This past weekend I played Red-Black at Grand Prix Orlando, finishing 11-4 in 53rd place. It was the same deck I played at the Pro Tour the week prior where I won nearly all of my matches (and wrote about here). The question all my opponents and every spectator has been asking me is, "Why are you not playing white?" Today I am going to answer that question for everyone, as well as what it would take for me to play white again in Standard.
If you look at the current metagame distribution, about half the field right now consists of Goblin Chainwhirler decks, the most popular of which is Red-Black Aggro. Red-Black is simply hands-down the best deck right now. Some other Red decks also exist, such as The Flame of Keld, Wizards, and Mono-Red Aggro, but Red-Black is head and shoulders above the rest and is certainly THE deck to beat.
About a quarter of the metagame consists of decks based around Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. The two most popular Teferi shells are White-Blue Control and the Bant Fog Nexus of Fate deck, whatever you want to call it. Esper is also popping up here and there. While the overall Game Plans of each of these decks are slightly different, they are all very clearly built around Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. The point of each of these decks is to untap with Teferi and out-card opponents with Teferi's +1 ability until they establish inevitability, which in the case of the Fog deck often means getting a Teferi emblem whereas in the case of the control decks it means simply continuing to draw cards.
The entire rest of the Standard metagame only comprises the remaining quarter of the field. Within this remaining quarter of the field, there is a variety of decks, some of which are actually pretty interesting. We have a Mono-Green Stompy deck that ramps into a discounted 12/12 trampling Dinosaur, a mono-blue combo deck that makes a bunch of Thopters and kills you when it reaches 50 life, and a deck built around a Snake that increases the number of +1/+1 counters you put on all your creatures, among other decks.
Honestly, the only reason to play white right now is to cast Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. If you want to play blue control of some sort, then you should jam four copies of Teferi into your deck and support it with all the usual control elements or with the Time Walk + Fog package. You will go 50/50 against the Goblin Chainwhirler decks and you will beat everything else. If instead you don't want to play a control deck built around Teferi, then you basically have two options: either (1) play a Goblin Chainwhirler deck and go 50/50 against Teferi decks and beat everything else, or (2) play a deck that is inferior to Teferi decks and inferior to Goblin Chainwhirler decks. As much as I hate to say it, that is the reality of current Standard.
The closest we get to a playable white creature in Standard is Lyra Dawnbringer as a sideboard card in control against decks that sideboard out their removal spells. The second closest we get is History of Benalia, a card that is technically not even a creature and only shows up in about 2% of the decks in the metagame at best. The most successful white aggro deck is White-Black Knights and it loses to red decks and struggles with Teferi decks.
The closest I have been able to find to a playable white creature deck is the Mono-White Angels deck I wrote about here two weeks ago. The deck is actually pretty reasonable, but ultimately I came to the realization that it is a strictly worse version of Red-Black that is essentially trying to do the same thing as Red-Black, just not quite as well.
The biggest problem with white right now is the lack of playable early creatures. Resplendent Angel is decent and History of Benalia is good, so the three-drops are fine. Shalai, Voice of Plenty is strong and there is even a decent five-drop in Lyra Dawnbringer, though traditionally white aggro decks don't even need a five-drop. The problem is that the closest thing to a playable one-drop or two-drop is Knight of Glory, and that one isn't even very good in the current field. If Zombies were better or if blue-black were the control deck of preference, then maybe we would be talking. But as it stands, it is often little more than a glorified grizzly bear.
Everything else that might seem playable is rendered unplayable due to being one-toughness in a world where 50% of opponents will have four copies of Goblin Chainwhirler in their deck. It is extremely rare that we get a 3/2 first striking attacker for a single white mana, but even Toolcraft Exemplar is too much of a liability because of Goblin Chainwhirler. Llanowar Elves are used to be the strongest card in Standard anytime they are legal, but due to the existence of Goblin Chainwhirler, they are borderline unplayable or are at least bad against half the field. That is saying a lot. The lack of playable early drop white creatures is the biggest problem with white, and this problem is in large part due to the existence of Goblin Chainwhirler.
The second biggest reason white is bad right now is the lack of ways to interact with control decks. White usually has something like Rootborn Defenses to counter an opposing Supreme Verdict or Voice of Resurgence to tax the control opponents for doing what their deck wants to do. Or we at least get a card like Stoneforge Mystic that gains card advantage or a planeswalker such as Gideon, Ally of Zendikar or Elspeth, Knight-Errant to punish the opponent for tapping out to wrath our board while still being a strong proactive play on its own.
The non-existence of any of these types of cards in white to combat control strategies is amplified by the Goblin Chainwhirler problem. Specifically, Ajani, Adversary of Tyrants could potentially be a good anti-control card in a similar way that Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is a good anti-control card. Unfortunately, the lack of playable one-drops and two-drops nerfs both of Ajani's abilities, making it unplayable when it could otherwise potentially be strong enough.
Similarly, Shalai is a reasonable answer to Settle the Wreckage, but it plays right into Fumigate. So without a way to proactively protect Shalai (something like Selfless Spirit, which incidentally would not be good because of Chainwhirler, but you get the idea), Shalai is often not enough and in fact plays right into the control deck's Game Plan. Also, white aggro decks can't win outside of combat and therefore have no way of circumventing Fog effects outside of attacking over and over until finally exhausting the opponent of Fog effects. Fogs could potentially be answered with a card like Sanctum Prelate, but no such card exists right now in Standard.
The control deck problem is not nearly as pronounced as the lack of two-drop problem because splashing black for hand disruption is a reasonable enough plan against control decks. And this splash also lends itself to playing Scrapheap Scrounger, but this road leads us down a path to a deck that is strictly inferior to the Red-Black deck in that it is doing the same thing but worse.
The one card that would make the most sense right now is Honor of the Pure. White doesn't necessarily need to play a creature on the second turn – it could instead play this enchantment. Honor of the Pure would then allow it to play all the one-toughness one-drop creatures, albeit it would be a little awkward with Toolcraft Exemplar specifically due to the Dwarf really wanting us to cast an artifact on the second turn. Still, Honor of the Pure would be a great way to proactively protect against Goblin Chainwhirler while also being a fine card on its own. Instead we have Benalish Marshal, a card that dies to every removal spell in the Red deck (for less mana than we spent casting the Marshal) and also comes down too late to protect our creatures whenever we're on the draw.
Honor of the Pure used to be good with Doomed Traveler because it would make both bodies relevant. In current Standard it could have a similar effect on making Sacred Cat relevant as well as making Toolcraft Exemplar relevant even without an artifact. And token strategies would be much more reasonable. For instance, instead of Regal Caracal just getting hit by a three-damage burn spell and all the Cat Tokens getting cleaned up by a Goblin Chainwhirler, instead the four-toughness lord would survive alongside its 3/3 lifelinking Minions, and even if Chandra or Glorybringer killed it, the 2/2 lifelink bodies left behind would still have an impact on the game. And History of Benalia would be one of the best cards in Standard instead of just being a homeless afterthought. And just in case you are thinking Radiant Destiny might be the answer, it costs three mana so it suffers the same problem Benalish Marshal suffers in that it comes down too late to protect our creatures from Goblin Chainwhirler whenever we are on the draw, in addition to its tribal restriction.
If white had a reasonable Thalia, Guardian of Thraben effect to tax opposing control decks, that would go a long way, unless of course it were actual Thalia, Guardian of Thraben because she would just die to Goblin Chainwhirler each time. How sad is it that even Thalia would not be good right now? She would at least be a powerful sideboard card against control, so that would be something.
Hero of Bladehold has traditionally been a very powerful card against red decks since it survives three-damage burn spells, and it is also good against control decks because it presents such a short clock all on its own. Given this logic, Leonin Warleader should be fantastic in the current metagame. Unfortunately, it is not for a few reasons. First off, it straight up gets eaten by Glorybringer and by Chandra, Torch of Defiance. It also matches up poorly against Rekindling Phoenix since it cannot block the bird and cannot attack profitably either. In addition to matching up poorly against every card of equal or greater mana cost in the red deck, it also gets hit by Unlicensed Disintegration. This isn't simply to say "it dies to Doom Blade" but rather that "surviving Lightning Bolt" is no longer the test that determines whether a card is good against red decks. Of course, if Honor of the Pure were legal, then the Warleader would survive these four-damage effects and produce 2/2 Cat Tokens that would actually engage meaningfully in combat, much like Hero of Bladehold's 2/1 attacking Soldiers.
Given that red decks are so much more powerful than usual due to their uncharacteristic ability to deal with four-toughness creatures and their built-in oppressiveness toward one-toughness creatures due to Goblin Chainwhirler, white creatures cannot compete right now without Honor of the Pure.
It would take some combination of the following things:
- Goblin Chainwhirler gets banned.
- White gets some constructed quality early drops that survive Goblin Chainwhirler.
- Honor of the Pure or some other two-mana anthem becomes legal.
These would be the most straightforward solutions to the problem of white creatures being unplayable right now in Standard. Of course, printing a card on the power level of Voice of Resurgence or Stoneforge Mystic would also tip the scales, but that would be like a child asking their parents for a horse. I know it's unlikely that I will get a horse, so I am making my requests much more reasonable and realistic. For anyone else who dreams bigger than I do, be sure to tune in next week for my take on Selesnya Tribal Horses.