What is Magic: The Gathering 15 Card Standard Highlander?
The Magic: The Gathering Nationals tournament weekend was the ultimate highlight of the Magic calendar in the UK, alongside a quiz from Rich Hagon, there were a host of amazing side events, none more awesome than the 15 card Standard Highlander tournament.
For those of you who remember the best tournament of the year that was Nationals, this headline should fill you with joy and fond memories; the the rest of you, here is a slice of what you have missed!
The Rules of 15 Card Standard Highlander
- Each player builds a 15 card deck using only Standard legal cards.
- Maximum of one card of each name allowed in your deck.
- There is no restriction on the number of basic lands you can include in your deck.
- You have a sideboard of 3 cards.
- A player does not lose the game from being unable to draw a card from an empty deck.
That in a nutshell is the way the format operates, usual 50 minute rounds and rules apply, playing best of three. Of course, when this format was a thing, there was a reasonable ban-list to avoid certain issues. The ban-lists generally covered things like:
- Being able to recycle your library, Elixir of Immortality was always banned for this reason.
- Milling cards, Tome Scour was banned since it could often represent a one mana 5-for-1, which as you can imagine, it somewhat overpowered. The rest of the cards are pretty much the same deal.
So why play 15 Card Standard Highlander?
This format is the ultimate test of deckbuilding and metagaming. Variance plays only a very small part in this format, whilst your ability to construct your perfect deck and understand the other things in the format is paramount. More importantly, the format is cheap as you require very few cards, and above all else, is an absolute blast to play. Back in the day when this was a big event each year at Nationals, groups of people gathered together to try and break the format, which often ended up in new bannings, or people getting windmilled out via something unforeseen.
How do you build decks for 15 Card Standard Highlander?
In terms of building, this format encourages you to construct some kind of engine providing you with inevitability. Whether that is a recursive creature, or an ability you can sink mana into each turn to chip away. Combo decks are also incredibly potent since you know by turn 8 you will have drawn your whole deck. Splinter Twin was a popular favourite
one year back in a day as you could essentially sculpt the perfect hand quite easily, this obviously makes the power of draw spells and deck manipulation rather pointless.
The manabase is also quite interesting, decks tend to have the exact amount they need to cast their spells, and nothing more. Of course, this opens up the possibility for land destruction to be devastating, as you can be guaranteed to shut someone off of a spell or two, which can easily be 10% or more of the spells in their deck! In terms of your colours, you can easily splash without any problems to fear aside from land destruction, which opens up a lot of possibilities for off-colour curve toppers.
What is the Current Format?
Start with the assumption that all milling cards are banned, and add to that list Cranial Archive, Learn from the Past and probably Day’s Undoing, and you are about there. Day’s Undoing is potentially allowable as it is symmetrical, but I fear it would be too format warping and stifle the creativity so essential to this format. Next we need to look at the engines available to use.
1) The first one that springs to mind for me, is Soulfire Grandmaster. Giving you effectively infinite spells is obviously powerful, the vulnerabilities of the engine are clearly there, but it certainly feels powerful enough to build around, and build to beat in terms of other decks. This deck could be built in several ways, but it is likely to be Jeskai with Ojutai’s Command as a re-buy and Red mana for damage spells to close out the game, the rest of the list is probably just a selection of goodstuff to keep other people at bay to set up the engine, alongside a backup plan of some description.
2) The Allies deck is probably a suitable option here as well, Drana, Liberator of Malakir provides a solid body that should let your team out-trade and win the long-game through board dominance, failing that, Drana’s Emissary can win a board stall. Gluing it all together is a general miss-mash of the best allies out there to take over games via synergy, as the sum of your parts (of which you will draw all of) will likely outshine other people’s board positions. March From the Tomb can also provide a big payoff should things go wrong.
3) Outlast, this may well be the format where that ability can shine the most. It represents the ultimate mana sink in the format and can allow you to grind people down after resources are depleted. Herald of Anafenza providing infinite creatures over time and Tuskguard Captain to give trample to your infinitely large creatures, that is pretty much the definition of inevitability for me. Getting to survive that long with Abzan BattlePriest‘s lifelink might not be too difficult, but there is the weakness of having to tap your creatures during your own turn.
4) A couple of other interesting mana-sinks I am fond of, Hangarback Walker being the obvious competitive standout here, but also High Sentinels of Arashin is a card that receives a new lease of life from this format. The card is decently costed, but the value on the ability in this format is much higher, it also teams up nicely with that Hangarback Walker or even the outlast cards from above.
5) Ghirapur Aether Grid is an exciting engine to fool around with, giving you both removal and a win condition in the long run provided you can support it. The deck would probably be a Thopter Spy Network-and-friends deck, to guarantee enough artifacts to keep things ticking along. Obviously it has clear weaknesses, but all of the decks in this format tend to have some form of vulnerability that can be exploited by those who see it coming.
6) Molten Vortex decks could be highly amusing, but effectively the Goblin Charbelcher of glass cannon decks. With the Vortex you can reliably kill on about turn 5 in a deck of 14 Mountains. So there is certainly a viable and cheap option for people to play, although you would need a backup plan in the sideboard or face some amount of bad times.
7) Planeswalkers in general are of course a powerful source of card advantage without needing cards in your deck, so no doubt some amount of irritating Superfriends deck will emerge. Some people will enjoy this, and the decks will require some amount of tweaking and probably be quite vulnerable to certain other strategies, but the ‘walker decks typify the classic “goodstuff” decks in this format.
Fortunately in this format, a lot of the powerful walkers are very much utility and cannot actually be the win condition in this format, Ob Nixilis, Reignited being a prime example of a ‘walker not lining up well with the format. Kiora, Master of the Depths, however, is a decent power level of this, syncing up well with mana-sinks and providing a powerful end-game effect. Sadly, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar remains rather nuts in this format and a card you must consider when deck building in terms of beating it, Sorin, Solemn Visitor not being too far behind and probably often alongside. Ugin, the Spirit Dragon is still rather nuts in this format once on the board, but committing that much of your deck to lands is certainly a risky move, perhaps some kind of big mana deck using Hedron Archive or even the dragon mana rocks could power out Ugin and his buddy Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger, but it would take a special sort of player to go down that path.
8) The final engine I would like to mention is my good buddy Banana Man, (Tasigur, the Golden Fang. Whilst you don’t really want to activate his ability before you have drawn your deck, he provides a very potent pool of infinite spells you can cast provided you can keep him on the table. This engine is very similar to the Soulfire Grandmaster engine we spoke about earlier, except a little slower and less precise, but with more in-built power as you can re-buy your whole deck after the fact.
3 Sample Decklists for 15 Card Standard Highlander
I know how much everyone loves to see a decklist, so I thought I’d offer up a few lists from the ideas above.
15 Card Standard Highlander – Thopters
1 Hangarback Walker
1 Pia and Kiran Nalaar
1 Thopter Spy Network
1 Whirler Rogue
1 Thopter Engineer
1 Ghirapur Gearcrafter
1 Ghirapur Aether Grid
1 Ghostfire Blade
1 Chief of the Foundry
1 Mystic Monastery
1 Mage-Ring Network
1 Felidar Cub
1 Kill Shot
15 Card Standard Highlander – Outlast
1 Herald of Anafenza
1 Abzan Falconer
1 Abzan Battle Priest
1 Ainok Bond-Kin
1 Tuskguard Captain
1 High Sentinels of Arashin
1 Hangarback Walker
1 Abzan Charm
1 Dromoka’s Command
1 Sandsteppe Citadel
1 Canopy Vista
1 Mage-Ring Network
1 Zulaport Cutthroat
1 Felidar Cub
1 Utter End
15 Card Standard Highlander – Molten Vortex
1 Molten Vortex
1 Battlefield Forge
1 Cinder Glade
1 Rugged Highlands
1 Wind-Scarred Crag
1 Felidar Cub
1 Winds of Qal Sisma
That about does it for today. I shall be revisiting this format in weeks to come and talking about some decks that pop up, I’m trying to get the ball rolling on this format in Reading and over in High Wycombe as well, so will hopefully have a great deal to talk about. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your deck ideas in the comments section, and personally I am a huge fan of seeing under-valued and unused cards finding a home, so make me proud! Hopefully I can work out something fruity and out of the box to share with you in terms of this format at some point, but just go out and enjoy this semi-forgotten relic of awesome Magic.
Thanks for reading,