In Development – I Am a Forbidden Alchemist

This is clearly a week for the building of unnatural things.

On the life sciences side, I’ve been working to pick the best genes from among thousands of microbes and stitch them into our laboratory bacterium. Our goal is to work around petroleum entirely by converting sunlight into commodity chemicals.

Over on the Magic side, I’ve been working to pick the best cards from the new Standard and stitch them together around [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]. The goal here, of course, is to convert card advantage into victory.

Today I’m going to talk about my nascent take on Alchemy Control, including a brief foray into the numbers behind [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] itself.

The engine of alchemy churns ever onward

Like many of you, I felt a distinct frisson when I first saw the preview of [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]. Although I’d already started my Magic hiatus when [card]Impulse[/card] premiered, I understand that even the [card]Impulse[/card] comparison has many players excited. For me, just glancing at this card suggested that it lived in the same category as [card]Mystical Teachings[/card] and my all-time favorite, [card]Gifts Ungiven[/card], with a solid side helping of [card]Fact or Fiction[/card].

So, it’s good, right?


What Forbidden Alchemy actually does

[card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]’s power is perhaps best described as layered. It filters, it generates card advantage, and it potentially gives you access to certain effects at a mana discount.

Recent Standard, Modern, and Legacy events have clearly demonstrated that card filtering is powerful. While we were carefully watching [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card], Jace, and [card]Mental Misstep[/card], [card]Preordain[/card] was quietly occupying a dominating positioning top eights across all formats. The latest attempt to clean up the Modern format featured a banning of both [card]Ponder[/card] and [card]Preordain[/card] for this reason.

So [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] lets us dig four cards into our library. That’s one more than [card]Ponder[/card] and two more than [card]Preordain[/card], and that seems plenty good.

The core value of Forbidden Alchemy comes from something else – it generates card advantage.

In case that’s non-obvious, let your thoughts drift momentarily to the much-maligned dredge mechanic. When you dredge six cards away to a [card]Golgari Grave-Troll[/card], you’re effectively drawing more cards…because most of your cards have play value in your graveyard.

Same thing here.

[card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] minimally draws you the one card you actually keep. But if you can tailor the remaining three cards so that they’re actually useful in your graveyard – say, flashback cards or reanimation targets – then suddenly you’re effectively drawing anywhere from one through the full four cards.

And, as a special bonus, you’re not actually drawing any cards. So your opponent’s [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card] can sit and twiddle its spindly thumbs while you looking at cards and putting them places.

Naturally, the ability to flashback [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] also means card advantage, although in my experience so far, that’s only come up in control mirrors.

Finally, in letting you “draw” cards into your graveyard, Alchemy lets you cheat mana costs on big fatties, true reanimator style. Not only do you get to undercut the creature’s mana cost, you also get to pay the discount flashback cost for [card]Unburial Rites[/card].

Fine tuning your Alchemy

Let’s spend a moment longer on the concept of graveyard-dependent card advantage, to ask “How much advantage?”

Given a certain number of graveyard-functional cards in your deck, how likely are you to hit some in each casting of [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]?

Here you go:

That’s the percent chance of having that many “graveyard-functional” cards among the four you’ve grabbed with Forbidden Alchemy, depending on what percent of your deck is made of such cards. So, for example, if your deck is 20% “graveyard-functional” cards, then you have about a 60% chance of managing a 2-for-1 or better from Forbidden Alchemy.

This is a fine card whether or not you optimize for graveyard functionality, but the numbers above should give you a reasonable guideline toward how the card will work depending on how you build your deck.

Alchemy Control

So that’s how [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] works. Now here’s how I’m proposing to use it, at least for the moment.

Alchemy Control (a deck for Scars-M12-Innistrad Standard)

[deck]1 Elixir of Immortality
1 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Traveler’s Amulet
3 Doom Blade
4 Mana Leak
3 Snapcaster Mage
4 Think Twice
2 Dissipate
4 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Trinket Mage
3 Day of Judgment
4 Unburial Rites
2 Consecrated Sphinx
1 Sunblast Angel
4 Plains
3 Island
2 Swamp
4 Seachrome Coast
4 Glacial Fortress
2 Darkslick Shores
4 Isolated Chapel
2 Drowned Catacomb
3 Timely Reinforcements
1 Dissipate
3 Oblivion Ring
1 Trinket Mage
2 Memoricide
2 Curse of Death’s Hold
1 Consecrated Sphinx
1 Sunblast Angel
1 Wurmcoil Engine[/deck]

An alchemical breakdown

That’s the list. So what’s the plan?

The path to victory

The high concept summary of this deck’s plan might be given as:

Generate massive card advantage via drawing and recursion, then take control of the game via removal and disruption before finishing with a fatty or via decking.

Unsurprisingly for a control deck, we’re relying on card advantage to go for the win here. However, it’s useful to keep in mind just how much of your card advantage comes from recursion in its many and varied forms. It wants to make extensive use of the graveyard, although only time and the developing Standard environment will say whether you can get away with that much graveyard reliance or if the hate will be intense enough to make one want to back off a little.

Our graveyard goodies

The main deck as presented above features some twenty cards that count as “graveyard-accessible.” They are:

[deck]3 Snapcaster Mage
4 Think Twice
4 Forbidden Alchemy
2 Trinket Mage
4 Unburial Rites
2 Consecrated Sphinx
1 Sunblast Angel[/deck]

Creatures that are worthy reanimation targets – all of them, in this deck – qualify. So do cards with flashback, naturally. With a third of the deck consisting of these cards, that means any given [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] is a little bit over 77% to generate a 2-for-1 or better.

Notice that this is explicitly not a dedicated reanimator deck. Think of it more in line with the old Solar Flare builds, in that it gains tremendous value from being able to reanimate both value creatures and fatties. This is why Liliana does not make an appearance – as good as she is, she does not push this deck toward its game plan (which requires building up card advantage rather than powering fatties into your graveyard).

Similarly, the pressure to have the cards in the deck generally remain “good” in the graveyard means that [card]Gideon Jura[/card] fell out of the deck after making an early appearance in testing. You also probably don’t want to run Zeniths, since the tendency to churn your deck into your graveyard via Alchemy means that you may end up having to ditch them more often than you’d like. Of course, [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] does give you access to one more shot at any given Zenith, but having to exile it afterwards kind of undercuts the point of the card.

Since it’s not a reanimator deck, you can also actually expect to cast all the creatures in the deck in addition to bringing them back via Rites. That’s why we’re topping out at six mana, rather than trying to push up higher to include Elesh Norn or Sheoldred.

[card]Think Twice[/card] is on the more subtle side in terms of its value in the deck, but it’s rather like the workaday mid-scale dredgers like [card]Stinkweed Imp[/card] and [card]Golgari Thug[/card]. It’s not the most dramatic or explosive, but it helps glue the deck together. Each Think Twice that you’ve previously cast or that you drop into your graveyard via Alchemy is another opportunity to fruitfully spend three otherwise fallow mana at the end of an opponent’s turn when you had nothing to counterspell.

[card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] is obviously good, and tends to represents N+1 through N+3 of whichever Sorcery or Instant is most critical in the current matchup. For example, Tiago is a star at bringing back Days for return engagements when taking on aggro opponents.

Team Trinks

I’ve written about these guys before, focusing on their deep, personal relationship with the [card]Elixir of Immortality[/card].

As others have said, five life is a pretty solid chunk, so that’s a good start. The [card]Trinket Mage[/card]s also gain tremendous value for you by their ability to pull up a critical land via the highly efficient [card]Traveler’s Amulet[/card].

Perhaps the most important use, however, is in recycling all those cards you’ve dumped into your graveyard and opening up decking as a win condition for you. In the former case, sure, you have many cards that are very useful in the graveyard…but flashback only lets you use each of them twice, whereas looping them back through via the Elixir gives you a run at three or more castings. As for the win condition aspect…especially in facing down dedicated reanimator decks, you’ll find that you can often keep them at bay indefinitely and they will suddenly find themselves down to a paltry six cards in their library with no good outs to speak of.

The [card]Trinket Mage[/card]s also, quite naturally, can sling a [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] to straight eviscerate an opposing reanimator deck’s game plan. Including the Spellbomb in the main deck is also a bit of a bet on an early Standard metagame that will see heavy use of the graveyard, before players catch on and start packing hate more routinely.

Catacombs, Coasts, and Chapels

We don’t spend much time talking about mana bases, although I assure you that I spend a fair amount of deck building time on them.

With the loss of the Worldwake creature duals, it is suddenly quite tempting to cut back on our land counts. I suspect you’ll find that having lands that are just lands imparts a vague sense of failure and dismay, as if you’re not just bringin the wrong weapons to a fight, but bringing none at all. It can make each slot dedicated to land feel like a slot that has been stolen from some more valuable card choice.

I want you to carefully imagine a tiny Gavin Verhey standing on your shoulder as you design decks for the new Standard, admonishing you to turn that temptation aside. Your decks still need land to work.

You might be calling foul on me for saying that, in light of a control deck that has just twenty-five lands. The thing is, it’s a list that has twenty-five lands and three more cards that get you land, as well as a number of low-costed cards that effectively compress the deck. So, consider it a pseudo-twenty-eight land deck that is excellent at churning through itself to see more cards.

As for the specific land choices, given our sudden surplus of “contingency duals” – the ones that require a basic land in play to ETB untapped – it pays to actually track how many “activating” basics each dual has.

It’s just something to keep in mind, now that fetchlands are once again a thing of the past and we have to figure out how to shoehorn all these lovely duals in together so that we can come out with a functioning unit.


We’ll close out the deck discussion with some sideboarding notes.


+1 [card]Dissipate[/card] +2 [card]Memoricide[/card] +1 [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card]

-3 [card]Doom Blade[/card] -1 [card]Sunblast Angel[/card] [card]Oblivion Ring[/card]s may seem obvious here, since they remove your opponent’s fatties from the perverse resurrection cycle that typifies reanimator. However, one of the most common reanimator plays in the new Standard is likely to be “Rites for [card]Sun Titan[/card], Sun Titan brings back [card]Phantasmal Image[/card] copying Sun Titan, new [card]Sun Titan[/card] brings back [card]Oblivion Ring[/card], removing your Oblivion Ring from my [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card].” Ack, etc. My preference, then, is to just keep killing their stuff as needed with Days and then [card]Dissipate[/card] and [card]Memoricide[/card] their threats into exile.

U/B Control

+1 [card]Dissipate[/card] +3 [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] +1 [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card]

-3 [card]Doom Blade[/card] -1 [card]Day of Judgment[/card] -1 [card]Sunblast Angel[/card]

…and here are the [card]Oblivion Ring[/card]s. Divorced from the pain that is dealing with massive waves of reanimation, [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] is useful in dealing with opposing planeswalkers and, as noted, excising creatures from the tedium of being repeatedly resurrected.


+1 [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] +2 [card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card] +1 [card]Sunblast Angel[/card] +1 [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]

-1 [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] -2 [card]Dissipate[/card] -2 [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card]

Don’t underrate [card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card]. Consider, among other things, this – [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card] dies on activation. Neat, right? You can also always up the [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] count if the issue is more Swords than little dudes.


+1 [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] +2 [card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card] +1 [card]Sunblast Angel[/card]

-1 [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] -3 [card]Doom Blade[/card]

I’m calling the various CawBlade descendants “HeroBlade” for now.

Birthing Pod

+3 [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] +1 [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card] +1 [card]Sunblast Angel[/card] +1 [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]

-4 [card]Mana Leak[/card] -2 [card]Dissipate[/card]


+3 [card]Timely Reinforcements[/card] +1 [card]Trinket Mage[/card] +1 [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]

-1 [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] -1 [card]Snapcaster Mage[/card] -2 [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card] -1 [card]Sunblast Angel[/card]

G/W People

+1 [card]Oblivion Ring[/card] +2 [card]Curse of Death’s Hold[/card] 
+1 [card]Sunblast Angel[/card] +1 [card]Wurmcoil Engine[/card]

-1 [card]Nihil Spellbomb[/card] -2 [card]Dissipate[/card] -2 [card]Consecrated Sphinx[/card]

Lead into gold, or maybe other lead

This is a control deck with sideboarding notes, for a Standard format that doesn’t actually start until this Friday.

So, as we all understand, things can change.

That said, the underlying idea behind the deck probably holds true even as the environment changes. If you can load your deck with an arsenal of cards that retain value in the graveyard, [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card] becomes a sick hybrid of [card]Mystical Teachings[/card], [card]Impulse[/card], and [card]Fact or Fiction[/card] – a gold outcome for sure.

What do you think? Is it time for some [card]Forbidden Alchemy[/card]?

magic (at) alexandershearer.com
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