Out of nowhere last week, Wizards of the Coast had quite the bombshell to drop on us.
Not only would a new and unexpected set be releasing in a week, but there would be a brand-new format to play it in that would be different than pretty much anything that Magic had ever seen before.
Alchemy is a digital-only set and format meant to operate in parallel with Standard on MTG Arena. It will have the same legal sets, but will also supplement with smaller additional sets full of cards with mechanics designed specifically for digital that mostly aren't possible in paper. Furthermore, Wizards of the Coast will not be shy about rebalancing cards that they have deemed problematic, allowing them to fine tune cards after they are printed and fix elements of the format that may be oppressive.
Reaction to Alchemy has been mixed. There's excitement, there's legitimate concern, and the usual pearl clutching that Magic players love to do whenever they're faced with something new or different.
As always, the reality is somewhere in the middle, so today I want to go over the good, the bad, and the ugly with Alchemy as we try to unpack the new, sometimes exciting, sometimes scary places Magic is currently going.
A lot of the pearl clutching and grumbling from the community is coming from the digital-only nature of the designs of Alchemy. These cards are either impossible or very difficult to make function in paper, which is a lot of the fun and excitement of opening up the design space that the digital platform provides. Yes, it kinda sucks that I can't add Managorger Phoenix or Electrostatic Blast to my Cube, but getting to explore this design space on MTG Arena is so much cooler than not getting to explore it at all.
There's a lot of things that paper Magic would love to do but just can't because of the limitations of being a paper game - preventing cheating, having smooth logistics, and keeping downtime to a minimum are all of paramount importance. By letting the client handle these things, many doors open up to what is possible on a Magic card. Having a mechanic that's essentially "draw an elf card" (seek) or "this creature gets +2/+2 permanently" (perpetual) feels very in line with many of the things that Magic already does, just a executed a little bit differently.
Frankly, I think this is awesome!
While not every design is a home run (and they are a few stinkers), I really enjoyed the designs of Historic Horizons and there are a number of super awesome cards in Alchemy as well. Even the spellbook mechanic, which initially made me want to vomit in my mouth it felt so convoluted, is starting to grow on me as it's essentially just another take on Lesson/Learn from Strixhaven.
The rebalancing of overpowered cards is also a very interesting one that feels logical but detached from what is possible in paper. You can't change the tens of thousands of Teferi, Time Ravelers or Oko, Thief of Crowns that are already out there in the world. They're printed, they're in people's hands - they're a done deal. However, I'm sure Wizards of the Coast wishes that they could, and now in a way they can. Designing Magic cards and balancing out formats is astoundingly difficult; Wizards of the Coast is going to miss the mark sometimes, and having a way to tweak the cards after the fact is pretty awesome.
There are some real unknowns here, as Magic doesn't operate on a flat power level. Only maybe 5-10% of cards in a format are remotely playable in Constructed, as that's just part of the game. Some cards are for Limited, some are for casual play, and some are just bad. If the nerf to Esika's Chariot is too much and it no longer sees play, is that appreciably better than banning it? What are the criteria for taking one of the hundreds of cards that doesn't see play and buffing it up?
There are many questions here, but I'm happy that we're asking them and exploring the space.
A very real fear here however is the pandora's box that this opens.
If Alchemy is successful, which I'd imagine Wizards of the Coast expects it to be, what does this mean for Standard? While Standard has had a rough few years thanks to poorly developed cards as well as Covid-19 trashing in-store play, it has long been both the entry point into Constructed as well as a major driver of new cards and sets. The rotating nature of the format as well as the relatively small card pool made the format accessible, while it also made buying new sets useful because you would use a large portion of the cards for Standard. Having organized play like PTQS, FNMs, and SCG Tour events be Standard increased the interest and relevance of the format.
If Standard dies off completely... then what?
What reason will players have to buy new paper sets that may only have a small handful of cards they will want for their Modern and Commander decks? With Modern and Commander-specific products full of power creep that rapidly nullifies many previously printed cards and creates a need to buy to keep up, as well as secret lairs and other specialty products for the whales and collectors, where does the game even go? Is "power creep and collectables" a viable long term business plan for the health of the game?
Of course, this is all assuming that Alchemy is successful and nullifies all interest in Standard, which is most certainly not a given. Still, it's a potentially exciting but also very concerning direction for a game that's closing in on 30 years in the business.
I'm going to expand on this more in a future article focused more directly on MTG Arena as a whole, but holy hell does Alchemy shine a spotlight on how awful the MTG Arena economy is.
The Alchemy: Innistrad small set is 63 cards. 11 of those are uncommon, 10 of them are mythic, with the 42 remaining cards all being rare. The cards are available in booster backs that are essentially just Crimson Vow packs with different rares, meaning you are essentially just paying for one rare with each pack. With rare wildcards often being the bottleneck when it comes to deck-building for non-whale players, building an Alchemy deck, let alone Alchemy decks, is going to be extremely expensive.
And that's to say nothing of rebalancing cards!
If they decide to rebalance a card you've acquired or built around, there is no form of compensation at all. When they ban a card, you at least get your wildcards back for the card that's banned, even if it invalidates the other cards you've crafted that didn't get banned because the deck is no longer good, but you at least get something. Now we have a living, breathing format that is both extremely expensive to buy in to, as well as constantly changing at the whims of whatever card is getting buffed or nerfed this week.
The MTG Arena economy is already extremely hostile. Limited players who love to draft end up with tons of rares and wildcards they don't want to use with nothing to do with them, while Constructed players are left spending a lot of money on booster packs they might not even want just to try and get enough wild cards to build they deck they want. I don't understand how a new player could ever get into Historic without falling over laughing when they're told how they need to acquire cards, and Alchemy doesn't look to be much different.
Part of what makes Magic awesome and makes having multiple different formats fun is being able to build and try out a variety of new and interesting decks. However, it's so expensive to keep up with even one format that many players are getting burnt out and just giving up. Making the vast majority of the Alchemy: Innistrad cards rare is just a blatant example of Wizards of the Coast putting quarterly earning reports over the long-term health of its game and players.
The concerns here are definitely real, but the excitement is real too.
Far too often our community (as well as communities for other games) tend to quickly devolve into an "us vs. them" attitude. Either you're a boomer who longs for the purity of Magic how it used to be and hates new things, or you're a zoomer who's not afraid of the future and the exciting surprises that come from the unknown; draw your line in the sand, dig in your heels, and get ready to start yelling.
However, as always in life the reality is somewhere in the middle. It's totally fine to be excited about the new cards and getting to play a new format, while also being concerned about the economy or the future of Magic. It's also okay to say "I don't think this is for me" and state your reasons why, and go back to playing Modern on Magic Online.
I for one am excited to get brewing! There's a lot to unpack in these 63 new cards as well as a lot of questions to how these mechanics are actually going to play out in a game of Magic. I can't wait to find out!