Modern Horizons: Perspectives and Implications

Yesterday, Wizards unveiled Modern Horizons, an “innovation product” like Conspiracy and Battlebond. Its purpose: to bypass Standard and supplement Modern with new cards, both those currently illegal from pre-8th Edition sets and some that are newly designed. A couple of the new cards were spoiled on the stream.

Today’s article evaluates the spoiled cards and weighs the implications of a set that dumps cards straight into Modern.

New Card Review

We’ll begin by assessing the new cards spoiled.

Cabal Therapist

Actual comments by Matt Nass and Cassius Marsh as they pored over Cabal Therapist:

“This is nice.”
“Wow.”
“That’s nuts.”
“That’s like, really good.”
“Yeah, this is no joke.”

And after us viewers also saw the card, giving the pair some time to mull the creature over:

“This card seems pretty insane.”
“Regardless of what you do, this card seems crazy powerful.”
“I’m just thinking of all the ways it can be broken.”

The card in question:

I can understand this level of fawning from the starry-eyed Cassius, an admitted Commander lover and clearly (if endearingly) casual player. But only the last of the above three post-reveal quotes came from the 49ers defensive end, leaving Matt Nass—the same Matt Nass who broke and crushed with Krark-Clan Ironworks until the card was banned—responsible for the other assertions. I’ve since seen his enthusiasm for Therapist echoed on forums.

This card would never see play in today’s Modern.

Cabal Therapist is too slow to disrupt opponents before their gameplan comes online and shockingly easy to interact with: one benefit of sorcery-typed discard spells is that they can’t be countered by Fatal Push; another is that they don’t have suspend 1. To benefit from the original Cabal Therapy‘s multiple casts, players must wait multiple turns and spend their precious early-game mana deploying creatures they will sacrifice the next turn. In a format as proactive as Modern, I don’t think that’s much of a winning strategy.

The only home I can think of for Therapist would be in some sort of Aristocrats build. These decks are barely competitive, though, and Therapist doesn’t even offer them something they necessarily want or need. The Horror features a cute (if ham-fisted) callback to an extremely powerful card that would, in a heartbeat, see Modern play (perhaps alongside Stitcher’s Supplier and Arclight Phoenix), but playability-wise strikes me as destined for the bulk bin.

Serra the Benevolent

The commentators seemed more ambivalent about Serra the Benevolent, saying they were “not sure” if it would even see play in Modern. Cassius was excited, although he did misread the card as granting its owners’ creatures flying (a gaffe Wizards’ panel of Poindexters hilariously neglected to correct). In any case, I think Serra’s potential is much higher than Cabal Therapist‘s. The planeswalker produces a decent body immediately and then ticks up like a normal planeswalker would to create a Worship emblem, which as Matt Nass notes is much stronger than actual Worship, as it can’t be removed. Worship is also dead against some decks, but a 4/4 will always help kill an opponent, strengthening Serra’s mainboard prospects.

Alternatively, and this is how I anticipate Serra will be used most of the time, the walker serves as a Worship emblem with suspend 1. Decks that want this effect include Troll Worship, an ancient brew focused on sticking the enchantment behind a hexproof guy, and Bogles, an actual deck focused on sticking enchantments on a hexproof guy. I can also imagine Collected Company decks that attack from multiple angles wanting Serra as a sideboard option in matchups where Worship shines, or where the card advantage inherent to planeswalkers matters.

Between slotting into strategies which don’t see much play in Modern, not being abusable by virtue of a cost-reduction mechanic, and retaining a decent power level and unique flexibility dimensions, Serra the Benevolent is exactly the kind of new card I would like to see more of in Modern Horizons.

Reprint Possibilities

As far as reprints go, Wizards probably had a few goals in mind. For one, they wanted to create a memorable draft experience with Modern Horizons. Some cards may appear as a result of their popularity or associated nostalgia—think Man-o-War or Sea Drake. Others may be included to enhance the Modern experience by adding new dimensions to its gameplay. This is the area that has most Modern players excited for reprints, as many have pined after Eternal-legal staples for years. It’s also the area we’ll focus on in this section, as I think a couple of paths could alter the format in a way players end up disappointed with.

Alternate Win Conditions

Consider True-Name Nemesis. Nemesis is far from a dominating force in Legacy, although it is one of that format’s premier creatures. In a fast format like Modern, a three-mana 3/1 is nothing to write home about. But it does have implications of its own in a format lacking Legacy’s in-game consistency tools.

Since Ponder, Preordain, and Brainstorm are not legal in Modern, players will have a doozy of a time finding their narrow outs to something like True-Name within a reasonable timeframe. Introducing such cards en masse could make the format more like the Best of One format in MTG Arena. That format is so polarizing because it’s so necessarily linear, a complaint also common among Modern’s critics.

With that being said, I doubt giving blue decks their own Etched Champion would ruin Modern. Regarding True-Name specifically, the format might benefit from decks emerging built around playing fair and closing with the Merfolk Rogue. But the predicament might be worth watching out for.

Busted Answers

My poster boys for this section: Force of Will and Wasteland. Modern pundits have clamored for early-game, all-purpose answers like these for years. If they existed, Wizards might have a lot less banning to do, as Modern could self-police more effectively. I believe these two cards in particular are too powerful for the format.

While Force of Will is generally sided out in Legacy’s fair-deck mirrors, I’m not convinced it would be in Modern. Decks in this format are very aggressive and tend to care little about card advantage relative to tempo. Accepting that aspect of the format has led me to success with Disrupting Shoal and caused me to heavily endorse Faithless Looting long before Phoenix, Bridgevine, or Hollow One broke onto the scene.

As for Wasteland, this card would totally change the way decks are constructed, forcing players to include more lands and trim their top-end.

With these cards legal, the combo strategies Force and Wasteland keep in check could probably roam free in Modern without violating any of Wizards’ diversity goals. I posit that those goals would instead be violated by the Force and Wasteland decks, as players would be forced into blue just to not lose to combo. There’s a middle-ground to hit when it comes to blanket answers that help Modern self-police, and I think these two cards go too far.

What to Reprint?

Less-warping answers would make ideal reprint targets, especially if those answers only fit into specific decks or ones with stringent requirements, such as Daze, Flusterstorm, and Innocent Blood. Utility creatures and floodgates make for interesting possibilities; take Containment Priest, Sanctum Prelate, or Back to Basics. In other words, more great stuff like Damping Sphere.

I’d also like to see some grindy midrange cards à la Bloodbraid Elf. Elf itself has done close to nothing in Modern on account of colorful midrange decks being very poorly positioned these days. Shardless Agent and Baleful Strix spring to mind.

Format Concerns

Almost regardless of what Wizards reprints or what their new cards will look like, I think Horizons will be invigorating and fun surrounding its release. But I am a little concerned about the expansion’s long-term effects in Modern. What follows are my hopes and fears  about Horizons.

Changing the Game

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, the saying goes. And Modern definitely ain’t broke. Heck, people love Modern so much that Wizards is dedicating its “innovation product” to the format! Rapidly implementing changes to the format might take away some of the aspects of Modern that people love so much.

Standard Stress

The more cards Modern has, the more powerful it is. And the more powerful Modern is, the harder it is for Standard cards to break into the format. Standard is still Modern’s primary source of new cards, and by all indications will remain that way post-Horizons. The rush of excitement we get when this set spoils might just be on credit from the future: that’s future Standard sets we’ll get less stimulated by since the cards won’t hold as much promise.

That point brings us to my final concern: like Conspiracy and Battlebond, Wizards is under no obligation to ever follow Horizons with a similar set. Horizons smacks of a hit-and-run: Wizards dumping a bunch of cards on us and then walking off. What about the format’s evolutionary rhythm? The notions of pedigree and card pool internalized by so many ardent players? What if Modern becomes too stale with a higher power level and no constant influx of new cards?

Another Modern Renaissance

Despite my apprehension, I want the record to show that I am personally very excited about Horizons. The expansion is likely to create a renaissance of sorts in Modern, reaffirming its identity as a brewer’s paradise, at least in the short-term. Whether or not Modern does end up more stale with an elevated power level, it will be highly compelling for all sorts of players during the initial, transitional period.

Hurtin’ For a Hammer

My biggest hope for Horizons is that it gives Modern players the tools they need to bring their brews to the next level when it comes to fighting off the format’s top dogs without much cutting into the scheduled dumps we get from Standard. As a Delver of Secrets aficionado myself, there are plenty of juicy cards I’d like brought in from Legacy: Fire // IceStifleDivert. Which cards do you want to see reprinted? Are you worried about how Modern Horizons will affect the format in the long term? Let me know your thoughts below.

37 thoughts on “Modern Horizons: Perspectives and Implications

  1. Some of the cards I’m most hoping show up are firstly tribal support for goblins/elves like wirewood symbiote, goblin lackey/matron/ringleader etc., and then secondly some old engine cards like goblin bombardment, astral slide/lightning rift etc. I would love to be able to play fruity pebbles in modern.

    1. Don’t forget Slivers like Crystalline Sliver, Hibernation Sliver, Hunter Sliver, and Muscle Sliver. Playing a version like Daniel Nunes’s Aggro Version of Slivers in modern would be pretty neat. Slivers is already almost a deck in Modern. Crystalline Sliver and Hibernation Sliver could help put it over the edge into at least an option.

  2. I would enjoy seeing portent, or accumulated knowledge. Also, better counter spells. I think that while yes, stifle would help delver a bit, it doesn’t solve the problem delver faces that is a lack of FoW. Maybe a nimble mongoose reprint?

    1. Since you don’t get the card right away, Portent is kind of like a Super-Visions—it’s not even necessarily better than Preordain, despite offering shuffle shenanigans as Ponder does. Modern would be the only format that plays it, which I’m extra-on-board with; I like when formats have their own defining cards.

      I don’t know if Delver’s main (or biggest) problem is a lack of Force. Check this article for what I think the archetype needs to become viable:
      http://modernnexus.com/anticipating-spells-matter-creatures-2019/

  3. I’d like to have counterspell and containment priest. And as you said something for delver (I didn’t think at first about fire/ice but it would be great!).

    1. Same, but the latter is at least possible in a Standard-legal set. I’m hoping Wizards is economical about things, and holds off on those kinds of cards to instead stock Horizons with stuff we wouldn’t get otherwise.

  4. MaRo has written on Tumblr that the Council of Colors (the group within R&D responsible for enforcing the color pie) was involved in the design of this set, including the choice of reprints. So Back to Basics is almost certainly out of the question (since blue is the the color that land destruction isn’t even tertiary in) as are a lot of other cards people are calling possibilities–red/blue blasts, black rituals, Swords to Plowshares, etc.

    During the reveal video, Mark Heggen stated that “this is not a set about changing Modern or blowing up Modern or fixing Modern”. This leads me to believe that there will be no “free” countermagic (such as Daze), since there’s ample historical precedent that free counters become staples in any format they’re legal in and heavily warp those formats around themselves. Daze does *not* need Wasteland in order to be good–it’s a staple in Pauper in decks with no land destruction capability, and Foil also instantly became a Pauper staple as soon as it entered the format, despite widespread mockery as an “obviously terrible card”. I expect we will get some better countermagic than is currently legal in Modern (there’s a ton to choose from pre-8ED!) but I don’t think it will be the kind that you can cast while you’re tapped out.

    Regarding new cards: I remember that around a year ago (I think it was close to PT RIX and the Jace/BBE unbans), a WotC employee tweeted about a hypothetical cantrip, a sorcery for U that read “scry 1, draw a card, scry 1”–halfway between Serum Visions and Preordain. I’m predicting that this exact card will be printed in Modern Horizons. I even think that this card might be the “spicy” blue card that they teased us with in the video before revealing Serra instead.

    The other new card I’m predicting is some kind of green Gurmag Angler: a big vanilla beater with a cost reduction mechanic so it can be conditionally cast for 1 or 2 mana but dodges Fatal Push. This would serve as a color pie fix-up for creatures in the nonrotating formats, similarly to how Push was for kill spells.

    1. You mean a creature like hooting mandrills?
      In any case I don’t think that we’ll get legacy staple. Modern shouldn’t become a lite legacy. I’d be intrigued by a new cantrip like the one you described. We’ll see…

    2. Hooting Mandrills?

      I didn’t even consider the “spicy” blue card they mentioned could be new, but I think you might be on to something. The way the comment was framed led to believe it was likely TNN or Counterspell.

      I’d personally like to see some sort of enchantment-support to help make those sort of decks viable in the format. As a devout Bogles apologist, I’d love to get a 1cc enchantment tutor; Enlightened Tutor seems unlikely as it can also fetch artifacts, but something with a power level between that and Open the Armory would be great. Sterling Grove would be pretty swell as well. Specifically thinking of Bogles, Sylvan Library would be a welcomed addition for a deck severely lacking in card draw options and lives/dies on mulligans. 4 life a pop isn’t cheap and I think it’d be a perfect addition to help brews/developing archetypes lacking CA and has a self-deterrent for abuse by format titans.

      1. Despite its high applicability in Modern, Dismember doesn’t see much play, so Library may well be a possible option given the power level of the format. It does end up in Modern sideboards though IMO and bring the format closer to Legacy. Plus it takes awhile to resolve every turn in longer games. I feel like Azcanta is kind of a “fixed” SL that solves the problems with that card (color pie issues, time, power, coherence, etc.).

        1. Sylvan Library is both a massive color pie break (paying life to draw cards is a black ability, not a green one) and a tournament rules nightmare since it requires keeping track of which cards in a player’s hand were “drawn this turn”. I can’t imagine a universe in which it gets added to Modern.

    1. Everyone always forgets about Noose Constrictor, the better Wild Mongrel that was printed in Eldritch Moon.

      I really don’t think we’re getting any of the last four cards on your list. The lack of really strong mana denial in Modern (either in the form of land destruction or Stasis-type effects) is one of the biggest differences between Modern and Legacy, and I imagine Wizards wants to keep it that way.

          1. Constrictor isn’t better than Mongrel, but isn’t worse either.

            That being said, to rebuild the old madness deck, all that is needed is mongrel 5-8 for consistency, and circular logic. The deck still probably would be too weak because of Fatal Push killing everything in the deck and Collected Company probably being just better than madness shenanigans, but that’s another problem.

            Something to help actual affinity card without helping Ravager (so not sacrifiable at least) would be cool. The affinity card have been collateral damage of the artifact terrain banning, himself caused because the burst potential was horrifingly high once the Ravager (and Cranial plating) were in the equation.

            I would also like to see the old extended strategies based around Skwee and Krovikan horror back. That need quite a lot of card however, like Forbid and other payoff, as well as an equivalent to Krovikan horror.

          2. I think you’d have to be taking the “strictly worse” meme pretty literally to claim that Constrictor is not better than Mongrel!

  5. I would like to have innocent blood. That card is fantastic.

    Another thought: if somehow modern horizons does bring a lower level that begins to disrupt modern, couldnt wizards simply unban some stuff to balance it out? It seems like whenever wizards bans things for being too strong, they could simply unban something else for balance. If wizards was worried about KCI, couldnt they simply have unbanned Spkinter Twin or death right shaman? Would they ever do this in relation to the new modern horizon cards or would they simply make a longer banlist?

    1. They could, but they never have used the banlist in that way, and are IMO unlikely to 180 on that. They have stated many times recently that Modern is in a place they like, so they are not actually looking to “remedy” anything specific right now.

  6. Another reason to slow down on the hype is what you mention in the beginning of the article, that this is a set designed to be drafted. That means there’s going to be things with a limited focus – eg creatures that cost more than 3 and don’t do much when cast. But that’s also a reason to be optimistic that this won’t blow up the power level of modern. After all, the two spoiled cards are rare and mythic!

    I think that there will be a higher concentration of cards that can make it into modern, but it’s not going to be overwhelming. Happy to be wrong though!

    1. Yes! I totally forgot this point. Though I’m unsure how much R&D takes into account the eternal formats when they print standard sets, it seems like they print standard cards and their cycles in relation to the power level in which their abilities will play out in standard. This gives the modern format a lot more flexibility for cards to find their own place or not. Gurmag angler for instance. With a set made specifically for modern, I’m sure that the power levels will be more adjusted as they do when printing cards for standard, which is what Jordan pointed out with the creature preview.

    2. I think you hit the nail right on the head. There seems to be a lot of concern that Wizards is going to amp up things to 11, but I think that them taking things slow is probably much more likely. I think some of that comes from the community’s natural inclination to assume the worst and Wizards’ less than stellar performance on modern focused products throughout the years. I was shocked to hear that there would be no currently modern legal cards printed in this new product, but when you consider the draft environment that they’re aiming for, it makes sense. All I really want to see from this product is something that reduces the prevalence of velocity based decks. I, like one of our previous posters, would like to see something that helps support an enchantress-like deck emerge, and yeah, True Name Nemesis….that’d be sweet.

  7. Love this analysis so much. I really hope they print some maindeckable soft hate cards. Things along the lines of scavenging ooze. Just to give the random midrange decks less of a disadvantage.

    I’m also hoping there’s a DNT type card to make that archetype go from completely fringe to at least vaguely playable.

    I think this set is a huge chance to further diversify and to put some more safety valves into the format for future health

  8. Thanks for going over Cabal Therapist! I totally misread precombat main phase as “beginning of combat”. First reactions every spoiler season someone misreads the card..

    The cards I think Modern is missing that are very iconic and color pie respectful:
    Counterspell
    Some Reanimate variant. Maybe Exhume?

    1. Personally I think Exhume would be too strong for Modern. A lot of redundancy with Goryo’s Vengeance. I’m banking on Counterspell being in this set, though.

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