Mono-white in Commander: examining why people think it’s “underpowered”

Recently, there’s been a lot of noise on my social media and in some groups in which I play Commander about the colour white. A lot of it has been quite negative, typically complaints about white ‘sucking’ as a colour in the format and questions about the colour pie not being balanced for the format. In this article, I’m going to try to understand the logic behind such sentiments – is it sound logic or are things being overlooked? Are there inherent flaws in the way white cards are designed, or do other things white to ‘perform less well’? In this article, I’m going to examine how white’s role in Magic is contextualised by the Commander format and hopefully arrive at a rationale for white’s position relative to the other colours. Before we jump in, I would just like to make a few quick general points for clarity.

  • White is apparently ‘on trial’ because it’s perceived to be less effective at consistently enabling game-winning strategies in the Commander format. No judgement is being passed on its flavour or the level of fun its cards yield. There are players who simply enjoy playing soldiers or angels or gaining life and preventing damage, regardless of its relative effectiveness, and this discussion is not meant to rain on such parades. I have a Mono white deck and certainly enjoy playing it!
  • The discussions in this article relate to Mono-White decks and strategies. White is regarded as an impactful ‘support’ colour when combined with another (or multiple) colours, and there are several gold cards including white that aren’t really part of the negative press. These considerations are therefore not part of this article. I’ll abbreviate to ‘Mono-W’ throughout the article to reiterate this.
  • The arguments I make are intended to be broad-brush assessments and are not completely exhaustive. There will always be ‘exceptions to the rule’ or situations where what I’m suggesting might not apply. The game of Magic is built on a system of rules with cards breaking specific rules over and over again.

White’s general identity in Magic

Each of the five colours offers certain contrasting aspects to the game and the first thing I want to do is to provide some clarity on how I’m interpreting the role of white in Magic. I am not an expert on, nor have I really studied, the flavour and design considerations behind cards. However, the list below includes my general observations about the themes often associated with white cards. I’d like to use these as a starting point. The list is not exhaustive as I’ve tried to keep it short for the purposes of the article:

  • Protection and preservation: This includes themes of healing, defence, and ethereal/divine protection (flickering)
  • Cleansing: This includes themes of nullification and removal through judgement. Most removal in this colour either provides compensation, aims for equality, or only works if a creature is attacking or tapped (trespassing). There is also a subtext of favouring traditional methods over the use of ‘unlicensed’ arts and machinery, which manifests in cards that hate on artifacts, casting multiple spells, or graveyards.
  • Valour and Courage: The types of creatures that commonly feature in this colour tell a story of brave humanity and its relationship with valour, combat, and one’s progression to divinity or the afterlife (e.g. Humans, soldiers, knights, clerics, spirits, angels). In addition to creature types on this theme, there are several creature enhancements, combat tricks, and ‘buffs’ implying the sense of being chosen by honour or blessed by divinity.

I haven’t covered this particularly comprehensively, but, by establishing that cards of this colour are generally designed with certain themes in mind, we can consider this as we examine a few things later in the article.

The above themes complete a circle that is primarily designed for traditional Constructed and Limited (‘traditional formats’ for ease of reference). Greater consideration is given to the cards functioning systematically in these formats as opposed to any functionality in Commander. When looking through any regular set for ‘Commander staples’, bear this in mind.

Card design has a part to play in the prevailing perception of Mono-W’s ‘weakness’ in Commander, but we’ve already established that cards are primarily designed for traditional constructed and limited – unless they appear in a special set. As a player of all these formats, I’m acutely aware that multiplayer Commander games are structured differently to games in traditional formats. Thus, it’s an intuition of mine that perhaps a misalignment between formats may also have a part to play in the prevailing perception of Mono-W.

The structure of multiplayer Commander

Games of Commander are fundamentally structured differently to games in traditional formats.

  • In traditional formats, there is a single opponent and only 60 or 40 cards are used to deplete a 20 point health total. Multiple copies of cards may be used.
  • In Commander, there are multiple opponents and each player uses a 99 card deck. They attempt to deplete each others’ 40 point health total, with the last surviving player being the victor. In addition, rather than being allowed multiple copies of cards, only a single copy of a card may be included in a deck and each player has a signature Commander (often a legendary creature) that dictates the colours of cards that can be used in a deck. Commanders can be recast if removed from the game.

This discrepancy of game objectives gives rise to a nuance of ways for existing Magic cards to contribute to Commander games. Overperformers in traditional formats start to become underperformers in Commander and vice versa. It is unsurprising that certain strategies and themes also increase or decrease in effectiveness, given this change in structure. Consider the following example.

The demise of ‘White-weenie’ aggro?

Strategies aiming to eliminate opponents before they can set up their game plan are far less effective. There are multiple opponents and each has an increased health total. In traditional formats, these kinds of decks keep slower and more controlling strategies in check, forcing them to make plays to defend themselves instead of simply allowing them to work towards a powerful endgame risk-free. However, in those formats, there is only one opponent. When playing against multiple opponents, the chances of an opponent using a card to stem the bleeding are much higher and a lot more damage needs to be dealt to eliminate any one opponent.

While it’s still possible to build a fast beatdown deck in Commander, it comes with great risk given that the structure of Commander makes winning a bit more difficult than in traditional formats. Mono-W has historically provided effective strategies in traditional formats through fast beatdown, often called ‘White Weenie’. There are many cards that support this archetype, but in Commander they are often lack-lustre and are typically perceived as unplayable.

Conventional wisdom for success in Commander

This should be of no surprise to any seasoned Commander player, and there is much more extensive material on this topic available on many platforms, be it the internet or the knowledge of other players with whom you play, so I’ll keep this section as short as I can. My view is that there are three main currencies in the game: mana, cards, and what I’ll call ‘damage output’. In this section, I’ll introduce each one and hopefully explain why I call them ‘currencies’.

  • Mana: More mana means less restrictions on your ability to play more spells and abilities – you simply need to draw cards with relevant powerful effects. If one such effect is your Commander, then that’s easy!
  • Cards: More cards means an increased likelihood to have drawn the aforementioned effects or otherwise set up a game plan. It also increases the likelihood of being able to consistently hit land drops or ways to generate mana in order to cast spells and use abilities. Additionally, it may also mean an increased capacity to answer threats from opponents.
  • Damage output: Having all the mana and all the cards isn’t going to matter if they can’t be converted into a way to win the game. Technically ‘health total’ is the in-game currency or resource, but it’s not commonly used proactively and is preserved reactively instead. This is why I’ve turned this one on its head and am taking a look at the ability to pressure opposing health totals instead. This requires both mana and cards, but once the requisite amount has been assembled, the damage output a player can create with their cards represents their potential to win the game. Players aiming to cause opponents to run out of cards instead of deplete health can consider the cards they use to do this as their damage output. Combinations that yield the highest damage output for the lowest overall mana or card investment will give a deck efficient damage output and (on average) achieve game wins more consistently than damage output that requires a higher volume of mana and/or cards to be assembled.

In my opinion, mana is the most important currency followed closely by cards. Later in the game when all players have large amounts of mana, card advantage often prevails over mana, but, when card count is at relative parity, again, the player with more mana will often be able to ‘do more’ and is often more likely to win. Mana is also more crucial for development in the early and mid-game. Damage output is an overlooked currency because, theoretically, any player can reduce its materiality by having a significant enough mana and/or card advantage over the other players. In extreme cases, when such a situation occurs, it’s possible that a 1/1 creature will qualify as sufficient damage output.

Using Mono-W to apply Commander’s conventional wisdom?

Now I’m going to take a closer look at why this premise creates an inherent disadvantage for Mono-W in terms of its relevance to my purported three main currencies of Commander.

  • Mana: Mono-W does not have many cards that support the development of mana. It is difficult for Mono-W decks to gain a mana advantage, particularly against green decks that excel at putting additional lands into play or reliably hit land drops. This means that casting powerful effects ahead of curve will be much rarer and one’s game plan seldom progresses at an accelerated rate.
  • Cards: Mono-W does not have many cards that create raw card advantage. It may be similarly difficult to gain card advantage over one’s opponents, particularly against blue decks that have a lot of ways to draw extra cards. This means having flexible options to favourably influence a game will be much rarer and one’s gameplan will often need to be developed in a more linear fashion, often with less adaptability due to having fewer cards.
  • Damage output: Maintaining damage output is something Mono-W is actually quite good at. Most of its creatures are efficiently costed for their size, many of them have flying or some other ability to help them in combat, and there is an abundance of creature enhancements in this colour. Mono-W can often generate multiple tokens via a single card, making it very easy to go-wide with multiple small creatures enhanced by anthem effects. Alternatively, it also has the ability to ‘go-tall’ with combat-resilient flying threats supported by auras or equipment. However, it’s not all good news. Assembling an army of creatures or a huge, combat-ready threat might be enough to mercilessly crush an opponent in traditional formats, but in Commander your threats need to survive the scrutiny of up to three opponents, so the lifespan of an offensive force is naturally much shorter. In addition, there are a lot of ways to mitigate damage output from creature sources, especially in terms of creature removal. From a political standpoint, a threat making its way through an opponent’s health total may cause panic and other players may band together to extinguish it for mutual benefit.

This brief exploration into the potential Mono-W has with respect to the key currencies of Commander shows that it appears to be disadvantaged where the two most important ones are concerned. Its ‘strengths’ as a colour in being able to create reasonable damage output, unfortunately, are diminished when the political implications of such strengths are considered. This political impact can often have a dampening effect on a Mono-W deck’s overall game plan (assuming combat is its primary win condition). This puts Mono-W in a very different, and quite awkward, place compared to its position in traditional formats.

Cards themed towards Cleansing and Nullifying our opponent’s advances are often useful to curtail our opponents’ mana development or ability to draw more cards. However, these also come with their caveats:

  • A card like Armageddon is very effective at depleting the mana advantage multiple opponents might have over a Mono-W player. However, in most cases, it literally prevents players from playing Magic if it resolves, completely depleting the amount of ‘fun’ present at a given table. It is therefore considered an unwelcome strategic cog at most Commander tables.
  • Mono-W is also rich in tools to remove permanents that provide card advantage. However, many of these tools simply offer one-for-one trades. The more obvious solution might be to cast a card like Planar Cleansing, but the efficacy of such cards rely on our opponents’ key mana or card advantage engines being in play simultaneously. If this does occur, it’s likely that these engines have already accrued some advantage, and in addition, resetting the board might come at the cost of the Mono-W player’s own engines and threats, or the red player’s horde of Goblins, the destruction of which causes upset and the gaining of another enemy at the table. Simply put, answering threats while maintaining card parity is quite hard in this format, a problem which is particularly apparent for Mono-W decks. Disenchants don’t often come with ‘draw two cards’ strapped onto them, and cards that deal with multiple threats typically vary in their efficacy based on the timing of their deployment and the number of opponents that end up upset with the outcome.

I’m going to pause here to point out that creating obvious sources of efficient damage output and answering threats using any of the other colours will also often come with the same consequences in terms of either card disadvantage, negative politics, or both – so it’s not the fault of Mono-W that this is the case. The problem lies more in that white does not have strengths in card advantage or mana development to fall back on, meaning the consequences of such interactions might end up being far worse than for a green or blue deck, that might be able to use mana or card advantage to power through politics or lost resources. 

In Conclusion

I’d like to claim that Mono-W’s weakness in this format is not so much down to flaws in card design or power-level, but more to do with the way the structure of the format leans, and that is away from this type of deck being able to capitalise on its strengths and towards territories that highlight its weaknesses. The end result is that other colours have a natural headstart, but perhaps savvy politics and well-timed strategy can offset that in the games played. I’m going to end by sharing a couple of ideas and a few card suggestions based on things I like to field, often for improved consistency in games.

Some tips for Mono-W decks

Use artifacts, colourless spells, and utility lands

The pool of colourless cards sometimes goes overlooked, but it’s a valuable resource for allowing the deck of your chosen colour to mitigate its weaknesses. Other colours can use these cards too, but this section purports them to have particular effectiveness in supporting Mono-W. Some colourless cards can be more suited to certain purposes during most games than any coloured card, so don’t get tunnel-visioned on every card needing to be White. Below are some recommendations based on cards I regularly use to champion the three currencies I mentioned earlier in the article.

Creating more mana, or at least hitting land drops

Card advantage, or at least maintaining a supply of cards

Damage output

White is already very good at this, so my one recommendation is to try to play only a few cards that will consolidate on this strength, rather than overloading on this effect. There are a plethora of possible examples, but I’ll share a couple of my favourite cards for accelerating damage output against opponents below. Of course, they can be quite situational – but that’s the part of the game I personally really like – the challenge of navigating and influencing the game to moments when our cards are the most effective!

What’s next

Speaking of white cards, fellow Master James Wise recently shared a Pioneer deck on Twitter, which I’m excited to try out for myself. I’ll see if I can give it an outing at an event soon! I have had to defer my invitation to the Player’s Tour in Brussels in February due to a date clash with a prior commitment, so I will be attending Player’s Tour 2 after the following season. Sadly, this precludes me from playing in WPNQs the following season.

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 pave a pathway to the Player’s Tour, but also have a love of casual play including Commander and Cube.

Liked it? Take a second to support Master of Magics on Patreon!

In response...