After 22 months, the Nightmare Cat is finally gone. Rather rude of Wizards to do so the day before I released the February Metagame Update and make me look like a chump, but better right then than never. I guess. I mean, I also had to throw out the entire first week of data for the next update. And no, I'm not taking this personally, stop asking!
Timing-related griping aside, getting rid of Lurrus of the Dream-Den is no bad thing for Modern. It was the only card from my Watchlist I definitely thought would be banned this year, it was always a problem that would need to be tackled sooner or later. Which the data was cleanly backing up. However, it does beg the classic question of "What now?" Lurrus has been a defining card for long enough that the format had twisted around it and decks from before are barely recognizable. Except for Burn. While it's still quite early, the answer is quite surprising.
On the Banning
To reiterate, I approve of banning Lurrus. That Cat wore out its welcome a long time ago. To be fair, Lurrus' textbox isn't inherently too powerful. A 3/2 for three with lifelink that gets back a cheap nonland permanent once per turn isn't so impressive. I don't think Lurrus would have seen much Standard play, let alone Modern, if not for the companion mechanic.
Companion is an inherently overpowered mechanic. There's never been another mechanic that required functional errata to make acceptable power-wise. I wish that Wizards had been willing to ban the mechanic rather than cards, as all the companions would be fine-to-unplayable maindeck, but I guess they're worried about opening that can of worms. Removing individual text lines from cards via bans has some very troubling implications. Do we really want Wizards to remove text from printed cards? Alchemy is controversial enough as is.
Given the companion issue and Lurrus's status as the most powerful companion by far, the ban was inevitable. I called it in December and all the data since has backed it up. I don't think anything of value has been lost nor that anyone is especially upset by this move. All in all, a good and necessary ban.
On the Timing
My annoyances aside, it did make sense to wait until now. When Wizards had that major (and announced) banning in January, players were shocked that Lurrus wasn't banned then. The data looked unequivocal to all of us; what was keeping them? To do it now (a month and change later) and out of the blue makes it seem like Wizards made a huge mistake then, and this was an emergency measure after another weekend of Lurrus-dominated Challenges.
However, I don't think that's the case. In retrospect, it makes sense that Wizards didn't ban Lurrus in January. Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty was set to release in a few weeks, and Wizards may have hoped that new cards would fix the problem. Specifically, I'm looking at Hidetsugu Consumes All // Vessel of the All-Consuming. I don't know what this Saga does in Standard, but in Modern it should (theoretically) ice the Lurrus decks nicely.
Consider Hammer Time: Hidetsugu "consumes" the vast majority of the nonland permanents in that deck, especially the threatening ones (Colossus Hammer, constructs, and Sigarda's Aid). And at the point on the curve where things start to snowball out of control. Then the second chapter kicks in to leave nothing for Lurrus to recur. I strongly believe that Wizards intended Hidetsugu to deal with Lurrus for them. When that didn't happen, a ban was necessary. And with Pauper needing more bans, the time was right. So, what have the consequences been?
Much Ado About Nothing...
Pretty marginal, all things considered. In short, little has measurably changed about the Modern metagame. Sorry to disappoint anyone, but as of writing this article (Sunday, March 13), the same decks are showing up in the MTGO data as before March 7. And in roughly the same spread as before. If you didn't know that Modern had been heavily defined by Lurrus for nearly two years, there'd be little evidence that anything had happened.
Which is entirely to be expected. Lurrus is not like other banned cards. It was never the flagship card of a deck. It's never even been a maindeck card, save for a few outliers. The decks that actually played Lurrus only had one in the sideboard. In many games, that's where Lurrus stayed. Lurrus was a reward and benefit for the game going longer: fulfil the conditions, get an extra card, and start generating extra value if the initial strike wasn't lethal.
Consequently, the disruption caused by this banning is minimal. Hammer Time has already adopted The Reality Chip, a value card at least as potent as Lurrus for the shell. Lurrus decks' mainboards appear unaffected. Directly, anyway. They only need to add an actual sideboard card to be tournament legal. Thus, anyone expecting a complete reordering of Modern had very unrealistic expectations, and is almost certainly sorely disappointed.
...At Least in the Short Run
However, what happens in the long run is entirely another story. Right now, players are enjoying the relative freedom to play 3+ mana permanents without pangs of guilt. And many are simply replacing Lurrus with a 15th sideboard card and continuing to play their decks as if nothing changed. Which, in fairness, is true for most games. Lurrus never got cast in the early game when many games are actually decided. It was a mid- to late-game value/rebuilding engine.
However, everything has in fact changed, if in a subtle way. Lurrus offered a way to grind out longer games to decks that normally couldn't. I don't believe that Lurrus contributed to games actually going any longer. Games were generally faster prior to Modern Horizons 2's interaction dump than afterward. However, the mid-game is where low-curve decks normally tend to start struggling, as their cards get overpowered and card advantage (which most low-curve decks lack) matters. Lurrus changed that and made aggressive decks better in the later stages of games. Even though Lurrus decks would generally prefer not to reach that stage of the game.
With Lurrus gone, so goes aggro's freest late game engine. There are still many ways to get extra cards these days. Wizards' new design philosophy seems to be to make it easier for everyone to see more cards per game. However, the most obvious engine has been axed. This will have a minimal effect on deck design and matchups in the immediate future, but over time, it will absolutely shift the metagame. How? No idea. But expect substantial changes in Modern's future as a direct result of this ban.
I am fully cognizant of how dismissive all that sounds. The truth often comes off that way. However, I'm not going to just leave it there. Not the least because it's way below my minimum word count. And there are some signs of where things are heading. Both in terms of deck design and metagame composition. How much these early signs are experiments vs. actual changes is impossible to say. However, this is all the data that I have to work with.
Lurrus Decks Adapt
As noted above, the Lurrus decks don't need to change themselves, strictly speaking. Replacing the companion with another sideboard card is all that's necessary. Still, they are choosing to make changes, and not always in expected ways. Hammer Time and Grixis Shadow were the most prominent Lurrus decks and are also the former Lurrus decks actually putting up results, so I'll be focusing on them, but the changes in both are indicative of other shifts.
Hammer Time has not been radically redesigned. They've just adjusted slightly. As far as I've seen so far, the Hammer Time decks are only four cards off from their pre-ban configurations. Which might not be too noticeable, as the lists were always highly variable. However, there is one uniform change driving all the other ones. All the Hammer decks I've seen have dropped Mishra's Bauble. Which makes sense: it had two uses in the deck; to a) boost construct tokens and b) become a draw engine with Lurrus. As the latter is impossible and the former is easily achieved with other cards, it makes sense to just cut Bauble.
There does seem to be much dissent over how to replace it. Every deck has a Nettlecyst, but after that, it's personal preference. Some players are opting for a full Stoneforge Mystic package with Kaldra Compleat and Swords of X and Y. Some opt for more Urza's Saga tutor targets and Steelshaper's Gift. Others are all-in on extra Cysts. It will be interesting to see where things settle.
On the other hand, Shadow is all over the place. There was a stock-ish Grixis Shadow list pre-ban, but now it's a free-for-all. Some lists are trying to recapture the glory of 2017 Shadow; others are holding to the recent trend, but adding back Street Wraith. It will be interesting to see where this goes.
Decks Set Free
As for the overall metagame, there's been some gentle realignment even in this early post-ban stage. While both Hammer and Shadow had decent showings in the Preliminaries last week, the big events this weekend were dominated by other decks. Specifically, UR Murktide was the most popular deck at the annual Hunter Burton Memorial Open by a wide amount. Indeed, Murktide and Omnath were the top-performing decks that didn't play Lurrus before the ban. Meanwhile, the Saturday Challenge was won by Cascade Crashers, which also did quite well at the HBMO.
This being literally the first look at the new metagame, the numbers don't represent the end-all be-all. However, they do indicate where the players' minds were prior to the tournament. And what I get looking at the represented decks is that players proved excited to branch out. Ever since companions were printed, there's been a feeling that if you weren't playing one, you were missing out. Without Lurrus around, that invisible weight has been lifted, making spikes everywhere more comfortable experimenting.
As for Murktide and Cascade specifically, I think they were enjoying the freedom of the former best decks getting taken down a notch. Both decks have been solid performers since MH2 created them, but were never better than the Lurrus-powered alternatives. The main competition is gone (temporarily, probably), so they get to enjoy a weekend unopposed. Whether that will last is unknowable, but a lot of players seem to want them to be good, so maybe the prophecy will self-fulfill.
Now, We Wait
Whether the format will actually open up as players adjust their decklists is impossible to know. The feeling of freedom may be illusory and by next month the metagame may look just like it did pre-ban. However, for the moment, everything looks promising. I'd enjoy it while it lasts.