The Design Highlights of Modern Horizons II
Tourach, Dread Cantor
When the first Modern Horizons was released, there was a vocal group of players begging for cards to be printed into the format which would have been miserable to play. Hymn to Tourach was frequently what they wanted, but Tourach, Dread Cantor was what we got – and we should all be incredibly grateful for that.
Hymn to Tourach is an example of a card which is not well-designed. Game designers want their games to be fun, which means both players get to make decisions, feel some degree of agency, and have a sufficiently fun time such that they would like to play the game again. Hymn to Tourach violates everything on this list. The card is incredibly pushed, there is no interesting decision-making involved from either side, and it has the potential to prevent the victim from playing the game at all, particularly in the case where the player loses multiple lands.
Consider some of the alternatives Wizards has come up with. Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, and Duress all specify nonland cards to ensure that the defending player will be able to play. Not only that, but they have restrictions or costs that would sometimes make them incorrect to play in certain decks. They’re also one-for-ones, with the tempo loss occurring from the caster’s side, as they spent mana to trade one of their cards for a card that the opponent had not spent mana on.
The other direction to go is Mind Rot, and the innumerable “Mind Rots with upside.” This resolves the problems of Hymn by giving the defending player agency in which cards to discard. A mana cost of three is a dramatic slowing down from two; the defending player might already have a decent board presence, they have more cards from which to choose to discard, and the casting player is presumably using up their entire Turn 3 – typically a valuable turn in a game of Magic – to answer cards the opponent hasn’t spent mana on.
However, Hymn to Tourach has something desirable, which is its iconic, nostalgic status. If Wizards wants to print a Hymn variant into Modern, what knobs could they turn? Hymn to Tourach is particularly devastating because of its cheap mana cost, getting cast before the defending player can put down enough lands to play the game. What turn would be reasonable to cast Hymn? Turn 3 is too early, as it can still inflict enormous damage, despite being significantly weaker (the card is just that pushed). Turn 4 becomes safe; cast on the play, the defending player has had the opportunity to hit three land drops, which, in Modern, should mean they’re able to play the game, having anywhere between 3 and 7 mana. But at four mana, Hymn ceases to feel all that much like Hymn. While a nice ode to Hymn, this card isn’t very exciting:
Instead, Wizards used this opportunity to deliver multiple player wants in a single card. Tourach, Dread Cantor gives a legendary card to Tourach, a famous legend who has never had one, and utilizes Kicker to let Tourach “cast” his famous Hymn, which feels like a much more satisfying tribute to the original card than Canticle does. Finally, they tacked on both an upside to Tourach (Protection from White, getting pumped when players discard cards) and an additional cost (triple Black mana).
Put together, Wizards designed a card that feels right, leans on the weaker side instead of the stronger, and does a much better job of generating real games of Magic than the original.
Wrath of God is one of the most iconic cards in Magic.
In Planar Chaos, Wizards designed a color-shifted tribute to the card, entirely appropriate to Black, that players loved.
The text, the casting cost, and the art perfectly capture the nostalgia that Wizards was going for. How could they one-up themselves in Modern Horizons II?
Damn is brilliant. While essentially a split card, the use of Overload makes it far more beautiful, making it easier to appreciate the callback in the art and the reminiscent casting cost of the Overload. Shortening the name of “Damnation” to “Damn” and correspondingly shrinking the effect of the spell is wonderful, and of course naming a card “Damn” is just good, clean memeing. It’s further appropriate given that killing a single creature with no downside is not in White’s color pie, but is certainly within Black’s.
The overload, turning the card from a miniature Damnation into Wrath of God, completes the final unification of the history behind Wrath of God and Damnation. For players who enjoy nostalgia, this card hits just right.
Converge naturally goes with scaling mechanics, typically a casting cost that includes X. Skyrider Elf was the first card to hybridize these two ideas, and Sweep the Skies and Prismatic Ending follow it in MH2 very nicely. Wizards has never printed the card:
Converge Burn Spell
Instant or Sorcery
Converge - [CARDNAME] deals damage to any target equal to the number of colors spent to cast this spell.
This is a really clean design, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Wizards prints this someday, though Converge is a 6 on the Storm Scale. However, Wizards included Prismatic Ending already in Modern Horizons II, which does the “White version” of this card to the letter. Sweep the Skies does something similar, though the double Blue casting cost makes it feel a bit different. Including a third Converge X spell would have been repetitive and a bit boring. Understandably, Prismatic Ending is a more valuable card to include given its applications in Constructed.
Suppose that Wizards does wish to print a Converge spell that scales with mana, and they want to make it feel different from the other two in the set. What mechanics could we use? We could use a Split card where one side costs 1R and the other costs 4R, but that would mostly just feel bad, as it’s removing player agency compared to the XR version of the spell. Could we find a mechanic that adds something to it? Perhaps a mechanic that allows a player to cast the spell a second time?
Using Flashback in concert with Converge is much more interesting. While it loses some of the flexibility of the XR version of the spell (you can’t cast Kaleidoscorch for 1, 3, 4, or 6+ mana), it tells a more compelling story and has a more interesting play pattern. Chances are, the first time you cast it will be in the early game, and you’ll use it to deal 2 damage to a creature. In the late game, the card scales up to be a Lava Axe or a removal spell for a chonky creature. It also contributes to tension in gameplay; the opponent knows that it’s there in your graveyard, and its presence will force them to play differently.
Additionally, this card synergizes well with the discard focus in Red and the overall graveyard sub-theme of MH2. In this way, the Flashback version of Kaleidoscorch doesn’t just avoid repetition among the Converge cards, it meaningfully adds something to the spell and makes it play differently. Kaleidoscorch is one of several beautifully mixed and matched mechanics in the set.
In 2016, a small, unassuming detective with a big hat became a vital staple of the Standard format.
Thraben Inspector did everything. It was a one-drop that blocked an early Toolcraft Exemplar. It generated an artifact for Toolcraft Exemplar and Unlicensed Disintegration. It replaced itself. It crewed Smuggler’s Copter. It was a Human for Thalia’s Lieutenant. This unassuming card was carefully designed to be one of the best cards in Standard for two years.
In Modern Horizons II, we got its successor. Hard Evidence crams as much into a single card as Thraben Inspector did. In a set that cares about tokens, it generates two, and it does it for a single mana. It creates an artifact for Blue’s affinity focus. It’s even better than the Inspector at blocking early aggression, and it does it without killing Modular creatures to prevent them from building a big robot. Blue also cares about Delirium, and this is a great way to get a Sorcery into the graveyard while generating a creature and an artifact. To wrap it all up is the wonderfully adorable flavor text.
Often, the best designs are simple. Thraben Inspector and Hard Evidence look like filler commons, but they are carefully built to serve an absurd number of useful functions, using only one or two lines of straightforward text.
Ryan Normandin is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.
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