2020 – An early retrospective

by Paul W.

In this rendition, I will attempt to make sense of yet another year of Highlander. Now, I won’t talk about the political developments within the format, its leadership and the manifold community initiatives that helped navigating us through Covid and kept the player-base engaged in these challenging times. Instead, I want to use the cards that entered (and left) the format in 2020 as a device and talk us through the main strategic trajectories as they unveil themselves in this moment in time. My analysis focuses on change and flux within the format; hence I will investigate 2020`s most important cards and decks and also evaluate the state of the game going forward after this recent round of bannings.

Top 3 most impactful cards

Everyone loves a good tier-list – Highlander players are no different. In this section I want to open the discussion on the 2020 printings that arguably had the most noticeable impact on the format as a whole. I point to the three cards that influenced the overall metagame development, impacted strategic positioning in matchups and shape the way games of highlander look like due to their sheer ubiquity. Admittedly, for an individual card to warp an eternal singleton-format such as ours, the bar is set pretty high, so I narrowed the list down to a top 3 to have some informative value. Conversely, once you see my selection of cards and the reasoning behind them, I think it becomes increasingly clear that this bunch really deserves to be singled out independently from the existing decks they slotted into. It is difficult to ascertain how sustainable my list will prove once organized play resumes in a larger form, but I hope that for now it offers some basis of discussion.

3. Uro, Titan of Natures Wrath

Uro entered the picture at the right time and impacted the metagame in a noticeable way. The card is a clear centerpiece for many strategies as it allows to reasonably go a bit bigger in an environment that saw blue decks becoming cheaper and cheaper. Apart from often winning midrange matchups all by itself, the greatest thing about Uro – I think – is actually that it put Primeval Titan back on the map. The titan has never quite disappeared, but Uro facilitates the transition to playing it by such an amount that it now seems trivial for any Sultai/Temur midrange variant to just include it alongside Titania and possibly Field of the Dead. From there, Crop Rotation or Depths Combo are not far off. We see shades of this in Lands variants appearing with higher frequency, utilizing blue for Intuition and Oko or Red for Wrenn and Six and the new Valakut Exploration (or sometimes all the colors to have all the fun stuff (shameless plug #1: https://deckstats.net/decks/144087/1750958-chef-s-salad-european-highland)).

2.5 Mystic Sanctuary

Now, I am of course aware that I am cheating a tiny bit right now. However, Mystic Sanctuary really just entered the public stage after folks have figured out the potency of the next card-template on this list. In tandem with the Ikoria-triomes, the trigger of Mystic Sanctuary became an attainable proposition for the currently popular slant of blue decks. In our local playgroup, the existence of Mystic Sanctuary profoundly altered the way we prioritize fetchlands and how we are streamlining our manabases. This has really made its impact feel on a sizeable proportion of the games we play; I would guess that about 15 to 20% of our games involve a Sanctuary trigger on either side of the board. Simply by virtue of having four blue fetchlands, you have the frequent possibility of tutoring for an angle of card advantage that requires no mana investment. It has now gotten to a point where I personally think that it is not recommendable to play a blue midrange/tempo deck that cannot make use of Mystic Sanctuary and a corresponding triome. Esper would be the most glaring example as it does not even have a blue horizon land at its disposal. Now as the hammer ultimately fell on Treasure Cruise, Sanctuary/Gush is a strong means of compensating for the loss of card advantage.

2. Triome-Wedges

My previous article on this page was all about the benefit of the triomes, so I don’t want to repeat myself and instill boredom in my cherished readers. If I just could hammer this one point home, it would be that if you are already playing a lot of fetchlands, don’t sleep on the extra colored pips and hence increased consistency these lands will provide. Its mind-boggling to me that some players (especially if you look at Canadian Highlander lists) ignore these lands as they enter the battlefield tapped. How can you not play one or two of them in, for instance, your 4c Blood, replacing a creature-land that also enters tapped, provides one fewer color and cannot be fetched by one of the TEN lands you are already playing? But enough of that – EOT fetch for triome has become such a predictable and recurring pattern in the format that I think these lands well deserve their spot as the second-most impactful cards of 2020.

1. Thassa’s Oracle/ Underworld Breach

Talking about the elephant in the room. These two cards definitely produced the breakout deck of this year, if not the last 3-5 years. In my perception, the Oracle-Breach deck is a tad faster than established combo decks – at least the combo and the adjacent tutor-suite consume less mana than established contenders and provides an instant deterministic win. It has two distinct but related angles to victory and can really utilize black’s disruptive potential. Thassa’s Oracle also revamped Hermit Combo, which is almost equally as scary to play against. I have even come across midrange decks that simply include the Oracle/Demonic Consultation package as they naturally play Tainted Pact (as well as Demonic Tutor) for built-in redundancy. Now I don’t know how big the opportunity-cost to pay-off ratio is in such a configuration; it is at least an inconvenience knowing that you have to shield against this angle while also coping with the midrangy plays. Players have their work cut out for them and study the inner workings of the deck if they decide to beat this strategy, but it’s a great addition to the format as it displays how high the power-level really is and how astutely you have to navigate the complex decision trees Highlander is offering.

Some honorable mentions

Admittedly, I have not been high on this card initially and am still not convinced that this card is a must-play in every white/black midrange pile as Lurrus is not the generic three-drop that you just slam whilst you are generally aiming to curve out. In fact, I think it shines most if the card serves as some kind of curve-topper/ late game. I am intrigued by the possibility of playing it with Sevinne’s Reclamation, Karakas, both Baubles in some kind of Esper/Jeskai/4c variant when your deck is full with Sea Gate Stormcaller, Monastery Mentor and what have you. The card is symptomatic for so many recent printings that sees us gaining more resources for an ever-decreasing mana investment, so this card’s stock in the format will be continually on the rise.

There is not much to be said about this card other than that it is a functionally equivalent to Dreadhorde Arcanist, and we all know what this card has done to eternal formats. If your attempt to remove it fails the first time around, then you might as well scoop as you probably won’t be getting another chance to get back into this game.

Barring a few exceptions, this card has so far only appeared in decks in which its applications are relatively mundane (think 4c Blood, Mono B or Ramp). This is a Birthing Pod “on a stick”, so with a bit of set-up, this card ought to win games with a single activation. Maybe we need an unban of the actual card to further supplement the consistency of creature combo strategies. From my personal encounters, the most readymade fit right now seems to be Hermit Combo, a deck whose raw sketch and power you can check out here (shameless plug count #2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YA7QQ1O-gE&list=PLrbM07cugZKJj4qEYwGoG6aQGH5YZTgH2&index=5&t=3005s).

Modal DFC’s are great to begin with, and this card is by far the best of the bunch. Regrowth is an effect that many decks are in the market for (Scapeshift possibly or some Midrange-decks that have a small Lands angle), but which has previously not managed to enter the top 100 cards on offer. Now, it is conveniently stapled onto a land, so there is almost no opportunity cost attached to running this. I am sure that this card will be part of the format for many many years.

This card is mainly a placeholder for the countless printings that solidified black’s position in the metagame going forward (as if black was ever really up for debate as long as it had Demonic Tutor). Bloodchief’s Thirst and Eliminate are much needed removal to cope with Wrenn/Oko/Arcanist and Cling to Dust has individual merit as it is a rather elegant way to include some graveyard interaction, an effect that normally does not deserve dedicating an entire card-slot to it. Back to Opposition Agent: the first thing that comes to my mind are comparisons with Shadow of Doubt, Aven Mindcensor or Notion Thief. It is easy to get distracted by their potential for blowouts, and recent history has shown that such effects have fallen out of favor. Not to say that you cannot or will not “get” your opponent, but these scenarios are so few and far between that holding up three mana for a rather situational effect. The fact that the Agent also has a sizeable 3/2-body that you can just flash in end of turn somewhat makes up for the loss of surprise value, but isn’t really what you would classify as a reasonable three-mana-investment in the current environment, either. The reason why this card deserves a special mention, though, is that it introduces a lot of new and challenging mind-games to the format and its players, and – just like the best Daze is the one you don’t have – Opposition Agent will make its presence felt.

To pay tribute to the white-mages, I think Skyclave Apparition is the 2020 card that made them the happiest. The problem with cards like Council’s Judgment or Oblivion Ring in white/x decks has traditionally been that they do not really fit the strategy as you devote an entire turn reacting to the opposing plays and, as a consequence, do not add to the board. Now, given the nature of our format, this card will definitely not replace them, but now those decks have a universally applicable tool that is tutorable with Recruiter of the Guard, carries an equipment, can attack or block and does not get hit by Spell Pierce etc.

A quick word on Monarchy: the mechanic will be popular in the first couple of months until people have figured out that most of its new cards are actually not good, and apart from Palace Jailer, I expect only Court of Bounty and maybe Court of Grace and Fall from Favor to be relevant to the format. Its also a tricky mechanic to exploit consistently.

Thoughts on the ramifications of the recent bannings:

Overall, I do not expect the metagame to change that much after the ban of Treasure Cruise and Tolarian Academy. To be honest, blue decks having access to Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise AND Mystic Sanctuary+Gush was kind of offensive to the point that other fair strategies could not cope with the mouthful of card advantage blue had access to. There were turns in which we in our playgroup cast Gush, reurned Sanctuary and then played Cruise (5 cards for one mana) only to repeat the same feat a couple of turns later. Given the context of the current banlist, one of the blue delvespells inevitably had to go. But blue still has other effective avenues of card advantage in its coloursplashes, so the decks don’t loose much in terms of overall playability. There are ready-made replacements which, although expensive, really pull their weight. The first I suggest is Painful Truths; a mana, a card, 3 for 1 advantage, potential Scourge of the Skyclaves synergy – what is there not to like? The second might be more exploratory but is actually pretty viable: as alluded to above, Lurrus of the Dream Den coupled with Mishra’s Bauble as well as Urza’s Bauble. If you really bank on this synergy, I suggest playing both. Don’t sleep on the fact that they also trigger Monastery Mentor and the like. If Umezawa’s Jitte suddenly were to become legal, this card would also be a good replacement option as it provides comparatively similar virtual card advantage. In sum, players should probably first start by adjusting their deck to exploit Gush and Mystic Sanctuary if Treasure Cruise is a big loss to them.

The straight-up ban of Tolarian Academy made me sad for various reasons. First off, it severely reduces the overall deck diversity in the format. Apart from Academy Combo (which also had at least two main iterations), there were Affinity-Brews developing left and right that drew on Academy as a boost helping them to compete against more established decks. Their overall viability has now noticeably decreased. I am also not an expert, but I don’t think this ban has a large fall-out effect to constrain the Oracle-Breach deck, if this was an intention behind the decisions. Another factor is the apparent unwillingness of the broader playerbase to respond to the Academy deck, both in terms of expanding their knowledge of the functioning of the deck as well as their overall deck- and card-choices. For how good Academy Combo was, it was always underplayed, and I wonder how the format would have adapted like if more people had picked it up. On a related note: structurally, decks that are generally weak to combo are now after the ban not better off than before. Yes, they have one less bad matchup, but their overall position in the metagame hasn’t changed in respect to the balance between deck-archetypes.

I realize that the Academy deck was “unfun” to play against (whatever that means – too many nutdraws even if your deck is geared towards beating it?). However, if the council were to pursue a more visionary and structural approach in curating the banlist, we could actually decrease the amount of bannings we would need to force through (and trust me, under the current model, there will inevitably follow more bans as the format gets watered down more and more). As of late, the strategy behind each individual round of bannings seemed a bit like banning the most oppressive cards in that respective timeframe. But if we do not tackle the structural issues inherent to the current banlist, we will remain trapped in this pattern of pulling the plug from entire decks by banning their centerpiece, and I think this is undesirable. The solution I put forward is twofold: first to unban a few cards in order to make other archetypes more viable and attractive, and second to ban generically playable tutor spells (such as Demonic Tutor and Tainted Pact) to decrease the consistency of combodecks to a level where more decks can actually compete. Especially now where tournament play is not happening and people can test in controlled local environments with literally no competitive stakes, we could attempt such an experiment and create grassroot knowledge about the format.

Now it’s on you: do you agree with my list of most impactful cards? What did I miss, what was your breakout card, what did I overvalue? And what would you prioritize if you were to make ban-decisions? Please let me know. See you soon!!