In 1993, Magic's first set Limited Edition Alpha was released. While it's nothing close to the polished game that almost 30 years of development has given us now, the amount of groundwork laid in that single set was extremely impressive. Part of that groundwork was this cycle of one-mana instants that gave you three of something:
These spells would each help define what each color was about.
Ancestral Recall - Blue was comically overpowered
Dark Ritual - Black could be broken when surrounded by the right cards
Lightning Bolt - RED DEAL DAMAGE
Giant Growth - Green is about reasonable cards that concern creatures
These cards range from "Power Nine" to "decent to staple Constructed playables" (I played four Giant Growth in my first Pro Tour deck in 2006!). However, you may have forgotten the White entry:
While Blue was defined as broken and all the others very good, it would be safe to say that White was defined as "timid and underpowered, but good against Red, I guess." And if we're being honest, this description has persisted through most of Magic's history.
Are there good White cards in Magic? Absolutely, but many of them can be funneled into three main types over the last decade or so - Good cheap aggressive creature, Wrath of God variant, or busted rate planeswalker.
This is mostly because so much of White's color pie just isn't, well, good.
The Color Pie
For the uninitiated, "The Color Pie" is essentially the master list saying what colors can and can't do. We know just from playing that Green isn't good a killing creatures outright and Red can't counter spells, but The Color Pie is the guidebook for all of the game's mechanics.
For a look at what Wizards of the Coast considers the current color pie, check out this recent article by Mark Rosewater.
When it comes down to it, White has historically gotten the short end of the stick.
Defensive creatures, walls, damage prevention, lifegain (with no other effects added), enchantment removal, conditional protection spells, very conditional removal... this is not exactly a list of what it takes to make high quality tournament or Commander cards.
This has been an issue with Magic for a long time and a few years ago Gavin Verhey from Wizards of the Coast was clear that it's something that they are working on. He lays out the progress of White's color pie expansion in this excellent video:
Good Morning (okay, afternoon) Magic! Today's a big one: I'm talking about white's color pie. I give you an unprecedented look into the future about our plan for white - and some details on what we're changing! You won't want to miss this!https://t.co/lvktRzjIGC#Wotcstaff pic.twitter.com/gU8X5f3Hdj— Gavin Verhey (@GavinVerhey) February 17, 2021
Today I want to go over that progress, looking at new cards that have expanded on the scope of what White is capable of!
White Card Draw
One of the biggest disparities in early Magic design was that Blue was the only color that could draw cards consistently.
While Black could pay life to draw cards directly and other colors had avenues to card advantage, when it came down to the simple "draw N cards" or any sort of library manipulation like Ponder or Brainstorm, it was all Blue, all the time. Given how important card advantage is in Magic, this was a major balance issue and one of the reasons why Blue has such a disproportionate number of good cards from the early days of Magic.
One of the best things that Magic has done in the last decade is find ways for the other colors to actually draw cards that feel right in their respective colors.
This is most easily exemplified by the "impulsive" draw mechanic in Red, which allows you to draw extra cards but in a somewhat reckless and hasty manner that doesn't always give you exactly what you want and forces you to use it in a certain short timeframe. It's a direct way of "drawing" cards, but feels Red due to the need to use the resources quickly before they go away. It took a while to get it right (see Act On Impulse), but is now a staple of the color.
Green is able to draw cards, usually pertaining to creatures, but has also started to get more Ponder-style effects like Abundant Harvest. As mentioned, Black has always had the ability to pay life for cards, which is perhaps the most direct form of card draw.
However, White has always been left out of this party until recently.
As mentioned in the above video by Gavin, there has been a concentrated effort to find direct card draw elements that feel White, much in the same way that the impulsive draw mechanic feels Red. While they've come in a bit low so far (much in the same way that Act On Impulse and some of the early Red attempts did), they're definitely off to a promising start.
It sure is refreshing to see "draw a card" on a White card!
Search Party Captain is one of my favorite White designs in a while, putting raw card advantage on an aggressively slanted cheap creature, although it did come in a bit weaker on rate than it needed to be to see Constructed play. Priest of Ancient Lore is more straightforward, but also a nice start that plays well with blink and lifegain stuff.
Esper Sentinel is of course the most impactful of this group, as well as perhaps almost any of the cards we will look at today, but isn't strictly card draw because of its conditional nature. It feels more like a tax card than a card draw card, with the card draw being the toll if the tax isn't paid. Still, it's a very well-designed card that's cheap and checks off a lot of great boxes for synergy purposes.
However, it's not just about raw "draw a card" effects.
Cards that produce a card (or more) of value are very similar, and White has been walking that path lately as well. Even something as simple as Ambitious Farmhand // Seasoned Cathar is awesome, providing a body and a card in a somewhat similar way to cards like Civic Wayfinder, has popped up in Constructed and been a really fun Limited card.
Ingenious Smith does the same for artifact centric decks, providing card advantage and a threat in a way that feels very White as well; it's nice to see White get a better version of a Blue card like Glint-Nest Crane! Legion Angel follows the same path as Squadron Hawk, but with an actual threat, and has also seen some Constructed play.
There are also the cards that accrue advantage that isn't directly tied to cards.
If you're familiar with my content you know that Clarion Spirit is one of my favorite designs of the last few years. The second spell mechanic is an awesome way to give a sort of Prowess or "spells matter" effect to White, giving it access to a Young Pyromancer type card in a very White sort of way. A cheap, two-mana creature that can create more material is a sort of card advantage as well, and Adeline, Resplendent Cathar fits this bill as well.
And of course, it's good to see just generically good cards in White as well.
Skyclave Apparition is one of the best White creatures printed in a very long time, is playable in pretty much all formats, and hits the sweet spot of being better as the format gets better (as better formats tend to have lower mana value cards). Portable Hole also fits this description, despite living under the immediate shadow of Prismatic Ending.
We're seeing this effect on Commander as well, where White's lack of card draw and resource production places it as the worst color in the format. Cards like Archaeomancer's Map provide for direct card advantage, while also playing into White's themes of balance to build pseudo-ramp effects.
A Great Start
Gavin made it very clear in his announcements about Wizards of the Coast's plans for White as well as the video posted above that this was never going to be a fast process. Magic set design is often a couple years out, meaning this is the first wave and there's more down the pipe.
So far? We're off to a great start!
There's still some fine tuning to be done, but we saw that with impulsive draw in Red as well. Early entries like Commune with Lava and Act On Impulse were a bit underpowered and clunky, but they were iterated on and now we've got awesome cards like Light Up the Stage, Expressive Iteration, various good Chandras all prominently featuring the mechanic.
With cards like Search Party Captain and Ambitious Farmhand great first steps, I can't wait to see more!