Standard has not been the healthiest ecosystem in Magic recently. The format has had several bans the last few years, and the current ban list has four cards: Field of the Dead, Oko, Thief of Crowns, Once Upon a Time and Veil of Summer.
In my first few years of playing Magic, I was astonished when Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Stoneforge Mystic were banned in Standard, and was floored again years later when Reflector Mage, Emrakul, the Promised End and Smuggler's Copter were banned. They've really struggled to balance Standard lately.
I'm not a game designer; I don't have all the solutions. The people at Wizards have a nearly impossible job of pleasing everyone. And for the most part, historically, they have absolutely crushed it. I don't think there is a single person in Wizards R&D who is not as passionate as Magic's most fervent players (or more so). Having met many of them, past and present, I can honestly say they all struck me as wanting what was best for the game, the players and the community. They're fantastic people.
That said, I have a few notes.
To kick it off, I want to start with what I see as the the most game-warping, format-defining card in Standard: Teferi, Time Raveler.
The ripple effect of Teferi, Time Raveler has been felt for over a year now, to the point where I think it's easy to lose sight of just how much he affects the metagame. Make no mistake, every deck in Standard has been built for a long time with the card in mind.
Teferi, Time Raveler is designed to give the card's controller the ability to dictate how the game is played. Literally everything about this card aims to firmly wrest control of the pace of the game. His static ability prevents the opponent from reacting to anything the turn you play it, including Teferi, Time Raveler. His +1 gives you the ability to play cards on their turn, limiting their ability to play around spells like Shatter the Sky or Thought Erasure. And his -3 resets their progress and gains mana advantage.
Teferi, Time Raveler is among the biggest reasons that Fires of Invention decks have been so successful. People certainly tried to build other Fires of Invention decks. Gruul was even moderately successful for a time at fighting the Fires mirror by playing eight copies of Questing Beast and Shifting Ceratops, which do an excellent job of beating up Teferi, Time Raveler or the players casting him. Temur and Grixis versions have both shown up in people's articles and on ladder since Throne of Eldraine released—just never for very long. Those versions lack Teferi, Time Raveler to force opponents to always react to their last turn, rather than let them counteract the upcoming one. Without Teferi, Time Raveler's ability, Fires of Invention is pretty scripted: they play a Fires on turn four (which can be countered, or Naturalize), and another spell to stay mana neutral on the turn in preparation for an explosive turn five. On turn six, they'll try to repeat the pattern one more time (or, in the case of Yorion, Sky Nomad, do that and then unlock the rest of their mana). None of this would be difficult to disrupt, except that Teferi doesn't let us.
Instead, unless there is an on-board way to kill Teferi, Time Raveler, or a hasty threat to kill it while leaving up mana like Robber of the Rich, opponents can only use mana to remove Teferi or add threats to the board. On turn four, they can remove Fires of Invention, but can't do anything about Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis or Sphinx of Foresight unless their cards line up perfectly. Removing a Fires of Invention is necessary at that point, but even if you do, there's still another threat on board to attack or defend. Decks typically don't have an answer to both a creature or planeswalker threat and Fires of Invention on turn four.
His -3 also functions as an effective answer to most noncreature cards. A card like Grafdigger's Cage gets bounced by Teferi, Time Raveler for one turn, and the Teferi player can then escape Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath or use Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast to find Agent of Treachery. The -3 ability even lets the Teferi player play Grafdigger's Cage if they want, so that they can bounce the card briefly and then replay it once they've done one of those things. Teferi, Time Raveler's bounce even functions as one of the best ways to win the Fires mirror, despite the fact that countermagic is fairly lackluster, since it can bounce an opposing Fires of Invention or a creature they played with it and undo half of an opponent's turn. Assuming Teferi, Time Raveler was in play to start the turn, the Teferi player's mana is free to handle the other half, or cast their own Fires of Invention and force the opponent onto the back foot.
Fundamentally, there's only one way to answer Teferi, Time Raveler before he does anything, and that's to counter him. Unfortunately, he costs three mana, meaning that the options for countering him are Mystical Dispute, Dovin's Veto and Negate. From there, his passive turns off countermagic entirely, making it difficult to rely on as a game plan. Despite the fact that countermagic should be incredible in a format where everyone is trying to resolve four-mana enchantments and five-mana creatures like Yorion, Sky Nomad and Obosh, the Preypiercer, the only other countermagic spells that see play are Neutralize (which can cycle if it's irrelevant) and a measly 9% of the field registering Disdainful Stroke.
It wasn't always this way though. The summer of Magic 2020 saw a pretty sharp drop in the number of Teferi, Time Raveler that were played, because the trio of Mono-Red Aggro, Orzhov Vampires and Mono-Blue Tempo made him… kind of bad.
All three of these decks featured low-cost threats that Teferi, Time Raveler was actively pretty bad against. Bouncing an Adanto Vanguard might be good, but it only buys some time when they also played Skymarcher Aspirant or Knight of the Ebon Legion turn one. Curious Obsession and Spell Pierce meant that it was hard to run a mono-blue deck out of gas or resolve Teferi, Time Raveler early. And Mono-Red was all cards with enters-the-battlefield effects or haste. He only really reentered the format when people figured out how to play Field of the Dead, and later the Kethis, the Hidden Hand combo deck.
The key here is that there were powerful one and two-drop options for creatures. Obviously cards like Deafening Clarion or Cry of the Carnarium can clean up both, but they aren't common maindeck cards. And losing to low-cost sweepers isn't a new phenomenon. Aggro players have pushed through and found ways to invalidate or outlast them before, as long as they had the tools to force them out early.
Then Standard rotated, and most of the aggressive cards went with it.
There have been brief moments where aggro was good again, and there are a handful of strong aggressive cards in the format. Knight of the Ebon Legion falls in the "the more text, the better it is" camp of creatures, but the aggressive options drop off so quickly from there. What is Mono-Red's best one-drop? Fervent Champion? Unless you draw multiples, it's a fancy Raging Goblin. Scorch Spitter? It at least does a reasonable Jackal Pup impression. From there you either have to play a bigger game with more twos and threes, or cards like Tin Street Dodger. Black has Gutterbones, a recursive threat with 2 (!!!) power on turn one. It's not a coincidence that multiple times when aggro has done well, it's built primarily on the back of these creatures. The Rakdos Knights deck that won Grand Prix Portland is a prime example, and largely played red just for some of the most powerful higher end cards that red has access to: Bonecrusher Giant and Embercleave.
White on the other hand has virtually nothing inherently aggressive. Venerable Knight is basically Savannah Lions, which has been a good enough card in Standard multiple times, but would need the right cards to back it up. What other creatures is it supposed to play? Healer's Hawk? Giant Killer? Its best two drop is probably Tithe Taker, unless you're playing Heliod, Sun-Crowned in which case you get access to… Ajani's Pridemate, in a format defined by Teferi, Time Raveler. Pass.
Meanwhile, there are several cards that punish aggressive decks. Sweeper effects like Cry of the Carnarium, Deafening Clarion, Shatter the Sky, Witch's Vengeance, Storm's Wrath and Time Wipe are the obvious ones. However, possibly the biggest problem is Bonecrusher Giant. One card that is half removal spell, half large blocker is an absolute beating to fight through for aggressive decks. It single-handedly invalidates two turns worth of mana in the early game.
All of this leads to a format where the answers to aggressive creatures are decidedly better than those creatures themselves. Typically, when the format starts looking like it is now with 42% of the day-two metagame of a MagicFest playing Yorion, Sky Nomad/Agent of Treachery decks, there should be aggressive decks ready to punish an uptick in cards like Disdainful Stroke and "going bigger." Admittedly, two Mono-Red Obosh lists made it to the Top 8 of the MagicFest Online Season #2 Finals, and the 3.9% of players who picked it up day one overperformed as it was 4.7% of day two. But with Aether Gust not even cracking the top ten cards played, I'm not convinced that it can really even be considered a check on the format's worst tendencies. It's more like Affinity or Dredge—players will lose to it when they forget about it.
So, Teferi, Time Raveler is too unchecked in Standard and warps the format entirely around itself. Just ban Teferi, right?
Under no circumstances can they just ban Teferi, Time Raveler.
A contender since the beginning of the year, Wilderness Reclamation has been a menace for almost the entirety of its time in Standard. It was held back by two things: first, Mono-Blue Tempo, and then second, Teferi, Time Raveler. Esper Hero checked the Wilderness Reclamation/Nexus of Fate deck for six months until other, more degenerate cards took over most of the fall. While it didn't make a resurgence after the multiple bans following the release of Throne of Eldraine, it's not clear to me that it couldn't have, just that the format was only around for a few weeks in that state.
Temur Reclamation can beat just about anything. It can play the better control game, threatening to unlock a huge mana boost if the opponent ever acts, and grinding them out with cards like Chemister's Insight if they don't. It has powerful removal between Fire Prophecy, Scorching Dragonfire, Lava Coil and Storm's Wrath, and ways to stop larger creatures for a time with Brazen Borrower if it wants. There's almost nothing that it can't beat if it wants to… except for Teferi, Time Raveler decks.
Even when Temur Reclamation is taking full aim at beating decks like Bant Yorion or Jeskai Fires, it only ever seems to get to just under a 50% win rate against decks that play Teferi, Time Raveler. To do so, they have to heavily contort themselves to beating just those decks, and sacrifice points in other matchups. Having played the list from this past weekend, I can tell you that two Scorching Dragonfire and a single Storm's Wrath isn't a lot to stop Mono-Red Obosh.
Arguably though, Wilderness Reclamation has better cards than ever before. The rotation of Nexus of Fate may seem like a loss since it was first printed, but it has better removal, an Storm's Wrath and, most importantly, Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath.
Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath is probably the most confusing card in Standard to me. Growth Spiral, released a full year earlier, was clearly a card designed to see play. Explore existed before and has seen plenty of play, and making it an instant only made it better. Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath takes literally the same concept and adds life gain, a future recursive 6/6 body and an attack trigger on that creature for… one generic mana.
To be clear, I don't think this is one-sided. Growth Spiral is a very efficient card in its own right, and saw plenty of play on its own. If the format had just Growth Spiral or just Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, Standard could probably handle it. But together, these cards offer so much redundancy for midrange decks that are looking to take over the game with haymaker after haymaker to get to their late game. Many of these decks were so consistent before Ikoria that the primary way they lost was through missing land drops, and they steadily rose in land count all the way to 29 or 30 lands.
What this has led to is a format with two main pillars: Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Fires of Invention as the only two cards that can compete with one another on mana.
Sure, there are flavors of the two and the exact cards might differ, but fundamentally the bulk of decks in Standard are one or the other. The exceptions are the weeks where an aggressive deck finds an angle to sneak in, like Mono-Red Obosh this week, or Lucky Clover/Beanstalk Giant—one of the few alternatives that can keep up in the mana arms race of Standard. Otherwise, it's Bant with Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, or Wilderness Reclamation with Uro, or Sultai with Uro against the current best implementation of Fires of Invention.
What strikes me as so problematic is that the places where Wizards put all of their powerful cards fall into two categories: expensive, midrange threats from Elspeth Conquers Death to Agent of Treachery to Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast, and mana accelerants. In Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath's case, it's both.
Contrast a card like Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath or Elspeth Conquers Death with white or red's cheap creatures. Fervent Champion isn't really comparable to any of the above cards, and it doesn't get better from there.
This isn't to say that one-drop spells should be similar power level to five or seven-drop cards. In the past, a two-drop wasn't twice as good as a one-drop, and a four-drop wasn't twice as good as a two-drop. But the current paradigm where cards scale so linearly only holds if players cast their cards on schedule (for example, they play Agent of Treachery on or about turn seven). But now, the Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath decks are casting them two or three turns early, and Fires of Invention decks don't give up anything on turn four because they're allowed to just play another four-drop and then double the typical number of five-drops the next turn.
If the spells in Standard are going to scale with their converted mana cost as well as they do now, the option to cheat on mana can't also be as good as it is.
If you've read this far, you might be surprised that my chief complaint about Standard's balance isn't the complaint du jour (or, du mois at this point).
This might seem controversial, but from a balance perspective alone, I don't think that companions are that problematic.** The deck-building restrictions are generally actual restrictions, and none of them feel oppressively good. The one that's most obviously broken everywhere else, Lurrus of the Dream-Den, has to actually pay mana to recur spells. Standard also has many good graveyard hate options: Grafdigger's Cage, Leyline of the Void, Soul-Guide Lantern, etc. Players by and large have the tools to fight back against them when Lurrus of the Dream-Den is not effectively free.
**in Standard. They're freaking busted everywhere else.
Even Yorion, Sky Nomad, the current scourge of Standard, only exacerbates existing problems. It always plays Teferi, Time Raveler, because it wants blue and white-producing lands anyway, and Elspeth Conquers Death and Agent of Treachery as targets to blink. From there, it pairs the Azorius cards with one of the broken mana engines (Fires of Invention or Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath). Sure, Yorion weirdly reduces the variance in these decks by getting access to more of the same effects. It also supercharges cards like Elspeth Conquers Death or Agent of Treachery to obnoxious levels.
But fundamentally… what has Yorion, Sky Nomad changed since before Ikoria?
Last season, Temur Adventures rose up to beat an Azorius Control deck that didn't respect it, just like we saw this past weekend. The next step of the metagame was for people to switch to Bant, which had a close matchup with Temur while retaining the powerful Elspeth Conquers Death. Rakdos also showed up, as Edgewall Innkeeper has been hard countered by Mayhem Devil since Eldraine released.
The metagame now is Bant Uro vs Jeskai Fires, and people are figuring out which version of Obosh, the Preypiercer is best positioned. Currently, it seems like Mono-Red, though I wouldn't be surprised if Rakdos was better against Temur Adventures. The Bant deck looks better against Temur Reclamation than it did before, but Temur Adventures didn't gain new cards—everyone is able to beat it if they want to. It isn't shocking that decks that have more options generally are better than ones that didn't get anything. But which does more to make Bant or Jeskai decks the titans of the format that they are: Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath and Fires of Invention, or Yorion, Sky Nomad?
If there is an argument against companions in Standard, it's about replayability. Standard Magic has never really had a situation where there are cards that will impact 100% of games. While I'm asserting that they're balanced, cards like Lurrus of the Dream-Den and Yorion, Sky Nomad are obviously powerful and impactful. To a large degree, games against them are already feeling very similar. Even if the exact spells cast are a bit different, at the end of the day Yorion is blinking a planeswalker, an Elspeth Conquers Death and a couple Omen of the Sea almost every time it enters play.
Personally, I would get rid of companions in Standard if I could, though it wouldn't be for balance reasons. It would be because we're only just finishing the first month they're going to be in the format, and I'm already pretty bored of their play patterns. I can't imagine playing against them for 17 more months.
At the end of the day, Magic might be played solely online right now, but it is not an online game. In an online game there would be patches, nerfs, and we'd end up with Teferi, Time Raveler costing four mana, Fires of Invention costing six, and Yorion, Sky Nomad only blinking creatures. Some white creatures would get a buff, and hopefully there'd be fewer problems.
Unfortunately we don't live in that world. Wizards of the Coast has the tough job of deciding how to handle its formats only with bans, unless they take the extraordinary step of adding cards to a format (which they have discussed before).
My solution would be this: Ban Teferi, Time Raveler and Wilderness Reclamation.
I think this option is safe. You cannot take out Teferi, Time Raveler without fully unleashing Wilderness Reclamation, so it's necessary to ban both. They're slated to rotate at the beginning of October anyway. Wilderness Reclamation isn't a difficult-to-obtain card, and Teferi sees plenty of play in other formats. Ultimately, there would be little impact to players' collections.
On the other hand, getting rid of Teferi, Time Raveler would alter everything about the format. Tokens could exist without turning his -3 into a cantripping Murder. Disdainful Stroke would become a reasonable card to play against decks trying to resolve Fires of Invention and a host of four and five-drop spells. Creatures and enchantments would have less pressure to generate an immediate impact so that Teferi is not a Time Walk against them. And it would be more difficult to recur cards like Elspeth Conquers Death, Yorion, Sky Nomad or Agent of Treachery.
Without Teferi, Time Raveler, I think that Fires of Invention is powerful, but more easily mitigated. Like we've seen for months, Fires decks minus Teferi have yet to make an impact for more than a brief moment. The combo is too easily disrupted, and destroying a Fires of Invention the turn that it comes into play is so much more effective than spending mana the following turn to answer it.
It's possible that Fires of Invention or Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath would still be too strong for Standard. But until Teferi, Time Raveler is gone, I don't think we'll be able see if the format can actually adjust to those cards properly. Even if Uro is a little too powerful, the redundancy of Growth Spiral and Uro is only around for a few more months anyway.
The other problems I see in Standard are going to require Wizards to adjust how they push cards for the format. Printing stronger, aggressive creatures is going to take them a while. When and how, only Wizards knows.
What I would hope, though, is that Wizards sees the need to do two things. First, avoid pushing cards that are so similar, like Growth Spiral and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, so that decks don't have such a high degree of redundancy. And second, allocate where they push cards across a variety of strategies, colors and costs. Making too many aggressive cards with no answers leads to games that end quickly and are very play/draw dependent, as we saw a few Standards ago, or in the brief best-of-one format one year ago. But their total absence leads to what we have now: a mushy pile of midrangey ramp, and players continually trying to go bigger and more degenerate than one another.
Whether or not they've learned those lessons, we won't know for quite a while though. For the time being, I hope they make some decisions to improve this Standard. Many Magic players are going to be playing Arena as their primary form of Magic, and I'm not sure this Standard has the legs to last another two months.
But until they make those changes, just play Yorion.