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It is clear, that transmutation circle in FMA plays significant role for transmutation result. I really doubt, that, for example, Isaac McDougal can use Mustang's circle for water transmutations, and vice versa. But during Brotherhood series, there several example of usage of same transmutation circle for different goals.

First example - Alphonse circle. For instance, aside of creating things such as cage for Paninya, in Liore he also manages to fix radio (which is fairly complex device) with same circle.

Another example is Roy Mustang, who was able to use his circle for at least two really different transmutations - his common attack with burning oxygen in air, and dissipating water to hydrogen and oxygen during first encounter with Lust under fifth lab.

So, question is - how important is pattern of circle, and is there any hints, what variety of transmutations are allowed with single circle?

  • I think it's either an oversight and the patterns were supposed to be different in a lot of cases where they were the same, or they're very basic and the alchemist must hold in mind some pretty cunning way to manipulate that basic transmutation action, like for example "construct" for both radio and cage, and oxygen-related stuff for both burning and water decomposition (something about enticing and stopping oxygen atoms). – Hakase Oct 13 '16 at 8:14
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    it is shown in the series that Transmutation Arrays are significant. when in Lab 5 as he was preparing to create the Philosopher's Stone Ed changed the original array to one he saw in Tuckers Notes which apparently was more efficient. – Memor-X Oct 13 '16 at 11:06
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Note that Al's alchemy tends to always revolve around the displacement of material. Comparatively, Mustang's alchemy revolves around chemistry (igniting materials)

Al may be using the same circle which allows him to use a form of "telepathy" (for lack of a better word) to piece things together.

From many instances of alchemy being used, you can see that the intent of the alchemist changes the effect of the transmutation.

  • Mustang's glove carries the same symbol, but Mustang has many fire transmutations up his sleeve.
  • Armstrong's glove is the same (for earth and metal related transmutations)

This is a recurring pattern for many alchemists. Their circle limits their alchemy to a specific realm (fire, earth, destruction, displacement, ...) but they use the same circle to perform many different transmutations within that realm.

Alchemy seems to be a combination of the circle (method of transmutation => Al's circle displaces material) and the alchemist's intent (how to apply that method => Al puzzles the thing together again).

  • This answer I think is nearly there but I think is missing the knowledge component. One other thing to consider is Elric at one point mentions the building blocks of the human body (100g Carbon, 1g Gold - I don't think he uses those values but you get the point) required to "make" a human body. It seems, like you say, that the circle locks to the method of transmutation, and then the Alchemist's intent PLUS KNOWLEDGE of the desired outcomes components makes up the rest. Otherwise there'd be no need for the large amount of study that each Alchemist goes through. – Philbo Nov 1 '17 at 9:12
  • @Philbo: Referring to Al's alchemy as "telepathy" was meant to imply that he must therefore know how a radio needs to be put together. Al consciously and expertly fixes the radio, the radio doesn't fix itself just because Al commands it to. Similarly, when Al displaces material in order to stop someone in their tracks, it often manifests as a hand. Al thinks of punching that guy, and his alchemy manifests as a fist that punches that guy. But the question was specifically about the circle, and I infer that the circle only defines the method, not the current goal. – Flater Nov 1 '17 at 10:58

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