Thoughts from a Highlander Player

I have decided to bite the bullet. For as long as I have been a featured writer at StarCity, my personal bio has included the following sentences:”He has a Five Color Showcase deck he has been working on for years, and won Type Two, Extended, and Type One tournaments with it. This ultimate work is called, ironically,”Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy” – a title which proves that, like everybody else, Abe thinks the world revolves around him. The only difference is that Abe admits it.”
Many people haved asked me to tell them about Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy, and I’ve finally broken down.

I’m sure that every writer goes through a stage of blockage. I was cracking my head, wondering what to write. I have a list of articles mapped out in my head. To remember them, they are also written out on a piece of paper beside my work computer (I have three computers, a gaming computer, a work computer, and a media computer).

I was perusing my list, but none of the topics wowed me like they first did. I still plan on doing them. Someday. My list includes, let’s see here ….. Building Your First Five, the next three volumes, all planned out, an article on my Type One deck that I’ve been meaning to write for a very long time, the next two installments of The Compendium of Alternate Formats, an important Five Color piece, another Peasant Magic article with some of my decks, and a multi article series on the casual metagame. That’s a lot of stuff, but nothing really sings to me, you know?

So, I have decided to bite the bullet. For as long as I have been a featured writer at StarCity, my personal bio has included the following sentences:

“He has a Five Color Showcase deck he has been working on for years, and won Type Two, Extended, and Type One tournaments with it. This ultimate work is called, ironically,”Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy” – a title which proves that, like everybody else, Abe thinks the world revolves around him. The only difference is that Abe admits it.”

It’s a question that many people ask,”Tell us about Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy.” Since I’ve been writing, I’ve received questions, e-mails, forum postings, and such from people wondering about that deck. My deck is Highlander, so let’s address several issues surrounding Highlander.

Why Highlander At All?

Highlander is the perfect format for casual Magic in so many ways. First of all, Highlander allows you to experiment with cards that you otherwise might not be able to play or fit inside of a traditionally-sized deck. Second, a Highlander deck easily supports a larger number of cards in the deck. When you get bored with a Highlander deck, there is a simple solution – add more cards. Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy is currently over six hundred fifty cards tall and plays in three stacks of cards. There are other Highlander benefits as well, of course.

As more and more cards are printed, more and more cards are relegated to our trade and deck stock binders. People will look through my deck stock binder and marvel. There’s a lot of stuff there – four Stasis, four Howling Mines, six Earthquake, six Birds of Paradise, five Wrath of God, five Armageddon, four Mana Drains, four Maze of Ith, and so forth. As players, we have traded and traded for years, and the fruit of our labor is to watch as card after card achieves unplayability. Cards are phased out of Type Two, phased out of Extended, phased out for becoming too complex, phased out in a numbers crunch, and phased out for being obsolete.

We look back upon cards in Magic with wistful nostalgia.”What a great card Witch Hunter used to be. Most dominant 1/1 I have ever seen at a table.” Feel free to insert whatever random cards you remember from the past. These cards are still just as useful as before. And Highlander lets you play with them.

The more cards are released, the more some individuals have a growing need to actually use the cards that they own. That’s where Highlander steps in.

Despite that, you only need to acquire one of a power card or chase card in order to play with it instead of four. That’s valuable for cards such as Exalted Angel, Akroma, Angel of Wrath, and Akroma’s Vengeance. That’s a pretty powerful financial incentive. It’s easy to keep your deck current when you only need one of a card.

But, the best reason for playing Highlander is that the deck plays differently, every time you play it. For example, in my deck I have Wall of Blossoms, Wall of Mulch, Wall of Roots, Vine Trellis, Fog Bank, and Steel Wall as early defensive drops. Sometimes I can rely on a wall or two to shore up my defenses, but that’s rarely the case. The deck can play defensively, or aggressively with cards like Wild Mongrel, Basking Rootwalla, and Grim Lavamancer in my first few turns. A Highlander deck can simply change from game to game.

Another great thing about Highlander is that, in multiplayer, you have tools for any occasion. Multiplayer Highlander gives you an opportunity to find defenses – an opportunity that you won’t always have in duels.

Most of the people I have spoken with who have tried Highlander still play it. A few do not. I submit that those who have tried it and stopped, did so because they didn’t heed the cardinal rule of Highlander decks. Add more cards. When Mirrodin came out, I added forty-five cards to my deck. My mind started saying things such as:”Hmmm, let’s try Well of Lost Dreams (technically a Darksteel card).””I wonder if Scythe of the Wretched is any good?””I could put in the artifact lands and be able to tutor with an Enlightened Tutor or Fabricate for mana if I needed it.” On and on my thoughts went. Keep adding cards, and your Highlander experience will grow with your deck size.

Deck Building Tension

A beautiful Highlander problem arises when you start building your deck. Do you toss in fun cards, or redundant cards? In a simple word, yes.

Highlander is different from other formats in ways beyond the mere deck construction rule. Lots of formats let you play with cards that you rarely play. In Peasant Magic you can play with Unglued or Portal cards. In Five Color you can play with Chaos Orb and Contract from Below. Highlander creates deckbuilding tension, making you want the same effect multiple times for consistency. You play different cards with similar effects. But, in addition to supporting these ideas, Highlander is different in kind from other casual formats.

Based on your casual group’s reaction, certain cards may or may not be allowed. Chaos Orb, for example, may be a fun card for the group to watch, or a cheating card, because it is banned from Type One. Your playgroup’s opinion is the difference maker there. Without a clear mandate from a playing group, I’d say that Portal cards are allowed, Chaos Orb and Falling Star are fine, and Unglued cards are allowed sparingly.

Toss in fun cards because you need them. Toss in redundant cards because you need them. Simple, eh?

For example, I have Wrath of God in my Highlander deck. Because our multiplayer group includes a lot of players who enjoy playing lots of creatures and overextending, I also play Rout, Kirtar’s Wrath, Akroma’s Vengeance, Catastrophe, Desolation Giant, Winds of Rath, Solar Tide, and Wave of Reckoning. Isn’t it nice to see that you can get a lot of play out of the various cards that you’ve picked up over the years?

Digression aside, redundancy is fine. As are fun cards. Your deck is big enough for both. Frankly, your deck can be as large as you want it to be.

Even though building a deck is a lot of fun, a lot of people may want to know where to start. I’d recommend that you first go through your cards that are no longer Extended legal. Maybe there are some cards recently rotated out that you want to still use. Or, maybe you have some really old cards that don’t see much play these days. Whatever you prefer. But start with older stuff and then move forwards. That’s the path I’d recommend.

I would recommend that you use the Five Color banned and restricted list for all larger Highlander decks (over one hundred fifty cards or so). Well, the restricted list is that helpful, but the banned list sure is. It allows the dexterity cards (Chaos Orb and such), and bans some cards that are simply unfair. Recursive tutors, for example, are banned (like Survival of the Fittest and Wild Research). Also banned are Shahrazad and Battle of Wits. It’s a pretty good banned list, with a lot of powerful cards axed.

I would change the following: Allow Portal and Unglued cards, and discuss in your group the weaker banned cards (Intuition, Insidious Dreams, Holistic Wisdom, Phyrexian Portal, Panoptic Mirror, Earthcraft). Personally, I’d allow Earthcraft and the Mirror, while leaving the rest banned.

Remember, when adding cards to a Highlander deck, to also add enough mana to support your new cards. That’s a common mistake made by many. I keep a stack of cards I want to add to my deck, and when it gets big enough, I add the cards and the mana at the same time. Saves me from having to add one or two cards at a time, and thus slowly screw up my mana base.

Additional Highlander Musings

Every”Highlander is Great!” article includes the basic two reasons for switching to Highlander:”You can use cards you normally don’t!” and”It’s Fun!” Well, in addition to using a lot of older cards and being a lot of fun, here are three other good things about Highlander:

Every Strategy Article on the Internet is a Good Place to Find Information. It’s true. You can find good cards to play, neat interactions, and so forth from Oscar Tan articles. Or multi-player articles. Five Color articles or Type Two articles. Whatever.

The best places to get info, however, are multiplayer and Five Color. Strategy in these articles is obviously already filtered to a degree for larger decks or slower games. And if there are two conditions true about Highlander, it’s that you need time to develop and often have larger decks. The ability to use any possible strategy article is also a good excuse to read them….

You Don’t Need as Many Rules. Some groups like using Unglued or Portal cards. Others don’t. Some like using Type One restricted lists, other prefer Five Color lists, other 1.5, and others use their own multiplayer list of banned or allowed cards. Highlander seamlessly fits into any existing set of rules that you may have. However, a group that goes to Highlander does not have to worry about restricted lists, banned lists, etc. Especially if decks are encouraged to be over 120-150 cards or so. Big Highlander decks cannot abuse multiples of a card, for the obvious reason. And it’s hard to even abuse one card since getting it is so unreliable.

By nature, Highlander is a self-correcting environment.

Highlander Decks are Low Maintenance. You build one Highlander deck, and play it a lot more than two, three or five sixty-card decks. It’s easy to add cards to, as well. Also, you don’t need to keep deconstructing it to check the mana percentages and so forth. Plus, building it initially is a lot of fun. You just start pulling cards out of binders and the like left and right. Anything you like can get tossed in. And you end up with a pretty nice Highlander deck!

Unfortunately, you can’t ever include a decklist with your StarCity articles. The Knut would literally explode from having to link to all of those cards. [See Phil Stanton’s articles for similar editorial torture. – Knut]

Highlander Ideas

I have a few Highlander ideas that I use as well. I have this deck, Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy, right? It’s about 650 cards tall, which means there are a lot of cards in the deck. As a deck building challenge, I built a second, huge Highlander deck with around 450 cards. This deck is also a Highlander deck, with one catch – no card (other than basic land) in my primary deck can be in my second deck.

My name for this secondary deck is the Junior Varsity Squad (Or JV Squad, for short). My rule regarding these decks is simple, nor card may be immediately introduced into the main deck, unless it is from a new expansion set. (Sort of like the NFL draft, the players drafted can go straight to the playing field. Otherwise, new cards have to go to the bench first).

Cards may be promoted from the JV Squad to the Happiness and Joy deck (I recently promoted Loxodon Warhammer and maybe promoting Mystic Compass soon). Likewise, cards get demoted as well (that stupid Psychic Membrane – never did anything for me, go spend some development time in the minors!).

I also began a Limited Highlander deck. I purchased a booster pack of every expansion and base set, Revised through Darksteel, all three Portal sets, and everything in between. I created a 262 card sealed Highlander deck!

Now I have three Highlander decks to choose from playing on Magic night – My main deck, my JV Squad, and my sealed deck.

That is how much fun Highlander is. I have to have three decks, all available to play at a moment’s notice. It really is worthwhile.

I hope that you will find it to be so as well.

Until Later,

Abe Sargent

P.S. – I can’t give you the decklist for Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy as it currently stands. That’s way too big. So, to appease the masses, I’ll give you the original sixty-card decklist. Urza’s Saga had just been released, and I wanted to try and find a Type Two way of breaking Sneak Attack. I came upon Living Death – I could bring back the creature that were just sacrificed! I also played Lifeline to permanently bring them back into play, and Stronghold Assassin, Goblin Bombardment, and Altar of Dementia to sacrifice them for various effects. Portcullis could allow a creature to be Sneaked out (snuck out) as my opponent played a creature, thus adding to the number of creatures in play and removing my opponent’s creature from the game. Likewise, I could Sneak out creatures, remove them from the game, then pop the Portcullis (only later versions, with Keldon Vandals and Uktabi Orangutan (recently printed in Sixth) would be able to do this).

The Spike Soldier was a quick drop that could swing for six with a Sneak Attack. The Verdant Force was not as good as I thought it would be, and quickly came out. The Spike Feeders could be Sneaked out, block a creature, then sacrifice for four life or move counters permanently somewhere. The Spike Weaver could make a surprise fog. The Wall could draw a card at the speed of an instant.

4 Birds of Paradise

4 Wall of Blossoms

4 Spike Feeder

2 Spike Weaver

3 Spike Soldier

2 Child of Gaea

1 Verdant Force

2 Stronghold Assassin

1 Goblin Bombardment

1 Altar of Dementia

2 Portcullis

1 Lifeline

3 Sneak Attack

4 Living Death

2 Scroll Rack

1 Volrath’s Stronghold

1 Reflecting Pool

1 Pine Barrens

2 Cinder Marsh

2 Mogg Hollows

8 Forests

6 Swamps

3 Mountains

Urza’s Legacy would change the deck significantly, including some streamlining and focusing of the deck as it included Ghitu Slinger, Avalanche Riders, and Bone Shredder – all very abusable. Anyway, I can’t give you the current Abe’s Deck of Happiness and Joy, but I can give you the original incarnation!