Yes, my knaves, we all remember our childhood bicycle (turning is still hard for me), our 3rd grade lessons about the water cycle, and if you know your biology, you remember the citric acid cycle. Basically, Captain Planet got one fact right: nature loves its cycles (go recycle this article to your friends, family and heck, even your enemies). Now what if I told you that games are just as cycle-friendly?
I shan’t get ahead of myself. I will start, as is customary, by explaining to you what exactly I mean when I say “cycle” going forward. You see, dearest reader, if you’ve taken part in essentially any medium, you’ve likely seen a cycle. A cycle is a group of components tied together either mechanically or thematically. I know, that’s a lot of words, so let me use several examples:
In the comic series, Batman Incorporated, we’re introduced to different Batman-related heroes all operating in different countries around the world. They were created around the same time, so they’re a cycle of Bat-heroes. This, as an aside. Would be an example of a cycle being thematically-tied.Another example, and one far different from comics, is the The Elder Scrolls (if you’re a namer of things, don’t start the title with “the,” please and thanks) games. Now, you know in that game if you go down the path of destruction with your spells, you’ll start with Sparks, Flames and Frostbite—all Novice-level elemental spells, or as you know by now, a cycle of Novice-level elemental spells. Finally, let’s look at a card game example. In Hearthstone there’s a cycle of 1-mana 2-damage spells: Holy Smite, Arcane Shot, Noble Sacrifice, and Arcane blast. Okay, now you know what a cycle is, so “Is this the end of the article?” is what you may be asking yourself. Well, luckily for you, you get to continue hearing me prattle on, but this time about the types of cycles out there. For the purposes of this thread, we’ll narrow our focus now to Yu-Gi-Oh, Cardfight Vanguard and Magic: The Gathering, since they are the card games with which I am most familiar.
First, there’s the “main quality” cycle (there was no short and catchy term for that one, sadly):
1. In Magic, the absolute main quality of a card is its color identity. There are five colors in Magic: The Gathering, each of which requires you use them in decks containing lands that produce that color of mana. You can read more here. So a “main quality” cycle would just be 5 similar cards printed in each color. Here are a few examples.
2. Cardfight Vanguard uses a similar means of restricting what cards go into what deck, but instead of mana, it uses a clan system. You can read more about that here. You’ll often see cards that exist in each clan, a few of which can be seen here.
3. Yu-Gi-Oh uses a card’s name as it’s most important feature, mostly when the card belongs to an “archetype” (think of Vanguard’s clans, but even less like Magic’s colors). You’ll see certain (or in some cases, all) cards that exist in all “archetypes” in Yu-Gi-Oh, but far more unevenly than the previous two games.
Next is what I call the “reflection” cycle. Generally speaking, these are two-card cycles where you take one thing and create an equal but opposite version of it. This one won’t require a list since it’s a pretty simple concept to grasp. Here are some examples from each game.
Now there exists far more types of cycles than those two, but going into the others would be tricky since the aforementioned cycle types are the only ones you’ll see all three games use. What that means is the background information time is now over, and we can get into some meat.
“Why are cycles important?”
The answer is two-fold. Let’s break it down into Aesthetics and Game Design, both of which will be discussed here.
Firstly, let’s talk game design. Realistically, there’s only so many cards you can make; only so many unique effects. It’s a finite number and the more you design. That’s why cycles are important in design: they allow you to create cards that work similarly, and can be flavored similarly, while possessing few differences. I would be remiss to not include the fact that doing a “main quality” cycle for something like Magic means instead of designing 5 cards, you can design one and slightly tweak it: it’s a good tool for filling out an expansion.
Now let’s move on to the juicier effect and the one that affects us, the players, more. Aesthetics, is defined as “the study of the mind and emotions in relation to the sense of beauty,” but that only comprises one of the further two sub-divisions I see in this category. The beauty of this one is the two subdivisions are interconnected.
Not only do design aesthetics make cards read better, it also makes them both easier to understand and easier to remember. Allow me to give you examples (completely made up) of such aesthetically-pleasing cards:
Yu-Gi-Oh: A level 2 monster with 200 ATK and 200 DEF, whose effect is it does 200 damage when it is summoned.
Cardfight Vanguard: A Grade 2 that counterblasts 2 to let you add a Grade 2 to your hand.
Magic the Gathering: A 2-mana 2/2 that gives you 2 life when 2 or more creatures attack.
In all three you can see easily the aesthetic theme. Our brains love to take neural shortcuts because life is busy and at any given moment you’re running dozens of mental processes, so little aesthetic cues like these not only make cards read better, they allow you to remember them easier.
What I feel is the chief thing about cycles, however, is not at all a cerebral thing: every child does it. You’re not actively thinking about this stuff it’s so deeply-rooted in your thought processes. Go back to your days in kindergarten, you see a kid with a bendy straw while you only have a regular straw. What’s the first thing that pops into your little 4 year old mind? “That’s not fair,” you obviously think.
Don’t worry, it’s natural to think that. You see, we want everyone to have the same things (or at least we want to have the same thing as everyone else). Cycles allow each faction/color/archetype/whatever grouping to have access to a lot of the same tools. This is important, but comes with the danger of homogeny, I should warn. Don’t overindulge.
Now that you’ve made it this far into the article, you understand what a cycle is, the types of cycles that exist and the benefits of cycles. Now what if I told you all of that was just a prelude to the real thing I wanted to talk about? That’s right, I just gave you a ton of useless information!
I jest. Everything I, the king, give you is meaningful! The true point of this post is the importance of cycles (already covered) and why completing them is essential. Let’s start and finish the latter part.
Remember how the brain makes neural shortcuts? One such shortcut is pattern recognition. Humans are programmed to see patterns in things, and this inevitably leads to want of completion. We want to see patterns completed, and often times this just means we want everything be evenly distributed.An example (I know you love them) from Yu-Gi-Oh are the Hex-Sealed fusions. There’s an Earth Hex-Sealed Fusion, Dark Hex-Sealed Fusion and Light Hex-Sealed Fusion: where’s the FIRE and WATER versions? Another are the Effigies. There’s one of each Attribute but FIRE, WIND and WATER. Basically, when it comes to incomplete cycles, Yu-Gi-Oh is king. “Why is this important?” you may ask. “Have you not been paying attention?” I will answer. Why go against a player’s expectations when it’s easier and more lucrative to adhere to them? You want your game to be intuitive, you want people to be able to be invested because they know that there will be a payoff.
Now, and this is a sub-section of completion, you need your cycles to be consistent. This goes back to what I mentioned in the first part of the article, where I spoke of how cycles serve to create easily-remembered cards because all the cycle’s members are linked. An example:
Let’s again use Yu-Gi-Oh since it has a new cycle of cards, whose asymmetry greatly annoys me.As you can see, one of those is definitely unlike the others. The aesthetic is ruined and is counterproductive to player intuition. When you have uneven cycles where one or more cards don’t work as the majority, you create a scenario where the player makes mistakes they wouldn’t have otherwise made if there wasn’t a cycle. Essentially, asymmetry ruins the whole purpose of a cycle and makes remembering cards harder.
If five cards are different, you commit all five to memory, and never have rules issues because of it. If five cards are very alike, you commit one to memory, and never have rules issues because of it. If four out of the five cards are alike and one is different, you’re more likely to make an assumption that isn’t true and make a rules violation. Imagine if four said “and” between two abilities and one said “or”.
Now you know cycles: what they are, where they are and why they’re important. Well that’s all, folks. Be sure to join me next time when I tackle [REDACTED].