On May, 6th 2023 something monumental happened that shook the planet (or at least Bielefeld): Continental Cup #3, the first big paper Magic Highlander tournament in Germany after Corona. The hype was real and in the end, it was 63 people battling it out in six rounds of swiss followed by Top 8. Good stuff!
A lot of people said it felt like some kind of class reunion, because there were so many known faces that play Highlander for ten years plus already, and I agree: it was simply amazing. Thanks a lot to everyone who made that possible! We even had some new people joining us which is amazing considering the long Corona break and high format entry requirements. So after all, you can say everyone grew older, but we’re still vibin’ just as before.
With each big Highlander tournament coming up, there is always the question of what to play. I usually play every kind of blue based control/midrange, including a combo finish from time to time. I tried to stay as up to date as possible with the meta during the pandemic and what can I say: I was at least right in that you need to be prepared for a lot of creatures on the board.
I eventually decided to not play Izzet Control, although it was my choice at Continental Cup #1 and #2 with decent to good results. Reasons: Relying on drawing the right half of your deck (Burn or Counterspells), missing out on reliable (not only planeswalker) removal and less effective non-basic hate didn’t seem appealing if I really wanted to go the control route.
Playing control right now might even be a dumb choice in our format, because power creep hasn’t stopped for years while control didn’t get many new toys. I also think that as the control player, you need to have some comboish win condition because you can’t keep up with stuff like Initiative, Monarch and the in-built value that a lot of creatures bring nowadays.
So I decided to go back to the roots and play good old Oath (as the “combo” finish) control—with another concept, though. Current Oath Control deck lists are usually high on curve and want to ramp up like it was 2005 again via Mana Rocks (I have even seen Ancient Tombs and Temple of the False God being played) to make up for that; the lists look something like that.
I do believe that those lists rely on a strategy that is weak right now, though: You can’t go T1 (Fetchland into) Triome, T2 mana stone and then T3 four drop and pray that this will win you the game. Even an accelerated Wrath of God or Planeswalker do not stabilize you anymore. It’s not even close. If you do not interact turn one to three, you lose (except vs other control decks, but the control mirror is very rare because control or creature light strategies are not a tier 1 archetype right now).
So what I did instead was going low(er) on counterspells and much higher on cheap Removal that lets me trade one for one in the early turns. After my opponent and me exhaust each other one for one on ressources, I will go for the Oath attempt. That’s for the theory so far.
Strengthening my early game a lot costs me some super late game power, but I can still grind nicely and in a vacuum I prefer to interact early to not simply die, especially since the dice roll is so important. Here’s my list.
The tournament started really bad for me. Hendrik from Berlin is my nemesis, it’s lifetime 0-3 for him on bigger tournaments. We played each other at Continental Cup #2 and some Meta Game Masters series in Berlin (when those were a thing some years ago) and matches are over in under 30 minutes because I just lose. It’s a curse.
Game 1 I’m on the draw. He plays Thespian’s Stage into Chrome Mox pitching a green card. Green Sun’s Zenith finds him a Mana Elf. I play Fetchland, pass and he follows up with Dark Dephts and that’s when I knew I was pretty much dead. I Opt end of turn, find a removal for his Mana Elf, kill it and just hope he doesn’t find another mana for the Thespian’s Stage activation. Well, he has the mana, so I die to the token in turn 3’s combat phase in one hit.
Game 2 I mulligan to five, take hits, resolve Profane Tutor into Oath, he has Knight of Autumn as an answer and I’m left with nothing. 0-4 lifetime against Hendrik it is. I like that guy, he’s so polite and respectful even when non-games like these happen. Would play him again any time.
I played this guy in Münster during one of the Highlander Masters Westfalen series and he’s also very polite. I have to admit that I don’t know from which play community exactly is, but apparently he got hooked to Highlander, too – good! Having played Izzet for ages, I was pretty sure he was playing just that after Turn 2. Hall of Storm giants, go, Island go is just what Izzet does. I play accordingly and do what you have to do in control match-ups: Don’t be the first one to play anything, stock up on as many counterspells as possible and—most importantly—hit your land drops.
So Game 1 I get to fetch all my four basic lands, which makes the Ruination he resolves after a counterwar not as painful. He’s tapped out after that so I use the window to cast Teferi, Time Raveler who is boss in control match-ups. He plays Jace, the Mind Sculptor in his next turn, but his Burn can’t kill the ticked up Teferi and in my turn I safely resolve the even bigger Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and yeah, 2 Teferi > 1 Jace and he concedes to save us time.
Game 2 is a grind fest and I miss my super lategame power: We each have six plus Mana and he gets to resolve a Sailors’ Bane. Ward 4 is really good in case you didn’t know. I have Oko who turns Food into Elks and some tokens from Occult Epiphany and start to race, but when I have to tap out that one time to attack with three Elks and Celestial Colonnade to threaten lethal damage the following turn, he resolves Ruination and that wins the game eventually.
Game 3 is all about winning as fast as possible which control decks naturally do not excel at, because there’s just ten minutes left in the round. So it’s clever that he keeps a hand with Thing in the Ice, it’s good for me though so I can just slam Oath which wins me the game sooner than later. Props to Hendrik for running Izzet!
Björn is one of most experienced guys because he’s been playing the format since the beginning. I met him first roughly 20 years ago when we were still playing Vintage in Dülmen when it had monthly tournaments with always three digit participants. While I rocked some unpowered UR Landstill, he was famous for having all the powered stuff and his fully pimped and altered decks which still look beautiful today when he uses all the nice old cards in Highlander. Those were the times! I anticipate that he’s playing Reanimator because he loves playing oldschool UBx based decks and I tried his Deck from Continental Cup #2 for several months (here’s the list in case you’re interested). So when I see my opening hand with Force Spike, Path to Exile and Cling to Dust, I’m pretty sure I’m set, because I also won the die roll. He goes T1 Personal Tutor which I obviously Force Spike. I Collective Brutality him with the discard mode and take his cantrip to slow him down. He drops a second land, passes, I draw Wasteland and he’s not going to recover from that ever because I add pressure in form of two 1/1 flying tokens from Occult Epiphany while I stack up on cards more and more. He concedes.
Game 2 he has Grief revealing my hand to him. Key cards: Force of Will, Swords to Plowshares, Cling to Dust. He did not feel good about that, understandably. He takes the Force of Will and from that point on I always keep one black mana open for Cling to Dust. He dumps an Archon into the graveyard which is the still the right play, because you can’t go the very lategame against a control deck like mine; with each turn passing, I feel safer and safer. The game significantly shifts into my favor when he Swan Song’s my Collective Brutality so I have a clock on Board. I Memory Lapse his Reanimation Spell targetting Archon so I can set myself up. I eventually exile Archon from the graveyard and always keep four mana up to escape Cling to Dust while baiting out his interaction spells one by one. I eventually get to end of turn Intuition into Oath, Sevinne’s Reclamation and Forbidden Orchard, I even get to hardcast Sun Titan on top of that.
Dirk is one the younger players and plays Highlander for five years (or something like that) now. He’s not only a very good player, he’s also one of the guys that realized that creature based strategies are by far not as worse as people said (click here for details) and that they are in fact the superior strategy in our format right now.
Game 1 my deck does what it is built to do: I trade every thread he has one for one and when the pressure stops for one or two turns, it’s enough time to find and resolve Oath of Druids (Profane Tutor again; card is bonkers, I swear).
Game 2 I’m on the draw against T1 Ragavan. Gg. On a more serious note, Dirk runs the blue Phyrexian mana staples Gitaxian Probe and Mental Misstep and the latter catches my end of turn Opt by surprise. So I struggle to find my third land and when I finally have it on top, Ragavan exiles it. Outrageous! ;-) I do not complain, though, with Oath of Druids I play a card that can feel unfair, too. The power level in our format is just that high.
Game 3 I mull to five and I get overwhelmed.
I played Justus at Continental Cup #2, too, and a few times in Berlin and I always enjoy these matches. He’s not only a council member, but also very dedicated to his one deck: UBWR Tempo.
Game 1 he mulls to five, but the game gets far too close for my taste because I kept a mediocre hand and he has really mastered his deck and knows how to play each match-up. He forces me to spend my ressources on other stuff before he drops Young Pyromancer which I knew of after I Gitaxian Probe’d him. Pyromancer is good in control match-ups because it produces multiple threats. I find Toxic Deluge, though, cast it for 1 clearing the board and can finally hard cast Sun Titan.
Game 2 I feel a lot more comfortable, though, because I do to him what he does to me in Game 1: I exhaust his ressources when we fight over a Baleful Strix and an Unearth targetting just that and let him have his Young Pyromancer with my Oath of Druids in hand. So even if he tries to kill his own Young Pyromancer, it does not prevent me from oathing because Young Pyromancer is not a “may”-trigger which means it will provide me with enough creatures to always trigger my Oath. I Oath into Antraxa, sacrifice Oko’s Food to get me some life to get out of lethal Burn range before Atraxa’s first attack seals the deal.
I haven’t played against Markus before, which is a pity, because he’s a really chill and friendly guy and I enjoyed our games a lot. When I see a Yavimaya Cost, I’m pretty sure he’s on Temur Tempo because I don’t know of any other (at least common) Deck that runs the UG Pain Land. He Gitaxian Probe’s me, sees Oath of Druids and this is where the Game starts to take long, because he now does not play his one-drop into the card that is the namesake of my deck. Sooner or later he has to go for a threat, though, because he can’t just play draw-go against my deck. I have prepared accordingly with my Cantrips and searched for a Hand that offered me Oath of Druids with double countermagic protection. He finally goes for Goblin Rabblemaster, I drop Oath with the aformententioned safety net and win.
Game 2 is a lot closer, but in the end Temur Tempo lacks what Grixis Tempo has to offer: Discard spells. So all I do is trade one for one, play around his taxing counterspells, sculpt my hand, find Oath and protect it. He’s playing it really well with his few outs against a resolved Oath (Petty Theft in that case), but I never feel too close to death because I can rely on my cards in hand being safe.
Score: 4-2 (14th place overall. I’m very fine with that)
I felt like I had energy left for a 7th round of tournament play, but six was okay also, so me and my teammate Florian could watch some Top 8 games and go for a nice dinner in an arabian restaurant.
Apart from playing a competitive tournament with the best MtG Format of all time, it was the social atmosphere that makes big events like these so enjoyable. We have a mature player base, chat with each other between games and talk about deck techs and opinions on the format.
I for one love playing controlish decks and accept the ever rising power creep as a challenge to adjust control until I come to the conclusion that it might not be viable anymore without certain shake-ups in the format, namely unbanning something like Mystical Tutor, Uro, Gifts Ungiven (which is good to have it on a trial unban period).
Overall, I was quite happy with my build and had a great weekend. Thanks everybody!
Narset, Parter of Veils: Thought she would be too weak in a creature heavy meta, but it really fits my approach of trading one for one, so the board is usually clear when you drop her. That means you can activate her twice which is huge.
Cling to Dust. Cycles for B, so it’s never a dead graveyard hate (having one grave hate effect feels important) and the lifegain mode was relevant several times).
Faithful Mending. The better Faithless Looting in control decks. Gain 2, get rid of the shit in your hand at instant speed—yes, please!
Omen of the Sea. Good effect, nice mana sink, synergy with Sun Titan, Repeal and Teferi, Time Raveler in grindier matches.
Prismatic Ending and Sheoldred’s Edict. No-brainer, they are just so effective at what they do. We need more of efficient removal like that, Wizards, listen!
Cut Down. A lot of people say it doesn’t hit enough and I agree that it’s not a slam-dunk. But given the anticipated Meta, that one was great all the freaking time. Might be deck specific, though, because I take whatever cheap and efficient early game removal I can get. I would even run Vendetta if it wasn’t restricted to non-black creatures.
Profane Tutor. Suspend 2 makes this so good. Can be even better than Demonic Tutor at times in a sense that you get to prepare the turn when you cast it and you have the mana open to cast the card you search for. That’s sooo big!
Shadow Prophecy. Best two cards out of the top four is great in control decks like these that need selection, but you’re often under pressure and can’t afford to cast it, especially when it makes you lose two life. Needs further testing, I don’t want to write it off yet.
Serum Visions. Might not be good enough anymore. Very nice on Turn 1, but still the weakest of all the cantrips.
Dig Up. Looks better on paper than it felt when playing. Finding mana early is great of course and as a deck dedicated to one card, you’re happy when drawing it when you and your opponent are in top-deck mode. Four mana feels so clunky, though, and getting a basic Land is not impressive when you’re taking hits from aggressive decks. Might be a “danger of cool things”-candidate in the end.
Witherbloom Command. Solid floor, bonkers ceiling, really flexible, but does not excel at one thing – because it’s a charm, doh! Needs further testing.
Hope to see you next time (whenever that is)! :-)