MTG: Big Gulps

WOTC Employees: This article talks about unsolicited game designs, though it does not show any specific example cards.

When it comes to custom magic card design, I’m something of a pain in the ass. I don’t find myself particularly adventuresome in design, and will generally look at things in terms of what space they’re opening up. The effect this has in the community is that I’m the one who’s generally going ‘maybe not this,’ and that can be a real bummer for people. Apparently, I’ve got a reputation for being unpleasable.

One of the topics that we’re – still – hammering on is White. The argument –

no, hang on, it’s a whine.

– is that white is weak and that we in the heroic custom magic mines know better than Wizards, and will produce the cards that ‘fix’ White that they’re too cowardly to print. I’m pretty regularly there to tell people why I don’t think their solutions are good (in my opinion), but I know I don’t often put my ideas out there.

Back in the misty wilds of 2005 I was making custom cards with a small group of people, and we were actually playtesting and drafting them. On the one hand, great, that’s play experience with what it’s like to actually play with custom cards, and on the other hand, the colour pie I was rebelling against at the time was a lot older and a lot darker. There were problems with white and green, and some of the solutions to the other colours that have come up in the real game completely blew out of the water some of my expectations. Some cards I designed in private have been pretty much printed as is, and some cards I held up as benchmarks have since been made absolutely obviated.

Note that before I go in on this, that the problems represented here are problems that aren’t going to be addressed by single cards, certainly not by single commanders, but by redundancy of effect and a vision of design going forwards, which also means that my ideas are pretty much untestable. If this happens and white gets better, I get to look smart, but remember I’m also not risking anything by saying this. At most, you might tell me you think I’m stupid, which, I mean, this is both reddit and the internet, I don’t actually fear that. I mean c’mon, this is tl;dr bait. I could end this paragraph with anything I like. Aardvark.

So here are three basic idea spaces I think white can go that can be helpful to it in Commander without necessarily undermining its identity in the colour pie everywhere else.

Now, I have played an era where there was a fantastically strong set of white base decks, and one of them was when white could cycle its way through its deck and consistently find answers. I remember that there was a time when white control felt thuddingly unfair, because it could force you onto the board, then blow everything up with impunity. Hell, it was even hard to fight with counterspells, because the ways it seized control of the board were strong and cheap. That’s what’s informing where I’m coming at this from.

Efficiency – The Half Card

One thing common to all these is that I don’t think that white is helped by trying to make it into another colour, specifically usually green. There’s been a lot of attempts to try and give white Llanowar Elves as if that’ll help things, or the idea that somehow white needs ‘mana acceleration,’ but I feel this is coming at things from the wrong side.

An idea I’ve had for a long time is that white is the colour of maximum efficiency. White gets a 2/1 creature for 1 (and back when I first started on this, it was a big fuss that Savannah Lions had just been reprinted) because white just pays as little as possible for things. A 2/2 flier cost 3, but white paid less. This worked for me because one of the things that a connected society of specialists lets you do is get more efficient versions of things because the person whose job it is to make them can just make more of them.

This design idea predated Equipment, which has obviously slotted right into white’s part of the colour pie.

Okay, so what, white pays less for effects. So what? What mechanical space do we get out of that?

First, white should be getting cantrips. Like, possibly the second largest number of cantrips. White has a whole host of effects that scale up and down pretty well, and the kinds of card effects white get are the kind that cantripping isn’t actually a problem. Giving a creature +1/+1 and cantripping is very nice in limited environments, but it’s not going to be broken or find its way into storm decks.

And what’s more, storm! White is on the record as having some of the only Storm cards that were used in non-storm decks, with Wing Shards representing a fantastic control effect that forced your opponent to play around it, and it served to punish Haste, which is an effect that red and black have. Storm opens up the space where white should have cards that can copy themselves, where you may have one card that can be two or more spells, with the right circumstances. Think like Malicious Affliction.

There’s no evergreen mechanic that quite fits this space, but I think it needs consideration when we revisit mechanics. There’s a host of mechanics that players like which work to milk spells for More Effect, which tend to wind up slapped in blue and red (the spells colour), but which many times could be branched into white as well, to represent being as efficient as possible with the spells. Again, when you consider the things we consider white effects, it’s honestly pretty safe to do this, because they’re not about to do things that buy extra turns but instead respond to effects.

Just for a list of examples, Retrace, Rebound, Flashback, and Aftermath are all effects that white should be able to capitalise on, and treat differently to the other colours getting to play with them. Hope that oxford comma made you smile. Anyway. The thing with giving these effects to white is that they let you know what’s coming next time. There’s a presentation, a sort of demonstration. When the main spell happens, the opponents know there’ll be more of that. This can play into ideas of prophecy, too.

The other way to be efficient with a card is to make it so your cards are each literally half a spell. There’s only been one time Wizards have dabbled into making split cards a colour’s effect, and it was Planar Chaos, so let’s set that aside for now as a stupid place which shouldn’t be used as precedent, and instead consider about how to push white’s split cards, or make more split cards for white. The basic idea is the modal spell as core to white’s identity. Split cards let you give utility and flexibility while making the challenge of knowing when to hold a card. It gives white more room to plan ahead.

These effects are naturally dangerous to put out there in standard environments. After all, if a control deck can run 8 wraths with only 4 slots, that means that aggressive decks are going to need to be resilient to try and get through them, and that needs to be balanced. But in Commander? We can have some cards that do things in the White Way.

Engineering – The Role of the Commander

Okay, when I mentioned that I’d played with powerful white control decks, they were also engine decks. Scroll Rack and Land Tax were Jace the Mind Sculptor before Jace was even born. Similarly, Astral Slide was a powerhouse of a card that gave decks ways to milk effects out of cards while they sculpted their hand.

The top ten most popular commanders on EDHREC include Sram, Senior Edificer, Odric, Lunarch Marshal , Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle , God-Eternal Oketra , Balan, Wandering Knight and Sephara, Sky’s Blade and those are some good commanders because they each set their deck apart and make for interesting decisions in deck construction. To get the most out of these cards, your deck is going to be different to a deck that doesn’t have them. So we can accept that commanders that serve as an engine aren’t necessarily going to be a problem. There is a bit of a problem here with these commanders as they are, though; Teshar and Sram milk card advantage out of specific card types (good), but largely, these cards are all about getting a big army onto the board that the commander can then make better. And well, big swarms of attacking and blocking is great for casual commander decks, but there are a lot of those options right now and they’re kind of limited. People exploring white have definitely, definitely, already done that.

It’s not like white has lacked for engines historically. Auriok Salvagers, Rally the Ancestors, Second Sunrise and Approach of the Second Sun are all perfectly reasonable white engine cards, but we don’t have much like that that’s good enough for Commander, and it doesn’t live in the Command zone. Competitive players build their decks to go off with an engine card and can do so with such efficiency they sometimes expect to steal the engine out of someone else’s deck, so it’s not like engines are fundamentally a bad thing for Commander to have.

What’s more, we have examples of Commanders who got nixed for being too good as engines, like Griselbrand and Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary, so we even have precedent of what to do if a commander wound up being too strong as an engine.

But if we’re going to be doing things like ‘Astral Slide But Legendary Creature With Eminence’ we also want to make sure that we’re not pushing you to build decks that need to be pure and redundant and bad. If you try to make a cycling commander deck, ignoring the commander choice, you’re still going to wind up running some crap. Astral slide was fine for standard, but it didn’t have to run the really embarrassing cycling cards. For a commander format, these engines need to be commander scaled, and ideally scale up on their own. Less ‘exile target creature’ and more ‘each player exiles a creature they control.’

Hierarchy – The Big Gulp

Maro has talked about possibly giving white access to large values of scry, and I really like this. I think this is a good idea, but with two caveats.

One, it needs to be on single use effects like sorceries and instants, rather than on a recurring permanent. Two, it needs to be on expensive cards – not that it should be expensive, mind you, but that it shouldn’t be something you get to do once or twice a turn. And it should almost never happen on a card that just scries.

Lots of small scries, or multiple spells with scry cast in the same turn tends to feel like you’re digging, like you’re looking for something specific. What I want to see out of white is planning. I want to see (for example) a Wrath for 5 that also scries 5. This is where I think of the ‘big gulp’ design – where white can absolutely have this effect, but in white’s typically rigid style, it has to make sure it gets it right, that it gets to a plan, and that these scries will involve some kind of commitment as well.

The other thing, the sorcery thing? Well, look, scrying 5 in a game with four players and a complex board state is going to be hard enough. Putting it at the end of turn, or setting it up so you can do it reactively to something else someone does, that means that the chances to scry are going to take even more time, because when you’re presented with a problem, it won’t just be ‘I have a problem’ but instead ‘hang on, I might be able to find a solution to this problem, and now as well, I have to resolve this scry for five, which involves a lot of choices.’

Basically, make it so your main phases are for making these plans, which will then come to fruition.

The fun interaction with Miracles is a good thing too.

TL, DR: Give white stuff that fits white:

  • Any mechanic that gets you two spells for one card should be at least secondary in white (like rebound, flashback)
  • White should be very efficient with its cards and mana rather than just getting more of same. Discounts and cantrips for example.
  • Commanders should be non-combat engines because we have lots of combat engines. Look at other engines and think about reimagining them as legends.
  • Scry in big values at slow speeds to represent making plans.


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