Okay, so companions are everywhere. But looking past that acknowledged reality, I see a Modern bursting with possibilities, and even applying the different companions in brilliant, unpredictable ways. Let’s take a look at what May’s first half has had to offer us in terms of Modern ingenuity!
One Tribe... Or Two
One unexpected (at least, on my end) result of companions being printed is the resurgence of long-forgotten tribal aggro decks. Take this Faeries build pumped up by Yorion, Sky Nomad:
Yorion's companion condition raised eyebrows upon spoiling: it requires pilots to actively make their mainboards worse via dilution. Yorion Faeries taps into an elegant way out of the creature's requirement by splashing an extra color. Here, white joins the traditionally blue-black Faerie core. Path to Exile provides extra redundancy and flexibility when it comes to one-mana removal spells, while Stoneforge Mystic gives the deck an offensive edge it had previously lacked.
Then there's Spell Queller, which plays nicely with the Faeries gameplan of instant-speed disruption on bodies, and Teferi, Time Raveler. Teferi pairs well with Queller and Spellstutter by limiting opposing actions on the stack, and with Stoneforge by affording unmolested equip-swings. Critically, Teferi also provides a cantrip upon resolution; packing a deck full of cantrips greatly reduces its redundancy, as evinced by the ubiquity of Arcum's Astrolabe.
Then there's BW Zombies, a strategy that claimed fringe success in Modern on the shoulders of Smuggler's Copter. Recurring Zombies keep a stream of pilots entering the vehicle, which diversifies its attacking plans by soaring over the battlefield and providing pseudo-haste, all while keeping the grave stocked with fresh meat. But the deck proved too low-power to keep up with format shake-ups. Until now, that is; the on-theme Lurrus of the Dream-Den brings even Smuggler's Copter back from the dead, breathing new life into any board state opponents manage to deal with.
This build belongs to Ross Merriam, who went on to place 17th in a Challenge with Zombies shortly after his 5-0 was posted. Whether Zombies proves to be another flash in the pan in the hands of a die-hard or the real deal remains to be seen.
More Disruption, Please!
Tribal aggro decks aren't exactly known for their disruptive capabilities, but decks more firmly walking the aggro-control line are also doing well this month.
Obosh Beatdown sees the Naya Beatdown decks featured last month are cutting white ,splashed for the two-drop Stoneforge Mystic, in favor of a Gruul constuction and the companion Obosh, the Preypiercer.
A problem these decks can have is that of running out of steam—they can produce plenty of mana when Arbor Elf and Utopia Sprawl line up just right, but without a five-drop to cast, they’ve got nothing to show for it. Enter Obosh, a companion tailor-made for the strategy. Bloodbraid Elf, something the Naya decks were previously using to keep the beats coming, understandably gets the cut with Stoneforge to accomodate Obosh’s companion condition.
This transition became a trend among GRx beatdown decks. SIGNBLINDMAN also took 22nd in a Qualifier, and a similar deck won a Modern Premier. The strategy’s newest strains are maxing out on Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast and running Emrakul, the Aeons Torn; minusing on Obosh or another five-drop drops the Eldrazi right onto the battlefield. With enough mana available, the plan is only as out of reach as Lukka itself, yielding a one-card combo akin to the now-banned Karn, the Great Creator and Mycosynth Lattice.
Who remembers Abzan Rock? Between Wrenn and Six, Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger, and Bloodbraid Elf all super-powering Jund, the deck can feel more like a childhood nightmare than a Modern contender. But Lurrus has revitalized this archetype, too.
Dead Weight’s appearance as a recurrable, Goyf-growing removal spell isn’t even the hottest tech here—that honor goes to Witch's Cottage, a fetchable way to get Lurrus back for more value plays once the Cat’s been shot down. Nine lives, indeed!
+1/+1 Until End of Turn
It turns out Prowess was due for an update, and these new twists suggest some very alluring directions.
Last week, I tried my hand at splashing Lurrus into the up-and-coming GR Prowess shell, to not-great results. One of my biggest plaints was how hard it was to cast Lurrus in, you know, a Gruul deck. One now-obvious solution: bite the bullet in the mana department and just splash a color to fit the companion.
That’s the traction-gaining idea behind Jund Prowess, which not only recruits Tarmogoyf to fill Arclight and Bedlam’s shoes, but Abbot of Keral Keep. In a world full of black midrange decks, stapling cantrips to bodies seems like a good idea, so much so that Mono-Red builds are also picking it up. And that holds double when said bodies can be Lurrus’d back from the grave… or just Unearthed! Black’s benefits don’t stop at those two cards: there’s also Fatal Push, the most graceful solution to Gruul’s Goyf problem Modern has ever seen.
BR Prowess looks more like a midrange deck than an aggro one, but it still keeps a lot of the elements that make up the Prowess shell. There’s plenty of overlap, of course; Mishra's Bauble and Seal of Fire are cards common to both Prowess and Lurrus-packing midrange strategies. Then there’s the midrange suite of Kroxa, Confidant, removal, and discard against the Prowess one of Monastery, Abbot, and Bolt.
This build is more proactive than your average Thoughtseize deck, giving it extra strength against the current crop combo. But it can just as well board into a straight-up midrange strategy, and even runs Pillage in the side for when blowing up lands (or artifacts) has a place in the gameplan.
Feast your eyes on Izzet Lutri, which certainly does "look like an Izzet Commander deck." Does such a highlander pile speak to the power of companion as an ability? Or to this particular pilot's great draws and savvy deckbuilding?
Maybe Grixis Lutri can help us answer that question. Thinking about it, I’d actually like to see Teferi, Time Raveler in this deck. And with it, Path to Exile, Spell Queller, Stoneforge Mystic and a single Batterskull… why not?
For interactive decks, there are plenty of options available, and the “wow” factor of Lutri makes me think we’ll be seeing different builds featuring the Otter pop up here and there for a very long time.
The success of these rogue strategies gives some insight into Wizards' potential though process when it comes to companion and Modern. I don't think it's far-fetched to believe the company had some notion of older, power-crept decks benefiting from the different companion restrictions in unforeseen ways. And, indeed, Modern appears extremely diverse when it comes to archetype balance and deck composition. The only homogenizing factor is the sustained presence of the companions, and especially the strongest ones.
If, as with planeswalkers, Wizards plans to continuously introduce companions in their future expansions, it will certainly change competitive Magic, just as planeswalkers did. But I'm not sure that change is for the worse. If, however, companions are more a one-off in Ikoria and won't be revisited in the near future, I feel as though the play patterns generated by its standout entrants introduce too many identical play patterns across too many decks. The more viable companions enter the card pool, the less stale games featuring the card type will feel.