by Paul W.
Over the last couple of weeks, I exposed myself for the first time in months to a competitive Highlander tournament-setting (or rather, as competitive as a non-sanctioned format can ever dream of being, but you get the idea…) by participating in a 200+ player 7 Point Highlander (7PH) league on MTGO, equating to 10 rounds of Swiss with a cut to Top 8. A singleton format, 7PH was created back in the late-1990’s in Australia, featuring a 60 card main deck and a 15 card sideboard between which you can distribute up to 7 points of above-par Magic cards (check this link for some info about the format and a glace of the points-list: https://7ph.com.au/). I managed to carry myself to a 9-1 finish with (you might have already guessed it) RUG tempo and was qualified to play in the top8 of this tournament. Apart from me, several other EU-highlander enthusiasts such as TaZi, Toffel, CHauckster or M. Hittel participated and did very well well (finishing X-4 or better), thus showing that the knowledge and skill we harness in the format translate seamlessly into other domains of Magic and variants of Highlander. With this article, instead of delving too deep into my run in the tournament, I decided to outline five key takeaways (or hot-takes, if you will) for our most-beloved format – European Highlander!
I Creating an incentive structure and moving digital is the way forward.
Being free-to-enter and community-driven, the league was institutionalized first and foremost with the intention of fostering the growth of the format as well as promoting it to outsiders. It has been the biggest event in the format’s long history by a considerable margin. Although it was set up mostly independently of the support from the points committee (i.e. the format’s governing body), it was excellently organized with a lot of support-staff and a well-thought-out tournament structure. The league saw a lot of long-term enthusiasts participating, with about two-thirds of the players coming from Australia. However, there was also a significant chunk of players from the US, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, among them many who have been relative newcomers to the format as well as containing several popular MTGO grinders and competitive players.
What attracted this enormous crowd was, in all honesty, probably the insane prize structure (UNL Mox Emerald for first place, Revised dual for second). But apart from that, the tournament felt very vibrant due to the manifold incentives for content creation and a huge coverage-apparatus, both on Twitch as well as on Facebook. You could really tell that the Aussies are very enthusiastic about their format, very receptive to new players as well as ideas and understood how important this event was for the longevity of 7PH. To revitalize our enthusiasm for European Highlander, I really hope for such an event to happen in our format at some point.
Given that 7Ph is an eternal format, it suffers from the same issues we face when it comes to acquiring new players. The cost of entry into paper-play is now simply too high, with the price of buying into the essential manabase of the format being the most unjustifiable and saddening deterrent. However, buying into these cards on MTGO is comparatively cheap, and with rental services offering various subscription models you can playtest all your brews as well as conduct your tournament preparation online completely at your leisure.
In order to cash into MTG, I personally have decided to rid myself of one of my prized possessions (which I knew I wouldn’t be playing for the foreseeable future) simply to be able to play more Highlander. For me, this is essentially what it comes down to: a game is supposed to be played, and with COVID adding more and more layers of uncertainty, I was unsure as to how and when paper Magic, and especially Highlander, would return. I don’t regret this investment one bit and if I could ask you for one thing, it is to consider getting hold of your favorite deck on MTGO – not solely to allow for more interaction between regional communities, but also to show newcomers that there is a (relatively) affordable entry to our favorite eternal format with an active player-base behind it.
II We should aim for more meaningful results when planning and running tournaments.
The different regional representations made for very interesting takes on the competitive metagame and introduced several unknown archetypes as well as refined versions of long-forgotten decks back into the format. Right after the start of the tourney, somebody made the effort to scrape all decklists, resulting in an overview of the absolute numbers of each individual card registered. This gave a great impression of the amount of trust people put into certain strategies and revealed the main offenders as well as silent format-staples that together formed the metagame. To give some context, from the 1365 different cards registered between the roughly 200 lists, the following numbers of copies are revealing about the field:Lightning Bolt (140)
Mental Misstep (133)
Deathrite Shaman (130)
Gitaxian Probe (120)
Force of Negation (101)
Inquisition of Kozilek (83)
Spell Pierce (81)
Dreadhorde Arcanist (66)
Sylvan Library (62)
Scavenging Ooze (60)
Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath (58)
Bonecrusher Giant (55)
Swords to Plowshares (55)
Opposition Agent (52)
Dark Confidant (48)
Price of Progress (43)
Blood Moon (41)
Liliana, the Last Hope (40)
Klothys, God of Destiny (39)
Dack Fayden (37)
Path to Exile (36)
Vendilion Clique (36)
Birds of Paradise (34)
Noblie Hierarch (32)
Leovold, Emissary of Trest (30)
Teferi, Time Raveler (30)
Lion’s Eye Diamond (29)
Green Sun’s Zenith (29)
Delver of Secrets (29)
Goblin Guide (27)
Sevinne’s Reclamation (23)
Underworld Breach (23)
Mox Diamond (22)
Thassa’s Oracle (22)
Elvish Reclaimer (17)
Expressive Iteration (17)
Omnath, Locus of Creation (16)
Sedgemoor Witch (16)
Mother of Runes (15)
Witherbloom Apprentice (14)
Birthing Pod (12)
Emry, Lurker of the Loch (12)
Crucible of Worlds (12)
Tolarian Academy (11)
Stoneforge Mystic (11)
Faithless looting (11),
Gurmag Angler (11)
Dark Depths (8)
Knight of the Reliquary (6)
Bazaar of Baghdad (4)
… you get the idea. I decided to focus mainly on unpointed main-deck cards (otherwise it would have slanted the explanatory effect of this overview) to give you an indication about what’s trending in the format and how popular certain strategies are relative to our metagame. Keep in mind that being priced-out of reserved-list cards is essentially no factor on MTGO, making the prospect of registering Bazaar of Baghdad as realistic as playing with Elvish Reclaimer.
For those interested, my Swiss matchups were the following: 2x Grixis Control (Mystic Sanctuary, Ancestral Recall/ Mana Drain), UR Sneak and Show (Izzet control feat. Veil of Summer/Oko, Thief of Crowns/Oath of Druids), Hogaak (Bridgevine/Bazaar), BUG Midrange (feat. Oracle/Tainted Pact and Smog-Combo), Jeskai Breach (Black Lotus, Intuition, Sevinne’s Reclamation, transformational sideboard into Monastery Mentor), RUG tempo/mid (Klothys, Uro, Oko main) and 3x Grixis Lurrus Oracle Breach. Although my matchups were very blue centric, the overall metagame is actually pretty diverse as will become clearer when you read the remainder of the article. For reference, the Top8 was comprised of Grixis Lurrus Oracle Breach, 4c Omnath, RB Aggro, Ravager Shops (“MUD”), BUG Smog Oracle, 2x Esper Midrange and me on RUG tempo. The rest of the text will elaborate a bit more on the bigger picture and address several other decks and reasons as to why they performed as well as they did.
With over 200 players participating and roughly 1000 matches having been played between them over the 10 swiss rounds, this tournament is a significant source of data. Add to that the considerable prize, the resonance the league had beyond the format’s traditional player-base, and the fact that ID’s were not allowed in the tournament and it becomes hard to argue that the decks that placed at the top of the standings aren’t actually the best in the format. When it comes to Highlander tournaments, I often wish we would make more of the few bigger opportunities we have. Even something as simple as saying that ID’s are not permitted would result in more informative data. I also think it would be great to compile an overview of all cards registered in each tournament and see how deep the actual card-pool of our format really is. What I am aiming at is not to discredit all the important efforts such as polls and metagame-breakdowns that are already part of every major tournament’s wrap-up. Rather, I encourage my readers to collect and share as much testing data you reasonably can and try to dip your toes in content production. The more knowledge we curate, the brighter the future of our format will be.
III Oracle Breach may well have been the “best deck” before the banning of Thassa’s Oracle.
As you may have noticed in the previous section, I faced the Grixis Lurrus Oracle Breach deck thrice during the Swiss portion of the tournament. Its core is essentially a heavily disruptive Grixis deck capable of leveraging Dreadhorde Arcanist, Dark Confidant and Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy. Of course, with Lurrus of the Dream-Den as a companion the deck is a completely different animal than in our format, but the ways in which Underworld Breach intersects with the manifold avenues to victory with the card Thassa’s Oracle itself, coupled with the fact that there isn’t a viable path to disrupt the Oracle combo apart from counterspells makes for a super scary combination. A lot of MTGO Vintage aficionados adapted their lists to the 7PH format and essentially crushed the tournament, placing one copy in the Top8 and several more in the top 16. To further stress how good the deck is, let me just tell you that I played against essentially the same version of the deck consecutively throughout the last three rounds of the Swiss, with the deck inflicting me my one loss in round 8 (0-2 with me on the play (!), the other times 2-1 on the play and 2-1 on the draw respectively, so always extremely close).
This goes to show that the archetype has crystallized very clearly as the best and most severely underpointed deck of the format and may well have been the “best deck” we had in EU HL as well. Even though my deck was pretty much geared towards beating up on this kind of strategy, the opponents always felt just one topdeck away from defeating me out of seemingly nowhere, irrespective of how carefully crafted my advantages were. The consistency, speed and raw power of the deck skewed the competitive metagame of the higher brackets into two camps –those that join the train or those that play a deck that beats it, which are few and far between. If we’ve had more meaningful tournaments over the last year or so, I would have predicted the same to have happened in our format. In fact, I believe that even with the recent banning of TO, Underworld Breach/Intuition/Sevinne’s Reclamation will still rank among the premier packages of choice for combo-players in the format since it really is so elegant and has an impressive amount of tutors and disruption at its arsenal.
IV We still don’t understand variance enough.
In this section, I want to share some observations on how 7PH players try to cope with variance. First, the trend that “traditional” control has fallen out of favor is not only noticeable in our format, but also in 60 card singleton where you would think that you could potentially exploit, for instance, Counterbalance–Sensei’s Divining Top/miracles synergies or have a higher density of quality reactive spells and haymakers in general. While I surveyed the metagame between rounds, Grixis Control or UW Standstill variants were present until round 5/6 in the tournament, but then they essentially disappeared from the winner’s metagame in the latter stages. Talking to players and taking stock of the best performing decks, the consensus seems to be that, while proactivity shields you from variance, reactivity makes you susceptible to it for several reasons. For once, you are less likely to capitalize on your advantages in games during which your opponent stumbles over their strategy, which happens to a noticeable extend in singleton formats. Also, it seems to be the case that in light of curves constantly lowering across archetypes, UG-shells with Sylvan Library, Uro, Ice-Fang Coatl, Oko etc. are the way forward as they provide you with several bridge-cards that help transitioning between mid-to late-game by adding to the board as well as initiating a value-chain. You can see glimpses of this in the above-average performances of UBRG Kess, Dissident Mage/Leovold, Emissary of Trest piles as well as Omnath-Ramp decks, BUG midrange combo hybrids playing either Smog or Oracle and, lastly, Bant Control. In addition to that, I still found it somewhat surprising that red-based aggro decks performed so well in the league, placing several at X-2 and above even in the face of combo’s powerful presence in the format. To me, this shows that proactivity coupled with a high degree of redundancy in card-types makes for a reliable recipe for success in singleton.
Once we are at it, I also want to share something that I personally took away from the league. One thing I observed while switching between the formats was the following: Even though I had a roughly equal ratio of certain effects in both the 60 card RUG and the 100 card RUG, the opening hands in the EU HL version tended to be dysfunctional more often. The point I want to make is less about the obviously decreasing card quality once you scale up to a hundred, but more so about the implications of quantity. To illustrate, let’s look at the amount of conditional counterspells as well as burnspells I pack in both formats. I ran about 7/4 in the 7PH version, and in my current EUHL build, I am running something in the ballpark of 12/7, give or take. The (likely correct) intuition for highlander deck building is to group cards by their functional equivalence, i.e. what types of effects a certain group of cards shall provide to you, and then to think about how often you want to have access to those effects in a game. However, this comes at a hidden cost, namely that with increasing numbers of similar effects (even though the ratio is the same), the statistical probability of drawing unwanted copies in your opening hand in 100 card singleton is always slightly higher than in 60 card singleton, simply due to the variance resulting from a higher card count. Maybe this was already clear to you, but I was shocked to realize how many hands in my decks have the potential to be actual garbage because of that (meaning to be too reactive). I have yet to fully assess how this will influence my deck-composition, but the contrast with 7PH helped me to grasp this intricacy of 100-card singleton a bit better.
V Deck-mastery is Highlander’s most essential skill.
At this point, allow me to give you at least some tiny insights into how the tournament unfolded from my point of view. As stated above, I piloted a very lean and tempo-oriented interpretation of RUG with the following points-spread: Stripmine (2), Wasteland (1), Wrenn and Six (1), Oko, Thief of Crowns (2), Force of Will (1) were my weapons of choice, as I wanted to disrupt my opponents on all axes (with an added focus on mana disruption as I deem it the area most prone to disruption across all singleton formats) and maximize the consistency of my opening hands by playing as many of the archetypical cards I can get away with. For reference, this was my list for the last round feat. MH2: https://deckstats.net/decks/144087/2091131-win-a-mox-7pt-highlander-leagu. For all the suckers for Uro, Bonecrusher Giant, Hullbreacher – let me just say this. For what its worth, my take on the archetype placed well above the more midrange-oriented versions and was the best performing tempo-deck by a relatively wide margin, and the main reason I attribute to it is that my list tries to beat the dynamics of the format above anything else. I want a high degree of deck-velocity, I want to get to the board as early as possible, and I want universal forms of disruption that establish advantages in the early game.
It of course helped me to have played relatively decently in most of my matches, but I found the ability to have optimized my deck according to my preferences even more reassuring. In addition to that, I have gone through most of the interactions you are likely to encounter before, know how to prioritize my deck’s spells in each stage of the game, which hands to ship away, and how I have to behave strategically depending if I am on the play or on the draw. In addition to drawing from my array of personal experience, I tried to consult various sources and experts from Highlander’s cognate eternal formats, seeing how the archetype translates between Modern, Legacy, Vintage and all the iterations of Highlander, both in the past as well as in the present. This theoretical preparation and long history with the deck gave me more confidence and definitely translated into me playing better.
When talking to my opponents, I realized that they were also deeply invested in their archetypes for a long time, sometimes even the inventors of certain decks such as the Oracle-Breach deck feat. Sevinne’s Reclamation. This manifested itself in, among other things, insanely well-constructed sideboards and fascinating lines that caught me off-guard. For instance, I let my QF opponent untap and allowed them respond to my Hurkyl’s Recall by cracking an Expedition Map, thinking they would tutor up a [c]Mishra’s Workshop to guarantee a quick rebuilding after I swept their entire battlefield (I had both a Wasteland as well as a removalspell in hand to shut the game down in my next turn), but they instead opted for a Darksteel Citadel which enabled them to have a slower, albeit safer rebuilding process. If tutoring up the Citadel instead of the Workshop to shore up against Wasteland is actually correct is a question for another day (considering I already had a flipped Delver of Secrets), but this play showed a significant degree of experience in the matchup, in my opinion. In sum, I did not encounter many net-deckers, and all contenders of the top8 either had a long history of playing the format, had a decent CV in MtG or were masters of their archetype in older formats. Hard work and dedication definitely pays off, so I guess the old saying “play what’s dear to your heart” still holds true, with certain caveats of competitive viability.
Alas, I did not survive long thereafter as I was paired as the 7th seed (i.e. on the draw) in the quarters against, you guessed correctly, the Ravager-Shops deck, the only matchup I consider truly negative for me. As expected, my opponent steamrolled me in the first game and I could beat him on the play the next game on the back of Oko and Stripmine as well as some sideboard-hate, only to do a stupid misplay in the last turn of game 3 and eventually lose what turned out to be a nail biter of a match. I already kicked myself over and over for this embarrassing exit, but reacting to the pressure and being reminded to compose myself were lessons worth learning. Preparing and playing my first “competitive” tournament in quite a while has been a lot of fun regardless, and it helped me to see the confines of our format more clearly. I want to express a huge “Thank you!” to Florian B., Justus H., Thomas H., Jacob K., Sebastian Z. Josh D, Luca D. and Jarvis Y. for helping me get through the tournament and again Luca for publishing this piece. By the way, hit me up in case you want to watch some commentated replays of my matches on YouTube. Until next time, take care!