In the beginning, Magic was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
Magic players, for as long as I can remember, have always had something to complain about. Which can make it difficult to tell when the complaining is really warranted. At this point though, I think we all can agree: Companion was a mistake. It's too consistent. The cards are too strong. The opportunity cost is too low. And oh. It's also card advantage. The issues with this mechanic are numerous. But we already know the mechanic was a mistake. I'm not telling you anything new. So instead of beating the same dead horse other people have kicked hundreds of times, I've decided to take a quick little look through Magic's history to find some of the mechanic's roots. First, I'll be discussing the mechanic without its recent changes.
The Forbidden Fruit
The first relic I found of a Companion predecessor came in the form of a mechanic that was originally designed for Avacyn Restored: Forbidden. The idea behind these cards was that they could represent things being trapped in the Helvault. Cards with the mechanic were not allowed to be in your deck, and there were other cards that would shuffle these into your deck. The mechanic, however, didn't test well. Many players struggled to wrap their head around why they would want cards that they couldn't put in their deck, with these super powerful cards just sitting there and “taunting” them. One example of such a card was a three mana 7/7 with lifelink. Additional issues with the mechanic included balance, tournament issues, and shuffling. This mechanic would eventually be replaced with Miracle.
In a way, that's not really where Forbidden's story starts. Even earlier, Richard Garfield had designed a mechanic known simply as “Gunk,” which he played in a side-event at the 2008 World Championships. This mechanic consisted of some “Gunk” cards, which did absolutely nothing, as well as some cards that could shuffle the Gunk into the opponent's deck. This mechanic would eventually inspire Forbidden, which is almost the opposite of the Gunk mechanic. Instead of putting bad cards in your opponents deck, you put good cards in yours! In spite of all of Forbidden's issues, Mark Rosewater still had hope as of 2015 that he could get the mechanic working.
Looking at the list of issues identified just by Wizards of the Coast, let's see how Companion stacks up.
“Why would I want cards that can't be in my deck?”
This issue has been addressed by making it obvious why you would want it: because the card effectively is in your deck! As long as you meet the deckbuilding requirement, you can play the card as though it were in your hand, making it essentially “part of your deck.”
Well, the companions are more balanced than three mana 7/7s with lifelink. At least most of them are. But given that Forbidden cards would theoretically be gated behind playing with bad cards that shuffle them into your deck, the cost of playing many Companions is drastically lower. Additionally, competitive Magic isn't really a game of big creatures. A 3 mana 7/7? Eh, whatever. A 3 mana creature that gets you back permanents from your graveyard? Permanents like Black Lotus? Yeah, that seems a little bit better.
The only tournament issue that Companion really runs into is the whole “making sure your opponent isn't cheating on deck construction” thing, which...isn't really a problem at all. The requirements are easily verifiable, and as soon as your opponent plays even a single card that doesn't fit, you know something's wrong.
Forbidden required you to shuffle the cards into your deck frequently, slowing games down substantially, especially if both players are playing them. Companion, on the other hand, requires absolutely no additional shuffling.
This mechanic, which has much less information available, was designed for Tempest block. The basic idea of the mechanic was that if a card had the mechanic (we'll call it “Lifeblood”), you could start the game with it in your opening hand. However, you would also start with one card fewer in that hand. And while we don't have the exact text of Lifeblood (could you use multiple of these at once? Or was it limited to one like Companion?), we can still easily speculate on the implications.
These cards would have been weaker than normal cards, giving the player extra consistency in exchange for a card and some raw power. This almost seems like it could've been balanced, at least compared to companion. Despite this, though, the lesson learned was “DECK VARIANCE IS THE LIFEBLOOD OF THE GAME AND UNDERCUTTING IT WITH THIS MECHANIC HAS LED TO THE MOST UNFUN PLAYTEST GAMES WE HAVE EVER PLAYED. IF THIS IS THE FUTURE OF MAGIC DESIGN, WE WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH IT.”
Weird. I feel like I've heard those words recently.
The Future That Could Have Been
So then, how do we get from these mechanics to Companion? Or, more specifically, how did we get from two mechanics that seem more balanced than Companion, to Companion itself? And why didn't we end up...somewhere else? Both Forbidden and Companion require you to fulfill some kind of deckbuilding restriction, while all three mechanics do at least force some sort of “cost” on you for playing them. Obviously the version of Companion we ended up with was too powerful. But could they have found a middle ground to begin with? Some way to take the interesting parts of these three mechanics, and make a mechanic that's interesting? Maybe, but maybe not.
Initially, I was of the opinion that the requirement being related to doing something in-game would be better than what we got. Some weird mechanic called “Forbanion” or something like that, that would let you cast the card from outside the game if you met its requirements. Requirements like “an opponent has lost 8 or more life this turn” or “you've cast ten or more green spells this game.” However, the more I think about these, the less I'm convinced this would be better. This version would lead to even more decks being able to play companions, with many of them just hoping that they happen to meet a requirement.
The Future That Is
For those of you who are unaware, Companion's functionality has changed, such that you can pay 3 mana during your turn at any time you could cast a sorcery to put your companion into your hand, effectively giving them a “command tax” right from the start. The solution wizards has introduced seems much cleaner. It opens the companions up to hand hate. It makes them more expensive. And it closes off some of the weirder interactions, like Lurrus of the Dream Den with Lion's Eye Diamond adding two bonus Storm count. On the one hand, this forces many of the Companions into strictly casual territory. Given, most of them were there to begin with, but it is somewhat unfortunate that the mechanic won't see as much play. On the other, with a mechanic like this, it was almost guaranteed to be great or horrible, with nothing in between. So unless they had made the cards awful, this result almost seems inevitable.
The Future That Isn't...Yet
Hopefully, Wizards has learned their lesson about things that break the fundamental rules of Magic. Sadly, something tells me they haven't. Maybe it's the fact that they've been playing with mana reducers and free spells for years, and have broken things countless times. Maybe it's...no, actually, it's the first one. That combined with the fact that they're just now starting to play around in weird card advantage spaces makes me worried that, rather than deciding to quit after the first failure, they'll try again, and again, and again. And don't get me wrong, I love seeing the game push its own boundaries. It's part of what keeps it fresh and fun. But somewhere along the lines, after the idea guy throws out his idea, someone needs to draw the line and say “No.” Are there any Blue players at Wizards?
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