The Color Wheel: White

My mission today is to expand on my perception of White’s problems, and to use Shining Shoal as an example of a weak fix (hopefully pointing us toward ideas for better ones). In the process, you will discover why creatures are the worst card type in Magic, and hopefully achieve a state of enlightenment.

About a year ago, I wrote my first Featured Writer article about white being a just-plain-awful color. Now, if I understand the R&D development cycle correctly, any set developed since then won’t see the light of day for months or a year yet, so it might seem frivolous to refresh the same message. However, Betrayers of Kamigawa – most especially Shining Shoal – made me want to address the topic again. When I read the preview article talking about Shining Shoal as if it was the walk-on-water salvation of the color White, I realized it was the first time I had ever laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of a completely serious Magic article. (No offense to Mr. Forsythe; it’s hardly his fault that White is Magic’s D student.)

My mission today is to expand on my perception of White’s problems, and to use Shining Shoal as an example of a weak fix (hopefully pointing us toward ideas for better ones). In the process, you will discover why creatures are the worst card type in Magic, and hopefully achieve a state of enlightenment.

Why does Type One have any worthwhile input to the color pie, though? The format is blatantly unbalanced and contains recognized design errors by the dozen – if it isn’t a mistake, it’s a borderline card choice for us. Wouldn’t it be more productive to think about the present and try to make white good in the more fair formats? My thinking here is that Vintage provides a laboratory where you can run an idea through a gauntlet of every possible countermeasure. A Vintage deck is never good because there’s no countermeasure, it’s good in spite of them. In smaller formats, a card might be good because the frame of reference is too narrow (like a five-foot tall guy at a munchkin convention). In Vintage, we don’t have this problem – our frame of reference is taller than the Zentraedi.

The problem, in case anyone didn’t know: White is barely played at all.


(1386 land)

(Out of 4992)

2128 Blue – 42.6%

1383 artifact – 27.7%

555 Black – 11.1%

482 Red – 9.7%

178 White – 3.6%

157 Green – 3.2%

109 Gold – 2.2%

I mean seriously, look at that. There’s no color pie involved here. Blue rarely exceeded 30% in the first half of 2004, but now… disaster. Obviously, there’s no way to really fix this for Vintage; Blue will always be on top barring some grisly R&D incident with public transportation, but one of the policy goals should at least be to make the other colors able to see play.

Now if White is in such bad shape, but Green is seeing less play, why am I not complaining about that? Firstly, White is portrayed in a way more positive light by this particular data set due to one random Italian White Weenie deck making Top 8. More importantly, though, Green at least has a niche in the color wheel. It has succeeded in living memory. Madness was at least temporarily good, Dragon decks often use Green, there was even an innovative mono-Green archetype in Oshawa Stompy, and one of the most powerful not-quite-good-enough cards, Survival of the Fittest, is Green in a serious way. So I expect Green to come back once the insane power level of T1 is reined in.* Red and Black are almost humorously low, too, but, well, the only solution here is to make Blue the worst color for the next ten years, nonstop. (If there’s any draw spells under six mana in the set under development, neuter them!)

* : At the time of this writing the announcement is several days away, but if nothing happens, I’ll be surprised.

White, unlike the other colors, sucks and always has. Since I’ve begun harvesting my metagame data from every event with over fifty players that I can get decklists for, we’ve had two* White Weenie “incidents”, and I refer to them as such because every time I see the deck I am filled with rage centered on the color pie. I want white to win, I just don’t want it to win as a joke/fluke/rarity with a strategy that is profoundly unwhite.** It bothers me almost as much as when the books are out of order on the shelf at the library where I work (in other words, a lot).

* : A third was reported in February’s results. More on this later.

** : I discussed why it’s unwhite last year. In a nutshell, White doesn’t feel natural playing aggro.

Our case study here, Shining Shoal, the forsaken cousin of Disrupting Shoal, has a lot to recommend it. It makes anyone entering creature battles with a White mage almost unable to do complete combat math. In Limited, I’m sure this will be very exciting, and will be complained about frequently by people who walked right into it. In Block and Standard, I’m sure it will be influential as soon as they ban half of the Affinity deck. I have heard rumors that they also play creatures in Extended, so I guess it could have a niche there. What I can really speak to, though, is why it won’t make a difference in Type One.

The first problem is its requirement for the pitch card to be White. This means it is limited by the number of good White cards available. The rule of thumb for four Force of Will has long been nineteen Blue cards. Anyone playing nineteen White cards in Type One needs to get their head examined for signs that they just time-warped in from 1995. Even if you find the best white stuff available, from Balance to Swords to Plowshares to Exalted Angel to Decree of Justice, you’d be hard-pressed to find reasons to play a dozen of them. To make up for the deficiencies of playing lots of White, you’d have to play lots of Blue, and most of the Blue cards in common use outclass Shining Shoal, eventually pushing your deck design away from any effort to use it.

However, Shining Shoal should provide a synergy bonus for other White cards just like Force of Will makes every Blue card better. This bonus is trivial for very specific reasons, starting with the obvious weakness of damage redirection compared to counterspelling. The first is X. The absolute hugest life swing we ever would expect from this card is a surprise pitch of Exalted Angel causing a total swing of twelve, for two cards. The Angel would, in a single swing, bring two-thirds of this, without warping your deck so far toward a bad color; Angel can also hold off most attackers at least as well as spot removal spells can. Other uses, like creature removal, are already covered by one of the most efficient spells ever printed: Swords to Plowshares. The problem is that Type One decks don’t have room for redundant effects that aren’t mana acceleration and draw/search. The default is a mere eight counterspells, and that’s the most powerful mechanic in the game. Playing more than two or three “lifegain” cards (translation: Exalted Angel) would be silly. Playing such an effort- and deck-structure-intensive alternative to StP is equally unlikely – check out how big creatures in Oath decks are and evaluate the usefulness of redirecting a few damage.

Speaking of lower-X uses, Shining Shoal is again disadvantaged by Type One’s structure. Small redirections typically will not have the potential to turn the game around that they do in other formats, because T1’s overpowered spells have a tendency to make the player who wins overkill by a large margin. This can also be phrased as “combat tricks suck against Tinker for Darksteel Colossus”. Despite the plus of Shoal being potentially free compared to Angel’s steep pricing, when you’re fighting against creatures Angel isn’t unreasonable at all.

So Shining Shoal suffers from the low supply of quality white cards, and the fact that the only good ones perform overlapping functions. It will be years before the former might be improved, and the latter problem will never go away in Vintage (if Standard had StP, they wouldn’t play Shining Shoal either). The final nail in the coffin is that it only redirects damage – one of the many things keepin’ the White man down in Type One is Tendrils of Agony. I’ll leave filling in the blanks of that connection as an exercise to the reader.

Shining Shoal is symptomatic of White’s main deficiency: over-focus on creatures. One of my most creative data counts was when I tried to assess the creature-centeredness of small expansions (large sets automatically have more utility spells, so it’s apples and oranges). I showed at the least a close correlation between sets with very creature-centric design and fewer cards played in Type One. It doesn’t require much of a stretch to say that colors follow the same rule: blue has always been the color that has “bad” creatures, but that hasn’t really held it back much. Green and white have been the colors that get “good” creatures, but they are by far the worst off.

Creatures Are the Worst Card Type In Magic

Everyone runs some kind of creature removal, even in Type One. Creatures can be killed by any color, because even mono-Blue decks can play Control Magic and Engineered Explosives. (And this of course ignores the truth that most people playing blue are adding on other colors at a trivial opportunity cost to their mana base.) As a result, creatures are very vulnerable. Small creatures exceptionally so, because Savannah Lions will suffer splash damage from Lava Darts intended for Goblin Welder.

A more important reason that creatures are horrible is that they are inefficient. A one-mana creature will only get a strong ability once a decade, because you are wasting most of that mana on his little 1/1 body. When you buy a 2/2 for WW, the abilities you’re getting are only “worth” half a mana or so; you wasted 75% of the effort on a 2/2 that is way too slow to win the game.

All creatures that are good enough to be important in Type One have been radically, radically undercosted for their abilities: Psychatog and Goblin Welder are just about it for environment-shakers. (The artifact creatures don’t count because they are played by ignoring their costs through Tinker, Mishra’s Workshop, Oath of Druids, and Welder itself.) With Psychatog and Welder, you are buying the ability (winning or recurring the win, respectively) and there happens to be a creature attached; with Juggernaut and Platinum Angel you are shoplifting with your colorless acceleration; with Soltari Priest you are paying for a 2/1 that has very little extra to offer you (its abilities basically only help itself) and its cousin Silver Knight might as well be a Wall in the pace of Type One.

Creatures are also bad because they are slow. One of Steve “Higher Word Count Than Thomas Hobbes” Menendian’s favorite sayings is that twenty life is a lot more than anyone really needs, and he agrees that this explains why aggro is generally horrible. Creatures that act as kill conditions in this format kill quickly: Psychatog, Darksteel Colossus, the Goblin combo team. Arcbound Ravager isn’t fast enough, if that gives you any idea of the present state of affairs. Many decks have creature kill conditions largely as an afterthought. This overall state may be a temporary oscillation because we are now at a very high power level, but it’s for sure that the Soltari are several tiers beneath Ravager.

It gets worse, because creatures can be killed in groups. Artifacts* can, too, but most artifacts already paid for themselves before the opponent gets a chance to kill them (Moxen are somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of all artifacts, and cards like Trinisphere complete their mission just by resolving). You don’t care if someone kills Welder after you used it for a while, because it did its job and your opponent still had to use another card. Any strategy dependent on a multiplicity of creatures swinging repeatedly, though, is begging to be demolished.

* : And enchantments, but how often have you seen that?

Creatures Are Good Based On the Text Box

White has been further handicapped, compared to even a color as designed for underperformance as Green, by what I think of as a pie fallacy: White is explicitly supposed to receive the best little guys, but in fact the best are Red and – get this – Blue.

The Fish deck is the exception to the above rules. Spiketail Hatchling? Chaff… until it wins Marc “Romancer of the Elderly” Perez a couple of Black Loti. When you play creatures like Spiketail Hatchling, you are investing in its ability. Once the creature’s body is maybe a quarter of the mana you’re investing, the inefficiency goes down because the abilities are the driving force behind the casting cost. It doesn’t matter that you’re killing more slowly, because your creatures are still acting as valuable spells. In the opposite direction, abilities that can dramatically accelerate your kill by allowing you to convert other resources into damage are also lowering the inefficiency of the mana cost.

Savannah Lions is really “efficient” as a creature body. That sucks. Goblin Lackey is a lousy 1/1 – but it’s awesome. Arcbound Ravager, Wild Mongrel, Nantuko Shade, Goblin Piledriver, Psychatog, Quirion Dryad, Morphling, Voidmage Prodigy. The base cost of a body is relatively fixed in a card’s design, but the abilities are where broken new territory can be unearthed. Each card that I just listed is an example of a resource converter, and they are all transparently better than white’s little men (Prodigy is an example of a converter that produces counterspells instead of damage). I didn’t even realize this when I was typing this paragraph, but the shining moments for white’s creatures have been resource converters: Empyrial Armor and the Rebel mechanic are blatant ways of turning cards-in-hand and mana into damage and card advantage. They don’t have a prayer in Vintage because of the vulnerability to any passing removal effect (and a third-turn 7/7 is soooo pre-Fact or Fiction), but they were definitely signs that White cards tilting at the correct windmills can be high-impact.

I say that Red and Blue have the best little guys because of the well-known decks Gobvantage and Fish. White gets a discount on the bodies; the good colors get a discount on the abilities – the part that makes a body good!*

* : I considered making a joke about Soltari babies’ nutrition here, but, after the words “makes a body good”, someone would call me a pedophile.

The other kind of creatures that has potential to rock the casbah are those which change the rules. Goblin Welder, Xantid Swarm, Platinum Angel, Meddling Mage, even Argothian Enchantress. White is the “rule-making” color, but it is stuck with Mother of Runes. (Secretly, Exalted Angel is in this category because it affects the opponent’s assumption about how much damage he has to deal, but that’s why Exalted is the best white creature ever printed.) White weenies have a little of this hidden as things like Whipcorder, but that sucks because it is once again creature-centric. Two tentative steps in the right direction are True Believer and Samurai of the Pale Curtain.

By historically giving White creatures focused on fighting other creatures as the center of its pie slice, R&D has doomed White to failure in Constructed, where power levels are typically not low enough for those creatures to matter. Look at the White Weenie deck that provides about a quarter of all White cards played in the count I presented above.

4 Aether Vial

1 Chrome Mox

1 Lotus Petal

4 Skullclamp

4 Swords to Plowshares

3 Abolish

4 Icatian Javelineers

4 Samurai of the Pale Curtain

4 Savannah Lions

4 Silver Knight

4 Soltari Priest

4 Weathered Wayfarer

14 Plains

1 Strip Mine

4 Wasteland


3 Aura of Silence

2 Chalice of the Void

2 Maze of Ith

3 Rule of Law

3 Serenity

2 Sword of Fire and Ice

What do you notice? First, it’s a budget deck (no Power Nine). Second, it is a rush deck. The Samurai is rule-setting, but other than that the maindeck is a pretty focused rush, with Vials and Skullclamps for accelerating the kill. Icatian Javelineers is really nice to have against Goblin Welder, because pinging is better than weenies like Isamaru, Hound of Konda. What else? The deck runs spot removal for every type of permanent. Abolish is actually an awesome card, because if there’s a Trinisphere out then the extra W doesn’t matter, and if there isn’t, then you can pitch-cast it even if you topdeck it after tapping down to Tangle Wire or sacrificing all your land to Smokestack. The reliance on topdecking is kinda depressing, though, and the fact that so much room is devoted to removal is an implicit acknowledgment that the rest of the deck’s rush strategy is not fast enough. (StP in particular glares at me as counterproductive for a weenie strategy.)

What I notice most when I look at this deck is its true nature: a horrible red deck. It is trying to be a Sligh deck, while simultaneously working hard to forget that Sligh is awful, yet it is faster than this deck. A Sligh deck in Vintage would probably be safe to estimate its goldfish at turn four.* This WW deck would, in general, be lucky to kill on turn 5.

* : Semi-related: thanks to the accumulated burn spells of a decade, the Burninator deck whose only creatures are typically Lavamancers and Mishra’s Factories (sometimes Gorilla Shaman) can also claim turn 4 wins constantly. And it’s way better in Vintage than Sligh because it’s not as dependent on creatures!

Even though a Fish deck would kill more slowly, it would still be based in more powerful cards and abilities than the WW deck. The fact that white has at best the third-class weenie deck (let’s not hash out the merits of Suicide Black or whether various Green decks count as weenie strategies), and if you count Affinity, fourth-class, speaks volumes about the importance of what those creatures have in their text box. If the bodies were good, they would have won something by now. The success of this example Vintage WW build recommends Samurai of the Pale Curtain’s ability more than it does the archetype, and this is confirmed by the totally different February WW build, which also uses four despite being much more classically Land Tax-based.

Empty Niches?

I hope that you don’t walk away from this thinking that resource-converting and rule-setting creatures alone will solve the problem. The current status quo is as if the color pie is made of delicious cheesecake, but there’s one slice formed by throwing little torn up Healing Salves into a blender and hitting ‘frappe’. No one step will solve that. Good colors have support spells that drive everything. However, that is a largely independent topic, which deserves its own article.

The real take-home message for today is that every unique cardpool of Magic is seeking its ever-fluctuating equilibrium point constantly, but because of the nature of the Constructed game, that equilibrium will never rest on two-mana 2/2s with protection abilities. They might be the metagame answer to Jackal Pup; they might happen to coincide with Ramosian Sergeant or Empyrial Armor; they might even be good enough to compete with neutered Affinity in Standard. But they will not be good enough to heat up the Vintage-playable thermometer, and that’s the only test that can reveal whether a color’s mechanics are truly good, or merely able to compete with a few hundred contemporary cards.

Philip Stanton

prstanto at gmail dot com