Uncertain Associates: The Companion Problem

With the new set fully available online, players can finally verify if all the speculation was correct. It’s one thing to assess cards in a vacuum than in reality, after all. Usually, assessments are too far-off, and a consensus quickly develops around the new cards in every format. This opinion is then developed and refined into reality and the viable cards find their homes.

Clearly, something else is happening regarding Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths. The companions are proving polarizing, and the more I look into them, the muddier the picture becomes. There’s no hard evidence yet, and the circumstantial evidence is contradictory. This requires a deep look at the phenomenon in question.

We’ve been down this road before. When Hogaak first emerged, I was skeptical of the deck while the greater Magic community was apoplectic. The available data didn’t back up the claims. I explained this discrepancy as the result of Hogaak’s variance skewing experimental data. As the deck became more refined and consistent, the data caught up to the claims, and justified them. Previously, similar claims had been made about Izzet Phoenix, and were ultimately unjustified.

Something similar is happening right now. Players are operating on very little experimental data, having very different results, and are forming conclusions on that basis. The truth of the matter will take time to develop, but for now, I will look into the claims and relate my own experience.

Accessory to Rage

That companion is controversial shouldn’t be controversial. You can’t really look at anything Magic related without some discussion of how overpowered/bad for Magic/ill-conceived the ten companions are. And there may be a point there. Companion is functionally an eighth card in the starting hand, and not a random one, either. Drawing extra cards is powerful, and so is tutoring, so on-face, the mechanic itself is bonkers. Some have effectively no drawback, and are therefore free value. This naturally is driving the community into a froth, though some of that is certainly just echo chamber effect.

Normally, the solution to this problem is to fall back on the data. However, the data is very thin. All we have to work with are online results, which Wizards is not great about publishing.

The recent League data showed 29/78 (~37%) decks running companions. That doesn’t mean anything, as any deck can win a League, and the data is curated and therefore not a valid sample. The few Preliminaries and the Challenge that Wizards has posted at time of writing don’t give me much to go on, either. For some reason, Ikoria cards were really scarce on MTGO until about April 20, so I don’t want to draw conclusions from anything before then. The most recent data had a lot of normal decks with a value companion just because. There’s no way to draw conclusions from such a small data set.

To make matters worse, what data there is suggests that some companions are actually busted in certain formats. Gyruda, Doom of Depths turns Lion’s Eye Diamond into Black Lotus; fill the deck with Clone effects and mill the opponent out on turn one. Pioneer and Standard may lack Legacy’s acceleration and clone density, but Gyruda is still tearing it up with absurd combo turns. Lurrus of the Dream Den is “free” with Black Lotus in Vintage. There, players are panic-inserting companions into decks just to stay competitive. Even if the data doesn’t agree, the perception is firmly that companions are overpowered and necessary. I don’t agree.

My Experience

I have played more MTGO in the past month than I had in the previous four years. Having the option to play Modern in paper 3+ times a week obviated any desire to play online. Which means for once I’m reviewing the same data sources as the doomsayers. And I’m not seeing the same problems they are; in Modern, anyway, as Pioneer and Legacy are separate matters, and I’m more on-board with that kerfuffle. Gyruda is not reasonable alongside Legacy’s fast mana or Pioneer’s poor answers. But Modern seems fine. There’s a lot of upheaval from Ikoria, and I haven’t seen it actually be good, to the point I’m struggling to justify running Ikoria cards in my 75.

Part of this may simply be that I am me, and I default to skepticism. I require very clear evidence and tend to focus on the opportunity costs and other hurdles to playability rather than the upside to a card. This is why I didn’t leap onto Ox of Agonas in Dredge and remain skeptical of Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. They’re both cards that can be easily answered by hate players should all be playing. I see their success as a failure to adapt rather than any inherent power issue.

Another part is my deck. I’ve been grinding Leagues with Humans for weeks. I already had the deck, and don’t like putting money into digital cards. Prior to Ikoria, I was finishing between 2-3 and 4-1, and I still am. In aggregate, nothing has changed for me. I haven’t hit decks with companions any more often than any other type of deck, nor have those seemed better or worse than the previous versions of those decks. For reference, this is the version of Humans that I played in the last League before writing this article, to a 3-2 record.

Humans, League Deck

Creatures (37)
Noble Hierarch
Champion of the Parish
Kitesail Freebooter
Meddling Mage
Thalia’s Lieutenant
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Phantasmal Image
Drannith Magistrate
Mantis Rider
Reflector Mage
General Kudro of Drannith

Artifacts (4)
Aether Vial

Lands (19)
Cavern of Souls
Unclaimed Territory
Ancient Ziggurat
Horizon Canopy
Snow-Covered Island
Snow-Covered Plains
Waterlogged Grove
Sideboard (15)
Grafdigger’s Cage
Auriok Champion
Collector Ouphe
Militia Bugler
Dismember
Magus of the Moon
Plague Engineer
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

I’ve been trying out the new Humans, and they’ve been pretty underwhelming. General Kudro is fine as a lord and a beater, but he doesn’t excite. I’ve never been in a situation where throwing two Humans at a monster would have improved my position, although I can visualize it happening. Meanwhile, the graveyard hate is very good in relevant matchups, but I haven’t hit many of them.

I was expecting a lot from Drannith Magistrate. Again, I thought that companions, being the hyped and the Hot New Thing, would be everywhere. I also expected combo to see a boost with players trying to dodge companion fights. Combined with Uro’s already observed prevalence, I thought that Magistrate would really stand out and surprise me. And it did, but not in the good way. I’ve played against decks where Magistrate did something about ~25% of the time, and most of those times, it was the same job Kudro would have done. I’m seriously thinking of cutting Magistrate altogether, because each time I’ve been against a companion, the match was decided without the companion mattering. Except for times where I punted into my face.

Looking at Lurrus

This disillusionment has been largely a product of matches against Lurrus decks. Most of the terror and wailing over Modern’s fate was directed at Lurrus, which almost certainly colors my opinion. I just haven’t seen Lurrus live up to the hype. It’s a fine card, and there is a definite advantage to having an 8th card in hand. However, Lurrus itself and decks built around Lurrus in general, haven’t performed uniquely well in my eyes. In fact, in many ways, they’ve performed worse than their traditional alternatives.

I think this can be demonstrated by my experience against Lurrus Jund. I’ve heard players claim that it is an enormous improvement over classic Jund. From my perspective, it’s worse. Jund is not a good matchup for Humans. Jund’s a pile of removal and value, while Humans is a deck of small, synergistic creatures. The Lurrus version plays out similarly, but it lacks Liliana of the Veil. Instead, it’s looking to rebuy Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger each turn. This is better for Humans, as Liliana’s downtick is very strong. Three damage from Kroxa per turn is less worrying than another removal spell, since my hand is usually empty by that point anyway and I need threats. Plus, Lurrus Jund can’t run Plague Engineer. It’s still not a good matchup, but it feels improved. Plus, I’ve won matches because my opponent spent so much time durdling with Lurrus they timed out. From Humans’s perspective, Lurrus has harmed Jund.

More generally, decks built around Lurrus haven’t worked because making the fit is artificial, contrived, and inefficient… or the underlying deck was just bad. The exception has been Hardened Scales. Lurrus recasting Walking Ballista or Hangerback Walker is indeed backbreaking. And that’s not considering comboing with The Ozolith or Hardened Scales. The catch is that I have repeatedly punted into my face against this deck. I’ve done it all, from ruining turns mistapping mana to misclicks and just bad decisions. I don’t know what’s up, but I just can’t play well against this deck. I wouldn’t necessarily have won every game if I’d played well, but I could have neutralized Lurrus each time.

Yeeting Yorion

My problem with Yorion, Sky Nomad is not the card itself. Blinking permanents for value is incredibly powerful, and doing so en masse is absurd. Just ask Bant Ephemerate. The problem is the companion restriction.

All the companions require sacrifice, but only Yorion requires making the deck mathematically worse. Jamie Wakefield’s acolytes aside, there is a very good reason that for the past 21 years the correct choice has been to play the minimum required deck size. The math on this matter is very clear. If you want an optimized deck, it needs to see its best cards reliably, and as the number of cards approaches infinity, the odds of seeing any card approach zero.

My experience playing against Bant Yorion decks falls in line with the mathematical predictions. I can remember ten matches against the deck, and I’ve lost none. I’ve dropped individual games, but not to Yorion specifically. In those games, I lost to Ice-Fang Coatl and Reflector Mage being repeatedly blinked and/or rebought with Eternal Witness. Yorion just closed the door. In other words, when Yorion Ephemerate plays like Bant Ephemerate, I lose as hard as I usually did to Bant Ephemerate.

Of course, that doesn’t happen consistently. Most of the time, Yorion has to keep a hand with a payoff or two and some acceleration into Yorion. Humans can spread the board and push through a single instance of value gain. Or worse (for them), I can just name Yorion with Meddling Mage and the deck becomes a literal pile. Humans just does better when I know what to name, and the companions are huge telegraphs. Which will be coming up again down the page.

Other Companions

I’ve seen a number of decks, from Tron to Humans, running Jegantha, the Wellspring. Not because it does anything special for them, but simply because they could. I asked. The fact that they had access to Jegantha didn’t matter at all. Generating mana is nice, but all the players who responded flatly told me that it’s just a 5/5 for five.  And the Humans player was cold on Jegantha, since he couldn’t run Auriok Champion. One Tron player said casting Jegantha is a desperation move in attrition matchups.

For Humans to lose to a mostly vanilla 5/5, I’d have to be doomed anyway. The one time that it would have mattered was against Niv-to-Light where I’d just landed Magus of the Moon. It didn’t, because I just needed to delay my opponent by one turn to win. And I already had, so I did.

As for Gyruda, I haven’t seen the deck actually work in Modern. I’ve only actually seen it in action three times, but I also haven’t heard anyone talking about the deck. Which may be why I can’t find a decklist to link. In Legacy, Gyruda is a turn-one combo with Lion’s Eye Diamond. Pioneer and Standard are slow enough to permit casting a six mana card normally or by ramping and then gaining value even if it doesn’t go off, which is overwhelming in removal poor formats.

Modern has neither conditions, and Gyruda may be fine here. It’s slow by combo deck standards, and clunky by graveyard deck standards. The only way it beats just playing Dredge is when it goes off and mills out the opponent. It’s also only better than Tron as a ramp deck if it goes off completely; otherwise, a 6/6 and change isn’t very threatening. I’ve played seven games against Gyruda, and it managed to successfully combo me out once. Once it could have, but was shut down by Grafdigger’s Cage. Another time, it fizzled. The other four games, I just blew past them and/or Meddling Maged them out of the game.

What Does it Mean?

My personal experience and the overall narrative regarding the companions are not compatible. One of these observations is wrong, and likely an outlier. Echo chamber, doomsaying, and reviews gives the busted camp a leg up on me and others taking more moderate approaches. The truth will only become clear with more data. At minimum, Modern appears to be handling Gyruda better than the other formats. We’ll see if that lasts.

One thought on “Uncertain Associates: The Companion Problem

  1. finally a cool head in a sea of social media ‘outrage’, i strongly agree with your points, people are dramatically exaggerating the impact of an ‘8th card’ and completely downplay the fact that it’s just one of the factors that can decide a game

    how many games you see some aggro being so far ahead on tempo that the other player dies with 3+ cards in hand? how many times in modern you get locked out of the game with a sideboard piece that invalidates your entire gameplan? how many time does Tron cast an Ulamog and sudenly all your treasured card advantage becomes irrelevant? and then what about combo that care neither about boards nor about hand sizes, it’s just a matter of having a specific answer or not

    just because some peope are hellbent on including a companion in their deck even by replacing dozens of cards they’d normally want to play doesn’t mean they actually make their decks better, it’s just choosing card quantity over quality

    also there’s nothing wrong with magic changing over the years, stagnation is never good for anything really, if magic does not adapt to new ideas and does not experiment with new concepts it’s eventually going to start looking very old compared to newer games

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