Last updated on September 28, 2023

Lae'zel, Vlaakith's Champion - Illustration by John Stanko

Lae'zel, Vlaakith's Champion | Illustration by John Stanko

Double-faced cards work in various ways in Magic. Modal double-faced cards allow you to decide which side of the card you’ll play. Transforming ones sometimes flip on triggers, and you have a choice to generate that trigger or flip it in response on some cards. Some transforming cards flip back and forth.

These cards, initially a bit controversial, have become popular aspects of the game.

With specialize we’re confronted with a digital-only mechanic for Arena that allows the player to permanently flip a card if a cost is paid. But instead of only one option on the other side, there are five (one for each color). This is a pretty big leap in terms of the flip mechanic’s complexity, not the least of which because physical cards only have two sides.

As controversial as this new mechanic is, you will need to understand how these cards work and whether they are worth including in a deck if you’re playing Alchemy, Historic, or Alchemy Horizons: Baldur’s Gate Limited.

Ready to specialize?

How Does Specialize Work?

Wilson, Refined Grizzly - Illustration by Ilse Gort

Wilson, Refined Grizzly | Illustration by Ilse Gort

A creature with specialize is cast normally, and the player can pay the mana cost and discard a card to activate the specialize ability at sorcery speed. The colors or mana symbols (for lands) on the discarded card opens determine which of the five specialized versions the card can flip into. Each of those versions adds a pip of that mana to the card’s new mana value.

That specialized card, either 2-color or a pip-added monocolor card, are versions of the original creature with a different set of abilities and sometimes slightly different stats. The card generally remains the new specialized version even when it hits the graveyard or is bounced back to hand.

The History of Specializein MTG

Specialize is an attempt to use the flavor of the background mechanic in Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur’s Gate in existing Arena formats where the Alchemy Horizons: Baldur’s Gate cards are legal. That flavor is recreated with mixed results in the versions of the specialized characters on the various flipped sides.

This was the first time the mechanic was used in an Alchemy release on Arena, and it can have no equivalent in paper given that physical cards only have two sides, not six. It’s unclear whether it’ll be used again in future Alchemy sets.

Is Specialize an Activated Ability?

Yes, specialize is an activated ability that can be used any time you could cast a sorcery as long as you can pay the mana cost and have a colored card or land to discard. Discarding a colorless card doesn’t correctly trigger the ability because the card’s color or colored-mana-producing land is important to determine how the specialize card, well, specializes.

Can You Respond to Specialize?

Yes, some cards and effects can respond to specialize. When a player activates a specialize ability, that trigger goes on the stack.

Emerald Dragon

Emerald Dragon has an adventure side, Dissonant Wave, that can counter that kind of ability. Bounce or removal or flicker effects can also hit the creature before it flips, which is a bit of a blowout.

Can You Counter Specialize?

Emerald Dragon

You can’t counter an activated ability like specialize with a counterspell, but Stifle effects like the adventure portion of Emerald Dragon can counter specialize.

What Happens if You Bounce a Creature with a Specialization?

the specialized side is permanent once the creature specializes. So it stays as what it changed to in all zones, whether that’s in the graveyard after it’s killed or in a hand after it’s bounced.

Lukamina, Moon Druid

The only exception is Lukamina, Moon Druid, which un-specializes and returns to the battlefield tapped when it dies. But Lukamina retains its specialized form when bounced.

What if You Discard a Dual Land or Multicolored Card to Specialize?

You can only choose one specialization, even if the discarded card has a multicolored color identity. When you specialize a card, Arena shows you a menu of all five specialize options with those enabled by your discard choice highlighted. So if you discard something like Jan Jansen, Chaos Crafter, its three color pips would give you three specialize choices (but you can still only actually choose one of them).

Do All Specialize Cards Have Five Versions?

Yes, all specialize cards have five versions, one for each color.

What Color Identity Do Specialize Cards Have for Commander/Brawl?

Cards take their color identity from the front of the card when they’re in the 99. This generally means that your specialize card can only flip into the mono-colored version in a mono-colored deck, but some cards that conjure from a spellbook can conjure cards of different colors, like Ominous Traveler and a few others. You could discard those off-color cards to specialize in that color.

If you choose a specialize card as a commander, Arena prompts you to select a second color, which will set your 2-color identity.

Is Specialize Good?

It depends on the format. But the cards need to stand on their front side, pay you back enough for the card you’ve discarded to flip it, or you need to fit them in decks that stretch the game long enough that you’re pitching unneeded lands for the discard cost.

In Limited

Specialize cards are good in Limited. Alex at the Limited Level-Ups podcast suggests you should just take them when you see them. They’re on rate for some classically powerful Limited cards.

Rasaad, Monk of Selune

For example, Rasaad, Monk of Selûne is an easier-to-cast Banisher Priest with a mana sink upside. The mana sink to ditch an unneeded land and flip for extra value is a classic thing you need in Draft.

And some of the rares and mythics here are amazing. Lae'zel, Githyanki Warrior is a straight up bomb, perhaps the best white card in the set. It’s basically immune to interaction.

In Historic Brawl

A lot of the specialize cards would make interesting commanders in Historic Brawl.

Take Shadowheart, Sharran Cleric for example. A Rakdos () build where it flips into Shadowheart, Cleric of War has some interesting possibilities with a whole variety of vampire cards, and the Dimir () version with Shadowheart, Cleric of Trickery can draw a ton of cards when it specializes.

Not to mention a lot of Sign in Blood effects to get there while working cards that give life loss payoff like Scourge of the Skyclaves. You might still lose to the sad, sad number of Winota decks in that format, but you were going to do that anyway.

In Alchemy and Historic

It’s hard to see how any of the specialize cards open up new archetypes in Alchemy and Historic thanks to pretty stable metagames. Most are just a bit too high on the curve to bump anything out of the top tier decks.

That said, I can easily see Karlach, Raging Tiefling finding a place in a Rakdos or Jund () sac deck. And Viconia, Nightsinger's Disciple is a low-cal version of Scavenging Ooze that’s tutorable in Pyre of Heroes-driven Orzhov () clerics decks.

In Constructed

There’s nothing inherent about the specialize ability that makes these cards particularly desirable in Constructed formats. The discard cost can be a problem and they’re all pretty inherently midrange-y, so maybe these will be niche includes only for the time being.

Does Specialize Make Cards Too Complex?

Cards with six sides have to be at the upper end of complexity you can ask in a digital game with a timer, eclipsed only by the dizzying options in the spellbook mechanic. Especially because some of them have a wild and almost random set of flip-able options.

LSV’s take is that it’s “not a fun experience. That’s not why we play Magic,” and it’s “too much burden to read all the text on the options…. I don’t understand how you could think this was acceptable…. I dunno. It just strays so far from what I think is fun about Magic and is really off-putting.”

Viconia, Nightsinger's Disciple

I think that’s generally true, but it’s a bit too early to call it so clearly. I found Viconia, Nightsinger's Disciple to be pretty fun to play with in an Orzhov control Draft deck. Figuring out which specialize flip, into the mono-black side or the Orzhov side, was a decision that could really help decide the game as it wound down. And it often wasn’t clear what would be the best option based on the board state and what I was exiling from graveyards. That has all the hallmarks of a skill-testing mechanic that isn’t too much.

Viconia, Disciple of Arcana

At the same time, though, I might just be packing an off-color land in what looked to be a splash-less deck, and that puts a burden on the opponent that might take us past fun. If I’d been smuggling an Island in the deck I could flip Viconia into Viconia, Disciple of Arcana. That would give me the only flipped side that can fetch a spell exiled from a graveyard, which could be super significant.

Is all of that less fun than Avabruck Caretaker or other nonsense Limited bombs? I’d say no. But racing to the fun bottom as we compare probable design mistakes isn’t exactly a debate worth having.

The complexity load of specialize cards is less in Constructed formats. It’s unlikely any of these cards will see heavy play. And if I’m wrong about that and one or more of these specialize cards finds a deck, everyone will know what options matter in the decks in question.

This complexity debate happens every time something really wild is invented, like planeswalkers or double-face cards. Did most of us like sagas when they were invented for Dominaria because they were better and cleaner design? Sure, maybe.

It’s also possible that we understand linear mechanics faster, which makes us feel smart for getting it right away, and that makes us happy. But we play a game where instant-speed spells and activated abilities can go off on an opponent’s turn, and that hallmark reduction of linear clarity is one of the things we most love. (At least if we’re blue mages?)

I’d like to see where this conversation goes once we get used to these cards.

Gallery and List of Specialize Cards

Best Specialize Cards

All of these specialize cards are good in Limited and all are more durdly midrange in Constructed. But here’s the top five if you’re curious.

Honorable Mention: Wilson, Bear Comrade

Look, one of the options Wilson can flip into is Wilson, Urbane Bear. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

Really, though, Mr. Fancy Bear is a 2-drop uber bear with ward 2. Pay four to pump it into the mono-green side and then when it dies it can almost bestow itself on another creature from the graveyard.

You could do worse in a green stompy deck in Limited. But this doesn’t really compete with other green 2-drops in Constructed formats.

#5. Klement, Novice Acolyte

A bear that immediately gives potentially a lot of +1/+1s to cards in hand, that’s some gas in Limited or mono-white or Boros () creature aggro decks. Its specialize cost is only two, and it can get beefy on the backside. And then it gives you a token creature or a card when it dies depending on its specialized color.

It would be bonkers to suggest this is better than Luminarch Aspirant, so that’s not what I’m saying. But, Klement gives potentially a lot more value if you drop it or Luminarch on turn 2 and I Play with Fire your card immediately. So chew on that!

#4. Gale, Conduit of the Arcane

This card looks terrible. The top is less-powerful, color-shifted Ardent Elementalist because it only triggers on actual casting, not just ETB.

That said, the backside abilities all have hugely high ceilings, assuming you can flip it. Each one provides a powerful effect that can really start to run away with the game. For six mana you can get a passive ability that hits opponents for two life for every instant or sorcery you cast if it’s not interrupted.

This isn’t Professor Onyx at home, but it also isn’t miles away from that. All the flipped options are very powerful in the right decks.

#3. Shadowheart, Sharran Cleric

I’ve actually seen this in the wild in Historic. The one damage to each player is just good on its own if you want to try to make Death's Shadow decks work. But the real fun is the back side of the card.

I saw the Orzhov version with Shadowheart, Cleric of Order as a token machine with things like Thoughtseize and Painful Bond. The Rakdos side, Shadowheart, Cleric of War, starts hurting the opponent as you lose life. It’s really nice with cards like Roiling Vortex, Voldaren Estate, Ramunap Ruins, Forsworn Paladin, and even Spire of Industry at the low end. And Mystic Forge, Bolas's Citadel, and the so-far-without-a-home Asmodeus the Archfiend are great at the top end. There’s a deck in there somewhere, and it’s going to start beating face when we have the right mix of cards.

The Dimir side, Shadowheart, Cleric of Trickery, draws an extra card a turn at the base level. And it’s not that hard to use some of the black cards already discussed to really generate a lot of card draw. There’s a quite few more cards that damage you in Historic that are intriguing here. Maybe Arguel's Blood Fast is ready to shine? Or, well, lurk, I guess.

#2. Viconia, Nightsinger's Disciple

If you need creature or creature-adjacent graveyard hate but aren’t running Scavenging Ooze or Unlicensed Hearse, this is your card. The fact that you can just yoink a creature from an opponent’s graveyard into your hand (sorta) is pretty wild. This has won me quite a few Draft games.

#1. Lae'zel, Githyanki Warrior

Just a bonkers Draft card, as I’ve noted already. I think the specialize 2-drops are more likely to hit Constructed decklists, but this and Gale are the most likely of the more expensive cards in the set to find a 60-card home.

Lae’zel specializes for one, so that’s a double striking 3/6 for five that has a hexproof variant and nets you some card advantage to replace itself. And those card advantage triggers are all also ETB triggers, so this can really start something if a blink deck ever makes it to Alchemy or Historic (or when you inevitably see this in Arena Cube).

The mono-white and Azorius () backsides here provide exceptional value if a blink train is rolling.

Wrap Up

Rasaad yn Bashir - Illustration by Dan Scott

Rasaad yn Bashir | Illustration by Dan Scott

Is this mechanic fun or just dumb? Both.

It’s probably a design mistake that we won’t see again, and with good reason. It has is a lot of text and a lot of complexity for limited upside compared to what, say, limiting the flip options to just two colors more like a split card on the back would do.

That said, these cards can be fun to play with. But they’re also pretty unfun from the other side. You still have things you can do in response, but the number of options and interactions increases so quickly that it’s hard to generate a coherent strategic response in time in many cases.

What are your thoughts on these new specialize cards, or on Alchemy’s slew of new digital-only mechanics in general? Do you think it’s too complex, or are you looking forward to reading your myriad of options every time you want to flip one of these things? Let me know in the comments down below or join the discussion in the Draftsim Discord.

Have the best fun you can out there, and specialize in staying safe!

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