Conclusion (beginning with the end in mind)
To me, Alchemical Distillation is an excellent flexible support card when playing in larger groups (3-4p) with significant XP invested in the card (6+) when you can reliably succeed at a difficulty 3 skill test without significant costs (ex: you have a base intellect of 5 and a static +1 boost on Standard difficulty, as "up by three" checks are quite consistent).
This is probably my favorite Customizable card released with The Scarlet Keys expansion. I don't think it's the strongest card, I don't think it opens up new builds or new strategies, and I don't think it's auto-include for many (if any) deck designs. And still, for me it's the most fun of the new Customizable cards. As of writing this review (starting January 29, 2023) there are only 11 published deck lists on ArkhamDB that include this card, which is the lowest number of all the Customizable cards. Hopefully this review provides helpful perspective into this card and will encourage other players to try it out!
For context for my review, I usually play in 3-4p groups on Standard difficulty.
I'm going to start by describing what I think are the top three reasons why this isn't a good card.
First, Alchemical Distillation requires a skill test for getting any of the benefits. If we're looking at level 0 cards to compare Alchemical Distillation to, the current card pool includes several ways to get 2+ test-free resources, card draw, damage healing, horror healing, secrets, clues, and movement. For example, Emergency Cache is a great example of a card for 2+ test-less resources that is still very playable in the current card pool. Using an action for the chance of a benefit isn't as good as a guaranteed benefit, esp. at Hard/Expert when symbol tokens can be particularly painful. Beyond test-free ways of getting benefits, there are also many action-free ways of getting these benefits, such as Crack the Case.
Second, Alchemical Distillation requires a hand slot. Seekers have many excellent options for hand slots. As with Emergency Cache above, the classic Magnifying Glass (0) is cheap, Fast hand slot asset that Seekers are continuing to get excellent value from. Using up one of your precious hand slots with a vial of blue fluid without an immediate benefit is a cost.
Third, Alchemical Distillation provides very little value without investing XP in it. This is certainly a matter of opinion, and for me "more resources" or "more cards" isn't particularly inventive, new, or ground-breaking given the other options available at level zero (per the above points). This is very different for me from Empirical Hypothesis, for example, which is strong and playable into the finale of a campaign without any upgrades. Even liking it as much as I do, I struggle to put it into beginning deck of mine at level 0 rather than playing it as an upgrade down the line.
"With so many reasons not to like Alchemical Distillation, why do you like it so much?" I'm glad you asked!
I believe that Alchemical Distillation has three strong benefits going for it that make it a personal favorite and different from other cards.
First, Alchemical Distillation is reusable. While 3 supplies isn't a particularly large number of uses, you do get several uses in a single card which is significantly more than single-use events or skill cards.
Second, Alchemical Distillation has flexible targeting, namely it can provide a benefit to any investigator at your location. This makes it an amazing team-strong support card. There are certainly other support cards that target other investigators, such as Logical Reasoning (4) and Soothing Melody (via Hallowed Mirror) and Crack the Case, so this card is not unique in this regard. Even so, it's still a strength of Alchemical Distillation, especially combined with the next benefit...
Third, and I think most importantly, Alchemical Distillation is incredibly flexible. For example, it's not the only horror healing card, and it's not even the best team-strong horror healing card, but it can heal horror and give you resources. Or card draw. Or movement. Or a charge. Or a secret. And similarly for the other benefits: it's not the only or best team-strong option, but you get so many different benefit options in a single card. And that's why I like it so much: It's a full toolbox of support and healing in a single card.
Making the Most of Alchemical Distillation
Because I believe that the major benefit of Alchemical Distillation comes from the flexibility of the card options, I believe that taking most (if not all) of the 1-xp upgrades are great options:
- Healing damage/horror provides significant resilience for your team
- Additional charges/secrets provides significant staying power for key assets
- Even providing movement allows your team to more efficiently move collectively (trading one of your actions for two movement of someone else), perhaps also avoiding enemies and location effects
The 2-xp upgrade for entering play with +2 additional supplies is a "take it or leave it" upgrade for me. I think it's a great option when you have the xp to spend and you already have other upgrades, and I think Alchemical Distillation is pleasantly strong without +2 supplies. You also have the option of Emergency Cache (3) among other cards for adding more supples if you want that option without putting the xp into Alchemical Distillation itself.
The real upgrade decision point for me comes with deciding between Empowered vs. Perfected. Let's compare the two options:
- Empowered: 4-xp upgrade, increases the difficulty of the check by 2, increases the value of the effect by 1. If some benefit is good, then more benefit is even better! I think that this upgrade really shines for the Enlightening upgrade (place 1 charge/secret on an asset) as the benefit is doubled. And overall, more is more. Each use of Alchemical Distillation becomes more effective and providing the most-needed benefit when you use it.
- Perfected: 5-xp upgrade, adds a "succeed by 2 or more" bonus effect, provides two different benefits. If getting one benefit you need is good, then getting a second benefit is even better! Need card draw? How about some extra resources to go along with them to help you pay for your cards? Need horror healing? How about some resources as a faux-Carolyn Fern effect? Each use of Alchemical Distillation provides more total benefit to the target investigator.
For me, the majority of the time I'm going to choose Perfected as my key upgrade for Alchemical Distillation. The "succeed by 2 or more" mechanic is more forgiving than increasing the difficulty by two, and providing two different benefits plays into the versatility of the card more than providing more of a single benefit. That said, I think both upgrades are incredibly playable, so if you prefer Empowered then by all means go for it!
"But what about taking both Empowered and Perfected? Why choose only one?" This is definitely an option: you can spend 9 xp to get both of these upgrades. For myself, I usually don't think that this is a good combination for three reasons:
- This leaves only 1 xp worth of upgrades left over, which means you can only get one of the four 1-xp upgrade options which provide the core of the flexibility of this card. In general, I prefer having more of the 1-xp options as that's the core value I see to Alchemical Distillation.
- Combining both Empowered and Perfected suggests that you're going to be regularly aiming to test both together, effectively aiming for a skill test difficulty of 5. Hitting a skill check of 5 is certainly achievable, and it's still significantly harder than aiming for a difficulty of 3. For me, it often means someone is committing at least one card, or I'm committing resources (ex: Higher Education), or there's another effect needed (ex: Encyclopedia).
- This is less of a mechanics point and more of a cognitive point about playing the game... For me, having both effects leads to more time required to figure out how I want to use Alchemical Distillation on any given turn. Do I want two boosted effects from Empowered + Perfected at the highest difficulty? Do I just want to aim for one boosted effect? Would I rather have two non-boosted effects? What if the other player has a card to commit? Etc. I'm sure that with more practice I (and my teammates) could go faster with making these decisions, and for now I find it to be a greater time cost.
In light of all of the above points, my overall preferred build for Alchemical Distillation is:
- Rush 6+ xp to get Perfected plus at least one of the 1-xp upgrades (as I find non-Empowered, non-Perfected Alchemical Distillation to not be that compelling and overall I prefer Perfected)
- Get 3 or 4 of the 1-xp upgrades
- If you're fine with having just 3 of the 1-xp upgrades, then also get Refined for more uses
Where/When/Who to use Alchemical Distillation?
This is already lengthy, so I'm going to be a bit more abbreviated here. :-)
I find Alchemical Distillation to be most compelling in 3-4p parties because, in general, support-focused actions require a lower proportion of the total party actions on any given turn. Put another way, if I'm one of four investigators and my turn is "play Alchemical Distillation, Activate it, Activate it" then I'm only using three actions of the total twelve actions on support. For myself, I find support actions in 2p games to often take up too many of the total actions unless there's an immediate need (ex: you need the 2 damage healing to avoid possible defeat).
I also find Alchemical Distillation to be most compelling after a couple scenarios because I always want it to have 6+ xp invested in it before I find it to be valuable. Accordingly, build your deck with an idea for this being an upgrade after 2-3 scenarios of xp. After scenario 1 also works if you're okay with rushing it as your primary upgrade.
If you're looking for a specific suggestion, I've really liked playing Alchemical Distillation with Daisy Walker. Her base intellect of 5 is strong for the skill checks. Daisy's Tote Bag reduces the hand slot contention. Down the Rabbit Hole helps with making upgrading it more efficient (though this likely means you're starting with the level 0 version of Alchemical Distillation and not using it for the first scenario).
What do you think?
Thanks so much for reading this review! Let me know what you think of Alchemical Distillation in the comments.