MTG: Canadian Highlander And Combo

First things first, I do not play Canadian Highlander. I do follow the North 100 podcast, and I do have a ‘team’ I root for in the 30-player strong metagame of the area: Allison, Queen Of The Rock. She’s playing green-black value control, every time, every event, and I will back that all the way.

Nonetheless, I am a Magic Player, and with that in mind, I want to talk about a thing that successful, well-established and well-known Magic Players could be doing better.

Canadian Highlander is a format with some… weird problems, and most of them relate to the ways people talk and think about them. This is mostly delivered to me through LoadingReadyRun’s streams, and their podcast, North 100 – which I like, and I like listening to, but I had to stop commenting on, because I felt I was going to just be ignored.

First, Canadian Highlander as played in the Victoria, Canada scene, therefore the format that’s played and talked about on North 100 isn’t really ‘a format’ the way you might think. They’ve said it in the past: It’s about 30 people. So it’s a format that gets played in a year about as much as Coldsnap Draft did in a day. Those 30 people have, according to them, about 25 different decks in each event, which they invoke to talk about the diversity of the format. There’s a MTGO player base but even if we say it’s ten times as many people, you’re still looking at a format of 330 people, which is to say about as many as the very first standard MTG GP had in a single day event.

This isn’t a problem, but it should play into how you consider the format. This is a format the way your EDH playgroup is a format. You’re not teching against structures of deck archetypes, you are teching against Dave and Janey and what you’re pretty sure they’re doing. It’s a social format, aided in no small part by the North 100 recommending you should put ‘pet cards’ in your deck. After all, why not? Also, the aggregate ability of 30 people to acquire cards is small enough that card value is going to keep a lot of things out. It might be in a group of 30 people, you have lucked out to have 5 people who own Black Lotuses, or you may have 0 of them.

It’s also an eternal format, which means the mana bases are expensive and greedy all at once: Players run one or two basic lands, making Blood Moon a wrecking ball. Removal is amazing, the cardpool is hideously deep, but don’t worry, because as an eternal format, 99% of all cards are not worth running. The high variance of the format means that you want every edge you can get, which in turn means fetchland-dual lands are the way to build your mana base if you can, and that manabase structure means that the barrier to entry can be pretty high, cost-wise.

And finally, it uses a point list. The rationale of the point list is to make sure people can play as many cards as possible, which shows a fascinating mindset, to me. Back in the days of Tempest, Jamie Wakefield famously said that Masticore banned every single creature that wasn’t as good as Masticore, and Flores remarked that Flametongue Kavu made every 5 mana creature that died to Flametongue Kavu irrelevant. This is basically true here, too: In a format with Ancestral Recall, you have no reason to run Concentrate. That is, the idea of ‘let everyone play all the cards if we can’, you concentrate the format around those best cards, making a lot of lesser cards terrible.

These are the structural elements, though, and honestly, they’re not really bad: They’re just part of how the format works. Vintage, for example, has almost all the same problems, and Vintage is still a pretty cool format (that I don’t really want to play).

Rather, the conversation problem I have about Canlander is how it’s a combo format.

They’ll say it’s not, but they’re wrong. The people inside the format, who think they have the best perspective on this thing they already love and don’t know how it looks to people watching it.

They’ve broadcast quite a few events on the Loading Ready Run channel of the Canadian Highlander events. Some have even been – for them – high level play, and demonstrate two different types of deck that win: decks that can win through a combo, or decks that can dedicatedly disrupt combo. There is a third group of decks that play entirely fair magic all the time, and those decks are the ones that lose.

Oh, you’ll hear the rejoinder of ‘hey, that deck is FAIR-‘ but then you can just turn to the video and show what their own format videos are showing. Canlander is a format where you probably should slip an infinite combo in your deck if you’ve got the room, because your backup plan should be good enough to win in the face of your opponent’s infinite combo. They even have a podcast entry for it: Powerful Magic, where they underscore situations where obscure card interactions create immense blowouts or win from impossible situations.

When I point this out, that the format is combo heavy, the usual response from the Youtube commenter class is no, it’s not. How dare you. Of course it is, but why would you mention it?


The thing for me, though, is the greater question of why not own that?

Don’t tell people oh no, it’s not a format with a combo problem. Admit it: most decks have an infinite combo or two in them. Those combos are those that are sifted through over time, and combo pieces have to fulfill some pretty specific needs? Like, you won’t be able to make a Food Chain combo work in a format where only one thing interacts with Food Chain, but lots of decks run Primeval Titan (because it’s good) and that means they run Thespian’s Stage and Dark Depths (because why not). That can mean that sometimes, the game ends when your opponent topdecks a Primeval Titan. That’s okay, though!

If you want your format to be expensive to play, swingy, high-variance and occasionally feature blowouts when someone does a turn 1 Griselbrand or a Helm of Obedience Supermill or a Painter’s Servant outro, it’s okay to admit that. It’s cool! Big plays and Powerful Magic are cool!

Just don’t claim the format isn’t full of combo endgames!

North 100 is a really likeable podcast, full of some nice, funny people, trying to talk about their format to people to get them interested and excited. I feel like they could consider what they’re saying and maybe do it even better than they do.

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