MTG Arena’s Digital Only Cards Get Nerfed, Will MTG Get Digital Only Balance Changes?

by in Magic: The Gathering Arena | Oct, 15th 2021

MTG (and by extension MTG Arena) has never had balance changes until these digital only cards before! This changed in the October 13th Ban Announcements for MTG Arena. What is fascinating about this, is we recently saw MTG Arena-only cards. Cards that only exist in the digital arena of MTG Arena – not even in MTG Online! These Historic-only MTG Arena cards are digital only and received some very well-earned nerfs – for the most part. Nerfing ridiculous game-breaking combos is important. But in addition to the five cards that were adjusted, there is talk of a more serious change. Could MTG Arena get digital only balance to its cards? It’s got potential. But is this really a good idea? It’s hard to say. First, we’ll cover the actual changes, then talk about the future.

What Was Banned and What Was Changed?

Interestingly enough, no Standard cards were banned! However, it is being monitored, that’s for sure. Wizards is aware of players’ opinions on cards like Alrund’s Epiphany and Esika’s Chariot, which are borderline game-breaking. Alrund’s Epiphany is infuriating, and Esika’s Chariot can create very unenjoyable game states. At this time, there won’t be any changes made, but they may reevaluate again after we see just what Innistrad: Crimson Vow does to the meta. I can see Alrund’s Epiphany and Esika’s Chariot both getting banned at that point. That’s coming in a month, so we shouldn’t have to wait too long to see just what the state of the game will be. 

Three cards in MTG Arena’s Historic meta were banned, and they were needed to be banned, let’s be honest. Tibalt’s Trickery, Memory Lapse, and Brainstorm were incredibly powerful. Tibalt’s Trickery now had access to Throes of Chaos to make it more reliable to blast people in one turn with a killer combo. Memory Lapse and Brainstorm were basically “use or lose” power levels. Brainstorm was already suspended, so it was a card that was being “looked at”, and is now banned. 

In particular, Jay Parker said this about the power of these cards:

Looking at high-level play and the Arena Open in particular, Memory Lapse emerged as nearly a must-include in high-performing blue decks. It was the most played nonland card in the Arena Open as well as the Best-of-Three ladder, and it is one of the most played cards in Best-of-One as well. While we do believe that removing Memory Lapse from the format is likely to create further improvements in format diversity, we also believe the case is less clear than Tibalt’s Trickery. As such, and in order to increase format diversity, Memory Lapse is suspended in Historic.

The trio of cards was overwhelmingly powerful, and it was necessary to take these out of the game. Then we saw the digital only cards that got adjusted in MTG Arena. Some of these were certainly necessary. The first was Davriel’s Withering, a 1-cost Instant in Black:

  • Old: Target creature perpetually gets -1/-2
  • New: Target creature an opponent controls gets -1/-2

This is to nerf the Reveillark-style combo and nothing else, frankly. We covered the Davriel’s Withering Infinite and it was gross. You partner it with Vesperlark and bam! Instant infinite combo! We also saw a change to Faceless Agent, who got a very minor buff.

  • Old: Power/Toughness: 2/1
  • New: Power/Toughness: 2/2

Faceless Agent was a must for Tribal decks since it’s a Shapeshifter. But as a 2/1, it was kind of weak. It’s nice to see not everything is a nerf. This will help curve out tribal decks and improve the experience in a solid way. Sarkhan, Wanderer to Shiv also got a buff:

  • Old: +0: Conjure a card named Shivan Dragon into your hand.
  • New: +1: Conjure a card named Shivan Dragon into your hand.

It’s not an exceptionally powerful ability, as Shivan Dragons aren’t cheap. But it will help power the -2 ability since you have more than one option to pump up his Loyalty. Finally, another buff, Subversive Acolyte got a pair of honestly, pretty amazing changes:

  • Old: Mana Cost: 2Black, Power/Toughness: 2/2, Phyrexian Buff: +3/+3
  • New: Mana Cost: 1 Black, 1 Colorless, Power/Toughness: ⅔, Phyrexian Buff: +3/+2

So it’s technically an adjustment on that final ability. Instead of getting +3/+3, it gains +3/+2, but it gained a point of toughness in the baseline stats, so it’s fine. It will still be an incredibly useful creature going forward. It’s a great early-game defensive creature. These are pretty solid changes, but I do feel like the Davriel’s Withering change kills the whole purpose of the card, even if it does remove an infinite of the game.

What Does The Future Hold?

For now, as Wizards of the Coast said, these balance changes will only appear on digital only MTG Arena cards. That way, there’s no conflict between MTG Arena and the tabletop MTG. That’s a perfectly rational way to look at the game. One of the true negatives about MTG Arena and Magic in general, is that you cannot balance the game other than ban/suspending cards. That’s it! Hearthstone, Shadowverse, Legends of Runeterra can all get buffs and nerfs as needed in patches. 

This is because it is an authentic version of the tabletop MTG. MTG Arena is digital, but it’s being left in the dust by other games because it has a physical tabletop version. Digital games can be adjusted at will. It’s much easier to do in these environments. These games collect so much data from a wide variety of players, from thousands of matches daily. But this may not be the future. In the latest MTG Arena announcement, this was said:

Currently, we are restricting these changes to digital-only cards, where there will be no conflict between a digital and printed version of a card. We would like to expand beyond this (for example, by rebalancing previously banned cards so they can be safely returned to play in digital formats only). There are multiple clarity and communication problems we will need to solve before we can consider those types of changes. This is something we plan to work on in the coming months and, since it bears repeating, would only affect digital formats.

I’m torn on how I feel about this. Partly, it’s an incredible idea, that we could have cards balanced instead of just immediately banned. I and a friend have been speaking about this for about a day now. On one hand, it’s great! We can see major changes to make MTG Arena more enjoyable – provided the changes aren’t negative that make everyone furious. That could very well happen, too. On the other hand, it creates some serious problems. 

Having a player from tabletop go to MTG Arena, and seeing a major, banned card be playable in Arena, but also be different? It’s being said that there will be no in-game notification about rebalancing, so you’ll also just have to keep up with outside news sources (such as us here at Esports Talk), and that’s pretty standard too. But putting a link in your game to balance changes cannot hurt. They did say they’ll continue to provide context, but for now, it’s incredibly easy to rebalance these cards – in terms of updating them in the client. 

This article also discussed the themes of Magic, and supporting both forms of the game:

One of the big themes of Magic over the last several years has been recognizing and embracing the many ways that Magic is played. On the tabletop side, we have released new content focused on Modern players, Commander players, collectors, and other groups. On MTG Arena, we recognize that we have traditional tabletop Magic fans and fans of digital games. With this shift, we aim to fully support both—continuing to deliver an authentic tabletop experience in formats like Standard and embracing new balance tools for digital-only formats like Historic.

However, if we see digital only balance changes to cards in MTG Arena, there are going to be people who immediately naysay it. I’ve seen things like this happen in other games before, too. If this begins, people will assume that the physical version of MTG is going to die out, and we’ll only have digital. Would that decrease their costs? Without a doubt. But I cannot see Wizards of the Coast dropping the physical game, for all the casual fans that love it. I could not ever see that being a reality we live in. So I like the idea of Magic cards being balanced instead of banned, but I can see it causing a rift in the community. The tabletop players could see their favorite card get banned, and digital players can just keep using it. I see this as a possibility, but it’s going to be a very difficult line to walk. Can they do it? Absolutely. 

We’ll be keeping tabs on this as the discussion grows, and if we see more digital only changes in MTG Arena.


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