Alchemy: The format's potential and what went wrong

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Alchemy: The format's potential and what went wrong

03/05/22 Comment regular icon0 comments

Even though it is one of the main formats of the Neon Dynasty Championship, Alchemy has stagnated in popularity What are its problems, and what can be done to fix it?

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By Romeu

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translated by Romeu

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revised by Tabata Marques

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Although the official Magic channels are already talking about Streets of New Capenna, there is just under a week left for the Neon Dynasty Championship, the large event that "replaced" the ones we previously knew as

Pro Tour

, and normally symbolizes a major milestone in both the competitive season and the newly released set as a whole, as the event used to be the time when pro players came up with new archetypes and strategies that managed to succeed at the tournament, and it was during the Pro Tour season that we've seen a number of decks emerge and become popular within players, especially in Standard.

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However, times have changed. Not only does the Pro Tour as we know it no longer exist, but players' contact with new sets takes place earlier through digital platforms, and information regarding new cards, strategies and combinations is disseminated much faster than it used to be ten years ago, thanks to the advent of social media and the greater ease of collecting data and community analysis through a platform that attracted more and more players — Magic Arena. And speaking of Magic Arena, the Neon Dynasty Championship will be played in

Alchemy

and

Historic

formats, both exclusive to the digital platform and with effects and cards that only exist there and which makes some difference in the competitive scenario, such as Town-Razer Tyrant and Key to the Archive, plus a multitude of other possibilities and sets with unique mechanics for the digital environment being released since JumpStart: Historic Horizons last year, making it the first professional championship of which formats can only be played through Magic Arena, symbolizing the well-known objective of promoting the platform to spectators and demonstrating, through the event's competitors, how creating an exclusively digital format can take the game to a new layer of interactions, mechanics and an environment with a greater diversity of strategies and with a bit of random factor as well. However, despite being the main format promoted by the next professional event in the game, and even receiving some support and attention from the company, with rebalancing and upgrades occurring with some frequency (and even with unbans in Historic, such as Teferi, Time Raveler and Fires of Invention), Alchemy, as a format, seems to have been born without much community interest in it, and there doesn't seem to be enough relevance for it in the competitive landscape to that most players are interested in building decks on it, nor that event organizers are really interested to host events on it, as the majority of the Magic Arena community still has a notorious preference for Standard. Whether Alchemy will still manage to prevail in its proposal as an exclusively digital format remains to be seen, and much of its future may even be defined by the public's receptivity to the Neon Dynasty Championship, which is why it becomes even more important: understand how we got here and what are the pros and cons inherent to the format and its relationship with the entire existing structure around Magic Arena. Recently, the Magic Arena grinder Jose Lopes, or Metallix87link outside website, made a thread on Twitter commenting on his opinion on why Alchemy seems to be failing disastrously, and he proposed that other users leave their comments and opinions about the problems regarding the format and what can be done to make it succeed. Today's article is a reflection on my thoughts regarding the format currently, and my proposal of what can be done to improve it and give due relevance to its existence in the competitive environment.

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The attempt to enter the eSports world without a proper eSports structure

Since it was officially announced and with its launch in 2018, Magic Arena has been Wizards of the Coast's attempt to bring the game into the eSports universe, and essentially every step the company has taken regarding the game and the competitive landscape, like MPL's creation, were aimed at building a scenario that was inviting for the occasional eSports player as a whole, including invitations for competitors from other platforms to play in the first major events. However, Wizards still reproduces abysmal flaws when it comes to being considered an eSport, and invests its resources in expanding the commercial factor of the platform (for example, creating formats, adding products such as JumpStart and Anthologies, etc), while neglecting basic and essential concepts for a digital card game. I really hate to repeat myself on this subject, but it's absurdly bizarre how Magic Arena, with four years of existence, doesn't have a spectator mode and, at no time, the possibility of adding a spectator mode or not was even mentioned by the company, while other top digital card game competitors such as Hearthstone, Legends of Runeterra and recently Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Masters have already added a spectator mode, or have been released with this built-in feature — and this absence is only the most notorious for the common eSports audience because it forces a sequence of small improvisations, such as screen sharing in official tournaments and even in the World Championship, but there are several other points where Magic Arena simply fails to deliver an experience that is attractive to athletes from other digital card games, such as a clearer and more objective competitive rise structure that actually rewards the player for playing the game. Not that I consider the current scenario of “independent events giving a seat to the Pro Tour” to be bad. On the contrary, the advent of the digital platform allowed democratization and greater access for players to a more competitive scenario where, previously, there was only a specific layer of players who managed to reach the top and participate in major events in other countries; a great player who lived in a countryside town of a country like Brazil, for example, had many more difficulties in achieving a professional career due to factors such as accommodation and transportation to PTQs and the like, not to mention a student, for example, who would normally never have the money to keep up with competitive Standard, but who can now, through

a lot of grinding

, complete decks and compete through Magic Arena. What is lacking, however, is a better communication of how this competitive structure works, and why a player should focus on it. Organized Play is in a huge vacuum, and no one is quite sure what the means to compete in Magic Arena are because there is no unified voice, or an information center coming directly from the company responsible for the game, since absolutely everything, from vacancies for a big event to the distribution of information was sort of outsourced to the community, and although this methodology works and many players adapt to this decentralization, it creates an external image that the company is not too concerned with managing its own platform, which is not very attractive to a competitive player coming from another card game.

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And where does Alchemy fit into that? Well, the format is a great idea and an efficient way to put Magic on par with other digital Card Games, where rebalances and effects that are humanly impossible to reproduce are common and are part of their stratagem, and there is certainly an audience and a niche market that would be very interested in playing Magic with rules already well established in other games, such as exchanging the nature of bans for nerfs, or the work of managing the power level and increasing diversity through buffs, but the format fails to deliver a meaningful experience for any player because the platform still significantly fails to match its competitors on several key points: Support for less optimized PCs, spectator mode, economy, competitive organization, making the game experience rewarding, etc. That is, Wizards can attempt to come up with all sorts of business-oriented ideas to attract new players from other platforms, but it will continue to fail miserably in the process of joining the eSports world if it doesn't build a solid and comprehensive structure for Magic Arena.

Nobody really asked for the format

I mentioned above that Alchemy was created with the main purpose of matching Magic Arena to the rules and tactics of other digital card games and attracting a new niche audience, but what about the audience that the platform already has? Well, the truth is that most of the community never asked for a format with rebalances and that added to the exclusively digital elements, although this second point really is the great attraction of the format: Playing Magic in a way that you just can't in the Tabletop means having an experience that only Arena can provide you (and this is precisely the approach that we will observe in Neon Dynasty Championship), with decks and strategies that only exist there, and although there is an audience for this experience, it's not exactly what the community was waiting when they mentioned that there would be a very important announcement. Most of the community's claims today regarding competitive formats are precisely that there are other ways to play "tabletop" Magic in Arena in the form of an eternal format (which is often asking Pioneer is introduced to the format), being the exact opposite of what Alchemy and Historic represents. And that brings us to another point, and one that I particularly feel a bad about still existing in such a digitized world:

Part of the community is extremely nostalgic and doesn't accept changes

We can't say by any means that the Magic community is the healthiest of games. Yes, I've seen worse, but I've also seen better. As far as Alchemy is concerned, we need to remember how old school players have simply hated the idea of ​​digital-only cards since JumpStart: Historic Horizons was revealed, and how

any and every drastic change

in the game always means the end of the world for a part of the community that, for some irony, decides to remain in this strange, or even abusive relationship of hating the game and continuing to play it, living eternally in this spiral between enjoying the games and feeling disgust for the decisions made, and that's not the nature of Magic players alone — any major game franchise like Dungeons & Dragons or Final Fantasy has its share of fans who believe that title would be better if it stuck to its roots rather than adapting to the concepts created or adapted for the current generation or to the winds of social and cultural change.

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And this part of the community has a natural prejudice with the format because it includes mechanics that they don't like, and they fail to understand that not every product is really built and designed for the same kind of costumer. This does not mean that all more nostalgic complaints about Magic should be disregarded and evaluated as unfounded, it is necessary to take a critical look at the various issues and news regarding the game and many of those who have been following Magic since the last decade with they certainly miss something at one point or another, or feel that it has changed in ways it shouldn't. Using my personal example here, and one that comes from working at a local store in Brazil for two years, I consider that Magic has become

too commercial

in recent years, and that this culture of always keeping up the player hype with previews of a new set coming out

thirteen days

after the official release of the latest product, as they did last Thursday with Streets of New Capenna, is extremely detrimental to the community's good development with the product and creates severe problems for local retailers to actually sell them. After all, who can be interested in purchasing one of Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty's two Commander Decks when the game's central source of information has already announced that there will have

five different decks in the next set coming out in two and a half months for that same buyer to choose

? You can argue that Standard-oriented products are still coming out every three months, and that's true, but it's precisely because the product

is not coming out for two and a half months

that I believe the time managment could be better spent on optimizing the promotion of the newly released set, instead of having people go straight from the prerelease to hop all the way into the hype train for the next set.

Lack of planning when promoting Alchemy

Did you know that the

Alchemy: Kamigawa

set is coming out in March? If you're here, probably yes. But when will it come out? We don't know since this information is

not yet available

, and it's likely that we'll have this update happening between the next WeeklyMTG or during Neon Dynasty Championship coverage which, for some reason, won't fully reflect how you'll be able to play the format if you are interested in it because there will be a new set that will come out this month, and that will probably change the competitive landscape in some way, or at least that's what is expected of a release with cards fully dedicated to the format. There are some significant flaws in the Wizards release schedule and the dates of their competitive events that make the experience the spectator watches at the big event not reflect the same experience they might have if they were interested in playing the game, and it's not the first time this crucial flaw has occurred in front of the release chain or other direct interventions. Another point that has shown to be a recurrence in the format is the timing of the rebalances and the lack of any warning of when they will occur, which differs a lot from what we usually see in other digital card games and that, despite opening up greater autonomy for that these changes occur as needed by the Metagame, also opens up a factor of unpredictability, where a player can easily fear building a certain deck due to the insecurity of not knowing how long it will be available without the introduction of a nerf that significantly affects its gameplay.

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Town-Razer Tyrant was, so far, the only case of two consecutive rebalances aimed at reducing the amount of archetypes that rely on its ability to have a significant advantage in the game, and it may still be among the Metagame's top competitors despite its last update coming out about fourteen days before the Neon Dynasty Championship, something that definitely changed the way some competitors were preparing for the event and opening up a short amount of time for them to be able to reevaluate their options and train properly. And that's without considering Magic Arena's elephant in the room:

Arena's economy doesn't favor entering a format with rebalances

If Arena's economy is bad, it's worse for digital-only formats. Again, this is a topic I've repeated my speech about a dozen times: The Magic Arena economy is the worst in digital Card Games as it demands a high amount of investment in grinding time, or money, for you to be able to have a viable collection for building multiple decks, commonly forcing the player to spend a lot of time piloting the same list, while discouraging the construction of more decks due to the high price required for acquiring Wildcards and the lack of a dust system, which would allow you to “exchange” cards you don't want for some resource that could later be reverted to new wildcards, or for more efficient means of guaranteeing an improvement in your collection. It doesn't mean the system can't supply you: Doing the daily quests and a minimum amount of 4 wins a day gives you enough Gold for you to open several booster packs or play several drafts when the next release comes out, but it doesn't supply enough so that the player can transition between decks and retain unwanted cards that you opened during the draft or opening booster packs, some of which you will

never use

, creates a situation that largely discourages the diversity of options for a huge portion of players, especially those fearing a card being banned and invalidating all the resources you spent on building a deck, as happened several times in Standard 2020, where manabases were very heavy due to Shocklands and bans were frequent. And if Arena's economy is already naturally unfavorable, especially for bans, where at least there is a refund of banned cards, what can we expect from rebalances, which do not offer refunds since you can technically

continue playing with the card

? Of course, it might be

asking too much

for the platform to give us back the Wildcards invested in the game by this kind of direct intervention, as we will be able to continue using them in this same format, and I'm not so sure how or feasible would be removing these cards from the players' collection for them to decide whether they still want to use them or not (other than that it seems like a programming nightmare), but that's not the mindset that the average Magic player will see this situation with because the final feeling is that they will be harmed.

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So, why would the average player waste time with Alchemy if there is no guarantee or refund in case of outside interference by Wizards, unlike what happens in Standard where, also, there is still some benefit that bans are much less likely than rebalances? The answer is: unless the player really likes what Alchemy proposes, there is no reason for them to be interested and spend more wildcards to complete a deck and much less reason for them to want to compete in the format if many others will think the same way and will leave the format to wither into oblivion. If you add this point to the fact that Alchemy sets aren't available for draft and aren't usually, in most events and Mastery Pass, available as rewards for playing and winning matches, if you want to play Magic Arena's digital-only formats, it is much more harmful in resource usage than attempting to play the format that can also be played on tabletop.

How to Fix Alchemy?

Better management and planning of Magic Arena as a competitor among Digital Card Games

If Wizards of the Coast's intention with an exclusively digital format was to put Magic in the competition as a Card Games eSport, the company must learn how to improve the platform experience, and not just add more products and more cards with exclusive mechanics and believe that the community will buy the idea and turn the wheel by themselves, and there is a lot that the company can learn and absorb from its main competitors in the genre and, as a newly declared billionaire company, I don't think there is a lack of resources to try to apply changes for the digital platform that definitely contributed to Magic's significant increase in popularity. Another point to be addressed is that rebalancing shouldn't be done without prior notice or without a specific date for it, as this is counter-intuitive with what other games propose to do and creates a large space of insecurity for the current community.

Make Alchemy a more relevant format in Magic Arena.

And when I mean relevant, it's giving people reasons to

want to play Alchemy

, and that can be done by creating more format-focused events, whether it's Midweek Magic with prize pools that include booster packs or exclusive cards, or even with cash-prize events, such as Arena Open. The point here is that Wizards needs to give points of interest so that an average player has the least curiosity to know the format, and that event organizers want to promote it in independent tournaments, either through the acquisition of seats for the New Capenna Championship, or offering some advantage to those who host tournaments focused on Alchemy, among other options that, again, reward players for building decks and dedicating themselves to Alchemy.

Improve the distribution of digital-only cards

Alchemy sets are not available for draft, and their exclusive cards can only be acquired by purchasing Boosters. The inclusion of exclusive cards as event prize pools, or even in the Mastery Pass, would make more players consider building decks and experimenting with it.

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Emphasize the format's good points

Like any competitive format, Alchemy also has its pros and cons, when it comes to playing it or building a deck, and emphasizing the pros is an efficient way to give them reasons to try the format. Today, I can't say that I know enough to emphasize the main positives, but it is clear and noticeable that one of its most attractive points in some occasions is how much its digital elements create a unique Magic: The Gathering experience, in addition to I've also heard or read from other content creators that the format values ​​synergy much more than some cards' individual power, due to the rebalances' nature.

Conclusion

That's all for today. As a whole, Alchemy is a game-changer for the community, and right now, there seem to be far more people willing to hate it or have no interest in the format than there are people willing to play it and host events having it as the main focus. Speaking of events, I avoided mentioning the absence of Alchemy tournaments as it seems to me to be a relatively too obvious question to conclude: Events can only exist if players are willing to play them, and this doesn't seem to have been the case with this format in the last month. The Neon Dynasty Championship appears to be a golden opportunity for Wizards to promote its “fully digital environment” with Alchemy and Historic as its main formats, and my question is whether it will be possible to carry out such a promotion efficiently, or if we will just have terrible fails in official coverage due to the absence of basic elements that should define Magic as an eSport before we are talking about increases in the prize pool. Thanks for reading!
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Romeu

Journalism student, writer and translator for Cards Realm. Plays virtually every Magic: The Gathering competitive format and is a lifetime Final Fantasy fan.

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