Modern Horizons 3’s Most Misunderstood Magic Mascots

You’ve seen the Modern Horizons 3 previews, but do you truly understand them? Dom Harvey breaks down a trio of cards that have players puzzled.

Flare of Cultivation
Flare of Cultivation, illustrated by Billy Christian

Every preview season has some recurring patterns – it’s always fun to ride the wave of excitement for the obvious hits, stand against the tide for the empty hype, and ferret around for the hidden gems. Some cards stubbornly resist being sorted like this – it’s clear there’s something there, but they manage to be overrated, overlooked, and misunderstood all at once. Today’s starter is the perfect example.

Flare of Cultivation

Flare of Cultivation

Our introduction to this round of free spells prompted the usual – and understandable – doomsaying. Flare of Cultivation lets you ramp at a pace unmatched in Modern, unless you warp your whole deck around assembling Tron or constructing Amulet Titan’s bizarre mix of pulleys and levers. This Flare asks much less of you at first glance – and the fallback mode of casting Cultivate is something ramp decks have willingly signed up for anyway!

The hidden costs reveal themselves when you ask how you’re doing this and what the point is. You need enough one-drops that you’re happy to sacrifice and good rewards for doing this at all. Both conditions are more elusive than they seem. 

Delighted Halfling Dryad Arbor

There’s no shortage of good green one-drops – but they are mostly mana creatures helping you to do the same thing at the same pace! Turn 1 Delighted Halfling sets up your Turn 2 Grist, the Hunger Tide; feeding Halfling to Flare leaves you with the same three mana at the same time. 

In green, it’s trivial to get that nontoken creature in the right colour for your Flare thanks to Dryad Arbor plus fetchlands – and, precisely for that reason, the green Flare has to be something not worth pursuing with it. 

Arboreal Grazer

Arboreal Grazer picks up another unique accolade as the only one-drop mana creature that still fills that role after being shot out of this cannon, unless you have so many Forests that you go all the way back to the first set in Modern for Elvish Pioneer. Turn 1 Grazer into Flare of Cultivation gets you to four mana by Turn 2 – and Flare even fixes Grazer’s inherent problem of needing those additional lands to do its job.

Karn, the Great Creator The One Ring

Once you solve that problem, you have to find some good payoffs. That’s a more open-ended question, but your options in green are surprisingly limited, especially as Flare’s setup costs make it incompatible with the Mono-Green Devotion shell and are hard to meet in a classic Gruul Valakut deck. In the end, you arrive at the same colourless destination as every big mana deck in Modern, from Cabal Coffers to Urza’s Tower –  Karn, the Great Creator and The One Ring are the best in class for a reason.

Amulet of Vigor Primeval Titan Castle Garenbrig

Modern’s main big mana deck wants to ramp and definitely wants to find multiple basic Forests against Blood Moon effects (including the terrifying new Harbinger of the Seas, already dubbed ‘Flood Moon’ by a triumphant school of Merfolk players). The same problem shuts that down – only Grazer fills that gap on Turn 1 and there is already a big difference between draws with and without Grazer. Some of those Grazer draws can’t even cast it on Turn 1 – the deck already cheats a little on its count of untapped green sources, and that squeeze only gets tighter as ever more appealing utility lands see print. Finding room for enough basic Forests is a real obstacle here!

Young Wolf Yawgmoth, Thran Physician

Golgari Yawgmoth is the other natural-ish home among the top decks. Young Wolf is the perfect fodder for Flare, and previous lists flirted with Arboreal Grazer alongside Khalni Garden and Golgari Rot Farm. Here the problem is at the other end – if your big finish at four mana is Yawgmoth, accelerating into it as quickly as possible before you had the chance to build your battlefield doesn’t accomplish anything! The deck already has a lot of mana creatures, from Delighted Halfling and Wall of Roots to the occasional Ignoble Hierarch or Gilded Goose, and the creature part of that is highly relevant. Replace these and you weaken the namesake card; add Flare as well (replacing what?) and you run an even greater risk of flooding. 

Veteran Explorer Green Sun's Zenith

Flare’s real home – for some definition of ‘real’ – is in one of Legacy’s most sympathetic underdogs. In a format where any card that costs a normal chunk of mana has to justify its own existence against Wasteland and Daze, some brave and stubborn souls decide to tap a bunch of basics to cast five-drops you cut from your Standard deck years ago. Veteran Explorer is an excellent card when it’s one-sided (implausible elsewhere but common in Legacy, where some top decks like Grixis Delver have zero or one basic lands) and is the perfect partner for Flare, giving you five Wasteland-proof mana by Turn 2!

That’s the most adorable use for Flare, but not a broken one – the sky doesn’t seem to be falling yet. 

Phlage, Titan of Fire’s Fury 

Phlage, Titan of Fire's Fury

How about a callback to the scourge of pandemic-era Magic? Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath wore out its welcome in every Constructed format; Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger ‘only’ become a staple from Standard through Modern. Those are big shoes for any other Giant to fill.

As official loremaster and Modern Horizons 3 consultant Mason Clark immediately identified, there was another Elder Giant ready to come alive – and Phlage’s final form unsurprisingly leans into the most iconic Boros effect.  

Phlage is a relatively ‘simple’ card and we have this precedent to judge it by – but I still think those snap assessments are wrong. 

Goblin Guide Lava Spike

Any riff on Lightning Helix prompts an obvious question: how does this fit in Boros Burn? Burn remains the default entry-level deck for new Modern players and has a dedicated following even when times are hard. It needs a fiery new toy to be competitive right now – and Phlage is a flashy one.

Burn players who expect big things from Phlage will be disappointed. Efficiency is everything for Burn, whether you are unloading your hand as soon as possible, sculpting one big turn, or sacrificing a Sunbaked Canyon for one more look at that lethal burn spell. The ideal Burn draw doesn’t have the time or mana to cast Phlage once, let alone twice – and holding Phlage makes those draws less likely, as you often use every card in your hand to count to twenty. Burn is a much more narrow and focused deck than it seems – even reprints that seem gift-wrapped for Burn, like Flame Rift, failed to gain traction, as they didn’t fill a specific gap. 

Don’t get me started on how bad it is for Burn when the opponent casts Phlage…

Dragon's Rage Channeler Soul-Scar Mage Slickshot Show-Off

The more flexible Prowess decks can give it a shot – but that named mechanic gives the game away. If your deck is all cheap threats and spells that power them, a clunky creature that doesn’t trigger anything feels out of place. As a plan for longer games, Phlage competes with more on-message cards like Underworld Breach that also want full access to your graveyard. 

Phlage is the perfect finisher for a bigger, slower Boros deck – but what does that look like, especially as white is the worst colour at filling its graveyard?

Strict Proctor Dress Down Nulldrifter

You can try to sidestep the sacrifice clause with the Dress Down tricks or Strict Proctor effects that people want to pair with Nulldrifter – but sketching that deck just made me more confused than ever. Let’s return to something more familiar.

White Orchid Phantom Rustvale Bridge Flagstones of Trokair

White Orchid Phantom is a guaranteed fan favourite that shines any time it gets to tag an Urza’s Tower or Ugin’s Labyrinth, but can convert into an odd form of mono-white ramp with Flagstones of Trokair or the indestructible artifact lands from Modern Horizons 2, as with Cleansing Wildfire. These effects get much better in multiples – against a deck with just one or two basic lands, the first Phantom might be a nuisance, but the second one is lights out – so having both Phantom and Wildfire as well as Boom // Bust is a big deal.

Here, Phlage is the ideal way to control the battlefield while throttling their other resources and then finish them off in a turn or two before they can recover. The lifegain also lets you use The One Ring at your leisure knowing you can claw back those points later. 

White Orchid Phantom

As so often when sketching decks like this, the card that brought you here fades from view and one of its partners in crime takes center stage. That idea of spamming White Orchid Phantom triggers is fun and powerful – why jump through these hoops for a double red card?

Leonin Arbiter

Yes, I know, there are no Leonin Arbiters here. There’s nothing more demoralizing than losing to Leonin Arbiter, and there are games where it is uniquely powerful – and yet, strangely, you rarely see Arbiter taking home a trophy. Some of that comes down to Arbiter’s inconsistencies – given enough time, even the most fetch-happy opponents can pay their way out of this problem, and most Arbiter decks can’t reliably apply enough pressure to prevent that – but having to build your deck with that symmetry in mind is punishing too, especially when a long-awaited reprint has you picking up your deck.

Recruiter of the Guard Phelia, Exuberant Shepherd

What you enlist with Recruiter of the Guard tells you a lot about yourself. Do you want to find the second part of your creature-based combo and make the game enter single-player mode as you take an endless series of game actions? Or do you want to spend both players’ time dragging out the most finicky value chain imaginable?

In this deck, you get to do both at once. Phelia, Exuberant Shepherd pairs up with any of the “When this enters…” creatures to double and triple down on their effects, and Recruiter finds you the right one for the job (and then another copy, when you blink it with Phelia!). Containment Priest shows up despite its apparent conflict with your blink effects as both a tutorable hate card against all the reanimation in this set and true creature combo cards like Chord of Calling, and a way to turn Phelia and Flickerwisp into permanent removal for opposing creatures.  

Flickerwisp Witch Enchanter

Meanwhile, Flickerwisp is having fun exploiting a strange modal double-faced card (DFC) loophole. Playing Witch Enchanter as a land lets you Flickerwisp it and have it return as the front side – Loran of the Third Path never looked so good!

Of course, these Modern builds are pale imitations of the original Death and Taxes deck that is such a distinctive part of Legacy. That one gets these same upgrades!

White Orchid Phantom looks even better in the format where Wasteland rules the roost, many decks have no basics at all, and individual lands like Karakas or Dark Depths can dominate games by themselves.

As the one usually found making mischief with bizarre nonbasic lands, I can’t say I love this development – but there are so many new treats to whet that appetite that I can’t complain. Regardless of how things turn out in the next few months, there’s something in this set for players of any persuasion to sink their teeth into.


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