The Latest Ethereum Upgrades and How They Impact NFTs
Ethereum’s highly-anticipated Shanghai upgrade, which will most notably enable the ability to unstake and withdraw for ETH validators on the Beacon Chain, is expected in April 2023.
Wait, what? Don’t worry, we’ll explain.
In September 2022, Ethereum swapped from its proof-of-work (PoW) execution layer to a new proof-of-stake (PoS) consensus layer, which is just a fancy way of saying it got way faster at processing transactions; like delivering mail on horseback versus a private jet faster. This switch is named “the Merge”.
For more information on the Merge and how it impacts NFTs, see The Merge
Even before the infamous Merge, people staked ETH2, the exact same coin as ETH except for it exists on the new, not-deployed-at-the-time Beacon Chain. Stakers knew ETH2 could not be unstaked until after the appropriate Ethereum upgrades were implemented.
During the Merge, Beacon Chain and Mainnet, well, merged. Now, Beacon Chain is the place where Ethereum operates.
Those who staked ETH2, however, are still currently unable to unstake and withdraw their coins. Enter Shanghai.
What Is Ethereum’s Shanghai Upgrade?
Ethereum’s Shanghai upgrade includes two major updates: ETH2 withdraws and a new EVM object format.
Additionally, there are at least four minor Ethereum Improvement Proposals (EIPs) that are expected to be implemented during Shanghai.
Ethereum’s Shanghai upgrade unlocks previously-staked ETH on the Beacon Chain for those who validated and locked their ether for an indefinite period of time.
Prior to and immediately following the Merge, ETH holders could stake 32 or more ether to become network validators. The ability to withdraw, however, has not yet been implemented. The Shanghai upgrade fixes this and is expected to happen in April 2023.
There are currently more than 16 million ETH staked, according to Ethereum’s data, which is more than $24 billion. While Shanghai is likely to only impact a small percentage of the total ETH staked, it could have significant ramifications on the token’s price.
EVM Object Format
The second major upgrade expected to occur during or shortly following Ethereum’s Shanghai event is EVM Object Format, or EOF.
This is a group of EIPs gathered over the years intended to update and standardize the Ethereum Virtual Machine, or Ethereum’s software. In theory, EOF will improve inefficiencies in code format, lower high execution costs, and fix certain security concerns.
There are six highly-technical EIPs included in the EOF upgrade, but all of them intend to better structure bytecode, or computer object code that an interpreter converts into binary machine code so it can be read by a computer's hardware processor, to make the system faster, more efficient, cheaper, and safer.
One of six EIPs rolled out during the London upgrade. Time permitting, multiple EIPs will roll out during Shanghai, followed by the remaining EIPs coming during Cancun or later. The entire process is expected to be complete by the end of 2023.
The additional Ethereum Improvement Proposals include: EIP-3651 (Warm Coinbase), EIP-3855 (PUSH0 instruction), EIP-3860 (Limit and meter init code), and EIP-4895 (Beacon chain push withdrawals as operations).
EIP-3651: Warm Coinbase
Not to be confused with the U.S.-based cryptocurrency exchange platform, EIP-3651: Warm Coinbase is intended to make direct coinbase payments less expensive. This mostly helps builders and large ecosystem participants.
EIP-3855: PUSH0 instruction
EIP-3855: PUSH0 instruction will only impact builders on the Ethereum blockchain. The proposal is intended to make pushing the constant value 0 onto the stack easier, which basically means it is a new code formula that works better than current alternatives. This will reduce contract code sizes, reduce certain contract risks, and make misused formulas redundant.
EIP-3860: Limit and meter init code
EIP-3860: Limit and meter init code will only impact builders on the Ethereum blockchain. The proposal is intended to ensure init code is fairly charged based on its length, establish a forward-looking cost system, and simplify EVM engines with explicit limits. Currently, there is no limit on the size of calldata.
EIP-4895: Beacon chain push withdrawals as operations
EIP-4895: Beacon chain push withdrawals as operations allows validators to withdraw via the beacon chain and enter those withdrawals into the EVM (Ethereum Virtual Machine). While the new process is more complicated than the current process, it will clearly separate system-level operations from regular transactions and simplify testing to improve security.
How Does the Shanghai Upgrade Impact NFTs?
While the technical implementation of Ethereum’s Shanghai upgrade will not significantly impact NFTs, the ramifications of its release could affect the market.
Liquid ETH Galore
There is currently more than 16 million ETH staked via 500,000+ validators on the Ethereum blockchain. When Shanghai is implemented, stakers will finally be allowed to unstake and move or sell their ETH.
Most ETH will likely remain staked, but with more than $25 billion worth of ETH immediately available for withdrawal, it could shake markets.
Most Ethereum-based NFT projects are priced in ETH, and with that much potential liquid ETH hitting the secondary marketplaces, popular collections could see big run-ups and volatile floor price swings.
Volatility and Uncertainty
Speaking of volatility, ETH’s price could rapidly swing up and down during the initial unstaking period. As previously mentioned, most ETH will remain staked, but some stakers have been waiting for this moment and will want to unstake and sell their holdings.
Massive ETH price fluctuations could lead to fear and uncertainty in related markets, including BTC and altcoin markets, as well as NFT markets. The confusion could increase the volatility of NFT floor price swings, but it will probably flatten out rather quickly.
Increased Marketplace Activity
While Ethereum’s Shanghai upgrade will not immediately reduce mainnet transaction costs, it does pave the way for sharding. Once sharding is successfully implemented, buying and selling NFTs on the secondary marketplace will be cheaper than ever.
Vitalik Buterin suggested a fee of $0.05 per transaction is necessary for scaling and mainstream adoption. This would certainly make swing trading NFTs more popular.
Ethereum owns the majority of the NFT market cap, but the highest number of NFT transactions happen on Layer 2 solutions like Polygon or alternative Layer 1 options like Flow and NEAR Protocol.
Lower transaction fees on Ethereum open up the possibility of using the blockchain for more intensive, active NFT ecosystems like gaming.
Following Ethereum’s Shanghai upgrade, there are expected to be various leftover EIPs that miss the cut. Those will likely be added to the upcoming Cancun fork, which is expected to include necessary updates (the Surge) prior to the introduction of sharding, which is the next major Ethereum improvement following the Merge.
Shanghai Upgrade Leftovers
Ethereum’s priority in Q1 2023 is releasing ETH2 withdraws, and any unfinished EIPs that would delay the launch of that feature are getting backlogged.
Certain EIPs are likely to not make the Shanghai upgrade cut. Those that do not make the cut will be rolled over into the next Ethereum upgrade, Cancun.
The Cancun fork, which is Ethereum’s next major upgrade after Shanghai, plans to implement Proto-Danksharding (or the Surge). This will increase the scalability of Layer 2 rollups by 100x, according to Ethereum, and is a required next step before implementing sharding.
Cancun also plans to implement EOF2, a new EVM Object Format extension that overhauls the current control flow. This will include the EIPs related to EOF that did not get implemented during the Shanghai upgrade, as developers opted to not delay by a month so withdrawals could happen as quickly as possible.
Following the implementation of the Surge, Ethereum plans to introduce full sharding “sometime in 2023.”
Sharding allows Ethereum to leverage the low transaction cost of Layer 2 solutions while maintaining the security and execution finality of its mainnet.
Ethereum’s latest upgrade, aptly named “The Merge,” is a transition from the blockchain’s current proof-of-work (PoW) execution layer to its new proof-of-stake (PoS) consensus layer. In layman’s terms, Ethereum is swapping from a slower, older way of processing transactions to a faster, newer technology.
Skip to How Will The Merge Impact NFTs?
The Current Proof-of-Work (PoW) Model
Currently, Ethereum’s Mainnet uses a PoW cryptographic proof to confirm or reject the validity of each transaction on its blockchain. It operates through a process known as “mining.” Miners validate “blocks,” or permanently recorded data structures, with energy intensive computations. The miners are then rewarded for adding validated blocks to the blockchain via transactions fees, and if malicious blocks are added, they’re punished.
It’s complicated, but think of it like building a house with 1,000 pound bricks. Each brick needs to be added to the appropriate place for the structure to remain sturdy, but people can’t lift 1,000 pounds. Enter expensive machines that do the work for us. They move the bricks around and are rewarded for each structurally-sound house that’s built. If a house is built incorrectly and falls over, they’re punished.
But there are only so many machines, and each machine is too costly for average-income people to afford. They’re also big and bulky and finding safe storage for them is a hassle. And they use too much precious energy. These are the problems that PoS hopes to solve.
The New Proof-of-Stake (PoS) Model
Under the PoW model, Ethereum is limited to processing seven to 15 transactions per second, an insufficient number when compared to a payment processing platform like Visa, which can process up to 65,000 transactions per second according to its fact sheet (actual number closer to 1,700 in practice).
PoW, as mentioned, is also energy intensive and costly, which limits the number of people who can participate in validating the network and makes the network less secure. Most notably, it opens Ethereum to a 51 percent attack, a takeover of the blockchain by a group of miners who control a majority of the network.
Under the new PoS model, Ethereum replaces competitive block mining with a new consensus mechanism for block validation. Proof-of-stake makes it easier to process transactions. Willing participants can run a node, or a computer that supports a specific blockchain network, from a laptop or phone. And staking, a process in which miners loan the network a significant amount of Ether (ETH) or another native network cryptocurrency to participate in the mining process, keeps bad actors from validating malicious blocks.
Going back to the house analogy, PoS uses new five pound bricks. Anyone can pick up the bricks and build a house without needing expensive, energy intensive machinery. But before you’re allowed to enter the building zone, you have to provide the gatekeeper with $1,000. If you build the houses correctly, you get the $1,000 back and extra. If you build the houses incorrectly, you lose the money you provided to enter.
How Is Ethereum Going to Switch From PoW to PoS?
The Merge is a highly technical and complicated process that has to be accomplished with zero downtime for the Ethereum blockchain. It’s like swapping an old jet engine for a new one mid-flight. And if the jet is landed, it could have a disastrous impact on DeFi (decentralized finance) protocols, NFT marketplaces, and more.
The first step to swapping out a jet engine mid-flight is to build the new one. Ethereum already accomplished that task in December 2020 when it launched Beacon Chain, a new consensus engine that will replace proof-of-work mining. The Beacon Chain consensus layer is already built and working side-by-side with the Ethereum Mainnet execution layer. It has been tested for over a year and a half.
Following the final Goerli testnet merge, which was completed on Aug. 10, 2022, the Beacon Chain and Mainnet will merge together, replacing the PoW algorithm with the new Beacon Chain PoS algorithm. There will be no downtime and nothing will change for users (node operators and dapp developers should check to see if there are action items to adhere to). Ethereum’s entire transaction history will migrate seamlessly during The Merge.
When Will The Merge Happen?
The Merge is expected to happen on Sep. 15 or 16, according to estimates from bordel.wtf.
The exact date is unknown because The Merge has been scheduled to execute at the terminal total difficulty of 58750000000000000000000, according to Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, and precise timing for when that will occur is difficult to accurately predict.
The Merge is an attempt to solve three major areas of concern for Ethereum: sustainability, scalability and security. Solving these problems is also good for the network’s NFT community. But with all major technical upgrades, there will likely be scams, hacks, volatility, and confusion.
Here are the good, bad, and confusing market responses to The Merge that could impact NFTs.
The Merge positively impacts NFTs in at least three major ways: the greenification of the space, paving the way for lower gas fees via sharding, and network security.
NFTs on proof-of-work are significantly worse for the environment than NFTs on proof-of-stake. It has been a major point of contention for NFT antagonists, who claim NFTs and blockchain technology are quickly ruining the planet.
NFT Club estimates that for every NFT added to the Ethereum blockchain, it takes 1.38 trees to offset the 83kg of C02 released into the atmosphere. For new bids on NFTs, it’s 0.38 trees (23kg of C02). For transfers, it’s 0.5 trees (30kg of C02). For secondary sales, it’s 1.35 trees (81kg of C02). That means an acre of forest can only account for the carbon emissions of 1,764 NFTs, which is typically one-fifth the total collection size of a standard 10k pfp project, and more than 1.3 million trees would have to be planted per 1 millions NFTs added to the blockchain.
The worst offenders throughout Ethereum’s history have been: CryptoKitties (239.8 million kg of C02), Axie Infinity (27.7 million kg), Art Blocks (23.1 million kg), The Sandbox (11.5 million kg), and Decentraland (11 million kg). Axie Infinity saved more than 25 million trees by switching to the Ronin blockchain, according to NFT Club.
Enter proof-of-stake, which will reduce NFTs carbon footprint by up to 99 percent, according to Digiconomist estimates. Ethereum, and by extension NFTs on the Ethereum blockchain, will be much greener following The Merge. This is good for both outsider public perception and convincing new environmentally-conscious artists to enter the space.
Sharding (Lower Fees)
Another frequent complaint about Ethereum’s NFT economy is that gas fees are too expensive, which makes it impossible to build out high-transaction gaming ecosystems that still benefit from the blockchain’s top-level security. With proof-of-stake, the path is set to lower gas fees, but it won’t happen immediately.
Vitalik Buterin and other Ethereum developers made it abundantly clear that The Merge will not lower gas fees. The consensus layer is changing, but this upgrade will not expand the network’s capacity, and gas fees will remain mostly unchanged. But it is a crucial first step to sharding, or a way to break up a blockchain into smaller partitions and spread out computational and storage workload across a peer-to-peer network.
Sharding, which was originally being worked on in conjunction with The Merge, took a backseat with the success of alternative layer 2 (L2) technologies and rollups that have helped Ethereum scale transaction execution. It is now expected to arrive in 2023.
Sharding will reduce points of failure for the network, increase transaction speeds, reduce network congestion, and ultimately, lower transaction fees.
This is good for NFT ecosystems, as it keeps more money inside the ecosystem when less money is flowing out to block miners. It creates an even more efficient and active secondary marketplace for projects and helps high-transaction gaming economies grow on Ethereum, especially since sharding will work synergistically with layer 2 solutions and rollups.
Security and Decentralization
Technical-level analysis of on-chain security and decentralization pros and cons is beyond the scope of this article. But Vitalik Buterin outlines three main reasons why PoS is a superior blockchain security mechanism when compared to PoW: it costs more to attack the network, attacks are easier to recover from when they do happen, and PoS is more decentralized than PoW.
It’s impossible to predict all of the repercussions that The Merge might have on the NFT space, but two areas of concern include: potential scams and hacks on unsuspecting network participants and unintentionally vampire attacking alternative blockchains’ NFT collections.
Beware of Hacks and Scams
It is worth mentioning again that Ethereum has stated there will be no downtime during The Merge and network users will not have to do anything to transfer over their assets, including both cryptocurrencies and NFTs. Do not fall for hacks and scams that are bound to pop up prior to The Merge.
During highly-technical and important web3 events, hackers and scammers target unsuspecting and uninformed users. Beware of requests to migrate your cryptocurrencies or NFTs. Never click on suspicious links.
Beyond standard security and safety best practices, do not interact with the potential PoW fork unless you’re technically skilled enough to do so. Buying, selling, or transferring assets could result in a loss of assets on the PoS chain, according to certain network participants.
“Remember that transactions are just messages - signed with your private key - that define an action,” 0xquit wrote on Twitter. “That signature is encoded with the transaction data, transaction nonce, your private key, etc.”
“That means that if you submit a transaction on ETH PoW, the transaction could be re-broadcast to ETH PoS, and it may be valid,” he continued. “This is called a replay attack. The easy advice is to just not use the grifter chain that will be ETH PoW. If you don't use it, you can rest easy.”
The Decline of Alt Chain NFTs
This is long-term speculation, but alternative blockchains that separate themselves from Ethereum via lower transaction fees and quicker transactions could fade into irrelevance if Ethereum successfully solves these problems.
Innovation is spurred from competition, and it is bad for the entire space if Ethereum becomes the only place to buy, sell, and trade NFTs. The potential upside here is that alternative chains will have to find new, unique ways to separate themselves from Ethereum.
The Merge will introduce new questions and considerations into the Ethereum ecosystem. Three unpredictable and confusing possible happenings include: the proof-of-work blockchain fork, the pre-versus-post merge NFT distinction, and volatile ETH prices.
Not everyone is looking forward to The Merge, and when a community disagrees on the path forward for a blockchain, forks happen. A fork is when a single blockchain, like Ethereum, splits into two separate blockchains. This is how Ethereum Classic was born in 2015.
Certain network participants (mainly miners) want Ethereum to remain proof-of-work, which will result in the blockchain splitting again; this time into ETH PoS and ETH PoW.
When the merge happens and [Ethereum] transitions to [proof-of-stake], there will be two chains: proof-of-work and proof-of-stake,” Olimpio explains. “[Block] miners will try and get the last breath of value before selling their hardware, [and] they will keep [proof-of-work] Ethereum alive, effectively hard-forking the blockchain.”
But what does this mean for NFTs and DeFi protocols?
“Everything you had before the chain split will now be in the new [proof-of-stake] chain, and in the existing [proof-of-work] chain,” Olimpio continues. “NFTs and assets in wallets, liquidity provided (Uniswap, etc.), lending and borrowing (Aave, Compound positions), your on-chain assets will duplicate.”
This means CryptoPunks on PoW and PoS, Bored Ape Yacht Club on PoW and PoS, and so on, and how that will impact the market is currently unknown. Will the proof-of-work NFTs hold value? Will secondary marketplaces like OpenSea and LooksRare allow both versions of NFTs to be listed? Does this impact historical NFT collections more than utility-based NFT collections?
Prior to moving into pre- and post-merge NFTs, it is worth noting that stablecoins backed 1:1 with the U.S. dollars like USDC and USDT have been clear about supporting only the new Ethereum PoS blockchain. It is unlikely that the Ethereum PoW blockchain gains traction after The Merge, but value will depend on community and market reactions to the event.
Pre and Post Merge NFTs
The Merge, regardless of the possible fork, is a major event in Ethereum’s history. It will mark the NFT projects that were built on the proof-of-work blockchain prior to The Merge and those that are built on the proof-of-stake blockchain. The question is: does it matter?
The answer: probably not, but maybe. Historically-relevant NFT collections tend to trade at a premium. In many years from now, this event could make all NFT projects built on Ethereum up to this point historically relevant to a certain degree. These are pre-Merge collections.
The ETH PoW fork could also make the argument that the PoW NFT collections are the originals, and for certain historical collections like CryptoPunks, this might convince some market participants. Ultimately, the blockchain that wins in popularity (highly likely to be ETH PoS) should also win NFTs. But the market will have its say after the event takes place.
Be careful trading for ETH PoW NFTs, as proof-of-work is expensive to maintain and the fork could eventually fade into nothingness. If no one is maintaining the blockchain, all NFTs on that blockchain will also fade into nothingness.
Volatile ETH Price
Market participants are making big bets in both directions regarding ETH value predictions prior to and after The Merge. This will likely lead to major swings in price. If The Merge is smooth and transitions without any issues, price could swing up. If the Merge runs into a major problem, the price could swing down.
ETH’s price volatility will likely impact the NFT market. Whether or not that is in a positive or negative direction is difficult to know.
It is worth mentioning, however, that ETH is a veblen money-good, according to Vance Spencer of Framework Ventures. This means that as the value of ETH increases, the desire to spend ETH increases. And one of the most popular places to spend ETH is on NFTs.
After The Merge is successfully completed, Ethereum will add new features not included in the transition, including the ability to withdraw staked ETH. This is called the Shanghai upgrade. There is no scheduled date for the Shanghai upgrade at the moment.
The Merge also paves the way for sharding, which will decrease network congestion and lower transaction fees. Sharding is a multi-phase plan that Ethereum expects to start in 2023. It will work in conjunction with layer 2 solutions and rollups and is a big part of solving Ethereum’s scalability problem.