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In Zendikar Rising, we were presented with the card Lithoform Engine, which codified a rule that made some obvious sense but hadn’t been previously stated on a card.
The important line is at the bottom there, the third ability: 4, T: Copy target permanent spell you control (the copy becomes a token.)
This might not be ‘new’ new rules – it might be that this was a lurking clause in the comprehensive rules at some point, not brought forward or presented obviously in some rules card or whatever. Its presentation, however, put me in mind of this being a perfect time to re-examine the place of the mechanic copying in Magic: The Gathering, and how that can fit into our existing discourse around white.
First things first, let’s go over what copying is. It’s one of those nice times a Magic term is pretty intuitively just what the language used to refer to it is: it is copying something, in the same space as the thing you’re copying. So if you copy a creature on the battlefield, you get a copy of that creature, on the battlefield. If you copy a spell, on the stack, you get a copy of that spell, on the stack.
Typically speaking, these things are virtualised on the stack; copies of spells tend to not need things to track them, but copies of permanents are represented with tokens. That’s it, that’s your basic guideline on how copying works.
Right now, as of Mechanical Color Pie 2017, there are only two entries for the mechanic copying:
Copying permanents, permanently
Blue has permanents that will choose a target and then remain that target for the rest of the game (or until the permanent chooses to copy a new target).
Copying permanents, temporarily
Red has permanents (or spells that create this effect) that can temporarily become another creature, usually until end of turn. Blue’s cards in this category are cards that change but don’t let the controller explicitly choose what they become. (For instance, one might copy the last creature played.)
Spell copying (Copy target instant or sorcery spell. You may choose new targets for the copy.)
Primary: blue and red
This ability is mostly done at rare. We bounced back and forth between whether blue or red was supposed to do it and finally let them both do it.
Now, this is not entirely true, per se, at least if you look for the word copy. It’s not to say that copying cards only happens on red and blue cards – but mostly, if you want to look for a card that copies something, it’ll probably be blue or red. Copying has had other purposes, though.
Sometimes a mechanic wants to use the word ‘copy’ to make a spell or ability increase. An example of this is the Populate mechanic, from Return to Ravnica which let green and white increase the size of their army, but linked it to whatever their best token was at the time – saprolings, birds, knights, centaurs and rhinos, depending on how much of anything you had. Another example is Storm, a mechanic that made spells that had a bigger effect the more spells that had been cast before them in a turn – with each storm spell creating a copy of itself.
There are some similar cards that copy themselves to allow for a back-and-forth or repeated effect as they resolve, like Empyrial Storm and Chain of Silence – cards that copy themselves to give you bigger rewards, or that use the potential to ‘copy’ themselves to prolong their effect.
If you include these mechanics, and as many of them as I could find I did account, you get a breakdown that works something like this:
Blue gets the lion’s share of ‘copy a thing’ – things that enter the battlefield as copies, things that can become copies of other things, spells that create copies of other spells. Red gets things that copy temporarily like making a hasty token for one turn, and a bunch of equally-aggressively priced ‘copy that spell’ effects that blue gets.
Green’s copy cards are largely about copying your existing cards; either duplicating tokens you have like with Populate, or giving you copies of creatures you already had, like Biowaste Blob or Dual Nature. Sometimes green’s copy creatures make copies of themselves, as well, which works for swarming animals or bugs. Green also has the really weird Essence of the Wild, which, along with Permeating Mass is just… kind of… deeply weird?
Then, we have colourless copy cards: This is artifacts, mostly, and these are very interesting and important. Lots of artifacts can copy themselves, or copy other artifacts, and this is I think a very important piece of flavour for artifacts that they seem like material objects that can be constructed together out of other material objects.
Then, we have white. We’ll go more into white later, but currently, white’s presence in the ‘copy’ part of pie is extremely small and experimental, if you ignore the Populate. Once you have populate involved, it jumps ahead of black – literally half the white cards with ‘copy’ on them are populate cards.
Black, trailing the crew, has some storm cards, a bunch of cards that are also blue, and a few cards that feel like unique, interesting experiments – Nemesis Trap, Nightmare Shepherd and Pack Rat. Note that Pack Rat is such a problem card I named a problem after it, The Pack Rat Problem.
Okay, so that’s what copying is in the game as it stands. Let’s talk about what I think white should be shifted so it can do it.
A conversation we’ve been having for some months now is ‘how to fix white,’ a simplified version of a conversation about white’s potential expandability in the future of Magic: The Gathering and how to course-correct for historical mistakes that are unfixable. I reject the simple idea that white needs fixing – because it implies there’s a single problem in a single situation that is simply broken. White is, and has been my entire Magic career, a strong colour in standard and most limited environments; it’s been instrumental to a number of top-tier decks and environments come and go where white has been strong as a controlling or aggressive force.
Basically, white has never been terrible. What white has, as a problem, is a limited pool of opportunities for new development in the game, and a problem playing in a deliberately distorted magic format. Commander is one of the most popular formats of the game right now, and that’s a format where mono-white struggles. Red-white, too, which I’ve written about in the past.
This is not about how to fix that in general, but it is about a tool to add to a suite of expansions to white. Let it be clear that there are a range of things I don’t think white should be getting; I think that white shouldn’t get Rampant Growth style effects when it has a pre-existing positive relationship with artifacts that can be built on. I think white shouldn’t get card draw spells or catch-up spells, considering its existing capacity gain card advantage in other ways. In part, I think that when white and green are already the two most similar colours in Magic, the ways to solve White’s problems are to not make it more like green.
I say that, as I start on giving white a space in a mechanic that green gets. We’ll get to that.
I want to suggest that white can use copying to address some of its currently perceived problems, that white using copying can help reinforce its flavour without undermining its weaknesses, and that white using copying gives more room for this interesting effect to be used more often and in more rarities.
First of all, to frame what I’m talking about, the kind of copying I think white should have is not the all-purpose blue-red copy-target-spell copy-that-creature. I think white should be capable of copying its own spells or permanents. So, in a hierarchal way, blue still gets the best copying; it’s still top of the heap with the most flexibility, the ability to copy other people’s stuff or your own. It could further be limited to copying things based on their mana cost – ones and twos, for example, as a way to build white’s existing body of caring about efficient, cheap spells.
Therefore, my framing going forward for when I say ‘white copying,’ I mean:
The copying of spells and permanents you control. The primary mechanical position should be presented at all times as copying ‘your stuff,’ and not an all-purpose form of copying.
Now, whenever you want to introduce a mechanic into a space, you have to answer two major questions: Why do this, and why not do this. Let’s quickly check in on why not before we go look at what we can get out of adding copying to white’s wing of the colour pie.
There are a number of reasons to avoid giving a new thing to a colour, but the ones I will always look to is how well they damage the boundaries of the colour pie. If green suddenly got widely common access to flying, it would diminish all the mechanical responses it had to its weakness to flying. Therefore, does white copying inherently undermine an existing weakness of white’s? I can’t see a way it does. I think it helps with reinforcing white’s identity, but we’ll get onto that later. There’s a case that white is not a powerful colour for interacting on the stack, but a history of protective and defensive spells that make things Protected from things is a form of stack interaction. Also, the Jeskai faction presented white as the third component of a spellslinger faction. It’s not completely unexplored space.
Does white copying give white access to out-of-colour effects? Not unless you also already had those effects from some other source. Copying is sort of inherently limited like that – it can only give you things you already have. Sure, it’s broken to make a Blightsteel Colossus for one mana, but if you had to already get a Blightsteel Colossus, the second one isn’t doing too much that the first one wasn’t doing already. The problem is the first colossus, the second is insurance.
Does giving white copying give it access to stuff that diminishes the difference between it and Green? I would argue no, as long as whatever you do between the two remains distinct. I do think that, in an ideal world, Anointed Procession would be the default card and there’d be no Parallel Lives to point to. But if you look at green’s history of copying making, it is either Populate (which is already shared) or more niche and weird. There isn’t a lot of it, and it can typically stand apart on its own. Plus, if white copying is added and presented as a common mechanic, suddenly those green exceptions get to stand apart as being a bit more weird. They can be isolated on big expensive things that copy themselves, like Polyraptor.
There is a risk that white copying means white games become more predictable, and less interesting. That is a potential risk. I would try and address that by ensuring that the copying cannot self-perpetuate – that spells are less likely to white copy spells, and creatures less likely to white copy creatures, or that they are reactive or defensive.
These are my main two concerns for the potential problems of white copying. This isn’t, as far as I can tell, an effect that’s ‘broken at any speed’ – you’ll always have the luxury of mana costs to control for risks.
With those why nots addressed, then. White copying lets white build on what it already was doing, and doesn’t let it do things it can’t do. What I want to then add is how white’s flavour is reinforced by copying. In this case, I’m getting my specific descriptors of white from the compilation at the MTG Wiki, linked here.
White seeks peace through structure, and embodies morality and order. Setting aside the idea of morality, let’s look at order and structure. One of the keywords white has is discipline, and another is uniformity – that is, there is a pre-existing flavour space for white to have effects that represent doing that thing again. It is literally practice. With white copying, you can have cards with a hypothetically powerful effect – like giving you two or more copies of a good, efficient card advantage creature! – but which don’t work without a proper target. Look at Faith Unbroken; this is a lot of powerful effect for a removal spell, but by requiring a creature to start with makes the card less powerful. This builds on white rigidity – you can have strong effects, but they are reliant. They are interdependent.
White copying creates a room for creatures that can amplify your spells, if they come out first. It creates room for spells that can gain you bonus card advantage by adding to your board with things that aren’t just a generic creature token. With this, you’re reinforcing white’s reliance on cooperation, you’re reinforcing white’s need for infrastructure, and you’re presenting an industrialised, repeated advantage of civilisation without just straight up copying blue.
I’m talking about cheap, efficient spells, in the one to three mana range that can copy either spells or permanents or both. This could allow for designs where white has utility spells that also can white copy creatures, and utility creatures who can white copy spells. One of the recurrent white problems is that white has often less depth on its best effects – you can only run one Swords to Plowshares and one Path to Exile, so allowing white to efficiently copy those limited effects gives those smaller number of broken historical effects more presence without printing more broken effects.
It also doesn’t have to be limited. White is a colour that can interact with all the nonland permanents easily – it’s one of the strengths of the colour, there’s almost nothing it can’t try and interact with at least a little. White can protect its enchantments by making backups, it could copy its spells repeatedly, or multiple times.
The final reason why I like this is because the potential expansion of what’s normal for white. Right now, when a new set comes out, green is going to get a way to draw a card or two, blue is going to get a bounce spell, black will kill something – these are the normal effects that colours are going to have presented.
If white copying is part of the common conversation, a range of mechanics that fit white and help address white’s common problems suddenly become more obvious. For example, flashback is a way to efficiently derive power from cards; you get one card, then you can get a second iteration of that card; white has never been given a powerful push in flashback until the commander sets, when we see Sevinne’s Reclamation. Prior to that the best flashback card in white flashbacked for green!
I know, I’m already on this point elsewhere: I think that white should be getting spells that copy or reuse themselves, because it plays into the existing ‘efficiency’ theme that white already has. I won’t go over that all over again.
I understand this is a nontypical form for this kind of argument to take. Let me try and present a simplified version of my arguments for easy digestion. A TL;DR, as it were.
- Give white the ability to copy its own spells and permanents.
- This can be controlled by existing costs and doesn’t allow white some completely broken effects.
- It doesn’t diminish white’s weaknesses of inflexibility and rigidity
- It reinforces white’s flavour of being reliant on practice and discipline
- It opens the floor for white to have a better representation under other classic mechanics