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Standing My Ground

Written by Scott Campbell on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Magic Culture

Standing My Ground

Scott Campbell

Scott Campbell, also known as MTGPackFoils, has played Magic: the Gathering since Revised. He mostly plays Azorius based Control, or Golgari based Midrange decks. He also enjoys MLB, D&D, and is a former DJ.

Hello everyone, and welcome back to LegitMTG for another article. I will admit today’s article will not be the light-hearted affair many of you long time readers are used to, and unfortunately that does happen from time to time. This time though is a bit different as the subject matter of today’s piece isn’t even available in paper yet. Today I’m going to have a discussion about the current hot topic in the game, the Companions from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, and the continued push to have game warping cards in every set. Thank you all for stopping by.

What are the Companions

The cards with the Companion mechanic are creatures that take up a sideboard slot, are revealed at the beginning of the game, and restrict how your deck is constructed. These creatures can be cast from this area, or zone, and enter the battlefield just like any other summon creature spell. They can be countered upon casting, and if you cast Unsummon they go back to the player’s hand. They are also all Legendary, and have hybrid mana symbols representing each of the two color pairings available in the game. Some have abilities that trigger when they enter, some have abilities that are static as long as they are in play, and a few even have activated abilities.

These creatures remind me of the Commander in a Commander deck. While the deckbuilding rules are different for Companions in a 60 card deck than Commanders are in a Commander deck the “feel” of the design influence is still felt. This year has been set up as “The Year of Commander” by Wizards of the Coast, and Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths is definitely living up to that moniker.

However with all of that said there are problems with these cards that have been felt through all of the formats (even Vintage), and this problem is another in a long line of issues that have been present in the game for at least the last few years. To remain focused I’m going to provide three points that highlight these issues, and also bring to light the issues that these have compounded on over recent years.

  • The power level between Companions is out of balance

Anytime there is a cycle of cards there will be one or two that see more play than others, yet all of them should see some measure of play. Lutri, the Spellchaser’s ban in Commander notwithstanding I don’t feel this will happen. Each of these cards have deckbuilding restrictions that in a 60 card format (Standard, Modern, etc.) it may not work. They might be great ideas, but eventually abandoned due to the power level of some of the other options. For instance Kaheera, the Orphanguard states “Each creature card in your starting deck is a Cat, Elemental, Nightmare, Dinosaur, or Beast card.” as it’s deckbuilding rule. This means you can’t play a lot of outstanding creatures in Standard for instance.  Where I can see this being played is in a deck full of Planeswalkers as we do having no creatures gets around the restrictions and leaves you with an early blocker.  Having a restriction like this leads to limited ideas than it should leave room to explore, and brew.
Over time some of the cards in a cycle may see play as new options present themselves, however upon release these new cards should all provide some measure of exploration into what they can offer. This is not happening. With how quickly formats are “solved” (for lack of better phrasing) the player base as a whole gravitates towards one or two in a cycle, and discards the rest. This is currently happening as Lurrus of the Dream-Den has taken over all of Magic: the Gathering. While there are decks with Gyruda, Doom of the Depths, and Yorion, Sky Nomad decks out there in various formats the difference between them is quite large providing a clear “best” and “maybe average” description between them. A recent example of this was in War of the Spark when the “best” of the planeswalkers took all of the spotlight across all formats, and the others were left to rot. How many of you knew that Ajani had a card in that set? I had to look up what Ajani, the Greathearted did too. If the planeswalkers are supposed to be “iconic” why do this to them?
The competitive nature of Magic: the Gathering does cause players to build, and learn “the best” decks, but when the collection of “best” decks are all running the same cards that leads to repetitive play patterns, frustrating matches, and apathetic feelings about the game in general. This is what a card like Lurrus of the Dream-Den has done, and is why the other Companions see only marginal play by comparison. 

  • The community says you are wrong if you do not play them  

This is perhaps my largest issue with not only Companions, but with new cards entering Standard every three months. Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is a big issue in any hobby, or activity. There is a need for us on a social level to belong, and to feel excluded because you are not up to date with the latest trends is harmful. Whether intentional or not this has to stop. Magic: the Gathering is as much a social game based on conversations about strategy, play patterns, and overall enjoyment of the game as much as it is about competition. We already have enough exclusionary stances in society based on how we feel about issues ranging anywhere from a moral to a political subject as it is. We don’t need another. 

This is not Entertainment Tonight. We don’t need to always be on top of what’s trending. If one wants to play a Mono Red Burn deck with Keldon Marauders then encourage it! If one wants to play Mono Blue Merfolk because it reminds them of going fishing with their grandfather then applaud them for that unique, and personal choice. Stating “this deck would be better with (insert new card here)”, or “your deck isn’t great because of decks with (insert new card here)” does nothing but invalidate their choice while making them want to stop playing the game. Stop it. People do not like being told what to do, nor how to do it.

  1. Constant reinvestment into older formats diminishes the uniqueness of each release

Every set in Magic has its place. A set such as Ravnica Allegiance is made for Standard play while the Nature’s Vengeance deck featuring Lord Windgrace was part of the Commander 2018 group of decks made for Commander play. There’s an understanding of what each release is designed for allowing the consumer to focus on the releases that they want for how they wish to play.

    …well..that used to be the case.

Each time a new set of cards is released, since (at least) 2019 there always seems to be some number of cards that require players, even in Vintage, to go back to retool their entire deck. Why? Don’t get me wrong. Adding new cards to an existing archetype is something that’s been done for a long time, but having to retool your non-Standard deck every three months just because there are new cards? Who is to say these brand new cards will live up to their hype? Yes I know many players get the cards to “test” in their deck, but that does not seem to be the case as of late.
When Smothering Tithe was released in Ravnica Allegiance suddenly every deck running White in Commander had to have it. Even if that was their splash color. Why? Yes I understand what the card does, but does everyone really need it? Do they now need to reconstruct their deck around it? Do opposing decks now need to reconstruct their deck because of it? Have decks become invalidated because of it? When War of the Spark was released, and we had 37 (yes counting the buy-a-box promo) planeswalkers suddenly Narset, Parter of Veils pushed Search For Azcanta out of blue decks. The only thing that changed was that we had Narset. There was not a new card made to destroy enchantments, or lands. Sure her static ability prevents opponents from drawing more than one card a turn, but how many decks do you face that do that? You are also in blue so shouldn’t you be drawing more cards anyway? 
While I ate a lot of crow for my take on Modern Horizons the same happened with Wrenn and Six. It replaced Dark Confidant in the Jund lists (RIP Bob), and “if you’re not running Wrenn and Six in Jund you’re doing it wrong”. Sure after playing with the card I understand the power level of it, but here we are again where a new card causes one to completely rebuild a deck they have built, learned, and tuned for years. Arcum’s Astrolabe is another example of this. With the inclusion of that card players felt it was an easy way to fix mana, and suddenly colors didn’t matter anymore. While it was banned in Pauper it’s still a problem in older formats where the color identity of a card should matter, and if you don’t run it then you feel you are at a competitive disadvantage. I don’t think I need to go over Oko, Thief of Crowns. That card truly took over all of Magic, however here we are again with these companions. 

What we are seeing now is decks in Modern such as Boros Burn running Lurrus of the Dream-Den plus four Mishra’s Baubles “just because”. These cards aren’t red, nor do they do direct damage, and Lurrus can only be cast with white mana which is the splash color in the deck. However because “it’s the new thing” players now have to completely rebuild their deck they have had for years because of it. Why? They should not be forced to do so, or compelled that they have to do this. Older formats, especially Vintage, and Legacy, having a continued upkeep cost is only going to continue the problems those formats have of drawing new players. If every set is going to cause decks, let alone entire archetypes, to go through a rebuild every three months then why are sets understood as “Standard legal” when in truth they are made to impact every format in all of Magic: the Gathering?

Having powerful new Standard cards for Standard play is a good thing for that format. Having those cards spill into other formats upon release, and warp those formats around them, is not. Every new card with the Dredge mechanic does not go into Dredge. Every new card with the Storm mechanic does not go into Storm. Every new counterspell does not go into an Azorius Control deck. This is how things should be as it gives players the chance to try them, and learn on their own how good (or bad) a card is in their existing decks. Taking that choice away from players by constantly making cards that we “must run” not only hampers the creative process, but could also cause older cards that those players may also need to reach a price point out of their budget. 

Pricing out players like this, and also by not having quality reprints (which is another point entirely) not only keeps new players out of the game, but causes the same decks to be seen at the top of each format. The more players have access to the game pieces (the cards) the more unique ways to play this game can be learned. The more new players enter the competitive scene the fresher that becomes as well. This current level of design does not lean that way, and feels very much like survival of the fittest.

What we can do

As much as I hate to put things in the simplest of terms for something as complex as this issue we still have choices. We can:

  1. Continue making changes every three months, or
  2. Don’t

I am choosing the latter option. While I can’t wait to try Narset of the Ancient Way, it’s not a card that will warp the entire game across multiple formats like Oko, Thief of Crowns, or Lurrus of the Dream-Den. I bought into Modern because the era those cards come from were in come from the periods of Standard I enjoyed the most. Having one deck (or a few decks), and learning to play them to the best of my capability not only helps me keep my expenditures down to a reasonable level, but allows me to use that money to explore other casual pursuits (Commander, signed cards, etc), or obtain original pack foil versions of cards I play in those decks. Having to overhaul an entire archetype, or see a format warp around one card (or a small number of cards) every three months leads to uncertainty, and an unwillingness to buy into older cards that may be invalidated the next time a new set is released. A new set that was designed, and made for Standard.

In Conclusion

I understand that my opinion on this matter may not fit yours, and you may be fine having these constant changes, but I ask you this: Should you be fine with this? We already know that new cards are not tested for the older formats which leaves us to be their beta testers. This then eventually leads to cards being banned, which then causes a whole new set of issues. It did not used to be this way, so why should we accept things how they are now?

What are your thoughts on Companions, and the current level of design in Magic? Are you also standing your ground, or are you buying in updating your desks every three months? Let me know by leaving a comment below, and follow me on Twitter as well as Facebook.

Next week

Let’s get back to having fun with the game. I’m going to highlight three of my all-time favorite decks from Standard’s past. 

Until then…



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