Breaching to win at the Highlander Masters Series Finals 2020
Back in early 2020, more than 1 ½ years ago, I wrote a tournament report titled “Breaching to win at Highlander Masters Series 2020 February at SpielRaum Vienna”. (The report can be found here: www.magicplayer.org/forum/index.php?topic=1539.0) In it I stated that “I do want to qualify for the end-of-the-year finals and hopefully claim the title.” Due to the pandemic the 2020 Highlander Masters Series had to be suspended several times and we were only able to play out the Finals earlier this month. Nevertheless, here I am, telling you how I achieved my goal that I set way back then.
Looking back at the 2020 Highlander Masters Series
The regular season of the Highlander Masters Series 2020 included six tournaments in total: five of those were played in 2020 and one in August of this year (that event also already counted towards the 2021 season). Out of the ones in 2020 I managed to win three and placed 3rd in the other two. My deck of choice for this dominant run: Oracle Breach. (Make sure to check out the original article if you are interested in the development of the deck)
As Thassa’s Oracle got banned with the May 1st 2021 update, I knew the Breach shell was still powerful enough to warrant building a deck around it, but I wanted to try out the newly available combination of Witherbloom Apprentice and Chain of Smog , so I moved on to a new deck: Sultai Chain. With a 3-1 record in the final regular season tournament, I managed to secure 1st place overall, getting the important right to be on the play for every match in the Finals!
Deck choice for the Finals
Although I wasn’t particularly excited about the Sultai Chain deck I kept on testing and practising with it in preparation for the upcoming Top8. I felt like I was (depending on the build) slightly-to-heavily favoured in the creature-midrange matchups and about even against tempo, which I expected to be the most played archetype in the Top8.
Since it was very hard to find a date where all Top8 participants could compete, the second regular season tournament of 2021 actually took place before the 2020 Finals. This somewhat weird constellation meant that I would get another chance at competing with my deck in a competitive environment before having to wield it in the important double-elimination Finals. Unfortunately, my rightfully restrained enthusiasm about the deck was crushed by a horrible 1-3 record, the worst I’ve ever gotten in any HL tournament up to that point. I managed to win round 1 against previous-tournament winner Alexandra on Elves in three close games, lost 0-1 against Orzhov Midrange due to some timely topdecks from my opponent and my inability to close out game 2 in extra turn, got quickly defeated 0-2 by MonoRed in what felt like winnable games and then lost in three close games against Esper Control. Although all my losses somehow felt like they could have gone the other way as well, I decided I would need a different weapon. A deck that would give me more of an edge against the Top8 field, actually putting me in a winning position and not only in a winnable position.
It seemed fitting to take the deck that put me into the Finals, overhaul it and compete with it in the Top8. As always, my test partner in crime was no other than fellow Top8 competitor and amazing friend of mine: Markus Groissmayer. With Oracle no longer available we went back to the original plan B, the one the first brew Markus showed me over 20 months ago ran: Oath of Druids . The recently released set Innistrad: Midnight Hunt contained a creature that was very much fitting for our game plan: Lier, Disciple of the Drowned . Not only does Lier give us access to all the interaction and tutors we milled with Oath or played previously, but he also ensures that all our spells resolve. An important factor in tempo matchups. The go-to line was to Oath into Lier, cast Noxious Revival during the upkeep from the grave targeting Underworld Breach and then drawing the game winning enchantment.
For our more resilient and grindy backup plan we chose to include Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek . Although it might seem counterintuitive to run yet another graveyard centric combination, ThopterSword is only really vulnerable to Scavenging Ooze . Together with Urza’s Saga we could now realistically win through combat as well.
Our testing showed that the deck was very powerful and the Underworld Breach shell still outright broken. Even with cards like Soul-Guide Lantern seeing more play (thx Urza’s Saga) and Endurance already being a staple in green decks, we felt like the deck was ahead of the competition and especially better suited to beat tempo decks than the Sultai Chain deck.
The decklist I submitted for the tournament can be found here:
[I will only go into detail about my first 3 matches because the other ones were recorded on camera and will be available to watch at a later point in time on the SpielRaum YouTube Channel!]
My opponent for the first match was 8th place Patrick Rychtarik. I felt like this pairing was somewhat unfortunate for me because out of all seven possible opponents his most likely deck choice (Mardu Humans) was the only one I felt heavily favoured against with Sultai Chain while at the same time he was naturally prepared to go up against combo. I didn’t think it was likely he would bring either Goblins or Reanimator, decks he had played in the past, to the Finals. Markus and myself tested the matchup Humans against Breach quite a bit and concluded that I was still slightly favoured, especially because I would be going first game 1.
For game 1 I kept a mediocre hand with lands, Lightning Bolt and multiple cantrips. Unfortunately, Patrick started strong with Discard into Kitesail Freebooter and Tajic, Legion’s Edge (deflecting my Bolt and keeping my card trapped by the Freebooter). Additional threats from Patrick were met with repeated whiffs from my cantrips and soon I found myself a game behind.
Game 2 Patrick started strong again with an early Thalia and tried to increase the pressure by committing more threats to the board. This left him tapped out though and without a chance to interact with my game-winning Intuition pile that I assembled after getting rid of his Thalia.
For the deciding game Patrick had to mulligan once and kept a somewhat weak hand that by turn 4 only had Knight of the Holy Nimbus and Deathrite Shaman he just played, on the table. Thanks to an earlier discard spell I knew Patrick was stuck with 3 lands in hand and no business whatsoever. I on the other hand had some lands, a Talisman I just played and LED on board, notably a DT in the grave, as well as Lightning Bolt and Wheel in hand. I chose to Bolt the Deathrite so I could Wheel next turn with LED on the board and 2 mana open instead of leaving the Deathrite alive and casting Wheel right away with no mana open. With a powerful play set up for next turn that would win with basically any tutor spell (or Breach itself) and Patrick being entirely out of gas I felt comfortable with my position. Patrick’s deck decided to not just simply roll over and let me have it though and provided him with a Collective Brutality that was followed by 2 threats in a row. I found a tutor spell in the form of Enlightened Tutor one turn too late and lost from what seemed like an amazing position.
I felt crushed and a bit heartbroken. In a double elimination tournament like this, winning the first round is considerably more important than in other events because it means you will have to play the maximum number of matches (7) to win the tournament.
The only positive thing for me was that because Markus won his first round the earliest point I could meet him was in match 11 in the lower bracket.
For the second round I was facing Stefan Klein on 4C Blood who had lost three close games to Markus in round one. Game 1 Stefan was off to a slow start and got pressured hard by two 5/5 constructs from my Urza’s Saga. He had to spend multiple resources trying to deal with them and once he tapped out with no Endurance in hand I went off for the win. Although it certainly feels better to win interesting and close games, I wasn’t unhappy that my deck delivered a steamroll win in game 1 this time to boost my morale after the bitter defeat in round 1.
Game 2 Stefan somehow had an even slower start, culminating in me resolving Teferi on turn 3 and using his plus because there were no threats on the table! With LED and Unmarked Grave still in hand I was in yet another great position. My plan was to plus Teferi again next round, flash in Unmarked Grave to grab Echo of Eons, untap and cast it with LED and 2 mana open, having Teferi at the ready to bounce any annoying threat. A timely Scavenging Ooze from Stefan foiled my plans and I had to settle for a much less exciting Echo of Eons with no mana left but at least a land drop to give. I found Mox Diamond , no land, a lot of Talismans and Imperial Seal . Ouch! Stefan on the other hand found all he needed, including a discard spell for my Seal and he finished my off from 18 life in two turns thanks to Saskia into another haste creature.
Still a bit shocked from what just happened and how that game, that seemed to be so much in my favour, slipped away from me, I found myself on the back end of a draw from Stefan that involved Deathrite Shaman and Discard to kick things off in the decider. Fortunately for me I was able to answer the Shaman with Lightning Bolt and set up a hard-cast Lier through two Talismans for turn 4. My Lier was answered by Palace Jailer out of all things and a Liliana of the Veil started to chip away at my hand while Stefan got access to more and more resources thanks to now being the Monarch. I resolved a Wishclaw Talisman and passed with one card in hand. I responded to his Liliana activation by casting Entomb and binning Echo of Eons. Although I had stumbled in the game so far, I felt like I could get something going again if I was able to refill my hand. Stefan apparently thought so too and evoked Endurance. Bummer. I drew LED but even though I had Wishclaw Talisman on the field, without any cards left in the grave I wasn’t able to piece together a clear win. I put the LED on the table as Liliana would strip it out of my hand anyways. Stefan committed another creature to the board and put my life total within single digits. He plused his Liliana of the Veil, ready to ultimate her next turn. My position didn’t feel very good this time. Stefan tapped his last 3 mana, cast Liliana, the Last Hope, minused her and got back Endurance.
At this point I felt more behind than I had felt ahead in any of the games up to this point. Was this really going to be it? A dominant season with the best deck in the format. 1st place in the regular season by a wide margin. Redesigning the deck after the Oracle ban and getting it to work again only to be eliminated from the Top8, the most important Highlander event of the year, in two matches?
I had only one shot to stay in the tournament and keep fighting for the title. I untapped, drew for the turn, granted Stefan my Wishclaw Talisman, and spun the Wheel of Fortune . It was the only way to get the Endurance out of his hand while at the same time possibly drawing me into some action. Talisman of Curiosity , Volcanic Island and Underground Sea untapped, land drop available.
With my back against the wall I drew my seven cards: Two removal spells, one cantrip, three lands (including two red sources) and…Gamble.
For 14,28% versions of me the tournament ended at this point. A disappointing 0-2 finish with losses to creature decks that would have been easily beaten by the Sultai Chain deck but should have been decent enough matchups for the Underworld Breach deck as well. Yet, the shot at winning the Highlander Masters Series 2020 was over.
Fortunately, I was one of the other 85,72%.
Underworld Breach did not get discarded. I played the powerful enchantment, fetched for another red source, escaped Gamble, cracked LED for blue, found and discarded Brain Freeze and went on to win the match.
It did feel better than winning game 1. By a lot. Winning the title and becoming the champion was still possible!
In Round 3 I was now facing Stefan Doppler on Temur Tempo. Stefan had won the first round, beating Moritz in the mirror in three games but had lost his second match against Paul on Jund aggro in just two.
Unfortunately, especially for Stefan, both games we played were rather anticlimactic as he mulliganed multiple times and had mana issues as well. In game 1 I took away his Abundant Harvest and he was stuck on one land for far too long to put up a real fight even though he had Endurance to delay my win. In game 2, again stuck on lands, he had to Bolt away his own Dragon’s Rage Channeler as to not lose to Oath of Druids on turn two. With him being stuck on lands and without the ability to commit anything to the board it didn’t take very long till I was able to assemble a win through his permission and put him out of his misery but also out of the tournament.
From this point on all my remaining matches were recorded on camera and will be available to watch with commentary (although in German only) on the SpielRaum YouTube Channel, so I won’t go into specific details anymore but give you a more overall view of the individual matchups.
In Round 4 I faced Moritz Ristl on Temur Tempo. The matchup is quite decent as they have a lot of dead cards, don’t pressure your hand at all and if they don’t find Dack Fayden or Scavenging Ooze are dead in the water against Thopter Sword. I managed to beat Moritz, who had some very strong draws even though he had to mulligan multiple times, 2-1.
After beating Moritz, I found myself in the Lower Bracket finals against Paul Beneder on Jund Aggro. Paul had actually forgone to include any specific graveyard interaction (except the usual starters of Deathrite and Scavenging Ooze ofc), focusing on beating Tempo decks through aggression and so far, had been successful at defeating UW-tempo and Temur Tempo but lost in three close games to Markus, who had secured the first spot in the Grand Finals!
This matchup plays almost like a game against the goldfish for either side with minimal interaction necessary on my part and almost no interaction possible from his side. It basically comes down to who’s faster and on average the Breach Deck is the fastest gun in town. Being on the play in game 1 made me even more of a favourite to win the match. Paul didn’t have the god draw in either game while my deck didn’t stumble. I easily dispatched him 2-0.
I had done it. After starting the tournament with a heart-breaking loss here I was, in the Grand Finals facing no other than my good friend Markus Groissmayer. I couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
As Markus and I had tested the matchup Breach against Grixis before the tournament we both knew I would be slightly favoured, again with the added benefit of going first. Unlike Temur, that is running Ooze and Endurance , Grixis’ graveyard interaction is usually reduced to just Cling to Dust . However, Markus did include an Urza’s Saga package in his deck, so he had access to Soul-Guide Lantern on top of the pesky 1-mana instant. In contrast to Moritz, thanks to Duress , Thoughtseize , Inquisition, Rise//Fall and even Cabal Therapy , he also had plenty of ways to attack my hand. While he went with The Royal Scions , who are better against the midrange and aggressive decks he had faced so far, over Dack Fayden for this tournament he still had ways to destroy stuff like LED, Thopter Foundry or Wishclaw Talisman with either Kolaghan’s or Prismari Command .
The six very intense games that came down to the wire ended up with me besting Markus in two very tight 2-1 matches to claim the “Highlander Masters Series 2020 Champion” title.
Although I wouldn’t have begrudged Markus winning the title, as he would have been a more-than-worthy winner, I’d be lying if I’d say I wasn’t happy that I had completed the 6-0 run with my back against the wall multiple times.
After-tournament thoughts on the deck
Overall, I am very happy with the 100 cards we landed on, and I wouldn’t go for any major changes at this point. Cards that could be swapped out in the future are Agonizing Remorse and Orim’s Chant . Depending on how the meta shapes up to be there’s a change we’d want Soul-Guide Lantern (or a similar card) ourselves.
As for my thoughts on the power level off the deck I want to copy my answer I gave on Facebook to that very question:
“It didn’t feel quite as broken as the very first time I showed up to a tournament with the Breach/Oracle shell but that mostly steams from the fact that by now the core combo is very well known within the community here in Vienna.
Having said that I still feel that the deck is a tier above the rest of the competition, even with cards like Endurance and Soul-Guide Lantern (thx to Urza’s Saga) now being heavily played. The combo itself is so cheap, so easy to assemble and very often wins thanks to just one drawn tutor spell at the right time that it understandably breeds resentment from a lot of players here in Vienna.
Underworld Breach ain’t a fair magic card and in my opinion (just like it has been the last 20 months now!) shouldn’t be available in the format.”
I’m concluding this part of the article with the same statement I put forth when I wrote about the deck the first time, all the way back in February 2020:
“I can only recommend to try out the deck yourselves if you have any upcoming tournaments as I feel like this might be the most powerful thing you can be doing in all of Highlander right now!”
What up next?
The 2021 Highlander Masters Series regular season is already upon us, and my goal is, of course, to defend my title.
Having said that, the first step is to reach the Top8. With two events in, thanks to the horrible 1-3 performance at the October tournament, I am only in shared 7th place with five other people right now, so I’ll have to increase my level of play in the other events! Unsurprisingly, Markus is currently leading all players in points, doing his best to set up a possible rematch in the 2021 Grand Finals 😉 More information about the 2021 Highlander Masters Series, as well as all upcoming tournament dates can be found here: https://www.spielraum.co.at/de/turniere/highlander-masters.aspx