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Modern Horizons 3 Is A Celebration Of All Things Magic: The Gathering, Learn How It Was Designed Here

Jason Fanelli Posted:
Interviews 0

The 30-plus year history of Magic: The Gathering has told a lot of stories and featured a lot of characters, but through the years the design team keeps introducing new concepts and new cards. With Modern Horizons 3, however, the team is looking backward into Magic's history, and highlighting the card and characters that have made the biggest mark on the game. 

We spoke to three members of the Modern Horizons 3 design team – product architect Mike Turian and senior game designers Emily Teng and Ethan Fleischer – about the thought process behind this new set. From card selection to lore, Modern to other formats, we cover a ton of ground here.


Are special sets like Modern Horizons 3 viewed as opportunities to expand on lore the main storyline doesn't have room for? The Eldrazi come to mind as a prime example. 

Mike Turian: While we took the opportunity to revisit some past characters and their stories, Modern Horizons sets allow us to bring beloved Magic characters to the forefront. For instance, we republished the stories of the Eldrazi from Rise of the Eldrazi. Additionally, flavor text offers us another way in which to expand our lore when creating new cards. 

Emily Teng: MH3 was a chance to showcase the Eldrazi invasion on planes we’ve never seen before. We’ve seen them on Innistrad and Zendikar, but canonically, they’ve also invaded and devoured lots of other planes. Many of the Eldrazi we show in MH3 are depicted on unnamed planes in the distant past. 

Ulamog, the Defiler

MH3 also explores some pivotal historical moments in Mike TurianG lore with the sparking of planeswalkers like Ajani. What makes now the best time to explore that backstory?  

Turian: Much like with Magic Origins, going and revisiting famous characters and showing off the moment their spark ignited is one of the benefits of doing a set like Modern Horizons 3. Since many of our sets are telling a new story, they don’t often have the space to revisit moments of the past. With Modern Horizons 3, though, we can focus on nostalgia and show story moments that otherwise we wouldn’t have highlighted. 

Were there any planeswalkers that were considered for this set that didn't make the cut?  

Turian: The Planeswalkers that ended up in the set were the ones that the team was excited about from the beginning. We wanted to share out those five Planewalkers backstories more, so we did! 

Without getting into specifics, are there any lore implications explored in MH3 cards that might have wider implications in future Standard sets? 

Teng: Broadly speaking, Modern Horizons sets are backwards-looking: rather than deliberately include any throw-forwards to future sets, we delve into existing planes, sometimes exploring unique parts of a world we didn’t get to dig too deeply into before. We also get to be more open with asking for cards set on non-specific planes, rather than a named, established plane, which means we sometimes ask for things that end up dovetailing with future worldbuilding efforts. It’s always fun to look back at sets like these years down the line and go, “Look at that, we hinted at this plane before we even knew we were going to make it!” 


Are there certain cards from Modern's history that are used as tentpole examples of "don't ever do this again," and if so, how did those cards influence the card design cycle this time around? Hogaak and Ragavan come to mind as potential examples. 

Turian: The fun thing about doing a set as powerful as Modern Horizons 3 is that we try and always push the boundaries of making cards that are both incredibly fun while pushing the line on what is acceptable from a gameplay standpoint. We are always on the lookout for cards that are repetitive, generate extra mana, and deny your opponent the ability to interact, as a few examples. At the end of the day, we end up making tons of amazing cards, and yes, on occasion, cards that end up banned in a format due to them being even better than expected. 

Modern Horizons 2 overtook the format when it dropped, with some top decks running 20%-25% MH2 cards soon after its launch. Are you aiming for similar results, or is this set designed to be less of an instant format-changer?  

Turian: Both Modern Horizons and Modern Horizons 2 ended up being even more powerful than we expected which were good learnings for us while we made Modern Horizons 3. One of the amazing things is taking cards that we have made and letting them loose to all of our players. The format of Modern is so diverse that even though we might look to bolster archetypes, give better answers to create good gameplay, and create new builds around cards, once the set is done and in our players hands, they often find combos and interactions that are amazingly powerful. 

How much do reprints factor into the overall power level of a set? Similarly, what goes into the process of evaluating cards from pre-Modern-era or Commander decks for inclusion in a set like this? 

Turian: With each Modern Horizons set we have gone back and found reprints that aren’t legal yet but fit into Modern. We take those cards and add them into our new-to-Modern card list. As time has gone on, we have expanded that to taking cards that were originally printed in products like Commander decks and looking at how to bring those to Modern.  

All of these reprints go through the same evaluation process as if they were brand new cards. The biggest difference is that we aren’t able to modify the cards if they aren’t ready to be added to Modern, it is simply a yes-no toggle rather than making other tweaks. 

On a related note, a few revealed cards reference older cards, but are mechanically unique (Null Elemental Blast and Powerbalance, for starters). Why did the team decide to design new referential cards as opposed to reprinting the originals? 

Turian: One of the cornerstones of Modern Horizons sets are doing fun callbacks to past Magic cards. With cards like Mogg Mob, we combined three Mogg Fanatics into a single creature. Likewise, with Null Elemental Blast, we tapped into nostalgia of Red and Blue Elemental Blast by creating a card that both played into the sets themes around colorless, while also tapping into fun callback references. Reprinting a card like Counterbalance wouldn’t change up Modern, since it is already legal, but making a new referential card likee Powerbalance opens up new possibilities. 

Other Formats 

When creating a set like Modern Horizons, how much of the card design process involves formats that aren't Modern? 

Turian: Besides Modern, the format that is considered most is Commander. With Commander being hugely popular, we want to make sure we are making cards that are fun for those players to explore. We also put thought into older formats such as Legacy, Vintage, and Pauper. Typically, that would be on a card-by-card basis though rather than the extensive testing that the cards get for Modern. 

Similarly, how difficult is it to keep all of the core formats in consideration while designing cards? 

Turian: Often we make one-off cards that are an attempt to add to or shape other older formats. The biggest challenge there is that those formats already have so many legal cards already, so making a card that is impactful in a healthy way and that can also be a good fit for Modern Horizons, indeed is a challenge.  

Flare of Denial

Are there any cards in MH3 that you predict will be formidable in other formats? 

Turian: Well, I suppose it wouldn’t count to say Cranial Ram in Pauper, as we already banned it from being allowed. The fact that it has similarities to Cranial Plating and All That Glitters, which were both already banned in Pauper makes that an obvious choice if it was allowed to have seen play in Pauper.  

Beyond that, I think one of the cards from the Flare cycle is most likely to cause big changes to older formats. Free spells are always devastatingly powerful, just like the free Elementals in Modern Horizons 2, so those would be my picks. 


What went into the decision to make "commander" decks for the "modern" set? Why create decks with cards that cannot be used in the titular format? 

Ethan Fleischer: The Modern Horizons design philosophy is to make a Magic set about the game of Magic: The Gathering. The sets are marketed toward Modern, and balanced for Modern, but ultimately the audience is all highly enfranchised Magic fans. We thought it would be fun to make a set of Commander decks that referenced the rich history of the Modern format, where cards like Urza’s Tower and Tarmogoyf have reigned off and on for years. Of course, it’s a bit absurd that the boxes have the word “Modern” on them when the new cards aren’t legal in Modern, but the decks were fun to design and play with, and the cards are the kinds of designs that would only make sense in the sort of meta set that Modern Horizons 3 is. 

Was there any consideration for making pre-constructed modern decks, a la the Modern Event decks from 2014? If so, what went into the decision not to go that route? 

Turian: We focused the design and new cards on making lots of sweet new cards for Modern. Typically products like Event decks come out separately from a set release so that wasn’t a consideration this time around.  


Jason Fanelli

Jason Fanelli is a tried-and-true Philadelphian, having lived in Delaware County for his entire life. He’s a veteran of the games industry, covering it for over a decade with bylines on The Hollywood Reporter, Variety, IGN, and more. He currently hosts the Cheesesteaks and Controllers podcast on iHeartRadio for Fox Sports Radio in Philadelphia.