By Paul W.
This article aims at analysing the main tendencies in the current highlander metagame. By eluding to top tournament finishes over the course of the last two consecutive seasons, it renders visible the dominant decks as of now. Albeit Highlander being considered an open format free of oppressing strategies, the article attempts at providing a cohesive theoretical explanation on why some decks have consolidated themselves at the peak. Hence, it will be argued that there are, in fact, common characteristics within those varying strategies that enable them to become the best decks. Consequently, this paper is an assessment of the state of the art of current highlander deckbuilding trying to combat the widely shared misconception of Three Color Midrange strategies as competitive.
Before I delve into a discussion of the top decks, it is worth pointing out that it seems that highlander is an open format where you can do well with any given deck. In fact, I, too, was once of the conviction that if you really made a deck your own by knowing the available card pool inside and out and construct a decent mana curve, you can compete with the perceived ‘elephants in the room’, i.e. blue-based midrange/control strategies. (Disclaimer: I have long tried to construct a competitive Mardu-shell; and although I managed to Top8 two of four of the above-listed tournaments I played it in, I became convinced that the colour combination did not offer the characteristics that are required to become and remain an established archetype at the top of the metagame. Hence, I will get into these characteristics in my argument on the best decks.)
To back up my argument, I have gathered some data. In this chart, you can see the accumulated numbers of Top8 appearances of each archetype which managed to accomplish this feat from all available tournaments with 30+ players, roughly from April 2016 until the date of publishing of this article. By multiplying a finals appearance times 3, a semi-finals appearance times 2 and rewarding a quarterfinals appearance with a single point, I aggregated these points for each archetype to arrive at a ranking of performance. I also provided you with the respective share of overall Top8 appearances. I have intentionally not provided a method to accumulate these numbers as I was thinking that there are various credible operations you can apply to arrive at a ranking by archetype. For the purposes of this article, the aggregated score will suffice, since I think it displays greatly the steady nature of dominance any given archetype has shown over the last two seasons.
To the surprise of no one, the best performing archetype goes to Red Deck Wins (33), which displayed dominance both in various regional metagames as well as over the course of the observed timespan. The same can be said from Scapeshift (21) and Jeskai Midrange (16). Next up, there is 4c Blood (25), which has not had a notable showing in 2018. The same goes, more radically, for UR control (15). Esper control (12) and Abzan (10) had strong performances as well but have almost exclusively been successful in local metagames (Esper in Slovakia and Abzan in Germany). Credit has to be given to Reanimator (12), which in its best performing shell (five colour) has exploded onto the scene just a year ago. Artefact combo (9), while being a staple archetype for years, has not had many Top8 appearances, but even despite the budget constraints which limit its availability to the wider player base, it still has an above average performance.
As becomes visible from the data, the top spots are occupied by decks which either employ linear game plans (RDW/ UR) – most of the time choosing the combo route (Academy, Scapeshift, Reanimator) – or are sufficiently flexible to adapt to many in game situations while being able to progress their game plan (Jeskai, 4c Blood). So, boldly speaking, we have decks that rely on repetitive and predictable play patterns; extremely powerful decks with a high degree of redundancy; and disruptive, flexible decks with good selection.
Types of decks that are considerably behind in performance are creature-based midrange and aggro strategies (Gruul, Weenie), mono-coloured decks (except Mono Red), green value-based control strategies (such as Bant and Sultai), and non-blue 3color Midrange in general (Mardu, Jund, Naya). Also, there are no fringe combo or synergy decks appearing. This does not mean that these decks do not exist – they just do not appear at the top tables. Furthermore, data from the swiss rounds of tournaments are hard to retrieve and are subject to local preferences, so their metagame-share is tough to measure. Nevertheless, judging from my own tournament experience and the coverage that is available on Youtube, I am more or less certain that these decks get played and are considered a worthy choice for a tournament. In the next part of this article, I am arguing against this widespread assumption and tell you why it is almost definitely wrong playing those decks IF you play for the win.
There are many great theory and deck building articles out there which apply to 40 card or 60 card formats, but since our format is so small, there are only a handful guidelines which you can consult when trying to cope with the peculiarities of Highlander and which transform these concepts to 100 card singleton. But this lack of theory and utterings such as “Highlander has too much variance to make any objective claim about its metagame and deck choices” are ignorant to the core trends outlined above as well as 25 years of Magic deck building essentials.
After close reflection, I have identified three main characteristics that all of the top decks singled out by me share, and, more profoundly, all of the absent decks are lacking, at least to an important degree.
Linearity. Redundancy. Selection.
Let that sink in. At first glance, these three concepts might appear to be idiosyncratic for one another. However, I would say that there are subtle and important differences which render each characteristic important. If your deck does not deliver sufficiently well on those axes, you play a bad deck (if even a deck…). But before I educate you on the shortcomings of your deck, let me single out the areas in which the top decks do better than the rest.
The first concept, linearity, revolves around the main strategy your deck is trying to enact as well as the general outline of play patterns, sequences and turn cycles your deck is pursuing to draw. It considers the deck’s original game plan and the corresponding deckbuilding concessions. If I had to come up with a fictional rating scale of linearity, Mono red would probably obtain the highest grade. It does not try to do anything fancy besides chaining burnspells and creatures to push the opponent’s life from 20 to zero. It is constructed in a way that it has a high density of one mana creatures to secure early board presence, has flexible two mana burnspells which have occasionally random upside and then top the curve at three and four with a few standout cards which are extremely resilient and powerful. This is secured by a low land count and some cards which grant free wins by themselves in keeping the opponent off balance. Because of that, the deck can count on a lot of life top decks if the situation is dense. UR, counterburn, so to speak, has historically been a great strategy in Magic throughout the entirety of its formats. We see it in Pauper, Modern, Legacy, Limited and it is trying to tackle the Standard metagame from time to time. In Highlander, the deck is constructed similarly as the regular constructed variant, with a lot of cheap interaction and card filtering to transition between early-, mid- and lategame while being able to deploy incredible hoser cards protected by some counterspells. It can easily switch between the control and tempo role. Here, again, the vast majority of cards fulfil singular distinct purposes, i.e. filtering, countering, bolting, which I think is a strength in Highlander deckbuilding. In Artefact combo, you have many distinct two card combos with interchangeable pieces; and in Scapeshift you ramp and tutor into the same one card combo which should normally win you the game.
Having a game plan seems key to the format. Regardless of how simple it may be (the data seem to hint: the simpler, the better), your Highlander only becomes a deck when it can claim a distinct strategy and makes concessions toward this strategy. The performance of Bant midrange exactly embodies this suspicion (and to a certain extend also Esper midrange). The probability of having dysfunctional draws with unmatching play patterns is generally high, i.e. you open up with a mana elf/ white removal on your opponent’s one-drop, leave up countermana on the second turn and then hope for your random three drop to resolve and carry the game, all while not intervening in and gathering information on the opponents game (or doing something powerful on your own).
This inevitably leads into another interrelated category: redundancy. Redundancy is a topic that might be tough to convince the average players on, since the format lets you play with some of the most iconic cards in all of Magic and even gives the card you might have an emotional attachment to a place in constructed play. However, redundancy is key towards an understanding why three colour midrange strategies, especially those without blue, are held away from the top of the metagame. Redundancy, as simple as it is, means to increase the density of certain effects or packages in your deck to achieve certain turnouts of situations more reliable. For any reasons whatsoever, be it curve considerations or the perceived need to add another counter, removalspell or creature to your deck, we see cards in deck lists which do not contribute to the slightest towards the game plan of a deck and, more crucially, distract it from having a coherent game plan altogether. Some emblematic cards for this genre are Eternal Witness, Disallow, Sweepers in midrange decks, Batterskull, Prowling Serpopard, Saskia the Unyielding, Fact or Fiction. Often, we see creature-heavy decks adopting a certain kind of toolbox character, i.e. playing another Reclamation-Sage-esque effect while they would be better off spending this slot for any other available mediocre tutor spell, instead of trying to adopt the character of a podless Pod-deck. Having access to such effects in certain situations is nice, indeed. But if your general gameplan is to win via flexibly dealing with the opposing plays or creature beatdown, you should reconsider if your spells do what they should instead of going all over the place.
When you look at the top decks, almost all of them (I’ll get to RDW in a minute) play a high density of tutor spells. Artefact combo, for example, of course employs most of what we see in other decks but can make successive use of fringe tutors such as Crop Rotation, Wargate or Transmute Artifact. Scapeshift plays some Spells which have the Transmute-Ability and enables Bring to Light. Finding more tutors for your deck might increase its overall powerlevel, even if this means you loose some narrow but swingy effects. To this aim, you are well advised to re-evaluate one mana tutors such as Entomb or Traverse the Ulvenwald as well as to reconfigure your prejudices towards card-disadvantageous tutor spells like, Imperial Seal. (If I, by playing Seal in my deck, I have increased access to turn 2 Sinkhole, Dark Confidant, Search for Azcanta, Hymn to Tourach, Sylvan Library, Bitterblossom, Mana Drain etc., I am the happiest person alive.)
As of note, one of the last MGM tournaments featured Jund at the top tables, piloted by a local player from Erfurt. You might think that this goes contrary to what I just discussed. But after a discussion of his deck, he stated that the power of his build in particular lies in the fact that it does not try to pick a fight with the beefier, grindier white midrange decks such as 4C Blood or Abzan but views itself as a ‘haste’ theme deck instead. It takes advantage of so many things yet unpacked in this article, but as a general takeaway it can be said that in game, due to all of his creatures being unaffected by summoning sickness, he can count on immediate damage output of his creatures, almost like burnspells in a red deck.
The last remaining concept left unexplored is selection. In order to discuss selection, we have to explore the most powerful types of cards in the whole format: cantrips. Blue, often regarded as the most powerful colour in Highlander, owes this mainly to its ability to manipulate cards for a low investment. Since these cards replace themselves by drawing a card, you have made major advancements in sculpting your game plan while solely paying mana instead of cards. Cantrips, besides creating more options during gameplay, account for a lot of mana efficiency, which I think is key to the oftentimes compact nature of the format. In Competitive 1on1 Commander, for instance, we have witnessed the ban of some of the mayor blue one mana cantrips. While I do not think this would be the right approach for Highlander, I am convinced that cantrips are the premiere way to compensate for the randomness and powerlevel discrepancies within the format; and every deck becomes leaner and more focused with them (I even tried a Naya zoo deck splashing for blue to gain more selection instead of proportionally increasing the creature count in the 1/2/3 slots – and it felt great). Although the most selection is blue-based, there are some cards in different colours that you should splash because they are just too good to pass up on. If you are already splashing green, for example to accommodate Deathrite Shaman in an otherwise black-based deck, you should additionally be playing Sylvan Library. There might be only a handful of cards in your deck that have a higher powerlevel. Same goes for Faithless Looting alongside a well-rounded blue cantrip package as well as playing Dark Confidant in a 5 Delve-spell deck.
All in all, understanding each concept individually might make you reflect on your deckbuilding a bit more. But true insight lies in conjoining and interrelating these three pillars with one another. To give basic introductory food for thought: Redundancy in card choices can only be achieved by knowing which play patterns and general strategy you want to enact. So which effects you double up on depends highly on your game plan. A coherent linear game plan is, on the other hand, dependent on sufficient card selection to make the deck function more smoothly and predictably. Card selection, in turn, becomes more effective if your deck has a higher degree of redundant effects considering the general weaknesses and play patters of the deck in question. At the same token, there are top decks which are especially great in one or two categories, but have a notable lack in one particular category, Take, for example, RDW. I would rate it very highly both in terms of linearity and redundancy but cannot say it makes any use of card selection. Nevertheless, the security to always have life draws compensates for the absence of selection (although a Faithless Looting or a Forgotten Cave might not be for the worst). I would still rate RDW higher than any deck that averages in all categories, say, Naya.
As stated above, decks that fall short on measuring up to these categories are at a lower power level than the top decks of the format. But there are even more implicit disadvantages that come from an omittance of them. I will just list them here together with a brief hint, even though every point might be worth an article of discussion.
- Unnecessary increase of the mana curve: If you have more selection and can attain a more reliable game plan by increasing the overall redundancy, you are not in need of powerful curve toppers (buzzword: fivedrops) and midgame cards which might clog up your opening hand. This goes alongside an increase in lands you are required to play in your deck.
- Getting increasingly exposed to the randomness of the format: If you play a high variety of niche effects which are great in some cornercase scenarios, you will often be forced into a reactive position during gameplay and eventually be forced into inefficient and ineffective plays.
- Having lower powerlevel draws: If you lack selection in the form of tutor spells and cantrips, you decrease your chances of hitting cards which have the ability to carry games on their own, such as Sylvan Library, Search for Azcanta, Leovold, Emissary of Trest, Blood Moon, Dack Fayden etc.
- Wasting/ Getting behind on resources: Card Selection as well as linear deckbuilding lead to more effective plays. You are less likely to spend mana ineffectively, especially not advancing your gameplan; and even tough fewer cards played does not equate to making less powerful individual plays, you have less cards in your graveyard to enable Delve-Spells or get value from reanimation effects and Snapcaster Mage.
- Making less use of the information you have gathered during gameplay: Deriving information from play patterns or reactions your opponents display towards your in-game actions is key in figuring out the winning line. Often, you will just need one answer, and by playing only a few versatile cards alongside a variety of tutor options, you will overall have a more powerful deck than if you stuff it out with mediocre answer cards which might have the upside to also affect the board (buzzword: attached to a stick).
Summing it all up, I want to propose my solution towards the insights presented here. If you accept these interpretations or if you have come up with some points on your own before, there remain some paths yet underexplored besides just joining and rebuilding the best decks in the format. If you are still a fan of fair interactive Magic, my key takeaways from this discussion are the following (which are, again, individually valid, but gain more substance by intertwining them):
- Decrease the Manacurve of your deck, make it faster/ smoother
- Play more powerful cards instead of your trademark midrange soup
- Dip into more colours (no, your Izzet matchup won’t suffer)
- Prefer cheap effects to make your opening hands more linear and redundant
- Play more tutorspells and cardselection
- Try to build your deck to establish early game advantages (either by disruption or tempo)
- A surprise combo might be a nice fit
Thank you for reading. After a turn towards 60-card Magic out of dissatisfaction with Highlander, I recently rediscovered my love for the format and its unique lessons. I hope you found yourself in some of these reflections. And for that, I leave you with this:
Creeping Tar Pit
Dig Through Time
Force of Will
Hymn to Tourach
Inquisition of Kozilek
Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Liliana of the Veil
Liliana, the Last Hope
Search for Azcanta
Traverse the Ulvenwald
Delver of Secrets
Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy
Leovold, Emissary of Trest
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
True Name Nemesis