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Magic: The Gathering admits Arena needs a “true-to-tabletop” format

Players amused and frustrated by Wizards’ inability to type the word ‘pioneer’.

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

The addition of Alchemy to Magic: The Gathering Arena was controversial from the jump. Wizards of the Coast introduced the format to its trading card game’s digital client in hopes of providing designers a way to balance problem cards while also expanding the number of digital-only offerings. Now, the company says a more definite solution might be needed.

A recent blog post on the MTG site laid out the current state of Arena, covering tweaks to controls in preparation for Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty and promising a “general slew of bug fixes”, ostensibly to address the recent game client instability on both mobile devices and PCs. But the most substantial section covered Wizards’ goals for the future of Alchemy, which may include addressing the demands of the new format’s most fervent detractors.

“We're also aware that by including Alchemy cards in Historic, MTG Arena no longer has a ‘true to tabletop’ non-rotating format,” the post reads. “We know this is something players want, and it's something we want to provide, so we're actively looking into how we'll support an additional Eternal format.”

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If you don’t play Arena, and if you especially don’t play Historic on Arena, this might seem like a weird sticking point. Here’s the short version: As sets of cards leave the roughly one-year-long Standard rotation on Arena, they enter a format called Historic alongside all the other sets MTG has released as digital cards. This format is much more stable than Standard, and the sheer number of cards provides a rich and varied deckbuilding space. When Arena first launched, Wizards described Historic as the equivalent to paper formats such as Legacy and Modern, and players understood the space as one the company would police as little as possible.

Certainly, some bans did happen in Historic, but the general reaction was that Wizards’ culling of destructively volatile or meta-dominating cards from the herd protected Historic’s fun. Alchemy, on the other hand, indelibly changed many cards in the name of balance, replacing the older versions in every format. Players saw this action as breaking the covenant in regards to Historic, zealously pruning an otherwise healthy bush. While Alchemy seems to have found a sizable audience, the price paid left many more frustrated and disillusioned.

In the same post, Wizards said it will not be creating a new, separate Historic queue that ignores all rebalanced and digital-only cards. Too many queues will split the player base thin and saddle everyone with increased wait times for matchups. Unfortunately, the company isn’t ready to announce a solution.

“Exactly what this upcoming format will be is still under consideration because we want to make the best informed decision that we can,” Wizards said. “That takes time. There are a lot of things we need to consider and solve before we have our answer, because a big part of supporting an Eternal format is setting it up for long-term success.”

Image credit: Wizards of the Coast

The response online largely fixated on one word: pioneer. The Pioneer format is one that exists in paper MTG and permits all cards stretching back to 2012’s Return to Ravnica block. Introduced in 2019, the goal was to create an updated middle point between the razor thin-modernity of Standard and the deep, often intimidating ocean of Legacy.

Originally planned for Magic Online and physical play, Arena’s implementation of the new format existed as recently as 2020, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly killed development. It has remained the most sought-after feature by Arena players - next to full-on commander support - and became a rallying cry in the wake of Alchemy’s implementation. YouTube creator Seth “Saffron Olive” Manfield summed up the community’s feelings by tweeting, “I don't think this is all that complicated, isn't the answer pretty clearly Pioneer?”

As explained in a video on the MTG-focused Tolarian Community College channel, Pioneer would answer plenty of problems that the community faces but would inhibit the flow of cash Wizards of the Coast earns when its player base continuously repurchases the half of their collection that falls out of the Standard format every year - a cash flow that strongly contributed to Hasbro earning over $1 billion in revenue in 2021.

The Pioneer format was so close that a dedicated set - Pioneer Masters - was planned for the end of 2020 before being delayed and eventually shelved indefinitely. Wizards of the Coast said at the end of the post that early designs for their next solution will be tested during some upcoming Midweek Magic events. Whether that ends up producing another solution masquerading as an extension of Standard remains to be seen.

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