It has finally happened. After a month and a half of one of the most controversial Standard formats we’ve ever had, Wizards of the Coast has decided to pull the trigger and take action. Permanents have been stolen and changed sides of the board like crazy, spells have been cast without any lands tapped, and creatures that start every game available for you to play as a free card apart from your opening hand… Any Magic: The Gathering enthusiast from twelve months ago would have read something like this and think that we are out of our minds, that we are talking about a complete different game… And we probably are.
The idea of starting the game with a specific card in your hand was already tested by the design team many years ago, and completely rejected. But “Companion”, this unique and out of the ordinary keyword from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, has brought it back and given it life, carrying with it more discussion and tension to the Magic scene than any other mechanic in recent history. If we add a Standard Metagame that shows serious signs of unhealthiness to the mix, with little to no room to battle the broken starts of its most powerful decks, we get a situation that needs to be addressed:
Turns out free cards and free mana can create a problem for the overall balance of the game… Who would have thought?! Let’s try to understand why we reached this situation, and what this means for the future of Standard moving forward.
Magic has many fundamental characteristics, which have been developed and improved over the years, which help keep the game somewhat balanced and healthy. Some of them are the mana cost of spells; that make sure you have access to the right amount of power at the correct point in the game, or the amount of cards you start the game with; that acts as a balance in the number of resources and options you have at your disposal each game. Even though the “Companion” mechanic has taken a step in breaking this element of the game by adding an extra card to your arsenal, I think the absolute most problematic aspect it brings to the table is disrupting variance.
Variance is a key element of the game that keeps it both fresh and challenging at the same time: not getting the same combination of cards in each game makes it feel unique from the others, and also encourages you to adapt to each different situation your deck puts you in, since you won’t probably have access to exactly the same resources as before. Yes, when playing with a Companion you still have a shuffled and randomized deck that fits this criteria, but that one extra specific and repeated tool has proven to be so powerful and determinant to the overall development of games and competitive strategies, that it takes away a huge portion of that much needed variance and makes tons of matches feel the same.
I think the developers knew this new mechanic was a huge risk for the health of the game from the beginning, and that is why they were very careful in leaving a window open for future fixing: if you pay attention to what is written in the description of the ability in any of this cards, you clearly see that they did not specify exactly how it works: for example, cards with “Riot” explain between parenthesis what it actually does, but with “Companion”, the just left “If this is your chosen companion, you may cast it once from outside the game”. That short phrase leaves a ton of room to maneuver and change what a companion is, how you cast it, and so on.
Now, Wizard’s reaction to the unhappy development of Companions states the following:
Once per game, any time you could cast a sorcery (during your main phase when the stack is empty), you can pay 3 generic mana to put your companion from your sideboard into your hand. This is a special action, not an activated ability.
This might be a reasonable step in the right direction. Having to first pay an extra three mana to get that specific card available, disrupts the effectiveness of the more powerful draws some of the companion decks had. It is still very strong to always have at your disposal that specific card your entire deck is built around, but the cost restriction to access it might be enough for the other player to react.
Perhaps this will also mean that we should no longer think about Companions as creatures to play in pivotal turns during a game, and more of an extra resource we have in case the games go longer than we expected. I think it is fair to say that this change in rules will probably affect some of the Companions much more than others: for example, decks that play creatures like Umori, the Collector, Kaheera, the Orphanguard or even Gyruda, Doom of Depths are trying to deploy them on curve, and their strategies are built around those specific key turns that these creatures come into play; having to skip a whole turn to put them into your hand does not play well with some of these game plans. Other Companions like Keruga, the Macrosage or even Yorion, Sky Nomad might not be affected that much in their playability level, since they tend to be played in non-linear, slower strategies that can probably afford much easily to pay that extra three mana to gain access to them.
Fires of Invention and Agent of Treachery
As we mentioned before, mana costs and color in cards tend to work as a balancing aspect of the game. There’s a reason as to why you generally can cast only one of your strong five drops at a time, in a turn when you have the right amount and color of lands available to you. Any card that breaks this basic rules of the game has an inherent risk of being a big problem, and I think we can all agree that Fires of Invention goes beyond limits we could’ve imagined with two free spells a turn, letting you use your untapped lands for anything else. It even gives you the mana back the same turn you play it, and lets you ignore color restrictions.
The fact that is card survived this long in Standard is mind-blowing to me: it is not only the tremendous power level that it brings to the table, but the deckbuilding restrictions it creates for the format, and most importantly, the difference it generates between the games that you draw it and the games you do not. Cards like this are the prime example of Wizards taking their “F.I.R.E.” philosophy of design to new and risky limits (fun, inviting, replayable, and exciting), meaning basically that they invent new magic cards concentrating on pushing its power level as much as they can, rather than being worried about creating an unbalanced environment. If it works, great, if it doesn’t, they can still let people complain for a bit and then remove it.
Agent of Treachery, on the other hand, might not be responsible for its own end. One may have thought that costing seven mana is a safe spot to be in for a creature with as impactful ability as stealing a permanent forever, but what ended up killing it was the many tools that this standard format introduced our disposal to cheat it into play (most importantly Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast and Winota, Joiner of Forces), and the fact that the blue seven drop is by far the most relevant creature you utilize along with those weapons. Ramping into it still can be considered a fair line of play for Standard, but when a strategy can disrupt the opponent at the same time that threatens to steal something as early as turn 5, or put multiple copies of it as early as turn 3 in an aggressive shell, the ban seems accurate enough.
Standard Moving Forward
As soon as these changes take effect in Standard on June 4, we will start seeing a new format develop. With the all mighty Jeskai Lukka deck out of the way, the fact that you know you will keep your permanents in your side of the table, and that everyone is going to be paying actual mana for their spells, will cause the metagame to start transforming fast. The very first question that everyone is probably going to ask is “are we going to see Companion decks now?”, and my assumption is that yes, some of them are still playable. As mentioned before, the ones that tend to be in decks that play longer games are well prepared to survive this new rule, and might even be better positioned now, in a world without that insane pressure that the Jeskai deck was applying. Strategies like Azorius Yorion Control or Temur Keruga Reclamation might be available options to explore a bit more now.
The other big question is “how much does all this affect Lurrus specifically?” The most played Lurrus of the Dream-Den deck is by far the Boros/Jeskai Cycling deck, where it’s pretty clear that the Companion isn’t crucial to the strategy, and you can win many games without it. With a consistent and aggressive game plan, a solid end-game finishing spell, and the fact that it’s not a strategy you can easily hate out of the meta, this deck is probably here to stay and won’t need much adaptation whatsoever.
In a Rakdos, Mardu, or even Mono White list, Lurrus of the Dream-Den was already a card you rarely played on curve and usually saved for mid/late game situations where you ran out of resources, or you know your opponent had run out of answers, to start gaining incremental card advantage every turn. Even though these strategies play the role of the aggressor in most games, I think they will still be able to pay that extra three mana to get access to a Companion that can still be a tremendous value generator.
There is a big chance that we transition back to an old state of Standard, where good non-Companion decks dominate. Many of them were not only unaffected by these bannings and rules changes, but even benefited by other predators being removed. Strategies such as Bant Ramp, Temur Adventures, Jund Sacrifice or Temur Reclamation (many of which were already good and absolutely playable even before the new announcement) could represent a huge portion of the new metagame, along with Boros Cycling, and those would be my starting point for exploring it. Of course, we may then see Embercleave-based aggro decks back into the mix, with Obosh now being very hard to cast which were still decent against the slower decks in the metagame before Ikoria dropped.
It is important to keep in mind that when just a couple of cards get the axe and are removed from the equation, other very clearly strong cards could represent a threat for the format moving forward. Embercleave, Nissa, Uro, Teferi, Lucky Clover and Wilderness Reclamation are still huge role players and are here to stay. It isn’t all that crazy to think that, even though we will enjoy this changes in Standard, soon the community will start asking for new bannings again. And so the cycle continues, forevermore!
Soon, we will be following up with a deeper dive on the specific deck archetypes – keep your eyes peeled, and thanks for reading!