CASUAL FRIDAYS #52: There Can Be Only One

I am going to spend most of this week discussing the rather well-known "Highlander" format. I consider this to be a terrific format for casual groups to try, since it solves about three problems at once for many players. But before I do, I want to make a kind but apologetic note about another popular…

I am going to spend most of this week discussing the rather well-known "Highlander" format. I consider this to be a terrific format for casual groups to try, since it solves about three problems at once for many players. But before I do, I want to make a kind but apologetic note about another popular casual format.

Every two or three weeks, I get an email from someone asking me if I have played/have advice on/would ever write about 5-Color Magic.

Here are the basics. (You can go directly to http://www.mixweb.com/nneenn/5color to learn more.) 5-Color Magic is a wonderfully inventive format attributed largely to Kurtis Hahn. You play 250-card decks for ante, with minimum (I believe 18) card slots for each color. There are specific banned/restricted lists, and an informal code of conduct (offer to trade back cards won in ante, etc.). The players who play it are near-fanatical and I am terrified to say anything remotely disparaging about it.

Except for this: It’s not for me. That’s not really disparaging, if you think about it, just expressive of a preference. I do not care for formats that are based on ante, and I enjoy the painful discipline of a sixty-card deck. So the two defining characteristics of 5-Color – the ante element and the 250-card size of the decks – kind of put this format out of the running for me personally. If another member of my play group wanted us to try it out, I imagine we would; but it’s never come up, and I doubt it ever will. We’re all pretty boring and conservative people.

But I do not want to discourage any of my readers from trying it! 5-Color may just be your angelic guide to a new level of Magic enjoyment, your fairy godmother that turns your pumpkin into Mox, your brave guardian that defends your life total against the direct damage of boredom, your hairless mole baby that winks at you when no one else is looking. If your group is in a rut, try it. Let me know how it goes.

Those of you who are out there who are 5-Color Magic fans and feel like I ought to cover more of it, I’m sorry. This is about all I plan to say on it. I hope you’ll stick with me as I explore other topics and formats.

And so on to Highlander.

I first saw the movie Highlander about fifteen years ago, and I can’t recall being terribly impressed. Near heresy, I know; but there was one line which stood out, which was the "there can be only one" deal. Maybe it stood out since the characters kept saying it (or paraphrasing it), over and over, until everyone in the audience was spitting, "Right! Only one! We get it! And there are two now. So someone die already."

Fast forward to a little fantasy scenario I’ve dreamed up; I figure something like this happened around the time of Revised or Antiquities. Some group of Magic players-probably some of the earlier icons of the game-was mucking around with some formats and someone realized they had a lot of extra cards hanging around that they never used. "Hey," one of them said, "what if we played a few games with these extra cards? We’ll make a rule: No card repeats. Throw your extras all together, add a few one-off staples, and let’s see what we come up with." Then, while they were all whipping through their card collections, someone must have made the comment, "Ach, I can’t have two Raging Rivers! Darn! There can only be one!" And then someone likely said, in a Sean Connery styled brogue, "Just like Highlander!" And that probably got a lot of giggles, and then they all certainly swapped Vulcan ear-sharpening tips or something similarly geeky.

Years later, the rest of us are stuck with the format’s name. But it is actually rather clever, and it still gets a quick laugh out of a newer player when they’re told the reason for the Highlander name.

So as I believe we all know (or have guessed, even if you’re new) by now, the only real rule to the Highlander format is THAT YOU MAY ONLY HAVE ONE COPY OF EACH CARD IN YOUR DECK. Basic lands are an (optional) exception. Other restrictions are as you choose: when my group plays it, we keep it Type I format, 60-card minimum, basic lands are replicable. So that’s what I’ll describe for now.

There are at least three reasons why your group would want to play Highlander format:

1) You all loved the movie(s) so far and can’t wait for the fourth (and "final") episode coming out next year…this is your way of paying tribute to the mediocre scripting, barely passable acting, and admittedly decent special effects that have characterized the Highlander movies thus far; and/or
2) Several players in your group have single copies of rares or uncommons (or even commons) that they would love to throw into a deck without giving up a competitive advantage to everyone else; and/or
3) Your group is simply looking for something different to do, and this demands enough rigor in deck-building and thoughtful play to attract your group.

The obvious problems in building and playing a Highlander deck, of course, are twofold: first, there’s less chance than ever that you will draw a given card that you might like in a given situation; and second, once you play that card, it’s spent, gone for good.

Guess what the strategy section of this article will focus on?

If you have decided that your group plays altogether too many enchantments, and you have a sinking feeling that this evening in Highlander format will be no different, how on earth can you overcome that without the safety net of four Disenchants?

Of course, in the case of this staple card, the answer is easy: Get an Erase, a Peace and Quiet, a Presence of the Master, etc. Somewhere along the line, you’re bound to get a card that stops the enchantments (and perhaps artifacts) you hate. Burn works like this, too: It’s easy to build a base of 12-15 direct damage cards, some terrific and some mediocre, that you wouldn’t mind drawing at any given time.

A bit more difficult, but not impossible, is the Counterspell. You almost certainly do not want to build this deck for multiplayer, but if you’re doing a duel-style playoff within your group, you can get buy with Forbid (more on buyback in a moment!), Dismiss, Force Spike, Rewind, Force of Will, Thwart, and the jillion other variants out there. Don’t expect to turn the game in your favor before turn five or six, and a bunch of cheap blockers (merfolk?) until you can settle in probably wouldn’t kill you.

As far as drawing the creatures you want, splashing lots of green is probably a smart idea. Green offers the most diverse set of creatures throughout the mana curve, and you can start off with a Pouncing Jaguar/Scryb Sprite/Elvish Lyrist/Timber Wall on turn one, a Grizzly Bears/Pygmy Razorback/Acridian/Wall of Blossoms on turn two, a Trained Armodon/Fallow Wurm/Silt Crawler/Mirri Cat Warrior/Uktabi Orangutan on turn three…you get the idea.

Black’s removal, white’s utility, blue’s bounce…with so many expansions and mechanics out, you can find enough variants of the basic spells to satisfy the base of just about any deck.

What you cannot do in a Highlander deck is depend upon a combo. Even with one Necropotence, one Yawgmoth’s Will, one Demonic Tutor, one Vampiric Tutor, and one Rhystic Tutor in your deck, you won’t get all the pieces you need in time. Certainly not in a multiplayer game. And what you do get will get waxed, never to be seen again.

If combo is out of the running, and control ranges from weak (Counterspell) to moderately strong (white/green utility), what of aggression? Not surprisingly, I’m pretty high on it. Just about every color, not just green, has a wide range of small creatures you can throw out there. Chances are, at each point in the mana curve there are at least four that talk and walk about the same way. (At two cc, off the top of my head: white has White Knight, Order of Lietbur, Order of the White Shield, Fresh Volunteers, and Steadfast Guard; black has Black Knight, Knight of Stromgald, Erg Raiders, Order of the Ebon Hand, and Fallen Askari; blue has Coral Merfolk, Rootwater Thief, Lord of Atlantis, River Merfolk, and Sea Sprite; red has about forty goblins that fit the bill; and green has the above plus numerous walls and grizzly variants.)

So you CAN have consistency, and you can apply pressure if you’re aggressively inclined. But whether you push with your cards or hold them back for defense, the question remains: What can you do to hold onto the single, unique bullets you have?

One of the best expansions that ever happened to the Highlander format was Tempest. Why? Buyback. While buyback doesn’t help you find the card you need (unless, of course, you’re talking about Whispers of the Muse), it does help you greatly once you find it. Absent countering or fizzling of the target, you now have that spell as many times as you need it.

There are other ways to recycle, of course. The undying cards in Urza’s Legacy (Rancor, Weatherseed Treefolk, Shivan Phoenix) are natural Highlanders. Ditto Avenging Angel. And black has several self-recurring creatures (including Necrosavant and Nether Spirit) that ought to give you some element of card advantage: the red mage will think twice before wasting his one precious Bolt on a creature you can just pull out again next turn.

Both white and black have ways of sparing any creature from a long stint in the graveyard: Angelic Renewal, Miraculous Recovery, Unearth, Soul Strings, and so on. Blue can bounce permanents it’s about to lose back to owner’s hand, which is a handy if time-consuming talent. Green can regenerate what it’s about to lose.

And red? Well, red’s never been one for sparing resources. Ball Lightning isn’t exactly your best Highlander card. (It isn’t your worst, either, if you only have one and have been dying to put it in a deck anyway. Go ahead; you might get lucky and smack someone for at least three or four, plus a creature.) Death Spark and Squee can be fun. Beyond that, you’re flipping coins or sacking stuff you expect to lose to play the next spell. Splash another color if you want longevity!


SPELLSHAPERS. A clever but risky way to recur an effect AND assure yourself of "finding" the right card is a spellshaper. Bear in mind you will be ditching a unique card to feed the ability each time you use it; but perhaps the ability is strong enough to warrant the feeding. It depends on your deck. Spellshapers are fragile creatures, and of course most effects only have one spellshaper associated with them (with the exception of Kris Mage, Arc Mage, and Latulla), so more often than not you get the one spellshaper, once.

RESTRICTED CARDS. When your group annouces Highlander as a format for next week, now is a good time for those of you with larger and older collections to seek out all of your restricted cards, like Fork and Balance. Why? Because restricted cards are the original Highlanders! Look at it this way: This format treats every card as if it were so powerful, it was only fair to have one per deck. That’s not true of perfectly good cards like Lightning Bolt and Silt Crawler, but you’re putting them in your deck. Assuming there’s a color/theme fit, make sure you include Windfall, Black Vise, Wheel of Fortune, Crop Rotation (to get that one Gaea’s Cradle!), and Sol Ring.

OTHER TYPES. Because of this huge relative advantage restricted cards gain, make sure your group is somewhat balanced in terms of collection depth before you sign on for this format. If you’re not, you may want to add the additional restriction of Extended instead of Type I. (Or limit it further, and do just Type II, or Masques Block.)

RARES VS. COMMONS. As you build your deck, you may come to a decision point: do I take this crappy single rare, which I never play, or this similar common card? At those points, take the rare and put it in your deck. You’ll never use it otherwise, and you might just feel better about opening it up in an unlucky pack four months ago. And imagine how sweet it will be if Oath of Lieges somehow wins you the game!


These are loosely based on decks our group has seen/played, all meant for multiplayer:


Key Cards:
In G: Weatherseed Treefolk, Rancor, Revive, Regrowth, Reclaim, Wall of Blossoms, Wall of Roots, Hurricane, Tropical Storm
In R: Shivan Phoenix, Fanning the Flames, Searing Touch, Shard Phoenix, Wheel of Fortune, Death Spark, Squee, Mogg Fanatic, Flowstone Wall, Fork, some basic burn including Hammer of Bogardan.

The idea here is to set up some early defense with walls, wait for a closer (the Treefolk, the Phoenix, the Flames, the Hammer, any creature with Rancor on it), and then beat down. The Hurricane/Tropical Storm "combo" is fun, if you happen to get it: play Hurricane early, so everyone thinks you’ve blown your one chance of downing fliers. When they all come out fearlessly, throw out Tropical Storm (or Revive the Hurricane). The Flowstone Wall is great here since it blocks virtually any groundpounder, and repeatedly threatens to kill any precious attackers that dare come over.


Key Cards:
Avenging Angel, about twenty other angels, multiple variants on Disenchant, a few variants on life gain (Soul Warden, Congregate, Angelic Chorus), Angelic Renewal, Armageddon, Wrath of God, Cataclysm.

The focus here is on getting three or four large fliers out and then protecting them (and yourself) with some damage prevention, Angelic Renewal, etc. Jake played a deck like this recently, and I had forgotten how cool that Avenging Angel is. The global clearers, as you can guess, are for when you get into trouble.


Key Cards:
One of every Mercenary, plus Ascendant Evincar, Bad Moon, basic removal like Terror and Expunge.

Mercenaries are not as good as rebels, but you can build an interesting deck out of either one! It’s always good to remind yourself as an opponent that Pit Raptor is a mercenary, and can be called upon at instant speed if its owner has the Slaver or Overlord out. A good, solid, deck, especially if your format is Masques Block only. Of course, it suffers from lack of utility, and a single Informer can just wreck your day.


Blue, touch of white

Key cards:
U: Forbid, Capsize, Whispers of the Muse, Morphling, Hermetic Study (for the non-Tims), various Tims (Prodigal Sorcerer, Thornwood Faeries, Mawcor, Rootwater Hunter, Pirate Ship, Zuran Spellcaster, Suq’ata Firewalker, Reveka Wizard Savant, Psionic Entity), Misdirection, Deflection

W: untapping white attackers, Mageta’s Boon, Cho-Manno’s Blessing, Flickering Ward, Ramosian Rally

It’s very thin, but I saw a deck with some of these cards by a player I don’t know (and only saw once or twice) at Mirkwood, and I’ve always wondered what the full deck looked like. Maybe something like what I’ve described here. Amaze your friends with all of the pingers you can put out! Ooooh and aaaah as a single Massacre or Earthquake wrecks your day (thus, the counterspelling and white pumping/protection). Smile devilishly as you activate the Psionic Entity (deals two damage as Tim, then smacks itself for three) and then cast Cho-Manno’s Blessing (blue) in response! Ech, you’re not trying to win awards here, people.

Some other rapid thoughts: With enough recursion and searching, just about any creature theme deck can work reasonably well in Highlander (e.g., slivers). Shapeshifting and cloning can be amusing (Clone, Volrath’s Shapeshifter), etc., but don’t count on it for a path to victory. Finally, I’ve always felt the right mix of milling and discard could absolutely wreck a lot of Highlander decks, since once a card moves from library to graveyard, not many strategies can bring those precious, unique resources back. I’ve never put it together myself, but the more adventurous among you could try Whetstone, Millstone, Grindstone, Unnerve…heck, you’ll be annoying everyone so much, you might as well throw in Bottomless Pit, Rackling, and Wheel of Torture. Throw in Bottle Gnomes, Fog Bank, and enough regenerators to withstand the onslaught that will come at you. And good luck with that.

One quick story to relay to you all, using the first two of the above decks, among others. Seven players total, we’re in Hunt play format (restricted targeting/attacking), with the Highlander deck format. I am playing the red/green, Jake the white Angels. Carl is playing mono-black with some pumpables, regeneration, and occasional removal, like Grave Pact. He’s got Grave Pact, an Abyssal Gatekeeper, and a few small regenerators on the board. (He’s tapped out.) I have a Weatherseed Treefolk, a Shard Phoenix, and a Vine Trellis. Jake has four angels. Pete has a bunch of Thrulls (he’s trying to build up to a big Drain Life or some such). Theo has a few mercenaries, Toim some Rebels, Gary some green meat.

At one point in the game, Jake judges that he has sufficient creatures on the board to handle anything coming or going. Wary of a Corrupt or Drain Life from the black mages, and feeling that I won’t panic, he decides to Armageddon.

He’s wrong. I panic. (Panicking was, incidentally, the right move here.) I sack the Shard Phoenix in response. Hundreds of really sharp feathers slam into the armies below. Through the combined effects of Grave Pact and a dying Abyssal Gatekeeper, Drudge Skeletons, and what not Carl eventually tallies up to five creatures gone and the rest of us accountable. We each have to sack up to five, which together with Armageddon clears everyone of just about all assets.

Jake, Carl, and I did all recover well enough to be the last three in that game. I began Fanning Flames, which worried Carl enough to take me out before I could hurt myself; then he won a life race with Jake. Best I can tell, Carl won with a monochrome deck, big fat creatures, some considerable removal, no other utility, a wee bit of regeneration, and no buyback or recursion whatsoever.

I guess he didn’t read this article.


Anthony Alongi