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New Perspectives – A forum on the current state of Highlander

We are all but prisoners of our own mind, as a famous saying goes. We all live by our own narratives, theories and specific outlooks on the world that help us conceive of ourselves in the past, present and future. It is only natural that we, as humans, seek comfort in a stable set of interpretations about the environment that helps guiding our actions and managing expectations. Sometimes, however, this foundation is profoundly shaken by the experience of cognitive dissonances, and long-held values and beliefs are in desperate need of recalibration. The exposure to unfamiliar, yet somewhat amenable viewpoints is often a cause of discomfort but, if channeled correctly, can also become a source of inspiration and development.
With that in mind, it is worth reflecting upon our individual approach to the European Highlander format from time to time. As per nature, we pride ourselves with our insights and experiences – and I am certainly guilty of that. But over time, proven theories can turn into personal dogmas, at which point they run the risk of clouding our judgment and the ability to cope with changes. As one’s own ability to leave the mental Highlander comfort-zone is quite limited and since Magic is a community-driven endeavor, we would benefit from occasionally subjecting ourselves to the ideas of others. However, in these dire times of social distancing, we need to think of alternative forums that make this encounter possible. Therefore, instead of reiterating my thoughts in this article, I decided to let different voices speak and educate me and you the readers on alternative views of the format: What range of experiences exists out there? How is the format seen to have developed by others? What possibilities can you explore? As the name of the game tells us, we ought to gather and preserve ideas and strive towards as rich and diverse of an experience we can possibly have.
To portray as much of the spectrum as possible in one text, I have invited four players that, in my view, have been extraordinarily invested in the format for a long time and are somewhat influential in shaping the general perception of the format’s player-base (not to mention their respective tournament CV’s). I am delighted to introduce Matthias (Vienna), Jonny (Berlin), Justus (Erfurt) and Thomas (formerly Erfurt) as contributors to this article and am very grateful for their voluntary participation. They will share their own personal observations about the European Highlander format, critique some developments of the recent metagame and provide their outlook on potential futures, all the while indulging in a healthy dose of nostalgia. In preparation, they have received some open-ended questions which I deemed would enable them to present a glimpse of their “philosophies” to a wider audience. The responses (which were not shared between the interviewees) are thorough and thought-provoking, while also helping to render the approaches of some of Highlander’s official representatives more transparent. With all that said, I sincerely hope you enjoy reading this article because for me, compiling it was a blast!

I. Which Highlander decks have you been playing over the last months, and why?

Thrias: “I have played a wide variety of decks with the focus laying mostly on combo (Oracle Breach, Academy, Hermit) with the occasional midrange build in the mix. Due to the last couple of bannings the decks I played the most got either eliminated completely (Tolarian Academy) or need a major overhaul (Underworld Breach, Hermit Druid to some degree). This means that regarding playable decks for the current metagame I am in a transition phase where I am still trying to figure out the optimal build for the core of the new Breach deck as well as possible backup plans. The same can be said about my efforts to come up with a solid Sultai Chain of Smog deck.
I also play a lot of Sultai Elves. The deck has gotten a lot of new tools the last few sets and with the decline of combo and hopefully a resurgence of midrange good stuff decks (4Color Blood and the likes) the metagame should become more friendly for the creature swarm strategy.
Since Academy was my first Highlander deck and I have invested a lot of time and energy in pimping the deck I am still regularly adapting and adding new pieces even though the deck itself is no longer legal. My testing sessions show that recent addition Urza’s Saga would have been especially damaging to the format when paired with the Academy powerhouse. “

Jonny: “I have played mainly blue-based midrange and hard control decks, including: Esper-, Jeskai- and Dimir Midrange, UW Control and Mono U Control. Before the bannings I’ve also played with Eggs and Breach.”

Thomas: “My weapon of choice is Mono U Tempo. The choice is driven by my motivation to show that it does not matter which creatures you run in your Uxx deck, period!”

Justus: “I mostly play 4Color tempo [w/o green]. This deck is just my baby and I really enjoy its power level and its play patterns. I tried out other decks but always reverted back to it. I also tested 5Color Lands and BUG Tempo, just to learn new archetypes and dabble into other play patterns. Both decks seem powerful but aren’t as enjoyable as 4Color at least to me.”

II. Where does current Highlander gameplay rank in your personal memory of the format?

Thrias: “Although I do think the format right now is better than the one with Thassa’s Oracle being legal I still consider the current iteration of Highlander worse than a lot of past versions. This mostly stems from the fact that blue-based tempo decks have been at the top of the food chain for over 1 ½ years right now with no change in sight for the foreseeable future. While decks that featured Thassa’s Oracle and Tolarian Academy were far more dominant at their peaks they could be dealt with single targeted bans. On the other hand, the ban of Treasure Cruise, which was directly aimed at blue-based tempo decks, did almost nothing to reduce their dominance. The fact that those decks’ strength does not come from a single powerful card or interaction but rather the cumulation of strong cantrips, universal interaction in the form of counter spells and cheap threats that can be deployed early means it’s not enough to just remove one piece when trying to reduce the power level of the archetype.
As to which iteration of the format was my favourite, I would pick the midrange meta where Scapeshift was widely considered to be the best deck (when in reality Academy was by far the most powerful archetype, but I would have banned that deck back then already anyways). 4Color Blood, Mono Red Aggro, Gaea’s Cradle decks, aggressive decks like White Weenie or Jund, Blue Moon and UW Control decks were all not only viable but top contenders. In my opinion the meta has never been as diverse at the top as it was right before Modern Horizons 1 was printed.”

Jonny: “I still like Highlander a lot. My main motivation to even start with Highlander was to have unique and interesting games with challenging and changing problems to solve, unlike other constructed formats where you see the same iterations of lines of play. I don’t like the direction where Magic in general is heading though. You can rarely come back from behind since the power-level is rising (naturally so, in a 20+ year-old game) and for that reason I started playing Gladiator [MTG Arena 100 card singleton] which gives me the excitement in Magic I once had for Highlander when starting playing. I think there are still enough things to discover and to do in Highlander, but I am not sure how it will look in two years. Additionally, we have the problem of managing the format itself, meaning: we need to make sure we get new players in the format and have an infrastructure to keep people interested. Especially with digital Magic becoming more appealing, we have to find solutions for rising card prices and a dwindling player base.”

Thomas: “In my opinion, the meta and gameplay is as atrocious as during the heights of the spoil-mulligan era and I think some drastic interventions are necessary. Some later answers will convey more clearly what I am referring to.”

Justus: “I think the format is quite healthy at the moment. Many different archetypes are playable. But brewing is on an all-time low because there is just very little reason to not just play the most powerful cards. With the recent unbanning of the two equipments there is even more homogeneity. It is one of the most enjoyable formats, but with the banning of Thassa’s Oracle, combo is in a very weak spot. Sure, it is a very impactful card, but with all the premium disruption we have in our format, combo pieces have to be that strong to be at least playable.”

Quickfire #1
– Worst card you ever registered beyond Highlander FNM level:
Thrias: Helm of the Gods
Jonny: Praetor’s Grasp
Thomas: Cloud Pirates
Justus: Prophetic Flamespeaker

– Biggest Highlander-related bullsh*t you heard lately:
Thrias: nothing major apart from the usual unreflected council-hate
Jonny: “You can’t play three-drops anymore.”
Thomas: “Cheap spells isn’t enough to call your deck a tempo-deck.”
Justus: “Heading into an unknown meta, I would definitely include Choke in my deck.”

III. What are your long-standing Highlander dogmas, and has any of them been subject to serious reconsideration as of late?

Thrias: “Highlander is a competitive casual format and play experience should be closer to Legacy/Vintage than to Commander. Although there are always certain decks that are better fit to win any given tournament (usually referred to through a higher placing on subjective tier lists) with good deckbuilding you can make (almost) any strategy work.
I still stand by my point that Highlander should focus on a competitive environment but considering that Commander is by far the largest pool of players we can recruit from we should also act helpful and supportive towards people who don’t feel like playing top tier strategies and decks all the time but rather focus on having fun while playing. Giving these players a comfortable environment to play in is the best way to increase the overall player base of our format (and as my experience shows these players more often than not do develop into competitive participants also)!”

Jonny: “As mentioned before I want exciting and interesting games. That means Highlander needs to have a wide variety of strategies available for me to enjoy. Making sure that we don’t see the same play patterns every game is important to me. I am not sure how you can make sure that’s doable in an eternal format and with an increasing power-level but I know that we need to make sure that variance is embraced in terms of deck-choices.”

Thomas: “Allowing oneself access to plenty of good library-manipulation in 100-card-singleton formats is too strong. On another note, synergy decks in Highlander are always worse – maybe I need to reconsider this…”the supreme strategical choice. However, on a related note, I came to reevaluate the relative positioning of synergy-driven decks vs. the more conventional ‘goodstuff’-approach. Decks such as Affinity, Elves, Goblins or Enchantress have become much better, nearly to a degree at which they are actually viable.”

Quickfire #2
– Most overhyped deck:
Thrias: Scapeshift; runner up: Blue Moon
Jonny: any blue-based tempo deck
Thomas: non-Grixis “tempo” decks
Justus: Oracle Breach

– Most overlooked deck/ deck worth refining:
Thrias: decks containing Underworld Breach or Oath of Druids
Jonny: Bant Midrange/ Control
Thomas: Grixis Midrange
Justus: Lands

Justus: “Every deck starts with three cards: Gitaxian Probe, Mental Misstep and Wasteland. I would personally also include the baubles (Mishra’s Bauble, Urza’s Bauble). They enable interesting play patterns and have basically no downside. With Delirium getting more and more important and Lurrus of the Dream-Den being just a powerhouse I think baubles will also become a staple in our format.
Curve is key. Our format is becoming faster and faster. But some of the power-creeped cards of the last years might be so obscene that they might warrant an inclusion, even though they do not fit this mantra. Sometimes the power-level of a card might make up for its higher mana value. Not sure yet, but the thought of getting obliterated by a random 5 drop tickles my inner Timmy.”

IV. Assume that there was a 100-player tournament tomorrow – give a rough indication of the composition of the field and predict a top8.

Thrias: “For a tournament as big as this I would expect basically every archetype to be featured at least once, with green-based midrange and blue-based tempo decks being at the top of the field percentage-wise. As for the top 8 I had put 3-4 blue-based tempo decks, 1-2 green-midrange decks, 0-1 Mono Red Aggro, 0-1 Cradle/ramp and 0-2 combo/Reanimator on the top of the Swiss standings.”

Jonny: “I would look at the past Top 8’s of similar sized tournaments and say we will probably have some variants of blue based tempo/midrange decks or 4-5c blue based tempo decks as well as Scapeshift, Mono Red Aggro and/or White Weenie and Reanimator. One lucky control player or non-blue midrange player could get also in the Top 8. I don’t think you can deduce much from highlander T8s though. Variance, size of the format and a wide variety of non-deck related reasons will probably overshadow why decks are there. Meaning, people play decks which they know rather than the strongest deck and therefore also lack knowledge how to beat those decks. Players don’t have all the cards for the decks they want and so on. In that way I don’t think we would see much of change of the so-called metagame.
Scapeshift, Underworld Breach and TPS [Storm] (maybe Hermit) as strongest contenders for the combo slot will make sure that cute ‘do-nothing midrange’ decks would rarely reach T8’s if more people play it. Therefore, blue-based decks or very aggressive decks are the gatekeepers for those builds. Players who have been playing for a long time and are often seen in T8s of bigger Highlander tournaments are often concerned with being able to interact with their opponent’s strategies, that and the fact that blue-based tempo and midrange decks give a wide variety of variance-reducing tools and versatile answers while presenting threats are usually the reasons why our T8’s look the way they do and that very experienced players which are constantly in top positions due to their format and game knowledge.”

Thomas: “The Top 8 would feature roughly five URx piles, Abzan midrange, Mono Red Aggro and one random deck. The most successful cards of the tournament would be Wasteland and Force of Will.”

Justus: “There will be plenty of tempo and midrange. And a lot of outdated decks. I think the first larger tournaments will be quite soft to hyper teched decks. I don’t think combo is well positioned at the moment. Therefore, I predict the following:
2 tempo decks (low-curve URx shells, probably RUG or WUR. The latter benefited immensely from Modern Horizons 2 and even Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. Having the best removal in conjunction with the new threats is huge!)
3 midrange (Some kind of 4Color Blood, Abzan, Jund or maybe even slower Ux shells. Disruption paired with premium threats, that sometimes just can’t be handled by tempo lists, is still a valid strategy.)
2 mono colored aggressive decks (White Weenie or Mono B. Both decks have plenty of redundancy and are very resilient. Especially Mono B has a surprisingly strong late game and is probably the best mono-colored aggressive deck in the format. Mono Red Aggro is still good, but the huge amount of life gain – looking at you, Oko, Thief of Crowns and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath – is quite hard to overcome for this deck.)
1 odd ball (A deck we don’t have on the radar yet, that some genius brewed up during the Covid-lockdown.”

V. What meta-related futures do you see for the format a few months down the line, i.e. where are we heading?

Thrias: “I do hope that midrange good stuff decks that can reliably beat blue-based tempo decks continue to take larger shares of the metagame and fend off the dominance of threat-into-counter spell-backup strategies. I would really prefer if the critical, game deciding interactions would get pushed back at least a turn or two. However, at this point in time I am not very confident that this meta shift will happen.”

Jonny: “I dont see any major changes in the upcoming months. We just had a new set-release which showed that WotC is maybe slowing down on the power-creep, meaning that most decks in the format will just replace one or two cards and keep going with what they are doing right now. Modern Horizons 2 brought us powerful cards which I don’t see warping the meta though. It makes existing decks more consistent and I think we need cards on a level like Underworld Breach or Thassa’s Oracle to see a major shift in my opinion. That being said, I expect the meta to be more or less the same with blue midrange/tempo decks being the most popular ones and having some viable aggro decks, while Scapeshift and TPS are still very strong combo decks but mostly still niche due to their playstyle and not many people playing that. Umezawa’s Jitte and Skullclamp might change things but I don’t expect them to shuffle up the format by much. Mostly blue decks which are already pretty consistent will find ways to have them available more often than not and maybe some non-blue creature decks can “steal” a win here or there with them versus unfavorable matchups.”

Thomas: “Curves will go lower and lower, to a point where 3 mana plays are almost prohibitively expensive. There are several interrelated reasons that led me to this conclusion. First off, the statistical probability of hitting the third land in the top ten cards you your library [i.e. on turn 3] is significantly lower than hitting two land-drops in the top nine cards. Thus, if you make yourself independent from three-drops, you can skimp on lands and hence reduce the degree to which you subject yourself to variance (flooding/screwing). Secondly, due to the density of powerful one and two mana plays, the early turns have become much more significant for the struggle for positioning in a game of Highlander. As a result, more tempo-counter and efficient removal spells found their entry into the format, and loading up on three-drops increases the likelihood of receiving tempo-negative exchanges.”

Justus: “I think we will have a quite defined meta. As I said before, the equipments will lead to more homogeneity. There will be some abusers and decks that prey on them. ‘Lands’-esque strategies will be more important since they can easily ignore Umezawa’s Jitte and sometimes outvalue Skullclamp. Combo needs enablers to overcome the powerful disruption in our format.”

– Best card in the format:
Thrias: Thoughtseize
Jonny: Fetchlands
Thomas: Wasteland
Justus: Oko, Thief of Crowns

VI. If you could make two changes to the current ban-list, which would that be, and which principles would guide you?

Thrias: “As I don’t think that there are any 2 bans that would reduce the power level of blue-based tempo decks to a point where I would be satisfied with the result, I’m going for something completely different as my picks for the two changes:
1.) I would remove the Walking Dead Secret Lair cards from the banned list. The ban happened mostly due to an outcry of the community with the actual ban having no effect at all on WotC or their printing policy. Our format is way too small to be of any consideration to them, so any protest-effect our ban should have had was a delusional wish at best. In fact, WotC did change their reprint policy for future Secret Lair products (and might do so for TWD retroactively as well) so I’d unban these cards.
2.) Ban Underworld Breach. Thassa’s Oracle was clearly the worse offender, but I still think this card can and will cause problems and might hinder or at least delay a meta shift towards a situation where more than combo or tempo are top tier.”

Jonny: “I am actually satisfied with the current list. The long-time offender Tolarian Academy got banned and I think the list is fine. I don’t like the Umezawa’s Jitte unban because of its impact in creature-based matchups. I think we could consider unbanning Mystical Tutor to help control decks but that would obviously push combo as well, Maybe it’s even time to unban Balance to help control and/or artifact decks. I like having cards you can build around, but I am not sure about that suggestion. The most important principle would be to make sure that there are choices when entering the format. If we feel one can’t have success with a ‘reasonable’ deck, maybe we should consider adapting the banlist to achieve that goal.”

Thomas: “I would ban Mental Misstep and Gitaxian Probe. These are non-conditional 0 mana plays that are both game-breaking and distorting deck construction.”

Justus: “Cheat: ban equipments/unban Thassa’s Oracle. By the nature of our format, we have a limited amount of combo pieces and a plethora of disruption, therefore the combo pieces have to be quite strong. Those that can’t be interacted with – especially lands – are dangerous. In my opinion there are plenty of ways to disrupt Thassa’s Oracle (counterspells, graveyard-interaction, discard spells, etc.). Building a combo deck should have rewards again.”

Recalling the headline of this article, I am convinced that this exchange has helped in broadening the horizon of possibilities for the European Highlander format. Taken together, they serve as a great tool for reflection for old and new Highlander enthusiasts alike. While the responses might only reflect the opinion of a select few and the results are eventually inconclusive, I found it quite compelling how the interviewees framed their observations and backed them with historical and theoretical knowledge-claims. Somewhat surprisingly, similar issues have been identified at many points, but there is less consensus about the causes and adequate responses to them. This goes to show that even in times of increasing homogenization of decks and acceleration of the format, we are still the agents of this process and have all the tools to create alternative futures if only we continue to be willing to engage in exchange. I hope that the article will help you as much as it helped me in trying to substantiate and better communicate my ideas. And although one might disagree fundamentally with some of the views advanced here, I do strongly believe they come from a good place of heart.

Until next time, take care and stay healthy!

Written by Paul Witzhausen