you were fully dedicated to the Cycling strategy. I knew the card would be good in the decks that were but I wasn’t rating for that – I was rating for overall power level, giving a strong edge to cards that I was happy to pick early. Really there was a circle of faulty analysis: Zenith Flare wasn’t good because dedicated cycling wouldn’t be that good which wouldn’t be that good because its uncommon payoffs weren’t that great because Zenith Flare wasn’t that good. Clearly I was wrong; Zenith Flare is good enough that having access to just that uncommon (which other people don’t really want) raises cycling’s stock a lot! I’ve been happy with most of my other grades and haven’t made tons of changes but that was definitely a major mistake; I was far from alone in making it but it was mine too and I own up to it.
So, still busted or not?
I was wrong about how high Cycling’s ceiling was and how heavily drafted it would be early on, but I think in essence I had the right idea – at this point, I do believe that cycling is very good but that you really need it to be open. It’s become overdrafted in human drafts, people have mostly figured it out, so I think forcing cycling is by no means a sure thing anymore; the prediction I made is now coming true. Human drafts have a strong reputation for being self-correcting, and that’s what I’ve been noticing.
So do I think it is busted and you should force it? Not unless it’s very clearly open i.e. you get one of the great uncommon payoffs 4th pick or so. If Cycling is open, then Zenith Flare is busted and you should take it at high B/low A. If you’re playing any other deck, Zenith Flare is mediocre. You need say 9 or 10 cards with cycling for Zenith Flare to be worth playing, and that is a really tall order and even with that amount, it’s like a Warleader’s Helix you can only play on turn 6. Here’s the maths:
However, if you are dedicated Cycling, then Zenith Flare is the uncommon payoff you want the most because ultimately you’ll end up with like 14 cyclers and your deck will be good at stalling anyway. I just don’t take it that highly in my first three picks because I do believe cycling isn’t that busted, and that people are overdrafting it – so I’ve left it at C+ because that’s around where I would first pick it, and more like B at third pick and higher as the pack goes on because then I have evidence that people passing to me aren’t in it/forcing it/whatever. How can I express that as one grade? Well, I can’t – that’s why I wrote all this! But hopefully I’ve laid all of my thoughts bare for you all.
It’s also worth noting that evaluations of cycling cards goes off the wall if you are the dedicated Cycling deck; that deck just does not work well within tier lists, being so synergy-based and dependent on being open. Cycling 1 cards are automatically great, no matter what they cost; obviously if you have the option to hardcast some, those are better but you’ll be happy to play any and all of your Cycling 1s. Cycling 2 cards still need to do something unless you just need more cyclers to fill out the deck; remember that this deck needs 25-27 playables instead of 23 (the most common number of lands you should play is 14 in a dedicated cycling deck) so you do need to watch your playable count and make sure you have enough filler cycling 2s.
Like in all decks, some cards vary in dedicated Cycling based on your exact makeup i.e. some of them really want Sanctuary Lockdown and many don’t.
Cycling was much better than I gave it credit because I had to make a lot of assumptions to rate it, but now it’s tapering off because people are overdrafting it/taking the uncommon payoffs highly and it can’t support more than 1-2 drafters at the same time i.e. what I mistakenly thought would happen from the beginning.
Now, without further ado…
If you’re not used to my tier list updates, check out my first Ikoria one and my three Theros: Beyond Death ones. Note that I already made some of these changes a while back; I change on the fly and then gather them for written updates so you lot have to use outdated ratings for the minimum time gap.
- Alert Heedbonder: C+ ▶ B
- Escape Protocol: B ▶ C+
- Heightened Reflexes: C ▶ C-
- Ivy Elemental: C ▶ C+
- Jubilant Skybonder: C+ ▶ C
- Facet Reader: C+ ▶ C
- Keensight Mentor: B ▶ C+
- Ominous Seas: C- ▶ C
- Pyroceratops: C ▶ C-
- Skycat Sovereign: A ▶ B
- Spelleater Wolverine: D ▶ C-
- Survivors’ Bond: C ▶ D
- Thieving Otter: C+ ▶ C
- Unpredictable Cyclone: B ▶ C
- Zenith Flare: C ▶ C+
Alert Heedbonder: C+ ▶ B
I’ve reached the conclusion that the durdly Green decks almost always really want Heedbonder – they have Farfinders and other random Vigilance creatures, and even gaining 1 a turn really adds up. Being a Human sometimes hurts the Mutate decks, but lifegain is desirable enough that you mostly don’t want to sniff at it. It’s a low B.
Chittering Harvester C+ ▶ B
The Harvester has been doing a better Pharika’s Spawn impression than I first gave it credit; repeated sacrifice just gets out of hand really quickly. This is the best mutater at common/uncommon you can get in Black and makes it to high B.
Escape Protocol: B ▶ C+
Escape Protocol is a solid card and I’ve had several good decks with it, but it tends to lead you down the path of not being dedicated Cycling since, well, dedicated cycling in Azorius is overshadowed by Boros; there are too many good red cards for the deck. Sometimes you can be Jeskai and have Ominous Seas, but it’s rare because you can’t expend too many picks on fixing when you usually need 26 playables, and dedicated Cycling is one of the few decks where Farfinder doesn’t shine; trying to cycle into your sources is generally not worth it since you’re less likely to be able to cast your important creatures before you can cycle. That being said, Escape Protocol is busted in Azorius Cycling; it’s just rarer to be that.
Facet Reader: C+ ▶ C
Enthralled as I was with the idea of Merfolk Looter, Facet Reader costing 1 each time is just too much worse. The need for it is lesser in a Cycling format, and the 1/2 body and being a Human in a good Mutate colour all adds up to a medium card. This is a low C and I could see it going down to C-.
Ferocious Tigorilla: C+ ▶ C
The Tigorilla competes with mutates for their curve slots, and generally loses. Add the fact that cycling won’t touch this with a bare pole and it’s not like you ever want to splash it, and it’s no wonder it’s falling a tier.
Heightened Reflexes: C ▶ C-
Medium tricks really aren’t what this format is about; the Cycling decks don’t have space for them and getting to both kill a creature and gain first strike usually requires you to be pretty far ahead anyway. Reflexes in theory would be better in Gruul, but Gruul isn’t at all aggressive – the 2 drops it has access to are laughably bad at attacking, so instead it’s just doing the rampy and splashy things Green is always doing.
Ivy Elemental: C ▶ C+
+1/+1 counters and Mutate combine fantastically, making for some truly gigantic monstrosities that immediately take a huge chunk out of your opponent. There’s also a way above average amount of Ramp, so having a extra huge trampler late game is welcome in any Green deck. This is a high C+.
Jubilant Skybonder: C+ ▶ C
While Heedbonder keeps going up and up in my estimation, this keeps going down. The problem is this is mostly a 2/2 flier for 3 that they won’t point removal at anyway; it’s not so abundant that they can generally afford or want to do that. In most decks, it’s just fancy Helica Glider; I’ve reached the conclusion that they deserve the same rating, but this one is a high C and Helica Glider is more like mid. In dedicated Azorius fliers with much higher value fliers, okay you can look at C+ again.
Keensight Mentor: B ▶ C+
Keensight Mentor gets a slight grade ding because the nonhumans requirement is actually sort of hard to do in White – White is so human-centric that you often harm your Mutate decks by having that as your second colour, and Keensight Mentor works best in Mutate decks and is rarely exciting enough to splash in a set full of good splash options. Sometimes you just get enough Farfinders and other Vigilance creatures that you’re happy anyway, whether you get the first counter or not, or sometimes you’re an Exuberant Wolfbear deck rather than a Mutate deck; Keensight is certainly still good, but not as good as any of the other Mentors.
Ominous Seas: C- ▶ C+
Ominous Seas is great in the dedicated cycling Jeskai or Azorius decks, but a surprising number of decks with only 6 or 7 cyclers or other forms of card draw like Boon of the Wish-Giver or Of One Mind can find room for it in a format this slow.
Pyroceratops: C ▶ C-
Pyroceratops is really slow, goes against the Cycling gameplan, at 4 mana rarely makes for a good mutate target, and has plenty of better competition in red 4 drops at common. It’s still a fine card, but I’m pretty unexcited to run it these days.
Skycat Sovereign: A ▶ B
This flying kitty is mostly going down because it’s a mediocre splash, and the format revolves around those – it’s difficult to play and activate it in one turn on the splash, and it’s pretty underwhelming if you can’t do that. Still busted in Azorius, especially Azorius fliers, but that deck is often a bit weak.
Spelleater Wolverine: D ▶ C-
The Wolverine is an actively decent Cycling 3 drop (take it at around C+) and very mediocre everywhere else. It’s not good in all the Cycling decks either – sometimes too many of your cyclers are creatures.
Spontaneous Flight: C ▶ C-
Basically the same reasons as Heightened Reflexes; this is slightly better since White cares about tricks more but there usually just isn’t space, and White is more likely to have better tricks than Red anyway.
Survivor’s Bond: C ▶ D
Survivor’s Bond is mediocre, not because the effect is bad, but because it’s rare to have good splits of humans and nonhumans. It’s really painful to have too many Humans in your deck with Mutate creatures, because the Mutate cards are mostly pretty mediocre if you don’t mutate them. Similarly, even if you happen to have the uncommon Mentors, you’re unlikely to have enough humans to consistently make Bond better than Raise Dead because those cards don’t want you to have other humans either! Your Sanctuary Lockdown and Weaponize the Monsters decks don’t want too many nonhumans either – nonhumans aren’t good to sacrifice in this set. In the end, I end up cutting Bond something like 90% of the time.
Thieving Otter: C+ ▶ C
I dislike doing this to one of my Scroll Thief friends, but Thieving Otter is too expensive to be a great Mutate target and Blue struggles to get him through consistently. The 2/2 body has struck me as very easy to block this format, and you usually need to be on the play and/or have Frost Lynx for this particular woodland creature to do anything at all.
Unpredictable Cyclone: C+ ▶ C-
Sadly, this just isn’t what the dedicated Cycling decks want or need to do; Cyclone replaces the draw so you can’t chain off with it, which often ends up being a liabiity for those decks. Cyclone is at its best in a deck without cycling payoffs but just happens to have a lot of decent cyclers (and still has them in hand when you darw this card); none of this is all that common or exciting.
Zenith Flare: C ▶ B
Feel like I’ve gone on about this one enough! Tl;dr: low A if you’re already in dedicated cycling, B as an early pick, B+ at third pick and beyond p1, never pass it at sixth pick or beyond in pack 1. In packs 2 and 3, it really depends on how well set-up you are move into Cycling; it’s not worth taking huge risks there unless it seems already open or you already have some payoffs. I’ve rounded all this out to B, purely because I have to provide one rating, but this is a card that just doesn’t play nice with ratings.
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