Odds & Ends: Modern Horizons 2, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on June 21, 2021

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

It's time for my mailbag column on Modern Horizons 2, where I get to answer all your questions about the set. Here's the tweet I posted:

As always, I'll try to answer as many questions as I can, but here's why I might not answer your question:

  • I have an allotted word count, which means that there are only so many questions I can get to.
  • Someone else might have asked the same question. I will usually answer the first person who asks.
  • Some questions I either don't know the answer to or don't feel qualified enough in the area to answer properly.
  • Some topics I'm not allowed to answer for all sorts of reasons, including previews for future sets.

One final thing before we get to the questions. Normally, I answer the questions by myself, but today I have a special guest to help answer some of the questions—Director of Magic Design Aaron Forsythe, my boss, and the lead set designer of Modern Horizons 2. I will always let you know when Aaron is answering a question.

That said, on with the questions:

@TheNupary

I'll let Aaron answer this one.

Aaron: Without a cohesive world to bring to life, I needed some kind of focal point for the set. I went with "entertaining" as my general guiding principle—after all, games should be fun! We made sure to build in all the skill-testing elements for Limited and Constructed for the "intellectual validation is fun" crowd, and then filled the set out with mechanics, themes, and flavor that would bring smiles to people's faces. Sometimes, it would be a boundary-pushing design like Garth One-Eye, a whimsical theme like Squirrels, or a clever mash-up like Kaleidoscorch.

I didn't just want the cards to be fun to look at and read, I wanted them to be fun to play, too, as that's where the long-term enjoyment comes from. I think Magic as a whole is "loosening up" recently, which is great, and this set in particular had so much freedom that it was easy to maximize.

@HairlessThoctar

There are three things going on in Modern Horizons 2 that are different from a normal set.

One, it has less of an overall cohesive creative conceit. Most premier sets take place on a singular world and have a particular story to tell. Modern Horizons 2 isn't doing that, so it has a bit more freedom to let each card maximize "being itself" if you will. This looseness of theme reads a little less serious.

Two, the set has a strong nostalgia theme, and that comes with a lot of happy emotions that can make cards seem a little lighter than they actually are. For example, Kaldra Compleat, represents a pretty somber story moment. Even the great champion Kaldra has fallen to the Phyrexian invaders. But the card is more seen through the lens of combining two cool things, the living weapon mechanic with an iconic trio of cards from original Mirrodin block, so it comes across as lighter and more jovial than the creative actually would entail. It's more "aah" than "oh," so that contributes to the sense of being "funnier."

Three, the overall feel of the set, celebrating Magic's past, is lighter in tone, and we were very willing to add a lot of individually "fun" cards. All that said, yes, the set is a little "funnier" than the average set.

@Barracius

I'm also a big fan of the mix-and-match cards that made it into the set. (I should stress I didn't put them there, it's just something I advocate for when I see an opportunity.) As someone who has to keep track of all the mechanics of Magic's past, it's fun to think about how they could combine in interesting ways.

As I talked about in my second preview column for the set, when I first pitched my take on Modern Horizons (Ethan and I each pitched a similar thing for the first R&D Hackathon), I described it as "Future Sight 2" and wanted to include a lot of mix-and-match cards. In fact, I designed a whole bunch of them (including a ten-card cycle of two-color cards that mix-and-matched guild mechanics) for the first Modern Horizons, but the theme got whittled down to three cards. So, I'm very happy to see mix-and-match explored more in Modern Horizons 2.

Q: Does the new Squirrel archetype in the set mean you're winning your battle to make Squirrels more apparent in MTG?

@EldritchGod711

I think the reason Squirrels left black border many years ago was a belief, at the time, that they tonally didn't match the rest of the game, that they were a little too "silly" for black border. I think numerous things have changed since then. One, I believe we're just more open to Magic hitting a wider range of different tones. It's not just okay to have some cards with a lighter feel to them—it's encouraged. We make the pieces, and you make the game, so let's give the audience who enjoys the sillier side more access to that kind of thing.

Two, I think we used to pigeonhole our comedy a little too much. Goblins could be funny, but most other things were meant to be serious. I think we're more okay letting the comedy have room to breathe. Not that everything should be comedic; the game can and does have a serious side, but we have to let the comedy permeate more.

Three, there were some Squirrel haters at Wizards, and they're basically no longer here. R&D, in general, is very pro-Squirrel. So, I don't think it was so much me winning a battle as much as it was a larger shift in how we in R&D perceive the game occurring. Was I a force helping to push it in that direction? Sure. But it was the result of a lot of people, not just me.

@21BDP21

Squirrels are primary green and secondary black. Ikoria ended up getting a white Squirrel through happenstance, but it's not meant to be a precedence for the creature type. Squirrels aren't a white thing. We're more likely to see Mice than Squirrels on future white cards, for example. The Modern Horizons 2 team put the Squirrels where they fit, and there was just more space in green than black. Again, it's primarily a green creature type. I do think we'll see other black Squirrels in the future, though.

@NoahMTG

This is another question for Aaron to answer.

Aaron: The OG Modern Horizons did a ton of stuff right, and we wanted to make sure we kept all the ingredients that made it great. We even leveraged many of the same people, with loremaster Ethan Fleisher as the vision lead on both sets, with clever card whiz Allison Steele and Modern-format master Dan Musser heavily involved as well. We wanted to keep all the nostalgia, crazy designs, awesome Draft environment, and impact to Modern that the first one had. A few other examples:

  • Keep: Fan-favorite tribe. Squirrels weren't in the vision handoff, and I felt the set was missing the beloved tribe(s) element that worked so well in Modern Horizons with Ninjas and Slivers, so we tossed in some furry friends.
  • Improve: The handling of reprints. Modern Horizons threw some sweet reprints into Modern, like Eladamri's Call, Lava Dart, and Unearth. But they were just mixed into the normal collation, weren't marked in any way, and sometimes felt bad, like when you opened a reprint rare. So, we improved on that by giving them their own slot in the pack so that you can get two rares sometimes, and we watermarked them with expansion symbols to make them stand out.
  • Improve: Constructed testing. Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis and Arcum's Astrolabe taint the memory of Modern Horizons for some people, so we were hoping to avoid any repeats on cards that needed banned and/or made the format less fun. To that end, we brought in some all-time great pro-Magic minds to help us out—Sam Black, Brad Nelson, and Brian Braun-Duin. While there's no guarantee we got everything exactly right, we certainly upped our odds of that happening!

@tetrisGOAT87

It's actually a bit more complicated. For most premier sets, you find the center of your bullseye ("it's an enemy color factioned set built around spells mattering with a magic school top-down feel"), and it's easy to get everyone working in the same direction. Modern Horizons sets require a much lighter touch. You usually start by exploring cool individual card designs and then figure out how to create a larger structure that lets you tie those together.

A lot of set design for Modern Horizons 2 came from finding the various two-color archetypes and then figuring out how to blend those together to make a cohesive drafting environment. It wasn't an accident that Aaron, one of the most experienced members of R&D, took the reins for the set design.

@HairlessThoctar

While there are exceptions, the inclusion of a story character most often comes from fulfilling a need in the set. In a premier set, that need is most often set by story. We're on World X and Character A, B, and C play a role, so we better make cards for those characters.

Also, there are characters associated with that world, and we have a good idea which ones are the most popular, so we'll make some of those as well. In supplemental sets, there's usually less story, so it's more driven by the mechanical needs of that set.

Kaldra showed up in Modern Horizons 2 because we were looking for a cool new card to put living weapon on, and the idea of that being Kaldra was too good to pass up. I know Commander decks often look for characters that meet certain color requirements or deck themes. So, it's not like we have a character and ask "where do we put it?"—more often, the set has a need, and we ask "who could fill that need?"

@ShadowSais

I'll let Aaron answer this one.

Aaron: Dakkon was chosen very early to be the face of the set, much in the way Serra was the face of Modern Horizons. He had nostalgic appeal and was a Planeswalker in the lore, so that all made sense.

Grist was a request of one of our creative directors that went something like, "we have this new character we want to introduce, but she's very weird, so her card will probably be weird, so maybe Modern Horizons 2 is the right place to do it." Sold!

Our third Planeswalker initially was a new Koth, as he's a character we haven't seen in a while and we were planning on having a bunch of Mirrodin-themed cards. Our Koth had a gimmicky loyalty scheme that ultimately didn't work out, so we scrapped him and defaulted to Geyadrone Dihada as his replacement once I saw that the Creative team had worked her into some card concepts elsewhere in the set. It was a fortuitous swap, as the set ended up with a pretty cohesive flavor package of Dakkon, Piru, Dihada, and Carth the Lion, all characters from the Dakkon comic book from 1996.

All three of the set's planeswalkers are black, which could be a problem in a Standard-legal set where we watch planeswalker color balance very closely. But in Modern, with its vast card pool, it's unlikely to be a problem. I'm very happy with our villainous trio!

@EagleNebula_exe

One of the advantages of having a property that's almost 28 years old is there's been a lot of cards and stories made along the way. Whenever we dive into a set wanting some deep-cut nostalgia, we have a collection of old material (novels, comics, etc.) to pore through. We do have a list of old-school characters we can one day make, and it's pretty lengthy. Also, as time advances, we keep making new cards and stories that will inspire other options in the future.

@HairlessThoctar

We actually considered making an Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar card years ago and just calling it The Underworld Cook, but it seemed to be avoiding what the players wanted. The reason she stood out all the way back in Alpha was the over-the-top craziness of her name.

An important part of card design is understanding why you're making a card. What desire(s) are you fulfilling with its creation? For this card, the players want us to embrace the name. That's what's special about the character, so instead of finding ways around the issue, we faced it head on. The card has to be called Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar. How can we make that happen? The answer ended up being losing the mana cost.

@traduzmtgita

Another question for Aaron.

Aaron: We typically don't do card sets set in the past, so if we want to highlight old or dead characters, sets like Modern Horizons 2 and Commander Legends are the best places to do it.

I mentioned earlier that we ended up using the 1996 Dakkon Blackblade comic as a reference for a lot of our characters. Asmoranomardicadaistinaculdacar, Garth One-Eye, Tourach, and Svyelun are all characters players have wanted printed for a while now—Dominaria has the longest history of any plane, after all. We threw in a few old characters from other planes (Ragavan, General Ferrous) and made up a bunch of new legendary characters as well.

Modern Times

That's all the time we have for today. I want to thank everyone who sent in questions and Aaron Forsythe for helping today with some of the answers. As always, I'm eager for any feedback, whether it be on a question I or Aaron answered or on Modern Horizons 2 itself. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week with more mailbag answers from Aaron and myself.

Until then, may you enjoy the fun chaos that is Modern Horizons 2.

 
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