At the tail end of last year, I explored the perception that white is ‘underpowered’ in Commander by looking at how the structure of the multiplayer game doesn’t quite align with the strengths that white cards broadly possess. While my previous article covered the topic at a somewhat basic level, there is further ground to explore. The lack of diversity and ‘viable’ options for Mono-White Commanders is something a lot of people added to the discussion in-person and online in response to my previous article, and today, I’m going to zone in on this hypothesis in greater detail.
What Mono-White Commanders do people play?
Apologies in advance if I don’t include your favourite Commander in this section, but I unfortunately can’t examine every possible option. I’ve chosen to use the most popular Commanders according to EDHREC (at the time of writing) as a starting point for understanding what the more popular options might be.
I realise that some of these are popular based on their competitive power, rather than their popularity in a more casual setting, but I’m going to shortcut to the common denominator amongst most of these cards – one that’s more prevalent in some cards than others. Many of them aim to enhance combat phases broadly by one or more of the following:
- Synergy with auras and equipment
- Efficiently creating tokens (going wide)
- Being a large or otherwise efficient beatstick (going tall/voltron)
- ‘Buffing’ other creatures (to support going wide or going tall)
Some of them do other things too. Sram, Senior Edificer, the apparent most popular choice, can draw a ton of cards. Ultimately, however, this is all in the name of yeidling more effective combat phases with as many auras, equipment, and vehicles as possible.
Enhancing damage output through combat comes with its political caveats, mainly due to the immediacy and obviousness of threat level. It’s arguable that players having more mana than us and/or more cards in their hands (and to a lesser extent, players with more life) are just as likely to defeat us in the long-run, but we naturally often assess this as a lower-level threat than a powerful battlefield presence. This is mainly down to:
- Proximity: Permanents are often closer to killing us than things yet to be cast.
- Likelihood: Hand size and mana availability only indicate an increased probability of generating a future win. An opponent might not actually be holding the game-winning cards, they’re just more likely to be if they draw extra cards – or are more likely to implement them if they have more mana. On-board threats, if not answered, are even more likely to defeat us.
Consequently, because players often use their resources on more immediate threats, it only makes sense that a powerful battlefield presence is one of the things opponents will more likely be prepared to answer. While this way of ‘assessing threats’ is intuitive and commonly employed, it may not always be accurate – but that debate is outside the scope of today’s article. In general, I’m of the opinion that a Commander’s abilities to enhance combat are often outweighed by the negative political image associated with appearing threatening. This is a bit damning for many of the popular choices in Mono-White.
Moving away from the combat phase
By choosing a Commander that doesn’t inherently incentivise us to get into combat, we can distance our deck’s relationship with enhancing our damage output as we play games. This will likely lead to more diverse options for navigating the political side of the game. Below are some more options that I think deviate from the importance of the combat phase.
Teshar, Ancestor’s Apostle can easily facilitate and power up a deck based around something like Krark-Clan Ironworks or Ashnod’s Altar, blending artifact recursion with creatures with mana costs of three or less, like Scrap Trawler and Myr Retriever. This strategy definitely deviates from the propensity to enhance the combat phase as it typically focusses on looping creatures and artifacts, netting mana and cards in the process until eventually leveraging a win condition – often Altar of the Brood, Blasting Station, or Aetherflux Reservoir. However, consider the following:
- This type of strategy may yield some long turns due to the number of times we loop our cards between zones, which may become boring for our opponents.
- It wins through the same method each time regardless of what opponents are doing. This may become boring for us!
- I commonly describe decks like this as ‘restng on a knife’s edge’. If our opponents don’t shut down our engine, they often lose. If the opponent’s do shut down the engine, we are often out of the game. The ‘combo’ involves several moving parts, and quite a few slots need to be devoted to supporting it if we want to optimise our combo potential. This means fewer slots to attack, defend, or for other utility including graveyard and enchantment removal. It’s true that this isn’t strictly an issue as the engine of the deck allows us to draw lots of cards, but, whenever an opponent counters or shuts down our engine, us being rendered helpless is a very possible outcome.
- We’re actually using artifacts to win, not so much the white cards. It’s probably quite easy to replicate a similar style of deck in any colour combination – Teshar is just a good fit for the ‘white version’, Daretti, Scrap Savant for the red version, Sai, Master Thopterist for the blue one, and so on. The deck almost undermines the choice of colour or commander.
I’m sure it’s very possible to ‘meet in the middle’ and instead of going ‘all-in’ on artifact combo, use Teshar as incidental recursion for cheap ‘value’ creatures, which could be construed as a literal ‘power-down’ from the deck I described above. I personally think this could be a fun and challenging kind of deck to try, but maybe I love my Pilgrim’s Eye and Skyscanner too much!
Heliod, Sun-Crowned is a more recent and popular addition that I think has the potential to deviate from the necessity of combat, but I think it has a lot of ‘combo-related’ stigma that might make opponents anxious. If you don’t run cards like Walking Ballista or Triskelion that combo with it for an instant win, then I think an interesting deck based around +1/+1 counters and life gain triggers is very possible. Counters that increase creature size do make creatures better in combat and theoretically more threatening, so care needs to be taken to avoid relying on combat and damage output to make the deck successfully interact.
Eight and a Half Tails provides repeatable resilience for our battlefield at the cost of two or three mana per incoming threat. The card is quite generic and would fit into anything, but probably is an incentive to go tribal Foxes or Clerics too. There’s an implied prerequisite that a deck using this card needs to reliably generate enough mana to implement its gameplan AND keep mana up to protect its permanents – and we all know about white’s lack of ramp. While this card can be super effective at protecting our permanents, it’s foolish to assume it will be able to protect everything. Consider the following:
- Cards with the words ‘Destroy all’ are commonly played in this format so it’s important to be aware of the limitations of Protection.
- In addition, while it can protect itself, opponents are likely to target it to save hassle later when we play something they really want to remove. Making opponents ‘jump through hoops’ is generally more resource-intensive for us than it is for our opponents. Casting Eight and a Half Tails, having enough mana to protect it, and then casting the spell that we really want to protect and actually being able to protect it is almost always going to be more mana intensive than two removal spells, quite possibly from the mana pools of two opponents.
Essentially, its powerful abilities will often draw more fire than they can put out in a multiplayer game. This card might be more effective in 1v1 Commander.
Bruna, the Fading Light provides immediate value if we have a human or angel in our graveyard. My intuition is that this card can command most decks including one that’s more about outlasting the opponent through recursion than combat power or a combo. Just bear in mind that seven mana is quite a lot for a colour that has limited options for ramping. How good a rate we are getting for our mana is conditional on what’s in the graveyard when we cast it. If Gisela, the Broken Blade is in our graveyard, it can meld with Bruna into Brisela, Voice of Nightmares. This is pretty powerful, although our prior discussion on the politics of developing a threatening board are relevant to this. If we have no humans or angels of value, then a 5/7 for at least seven mana is arguably poor relative to what that amount of mana often buys in this format. Overall, this one leaves me feeling like it will be an underpowered or ‘medium’ choice in the eyes of a lot of Commander players. I quite like it, but, then again, it suits my currently preferred approach to choosing a Commander quite well; potential free incidental bonuses rather than a ‘build-around’.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is one of my favourite cards in Modern/Legacy, but not in the context of multiplayer Commander. Thalia will punish greedy draws and slow down those Signets and Cultivates, and could probably tip the balance on ridiculous seven drops like Mind’s Dilation, Zendikar Resurgent, or Vicious Shadows. However, games go long in this format, and decks will eventually be able to play through her. I’ve certainly played many games paying for Rhystic Study or Smothering Tithe religiously without putting myself in bother. In addition, she’s very vulnerable as an X/1 and doesn’t add to our gameplan, she just slows down our opponents (and maybe ourselves dare we play non-creature spells). The point about how this affects the alignment of our opponents bears repeating again. She’s likely to cause our opponents to lose patience with us, maybe to a point of us being disinclined to cast her. That’s not what we want from a Commander! I imagine she’s very effective in the 1v1 Commander format, though!
A couple of hand-picked outliers
I could go on for a while looking beyond the most popular ones on EDHREC, so I’ve picked a couple of outliers for today’s article.
Principally, making use of Linvala, the Preserver is similar to Bruna, the Fading Light – immediate value upon a condition being met. Linvala plays well if you are behind, and to get full value, one opponent can have more health than you and another can control more creatures than you (just remember, Linvala will count herself). The ability happens when Linvala enters play, so we can recreate the value via ‘flicker’ effects.
Patron of the Kitsune gives us an engine for cards that say ‘whenever you gain life’ such as Archangel of Thune, Dawn of Hope, and Well of Lost Dreams. We will gain life when any creature attacks, so there’s margin to profit off our opponents. This means we can rely less on creatures with lifelink to trigger such things. The ability to potentially be played at instant speed is also a random bonus if we have any fox or changeling in our deck.
Join the dark side and abuse the colour pie
This depends entirely on how important it is to you to actually have a Commander that is Mono-White (in addition to your deck). I’d argue that it’s possible for us to play any Commander with white in its cost, adjust the manabase appropriately to enable us to cast it, and simply not include any cards of other colours in the deck.
I speak from experience, and while I might be branded a ‘heathen’ by purists and strict devotees to Mono-White, some other players have considered this as ‘thinking outside of the box’. By branching out this way, I do avoid the negatives and limitations of ‘not having a satisfactory Commander’. I have a lot of experience playing ‘Mono-White’ Golos, Tireless Pilgrim and Archangel Avacyn (with only white or colourless cards). I think both of these ‘break the mould’ of how several white cards persuade deckbuilders to construct their deck.
- Both can be cast with just white mana.
- Avacyn being broadcasted from the command zone can sometimes work in our favour. Opponents may think twice about attacking us when we have mana available to cast her. Even more, they might just attack someone else instead!
- In the case of Golos, we won’t be racing to use the activated ability. Being a repeatable ramper is more than enough, especially in white. However, I believe a deck’s manabase could be easily modified with lands that add white and another colour to support this as reliably as we might want.
- Golos does encourage the use of utility lands. Even adding Westvale Abbey, which is technically a black card, will still be legal (though I guess at that point, we have an Orzhov deck).
Some other Commanders I have considered include:
…and there are many more possibilities beyond these.
We admittedly might need to modify the manabases slightly to ensure we can cast such a Commander. To use Brago, King Eternal as an example, we would ideally substitute some of the Plains in our deck for a selection of the lands below depending on budget.
I’ve specifically selected these as they add white or blue mana and have no additional abilities (other than sometimes coming into play tapped, or costing life). Having said this, there are more versatile options such as lands that scry, cycle, or turn into creatures. Remember, we only need the blue mana to cast our Commander (and maybe activate its abilities) – if we go too much further, then maybe our deck really will just be an Azorius, Orzhov, Boros, or Selesnya deck.
I haven’t yet come across any players who have objected to this method of deckbuilding, though maybe I had to persuade a couple by selling my Archangel Avacyn as a ‘sub-optimal Boros deck’ rather than a Mono-W deck. I personally see it more as an extension of a Mono-White deck rather than a Boros deck with no red cards – but maybe this is the difference between two sixes and a dozen.
As I outlined at the start of my article, I think part of the ‘problem’ with the more popular Commanders is their relationship with the combat phase and how they often draw more fire than they can stop or overcome. They simply make the battlefields they command ‘too threatening’ for the likes of their opponents very easily. I can empathise how the combination of these factors might lead people to conclude that their decks are ‘underpowered’ or that their options are limited, however, I hope to have pointed out that there are ways to play Mono-White differently. By moving away from enhancing the combat phase (admittedly one of the main things white is ‘supposed to do’) there are opportunities to avoid what I consider a significant hindrance to the colour flourishing in a multiplayer Commander environment.
Thinking more broadly when it comes to Commander options in Mono-White was my focus for this article, but I believe it’s a small piece of the puzzle in challenging the perceptions many players have about Mono-White ‘not being viable’ or ‘being underpowered’ in the format. As I have previously explored, I believe there are a lot of factors relating to the way the format is played that tends to favour other colours, particularly blue and green. If winning is all that matters, then maybe I need to make a point of concession, but I personally don’t think this is the case. Hopefully, some of the suggestions in this article can be a Dawn of Hope to players who might feel at a loss with their Mono-White deck.
At this point, the wheels would be turning on preparation for the Players Tour in Copenhagen, but Wizards have cancelled this event (and others). Instead, that Players Tour will take place in Prague about a month later. This will give me more time to explore the new set before the event. In the more immediate future, I’ll likely write about Pioneer, which I’m really enjoying playing at the moment when I get the chance as well as perhaps some thoughts on any preview cards from Ikoria, Lair of Behemoths.
You can find me on Facebook or Twitter @Chris54154 – feel free to hit me up with your thoughts online or if you see me at an event. I regularly attend competitive tournaments in the UK including Magic Fests and events that pave a pathway to the Player’s Tour. I also have a love of casual play including Commander and Cube.