The Flavor Gems of Modern Horizons 3

Jubilee Finnegan • June 11, 2024

Ajani, Nacatl Pariah, Tamiyo, Inquisitive Student, Sorin of House Markov, Ral, Monsoon Mage
Ilse Gort | Evyn Fong | Matt Stewart | Borja Bindado

Flavor in Modern Horizons 3

Modern Horizons sets have everything a Commander player could want. Busted cards. Unique new strategies. Confusingly worded cards that would befuddle even AspiringSpike. My favorite part of these sets is their ability to make all of these deep cut references to Magic's history and lore. These releases aren't bound to a specific setting or place in time, so all of Magic is up for grabs! There's also an aim towards enfranchised players that encourages Wizards to dig deep for the most niche of niche subjects.

The first Modern Horizons set gave an example of the kinds of references we now come to expect. Iconic characters got represented in all the power on cards like Urza, Lord High Artificer and Yawgmoth, Thran Physician. But not all of the fun was dedicated to the mythics (okay, most of it was), as cards like Vesperlark and Arcum's Astrolabe ensured that opening a booster of Modern Horizons was like opening a textbook of Magic history.

Modern Horizons 2 kept the hits coming. A focus on Dakkon Blackblade, now Dakkon, Shadow Slayer, this set pulled from bits of Magic history that I would have thought were erased in some massive retcon wave, only remembered by Gleemax and Jay Annelli. I'm normally not easily amused by pointing at references and shouting "Do you get it?", but there's something charming about the amount of love put into these releases. The artists, designers, creative team, and everyone connected to Modern Horizons sets clearly adores this game.

But you didn't come here to listen to my Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis apologia. You came here to see what inane lore I had to dig up from MTGSalvation and torrented comics to explain the references in Modern Horizons 3. I want to focus on all of the bits of Magic story, references to past designs, and deep cuts that reek of designer self-gratitude in the best way possible. Here are all of my favorite flavor gems from Magic's newest release: Modern Horizons 3.

The Return of Flipwalkers

Back in the olden days of 2015, Magic Origins released with a new spin on the formula of a core set. Rather than taking general ideas from the whole of Magic, the set focused on the origin stories of five iconic planeswalkers, represented by five legendary creatures that would transform into planeswalkers. These designs quickly became fan-favorites. Originally the design team had a lot more ideas for how to use flipwalkers, but the mechanic has only returned once with Nicol Bolas, the Ravager. That is, until today! We have five brand-new, efficiently costed flipwalkers!

For those unaware, certain creatures in Magic are born with a latent magical energy called a spark. Strong emotional stressors can ignite this spark, granting the individual the ability to walk the planes. The stories of these planeswalkers are represented in their cards. For example, take Ajani, Nacatl Pariah. He was born on Alara, specifically Naya, and was an outcast due to his albinism. He had a close relationship with his brother, Jazal Goldmane. Following an attack by a group of humans, Ajani was left unable to defend his pride from a raid that claimed Jazal's life. The trauma of this event caused Ajani's spark to ignite and launch him across the multiverse.

With that in mind, look at Ajani's card. When he enters, he creates a 2/1 Cat Warrior creature token (Jazal). When another Cat dies (Jazal is killed in the raid), transform Ajani (his spark ignites). All of the flipwalkers here are mono-color legendary creatures that transform into enemy pair planeswalkers. Ajani is most commonly associated with Selesnya, but his Boros version hearkens back to Ajani Vengeant, a version of the Leonin that sought revenge for the devastation of his homeworld.

All of the flipwalkers do a great job of encapsulating their character's stories. Well, we can assume they all do. Grist's is the odd-bug-out since she hasn't appeared in canon outside of Grist, the Hunger Tide. The Insect has appeared in a non-canon comic: Boom! Studios's Ajani Goldmane one-shot. In it, Tamiyo and Ajani arrive on Eldraine to investigate a strange swarm eating a village's crops. Ajani discovers that the swarm was Grist, who didn't realize that her swarm was starving the villagers. The two called a truce of sorts since Grist was a less sapient being than other planeswalkers.

Ajani, no! He can't hear us! He has his AirPods in.

While we don't know exactly what ignited Grist's spark, her card might offer some clues. Her transformation triggers off of a creature entering from the battlefield. Since it seems like Grist is a kind of carrion insect, perhaps she consumed something that granted her the ability to planeswalker. My personal headcanon is that Grist ate the body of a recently deceased planeswalker, absorbing their spark before it could dissipate into the aether. That would explain why an insect, the type of creature who normally wouldn't have a spark, has one without an increased level of sentience. There's no canon explanation, so I guess we have to wait for a story to explain Grist's origins.

Please Roy Graham just let me try I promise I can cook I've worked with Rusty Quill this bug stuff is my jam

Big Lore Energy

Energy is a fan-favorite mechanic that first showed up in Kaladesh block, though its origins go all the way back to original Mirrodin. It was designed as a way to represent the residual power of artifacts, locking their abilities behind a new resource. It ended up getting scrapped in favor of much more broken designs, but R&D clearly loved it enough to bring it back for Kaladesh. Kaladesh is a world powered by aether, a magical essence that is part of the Blind Eternities. Aether is kind of like dark matter in our universe, except much more tangible to the denizens of certain planes.

Kaladesh is able to harness the aether due to its increased presence on the plane. The scientist Avaati Vya was able to capture the magical energy following the Great Aether Boom, an event in Kaladesh's recent past. Interestingly, this lines up with when the Mending occurred, causing some to believe the Aether Boom and the Mending are related. Since the event, Kaladesh has used devices like the Aetherflux Reservoir to use aether for the benefit of the population. Despite its association with the mechanical worlds of Kaladesh and. . . Fallout that implies a connection to technology, aether exists throughout the multiverse, as seen by Modern Horizons 3.

Rather than thinking of aether as electricity harnessed by magic, it's more like magic harnessed by electricity. Aether is the strange cosmic gumbo that powers the multiverse. It exists within every spell, every spark, and every plane. Different cultures are able to manipulate it in different ways. Take Guide of Souls as an example. This creature is from the viking-inspired world of Kaldheim, ushering spirits into the magical Valhalla of Starnheim. By channeling aether through their magic, the guide of souls is able to make your creatures into Valkyries. It even connects to the interplanar element of aether through Kaldheim's Omenpaths.

By connecting aether to the connections between planes, this is a subtle gesture towards a long-brewing story point. Remember how the Mending was implied to cause the Aether Boom? It seems like this is a way of showing how aether manifests in response to major shifts in the multiverse's cosmology. With the Sylex's activation, the creation of the Omenpaths, and the Sundering of several sparks, the planes have been badly scarred. If damage to the multiverse causes aether to appear more often, we can imagine that aether is the equivalent of the universe's blood. And right now, it's bleeding badly.

Oops, All Eldrazi!

If Urza was the star of Modern Horizons and Dakkon Blackblade was the star of Modern Horizons 2, Emrakul and her compatriots are undoubtedly the focus of Modern Horizons 3. A massive portion of the set is filled with cards that are meant to make an Eldrazi Tron player blush. We've seen the Eldrazi in a handful of Magic sets over the years, but this set takes the opportunity to try weird designs that encapsulate the eldritch horrors of everyone's favorite spaghetti monsters.

The Eldrazi are meant to be cosmic horrors that are impossible to comprehend. A major example of this is seen in the devoid mechanic, used here on cards like Depth Defiler. This basically says that a card with a color in its cost has no color, though this doesn't erase color identity. Originally a bit confusing, this is an interesting way of depicting their otherworldly nature. The Eldrazi exist in a realm of reality that we cannot understand. Humans perceive them as individual entities, like Emrakul or Kozilek, but that's us placing mortal constructs on otherworldly beings. It's like compressing a three-dimensional shape into a two-dimensional drawing. Casting Doom Blade on a Bane of Bala Ged might look like killing it, but that single entity is part of a greater whole that we are unable to see.

Rather than existing as singular, three-dimensional beings as we understand the world, the Eldrazi occupy a kind of reality we cannot comprehend. Ugin describes this in Revelation at the Eye as a human reaching their hand into a pond

Imagine that you reach your hand into a pond. The fish below the surface sees a five-headed monster, and cannot perceive the man attached to it. It mistakes a hangnail for an eye because the truth is beyond its imagining.

When analyzing the Eldrazi as part of our reality, we cannot ascribe the same rules to them. The Titans have several aspects that play on our perception of them. For example, the new Ulalek, Fused Atrocity is described as the interplanar equivalent of Ulamog and Kozilek holding hands. Are they roommates?

Devoid represents that disconnect between perception and reality that the Eldrazi create. We see the world through the five colors of magic, creating structures that align with the mana we are made of. As shown in the popular Magic story Loran's Smile, the colors of mana serve as the fundamental laws of reality. Red mana can do certain things that blue mana can't, and vice versa. The ability to harness mana and interpret it dictates what something can do. The Eldrazi might resemble these constructs, but they are part of something far beyond the five colors. Spawn-Gang Commander, for example, takes the form of a Goblin that flings its underlings at enemies. A person understands this as a red ability and perceives it as such. But that's just our instincts coding the way we see the world. In reality, that Eldrazi is able to harness aspects of the universe without being bound by our constraints. They are literally devoid of our limitations.

Widening Your Horizons

Those are the major lore tidbits that Modern Horizons 3 focuses on! A lot of this is extrapolation from various sources, so don't go citing this on the MTG Wiki. This set is by no means the peak of esoteric Magic lore. There's plenty more to be discovered with just a bit of digging. Below, I've included links to some articles that might peek your interest if you want to learn more about Magic lore. There's a rich multiverse of strange worlds, powerful creatures, and captivating stories to be discovered. So don't wait! Go and ignite your lore-loving spark.

Want to Learn the Lore?

Retrospective Reviews: Garruk Wildspeaker by Ciel Collins

The Lost Caverns of Ixalan: Cultural and Historical References by Jessica Sagahon

Flavor of the Month: Grilled Ramps with Chandra and Nissa by Brandon Amico

Welcome to Flavortown: Venser, Corpse Puppet by Jubilee Finnegan hey that's me!

Jubilee Finnegan (they/them) is a writer based out of Southern California and student of Chapman University. They've been playing Magic since Throne of Eldraine and haven't stopped since. Their work has been published in Chapman Calliope, The B'K', and Beestung Quarterly. You can find them on Twitter @FinneyFlame or Instagram @JWFinnegan.