Summer Musings, 2021 ed.

by Paul W.

Commencement of Festivities

It’s a warm August evening – the clock has almost hit midnight and the smoothest vinyl has been running for hours on end. You have a friendly chat with your friends, and between empty bottles and booster wrappers you are about to reconfigure your decks to jam Yours Truly. The deck that’s nearest and dearest to your heart and evokes so many fond memories. Full of excitement you draw your opening hand, and then you realize: an off-colour Fetchland has slipped in there. Oh my. Dead card in hand for the foreseeable future – sucks – but its Highlander, so who knows, it might even come in handy again – somehow, somewhere. Hopefully… You even grudgingly confess the mishap to your opponent. Anyway, the game progresses, both decks grind each other down. Hands empty, boards diminished, life-choices regretted. Then, it’s your turn again. You take your draw… and there you see it – the embodiment of chaos itself, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. You tap two mana, immediately put it into play tapped, cross you fingers and… Brainstorm!!! *DINGDINGDINGDING* All the prayers to the heart of the cards finally paid off in this high-stakes life-changer of a match. You resolve Ancestral Recall, conveniently getting rid of you dead wood, and consequently win off a card that was never supposed to have any usage for you whatsoever; the good old Misty Rainforest in a Mardu deck. After the game, you get out of your chair, still shaking from what just had happened, light a cigarette and watch the city lights from the balcony while a warm breeze brushes gently through your hair. And then you realize it: you are playing the best format there is, European Highlander.

That, and that you are a total nerd..

Fellow Highlander enthusiasts, it’s that time of the year again. I managed to gather seven of our brightest minds for four days of serious BBQ’ing, intense sun-bathing and occasional Highlander playtesting (for good measure). In this article, I am trying to sum up all the impressions we got during testing and also put them into a broader perspective. Contrary to last year’s article (which you can also check on this awesome website), I try to work less with statistics and detailed matchup-results. While around 170 recorded games are nothing to scoff at given the level of players and deck-tuning involved, the data this time around are somewhat variegated and inhomogeneous. Some of the archetypes featured an insignificant amount of times and several decks did not manage to play against most contenders within the Highlander gauntlet. Therefore, I tried to put more emphasis on general trends and shared observations that we derived as the days progressed.

I hope you enjoy this wrap-up – let’s jump right into it.

Eliminate the Competition

Friendly banter and relaxation in scenic surroundings notwithstanding, I think we all approached the Highlander portion from a moderately competitive mindset. The goal of our session was to refine the decks we were planning to enter tournaments with and expose them to a more diverse meta than we were having locally. Exchanging ideas, crafting theories and getting our reps in against new cards was a natural by-product of these efforts. Despite our upmost enjoyment of brewing new Highlander decks, time is precious and in the end, it felt again as if the four days had passed in the blink of an eye.

Therefore, we tried to somewhat structure our playtesting efforts and limit our deck-selection to decks with a clear identity and established track records or brews we deemed at the brink of becoming serious contenders. While we did not manage to cobble together many different exponents of control or combo decks, we at least made sure that the ones brought to the table have already been refined and partially learned by their pilots. By following this link, you will be directed to a folder on deckstats in which I am gradually collecting the different decklists (already updated with post-testing impressions) from the gathering:

Next up you will find some visualized data, courtesy of Max H. who worked tedious hours to convert all the written results into Excel (TYSM, Max!!!). I won’t go into too much detail on the individual performances, especially since the small sample sizes do not allow for conclusive results and several decks were piloted by different pilots, therefore somewhat skewing the win-/mulligan-rates.

Now on to some numbers, please bear with me. The following spreadsheet lists all archetypes that recorded more than five games during the weekend, ranked by the amount of games they featured in, coupled with some additional information.

What I deemed helpful to further structure the data was to group the decks we played into different classes (“shells”) and compare their performance as a group in order to virtually enhance the significance of the results. Thus, I decided to classify the decks according to their primary strategic outlook. UR tempo decks deploy early threats and back them up with cheap disruption; G/B based midrange comes mainly via card quality (“good stuff”), UB is based on selection as well as reaction, while Aggro is using the bulk of its spells to create more board presence. While you might disagree with the grouping or methodology, I still think this allows for tentative suggestions and trends to emerge. Again, the goal here is not and cannot be to draw finite conclusions, but to help towards building a more comprehensive Highlander-database to inform our theories and decisions. Overall, I know the data is weak, therefore the conclusions drawn are on a somewhat shaky footing, but I would kindly ask the reader to look past that a little and see if it matches your general playtesting-impressions to a certain degree.

Meta Share (share of total games involving xyz)Winners Meta Share (share of total games won by xyz)Win percentageMulligan percentage
UR tempo (Jeskai; Grixis; Temur; Dark Jeskai)38,8%
G/B based midrange (Bant; Esper; Jund; Abzan+U; 4c Scapeshift; Sultai+R)25,1%
Aggro (Mono White; Dredge; Mono B)27,8%31,4%56,4%24,5%
UB (Dimir Reanimator; Control)8,3%10,5%60,7%17,8%

While struggling against control and midrange a bit, the matchup of Aggro against Tempo was overall positive and if it isn’t common knowledge already, White Weenie is a serious contender against a wide and open field and should belong in every Highlander testing-gauntlet going forward. Its ability to curve out consistently and overall card quality has risen immensely (both in terms of card advantage and disruption), and there definitely remains sufficient leeway to build and customize the deck according to the expected metagame. What’s more, the manifold abilities of its creatures always add an element of chaos to the games that’s so typical and memorable for Highlander gameplay. For instance, I was playing Reanimator against it and had a Grave Titan, normally a fine creature to reanimate as it creates a strong board presence and doesn’t get caught by a lot of their removal, especially not by Weathered Wayfarer into Karakas. But my opponent had a Mirran Crusader with a Skullclamp attached, and 3 power pro-black double strike meant I couldn’t profitably attack anymore. Another deck that had a very surprising showing was Max’ Dredge built, which most of us believed wouldn’t be able to consistently enact its gameplan, but it worked in quite a reliable and comparatively quick fashion. It’s tough to disrupt for Counterspell-decks, can amass quite a boardstate and grinds well against midrange decks. Therefore, its definitely an interesting deck to further look into.

As per midrange, Bant and Abzan have both recently experienced an immense uptick in quality and were the best performing midrange decks this time around. White gained some powerful removal options in Prismatic Ending and Portable Hole, while newer green-x cards are able to amass obscene mounts of advantage. However, the true pull to these decks is Stoneforge Mystic. With the two infamous equipments now unbanned and people rediscovering the potency of Batterskull (also because casting it has become a more realistic proposition, as their value-engines naturally drag the game out), you suddenly have a neat package of cards that fill a perceived void in powerlevel when approaching the 100th card-slot. In addition to that, the presence of Skullclamp makes it all the more attractive to make room for Urza’s Saga, a card that lends itself particularly well to the way mana is spent in these decks. All in all, if I were to decide to go the midrange route, I would put my money on SFM/ Saga decks going forward.

It is both tough and intriguing to draw conclusions on the performance on the UB-based decks. The sample-size is very small (but also not only one match) and the results are very good. I will therefore rely on anecdotal evidence here. First off, Reanimator-strategies are seemingly the only remaining combo-variants of the previous Highlander-generation that survived and it might take a while before we know which combo-decks will accompany it ( Underworld Breach first comes to mind). And while I am still a huge fan of the blue/black core of combo-decks due to the abundance of tutors, its elegant forms of disruption and cheap card-filtering, Reanimator in particular has some pertinent issues that become apparent when testing it against the best decks. There is now more removal in white decks to hit your Reanimate-Auras ( Skyclave Apparition and Rip Apart, among others, come to mind); more incidental forms of graveyard hate in Cling to Dust, Endurance or Klothys, God of Destiny; and early pressure from creatures has significantly increased. The most appalling of issues is that the density of reliable threats (or Entomb-effects, for that matter) is a tad too low to say that combo’ing once is always sufficient to win, given what the format developed into. Regardless, I really enjoyed the build I was playing as it gave me a lot of decisions and led to games being always very close. On the topic of UB control, I can say that last year, I perceived it to perform much better. While it still bode well against multicoloured midrange decks, the tempo matchup felt totally out of reach for it. Granted, I only played five games against it with my RUG Tempo, but in those the increased density of quality threats as well as incidental avenues of cheap card advantage was really noticeable (looking at you, Expressive Iteration) – not to mention the game where a turn 1 Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer went all the way… Be it as it may, Mystic Sanctuary, Cryptic Command and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are still way too powerful to be forgotten to time, and I am eager to try my hands on some UW control in the near future.

On the topic of UR-based tempo, I must say that even in a somewhat hostile field as this one where many games were featuring midrange or weenie decks on top of mirror matches, the fact that it could retain its initial metagame share in the winners metagame as well as certain archetypes ranking among the top in terms of win percentage (Temur + Max’ individual win-percentage with Grixis) makes me feel that these kinds of decks are still responsible for setting the bar for the powerlevel of the format. What’s more, they have the lowest mulligan-percentage (player-preferences notwithstanding), most likely due to their low curve, lean mana-base and high degree of card selection.

The table right above this section hints at somewhat of a correlation between being prone to mulliganning and a lower win-percentage, supported further by the following data revealing that only 40% of games a player mulliganned were actually won by them in the end. While I am unaware of long-term studies on the reduction of win-percentage correlated to the mulligan-rate, you can put a number on it with our tiny data-set and say that a player who mulliganned at least once is 20% less likely to win in Highlander (if you start with the assumption of 50% initial probability of winning any given game).

Regarding mulligans, however, I think our data suggests (or at least helps to indicate) that the situation for Highlander isn’t as dire as it is sometimes painted by the community. Overall, there are nearly 60% of games where neither player mulligans and only 36% of games where only one player mulligans. According to the first table, we can additionally infer that the average mulligan-percentage of all decks equated to roughly 25%. This is in fact not significantly higher than in other constructed formats. Also, out of the 338 times a mulligan to 5 could have occurred (169 games multiplied by 2, i.e. the amount of players involved in a game), it happened only 15 times (so less than 5%), which is a very acceptable rate I think. Reasons I could offer as to why the numbers are so moderate are: that the current Mulligan is less punishing, in a sense that it leads to less non-games and more keepable 6’s; mana-bases improved and curves tightened over the last years; the matchups were known to the players and decks crafted according to the preferences and experiences of their respective pilots.

Once again the plea to take all the conclusions with a grain of salt. It would be really great if other playgroups could share their data to confirm or refute the results. The community would very much benefit from that.

Scour all Possibilities

What follows is a concise review of individual cards’ performances during the course of the playtest-session. Rather than stating the obvious (Murktide Regent ends games in two swings, Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer is utter chaos, Prismatic Ending is the best removal spell in a decade, Urza’s Saga dominates slower board-centric matchups, etc.), this section highlights a good number of newer printings which enjoy less time in the limelight of competitive eternal formats. The astute Highlander-player might already know about them, but for the sake of completeness, let me just list them here and share our observations.

The first notable card is definitely Portable Hole. Having an in-built restriction on its utility, the influx of must-kill permanents with mana value 2 or lower nevertheless makes having enough versatile removal-options a necessity for every fair archetype. Of note, this card handles cards such as Wrenn and Six, Sylvan Library, a levelled Hexdrinker, the recently unbanned equipments and what have you. The exile-clause coupled with the ETB effect gets around various forms protection, and there isn’t much playable removal around that would render Portable Hole a fragile and unreliable option. Decks that profit most from it are likely Mono White and UW Control, but during testing it had a proven track-record in every deck it featured in, as Highlander gameplay has become so condensed in regard to sensible mana-investment opportunities.

A similarly great showing had Profane Tutor. Regardless of its inherently undesirable topdeckability (Magic jargon at its finest…), the power of an unconditional tutor-spell ought not to be dismissed. Granted, combo-decks or decks that are low on win-conditions experience the highest surge in powerlevel with this card, but even in fairer archetypes such as Grixis Tempo or Abzan you will likely always find a card you could cut on its behalf. Due to the Suspend mechanic, there are even spots where it is better than the all-too-often forced turn 2 Demonic Tutor in these kinds of decks, as you can conduct a more informed search later in the game as well as cast it off Dreadhorde Arcanist. That said, the card’s nemesis is definitely Teferi, Time Raveler, as it so often is the case with T3feri. From a format-perspective, the ever-increasing concentration of tutor-spells should be watched closely, and although Profane Tutor is far from the main offender, the card is much much more powerful than I/we originally gave it credit for.

Another card that made its presence felt was Endurance. Any base-green deck without a specific top-end (Primeval Titan or Craterhoof Behemoth, for instance) and should probably run this card as – irrespective of the ever-rising stock of its ETB ability – the 3/4 flash reach body is of major significance in the current metagame. It has many similarities to Restoration Angel in its blowout-potential, so everyone who had fun jamming the angel will probably also enjoy Endurance a lot. While we are at the topic of Evoke elementals, Solitude made an impressive showing in both Mono White where it is tutorable via Recruiter of the Guard and also Bant midrange, while Modern shows us that we shouldn’t sleep on this card in control-decks either.

Speaking of graveyard – Unmarked Grave was such a noticeable upgrade to the UB-Reanimator strategy and helped to enable the aforementioned Dredge-deck more consistently. It can also feature in dedicated Life from the Loam strategies, Underworld Breach decks or decks that pack Intuition/Sevinne’s Reclamation. Although it only features in a small amount of archetypes, the card essentially acts as another Demonic Tutor in these strategies and as such is one of the scarier printings of 2021 to me.

Witherbloom Commandalso felt like a format-staple, as BG shells are always on the hunt for 2-for-1’s of this mana value. Admittedly, it is a bit slow as a sorcery, but helps in transitioning to the midgame by clearing the board and hitting the next landdrop where these decks can leverage their high-quality cards. Coupled with Unearth and Green Sun’s Zenith, Grist, the Hunger Tide also made a decent impression. Territorial Kavu shone in 4-color variants and also, somewhat surprisingly for me, in RUG tempo as you often fetch for Ketria Triome and have access to Underground Sea if need be. Not least due to the release of Skullclamp, Clarion Spirit has definitely proven an above-par two-drop for white tempo-ish variants. I could go on listing a few more cards, but at this point, I would again warmly invite you to check out the decklists and take inspiration from them, also to discover old Highlander-techs that made a resurgence in 2021!

On the flipside, one card we could unanimously agree on being toxic gameplay-wise was Skullclamp. Not only was it totally warping every game it featured in from a card-economy perspective, it was also putting boardstates into an unfun holding pattern with little to no hope of out-tempo’ing or out-value’ing the card. It seemed at its very best in weenie-decks or cantrip-heavy shells which were able to convert the cards immediately into either a diversified board-presence or more cardflow and thus interaction. The fact that the printing and widespread adoption of Urza’s Saga led to more Skullclamp-games made the issues with this card even more apparent, and while there are certain newer cards that come somewhat close in terms of value-generation in the medium to long run of a game, the clamp simply does it too efficiently and too frequently for the format to be able to compensate its potency. If it were on us, we would like to see the card receiving the ban-hammer again.

Culling the Weak

Umezawa’s Jitte, on the other hand, did not impress outside of Stoneforge Mystic decks, and even there it was only majorly relevant in drawn-out small-creature matchups. Jitte, while being a respectable staple, requires some set-up (playing early creatures, them surviving plus them connecting) and commitment (2 mana increments during your Main Phase) in order for it to be meaningful, and nowadays this is harder and harder to extract value off.

As to further cards that apparently lost a bit of their stock compared to last year’s testing, the vast majority agreed on 2 mana countermagic being on a relative downswing. There are manifold reasons to this that would probably require the space of another article to lay out, but I think that many players have lately experienced them making your play-patterns in blue midrange decks somewhat durdle-y, while noticing them becoming weaker and weaker on the draw. Nowadays, fair matchups increasingly force you to play to the board, and often the best insulation against an opposing turn 3 play is a high-quality two-drop. Now, they are of course still among the better cards to sleeve up, but I wonder how blue lists between control and tempo come to terms with them.

Speaking of UU-investments: there is a growing sentiment that Dig Through Time’s ubiquity should be subject to reconsideration. Again, the card is very strong, but also requires some dedication to it. What we observed is that at least in URx tempo lists and blue midrange whose threats are to a certain extent reliant on the graveyard (say, Sultai), the spell is comparatively clunky in the early-to-midgame because of the double-blue and the six delve, and even then its powerlevel is not significantly higher than other 2-for-1’s like Gush, Expressive Iteration or Sylvan Library. The way the aforementioned decks are constructed is that all the cards of a certain group are of a somewhat homogenous powerlevel (i.e. every removal is roughly equally premium, every creature has essentially the same purpose), and in this case Dig is only really helpful in finding one class of cards that you are currently lacking. In decks as fast as tempo-decks, your play-patterns are more and more geared towards exploiting the virtual (and increasingly real) card-advantage you gain from your proactive threats, hence it is at least doubtful if Dig Through Time’s superiority in yielding card-quality is worth its increasingly bulky handling. To put it bluntly, most people agreed that you’d much rather play another Murktide Regent at its place if you are outside of control decks (where it lends itself much better to the play-patterns) or combo decks (in which it essentially finds you the winning pieces).

Tale’s End

To bring this dry discussion to a somewhat funny conclusion, I want to finish on a little anecdote. As I was the host of this gathering, I decided to spice things up a little bit and raise the competitive spirit by introducing a mini-game. I eventually landed on a Highlander-Bingo, with the winner receiving a MH2 booster for good measure (by the way Justus, I still owe you some cash for it!!). On it, I described some more or less probable scenarios that could only happen in a game of Highlander, and thought to myself that we would have at least two days of fun with it. Here it is:

I was so excited to see if anyone could pull it off and wondered if by the end of this weekend, every box would have been ticket at least once (“Nicol Bolas’ Best Mate” did not happen, “Lord of the Rings” almost). Alas, it took Max only three flipping hours of day one to shout “BINGO”… Thanks for always causing me tilt, Max..

To multiply the fun we got while playing it, I want to give out a prize to the first of my readers who can guess how he did it. To give you a small hint, he achieved it with Grixis Tempo and UB control (decklists are retrievable above) and finished the second row from the top, i.e. “Gone Missing” till “Repeat After Me”. Write your description of each scenario in the comments to the facebook-post in the METAGAME MASTERS group and the one coming closest to the solution will be sent a little something-something from my collection.

Anyway, I want to once again thank everyone for playing and enlightening me. I learned a lot I didn’t know about the format and was inspired by the different approaches to Highlander. I also hope you enjoyed reading the article, they seem to grow longer and longer every time… Keep your eyes out for the next article, cheers!