Getting It Done In 15

Elixir of Immortality and Tome Scour banned on power level? Primeval Titan unplayable? Dan Barrett explains this wacky new format…

Brevity is hard. Writing so, every word must have a purpose and be carefully chosen.

Only that which is needed is used. Everything unnecessary is cut out. Only the essential.

Try it yourself. Describe a film or book in just fifteen words. Here’s an example:

An adventure-seeking archaeologist must locate a Biblical relic to prevent Nazis from conquering the world.”

A single line, and yet it describes a whole story we all know (and love).

This is close to the minimum number of words required to tell such a story.

But what is the minimum number of cards needed to form a Magic deck? Well…

Brevity is hard.

Restrictions breed creativity.

Magic: The Gathering.

Combine the three?

15-card highlander.

What is this format, how does it work, and why the hell do I care?

(We’ll stop the gimmick here, then.)

15-card highlander is a quick and easy format to play that still offers a surprising amount of depth in decisions made in both games and deck construction.

The format uses Standard-legal cards, with a maindeck size of exactly 15 cards, and a sideboard of 3 cards. Being highlander, other than basic lands, a card may only appear once between a deck and its sideboard.

As an additional rule, players do not lose the game if they are unable to draw a card from their library; there is no “decking.”

Finally, (at least) the following cards are banned: Elixir of Immortality, Hedron Crab, Tome Scour, Jace’s Erasure, Mindcrank, Shriekhorn, Grindclock, Halimar Excavator, Sadistic Sacrament, Jace’s Archivist, Jace, Memory Adept, Black Sun’s Zenith, White Sun’s Zenith, Red Sun’s Zenith, Chancellor of the Spires.

Oh, and as for why you should care… It’s fun, an additional Magical challenge you may not have pondered already, and not particularly time-consuming—so can be played between rounds or while you wait for FNM start. Also, for the second year running, it’s one of the featured formats at the upcoming GB Nationals (18-21 August) and proved pretty popular last year.

15 general thoughts on the format:


If you keep your starting hand of seven, you will have naturally drawn every card in your deck by turn 8 or 9. From there onwards, you can no longer rely on the top of your deck to save you; you’re on your own. An average deck will contain only 8 to 11 spells and creatures, so it’s important to make every one count. If you can find ways to get more than a card’s worth of use out of each card, to cast them more than once, or to prevent your opponent from doing either of these two, you’ll find the restricted number of spells in your deck less of a hindrance than it may first seem.


Every additional mana your most expensive spell costs is a huge burden—it means you must include more mana sources in your deck, which most of the time will mean you have to include fewer useful spells (Can you get around this, though?). This pretty much rules out anything that costs seven or more, and even any five- or six-drops you choose to play must seriously pull their weight.

Card draw without any other effect attached is pretty bad, as it only gets you to the rest of your deck quicker; it does not create any long term advantage. It feels strange to say it, but while Preordain and Ponder are almost Demonic Tutor in this format, at the same time this might not be good enough!

Cards that require other cards to be within your deck (think Fauna Shaman, Rampant Growth, Birthing Pod) are equally unplayable—by the time you’ve drawn/played them, they may not even do anything. For all cards, you need to consider whether it matters if it is the last card in your deck; if a card isn’t useful when it is, you probably don’t want to be playing it. Choosing to draw offers no advantage in this format.


Once you’ve eliminated every one of your opponent’s threats and gotten through all of their potential answers, if you still have a threat, you’ve won. Unlike most games of Magic, where you can get into a dominant position, but your opponent can still potentially draw out of it, the game is just over in these scenarios. Thus Inkmoth Nexus attacking ten times is a perfectly valid win-condition, as is waiting for a Shrine of Burning Rage to tick up to 20.


With such a limited number of cards you need to consider, you can formulate a very specific plan for matchups, with pinpoint roles for every card. If you know one of their creatures can only be answered by one of your removal spells, then save it for exactly that purpose! Likewise, if you know you need to wait until you’ve cleared the way with a discard spell to cast your Titan, be patient.


Cards such as Creeping Tar Pit or Mystifying Maze add additional threats or utility to your deck at near-zero cost. As such, it is my strong belief that all decks want Tectonic Edge for all these non-basic lands. Other cards that serve dual roles, being both a mana source and a threat/effect or a threat and a removal spell (your modern-day Flametongue Kavu if you’re old-school, Shriekmaw if you’re me), are also going to be pretty hot.


Because of the limited number of mana sources decks can run, both of these types of cards feel much stronger than usual. It is unlikely any deck will be playing 2/3 lands more than its top card costs to get around Spell Pierce or Mana Leak, and poorly-designed decks will fold to a single Tectonic Edge, no longer able to cast their biggest threat. For this reason, I would certainly consider some combination of: at least one additional land in the maindeck, discard to proactively fight such cards, lowering your top end after sideboarding, some way of getting your big spells/lands back from your graveyard. I would also advise you build some redundancy into your mana base—if you want to cast a Garruk, Primal Hunter at some point, have at least four sources of green mana.


Speaking of getting things back from the dead, recursion is super important in this format. If everyone else is playing “fair,” and you have several cards you can play multiple times, it’s like having a bigger deck than your opponent, a huge advantage. Cards to consider: Vengevine (rebuy infinitely with Kor Skyfisher), Bloodghast (at least three ways to recur infinitely—can you find them?), Reassembling Skeleton, etc.


The other way we can get more than 15 cards’ worth of value out of our deck is through repeatable effects. Planeswalkers basically give you at least a free spell every turn and can be dominating and hard-to-answer win conditions as well as removal spells or a source of creatures. Can your deck beat a resolved Elspeth Tirel, Garruk Primal Hunter, or Sorin Markov? Can you counter it on the way down? If not, head back to the drawing board…


Planeswalkers aren’t the only cards that can give you an effect many times over, so we must also look closely at creatures with activated abilities—such as the M12 Mage cycle, level-up creatures, tappers, pingers, etc. There are also many artifacts and enchantments to consider, which are often more difficult for our opponent to get off the board than creatures: for example Luminarch Ascension or Mimic Vat.

NOTE: This section originally included a fair amount on the Zenith cycle, the red, white, and black versions being amazing in this format, as they recur themselves with no additional effort required. However they were then added to the updated banned list. But, this does mean I can tell my secret tech I’d figured out against them—and it’s a Horrifying Revelation


With so few cards in your deck, two- and-three card combos are ridiculously easy to set up. The #1 contender here is Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin (I would not be surprised if one half of this ends up banned, in fact), but the Soul’s Attendant + Leonin Relic-Warder + Phyrexian Metamorph infinite life combo is also worth a thought, particularly as the latter two cards seem fine on their own. Going a little bit off the beaten track, how about Worldslayer + Cudgel Troll (or any other regenerating creature)? There are plenty of other powerful one-two punches you may have come across in Standard (or Draft/Sealed) that may be useful, such as Cunning Sparkmage and Basilisk Collar, or Gideon’s Lawkeeper and Royal Assassin.


If your opponent plays a planeswalker, can you answer it and win? Okay, how about an artifact? An enchantment? A creature with shroud or hexproof? Multiple small creatures? You need to be able to answer any of these and more, so make sure your “answer” spells are diverse. Two of the best here are Oblivion Ring and Ratchet Bomb—the latter of which any deck can use.


Hot tip: it doesn’t work. I saw a guy playing Ball Lightning in this event last year; have you any idea how bad that card is in this format? Unless you draw the exact right cards in the exact right order, you won’t win with a brute force aggro deck, so don’t aim for speed. You will just lose to Timely Reinforcements, any other form of life gain, or drawing your spells out of sequence. This being said, Goblin Guide is now essentially without drawback!


Be aware that there are some cards that just defeat particular other cards or strategies; so bear in mind what your own deck may be weak to, and have an answer for that card if possible. For instance: Frost Titan beats any other Titan; Spellskite can beat a lot of damage-based removal; Geth’s Verdict beats a single hexproof threat (Thrun, say); and poison/many turns of attackers that can’t be opposed beats the “infinite” life combo. Additionally, the right crusader or sword can also destroy an unprepared monocolor deck, so bear the existence of these cards in mind, won’t you?


Unlike normal Standard games, so long as you don’t die in the first few turns, you’re guaranteed to see any card you boarded in, and you’re approximately 50% to see it in your opener. This does open some interesting possibilities, such as siding in Leyline of Sanctity in a non-white deck to avoid targeted burn and discard and mulliganing to it. Likewise, Leyline of the Void can potentially be used by anyone to hate on decks that rely on the graveyard, and I know Stuart Wright made good use of it last year for exactly that.


The top two places last year went to the same 18 cards, with team Leeds excel-fiend Seb Parker and lovable ginger Rob Wagner taking 1st and 2nd respectively, with a deck designed by 2009 GB team-member Mick Edwards. A report from Rob can be found here, but in case of laziness: their deck was threat-heavy and Bant in colors:

Ancient Ziggurat
Seaside Citadel
Stirring Wildwood
2 Forest
Birds of Paradise
Noble Hierarch
Qasali Pridemage
Garruk’s Companion
Jenara, Asura of War
Rhox War Monk
Leatherback Baloth
Rafiq of the Many
Vines of Vastwood
Oblivion Ring

Path to Exile
Leyline of Sanctity
Elspeth, Knight-Errant

And here is Rob’s one-sentence summary of the format:

“With an appropriate banned list, the format is all about deck construction and proper play sequencing. Mana screw and flood basically can’t enter the equation and mulligans are relatively un-punishing. Because you see all 15 cards each game, you have to plan things properly.”

15 interesting cards of each color (plus colorless/multicolor and lands) you might find uses for:

WHITEOblivion Ring, Elspeth Tirel, Mirran Crusader, Sun Titan, Luminarch Ascension, Timely Reinforcements, Leonin Relic-Warder, Archon of Justice, Hero of Bladehold, Kemba, Kha Regent, Sunblast Angel, Gideon Jura, Gideon’s Lawkeeper, Baneslayer Angel, Day of Judgment.

BLUEMental Misstep, Mana Leak, Spell Pierce, Frost Titan, Sphinx of Jwar Isle, Deceiver Exarch, Phyrexian Metamorph, Phantasmal Image, Viral Drake, Corrupted Conscience, Steel Sabotage, Deprive, Mind Control, Aether Adept, Vapor Snare.

BLACKDespise, Inquisition of Kozilek, Duress, Mind Rot, Phyrexian Crusader, Smallpox, Royal Assassin, Grave Titan, Reassembling Skeleton, Entomber Exarch, Vengeful Pharaoh, Dismember, Liliana Vess, Go for the Throat, Liliana’s Specter.

REDCunning Sparkmage, Slagstorm, Chandra, the Firebrand, Chandra Nalaar, Koth of the Hammer, Kargan Dragonlord, Spikeshot Elder, Manic Vandal, Searing Blaze, Staggershock, Goblin Ruinblaster, Demolish, Ricochet Trap, Pyroclasm, Lightning Bolt.

GREENNoxious Revival, Garruk Wildspeaker, Garruk Primal Hunter, Thrun, the Last Troll, Brutalizer Exarch, Jade Mage, Beast Within, Obstinate Baloth, Awakening Zone, Leatherback Baloth, Vines of Vastwood, Viridian Corrupter, Acidic Slime, River Boa, Llanowar Elves.

COLORLESS/ARTIFACT/MULTICOLOREmrakul, the Aeons Torn, Quicksilver Amulet, Ratchet Bomb, Prototype Portal, Mimic Vat, Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, Venser, the Sojourner, Wurmcoil Engine, Sword of Body and Mind, Precursor Golem, Phyrexian Revoker, Contagion Clasp, Contagion Engine, All Is Dust, Batterskull.

LANDSCelestial Colonnade, Stirring Wildwood, Raging Ravine, Lavaclaw Reaches, Creeping Tar Pit, Dread Statuary, Inkmoth Nexus, Buried Ruin, Tectonic Edge, Mystifying Maze, Bojuka Bog, Khalni Garden, Sejiri Steppe, Halimar Depths, Smoldering Spires.

That’ll do for now. I do hope you check out 15-card highlander and enjoy brewing up decks for this little format—there’s a lot more depth than you might think in a 15-card library!

Next time, and slightly sooner than you might expect, a preview of GB Nationals just before the tournament, with predictions of who and what to look out for in the coverage!

Dan Barrett