First things first. I hate Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. This set is an abomination.
It's important, if you believe such things, to say it up front. Don't bury the lede.
Rather than admit Throne of Eldraine pushed too far, power levels (even ignoring companions) continue to be pushed in ways that will damage the long term interests of the game on all fronts. Each delay in admitting this will make finally admitting it that much more painful.
Everything has tons of text and is trying to do everything at once, complexity is super high, all the power is focused on higher rarities and is essentially screaming at us.
The set's themes are mutation, humans and nonhumans, companions, wedges, ability counters and cycling. Sam Black says that companions are the worst mechanic for the health of Magic since Phyrexian mana. I think this is being unfair to Phyrexian mana.
The other stuff is better, but still Not Great, Bob.
Ability counters are a giant middle finger to printed Magic and make our heads hurt, all for such little gain.
Standard was already largely about tri-color decks so it doesn't seem like what we need right now are more hyper-efficient wedge cards and mana enablers.
Humans and nonhumans working together is mass hysteria and is mostly only supported for Limited.
Mutation doesn't seem like it goes anywhere fun and seems super convoluted.
I suspect they even managed to mess up cycling. Giving otherwise almost playable cards Cycling is playing a very dangerous game.
As a Limited set it will presumably be fun when drafted against humans, same as Theros Beyond Death and Throne of Eldraine, but most drafts will probably take place on Arena where, fortunately, Wizards is finally allowing drafts against other humans.
With all that out of the way, it's time for a classic set review. Magic goes on.
This will follow the same template as my review of Theros Beyond Death.
Cards get star ratings from zero to four stars, based on their application in Standard. We do talk about Modern, Legacy and Vintage when appropriate, and occasionally nod even to Commander, but those don't impact the star ratings.
Key is as follows:
No Stars: Card is not relevant to Standard, and will be ignored entirely.
One Star: Card is probably not relevant to Standard, but it can't be ruled out. Worth brief discussion.
Two Stars: Card likely has some Standard use, or might be really strong. Worth at least brief discussion.
Three Stars: Card is solid and will matter in Standard. Worth discussion.
Four Stars: Card is top 10 in the set excluding the hopefully-soon-to-be-banned companions, grouping identical cycles together. Worth discussion.
Five Stars: Card is a companion. Seriously, fork these things.
In the past, I've gone in color order. I'm going to change that and go in rarity order sorted by color, starting with common. I want to highlight the contrast.
Cards that are reprints are in [brackets].
Another problem is whether or not to continuously play the game of 'but what is the companion going to be?' It's not like decks can simply not play one. But companions will hopefully be banned or rules changed out of Constructed, and if not then we should probably expect more companions and things to get worse. So I want to avoid getting too wrapped up in that question, except when building decks. Or, of course, when considering the companions themselves.
White Commons: 19 cards, 5 total stars (1 from a reprint)
As usual, whether or not White gets the shaft in general, it definitely gets the shaft at common.
Zero stars: Blade Banish, Checkpoint Officer, Coordinated Charge, Daysquad Marshal, Divine Arrow, Drannith Healer, Helica Glider, Maned Serval, Patagia Tiger, Perimeter Sergeant, Savai Sabertooth, Snare Tactician, Solid Footing, Spontaneous Flight, Vulpikeet.
Two stars: Imposing Vantasaur
Light of Hope is a charm and whoever named it needs to apologize. It's in that weird spot where it's not powerful enough to maindeck and only in one mode out of the sideboard, so presumably no one wants it.
Imposing Vantasaur has Cycling and provides a great creature to bring back with Nethroi, Apex of Death. In a pinch, it's also a place to mutate Nethroi into play, so I expect it to have a place in that strategy. Also not a bad way to ensure that Elspeth Conquers Death does something useful. A 4/7 Vigilance creature seems pretty good as a backup plan.
Blue Commons: 19 cards, 13 Stars (5 from two reprints)
Three Stars: [Essence Scatter]
Aegis Turtle just might block for enough to matter on rare occasions. I am generous in these spots.
Startling Development is me giving a ton of credit to anything with Cycling in a world where Uro, Polukranos, and Kroxa exist. Nothing more.
Gust of Wind is great if you have enough flyers, but is that deck good?
Keep Safe seems likely to profitably cantrip and be at least solid sideboard option.
Of One Mind is an amazing rate if the discount is frequently available, but unlikely to be discounted when it matters most. Promising in an Izzet draw-two deck perhaps. Companions enable it, but make its effect less relevant.
Black Commons: 19 Cards, 10 Stars (3 from reprints)
Zero Stars: Blitz Leech, Blood Curdle, Boot Nipper, Bushmeat Poacher, Cavern Whisperer, Corpse Churn, Durable Coilbug, Gloom Pangolin, Lurking Deadeye, Nightsquad Commando, Suffocating Fumes, Unexpected Fangs, Unlikely Aid
Three Stars: Memory Leak
Mutual Destruction is cheap removal that could get used by decks with fodder to spare.
[Dark Bargain] is at best emergency card drawing but maybe someone gets this desperate.
Whisper Squad seems way too slow and mana inefficient but... maybe?
[Dead Weight] is a classic.
Serrated Scorpion drains for two while being sacrifice fodder. Seems like a reasonable rate.
Memory Leak. Now that's a Magic card. In some games this will be the exact effect you want, either hitting a card like Uro out of the yard or a key card out of their hand. In other games you will need land or they'll be empty handed or you won't have this kind of time. Often you'll then be happy to pay 1 mana to add a little more fuel to your yard. Discard that you don't mind later in the game is pretty crazy. It lets you overload massively on it, too - one can reasonably play both this and Thought Erasure, and usually know when Memory Leak is worth casting and when it's worth cycling instead. Consider the parallel with Censor, another place where you pay an extra mana but truly appreciate the option to cycle.
Red Commons: 19 Cards, 11 Stars (2 from a reprint)
Zero Stars: Blazing Volley, Blisterspit Gremlin, Cloudpiercer, Ferocious Tigorilla, Frenzied Raptor, Heightened Reflexes, Lava Serpent, Prickly Marmoset, Pyroceratops, Raking Claws, Rumbling Rockslide, Spelleater Wolverine
Four Stars: Fire Prophecy
Drannith Stinger is awkward because the decks that want to cycle a lot don't care about the effect.
Shredded Sails is a safe way to get a Shatter into your deck if you really, really care.
Tentative Connection is a good deal in the menace-focused deck, but the discounting feels like missing the point because it's often the last spell you play anyway, so the discount isn't as net useful as you'd think.
[Cathartic Reunion] seems underrated, since counters are rare and graveyards are valuable.
Go for Blood is another example of me being bullish on Cycling on cards that are great when they work and useless other times.
Fire Prophecy is transparently the best two-mana removal spell Red has had in a while. Getting free card selection is huge, much bigger in the general case than alternative bonuses such as the exile effect from Scorching Dragonfire. If doing three damage to creatures is useful expect this to be a staple. I'm glad they made it common.
Green Commons: 19 Cards, 11 Stars (4 from two reprints)
Zero Stars: Bristling Boar, Essence Symbiote, Excavation Mole, Fertilid, Flycatcher Giraffid, Fully Grown, Greater Sandwurm, Honey Mammoth, Migratory Greathorn, Mosscoat Goriak, Sudden Spinnerets, Survivors' Bond
Almighty Brushwagg has a companion that really likes him, so... maybe?
[Plummet] on rare occasions will be good for what ails you.
Wilt, I really don't want to give a star but I guess I kind of have to do it.
Ram Through is pretty cool. You get instant speed and sometimes a substantial amount of extra damage. Probably the decks involved aren't good, but if such decks are playable, this should be very good in their sideboards. Also, Godzilla.
Colorless Nonland Commons: 5 Cards, 0 Stars
Lands at Common: [The Gainlands and Evolving Wilds] (Two Stars for all 11)
You know 'em, you're fine with 'em in a pinch, Evolving Wilds is still sad it has to compete with Fabled Passage. None of that will change, unless the new tri-lands might strictly dominate the gain lands.
White Uncommons: 11 Cards, 8 Stars
I'm sorry, White. At least you get to cycle.
Two Stars: Valiant Rescuer
Three Stars: Flourishing Fox
Fight as One could protect multiple creatures from mass removal on the cheap while blocking spot removal, but still seems super thin.
Stormwild Capridor might combine with something to get really large in some way I'm not anticipating being an actual thing, but... maybe?
Swallow Whole requires the target be tapped and is a sorcery so it's almost certainly terrible, but the mana cost is so cheap I can't quite dismiss it outright.
Flourishing Fox and Valiant Rescuer are a noble attempt to motivate a lot of cycling. Neither needs that much help before they start rewarding you, and Valiant Rescuer cycles in a pinch. Both of them themselves cycle. I kind of love Flourishing Fox purely for the cheap option value of a speed bump or time bomb.
The question is what you do with the rest of such a deck. If you go with a bunch of other cheap White creatures it's not clear what you get to cycle. If you go another way, having cheap White creatures might not be doing that much for you, but I think that's the default approach. This gives you things to do when you need them early and/or want to provide a distraction, and gives you a way to kill once you take over.
Blue Uncommons: 11 Cards, 14 Stars
Two Stars: Pollywog Symbiote
Reconnaissance Mission could be tried as a cycling card with the White cycling creatures, or as a straight support card for skies. I'm skeptical of both approaches even if the decks are playable.
Pouncing Shoreshark seems like a reasonable bridge for a mutation deck, letting you keep pace and then following up with additional triggers later. I also highly value flash here, because it means you can drop this and then untap to do a mutation, or do a mutation with him when the opponent taps out, but it's all quite a reach.
Pollywog Symbiote is a reasonable imitation of a mana dork in the dedicated mutation deck, without being Green. Such decks love mana dorks since they're also a place to mutate. If you're sufficiently all-in on the concept I can dig it.
Ominous Seas can fire multiple times, and can fire remarkably fast with cycling and/or Cathartic Reunion and Tormenting Voice, providing another payoff card for draw two while also cycling to trigger other things if it shows up too late to the party. Your turn five Boon of the Wish-Giver will probably get you there, and then you can reload.
Boon of the Wish-Giver being a sorcery does make it much worse as a spell than Opportunity, and our standards have gone up dramatically since then. Tapping out to do this, and often having to discard afterward, is frequently not going to feel great if you're not getting the second half of a free 8/8 out of the deal. Despite all those problems, it's still freaking great to have the option to either pull way ahead or dispose of this quickly. That's an absurdly cheap option.
Neutralize is the new go-to 3 mana counter. Cycling blows away all the alternative bonuses we've been offered, at least for anyone without reliable access to Absorb. The reason I'm not super excited is because we have so many other things we urgently need to do, and even though this is the best version so far of a staple spell it probably doesn't quite make enough difference that it cracks the top ten.
Black Uncommons: 11 Cards, 9 Stars
One star: Bastion of Remembrance
Four stars: Heartless Act
Bastion of Remembrance seems super expensive for what you get, but if one was already leaning heavily into such themes then this might allow us to count to twenty.
Call of the Death-Dweller is not the way I want to be reclaiming Lurrus of the Dream-Den, or more speculatively Kaheera, the Orphanguard or Zirda, the Dawnwaker, but that being a backdoor option makes this a lot more playable. A deck built around Lurrus will always either have good things to bring back, or will have a live Lurrus and not care much about having a stranded spell in its hand. You can do things differently when you always draw the card you need. Still seems a bit slow, and it's taking up a three slot that's always full, but it's also taking up a three slot that doesn't have a second permanent in it ever.
Heartless Act looks a lot like a hard removal spell given what is out there. The new dies to Doom Blade. Yes, there are a bunch of counters in this set, but it's not like the associated cards are any good. Is it too late to rename this to Discount? Name is still available.
Unbreakable Bond benefits a lot from the companions, and has a lot of large things to bring back after cycling. Or we could wait two turns and conquer death outright instead. Seriously, if you don't have four copies of Elspeth Conquers Death, you should probably fix that.
Red Uncommons: 11 Cards, 5 Stars
Two stars: Reptilian Reflection
Blitz of the Thunder-Raptor works if you're already doing a ton of work, and is very reasonably priced, but only works once, so... maybe?
Flame Spill is potentially a solid removal spell for Red decks but things are just so fast these days. When you want this to go face more than anything it likely won't have a target that enables that.
Weaponize the Monsters costs a lot more mana than I'm comfortable paying. I'd rather pay nothing, or at most one, even if I get less damage. But... maybe?
Reptilian Reflection has great numbers, and haste and trample are nice touches, but you need a lot of cycling to make this type of thing work. The candidates are with the creatures or as part of a draw two, with the version seeming like it has better things to focus upon. The problem is, unless you're willing to splash for cards with Cycling on the theory that you rarely cast them, it's going to be really tough to get to this density without sacrificing quality a lot.
Green Uncommons: 11 Cards, 11 Stars
Four stars: Migration Path
Auspicious Starrix counts lands and is all but forced to hit a bunch of mana dorks as well, so it's going to be hard to get reliable value here. When you hit another mutate creature, it often won't be that convenient for you. This seems like more durdle than anyone not playing Commander can afford, but it's not entirely untempting given the backup plan of 'at least I get a land and can turn my Elf into a 6/6 and smash.'
Barrier Breach is good because when it works, it can be devastating, and it has cycling as a backup if it's bad. I don't know what you are currently looking to aim at, since plans to have people cast enchantments from Theros you can profitably kill mostly didn't happen, but it's good to know it exists as a safety valve.
Charge of the Forever-Beast is quite the bleed. I don't think Green should get to do this. At 3 mana with the unreliability and bleeding of information, I doubt Green will be all that interested. I'm still mad about it.
Glowstone Recluse provides a strong base from which to start mutating, if size actually matters in games where you can keep the monstrosity alive. My guess is that it mostly doesn't.
[Lead the Stampede] seems to have been underrated last time around, but also the current world seems more welcoming to it, unless all card drawing becomes much worse because companions.
Titanoth Rex pretends it cares about putting a trample counter on something, as opposed to having a plan to conquer death or come back with lifelink. We are not fooled. I haven't checked, but I really hope play design intentionally nerfed this from 10/10 to 11/11 so you couldn't use Nethroi, Apex of Death to bring it back. At 10/10 I'd give it a third star.
Hybrid Uncommons - 5 Cards, 5 Stars
Zero stars: Alert Heedbonder
Two stars: Proud Wildbonder
Jubliant Skybonder is the type of card that always seems to me like it's way too much mana to be worth it, especially with at least three colors having plausible sweepers that kill it. Three is a ton of mana. But perhaps the skies deck feels differently for some reason.
Cunning Nightbonder provides discounting and a side benefit for little net cost, so I can't rule out wanting it, but I also can't think of why I would indeed want it. Counting on a 2/2 that can be countered to provide your immunity seems like a bad plan.
Sonorous Howlbonder in a full menace deck makes blocking ludicrously hard. Then again, blocking was already hard and never a good idea to begin with.
Proud Wildbonder always attacks for four to the face if it wants to, and can potentially allow some other heavy hitters to do the same and collect some big side benefits. As with many such cards the question is whether there's enough good trample to justify such tactics.
Gold Uncommons - 15 Cards, 26 Stars
This is a lot of gold and we're not even at rare. Also, powered up much?
How jaded have we become?
To be fair, I'm not charging that much for the gold costs being hard to use. But given what's out there now I think that makes the most sense.
Primal Empathy requires keeping a creature alive, at which point having another 3-drop in play might get you a card a turn. I keep reminding myself that things are so nuts that this is mostly no longer good enough.
Lore Drakkis mutates on the super cheap, and opens up possibilities of huge running chains of spells. The problem is that running enough spells and having places to mutate are in direct conflict, so space is going to be super tight. It seems unlikely you'll be able to do a proper mutate engine. So I'm skeptical anything comes of this, but just think of the potential.
Boneyard Lurker can bring back Boneyard Lurker which can then bring back two more cards, or other similarly nasty things. It's the next level in grinding nightmares. But it's also a fragile grind, so mostly I would rather pay for something more reliable. You don't need the extra spice this promises to bring. Reid Duke would refuse it out of principle.
Back for More costs a full six, but it's an instant and will often double as a hard removal spell. The set provides plenty of ways to ensure you have a good target, and companions exist too as a backup plan. I don't think this is the best way to spend 6 mana, but it's not a terrible way either.
Regal Leosaur can do a 2-drop impression when you're desperate, but it's presumably here to let you kill the opponent on the final turn, potentially with two of them together for a full +4/+2 all around. I don't think this is going to prove an effective strategy but the price does seem reasonable.
Savai Thundermane has decent stats, and with a lot of cheap cycling you can use his ability on turn three or four easily enough, but the efficiency level of actually using this isn't that high if it's not picking things off. My guess is you begrudgingly use it if you're otherwise in on the plan, but that it doesn't add much.
Channeled Force getting countered is an utter disaster. You basically lose on the spot. If you don't have to worry about that, this seems mostly great. Perhaps it's kind of a sideboard card for when you know the coast is clear.
Dire Tactics is a pure two-mana removal spell. If it costs you some life, that's a price one can usually afford to pay, and having a human around might be a perfectly reasonable ask. In a deck with both colors and a lot of humans this is pretty great and you'll obviously have access to four.
Sprite Dragon gets big fast. Then again, games are fast these days, and there are a lot of other ways for such decks to pull ahead that only cost two or three. Competition is steep. If we're doing much cycling, this likely won't get big enough fast enough. If we're using another path, perhaps we're on to something.
Skull Prophet is a card that you knew I would love. You get 3 power, you get mana acceleration, and if you're not otherwise busy you can build your graveyard for various nefarious purposes. In other words, the full package. This is a great way to set up for many of the things we are currently being pushed hard into doing in Azban and Sultai.
Trumpeting Gnarr is a great foundation for a mutation chain, if you can stomach paying 3 mana for a 3/3 and making your plan obvious. The mutate cost is much less exciting, but will usually be payable when it matters. If we can somehow live in a world where this thing can safely stick its neck out, then there's a lot to like. But if there's a lot to like, how is it able to do that?
Crystal Cycle of Artifact Uncommons: 5 Cards, All One Star
Three is more than I'm prepared to spend in Constructed at this time, as much as I appreciate what these cards are trying to do. Not quite a hard pass, but very close.
Rares and Mythics
White Rares and Mythics: 5 Cards, 12 Stars
Cubwarden is a plausible bridge mutation to get us to the mythics, if we're in that market and want payoff rather than safety from flash. Pull it off once and you now have extra little creatures you can use for future mutations if you need to. The creature is lousy but not the worst on its own, and lifelink is a very good puzzle piece. Mutating this multiple times seems very good.
Drannith Magistrate shuts down escape, but this is far less of a 'your deck stops working' than previous cards that had this profile. Losing escape doesn't shut escape decks down, they're just sad about it and go about other business. Thus, I don't think this is even that good where it is good, and will get passed over.
Mythos of Snapdax (Spandex?) costs the same as Shatter the Sky, so we need to know why we want this effect instead, and why we still want it. I'm having trouble with that, except in the generic 'if the board gets complicated then this presumably ends well for us since we make good choices.' That should occasionally be enough if we have other reasons to be in the Mardu business.
Lavabrink Venturer has protection from whatever thing you most care about it having protection from, and a lot of other things as well. There are also two potential enemy companions that effectively make this effect protection from everything. The end result still doesn't seem super exciting, but this certainly has promise to be mighty annoying.
Luminous Broodmoth dominates the battlefield. You can attack daring them to block, you can block, come back and fly over, or you can use this as a guard against sweepers. It's a big game. But so is Archon of Sun's Grace, which is the obvious comparison since it has the same stats and cost. It's also unfortunate that Yorion, Sky Nomad flies, since it's the companion you presumably want to be running, and lets you take the flying counters off other things if you're interested in that.
Blue Rares and Mythics: 4 Cards, 9 Stars
One Star: Mythos of Illuna
Two Stars: Voracious Greatshark
Three Stars: Sea-Dasher Octopus
Four Stars: Shark Typhoon
Mythos of Illuna can copy a big creature and pick off another one, sure. And it can aim at the opponents' creatures and then often kill both of them off, if you're in the market for a super expensive removal spell. None of that seems remotely competitive with Quasiduplicate's discount and ability to do it twice.
Voracious Greatshark is much bigger than Frilled Mystic, such that even if you don't get to counter anything you might not be that sad about it. Then again, you might be very sad, as there are a lot of nasty things they could do. I can see this as a sideboard card if it's big enough to ambush attackers and also has lots of things to counter, but I don't think you maindeck this.
Sea-Dasher Octopus has two very good modes for different situations. The mode where it comes down turn two and/or with an evasion ability is quite good. When that isn't safe or you lack a target, playing this as a flash creature is an excellent backup plan. That backup plan lets you confidently play this together with Staggering Insight, which in turn lets you focus on the tempo plan that much more. This also seems like a great mirror sideboard card in control battles.
Shark Typhoon cycles at whatever price you need, and later on it takes over the game entirely since every spell doubles as a giant monster. It's a pretty great package for control decks or anything full of spells that can afford it.
Black Rares and Mythics: 4 Cards, 10 Stars
One Star: Hunted Nightmare
Two Stars: Extinction Event
Hunted Nightmare's downside will often not matter much in practice, or at least that's the hope, and then you get a good deal. But good deals are everywhere.
Extinction Event is a weird kind of Yahtzee. Playing the odd companion against the even companion? This is the card for (both of) you. In normal times, things get a lot trickier, but this will exile any one creature you want and you can plan around the effect to hope and improve on that. Maybe you can mutate to hide your darlings. There's potential.
Dirge Bat is a card I am reaching on. I have a particular play pattern in mind. You play Dirge Bat on end step, untap and mutate it, likely into either Nethroi, Brokkos or Snapdax. Then later in the game, 6 mana becomes affordable, and this can trigger multiple mutations at instant speed if it's still in your hand. The downside of that plan is that if you don't pull it off, this card is actively quite awful.
Mythos of Nethroi is functionally Vindicate if your mana works, with a reasonable emergency mode if you run into trouble. My concern is that 3 mana removal that fails to exile is starting to seem expensive at this point. The upside on alternative removal cards is often super high, but I'm still not ready to not give Vindicate three stars.
Red Rares and Mythics: 5 Cards, 8 Stars
Zero Stars: Unpredictable Cyclone
Two Stars: Mythos of Vadrok
Four Stars: Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast
Everquill Phoenix comes back once, and sort of effectively often has haste, but the comparison to Rekindling Phoenix is not kind. Nor is the comparison to the resilience of many other similar cards. This doesn't do any of its jobs well enough to impress.
Yidaro, Wandering Monster in the best case costs 8 mana to get into play via cycling, and most of the time you won't be able to do it at all. Plus, by the third time you do it, and often by the second, you'll be pretty close to casting it. Even in the best case scenario where an Izzet draw-two is running through their deck at lightning speed, this is going to slow us down dramatically for a long time.
Mythos of Vardok can shut down the opponents' board for a full turn, or take out five damage worth of stuff, or some combination of both. That seems solid if you can pay its true cost, but I still find it hard to get excited by such things.
Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast has so much text that I had to zoom in on my thirty inch monitor to read its text. Seriously, this has gone too far. And for what? Oh. For that. All right. You have my attention.
So, if you otherwise max out your curve with a lot of stuff at one number, and add copies of one big creature, you can get that big creature into play, and they have to kill Lukka or you can do it again next turn. What are our options? End-Raze Forerunners seems like a good choice, or we can consider Titanoth Rex so it can cycle. There's always Agent of Treachery. We could also just get a Dream Trawler or Feasting Troll King or maybe either Niv-Mizzet and not ask questions. Maybe we could line up the other mana costs and go for Sephara, Sky's Blade, although that deck playing Red is gonna be weird? If we stick to Red we could try Drakuseth, Maw of Flames, Yidaro, Wandering Monster or Terror of Mount Velus.
Who is our companion? The only ones we can possibly play are Obosh, the Preypiercer, who we really don't want, Lutri, who we want less, or the two that make nonzero sense: Zirda, the Dawnwaker and Yorion, Sky Nomad. Yorion is easy mode, you accept an 80 card deck. Zirda is trickier. It lets you keep all the mana creatures. Titanoth Rex has cycling, as does Yidaro, and those seem like the best options left. Zirda is Red, which is much better than being forced into White or Blue, since you want Green badly.
Now we have this Zirda card every game so is there anything we'd like to actually do with it? Perhaps a way to use it with lots of 2-drops that have activated abilities?
I mean, we could always do something like this:
Lukka Experiment #1 | IKO Standard | Zvi Mowshowitz
- Companion (1)
- 1 Zirda, the Dawnwaker
- Creatures (24)
- 4 Biomancer's Familiar
- 4 Gilded Goose
- 4 Growth-Chamber Guardian
- 4 Incubation Druid
- 4 Paradise Druid
- 4 Titanoth Rex
- Instants (2)
- 2 Unsummon
We have six non-Forest lands but it should still be enough to get us to nine most of the time if we untap with Nissa. I want fourteen land-based Red sources for Lukka, and Zagoth Triome only doubles for Zirda. So close. We can't cast Genesis Ultimatum, but we can do pretty much anything else in these colors pretty well, as long as we don't have creature cards between two and nine.
We can also do something completely straightforward. Again, as long as our mana costs on the low end are identical, we can turn any of them into the payoff creature. The problem is we need to choose a companion, or we're down a card, and most of our options seem bad. So plan B is presumably Yorion, Sky Nomad. We're on eighty cards, so our plan is less reliable, but we get to ramp to a flyer as a fallback, and with the extra 5-drop we can presumably go into full ramp mode?
Lukka Experiment #2 | IKO Standard | Zvi Mowshowitz
- Companion (1)
- 1 Yorion, Sky Nomad
- Creatures (30)
- 3 End-Maze Forerunners
- 3 Voracious Hyrda
- 4 Arboreal Grazer
- 4 Druid of the Cowl
- 4 Gilded Goose
- 4 Hydroid Krasis
- 4 Incubation Druid
- 4 Paradise Druid
- Planeswalkers (10)
- 2 Vivien, Monster's Advocate
- 4 Nissa, Who Shakes the World
- 4 Lukka, Copperthroat Outcast
- Sorceries (4)
- 4 Migration Path
In theory we could also try Obosh, the Preypiercer, but that doesn't seem promising.
All right, these probably aren't the best builds, but Lukka's probably nuts.
I hope you are beginning to see one of the problems with our new world. If you're not willing to be permanently down a predictable card, you have no choice but to play a companion. If you have to play a companion, there are not that many paths you can go down.
Green Rares and Mythics: 5 Cards, 8 Stars
Zero stars: Colossification (barring a very specific reprint)
Three Stars: Mythos of Brokkos
Four Stars: Vivien, Monsters' Advocate
Gemrazer is fine when it works, but only fine unless you're getting this trigger repeatedly. And if you have to cast it for full price, ouch.
Kogla, the Titan Ape doesn't have haste or trample, and can't cleanly kill Uro, so I don't see it.
Vivien, Monsters' Advocate does some pretty nutty things. As a baseline, you get a 3/3 each turn while ticking up, which is pretty solid. Meanwhile you get to play creatures off the top, and likely have several ways to reshuffle, cycle or otherwise churn available as well. The -2 ability is a straight up large creature if used properly, and can be utilized with Hydras to get anything in your deck. It's not at Lukka's level but I do like the package.
Mythos of Brokkos is a tutor for permanents. The baseline plan is to get the card you want most from your deck, bury it, then get it back along with something else. This can't get itself, but it can get Golgari Findbroker as its tutor target and the fun can begin, if that's the game you'd like to play. There's also the mode where you get Uro or Polukranos, then return two other things and leave the escape card where it belongs. That also seems nice. I don't know what I want to be searching for beyond 'whatever I happen to want right now' but I'm excited to find out.
Two Color Gold Rares and Mythics That Aren't Companions: 12 Cards, 24 Stars
Zero stars: Frondland Felidar
Three Stars: Skycat Sovereign
Slitherwisp is the kind of card I always find players playing even though I think its numbers are ludicrously terrible. This probably won't be an exception. Any excuse to get the old card advantage train running. I can't see this being an actually good idea. The casting cost is truly obnoxious.
Quartzwood Crasher is win more. It can certainly run away with things if it hits even once, but it also costs five. Continuous reminder to adjust to modern power creep.
Zilortha, Strength Incarnate on its own is a 7/7 trampler for five, which doesn't cut it, so this only plays if you get a lot out of the ability on other creatures. That doesn't seem likely.
General Kudro of Drannith is technically a lord with some upside and reasonable stats, so I can't be too dismissive, but being legendary here is really, really bad.
Labyrinth Raptor wants you to be honest. You weren't blocking anyway, stop pretending you were. Paying 2 mana for 2 power these days is a rough path even if no one can block and maybe you can start pumping. The menace squad doesn't show any signs of providing many good deals. The flip side is, with enough good friends, this could be solid.
Skycat Sovereign effectively gives flying creatures a very good Lord. As with all such things, the question is whether the deck can finish strong.
Chevill, Bane of Monsters at least trades with most things, and if you have a turn to spare first it will draw a card and gain three life while doing so. The other mode is using removal spells to mow down everything you see while piling up extra cards. This is a highly obnoxious package that says, even more than we've already said it, not to try to play a bunch of creatures and then turn them sideways. Even against non-aggressive opponents, this only has to trigger once to be excellent.
Rielle, the Everwise combines very, very well with cycling and with many other cards that already like the Izzet draw-two deck. It should be drawing you a card or two most turn cycles and getting quite a bit of power. If the supports are real, watch out.
Fiend Artisan is scary, but plausibly slow enough to be fine. Leave it to its own devices forever and it can of course completely take over the game even before it starts attacking or blocking, but so can lots of things. There are a few modes this card can operate in.
In a Black or sacrifice deck, you're using this to pump out and fuel your sacrifice engine. You only need to get to four and you can assemble quite the contraption when combined with abundant sacrifice fodder.
In a Green deck, you can continuously upgrade creatures into much larger creatures while getting various triggers going and growing the Fiend Artisan. Once you have this, unless you run out of creatures, which is not terribly common, you can essentially make good use of any mana you have for the rest of the game.
In a self-mill deck, you can go find Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Cavalier of Thorns, or something similar, churning out continuous advantage at no risk, and/or turn sideways for big damage. You do need enough things to sacrifice and enough density of creature cards, both of which might not be trivial.
You could also be trying for various contraptions that get ugly quickly. Nikya of the Old Ways is an interesting 5-drop to look for, if you're looking to get actual anything you want the following turn. There are some strong combinations of two cheap creatures you could reliably assemble.
And so on. This card plays incredibly good Magic.
Winota, Joiner of Forces needs a lot of things to go right. Hitting Winota off its own trigger is good for haste and temporary indestructible, but if you want to hit for real you'll need a bunch of other humans worth hitting and a bunch of non-humans to use to hit them. I don't see how the cards all go into the same deck and combine into anything good.
Kinnan, Bonder Prodigy is the kind of ambition I can get behind in spirit, but not in practice. If this nets you multiple mana in a turn, you didn't need it. If it didn't, you didn't get much out of it.
Three Color Gold Rares and Mythics: 15 Cards, 35 Stars
Four stars: Emergent Ultimatum
Offspring's Revenge is a difficult card to use well, as it isn't available in the colors that want to do this. The pickings for giant things you actually want back here are slim. However it provides a creature per turn for potentially quite a while, you get the first one right away, and many decks mostly don't get much use out of the base stats on their creatures. Knights could consider it. Fiend Artisan is a thought. A sacrifice deck could easily care little about how big its Mayhem Devils and Priests of Forgotten Gods are. But do any of these people want a 5-drop?
Ruinous Ultimatum delivers the goods. You get to kill everything. The cost is ugly, even with all the available mana fixing, and at this price I want to win games from empty boards, which this does not do. You'd want this if you were dedicated Mardu and you expected large board stalls. Or, you would very much want this in your sideboard if you played Fae of Wishes and Fires of Invention. Or perhaps you can find this with Wishbone Talisman. Seems great if this shows up exactly when you need it.
Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt is a 4-drop with a 6/5 base on its own. Mutation gives you a solid removal spell, and combining double strike with a larger set of numbers will often let you hit very hard. That's the argument in favor. The argument against is that you're probably effectively wasting this having decent stats if you mutate with or onto it, so you're just getting a removal spell and double strike, and that doesn't justify this being in the wrong colors. I think I mostly buy that argument. The other argument against is that the other apex mutation choices are better while also being in better colors.
Genesis Ultimatum is a draw five for seven that puts permanents directly into play. You don't have to do any work beyond having a deck with the right mana and some permanents. That has to be a really good deal for those that can cast this reliably on seven well ahead of schedule. It is unfortunate that you do not get to keep Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath or Hydroid Krasis, but it's not like hitting either of those is bad - you get to put the Hydroid Krasis into your hand for next turn when you'll have 10 mana. You also don't play fully nicely with Nissa, Who Shakes the World, since you only get to spend two Green mana and Nissa is pushing you toward having too many Green sources. You do have to make some sacrifices. The new play pattern is more likely to play this turn four, with turn two being Growth Spiral or Paradise Druid into Migration Path or Circuitous Route, which combined with the new tri-land should give you enough fixing to get you this on seven. The problem with that plan is that it seems to exclude all the companions. We don't want an 80 card deck if only because the mana base can't take it, and Zirda is pretty terrible while forcing us to give up Uro and Hydroid Krasis. The companion problem is pretty bad on top of all the other issues, so for now I have to downgrade this from the top tier. Alternatively, one could play a normal game and incidentally do this, or use it as a payoff Fae of Wishes target.
Illuna, Apex of Wishes seems like the real deal. If you play Illuna on its own, it's a 6/6 flying trample creature for five, which I'm nauseated to say is a little below rate, but definitely still plays very good Magic. Paying six for this seems excellent. You get to attack right away and you get a random extra nonland permanent. You do have to worry *a little* about hitting another Illuna if you run too many copies, and I'm not actually that excited about mutating this onto itself when I could mutate it onto a Gilded Goose or Paradise Druid instead. I don't love that we can hit those mana creatures with this, but we need targets to come from somewhere. You're going to have disappointing hits in your deck or you're often going to have nowhere to place Illuna. This feels powerful but also feels like it's not going to end up with anywhere to go. I assume our champion wants to be Jegantha, the Wellspring, which seems like a reasonable way to set this up, but decks like that feel like they underperform. I hate that Niv-Mizzet, Reborn misses this cycle.
Song of Creation is an odd one. The turn you play it, you likely pass with an empty hand. This very much wants to be played last. On turns you start with a spell you should be able to spend mana until you run out of things to do. The comparison card is Experimental Frenzy. That comparison is not kind. Both wipe out your hand, but Experimental Frenzy gives you a way back and doesn't wipe you out if they kill it. Both let you chain cards, but Experimental Frenzy does so until you hit two lands, whereas this stalls on any turn you start with one. The color requirement here is obnoxious. This isn't going to work outside of very narrow cases after Experimental Frenzy rotates.
Death's Oasis gets a star because Sam Black still builds decks and I don't entirely trust him not to make this somehow kind of happen, even though it doesn't seem to have enough going on.
Eerie Ultimatum is another card that will sometimes be exactly the thing you want. You get back your Elspeth Conquers Death along with your army, which is a nice touch. Getting the mana to function with Green as a side cost will be a little tricky, since you clearly want to be running Cavalier of Thorns if you're not cheating this in with a wish sideboard and a Fires of Invention. The question is, are we trying to do this fast, or are we biding our time and doing it slow? Doing it fast requires setup, so we're probably looking at turn six or so if we want more than one juicy thing. That's not exciting, so presumably we're going slow, and this therefore is not the first plan, and we're not going to be in too much of the mana acceleration business.
Nethroi, Apex of Death has by far the most powerful mutate payoff. 10 power worth of stuff plus Nethroi should be good enough to take over most games where the sky remains intact, provided you did the setup work. There are various ways to get even more value out of this than the default. This is, for example, the reason I gave stars to Imposing Vantasaur. Hello, Polukranus, glad you could join us. Fiend Artisan, glad you could make it. Then again, we need a companion, and we presumably often go with Kaheera so our options get limited.
When played as a creature, Nethroi plays very solid Magic while threatening at any time to mutate and end the game if you've established a yard. It would be good to have another mutate creature around to threaten this with. Dirge Bat seems like a fine choice for that if we're not being too ambitious.
Inspired Ultimatum does not seem especially inspired. It's fine. It does powerful things. If I was in this market I might buy one or two. But for an exact seven mana cost that isn't Green, I want more than this.
Narset of the Ancient Way does not remotely feel like the same character as Narset, Parter of Veils. You can't simply mumble the word 'non-creature' under your breath, sorry. Especially when you can discard creatures usefully in that second line. But is she any good? Her +1 is pretty terrible given she costs four. The ultimate is fine, but isn't scary by today's standards. We're putting all our hopes in the -2, where we hope to kill off a planeswalker or creature, or sometimes dump a land. I mostly don't see it, but there are secondary signs telling me this isn't 'supposed' to be bad. I'll respect them a bit.
Vadrok, Apex of Thunder has neither haste nor vigilance, no matter how many times my brain assumes that it does. Absent mutation, it's not doing all that much. In order to profit from this, we'll need a spell in our graveyard and another creature to use for mutation. It all seems rather convoluted. What are we hoping to accomplish here that justifies all that?
Whirlwind of Thought is not messing around. Succeed in going off without really trying. Never run out of spells, again without trying. All it will cost you is four mana. For decks this fits into, this is one of the most efficient card drawing engines ever. I expect to see it across all the formats, including Vintage. And yet, given the risks of such investment and how abundant cards are right now, I find myself not quite scared enough to put this into my top ten.
Brokkos, Apex of Forever will keep pulling an Agent Smith and turning everything into a 6/6 trampler at a very reasonable price. Its first time down is lousy, but not too bad, and could be good if you get someone else's mutation trigger. Certainly this is a good piece of any deck that wants to pull off continuous mutations and/or build abominations. I'll probably play it sometimes. I still notice that this does not feel threatening to me. We're all too jaded, now. Sure, it's fine, I guess, but if you can't handle a steady stream of 6/6s, how were you winning before?
Emergent Ultimatum is not that hard to play on turn four. Let's say we pull that off. What three cards do we get?
Deathbellow War Cry is going to be impossible to cast, and requires additional bad cards, but if you're allowed to do it you can get eighteen power worth of stuff. If you want haste you can attack for fifteen.
If you show them those three cards, they die if they give you End-Raze Forerunners, so they have to give you the other two, they take fifteen and are looking at twenty-six power.
Not that we're going to do that - probably, anyway - because the requirements for Deathbellow War Cry are deeply silly, and it's not like we lose that many games where we pull this off. We can for example get Kiora Bests the Sea God as our third, and it's not like we lose from there very often, while playing no blank cards in our deck. One option if we can have whatever mana we want (which is a risk, but we do have some very good tools for this), is to have Kenrith, the Returned King available, so we can get both that and End-Raze Forerunners, which lets us force an attack with haste for 14 if we have an eighth mana. That would probably require two non-Ultimatum-enabling lands in our deck, which may or may not have any other good uses. An alternative theory of the case is we want to drop a seven-mana card on turn four so we want more good sevens. That moves us toward Kiora Bests the Sea God, Planewide Celebration, and Agent of Treachery. And of course there's no need to overthink things too much. Getting cards like Feasting Troll King, Commence the Endgame, Kogla, the Titan Ape, Liliana, Dreadhorde General and so on won't exactly lose that many games if this happens early.
This, even if you aren't doing much work, is the real ultimatum. Play a seven, get two cards each costing five to eight. Works for me.
Top Ten Non-Compaions
- Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast
- Migration Path
- Heartless Act
- Emergent Ultimatum
- Chevill, Bane of Monsters
- Shark Typhoon
- Fire Prophecy
- Rielle, the Everwise
- Vivien, Monsters' Advocate
- Fiend Artisan
The Companions: 10 Cards, 50 Stars
And now, the true abominations. Ban the companions.
If I had not excluded companions from my top ten, at least eight of the top ten cards would have been companions. Quite possibly all ten. These cards are absurd.
I am deeply opposed to the very concept of companions. Magic is a game about using what the game gives you. If you have the same card game after game, then the games will play out the same way. The blank slate upon which we begin is the very thing that makes Magic so special. You always, always have to plan as if your key card might not be available.
Commander gives us permanent access to a card of our choice, but builds in three important safety valves.
Valve one is Commander has tons of choices for what your commander will be, with a healthy willingness to ban any that make our lives worse. Whatever you want to do, there's a Commander that can help you do that thing, and that fits your play style and personality.
Valve two is that it is a multiplayer format. Things are broken all the time. If they're a little good, players gang up on you. If they're a lot too good, and valve one doesn't work as planned, you're not welcome at the game any more, or house rules are in effect. It's a very different model.
Valve three is that all your other cards are singletons and your deck size is huge. You can't count on any of your other cards to show up, which balances out having a commander.
Commander is not my thing. But it is at least making an effort.
Companions make no such effort. We get ten monsters and are forced to pick one. Each comes with a deck-building restriction, so many 'normal' strategies don't have the ability to play any of them. Many others could stretch to get one, but it would have no synergy with the rest of the deck.
Whereas there are decks that can almost seamlessly fit a companion into their strategies that actually works with their plan, such as Jeskai Fires adding Keruga, the Macrosage. If your deck was previously good in that matchup, but can't play a commander, one guess what is going to happen to you.
Rather than rank the commanders, we'll take them in alphabetical order.
Gyruda, Doom of Depths
Only even casting costs sounds like a big cost, but many decks effectively already don't have that much use for odd costs. The standard mana acceleration pattern is two into four. You certainly would rather smooth things out from there, but it's not that bad if you can't. There are three questions to ask first. How to best take advantage of Gyruda itself, whether or not we're a Green mana acceleration deck, and whether there are ways to find good uses of cards with odd costs.
Alas, unlike the other two cost restriction companions, you essentially cannot cheat on this one right now with adventures. You could still potentially cheat via mutate, but the only one of the big five that works for is Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt. That does not seem like where you want to be.
How do we properly exploit Gyruda? We will want a substantial number of creatures that cost four or six mana, so we can hit them with Gyruda. We'll also want a way to take advantage of our newly filled graveyard. It would be a shame to waste that. Ideally we'd also want to be able to bring Gyruda back if it dies, since we've bothered to set up to make it good, and at that point it seems like a very good card.
Aside from perhaps Kogla, the Titan Ape or a backdoor Imposing Vantasaur, the Ikoria options here for our four and six cost creatures all seem terrible. We will need to instead go with the old reliable. Dream Trawler seems like the clear best 6-drop, pushing us toward those colors, presumably either Esper or Bant. At four we have a lot of reasonable choices.
That still leaves a narrow range of plausible things to do.
The Bant model uses Growth Spiral and Paradise Druid on turn two to get to four on turn three, then strongly considers trying to double up on 2-drops on turn three to set up for Gyruda or Dream Trawler. That pushes toward adding in Incubation Druid, which also provides something to do with five mana. Round out with 4-drops and presumably some copies of Aether Gust and we're mostly done. Perhaps we splash Black enough to get Polukranos, Unchained (and perhaps Lochmere Serpent too), so we don't waste our graveyard. With Paradise Druid and Fabled Passage and tri-lands, and several points on the curve where tapped lands are free, this should be very cheap.
I've tried a lot of decks that ramp up to six aggressively. Normally they end up not working because you don't have enough action. Always having your action card will make this plan a lot better.
The Esper model uses Thought Erasure and Heartless Act as the beginning of its large array of two-mana things to stall with, but ideally we'd like a few creatures as a backup plan. Another strong 6-drop to consider here is Lochmere Serpent. We mill them for four and then right away we can activate the Lochmere Serpent on our side, ideally while reviving something else. Strong endgame. We could explore being a Hero of Precinct One deck, perhaps. Our sweeper effects cost four so they're safe. The trick will be justifying enough large things that we aren't counting on our opponent to hit something good. There are some incremental advantage 4-drops that appeal somewhat. We definitely are cycling 3/6s. Again, we might consider splashing to get escape on the menu. Splashing is so cheap now.
Jegantha, the Wellspring
There are Jegantha decks. Then there are Jegantha decks.
The first group says hey, it's good to have a 5/5 creature at the top of your curve that would otherwise top out at four, and we're willing to sacrifice cards like Embercleave to do it.
If we play Mono-Red, what do we need to give up to get Jegantha? Embercleave has to go, Anax has to go. It does not seem like anything else that matters has multiple Red mana symbols. Those cards are very good, but are they worth giving up access to a 5/5?
If we play Mono-Green, it's another story. Now we're giving up a lot of our best cards in a deck that didn't have a great bench. We'll need to look to Umori instead.
If we're multicolored aggression, we likely have one or two cards under threat. A lot of the time that will be Embercleave. That's a really expensive card to give up, because it's often the best card in your deck. If you were built to do something else, Jegantha will often be virtually free, provided you weren't eyeing a different commander. It'll be a 5/5 for five with a mostly irrelevant ability, but that's fine. Still plays.
There should also be a decent number of other strategies that don't rely too much on any cards this rules out, especially since it permits Uro. As long as you're not looking to play White, there aren't that many hard choices left.
The second group says, no, seriously, Jegantha in the house.
The obvious place to start is Niv-Mizzet, Reborn. If you play Jegantha, the Wellspring on five, you can then play Niv-Mizzet, Reborn next turn off its mana and keep going from there. That's a big win. What are we giving up?
We're giving up Casualties of War. That's going to hurt, as it is the card your deck is all about playing over and over again. We'll need a replacement. It needs to be exactly two colors, only one of each in its cost, and presumably it will cost 6 mana. You can certainly play Garruk, Cursed Huntsman or Lochmere Serpent, but it's not remotely the same thing.
It hurts a lot both that our competition will take longer to run out of things to do, and that the new powerful cards we'd otherwise want are all three colors rather than two. There almost has to be a way to rework this, but for now it's eluding me.
We could instead build toward one or more of the Apex predators. It shouldn't be too difficult, if you untap with this, to be able to mutate multiple times if you can spread the color costs around the spectrum.
One idea is a spells-only Jeskai Fires deck built around Narset of the Ancient Way and Whirlwind of Thought, and maybe throw in Kykar, Wind's Fury as well. Note that you are fully permitted to wish for things with double costs, so you still have some access to the tools you'll miss most. Still seems way worse than our other Jeskai Fires options.
The general problem is that while this provides a ton of mana if it lives and you draw it every time, it's slow and vulnerable, so building around it still seems like it's probably a bad idea. Chances are this is more of an incidental companion that makes decks worse so they can have a free 5/5.
Kaheera, the Orphanguard
One approach is not to run any creatures, and have a free 3/2 you can cast once a game. That seems like a reasonable option for decks that are otherwise close to creatureless and don't want another companion. A control deck that was already planning on winning with Sharknado Shark Typhoon only has to agree not to run Dream Trawler or Archon of Sun's Grace.
The other approach is to use this as for its intended purpose, as a lord.
Elemental decks are already almost good enough. Getting a lord should push them toward playing more smaller Elementals, and more lord effects. Given this makes Risen Reef better rather than worse, we're excited to get to three as quickly as possible, and Arboreal Grazer happens to be a beast, so we're definitely signing up for four of those and for multiple reasons bumping our land count up, unless we're trying to go super low to the ground and maybe even then.
The other options here are nightmare, dinosaur, cat and beast. They provide creatures you can mix and match, but as tribes they aren't offering much. I doubt half measures are worthwhile. You want to lean into the Elementals here.
Keruga, the Macrosage
If there is one companion that is obviously ridiculous in Standard, with almost no effort, this is it.
Playing nothing that costs less than three looks like a big restriction. It isn't as big as it looks, because adventures are a thing. You can run Brazen Borrower and/or Bonecrusher Giant, and have eight worthwhile things to do on turn two.
If you start with standard issue Jeskai Fires, you are slightly sad that you can't access Justice Strike, and some of us still like Shimmer of Possibility. Neither will be even slightly missed compared to being given access to a free Keruga. Keruga isn't as good as Kenrith, the Returned King or Cavalier of Gales, and is much worse than Cavalier of Flame, but always having it as your last play makes a huge difference.
How do we modify the deck? We have an extra spell every game, so our land count should increase. Our five slot can get slimmer, since we always have one handy from outside the game, but we'd still rather play our good 5-drops first, so I don't want to cut too many out. Mostly I think we play it straight.
Who else can pull off this same trick? In theory any deck that plays both Red and Blue can consider a similar plan, but you won't have the same ability to deploy and exploit Keruga. It seems likely Jeskai Fires (and perhaps Grixis Fires, which can do the exact same thing if it is otherwise good) will dominate this companion.
It boggles my mind that this card now exists, even given the decision to make companions, given how perfectly they've scripted how to get around its restriction.
Lurrus of the Dream-Den
Lurrus fits directly into multiple existing Modern decks. Burn gets it with no modifications. Infect needs to change its lands a bit but otherwise need change nothing. Death's Shadow gives up nothing important and gets to recast Mishra's Bauble on turn three (and then every turn thereafter) if it is so inclined. In Legacy or Vintage it's that much easier to not play anything that costs more than two, and that much easier to get the mana even if you weren't naturally White or Black.
It boggles my mind that this card now exists, even given the decision to make companions, given how easy they've made all of that.
In Standard the restriction matters. Who can run this?
Knight decks are one obvious candidate. Like other companions, this will cost you Embercleave. What you get in return seems pretty great, and there are lots of good one and 2-drops to choose from to fill out your deck.
White or Black creature decks, or more straightforwardly aggressive decks, could try to stick to super low curves. I don't think those decks come together as well as Knights do, but there's some things there.
This does not only work with creatures, though. You can bring back other things. Perhaps we can be doing something like bringing back something like Witching Well and play a control deck. We give up on all our high end permanents, but Commence the Endgame and all the Finales are still allowed, so it's not like we don't have ways to win the game.
Other decks that play the game with spells can also pick up a free creature the same way, and use recursion on cheap permanents one can sacrifice to get good use out of Lurrus.
Lutri, the Spellchaser
This restriction has some teeth. You're essentially playing Commander. What are we doing that makes up for it?
We get to copy an instant or sorcery spell we control for three mana and get a 3/2 coming along with it. That does not seem that great, especially when we can't have a focused game plan.
This is hard enough to use that I don't know if I would put this in my top ten cards in the set, were it to include companions. It would still be tempting to do so in the tenth slot on general principles.
Obosh, the Preypiercer
The same way you can use Brazen Borrower and Bonecrusher Giant to cheat around Keruga's restriciton, you can do the same with Obosh, the Preypiercer. That will presumably be standard issue, at least for Bonecrusher Giant. We can also look at Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.
Playing Obosh doubles the damage (almost) everything in your deck deals. It seems like a great last thing to do before a lethal attack, and heavily encourages us to get aggressive.
We can begin by looking at Red, Black or as all three of them have a lot of reasonable 1- and 3-drops.
With a lot of 1-drops, one can hope to use mana efficiently every turn, especially since we no longer have to worry about providing for the top of our curve. We will need a lot of 1-drops, even if we use Bonecrusher Giant.
That makes it tempting to start with Cauldron Familiar and Witch's Oven. Red can straight up jam a bunch of 1-drop creatures, and has several reasonable 3-drops after that. I am quite sad to lose Runaway Steam-kin now that I want five mana eventually, but I don't think we miss Robber of the Rich all that much, and Light up the Stage helps smooth over the mana issues.
There's always the one into three option with Arboreal Grazer and Gilded Goose. For a while I was playing decks that were mostly odd costs anyway. Losing Embercleave is deeply sad for these builds, but nothing else will be missed. Your plan was already to go one into three into three, and then maybe Obosh can come to play later. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is a reasonable thing to do on turn two under such a plan if you're willing to go into Blue, but I think we want to be more aggressive than that.
Umori, the Collector
Which card type shall we choose? We need our curve to be reasonable, so our choices are presumably instant, sorcery or creature.
Creature is straightforward.
We can play Umori, the Collector on turn three off any number of mana creatures as our default plan, then be able to play a 6-drop or multiple cheaper creatures reliably on turn four and go from there. That plan again, seems super sweet. We can branch out into any number of colors.
The strength of this approach should not be underestimated. You always have the first large threat, and you also always get to bridge to even larger ones. You don't need to play anything else that costs four mana, and probably shouldn't play anything that costs three and isn't named Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and thus too good not to play. You can have plenty of mana and then go straight to five and especially six. You end up with a lot more power.
We could also play a normal style curved Black or Green creature deck, or essentially anything else really, that barely ever ran spells anyway, and have this as an extra card. That's not a crazy approach either.
Curve issues presumably preclude planeswalkers as an option, and the enchantments or artifacts on offer don't seem tempting at all, so that leaves instants and sorceries.
If we choose sorceries, we're playing tap out Magic and don't have good acceleration options beyond Umori itself. We can play discard spells or removal for a few turns and then drop Umori, and hope it lives so we can start playing lots of stuff at a discount. Presumably we're casting Umori off Black mana. I don't know what our glorious high end looks like that justifies this.
Instants seem more interesting. Growth Spiral would be great but Green is offering us little else, so presumably we're going the Black route instead. Now we have a lot more optionality. Once per game, we tap mana on our turn, and that's it. Presumably we win with something like Commence the Endgame. This isn't coming together yet, and we are definitely going to miss having sweepers, but it seems plausible that an always available creature makes up for it.
Yorion, Sky Nomad
Yorion is your easy mode companion of sorts. Everyone can use a large flyer. Everyone can add an extra twenty cards to their deck, even if they don't want to. In casual play, everyone not already playing some other companion who has either color available probably will.
And I think they will mostly be correct.
As with all the other companions, having an extra card you can count on is super powerful even if it's just playing as a generic backup card. Generic backup cards win games. You'd still prefer that it did something relevant.
In this case, the something relevant is flickering your team. There are natural builds that center on Thassa, Deep-Dweller where this fits right in. You get to flicker this to flicker everything else, you get to cast this to flicker everything else, you get to flicker otherwise, and Thassa goes from mostly being a way to flicker things to a way to often attack for six while also flickering things. Those decks were previously tier two, now perhaps they can try and be for real.
There's also the deck that uses a variety of coming into play triggers, largely involving discard. That deck also benefits a great deal, although it may have trouble finding enough cards to pad out to 80.
I do not agree with Sam Black that this is the most dangerous companion in Modern. I do think that many Modern decks can become better by adding twenty cards and playing this, but I don't think that is as big a concern as Lurrus.
Zirda, the Dawnwaker
We built with Zirda earlier. Zirda wants you to be a Biomancer's Familiar deck, and play lots of cool activated abilities that can be discounted. The restriction rules out a bunch of cards, but there are still a lot of classes of things that are essentially unrestricted. This feels like another 'sure, why not' companion for a lot of decks that otherwise wouldn't have one and now at least sort of get one.
Or you can try to make something happen, as we did above, and abuse the hell out of this.
Are there other good ways to abuse the hell out of this? Right now I am yet to find anything that isn't a creature that tempts me much. It's not the easiest thing to do a search on, so I'll keep an eye out while building other things and see if anything comes up. The discount on cycling effects is certainly appreciated. Most (but not all) of the cycling payoff cards have cycling themselves, and you're almost certain to have a bunch of lands that have Cycling , where the discount is really appreciated.
Where does that leave us?
I intentionally didn't focus much on companions during the main part of the set review, because I hold out hope that the companions won't be with us for too long. Or that if that doesn't happen, that there will be new companions, so we should think about cards with less of a focus on the companions on offer now.
In the short term, it's going to be very tough to not run a companion.
Jeskai Fires gets a very, very synergistic companion, Keruga, the Macrosage at almost zero cost.
Elementals was tier two and picks up a free Lord.
Yorion is available for anyone who can't find anything better to do.
Zirda and Jegnatha are often going to be relatively easy to include, but mostly won't be that valuable to the decks in question.
Umori will likely lead to some very strong and reliable creature builds.
Between all of that, the power level of decks has gone way up. Without using a companion, it's not clear that other decks can improve that much. There are some good cards, but the net effect does not seem all that strong.
Lukka and Emergent Ultimatum seem like the plausible exceptions. Those can both dramatically improve your payoff at their point in the power curve. Hopefully they can assemble no-companion decks, or at least incidental-companion decks, that can compete. And perhaps there are decks that so strong against Fires of Invention that they can be down a card and survive. Perhaps.
What would convince me my position on the Companions is wrong, and they are fine?
I'd need to see three things.
One, that we see a variety of interesting things done with the companions.
Two, the games with companions don't feel repetitive and predictable, that it still feels like Magic.
Three, that the bulk of players in major Standard and Modern tournaments do not run companions, nor do the bulk of their Top 8 competitors, over a sustained period (e.g. several events).
Number one seems plausible, although it could go either way. Number two I am skeptical about, but maybe. Number three would be a big surprise.
Prove me wrong, kids. Prove me wrong.