What Is Canadian Highlander, and 5 Reasons Why You Should Give It a Go!
How was your October? I found another way to play Elves in a game of Magic: The Gathering, so I’m having a great month.
I’ve been playing Canadian Highlander, and I’m here to explain why I think you’ll love it too.
(I also carved the Innistrad symbol into a pumpkin for Halloween Cube night, but there’s not much article content in that)
What is Canadian Highlander?
Canadian Highlander is a competitive 1v1 Magic format that has its roots in Vancouver, Canada. I wholeheartedly encourage you to read about the format and its history on the official website here, which contains everything you could want to know about how to build a deck and jam some games.
Briefly, a Canadian Highlander deck must contain a minimum of 100 cards and must be singleton – i.e. contain no more than one copy of any card (with the exception of basic lands and cards that explicitly state that you may play any number of them). Canadian Highlander decks don’t have sideboards.
One thing that makes building Canadian Highlander super interesting is its card restriction system. For every 100 cards, a player is given 10 points that they may spend when building a deck. There is an official list that contains some of the more overpowered cards from Magic’s history, and each card on the list is assigned a number of points. If you want to play Natural Order (5 points), you can also play Protean Hulk (3 points) and Umezawa’s Jitte (2 points), using up your points allocation. This system helps balance the decks a little (pun intended, sorry, it’s on the points list), allowing maximum brew potential and supporting diverse strategies.
The format also has a few outright banned cards (e.g. Conspiracies, Dexterity Cards, check the page above for the full list) but aside from that, you can play whatever you like.
When you shuffle your deck* and begin a game, your life total will start at 20, and you can take two mulligans at 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1. The ability to mulligan to six twice definitely helps boost the probability of fun and interactive Magic!
*with difficulty, if like me you don’t play much Commander and also have tiny hands.
5 Reasons why you should give Canadian Highlander a go!
I’ve fallen in love with this format, there are loads of reasons for this, and here are my favourite top 5. I’ll start with…
1. The deck building process is a joy
I’m not much of a brewer. Occasionally I’ll draft something a bunch of times in booster draft and get the overwhelming urge to build a casual deck of the archetype, but most of the time I like my constructed decks optimised by people who are much better than me at optimising. (Thank you, you excellent optimisey people.)
Building something that you found online is a possibility in any format, including Canadian Highlander, and you can find a plethora of great decks to help you draw up a wishlist of satisfactory Goblins if you are of a mono-red persuasion. I started out by looking online for an Elf deck to get some inspiration (because of course I did, I play Elves in nearly everything), finding a Craterhoof Behemoth-based monstrosity that took my fancy, and went from there.
I flicked through my collection to dig out my spare Llanowar Elves and find my Russian Heritage Druid, and came across a Decimator of the Provinces. Oh my, I’d wanted to put that in a deck for ages, and there was also this Gladehart Cavalry that’s been durdling in my binder… if I am splashing one colour then maybe it should be Blue for the Distant Melody that I play in Pauper Elves, or maybe I should keep the White for Elesh Norn as the online decklist suggests…
Because the decks are singleton, the deckbuilding process of Canadian Highlander allows you to throw in all of the sweet cards that have been hanging around in an unsorted pile and waiting for their time to shine. If I was trying to build a high-tier deck then I would have focused more on studying tried-and-tested online builds, but I wanted to make as much use of my existing collection as possible. I siphoned cards from my Pauper deck, along with a bunch of spares that I happened to have from my Modern build (accidentally bought five copies of Elvish Archdruid for Modern, whoopsie), and threw them together with a bunch more cards to form a somewhat viable first deck.
Building a Canadian Highlander deck presents you with interesting challenges. The first obvious puzzle that I encountered, and I later heard discussed on the North 100 podcast, was the question of “I need cards that allow me to do X thing, but I can play no more than one copy of any card… how bad can a card that fits this description be and still be worth including?”
I was building a ramp deck, but could no longer lean on a nice Green pile of Elvish Mystics and Llanowar Elves to show up in my opening hand as I could in Modern or Pauper – I had to get creative. Just how bad could a mana dork be and still be good in my deck? Two mana? Three mana but generating any colour? How many non-Elven mana-generating creatures could I get away with, considering I can’t tap them with my Birchlore Rangers to spew out even more Green stuff? This would also depend on what my opponent was doing, if they have a slow deck I might be rewarded from playing my bad mana-generating creatures if it means I can cast my Pelakka Wurm before they can do much about it, if they are playing Wasteland or Strip Mine I might want more creatures that tap for other colours of mana, not just Green… the list goes on!
The deck ended up being a rough mixture of cards from the online list and cards that I happened to own and either thought were viable replacements or I just thought were fun. Or, in some cases, cards that I had wanted to make work to some capacity because the thought of it just tickles me.
Although it had roots in a deck that somebody else had built and kindly shared, the deck still felt like a creation. I found it impossible to ignore my own weird, janky collection when throwing something together.
The next week I built a Black-White Tokens deck because I had an old Modern deck of the archetype, half a Standard Fabricate deck, and a lack of imagination. I threw all of the cards together and added a lot more (oh hey Monastery Mentor), skimmed the points list to see what additional busted gems from Magic’s history I could include, sleeved it up and called it a day.
It was pretty bad, at least as it lined up next to my boyfriend’s new Blue-Red Prowess deck. (I thought his spot removal would line up awkwardly next to my tokens, turns out I can’t seem to make 1/1s faster than he can draw Pryokinesis). But that didn’t matter. Identifying gaps and redundant cards in my deck was pretty easy, despite each individual card being drawn infrequently. I needed more removal, more boardwipes, far fewer individual creates that required support to generate value. That’s fine – let the tuning begin!
2. It lets you learn cards you never knew existed
Unsurprisingly, before building a Canadian Highlander deck I did not have a thorough understanding of the range of vaguely playable mana-generating Elves (*adds to CV*). When working out what you should include in a deck, you can’t help but improve your knowledge of this tiny section of what Magic has to offer.
A few weeks ago I had no idea that Jaraga Treespeaker existed, but she has become one of my favourite cards in the deck. Tapping for two green mana is a powerful ability, and having a toughness of two after level-up seems like a significant advantage in some matchups over my one-toughness mana Elves.
Mostly, the format has introduced me to pretty bonkers cards from the history of Magic that either aren’t legal or aren’t commonly played in Modern or Pauper – the two main other constructed formats that I play. I created a proxy version of Eladamri’s Call to test the deck, since I had no reason to own one previously. The first time I cast it I found myself thinking I must have written it down incorrectly, there’s no way this lets me tutor any creature to my hand for two mana at instant speed. Nope – it really does.
With my relative inexperience and lack of Legacy/Vintage knowledge, studying online decklists was crucial for me to learn about cards from older Magic that I could include in my deck. If you’re building a Canadian Highlander deck for the first time, go ahead and explore what the years of Magic have to offer!
3. It can use cards from new sets that won’t make it into Standard
When a new set comes out, one of the hottest topics is whether each card will be playable in Standard and how it will affect the format. Occasionally new cards will make it into Modern decks or other constructed decks, but that still leaves a lot of cards with unfulfilled potential outside of Draft.
I hold the view that somewhere, in some deck or format or casual brew or introductory deck to teach a friend, there’s probably a place for every card in Magic. My experience of Canadian Highlander further supports this – maybe the set’s new burn spell is good enough to make it into your Blue-Red Spells deck, maybe the new mana-generating creature is slightly better than one that’s already in your Elf deck, and will easily replace it.
I listened to the Canadian Highlander set review for Ixalan and was struck by how many cards were discussed for their playability in the format – it seems that each new set offers some great potential for shaking up your existing build. I look forward to improving my decks once the next set comes out!
4. It’s a competitive 1v1 format that is great for casual play
Adam and I keep going on coffee dates to play CanLander and emerging a few hours later slightly too caffeinated and with a distorted perception of how long hours take. Not only because he plays Time Walk in Blue-Red Prowess.
Even matching up the same decks over again in a one-on-one setting, the decks are incredibly replayable because each individual game is so different. Although Modern, Pauper, and Commander provide loads of fun when playing casually, we’ll end up wanting to switch our decks around after a few games of his Death’s Shadow against my Modern Elves.* This hasn’t happened so much when playing Canadian Highlander in a casual 1v1 setting.
*Or one game of his Living End vs my Modern Elves, from my perspective…
Don’t worry, I still love Modern as much as I always did. Although Canadian Highlander games are incredibly interesting, they haven’t yet allowed me to attack for ~30 Trample damage with Ezuri, Renegade Leader – that’s a joy that will never be replaced. Playing the archetype in Canadian Highlander only deepened my enthusiasm to take my Modern Elves to FNM.
The singleton aspect of Canadian Highlander makes games so different from one another, as does the lack of a Commander, when you compare it to that format. Your turn five play won’t always be a Ghave, Guru of Spores, it might be a Thrun, the Last Troll or a Parallel Lives, shaping the game in any manner of possible directions. You (probably) don’t have a repeatable, predictable play on multiple turns each game, unless you’re making use of the singleton exceptions by playing 46 copies of Relentless Rats.
Commander is an excellent casual format, and although it can be played against only one opponent (and that’s how I play it 95% of the time), decks are still often geared towards multiplayer. Canadian Highlander is a 1v1 format – it’s designed to be competitive. It just so happens that it’s also hilarious.
It’s a competitive format that plays extremely well in a casual setting. The format is conducive to things happening that are just, well – plain silly. I was going to include the story of Adam casting Brute Force on some unblockable creature to win a game last weekend, but couldn’t remember the name of said creature so asked him to recall it. His reply was “True-Name Nemesis. Although I also cast it then Misdirection‘d it to double trigger Thermo-Alchemist a few days ago”.
I think this validates my point further. The juxtaposition between Legacy playables and random commons is just glorious.
5. There’s actually some great resources out there!
I got into Canadian Highlander in the last few weeks, coinciding with the release of Loading Ready Run’s North 100 Podcast which is devoted to the topic. My boyfriend had listened to a couple of the podcasts during his commute and pointed them in my direction, and I was hooked. The format is discussed in such depth but in an accessible way, and with so much enthusiasm, I had to build a deck and see what it was all about!
You can find an introduction to Canadian Highlander on the official Wizards website here.
AFK – Canadian Highlander
The Professor Plays Canadian Highlander on Magic: The Gathering Online
To summarise – go and play Canadian Highlander!
I’m super excited to delve into this format more over time. There’s not many CanLander players in Oxford yet, but there’s a few – and a number of curious players have approached us at our casual Magic nights to ask, understandably “WHAT are you playing!?/where’s your commander?” It would be brilliant if we could get more interest in the format!
Thanks for reading!