Brothers' Highlander and the casual consistency

Consistency. Wearing my mathematician or developer hat, I'm a big fan. And if I'd put on my engineering hat, I could probably spend an hour writing about subtle yet crucial differences between precision and accuracy. But when it comes to entertainment, consistency isn't always a good thing.

One of my go-to examples are Hollywood movies from the years between 1934 and 1958. With the Hays Code in full effect, it's almost impossible to be surprised or provoked by any movie from the "golden age". If you have seen five movies from that era, you've seen them all. That's not to say they're all bad of course; To Kill a Mockingbird, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Great Dictator and Twelve Angry Men are all great entertainment. But as a rule, movies from that era will play out in a certain way and follow a strict formula. It may be a new song occasionally, but it surely is the same band playing. 

This is the exception to make the rule.

Consistency in games is often based on randomness, or lack thereof. A better chess player will beat me around 100% of the games we play. A better poker player might beat me only 55% of the hands (though given a long game with enough hands, it is of course extremely likely that I will lose all my chips first). But winning is obviously not the only part of consistency. A crucial part is how differently the games will play out, and how many surprising or new situations we'll encounter along the way.

In the budding days of kitchen table Magic, my first decks were extremely inconsistent. I eventually joined the tournament scene and found a new kind of joy in building streamlined strategies; acquiring playsets of the best cards and properly considering my mana curve. But at casual gatherings and free-for-all games, I still preferred the added randomness of highlander formats or weird deck construction rules.

With new mulligan rules and do-everything-cards, tournament Magic has grown more and more consistent in the last couple of years. But the odd thing is, perhaps, that so has most games of casual Magic. The most popular casual format these days - EDH/Commander - may be a hundred singleton cards, but you will always have access to your commander every game, often multiple times. And usually that same commander dictates the rest of your card choices and adds consistency to your strategy. Add to that the fact that you start with 40 life (and as such are very likely to reach the late-game) and you can be fairly confident that you'll get a shot at your Plan A.

25 years ago, things were different. Casual Magic was wilder, more swingy. And I can think of no constructed format that captures the spirit of the 1994 kitchen table better than Brothers' Highlander.

It feels like I've played Brothers' Highlander for at least for five years by now. But somehow the format is only a little over two years old, so apparently my nostalgia for the format comes from some place deeper.

In a nutshell, Brothers' Highlander is a 100-card singleton format optimized for casual multiplayer. You'll start with 20 life and all that boilerplate jazz. Legal sets are ABU core plus expansions up to Fallen Empires, and as an additional deck building restriction each deck may not contain more than 10 points worth of "controlled cards".

Controlled cards and their point values. I accidentally forgot Recall in the pic, that one is worth 4 points.

Some notes and opinions on particular cards:

  • Su-Chi is worth a point simply because it is regarded as a basic choice for any deck. While certainly good, it is not particularly problematic. On that note, one could argue with merit that Mishra's Factory should also have one point.
  • In my opinion, Braingeyser is a better card than Ancestral Recall here. Braingeyser might even be the actual best card in the format. It is reasonable to argue that the two blue card draw spells should switch points.
  • Mirror Universe is actually not that good, but it is an annoying card that comes with a burning hatred from The Legendary Jonas Twitchen. As Jonas is one of the brains behind the format, Mirror Universe has eight points.
  • Triskelion is surprisingly good, and well worth its three points. Pinging for one is so good in this format that Rod of Ruin is actually playable and Prodigal Sorcerer is one of the blue MVPs.
  • Balance is only one point because it's an amusing and chaotic card in multiplayer. With few mana rocks availble, it isn't nearly as broken as in one-on-one games without a controlled list. Still, a point well invested for anyone running white.
  • Chaos Orb, Wheel of Fortune and Timetwister have no points, as the Brothers of Fire are good people.
  • I'd personally argue that Ring of Renewal should be two points. It is an insanely good grindy card, and arguably stronger than Jayemdae Tome in many decks.
This is how I spent my points. 1+2+2+3; so still some room to maneuver.

As I wanted my deck to be "everywhere legal", I didn't include any FE cards in it. If I'm to sling against someone sharp though, I have these two in the deck box for a quick swap. Ring of Renewal is the Jace, the Mind Sculptor of Brothers' Highlander.

The deck actually got this combo going once. There was much joy.

In a slow and inconsistent deck like this, flexible removal is alpha and omega. And Berserk is hilarious in multiplayer.

Small utility creatures create a plethora of value. Cards like Sorceress Queen, Aladdin, Royal Assassin, Seasinger, Nettling Imp, Prodigal Sorcerer and Ali from Cairo are among the many reasons Triskelion is such a beating.

A solid defense is a great offense (in multiplayer).

Once we are beyond the tier1 constructed creatures, random Legends are often shockingly playable. A 5/5 for six without drawbacks? Sign me up! And Lady Caleria is of course the stone cold nuts.

Mark Tedin wrote that I have horsemanship, so I politely ask that no one blocks this guy. While no Garfield alter, most gentlemen kindly oblige and let him by unblocked.

Fatties. And we're not even trying to cheat these into play; our plan is to pay 9 to untap that Colossus, like our fathers and their fathers before them.

This is a particularly sweet specimen.

Some defensive utility lands. Wouldn't leave home without a Desert.

Some utility artifacts. Jandor's Saddlebags keeps surprising me; it's like an inverted Icy Manipulator.

These are the last few white-bordered cards. As a casual collector, it's been a long journey to here. Feel free to hit me up if you are reading this Mitja, in particular if you have a good deal on a black-border Savannah or Jayemdae Tome ;)

The Lord Magnus deck. And yeah, I realize there are some solid cards I don't play. Among the more glaring omissions are Erhnam Djinn, Sylvan Library, Chaos Orb, Mishra's Factory and Birds of Paradise. But I guess that is part of the charm with the format.

Brothers' Highlander is a great way to enjoy Magic. If you are looking for some of that sweet mid-90s randomness and celebratory topdecks, look no further.


Next weekend is Halloween. Traditionally, that weekend has been reserved for the BSK gaming convention in Sweden. I started going there in 1997, and I grew up with it as one of few constants during the last 23 years. We've hosted 93/94 tournaments around BSK since 2010, and for seven years the tournament awarded a Giant Shark to the winner. It is the oldest recurring 93/94 gathering after n00bcon, and was the second largest old school tournament each year up until 2017 or so. It's a bit melancholic to see it cancelled, and I wanted to spare it a thought.

But I also want to give a shout-out to the glorious Ö-vik crew in Sweden. Our heroes up north will take the mantle and host a spiritual BSK at their turf this weekend. Travel restrictions make me unable to join, but I cross my fingers for a sweet gathering (and hopefully some pics for the blag). Thanks for keeping it alive, and Happy Halloween!