MTG’s Mike Turian on ‘Free Spells’, Balance, and Wild Freaks

MTG’s Mike Turian on ‘Free Spells’, Balance, and Wild Freaks

Magic: The Gathering‘s latest set, Modern Horizons IIIhas been out for a few weeks now – and it’s safe to say it’s pretty popular. Now that we’re used to our new decks, GamesHub spoke with Product Architect Mike Turian to gain more insight into how the set came about, why Modern horizons sets are always so popular, and how incredibly satisfying it is to play a bunch of freaks.

Turian has played and followed Magic as long as that was an option, so his experience (and memories) were paramount in developing the new set. Modern horizons sets to click on is important, considering their main users.

Modern “Players are diehard fanatics, and rightly so,” Turian said. “For many of them, it’s their primary way of interacting with the game, because there’s so much to discover and tweak.”

Deciding what to bring back

“These sets are also a chance for us as designers to take the gloves off and worry less about complexity,” Turian said. “If Modern is a giant puzzle, Modern Horizons III is that we throw some new pieces into the mix to form a whole new picture!”

When it comes to deciding what makes it as a reprint, there’s a lot of collaborative discussion. The puzzle requires strategic thinking – in sets like this, the decision-making process around choosing which cards make the cut isn’t easy. Sometimes, there can be even more control over whether the cards make the right amount of sense to be reprinted.

According to Turian, there are two important considerations Modern horizons a unique design challenge:

  1. Horizons Sets typically contain more reprint cards than other releases.
  2. The sets must have a reasonable and fair impact on Modern from a competitive perspective.

“With 21 years of cards that are legal for the format, there are so many factors to consider when designing a card,” Turian said. “Will it interact with another card or set of cards in an unintended way? Will the cost be too low? Too high to make an impact? Our designers have to consider thousands of additional cards when designing for this format so that competitive integrity is maintained.”

Read: To get in Magic: The Gathering as an adult has reshaped my brain

Some cards generated more discussion than others

There were a few no-brainer additions for Turian and the team, especially considering how much space there is when dealing with Eldrazi. The card he’s most eagerly awaited, at least at this point? It’s a toothpick.

“Nethergoyf is a card I’m excited to see played. Its bigger (and much older) cousin Tarmogoyf was an iconic and powerful card for years, but it doesn’t get the same attention these days,” Turian said. “We’re excited to see what impact Nethergoyf will have on the format. The decisions you make to fill your own graveyard with multiple card types could lead to some innovative deckbuilding.”

After playing against a “goyf” deck this past weekend, I can attest to the fact that the graveyard added a new dynamic to the game, one that ultimately allowed the player in question to emerge triumphant despite multiple board wipes. Even as an opponent, it’s easy to see why the Nethergoyf is appealing.

When choosing cards that span nearly 30 years of history, some cards will be more challenging to process, and others will deserve additional discussion.

“The new cycle of ‘free’ spells has been a topic of much discussion and adjustment,” Turian said. “Historically, ‘free’ spells – that is, those that can be played with an alternate cost of mana – have had a huge impact on competitive play, so we wanted to make sure they were balanced appropriately.”

Finding that balance requires a lot of attention to possible deck permutations, strategies and – now that Modern Horizons III has introduced a Commander deck and Arena integration – an insight into how well the cards fit into existing sets.

“We’re pretty confident we’ve hit an appropriate level of strong but not overpowering with these, so we’re excited to see how players use them,” he said.

Mike Turian interviews Modern Horizons 3 MTG
Image: Wizards of the Coast / Wisnu Tan

Integrating the set into Commander

Since I’ve personally played more Commander than Modern, the addition of Commander is pre-con in Modern Horizons III definitely got me excited – and intrigued. Why now? Why this particular set?

“Commander is such a hugely popular format that it makes perfect sense to cater to multiple audiences at once,” Turian said. “The unique combination of story and characters in Modern Horizons III allows us to explore themes that we otherwise wouldn’t have looked at. We really wanted to offer those to players while we had the chance.”

With a variety of options to choose from, Turian’s favorite Commander changes daily, but there’s one key memory that sways him toward one Commander in particular. It’s a story that will appeal to anyone with an affinity for lightning.

“One of the most iconic competitive moments in the history of the game occurred at the 2006 Pro Tour Honolulu, when Craig Jones narrowly won the iconic Lightning Helix,” Turian recalled. “Randy Buehler’s cry of ‘It’s Lightning Helix!’ echoes through the decades that have passed since then.”

“The reason I’m telling this story is because the new Legend, Phlage, Titan of Fire’s Fury, is essentially Lightning Helix on a Commander,” Turian said. “Having the ability to use Lightning Helix at any time feels like a wonderful nod to such a recognizable part of the game’s history.”

“I’m tempted to make a Randy Buehler soundboard to go with the deck so I can feel like I’m on the Pro Tour every time I play.”

Mike Turian’s favorite freak (at least in Modern Horizons III)

As someone who’s in the midst of building a deck based entirely on the freakiest looking dudes in the game, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask Mike for his opinion. Modern Horizon 3 is a set full of freaks, and asking an MTG Product Architect to pick just one card feels a little like asking them to pick a favorite child. It’s not easy to narrow them down.

“I’m going for aesthetics as an answer to this question,” Turian said. “In a set full of creepy eldritch horrors in the Eldrazi, my personal choice for creepy would actually be an Energy card. The borderless treatment of Chthonian Nightmare (painted by the amazing Thomas M. Baxa) is the kind of card that awakens new sleep paralysis demons you didn’t know existed.”

But it’s not just aesthetics that play a role in the tier of freakdom a card reaches. A freaky-looking creature is one thing… A freaky-looking creature that can also devastate your opponents? That’s an S-tier freak.

“I’m also personally excited to see how freaky the card is on the battlefield,” said Turian, of Cthonian Nightmare. “I’ve enjoyed playing with and against the Recurring Nightmare decks of yore (yesterday), and this card is a fantastic throwback to one of Magic’s historical powerhouses.”

As a certified Freak Fan and lover of all things wild, I agree.