It’s 2023, and the multiverse is facing the biggest threat its ever seen. It feels like we are entering a new era of Magic where Phyrexians dominate while the entire MTG universe fights for its life. We’ve already seen more than a half-dozen long-time favorites, both ally and enemy, from Magic’s history be Compleated or killed.
The future and direction of Magic lore could look very different in a few short months. To some extent… it already does.
The lore isn’t the only thing changing as the Phyrexians take over the multiverse. Thanks to the new Atraxa‘s rules text, we know we are getting a new card type called “Battle”, presumably in March of the Machines this April. Speculation on what a “Battle” could be filled the Twitter-sphere for a few days after Atraxa was spoiled. Your guess is as good as mine!
Turns out new Atraxa is pretty powerful, too! Look at all the decks and formats it is showing up in already!
Meanwhile, thanks to “Mother”, otherwise known as Elesh Norn, mono-white got a huge boost from Phyrexia: All Will Be One. It is just speculation on my part, but I find it quite coincidental that the mono-white “Mother of Machines” gets the spotlight of an entire set and it just so happens their color features the majority of the set’s most powerful cards.
Nevertheless, as a Commander player, this is exciting for me because it is finally time to starting taking my Plains seriously. I rarely have used mono-white in my 25+ years of playing Magic. If I am running Plains in a deck, it’s probably because I’m in Boros, or really any W/x combination. I’m excited to finally have options for mono-white that interest me, and more importantly, I’m thrilled the power-level of the color is starting to even out.
I’d argue mono-white has officially surpassed red on the power-level spectrum after Phyrexia: All Will Be One, and it is close to surpassing blue as well.
HISTORY OF PLAINS IN MAGIC
Just a few years ago, Maro, among other WotC staff, started to tease the community with comments that indicated both mono-white and mono-red were going to receive plenty of love in coming years. I had a hard time finding the source of these articles (maybe because they were purged), but I recall the gist being that they recognized both colors had fallen out of favor. The commentary was largely aimed at Commander players if I recall correctly, but having played for as long as I have, I can tell you both colors were measly in other formats, too.
When Magic first arrived on the collectible trading card game scene in 1993, mono-white was the de facto aggro color. You had access to some classics such as Savannah Lions and White Knight, and the curve pressured your opponent all the way to the top-end finisher of Serra Angel. The deck was particularly weak to mono-red and counter-burn decks that could keep pace with the small creatures, and outclass the Angel on the top-end with their Vesuvan Doppelgangers and Shivan Dragons.
Many of these matchups came down to a well-timed Counterspell or Swords to Plowshares. There was also the classic close out games with a stray Lightning Bolt or Healing Salve.
I could go on and on describing more of the earliest matchups in Magic, but what I want to focus on more closely is how balanced the colors were against one another. Red and blue formed a powerful team. Black and white did as well. And in fact, there were some Red/Green stompy/ramp lists that did really well, too.
The most notable point of sharing this early-Magic history is to let you know Green was hands down the weakest color. What’s more wild for me to think about is how long it took for Green to “get good”. I’d even argue that aside from its occasional prop-ups from specific sets, Green was generally the weakest color through the entire 90s and 2000s (Twitter thread here if you’d like to debate this).
Turns out, in my opinion, anyway, that ramping and combat tricks weren’t enough to win most times. And that’s about all Green did well.
ENTER: COMMANDER (2010-2011)
In the late 2000s, the “MTG Underground” (my nickname for all the random Internet forums back then) began to experiment with a casual format called Elder Dragon Highlander (EDH) which is better known today as Commander.
I’d venture to guess singleton Magic was being played from the beginning of time (’93), but this new concept evolved from 60-card singleton formats to 100, with no sideboard; a rule of no doubles besides basic lands; and a general that you had to build your deck around. For many, I imagine color identity and other rules came later. The format itself was so young and casual that a lot of the early days were based on true “Rule 0” where you just kind of made up a rule on the fly and moved on. This was around 2005 for me if my memory serves.
For years, I had played at FNM doing drafts and Constructed events. I enjoyed trying to break the format by building home brews that could thwart the best deck(s). I look back at those times, now, and realize I rarely used Green as the centerpiece to the decks. Maybe I was missing something.
By 2005, I lost my enjoyment for competitive Magic and began embracing kitchen table games again. While at an event, I had heard about this evolving 60-card and 100-card singleton format, and I thought it might be cool to give a try. So I customized my Dragon deck to meet the singleton criteria and brought it to game night with friends.
We always played 30 life when there was 3+ players, and the moment that 10 extra life was added to the counters, the color alignment of decks shifted. Burn was not really and option anymore because there just weren’t enough burn spells yet to build a reliable deck. Counter-burn was okay, but lacked finishers and legitimate card advantage to stay competitive in 3+ person games.
Black and white were both strong early on, especially in reanimator control builds. You could reliably draw with the tools black provided, such as Necropotence and the various tutors. Meanwhile, white provided a mix of lifegain and stax/control that was honestly hard to compete with. Many people either don’t know or forget just how powerful good enchantments were in early MTG. They were really hard to remove and often generated immediate advantages the turn they entered. I’d argue enchantments were just essentially planeswalkers before walkers existed.
Green was very good, and almost always became a chosen color in the identity of the best generals. Even the casual decks with Green tended to be more powerful than their adversaries. As it turns out, ramping in single-player can be decent if the matchup allows for it; but in multiplayer, it is really strong. So strong, in fact, that Green still has yet to relinquish its hold as the S-tier color in Commander.
CHANGING OF THE GUARDE
This is exclusively my opinion, but I am prepared to defend the thesis that says Phyrexia: All Will Be One is now the third best color in Commander.
In the decade ranging from 2010-2020, it fell entirely out of favor. I suspect there are a multitude of reasons for that:
- R&D didn’t focus on evolving it as other colors gained power
- No one realized how ineffective white would become once Commander damage was introduced (reduces how effective lifegain was as a reliable wincon)
- No one realized how much impact printing great enchantment removal in the best color (Green) would have on the color most dedicated to enchantments
The good news is white no longer relies exclusively on lifegain or enchantments to be strong. The color is blossoming into the control-finisher strategy that it always hinted at, but now it is doing this by way of artifacts, creatures, and efficient non-permanent spells.
We still see aggro and control at the core of white’s color pie, but we’re now seeing it also get more role-players and card advantage. I already brewed a deck on Moxfield for one of my favorite mono-white cards in Phyrexia: All Will Be One.
I am really impressed by Skrelv in my preliminary testing. It is a simple design, and powerful enough to hang around but not powerful enough to be anything more than another fun commander to build around. It is also not lost on me that Skrelv’s activated ability is a callback to an all-time mono-W classic, Mother of Runes.
I just mentioned how we’re seeing mono-white get more support features, and Skrelv is a great example. I’m starting to wonder if WotC R&D is committed to making it the strongest color, or at a minimum, dethroning blue/black for the debated #2 spot.
Another card from ONE that is sneaky-good is Norn’s Decree.
This will still put in some work even if you’re not running a deck centered around Toxic and Poison counters because it enables itself just off of being attacked. What makes this incredible is if you have ways to force opponents to attack you, or if you can give them poison counters in other ways (see: Skrelv above). Note that this also triggers for opponents similar to the “Curse of” cycle first seeing in Commander 2017. In other words, this encourages your opponents to attack your other opponents assuming you aren’t also getting poisoned somehow.
I actually bought 20 copies of Norn’s Decree for $1.50/ea. at release (February 16th was the date of my purchase) thinking that seemed really cheap, and it has been increasing rapidly since that buy. Editor’s note: I tweeted about it on February 27th as a follow-up to this article, and it has since increased to $5.
We’re continually seeing WotC explore new and exciting design space for Mono-W, and I expect this is the new normal for sets to come. I am curious to see how irrelevant older cards become if we end up getting upgraded versions. I mentioned Mother of Runes as an example, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find more “former staples” which end up being outclassed in the future due to new and improved versions.
Mono-W is clearly getting a power-level bump, and it’ll be interesting to see how much this effects the scope of Commander for years to come.
I could go on and on about new mono-W cards that have been released – I didn’t even touch on cards like Esper Sentinel and Drannith Magistrate which are the reasons we’re able to even have this conversation now! But without spending more time rambling, I just want to leave you with a final thought-exercise to keep an eye on next time you’re at FNM or just jamming some Commander with friends. Pay attention to the number of games where 1+ Plains (including splash lands like Triomes and Shocks) make an appearance. Maybe make tallies for yourself, and then keep track of that count as you play more games in months to come. I would not be shocked if you start to see Plains showing up more frequently as 2023 progresses.
As I said in my title: it really is time to take Plains seriously.
Chris Martin is the co-founder of Conviction Gaming and co-host of the Brewin’ With Conviction podcast. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and is an avid EDH player with a knack for MTG finance.