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How To Fix Alchemy (It Should Be Free!)

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Before we get started today, I want to make one thing very clear: I was very excited about Alchemy in the early days of the format.

Standard was stale and having numerous issues, so the idea of having an alternative that was in the same ballpark, while also getting to correct the design mistakes leading it to ruin and also adding some fun and unique designs that were not possible in paper was very exciting. Magic has always been about exploring new spaces, which made Alchemy feel like the natural progression for digital Magic. Wizards of the Coast would love to have the ability to fix mistakes on the fly, but can't do that in a printed game.

This sentiment was of course not shared among all Magic players, as there were many loud voices speaking out against Alchemy from the very start. A lot of this was the usual fear of change that Magic players feel about basically every major change to the game, but there were many legitimate gripes as well.

Well, we're no longer in uncharted "this is a new thing" territory.

Citystalker Connoisseur
Forsaken Crossroads
Cabaretti Revels

Alchemy has been a format for half a year now, seen numerous releases and updates, and was even the format at a major Premier event, being half of the Kamigawa Neon Dynasty Set Championship. We are past the theoretical stage, having seen many different digital only designs as well as rebalances of both overpowered cards that were ruining Standard as well as underpowered themes that never got there.

Frankly? I've changed my tune.

Standard when Alchemy released was a wasteland, which made Alchemy a breath of fresh air. However, now Standard is thriving as the best it has been in a long time, while Explorer has paper players interested in MTG Arena again. With Explorer holding the responsibility of "non-rotating MTG Arena format," Historic feels like the MTG Arena digital playground, a place to go nuts with Anthologies and special releases.

This leaves me wondering, why does Alchemy even exist at this point?

What portion of the player base does it serve? What are its goals?

Today I want to go over the issues present in Alchemy, while also presenting my major solutions for how to save the format from fading into obscurity. While I will be spending a bit of time on the issues, some of which that have been discussed before, they are important when it comes to providing the context for my solutions (which are a bit out there), so let's go!

What's Wrong With Alchemy

The Economy

This is a pandora's box in and of itself because of how troublesome the economy is at large on MTG Arena, but there's no doubt that Alchemy takes all the worst parts of the MTG Arena economy and puts them front and center.

The majority of cards in each Alchemy release are rare or mythic, meaning that it's essentially where wild cards go to die, but this is double punished by the fact that the entire point of the format is to shake things up with rebalances, buffs, and nerfs. While it's great that they have made some small improvements in this area like making it draftable and bundles, the reality is that Alchemy is a wild card blackhole, rife with buyer's remorse and feel bad moments for players when cards get buffed or nerfed.

The issues of the MTG Arena economy could be its own entire article, but there's no doubt that many people haven't even considered touching Alchemy because of how prohibitive it is.

General Confusion

Why does alchemy exist? Is it meant to be an alternate Standard? A digital-only playground? Something else entirely? There seems to be a serious lack of a solid mission statement for the format, which makes people hesitant to try it. It also means that people come with their own preconceived notions of what it is as a format, which may be negative or incorrect and are hard to break once established.

Luminarch Aspirant
Goldspan Dragon
Teferi, Time Raveler

There's also some serious whiplash of having cards do different things in different formats. Rebalancing cards sounds like an awesome idea, until you realize that they are only going to be rebalanced in Alchemy and Historic. At the most recent Pro level event, the New Capenna Set Championship, if you had Luminarch Aspirant in both your Standard deck as well as your Historic deck, they did different things in each format of the same tournament and that's just weird.

I didn't think it would bother me, but it just feels weird to go back to Modern or a Cube draft and have Teferi, Time Raveler or Luminarch Aspirant do something different than you expect. It's hard to quantify, but it's been much more jarring than expected.

Quality Control

The Alchemy set releases have been a mixed bag.

Electrostatic Blast
Discover the Formula
Arming Gala

On the one hand, there have definitely been a lot of very fun and cool designs. Being able to explore the digital space and do things that are not logistically feasible in a normal game of Magic but still feel like Magic is awesome. Cards like Electrostatic Blast and Discover the Formula take the game new places and that's an awesome thing to see.

However, the quality is inconsistent.

Brittle Blast
Grizzled Huntmaster
Forceful Cultivator

A lot of the art for the Alchemy cards looks cheap and off, making the cards feel less real. Some of the cards like Grizzled Huntmaster are excessively wordy and confusing, feeling like they're trying to do digital stuff just to do it, while there are cards on the other side of the fence like Forceful Cultivator which would be fairly easy to achieve in paper.

The frequency and quality of rebalances has also left something to be desired; change doesn't come soon enough for nerfs, and on the flip side the buffs always come in very neat and uniform packages based around certain archetypes. This strips away most of the fun and discovery and boils things down to "oh is warriors playable now because they buffed a dozen cards?" rather than a more natural progression of discovery.

Overload

This is partly related to the economy issue, but Magic has already been riding a ridiculously overcrowded release schedule for the last few years. It's often said we are in perpetual spoiler season, which is usually true, and adding another release to each Standard set is a lot!

This is mostly felt on the wallet and wildcard side of things, but fatigue is certainly a concern.

Spite

A good portion of the Magic playing audience isn't interested in Alchemy. That's okay! There are many players who aren't interested in Standard, or drafting, or Commander, or Pauper, but that doesn't mean that they shouldn't exist as formats.

But the issue is a lot of the ire directed toward Alchemy is often based on players feeling like it is cutting into the resources of the things they actually want on MTG Arena, like Pioneer, general improvements, multiplayer, or whatever else.

Again, like the economy, this is a big picture issue with MTG Arena as a whole, and not a problem that Alchemy is going to solve. But by that token, it's also not a problem that is being caused by Alchemy. Make sure you are registering your complaints in the proper area and not letting it sour you on the format unnecessarily.

Halfassary

Which brings us to the perhaps the core problem that Alchemy has on MTG Arena:

Alchemy fails at capturing the feel of "classic" Magic, but also fails as a full-on digital game.

By tying it to Standard, as well as the current economy structure, Alchemy is too reliant on other things to stand on its own. There are digital designs and infrequent rebalances, but not enough to make it stand on its own instead of just being "Standard plus some other stuff." And frankly, the MTG Arena economy isn't currently built in a way to handle the needs of a dynamic and fast moving full-on digital game.

Okay, so we've got problems, but we've also got solutions!

How To Fix Alchemy

Alchemy should be its own unique format unattached to anything else.

Rather than tying it to Standard or any other format or set that exists in Magic currently, release Alchemy from these shackles and let it become what it is meant to be - a digital only version of Magic: The Gathering. This would require making the Alchemy sets a bit bigger and including some more common/uncommon level stuff, but not that much more.

Cancel

To fill in the gaps, take the already existing "MTG Arena Beginner Set" that is awkwardly legal in best of one Standard but not best of three Standard and make it into the Alchemy Base Set, which would include basic staples of competitive play like Shock, Opt, etc.

The format would be small, meaning each Alchemy release would have a big impact, and because Wizards of the Coast can rebalance, add, or remove cards to the Base Set whenever they want, it can always be kept fresh and exciting without disturbing other formats.

It would also be excellent to see some sort of single player campaign based around Alchemy, putting MTG Arena in line with its digital competitors like Hearthstone and Legends of Runeterra. By having Alchemy be its own ecosystem in MTG Arena, the chains are off and you can treat it like the digital game you want it to be.

Alchemy should be free game mode, all cards available on every MTG Arena account.

I think I just heard a Hasbaro corporate board member scream in the distance as I wrote that sentence. While it seems to fly in the face of everything that MTG Arena stands for, hear me out.

If you want MTG Arena to be a digital game, then treat it like a digital game rather than a 30-year-old paper card game!

Many of the issues that come with Alchemy are related to the economy and card acquisition. Not only is it difficult to get the cards and a huge drain on wildcards, but the reality is that all of the non-whale players are gun-shy about using their wildcards because they are so hard to get. The fear of having your deck nerfed or the format changing next week makes it very difficult for players to want to invest, while the cost sends most of them running away to play a more stable format (or a different game entirely). Buyer's remorse is a natural byproduct of a quickly shifting digital format, so remove it as a problem.

Rather than viewing Alchemy as a money-making machine, Alchemy could be viewed as the acquisition vessel to pull players away from other digital games. It's also new and novel, which could draw lapsed players back into the game when they see they can play for free. There are tons of players out there who won't even touch MTG Arena because of how the economy works, this might bring them in and turn them into customers.

Instead of ringing a small number of players for every penny they can get until the well runs dry, Alchemy could adapt a wider approach that could focus on what many other games like League of Legends focus on: selling skins, new game boards, awesome animations, and of course upselling folks into playing Standard, draft, and other "more expensive" game modes. Drip out Standard cards to Alchemy players as individual card rewards, while letting them know that draft exists and of the larger competitive world that formats like Standard and Explorer lead to. MTG Arena is not an easy game to get into as a new player and Alchemy could be the on-ramp.

If this is too extreme, then price Alchemy like Historic Anthologies - a one-time price for all the of the cards. If each Alchemy set is $19.99, that's still a very easy point of entry for both current and new/lapsed players, completely solving any issues of card acquisition or buyer's remorse, while playing into the strength of an ever-changing card pool. If you want the players to feel comfortable putting time and money into a format that's going to change so often, this is how it must be done.

There must be far less overhead for these Alchemy releases than there are for normal Magic sets, so pass the savings on to the consumer and redirect attention to long term acquisition rather than short term profits.

Modern Problems? Modern Solutions.

The point is that modern problems require modern solutions- treating Alchemy like any other paper adjacent format in Magic is a recipe for failure. Alchemy could be awesome. The digital-only design space is vast and untapped, as is the digital and mobile game market.

MTG Arena right now is solid, but not great. It's a great way to play Magic online and on your phone, but it is lacking in many areas. It's also not a very good "video game" - there's no single player content, it's extremely expensive and hard to get into, and it feels more like Raid: Shadow Legends than Elden Ring in that it's trying to wring you for all you're worth rather than provide you with a long and satisfying play experience.

Magic has focused very hard on increasing massive quarterly profits as much as possible in the last few years, but as the old saying goes, "you can sheer a sheep many times, but only slaughter it once." Using Alchemy as an acquisition tool while also solving almost all of its problems at once feels like a win-win.

Be brave Wizards of the Coast!


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