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Jun 11, 2023

Digital-only cards are weird. Paper Magic's seen weirder.

Magic: The Gathering Arena's Alchemy format is divisive among the player base, but if nothing else it serves as a playground for showcasing clever 'digital-only' designs. The developers can take advantage of the digital space to produce cards and effects that can't be replicated in paper. At least, that's the philosophy behind most Alchemy releases.

Related: Magic: The Gathering: The Best Combos In Alchemy

Not every digital-only design is suitable for tabletop play, but some aren't as bizarre or complex as the Alchemy branding might suggest. Though many could create logistical issues in a tournament setting, some slight tweaking could make a handful of Alchemy cards viable in the world of paper Magic.

Counting cards is time-consuming but straightforward, so there's nothing extraordinary holding Assemble the Team back from being a physical card. It's not even that far off from Demonic Bargain, which has you count out 13 cards before searching the library.

Of course, rounding thirds is less intuitive to some players than counting halves, so printing a card like this in paper probably results in some gameplay errors where players just counted or rounded incorrectly. That didn't stop Dire Fleet Ravager from being printed, though life total calculations are usually quicker than counting libraries.

Players already know how fighting works in Magic, and 'winning a fight' with Skyshroud Ambush makes intuitive sense, but there aren't any comprehensive rules to cover what this terminology actually means. The intentions of the card are clear, but it would need rules clarification before seeing print in paper.

The card Boxing Ring does a close approximation with the only instance of the term 'fought' in Magic, though Skyshroud Ambush accomplishes the same goal with significantly fewer words. Still, 'winning a fight' might have some unforeseen rules baggage that makes it difficult to translate into paper Magic.

Subversive Acolyte's 'digital-only' ability already exists in paper Magic with almost no confusion. The activated ability essentially upgrades it into a different creature, and works in much the same way as 'level-up' creatures like Evolved Sleeper. Note that there's no 'perpetual' change, which would send up red flags in paper.

Related: Magic: The Gathering: What Is Perpetual In Magic Arena?

Maybe Wizards thought the "activate only once" text would confuse players, but that actually simplifies the card since it can't bounce back and forth between the two options. This line of text also appears on several normal cards like In the Trenches and the comparable Surge Engine.

Gemstone Caverns references the starting player, but only in your opening hand. Similar Alchemy cards like Forsaken Crossroads don't bend any rules, but could add an unnecessary layer of mental upkeep to the game. Tracking the starting player past the first turn isn't outlandish, but carries some amount of memory baggage for players.

Despite the potential for memory issues, cards like this are actually great balancing tools. The first player is usually heavily advantaged in modern Magic, and designs like Lonely End and Sylvan Smite give the second player more stabilizing potential when playing from behind.

What exactly about Inchblade Companion makes it a 'digital-only' card? The text "becomes attached" appears on plenty of other Magic cards, and there are countless effects that copy permanents, so nothing seems too left-field here.

Perhaps the pattern of making copies that differ from the original is enough to bar entry into paper Magic, but there's plenty of precedent for copy cards with altered characteristics. Maybe they wanted to avoid paper copies of complicated reconfigure creatures, since those involve a lot of moving pieces already, but the general Magic populace can handle effects like this.

Magic has the convenient Wither ability and -1/-1 counters to track 'permanent' damage across turns. Patient Zero and Uthgardt Fury play within similar design space by preventing damage from being naturally removed, allowing it to stack up and kill off creatures over time.

Related: Magic: The Gathering - Mistakes To Avoid When Building An Alchemy Deck

This could be achieved in paper with extra dice or some equivalent tracker, though it could get messy. There's an argument against essentially forcing players to carry around periphery items to track their cards correctly, but innovations like dungeons and ability counters already do this to some degree.

At no point between Town-Razer Tyrant's two rebalances did it violate any restrictions that would stop it from existing as a paper card. There's a memory component here, but it's no harder to track than, say, the Day/Night cycle while there are no Daybound or Nightbound creatures in play.

The closest paper comparison is something like Obsidian Fireheart, which uses a specific kind of counter to 'remind' you about the effect even if the creature dies. You could do the exact same for Town-Razer Tyrant, even though the dragon's ability doesn't actually involve a counter of any kind.

Wickerwing Effigy allows you to cast creatures from the top of your library but turns them into 1/1 black birds. It tinkers with a lot of different knobs on your creatures, but nothing that's incredibly hard to follow. Compare side-by-side with God-Pharoah's Gift, which changes all the same characteristics as Wickerwing Effigy, and similarly grants a keyword ability.

Playing from the top of your library isn't digital-only territory either; the first few non-Defender abilities on Wickerwing are word-for-word identical to the oracle text on Vizier of the Menagerie.

You could imagine Electrostatic Blast or Bloodrage Alpha as paper cards, though a digital client ensures you don't forget about their triggers when they carry over across multiple turns.That's why most delayed triggers in Magic only exist within the duration of a single turn.

Related: Magic: The Gathering - What Are Activated And Triggered Abilities?

Alchemy uses the 'boon' mechanic to handle some of these effects. Boons are like token versions of delayed triggers, sticking around until they're needed and then disappearing. If WotC was willing to print physical 'reminder' versions of boons, cards like Tenacious Pup and Patchplate Resolute would make more sense in tabletop Magic.

Inspiring Commander is just a real card through-and-through, except for the whole not actually being real thing. It's literally in tutorials used to introduce new players to Arena for the first time, and there's no reason it can't exist in paper.

Some players denounce this card as a color pie break, but Welcoming Vampire would like to have a word about that. The lack of a 'once per turn' rider might make it too easy of a combo engine, but the design could be tweaked and balanced before receiving a proper paper printing.

Next: Magic: The Gathering Arena – Every Alchemy Set, Ranked

He/Him pronounsTimothy is a dedicated console gamer with a penchant for challenging adventure and role-playing games, but a general love of all genres. He's a passionate Magic: The Gathering enthusiast, where he serves as a tournament judge, an avid collector and player, and the community lead of Jank Diver Gaming, an organization dedicated to cube drafting through Magic: Arena.When he's not playing Magic, you can find him dying for the 300th time in the most recent Soulsborne or taking a break with a light-hearted puzzle game or platformer.