Modern Horizons spoiler season launched with the reveal of two cards: a splashy planeswalker with a dedicated fanbase and a finicky one-drop that embodies one of the most important discard effects ever printed. Those two were chosen for a reason. While I don’t think there’s any hidden information encoded in the choice of a mythic planeswalker who’s been a part of the game’s flavor since the day it launched, I do think Cabal Therapist is the Rosetta Stone for learning the code of Modern Horizons.

For one, it’s a reinterpretation that’s changed forms entirely—it would be possible to have a choose-a-card/multiple use discard spell that ties back flavorfully into the Cabal, but they didn’t do that. They chose to create a permanent form that’s inherently weaker—susceptible to removal, requires a turn-plus to activate, doesn’t have a mana-free flashback option—but situationally stronger, which I believe is how Wizards wants to calibrate Modern. I expect staple spells to be—well, stapled to creatures and the spells that remain will call back to classic creatures.

While I doubt we’ll see anything like this:

Search your library for a basic land card, put it into play tapped, then shuffle.
Draw a card.

I still think we’ll see a transmutation of card types, reprinting by recontextualizing. Wizards tried something similar back in Masques block with the Spellshapers, a forty-strong horde of cards that allowed you to turn any card in your hand into a copy of a classic spell. They, of course, were awful design. Spellshapers were terrible topdecks, they made games sludgy and identical, and they baffled newer players. In a set with Dark Ritual, a (Bog Witch) summoning sick Dark Ritual that requires you to spend 2BB and another card to get your BBB isn’t terribly impressive.

Instead, seven years later, we got planeswalkers. It’s a much better representation of a recurring spell and a great way to encourage a mini game beyond “did they kill my creature before I was able to give myself card disadvantage.” Jaya Ballard, Task Mage was a sort of test case for planeswalkers—a powerful Spellshaper with multiple abilities. In her nostalgic callbacks to 1995-era Magic and embodiment of her personal slate of spells, I think she’ll end up being a sort of test case for Modern Horizons.

I’ve been dealing with branding a lot at work and thus thinking about Magic in terms of branding. Magic is especially fascinating from a brand perspective because each pack is a packet of information that ties emotional investment into perceived utility. The pastel dawn glow of a Dominaria pack, the gaudy copper of Battlebond, the twilight blue of Ravnica Allegiance are all designed to ensure your emotional response to a set begins before you’ve even opened the pack. A lot of people work extremely hard on the branding in Magic, from the color palette used on packs to the precise shading on the logos to the way the typeface pops on the foil of the wrapper. Good design work isn’t just art or a marketing statement: it’s an emotional catalyst that demands a response from the viewer.

There’s not too much information to be gleaned from the set logo. It’s another version of the abstract-M we’ve gotten from each Modern Masters set. But the fact that it follows in their branding footsteps implies that this is a continuation of the series under a new brand, a subtle tie-in within being officially under the umbrella of Masters set. “Modern Masters” was something of a placeholder name, anyway—while it implied a level of expertise and stroked player ego, it also shunted away less enfranchised users. “Modern Horizons” suggests what’s possible to attain, not to imply you should have attained it already before you can play. It’s a good name—for context, we get the word “horizon” from the Old French “orisoun,” itself taken from the Latin “horizontem,” from a boundary or grouping of stones used to delineate boundaries. We’re most familiar with the term through the concept of an apparent horizon—the dropping away of the earth before us, until we’ve convinced ourselves we can see the end of the world.

That’s what Modern Horizon intends to do—expand the boundaries of what is possible in the format and show us how what to expect in terms of scale. Blake Rasmussen, in the announcement of the set, claims that Modern Horizons will “build up favorite Modern strategies, create new ones, and bring plenty of flavor” to the format. I’m most curious about “create new ones,” as that implies a level of regulatory control over the format beyond the Banned List and a possible new role for the format: to be simplistic, Vintage is the Power 9 format, Legacy is the Brainstorm/Force format, and Modern is the fetch land format. That’s not going to change unless Wizards does something to deliberately change that, which I believe will occur in Modern Horizons.

I’m not sure what’s lurking just beyond the horizon, but it’s big enough to cast a shadow already. Fetchlands spiking? Foil Counterspells being broken out for the first time since 2003? We know for sure it will be titanic.

A lifelong resident of the Carolinas and a graduate of the University of North Carolina, Rob has played Magic since he picked a Darkling Stalker up off the soccer field at summer camp. He works for nonprofits as an educational strategies developer and, in his off-hours, enjoys writing fiction, playing games, and exploring new beers.

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