Canadian Highlander is a special melange of Magic formats. Take the power of Vintage, mix in the variance of Commander, plus dash of Cube for flavor; out comes something creative, competitive, and fun. Fans of LoadingReadyRun or Tolarian Community College have heard its praises, and here’s a rundown of what the buzz is about. Before we go any further, though, let’s take care of the essentials: Canadian Highlander is a 1v1 singleton format, played with 100-card decks. No multiples of cards are allowed, outside of basic lands. Games are played at 20 life, and there are no sideboards. There is unbridled creativity, so sleeve up Werebear and let’s dive in.

Deck Design

Canadian Highlander has been described as “Cube Constructed.” Instead of drafting a new Cube deck each time, you can design your strategy from the ground up. By nature, this creates the familiar strategy that Commander players know: creating consistency in a world of singleton variance.

When it comes to consistency, it’s common to see multiples of cards that offer similar effects, such as playing the full suite of one-drop mana creatures in a ramp deck. A Mono-Green Stompy player might look at Kalonian Tusker, Garruk’s Companion, and Avatar of the Resolute as beefy two-drops that get in for three. With online deckbuilding tools, we can help create a more clear and concise gameplan to handle the inherent variance. Players with more tutor effects, though, can afford to build more of a toolbox strategy into their decks, such as those playing a creature toolbox Pattern Rector deck.

When it comes to removal, it’s a balancing act. Commander players know and love cards like Return to Dust and Krosan Grip—they’re great metagame calls in a format with tons of mana-producing artifacts. With less need for early-turn ramping here compared to Commander, a card like Nature’s Claim could end up stuck in your hand. Cards that can take out multiple permanent types are key; that’s why you can get a lot of mileage out of things like Vindicate, Assassin’s Trophy, and Council’s Judgment. That way you have the agency of choosing whether you go after that Sword of Fire and Ice, or the creature holding it.

Players have no sideboards, which necessitates thoughtful deck-building to get around the weaknesses of your deck. For instance, Leyline of the Void is a liability in a singleton format, since odds are good that you won’t start with it in your hand, but Faerie Macabre can adapt to more situations. Weather the Storm is good sideboard card against Burn in 60-card formats; but since there’s no sideboard to pull from here, we’re looking more at something like Knight of Autumn. For these reasons, it’s not uncommon to see more cantripping answers like Veil of Summer, Relic of Progenitus, and Nihil Spellbomb.

The Points List

A defining characteristic of Canadian Highlander is how it handles powerful cards. At its core, it is run off of the Vintage ban list, which allows all cards in Magic’s history, outside of the following:

  • Ante Cards
  • Dexterity Cards
  • Conspiracies
  • Silver-bordered Cards
  • Shahrazad

Other than that, every other card in Magic’s history is legal. To address powerful cards like Black Lotus and Ancestral Recall, though, there is what’s called “The Points List”. This is a compilation of the strongest cards in the format, and they’re each given a point value on a scale of one to ten. These point values are decided by an independent council of players, with no affiliation to Wizards of the Coast.

A quick read through the list will show that most cards can be classified as either fast mana, tutors, or combo pieces. To preserve the variance of singleton gameplay, the points list keeps players for playing multiple high-power cards like these. Players have a budget of ten points to spend for their deck, and can’t exceed that ceiling. For instance, Time Vault is seven, and Sol Ring is four—so a deck wouldn’t be able to have both. However, you could include four-pointers Natural Order and Mana Crypt, and have two points left over for Birthing Pod.

How you choose to spend your points are up to you. You can either put them all into a few game-breaking cards, or spread them out to balance your decks consistency. However, what’s important to emphasize is this: if you’re playing casually, don’t sweat it if you don’t spend all ten points. The cards on the points list can be quite expensive to acquire, and odds are that there are budget alternatives. When you play a pointed card, it’s easy to see why it’s there, but you can still build powerful, cohesive decks with less than ten points spent.

Another interesting aspect of the format is that there is a watch list. In this, the council addresses their concerns over various cards, both on and off the points list. While this doesn’t guarantee a change in point value for a card, it allows players to have more transparency on what goes on with the council meetings.

“Can I shuffle my Commander into my deck and play?”

This is single-handedly the most common question I receive when talking to prospective players. Not exactly, but there are multiple layers to this. Commander and Canadian Highlander decks look quite different; often the only thing they share is how difficult they are to shuffle.

Commander decks frequently rely on their Commander being castable from the command zone, so removing the commander takes out key synergies that the deck is built around. For instance, a Nekusar, the Mindrazer deck starts feeling a lot different when Nekusar is hiding in the 100. A Canadian Highlander deck focuses more on the archetype itself, instead of the relationship between particular cards and a commander. That leads to more cohesive gameplay feel, without relying on the Commander as a linchpin to the strategy.

Starting a 1v1 game at 20 life feels a lot different than a four-player game at 40 life. In this duel format, there is nowhere to hide, so the first few turns are not spent passively ramping. Instead, you could be hit with Thoughtseize, Lava Spike, or even Basking Rootwalla. One-drops in general are far more likely to see play. This unlocks a wide swath of cards that are otherwise unplayed in Commander.

Continuing along this line of thought, aggro is a real and viable strategy. Aggro decks in Commander look different, because they have to play in a format where 120 life points stand between them and victory. However, Mono-Red Burn and Mono-White Weenie have seen success and present a way to police the less-streamlined decks in the format. You can play a durdly four-color Birthing Pod deck in Commander; but in Canadian Highlander, sometimes you get run over by Hovermyr carrying Umezawa’s Jitte.

Another difference between the two formats is color identity. If your mana supports it, you can play hybrid mana cards like Kitchen Finks and Fulminator Mage. This allows for some extra flexibility in deckbuilding, to better suit your decks needs. For instance, my Abzan Midrange list runs Ashiok, Dream Render and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, despite not needing blue mana to operate.

Brewing and Experimentation

One of the best facets of Canadian Highlander is the ability to brew. Pretty much any archetype is workable, and you can see a list of common archetypes here. You can play anything from Burn, to Azorius Control, to Eggs, to Storm. Chances are, if your favorite archetype has seen constructed play at some point, it can be played here. What’s worth mentioning, though, is that due to the points list, certain combo decks can be challenging. Decks in other formats can be jam-packed with tutors, but a Canadian Highlander deck is limited by how many points it can spend.

Competitive 60-card constructed focuses on the best of the best cards for your strategy, but you can go deep into the weeds with 100-card singleton. Cards like Putrid Leech, Ojutai’s Command, and Boros Reckoner can find places in brews. While something like Homarid Tribal will still be difficult, your options abound.

Cost and Power Level

With the Vintage ban list, we occasionally see some astronomical prices for decks. However, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the format on a budget. After all, the answer to a $2,800 Mox Sapphire can be as cheap as a thirty-cent Manglehorn. The fast mana pieces and tutors will supercharge any deck, but decks remain playable without them. How your metagame evolves will be based on what kind of tools people are bringing to the table, and you can adapt accordingly as it goes on.

Proxies are also a possibility as a house rule. For example, my store ran an unsanctioned event that allowed up to ten proxies. I used those slots not to fit in Black Lotus, but rather the fetch lands and equipment that I didn’t own. Fetch lands, and dual lands to grab with them, can be quite the divider in power level. Cost makes these lands prohibitive—but if you’re allowed proxies, or if you institute a house rule of no Onslaught-Zendikar fetches, then that can help level the playing field.

What about Australian Highlander?

Australian Highlander is a 60-card variant that follows the same points rules and singleton nature, but allows for a 15-card sideboard. While it isn’t as widely played as the Canadian variant—at least not in North America—it can lead to tighter, more tuned lists. If you prefer the calculated precision of playing a Brainstorm deck in Legacy, you may prefer to give this option a try.

Bringing Canadian Highlander to Your Playgroup

Introducing new format is a challenging but rewarding experience. With my playgroup, we started out with myself and my roommate, playing on our kitchen table. When we took it to our local game store, that’s when things started to take off. Canadian Highlander is an easy viewing experience, and makes for a great spectator format. Gone are the intricacies of asking whether a player ran two to four of a card or how they’re going to sideboard, so the information plays out in front of you. Like I mentioned before, it’s like watching two Cube decks battle each other; part of the fun comes from exploring the various cards played out of Magic’s multi-decade history. For instance, I played Gerrard’s Verdict against a Burn opponent, and he stopped to laugh at how good a 19-year-old uncommon from Apocalypse could be.

If you have the ability to do so, I recommend building two decks to battle against each other. Jeskai Tempo and Abzan Midrange are great starting points for players in this case, since they allow for a lot of interaction and decision-making—not to mention cards that are approachable and familiar, like Spell Pierce, Scavenging Ooze, and Path to Exile. While Commander decks don’t transfer over easily into Canadian Highlander, it doesn’t take a lot of work to re-tool an unused Commander deck into one that gets you going.

Prospective players can be intimidated by seeing things like Moxen and Power Nine in decklists; but like we went over before, those aren’t necessary. Positioning the format as 100-card Cube decks, instead of Vintage singleton decks, can go a long way in making it more approachable.

Final Take

Canadian Highlander allows for a wide array of brewing, and varied, exciting gameplay. It offers a new field of battle for players who normally prefer to play 40, 60, or 100-card variants of Magic. Oftentimes, a player’s deck is their all-time favorite archetype, and they’ll play and adapt for years at a time. What will you build?

Travis is a Connecticut-based player and writer, who has been turning things sideways since Starter 1999. He primarily plays Commander, Pauper, and Modern, and has a passion for introducing new players to the game. When he isn’t attacking with red creatures, he can be found mountain biking or playing the guitar. You can follow his exploits here on Twitter and Instagram.

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