Commander and Color Pie Breaks

Mono-White is considered by many to be the absolute worst color possible in Commander, with the exception of pure Colorless. Many ideas have been put forward in the hope of solving its issues, but I think a great deal of them fall into a trap that I see Commander players make a lot - failing to distinguish between color pie breaks and color pie bends. As far as I understand the concept, a break is a card that specifically undermines a fundamental weakness of a color. Both Blue and Green are supposed to be extremely bad at removing creatures, yet Blue got Reality Shift and Green got Beast Within, cards that permanently remove one creature very cheaply at instant speed under the justification that they technically just turn it into something else. Every color has had some number of color pie breaks over the years, and they are often very popular cards precisely because they are color pie breaks - if you are playing Green, you will inevitably run into situations where you want to destroy a creature. Thus, in a singleton format like Commander, where you have tons and tons of slots to fill and three separate opponents on the board in any one game, including generically powerful color pie breaks is a very good idea.

Commander is a bit of a weird format as far as Magic goes. When the games are good, they're really good. But when the games are bad, they're absolutely frustrating. A lot of this goes back to a core tenet of the experience - Commander is a casual format. What this means is that the format is less concerned with the idea of balance and more concerned with the idea of giving people the ability to have fun. In a more specific sense, what this means is that Commander's banlist is not used in the same way you'd see it used anywhere else. A card like Sol Ring, for instance, appears in 77% of decks chronicled on EDHRec. With essentially zero deckbuilding cost, a card that appeared in 77% of decks would probably be seen as dangerously centralizing and banworthy in any other format, even if it was just a utility card. But because Commander is not a competitive format, it is generally assumed that issues like this can be discussed and agreed upon by individual playgroups, and the format errs on the side of allowing almost everything because it's not seen as the purpose of the rules committee to handle this.

With Commander being an eternal format, cards never rotate out. A mistake Wizards made 25 years ago is just as relevant now as it was then, and unless a card is extremely bad, it is very unlikely the Rules Committee will ever deign to remove it. The end result of this is that every single color pie break Wizards has ever made is legal in the Commander format, with only house rules and personal deckbuilding choice standing in their way. Every single time a color pie breaking card is printed, we have to deal with the fact that it will become a tool in mono-color Commander decks' arsenals from now until the end of time. Thus, I would say that avoiding color pie breaks is one of the most important things modern Magic can try to do, because these problems will forever change the format in such a way that essentially no one is willing or able to erase.

Unfortunately, Commander is already riddled with color pie breaks. Many of these cards were actually made specifically for the purpose of breaking the color pie, out of a misguided notion that allowing every color some means to cheaply deal with a problem was a good idea. Cards like Chaos Warp and Song of the Dryads are examples of cards that aren't just breaks, but were actually specifically made to allow colors to address their main weaknesses that become worse in Commander - Red's inability to directly remove most permanents and especially Enchantments, and Green's inability to remove creatures. These cards, as examples of color pie breaks that were specifically included in Commander products, really bother me more than almost any other breaks in the game. I fundamentally believe that the game is better off if each color really does have a weakness that they need to dip into Colorless cards to address. Yet unfortunately, as I've stated, color pie breaks are exciting because they let you do something you don't have many options for, so ironically, they end up being more commonly seen that many individual cards that are actually something a color is supposed to do. They become "staples".

The Tragic Tale of Mono-White

So what I'd really like to discuss today is how many people have been clamoring for Wizards to give Mono-White tools to make it a better color in Commander. I think it's important to distinguish between the discussion of White being weak in Commander and White being weak in other formats.

What's important for being competitive in Commander is fundamentally different from what's important for being competitive in other formats. In most 1v1 Magic the Gathering formats, White is able to focus on board wipes, 1 for 1 permanent removal, lifegain tools, aggro, and lockdown pieces to hold its own. Although White has appeared somewhat lackluster in Standard for the last few years, the specific issues it faces there are very different from the ones that it faces in Commander. One of White's issues in the format is that none of its specialties other than board wipes really scale very well to Commander at all - 1 for 1 permanent removal is bad, lifegain matters far less in a format where there's 40 life, Commander Damage, and everyone has time to assemble infinite combos, aggro faces the uphill battle of three double-life-total'd opponents, and lockdown is generally frowned upon and incurs a severe "hate rating" when used. On the other hand, White's designated weakness - the absolute worst card draw of any color - becomes a mammoth issue that dwarfs everything else about it. White is simply incapable of trading card for card with any other color in the format, because it has the worst card advantage tools available to it. The only means by which White can reliably achieve card advantage are board wipes - which, I must admit, can be quite effective - but are also double sided and a specific weakness that most decks will take pains to counteract. Add in that White lacks ramp tools compared to most other colors, and you have an awkward situation where the color lacks major strengths in general.

A more subtle issue is that White lacks flashy finishing moves. Other colors have very strong proactive cards that can immediately end the game - Black's Torment of Hailfire, Green's Craterhoof Behemoth, Blue's Omniscience, et cetera. But in addition to these single massive haymakers, these colors also tend to have a wide variety of powerful individual cards and finishers that let them pull off dramatic turns and win quickly. The only really comparable card variants in White are mass reanimation (such as the recent Triumphant Reckoning) and mass token creation (such as the classic Storm Herd). Yet while both of these can be game-ending, they generally require far more set-up than the slam it and go wincons every other color has at their disposal. White's main proactive game plan is meant to be mastery of the combat step, but these days Green has overwhelmed it in both mass token production and mass creature pumping. Is there anything proactive White is allowed to be the best at other than non-creature reanimation, then?

Everyone's Fixes for Mono-White

If Mono-White were to be made more powerful in the format, what tools would it need?

Wizards has been moving these last few years to very slowly give White tools it has historically lacked. The main methods we've seen so far are giving it a form of mana ramp by being able to fetch lands from the deck whenever your opponents are ahead of you, and attempts at giving it group card draw effects that allow all players to draw a card (which is not card advantage). Although there are occasional cards that offer REAL card draw in exchange for performing something seen as White (playing weak creatures for Mentor of the Meek, gaining life for Dawn of Hope), these are considered to be pie breaks by some and are overall not the path Wizards seems to favor. Fans get very frustrated whenever a new catchup card is previewed, because they feel that these are all weak cards that barely advance its game-plan. Recent cards like Verge Rangers and Keeper of the Accord are seen as pitiful crumbs that simply cannot address the problem that lies in front of White as a color.

So what do I think about this? Well, this might sound a bit like a cop-out, but I think the first question that needs to be discussed is whether fixing White in Commander is actually truly necessary. I have a lot of beliefs about what Wizards should do regarding the color pie in general, and many of these beliefs would, I think, end up making the color better in Commander as well as other formats. But I do also feel that the "White is bad" meme has been exaggerated to the point where anything less than giving it literal actual card draw spells is seen as completely useless and another example of how Wizards intrinsically hates the color and doesn't want anyone to play it. Well, here's my honest thought: Commander is a format where, depending on what you like to play, your favorite style of deck might just be completely unplayable. The power level of individual commanders runs literally the entire gamut, and it's just accepted that different decks will be empowered to succeed at several levels of gameplay. If it's not considered an issue that Anthousa, Setessan Hero is a pathetically weak commander while Yisan, the Wanderer Bard is a competitive powerhouse that elicits growns on sight, is it really that much of an issue if one color is somewhat worse than the others because its literal intended weaknesses are the things the format values the most?

To put this another way, I fundamentally believe that Wizard should not compromise White's weaknesses in other formats just to make it better in Commander. Some people might argue that Commander is the most popular format in the game, and thus Wizards should do what they can to make its balance their first priority. But in my humble opinion, Commander is already an unbalanced format by its very nature. While it would be nice if the gap between the colors was smaller, I think that doing so must not be done in a way that would fundamentally change the nature of the color outside of the format. Why should they expend effort to make a color better in a format that doesn't care about balance when there are so many formats that do? I think that the eternal nature of color pie breaks contributes to the color looking bad as well, because whenever you mention White creature removal, people can point to the breaks I mentioned earlier in Blue and Green to explain that White isn't much better than them at that. Other colors can do what White is supposed to do better than them because of past unbalanced design, so is the answer to that really just to unbalance White too?

Let's say, though, we want to improve White in Commander. I think the first priority should honestly be to give it better big proactive cards. I think constant recursion from the graveyard is an interesting and powerful space that's uniquely White and that the color should be able to lean more into. I also think White should be given more ways to punish or profit off of other players drawing cards - imagine, for instance, a White Hullbreacher or an Alms Collector that triggers off of single cards. An argument I've heard that I think I kind of agree with is that White lacks the same density of strong cards other colors do, being forced to quickly descend into mediocre choices after its first few staple cards. Worse yet, the staples it does have are often quite expensive, and there's just not enough generically good cards to allow you to build a truly powerful Mono-White Commander deck. I definitely do agree that giving the card a better density of replacements for its powerful cards would be a good idea. Regarding straight up Card Draw itself, I'm not really sure I agree with it fundamentally because I fear that it's downplaying the color's main true weakness - but I also note that cards like Dawn of Hope didn't end up making a huge splash, so it might be okay to keep giving White card draw on that level. I'm not sure about it being done continuously, though.

I think a part of why I'm a little cautious about the hyperbolic nature of this discussion is that White has always had access to Colorless card draw. Yes, every color does, but because as we've established White's card draw is so minimal, it's the only color other than Red that traditionally has needed to lean into it so heavily. And you know... colorless card draw... isn't terrible! Yes, cards like Mind's Eye, the Staff of Nin, The Immortal Sun aren't superb or anything, but the way people talk about it you'd think that the moment you entered White you were stuck drawing 1 card a turn until the end of time. Maybe White should get better payoffs for drawing cards from artifacts, even? Red has commanders like Kurkesh that let you double up your value for the cost of just one red mana. Perhaps letting White lean into taking advantage of artifact draw more than other colors could help it get a niche without having to specifically force it to make White cards that draw on their own.

Another issue I think might be worth considering is the problem of effects White should be getting, but isn't. Theoretically, White gets occasional extra combat step effects - but those have all been hybrid or multicolor, so White isn't allowed them in Commander. White is supposed to be good at little tokens and creature spam versus Green's bigger tokens, but in practice Green has been superior to White in almost all token creating (both long-term, with Verdant Force type effects, and short-term, with cards like Avenger of Zendikar). Lots of these little abilities that have leaked into other colors and never leaked back could afford to be returned to White in Standard and other formats, where I think they'd give it a welcome amount of variety in its game plan and help it have a better suite of cool options to play with any deck.

Even that comment, though, goes back to the ugly truth of an eternal casual format. In Standard, we can imagine an eventual format where Throne of Eldraine rotates out and maybe Green suddenly doesn't have the best card draw in the format anymore. But cards will never rotate out of Commander, so every color will keep all its powerful cards and breaks with the only means to oust/compete with them being the printing of even stronger cards. Green has become extremely powerful because it now can do almost anything, and the only real way to balance Green would be to empower every other color in turn. Now that Green is, in my opinion, more powerful than any other color should be - there's no way Commander will ever be even nominally balanced. Unless the Rules Committee goes completely nuts and bans half of the color, our options are to live in a world where Green is obviously better than other colors, or in one where 2 or more colors become as varied and op as Green is now... and frankly, I'd rather live in a world where White gets small boosts every-so-often but never breaks its core identity just to be better in a single format, than one where it becomes Green 2.


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