Last updated on October 19, 2020
The Canadian Highlander format has been a mainstay of Magic since its explosion outside of Canada in recent years. But the small, well-nurtured format has actually been a part of the fabric of the game for the past two decades.
A format with unique tidbits, a very rich community, and some of the most unique gameplay within the whole of MTG, Canadian Highlander has won over the hearts of many players who are looking for a unique competitive experience. The skill ceiling is higher than any other constructed format, but the floor is as low as you’re able to go.
It’s a format about deck building prowess and creativity, taking the proverbial leaves from the books of formats such as Legacy, Vintage, Commander, and Cube to create the premier Magic experience.
All of this sounds very demanding and technical, but not to fear! I’m gonna help you find your feet and start exploring the Canadian Highlander format. Let’s get started!
The Canadian Highlander Format
Canadian Highlander is a community format that was developed in British Columbia, Vancouver (specifically in the city of Victoria). As the name suggests, it’s a highlander format, which means that it’s singleton. I.E., you can only have a single copy of any card other than basic lands in each deck. Oh, and cards like Shadowborn Apostle. Just like Elder Dragon Highlander (Commander) and Brawl.
Each deck also has to at least 100 cards, which makes it sound very much like Commander. Without the actual commander, of course.
You start at 20 life, which makes it comparable to Vintage. The format is very intricate and competitive, and is often about efficiency, redundancy, and optimization. Singleton is a pretty hardcore restriction for a competitive deck, which makes all three a challenge.
However, Canadian Highlander shares a ban list with Vintage excluding Lurrus of the Dream-Den, which means that cards like the infamous Black Lotus (and its other Power Nine friends), Library of Alexandria, and Mind Twist are all legal in this format. With a small catch.
Black Lotus | Illustration by Christopher Rush
The Canadian Highlander Points List
Each deck is allocated ten points to use to “buy” cards off of the points list, which allows the format to balance powerful cards. The points list has a range of cards, from Vintage All Stars to Legacy Sweethearts, to the exiles of formats like Modern and Pioneer.
So, for example, you could have Time Vault (worth 7 points) and Tinker (worth 3 points) in your deck, but that’s it. Or you could opt for 10 single-point cards, like Balance or Crop Rotation. This makes for interesting deckbuilding with weird and unique limitations, with a lot of power.
It also means that not every deck needs to be running a full set of Power Nine either, with cards like Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise being highly accessible cards. The format has an endless list of variations and possibilities with each card and each archetype!
- Crop Rotation
- Dig Through Time
- Imperial Seal
- Library of Alexandria
- Mana Drain
- Mana Vault
- Merchant Scroll
- Mind Twist
- Price of Progress
- Summoner’s Pact
- Tainted Pact
- Tolarian Academy
- Transmute Artifact
- Treasure Cruise
- True-Name Nemesis
- Underworld Breach
- Wishclaw Talisman
- Birthing Pod
- Gifts Ungiven
- Mystical Tutor
- Survival of the Fittest
- Umezawa’s Jitte
- Vampiric Tutor
- Yawgmoth’s Will
As I already mentioned, Canadian Highlander shares a ban list with Vintage other than one card. Take a look:
- Ante cards
- Conspiracy cards
- Cards depicting racism and cultural insensitivity
- Dexterity cards
- Silver-bordered cards
- Sub-game cards
The infamous Lurrus of the Dream-Den is, however, legal. This is because the companion mechanic doesn’t work in Canadian Highlander since there are no sideboards in the format. This means that, unlike in Commander, Lutri, the Spellchaser is basically just a dual-caster mage and not exceptionally powerful.
Lutri, the Spellchaser | Illustration by Lie Setiawan
Canadian Highlander Decks
Although the format is very competitive, the metagame varies wildly and definitely allows brewers to go all out in their deck building ideas. The possibilities are endless, and there’s something for each player. Unlike other formats, Canadian Highlander is very much about the choices you make and the optimization of your deck, not just the deck you play.
It also allows us to play with cards that we usually wouldn’t. I love playing BGx in Canadian Highlander because it lets me play with one of my favorite cards: Deathrite Shaman, a card that’s banned in both Modern and Legacy. These cards that aren’t specifically good in EDH and aren’t playable in other formats have a chance to shine again in Canadian Highlander. And, because of the 1v1 nature of the format, Mind Twist is a format all-star in comparison to EDH where it’s kind of meh since it’s 1v1v1v1.
So, how do we build a Canadian Highlander deck, you ask? Good timing!
Deck Building Guide
Advice from the Fae | Illustration by Chippy
There’s no strict way to build a Canadian Highlander deck. Whatever works for you, works for you! However, there are certain disciplines, decisions, and nuances to building a deck. Some things the average Magic player will know, and some things they won’t.
The good thing about Canadian Highlander decks is that, like Commander, your deck will always be valid other than some points changes sometimes. You’ll never need to change decks for any reason due to cards getting banned, so you can really pour time and love into the deck!
To build a Canadian highlander deck, usually you have to ask yourself, “What do I want this deck to be?”
The answer should lead you to one of three (main) options. There are others but these are the major ones. Here they are:
- A premade archetype
- A “build-around” card
- A tribe or mechanic
A Premade Archetype
Mind Twist (Amonkhet Invocations) | Illustration by Igor Kieryluk
This is probably the best way to get started if you’re coming from a format like Modern or Legacy, as I did. This approach requires a lot of knowledge of the archetype as well as a working knowledge of the Canadian Highlander format.
As a lover of B/x/x midrange and control (usually B/G/x midrange and B/U/x control), my first attempt at a Canadian Highlander deck was this Jund deck. It wasn’t the best, but it was a starting point:
Courser of Kruphix
Huntmaster of the Fells
Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet
Kroxa, Titan of Death’s Hunger
Lurrus of the Dream-Den
Meren of Clan Nel Toth
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Titania, Protector of Argoth
Grove of the Burnwillows
The three things your archetype needs are:
- Consistency: Can I consistently complete what I want to do with the deck in a singleton format?
- Redundancy: Do I have enough cards that repeat the effects I want? For Jund, I would say that a good example of this specifically is the discard used.
- Power OR Synergy: Are the cards in my archetype powerful enough to work in the format? / Is my synergy good enough to consistently work in the format?
These are all good things to use as a general deck building checklist, but especially so for this archetype.
The advantages of these are that there’s usually a lot of support and a lot of resources for premade archetypes, and this means you can truly become an adept of the archetype you love! However, this does take some originality away from your deck. This category overlaps with the other categories too, like elves for the tribal category and Twin for the “build-around” category.
A “Build-around” Card
Jace, the Mind Sculptor | Illustration by Jason Chan
This is the path for the brewers who want to take their deck building to new heights. The name is pretty loose since it’s not always just one card, but it’s more personal than an archetype. An example is this Time Vault deck, showing some of the main disciplines of this type of deck:
Go for the Throat
Into the Roil
Muddle the Mixture
Fact or Fiction
Fire // Ice
Force of Will
Dig Through Time
Creeping Tar Pit
Maze of Ith
Temple of Epiphany
This type of deck is all about consistency—tutors, card selection, sustain—so you can play the cards you need to complete your game plan. If you really want to get dug in deep into the format, this is the way to go because it requires a knowledge of what’s available and what you’ll be able to use to your advantage, as well as how to get an edge over other decks.
It’s very much about honing your craft and tuning over and over again until your own creation has gotten to the best state it can. And, in this sense, it’s like cEDH or even just a more competitive Commander. Although there are a lot differences between Commander and Canadian Highlander. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
A Tribe or Mechanic
Essence Warden | Illustration by Terese Nielsen
This is the middle between the premade archetype and the brewer’s masterpiece. You’re taking a well-established tribe like elves or humans or theme like blink or cycling) and turning it into a deck. This is very comparable to EDH, as it shares the most characteristics with a Commander deck. The following elves deck shows this, although has no cradle:
Rhys the Redeemed
Priest of Titania
Wall of Roots
Ezuri, Renegade Leader
Knight of Autumn
Marwyn, the Nurturer
Mul Daya Channelers
Drove of Elves
Lys Alana Huntmaster
Archon of Valor’s Reach
Cavern of Souls
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx
Oran-Rief, the Vastwood
For this deck style to work, you have to make sure that there are enough cards to fit into your theme to make the deck work well. You’ll need to do some research, but this is the most accessible of the deck types listed here. It just requires a lot of tuning.
The rest, however, is up to you. Learning how to craft a deck takes time and experience and learning from the people around you, as well as trial and error. Luckily, there are ways to test decks without having to buy and swap out parts so you can tune and create your deck as well as possible.
One thing to keep in mind is that the mana base in a Canadian Highlander deck is very important in how consistent it is. The more colors you have the more resources you’ll need to put into the mana base. I’ll leave the rest to you!
Craterhoof Behemoth | Illustration by Chris Rahn
EDH versus Canadian Highlander
Other than the obvious things like no commander and life totals, there are quite a few differences between the playstyle of EDH and Canadian Highlander. Let’s take a look:
- Canadian Highlander is much more competitive. EDH is a casual format for the most part, a social activity at times, whereas Canadian Highlander is very much to win and play with the premier technical skill.
- Since EDH is multiplayer, it’s focused on big mana plays and board wipes rather than single target removal, discard, etc. Canadian Highlander thrives on this.
- There is no social contract. You—yes, you—can play decks that disallow your opponent to play Magic.
- EDH doesn’t have any organized play. Canadian Highlander does.
These are some of the main differences, and honestly, they allow for a completely different style of play (low to the ground, 1-for-1 play) while having the same amount of variance as EDH and Cube within games. This makes for a familiar format for all: eternal, Commander, and Cube players alike.
High Sentinels of Arashin | Illustration by James Ryman
Getting Involved with Canadian Highlander
Canadian Highlander, at face value, seems like a very inaccessible format to get into, but it’s quite the contrary! With a community wanting to get as many people as possible involved, the worldwide Canadian Highlander community is booming, with a very popular Discord server.
The paper decks can get expensive so it’s a bit of a hefty cost to get into on paper, but it’s comparable to a good Commander deck if you build it right. There are a lot of ways to play digitally, though, including Magic Online which can be cheaper and has a lot of rental services to play lots of different decks.
The aforementioned Canadian Highlander discord is a great place to find MTGO games and interact with people! All the information and guidance you need is available within the community, which is very welcoming and can help you find the way to play the format that’s best for you. The format is completely community-driven and is left to its own devices (even though some WotC members play it), which just means that it’s a very tightly knit community.
Village Cannibals | Illustration by Bud Cook
There are weekly tournaments on the server organized by the Tenth Point. They’re free to enter, and they’re a fun way to get into the format. I took part in one blindly when I started out and I had a lot of fun with it. It also allows you to experiment with things in your deck for free, in a competitive environment.
If you’re looking for Canadian Highlander content, I’ve got a few suggestions for you. Loading Ready Run sometimes plays Canadian Highlander and it’s honestly an entertaining watch, whilst being also educational. Loading Ready Run are great if you want to learn the many nuances of Magic – some of the best talents of the game are on the channel.
Benjamin Wheeler of LRR is honestly one of the best people to watch if you want to see top-level Canadian Highlander play. Nobody that I’ve seen knows the format better than him and watching him play has really helped me improve.
Training Grounds | Illustration by James Ryman
PleasantKenobi’s video with Ben Wheeler is very good for those who want to get into the format from an outside perspective. It teaches a lot and gives a taste of the format (explicit language warning for the uninitiated on PK’s content). Tolarian Community College’s video talking about the format is great, too. Both are really good at giving an actual feel for what the format will be like to play!
Finally, Jeremy White’s twitter is a good place for Canadian Highlander content. As one of the best players and most involved players within the format, he’s a good resource for things about the format!
That’s Canadian Highlander! Thanks for joining me, and I hope you had a good time learning about one of Magic’s most exciting formats.
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