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Attention to Detail #50
There's this flavor of soup I like – no really, stay with me on this – called Italian Wedding. On the label it explains that the term “wedding” refers not to a ceremony where a couple of people decide to spend their lives together, but rather to a joining of multiple elements to form a more impressive whole. It's that kind of wedding that I'm going to talk about today. As you may have noticed, I'm specifically going to talk about the white. It's certainly not my favorite of Magic's colors (it's not even in the top three), but white has suddenly become very important in draft tables around the world. Planar Chaos has decided to screw with the color pie more than any set before it, and suddenly white is playing a very different role from what we normally see. In most sets, the white half of your deck is devoted to flying creatures, defensive creatures, small creatures, combat tricks and the occasional bit of combat-based or mass removal. The one thing that white has rarely been in limited is proactive. While the white weenie decks of Standard might dominate from time to time, white weenie is a strategy that simply doesn't work in nine out of ten drafts. In order to make white work, it needs to be paired with a color that can push your agenda for you and do the things it can't do.
The first thing I'm going to do is take a look at what the other four colors have traditionally complimented white with. Certainly from time to time there have been popular draft archetypes of every combination. I will try to recall here some of the best ones that really show off white's ability to help out.
Frequently considered to be white's best buddy in the department of control, Blue is in some ways an odd pairing for white in limited. White's lack of powerful offense isn't really improved by blue. Instead, blue maximizes the strengths that white already possesses. Flying creatures (and evasion creatures of all stripes) are powerful in every limited format that has ever existed. White and Blue have a near monopoly on flying creatures in limited. Black gets to field the occasional overcosted 2/2 or big vampire, but other than that the skys are clear (just watch out of dragons, of course). Some of the most effective white/blue draft archetypes involved maximizing your use of flying creatures to eventually win against an opponent who has simply run out of ways to stop them. Of all the offensive strategies that blue and white can use, this is the most aggressive and frequently the most dangerous. It may be an oversimplification of matters, but when a Giant Spider shuts down your whole deck, something could be amiss. White and blue make up for this with their particular brands of removal. In white's case, this usually takes the form of Pacifism-type effects and combat tricks. Blue uses, of course, bounce. In many ways these are temporary fixes. Pacifisms can be removed and bounced creatures can be recast. The white/blue player needs to depend on the speed of the evasion to win the game while things are clear. If the game goes too long, an opponent will be able to establish some defense and the deck will simply not have the raw power to blow a hole in it.
While white/blue evasion decks show up in nearly every format, there are a number of decks which are native to only a couple. One such deck, viable only in blue/white for the most part, is the milling deck. Ever since I learned that limited formats had a 40-card minimum, I've thought that milling could be effective in draft. And from time to time, I've been right. Kamigawa block is an excellent example. The Dampen Thought decks which were popular in CCC, CCB and even CBS drafting was greatly feared on its best days. It was a deck that took a great deal of luck in the drafting to build, but the tools were available so that if you really got the right mix, you were nearly unstoppable. It utilized the often far safer – but slower and more precarious strategy of white/blue limited, which is to say control. The deck ran very few creatures, nearly all of them defensive. It attempted to pack as many of the milling cards as possible into the deck both because they all worked together and because in the face of a strong piece of removal from their opponent, they didn't want be left without options for winning. White/blue control once again takes something which white does very well – stalling – and improves upon it by adding in blue's particular route to victory. White decks can stall very well, but eventually you're going to run out of life gain, protection, defensive creatures, mass removal, etc and find yourself without any win conditions. Why Dampen Thought was so powerful is that it allowed you to maximize your stalling elements because the deck didn't need (and likely wouldn't end up drafting) too many kill cards. Often one Dampen Thought was enough. The Arcane stalling cards in white allowed you to prolong the game while simultaneously bringing your opponent closer to losing. A beautiful thing indeed.
So where does that leave blue and white in the mixed-up world of Planar Chaos? Well, the evasion-based strategy has suffered some. Planar Chaos has a noticeable lack of flying creatures. There are some there, but not in the numbers we've seen in past sets. The extra design space that white and blue have taken over has led them to a shortage of the things they are traditionally known for. Control suffers the same fate, in that a great deal of the removal and prolonging effects that white and blue usually get has been replaced with a strange variety of other choices. So we can't look at the white/blue decks of the past to determine the environment of the present. Instead we have to look at what blue gained and what white gained.
The most important change is likely the addition of some straight-up direct damage to white. Sunlance is the posterchild for this movement. While the move of many counterspelling effects from blue to white is interesting, it doesn't affect the relationship between the two colors in limited terribly much. You might be tapping a plains instead of an island, but it's still a force spike. No, it's the direct damage that bears watching. Suddenly white has a way of its own to plow through defenses – and one that doesn't rely on Aura or combat tricks to do it. But that's just what white's doing. What is blue doing? Blue's removal situation has changed quite a bit as well. Bounce is very difficult to find, but suddenly there are strange effects like Pongify. It won't completely remove a threat to you, but it's an excellent way to deal with something that was just too large. Sounds very white to me. Blue's other addition to its portfolio is discard. The blue timeshifted version of Headhunter and a couple other spells – including the extremely versatile Piracy Charm – all play into this.
So if we take effective spot-removal, short-term solutions to large creatures and discard and mash them together, what do we get? We get a much more traditional aggressive deck than white/blue is used to fielding. Suddenly instead of aiming for the skies or trying to stall things out, you're playing the game that everyone else has been playing for years. Putting out ground creatures, removing blockers and swinging into the red zone. Playing blue white when Planar Chaos is around doesn't feel like blue/white. It feels like you're playing red/black. So the same strategies need to be applied as you would to any other quick aggressive deck that can burn itself out fast. Of course, white still has its penchant for defense and life-gain. This can be a huge advantage, and provide you with something that real red/black decks never had.
It's impossible to discuss white/black draft decks without talking about the three sets that made the combination shine. The first was Apocalypse. Incredible cards like Vindicate and Death Grasp helped push this combination to the top of the pile. However, the backbone of the combination was in the addition of green. Two color decks were a rare thing in IPA drafting, after all. It's much harder to look at what black was providing for white back then with so much interference from green and from the multicolored cards that dominated the format. So instead we'll move onto the second age of White/Black – Onslaught block. During Onslaught, black and white were two colors sharing one tribe. Clerics had, for years, been seen as very much a silly defensive creature type that couldn't amount to anything on their own. Onslaught changed this in very big ways. Edgewalker made your clerics absurdly cheap. Rotlung Reanimator ensured that you were never going to run out of warm bodies, and Cabal Archon did the last two points of damage to more people than I could count in a lifetime. In these decks, the complements of each color were quite simple. Black provided removal while white provided decent creatures. Black had plenty of clerics, sure. But most were a bit on the skinny side. White brought in the big pounders and the highly defensive cards like Daunting Defender (I'm sure some of you who were around during Onslaught Block drafting just shuddered at the mention of that name). The combination of strong creatures and efficient removal is the simplest of strategies, and usually the most effective. Blacks' removal in Onslaught was some of the best its ever had in limited. Swat and Smother paired up to become the bane of Morph creatures everywhere.
This brings us to the third age of Black/White, which you all probably remember. It was just last year when Guildpact had just been released. The Orzhov were, for a time, ridiculous. Pillory of the Sleepless combined the best elements of white stalling and black removal with their shared love of a slow, painful death. And of course, huge bombs like Angel of Despair and Ghost Council dominated like very little else. Much like Invasion block, white black dominated here on the back of some very overpowered cards. Synergy was less important than getting your huge bombs out of packs.
So what does planar chaos do to this most contrasting of pairs? A great deal. White and black look largely like mirror images of themselves these days. Black has been given the tapping elements that white used to hold a monopoly on. However, black also suffered a pretty terrible blow in that the removal and creatures in Planar Chaos leave a lot to be desired. There are gems, of course, but the base level is not what it used to be. While in Onslaught you might be able to make a deck that was nearly all black with just enough of a white splash for important power cards, now it may be the other way around. Your Rathi Trappers will be highly effective – at getting your white beatdown through the red zone. In my experience with using black and white when planar chaos is involved, the best decks are largely based on the strength of white, with enough black to fill in the holes. Midnight Charm and Melancholy make great removal in the right situation, but it's nothing like Rend Flesh and Rend Spirit were in the days of yore. Not to mention Putrefy and Mortify.
Also, I would be in error if I didn't mention one of the niche strategies of black/white in planar chaos – Rebels. Rebels made a small return in Time Spiral, but their numbers were small and largely not too impressive. Planar Chaos only brought a few more, but it brought them into black. Blightspeaker is a very good rebel searcher. Low cost, searches for every rebel in the format, and has a pinging ability for times when you don't want to be spending 4 mana – or when you run out of rebels. Big Game Hunter is positively huge in many situations. You can pull him into play with your Blightspeaker or pitch him for a very cheap madness cost. And white just so happens to have gating creatures in Planar Chaos. Perhaps that can come in handy?
White and Red have been the ugly stepchildren of the 10 available 2-color combinations in magic for a very long time. Ever since Mirage introduced us to what happens when you Chaos and Order in a room and lock the door, the two colors have been at odds. Even in Invasion block, when any two color combo could claim a number of bombs and strong strategies, red/white was out in the cold. The only true strength this combination received in Apocalypse was in the form of Goblin Trenches.
It would take 5 years before Ravnica would show red white for what it truly is – the new face of beatdown. Even today, red/white is doing wonders in Extended. Cards like Lightning Helix have given red/white the edge it always needed. But where does that leave it in limited? It was considered a poor choice to most people in IPA. And even when Rav Rav Rav drafting came around, the poor Boros were getting shafted in the face of huge armies of Selesnya saprolings and the almighty Golgari removal suite. I think I even saw the Dimir laughing at them. Things didn't get much better throughout Ravnica, either. While Boros continued to post strong numbers in constructed, it just couldn't get its game together in limited. There were exceptions, of course. I once saw a goat with two heads as well.
The difficulty lays in the sheer number of things that kick red/white to the floor. One of these is black decks. Black, no matter the strength of the set, will always be the most popular color in limited. It usually has the best removal. It has many powerful creatures and effects. And it just looks cool. And black decks just love to run into something like the Boros. Their dark banishing effects all work fine. Fear creatures run rampant. And although red and white traditionally have quite a few combat tricks between them, the deck is still fairly predictable.
And unfortunately, it still is. Red white with Planar Chaos is much the same as it was before. Red got some new bouncing tricks and white got some new removal tricks, but it leaves you in the same place. A deck with a strong offense that burns itself out quickly and has few ways of dealing with problems, aside from throwing more fire at them. That'll work 4/5 times, but that fifth time you're going to lose. And a lot of people are packing more than 5 of those kind of threats. If you must play red and white in Planar Chaos, try to focus on the evasion. Treat it much the way you would treat a pre-PC blue/white evasion based deck. Your Skirk Shamans and assorted white fliers are your evasion creatures. And you may need luck on your side.
I think the Selesnya are the best example of the white/green strategy that has ever existed. It combines armies of tiny creatures. A few very large creatures to wrangle them. More creatures to do everything else you want. And one or two noncreature spells that do important game-winning things – to your creatures. Green/white decks have had success at times when multicolor sets allowed them to. When things were less rosy in the world of multicolor, green/white was usually ignored. Even compared to blue/white it can be slow. And it has the lowest count of removal of any color combination, in the pre-PC era. The decks swarmed and beat down. Frequently on the back of an enormous bomb like Glare of Subdual. When the huge cohesive cards holding all the little guys together weren't there, the deck didn't function.
In Planar Chaos, green seems to have undergone a personality shift unlike any of the other colors. Flying creatures and card draw are suddenly huge strengths in green's arsenal. That's not all they've got though. They've also got tricks. Lots of tricks. Whether it's a bomb like Deadwood Treefolk or just Evolution Charm smoothing mana, being Jump or even Raise Dead, green is far less predictable than it used to be. In fact, it's far more blue. Green and white have always played control to a point. Except that instead of evasion or alternate win conditions, the critical mass was simply a huge number of creatures, frequently propelled forward by an Overrun-type effect. Now things are a bit different. The Overrun effects aren't around and the creatures are of a slightly lower quality than you might be used to. However, the card draw that is the driving power of most control decks is here in large numbers. With the addition of some removal to both colors (Sunlance, Utopia Vow, etc), the green/white deck is going to play a lot more like blue/white did once upon a time. Now, this is not exactly control and not exactly a skies-type type of blue/white experience. Instead it's a generic blue/white experience. You draw lots of cards. You play lots of evasion creatures. If your opponent tries to upset your plans, you stop them either with a white counterspell of some variety or by removing their target from harm's way. I still have my doubts about white/green, but I think it might be largely prejudice against a color combination which has always bored me to tears.
And that brings me to the end of my examination of working with white. Planar Chaos has some pretty incredible white cards for limited. Learning to push the color into the driver's seat of your deck is going to take some getting used to. But you'll be rewarded for it.
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