There's a lot to unpack from last week's announcement of Alchemy, an alternate-timeline Standard format available only on Arena that incorporates both digital-only cards and rebalanced versions of Standard cards, making it significantly different from traditional Standard.

A substantial segment of the audience for such an announcement reacted with omnidirectional confusion and frustration, which makes plenty of sense because, again, there's a lot to unpack here. Alchemy, with its live rebalancing of digital cards whose physical counterparts will remain untouched, is a radical departure from anything Magic's ever done before. Concerns about execution, complexity, catalog maintenance, playerbase fracture, and even future viability of tabletop Standard are all valid. But I'm positing that a diverse offering of compelling formats on Arena is good for the health of Standard in the long run.

"You can't compete with free."

Standard rotates every other year; the release of a new fall set pushes four more sets out of the format, leaving the new fall set and the four expansions before it. Because of all the holdovers from one rotation of Standard to the next, it used to be relatively easy to engage with a freshly-rotated Standard environment. Covid, and the year-long quarantine it imposed, have all but ensured that most tabletop Standard players not only lapsed but stayed lapsed in the absence of an easy on-ramp back to the format. The overwhelming relative presence of Modern at local levels of play supports the idea that Standard is, to put it succinctly, in trouble. Arena has its own impact on this calculus; as one local game store (LGS) owner told me after I inquired about their lack of weekly Standard events, "you can't compete with free."

Until Alchemy, Arena had two Constructed offerings: Standard and Historic (three if you insist on including the failed experiment that is Brawl, a craven riff on an inspired casual format). Arena's general economy differs wildly from both tabletop and Magic Online, the latter of which features a simulacrum of the tabletop economy. Because of Arena's freemium model and Standard's relatively small card pool, the prevailing wisdom has been that Standard gets "solved"—that the metagame condenses down to one viable deck with no unfavorable matchups—too quickly. Whether or not Standard is actually consistently solved (justifiably) takes a back seat to the optics around the format, which by my estimation have been poor since original Theros rotated out six years ago. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Originally designed to be Magic's flagship format and a reason for players to be heavily invested in each new expansion, Standard finds itself under considerable pressure in 2021. Even during Covid, all the tournaments across Arena (and to a lesser extent Magic Online) and their results serve to compress Standard down to a finer and finer point. Each published tournament result or analysis results in a new iteration of Standard, each of which stack on top of each other, hurtling toward the optimal deck archetype in the abstract. Unlike Modern or even Pioneer, the Standard card pool is small enough to organically mitigate "distractions," which in this case present as suboptimal choices, such as playing anything but Mono-Green, Mono-White, or Epiphany in Standard today.

Alchemy and its premise of ad-hoc rebalancing of specific problem cards represents a willingness on WotC's behalf to finally lean into the original promise of a program like Arena. Magic's contemporaries in the digital card game space have been rebalancing problematic cards on the fly since the Obama administration, so it makes sense for Magic to adopt similar tactics. It's easy to point to this loud detail about Alchemy as the official Standard killer, but at the end of the day, it only matters if you think Standard can't live without Arena. If you believe (as I do) that high-stakes Standard events will come back to tabletop, and that a significant portion of Magic's competitive players desire meaningful tabletop tournaments, and that Alchemy will enjoy high-level support from WotC and other tournament organizers, then Standard, as a whole, will be fine. It'll just move back to tabletop.

Most concerns about the future viability of Standard holistically lie in comparisons between it and Alchemy. To use Alrund's Epiphany decks as an example: Why would I keep playing Standard when Alchemy "fixes" Alrund's Epiphany? At this point in time, the Standard and Alchemy metagames neatly overlap, but between a steady trickle of card fixes and the Arena-exclusive Alchemy cards, Standard and Alchemy are going to diverge greatly, to the point where the Standard metagame is unlikely to be an accurate indicator of the Alchemy metagame and vice versa.

Alchemy promises to be so dynamic that players will have their hands full just trying to keep up and will therefore be incentivized to spend more of their time on Arena focused on Alchemy and less on Standard. Again, this is good for Standard's overall health. If it helps, think less about Standard queue times on Arena going forward, and more about how unlikely a weekly Standard tournament at your LGS is to fire as long as Standard is one of only two Constructed formats available on Arena.

Ostensibly the result of all of this is that Standard iterations will stack atop one another less quickly thanks to another compelling Constructed alternative. There are diminishing returns the more Constructed formats your online client offers—see recent sentiment around Pauper or Legacy as an example—in terms of fragmenting a user base, but as a format, Alchemy and the promise of its premise leans into Arena and WotC's best qualities, cards like this notwithstanding.


Above all else, Alchemy is a bet that WotC's placing on Standard's future as a tabletop format. If WotC didn't have faith in Standard going forward, they wouldn't trot out a successor that lacked a tabletop-friendly analog, because the whole point of Standard in the first place is to ensure that there is sufficient demand and value attached to every expansion upon release.