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Explorer Cycling Deck Guide: One-Shot Your Opponents

In the attempt to further explore the world of old Standard, I came across a deck that I played during one paper tournament and I placed second – Cycling. I put it together since it was cheap, but was actually surprised by how strong it was. Considering that all the cards are available in Explorer, we can try to port the deck over there.

Deck Tech

It’s a deck with a very simple overarching plan, but a lot of ways to execute it. Even though the plan is to keep cycling cards, there is much more nuance. The main question you have to ask yourself at each and every step is whether to cast the card or cycle it away. In this deck, most of them are pretty reasonable on their own.

Explorer Jeskai Cycling by Skura
by DoggertQBones
Buy on TCGplayer $112.23
best of 3
2 mythic
23 rare
23 uncommon
12 common
Planeswalkers (2)
Creatures (18)
Flourishing Fox
Drannith Healer
Valiant Rescuer
Instants (8)
Zenith Flare
Sorceries (4)
Go for Blood
Enchantments (7)
Cast Out
Lands (21)
Steam Vents
Raugrin Triome
Sacred Foundry
60 Cards
15 Cards

The creature base is key here. Flourishing Fox is the absolute all-star, and multi-fox openers are true bangers. If you’ve seen your opponent play Spikefield Hazard, don’t play Fox turn one. In addition, try not to go all in on one Fox as one Fatal Push can mean you’ve wasted too many turns on effectively doing nothing.

Valiant Rescuer attacks from a different angle than Fox. While Fox goes tall, Rescuer goes wide. It plays very well defensively as we can just keep chumping the opposing attackers, buying ourselves time for Zenith Flare which I will talk about later.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the strongest cards in the deck. It’s arguably strongest against control where they have to commit a mass removal spell to deal with that Rescuer has generated.

Drannith Healer and Drannith Stinger create a duo of threats which are generally speaking mediocre, but still worth playing sometimes. You will often want to cast Healer when life total matters – against aggressive decks mostly. If you’re playing against anything else – cycle it away.

Stinger is better in against a wider array of decks. Its main role is to ping the opponent down a bit so that, hopefully, the first Zenith Flare finishes the opponent off. What’s key is that you shouldn’t be too unwilling to trade it off in combat against a Burning-Tree Emissary, Robber of the Rich etc.

Ultimately, you’ve got a nigh-unbeatable endgame in the form of a kill shot which can barely be interacted with.

I am still deciding on the exact number of Irencrag Pyromancer, but it’s been solid. Four points of toughness is high enough that should guarantee it surviving most damage-based removal. When it gets going, it can ping down the opposing board or lower the opponent’s life total enough that they die off of one Zenith Flare. I usually try to set it up in such a way that I can play it and immediately cycle.

Improbable Alliance is not a creature, but very much a threat. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the main reason to go Jeskai instead of pure Red White. You can slam it on turn two and basically be sure that it stays there, contrary to other creature two-drops. It pumping out flying creatures is of significance too as you can guarantee chipping in for some damage to help, you guessed it, make sure the opponent dies off of one Zenith Flare.

One of the best openings is turn two Alliance into turn three Valiant Rescuer and immediately cycle. It leaves you with Rescuer and two tokens which can either start applying pressure or just chump your way into the mid-game.

I’ve also been playing two copies of The Royal Scions which play a few roles. First, it helps you trigger Improbable Alliance with its plus ability. In addition, it just filters through your draws. The second plus ability can give your Fox trample which will take the opponent aback if they were planning to chump it.

Last but not least, the ultimate refuels our hand. Against interactive decks with removal the curve of turn two Improbable Alliance into turn three The Royal Scions is a real headache.

The deck also plays interaction pieces – Censor, Cast Out, and Go for Blood. While we do have a linear plan of racing until we can play Zenith Flare, we can interact pretty substantially until we get there. Second turn Censor, turn three two-drop + cycle, turn four Cast Out is just one possible play pattern.

The last key aspect of the deck is a card I’ve already mentioned multiple times – Zenith Flare. It’s basically the reason to play Cycling at all. There are two crucial elements beside the obvious one-shot kill. The first one is that it’s instant speed. It allows you to make it much tougher for the opponent to play around your win condition.

One way of doing it is casting Zenith Flare end step, untap and Zenith Flare again – preferably both would be lethal on their own. The second is life gain. Against creature decks that want to get you dead, you can shoot a creature, for say, 6 damage and gain 6 which both removes an attacker and gains you life.

Against such strategies, the first few Flares were just glorified Lightning Helix and the third or the fourth actually target at the dome. Don’t feel pressured into always casting Zenith Flare at the opponent. Having to target a creature will come up very often.

Notable exclusion – Hollow One. Having played with the deck a bunch, I have to say that Hollow One is a tad too conditional to warrant its inclusion. While there is always the argument of cycling it away when it’s dead, the cost of {2} compared to the usual {1} is a big difference. Additionally, I’ve felt that the threat base is saturated enough.

Matchups and Sideboard Guide

Drannith Stinger Art by Denman Rooke
Drannith Stinger Art by Denman Rooke

At the outset, I have to draw your attention to the fact that most opponents will try to interact with our graveyard to intercept Zenith Flare. Coming into post-board games, assume that you can’t really on your Flares as heavily until proven otherwise. With that in mind, you can start by default trimming one or two.

Another approach is to focus more on casting the cards and less so on cycling. Then, at a convenient time you can remove whatever hate piece is on the board and go from there. Even then, however, those Soul-Guide Lantern will be sacrificed and you’ll have to build the graveyard from scratch. At that point, the game will have lasted a bunch of turns and you might risk drawing multiple Flares which don’t yet do anything. Therefore, I still suggest trimming them a bit.

Mono Red Aggro

+3 Redcap Melee-2 The Royal Scions
+2 Settle the Wreckage-3 Censor

They are the aggressor and we’re the control deck. We do want to be trading our creatures in combat. This is also the matchup where you actively want to play Drannith Healer to gain those bits of life. Growing Flourishing Fox is a great way to roadblock the battlefield, but they’ve got a lot of removal to impede it. With that in mind, they might have to aim a lot of removal at your creatures to keep the battlefield clean.

Prolonging the game works in your favour. A usual play pattern is casting Zenith Flare on their Torbran, Thane of Red Fell when they’ve just played it – we kill it, gain a bunch of life and are that much closer to stabilising.


+3 Soul-Guide Lantern-2 Irencrag Pyromancer
+1 Unlicensed Hearse-2 The Royal Scions

Our main hope against an early Greasefang pre-board is Censor. Later, holding up Zenith Flare or Cast Out might do the job. In that case, on the play we can slam Flourishing Fox into a two-drop and then hold-up interaction. On the draw, we’ll just have time to play the Fox and then have to hold up Censor.

Watch carefully whether they actually can play Greasefang into Parhelion II. If not, you can try to advance your own game plan as if they play a ‘naked’ Greasefang, it can get removed with Go for Blood, Cast Out, or Zenith.

Post-board we want to leverage graveyard hate but they might do the same. Those games can get pretty grindy so try to squeeze all the value from your cards. Improbable Alliance is going to be very strong thanks to its non-creature type.

Azorius Control

+4 Mystical Dispute-2 Irencrag Pyromancer
-2 Zenith Flare

I really enjoy playing this match-up as I think there is a lot of room for outplaying control. We’ve got cheap threats which very quickly grow in power, they are diversified between going wide, going tall, being an enchantment, and one-shot instant.

In addition, post-board our countermagic will make their life very tough. The toughest call is the dance and balancing between committing enough to the battlefield and not over-extending to get hit by a wrath. Valiant Rescuer and Improbable Alliance are great as you can get a formidable board having invested only one card.

Expect cards like Rest in Peace so feel free to cut Flares to 0-2 and focus on being an interactive creature deck.

Mono Blue Spirits

+4 Mystical Dispute-4 Valiant Rescuer
+2 Settle the Wreckage-2 Censor

Improbable Alliance making flying creatures is excellent. A turn one Flourishing Fox will often be uncontested, but be mindful that they do play Brazen Borrower. Our interaction pieces will pull a lot of weight, but you have to time them well as the opponent plays a ton of counterspells. Try to establish as many threats on the battlefield as possible and not play anything into countermagic, tather, cycle when they have mana up.

The best situation is turn one Flourishing Fox, turn two another threat and then try not to play anything. Irencrag Pyromancer once on the battlefield will keep pinging their stuff down.

Postboard Mystical Dispute and Settle the Wreckage will be all-stars.

Selesnya Angels

+2 Settle the Wreckage-2 Drannith Healer

It’s a tough match-up. One of our best ways to win is post-board well-timed Settle the Wreckage. The biggest issue comes from the fact that they get out of range of our Zenith Flare so we never really one-shot them; sometimes even two wouldn’t be enough.

We have to play hard control. Chump with Improbable Alliance tokens, Cast Out and Zenith Flare their creatures, and hopefully you can Censor their Collected Company.

Tips and Tricks

Irencrag Pyromancer Art by Jason Rainville
Irencrag Pyromancer Art by Jason Rainville
  • Remember that for Irencrag Pyromancer during your turn, you need only one cycle. If during the opponent’s turn – two.
  • Pay close attention to which cyclers have a generic cost and which require colored mana.
  • Zenith Flare looks at the number of cycling cards in the graveyard upon resolution. If your opponent exiles your graveyard in response, you can still hold priority and and cycle more.
  • Always be mindful of the cycler count in the graveyard. You don’t want to be one or two damage short of lethal.
  • In order to increase the Zenith Flare count, you can chump attack with your creatures. If the opponent lets them in, the damage is dealt and the current count might be sufficient. If they block profitably, the creatures die, land in the graveyard and, therefore, increase the cycler count.

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Also known as Skura or IslandsInFront on Twitter and YouTube, Filip started his career upon the release of Gatecrash and has been passing the turn in all formats ever since. He coaches and creates written and video content, mainly centered around the control archetype. He is passionate about Magic game theory and countering spells. Outside of Magic, he is a fan of snooker/pool, chess and Project Management.

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