An Introduction to Canadian Highlander

Posted in Ways to Play on May 17, 2016

By Marshall Sutcliffe

Marshall came back to Magic after discovering Limited and never looked back. He hosts the Limited Resources podcast and does Grand Prix and Pro Tour video commentary.

"Ach! Hans, Run!"

That was the name of one of my first Magic decks. That one was built around the three copies of Lhurgoyf I owned. I had another one that tried to make a ton of Snake and Squirrel tokens using Ashnod's Altar, Snake Basket, and Liege of the Hollows. I can't remember what I named that monstrosity.

Still, I look back on these crusty cardboard deck boxes covered in marker ink with a feeling of great nostalgia. I remember feeling like I had my deck. My Magic deck, and that's what Magic was to me back then.

Nowadays I'm more interested in the subtle nuance of Limited, or the latest tech for Standard and Modern. I approach the game completely differently than I did back then.

But you know what I do miss? Having my Magic deck. There is something about the simplicity of just having your deck, and I miss it.

I've got that experience back now, though. I've got my Magic deck again. With Eternal Masters previews starting next week, I thought that today I would introduce you to the most fun Constructed format I've ever played: Canadian Highlander.

Let's get a few facts out of the way right off the bat:

  1. Canadian Highlander isn't specific to Canada (specifically Victoria, British Columbia). That's simply where it was invented by fans (sixteen years ago) and where it continues to flourish.
  2. It's a singleton format, which means that outside of basic lands, you can only play one copy of each card in your deck.
  3. You play with a minimum of 100 cards.
  4. You play with 20 life, and you duel one-on-one only. No multiplayer here.
  5. There are no sideboards.
  6. There are no commanders or any other color restrictions.
  7. It isn't an official Wizards format. It's a fan-made format that maintains its own rules and lists.

Canadian Highlander uses the Vintage banned list. You can find that list here.

The first thing that may come to your mind when you think of a Vintage banned and restricted list is that Vintage has the most powerful cards available in Magic. They don't even ban cards for power-level reasons in Vintage! And you would be correct.

The next thing you may be thinking is that if everyone gets to play with all of these super powerful cards from Magic's beginnings, then the format must be pretty degenerate. Combos, turn-one kills, that kind of thing.

While your instincts are correct, it doesn't play out that way for two main reasons:

The first is simple; we are talking about 100-card (typically, although you can use more if you'd like) singleton decks here. It's pretty hard to set up consistent combos or turn-one kills when you have to go that deep into the card pool. The nature of big singleton decks leads to games that don't resemble one another when played out (which is great).

The second is the most important and defining thing about Canadian Highlander, and it's called the points list.

The points list is an ingenious way to manage a format like this. It's pretty simple, too. The points list gives a point value to certain high-power-level cards, and you get a certain number of points (10 per 100 cards in your deck) to "spend" per deck.

For example, the first place your brewer brain may have gone when I mentioned setting up combos in a 100-card singleton deck was "tutor" effects—cards that let you search your library for specific cards and put them in your hand.

The best tutor ever printed is called Demonic Tutor.

Demonic Tutor will cost you 4 of your 10 points. Maybe you'd like a Vampiric Tutor as well? That's 3 points. Throw in a Sol Ring for fast mana (4 points), and you're at 11, over the limit of 10 total points.

You'll have to trim one of these cards and replace it with something a little less potent in order to keep your points at 10 or fewer.

Remember: not every card has points assigned to it. Only the most insanely powerful cards get points.

As an example, Jace, the Mind Sculptor doesn't have any points assigned to it. Counterspell (yes, Counterspell Counterspell) is 0 points as well. Same with Lightning Bolt, Deathrite Shaman, Necropotence, Swords to Plowshares, and most every other card ever printed.

The kinds of card that cost points fall into three broad categories:

Tutors/Search Effects

Fast Mana

Ridiculously Powerful or Broken Cards

Basically everything on the points list falls into one of these categories. There are usually between 40 and 50 cards on the points list at any given time.

You can check out the current points list here.

The points list does a great job of managing all the powerful things you could do in a format like this while still allowing you to pick an angle and go for it with some really cool, powerful cards.

You may be wondering what it's like to actually play the format. Is it casual? Competitive? How long do the games last? Why do you like this format so much? Which kinds of decks are the best?

Let's get into all of these questions now.

First, it's played in a competitive way. You are trying to get your opponent dead, and there are no two ways about it. Sometimes in multiplayer formats there are different motivations at play, but in Canadian Highlander, it's just regular Magic where you are duking it out against your opponent.

The games last a variable amount of time, but I would say they are roughly in line with a game of Modern.

As far as why I love the format and how to describe it to someone who hasn't played it yet, I decided to go right to the source—to the players who invented and cultivated the format.

I asked them how they would describe it.

David Brunsdon had a short but accurately sweet summation when he said, "It's where competitive players go to have fun."

I thought Nelson Salahub's description was really interesting too: "Canadian Highlander is Cube Constructed. It allows you to walk down memory lane and play your favorite old cards and still compete."

Cube Constructed. That's exactly how it feels when you play it. If you've ever had the chance to do a Cube Draft before, you'll know that you get to play with many of the most powerful and sweet spells from Magic's history. Usually you end up building some kind of cool archetype and taking it to battle. In Canadian Highlander, you get to fully build out one of these decks and fine-tune it to your heart's desire. It's awesome.

And this really hits on something that I love about the format. When I think back to cards that I have loved from the past, there are many. Some I drafted a bunch, or built decks around, or played in Standard when they were legal.

Cards like Preordain, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Awakening Zone, Ajani Vengeant, Pack Rat, Mulldrifter, and Coiling Oracle are cards I've loved for a long time. But where can I play them now?

Many aren't powerful enough for Modern or Legacy, and they haven't been Standard legal in years. A lot of people find solace in Commander, as it has a similar structure and creates a similar space for you to have "your deck" where you get to play with your favorite cards from the past.

The problem I faced is that many of these cards aren't particularly good in Commander, as it's focused a bit more on the expensive spells rather than the cheap efficient spells that I love. Playing planeswalkers is a good way to get a target on your back in Commander.

If I want to play Preordain, I have to go all the way back to Legacy or Vintage, for example.

I love that I've found a home for all of these cards to live together in harmony. That's right, I get to mix all of these old favorites and new additions together in one deck! Let me tell you, Snapcaster Mage targeting Mana Drain is pretty nice. Ten out of ten, would target again.

Tyler Woolley described the format like this: "A format where the metagame never stops evolving, so the brewing never stops."

And this really is at the heart of the format. It's an absolute brewer's paradise.

The format doesn't ever rotate, so you know that after getting your "singleton playset" (one copy of a card), you're good to go forever.

While the barrier to entry isn't low (I would say it's comparable to a Commander deck), it's nice to know that the worst thing that can happen is that your cards shift a little in points (they do update the points list a few times a year).

But nothing ever gets banned, and nothing ever rotates. This is fertile ground for some pretty savage brewing!

Let's take a look at a few decklists to give you an idea of which strategies have traditionally been powerful in the format. Ben Wheeler provided me with these lists as a sort of metagame snapshot.

You like green ramp decks? Take a look at this "CradleHoof" deck that has been tearing up the tournaments in Victoria for a while now:

CradleHoof

Artifact (2)
1 Mana Vault 1 Sol Ring
Enchantment (3)
1 Sylvan Library 1 Utopia Sprawl 1 Wild Growth
100 Cards

You can see the game plan pretty clearly here, as the deck plays a ton of one-mana creatures that make mana and even some green library search to find your big win conditions (primarily Craterhoof Behemoth). If you are into creature-based mana ramp, this is a very powerful and relatively straightforward place to start.

This next deck is a proactive deck that has a lot of "toolbox"-type synergies going on. It's called Bant-Blade:

Bant-Blade

Enchantment (3)
1 Detention Sphere 1 Rancor 1 Sylvan Library
100 Cards

You can see how disruptive yet aggressive this deck can be. It has some huge haymakers to capitalize on the lead it can garner, like Armageddon and Ravages of War. The Equipment is also insane in this deck.

What's that? You're a control mage?

Fear not. Here's a Grixis Control deck that used to dominate the metagame, but has cooled a bit of late. Still, it's an awesome take on a control deck:

Grixis Control

Enchantment (1)
1 Future Sight
100 Cards

Kill everything your opponent summons, tear apart their hand, counter their spells, and get some value. Not really sure what more a control player could ask for here.

Next we have a pure aggro deck. The Bant-Blade deck we looked at a minute ago has some pretty assertive tactics going on, but they are nothing compared to the speed and consistency of one of the best aggressive decks in this format, Goblins!

Goblins

Any aggressive player will be happy to see that aggro decks are alive and well in Canadian Highlander. Tribal decks like this Goblins build are common, but not the only way to beat down. The power and flexibility of this deck is absurd, as I found out the first time I played against it.

This next deck is one that you hear about all the time from the hardcore Canadian Highlander players from Victoria. (By the way, they play twice a week and routinely have over 40 players playing in their events.) This deck is called Sorensen, or Sorensen Blue. It's named after the originator of the strategy.

Sorensen Blue