By Dominik B.
I have been through many formats before I arrived in Berlin in late 2017 to adopt European Highlander as my possibly favorite way to play Magic: the Gathering today.
My ‘career’ started with a simple shoebox. It was full of Magic cards, and a rather awkward bunch at that, and my brother and I did our best to remix these cards into decks of varying power levels. I remember Exalted Angel being the most powerful card in that narrow format. Arguably, the best deck was the one that packed 12 cards that did something akin to Pacifism. Obviously, that was not enough to satisfy our newfound fascination, so cardstock followed more cardstock and soon we began to discover many ways to enjoy Magic.
It was during my university years that one of my best friends introduced me to the Elder Dragon Highlander format (which WotC later officially adopted under the Commander moniker). I loved the idea that you could pack 99 unique cards (plus one Commander creature card, minus some amount of basic lands), because if there was one thing I hated about Magic deck building was the 60-card-”restriction” (you can technically play more, but your deck will be less optimized) that made me cut cards I loved. EDH was an opportunity to play all these cards without having a poorly optimized deck construction. It was also, arguably, the best way to enjoy Magic with multiple friends at once.
EDH also made me consider that there was a seemingly infinite number of possible games and that you would never run out of play patterns and card interactions. Each game was therefore unique and refreshingly fun. I would play EDH whenever I got the chance and delved deep into the gigantic resource that is Magic cards to explore all the spells, strategies, and worlds.
However, as fun as EDH was, I was also craving actually competitive 1-vs.-1 Magic. As a youth, I used to attend many Yu-Gi-Oh! Tournaments and always loved to compete with friends and foes alike. The thrill round after round, the friendly chat in between, and the general atmosphere that a group of people with the same fascination for a game could evoke. As a kid, I was so excited for tournaments that I could hardly sleep the night before. Surely there would be an even bigger competitive edge to Magic?
As I dove into Standard and Modern (and even some Proxy-Legacy-Events), I found that special competitive environment that really appealed to my urge to compete. EDH was still there as the go-to format for meetups with friends. They were two different worlds, and I was perfectly okay with that.
Now Highlander is not exactly new. Some say the format has been played as early as Revised Edition when people wanted to figure out a format in which you were allowed to bring more tools to cardboard battles. There were simply too many cards (even then), and too many cards that made others obsolete. The games became more powerful and efficient, but also more stale. Magic grew in size and popularity and soon people began to put real effort into ‘solving the game’. The best decks usually played the best cards as four-ofs and soon you would see the same card interactions and play patterns repeatedly. Tournament Magic became an environment in which only the best decks could compete, and as such it became less an environment for deck building creativity. For many players, competitive Magic counteracts the creative edge of the game.
How can we have both then – the creative part and the competitive part? Can we play the game in a way that combines both ends of the spectrum to construct the ideal Magic experience? Highlander soon became an obvious solution: “Let’s invent a format in which we can only play a single copy of a card – ‘there can only be one!’. And you know what, since we’re insane, let’s make players play 100-card-decks.” Little did the innovators of Highlander know that they might have invented a way to play Magic that would simply provide one of the best Magic experiences you can have. In Highlander, the worlds of Magic – that is, the competitive world, the casual world, the creative world, and so on – collide. Let me elaborate. Here are 8 things that may convince you to play Highlander, in no specific order.
Note: In this article, I will be discussing our format of choice, European Highlander. European Highlander has a set ban list that most notably disallows the use of the so-called ‘Power 9’. There is another popular format variant called Canadian Highlander that uses a point-based system and a more lenient ban list. If we consider EH somewhat close to Legacy, CH is more closely related to Vintage. From here on, whenever I write Highlander, I am talking specifically about European Highlander.
1. Highlander Has Important Staples, But Leaves a Lot of Room to Creativity
Of course, there are many format staples. If you want to sleeve up a Highlander deck that has Islands in it, you should most likely play Mana Drain, Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise and the likes. If you are looking for white removal, you simply cannot ignore Swords to Plowshares. Black decks almost always sleeve up a Demonic Tutor because the best tutor spell ever printed is even more powerful in a high-variance-format.
It is very rare to have a Highlander deck completely devoid of format staples if it wants to be competitive. This is just a characteristic of card games: There will always be certain cards that are more powerful than others and some, in fact, are so powerful that not playing them would usually be an honest mistake. Some argue that Highlander deck construction always starts with one card in particular: Wasteland. Some say the same is true for Karakas. Both are ubiquitous cards that work in any deck without much commitment and there are only minor reasons not to play them.
Format staples may seem to hinder creativity because they effectively limit the number of card slots you have available for creative deck building. However, Highlander is a 100-card-format specifically because of this aspect. If you build your first Highlander deck and put in all the obvious staples after including somewhere around 35 lands, you will most likely still have 20-30 free deck slots. Then you start going through your binders to see which cards could improve your deck and befit your strategy. I guarantee you that you will find fitting cards that you may have forgotten about because they did not see play in 60-card-formats and are not good enough for Commander because that format’s multiplayer-centric scope is too big for them.
There are a lot of cards that only truly shine in Highlander. Primordial Mist provides an absurd source of card advantage and board pressure, Dire Fleet Daredevil is an amazingly versatile tool that also blocks and attacks really well. And Palace Jailer, well… let’s just say that this baldy is in strong contention for best creature in the format. Granted, he is seeing play in Legacy, but Jailer’s bustedness is really apparent in Highlander where the games are typically longer and favor the player who gains the most board and card advantage. Jailer does everything!
Often I’d find myself in a game of Highlander and be totally surprised by certain card choices. ‘Draft chaff’ like Curious Homunculus and Voltaic Brawler and old obscure cards like Dance of the Dead or Three Visits see play because of the lack of better options and the specific nature of the singleton format. They make sense because they fulfill similar roles like better known cards such as Delver of Secrets, Nature’s Lore and Animate Dead. A crucial part of deck building in Highlander is looking for card similarities and (nearly) functional reprints and how you best circumvent the drawback of only being allowed to play cards as 1-ofs.
With Highlander, you have a new angle with which to look at cards. They have to be powerful on their own because Highlander games have too high a variance to make an abundance of overly synergistic cards work. At the same time, they have to complement the deck strategy. Ideally, they subtly interact with your other cards. All of a sudden, each and every single card you look at becomes a piece of a very large puzzle that you are trying to solve. Many of these pieces come from places you did not expect. This is what makes deckbuilding in Highlander so challenging, yet so rewarding.
2. Games are Truly Unique
This is probably a less controversial point. Due to the nature of the singleton format, games unfold in so many different ways that it is really hard to have even two similar games out of a thousand. Good Magic players know card interactions and fitting strategies for specific match-ups. Excellent Magic players, however, discover new lines of play while being challenged by new experiences during a game. Skills like threat assessment, resource management, risk and reward, etc. become much more skill intensive in Highlander because you are constantly forced to learn new things as you play.
I have been playing Highlander for around a year now and I cannot remember two games that were so similar that they felt like I did not learn something new. Naturally I encountered similar play patterns, but the tools I had available plus the tools my opponents represented were always so different that I had to constantly adapt and learn new strategies. I am still doing a lot of mistakes precisely because I encounter more play patterns I am not familiar with. But each time I notice a mistake and discover new lines of play, I grow as a player.
Seasoned Highlander players have an obvious advantage due to play experience, but even those players are often still surprised by new cards, obscure card choices, newly found card synergies and off-center strategies. Game uniqueness in Highlander is the one thing the inventors of the format really wanted. I feel like this feature is the biggest reason why Highlander simply cannot get boring.
3. In Highlander, Every Card Counts
The laws of the singleton format put a lot of pressure on your lines of play because you have to be more considerate about playing your cards. In 60-card-formats, you can play spells as 4-ofs and thus you can expect to have multiple cards of one type available during a game. Say you are playing a full playset of Assassin’s Trophy and see yourself across an opposing Aether Vial. Due to your strategic planning, you decide to blow up the Vial with your removal spell in order to slow down your opponent. Since you have three more Trophies available (maybe even one or two in your hand), you are very likely to adequately respond to any threat your opponent plays in the future that demands a versatile answer.
In Highlander, you only have one card of each. While the 3 missing Assassin’s Trophy may be substituted by cards like Abrupt Decay, Vindicate, and Council’s Judgment, there are considerable differences between these cards. Every card in your deck fulfills a specific purpose and you only have one of each, so you have to ‘make them count’. If you have both Vindicate and Council’s Judgment in hand and you want to kill an opposing Jace, the Mind Sculptor, you may want to prioritize Vindicate because Council’s Judgment may be important to kill a True-Name Nemesis later.
In Highlander, prioritizing between your lines of play is much more important than in traditional formats. The cards are usually very powerful – you are probably playing many of the best cards ever printed in Magic – but you have to know how to utilize them in a way that maximizes your cards and deck’s potential. Demonic Tutor is an absurdly powerful card (as well as other powerful tutors such as Eladamri’s Call and Imperial Seal, but tutoring for the correct card in a specific situation is sometimes incredibly hard. When I lose a game in which I cast Demonic Tutor, I always go back to that one decision and ask myself: “Did I maximize the power of this card at that time?” If you want to win in Highlander, you have to make every card count and learn to use your spells (and lands!) to their utmost potential. This is how you continue to grow as a player and find excitement in Magic.
4. Highlander is an Incredibly Powerful Format
For many people, playing Magic is about doing cool things. In Highlander, you are playing with the most powerful cards the game has to offer. Although there is a ban list that forbids the use of the Power 9 and certain nemeses of the past, you are allowed to play cards like Mana Drain, Demonic Tutor, Bazaar of Baghdad, Fastbond, Dig Through Time, Gush, Oath of Druids, Tolarian Academy and so on. All these cards are banned in Legacy and partly restricted in Vintage because they are too powerful in 60-card-formats. In Highlander, you have a high chance of not drawing them or not being able to replace them adequately of your opponent answers them. The nature of the format somewhat counteracts the high power level these cards represent.
Therefore, as a Highlander player, you feel very powerful and are able to experience cards and play patterns that you would otherwise be excluded from. Many of the cards that are banned in Legacy are constantly being debated whether they deserve a ban in Highlander. However, bannings in Highlander are pretty rare because the metagame is fairly well balanced at the moment. Of course, there will absolutely be games where you lose to a Blood Moon and Back to Basics, or Mana Drain countering your 2-drop and your opponent slamming a Jace, the Mind Sculptor or Primordial Mist. There will be games in which your opponent will open with Bazaar of Baghdad and you watch them draw cards and dumping Griselbrand, Iona, Shield of Emeria and the likes with ease into their graveyards.
However, you are going to play powerful cards as well and you will love it. Highlander players often complain about unfair cards and unfairness in Magic in general, but their choice of the format clearly shows that these players have decided to embrace unfairness to a certain degree. Doing powerful stuff in Magic is simply fun, and in Highlander, the floodgates are pretty much open.
5. Highlander is Expensive, But Not as Expensive as You May Think
If you take a look at successful Highlander deck lists you will notice the high price tags. There is no way going around it: Highlander is a very expensive format for people that do not already own a good collection. If you play more than one color (and you usually do), you need the relevant ABU dual lands and the corresponding fetch lands. If you want to play a Reanimator strategy, you better start saving up for that Bazaar of Baghdad. There are a also ton of cards that fall in the 30-60€ range which can put a huge toll on your purse when you are looking to acquire most of them. Highlander may feel like a format exclusive to those with great collections or a lot of money to spend on cardboard.
Luckily, there are some mechanics that counteract the financial burden. Highlander players usually only own one copy of a particular card because you only ever need one card of each in a singleton format. If you want to play Legacy, let’s say Grixis Control, you probably need somewhere around 2 or 3 Underground Sea and a mix of Badlands and Volcanic Island. In Highlander, once you own a single copy of a card, that’s it. If you decide to primarily play Highlander at one point, you may want to sell any duplicate cards and thus be able to more easily acquire your target cards. I personally came from Modern and decided to sell duplicate staples I owned. This way, I could afford some of my target cards for Highlander (I still don’t own a single ABU dual land, though. Bad timing on my part!).
Most playgroups also allow the use of a fixed or any amount of gold-bordered cards. So if you want to play with ‘real’ WotC-produced Magic cards that cost a significant amount less than their tournament-legal printings, the World Championship and Pro Tour Deck series is where you should go. Don’t be afraid to go get those gold-bordered Wasteland, Force of Will and Gaea’s Cradle. If you dislike the golden border heavily, consider sleeving those cards with black-bordered inner sleeves (Or use a sharpie – at your own risk!). Note that while some tournaments allow the use of gold-bordered cards, others don’t. See to acquire the necessary information from your target community/LGS before buying into gold-bordered cards.
However, you can also play Highlander pretty much for free if you use proxies. Highlander players are usually well aware of the barrier of entry into their format and will happily welcome new players who bring their proxied decks. Often these players want to try out Highlander before eventually buying into it or if they have no real competitive motivation. Of course, you cannot play proxies in official sanctioned tournaments, but many stores will tolerate proxies for casual events. Don’t be afraid to ask.
With regard to proxies, there is just one thing I want to address personally: Please put in some work with those proxies if you plan to prox a whole deck. Print them out in the correct size and in color (I suggest using mtgpress.net, as it is currently the best proxy printer available), put them in front of a real Magic card, and then sleeve them up. Magic is a highly aesthetic game, so don’t bring proxies that are printed in black-and-white with poor quality and too small a size. Don’t just write a card name on a piece of paper and throw it in a sleeve (which is only fine if you quickly prox one or a few cards to test them out in a few games). Bad proxies make the game look ugly and the games will feel less fun and engaging, at least to me. However, many players I spoke with share this sentiment.
6. Highlander has an Engaging Community
This stems mostly from my experience in the Berlin community, but one thing I noticed is that the Highlander community is not only welcoming to new players and usually consists of players who make the games fun and salt-free, but it is also a very vocal and communicative group of people. The community is, at the same time, pretty inclusive – we are a small format, after all – so the culture of discussion is usually based around a handful of well-established players. However, this is a community in which your opinions are heard and your questions are answered, whether in real life in between rounds or on Facebook in one of the highly active discussion groups. This is even more important because the format is self-governed: It has its own council which decides about the ban list, because Highlander is not officially endorsed by Wizards of the Coast (and probably never will be: Highlander does not sell many packs).
The level of discussion on these forums reveals how passionate Highlander players are about their hobby. You will sometimes find very heated discussions amongst players that only rarely end up in personal attacks. Most of the time the discussions are civil and rewarding with the goal to improve the format bit by bit and learn more about Magic in general. There are some individuals who actively push content on these forums and there is always something to talk about. If you like to think about and discuss Magic on a high level, Highlander certainly offers an exciting sphere for that.
7. Highlander Makes New Releases Even More Exciting
Highlander, much like Vintage and Legacy, allows cards printed in Standard-legal sets as well as cards in supplemental sets such as Commander decks and special sets like Conspiracy and Battlebond. As such, the format is being fed with new cards on a very high frequency. This is even more true for the supplemental products which usually contain more risky card designs because those cards do not have to enter the Standard format which has a more regulated power level.
Still, releases like Guilds of Ravnica and Dominaria were very exciting for Highlander because WotC seems to have upped the general power level of Standard once again. Cards like Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, Assassin’s Trophy, and Risk Factor are probably going to be mainstays in the format for a long time while at least ten other cards from Guilds at least have a high enough power level to deserve testing (e.g. Crackling Drake, Ral, Izzet Viceroy, Mausoleum Secrets, etc.). This combined with unusual designs in supplemental products constantly gives Highlander new toys to try out. Highlander is arguably the format that is in the most consistent state of flux because of this.
Fun things happen, for example, when WotC designs Commander cards that are meant for Multiplayer gameplay but are surprisingly powerful in Highlander’s 1vs1 environment. The Monarch mechanic from Conspiracy radically changed the way white decks are played in Highlander due to Palace Jailer, bringing an entirely new game experience to the table with the Monarch emblem mechanic. Lately, we saw the printing of Brightling which was tried out in Legacy Death and Taxes, but ultimately fell short. Players have been very happy with the card in Highlander, though. Cards like Aminatou, the Fateshifter and Yuriko, the Tiger’s Shadow have great implications, but they have not found a definitive home yet. The supplemental products offer a lot of spicy and unusual cards for you to discover, and with Highlander you are looking forward to each and every spoiler season in order to find your next favorite toy.
Regular Standard Set releases are fairly easy on the money and usually reward you well enough if you buy a booster box. For Standard players, buying a box is not ideal because they usually need certain Rares as playsets and a booster box will not deliver these. Highlander, however, only ever demands a single copy of a card, so buying a booster box usually rewards you with a large arsenal of playables or at least interesting cards to try out. I myself got a booster box of Guilds as well as my roommate and we pretty much got everything we wanted for Highlander. I couldn’t say that for Standard, for which I’d have to order playsets of Rares and even Mythic Rares if I wanted to build a competitive deck.
On that note, Wizards have been putting more power into the uncommon slots lately, looking at printings like Kraul Harpooner, Plaguecrafter and Thought Erasure which already see play in Highlander. As such, a booster box of Guilds, for example, will yield you a lot of playables. Let us just hope that Wizards keeps on delivering sets as good as Guilds. Then pretty much all Magic releases will excite you as a Highlander player.
8. The Highlander Metagame is Diverse and Always is Flux
Let us take a look at the Top 8 Decks from the latest Metagame Masters, the biggest Highlander Tournament in Berlin (featuring 45 players): Azorius Midrange, 4-Color (non-green) Aggro, Jeskai Midrange, Selesnya Aggro, Izzet Control, Red Deck Wins, 4-Color (non-white) Reanimator, Mono-Green Ramp. Not only do we ever find two exactly similar decklists, but we also do not find any archetype more than once. Each color is fairly well represented and we can find Aggro, Midrange, Control, Ramp, and to a lesser extent Combo (if we consider Reanimator a Combo Deck). Thus, the whole spectrum of Magic is represented here. One of the argued Tier 1 Decks, 4-Color-Scapeshift, is even absent from the Top 8.
There is simply no telling which deck will dominate the next tournament. This is probably due to several of the aforementioned points combined. The influx of new playable cards lately shook the metagame considerably. There also was some sort of paradigm shift, in which Control players were packing more and more creatures to become more proactive. The metagame in Highlander is never really solved and due to the nature of the format, you often have a hard time naming the decks properly because of so many different builds. Scapeshift decks, for example, cannot rely on Scapeshift alone to win the game. They usually pack swingy creatures like Thragtusk and Titania, Protector of Argoth in order to have alternate win conditions. Can we call these decks strictly ‘Scapeshift’, then?
Another aspect of the Highlander metagame is the relatively small size of the data pool. Formats like Legacy and Modern have a huge dataset of tournament reports and deck lists, real life and digital, to deduce a global metagame from. For Highlander, we cannot really say the same. The European Highlander community is fairly small in size and has a few cities across Europe as focal points of the format. There is arguably not the metagame, but rather loose terms like the Berlin metagame or the Finnish metagame.
I think the lack of a more defined metagame is a good thing. Players can, of course, go on magicplayer.org and rebuild one of the top performing decks, but these decks are always only a snapshot from a long process of development, testing and change. Most likely the list you netdeck today is already outdated tomorrow. Highlander rewards those that do consider a somewhat shaky metagame, but ultimately try to attack it from an unusual angle. The ability to quickly react to metagame shifts makes you a good Highlander player. Being an innovator who helps shape the metagame then makes you an excellent player.
Putting Everything Together
That’s pretty much it. If you consider playing Highlander, you better check if your area has a local scene. If not, I highly encourage you to recommend the format to your fellow players. People who like to play Legacy and/or high-level Commander decks usually have a good collection in order to build a Highlander deck and the gameplay should connect to their favorite Magic experiences. If you play with a couple of friends casually, try out Highlander deck building rules to get a taste of the format.
I want to close this article by stating how Worlds (Formats) actually Collide in Highlander:
…offers the diversity and uniqueness of Commander…
…but reshapes the Commander experience into a competitive 1vs1-environment…
…delves into the high power level of Vintage and Legacy…
…enrichens the Legacy/Vintage staple base with Modern staples and play styles…
…makes new releases as exciting as Standard…
…and simply offers the whole spectrum of Magic: The Gathering strategies.
Highlander is Pure Magic. Enjoy!