Ikoria Spotlight: Competitive Constructed Companions


Ikoria's new ability companion adds a touch of the Commander experience to regular Magic. You can reveal one companion from your sideboard before each game, if your presented deck matches the card's specified restriction, and then cast it from there once during that game. Let's look at implications and decks.

How Does That Even Work?

Lutri, the Spellchaser

Last Thursday's initial slew of previews for Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths had many a player reeling from information overload. The cards were so crazy, the plethora of possibilities so plentiful that it almost didn't feel like this setting was part of the familiar multiverse of Magic anymore. The evergrowing number of special showcase styles now featuring crossover characters from an entirely different intellectual property, namely the Godzilla franchise, didn't help.

Mixed in with the complaints we always get whenever Magic carves out new territory were some legitimate concerns. For example, I've been editing Magic articles for the better part of the past two decades. The number of times I came across some variation of the blanket statement that a spell goes to the graveyard without effect when all of its targets are illegal upon resolution numbers in the, well, at least several dozens. Since the original Theros, I've dutifully added "unless it's bestow" to every one of them. Now it seems we'll also carry the baggage of the mutate exception around with us for all eternity.

Nevertheless, it is of course great that Magic still bears surprises in its 28th year of existence. Among the nice I count companion. People have voiced the worry that it's hard to verify the adherence to the specified deck-building restriction in real-life tournaments. Some saw severe potential for abuse. While skeptical at first, I now believe the opposite. It's much more likely that someone makes an honest mistake with their companion and suffers an unfortunate penalty than it is for anyone to gain an unfair advantage.

Gyruda, Doom of Depths Keruga, the Macrosage Umori, the Collector

For all of the above, it's self-evident for every single card in a deck if it meets the criteria. And a player has to declare that all of them do before the start of the game, because that's when people reveal their companion from their sideboard. At this point, the presence of any card that constitutes a breach of said contract is a liability rather than an asset, accident rather than angleshooting. People may yet get away with it, provided they never draw/cast/reveal the offending card. But then it's still no advantage to have it in the deck. Quite the opposite.

Of course, then there's Lutri, the Spellchaser. The adorable little Elemental Otter had to go and ruin it for everyone by handing ammunition to the companion detractors. They have argued that a player could run multiple copies of the same spell to increase the likelihood of drawing it, then try to hide the rest; if successful, no one might ever know. Mitigating factors include the risk of discovery and the fact that it's probably not a good idea to put literally dead cards into one's deck. Still, the accusation sticks.

What's worse is that it's not worth it. If used correctly, this companion isn't compatible with competitive play, its cost too steep, its effect not deep enough. Although granted special dispensation to use companion, the casual Commander crowd doesn't want the card either, because the restriction is no restriction there. A failure on all fronts, except for the art which, again, is adorable.

At least, companion should prove perfectly unproblematic on platforms such as Magic Online or Arena. Some community members even quipped that, with Ikoria, Magic has finally given up all pretense of being a physical card game. Exaggeration aside, they do have a point, though this ability doesn't make the best case. There are more egregious offenders in the set.

Standard: Fires with Keruga

Keruga, the Macrosage isn't powerful enough to warrant sacrifices. Luckily for the Dinosaur Hippo, Standard already has a deck that meets the restriction. While some people prefer to pair their Fires of Invention with more or better early interaction, even notable pros have relied exclusively on 3-mana Adventure creatures for their turn two play. Competing with the other 5-drops for the two spell slots per turn, Keruga often won't be better than any you draw. But the point is that you don't have to draw it at all. Having such an extra card stored away in the sideboard is huge.

A typical board with Teferi, Fires, and two creatures will have Keruga draw five. Conveniently, Ikoria also adds a new way to make use of extra cards: cycling Shark Typhoon gets around both the two-spell as well as the only-your-turn limit.

Modern: Grinding with Umori

Umori, the Collector is singular among the first four companions in that it features a continuous rather than a one-shot ability. Cost reduction can be broken, especially when casting costs are reduced to nothing. Meaning: artifacts. The restriction is painful though. The following deck uses Serum Powder as a kind of tutor to find its one centerpiece of Grinding Station, whereas all the other pieces are somewhat more redundant or Umori.

Here's how it would work in an ideal world: It's possible to generate a total of 5 mana on turn three, either via Pentad Prism or Mind Stone plus Mox Amber. This is enough to cast Umori and Etherium Sculptor, at which point most of the remaining mana costs evaporate. This allows us to keep going, to cast Grinding Station and to cycle through a bunch of "eggs" we all sacrifice to the Station to mill ourselves, until we have one Myr Retriever in the bin and one in hand. Going forward, these two dance the Grind until the opponent's library gives out.

Such an opening isn't very likely to begin with. The sequence will also fail a good amount of the time on its own and lose to any artifact or creature destruction. But there must be some way to break Umori, right? If you have any better idea, please leave a comment below.

Legacy: Bomberman with Gyruda

For something more reasonable, we turn to Legacy and to a list that I stole from Peter van der Ham. Initially, van der Ham had experimented with some Reanimator/Hexmage hybrid shell featuring Lion's Eye Diamond to get Gyruda, Doom of Depths out as quickly as possible. As in Standard, however, the answer seems to lie less in maximizing the companion's ceiling than in minimizing the imposition's impact. He eventually settled on a Bomberman version that doesn't cast Gyruda super early and may not even hit something off of its trigger. It's still a 6/6, often uncounterable, will sometimes grab a Thought-Knot Seer or the deck's central combo piece, mill the other half of the combo, or find a Griselbrand or suchlike on top of the opponent's library — all at the cost of only losing Monastery Mentor.

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HiveOne(09.04.2020 11:04)

Umori Station: How do you get any Mana out of the Mox without a Legendary?

TobiHenke(09.04.2020 21:35)

HiveOne - Umori is legendary! But yes, that unfortunately doesn't allow to cast Etherium Sculptor.

Vizzerdix(08.04.2020 00:40)

Lurrus of the Dream-Den has not been spoiled when the article was written I guess ...

TobiHenke(08.04.2020 01:11)

Indeed! Though I never expected that the four here would be overshadowed this quickly.

Lurrus clearly deserves (and will get) its own article.