Highlander Level-Up #1 – deck-construction

Welcome, fellow Highlander enthusiasts, to the first installment of an article series geared towards helping intermediate and advanced players to dig even deeper into the intricacies of the format. As you’ve stumbled over this article, you are probably fascinated by the puzzle of 100-card-singleton and have rich experience of playing the format yourself – brewed many decks, played many rounds, learned many lessons. However, at a certain point, it gets hard to imagine yourself progressing further and sharpening your already strong skills. Moreover, knowledge that speaks directly to the Highlander-format is hard to come by, and interest in competitive content has significantly waned since the pandemic. I often find myself scraping together information from other formats, check for new decklists and rewatch gameplay-videos because you can only test so much yourself, but at the level of abstraction I desire there is really nothing of recent origin that can be considered a comprehensive guide to improvement.

This is where my next couple of pieces attempt to fill a gap. Since you know my articles by now, I always try to introduce concepts and heuristics that are offering an orientation in this wild format. With this series, I intend to enhance theoretical principles with practical advice. I will do my best to give you concrete examples on how you can maximize your play-experience, learn faster and progress further. Even though competitive play has been forced to a stop, there is always more to learn and explore with our wonderful format, and I hope that these articles will help reignite your spark and make you show up as the best version of yourself once we are able to resume ‘high-stakes’ Highlander.

Today’s article is all about deck-construction. I will tell you how to draw conclusions from other formats, help to assess the mana-situation of your deck, optimize your deckbuilding-process and reveal some probabilistic conundrums of 100-card-singleton. We will start with a few warm-ups and eventually work our way up the complexity-scale. Before taking away too much of the actual article, I hope you enjoy reading it and are inspired to challenge my ideas!

Always rebuild your deck from scratch!

The constant influx of new cards and synergies into the format drives much of my motivation to play Highlander. I do have my pet-deck with an always already up-to-date list, but especially at the end of a cycle, i.e. a couple weeks before the next set releases, I find myself tired of the general play-patterns and tend to branch out into different archetypes. Whenever I decide to pick up something that I have not touched in a while, I force myself to construct the deck from the ground up. Naturally, I conduct some research in the archives and see what has been part of the cardpool historically, and also study current lists from players that know the archetype well. But in order to sharpen my understanding of the deck and to put my deck-building principles to the test, I like to start from the ground up.

After having a look at the available lands – which is always my main entry into any archetype as soon as I know how I want the deck to play out, I lay out the cards that interest me, construct a rough core and indicative curve of the deck and see how far the competitive staples get me until I run out of viable options. The most valuable insight of this process is often what holes the particular strategy exhibits. When do I realistically close out games? Is my removal versatile and efficient enough to survive the early-game? Do I lack deck velocity (turnover-rate of accessing new cards) and if so, how does the deck compensate for that? Building from scratch also helps you to reflect on the broader developments the format has taken by analyzing which cards aged poorly. Additionally, it gives you a fresh look on cards you previously deemed essential for your overall strategy (but might, in fact, not be).

Another key takeaway is that – over time – I get a better idea of my deckbuilding-preferences. For instance, I recently dabbled a lot into UG and BG based midrange decks because they have good mana on the bedrock of the Ikoria Triomes, decent interaction and a lot of engine cards. In my discussion with players whose opinion I respect, I noticed that while they advocate to make use of mana acceleration to power out haymaker cards, I tend to value library manipulation and interaction in the early-game. I am not nearly invested enough into those archetypes that I could confidently state which approach is objectively more correct, but the lesson for me was the following: once I have identified, for instance, mana elves as a concept that isn’t appealing to me from a theoretical perspective on the format and its dynamics, I am obliged to build the most coherent and strategically sound version of a midrange deck that is able to arrive at the middlegame without the help of this particular group of cards. In that vein, I think the old saying “in Highlander, you can play anything you want” still has some truth to it, because as long as you make sure to match certain requirements (your deck has a clear identity that has proven successful across formats, you play a high amount of cards that define older formats, you are playing the most consistent version of your deck),  you can assess loopholes in your theory and derive conclusions about the nature of the format. They could be as diverse as: the mana of archetype X is too unstable; there is not enough removal at mana value 1; it takes too much time to establish control of the game; the deck tends to stutter all too often; the combo is prone to too much incidental hate, etc.

Emulate Legacy!

The powerscaling-debate in our format occasionally brings forth strange blossoms – players often wonder whether their Highlander deck would be competitive in 60-card constructed formats? We are intrigued to ask how our Highlander-decks do against an average Standard, Pioneer, Modern or Legacy deck. While I think that this question is kind of misleading (for the record, I think you could average maybe 2-3 wins in the MTGO Modern leagues and have 0 chance in Legacy), it points to some broader topics that I want to discuss in this section. While our format overall isn’t strong enough to take home major trophies in Modern tournaments, I would argue the Modern-format should be considered as nothing more than a baseline indicator of a card’s general playability in Highlander. When it comes to evaluating the powerlevel of interactions and draws you need to be prepared for, you need to turn to even older formats. Let me get into the reasonings behind this:

Modern’s cards are good and the consistency-level of their decks is high, for sure, but apart from the limited card-pool the format is managed in such a way that combo is only allowed to happen from turn 3 the earliest; it naturally lacks some key interaction-spells; and the card selection is not comparable to our format (everything from Green Sun’s Zenith to Ponder is non-existent there). Modern’s decks are characterized by a high degree of redundancy in the proactive card-department (say Burn, Storm, Hammer-Time) and they also tend to work to a large degree over the synergy-angle (Dredge, Affinity, Amulet Titan etc.). Both of these factors are pretty hard to replicate in Highlander because they demand the existence of enough functional equivalents of certain key effects, i.e. a sufficient number of powerful onedrops in your aggressive strategy and a high density of cards that build upon one another (Gravecrawler, Bloodghast and the likes). In our format, we have to consider overall card-quality more diligently. Also, most Modern decks are only powerful because of  certain holes in the format’s card-pool, be it the lack of a swiss-army knife in Force of Will or of premium removal such as Swords to Plowshares. In our format, removal is generally good while the synergy-approach prone to inconsistencies, hence why we see interactive strategies taking center-stage. So in summation, you could say that the singleton nature of our format as well as the bigger size of our card-pool limits the analogies to the Modern-format and forces us to look elsewhere for answers and bigger structural trends.

In Highlander, the presence of more powerful cards in the format’s card-pool implies that the demands to your deck – and, most importantly – your opening hand are much higher in terms of resiliency and flexibility. You need to be prepared to face degenerate combo, free interaction spells, attacks on your mana-base and much more diverse forms of disruption than what’s available to Modern players. This implies, gameplay-wise, that you have to conduct much more complicated risk-assessment calculations, which in turn requires to have a deeper knowledge of the existing cards and greater awareness of effect-based and rules-based interactions (a topic which I will address in an upcoming article).

What I recommend, therefore, is that you should look out at emerging trends in the Legacy format and strive towards emulating their structure and composition for your Highlander-archetype of choice. I do still draw from Modern to gain inspiration for basic strategies as well as do round out my Highlander decks with competitive card-choices. But, due to its high powerlevel, you can always rely on Legacy being the first to respond to the influx of new format-bending cards. Be it the printing of a new combo-piece or a dominant threat, the metagame often shows a swift reaction, not only in the dedication of more sideboard-slots, but also in terms of general deck-choice. Sometimes this is even coupled with the relative disappearance or reappearance of entire colors. For instance, due to the Dominance of Murktide Regent and Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer, white spot-removal was suddenly of upmost necessity and control-decks shifted to Bant, whereas previously Abrupt Decay handled most of your problems efficiently. In that regard, most fair non-Delver decks are now basically constructed as follows: premium removal, only free counters, as much cantrips as you can get and then a couple of bangers such as Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath or Sylvan Library. Deck’s formulas generally got simpler, their components more redundant and the quantity of win-options went down. Additionally, with games speeding up and mana spent more economically, the appeal of black in fair magic diminished significantly as its removal and discard grew somewhat weaker. While not 1-to-1 translatable into our format, we can catch glimpses every so often in Highlander gameplay and see that having a broad array of win-conditions (even if those are mostly creatures in your deck) is arguably less important than having premium removal-spells and a decent avenue of library-manipulation.

Another point that I like to follow most of the time is that Legacy-players tend to be very enfranchised into their format and have a high understanding of the game, generally. They are also very active on social media and have various open-source results-data to draw conclusions from as well as a lot of super-committed archetype experts that produce high-level content for free. Thus, I tend to value their opinion whenever I am in doubt about a certain inclusion. For instance, if I see that card XYZ has no competitive history in Legacy and doesn’t generate a response on Twitter, I discard it unless I really want to test it out because I think it is cute. Thus, I would therefore advise you to familiarize yourself with the Legacy metagame and understand how your sister-deck adapted its strategy and composition to historical metagame changes occurring there.

Cherish good mana!

In the beginning, I promised to give you some entry-points on how to contextualize competitive viability in Highlander, because I think on a very fundamental level, the basic restriction of our format hasn’t been thought through sufficiently. What does “hundred card singleton” entail? Which strategies are slightly, but inherently favored? And how can I exploit the dynamics of the format? In this section, I want to show how answers to these questions can be found in the basic building-blocks of all decks, namely manabases. Luckily for us, the eternal card-pool of the format allows us to draw on all land-cycles that exist in the game. Therefore, in Highlander, the Fetchland-Dualland-Shockland trifecta, rounded up by occasional Basic Land constitutes the major portion of all mana-bases, irrespective of the deck’s strategic outlook. However, despite these powerful pieces, can we say that the mana-situation allows for an even playing-field between possible strategies? I am not convinced that all possible color combinations are equally viable from a competitive viewpoint, and even within certain combinations, there are interpretations that are objectively on a more secure footing.

First off, being required to play with one hundred unique cards means you will eventually run out of options to round out your manabase. Taking a look at the existing dual-land cycles, it becomes obvious that most dual lands exhibit certain design-features that mitigate their power and promote strategic diversity. In concrete terms, this means that most of the time they enter the battlefield tapped unless a certain requirement is met (check-lands, the new Innistrad lands, creature-lands etc.). The immediate implication for multi-colored midrange or control decks is that they are obliged to draw on a higher quantity of tapped mana-sources, thus increasing the risk of having a somewhat slower development in the early game. Conversely, there are only a handful of cycles that come into play untapped, and those are usually nagging on your life-total (horizon lands, pain lands, shocklands), meaning that decks that want to utilize them often need to shut the game in quick fashion.

So in a vacuum, it seems that there are upsides and downsides to both approaches. But given that earlier I tried to establish that the powerlevel of available early-game playpatterns is approaching Legacy, untapped mana is at an all-time premium right now. Moreover, as will be explained in the next and final section of the article, decks that want to climb the curve either need to invest mana into library manipulation or pay the deckbuilding cost of playing more lands to have a higher chance of drawing them naturally; both aspects that overall influence the performance of the deck. Thus, it becomes clear how decks with a vast selection of low-cmc cards naturally shield themselves better from the format-inherent variance. Decks with a low curve and hence lower land-count are also able to produce card advantage by virtue of drawing more spells than their opponents. Granted, this is all with the caveat of midrange and control decks usually being more likely to win once we’ve entered the mid- to late-game, but their strategic outlook is more or less predetermined by the available land-cycles: more tapped sources means lower chance of playing on curve in the first two turns, so taking a more reactive stance in the early-game with efficient disruption is advisable. We are now starting to get a glimpse into what is actually implied in the statement “Highlander has so much variance” and how we can work towards mitigating it. If you play a strategy that can solely rest on untapped mana sources and also has a low land count, you are already running into fewer structural problems than most other decks. Hence why mono-colored aggressive decks as well as URx tempo decks are doing so well.

Secondly, certain very crucial land cycles aren’t finalized as of now. Most notably, the allied color triomes (Grixis, Bant, Jund, Naya, Esper) have yet to see print. Although they enter the battlefield tapped, the fact that they have basic-land types puts them in a tier of their own when it comes to enhancing a mana-base. Previously, your generic three-color deck could ran into scenarios in which subsidiary fetchlands (such as Arid Mesa in a Temur deck or Wooded Foothills in Sultai) were only able to find a color your lands already covered. But with the addition of triomes alongside fetchlands, you have virtually increased the amount of colored sources in your deck to a degree incompatible to anything that existed previously; and this consistency-boost only requires one card-slot. The reason the absence of triomes is so detrimental for certain combinations is that you cannot exploit their cardpool to the fullest. For Grixis, Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger would be an appealing option, but without the Grixis triome, it’s hard to consistently enable it alongside cards such as Murktide Regent or Counterspell. In Esper, for instance, you would love to be constantly able to play either Mana Drain or Hymn to Tourarch into something like Skyclave Apparition, but while it happens occasionally, the mana is too unstable for that to happen at a desirable rate. Depending on how you would like to build it, the lack of both blue horizon lands in Esper is also a noticeable downside, since they constitute another cycle of untapped dual-lands facilitating early-game plays. Jund-decks are also notoriously greedy, and UW control-shells would love to have the Bant or Esper triomes to splash for certain roleplayers. Apart from the briefly mentioned horizon lands, other noteworthy absences include the enemy-colored Battle for Zendikar lands (the ones which enter the battlefield untapped if you control two or more basics) as well as the enemy-colored Amonkhet cycling-duals. The latter two would be of great benefit for UR control-shells, for they would enable a well-timed Mystic Sanctuary more frequently. Regarding traditional control deck’s downswing in meta-share, you could therefore see the argument of it being partially conditioned by the imbalances resulting from in the incompleteness of land-cycles, as the lack of options naturally constrains the range of possible decks that play out a bit slower but still want to draw on powerful cards from different colors.

Have a basic insight into hypergeometric distribution!

How needs maths, am I right? Well, as a Magic player, you are constantly subjected to stochastics, whether you like it or not. We play a game of incomplete information with a discernible chance of drawing certain cards from a randomized deck. Thus, the most rational basis for our decisions and evaluation is hypergeometric distribution: We ask how likely it is that we have a success in our sample (such as drawing a card, or scrying 2) given that we know the population size (how many cards left in the deck) as well as the successes in the population (how many of my outs are left in the deck).  I figure that at this stage of your playing career, you have probably come across Frank Karsten’s evergreen article on how to construct a mana-base. Taking a look at your spells, you assess how necessary mana of the color X is at a certain turn and try to maximize the probability of hitting that color on time. If you cannot guarantee to cast your spells when needed, then either you ought to trim down on spells and effects of a certain color or amend your land-base. This is all very basic, but what happens if you translate deckbuilding with the perimeters of four-of, 60 card constructed MtG into 100 card singleton formats – does anything change? Let’s take a look (and please bear with me, I try to make these numbers as digestible as possible).

Sticking to our entry point of the mana base, Modern Jund is an easy deck to draw analogies from. It is a deck that has no card selection, no acceleration and wants to cast their Liliana on turn 3, so opening on at least two lands is ideal. For the sake of the argument, we look at a simple, clear-cut deck-list by Reid Duke from the 2018 MOCS championships. It has 25 lands, making up 41,6% of the deck. The chance of finding a third land on turn 3 on the play is 82%, and opening a hand with at least two lands is 87%. Historically, our Jund midrange decks in Highlander played 35 lands. The calculation yields 67% for hitting three lands on turn 3 and 78% for drawing at least two lands in your opening hand, respectively. A striking difference and arguably a high fail-rate in an abstract sense. You could argue that Jund midrange in Highlander played Mana-dorks to allow for three mana on turn 3. Assuming that you have eight of those that you can play by turn 2 (by looking at old decklists), combining the probabilities of drawing at least two lands in your opener and having a mana creature by turn two yields 38,5%. Also not the best failsafe. And although not the fairest assessment of a deck’s failrate, this edgy manasource-count was relatively consistent across similar decks such as Temur and Abzan Midrange for a long period.

What I am getting at is the following: either historically we got away with playing fewer manasources than necessary because the games were much slower and there were fewer competitive options printed, or we have never actually put much analytical work into the finetuning of our decks. I assume it’s a bit of both. The point I want to make for the current age (in which the individual dynamics of games are more likely to be decided in the first three turns) is the following: if you want to play three-/four-/fivedrops, you need to accomplish at least one of these three things:  a) be able to  have enough interaction to survive the early game until you eventually draw into more lands, b) your deck can make good use of superfluous lands by using engines that amass more and more resources as time goes by, and c) have some form of library-manipulation that helps in climbing the curve.

However, it would also be false to encourage jamming more and more mana sources into the deck. The proportionality-approach to Highlander deckbuilding, i.e. having exactly the same ratio between a deck’s pillars as 60-card-constructed decks have, has some intrinsic problems that are again based in maths. The key takeaway for our format is the simple fact that 100 cards allow for more possibilities of strings of cards to appear in a certain order. The larger the population, the higher the amount of permutations, and hence the lower the chance to hit a certain outcome in the sample. Consider Collected Company decks in 2016 Standard, which played around 26 creatures in their deck. The chance of hitting two in six was 83%. Scaling up the numbers for Highlander would mean you ought to play 43 creatures, at least, but this would only yield you 82% success and the risk of whiffing entirely are 0.4 percentage points higher. Despite being absolutely playable, cards such as Ponder, Stinkweed Imp, or Turntimber Symbiosis have restricted in their potential to find important pieces simply because we play 100 cards in our decks. Although the decks are similar in composition, the sheer deck-size is leading to lower probabilities of seeing certain components. This might not sound like much, and the numbers appear to differ only so slightly, but we have to take two things into account. First, every slot is already heavily contested, and secondly, for every component of your deck that you try to make more redundant, the risk of not drawing the other cards increases more than we are used to from 60-card decks. For instance, the risk of drawing multiple non-lands in a row is always a bit higher than in regular constructed formats, simply because there are more possibilities for the cards to appear in a certain order. Even If you think this is not a big deal, we have to understand on what variance is caused by and why there is a higher systemic risk of dysfunctional draws involved in Highlander. Coming back to our Jund example, we could therefore also come to the conclusion that 35 was an agreeable number in the minds of the player base as it somewhat mitigated the risk of opening on too many lands all-too-often.

Now we are tasked to tackle the question of how this should factor into our deckbuilding decisions. Which aspects of the deck to we highlight, which ones do we de-emphasize? This is not only caused by the inhomogeneous powerlevel between cards that perform a particular function for you, but also because the sheer deck-size of 100 allows for more variations to exist. The implication is that simply translating the proportions into our format has some problems attached to it. But even if we try to correct for this by slightly overemphasizing a certain component of our decks, we run into a systemic problem, namely that we simultaneously increase the risk of drawing too many cards of this category relative to other vital parts and thus risk having a higher number of dysfunctional draws.

To this, I have both an observation and a recommendation. The former is about the quality of cantrips. You can see how cantrips are the best type of Magic-cards to mitigate that risk. They basically replace the worst card of each group and glue the deck together, thus you decrease your risk of having dysfunctional draws while also churning quicker through your deck. However, I do not intend to advocate cantrips as the only remedy to this problem. My advice for non-cantrip decks would be to maximize on the cards that are essential to their best early-game. As a general example, let us turn towards mana-elves. For you generic Green Elf deck, GW or Abzan with a more creature-centric gameplan for instance, there exist 11 green creatures with mana value 1 that tap for mana (counting Boreal Druid) which you can play on the first turn. I think everyone (please let me know you disagree here and why) would agree that your best opening hands contain at least one of these cards because they allow you to jump ahead and translate tempo into board presence, which enables you to pressure your opponent to a low-enough life-total at which they are unable to successfully leverage cards that usually overpower your strategy. Ok, baseline established. However, looking through the archives and comparing tournament data, the vast majority of lists played between 5 and 7 (ignoring the fact that some of these were putting up results before the printing of Ignoble Hierarch and Gilded Goose). No maximization, so why is that the case? When asked, players usually responded with: well, you don’t want to draw too many of them, since they are kind of bad top-decks. Granted, they are, but allow me to do some calculations. With 6 of them in your 100, you have a 36% chance of drawing one or more in your opener; with 10 of them, its 53%. To put this more bluntly, playing only six means that only 1 out of 3 hands is among your best draws, while you could have exploited the chance of upping that number to every second hand containing at least one mana dork! This hopefully kind of illustrates my motivation to introduce more deckbuilding-related knowledge to the format.

To wrap this up, there are many handy tools online (even some specifically for Magic players) that you can toy around with, and I strongly advise you to equip yourself with some of the most commonly reoccurring numbers pertaining to your deck before you enter a tournament. It really benefits your time-management and risk-assessment. Those could be: How likely it is that my Preordain enables me to hit my second land-drop on turn two, even if I have to scry to the bottom twice? How likely am I to hit at least one cantrip plus a blue source when I mulligan? All this hand needs is one copy of effect X, how likely is it that I find this component in the next couple draw-steps?

That was all I have for today. I hope you were able to take away a thing or two for your own Highlander game and you join me again for the next article which will deal with all things related to ‘technical play’!

Written by Paul Witzhausen