Rampant Speculation on the May 11th Banned and Restricted Announcement
📅 May 12, 2020•
⏱️9 min read
How Did We Get Here?
A large part of the reason Min and I didn't write any strategy content on Companion Legacy was that the likely shelf life of the article(s) would make the time spent not worthwhile. On May 11th, less than a month after Ikoria's digital release, WotC announced that there will be a Banned and Restricted Announcement on May 18th concerning Legacy, Vintage, and Brawl. Assuming that, at the minimum, Lurrus is banned, this will be the second shortest time between a card's release and its banning in Legacy. Flash lasted 28 days, and Lurrus will have lasted 32. If it weren't for WotC's "announcement of an announcement" policy and banned cards yesterday, Lurrus would have broken the all-time record!
Let's look at how fast Lurrus was broken. Ikoria's Magic Online release was Thursday, April 16. On Wednesday, April 15, the day prior to the official release, Edgar Magalhães had acquired a Lurrus via a Treasure Chest, threw together Grixis Lurrus Delver, and went 20-0 in league play. By that Saturday, JPA, Ark4n, and I had all brewed up versions of Jeskai Lurrus Delver for access to superior removal and Meddling Mage. JPA went something like 31-3 on his tear, winning a Challenge and Super Qualifier along the way.
It doesn't take much to realize the potential that the companion mechanic has to dominate a game of Magic. SaffronOlive / MTGGoldfish analyzed 85,000 games under the Vancouver mulligan rule. A 6 card hand had a 39% win rate against a 7 card hand, and a 5 card hand only won 26% of the time against 7. While the London mulligan lessens the blow, it's clear that starting down a card is a massive disadvantage. Therefore, if you have the option to start up a card with a companion, you're almost forced to do so, as playing without a companion against a player with a companion is a lot like starting with 6 cards against an opposing 7. And that's assuming you don't have to mulligan!
When the companion is Lurrus, things get even wackier. The requirement for Lurrus is that you only play low-cost permanents in your Legacy deck. That's not exactly a huge ask, and some people even joked that the requirement for Lurrus was that you build your Legacy deck correctly! What's the payoff? It's a 3 mana nonblue creature spell (so it can't get Spell Pierced or Pyroblasted), that replaces itself immediately, and puts you up an additional card for every turn you untap with it. That looks like Jace, the Mind Sculptor-level advantage, and if you convert your card advantage into a board advantage, Lurrus even has a free Lightning Helix stapled to it every turn in the combat step.
The most significant advantage Lurrus as your companion, though? Let's look at a classic Delver deck. There are normally between 12 and 14 threats, 18 and 20 lands, 4-6 removal spells, a bunch of countermagic, and cantrips to help you find the correct parts of your deck as you need them. However, when you always have Lurrus as this incredible threat in your companion zone, you can change how you build your deck. Since you always have access to Lurrus, you can reduce the threat density in the rest of your deck, increasing your consistency and ability to respond to the swath of situations posed to you in a Legacy match, reducing the likelihood you're flooded with threats without the supporting cast they require.
I'm only going to briefly touch on some of the other companions, but they're pretty busted, too. Zirda converts a Grim Monolith or Basalt Monolith into infinite mana, and both the turbo-Zirda and Snowko variants of the deck are strong, with their only real predator being the Lurrus Delver decks. Yorion Snowko / Miracles is also reasonably good, just not as good in a hyper-efficient Lurrus metagame. Gyruda is probably the least busted of the playable companions, as a Belcher-style deck where you always have your payoff, boasting a reasonable "Angel Stompy" Plan B. While none of these are quite as good as Lurrus Delver, I'd put the Zirda Snowko deck on the same tier as many of the other Lurrus decks, and think that a ban on specifically Lurrus would put us in the same situation we are in now, except just with Zirda Snowko decks at the top.
What I (Max) Think Should Happen:
I think the companion mechanic is fundamentally broken. Starting with an extra card compared to companion-less decks makes the decision trivial of whether or not to play one, unless you don't plan to interact on the axes that Magic normally plays on, like Dredge. I believe they should change the rules around companion to remove the inherent card advantage the mechanic offers. Here is my proposal:
"As an additional cost to cast a companion, you must exile a nonland card from your hand."
Simple and subtle. What does it do?
It's approximately the difference between an alt-cast Force of Will and a zero mana card where you pay 1 life to counter target spell.
Other variations of this rules change could also work to nerf the mechanic further. The exiled card could potentially have to share a color with the companion, or perhaps you have to exile the card at the point that you keep your initial hand, putting the companion into your hand, where discard effects can interact with it.
Of note, while these suggestions all nerf companions, they completely obliterate the Gyruda deck. You can't exile a card from your hand to cast a Gyruda from your companion zone after you crack a Lion's Eye Diamond, and the variants that put your Gyruda into your opening hand similarly disqualify the combo from working as it does now.
I think that we should at least try the companion mechanic in a world where it's not just simply correct to play a companion over the alternative. Perhaps the consistency of always having your chosen companion will still prove to be too powerful, but personally I don't think it would be. Oko, Plague Engineer, and True-Name Nemesis are all powerful cards to include in one's Delver deck if you don't have to start down a card against anyone playing a companion, and perhaps it would level the playing field before banning a companion outright. A reasonable percentage of the Magic player base enjoys the companions, so bringing their power in line with other decks seems preferable to banning them outright.
What Min Thinks Should Happen:
Max said most of it for me, I'd like to also think about the possibility of raising the power level floor rather than crashing in the ceiling. Most disenfranchised players buy into Legacy over time to play strategies that they enjoy, and there's not a ton of room for WOTC to print new cards into the format without breaking into a power-level discussion over any new card. It can be reigned in, yes, but that might just be putting a band-aid on the issue and having the wound underneath simply get bigger.
I think "unbans" should be explored a bit more in Legacy and all forms of Magic. I posted a tweet earlier today here, detailing what I mean:
I know there's a lot of Pre-X formats being talked about, we've done Legacy Unchained where a bunch of unbans at once happen, but curious if people would be interested in "fixed" unbanned suspects being tried, ie:— Minhajul Hoq (@MinnieHajj) May 12, 2020
Unban Top, DRS, W6 in the current Legacy environment. Thoughts?
My proposal is this: Consider unbanning previously banned cards due to power level when a power-level discussion is happening. Perhaps cards like Sensei's Divining Top, Deathrite Shaman, et al. would be more reasonable if the rest of Legacy has access to Lurrus and so on. Or perhaps it makes the problem way worse to give Delver access to Deathrite AND Lurrus. While that second sentence might seem like the most likely outcome, there's perhaps a chance where adaptation could occur that would lead to a more fun and overall healthier and less stale metagame. Alternatively, try it and then get rid of it if it proves unhealthy.
Unbanning should be used as a tool to gauge a format just as much as banning should, in my opinion. That being said, my proposal will likely never see the light of day since it would be less fruitful in terms of profit margins, but I think it's at least an interesting thought experiment, a fun "what if..." moment.
Min out. Back to Max.
But What About Bans?
In Legacy, I think Arcum's Astrolabe should go. 4 and 5 color manabases shouldn't be immune to Wasteland or Blood Moon, and able to leverage their own Back to Basics. Magic is balanced around a consistency cost for the inclusion of additional colors, and every time a card breaks that balance, the resulting decks become too strong, playing the best cards across the color pie. The last instance of this, of course, was Deathrite Shaman.
The argument I keep seeing for keeping Arcum's Astrolabe in Legacy is to reduce the number of dual lands required for a competitive Blue Legacy deck. However, that argument is flawed. Before the releases of War of the Spark and Modern Horizons, we had Grand Prix Niagara Falls. The best deck at the event? UW Stoneblade. Not Esper. Not Jeskai. Just Blue and White, leveraging 7-9 basic lands for a manabase immune to Wasteland or Blood Moon, able to leverage its own Back to Basics against the field. The entire dual land count of the deck was 1-2 Tundras. Arcum's Astrolabe isn't needed for strong basic-heavy control decks to shine. There just needs to be a cost to running additional colors, the very thing that Arcum's Astrolabe removes. The Niagara Falls metagame was one of my favorite Legacy metagames in my experience with the format. In stark contrast, I think the metagame right before Ikoria's release was among the worst of the not explicitly broken Legacy metagames I've played in, and Arcum's Astrolabe holds primary responsibility.
The consensus most problematic non-companion spells in Legacy are Oko, Uro, and Veil of Summer, and those are frequently on players' ban wish-lists. However, I still think that Arcum's Astrolabe is the real culprit here. Veil of Summer becomes less omnipresent when you can't cast it off of Basic (Snow-Covered) Island, the UUGG requirement of Uro becomes a lot harder to actually get to, and Oko doesn't get an ideal Elk target upon entering play. I also think that Oko, while very powerful, is the least problematic of the aforementioned spells, answerable by both Pyroblast and Abrupt Decay.
In Vintage, even with a power-level errata for companions, Lurrus may still just be too powerful. As powerful as Black Lotus is, it's supposed to be raw card disadvantage for a one-shot acceleration. Black Lotus into Lurrus into recasting Black Lotus immediately (and every turn thereafter) provides a Mishra's Workshop level mana advantage to Blue decks. Regardless of your opinion on Mishra's Workshop, we can all probably agree that isn't okay. Due to the nature of the companion mechanic making a restriction ineffective, we may see the first-ever ban in Vintage for reasons solely pertaining to a card's power.
What I Think Will Actually Happen:
As the announcement's scope only covers Vintage, Legacy, and Brawl, I don't think that WotC is going to change how the companion mechanic works. They may even be happy with how it's been going in Standard. This means that some (or all) of the companions will be banned in Legacy and Vintage.
My biggest realistic fear at this point is that WotC just bans Lurrus in Legacy and Vintage, creating a Zirda Hell in Legacy and probably creating Zirda Paradoxical Outcome as the deck to beat in Vintage.
In general, though, WotC has been pretty good at anticipating the obvious next best decks from a ban's fallout, and banning appropriately. For this reason, I expect that at least Lurrus, Zirda, Yorion, and Gyruda will be banned in Legacy, if not all cards with the companion mechanic. I expect something similar for Vintage.
This is kind of unfortunate, as I think the companions, as cards that could be put inside a deck, are pretty cool. I'd be excited to play Lurrus as a Recruiter target in Esper Vial, for instance. Legacy and Vintage can handle cards as powerful as the companions. The root of the problem pertains to the inherent card and consistency advantage offered by the companion zone.
As far as any action that WotC will take on Monday, despite my feelings on Arcum's Astrolabe, I don't think it, Oko, Uro, or Veil of Summer will be banned. Whatever specific action that WotC takes, I hope the formats in the wake of the bans present diverse, balanced, and fun gameplay, at least until Core Set 2021 comes around and breaks everything again.