Last updated on May 16, 2022
Cosmos Elixir | Illustration by Volkan Baga
I‘m sure you’ve heard of Alchemy by this point. It’s Wizards’ newest format, and it’s digital-only. That’s right! You can only play this new format on MTG Arena. And it even comes with new supplemental sets, the first of which is Alchemy: Innistrad.
But that’s not all the format brings with it. WotC is also rebalancing cards from Standard for Alchemy, nerfing those that are too powerful and boosting those that are lagging behind. Today I’ll be taking a more focused look at this more unique aspect of the format.
Ready? Let’s go!
What is Rebalancing?
Phylath, World Sculptor | Illustration by Victor Adame Minguez
Have you ever played with a card and found it too powerful, or just shy of playable? What if you could go back in time and make a small tweak to correct that issue so problem cards could stay off the ban list? Or weaker cards could actually affect the metagame? WotC has access to a time machine with rebalancing, but with all the data from the original printings.
Rebalancing is the process of tuning cards after release for Digital only products.
To foster an evolving metagame and to keep pace with the millions of games played on MTG Arena each day…MTG Designer Donald Smith
Purpose of Rebalancing
Demilich | Illustration by Daniel Zrom
Nerfing cards is the main purpose of rebalancing cards, at least based on the primary batch of cards released. Nerfs act to limit the power level of cards that dominate the metagame or push other strategies to the fringes. Cards that saw bans in Standard or dominated their respective metas well past being enjoyable now see rebalancing in Alchemy.
Nerfing Powerful Cards
Playtesting questions like “would Oko, Thief of Crowns still be broken if the elk ability was a -1 instead of a plus one?” can now see live testing in digital-only products. These nerfs aim to improve the overall experience and quality of gameplay for MTG Arena players.
That said, Smith explicitly stated that they hope “nerfed cards will continue to be relevant and powerful options in the format.” I’d expect nerfs to reign in cards’ overall power levels without outright erasing their playability with this goal in mind.
Buffing Weaker Cards
There are also buffs to popular and highly played cards that fall outside the sphere of competitive viability. These buffs don’t target the competitive metagame, unlike nerfs. Instead they aim to make cards that players enjoy viable enough to see play without being pushed.
The first round of rebalanced cards primarily focused on nerfs, but there will be consideration for buffing a wide array of cards from various strategies or buffing multiple cards in a single strategy in future releases.
List of Rebalanced Cards in Alchemy
Omnath, Locus of Creation
Phylath, World Sculptor
Acererak the Archlich
Assemble from Parts
Find the Path
Divide by Zero
Lier, Disciple of the Drowned
Teferi, Time Raveler
Goma Fada Vanguard
Nahiri, Heir of the Ancients
Harald Unites the Elves
Harald, King of Skemfar
Return Upon the Tide
Shessra, Death’s Whisper
Garruk, Wrath of the Wilds
Geist of Regret
Settle the Wilds
How to Tell a Rebalanced Version of a Card
Rebalanced cards have a mythic-colored “A” in front of the card’s name along with an MTG Arena logo in the center of the bottom frame.
“Iconic” Cards Exempted From Rebalancing
While many cards become iconic in Magic, few have long-term appeal and are hallmarks of conversational shorthand. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben taxes one mana for non-creature spells. Thoughtseize, well, Thoughtseizes your opponent. These iconic cards are uniquely exempt from rebalancing to avoid disrupting the established signposts that Magic revolves around for conversational ease.
While these cards can become problematic, Smith said:
If these cards cause issues, we will look to address them indirectly through live balancing or ban them if necessary.Donald Smith
While rebalancing cards will definitely differentiate digital-only from paper formats, some cards need to stay the same. These iconic cards act like a connective tissue between Magic of old and Magic of new to avoid the feeling of a completely different game between the two styles of play.
Why Did I Get Two Copies of the Same Card in a Pack?
This is because the card was rebalanced. MTG Arena shows you both versions of the card — the Alchemy/Historic rebalanced version, denoted with the “A” prefix, and the version for every other format. Here’s an example:
If a Card is Rebalanced in Alchemy, is it Rebalanced for Historic?
Omnath, Locus of Creation | Illustration by Chris Rahn
Cards rebalanced in Alchemy will also affect Historic. This allows WotC to unban cards in Historic by rebalancing them instead, like with Omnath, Locus of Creation. Rebalanced cards will only affect digital-only formats, which includes both Alchemy and Historic.
This has been the cause of much consternation and controversy.
What about When They Rotate out of Alchemy?
Alchemy starts with all cards currently in Standard, along with digital-only Alchemy cards. Alchemy rotates on the same schedule as Standard and acts as a digital alternative to paper’s Standard.
When a card rotates out of Alchemy, it stays legal in Historic. So without anything explicitly saying otherwise, rebalanced cards keep their buffs or nerfs after rotating. But WotC might re-rebalance cards that rotated from Alchemy just for Historic to better match the format’s power level.
Will Rebalancing Ever Happen in Limited?
While there’s no explicit statement about rebalancing cards for Limited, the expectation set by the Alchemy announcement is that rebalancing will only happen in digital-only formats.
There are currently no digital-only Limited formats, though we could see formats like the Arena Cube considered a digital-only format in the future. This would mean rebalanced cards could appear in Limited.
Esika’s Chariot | Illustration by Raoul Vitale
Given the newness of Alchemy, I’m going to highlight a few comments and concerns that I want to keep an eye on as we adjust to the new reality of digital-only Magic moving forward.
- Rebalancing answers the age-old issue of consumer confidence that one day your favorite cards are just banned. It creates other issues, especially with spending wildcards on supporting pieces for cards that get nerfed, but that’s an overall more elegant solution than just outright banning cards.
- Buffs are relatively minor compared to nerfs. Will the survivability of Demilich improve by adding a toughness? Absolutely. Will that make the card playable in places where it wasn’t otherwise? I’m not sold yet, but I’m okay with WotC taking their time buffing cards. There’s a real cost to buffing a card into playability and then having to revert those buffs if it becomes overrepresented in the meta. See Golgari Grave-Troll in Modern.
- There are lots of cards in the last few years (like Base Camp) that could have bolstered synergies that didn’t catch on if they got a few minor changes, like entering untapped. If cards like these find their way onto the buff list, I’d be happy to see the evolution of new strategies that were clearly earmarked in design but couldn’t survive the competitive metagame.
- The implications of digital-only cards on Arena’s economy is dubious at best, especially in non-draft-able sets. We’ve seen WotC (and especially Arena) implement predatory practices in their economy before, and Alchemy continues to bring up questions about costs to play the game. Hopefully the cards added in future Alchemy sets won’t just be higher rarities or prevent players from accessing another format without breaking out their wallets.
- Will Alchemy see premier play like Arena Opens and MIQs, like Historic has recently? Will digital-only formats continue to remain a mandatory element for competitive players? If so, how up-to-the-minute will rebalances happen before premier events? Will we see nerfs or buffs days, weeks, or hours before events? Will there be a fixed rebalance release schedule like with bans of old?
- Will Alchemy replace paper formats like Standard as the premier entry-level format since WotC can more easily contain broken cards and avoid lame-duck formats from cards like Oko, Thief of Crowns, Field of the Dead, or Aetherworks Marvel?
- Will we see 60+ new digital-only cards released with each set? If so, the new card overload each set would continue to compound, especially for players trying to evaluate new cards for Standard, Pioneer, Historic, Alchemy, Modern, Legacy, and Vintage.
- How long will WotC stay committed to actively rebalancing cards? Will we see another instance of Frontier or Tiny Leaders where support quickly dries up and players are left with 60+ new digital cards and rebalanced staples with nothing meaningful to do with them?
I want to give WotC the benefit of the doubt when it comes to something like Alchemy, but it’s getting harder and harder to trust their decision making when it comes to something as large scale as a new format given the past few years. I’m cautiously optimistic about Alchemy, even with all my questions and concerns.
Hopefully we’ll see another Modern or Pioneer emerge for digital-only players rather than a repeat of past mistakes like Frontier.
Faceless Haven | Illustration by Titus Lunter
There are discussions of format fatigue, overcomplication of the game for the sake of money, and many threads on the internet decrying every aspect of the format before it even launches whenever WotC adds a new one. I have one primary concern for this new digital-only format, and it’s my overall concern for anything WotC does for Magic: will Alchemy create enjoyable gameplay experiences?
While we still have a long way to go before we can make any over-generalizations about the quality of the format and Alchemy’s effects, I’m hopeful that WotC can fix some of the ghosts that’ve haunted them in years past with live-balancing and using digital-only techniques.
That’s my main takeaway from these announcements, but be sure to let me know what you think about Alchemy and the future of digital-only formats in the comments down below or over on our Twitter! And don’t forget to grab Arena Tutor if you’re heading to MTGA to test out the new rebalanced cards. It’ll keep you on the top of your game, no matter what you think about the new cards.Follow Draftsim for awesome articles and set updates: