By Niclas E.
These days, it seems nothing much is going on on magicplayer.org. Most people seem to only view the site to get updates on the banned list, while most discussion on the format takes place elsewhere. However, if you look closely you can actually find a section with really old decklists and tournament reports there. It’s a really interesting read if you want to know about the history of the format, I always feel a bit like an archaeologist excavating ruins of a long lost civilization every time I read about the Highlander meta 10-14 years ago. There you will find, among other gems, the Top 8 of the first Highlander GP in Dortmund in 2005, including a 3rd place finsh by a certain Klaus-Michael „EvilBernd“ Bredt, who apparently „did the impossible“ and piloted a Mono Black Suicide Deck into the Top 8 of a 92-player tournament:
Three years later, Marcus Lindner piloted a more evolved version of the deck to another Top 8 finish at the 6th GP in Aachen, this time with 117 players. His version added some very strong improvements, most noteworthy probably the insanely powerful Lake of the Dead:
And as soon as that happened, the dark goodness of Magic’s most fun to play archetype (at least in my opinion) sank back into obscurity. As far as I can tell, no other Mono Black Suicide list ever made Top 8 at a large Highlander tournament ever again…
…Until a few days ago, when I finally managed to Top 8 my first ever Highlander tournament with it. For the last 6 years, optimizing this deck has been a labour of love to me, and although I came close a few times in the past already, I never managed to have this much success at a large tournament. So as you can imagine, finally making a Top 8 with it feels pretty good. Now, I don’t want to blow my own horn too much. I know many will attribute the success of a fringe deck like mine mostly to variance and luck and yes, I’ll admit, I was insanely lucky with the matchups I was given during the Swiss rounds of the tournament. Then again though, I think most Highlander players are too quick to jump to conclusions as to what are „the best decks of the format“. The more tournament results I see, the more I come to the conclusion that deck choice is pretty much irrelevant, at least when it comes to larger tournaments where you can’t really metagame efficiently anyway. Case in point, the most played deck in Halle was Scapeshift, seen by many as one of the absolute top dogs, if not THE best deck in the format. Despite its slightly larger representation, only one Scapeshift player made Top 16, which seems to be a fairly decent indicator to me that the deciding factors in this beautiful mess of a format are player skill, deck construction and sheer dumb luck, not that much the actual archetype you’re playing. There are no real best archetypes, every well constructed deck has its own strengths and weaknesses and needs a bit of luck to get to the top.
So before I get to the tournament report proper, let’s take a look at the deck:
The first thing you might notice is that a lot has changed since 2005. Power creep is a bitch and most of the cards EvilBernd played in his list, I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole these days. Although the cards might have gotten more efficient, the overall premise hasn’t changed much. The deck tries to combine a fast clock with efficient removal and some disruption to kill the opponent. The biggest strength of the deck is probably its ability to combine a potential for very explosive starts with the ability to avoid running out of gas for a much longer time than other aggro decks, due in large parts to numerous token producers, card draw engines and recursive creatures. As far as matchups are concerned, I’d say that it generally has a favorable matchup against most other aggressive creature-based decks, especially Maverick, WW and non-black tempo decks. Even the matchup against RDW is good, probably about 60:40 in my favor. The control matchup is, for an aggro deck, pretty good aswell. The best matchup by far are Izzet variants: They don’t have a fast enough clock to race, can’t deal with many of my threats and can’t effectively use their nonbasic hate against me. Most combo and 3-color + midrange matchups are about 50:50 I’d say. The deck struggles against Scapeshift though, since it annoyingly is a control deck that has a consistent win option on turn 7 and can throw a lot of game-winning threats in your face on the way there. Other primarily black decks are also a problem, especially Grixis and Sultai, since their creatures blank a lot of removal and they pack a lot more answers to my threats than I have for theirs. The worst matchup by far are stax-like decks that rely heavily on enchantments or artifacts like Moat or Ensnaring Bridge to keep aggro decks at bay. Luckily, those decks are a rarity in the current format, so I don’t really worry too much about them.
Prior to the tournament I had made some extensive changes, but failed to test any of the new cards I added. My last testing session was approximately two weeks earlier, where the deck just felt kind of bad and clunky, failing to even beat normally good matchups. I wanted to make it a bit leaner, play more of a tempo game again instead of the more midrange-y gameplan I had built for in the previous weeks. So I decided to take a risk and put some old favorites and some new spice back in, without the ability to test the results beforehand and went in blind on the day of the tournament. The most notable additions I made in these last weeks were some more mana excelerants like Lake of the Dead, which I had taken out at some point as I thought it was too risky (which it is, but this deck isn’t called „Mono Black Suicide“ for nothing), as well as some more tempo-efficient removal spells like Vendetta and Fatal Push.
In the first round I ran into Valentin, a local player from Halle and his Temur Midrange/Tempo build. In game 1 I hold a fairly decent hand with a lot of good threats and some removal, yet I’m hamstrung by my manabase, as I fail to find my 4th landdrop. This restricts me to only one spell per turn, not a good position to be in when you’re opponent kept a hand full of counter and removal. I fail to get on the board and get killed by a massive Tarmogoyf, as my attempt to remove it gets countered. Game 2 doesn’t start out too well for me either, as he bolts my turn 1 Deathrite Shaman and then deploys a Goblin Rabblemaster. I follow up with Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet on turn 4, which gets tapped by Bounding Krasis, allowing Rabblemaster to get in for one turn. However, I can untap with Kalitas and kill both of his creatures, netting me two Zombies in the process and prompting a concession shortly thereafter. In game 3, it’s now my opponent who’s struggling on lands, though he still manages to develop a decent boardstate with playing spells and making tokens with his Young Pyromancer. However, he can’t really attack into my Sygg, River Cutthroat and on turn 4, Kalitas hits the board again. I play Inner Demon a turn later, playing it safe and putting it on my Kalitas instead of my Asylum Visitor, since he has red mana up. He then punts and electrolyzes the Visitor, which would have died anyway, instead of the Sygg which would have gone down to 0/1 stats for the turn because of Inner Demon. He gets his board wiped, I get a Zombie, and faced with a massive flying lifelinker he can’t deal with, he scoops it up.
2:1, 1:0 overall
Round 2 I played against Kristian, one of several Maverick players I had to face during the tournament. He’s on the play and starts off by fetching for Savannah and deploying Fyndhorn Elves, unsuspecting of the nut draw I just kept. My first turn consists of playing Dark Ritual into Liliana, the Last Hope, ticking up and killing his elf. A turn 2 Scavenging Ooze then gets swiftly killed by Collective Brutality, discarding Scrapheap Scrounger and revealing a hand with Thalia, Heretic Cathar (dead against the Karakas I have in hand), Rancor, Gaea’s Cradle and Eladamri’s Call. I take his tutor, he misses his 3-Drop since his third land is a Cradle, I play some more creatures and fire off Liliana’s ultimate. He draws his next card and scoops. Game 2 starts off more evenly, we both mulligan to 6, I keep an ok-ish hand with two lands on the draw. His first play is Qasali Pridemage on turn 2, I then drop a Vampire Hexmage and pass back to him. His turn 3 then consists of him playing Rancor and swinging for 5, followed by Stoneforge Mystic searching up Sword of Feast and Famine. I stare at my hand, no removal, no lands, but 2 4-drops staring me in the face. If I don’t draw something right now, I’m probably screwed. I topdeck a timely Ancient Tomb, play Inner Demon and wipe his board, leaving me with a flying firststriking 4/3 beatstick. He plays Tarmogoyf and suits it up with Rancor, I then play Thorn of the Black Rose and he swings in, trading his Goyf for my 1/3 deathtoucher, but trampling over for some damage, becoming the Monarch and leaving up mana for Eladamri’s Call. Not sure if that was the correct play, since he’s way ahead in the damage race and building up a board presence seems better to me. I play a Lifebane Zombie next turn, exiling Kitchen Finks (which he probably drew with the monarch trigger, otherwise he would have played it), he calls for Palace Jailer, but even the best 4-Drop creature in the format can’t hold on to the monarchy for long against two evasive creatures. The game ends shortly thereafter.
2:0, 2:0 overall
The third round had me facing off against Adrian, again playing Maverick. The first game was very long and grindy, so I can’t really remember everything that happened here, please bear with me. My opponent deployed a Batterskull on turn 3 via Stoneforge Mystic, which was a pretty good start, but I managed to slowly grind him out with the help of the Monarch and Curse of Disturbance. This game was also a prime example of why the monarchy is such a stupidly powerful mechanic. It not only provides massive card advantage, it can also lead some people to lose their cool pretty easily and make attacks that are fairly stupid. At one point, my opponent swings in with SFM, Voice of Resurgence and his 4/4 Germ token against my board of Mardu Strike Leader, Vampire Hexmage and Cryptbreaker. Needless to say, Strike Leader and Hexmage eat his small creatures, Cryptbreaker chumps the Germ and the monarch remains with me. A typical case of being blinded by the value. I also would like to highlight our lord (or better lady) and saviour Vampire Hexmage doing God’s work in this game, first heroicly sacrificing itself to deal with Garruk Wildspeaker, only to be later resurrected and doing the same to a Parallax Wave. Truly the most underrated tool creature in the format. Game 2 I keep a pretty wonky hand with only one black source, speculating on playing Thorn of the Black Rose on turn 3 off of Ancient Tomb. He goes to 5, keeps a 1-lander and goes to town with a Mana Elf, a small Tarmogoyf and Rancor. I attempt to block his 2/1 rancored-up Goyf on his turn 3 with my Mishra’s Factory, which he promptly dismembers. Now what? My plans of castng a 4-Drop turn 3 are most certainly off. I manage to kill the Goyf a turn later, reanimate it and drop a Mardu Strike Leader, putting some decent pressure on him while he’s still struggling for mana. Worse still, using Ancient Tomb continually is pretty painful. On 4 life, I decide to alpha strike him, missing that he can block 2 creatures and flicker his Goyf with his Eldrazi Displacer, putting him to 1 and leaving me dead to a trampling attack due to Rancor. Luckily Profane Command can finish the job before that happens.
2:0, 3:0 overall
Round 4 I play against Thomas, who begins the game by fetching EOT for a Watery Grave, leading me to believe that this won’t be an easy matchup. I’m proven correctly, he plays Sultai Midrange and we’re off to another long and grindy game. He doesn’t have much action on the board except for a Leovold, Emissary of Trest, but that’s enough to keep me at bay, since I can’t remove it for a long time and have a board full of 2/1s. Meanwhile he counters or removes anything that might get past his annoying 3/3 elf and my own Dark Confidant proves to be a particularly painful double-edged sword, as it draws me extra cards that keep me in the game, but also slowly kills me as there’s no way to profitably attack. I even play Thorn of the Black Rose without value at one point (since Leovold prevents me from drawing off monarch), simply to entice my opponent to attack and maybe trade off my deathtoucher for one of his better creatures. When I finally deal with Leovold, I’m on 3 life while my opponent has gone back up to 20 with Pulse of Murasa. I have to sac my Confidant, but lose the race against an onslaught of good threats shortly afterwards. Game 2 starts out better for me. I have a 1-drop, a Sinkhole and some removal, he takes the Sinkhole with discard on turn 1, then lets me get in for a couple of turns without doing anything, presumably because he either has a hand full of counters or doesn’t want to just play a threat into my removal. On turn 4, he finally drops a Goyf, which I try to kill at the end of his turn, prompting a counterspell. This allows me to play Custodi Lich aka Black Jailer on my next turn, putting me now firmly ahead. I only draw one extra card off the monarch trigger though, since he again has Leovold. The Lich can still safely attack into it though and my opponent is pretty low on life, so it’s much less annoying this time. He plays a Spellseeker the next turn, searching for Disfigure and blocking in a pretty strange way as I alpha strike him the next turn. Instead of disfiguring my Lich and blocking one of my three 2-power creatures with each of his blockers, he opts to chump the 4/2 Lich with the Spellseeker and instead disfigures my Pain Seer. As to why he took this rather strange line, he later explained to me that he misplayed. He wanted to kill my creatures with Golgari Charm before he could take damage, but missed that Spellseeker would die too, not being able to mark the one damage on the Lich first, so my 4/2 zombie would survive. Game 3 starts out better for him, he pressures me pretty hard with Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Hooting Mandrills. The round is almost over and after taking two hits from Tasigur, I realize that I have to play to survive and start chumping. I manage to blunt his offense in the extra turns by playing Gatekeeper of Malakir and destroying his Lumbering Falls as he activates it in response with Ghost Quarter. He can only bring me down to 6 life and the game ends in a draw.
1:1:1, 3:0:1 overall
I play against Felix, one of my Berlin buddies in round 5, running into Maverick for the 3rd time that day. I start off the match by playing Inquisition of Kozilek, revealing a pretty slow hand with Sylvan Tutor, no 2-drop and an Eldrazi Displacer. I take the tutor, as that cuts him off from getting on the board before turn 3 and follow it up with a Gifted Aetherborn on turn 2. He plays the Displacer, I play Phyrexian Obliterator and he spends his next turn only playing a mana dork and flickering my 5/5 trampling monster. Black Jailer then comes down, killing the elf and making me the monarch, he concedes. The second game goes equally quickly, he drops a Mother of Runes turn 1 and proceeds to tutor up Sword of Fire and Ice and Sword of Light and Shadow, greatly excelerated by Crop Rotation into Gaea’s Cradle. By turn 3, I’m so far behind that there’s no way for me to come back into the game. Game 3 is quite similar to game 1 of round 3, a long grindy game revolving in large parts around the monarch (this time provided by his Palace Jailer), Curse of Disturbance, Parallax Wave and trading removal back and forth. In the end, I win because of a massive misplay on his part. I’m on 5, with two 2/2 Zombie tokens, he’s on 2 with an Aven Mindcensor and a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. I pass the turn with 4 mana up, he draws, cracks his Horizon Canopy, then attacks me with the Mindcensor, bringing me to 3 life. After combat, he then makes a token with Gideon and plays Sublime Archangel. Had he done this pre-combat, I would have died, as I had no removal and the three Exalted triggers would have made the Mindcensor a lethal attacker. This way, he was giving me the oppurtunity to reanimate his Kraul Harpooner next turn, going to 1, shooting the Angel and getting in for lethal.
2:1, 4:0:1 overall
My opponent round 6 was Marcel on Izzet Control. He and I met at the 0-3-table at MGM 13, and now having a rematch at the top table of the tournament was quite nice. He’s on the play and drops a Thing in the Ice on turn 2, which is always quite annoying since it not only blocks the 2/1 Dread Wanderer I played on turn 1, but also presents a huge threat later in the game, especially if he has countermagic to protect it from removal spells. Luckily, it doesn’t stay on the field for long, as I draw a Dark Ritual turn 2, which allows me to cast the Liliana of the Veil I have in my hand a turn earlier while he’s tapped out, and even with one mana open in case he has a Daze. Lili promptly ticks down and I get in for 2 with my Wanderer. Next turn I discard a Bloodghast with Lili, bringing it back with the landdrop and playing a Hexmage. With six power and a planeswalker on the board turn 3, I feel pretty good about my position. On turn 4 I swing for 6 and play a Mindwrack Demon, now presenting lethal the next turn. He manages to slow me down a bit with Mystic Confluence bouncing some of my creatures, but the inevitability a hasty Bloodghast provides in this matchup proves to be too much for him. I then throw away game 2 by keeping a rather sketchy 1-land-hand. I have a guaranteed second landdrop due to Demonic Consultation and a 1-drop plus a discard spell turn 2, but I still struggle to get enough lands while he keeps answering my dudes and filling his graveyard with Search for Azcanta. A Cryptic Serpent and a massive Crackling Drake finally finish me off. What was I thinking??? Game 3 I draw an ok 1st hand with 2 Fetchlands, Bitterblossom, a removal spell, Mausoleum Secrets, Isareth the Awakener and Abyssal Persecutor. I first decide to keep on the strength of Bitterblossom, but then quickly change my mind, as relying so heavily on this admittedly magnificient enchantment might not be good enough in the face of a deck full of countermagic. So I ask my opponent if I may take back my decision and still take a mulligan regardless, and he allows me to do it. I know that given the outcome of the game, he kind of regretted allowing me to do this, but I can assure him now that there’s nothing to regret, since the second hand could have easily screwed me even hader than the first one. In hindsight, the first hand was way better and I was insanely lucky that things turned out the way they did. The 2nd hand consists of Dread Wanderer, Diabolic Intent, Bloodghast and Curse of Disturbance, rounded out by an awful combination of lands with one Swamp, Wasteland and Lake of the Dead. This hand surely has a lot of potent cards for this matchup, but there’s a huge potential of just bricking and never resolving a single spell again after turn 1. I decide to keep it anyway and start clenching hard. My turn 1 Dread Wanderer eats a Forked Bolt and for a brief moment, I see my dreams dying already. If I don’t draw a Swamp this turn, I’ll probably lose. However, the Magic Gods smile upon me that day and my turn 2 draw really is a Swamp, allowing me to slam the Bloodghast and enabling the Lake of the Dead next turn. His turn 2 play is again an annoying Thing in the Ice. I draw Demonic Tutor, and since his only blue source is Sulfur Falls, making Daze impossible as an out, I decide to go for it, tutor up Fatal Push for the Thing, then play the Lake, saccing both my lands to make four mana. I push the Thing fatally, then curse my opponent, getting in with Bloodghast and making a 2/2 Zombie. A Vendilion Clique during my next draw step takes away an Inquisition of Kozilek and slaps me for a bunch, he slows me down with both Fiery Confluence and Mystic Confluence, but ultimately the recursive (and later hasty) ghastly boy and its ever-increasing Zombie horde are too much for him to handle.
2:1, 5:0:1 overall
Round 7 and Quarterfinals
For the last round, I get paired against the later champ Max, who offers me a draw which I readily accept. At this point I’m on top of the swiss standings, so my place in the Top 8 is secure anyway and I’d much rather get something good to eat, as no one should survive an entire day on nothing but energy drinks and granola bars. In the quarterfinals, Max and I meet anyway and the match immediately starts badly for me, as I mulligan to 6 and keep an ok hand with Inquisition of Kozilek, Sinkhole, Collective Brutality, Vampire Hexmage and two lands. However, my turn 1 Inquisition reveals a truly horrifying hand for my opponent, consisting of Thought Scour, his own Collective Brutality, Gurmag Angler, Thing in the Ice and three lands. In other words, a hand that completely invalidates my gameplan, as none of my cards do anything remotely useful against it. I take the Brutality. After the match I had a discussion with Max on whether or not this was the right choice, as a turn 1 Thought Scour enables a turn 2 Angler, but I still think the choice was right. Brutality would have enabled the Angler anyway and likely taken two of my cards in the process. Delaying it for a turn is not worth losing two more cards in my opinion. This of course means the Angler hits the board next turn. I take some damage, then start chumping. Unearth buys me some time and I actually can accrue an ok boardstate (or it would be ok without the 5/5 fish beating me down), with Dark Confidant and Asylum Visitor potentially drawing me two extra cards a turn, as my hand’s already empty at that point. My attempt to somewhat stabilize with Gifted Aetherborn gets foiled by a Bolt, so I decide to pull the trigger on my Hexmage and opt not to block his attacking Angler, but instead remove the counters from his Thing in the Ice. I figure bouncing the board would give me some extra time here, since Thing would flip soon anyway and this way, I can get a blocker down before it attacks me. Also it stops the Angler from attacking for a turn and I have more removal to deal with the Thing than I have for the zombie fish. Sadly, this doesn’t work. Thing needs to have counters removed by its own effect to flip, the trigger is not similar to that of Dark Depths as I thought. So the Angler crashes in unblocked, I drop to 5 due to my own stupidity, and then as if to add insult to injury, I die in my upkeep as my Confidant reveals Liliana, Death’s Majesty on the top of my deck. Game 2 starts a bit more promising, as this time Max goes to 6. He starts with a Dark Confidant turn 2, which I immediately kill EOT as I figure that allowing my opponent to recover from his mulligan is probably not a good idea here. I play Geralf’s Messenger turn 3 and feel pretty good. I have multiple reanimation spells and creatures that draw extra cards, so I feel like I’m set up quite well for a longer grindy game. But Max is quite good at drawing cards that invalidate my plans. He drops a Thing in the Ice turn 3 and I immediately regret my decision of killing the Confidant earlier instead of saving my removal spell. I still continue to develop my board, but a few turns later he flips his Thing with a tricky play, countering his own dead Pyroblast in my attack step and then crashes in unimpeded with the 7/8 Awoken Horror. I play out my creatures again and prepare to chump, sequencing it all pretty poorly, which probably hastens my demise. At this point I’m already on full tilt mode. He has a removal for my blocker, Thing hits me again and a burnspell takes me out of my misery. GG
Final standings: 5:0:2, loss in Quarterfinals
Overall, this was definitely a milestone success in my Highlander career and a very fun and well-organized tournament. I played with and against many nice people, the games overall were fun and mostly interactive, none of them really being decided by someone screwing or flooding away. I can only hope that the Continental Cup will establish itself as a new Highlander institution and that future tournaments will draw in even more players than this one. I certainly had a blast.