The Impact of the Companion-nerf on Legacy
On Monday, Wizards of the Coast announced the following change to the Companion Mechanic:
“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.”
Considering that there has never been a power-level errata on a mechanic before, this is certainly an unprecedented move. However, it isn't a completely shocking decision. Companion is one of the most powerful mechanics ever printed and it has had a widespread and dominant influence on every format. This change will have ripple effects throughout all of Magic and today I want to evaluate what influence the change to Companions will have on Legacy.
Should Lurrus and Zirda Come Back?
This has been one of the most common questions I have seen following the changes to Companion. I think it stems from a few key assumptions:
- The cost of adding 3 mana to a Companion and adding it to your hand will offset the benefits they provide, even if the Companion is cheaper.
- Lurrus and Zirda were too powerful under the original Companion restriction, but might not be under the new one.
- It is unreasonable for Wizards of the Coast to not at least give players a chance to see if the card would be of an acceptable power level.
- When all else fails, the cards can always be banned again.
The first 2 assumptions are related to this specific change having an impact on the power of these 2 Companions. The latter 2 are tied to the notion that a fundamental change should beget players the opportunity to play the cards again.
Regarding the latter, point 3 is predicated on point rebanning being a valid option, which is an argument I strongly disagree with. One way or another, banning a card from Magic has a wide range of cascading consequences: from shaking consumer confidence in their investment to turning people away from the game completely. While the number of bans over the past year or so have led to overall positive updates to gameplay, I view the cost of a ban as being quite high. Wizards of the Coast constantly faces a fair amount of criticism for their banning decisions or lack thereof. Having to re-ban either of these Companions would be a mess that would further damage the reputation of their decision-making. While I can see the argument that change should re-validate cards banned under old rules, I don't think the benefit outweighs the potential risk.
That being said, I think these 2 Companions shouldn't return on the merits of their power and impact. I want to address each of these Companions individually through the lens of the former assumptions and discuss some key points that lead to my stance.
Lurrus, of the Dream Den
If Wizards of the Coast removed the Companion text as a whole from Magic, I think Lurrus would still go down as one of the best 3-drops that Delver decks would have access to. Delver naturally doesn't tend to play permanents that cost more than 2 mana, and tying in an extremely potent card advantage engine to a relevant body at 3 mana is a big deal.
In reality, that's not what happened. Instead, Lurrus gets to keep its Companion ability with the addition of a relatively steep tax. This tax clearly affects Lurrus' efficacy in Delver decks. It wouldn't function as a threat to curve into anymore, which was an important element to Lurrus in Delver. A 3 mana tax would likely go a long way towards slowing it down in the deck, which might make it a more reasonable card in Legacy.
However, regardless of how effective the tax is at slowing Lurrus down, this change doesn't address the initial issue that Lurrus presented to Legacy: It's a free card. The cost of using Lurrus as a Companion is almost non-existent in Delver. As I mentioned, Delver doesn't need to play any cards that step outside of the deck building restriction in order to progress the deck's game plan. There would remain almost no cost to include it. Even at a steep mana cost, the upside of always being able to play towards Delver's best threat in every game is far too great to consider bringing the card back.
Beyond that, I'm not even convinced that the tax would be that impactful on Lurrus' playability. The best variants of Lurrus Delver pre-ban were focused on grinding opponent's down with 2 for 1's. They ended up playing out more like midrange decks as opposed to aggro decks. This led to games going on for a relatively long time when compared to Delver decks pre-Lurrus. The addition of extra cantrips and additional lands tended to lead to Lurrus Delver reliably having 4-6 lands in play, and Lurrus provided an excellent use for that excess mana.
Considering how often this situation came up in the past, I think the tax is not enough to prevent Lurrus from being a powerful force in Delver decks. A lot of the cards surrounding Lurrus were the same efficient, powerful interactive spells that Delver is known for playing. This would mitigate the cost of an extra 3 mana tax on Lurrus. It would be easy enough to cast a 1 mana removal or disruption spell and use the Companion ability to add Lurrus to your hand in the same turn.
On this basis, I don't think Lurrus should be given another chance in Legacy. I might be wrong about the impact of the tax on Lurrus' playability, but it still remains a completely free card to include in Delver decks. I don't think this is a good thing for Legacy and I would be happy to see it stay banned.
The combos that Zirda enables aren't new to Legacy. There are a number of cards (even Kinnan. Bonder Prodigy, who was also printed in Ikoria) that create infinite mana in conjunction with Grim Monolith and/or Basalt Monolith. The reason Zirda is banned is, of course, the fact that one half of the combo is always available to the player. That constant access isn't changing under the new Companion rule and the fear of losing the game at any point will likely still be present.
More than any other Companion, in the context of Grim Monolith, I think Zirda is affected the least by the changes to Companion (even more than a certain Bird Serpent, as a bit of foreshadowing). The decks that play Zirda naturally have access to an extra burst of 3 mana early in the game. In addition, the card is cheap enough that it's easy to imagine Zirda's tax being paid and the card being cast in the same turn.
The most popular variant of Zirda at the time the ban occurred was a turbo-style Artifact deck. The deck was found to be too consistent and fast for Legacy to reliably handle, which is an impressive feat in the Force of Will format. That variant of Zirda utilized Lion's Eye Diamond and a range of other mana-producing artifacts to power out Zirda, all of which would minimize the effect of the tax.
However, there was another variant of Zirda combo that popped up, which fused the combo with a Snow Control deck. In this deck, the games naturally went a lot longer, as the primary game plan was to use control elements and powerful Planeswalkers to play a type of game unrelated to the Companion, and then use Zirda when it was safe. The 3-mana tax would influence its ability to threaten the combo early, but very minimally influence its ability to combo in the late game.
Under the lens of the assumptions presented earlier, I think Zirda fails at each of the former 2. The tax isn't substantial enough to weaken Zirda, thus it remains too powerful and the benefit gained by having players stress-test it under the new rules don't outweigh its format-warping ability. Zirda would probably have to be re-banned, thus I think it should remain banned.
The Curious Case of the 80 Card Deck
Moving on to the Companions still legal in Legacy, Yorion presents the most difficult case among the Companions in every format. The issue is that Yorion naturally lends itself to the longest games of all 10 Companions, thus minimizing the effect of the new tax.
The decks that play Yorion generally plan on casting it on a relatively stable board state. In Legacy, that has been Snow-style control decks, primarily utilizing Uro, Oko, and a wide-range of defensive options to keep the game going. The goal of these decks is not to curve into a fast Yorion and rebuy as many enter the battlefield effects as possible (although, that option existed). The primary goal is to use every resource at your disposal to disrupt your opponent's game plan. When the dust settled, that's when the looming presence of Yorion would become most apparent, and a 4/5 flying creature would either end the game, or continue to buy more time.
Adding 3 mana to the cost of a card that is usually cast on turn 8-10 after both players have been exchanging resources all game isn't a substantial cost. This is a pretty strong argument against the change impacting what has proven to be the most pervasive Companion in Legacy.
However, I think it's possible that the Companion tax might work in conjunction with the natural cost of playing an 80 card deck to actually have a negative effect on Yorion's power level. Magic cards are really powerful in this modern era of the game, and running 4 copies of every good card, pushing your deck to 80 cards isn't going to have as substantial of a negative impact as it used to.
This line of thinking is sound, but might be sidestepping the fact that we wouldn't be playing 80 cards if not for Yorion. My hypothesis is as follows:
- Making Yorion cost significantly more as a Companion might line-up just right with the fact that 80 card decks are less consistent than 60 card decks, thus making Yorion's actual worth come into question.
My argument is predicated on the assumption that having the ability to cast Yorion on turn 5 if you need to is an important aspect to Yorion's playability as a Companion. In decks built around re-triggering enter the battlefield effects, this assumption seems a lot safer, and losing the ability to curve into Yorion is probably a big deal. In the case of Yorion Snow Control, the outcome is certainly a bit more ambiguous, but ultimately, I think the change will make the choice between 60 card decks and Yorion as a Companion more meaningful.
Time will tell if this is an accurate stance. I will definitely be paying close attention as the data comes out over the next few weeks.
The One-Shot Water Cannon
Gyruda, Doom of Depths has proven itself to lead to the most degenerate game play of all the Companions. These all-in, Goblin Charbelcher style decks have always existed in Legacy but never with as consistent access to the payoff spell as Gyruda provides. Fortunately, with the change to Companion, I think we have all been given some relief from the deck. The shift from 6 to 9 mana is massive, and will greatly impact the speed and consistency of Gyruda decks. Lion's Eye Diamond certainly provides explosive bursts of 3 mana in this deck, but needing extra copies to get going is by no means trivial.
The speed of the deck isn't the only factor that is affected. The means of disruption that act as counterplay to Gyruda have expanded. If the Gyruda player ever has to split up the mana commitment across 2 turns, that brings Thoughtseize back into the equation. This should provide non-Blue decks the critical opportunity to interact with these decks which didn't exist before. The fact that Gyruda gets added to the player's hand hurts the deck by itself, since Lion's Eye Diamond is much less effective in that world.
All-in-all, Gyruda should fall off from being the scariest card in Legacy with Depths in its name and I think this is a greatly positive change to the Legacy metagame.
Companion Going Forward
There are other legal Companions, Lutri being the most likely to show up outside of the big 2 mentioned here. This change is likely to not only invalidate Lutri, but the other 5 I left out of this article as well. I don't think this is too steep a cost to pay, as Companion being a dominant mechanic is not beneficial to Legacy longterm. Lutri does have a very cool deckbuilding restriction, and of all the Companions this is the one I'm saddest to see go, but the benefits the change will provide likely outweigh that loss.
Overall, I think this change is a good one. People have suggested that this might not be enough, especially in the case of Yorion, and that may still prove true. My instinct is that more drastic measures were probably not necessary. This should reduce the mechanic's presence down to just Yorion, and if it gets played roughly half as much as it was, I think that would have a substantial positive impact on Legacy.
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