A Guide to 15 Card Highlander 2012 – Shared Discovery with Rob Wagner

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15 Card Highlander in 2012

Hi all, welcome to an update on the best Highlander format in Magic – 15 card Highlander! I’ve written about this format before, in 2010 and in 2011, and it is one of the big highlights of Nationals for me.

Unfortunately, Nationals this year has taken the form of 3 more PTQs which:

  1. Makes it less special and
  2. Takes away the opportunity for awesome side events as fewer people are in attendance. 

I know the Vintage community has had grievance with this also, though they were sated slightly by a side event at the Manchester Grand Prix.

Nevertheless, I have pushed through and developed some potential decks for the format in case any of you at home enjoy wacky highlander constructed formats and want to try your hand at an interesting one.

The rules are basically as follows:

  • Proceed as with Standard Constructed with some exceptions.
  • A deck must be precisely 15 cards large, with a sideboard of 0 or 3 cards exactly.
  • Apart from Basic Lands, you may have a maximum of 1 of any legal card in Standard.
  • You do not lose the game to drawing from an empty library (instead just continue).
  • There is a banned list, which consists of every card that can mill your opponent and every card that can reshuffle your graveyard into your library. This should be properly defined before you play an actual tournament, so people agree on things.

Strategy that immediately comes up is:

  • Identify any card the tournament organiser missed off the banned list that either mills the opponent or reshuffles your library ;). Horrifying Revelation and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn were two such cards I picked out last year that super-powered my deck.
  • The reason these two are so powerful are that they are literal card advantage. You begin the game with 7 cards in hand, and then have 8 more to draw. If you mill them by 2 (say the TO forgot Thought Scour then suddenly they only have 6 cards left to draw. Talk about a Hymn to Tourach! Similarly, if you shuffle 3 cards into your library then you will draw 3 more cards than your opponent this game.
  • Cards that do little more than draw a card (Ponder, Gitaxian Probe) are terrible because you are down a card in the long run (you have one fewer card to draw as the game goes on). The games really do go on to the point that you can draw your deck.
  • You need probably only as much mana as your deck requires. This was different in the past with Tectonic Edge and you can probably get people by playing Acidic Slime or similar to cut people out of spells. People are constrained by the amount of mana in their deck, and any excess lands means they have one fewer spell in there. If you have a deck with 5 lands and add a 6 drop then you really need to justify having to use up more slots with the extra lands. Any Utility lands really show their value in this format if you have room for them.
  • People aren’t going to grind out big-mana games, so anything that taxes their mana is going to have a larger effect than in regular Magic – see Mana Leak and Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.
  • Birthing Pod and Green Sun’s Zenith are stone cold unplayable I think, because you are way more likely to “accidentally” draw the target before you can tutor for it. Note that the Zeniths should all be on the banned list anyway since they shuffle cards into your library.

Popular Archetypes 

Without further ado, I will present my starting point for the format including sideboards:


As with the full Standard deck, you want to use Unburial Rites to cheat out a massive fatty that overpowers the opponent. I have used Mulch and Faithless Looting to reliably make sure that you have access to the Rites and to the Fatties quickly enough since you cannot possibly cast Massacre Wurm from your hand. Elesh Norn you do have the possibility of casting if you can keep one mana dork in play, but really we’re going for speed here.

I’m not sure if the Elderscale Wurm shouldn’t just be in the main deck anyway to catch people unawares but people shouldn’t really leave home without a way of dealing with some troublesome permanent. You can also consider Acidic Slime over the Thragtusk if you don’t think the ‘Tusk is going to be that relevant.

Of course, it may be the case that using Mulch and the mana guys is less good than going for a slower but more reliable midrange strategy of just casting stuff like Blade Splicer up the curve to the top. In which case the best way to justify this sort of shell is that it is powering out some combo.

Enter “The Aristocrats“, the combo deck from the top 8 of Pro Tour Barcelona. Here `combo deck’ of course means `creature deck’ because that’s how Wizards is making Magic these days 😉

The aim is as follows: have Falkenrath Aristocrat in play and have Angel of Glory’s Rise enter the battlefield. It will return Fiend Hunter and Huntmaster of the Fells to play. Have the Fiend Hunter exile the Angel of Glory’s Rise. Keep track of this point (*).

Now sacrifice the Huntmaster to the Aristocrat, and after it resolves sacrifice the Fiend Hunter to the Aristocrat. The Angel returns to the battlefield and resurrects the Fiend Hunter and the Huntmaster of the Fells. Target the Angel with the Fiend Hunter‘s ability. You have now got back to the point above (*) but with an extra 2/2 Wolf in play, 2 more life, and a +1/+1 counter on the Aristocrat. Rinse and repeat and you will have infinite 2/2 creatures, infinite life, and an infinitely large indestructible flier. If that isn’t enough to take the game then I’m not sure what is!

Black-White Smallpox.

Those first two decks relied on having a bunch of resources to cast their top end, so how do we stop them getting to that point (last deck with Lingering Souls in, I swear). We can make them discard some of those cards with direct discard and repeatable sources like Liliana of the Veil.

That particular Planeswalker and Smallpox both require us to discard as well, but we came prepared with cards we are happy to discard – Lingering Souls, Gravecrawler, and potentially an extra land since we can make use of some with Vault of the Archangel but essentially only require 4 mana to cast all our spells. Try to avoid losing your Sorin, Lord of Innistrad as he’s the best repeatable source of advantage you have.

Green-Blue Infect.

One incredibly annoying deck from Standard is the Green Infect deck, annoying because it’s not that good but can just kill you out of nowhere anyway. When your deck is more reliable in a 15-card format you get to be even more annoying.

Since it’s so important to have a guy down quickly we are playing 5 Infect creatures (including Inkmoth) and lots of ways to protect them – Spellskite, Mutagenic Growth, Ranger’s Guile. It’s possible this deck is playing one too many lands, because you want 3 to cast everything in the deck, and Inkmoth is a freebie, but you want to be able to cast the Agent on turn 2 if possible and the Glistener Elf on turn 1 if possible.

We can use the extra mana on Spellskite but ideally this deck would play 2 dual lands, a Forest and an Inkmoth Nexus. Of course, there’s nothing much we can do about that so best is to just suck it up and play well.

Blue-White Venser.

Now, here’s a deck that gets me excited. I thought about an extra land in the form of Inkmoth Nexus or Ghost Quarter but I’m not sure what I’d cut to be honest – probably the  Misthollow Griffin but I can’t get over the value of the recursion with Moorland Haunt.

This has the excellent combo of Venser, the Sojourner and Stonehorn Dignitary which can just take an unprepared opponent out of the game – you can take your infinite creatures and life but you’re never attacking again!

It’s probable you want 2 Plains and 1 Island, but having more Blue mana is probably correct in every Magic format ever.

Bant Aggro.

I know a few people who would get behind this little number. We get to play too many mana sources to be as reliable as possible because Gavony Township, Ajani, Caller of the Pride, Sword of War and Peace and Hero of Bladehold makes those mana dorks into threats of their own.

The synergy between mana guys and stuff to ramp into that makes those mana guys into actual threats is a long-loved strategy in Magic and an excellent use of resources in 15-card Highlander. This deck plays the most efficient threats and the best ways to make them bigger, so should be one of the better aggro decks in the format.


“Some Men just want to watch the world burn”

Who cares what the other guy is doing, just deal him 20 to the face and put him on the pile. We don’t have the excellent creatures of times past, like Goblin Guide, Hellspark Elemental or Ball Lightning, but we do have the most unfun card in Standard – Bonfire of the Damned Due to the flashback on the pair of Black-Red cards we’re able to deal an opponent 23 damage without calling on the services of Koth of the Hammer, Stensia Bloodhall or Thundermaw Hellkite.

With the Bonfire and Chandra’s Outrage we don’t even have to pick between burning our opponent or his creatures – why not kill them both? We also make Timely Reinforcements little more than a gain 6 life because the first time we have a creature on the battlefield it has binned their Spirit tokens and smashed them in the face for 5. Feel free to gain 6 life, I’m only going to smash your face in again.


Try it out!

As you can see, 15-card Highlander is a diverse and fun format with lots of room to out-build and out-play your opponents. Why not build some decks and give it a try between rounds at your next FNM?


Bonus Stuff!

Bonus! Proposed Ban list:

Innistrad: Dark Ascension: Avacyn Restored: M13:
Curse of the Bloody Tome Archangel’s Light Dreadwaters Serra Avatar
Dream Twist Chill of Foreboding Rotcrown Ghoul Battle of Wits
Laboratory Maniac Geralf’s Mindcrusher Stern Mentor Jace, Memory Adept
Memory’s Journey Increasing Confusion Stolen Goods Mind Sculpt
Mindshrieker Shriekgeist Reforge the Soul Vedalken Entrancer
Selhoff Occultist Thought Scour Vessel of Endless Rest Void Stalker
Undead Alchemist Gravepurge   Elixir of Immortality
Cellar Door     Sands of Delirium
Ghoulcaller’s Bell      
Trepanation Blade      
Nephalia Drownyard      
Scars of Mirrodin: Mirrodin Besieged: New Phyrexia: M12:
Screeching Silcaw Frantic Salvage Chancellor of the Spires Belltower Sphinx
Geth, Lord of the Vault White Sun’s Zenith Psychic Surgery Jace, Memory Adept
Molten Psyche Blue Sun’s Zenith Life’s Finale Jace’s Archivist
Grindclock Black Sun’s Zenith Praetor’s Grasp Jace’s Erasure
Sword of Body and Mind Horrifying Revelation Mindcrank Merfolk Mesmerist
  Red Sun’s Zenith   Time Reversal
  Green Sun’s Zenith   Elixir of Immortality
  Decimator Web    


Thanks for reading, thanks for sharing.


@DrRobWagner on Twitter





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