“Josh, is Splinter Twin a deck in Highlander?”
“Nope.”
“Can we make it one?”

Shane mentioned in one of his earlier articles that some Highlander decks are built on “niche (terrible) combos”.  I’m here to show you the steps I took to construct a deck based around a specific, niche combo, One of the easiest mistakes to make when building decks for Highlander is to have too many ideas, including too many niche cards, and then finding that your deck is unfocused and doesn’t perform optimally in any role. These steps will help you to refine your deck construction.

Step 1: Find your combo

The first thing you need to do to build a terrible combo deck is to add the cards that drive the combo, the cards that will end the game. This could be a short list (Zuran Orb, Crucible of Worlds, Fastbond) or anywhere up to 15 cards (Wan Chin Flash). Jot down all the involved cards! Some of them won’t make it into the finished deck, but it’s easier to cut combo cards that don’t perform than to cut non-combo cards because you need room.

Splinter Twin
Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker

Deceiver Exarch
Pestermite
Restoration Angel
Zealous Conscripts
Village Bell-Ringers

Step 2: Find your archetype and points

The reason we all play Highlander is to use these sweet pointed cards, right? Once we’ve got a starting list of combo cards, we need to decide what shell the deck fits in to. Will it be a hard combo deck spending points on Draw-7s? A control shell, using Ancestral Recall and pointed counterspells? A grindy creature deck aka Skullclamp And Friends?

The 2 directions I had available for me with this deck were UWR Control (Splinter Twin in Modern) or GUWR Birthing Pod (Kiki-Pod in Modern). Only having access to 1 Pod, and the combo not needing green mana at all pushed me towards UWR Control. So once again, lets jot down all point possibilities for the archetype!

4 – Ancestral Recall, Black Lotus
3 – Mox Sapphire, Time Walk
2 – Library of Alexandria, Mystical Tutor
1 – Balance, Enlightened Tutor, Force of Will, Gifts Ungiven, Intuition, Karakas, Mana Drain, Muddle the Mixture, Merchant Scroll, Personal Tutor, True-Name Nemesis

Well that didn’t really narrow the deck down much.

We immediately cross some off the list that don’t match what the deck wants to do like fast mana, narrow tutors and Time Walk. The only question that’s left points wise is whether or not to play Ancestral Recall. Let’s see after we flesh out the deck with support cards!

Step 3: Fill the deck with good cards that help you achieve your goal

In a singleton format like Highlander, it’s extremely important that every card in your deck carries its weight. You can’t afford to have dead cards, and every card must be either a high-impact threat or an efficient answer. Most archetypes have a list of auto-include cards that are either the best cards around at disrupting your opponent’s game plan, or the best cards around at advancing your own. Once again, jot down everything and make cuts later. I won’t bore you with a list of every good card in UWR Control, but here’s a short example:

Creatures:
Vendilion Clique, Venser Shaper Savant, Snapcaster Mage, Glen-Elendra Archmage
Non-creatures:
Jace TMS, Cryptic Command, Spell Pierce, Sensei’s Divining Top, Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares, Ponder
(…)

This list will undoubtedly be the longest section of this exercise. It’s probably also the most important section, as the majority of cards you see during a game will be from this category.

 Step 4: The Mana Base

This step can either be very quick or very slow, depending on the archetype you’ve chosen, whether you want to play around non-basic land hate, or even be the deck playing the non-basic land hate. This list will vary greatly from deck to deck, based on the intensity of their color requirements and how many spots there are for utility lands. Here’s a few suggestions:

Fetch/Dual/Shock base
Basics
Other color fixing lands (Filters, Check, Fast, Rainbow)
Man-lands
Other Utility

This section is possibly the easiest to cut from, as you should have an idea in mind of how many lands you’ll be playing in the deck.

Step 5: Cutting to 60

We’re finally on to the fun part! You should have a list now of well over 60 cards, in various categories, and an idea of how important each category is to include. Here’s what I came to in this step last year when I first put this deck together – bear in mind the points list was quite different and some cards hadn’t been printed yet:

Land (24)
1x Arid Mesa
1x Bloodstained Mire
1x Cascade Bluffs
1x Cavern of Souls
1x Flooded Strand
1x Glacial Fortress
1x Hallowed Fountain
4x Island
1x Karakas [1]
1x Marsh Flats
1x Misty Rainforest
1x Mountain
1x Plateau
1x Polluted Delta
1x Sacred Foundry
1x Scalding Tarn
1x Steam Vents
1x Tundra
1x Volcanic Island
1x Windswept Heath
1x Wooded Foothills

Instant (19)
1x Ancestral Recall [4]
1x Brainstorm
1x Cryptic Command
1x Enlightened Tutor
1x Fact or Fiction
1x Fire/Ice
1x Force of Will [1]
1x Impulse
1x Into the Roil
1x Lightning Bolt
1x Lightning Helix
1x Mana Drain [1]
1x Mana Leak
1x Mental Misstep
1x Repeal
1x Spell Pierce
1x Spell Snare
1x Swords to Plowshares
1x Thirst for Knowledge

Creature (9)
1x Deceiver Exarch
1x Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
1x Pestermite
1x Restoration Angel
1x Snapcaster Mage
1x Vendilion Clique
1x Venser, Shaper Savant
1x Village Bell-Ringer
1x Zealous Conscripts

Sorcery (3)
1x Ancestral Vision
1x Ponder
1x Preordain

Artifact (3)
1x Engineered Explosives
1x Sensei’s Divining Top
1x Vedalken Shackles

Enchantment (1)
1x Splinter Twin

Planeswalker (1)
1x Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Step 6: Playtest!

You’ve got an archetype, you’ve got a deck, now you need to know how to play it. Theorycrafting will only take you so far, and nothing is going to beat in-game experience with the deck. I can’t emphasize enough how important testing is – you learn good matchups and bad matchups, you learn lines of play that are niche that you might miss under the pressure of a tournament, and you learn whether or not the deck needs more work. If this is the first draft of the deck, you’re probably going to find cards that don’t work as well for you as you thought. Someone might mention a card to you that would be an all-star in your deck that you had never thought of.
Get some games in, test against various archetypes, discuss the games with your opponent. Once you have a general feel for the deck…

Step 7: Refine your deck.

So you jotted down some 100 cards, cut it down to 60, and played some games. Odds are you’re not 100% happy with the list. Maybe you lost harder to Zoo than expected, maybe you spent your points on the wrong thing. Maybe a new card got printed that is strictly better than one you were playing. Make some changes! Fiddle with your card choices, until you’re happy and the deck feels right. Here’s some examples of what my original list went through:

Manabase:
– Color Fixing lands
+ Basics
+ Back to Basics
– White fetches
+ Mountains

Points:
– Mana Drain
+ Enlightened Tutor
– Enlightened Tutor
+ Merchant Scroll
– Karakas
+ True-Name Nemesis

Creatures:
– Zealous Conscripts
– Village Bell-Ringers
+ Imperial Recruiter
+ Glen Elendra Archmage

These changes didn’t happen all at once, they’ve been a gradual change over the past 12 months. Each one has made the list feel stronger, and each one was a result of some solid playtesting.

Step 8:

Repeat steps 6 and 7 until you’re satisfied. It’s quite possible your finished product will look nothing like your first iteration!

Twin

Land (24)

1 Arid Mesa
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Flooded Strand
1 Hallowed Fountain
5 Island
1 Misty Rainforest
3 Mountain
2 Plains
1 Plateau
1 Polluted Delta
1 Riptide Laboratory
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Scalding Tarn
1 Steam Vents
1 Tundra
1 Volcanic Island
1 Wooded Foothills

Artifact (3)

1 Engineered Explosives
1 Sensei’s Divining Top
1 Vedalken Shackles

Enchantment (2)

1 Back to Basics
1 Splinter Twin

Instant (15)

1 Ancestral Recall [4]
1 Brainstorm
1 Cryptic Command
1 Fact or Fiction
1 Fire/Ice
1 Force of Will [1]
1 Impulse
1 Lightning Bolt
1 Lightning Helix
1 Mana Leak
1 Mental Misstep
1 Repeal
1 Spell Pierce
1 Spell Snare
1 Swords to Plowshares

Creature (10)

1 Deceiver Exarch
1 Glen Elendra Archmage
1 Imperial Recruiter
1 Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
1 Pestermite
1 Restoration Angel
1 Snapcaster Mage
1 True-Name Nemesis [1]
1 Vendilion Clique
1 Venser, Shaper Savant

Sorcery (5)

1 Ancestral Vision
1 Council’s Judgment
1 Merchant Scroll [1]
1 Ponder
1 Preordain

Planeswalker (1)

1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor

And there you have it! I hope this helps you put together a decklist for this sweet format!

If you need a playtesting partner, or have any questions about deckbuilding, ask around on the forums and someone should be able to help you. Thanks for reading!