Why You Too Should Play European Highlander
- Dominik Broßell
Before Commander caught on, players had already been enjoying a singleton format for years. It was named Highlander — originally for the catchphrase of the 1986 cult classic which stipulates that "There can be only one," but the format also seems to want to live forever.
One of the hard rules of regular deck construction has always been the four-of limit —save for basic lands and restricted cards — and the minimum of 60 cards total per deck. If you subtract the land base, usually somewhere between 20 and 26 cards, you have 34 to 40 card slots to fill with spells. This is how it has been for a long time and where tournament Magic is today. For many players, these requirements feel too predictable and gameplay too repetitive. People came up with the idea to change the constraints of regular Magic: play at least 100 cards instead of 60 and only a single copy of each nonbasic land card. The format became known as Highlander and has persisted since at least Revised Edition.
There has been a dramatic shift in the world of 100 card singleton formats when the most prominent Highlander variant — Elder Dragon Highlander — claimed the throne of casual formats. Today, EDH, officially renamed to Commander and turned into a prolific money machine by Wizards, is the most popular variant not only among casual players, but also among ambitious players who love to compete in a singleton environment. Some of these players have coined their own sub-format called Competitive Elder Dragon Highlander (cEDH) which focuses on one-versus-one play and is inherently more powerful as a result.
But Highlander — the original format — is still alive and well as well, and it's as exciting as ever. Hello, my name is Dominik and I am a dedicated European Highlander player from Berlin who competes almost every week. Before discovering Highlander, I have played Standard, Modern, and even Legacy. But no Friday Night Magic was as enjoyable and memorable as any of the Highlander ones. Our community is growing and welcoming new players every week. Time to properly introduce the format to a broad audience!
All Highlander formats are self-governed, meaning that the community actually makes its own rules and organizes its own tournaments. This also means that the Highlander communities worldwide are decentralized. There is not the one governing body that determines the rules of the game, like Wizards of the Coast or the EDH Council. As a result, there are at least three Highlander variants thriving and actively being played today:
Canadian Highlander is probably the most well-known variant because of coverage and visibility online through YouTube and Twitch. Recent MagicFests have had some side events and there are professional players who have openly expressed their love for the format. "CanLander" does not ban any cards — except for Sharazad and other silliness, ante cards, and conspiracies. Instead, they use a "Points List" that attaches a certain amount of points to very powerful cards like those in the Power 9 (Black Lotus, Time Walk, and the likes) and other cards that rank among the best Magic cards of all time (Demonic Tutor, Umezawa's Jitte, Strip Mine, et cetera). Each deck can only "spend" ten points total on these cards, meaning that no CanLander deck is able to feature all of the Power 9, for example. CanLander does not use a sideboard or wishboard. As the name implies, Canadian Highlander is most commonly played in Canada and parts of the United States. It has a long tradition and a steadily growing player base.
Australian Highlander — sometimes called 7 Point Highlander — only features 60 cards per deck and utilizes a 15-card sideboard. AusLander uses the "Points List" as well, but only allows seven points total per deck, hence the name. This format is seeing play in Australia and New Zealand and has been consistently successful for over 20 years.
European Highlander is unique in that it actually bans cards. If we consider CanLander and AusLander being close in spirit to Vintage, European Highlander is more closely related to Legacy. With bans, there is no need for a points list. The format is regulated by a Highlander council that features members from Germany, Finland, Slovakia, Austria, and other European Highlander hot spots. It is played throughout all of Europe with the biggest communities located in Berlin, Westphalia, Finland, and Austria. We are seeing a growing player base, with more communities being established all over Europe every day.
Format Rules for European Highlander
Here are the rules for European Highlander as per the official resource:
- Your deck consists of at least 100 cards.
- You are not allowed to play more than one copy of any card that isn't a basic land.
- There is no sideboard or wishboard. There is no changing your deck in between games.
- All other Magic rules for tournament play apply: 20 life, London Mulligan, et cetera.
- The card pool consists of all Magic cards that have ever been officially printed. You are not allowed to play the cards featured on the ban list and no silver-bordered cards, but you are allowed to play gold-bordered cards and cards from Collectors Edition.
What Makes European Highlander So Exciting?
Highlander is always on the move, but you don't lose traction. It stays very familiar while constantly getting new toys to spice up the game. It oozes with personality and creativity. You will never experience the same game twice and you rarely lose in the first few turns. Highlander is a skill-testing, open format with an always unsolved metagame. It is rewarding for deck builders, competitive players, and casual players all at the same time. There are many things to love about the format. But let's take one step at a time.
1. Experience a Diverse and Dynamic Metagame
Let us take a look at the last big European Highlander tournament at the time of this writing: Metagame Masters 15 in Berlin, June 2019. 35 players from all around Germany showed up to this thrice-a-year, high-profile Highlander tournament in order to battle for exciting prizes — first place usually wins an ABU dual land! Here are the Top 8 decklists from that tournament with a very basic game plan explanation:
A black-red-white deck that aims to disrupt the opponent with an arsenal of versatile removal spells and then tries to close out games with planeswalker pressure, card advantage, burn and drain spells.
A multicolor strategy that tries to out-tempo and out-race the opposition quickly, playing a carefully assembled mixture of Magic's best cards that aren't green. Heavy blue and red disruption, evasive threats, graveyard/spells synergy, and an all-around well oiled pressure machine.
A deck that tries to maximize cheating on mana costs, using the best ramp spells in the game. With key powerhouses such as Gaea's Cradle, Craterhoof Behemoth — both the reason for the nickname — and Channel, this deck can bring unsurmountable power onto the table extremely quickly.
This deck has a primary win condition in Scapeshift, assembling Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and a landscape of Mountains to win the game. However, it can also shift into a very efficient midrange strategy that often wins via card quality. Finally, the deck received a significant boost with the printing of Field of the Dead, meaning it can go wide instead of simply "going upstairs" now.
Not unlike the four-color version, the Grixis tempo deck can be even faster and strictly sticks to very efficient and cheap spells. Grixis has amazing tools for tempo, disruption, and execution.
The lines between this strategy and the well-known White Weenie archetype are blurry. Death and Taxes plays heavily onto the board while disrupting the opponent's game plan at the same time. It can assemble board states that feel like spiky walls coming in. If you cannot pay the taxes, be prepared to get punished immensely. In Highlander, you are really looking at the outskirts of playable cards in this strategy; making it work is hard but very exciting.
There are conflicting opinions where this name came from originally; I believe it's because of the namesake Bloodbraid Elf. But regardless, this midrange deck works on the principle "questions and answers": It poses questions to the opponent by presenting threats that have to be answered; and it can answer questions itself with the best disruption and removal in the game. Four-Color Blood heavily relies on mana advantage in the form of mana dorks in order to properly build pressure. It also has amazing ways of finishing the game extremely quickly.
As one of the "Good Stuff" decks, Abzan works with an arsenal of very powerful creatures, planeswalkers, and decent removal. This is probably the essence of midrange, seeking to overwhelm the opponent in the mid- to late game with efficient and durable threats.
Note: A short while after this tournament, True-Name Nemesis was banned.
The point here is that this one Top 8 alone features eight different decks, lots of spicy card choices, and has all colors fairly well represented. It is extremely hard to "metagame" correctly in this format. You can just bring a deck that you feel confident with without giving much thought about the latest menace.
There are, of course, trends such as more powerful planeswalkers appearing in all archetypes or blue tempo strategies being on the rise. But this is far removed from metagaming in formats such as Modern and Legacy, where bringing the "right" deck to a tournament can make all the difference. This is an extremely liberating aspect and one that rewards creativity over metagame analysis. By the way, the winning deck in that specific tournament was Mardu Planeswalkers, a pretty unknown archetype up to this point. Highlander enables creativity and knows when to reward it.
2. Discover New Play Patterns, Cards, Synergies, and More
Highlander feels like the wild west of Magic — not unlike Commander, which features some of the most bizarre and fun cards ever printed as well. However, Highlander is an inherently competitive environment. The single-player focus heavily shifts the evaluation of cards. You would be surprised how many cards are Highlander playable that hardly see play either in official tournaments or multiplayer games. I am talking about cards like Nimble Obstructionist, Dire Fleet Daredevil, Arc Trail, Tithe, Woodland Bellower, … The whole history of Magic is relevant to the format. You will often be surprised to rediscover powerful cards from the past that fit your strategy but have remained under the radar because 60-card Eternal formats aren't interested in them. Highlander may be the sweet spot for many of your favorite cards that have been collecting dust in the "Was Once Pretty Good" binder.
Other than that, you are doing very powerful stuff. Players who like to cast amazing spells and revel in powerful Magic have a field day with Highlander. Granted, there is a lot of "unfair" stuff going on, but that usually balances itself out because you are playing with absolute fire yourself. This does not mean that the format only consists of broken cards of the past. Because of the singleton nature you are inclined to look beyond the obvious. That's a fun and exciting journey all in itself.
Then there is the actual gameplay. Since I have discovered European Highlander for myself, I have enjoyed many amazing games, too many to count. Each and every game feels unique and memorable. Because the high variance in a singleton format makes it statistically extremely unlikely to see two games play out exactly the same, you will discover new play patterns and synergies every game. This way, players are engaged and challenged all the time. There are veterans who will scratch their heads every week because something new comes up. In addition, every release counts and usually brings new interesting toys to the table. Players will constantly try out new things because the deck-building aspect of Highlander is that rewarding. "Netdecking" is almost non-existent for everyone I know. Does this remind you of Commander? Now imagine the same passion for deck building from a completely new, competitive angle!
3. No Game is the Same
Up to this point we have established the idea that Highlander is pretty diverse. Not only does it present amazing deck-building opportunities, but the actual games are also constantly challenging you in new and exciting ways. In official formats such as Standard and Modern you are likely to see repetitive patterns — Arcum's Astrolabe into Mox Opal into Urza, Lord High Artificer or Gilded Goose into Oko, Thief of Crowns or Island into Delver of Secrets / Insectile Aberration into Daze. These patterns are not inherently bad for the game. Rather, they reward those who seek to learn a format, its metagame, and all its nuances. This is how tournament Magic is largely done. However, for many players, repetitiveness breeds boredom. These players experience honest format fatigue: Modern players constantly demand changes to the ban list in order to shake up the otherwise stale format; a considerable number of Standard players eagerly await the next rotation so they can get rid of cards they are sick of playing with and against — and they have joined the "ban wagon" pretty often these last few years.
There is substantially less of this problem in Highlander due to the extreme levels of variance. Bans are very rare, because it is pretty hard to spot problematic cards when they can only be played once per deck. There has hardly ever been something akin to a "solved" metagame in Highlander, so there was never really a "problem" that needed urgent fixing. Likewise, no Highlander game plays out the same and this is where the format really shines. If you attend an eight-round tournament you can expect to face eight different decks, and it is not rare to face eight different archetypes either. Even if you play against, say, an aggressive green-white deck twice in a row, the games should still be very distinct from one another. Chances are high that these two decks share about 80 cards in their lists at maximum. Deck individuality is so high that you never know what to expect from the opposition. For many competitive players, this can be a problem. ("I don't even know what to play around!" — "How am I supposed to metagame?" — "I don't have the time to know all these cards!" — et cetera.) However, most Magic players I know love this unpredictability — that's why Commander is as big as it is today — and Highlander is the right format to scratch that itch.
4. Easy to Get Started; Low Barrier of Entry
This point may be a bit controversial if you take a look at the decklists above. Most of these decks are pretty expensive with their slew of original dual lands and other expensive cards. That is very true; a good multicolored Highlander deck will usually set you back at least 1,000 Euros. There are, however, some aspects and systems in place that make the format friendly toward beginners and those who play other formats:
You only need one copy of a card. If you save up some resources, do some careful trading and selling, and are finally able to afford your Volcanic Island, that's it. You don't need more for Highlander —one is enough. That is true for every single card. And having this one card may unlock a load of possible decks and archetypes for you.
Gold-bordered cards are allowed and common even among seasoned players. Do you want to play a Gaea's Cradle deck? Don't worry, you are allowed to play with the significantly cheaper gold-bordered version. The same is true for cards like Wasteland, City of Traitors, fetch lands, Academy Rector, and so on. I personally have saved hundreds of Euros because I got gold-bordered cards myself, and I have played many events with these.
Some communities do allow proxied cards, especially if you are a beginner. Just make sure they are discernable from real cards and don't look like absolutely no effort went into them. Feel free to just print one or more of the lists above and jam some Highlander with your friends. Ask your local community, if it's okay to play with these decks in events — often it is. Absolutely avoid counterfeits, though, as they damage the game and can cause controversy.
If you play Commander, the "jump" to Highlander is not that extreme. There are many cards that are really good in Commander that are also pretty good in Highlander, for example Swords to Plowshares, Counterspell, Eternal Witness, Demonic Tutor, Sylvan Library, and many others. The biggest difference between the two formats is multiplayer versus single-player deck building. In Commander, the mana cost of cards is not that important of a factor because you have more time to assemble resources. This means that some of the amazing Commander cards like Cyclonic Rift, Mirari's Wake, or Expropriate cannot really shine in Highlander. In turn, many strong cards such as Lightning Bolt and Thoughtseize aren't commonly played in Commander because their effect is too limited for multiplayer. However, if you have a multicolored, optimized Commander deck, chances are high that you can at least use roughly the same mana base for a Highlander deck. If you play Modern or even Legacy, most of the staples you own are very good in Highlander as well. Standard players can usually fit in their favorite cards too, as recent releases have seen a lot of play in Highlander. To summarize: An average Magic player probably has a lot of the cards needed to assemble the basis of a Highlander deck already!
Spread the Word, Play, Establish a Community
I could write several more pages in hopes of winning you over. However, nothing sells a game better than playing it and having fun. I can only encourage you to propose European Highlander as a format to try out among your fellow players. If you have a dedicated Commander playgroup already and you like to jam some one-on-one games from time to time, why not try out Highlander with the cards you have at home? It can be a nice deck-building exercise, a somewhat fresh Magic experience, or the beginning of a new European Highlander community. Among the best things about Magic: The Gathering as a game is its flexibility and the many ways to play it. Highlander is, in a way, everything at once: It has the variety and singleton experience of Commander, the competitiveness and power of Legacy and Modern, and gets constant updates and fresh new toys like Standard.
To us, Highlander is pure Magic.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.