The Way They Were: Ten Modern Horizons Callbacks
- Gianluca Aicardi
Modern Horizons was expressly designed to introduce powerful cards into the Modern pool. To this end, it employed a triple approach: brand new cards; reprints that weren't Modern-legal yet; and last but not least, cards that mimic signature spells from the past. Let's give a shoutout to these callbacks.
When faced with a set like Modern Horizons, which looks at the future of the Modern format by way of looking at the past of the game as a whole, one might be tempted to think that the design team should just have inserted a bunch of key cards that were missing from the Modern pool because originally released before Eighth Edition and never reprinted in Standard in the following years. This route wasn't taken as much as some of us imagined, with very few of the reprints (which amounts to just about 15% of the set) destined to exert an impact on the meta: mostly Flusterstorm, Altar of Dementia, Unearth, Squirrel Nest, Wall of Blossoms, maybe Kess, Dissident Mage, maybe Pillage.
Instead of a larger flurry of reprints, which could have the adverse effect of complicating the draft environment, it was decided to make new cards based on the blueprints of old ones. Sometimes it's nothing more than a flavor reference, or a shifted mechanic that doesn't really translate into the same role or power level, like Ayula's Influence following in the steps of Seismic Assault (which is Modern-legal, anyway), without being an Assault replacement in any way, shape or form.
Other times, the callback is just cosmetic, a little wink to veteran players that will recognize a pattern or an artwork, even while the card itself is not going to do much for the Modern meta.
But in some of the more interesting cases, the designers actually took the time to try and reinvent the wheel. Let's see how and with what results, proceeding in mana wheel order.
1. Astral Slide becomes Astral Drift
Originally from: Onslaught, October 2002.
Pros of the new version: It can cycle itself, which is especially useful when you have another copy already on the battlefield.
Cons of the new version: It's not triggered by the opponent's cycling as well, but that's mostly meaningful in an environment where cycling is a major mechanic, which isn't the case for Modern at large, so it's a negligible distinction.
Verdict: Astral Drift is close to be a strictly better Astral Slide. Weird, because Slide was the centerpiece of a pretty powerful Extended archetype from the middle Noughties, and Modern is now able to replicate some of those builds (minus the Lightning Rift wincon, but it wasn't a requirement). Or better, to work towards an updated version of them, taking advantage of the cycling cards from Shards of Alara and Amonkhet. I'm sure Modern Drift will be a thing, it remains to see how strong it will be in the meta; maybe not as strong as it was in Extended, if the fact that they felt the need to add a little extra punch to the old card is any indication.
2. Mother of Runes becomes Giver of Runes
Originally from: Urza's Legacy, February 1999.
Pros of the new version: She can protect from colorless, to sneak creatures past those pesky little artifact chumpers, Eldrazi Drones and Ugin's tokens. Or perhaps just to avoid dying to Wurmcoil Engine.
Cons of the new version: She doesn't protect herself. It's a big issue, because then she's closer in power level to "just" a faster Shalai, Voice of Plenty than to the maddening combat inhibitor that was Mother of Runes.
Verdict: Would the original Mom be too much for Modern? Maybe so, considering she would be auto-include in pretty much any creature-based deck, most notably Humans, in which she'd also profit from tribal synergy. In fact, we might well put "she's not Human" among the Giver's cons – not that this will prevent the interested archetypes from trying and taking advantage of her targeted protection. It's also worth noting that she's currently fetchable by both Ranger of Eos and his new big brother Ranger-Captain of Eos, which might prove relevant down the line.
3. Force of Will becomes Force of Negation
Originally from: Alliances, June 1996.
Pros of the new version: If cast without paying its mana cost, it doesn't ask for life; if hard cast, it just costs three rather than five and it exiles the countered spell.
Cons of the new version: It can't counter creature spells; it can't be cast for the alternative cost during your turn.
Verdict: I'm on record as saying that I really don't want Force of Will in Modern because that's a signature Legacy card that greatly contributes to that format being a "noncreature-friendly" environment. But they went and brought Force of Will into Modern all the same – well, sort of. Okay, it's not really Force of Will if it's a conditional counter, and not being able to protect you when you tap out during your turn makes a pretty big difference. Still, what Force of Will does best is stopping crazy endgame combos at sorcery speed, and in this regard Force of Negation is exactly the same – a good fail-safe against stuff like Past in Flames and Ad Nauseam, not to mention planeswalkers. And when it's not asked to do its zero-man stunt, it's just a Dissipate (albeit with the Negate clause), which makes it more manageable than a five mana Counterspell). After all, there's history of players running Dissipate competitively without feeling too awkward. It might even be a good tool in creature builds, where it can protect your board position from sweepers. All in all, it does play like Force of Will in a lot of situations, but I think it's balanced enough not to incur into potential "banned six months later" scenarios, even if zero-cost spells must always be handled with extreme care.
4. Timetwister becomes Echo of Eons
Originally from: Limited Edition Alpha, August 1993.
Pros of the new version: It has flashback for the original mana cost.
Cons of the new version: If hardcast, it costs twice as much as the original.
Verdict: Well, it's Timetwister from the graveyard. It's a powerful effect you want to dump early on and still have available for later, but compared to the original, it's nerfed because you need to get it into your graveyard (though it won't be difficult at all in the right build), or else you'll have to cast it for quite a lot.
I think it's a totally fine addition. After all, Timetwister is often ranked as the least powerful of the Power Nine and Modern had already access to that effect with Time Reversal for five, or even with Day's Undoing for three, although you can't follow that up with any other play in the same turn. If one wishes to go big, Emergency Powers also exists. None of these are currently played in the competitive meta, though Undoing has popped up lately in a few control decks where it combos nicely with Narset, Parter of Veils. Echo of Eons may go to reinforce that archetype, but it can also just become a pretty safe one-of insurance against death by decking.
5. Cabal Therapy becomes Cabal Therapist
Originally from: Judgment, May 2002.
Pros of the new version: It's repeatable at will, provided you keep having sacrificial fodder; it's a creature that can swing for damage and connects well enough thanks to menace.
Cons of the new version: It's a 1/1 creature that dies of a common cold; it does nothing upon casting and keeps doing nothing (except potentially chump-blocking) until your next main phase.
Verdict: Creatures that reproduce the effects of noncreature cards always come with a degree of built-in fragility that could just defy their purpose entirely – and that might just be the case of Cabal Therapist. It's a cool guy, and under the right circumstances (e.g. it remains undisturbed while you have some token generator like Bitterblossom in play), it can be utterly devastating.
But it doesn't really function like Cabal Therapy, which is a signature card of dredge decks precisely because you can (nay, want) mill it and then cast it from the graveyard for free, whereas the Therapist doesn't work that way: if it ends up dead or milled, you'll just have a sad little dude in the graveyard. And it's not even a good one-drop; sure, you can sacrifice it to its own trigger, but the first Cabal Therapy is meant to miss – it's the recursion that does it, and you won't get a second chance if you sacced your Therapist. I guess, you could untap on turn two and cast some one-drops with flash, but it seems a very sketchy plan, although it's probably the reason why it triggers at the beginning of the main phase, allowing you the chance to supply some fodder during the upkeep.
6. Engineered Plague becomes Plague Engineer
Originally from: Urza's Legacy, February 1999.
Pros of the new version: It's a 2/2 with deathtouch, so it can deal damage and trade for most ground attackers; the effect is asymmetrical, so it works in mirror tribal, too.
Cons of the new version: It's a creature, so it gets killed infinitely more easily than an enchantment. But if timed right, it might have caused enough harm already by then.
Verdict: The Engineer is more flexible than the original Plague, which was at most a sideboard card against Elves and the likes. Instead, this little Phyrexians can play different roles, becoming a surrogate removal that trades with an opposing threat after providing some value by killing what one-toughness creatures of the same type the opponent happened to have around (just killing one will probably be okay). Of course, it's at its best against tribal builds, and there's a few of those at the higher echelons of the meta right now: Humans, of course, but also Spirits, a deck that this guy just rips apart.
7. Goblin Welder becomes Goblin Engineer
Originally from: Urza's Legacy, February 1999.
Pros of the new version: It gives you a free Entomb for artifacts; it has one more point of toughness.
Cons of the new version: It only returns artifacts that cost three or less; the activation requires one red mana; it doesn't work on the opponent.
Verdict: The second engineer in this list and the third card that takes us back to Urza's Legacy (more to come). This is clearly a nerfing compared to the blueprint, so there will be no Sundering Titan shenanigans in Modern. Trying to make up for that, they gave our Goblin an excellent extra ability, though, making him a self-contained reanimation act (plus, he's also slightly more resilient, which doesn't hurt). So, what three-mana artifact to fetch and have the Engineer reanimate? A combo piece, I would say, and there might be a few, but I think this guy's deck is still to come. And I'm confident it will come, because the ETB value is already high enough, and unlike the activation, it doesn't have any restriction – which means Goblin Engineer actually plays well with… Goblin Welder! But in Modern, it could be paired with cards like Trash for Treasure and Scarecrone.
8. Deranged Hermit becomes Deep Forest Hermit
Originally from: Urza's Legacy, February 1999.
Pros of the new version: You don't need to pay the echo cost.
Cons of the new version: It only lasts three turns, for a total of two enhanced attacks with the Squirrels, unless you can give them haste.
Verdict: This is a deliberate change that doesn't affect the power level of the card – it just makes it work in a slightly different way. The main advantage of the old Hermit was that you can keep her (him? I really can't tell) around indefinitely, but that also translated into his/her greatest issue, since in order to do so you had to spend a grand total of ten mana, likely tapping you out for two consecutive turns. Let's say then that you cared for the four tokens (which is still an astonishing amount for that cost), but not for the anthem; well, you could let the Hermit go, and you still can with the new one, but as an extra bonus you get to keep it on the battlefield for a while, "for free." Plus, maybe you'll find an incidental way to proliferate or otherwise recharge those vanishing counters. Like its precursor, Deep Forest Hermit plays well with Squirrel Nest, and also with Genesis, both of which have now been conveniently turned into Modern cards. I may go out on a limb and say it's been improved, but jury's still out.
9. Temporal Aperture becomes Urza, Lord High Artificer
Originally from: Urza's Saga, October 1998.
Pros of the new version: He does much more (ramps your mana, gives you a Karn-struct, provides with a 1/4 body); the ability doesn't require tapping and can be activated multiple times per turn; the card doesn't get revealed; the opponent doesn't have any chance to mess with it by manipulating the top of your library.
Verdict: The first true incarnation of the great Urza in the game (not counting Vanguard cards and Unstable cards) has a lot of things going on. It contains traces of Grand Architect; it's a two-for-one thanks to the extra body of the Karn-struct (I guess they were Urza-Constructs before Karn, Scion of Urza learned how to create them); and yes, it also incorporates the Temporal Aperture ability, which at the very least is "draw and play a random card" for five mana, but if your deck has big payoffs (that don't include X in their casting cost), then it might be a game-ending advantage. It's not a reliable engine, and it's a nonbo if you run many reactive cards that require a specific target or timing, most notably counter magic; but when paired with everything else Urza has to offer, and particularly with the means to generate those five mana easily in an artifact-heavy build, then it's hard not to consider him a first-rate mythic, albeit one that still needs some figuring out when it comes to find the right home for it in Modern.
10. Captain Sisay becomes Sisay, Weatherlight Captain
Originally from: Invasion, October 2000.
Pros of the new version: She costs one mana less, and all in white; she can grow bigger; the Legendary permanent is fetched directly onto the battlefield; the ability doesn't require tapping, can be activated right away and multiple times per turn.
Cons of the new version: The ability requires a crazy activation cost of WUBRG; the fetched card's converted mana cost is restricted by her power; she can't search for Legendary cards that aren't permanents.
Verdict: New Sisay is a lot more convoluted than old Sisay (she also has a prettier artwork that does her justice, but that doesn't help much). I don't think the original one was unsuitable for Modern – it's a powerful tutoring ability, but it resides on a two-toughness four-drop with summoning sickness. Still, maybe Modern players would use her too consistently to start accumulating midrange advantage and/or assemble dangerous combos – or maybe the designers just wanted to put a new spin on her shtick. But it's a reworking that had her suddenly go from just needing to tap to necessitating a metric ton of setup. First of all, if you want to fetch something with CMC higher than one (which would mean strictly one of these ten cards), you'll have to provide the good captain with some multicolored crew; ideally, something that's all colors and legendary, like Child of Alara - admittedly not a very likely scenario. And even if you end up with a 7/7 Sisay, capable of materializing any six-mana planeswalker out of thin air (which, granted, is serious business), you'll need the mana to activate her ability, and that'll probably involve running Chromatic Lantern or Prismatic Omen and such. I don't know, it feels janky as hell, but I'll be happy to be proven wrong.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.
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