Standard Disclaimer for Wizards of the Coast (WotC) employees who read this article: I have no card designs in this article. I talk quite a bit about design philosophy in this article. Any ideas in this article are free and clear for use!
Before Craig Wescoe, before Charles Zhuang, before Thomas Enevoldsen, there was Ben Bleiweiss rallying against the absolute injustices being done to white as a color. I piloted White Weenie to a Top 16 GP finish in Texas to qualify for a Pro Tour (Tempest Block Constructed) many moons ago and I’ve been complaining for almost that long publicly that white is getting shafted as a color.
Don’t believe me? Check out these articles and see how many of the problems from 2004 are still around in 2021!
- 18,000 Words: Why Do You Hate Me, Randy Buehler?
- Salt the Fields! Making White Not Suck
- 18,000 Words: Randy’s Game
- I’ll Bet A Hundred Words Per Card That These’ll All See Play In The New Extended
Which leads us to the year 2021, where white is still considered the weakest color in Magic, and by a wide margin. Yes, there are white decks that occasionally rise to the top of the chain. This is the exception. White is underpowered in Commander (now the most popular Constructed format) and is a supporting player in most other formats.
WotC has acknowledged that white as a color can use work. Recently, Gavin Verhey posted a Good Morning Magic video specifically talking about some ways that R&D will help white over the next couple of years.
Gavin wanted to stress that the mechanics he mentioned in the article were not the be-all, end-all of changes coming for white, and I’m going to reiterate that disclaimer here.
With that said, I’m filled with trepidation about two of the three changes outlined in Gavin’s video. I don’t believe in criticizing things without offering something constructive, so let’s take a look at all three of the major upcoming changes for white and dissect them a little.
White Get Flash Creatures
Quick question – what was the first flash creature ever printed?
I’m thoroughly in favor of WotC pushing white to the primary color to support flash creatures. It’s already been a sub-theme of the color for twenty-plus years, but there’s a lot of unexplored space in this territory. There are only around 200 unique creatures in Magic’s history that have flash, a number that is much, much lower than I would have presupposed before doing the research.
White Gets the Catch-Up Mechanic
The reason I don’t like this being pushed is because it’s been done before and was abandoned for a good reason. The only reason you need to catch up is, by definition, because you’re behind in a game. This means that white will have an identity (and mechanical) tie to losing.
Land Tax, Tithe, and Knight of the White Orchard are fine, but all of them require you to change your strategy from “play to win” to “completely change the way that the game is played in order to maximize the use of these cards.” A little of that is fine because it keeps Magic interesting to have different strategies or ways to win the game. What worries me is that this is being heralded as something that will really help white as a color, and white needs more support than “if you’re already behind, we’ll help you not be as behind.”
White Gets Shared Card Drawing
Hey, more trivia! Did you know that white was the color that took the longest to get card drawing in Magic? It’s true! I’m defining this strictly as “letting you add cards to your hand,” so Balance, which can and will cause your opponent to discard, does not count. I don’t want to conflate card advantage with card draw. Armageddon, Wrath of God, Balance — these can all provide card advantage, but none of these can provide card draw.
- Artifact – Jayemdae Tome
- Black – Contract from Below, Lich
- Blue – Ancestral Recall, Braingeyser, Timetwister
- Green – Verduran Enchantress
- Red – Wheel of Fortune
In Arabian Nights:
- Land – Library of Alexandria
It took until Legends until white got card drawing proper:
- White – Land Tax, Petra Sphinx
White has been extremely deficient in card drawing over the years. Eliminating cantrips, here are all of the white cards that allow one of the following:
- Drawing more than one card at a time
- Drawing more than one card across multiple turns
And other effects that let you get extra cards in your hand, in white (again – either repeatable, or two-plus at a time). Please note I’m using “draw” as a generic term in this case, when in many cases it’s “search your library.” This is to save time and space. I know Land Tax doesn’t “draw” three basic lands, but I’m letting you know now that I know it!
There are a few cards on these lists that have seen play (Land Tax, Weathered Wayfarer, Squadron Hawk), and I’m sure I’ve missed a couple of cards. Point being, the overall pool of talent here is rather weak. This is especially exacerbated because every other color in Magic just gets outright card draw at this point. Blue is the strongest here, but red has made huge advances in impulse draw (exile and have a turn to play the cards), black has always had card draw (usually at a cost of life or creatures being sacrificed), and green has gotten a proliferation of card-drawing effects in recent years that care about number of creatures on the battlefield or the power of those creatures.
It’s undeniable that white is by far the weakest color in Magic at card draw. Having more cards like Farsight Adept, Happily Ever After, or Truce / Temporary Truce is not the way to fix this, especially when there are better options in the land and artifact slots already.
I mean, first off, let’s start at Howling Mine and Mikokoro, Center of the Sea. White (not to mention every other color) already has access to this effect. There might be cards more pushed than Farsight Adept but the fact that artifact/colorless has consistently gotten better card draw than white is problematic.
Just looking at Standard, we have:
- Bonders’ Enclave
- Chromatic Orrery
- Cosmos Elixir (which could and should have been a white card)
- Mazemind Tome
- Spare Supplies
Remember when I said that I’d like to offer constructive criticism? That’s still coming, I promise! But first we need to talk about the mechanical identity of white.
White’s Mechanical Identity
So here’s the problem that white has had over the years. Anything that white can do, another color seems to be able to do as well or better. Life gain? Green. Flying creatures? Blue. Small creatures? Basically every color at this point. Large flyers? Red. blue, and black. Killing creatures? Black and red. Midrange creatures? Green. Enchantment destruction? Green. Artifact destruction? Red and green.
The problem in white is that there’s virtually nothing in the color that feels exclusively white. The exceptions are cards and mechanics that have been downplayed over the years because they create a miserable play experience. This includes:
- The tax mechanic. One of (if not the most) played Commander white cards is Smothering Tithe. Ghostly Prison (a reskin of Propaganda) is another powerful, popular white card. These are both cards that make your opponent pay mana to do something. This is a feel-bad mechanic for opponents, since it makes them feel like they’re being punished for playing Magic.
- Preventing things from attacking. Not only at the Pacifism level, but at the Peacekeeper / Moat / Ghostly Prison / Island Sanctuary level. Again, a feel-bad when WotC is trying to encourage people to interact with attacking to win Standard games of Magic. It’s okay to have effects that stop one creature from attacking, but stopping multiple creatures has more-or-less gone away for white.
- Mutual Destruction / Achieving Equality. Wrath of God effects still persist, as do things that sweep the battlefield of all nonland permanents. Anything that touches the hand or lands? Generally now out of bounds. No Balance, Catastrophe, or Armageddon for you! WotC has shied away from anything resembling playable land destruction the past few years, as it also is a feel-bad for playing the game of Magic (no lands = not being able to play).
White is #1 for damage prevention; playing defense (damage prevention, indestructible, self-bounce, and self-blink); killing attacking/blocking creatures; taxing; and dealing with Auras and Equipment for now. Beyond that, we have things like Angels, but that’s just a tribe that might as well be Dragons, Sphinxes, Demons, or any other large flying creature tribe that colors have.
The main issue here is that other colors have much stronger mechanics as thematic parts of their color pie.
Black can do virtually anything as long as it is willing to pay life and/or sacrifice creatures. It’s also #1 at outright killing creatures.
Blue has bounce, card draw, theft, and is #1 on card selection (scry), flying creatures, countermagic, working with artifacts in general, and gaining extra turns, and copy effects on permanents.
Red is now a solid #2 behind blue in card draw (which is huge), haste creatures, direct damage, tribal interactions, temporary fast mana, copy effects on spells, extra attack phases, land destruction, and rummaging (discard followed by draw).
Green has the best creatures, permanent mana acceleration (both via creatures and putting lands onto the battlefield), artifact/enchantment destruction, +1/+1 counters, card selection (look at top of library and put X in your hand), trample, and creature tutoring.
Step One for Fixing White — The Tax Mechanic
It’s become clear over the years that taxing opponents to their detriment creates a really negative play experience. The type of taxing effects that play better are ones that reward the person who controls the tax when the tax isn’t paid.
Compare for instance, Ghostly Prison versus Smothering Tithe. Ghostly Prison is an example of a detrimental tax effect. If your opponent doesn’t pay mana, they’re not allowed to do something that ordinarily would be allowed to do (attack). Smothering Tithe does not prevent opponents from anything at all! It just adds a rider to all opposing draws that an opponent pays two or you get a Treasure token.
See the difference? Smothering Tithe discourages the opponent from drawing extra cards, but there’s no penalty directly to the opponent for drawing cards. Instead, the controller of Smothering Tithe is rewarded if the opponent doesn’t pay a tax of sorts.
Mangara, the Diplomat is another example of a reactive tax effect. Mangara doesn’t prevent your opponents from attacking or casting more than one spell a turn. Instead, it taxes them if they choose to attack with more than one creature (or cast more than one spell). It doesn’t take a far leap from Mangara and Smothering Tithe to imagine a variant of Ghostly Prison that doesn’t prevent your opponent from attacking at all, but instead allows the white player to draw cards if the opponent doesn’t pay two for each attacking creature.
It’s a subtle distinction, but there’s a huge amount of design space for white being rewarded if the opponent makes normal game actions. The main three toggles are:
- The action. What’s happening to cause the tax to take effect? This can be extremely wide-ranging, from drawing cards, to casting spells, to playing lands, to having cards go to the graveyard, and everything in between.
- The cost. This doesn’t always have to be mana. It could be life (including making you gain life!) or giving extra resources (creatures, Treasure tokens, etc.). Sky’s the limit!
- The payoff. What’s the reward for the tax? In #2, I use giving extra resources as a possible cost. It’s also a potential payoff. Not paying the cost = gaining the payoff. For instance (and I’m using this as a broad example), it could be “Whenever your opponent attacks with one or more creatures, they may have you gain 2 life. If they don’t, creature a Treasure token.” It can be scaled to “each creature” instead.
The key here is that no matter what the option of the cost, it’s never going to outright prevent an opponent from taking an action. It will give them the choice of paying to either nullify the payoff or choosing which of the two payoffs the controller of the tax effect gets.
Step Two for Fixing White — Outright Card Draw
Let’s just be frank — it’s long, long past the time where any one color should be prevented from getting outright card draw as part of its core identity. Red and white were the two remaining colors that didn’t have easy access to absolute card draw, but the addition of red impulse draw has rectified this (and in a way that feels natural to the color identity of red).
So the question is, “What are absolute card drawing cards that would fit white as a color identity?” And the answer lies in looking at the core identity of white on the color pie. Before we do that, let’s look at the way that blue is allowed to draw cards!
- Outright card drawing, fixed amount (Tidings, Ancestral Recall)
- X-spell card drawing (Blue Sun’s Zenith, Braingeyser; Gadwick, the Wizened; Stroke of Genius)
- The best card-selection spells (Brainstorm, Portent, Opt, Graven Lore)
- Card drawing tied onto creatures attacking (Bident of Thassa, Curiosity, Library Larcenist, Ninja of Deep Hours, Ophidian)
- Equalizing card draw (Balance of Power, Windfall, Slithermuse)
- Tribal card draw (Airborne Aid, Distant Melody, Kindred Discovery)
- Draw-seven effects (Day’s Undoing, Echo of Eons, Game Plan, Overflowing Insight, Timetwister, Time Spiral)
- Repeatable card drawing (Arcanis the Omnipotent, Archivist, Azure Mage, Treasure Trove)
- Looting (Atemsis, All-Seeing; Benthic Biomancer; Careful Study; Merfolk Looter)
Of the above types of blue card drawing, two of them seem like they are naturals for white, #4 (card drawing tied onto creatures attacking) and #5 (equalizing card draw). Let me talk about the three areas where white could take over the card draw color pie (the third being taxing). To best illustrate these, I’ll also include previously printed cards that could be color-shifted straight from blue to white for each of these types.
Note that I implicitly understand that when I name a card below, I’d expect it to change from a flavor perspective when moving from blue to white. For instance, blue is still going to be the color that gets Sphinx as a creature type. When I name Consecrated Sphinx, I mean a creature that is white, costs 4WW for the same effect, and is probably an Angel or Avatar or something that isn’t a Sphinx, but is otherwise identical to Consecrated Sphinx (color-shifted).
Blue has a long history of taxing opponents for card draw. It can be based on creatures being blocked, creatures being tapped, opponents drawing cards — you name it, blue can probably draw cards off it! As we’ve already mentioned, white is the color of taxing things, not blue. This is a slam dunk for the type of card drawing that can move from blue to white.
White is a color of creatures. Blue is not a color of creatures. Green gets this effect (creatures that draw cards when you attack or deal damage). As an allied color to green, and as a color that cares about creatures, I’m baffled that this is not a white staple instead of being in blue’s wheelhouse.
From a flavor standpoint, Military Intelligence and Reconnaissance Mission say it all. White doing missions to attack the enemy and bring back spoils of war (or knowledge) is entirely in flavor for a color that values military might and fighting for the common good.
Equalizing Card Draw
This one is the hardest of the three to balance correctly. Unlike tying card drawing to creatures attacking (which happens often enough) or taxing (which mechanically has a huge build-upon base), equalizing card draw is a catch-up effect. And it’s a catch-up effect with one specific payoff — drawing cards.
Despite this being a narrow subset of cards with limited design space, this is also a place where white should get card draw. Blue is not the color of catching up to opponents. This is by far a white design space, and one that WotC has already committed to exploring.
There are undoubtedly other places where WotC can fortify white. I’m glad that the difficulties white faces as a color are being actively addressed. The issue remains though that for some reason, WotC feels that white (as a color) should not get outright card draw. Even in Gavin’s recent discussions, mentions of white card drawing were “everyone draws” and not “just the white player draws.”
As illustrated in this article, the area of card drawing can literally be a color pie in and of itself. I illustrated nine different ways in which blue regularly draws cards from a design perspective. Given that white has zero mechanical ways to regularly draw cards, I think it’s not out of bounds to say, “Take three of the ways that blue draws cards that thematically make sense in white, and give them to white to improve the color.”
The tax mechanic is hugely diverse and can be used for more than just drawing cards. Leaning heavily into taxing as a “pay or this happens” instead of “pay or you can’t do X” is the way to make the gameplay more palatable to most players without sacrificing the power the effect has for white.
If WotC takes these two suggestions and runs with them, I feel it would go a tremendous way towards helping white get a more direct color identity and give the color the legs it needs to compete with the other colors in Commander.