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Should We Be Excited Or Scared Of What’s To Come In Modern Horizons 2?

Is the card Urza’s Saga as broken as its namesake set? PVDDR, Sam Black, and Ari Lax call Fact or Fiction on five statements about Modern Horizons 2.

Welcome to Fact or Fiction! Today, Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa, Sam Black, and Ari Lax give their takes on five statements about the most recent Summer of Legend announcement by Wizards of the Coast (WotC). Don’t forget to vote for the winner at the end!

1. Urza’s Saga will be banned in Modern at some point during its lifespan.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fiction. Modern is a pretty high-powered format, and I don’t think Urza’s Saga is above the line for it. Ultimately it’s a very cool card, but where would I play it that it would be broken? It would be strong in Lantern Control, for example, but that deck took a huge hit with Mox Opal’s banning. Is this card good enough to revitalize the archetype on its own? Maybe, but if that deck becomes too good, I would expect a banning on a combo piece, not Urza’s Saga.

Similarly, if Amulet Titan with Urza’s Saga becomes problematic, I expect Amulet of Vigor will go. So in the end I don’t expect it to become a problem, and if it does become a problem, I expect the bannings to go around it rather than at it, because the cards that it’s potentially a problem with are not super-healthy cards anyway.

Sam Black: Fiction. This is a weird and powerful card that’s capable of involvement in some strange interactions.  In particular, pairing it with Thespian’s Stage is interesting, but I think the “instantly dies if Blood Moon or Magus of the Moon enters the battlefield” countermeasure will likely be enough to keep it in check if it finds a home.  Basically, the card is strong, but it doesn’t slot easily into many existing decks, and if a deck emerges specifically to take advantage of it, I think the tools to answer that deck exist.

Ari Lax: Fiction. Urza’s Saga takes multiple turns to do anything, costs actual mana to use, and leans heavily into exploitable card types. Urza’s Saga is really good, but so is Cranial Plating and that card has haste. Not that Cranial Plating is card advantage, but it’s the same scope of effect that also dies to a Disenchant.

Again, very few cards are banned where you need to put time and mana into them to get a payoff and don’t get overwhelming amounts of actual cardboard out. Maybe this is Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath; maybe this is Field of the Dead; but it’s going to take a lot to convince me of that.

2. Brainstone and Diamond Lion are cool callbacks but ultimately won’t see play in Modern.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fact. I love the design of Diamond Lion, but its creature type and one-turn delay are too much. Brainstone is simply too expensive for what it provides; for one more mana I can just cast Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Brainstorm every turn. It’s an interesting potential target for Urza’s Saga, though, so I’m not ruling it out as a one-of.

Sam Black: Fiction. I don’t think either card is too strong.  They both essentially cost two more mana than the card they reference, and the Lion has summoning sickness.  However, Brainstone’s artifact status and potential for shenanigans should be enough for the card to see play.  Wishing Well has seen play, and Brainstone is considerably more exciting with Emry, Lurker of the Loch.  I don’t think it’ll be ubiquitous, but when you want a one-mana artifact that does something generically useful, Brainstone will definitely be a contender. 

As for Diamond Lion, I’m less optimistic about its competitive future. Maybe it has some chance if we find a deck that’s looking to Collected Company in a creature with an expensive but powerful activated ability. (This is even technically functional with Heliod as a way to get the two mana to give Walking Ballista lifelink, though I think Spike Feeder is just a better way to take advantage of Heliod, so I don’t think that’s the right home.)

Ari Lax: Ficton but barely. Diamond Lion is almost surely not seeing play. Satyr Hedonist sees no play; this is more hoops with more color flex. Maybe there’s some nonsense to pull with Postmortem Lunge, but I doubt any remotely functional shell survives Force of Negation. Also, it just isn’t cool. Does Lion’s Eye Diamond tap to activate? Nope. Miss me with the “it was a Black Lotus reference” crap. It’s now a Lion’s Eye Diamond reference you failed to match.

Brainstone is closer as long as Lurrus of the Dream-Den is legal. It’s another Mishra’s Bauble-style cheap artifact that cashes in for solid value that you can recur for even more equity. It also does things with the miracle mechanic, layering redundancy on Jace, the Mind Sculptor and clunkiness as well. This reference including the retro artist is cool, so all the hope lies with Brainstone here.

3. Magic cards having several different frames is something that interests you.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fiction. I don’t really care about this stuff, to be completely honest. I’m the kind of person that will just take lands with different art from the land box for my Draft deck, for example, and I’ve been berated more than once by my teammates for having a random white-bordered land here and there. I like cards that look good, and I think the old border looks better on some cards, but I don’t have any real sense of nostalgia or any excitement about different frames coexisting. 

Sam Black: Fiction. I’ve never really been interested in fancy cards.  To me, there’s a lot of appeal in the implied underdog story of winning with old, worn cards.  I do like Beta and a few other older cards, mostly for nostalgia, but new fancy cards don’t do much for me.  Aesthetically, I think some of the new frames look cool, especially the sketch frame and the D&D Monster Manual frame, but for gameplay, I like it when my cards match more rather than less.  I think hands with cards with a lot of different frames look really messy, so while they look cool individually, collecting cards with a lot of different frames doesn’t appeal to me.

That said, if they’re going to make premium/extra rare/exclusive versions of cards, I’d greatly prefer anything like this to foils. 

Ari Lax: Fact. I don’t hate the differing frames. I largely just don’t care. My tastes are fairly eclectic; I’m not an old frame or new frame or borderless devotee. Sure, I dig a full-art Pathway or an Urza’s Saga (the set) Dark Ritual, but I’m not obsessed with my borders matching or whatever. But if having a dozen different borders lets them experiment with stuff and make a bunch of cards that are nice to look at as standalone pieces, like some of the more out-there Secret Lair designs, count me in. 

4. Counterspell is a safe card to have in Modern.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fact. On rate alone, the power level of Counterspell is high but not even that high. There are many cards in Modern that are much more powerful. In fact, there’s a chance Counterspell might have just been fine for Historic as well. On play style, Counterspell is mostly a fair card. If a combo deck is trying to abuse a counterspell, they’d rather have something easier to cast and they won’t care about the versatility or the finality of it, so it’s really just the fair control decks that are interested in it. 

The only danger we run into with Counterspell is control decks becoming so powerful that they eclipse everything else. That said, this seems like a really unlikely development. If we do get to that point, it’ll probably be more because of Force of Negation than Counterspell itself. I think that card has been responsible for some of the disappearance of combo decks in Modern, for example, more than Counterspell ever could.

Sam Black: Fact. “Safe” is kind of relative to your goals. It’s not a proactive card, so it’s not the kind of thing that breaks individual games.  It can essentially break formats if playing it becomes close to mandatory or strategically dominant, but basically my metric for, “Is Counterspell broken in this format?” would be, “Is Counterspell being played at an unhealthy rate?” and it’s not really clear what rate that would be. Lightning Bolt is played at an extremely high rate in Modern, but it goes in so many different kinds of decks that it’s not really much of a problem.

I think if Counterspell saw as much play as Lightning Bolt, that would be a problem, because Counterspell decks strategically overlap more than Lightning Bolt decks, but I don’t think that will happen.  I think Counterspell is a good tool that feels roughly in line with the power level of other interactive spells in Modern, and I love the idea of finally seeing Counterspell and Lightning Bolt in the same format again.

Ari Lax: Fact. I want to be clear. There’s a lot of overlap between safe and powerful. And Counterspell is solidly in that domain. Trading two mana and a card for anything is really powerful in Modern. Worse versions of Counterspell have had a constant presence in the format. Mana Leak and Logic Knot come to mind.

Still, those cards are already trading two mana and a card for anything most of the time. And the blue decks already easily supported the heavier blue Archmage’s Charm and Cryptic Command. In terms of facing up against a blue deck, Counterspell only really changes things if you are casting a one-drop on Turn 6 or casting stuff off Urza’s Tower. A bit of a change for some decks, but nothing fundamental.

So yeah, Counterspell is good, but it’s just a marginal upgrade. Esper Control and Izzet piles will get better, but still have many of the same weaknesses they used to have.

5. You’re excited about Modern Horizons 2 preview season.

Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa: Fiction. The first reason is that, with online Magic being the norm, Modern is just not a part of the competitive circuit — all the tournaments are Standard, Historic, or Sealed, and they’re all on Magic Arena, so it’s hard for me to be excited about a set that I might literally not get to play with in the next one or two years. 

The second reason is that I’m still a bit scarred by Modern Horizons. I think making a Modern Horizons-type set is absurdly hard, because the format is very powerful, so if you want to shake things up you have to print a lot of very powerful cards that can compete with the Who’s Who of basically two decades of history, and it’s almost impossible to do that without creating some broken cards. Chances are the set is either underpowered (and therefore changes nothing), or it’s overpowered like the first Modern Horizons and it breaks the format, which leads to even more bans, and so on.

That said, I do know that a lot of pro players were hired to work on Modern Horizons 2. Perhaps the extra hands will help in this regard. If the set is executed well, then I like the idea of shaking things up in a healthy way, so all that remains to be seen is whether that sweet spot of “cards strong or different enough to change the format, update existing decks, or create new decks without being so strong that everyone is forced to play them” can be found. It’s a very hard task, but doable, and if it turns out like that then it will be a fantastic set.

In the meantime, though, I can’t shake the feeling that any potential new card we see might be the new Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis, lying in wait to ruin the format, and this feeling will probably only go away once we see all the cards and have had a chance to play with them. 

Sam Black: Fact. This is a unique preview season for me because Modern Horizons 2 is the only set I’ve personally developed with WotC as a short-term contractor, but my contract ended before the set was completely finalized, so while I saw “the whole set” there are likely a few last-minute changes that have been made that I don’t know about, so it’ll be a mix of seeing other people’s reaction to something I had a hand in while also seeing what, if anything, has changed, which is an extremely rare perspective for a preview season.  This is also the second time I’ve ever previewed a card myself (the last one was Sin Collector, a long time ago), and this time, I’ll be previewing the first card that I personally designed, which is amazing.

Ari Lax: Fact. Modern Horizons 2 weirdly doesn’t have the same stakes as Modern Horizons did a couple of years ago. There isn’t a history of good Modern it has to fit into. We have three months of some new Modern stuff, following a year-and-a-half of giant disaster after giant disaster. If it ruins this Prowess – Selesnya Company – other stuff format, whatever, you can fix it and rebuild something equally fine. There isn’t some razor-thin balance keeping the Faithless Looting or Mox Opal players invested you have to preserve, and if anything, Modern Horizons 2 is chance to rebuild a format those players want to participate in with new incentives that are on more stable design ground. Urza’s Saga (the card this time) is a good one of those, as a super-powerful artifact payoff that you pour time and mana into to make work.

So yeah, I’m super-excited. Modern right now is fine, but in ways that aren’t worth clinging to if there’s a chance to make the format the best of what we have now and what we had before.