New Horizons: What Modern Horizons Means for MTGFinance in 2019

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On Feb 28th, Wizards of the Coast announced the first details of an “innovative” new product for Magic: The Gathering. The new set, entitled, Modern Horizons, represents the first time that WoTC has designed an entirely new set with the intent of pushing a plethora of new cards into the Modern format all at once.

The product announcement landed at an especially interesting moment, not long after many players had been publicly wondering whether the push to boost digital magic through the new MPL and Arena was going to come at the expense of paper magic in general, and support for Modern and other non-rotating formats in specific. Theories have been circulating that the launch of a post-modern format on Arena in 2019 or 2020 would relegate Modern to the same slow decline that Legacy has experienced since Modern became the dominant non-rotating competitive format nearly five years ago. The announcement of Modern Horizons however, puts test to the common understanding of the issues at hand, and reinforces the reality of the situation: that WoTC will support whatever formats they can figure out how to sell cards into consistently. Until now, non-rotating competitive formats were economically burdened with a reliance on reprint sets to justify their support. Modern Horizons however takes a page out of the playbook that brought us annual fall Commander decks, borrowing from their successful launch of new cards into that more casual non-rotating format to experiment with feeding Modern players a stream of products aimed squarely at their wallets.

Here’s what we know about the set thus far:

https://media.discordapp.net/attachments/522564825889374209/550804164737761321/Screenshot_2019-02-28_Twitch.png?width=481&height=282

This set of bullets deserves a bit of further discussion. Firstly, the word from our vendor contacts is that this is likely a 36 pack booster box set (as opposed to the 24 pack Masters sets), without any Masterpieces or premium box toppers, and without the guaranteed one foil per pack we are familiar with from Masters sets. It is likely no coincidence that WoTC just announced a couple of weeks ago that they would no longer be publishing MSRP for paper magic sets, but the $6.99/pack for MTGO packs suggests that the retail price of these boxes may be pretty close to that of a Modern Masters set, or around $240 USD. Practically speaking that may mean that the cheapest pre-orders from volume focused Ebay vendors could end up in the $170-180 range, with even lower prices if the print run is particularly deep, or higher ones if it becomes scarce for an extended period based on rampant player demand.

The Opportunities

From an MTGFinance perspective, Modern Horizons is likely to represent a landmark set of opportunities for 2019, much as Ultimate Masters and the first Mythic Edition did in the last quarter of 2018. Those opportunities arise as much from what IS in the set (brand new cards for Modern + old cards that were not previously Modern legal) as from what definitely ISN’T (any current Modern legal cards other than five basic lands).

The first opportunity is related to the original printings, especially foils and old border printings, of the cards that are being brought forward into the Modern card pool from their original sets. If Counterspell or Daze were to be printed into the format for instance, some players will be inclined to take a fresh look at 7th edition foils of the first and perhaps the Masterpiece version of the latter. Figuring out which cards strike the right note for Modern (not top tier in Legacy, but about the right power level for Modern) and identifying the most likely versions for players and collectors to target once they are confirmed in the set is going to likely to make or save you plenty if you get it right.

The second opportunity will arise from early identification of the cards revealed during spoiler season in May 2019 that are most likely to develop into new staples of the format. Given that the set is not a limited print run, and is being released in the bonus set slot that has been used in prior years for products like Battlebond and Conspiracy, we can likely expect Modern Horizons to be very popular and readily available for 3-6 months. The way the Modern player population is likely to respond to this product could be explosive, and it would not surprise me to hear tell of smaller stores running out of product in the early weeks of release, especially given the WoTC tendency to make product a bit more scarce in the first wave to drive hype through perceived scarcity.

The circumstances around this release are truly unique, with the Modern community being forced to parse the implications of up to 250+ cards that could possibly shift the metagame. Attempting to think three steps ahead, beyond which decks get better and on to which decks end up best once a bunch of decks get better (or worse!) based on the fresh additions to the card pool is a fairly mind boggling scenario entirely fresh to the format.

Realistically, the fact that the set has also been designed to be drafted suggests that a healthy portion of the set list will fall below the power curve for Modern, but figuring out which cards fall on either side of that line will require deep format knowledge and a willingness to think outside the box. Leveraging that knowledge to save or profit will additionally require quick wits, a healthy wallet and a strong sense of when the new cards reach peak supply and probe the price bottoms they are likely to accelerate out of in the coming months or years as the set fades from the common supply.

Yet a third opportunity for players and speculators arises out of the certainty that Modern Horizons contains exactly zero reprints of cards that are already in the Modern card pool. That means no fetchlands, Mox Opal, Surgical Extractions or Manamorphose reprints for at least another six months. This fact alone will embolden vendors and players alike to invest in current staples and in fact we are already seeing some pretty spicy buylists published:

This board may be tongue in cheek, but the fact remains that vendors will have little reason to avoid going deep on the plethora of Modern staples that now seem safe from reprint for much of 2019.

As such, those players that may feel uncomfortable predicting the potential of new cards may be better served investing in a small pile of Cavern of Souls, as key staples stand to post significant gains from both safety from reprint and renewed format interest. Ironically, Modern Horizons could end up so disruptive that it changes the entire landscape of the metagame, invalidating prior staples as spec targets while elevating previously unplayable cards to all-stars. Navigating these waters will be tricky to say the least.

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New Cards & Set Themes

In attempting to wrap our heads around Modern Horizons, and possibly predict what it might include, we should likely start with reviewing what has been revealed thus far, and what that means for the likely themes of the set.

Here are the two cards Wizards of the Coast chose to show off during the announcement stream:

Right off the bat, those are some fairly interesting new additions to the Modern format! Cabal Therapist is likely the more important card of the two, representing a fresh way for token decks to dismantle opponents hands turn after turn. Just at first glance this card seems tailor made to bolster the B/W token strategies that have largely fallen out of favor in the format, with both Lingering Souls and Bitterblossom looking like solid partners for the card.

Serra, the Benevolent is a bit tougher to evaluate. From a flavor, lore, and art perspective the card is a clear win and casual demand from angel lovers alone will likely make the foils big winners in the long term. When asking whether the card is good enough for Modern we end up considering a fairly disparate set of abilities. The +2 ability is seems fairly benign at first glance, but could potentially double the damage output from the flying tokens generated from the aforementioned Lingering Souls or Bitterblossom. Perhaps more importantly, using the +2 even once, sets Serra’s controller up to use her ultimate on the following turn if unmolested, thereby gifting their side of the table with a Worship emblem that could be very difficult to work around for a lot of decks in the format. In a deck that would also be likely to be running Intangible Virtue, the -3 ability can end up putting a 5/5 flyer with vigilance into play, that could end up attacking for 6 on the following turn and getting joined by her twin the turn after. Put another way, Serra could be viewed as a Serra Angel, that for one mana less than usual, also happens to put a planeswalker into play when it enters the battlefield.

Taken together, both of these cards suggest that at least part of Modern Horizons is designed to bolster token themes in Modern. Having played a few seasons with B/W tokens a few years back, I would imagine that Cabal Therpist upgrades a few of the slots typically reserved for Inquisition of Kozilek or Thoughtseize, leveraging fresh synergies with early token production to further pressure our opponents hand. Serra the Benevolent on the other hand likely challenges slots usually reserved for Sorin, Solemn Visitor or Gideon, Ally of Zendikar.

Perhaps most importantly, if tokens is one of the themes of the set, it becomes worthwhile to establish what other Modern strategies that are currently under-powered might be bolstered by a fresh influx of synergistic cards.

One obvious possibility would be upgrades aimed at a handful of tribal strategies that are currently lurking on the fringes of the format. Goblins got a lot better over the last couple of years with the reprinting of Goblin Piledriver and the freshly minted Reckless Bushwacker. Fanatical Firebrand and Light Up the Stage also represent key recent upgrades, and the deck might only be one or two more cards from evolving into a serious Top 8 contender. Could Goblin Lackey, Goblin Ringleader or Goblin Bombarment be on the way into Modern or might they be approximated through fresh Goblin cards designed specially for the format?

Fanatical Firebrand

Merfolk, Elves and Faeries could likewise be targeted for greater competitiveness via new card options, as could strategies as diverse as Reanimation, Snow and Enchantments. Since we know none of these themes will include reprints of existing Modern cards, targeting the cards that are made better by the new cards will be key to a successful summer of MTGFinance.

I could also see them including some or all of the missing allied color pair swords to finish the cycle started back in Darksteel.

Finally, it is important to understand that while this set is likely to have a print run somewhere between (best guess) Battlebond and a Standard legal set, a couple of years out, these boxes are likely to be fairly hard to come by. With Standard boxes, the wholesale cost between $60-80 of boxes tends to limit the maximum prices the average rare or mythic can achieve while the set is in print. With Modern Horizons we are dealing, for more or less the first time, with a brand new set of cards priced at a premium during THEIR FIRST PRINTING. The implied MSRP of Horizons looks to be $200 or more, so there will be far less of an economic limiter on singles prices. This could allow for some very expensive rares and mythics as soon as a few months after the set release, essentially once we pass peak supply.

Possible Reprints

One of the biggest challenges with evaluating Modern Horizons will be establishing in advance of preview season which cards from outside Modern are most likely to make sense for fresh inclusion in the format. Right off the bat we can exclude anything on the Reserved List, since nothing has changed on that front, and we should likewise ignore cards that are clearly too powerful outside of the highest power bands in Legacy and Vintage.

As such, we can likely safe exclude cards like Necropotence, Balance, Armageddon and Wasteland either because of extreme power levels or a tendency to reinforce play patterns that make for unfun games. Further, I would expect cards that might serve to make the best decks in Modern even better to get a pass. A card like Lotus Petal for instance, might seem innocuous at first glance, but could be just the kind of free mana acceleration already great decks might need to be nearly unbeatable. Likewise, cards that would help the graveyard-centric strategies such as Dredge, Arclight Phoenix and Hollow One would likely be limited in their fresh support given their current dominance.

Ultimately then, when looking for likely reprint targets we are looking for cards of medium to medium-high power level that either reinforce existing strategies or create entirely new archetypes in the format. Given that the set reveal stream mentioned that the box topper for the set will be a blue spell, many people are wondering whether an all-star counterspell will be entering the format for the first time. Some options here might include Counterspell itself, Daze, Arcane Denial or possibly even Force of Will. I honestly don’t know which of these are viable in Modern, especially given all the new goodies we’ll be getting in June, but if I had to guess I would think Counterspell is the most likely choice for inclusion.

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Other possible targets for reprint could include anything from Mother of Runes, Containment Priest and Invigorate to Oubliette, Patriarch’s Bidding, Innocent Blood or Unearth. Multi-color spells could include Undermine, Psychatog, Baleful Strix, Fire//Ice or Vindicate. Might WoTC choose to push a cycling theme with Astral Slide and Lightning Rift? Could Elves be given a couple of key pieces from their Legacy build (Birchlore Ranger?) to make them more viable in Modern? Does Tom Ross on the design team for the set meaning Infect is getting Invigorate? Is Impulse good enough or too good for the format? While predicting the mix of reprints is going to be pretty tough, the rewards for successful predictions will be impressive as the community snaps up the best versions of the reprinted spells, including Judge Promos, Masterpieces, and the coveted 7th edition foils.

(Note: The MTGPrice Pro Trader community is building out a constantly evolving list of potential targets in our Pro Trader only Discord channels. Join MTGPrice today to contribute and leverage the collective knowledge of our most experienced community members.)

Staples On The Rise?

Finally, we must turn our attention to the possibility that Modern Horizons is quite likely to push the most important cards in the format back toward their peak pricing as a rush of format interest increases demand across the list of the most played cards in the format. Cavern of Souls immediately comes to mind as a recent reprint that likely has at least two years before the threat of another printing and would stand to gain significantly should even a single tribe get pushed into the spotlight. Given that Humans & Spirits already generate strong demand for the tribal powerhouse, additional tribes landing Top 8 finishes would almost guarantee the card lands back close to $100 before the next print run

Cavern of Souls

Many people were hoping that cards like Surgical Extraction & Manamorphose, both top 10 cards in the format at present, would end up in this set, but now that we know that isn’t possible their peak pricing is likely to be impressive. Cards without recent reprints are likely to hit fresh highs, and even key cards from maligned sets like M25 and Iconic Masters are likely to be major gainers. Mox Opal, Horizon Canopy, Snapcaster Mage and Noble Hierarch are also quite likely to gain ground in 2019, as should Leyline of the Void, Aether Vial, Thoughtseize and Chalice of the Void. You can also add Death’s Shadow, Cryptic Command, Walking Ballista, Bloodghast, Liliana, The Last Hope, Liliana of the Veil, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Kolghan’s Command, Celestial Colonnade & Thing in the Ice to that list BUT you must also allow for the possibility that some of these cards will get pushed off the podium as strategies both new and old emerge to set up a fresh new phase in the evolution of the Modern format.

Whether you spend the next few months triangulating meta shifts or buying Modern collections on the cheap, Modern Horizons is likely to end up as one of the biggest pivot points in MTGFinance this year. Happy hunting as we all try to gain an edge in predicting a fresh new market era with plenty of moving parts!

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