Roughly a year after its release, Modern Horizons‘ attempt to print new cards directly into Modern may have finally finished proving itself a mistake.
Marketed as a set “full of cards that build up favorite Modern strategies, create new ones, and bring plenty of flavor to matches where Modern cards are legal,” Modern Horizons has been responsible for four Modern bannings within the span of a year. Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis bent the format for an entire summer before getting banned, taking Bridge from Below and Faithless Looting with it. Urza, Lord High Artificier finally pushed the format to a place where Mox Opal was too good, and Arcum’s Astrolabe allowed three-color midrange decks to effortlessly splash Blood Moon before getting banned two weeks ago.
Hopefully, Modern Horizons will have no more ban-worthy effects on the Modern format. (Or any other format.) But regardless, a set designed specifically to introduce new cards to a nonrotating format should not trigger a series of quarterly bannings in that format. And it should not render multiple established decks unplayable. Modern players have contended with (at least) three entirely different metagames in the time since Modern Horizons released – meaning Modern has “rotated” faster than Standard is supposed to.
So while Modern Horizons succeeded on a few fronts (and don’t worry, I’ll cover those), ultimately, I think the set’s attempt to print new cards directly into Modern is a failure. Because since Modern Horizons‘ release, I’ve become less interested in Modern than I’ve ever been.
Where Did Modern Horizons‘ New Cards Succeed?
Most of Modern Horizons‘ new, direct-to-Modern cards succeeded in strengthening some established top decks, powering up some lesser-played decks, and creating new fringe strategies – all without pushing those decks too far over the top.
This made for some exciting Tuesday Night Modern play in which I might face down a strengthened Red-Black Goblins deck, a sweet new Blue-White Cycling deck, or a powered-up Jund deck featuring Wrenn and Six and Nurturing Peatland. (Note that Wrenn and Six might not be the best example of strengthening a top deck without going too far. That card is plenty powerful and also warps the format. But it was the first example that came to mind. Giver of Runes and Devoted Druid Combo might be a better example.)
Strengthening established decks and creating new strategies are goals Modern Horizons set for itself. And if it had just produced decks like the ones I mentioned above, I’d have said Horizons succeeded in achieving those goals. However, in addition to creating and strengthening the decks mentioned above, Modern Horizons:
- Created the Hogaak decks that essentially invalidated an entire summer’s worth of Modern play (including 2019’s largest Grand Prix event).
- Spurred the banning of Faithless Looting, dismantling Izzet Phoenix, Hollow One, Mardu Pyromancer, and a number of other decks in the process.
- Created the Whirza decks that spurred the banning of Mox Opal, dismantling Affinity and disrupting several other decks.
- Created the three- to four-color midrange decks that used Arcum’s Astrolabe to play whatever cards and colors they wanted.
At the casual, FNM level, Modern Horizons accomplished its goals. But at Modern’s top tiers, Horizons laid waste to the format. Which I think means that, overall, Modern Horizons failed – as FNM Magic still has to respond to top-tier play.
However, before I move on, I want to point out one other area in which Modern Horizons‘ new cards succeeded. Horizons produced a number of less splashy, role-filler cards that really have helped pre-existing decks shore up previous weaknesses or gain a leg up in the format. For example, Horizons gave one of my pet decks, Izzet Delver, all these new cards:
Other decks received similar role-filler cards that strengthened them just a bit, making them more playable. (Wrenn and Six makes Izzet Delver more than a bit less playable, but you can’t win them all.) Notably, Blue-White Control, a deck Modern players have been trying to put over for years, became much more playable after Horizons, and not because it received something on the level of a Hogaak, Urza, or even Wrenn and Six. It became playable because it received enough new role-player cards to push it up a tier.
The fact that I need to distinguish between Modern Horizons‘ role-player cards and its splashy cards, however, I think leads directly into the reason that Modern Horizons‘ new cards failed.
Why Did Some of Modern Horizons‘ New Cards Fail So Spectacularly?
Put simply: Because they had to.
In order for Modern Horizons to sell (especially at its incredibly high price point), it had to contain powerful new cards. And because designing new Magic cards is hard, and it’s even harder when you’re aiming to get those new cards played in an already-powerful format, some of Modern Horizons‘ new cards were always extremely likely to be too good.
It’s worth noting that only 3 out of Horizons‘ 209 new cards (so far – I’m watching you Wrenn and Six) have upended the format. That’s honestly a pretty low percentage. But it takes only one new card (or mechanic) to break a format, and it takes only a few breakages to put a player like myself off a format entirely. Maybe if Modern Horizons had been the only set that warped Modern in 2019, I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this article now. But between Horizons‘ clearly-pushed cards, the dominance of Oko and Once Upon a Time, and the mess that was Companion, Modern has felt like an incredibly unstable format for the last year. And most of that instability can be attributed directly to new cards printed in Modern Horizons.
Why I Think There Should Not Be a Modern Horizons 2
To put it simply, Modern is already moving too fast for a player like me to keep up. Even if I stick to playing decks I already own, I have to tune those decks to attack a different metagame every month or two. I enjoy a Modern metagame that is relatively stable, adjusting just a bit between each set or two. With the F.I.R.E. philosophy still in full effect for Premier Sets (I bet you can guess my thoughts on shifting Standard-legal sets to be focused on not just Standard), Modern is already set to continue shifting fairly quickly. A Modern Horizons 2 would exponentially accelerate that shift – and leave my stuck-in-the-past, budget-conscious self wondering whether Modern is for him anymore.
That said, there will be a Modern Horizons 2. The first Modern Horizons was too successful sales-wise for Wizards of the Coast not to want to replicate that success. I just hope that, somehow, they don’t also replicate Modern Horizons‘ failures.