Last updated on May 6, 2022

Mutual Destruction - Illustration by PINDURSKI

Mutual Destruction | Illustration by PINDURSKI

In early December, Wizards unveiled the curtain on a brand new digital-only format for MTG Arena. We were greeted with this new reality in a turn of events that nobody really asked for; a digital-only format with a mix of “rebalanced” cards paired with format-exclusive cards. A “standardized Standard,” if you will.

But why? Why do we need another format on Arena? Why do we need to deal with WotC’s poor balancing with a watered-down version of the format?

Today I’m going to go on a little unscripted trip as I talk about game design and balance in the world of Magic when it comes to Alchemy, the new digital-only format. Ready? Let’s go!

What are the Balance Issues With Recent Sets?

Restore Balance - Illustration by Mark Poole

Restore Balance | Illustration by Mark Poole

It’s no secret that the last few sets have been wildly powerful, and not just cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns or Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. Standard has seen more bannings than ever in the last few years. Heck, before 2018 we hadn’t even seen a card banned in Standard since 2011’s Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic.

2018 saw the beginnings of an unbalanced format with several overly powerful cards and oppressive decks having key pieces banned to keep the format healthy. Emrakul, the Promised End and Felidar Guardian are notable inclusions, the latter being part of an in-block infinite combo.

2019 started strong with only Nexus of Fate being banned in BO1 matches. But towards the end of the year with the release of Core Set 2020 and Throne of Eldraine, we saw several bannings including Oko and other oppressive green cards.

2020 set the record for the most bans in Standard at 10 cards. The only years that came close to this are 1999 thanks to the Urza block and 2005 with artifact lands and stuff from Mirrodin with 8 cards banned each.

What Exactly Is Alchemy?

Faerie Formation - Illustration by Ryan Yee

Faerie Formation | Illustration by Ryan Yee

Wizards dropped an announcement of their new digital-only format “Alchemy” out of nowhere in early December 2021. In their words:

Alchemy is simply a new way to play. It offers another option for players who want a new metagame, new strategies to conquer, a faster rate of evolution and change in that metagame, and a format that can work like a digital game.

WotC

In reality this is Wizard’s attempt at a digital-first format. It features all the cards in the current Standard with a couple added bonuses. Each Standard set will have “Alchemy Packs,” which have Alchemy-only cards that are designed for digital player. Some cards will also be “rebalanced” versions of their Standard copies.

What Changes are Coming with Alchemy?

Alchemy brings not only its custom designed-for-digital packs but also rebalanced versions of existing cards. Yup, you heard it right. Nerfed versions of already-printed cards, because Wizards made an oopsie.

Don’t worry though! If WotC decides that a card needs to be rebalanced, you won’t get any wildcards for it. Because the card is still useable in another format i.e., Standard.

Alchemy’s card pool will also directly affect the Historic format. All Alchemy cards, including the rebalanced versions, will be what you can use in Historic.

Why do Alchemy’s Fixed Cards Affect Historic?

Reconstruct History | Illustration by Campbell White

Reconstruct History | Illustration by Campbell White

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you.

Wizards hasn’t told us why Alchemy has to affect the Historic carpool, but I assume that it’s because they want a unified digital-only format for Arena where Alchemy players can enjoy their cards in a non-rotating format.

Is it a good idea? I don’t think so. Historic may not be my favorite format, but it’s nice to be able to play in a non-rotating format. But adding in rebalanced versions of cards nobody asked for isn’t the solution for the format.

Why Are There So Many New Formats?

It’s no secret that Wizards has been trying new ways to play Magic for some time now. Brawl came to us in 2018 with the launch of Dominaria, but we’d see three more formats introduced just a year later.

Duo Standard was WotC’s attempt to “spice up” competitive play and also take a page out of Hearthstone’s eSports book. It lasted for one tournament before being retired. I’d also note that the Duo Standard debrief mentions that a healthy format should “closely resemble your at-home experience,” which doesn’t work unless I start writing over my Goldspan Dragon with sharpies.

Historic was next, launching exclusively on Arena as an answer to players wanting a non-rotating format. Heck, it even replaced Draft as the second format for most competitive events in the last couple of years. It’s still fairly popular and boasts a healthy metagame.

Pioneer was announced soon after and even had its own Grand Prix. But Pioneer has fallen off the radar a bit thanks to Covid’s shutdown of nearly everything and Arena not supporting the huge swath of sets it would need to feature the format.

Isn’t This Just Like Hearthstone?

Declaration in Stone - Illustration by Tyler Jacobson

Declaration in Stone | Illustration by Tyler Jacobson

Well, kinda.

Hearthstone is exclusively designed for digital. There are no print versions of Hearthstone cards and the game was designed around digital card game mechanics. We’ve seen a lot of those Hearthstone mechanics transfer over to Arena with their designed-for-digital cards, too.

Perpetual effects, spellbooks, and conjuring are all mechanics pulled directly from Hearthstone. It’s not a bad thing to borrow mechanics from other games, just like Hearthstone has also borrowed from Magic.

But a majority of these new cards in Alchemy add a lot of unpredictability to a game that’s always rewarded players who knew cards and interactions better. A lot of these new abilities are completely random so players can’t guess what’s going to happen next.

What Happened to Pioneer on Arena?

Pioneer was originally going to be brought to Arena. Crazy, right?

Instead of a full 20-or-so sets being added overnight, we were told there would be a “Pioneer Masters” set that would feature a ton of Pioneer-legal cards. We weren’t really told how that would work or whether Wizards would just drip feed remastered sets like Amonkhet Remastered.

This set was supposed to be added to Arena eventually, but it was “paused” with the release of Forgotten Realms. WotC cited that it was because Historic was becoming a “unique and compelling format,” which I guess translates to “abandon the other format.” I assume it was put on hold to work on Alchemy which directly impacts Historic.

We don’t know if or when Wizards will restart work on implementing Pioneer Masters, but I don’t expect to see it come along anytime soon. Or at all.

Why Can’t Wizards Balance Standard?

Unstable Footing - Illustration by Nic Klein

Unstable Footing | Illustration by Nic Klein

Magic has been around for over 25 years now. It’s the original TCG and most other TCGs out there emulate it in some way. But with the new digital age upon us, there’s been a problem with balancing the game.

MTGO had about 300,000 users in 2007. In 2019 it was estimated that about 3,000,000 active users would be on Arena.

WotC has always used its in-house R&D team to playtest and balance cards. In 2017 they created the Competitive Play Design team after missing an infinite combo in the Kaladesh block. This team consists of 11 people who are in charge of playtesting an entire Standard rotation. And it worked for a long time (to a degree). But they face a much larger issue now:

How can you have a small team playtest a set when there are more matches played on Arena in a week than R&D will have in a full development cycle?

One of the biggest issues with balance is that formats are “solved” so much faster than R&D probably ever expected. Pro players don’t need to collect all of a set’s cards and playtest over weeks before the next PTQ. They can just crack some wildcards and play with that deck for 15+ matches a day, every day, with a variety of players.

I don’t think that R&D expected this change when MTGA was released, or how it would affect competitive play.

What’s Going To Happen With Other Formats?

Standard isn’t going anywhere and it never will. Regardless of how you feel, it’s the second most popular format (thanks Commander). But other formats might eventually see some stagnation.

Brawl was never really a hit in my eyes. It’s like a watered-down version of Commander with cards that rotate. Historic Brawl is a little more my speed, but we may see some balance issues there with Alchemy cards affecting the format.

Historic will still remain popular but I’m not sure how the format will change. Since Wizards can rebalance a card at any time we may not see top decks last for long. Powerful cards can be changed in a heartbeat, which makes me uneasy.

Pioneer has a somewhat healthy player base on MTGO, but it’s tough to guess how long it will last with the larger community on Arena. Hopefully we hear good news about the format in the coming months.

What About My Wildcards?

Curiosity Crafter - Illustration by Rudy Siswanto

Curiosity Crafter | Illustration by Rudy Siswanto

Sadly, this is not good news.

If you already own a card that has a rebalanced version like Demilich or Esika’s Chariot, you’ll get a copy of the rebalanced version without needing to craft it. The same goes if you open an Alchemy pack and get a rebalanced version of a Standard card. It goes both ways.

But what about when a card you own gets rebalanced later?

We’ve been told that wildcards will not be issued when a card gets rebalanced, though I can’t find anything in the press releases from WotC. But this is still a huge problem. Why should my Historic deck get nerfed because an Alchemy interaction is too good for Standard?

Blizzard gives Hearthstone players a 2-week window to refund cards for dust (the game’s currency for crafting cards) when they nerf cards. No matter the reason behind the change, they always offer a refund opportunity for those who want it, regardless of the impact.

The benefit of an eternal format is that the other cards in the pool allow better options to interact with. Strong cards in Standard almost always make little to no impact in Modern and Legacy because they have the better tools to deal with it.

Is Alchemy a Good Idea?

I don’t care much for Alchemy. I think that a designed-for-digital card game is not what I asked for. If I wanted that I’d play one of the ones that’s already out there.

I play Arena because I love playing Magic. I play paper Commander once a week with my friends. I’ve been playing for over a decade. I’ll probably always play in some form.

But I don’t like these ideas Wizards keeps coming up with. Digital-only cards are fine, but designed-for-digital is a whole other issue. And the fact that it affects formats that have no business being involved is astounding to me.

Wrapping Up the Rant

Tyrant of Discord - Illustration by Richard Wright

Tyrant of Discord | Illustration by Richard Wright

I don’t like Alchemy. I figured you got that by now. It’s a poor choice by Wizards to introduce a format that nobody asked for when players have been asking for Modern and Pioneer on Arena since day one. Anti-consumerism by incentivizing players to spend more to buy cards for Historic and Alchemy is a horrible idea, and bad for players’ wallets.

The format itself isn’t really a problem. It’s not for me, but it’s not inherently bad. But the way Wizards has chosen to shake off player demands to push a format nobody wanted is bizarre and right up WotC’s alley.

How do you feel about the format? Are you keen to try it out? Do you wish they’d done something else instead? Do you just wanna disagree with me? Let me know in the comments or reach out to us on Discord.

And if you need some free assistance while playing on MTGA, check out Arena Tutor. It’s awesome.

That’s all for me. I’m currently battling a cold and am a third of the way through Doom Eternal. Wash your hands, keep your cards sleeved, and never riffle shuffle. See you in the next one!

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12 Comments

  • Avatar
    Huran December 15, 2021 9:02 am

    As i mentioned many times when i hear the “nobody asked for alchemy”: sorry, but i did. I may not be part of the majority and i sure am not more important than anyone else.
    But i still asked for it, i like it and one person, any person, is enough to not be a “nobody”.

    • Avatar
      Dan Troha December 15, 2021 9:37 am

      While the title is somewhat hyperbolic, the thrust of the argument is that they should have fixed Standard, added Pioneer, and focused more on balance before just going and creating a new format.

    • Avatar
      lordish December 15, 2021 10:26 am

      Even if some people want it sadly it introduced many problems which some of them were mentioned by the author, biggest one for me which by the way i am not a f2p player is that the entire new format is a wc sink since the majority of new cards is either rare or mythic, i have already spend more than 50 rare+mythic cards and i can’t make all the new decks which is insane XD

      Now imagine how most f2p players feel about which should be the majority of the playerbase

  • Avatar
    Gabe Pumple December 15, 2021 11:35 am

    I agree 1000%. I do not even play historic bc I feel like I can’t really compete there. I have been playing for little more than a year and after dropping a lot of money on Arena in the first 6 months I have converted to f2p because I don’t like the idea that the cards I have worked hard to collect and spent money on can suddenly be changed and rotated out, forever. I hate Tibalt’s Trickery as much as everyone else, but frankly they ban too many cards. I don’t like blue and don’t play it, but I’m not bothered by Epiphany decks. I beat them about as often as they beat me. It is crazy that there is no format in which I can play any card I want.

  • Avatar
    Caleb December 15, 2021 1:00 pm

    While a lot of Magic players may like it, Hearthstone has shown that there is a huge market for the types of changes they are making with Alchemy. Wizards has determined (probably correctly) that they will make more money with a format like Alchemy that adding eternal formats that by their very nature don’t lead to repeat purchases. As somebody who has played Magic for over 25 years and played Hearthstone a ton before Arena came out, I like having a new format to play around in when Standard gets stale. The past week was the first time in over six months that I’ve routinely hit the 15 win cap on daily prizes. Prior to the release of Alchemy I was barely playing at all.

  • Avatar
    blakeks December 15, 2021 5:00 pm

    They suck. Wont play arena again until we get an eternal mtg format. Also i wont buy anymore packs, perhaps i buy me one of these magiccardprinters.

  • Avatar
    Arglebargle December 16, 2021 9:18 pm

    If they had only let historic stand without this alchemy nonsense. Much like pioneer or modern, you could take a rogue deck and do very well with it. Yes the meta existed and was fairly stale, however it was a more diverse meta than standard, it was solved considerably less quickly.

  • Avatar
    MRYGM December 17, 2021 10:00 am

    I dont like Alchemy. Standard flows but Alchemy is just clunky and the current Standard meta doesn’t really bother me. I think it’s better than banning cards in Standard though, as you can still play your favourite cards even of they’re not quite what you like. My issue is why hit Historic too? That irritated me. And yes, where is Pioneer and Modern and proper EDH? As much as I like Historic Brawl, it would be nice to play EDH proper too.

  • Avatar
    Jesse Markus December 18, 2021 5:03 pm

    The thing i hate most about Alchemy — and I’m surprised i don’t hear more people say this — is the way these digital-only, Hearthstone-esque designs are allowed in formats like Brawl. You can’t play these cards in paper because the design makes it impossible, and it ruins the play experience when these cards show up that DON’T FEEL LIKE MAGIC CARDS in the way they’re designed because you cannot possibly play them as real cards. Lastly, “draft a card from your spellbook” allows you violate the commander color identity rule and it just RUINS the whole feel of the game. Keep Alchemy in its own little Hearthstone corner if you really need it, but keep it away from established formats.

  • Avatar
    Toby December 20, 2021 5:06 am

    Alchemy isn’t the problem. The fact that Historic is now “Alchemy Historic” is the problem. If Alchemy were its own thing , a few people would be excited, a few others would be curious, and absolutely no one else would care

    • Avatar
      Pak January 9, 2022 9:39 pm

      This right here. I hate that just when they create a Historic casual Queue (I couldn’t find any other method than ranked to play Historic before) I have to deal with all this annoying Alchemy crap.

  • Avatar
    RayofErasure February 5, 2022 7:55 am

    It is very annoying that I have to switch Alchemy cards in and out of decks to get them to work in certain formats instead of it just automatically applying whichever version is legal. The purple text on cards I also find very unpleasant. On that note, why are they trying to turn black into purple? There are black lands that look purple and when one taps a black land in Arena, it shoots out a purple color streak rather than black. Why?

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