A week ago, I was just a typical Planeswalker, doing my best to sneak in extra preparation for the Highlander National Championship, fully aware that I wouldn’t be able to borrow an Ancestral Recall for my control deck. So I put together a list that would use Sol Ring to power out quick four mana spells to fuel lots of cute graveyard interactions like Sedraxis Specter, Rise // Fall, Unburial Rites, Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise. It seemed passable, but I felt it wasn’t amazing. It was too clunky to function without an early Sol Ring, and even when I had the turn 1 Sol Ring, I felt that it still couldn’t quite match the competition.

When everything is going right but your deck feels mediocre, you’re probably playing the wrong deck.

Godo, Bandit Highlander Champion

Get Godo’d!

With this in mind, I was having trouble getting to sleep the night before the event, and at approximately (exactly) 2:48am, I got up, stumbled over to my desk and laid my cards out in front of me. The most powerful thing my deck was doing was reanimating Godo, Bandit Warlord to go find Batterskull. True-Name Nemesis was over-performing as well, but Sol Ring wasn’t cutting it, and all the cute graveyard synergies were bad. I cut the Sol Ring, added Stoneforge Mystic to find the Batterskull more often, Umezawa’s Jitte as a back up equipment, and increased my creature count by adding Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer. With the spare point, I went with Force of Will to protect the creatures that I was reshaping my deck to revolve around. Most of the clunky top end spells were put aside, and the Edicts and Doom Blade effects that had made up my removal suite were replaced by more efficient white and red options. My mana got an emergency rework, but it was definitely sub-optimal.

This was what I decided on, in those wee hours of the morning:

4 Colour Delver Gifts

Creatures 8

1 Godo, Bandit Warlord
1 Venser, Shaper Savant
1 True-Name Nemesis
1 Vendilion Clique
1 Snapcaster Mage
1 Stoneforge Mystic
1 Young Pyromancer
1 Delver of Secrets

Artifacts 3

1 Batterskull
1 Umezawa's Jitte
1 Sensei's Divining Top

Planeswalkers 2

1 Jace, the Mind Sculptor
1 Dack Fayden

Instants 19

1 Dig Through Time
1 Force of Will
1 Cryptic Command
1 Gifts Ungiven
1 Counterflux
1 Electrolyze
1 Counterspell
1 Daze
1 Fire // Ice
1 Lightning Helix
1 Mana Leak
1 Remand
1 Brainstorm
1 Burst Lightning
1 Lightning Bolt
1 Mental Misstep
1 Path to Exile
1 Spell Snare
1 Swords to Plowshares

Sorceries 4

1 Treasure Cruise
1 Unburial Rites
1 Lingering Souls
1 Ponder

Lands 24

1 Scalding Tarn
1 Flooded Strand
1 Arid Mesa
1 Polluted Delta
1 Misty Rainforest
1 Marsh Flats
1 Bloodstained Mire
1 Volcanic Island
1 Tundra
1 Underground Sea
1 Steam Vents
1 Hallowed Fountain
1 Sacred Foundry
1 Watery Grave
1 Glacial Fortress
1 Sulfur Falls
1 Shivan Reef
1 Reflecting Pool
1 Faerie Conclave
1 Riptide Laboratory
2 Island
1 Plains
1 Mountain
Sideboard 15

1 Boldwyr Intimidator
1 Anathemancer
1 Keranos, God of Storms
1 Threads of Disloyalty
1 Relic of Progenitus
1 Supreme Verdict
1 Wrath of God
1 Anger of the Gods
1 Celestial Purge
1 Negate
1 Wear // Tear
1 Zealous Persecution
1 Pyroblast
1 Red Elemental Blast
1 Cavern of Souls

It was definitely not the prettiest decklist I’d ever written, but I knew that I had a much better chance with this build. It had the capacity to steal games with early aggression, and it could put up a fight in the mid to late game with planeswalkers, delve spells and Batterskull. I didn’t have a perfect idea of the field, but I knew there would be a lot of Junk Midrange decks using Skullclamp and Birthing Pod in the room, which I felt I had a good chance of beating consistently if I could keep them contained with my removal spells, especially post board. The deck that I was most worried about facing was the UR Moon deck, which I knew a lot of players would be on, since it could really punish my greedy mana base, and combined with burn spells to clean up my early creatures, I would be playing at a severe disadvantage. I added a few cards to the board for the matchup, including the haymaker Keranos, God of Storms, and hoped to dodge the matchup as much as possible. I couldn’t think of a 15th card for the board, and I was tired enough that I thought this was a good excuse to add a Boldwyr Intimidator, because I felt like I was in a warrior blocking mood.

Round 1 – Storm, John-Paul Kelly

Despite my misgivings, I went into this match thinking that I had a pretty good chance at winning; I could apply a fast clock with most of my creatures, I had counter magic to slow JP down, and I had burn spells for extra reach. When I drew my seven, and saw three counterspells (one of them Force of Will), a threat, a burn spell and some lands to cast all of these, I was feeling great. I was killed by a lethal Tendrils of Agony on Turn 5.

Game 2 was much worse, since I mulliganed into an embarrassing hand of Force of Will, Zealous Persecution, Burst Lightning and two lands. I did not draw a blue card or a threat, and JP unloaded on me.

Round 2 – WB Tokens, Josh Ophel

Losing in Round 1 meant that I did not have another loss to give at any stage for the rest of the tournament. It was going to be a long day, and a stressful one, if I was going to have a chance. No pressure, right?

In game 1, Josh took control of the battlefield with Umezawa’s Jitte and Elspeth, Knight Errant, and despite my best efforts to claw back into the game by chumping Batterskull into the Jitte wielding soldiers and golems, I was quickly overrun.

After sideboarding, I was able to remove the bottom end of my creature line up and went full control, since being able to lean on my wrath effects to clear up his tokens gave me a much better chance of surviving to the late game and taking over. Josh snagged my Anger of the Gods and another spell with a Hymn to Tourach on turn 2. Regardless, I was able to play defensively long enough clear up his board by flashing back Anger of the Gods, maneuvering his Batterskull into a Cryptic Command, and then turned the game around with my own living weapon.

In the third game, Josh deployed multiple anthem effects and a Sword of Feast and Famine, but all of these buffs left him light on threats, and his tokens from a Raise the Alarm were doing all the heavy lifting. I bought myself time with a Lingering Souls, and he used his Enlightened Tutor to find Umezawa’s Jitte. However, this gave me a perfect opening to use Threads of Disloyalty to take the token wielding the Sword, and Lightning Bolt the other token. My stolen soldier and remaining spirits were able to finish the job before Josh was able to draw out of it.

After this round there was a lunch break and a charity auction to raise money for Camp Quality. I spent all that was left of my Cancon budget fighting for some beautiful alters made by my friend Hannah O’Neill, and by the end of the auction the room had collectively raised over $1500, which is fantastic. As soon as that had wrapped up, it was time to jump back into the fray.

Round 3 – Junk Midrange, Simon James

Unfortunately for my opponent, things don’t start off very well. He won the die roll and then mulled to 5. I’ve kept a stellar seven that I would have been happy with against most decks, with multiple pieces of counter magic, Snapcaster Mage and a removal spell.

Luckily for my opponent, he got the best 5 possible. His curve goes from Elvish Mystic to Anafenza, the Foremost to Seige Rhino to Thragtusk. My seven is well positioned against this sort of hand, and I get rid of the Seige Rhino with a Counterspell, delay the Thragtusk with a Remand and answered it the turn after with Snapcaster on Counterspell, but I was still getting a solid beating from Anafenza. Once I draw my fifth land, I was able to deploy both Jace, the Mind Sculptor and a Swords to Plowshares, neutralising the then 4/4 Elvish Mystic and disposing of Anafenza. After this, despite his very impressive opening hand, he was out of gas and lost the game.

In game 2, his seven card hand wass a lot less explosive than his five card hand. In what seemed like a misboard, he played a Grafdigger’s Cage after I’d already gotten value from my Snapcaster Mage, (though it turns off the Unburial Rites he doesn’t know about yet). In fact, it hurt him more than me, since it makes his Pod and Kitchen Finks pretty underwhelming, although neither made an appearance this game. Dack Fayden is the star of the show, aggressively filtering my hand into removal spells and counter magic while my True-Name Nemesis held down the fort against Ophiomancer, I was able to -6 Dack Fayden before Simon could muster a threat able to get through True-Name, and after stealing Thragtusk with Dack’s emblem I took the game in short order.

Round 4 – Four Colour Zoo, Chris Plattner

Game 1 went exactly the way I want my games against zoo to go. His Kird Ape is cast off of a Plateau rather than a Taiga, he is unable to deploy a second threat on Turn 2, and the Skullclamp that he plays instead is taken by none other than Dack Fayden (who sadly falls to the Ape shortly after). Stuck at three mana, he summomed a Scavenging Ooze on the fifth turn, but he was outclassed by my Batterskull. Still punching, he managed to overcome the equipment for a turn with a Ghor-Clan Rampager, but after I cleared up his field with Lightning Bolt, Snapcaster, Lightning Bolt he concedes.

In the second game, I was able to control the pace easily with my removal spells, while Sensei’s Divining Top fed me answers to his threats. I stole his Tarmogoyf with Threads of Disloyalty, forcing him to waste resources to beat his own guy, giving me plenty of time to deploy Batterskull again, which he destroyed in short order with a Qasali Pridemage. Even though he was able to keep breaking past my defences, he was quickly running out of resources, and I was able to Treasure Cruise. Despite a Tribal Flames knocking me down to a precarious 2 life, Chris wasn’t to finish the job and I beat him down with Snapcaster Mage, using my Riptide Laboratory to reuse a Mana Leak when he attempted a last ditch Vengevine.

Round 5 – Junk Midrange, Ivan Schroder

Batterskull once again steals a quick game one, Ivan simply couldn’t find the tools to remove the powerful Germ token or the Bandit that summoned it. We sideboard quickly, and similar to the last two games I removed my early game creatures for my wrath package to take the control role.

In Game 2, Ivan has a potent start, deploying multiple threats to the board that I struggle to keep up with. He disables one of my fetchlands with an Aven Mindcensor, which creates a very inconvenient situation for me, since my only source of red mana is a Shivan Reef. I Spell Snare his Tarmogoyf, and I’m able to take out both the Aven Mindcensor and a Spirit of the Labyrinth with my Electroylze. Ivan keeps deploying threats, casting and flashing back his Lingering Souls alongside a Kitchen Finks. He over extends into a Wrath of God. Not all is well, since the damage he was able to deal left me dangerously low on life, and he was able to cast Elspeth, Knight-Errant while my shields were down, threatening lethal with absolutely anything.

I frantically try to keep up with his threats, but with the help of Dack Fayden and Jace, the Mind Sculptor I’m able to contain his board. I start to stabilise with True-Name Nemesis and Lingering Souls, but Ivan takes my Batterskull with Duress, and follows that up by activating Elspeth’s -8, keeping the Planeswalker around with 2 Loyalty counters, with a board of two Soldier Tokens, Anafenza, the Foremost and a mana dork. No longer able to properly answer Ivan’s attackers, and with his life total well above 30, it’s clear that Jace was the only way I could win this game. Dack Fayden’s continued presence had prevented Ivan from deploying any equipment for fear of it being stolen, but Dack is really an equal opportunity stealer, and I’m able to make his emblem for the second time that day. A Swords to Plowshares steals his Anafenza, and brings me back up to a manageable 5 life when she is exiled, giving me a bit more of a cushion to handle his tokens.

Even though there is a bit of confusion on my part about how Dack’s Emblem works regarding Planeswalkers and burn spells, I’m able to get rid of Elspeth and fend off Ivan’s team with the stalwart True-Name Nemesis and Dack’s Emblem, combined with Fire // Ice, and I survive long enough to end the game by exiling Ivan’s library.

Round 6 – Grixis Delver, Phil Nicholson

We’re 7th and 8th in standings, but neither of us will be safe with an ID, so we have to bash. Even though he won the roll, I was able to deploy the first Delver of Secrets. He had a clunky hand, and didn’t have an immediate answer for the Delver. Unfortunately, I’m fantastic at not flipping Delver, so he had a lot of time to draw out of it. I play my Jitte on turn 2, pretty sure that if I could connect with it I would be able to take control of the game handily.

Unfortunately, there is no honour amongst thieves, it seems, as Dack Fayden arrives on my opponent’s side of the field and pockets my Jitte. Delver flips to a Force of Will, and I dispose of Dack, but the tables have turned. Phil took complete control of the game with Liliana of the Veil and Vendilion Clique, and didn’t even feel the need to equip my Jitte, and he just beats me down with the 3/1 Faerie Wizard.

In the second game, I tried the Delver of Secrets plan again, this time flipping the Delver into Insectile Aberration in a timely fashion, and while Phil’s hand was well suited to fighting me on the stack or attacking my hand directly, it was light on threat removal, and I was able to defend my Delver to force a third game.

This time, Phil is the one who goes on the Delver plan, which I attempt to Misstep, but he responds with Daze. I untapped and REB’d his Delver. Phil’s game plan fell apart without Delver. I cast a Lingering Souls and a Young Pyromancer, and the wave of 1/1 Tokens destroy Phil’s who was clutching a hand of Red Elemental Blast effects. He draws lands instead of gas, and despite a spirited effort to race back with Lavaclaw Reaches and Creeping Tar Pit, he couldn’t keep up with my swarm.

I’m locked for the top 8! Not only that, but I was in the top half of the standings.

Top 8 – Elves, Will Lou

While we waited for the top 8 to start, I chat with Mathew Guides and Jim Wilkes, both of whom thought I was favoured against Will’s Elves deck, a sentiment I agreed with. After spending most of the day playing it, I’m starting to feel pretty confident that my deck is actually good. However, I’d found myself in the top 8 of Legacy against Will the day before, and despite similar thoughts he took me down quite handily then.

Game 1 goes according to plan, and I am able to chain removal spells into countermagic to take a strong lead. Will was forced to start the game with a Dryad Arbor, which I killed off with a Burst Lightning, and from then on he’s forced to lean on an Elves of Deep Shadow to play cards, while I fire off Lightning Helix and Snapcaster, Helix to keep his board contained. He’s unable to get anything going, and Force of Will and Misstep closes the door, although I gave him way more chances to kill me than I should have when I allow him to play his Skullclamp, staring at my Misstep the whole time. If there was ever a game I deserved to lose, it was this one. But he needs his Crop Rotation to keep going, and I misstep that instead.

In Game 2, he gets the sort of hand that you can’t really beat. He drops his Mox Emerald alongside a Forest, made three or so dudes, then casting a Whisperwood Elemental on turn 3. I thought that I could survive a turn and see an extra card, but he shows me Elvish Archdruid to make it much more than lethal, and we shuffled up for the third game.

This is an absolute reversal, where my hand is so hateful that he needed to get a truly busted draws to even have a chance. He didn’t have more than one permanent in play for the first six turns. I misstep his first mana dork, I have a removal spell for the second, I Snapcaster my Misstep for the third, I have another removal spell for the fourth, I use Fire // Ice to tap down his lone land preventing him from playing a fifth, and a Spell Snare for the Scavenging Ooze when he finally finds a second land. All the while, he’s stuck with a hand of uncastable spells, and I’ve been beating him down with my glorified Ambush Viper.

Top 4 – UR Moon, Jim ‘The Experience’ Wilkes

Part of me was sure that I’m going to lose right here, but I quickly pushed that part of me aside and shuffled up. It doesn’t matter that I’m playing against my logical worst matchup, or that it’s being piloted by one of the best players in Australia who has bested me every single time we’ve played in the past. I was in with a puncher’s chance, and that’s enough.

I managed a reasonably aggressive start, and applied a little pressure with my puny 1/1 Delver, again refusing to flip. Jim dispatched it with a burn spell, and after setting up my draws with a Brainstorm I attempted to cast Vendilion Clique in his end step, and he responds with a Clique of his own. He takes one of my cards, but I draw the Electrolyze I hid on top of my library, allowing me to beat his Clique and crack in with my own. He then resolved a Blood Moon, and I was stranded on a single blue mana, but I had my Clique in play still. I did some filtering with my Sensei’s Divining Top, since at this stage my path to victory was either defending Clique with my few castable counterspells, or going over the top with Godo, Bandit Warlord and/or Batterskull. But unfortunately, disaster strikes when a miscommunication leads to Jim drawing a card post-combat when I move to replay my Sensei’s Diving Top, thinking that I had ended my turn. A judge is called, the situation explained, and ultimately Jim is issued a game loss for drawing extra cards.

Jim is understandably flustered, and we shuffled up for game 2.

In this game, I take a risk and fetch aggressively for an Island and Plains, even though this leaves me without any red mana, but insulated me from Blood Moon and Back to Basics. I played a Lingering Souls, which Jim Mana Drained, and he then used the mana to power out a Keranos, God of Storms. During my turn, I neutralised the God with the Celestial Purge that I’d brought in to deal with Blood Moon, and then flashbacked my Souls.

The game swung back and forth, with Jim deploying a Young Pyromancer and weakening my offense with a Cryptic Command bouncing a Spirit when I tried to flashback the Celestial Purge. Jim’s Back to Basics strangles my mana base, but my early game decision to fetch two basics allowed me to cast my Stoneforge Mystic and find my Batterskull. I recovered even further when I was able to fetch a basic Mountain with my Bloodstained Mire, allowing me to unlock the red cards stranded in my hand, while attacking his Back to Basics with my Wear // Tear. Jim bought time with a Remand, but I was able to  remove the crippling enchantment and deploy my Batterskull, quickly recovering the life I’d lost from Jim’s elemental tokens. Jim tried to resolve a Magus of the Moon, but I pointed 2 damage at it with Fire // Ice. Jim thinks for a while, before casting Dualcaster Mage to fork it and get my Stoneforge Mystic off the table, then allowing the Magus to hit the bin. Once again able to use all of my mana, I send my Vendilion Clique in to scout his hand and all I see is a basic Island. I untap, confirm that his life total is 9, then equip my Batterskull to Vendilion Clique and activate my Faerie Conclave, swinging for lethal.

Finals – UR Vault Twin Moon, Matthew Larcombe

It seemed like I was going to have to slog through two Moon decks in a row if I wanted that Trophy (and the Mox, I suppose). But it turned out that I’m one lucky Planeswalker, since I didn’t see a single Moon effect in any of my games with Matthew. After the match, I learned that Matt had boarded out his Moon effects after misidentifying me as a UR Delver strategy in game 1, since his games in the top 8 had all run longer than mine and he had not seen what I was on during the day.

The first game was decided very quickly. I deployed a turn 2 Young Pyromancer, while he cast a turn 2 Time Vault. I cast two cantrips during my turn, looking for some more robust protection than the lands and Snapcaster Mage that I currently had access to, and I find my Mental Misstep to protect me against Voltaic Key . He untaps, shrugs his shoulders, jams a Deciever Exarch, takes another turn with his Vault, jams a Ral Zarek and then takes all of the turns.

Well, sometimes they just have it.

I was on the play again in game 2, and we trade land drops for a while before I start doing things. I played a Batterskull with a Reflecting Pool open. It resolves, but the equipment is sent back to my hand before it connects by a Cryptic Command off the top of Matt’s deck the next turn. Which was fine, of course, since it just let me resolve a Keranos. He matches it with a Keranos of his own. Now it is just about who is the luckiest wizard in the room, and I feel like he’s probably got me beat in that department once I started flipping multiple lands, so I deployed a True-Name Nemesis to assist me in the race. He revealed a Voltaic Key for Keranos, and I send in my Vendilion Clique in his end step. He’s not interested in that, and he cast a Brainstorm to set up his next two Keranos hits, and then Mana Leaked the Clique. I get my only hit in with Keranos, but I started to assemble a hand of countermagic from the extra draws, so I kept bashing. He revealed the Key again and passed. I revealed another land and attack. He revealed a Misdirection, putting me to 3 life, while he’s on 7. I reveal another land, but Keranos makes up for it by drawing me an actual Lightning Bolt. I animated my Faerie Conclave again, hit for 5 with my creatures, and finished the job with my Lightning Bolt, dispatching his hard cast Misdirection with a Counterflux.

In the third game, I played a turn 1 Cavern of Souls naming a tribe that True-Name Nemesis does not have, and feel like slapping myself for it. Anyway, I played a Top, we both make a bunch of land drops and on his third turn he tapped out for a Vedalken Shackles, confident he had the game locked now that he’ll be able to take any creatures I play against him. But with him tapped out, I deploy the far less safe than it should’ve been True-Name Nemesis, which he does not have an answer for.

It turns out that Sensei’s Divining Top is a very good card, and it kept me well stocked on lands and countermagic, and I’m able to stop Matt from getting anything going while my True-Name Nemesis wears him down. As the powerful Merfolk brings him down to 1 life, I reveal another lethal Lightning Bolt, and he responds by casting a Lightning Bolt of his own, aimed at his own face, to at least deny me the killing blow.

Someone hands me a trophy, and I realise that I’m the National Highlander Champion now.

National Highlander Champion Aidan Frisch

Well, THAT was unexpected.

I started this event hoping that I’d do well, joking with my friends that I’d get some silly cards into the winning decklist, but fully expecting not to make it. I don’t know if I just got lucky, or if I’m secretly a better player than I thought I was, but I built a deck that knew what it wanted to be doing, I did my best to take good lines that would give me a chance of winning, and even though I slipped up a lot, I tried to play at my best. I guess sometimes that’s enough, but it definitely isn’t going to work every time.

About the deck itself, as I develop it further the first addition will definitely be Monastery Mentor, a card that can easily run away with the game, and the lack of a generic answer to problematic permanents (especially non-blue Planeswalkers) like Council’s Judgment or Vindicate was a huge oversight. Daze was at times the perfect answer, but was also a dud quite often. I’m willing to give it another shot, but its one of the first cards I’d look towards cutting. I look forward to developing the deck further, and I welcome anyone else who thinks this pile has some potential to give it a try.

Overall, what I’m taking from this event is that I didn’t become the National Highlander Champion by being the most powerful wizard in the room. I made a lot of small mistakes, and a few big ones, and by some mix of luck and skill I was able to get through those mistakes unscathed. I have a lot of work to do if I’m going to feel worthy of winning this title, and to start with that means doing my utmost to eliminate the persistent slip ups I keep making under pressure and improving my mindset, especially when I’m behind. I might also try to build my decks at a more sensible hour, but no promises there.