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Budget Magic: $94 Cycling Gifts (Pioneer)


Hey there, Budget Magic lovers, it's that time once again! This week, we're heading to Pioneer to play a super-sweet brew from a player going by the name of Thyshuffler that combines together three of my favorite things: Budget Magic all-star Hollow One, cycling, and God-Pharaoh's Gift! The idea is that we can play like a normal cycling deck, churning through our deck with cyclers and growing Flourishing Fox and Flameblade Adept, which work us toward a massive Zenith Flare once our graveyard is filled with cycling cards. As we cycle, we can play Hollow Ones for free, giving us a weird midrange plan of beating down with 4/4s. Then, since many of our cycling cards are creatures, once we get six of them in the graveyard, we can use Gate to the Afterlife to tutor up God-Pharaoh's Gift and start reanimating our little cyclers as 4/4 hasty Zombie tokens! Can the combo of cycling, Hollow One, and God-Pharaoh's Gift work in Pioneer? Let's get to the video and find out; then, we'll talk more about the deck!

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Budget Magic: Cycling Gift

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The Deck

Cycling Gift is weird. I think it's technically a midrangey aggro combo reanimator deck, if that string of words makes any sense. As we discussed in the intro, the deck starts off playing like a normal cycling deck, by looking to use one-mana cycling cards to trigger various cycling payoffs while also having the ability to play Hollow Ones for free. Once we get our graveyard full, we can shift gears and win either by chaining together a couple of Zenith Flares to burn our opponent out of the game with direct damage or by using God-Pharaoh's Gift to give us a steady stream of 4/4 hasty Zombie token versions of our cycling creatures by exiling them from our graveyard.

Cycling

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The core of our deck is one-mana cyclers. While we do have a couple that just cycle, in Winged Shepherd and Desert Cerodon, the real power of the deck's cycling package is that many of our cards with cycling also work as cycling payoffs. Take Flourishing Fox, for example. We can cycle it for just one mana to fill our graveyard and support God-Pharaoh's Gift or Zenith Flare, but we can also just cast it (hopefully on Turn 1) and cycle other cards to grow the Fox with +1/+1 counters until it quickly becomes the biggest threat on the battlefield. The same is mostly true, to a lesser extent, of Drannith Healer and Drannith Stinger. While we often cycle them, we sometimes want to cast them to try to get in a bit of direct damage with Stinger as we cycle other cards or use Healer to buffer our life total against aggressive decks. These abilities are also important to remember if we happen to get God-Pharaoh's Gift versions of these creatures in the late game. While the GPG tokens might be Zombies, they are also copies of the exiled creature, so we can still get extra value out of our zombified Drannith Healers, Drannith Stingers, and Flourishing Foxes as we cycle cards.

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So, why is our deck overloaded with a massive 24 cycling creatures? There are really three answers, each of which works as a payoff or finisher for our deck. First, we have our old friend Hollow One and its buddy Flameblade Adept. We've played this package a few times in the past in Modern, and while it's much less explosive in Pioneer since we don't have cards like Burning Inquiry or Goblin Lore, since the format is less powerful overall, even casting free Hollow Ones on Turn 3 is pretty strong. Flameblade Adept gives us another, worse version of Flourishing Fox to help us get off to fast starts. Meanwhile, the soonest we can play Hollow One is Turn 3. If we cycle three cards, we can cast any number of Hollow Ones for free, while cycling twice will let us cast Hollow One for one mana. 

The biggest upside of the Hollow One plan is that, combined with our cycling creatures like Flourishing Fox, it gives us a plan for winning the game that doesn't involve the graveyard. This is important when we run into graveyard-hate cards, which shut down our other two plans. While we'd rather be doing something a bit more explosive than trying to win by beating down with Hollow One and friends, having a way to win that doesn't lose to Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, and friends is key in some matchups and games.

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Reason two for our seemingly endless cyclers is everyone's favorite Ikoria limited finisher, Zenith Flare. In our deck, it's pretty easy to cycle enough that Zenith Flare can deal five or six damage by Turn 4. If the game goes long, it's possible that just one copy of Zenith Flare can burn our opponent out of the game. Along with offering a way to win the game with direct damage, the other big upside of Zenith Flare is the life gain. Against aggro decks like Mono-Red, resolving a Zenith Flare to kill something and gain a few life is often a game-swinging play!

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So far, our deck looks more or less like a normal cycling deck (not that cycling is a real archetype in Pioneer, but if it did exist, it would probably look a lot like what we've discussed so far). But don't worry, our third plan is spicy: God-Pharaoh's Gift and Gate to the Afterlife to find it! Since we're planning to spend the first few turns of the game cycling creatures anyway to grow Flourishing Fox and power up Zenith Flare, we should naturally get six creatures in our graveyard fairly quickly, at which point we can use Gate to the Afterlife to tutor up God-Pharaoh's Gift and start reanimating our cycling creatures as 4/4 Zombies. This should quickly overwhelm our opponent's defenses and win us the game. While just getting back 4/4s each turn is fine, God-Pharaoh's Gift is even better with some of our cycling-payoff creatures. For example, we can reanimate Drannith Stinger as a 4/4 Zombie token, and even if our opponent has a big board of blockers so we can't attack, we can cycle cards to trigger Drannith Stinger

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Rounding out the non-land cards in our main deck are Cast Out for a bit of cycling removal and Jegantha, the Wellspring as a companion. While Cast Out is fine, I'm honestly not sold on Jegantha in the deck. Companions are powerful, but Jegantha, the Wellspring doesn't do anything especially helpful for our deck specifically, with it usually just being an eight-mana (counting the cost to put it in our hand) 5/5. Even this powered-down version of Jegantha would be worth a sideboard slot if not for the fact that its companion restriction keeps us from playing a few cards that might be helpful, especially sweepers like Sweltering Suns or Settle the Wreckage. While Jegantha still might be worth it, I plan to drop it the next time I take Cycling Gift out for a spin, to allow for some more flexible cards in the sideboard and perhaps even a few in the main deck.

The Mana

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The mana of Cycling Gift is solid for a budget deck, if not quite optimal. If you're looking for an upgrade (or already have the cards in your collection), I'd drop Needleverge Pathway for two more copies of Inspiring Vantage and cut two Mountains and two Plains for a playset of Sacred Foundry. It could also be worth considering channel lands or creaturelands. That said, the mana of the budget build is good enough that upgrading it shouldn't be considered a priority. It's more than good enough to compete in its current state.

Playing the Deck

The biggest challenge of Cycling Gift is figuring out when we should be cycling our cycling creatures and when we should be playing them as creatures. Flourishing Fox is a great example. On Turn 1, we pretty much always want to play it so we can (hopefully) grow it into a huge threat. But on Turn 3 or 4, there's a real question as to whether it's better to play it as a creature or cycle to support the God-Pharaoh's Gift and Zenith Flare plans. Personally, my default mode is to cycle to try to find our big payoffs, especially with weaker cycling creatures like Drannith Healer, although I'm not 100% sure this is correct.

If you have Hollow One in your opening hand, it's important to think through when you will cycle cards. We had a couple of weird games where we played Flourishing Fox on Turn 1 but then decided not to cycle on Turn 2, to save up our cyclers in order to play a Hollow One on Turn 3. Remember, Hollow One costs a single mana if we can cycle twice, and three cycles make it free. If our hand isn't overloaded with cyclers, it's sometimes better to wait an extra turn or two to start cycling in order to make sure we'll be able to get Hollow One onto the battlefield.

In all honesty, Zenith Flare was responsible for a big percentage of our wins. The most common way for Cycling Gift to actually kill the opponent is to chip in for a bit of damage in the early game and then finish the opponent off with Zenith Flare. The same thing works with God-Pharaoh's Gift, If possible, focus on getting in at least a little bit of damage early in the game. It takes some work to get the full 20 damage out of a Zenith Flare or even a God-Pharaoh's Gift (at least in a timely manner), but both cards are really good (and quick) at closing out the game if we can get our opponent down to somewhere between eight and 12 life.

Wrap-Up

Record-wise, Cycling Gift was only okay. It ended up going 2-3 in our video matches and a bit worse overall, including all of the other matches I played with the deck. The good news is that even when we lost, a lot of the games were super close. The bad news is that graveyard hate is really rough, and we picked up a few losses thanks to our opponent locking down our yard, which in turn shut down both God-Pharaoh's Gift and Zenith Flare.

Oddly, the biggest issue we had with the deck was consistency, especially in the number of lands that we drew. Because the idea is that we can keep chaining cyclers together until we hit our finishers, one way we fizzle is by drawing too many lands and not enough cyclers, which leaves us without the velocity we need to close out the game with our finishers. We also lost some games because we ended up stuck on one or two lands (even after getting 20-ish cards deep in our library thanks to all of our cyclers), leaving us unable to cast our finishers at all. By far the biggest additions to the deck would be some cycling lands, which would offer protection against flood and possibly screw as well, by allowing us to play a few more lands. The problem is that Pioneer doesn't have good cycling lands at this point. Boros doesn't have a cycling dual land, Triomes are a bit expensive (in terms of both budget and cycling), and the mono-colored cycling lands in the format are the Deserts, which cost two to cycle and come into play tapped, which causes other issues. I think it might be worth trying some of these lands in the deck, although it would be a huge burst of power for the deck if we ever get the one-mana cycling lands (or cheaper cycling dual lands) in Pioneer.

So, should you play Cycling Gift in Pioneer? It depends. The upside is that most of the deck was recently in Standard, so you might already have the cards or be able to put it together easily on the cheap. The downside is that it gets blown out by graveyard hate and can be inconsistent, which, combined with our "meh" record, puts Cycling Gift on the lower end of the competitiveness scale. All in all, I think the deck could be a fun semi-competitive option for an FNM or to play on Magic Online, but I don't think it'll truly be a legitimate competitive option until we get a bit more cycling support in Pioneer.

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Getting Cycling Gift down under $50 is super easy: we just cut back on the rare dual lands and replace them with some of the common cycling deserts. While this might lead to a few color consistency issues, and having eight tapped lands is annoying for a deck that wants to be aggressive, this isn't all bad news. As we talked about before, cycling lands seem great in the deck as a way to prevent flood and screw, doubly so if the goal is to keep the cost of building the deck as low as possible. If you want to go even further, you can drop Damping Sphere, Soul-Guide Lantern, and Jegantha, the Wellspring from the sideboard, replacing them with Tormod's Crypt, Sweltering Suns, and Deafening Silence (or Rule of Law), which would drop the cost of the deck down to around $25!

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The non-budget build of Cycling Gift isn't really that expensive, coming in at just $140. The main changes come to the mana base, where we make the changes we discussed earlier, and to the sideboard, where we drop the companion plan so we can play things like Settle the Wreckage and Sweltering Suns. I'm not sure just how big of an upgrade these changes represent, but this is the build of Cycling Gift I'd play today if budget weren't a concern.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.



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