We’re in an awkward time right now, as far as articles go.  Besieged is about to come out and shake up the Standard format, making the current format irrelevant.  Extended is the same old decks again, with relatively minor tweaks, and Legacy is going to move to the pre-survival metagame plus Time Spiral, so I’m going to share my highlander deck with you.  If you need tech for more mainstream formats before we move on, here you go: the new Tezzeret is the only card I’m excited to play with spoiled so far, UG Wave is the best deck in standard and it isn’t close, I like UW with White Knights in the board for Fae in extended, and three color Counterbalance is the one for me in legacy.

Now, on to business—Highlander!  For those of you unfamiliar, EDH, or Elder Dragon Highlander (or now Commander), has grown in popularity recently.  EDH is a casual format in which you build a deck of 99 cards, plus a General.  The General is a legendary creature that starts in your command zone, which is another zone of game play.  It can be cast at any time you could normally cast the creature.  Every time it dies, you put it back in command zone with a counter on it and can be recast for an extra two colorless per counter later in the game.  Your deck can’t have more than one of any card in it (hence the name Highlander—there can be only one!), and there are no colored mana symbols allowed in the deck that aren’t in your General’s casting cost.

My first reaction when I was listening to the rules of EDH for the first time was confusion.  Why would you want to complicate what is already the most complicated game ever* by adding more rules, when it doesn’t seem like they would add any fun to the game?  Over time playing it, however, my opinion changed and I saw EDH for the beautiful format it is.

Just kidding, the format is just dumb.

Real men play Highlander.  You play 100 cards, no more than one of anything, and that’s it.  No extra rules, no playing that jackass Gaddock Teeg a million times in a game and making everyone want to cry, no color restrictions.  And the best part is: if you Doom Blade something, it dies.  It doesn’t come back into play the next turn for two extra mana.

Matt Sperling wrote an article on Star City a while ago in which he argued planeswalkers were bad for the game because they added more complexity than they did fun, which I’d agree with.  I’ve enjoyed planeswalkers since they came out and have won many tournaments with my various Jaces, but Magic’s many rules could make people’s eyes glaze over even before the introduction of an entirely new card type.  I think that if anything adds more complexity than it does fun to a game, it should be removed.  I don’t see people playing EDH having any more fun than people playing Highlander, but it takes another five minutes to explain the rules to any potential new players.  You want people to be able to just sit down and play, especially in a casual, multiplayer oriented format.

Now, before moving to the list, let me remind you why people play Highlander.  Sure, it’s fun and all, but it’s really to show off all the hot stuff in their collection.  For example, I just traded for a foil Grave Titan.  When I owned a non-foil one, I was playing Pristine Angel instead.  Now that I have a foil Grave, however, it gets the nod over the non-foil Angel.  That’s how Highlander works.  With that in mind, let there be decklist:

Card draw

Jace Beleren (foil)

See Beyond (Chinese Foil)

Lat Nam’s Legacy (old school)

Concentrate (Chinese Foil)

Fact or Fiction (Invasion Foil)

Impulse (Chinese Visions)

Sea Gate Oracle (Foil)

Future Sight (Foil)

Dream Cache

Compulsive Research (Foil)

Careful Consideration (Foil)

Sylvan Library (Sharpied on to look blackborder, obv)

Board Control

Wrath of God (full art foil)

Damnation (full art foil)

Austere Command (foil)

Kirtar’s Wrath (foil)

Nevinyrral’s Disk (From the Vault)

Pernicious Deed

Oblivion Stone (Foil)

Targeted Removal

Putrefy (Full Art)

Vindicate

Maelstrom Pulse (Foil)

Mortify (Full Art)

Swords to Plowshares (Japanese black border)

Bad Win Conditions/Blockers

Grave Titan (Foil)

Psychatog (DCI)

Elspeth, Knight Errant (Artist signed and altered)

Oona, Queen of the Fae (Signed by Brian Kibler)

Debtor’s Knell (foil)

Mimic Vat (Foil)

Combo Win Conditions

Mana Severance

Goblin Charbelcher (Foil)

Thopter Foundry (Foil)

Sword of the Meek (Foil)

Painter’s Servant (Foil)

Grindstone

Counterspells

Cryptic Command (Full art, signed by Aaron Forsythe and Patrick Chapin)

Desertion

Dissipate (Foil)

Traumatic Visions (Foil)

Draining Whelk (Foil)

Tutors

Muddle the Mixture (Foil)

Mytical Teachings (Foil)

Clutch of the Undercity (Foil)

Beseech the Queen (Foil)

Diabolic Tutor

Shred Memory (Foil)

Random Value

Mirari (From the Vault)

Wood Elves (Portal)

Regrowth (Sharpied on, looks like it has a metallic green border.)

Sylvan Scrying (Signed)

Four other cards—I don’t remember exactly.  I don’t expect anyone to copy this card for card anyway, and this is enough to get the idea of the deck across.  Pick your four favorite non-red cards and you should be fine.

45 lands–I have all of the non-red fetchlands, dual lands, and Ravnica shocklands, as well as the Lorwyn filters.  One of each basic (Unhinged foil) made the cut, in case of Wasteland, Blood Moon, etc., as well as the Traumatic Visions.  Academy Ruins, Volrath’s Stronghold, and the UB Time Spiral storage land make the cut in the “other lands” category, but Urza’s Factory doesn’t because I just never got around to using it due to all the card draw and instants.  Creeping Tar Pit and Celestial Colonnade made it, but no Stirring Wildwood.  Arcane Sanctum and Seaside Citadel are the only Tri-lands that don’t have red in them.

Now this is a deck!

When I started building this deck, I had several goals in mind.  First, no red cards allowed– just good cards.  I wanted to be able to point at someone and say “you die,” so I wanted a couple of combos- hence the Painter-Stone and Severance- Belcher.  That said, I didn’t want to include any infinite combos.  If that’s your thing you could add Krark Clan Ironworks or Ashnod’s Altar to go infinite with the Thopter Foundry, but I preferred to go one at a time because it’s more fun in multiplayer games.  If you get an infinite combo off in one turn and kill everyone at the table it’s not interesting, it just leaves everyone else feeling robbed.  It’s anti-climactic, and doesn’t get you many repeat invites.  If you play with a more competitive group, maybe that’s exactly what you want, but I built for my more casual multiplayer crowd.  The same goes for the counters.  I included the Cryptic because it was too beautiful not to, the Dissipate to deal with Life from the Loam and friends, and the rest are fun counters.  Having more counterspells that are actually good, instead of hilarious like Draining Whelk or Desertion, is better if you want to win in single player games, but they aren’t very good in multiplayer games when you can’t tell who a particular threat is going to be aimed at.  They’re also not as fun to play with or against.

Single Player

In one-on-one games, you just play as a control deck.  You have plenty of sweepers and targeted removal to make sure you get enough time to play your threats.  Your average card quality is higher than the vast majority of decks, so you just want to try to stay alive until you can combo them or stick one of the other threats and ride it home to victory.

You don’t have many counterspells for a counter war, but they don’t have to know that, so often bluffing more counters is the way to go.  If you get in an early counter against a more counter-based deck, they’ll slow down and wait until they think they can win a counter war.  If you keep a few mana open, you can try to use some of the cheaper draw to sift through the deck, looking for Academy Ruins or Volrath’s Stronghold.  Having either of those in play is huge against blue decks, because you can continuously recast threats until they stick.

If you’re playing against a deck that isn’t counter-based, it’s pretty hard to lose.  You have infinite board sweepers and removal for creature decks, and you can dig for a combo to end the game fairly quickly if you want to.  Against another combo deck, conserve the few counters for something important and hold up instants.  You can often avoid tapping on your turn for the majority of the game, allowing you to hold your Putrefy/Mortify/Cryptic mana open, or activate one of the Disk-like effects.

Multiplayer

Here’s your plan: just play land.  No, really, that’s it.  Just keep playing land.  Let everyone else kill each other off and sit back, because you aren’t very good at fighting multiple people at once.  Use your removal to punish anyone that attacks you or to take out a large threat that has everyone else worried to buy yourself some friends, and wait until you’re down to few enough people you can take someone out with a combo without ensuring you are killed in an instant counterattack.

This deck lets you play politics and be the kingmaker quite well, which helps with your plan of sitting back.  If you do something nasty to any creature that attacks you, or take their hit and then kill the person that attacked you on the next turn, people start to leave you alone.  Between your card draw and tutoring, you can also find an answer to pretty much any problem, allowing you to help out the group with any large threat that needs dealing with.

If your group is more competitive, an easy way this list could be improved is to step up both the number and the quality of the tutors.  Enlightened, Mystical, Vampiric, and Demonic Tutors would all be significant upgrades.  More counterspells could be good—the best for multiplayer are the ones that replace themselves, because you’re going to run out of cards in a turn if you try to use conventional counters against multiple people.  Dismiss, Dream Fracture, Exclude, Halt Order, Overwhelming Intellect, and Spell Contortion are the best.

If your group is more casual, well, this is as casual as I go.  If there’s anything more required you’re on your own.  I’m tapped out.

A word on the Highlander banned list

I don’t understand even trying to have a banned list for a format like EDH.  As it says on their main page, mtgcommander.net, it is a format based on social interaction and the social contract.  Everyone has a different idea of what is fair and isn’t fair, and there are going to be some clashes around that when new play groups come in contact.  In some groups playing something like my Painter’s Servant-Grindstone combo would be called too good.  My play group would say that if you don’t have the ability to kill a 1/3 artifact creature in response to a Grindstone activation, stop one or both from resolving, or kill me before I can find both, you deserve to lose because your deck is clearly awful.  I’m not even playing with a cut-throat group—I’m the only person that plays our multiplayer games that has been to any events higher than FNM.

Last night I played a fifteen player game in which one player was stopped from winning with Battle of Wits twice, there were multiple attacks for twenty-plus, someone gained infinite life, and the eventual winner won with an Exsanguinate for eighteen, killing six of us.  One player had Platinum Angel, Platinum Imperion, Darksteel Forge, and Leonin Abunas in play, and on his next turn he could have played Memnarch and turned the Abunas into an artifact when the Exsanguinate hit.  Realm Razor resolved and was killed with its come-into-play trigger on the stack.  It was a great game, and my Painter’s Servant was anything but overpowered.  The combo was about on par with the table’s power level, and it seems completely arbitrary to me to ban it because it leads to a two card win condition when it can be stopped by any kill spell ever printed, or an Eldrazi-effect, while something like Realm Razor or Battle of Wits is ok.  Battle of Wits is a one card win condition, and it kills everyone at the table.  Mine is a two card win condition, and it only takes out one player.  Realm Razor doesn’t lead to interesting games, it leads to “hope I draw three land in my top four cards so I can kill that, otherwise I’m dead” games.

I don’t think that many of the cards on the official EDH banned list make sense (worst offenders- Emrakul and Kokusho) and it seems arbitrary and pointless, when every group is going to have differing ideas of what is and isn’t fair anyway.  The best thing is just to play a few games and adjust to each other.

My group plays with legacy card pool, plus Gifts Ungiven and Intuition are banned.  We also have a gentlemen’s agreement not to engage in Wasteland lockery.  That’s it.

People are always going to be able to game the system, and if one combo gets banned they can always play another, so the gentlemen’s agreement is an important part of gameplay.  If we are already relying on the gentlemen’s agreement to plug the holes of the banned list, why not have just the agreement?  I’m sure (I really really hope) that Emrakul and Kokusho were banned because of combo-related issues, not because drawing one of them was that overpoweringly good.  If we relied fully on the agreement there would be no need to ban silly cards like Kokusho, which make it hard to take the format seriously.

Thanks for reading!

Brook Gardner-Durbin

@BGardnerDurbin on twitter

*I have heard arguments being made for other games, such as chess or go, being more complicated, and within a single game they may be.  I think, however, the deckbuilding and metagaming make Magic easily the most complicated game I know of.  Even if we ignore deckbuilding, metagaming, and sideboarding and look at a single game, you never have to think about tiebreakers, concessions, or intentional draws in chess tournaments.

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