Modern Horizons Set Review

Modern Horizons Set Review

Every year Wizards release an innovative and experimental new product like Conspiracy or Battlebond free from the constraints of standard sets. Modern Horizons’s unique selling point is that for the first time cards are skipping standard and entering Modern directly. This gives design and development immense freedom to push power levels up, reuse old mechanics, revisit old characters and just do wierd things. And boy did they enjoy that freedom. Modern Horizons is a fantastic and unconstrained love letter to Magic.

No matter how different this set is, I will be following my usual routine. I’ve chosen twenty-four cards to talk about that excite me, from common to mythic. Flavour, art and design are just as important to me as the power level. However I won’t include any reprints even though there are plenty of interesting ones to choose from. Normally I try to discuss every theme and mechanic in the set, but with so many mechanics in this set I’ve had to relax that rule this time. This set looks amazing so let’s dig in.

Top Rares and Mythics

Urza, Lord High Artificer

Before the catastrophic events of Time Spiral rewrote the rules of the Magic story, the most powerful characters in the game didn’t appear on cards. Gifted with godlike power, they were considered too potent to represent through gameplay. Urza was referenced in the original magic set with Glasses of Urza and Sunglasses of Urza but we have had to wait for twenty-six years to finally play with Urza in black-border magic. Depicted during the brothers war and notably before becoming a planeswalker, this Urza is fittingly powerful but not at the pinnacle of his capabalities.

He comes with a laundry list of abilities all referencing cards through the years of magic history. His first ability is my favourite. As the creator of Karn he makes the same constructs as Karn, Scion of Urza. The second ability is reminiscent of Tolarian Academy, an incredibly broken card that can easily produce huge amounts of mana. The last ability comes from Temporal Aperture which was used by Urza in the war against Phyrexia. This combination of abilities has the potential to break formats. The second and third abilities come from a time when degenerate decks ruled the world and many cards had to be banned following the Urza’s Saga block. Commander is the format that might be in trouble now, where with a little support you can cast your entire library for free. I wonder if this card will be considered for a ban in Commander in the near future.

Force of Negation

When it was revealed that Modern Horizons would contain reprints that weren’t Modern legal, everyone began speculating that Counterspell or Force of Will might become available in modern to combat degenerate decks. In normal games of magic, Force of Will is too expensive or card disadvantage. But in Vintage and Legacy where degenerate combo decks can only be stopped with a well timed counterspell, this card becomes format defining.

Some hoped to see Force of Will reprinted and serve a similar role in Modern. Instead we got a new version. Force of Negation features the same bright ‘red’ in the artwork referencing the fact that the art for Force of Will was originally intended for a red card. The alternate casting cost returns along side a realistic mana cost. The biggest change is that the card is laser-focused on non-interactive combo decks. If your opponent is curving out with creatures this card is useless, but since most combos rely on some sorcery speed elements, this counterspell is always available to protect blue mages everywhere.

Like the original Force of Will, Force of Negation is part of a cycle and will outshine the other members of the cycle. Force of Vigor is another great card with two modes. Played for four mana it is a clean two-for-one or when played for free it’s neutral on card advantage but probably stopped your opponent winning instantly.

Giver of Runes

Just like my last card, Giver of Runes is a direct callback to one of the best cards in Magic. Mother of Runes, known simply as ‘mom’ is a innocuously powerful card that can shut down entire game plans. Incredibly frustrating to play against, it demands multiple removal spells before any other threats can be dealt with. Giver of Runes is deliberately designed to be less frustrating to play against since it cannot protect itself. Don’t be deceived, this is a very powerful card, and one of the best one drop white creatures you can play in Modern.

Humans has become the most powerful tribe in Modern, and had Mother of Runes been inducted into the format, that could make the deck too oppressive. The updated Giver of Runes is notably a Kor instead, to avoid pushing the deck over the top. Being a Kor explains the addition of protection from colourless. Since the Kor have been fighting a war of survival against the eldrazi on Zendikar, protection from colourless is a perfect fit. These two tweaks cleverly work together to make this card feel less like a bland copy of a classic card.

Sisay, Weatherlight Captain

Long before the gate watch formed on Zendikar, Magic’s story line revolved around another band of intrepid travellers, the Weatherlight crew. That storyline was at times poorly served on the cards. The original Captain Sisay was a little bland but fitted her background as a legend who recruited a team of legendaries. Other characters weren’t so lucky. Gerrard Capashen is one of the biggest heroes in Magic Lore and his card is woefully boring.

Fortunately we live in an era of card design where by and large exciting characters get exciting cards and designs are heavily influenced by the personality or adventures of that character. This fresh take on Sisay leans further into the legendary theme. She rewards you for playing a entire deck of legendary creatures and is perfect for Commander. Commander is the a format where players have a lot of freedom to build around a character or theme and the tutoring effect is especially beneficial in singleton formats. Cleverly the activated ability means that if Sisay is your commander, you can put any legendary creature in your deck. Some players were disappointed that cards in a modern focused set were designed for commander, but I feel every set should include exciting cards for the average casual player.

Marit Lage’s Slumber

Snow makes a triumphant return in Modern Horizons with a full art snow basic in every pack. There are hardly any downsides to playing snow basics, so in the past Wizards has been careful with the payoffs for playing snow lands. Snow has also only seen play in three sets, so there is a limited pool of cards to build decks from. Until now at least, with some exciting snow cards giving more reasons to play our beautiful new snow lands.

Dead of Winter can do an impression of Plague Wind and Ice-Fang Coatl impersonates Baleful Strix with flash but Marit Lage’s Slumber is my favourite snow card in the set. Marit Lage was a very minor part of the Ice Age story line, but became instantly popular when Dark Depths was released. Played fairly Dark Depths needs thirty mana to create a game-ending abomination but when copied by Thespian’s Stage it only costs two mana! In a deck that is dedicated to snow this provides a continuous filtering effect and an inevitable game winning monster for very little cost. Marit Lage won’t stay trapped beneath the ice for very long.

Mirrodin Besieged

Magic’s return to Mirrodin marked a new era in magic set design. The Phyrexian invasion of Mirrodin was not just seen on the cards in the art, but the mechanics like infect were intended to make you feel the horror of the corruption. Much later in Fate Reforged they story revolved around Sarkhan going back in time and deciding to change the future. From commons like Sandsteppe Outcast or rares like Crux of Fate lots of cards gave the players choices to reflect Sarkhan’s dilemma. A powerful rare cycle of sieges like Palace Siege continued this theme.

Mirrodin’s marketing was built around choosing sides in the conflict. Now we have a siege style card in Mirrodin Besieged that forces you to choose which army to follow. If you side with the Mirrans you can build a huge army of cute Myr. The Phyrexians offer a game winning ability if you conquer Mirrodin by filling your graveyard with artefacts. I don’t expect this card to make big splashes in any format but this hits the mark as a story telling card.

The First Sliver

Slivers are an incredible tribe. Almost all slivers grant abilities to other slivers, so once you have a few on the battlefield they become real monsters. The tribe spans all five colours and sets featuring slivers traditionally get a five colour sliver to headline the tribe’s new cards. The original Sliver Queen is a very expensive casual favourite, while Sliver Legion is absurd. The First Sliver is the newest gold addition to the tribe. All but the cheapest slivers will come with friends so the hive mind can guarantee an army of super soliders. The First Sliver also highlights an interesting lore question. Slivers were discovered by Volrath on an unknown plane. Where was that? Where do they originally come from? Maybe the First Sliver was the original sliver and represents the beginning of a new chapter in sliver lore. Also noteworthy slivers combine the modern style of only affecting your slivers, whilst showing them in the art very alien. The humanoid slivers in Magic 2014 and 2015 were much less popular and I’m a big fan of the return of the classic species design.

Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis

One of the design restrictions imposed on Modern Horizons was to make cards that individually felt like they could have been from a previous set. Unlike Time Spiral block that would include many mechanics on a single card, Modern Horizons has minimised this and reserved such cross polination for only the best designs.

One such design features an elegant but powerful combination of cost-reduction mechanics. Delve makes simple effects exciting such as the new burn spell Magmatic Sinkhole. Convoke adds great flavour to the new removal spell Mob. Combined, delve and convoke let you play this card for free if you have a well stocked graveyard and a couple of creatures in play. In fact you need these things because Hogaak has a rather ridiculous line of text banning you from using mana to cast it. It’s quite incredible that Magic can continue creating such novel and unique designs even after 25 years of printing new cards.

Hogaak requires some set up, but with cards like Stitcher’s Supplier you can get Hogaak into play on turn two. It’s immune to spells like Fatal Push and Lightning Bolt so this has real potential to spawn new archetypes in Modern. Following hot on the heels of War of the Spark, the newest sets are having an unusually high impact on older formats.

Aria of Flame

Red is a colour players often love or hate. The playstyle is typically direct with aggressive creatures and burn spells. Depending on who you ask it’s primal and exciting or just simplistic and unfun. So imagine the surprise when an efficient life gain spell in red was released. More surprising was that it gains life for your opponent and not yourself. This runs completely against red’s pure destructive nature. What is this card?

The answer is that Aria of Flame is a very fun reward for chaining spells together. If you can cast Aria and string four spells together, you will have reversed the life you gave away. After that all your instants and sorceries become supercharged hitting your opponent for huge chunks of life at a time.

Aria of Flame is a very interesting type of threat. As an enchantment it can be harder to interact with, and the direct damage spirals out of control nullifying any life gain or blockers. This makes it an attractive way to finish an opponent in a storm deck. Other cards such as Pyromancer Ascension or Command the Storm. Whilst these cards were great, they were conditional and relied on set up. What makes Aria of Flame exciting is how unrestrictive the ability is. The spells can be simple cantrips that achieve nothing as long as you cast lots of them. This opens up new opportunties for creative deck builders.

Prismatic Vista

Evolving Wilds ( and it’s predecessor Terramorphic Expanse) is one of my favourite cards of all time. On Zendikar it triggers landfall, on Tarkir it fuels delve and in any draft format it gives depth to formats by rewarding players that can master splashing cards of other colours. In casual constructed it’s a great and cheap five-colour land.

For competitive constructed magic, evolving wilds is eclipsed by fetchlands like Wooded Foothills. Having your lands enter untapped is critical to avoid your opponent getting a head-start and using it to permanently stay ahead. This power is now available with stunning art on a five colour land with Prismatic Vista. Able to be played in any multi-colour deck, the one life payment is the smallest possible cost for a land that greatly reduces the risk of having mana problems. This card will command a high price and be in demand for many years.

Unbounded Flourishing

Doubling things is fun. So much fun that cards like Parallel Lives and especially Doubling Season command high prices despite not seeing competitive play. Competitive play values cards that give consistent results but when these casual allstars do their thing, it’s something you talk about for years to come.

X-spells like Banefire can be very powerful for their flexibility. Banefire can kill a small creature cheaply or be saved for the late game to kill your opponent. Unbounded Flourishing makes all your X spells more powerful and follows in the footsteps of Rosheen Meanderer. Imagine casting Apocalypse Hydra or Savageborn Hydra for five mana with this enchantment out. The hydras now attack for twelve showing why Unbounded Flourishing’s art with a thousand heads.

Mox Tantalite

Mox is an incredibly evocative name in magic. Free mana is one of the most dangerous things you can put on a magic card, and mox can accelerate your mana faster than almost anything in the game. They attract high price tags and bans in equal measure. Design is far more restrained now they know the dangers of easy mana so last year’s Mox Amber hit a sweet spot. It got people excited, played into the themes of Dominaria while not breaking any formats.

One year later, we get our tenth black border mox in Mox Tantalite. Mox printed in the last twenty-five years have had restrictions on them to try and restrain their power level. Mox Opal demands you play artifacts in your deck. Mox Tantalite comes with no restrictions and simply asks for patience. Suspend lets you cast spells cheaply but forces you to wait until a later turn for the spell to actually resolve. This is a weird design, being acceleration that you have to wait three turns for. I find it quite paradoxical and I expect the newset mox will only see play when cheated into play.

Lacking a mana cost, it can’t normally be cast with out being suspended. This first appeared in Time Spiral with cards like Ancestral Vision. What makes these designs interesting is that there are more and more ways to cast these spells without being forced to wait. Just recently Electrodominance and Finale of Promise let you cast these uncastable spells for two mana. If Wizards continues to print these effects a strange new archetype may appear.

Top Commons and Uncommons

Nature’s Claim

Sometimes a new card is printed that is so elegant and simple that you’re surprised that it didn’t already exist. Disenchant and Naturalize have been combined to give a truely timeless design. Fusing the two cards names, art and mana costs gives a simple card that gets cube designers excited.

Artifact and enchantment hate cards are good to have in a cube environment, but take slots away from more exciting cards. Nature’s claim will be fought over by anyone playing either green or white so it will always find a home. Looking at the cube community I see that this card has already sparked a lot of conversations about including more hybrid cards and balancing colours in cube.

Llanowar Tribe

In a set full of complex cards, simple cards offer a little breathing room for drafters forced to read a pack full of new cards and mechanics ressurected from Magic’s distant past. Even for experienced players simple cards offer a break from mentally taxing text boxes. Modern Horizons is intended to be a complex set, so any simple cards have to be exciting as well. Magic’s history is a fantastic resource for doing this. Like Time Spiral block this set is squarely aimed at those who already know their magic history. Goblin Oriflamme is a simple card but also an in joke referencing the original mis-print in Limited Edition Alpha of Orcish Oriflamme.

My favourite in joke will be understood by many more people though. Llanowar Elves is one of the most iconic green creatures and represents one of green’s biggest strengths of generating lots of mana. For those who enjoy this, Llanowar Tribe now offers triple the fun. The three elves in the art represent elves from three different printings of the card and it even plays well with the original, letting you spend seven mana on turn three.

King of the Tribe

Black-White in Modern Horizons has one of the strangest draft archetypes of recent memory. Listed as simply ‘tribal’ you might wonder which tribe it features. All of them is the answer! While changelings are the glue of the deck being very common in white and black, slivers and tribal lords of any tribe are the payoffs. You may not have any other true cats, but King of the Pride will make all your changelings into real threats.

The card also works as a call-back to Magic’s original cat Savannah Lions, a card that defined White as the colour of small and aggressive creatures. In the modern era where casual decks are well supported, cats are a very popular tribe with exciting cards being released every other set. Ahmonket block was fantastic for cat tribal, as was the Commander deck for cats. But even in less cat-centered products the last year has seen cute cards like Generous Stray, Charmed Stray and Leonin Warleader. I think this new awareness of popular demand is very healthy for the game where every slot in a new set is an opportunity to make a card people fall in love with.

Throes of Chaos

It does nothing! By the time it resolves, the spell has already done its magic. Like Hogaak, this card is another combination of mechanics that haven’t had the chance to meet. Retrace is a powerful ability that turns all your lands into spells, while cascade means you don’t know what spell you turned your land into. You really are in the throes of chaos when you cast this card or even try to understand the art.

Soulherder

The majority of mechanics ever printed have had a draft archetype based around them. Blink was an archetype in Avacyn Restored where Cloudshift was first printed, but such a basic effect has rarely had its time to shine. Cloudshift is the classic effect at its simplest. It can be used to blank removal, as a combat trick to remove a blocker from harm or to reuse abilities that trigger when creatures enter or leave the battlefield.

Modern Horizons powers this archetype up to a new level. Ephemerate is the new cloudshift, offering twice as much value if you can wait a turn. Settle Beyond Reality lets the deck play removal without diluting the number of blink effects. As well as blink effects, a new payoff has been printed in Soulherder which grows as you blink your creatures. It triggers twice from both Ephemerate and Settle Beyond Reality and comes with a free blink effect every turn. It can also be used in an ‘exile’ deck, filled with great white removal. The best compliment that I can pay this new spirit is that it inspires me to build a whole new deck.

Silumgar Scavanger

Revisiting so many old mechanics is such a blast for a fan of magic design. Some mechanics only appeared in a single set and more great designs using these mechanics are surely waiting for their moment. Exploit is one such mechanic.

As the mechanic for the Silumgar brood, this is exactly a card that could have appeared in Dragons of Tarkir alongside Gurmag Drowner and Sidisi, Undead Vizier. You can build a fun deck around exploit maximising expendable creatures. What makes Silumgar Scavanger great is that it slots seamlessly into this deck, while benefiting every time you exploit another creature. Exploit has probably been forgotten about by the majority of players, really only appearing as a draft archetype in one set five years ago. Modern Horizons is one of my favourite sets of all time because of the surprise factor. Even a humble common can be a totally unexpected design.

Segovian Angel

Angels are one of the most popular tribes in magic. Cards like Serra Angel and Baneslayer Angel are two of the most iconic white creatures of all time. Building an angel deck should be easy but it isn’t. Almost every angel ever printed costs four or more mana. Even the cheapest angels like Emancipation Angel and Serra Avenger come with restrictions on being played during the first few turns.

Segovian Angel is a step in the right direction. We now have something to do before we reach four mana whilst sticking to our theme.

We have never had a one mana angel before. This angel gets to break the rules on angels being expensive by referencing Segovia. First mentioned on Segovian Leviathan, Segovia is a plane of miniature creatures and anyone who visits is immediately shrunk down to fit the plane. Conversely when Segovians are summoned to other planes, they are much smaller than you expect. The plane is very irrelevant and unimportant but I’d love to see a little more of this tiny world.

Winding Way

Graveyard strategies have been always been popular. Reanimation lets you play the best creatures in the game for cheap while dredge decks play the game in a completely different way to any other. These strategies all require ways to get cards into your graveyard to get started. Winding Way offers potential card advantage at the same time as filling up your graveyard.

When you choose lands, the card is identical to classic Mulch but having an alternative mode makes this even more powerful. The creature mode reminds me of Fork in the Road a card with a beautiful design and beautiful art. Whilst not guaranteed, Winding Way should ensure you have lands in the graveyard for delirium decks or new cards like Murasa Behemoth and Ruination Rioter.

Irregular Cohort

Commons may not get constructed players excited on a regular basis, but they are a huge part of the fabric of limited magic. An important part of limited design is creating cards that can fit into multiple archetypes making Sealed easier and adding competition to drafting. Irregular Cohort is fantastic because the base stats of two 2/2s for four mana is great and it fits into every white archetype. It triggers cards like Good-Fortune Unicorn twice in the green-white deck and it makes an army with Soulherder. Being changelings means it works with every tribal payoff in black and white, and two slivers for one card is great for the red-white deck.

Scale Up

Another feature of this set are returning mechanics that make their debut in a new colour. Factions such as the guilds on Ravnica derive much of their identity from their signature mechanic, but tying a mechanic to certain colours leaves a lot of untapped design space. Modern Horizons is the set where we get to explore this uncharted territory.

When we returned to Ravnica overload was the Izzet mechanic but for the first time it’s featured on a green card with Scale Up. When overloaded Scale Up resembles the classic green finisher with the added flexibility of being cast as a pump spell. At sorcery speed this might seem underwhelming, but the boost in power is so efficient this will be in consideration for Modern infect decks. The card is also yet another call back to iconic magic cards as it turns your creatures into craw wurms, one of the original large creatures that are a hallmark of green.

Evolve is another Ravnica mechanic that appears in a new colour. Originally representing simic’s wonderful creations and adaptions, it now appears in black on Gluttonous Slug. Evolve is fascinating because it’s a mechanic that makes flavourful and interesting creatures in a very simple way. Simple changes to power and toughness change the way a card plays. The slug in particular plays well in draft with ninjas. When unblocked it could become Ingenious Infiltrator and when blocked, pump spells and even flash creatures become very powerful.

Bellowing Elk

There are a surprising number of elk in the game. My favourites are Golden Hind and Somberwald Stag and there are enough elks in the game to build an elk deck. This new beast has a great ability and in a typical green deck based around creatures it can attack for four with impunity.

The elk is a card for the ‘creature-fall’ green-white archetype. Like the landfall mechanic from Zendikar, creature-fall rewards creatures entering the battlefield. The relevant gold uncommon is Good-Fortune Unicorn which is fantastic in a go-wide deck with token makers and there is even another elk in Saddled Rimestag. I find it interesting that such a complicated set still contain such simple archetypes. This is good design offering players a less taxing entry point into the format.

Oneirophage

Some players just play to draw cards. Only interested in filling their hand with spells, they dislike cards that would end the game on the spot and worship card advantage. For them, red-blue offers an exciting draft archetype based around drawing cards. The gold uncommon for the colour pair Thundering Djinn is very direct, but my favourite pay off is Oneirophage.

In an ordinary blue deck with no card draw spells, this squid will slowly transforms into must answer threat. When filled with cards like Faithless looting or even wheel effects like Wheel of Fortune the squid becomes a game changer in the blink of an eye. The limited environment has lots of easy ways to trigger these payoff cards. The cycling lands like Lonely Sandbar are fantastic, and Fists of Flame is a dangerous cantripping combat trick.

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