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Modern Horizons 2 First Impressions

Six of SCG’s best content creators give their first impressions of Magic’s newest set — Modern Horizons 2.

Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar, illustrated by Ryan Pancoast

Modern Horizons 2 is a set that has, frankly, everything!

  • Squirrels? Check.
  • Dope reprints? Check.
  • 218 different card variants? Check.
  • The return of Counterspell to appease Shaheen Soorani? Big time check!

We’ve never seen a set like this before and who knows if we ever will again — which is all the more reason to bring a few members of the SCG Staff together to give their first impressions on Magic’s newest set in the best way possible: before playing a single game with any of the cards!

1. What’s your Tweet-length review of Modern Horizons 2?

Brad Nelson: Given the fact that I actually worked on this set, my review is a little different compared to other sets. Whoops #MTGMH2

Ari Lax: 299 flawless cards flawlessly balanced to be fun and flavored to be appealing. Four real head scratchers taking up mythic rare slots that will warp the Modern format and are absolutely not fun.

Sam Black: Guaranteed to transform Modern, Modern Horizons 2 took a heavy handed approach to impacting the format, but I’m optimistic that it could make a stale format more fun. 

Corey Baumeister: This set looks like the perfect balance of power and restraint. We have plenty of cards that are going to go straight into existing/old archetypes. While at the same time I don’t see anything that’s quite at Hogaak level. 

Shaheen Soorani: I’m sure that the development team was chuckling the whole time, giving us the best Wrath of God ever, a Sword to Plowshares, and actual Counterspell, thinking control will still struggle. They, and the general control haters, will eat crow very soon.

Dom Harvey: A solid execution of the Modern Horizons idea that learned valuable lessons from the first time (well, most of them…)

2. What’s your most-liked card in Modern Horizons 2?

Brad Nelson: Svyelun, God of Sea and Sky (but it’s solely because I had a heavy hand in the card’s development). Our story begins on February 17, 2020. I just got to WotC Headquarters in Renton, Washington. We took pictures for our temporary badges and then made our way to the elusive third floor for our first orientation meeting with Modern Horizons 2 Lead Developer Aaron Forsythe. He greeted us, told us what our project was going to be, and that no one in the building was smart enough or handsome enough to figure out how to design good Merfolk cards anymore. Quite perplexing opening statements if you ask me.

He went a little bit deeper into the subject by informing us that the Merfolk well had run dry around Lorwyn Block, and that it’s been a well kept company secret since then. Sure they’ve had a few good Merfolk cards like Harbinger of the Tides and Merfolk Trickster, but things were starting to look dire.

It was at this moment I stood up out of my chair, which I never do lightly, and proclaimed that I would bear this burden and deliver some of the coolest Merfolk cards ever printed. Silence befell the room before an eruptious applause from everyone. Sir Mix-a-Lot even texted me to show his support. I was soon lifted off the ground and carried to my fully furnished desk to begin my work on Modern Horizon 2’s Merfolk cards.

Ok, so maybe none of that actually happened. In reality I said something like, “I don’t like this Merfolk god card”, and Aaron said something like, “Great, you get to work on the Merfolk cards then.” As glamorous as that sounds, I still think I’m going to tell my kids the former story.

Ari Lax: Academy Manufactor. It’s real rude to ask me to pick exactly one, but I guess Academy Manufactor? In my brief testing with the card, there’s a real wow factor to how explosive it is for your resources but also a lot of good dreamer factor because you have to figure out what to do to convert a lot of mediocre resources into something great. Honorable mentions in the same tier of favoritism include Urza’s Saga, Garth One Eye, Braids, Cabal Minion, Vindicate, and Glimpse of Tomorrow, and that’s all above the “this card is especially clever but not necessarily for me” tier of appreciation.

Sam Black: My first thought is The Underworld Cookbook. I want to like Asmor, but not having Madness itself is a little too inelegant and I categorically dislike search/shuffle mechanics. I like the idea of madness potentially being playable and I like one-mana engine artifacts a lot. I also love the story of Asmor and the cookbook (she was captured by a Lord of the Pit, served as his chef for seven years in exchange for her life, wrote a cookbook about cooking for demons, made twenty copies, it didn’t sell well, so they got thrown away, but the underworld trash shoot lead to the surface and the books were found and now creatures in the book have a grudge against her).

Corey Baumeister: Scion of Draco. I think Scion of Draco is incredibly powerful while also being quite flexible. I love the thought of playing it in an aggressive Domain Zoo style deck but I’m also really interested in trying it out in a Five-Color Control deck with Bring to Light. It also pairs quite nicely with my good friend Omnath, Locus of Creation! Imagine that first striking, vigilant, trampling, hexproof monster coming at your aggro deck! Sounds busted to me. 

Shaheen Soorani: Counterspell by a country mile. Even as I type now, I cannot believe that WotC produced this iconic spell for another competitive format.  Modern was a haven for misfits counterspells at two-mana, with some silly regulars being Logic Knot and Mana Leak.  The disruption drama is now over in that department, as the king has returned to rule the format.

This will be a format-defining addition.  Do not let the naysayers bring you down my control brethren because Counterspell is as good as you think it is.  I still see takes describing it as a mediocre addition to control, or even subpar if the mana does not cooperate.  Not only are these stances blasphemous in nature, but they’re also wildly inaccurate.  Get ready to put fear in the hearts of Modern players for the foreseeable future, behind the power of one of the greatest spells ever made.

Dom Harvey: Urza’s Saga. When Urza’s Saga was the first card previewed from this set, I fell in love at first sight and nothing I’ve seen since has won my heart instead. I like that it’s impossible to wrap your head around this card at a glance and that it couldn’t show up in any other set, I appreciate any top-down design based around wordplay, and I love the too-good-to-be-true callback of Urza’s Saga technically being an enchantment but really just caring about broken artifacts. I hope this can promote diversity in the same way Mox Opal did; you have to build around it but it’s powerful enough and flexible enough that you can and should do that in a wide range of decks.

3. What’s your most-hated card in Modern Horizions 2?

Brad Nelson: Nothing! My most-hated cards in Modern Horizons 2 never made it to print. Well, technically the character did, but not the version I truly despised. Now I have twelve (colorless) reasons why I can’t legally tell you which card it is due to my NDA, but let’s just say that Hogaak would have looked like Squire compared to this beast of a card  if Sam Black, BBD, and I weren’t on the case.

Ari Lax: Solitude. You know what people deserve to be punished for regardless of whether their opponent is tapped out? Playing any creature they care about and spending mana on it. Ignore the fact that you also have the “Ephemerate is Plague Wind” side of this or the “this is all costlessly attached to a Shriekmaw body so there’s not a real cost to playing it”, why are we so interested in telling people they don’t deserve to control any creature they hope survives? Why does this have flash? At least have the decency to make this conditional, like a Reprisal, so people can feel safe with smaller investments. And at least Grief has the decency to be proactively offensive to people in a way that might just get it banned quickly.

Before you point to Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile, or Fatal Push, those are all conditional or have a significantly larger drawback with no later Shriekmaw buyout, and there’s as big a gap between free and one as there is between one and two.

Really, this whole Elemental Incarnation cycle deserves this award. Maybe in a Modern with Mox Opal and Faithless Looting and Simian Spirit Guide you needed to be matching that level of nonsense with free and broad answers, but now that we’ve decided that isn’t OK these cards are completely out of place and will just prevent people from actually doing fun things for no reason. Endurance is the lone exception, since it being crushing largely leans on your opponent having Stinkweed Imp in their deck and deserving it.

Sam Black: Archon of Cruelty. I think Reanimator is pushed a little too far and recovering from/beating Archon is really hard. 

Corey Baumeister: Shardless Agent. I honestly can’t stand the reprint of Shardless Agent. Why on earth do we keep printing cascade cards?! Especially cheap cascade cards! This ability has been causing chaos in our lovely game for far too long. Whenever you build a good deck that cascades into busted two-drops, it just leads to such repetitive games or it leads to stupid decks like Living End. Both of which are not fun for anyone! 

Shaheen Soorani: Solitary Confinement. Solitary Confinement is one of the worst reprints in modern history.  I was shocked to see it hit the preview section, fearful of the oppressive potential it has on the Modern format.  There’s little upside with this type of spell, at best bringing aggro decks to their knees, disrupting the overall health of the format.  We all see the Enchantress push that’s coming with Modern Horizons 2; however, there are already enough tools with this set to make it work.

Sterling Grove is an accomplice of Solitary Confinement, producing unfun and non-interactive gameplay.  I’m not sure what the overall goal of management was with this interaction hitting Modern, but I’m certain it will miss the mark.  There’s a possibility where I am wrong and this combination, or any attempt to make Solitary Confinement work, falls flat.  Even if it does not make a huge mark on the format, I guarantee there will be a significant portion of the fanbase that will groan at the sight of a tapped Temple Garden on Turn 1.

Dom Harvey: Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp. Solitary Confinement is a card I’ve ranted about at length as Ari Lax waited patiently but that’s my most-hated card in Judgment that somehow ended up in this set. I was stunned to learn from Sam Black’s article that Karakas was on the initial reprint list (seriously, are you kidding me?!) and nothing else would have come close if they hadn’t fixed that mistake. As it is, my pick is Zabaz, the Glimmerwasp.

As a Hardened Scales enthusiast, I expected to be an ardent member of the Zabaz hive but I’m more confused than excited. Urza’s Saga is a deeply strange card but leans into that and there’s a lot of value in pushing the envelope with designs like that; Zabaz is needlessly complicated and hard to parse without any real reward. I expect a lot of judge calls (or pregnant pauses on Magic Online for now) as players understandably but incorrectly assume that ‘Modular N’ is itself a ‘modular triggered ability’ or that Zabaz’ replacement ability boosts its own Modular trigger when it dies.

Its activated abilities are seemingly random (why does a wasp not have flying as a default?) without the context of needing to fix its colour identity for Commander. At this point, with Commander the most popular format and a focus of every new set, these questions should be dealt with in-house and with a clear design philosophy rather than forcing designers to jump through these hoops just so that a card can meet arbitrary, outdated criteria for colour identity.

4. Rank the mythic Elemental Incarnations from first to worst.

Brad Nelson:

  1. Solitude
  2. Fury
  3. Endurance
  4. Grief
  5. Subtlety

Now before you go blowing a gasket, I’m ranking these cards based on how good they are against what they need to be good against. That’s why I have Fury and Endurance ahead of Grief and Subtlety. Now I do carry the burden of already playing with these cards, so if I’m wrong I’ll look really bad. That said, I have seen all of these cards in action so I can say that Fury is the one that I’m most scared of. It’s honestly a messed up card in creature matchups, and is the only Incarnation that can be cast using it’s alternate casting cost and trade at equal-to-positive rates. That’s really messed up when you consider it was FREE.

I also think Grief is a little overrated, but at the same time, none of us thought about trying it with blink effects. That totally wasn’t the first thing we thought about, tested, and found to be totally fine.

Ari Lax:

  1. Grief
  2. Solitude
  3. Subtlety
  4. Fury
  5. Endurance

Grief is proactively egregious and broken. Hope you didn’t enjoy having cards in your hand to cast, which you may recognize as the core mechanic of Magic. Solitude demonstrates that controlling relevant creatures is clearly offensive to Magic and shouldn’t be allowed. Also just naturally in the flickering color.

Both are really in a tier of their own ahead of the rest of the cycle, but that doesn’t mean the others are bad. On Dominara’s Judgment this week I specifically excluded these cards from my Modern Horizons 2 Top 8 list, because if I didn’t they would be the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 6th best cards on that list with the worst Incarnation still maybe taking the 8th place slot.

Unlike Solitude, there’s a lot more equity in Subtlety hitting expensive spells and very little equity in flickering it. This is probably one of the better Elemental Incarnations to hard cast though. Also your answer to opposing Elemental Incarnation nonsense.

Kids these days have never been Pyrokinesis’ed and it shows. Fury is more likely to solo end a game than Subtlety, but suffers a bit since a lot of the existing Modern dynamic is that Searing Blaze and Lava Dart already secure red decks winning against things Fury crushes. Look to this card as something generic midrange decks use, where it gets to either be free Plague Wind, free Flame Slash, Flametongue Kavu, or Inferno Titan as needed.

Endurance is really solid graveyard hate card with a lot of buyout equity that lets you use it to harass fair deck’s usage of the graveyard. Think Scavenging Ooze with a more polarized spread. I wouldn’t be shocked if Endurance was the third most played Elemental Incarnation, but it’s also the most replaceable compared to all the other free graveyard hate in Modern.

Sam Black:

  1. Solitude
  2. Subtlety
  3. Grief
  4. Fury
  5. Endurance

I think Solitude is best, because I want to turn raw card advantage into impacting the battlefield directly, and I think this does that most reliably. I’d put Subtlety second, largely because blue is most able to generate card advantage and look to turn it into tempo, which this does well. It also likely has the best rate to hard cast. 

Grief is scary, but I think Unmask is actually pretty narrow in terms of which decks want it. You have to be doing something super unfair to prefer this to Thoughtseize, and I don’t know if that unfair exists in Modern. I’d still put it third out of respect for its potential. 

Fury is narrow, but devastating if it kills three or more creatures. This is the easiest to get actual card advantage from evoking, but most likely to be bad/primarily see sideboard play. 

Endurance isn’t bad. I think the primary mode is going to be paying the cost and playing it like Plumeveil with upside. I’m not very excited about pitch graveyard hate given the alternatives. I honestly think everything in this cycle is close, very strong, and slightly less strong than it looks. 

Corey Baumeister:

  1. Solitude  
  2. Subtlety  
  3. Grief  
  4. Endurance  
  5. Fury  

This list is a bit tricky for me because I think the top three could all be completely busted in the right shell. But I also think the drawbacks of these cards are a real cost to keep in mind. You’re naturally two-for-oneing yourself with each of these spells and, last time I check, that is indeed bad. But I’m putting Solitude at the top of my list because I think being able to play something powerful like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria or Jace the Mind Sculptor into protecting it for free with a nice piece of removal seems great to me. Subtlety has a great chance at being busted as well since blue is just the best color in Magic and it isn’t particularly close.

Endurance and Fury I don’t think will ever see maindeck play. Fury just doesn’t work well with an aggressive red strategy but could be a decent sideboard card against a deck playing a ton of 1/1s like Humans or Affinity. Endurance is just going to be a niche card against Dredge and other graveyard decks as well; nothing special since we do already have Ravenous Trap.  

Shaheen Soorani:

  1. Solitude
  2. Grief
  3. Subtlety
  4. Endurance
  5. Fury

It breaks me up inside that the red Elemental Incarnation is the worst of the cycle.  Even in last place, Fury will be a role-player in Modern since it can clean a couple threats from the table for zero mana.  The biggest issue with it is the sorcery tag, even though it was necessary.  Fury as an instant would be bonkers and we cannot have red doing anything else that crazy in Modern.

Endurance and Subtlety were neck and neck in my rankings.  I may be a little biased, putting the green option after, but there was a defensible reason.  Endurance will be a sideboard all-star in a few green decks, while Subtlety will split time with Force of Negation in the maindeck of blue decks.  As far as power level goes, it’s a virtual tie, with the tiebreaker going to potential deck use and superior color.

At the top of the power rankings, I have Solitude and Grief.  Grief will be a staple in many of the fringe black decks; however, it will find its way into the top tier lists after a few tournaments elapse.  Most content creators will have this card first, but I could not standby and let Solitude fall to second place.

Sword to Plowshares for zero mana is something I thought I would never see.  It has singlehandedly revived Azorius Control to relevancy, providing fierce competition to the Esper Control throne.  The role it fills is massive, providing decks without black or red another broken removal spell that they have yearned for. I don’t know about you, but I nearly dropped the drink in my hand when seeing this glorious card revealed.

Dom Harvey:

  1. Solitude
  2. Grief
  3. Endurance
  4. Subtlety
  5. Fury

Grief and Solitude are the biggest game-changers in Modern Horizons 2 and the stars of this cycle. I put Solitude first because it will warp play patterns in Modern for the rest of time: an opponent being tapped out no longer means their shields are down against your creatures and a surprise Solitude (or the fear of Solitude tricking players into taking worse lines) will swing many games of Modern. I expect to see Solitude in almost any deck with enough white cards, from Spirits to Stoneblade, and that’s without the Ephemerate or Restoration Angel synergies that unlock its full potential.

Grief will certainly live up to its name in Legacy and Vintage but I think its power in Modern is more context-dependent and I’m not sure what the right home is — only that it exists. That home could easily be ‘any black-heavy deck’.

Endurance is the weakest of the cycle in the abstract but it may be the most popular as graveyard hate that doubles as insurance against Dimir Mill and a strong Summoner’s Pact/Eladamri’s Call target for green creature decks.

Between Subtlety and Force of Negation, blue decks can now cover the most explosive starts from any deck and threaten interaction at all points of the game. I expect Azorius Stoneblade powered by Subtlety and Solitude to be a deck to beat once the initial craziness has subsided and the metagame takes shape.

Fury is surprisingly narrow and doesn’t fit into existing archetypes — the main red-heavy decks are Prowess, which can’t easily justify removal that doesn’t trigger prowess, or Burn, which needs all its spells to target players. Its most likely home is Domain Zoo once a modern Einstein figures out that manabase.

6. The card most likely to get banned in Modern Horizons 2 is…

Brad Nelson: None of them! WoyC brought in three hot-shot pro Magic players to help balance this set and we took our job very seriously. It’s so frustrating to me to see so many people online complaining about the absurd power level of this set when they never even played with the cards yet. Trust me when I say that every single card in this set was delicately worked on, and we took pride in ourselves to create a robust and fun Modern environment for millions of unique Magic players around the world.

(… one of the Suspend cards… )

Ari Lax: Grief. I’m unsure how many times people will be willing to experience a reverse London mulligan to four (where your opponent chooses the cards you lose) to start a game and want to keep playing against Grief plus Ephemerate.

Sam Black: Persist maybe? If Reanimator is broken, this is probably the most problematic piece and I think Reanimator is the new strategy that was pushed the hardest. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ended up being a free suspend spell instead I guess, but my prediction is Persist, which is a far cry from Hogaak, but maybe I’ve missed something. 

Corey Baumeister: Nothing! I think they did a very good job with this set to not print Hogaak 2.0 so I really don’t think anything will get banned. I’m probably going to be laughing at myself two months from now for such a stupid prediction after four cards need a banning, but for now I’m going to say none.

Shaheen Soorani: Solitary Confinement. It may be wishful thinking, but Solitary Confinement could get the axe.  It’s not even close to the strongest card in the set (far from it).  The Elemental Incarnations are way better and Counterspell puts it in the dust in terms of power level, but that isn’t the only cause of card removal from a format.

In my hatred rant of the card earlier, I mentioned its affect on aggro decks in the metagame.  Those poor one-drops have it tough enough, without losing instantly to a Solitary Confinement and Squee, Goblin Nabob.  That’s a silly combination when verbally announced, but it’s not far from the truth.  With Sterling Grove and a bunch of creatures that help draw cards, I can see this deck getting out of hand for our aggro friends.

Even though I hate all the archetypes being discussed, we need their viability to remain intact for the health of the format.  I hope this outcome occurs sooner rather than later!

Dom Harvey: Urza’s Saga. This being my most-liked card too is no coincidence and might make me part of the problem. An uncounterable, direct tutor for a powerful card type that gives you a more permanent reward on top is the start of a dangerous recipe. This is also the answer to the natural follow-up question, namely what card is most likely to get something else banned — I want Amulet of Vigor to be good again but not too good — and this may be the nail in the coffin for my hopes of Mox Opal ever leaving the ban list.

Now that we have the full set list for Modern Horizons 2, I’m relieved that I can’t identify the next Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis or Arcum’s Astrolabe. I do worry that I see some Plague Engineers, cards that will never meet the usual standards for bans but will indefinitely make the Modern experience worse in many of the games they show up for. On the whole, though, I expect the set to make a positive contribution to the format and I can’t wait to dive in.