Since its launch as a format, Alchemy has been met with a great deal of negativity from the Magic community. It has some fans, myself among them, but overwhelmingly, people seem to think it’s made the MTG Arena experience a worse one.
Alchemy Horizons: Baldur’s Gate launched on July 7, 2022, and with it, I think we can start to get a clearer picture of where Wizards of the Coast wants to go with Alchemy, and also what we can expect from the format moving forward. Come Standard rotation with Dominaria United, Alchemy and Standard will be incredibly different formats. Arguably, they’ve been radically different since Alchemy’s launch, but the differences in September should be stark. That said, I don’t think Alchemy as a format alone tells the story of what’s going on with Alchemy design.
The shift in trajectory for how Alchemy releases are handled really started with Alchemy: New Capenna. That card drop had a semi-brief window where it was available to draft, and drafting allows both Limited players to get a “refresh” of a format, and also increases access to the cards for players not looking to spend a lot of money just to acquire said cards.
I’ve heard a few Limited grinders discuss the raw potential of digital only cards as a means to “rebalance” a format that’s been solved, and how that would play to the strengths of Arena’s digital design space. Now, with Alchemy Horizons: Baldur's Gate, we can potentially start to see this idea’s next evolution.
Building a Better Format
Alchemy has had good periods and bad periods. At launch, I thought Alchemy was arguably the most fresh and fun way to engage with the Arena client. The cards were strong, most of the decks were reasonably different from what you saw in Standard, and the metagame was pretty diverse. The first rebalances, followed by the release of Alchemy: Neon Dynasty, saw the metagame begin to shift in a direction that it hasn’t been able to escape since.
Alchemy has become a Midrange-only format in a sense. The traditional Aggro decks and Control decks have eaten significant nerfs, and the buffs haven’t done much to change the meta beyond Venture being a flavor of Midrange you can play. The only point wherein this wasn’t the entire tier meta was a brief window when Ignus Combo was viable and dominant, and the Midrange decks were able to eventually adjust to have game versus it before that deck was banned away.
It’s easy to believe that this Midrange format is a failure on Wizards’ part, but I’m going to take a slightly different view on the matter: I think this is mostly by design. Wizards, for a long time, has seen people clamoring for a format that allows “fair” decks to thrive and be the best decks. This idea dates back to the traditional Jund and Abzan players in Modern yearning for the days when their decks were good. We saw it again around the time of Pioneer’s launch, people wanting the fair Midrange decks to be tier 1. With Alchemy, we’ve essentially found the format where that’s the case. The cards are more powerful than what Standard has to offer for the most part, and they all skew currently towards three color Midrange piles.
Could this change in future? Absolutely. Dominaria United is less than two months away, and we should have at least two more rebalances before then. Maybe by September the meta will look wildly different, but the team responsible for the format hasn’t shown any real signs of wanting something different. Buffs primarily aim at boosting draft archetypes to be slightly better, but still not competitively viable, and the nerfs haven’t been aimed at killing off the Midrange dominance. The goal seems to be leveraging the Alchemy format, a format with a bad reputation, to meet the desires of a large swath of competitive players yearning for “Jund” to be good again.
Building a Better Draft
As I briefly touched on above, there’s a certain subset of Limited players on Arena who believe that the Alchemy technology can be used to “fix” draft formats or even refresh them to keep them feeling fun and new. Alchemy drafts have already gotten their first two test runs with Alchemy: New Capenna and now Alchemy Horizons: Baldur's Gate. Ideally, since HBG will be the draft format for the entire summer, we could see the Arena team leverage rebalances to shake up the format and also improve it’s current imbalances (blue is borderline unplayable). This would align with their current goal of buffing draft archetypes that “missed the mark”, as they’ve done with Golgari Elves, Boros Warriors, and Dimir Decayed. In those instances, the rebalances were for Constructed, but with minimal actual gain in terms of the meta. With Alchemy drafts, these can serve a dual purpose and reinvigorate a draft environment.
It’s easy to say that rebalancing a draft format only benefits the most dedicated drafters, but it’s worth considering that there are some players who would be re-enticed to try out a format they disliked, for example, if it got some major rebalances and new cards. Turned off by white being so dominant in Streets of New Capenna? Perhaps a rebalance where several non-white draft cards got juiced up would be to your liking. Dimir getting you down in Midnight Hunt? How about a bunch of buffs to Humans and Werewolves in that draft? The possibility to make “new” draft formats out of old ones is an exciting possibility.
There’s also one element connected to Limited worth considering: Cube. Buffs and nerfs for Cube have yet to be a thing, but I don’t believe they can be completely ignored. Imagine a scenario where we get an entirely new Cube with dozens of rebalanced cards exclusive to the Cube itself. Cards that were previously super powerful, like Oko and Teferi, could see weaker versions that are exclusive to the Cube, or even variants with entirely new abilities, as we saw with some of the “changed” cards in Alchemy Horizons. Buffs could see some random draft chaff become a Cube all-star. This, admittedly, is a little more farfetched than the rebalances to a retail draft format, but I figured it was worth putting out in the open in case it does ever happen.
Predicting the Future of Alchemy
I’ve talked a bit about what the current and near-future goals and possibilities are with regards to the Alchemy format and the Alchemy rebalance technology, but I want to end by talking about what I see coming down the pipeline. The next year of Magic should be an exciting one. We have four Standard sets coming to Arena, two Anthology sets for Historic and Explorer, and I believe a Horizons set to look forward to. Dominaria United and The Brothers’ War are announced as the first two sets for the next Standard year, and both will almost assuredly have Alchemy supplemental releases, likely a month or so after release. Ideally, they’ll be draftable just like Alchemy: New Capenna was. After that, we should be seeing the Lord of the Rings set, which will be releasing on Arena and will be a straight-to-Historic set.
Obviously, there will be two more Standard sets in the first half of 2023, both of which will likely be named in the near-future by Wizards. So what’s the Horizons set I’m suggesting? Last Summer, Jump/Start: Historic Horizons released, and leveraged cards from Modern Horizons 1 and 2 to shake up Historic. This year, we saw Alchemy Horizons: Baldur's Gate as our Summer set, this time as a draft format. Based on this, I think it’s extremely likely we will see a new Horizons draft format, either Historic Horizons or Alchemy Horizons, next Summer. My gut tells me it’ll be the former, and tie in to a potential Modern Horizons 3 release next year, but without an announced release schedule for next year, the crystal ball gets a bit murky. It’s very possible it could be Alchemy Horizons 2, since that could hit both Alchemy and Historic for a shake up.
This isn’t to say that everything is all roses when it comes to the format and it’s future. Of course, it’s worthwhile to note the strikes against it. Card acquisition, while definitely alleviated to a degree by the availability of Alchemy drafts, is still a major concern. As the card pool of any given format expands, the price of entry when discussing rotating between decks goes up. Couple that with a (current) lack of Wild Card refunds for any nerfs, and you’ve got a recipe for a cost prohibitive format when compared to Standard and likely even Explorer / Pioneer. It’s also worth pointing out that an expansion of Alchemy’s card pool over Standard’s also means that Historic is growing in pool size and, again, in cost of entry. This is one of the growing pains when it comes to expanding the card pool, and as Historic adds more and more cards from Modern and Legacy to the client (many even from Alchemy Horizons itself), the digital cards add an even greater strain on either your wallet, your grind time for acquisition, or both.
There are, naturally, steps that the Arena team could take to make it easier to get these cards. We just saw the MTGO team gift Pauper players two of each new card that was suffering from a scarcity issue to alleviate economy concerns. If Wizards wants Alchemy to thrive and recover from it’s player base woes, maybe something like that should be on the table. At the very least, as I hinted above, they should take steps to refund you Wild Cards whenever cards are negatively rebalanced. That way, it feels a bit fairer for the players, and players who are not engaging in Alchemy could potentially give it a chance with extra Wild Cards hanging around. I don’t think these are the ONLY viable options, but again, I wanted to mention my thoughts on the issue when tackling the subject of Alchemy, since it’s such a delicate topic for so many within the greater Magic community.
I’m hoping I’ve given you all a glimpse into what I see Wizards and the Arena team doing with both the Alchemy format and the technology behind the rebalancing of cards. Alchemy is being curated to fill a niche in terms of player interest in a Midrange-driven format. The rebalancing technology has made a brief appearance now in Alchemy Horizons, and could potentially have an even greater impact on this format and others down the road. I understand that it’s hard to overcome the initial negativity many felt towards Alchemy as a concept, and the launch economy issues were harsh and exclusionary.
That said, drafting Alchemy cards is both fun and a good way to grant increased access to those cards to more players. Alchemy is a dynamic format that can potentially keep players interested by putting an end to stagnant metagames, and is a perfect fit for competitive players looking for something to solve more regularly. It’s a solid format that has gotten a bad rap, but ideally one that it can overcome and flourish in spite of.