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The Companion Conundrum

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I'm not sure if you've been keeping up with the effect of Ikoria - the set that doesn't release in the US in paper for another three weeks - on competitive Magic or not, but it's been a real... well, it's been kind of a nightmare.

Well, okay, to be fair, the entire set hasn't been a nightmare - I'm actually a huge fan of the set, as you may have gathered from previous articles! - but the companion mechanic has been increasingly problematic.

Over the weekend, I was keeping up with a lot of the competitive developments (again, for a set that hasn't even been released in paper anywhere yet), and I think it's safe to say the companion mechanic has not been performing as expected. That's my delicate way of saying it is an utter mistake, and is single-handedly destroying the fabric of reality.

You know, in Magic, that is.

The first incident I want to reference is from my buddy and Eternal format aficionado Andrea Mengucci.

While this is Vintage, the fact that the companion cards have a place there of all formats should be pretty telling, as Vintage is the most powerful Magic format, and the barrier for a card to break into it is at its highest. The fact that Andrea faced three back-to-back Lurrus decks should also be pretty telling, since that's a crazy number of decks in a row to have a new card. But the fact that you can play a Lotus on turn one, then cast your Lurrus with it (that will always be "in" your opening hand), then recast the Lotus...on turn one...is pretty bonkers, and is in no way a healthy interaction. Keep in mind that you get to keep casting the Lotus on every future turn as well.

One thing to note is that, in Vintage, it's pretty easy to get away with a deck that only has permanents that cost two or less. I mean, even if you look at the deck Mengucci was playing, the only permanents that cost more than 2 mana are the five planeswalkers and the single Blightsteel Colossus. But that kind of illustrates one of the problems with Lurrus, and in more than just Vintage as we'll see: it's just a free 8th card in your opening hand for very little work, and this is a concept that, I feel, fundamentally changes the way we play (or build decks) in competitive Magic.

Hall of Famer Martin Juza had a similar experience playing, I assume, Standard.

His opponent was on Jeskai Superfriends, and Martin played out his hand, assuming he was facing a Kaheera creature deck, only to find out that if your deck has zero creatures in it, you can still play Kaheera as a free 8th card in your opening hand.

Kaheera, the Orphanguard is a cool card because it encourages, or is meant to encourage, some kind of Cat, Elemental, Nightmare, Dinosaur, Beast tribal deck. Instead, control decks without creatures are just playing it as a free creature and extra card in their opening hands, and I have to assume that is not what the card was designed for.

Another Hall of Famer, Gabriel Nassif, had a similar experience in the Modern Challenge.

While Gabe Nassif noticed six to seven Lurrus decks in the Modern Top 8, the irony is that he was also playing a companion himself: Yorion! I think the lesson thus far is that the companion requirements are not nearly strict enough when they mean you always start the game with an 8th card. That's a fundamental change to a game of Magic, and being one-sided means that you either play a companion yourself, or start the game with a pretty sizable disadvantage.

Similarly, Tom White went 6-1 in the Modern Challenge on April 19th.

Not only did he play Four-Color Lurrus himself, he also faced eight other companion decks in his ten rounds. Seven of them were other Lurrus decks! The fact that in formats like Modern, you can include nearly all two-cost permanents or less - Scavenging Ooze, Tarmogoyf, Mishra's Bauble, Death's Shadow, etc. - means Lurrus is not only just a free card, but it also lets you cast one of your best threats the turn it comes into play, making it a very powerful two-for-one that is always in your opening hand.

Heck, here's a burn deck in Modern that went 5-0 in the hands of four different players, and 4-1 five times before that.

It's just a normal burn deck that has a Lurrus in their opening hand every game! Let's be clear:

  • This is a burn deck.
  • That starts with eight cards in their hand.
  • And one of their cards either draws them a card, or puts a Monastery Swiftspear or Goblin Guide into play.
  • And it does this every turn until you get rid of it.
  • And the card that does this will always start in your opening hand.
  • And it can't be discarded by the opponent.

I repeat: companions fundamentally change the way games of Magic are being played and the way decks are being built, and the cost is minimal, if not non-existent. While Lurrus is definitely the most oppressive of the companions, nearly all of them have been included to some success this past weekend.

If you scour the feed of any Magic Pro on Twitter right now, the only thing you will find is talk about Companions: in Pioneer, in Vintage, in Modern, even in Standard. We haven't even gotten to Gyruda in Standard yet!

Gyruda decks basically look to cast Gyruda as early as possible, then hit things like Thassa, Deep-Dwelling or Spark Double to keep chaining more Gyrudas. It's definitely possible to put more than 20 power into play on turn four with the deck, and it isn't even that uncommon. A typical Gyruda build (from Mengucci again, along with his ridiculous record) looks something like this:

One of the biggest issues with Gyruda is that it lets you play a ramp deck that always has its payoff card. Can you imagine playing Standard when you had ramp decks with Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger as your payoff, and always having Ulamog in your opening hand? Yeah, that's kind of what this is like, which is what makes it so absurd. Typically ramp decks need to have a delicate balance of ramp cards and threats, so that they aren't ramping into nothing with an empty hand. This is never the case with Gyruda.

The final Tweet I'll refer to come from Bryan Gottlieb, and condenses some of the stats from the past weekend.

Just like Oko before he was banned, companions dominated this past weekend. They took the Top 2 slots in Vintage, they took the Top 4 slots in Legacy, they took all eight slots in Modern, they took the Top 4 slots in Pioneer, and they took 75% of the Top 8 in Standard.

Just to be clear, this means that in terms of the Top 8 in five events, over five different formats, 24 out of 40 decks began their games with an 8th card in their hand (or a 9th on the draw). More than half of the decks were playing companions...and Ikoria hasn't even been released in paper yet. That's how new this set is. If you remember how ubiquitous Oko was in his heyday, this seems even worse, because it's ten different cards that are all having some level of impact, while, as I've said several times, fundamentally changing the way the game is played.

The more I think about it, and the more I read about it, the more companions seem like another in a sizable line of mistakes in the past few years. It feels like Wizards was trying to capitalize on the success of Commander by making Commanders legal in other formats, which just seems strange to me.

To summarize the repetitive bullet points of this article:

  • 8th card in opening hand for minimal cost.
  • Fundamentally change the game.
  • Ikoria hasn't even been released in paper yet!

I'm really curious to hear what you guys think. This is a huge change in Magic rules, and I want to know what impact it has had on you, or how you feel about your favorite formats after companions. Let me know down in the comments, and be sure to use promo code FRANK5 for 5% off! As always, thank you so much for reading, I love you guys, and I'll catch you next week. Stay safe!

Frank Lepore

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