Recently, a new format has come to grace the Duelyst waves. Highlander!
With its origins in Magic: the Gathering, and made competitive by Hearthstone and the supremely-chinned Reno Jackson, Highlander is a format where every card in your deck has to be different. Restricting you to single copies of any given card is a dramatic hit to your deck’s consistency, and prevents you from playing only the absolute best cards, but in turn it opens up options. What you lose in power level you gain in variety and the unique intricacies of building a Highlander deck that actually works.
With the format’s popularity in other games, it seemed like only a matter of time before we got a Duelyst Highlander event, and we managed to get two at once. A traditional single-elimination contest taking place on a Saturday, and a week-long round robin casual league that started the Monday before the tournament, making for a perfect testing ground. With around two weeks’ warning, I started to brew.
My Highlander experience kicked off with an entire stream of scrimming with LEL7. We made three decks each and ploughed through around ten games over the course of the stream (the best of which you can find here). I spent the next week or so tweaking my decks and doing surprisingly well on the ladder with them before the round robin league fired up. I didn’t manage to play as many games as plenty of the other league-goers, which hurt my final score, but I think I wound up with the best win rate, at 8-1. Plus, at the Saturday tournament, I battled through three extremely close and stressful rounds to wind up winning the whole thing!
So, how did I do that, and how did the format turn out? Let’s break it down.
Highlander tournaments were already something I wanted before the two events were announced, so I was instantly excited. Duelyst’s best decks tend to be consistent engines that maximise the impact of the strongest cards a faction has access to, packed with great early drops, great removal, and great finishers. Much as I enjoy that stuff, I was quite keen on playing games where my opponent didn’t always have the Holy Immolation/Makantor Warbeast/Spectral Revenant/Chromatic Cold, and where baiting one out or even getting hit for full effect would have a much stronger impact on the game.
Duelyst has a pretty deep card pool. There are a lot of powerful cards that don’t see play because they’re ousted from their slots by something more on-theme, or are vulnerable to another commonly-played card (which would show up much less often in Highlander). I was fully keen on the opportunity to explore the ways less trodden, and give voice to some cards that are never played because you lose the game when your opponent has the Aspect of the Fox.
My first thought was to try carrying across what I knew of the format from Hearthstone. Most singleton Hearthstone decks include a mix of individual power cards, removal, and two-card combos that allow them to do something overpowering when they assemble the right tools in hand. This seemed like it would work well in Duelyst thanks to the replace mechanic. I would have the option of throwing away a synergy card or holding onto it for the right situation.
I predicted that the format would be slower and clunkier than normal Duelyst, and perhaps a bit less tempo-based. Between this and the reduced access to premium removal, the door might be open to underplayed big bombs such as Vorpal Reaver and Red Synja.
With all this in mind, I started brewing!
My Lilithe deck was the first I built. It turned out to be the most fun as well as pretty effective, and I wound up running it in both tournaments.
I put the first version of this list together based directly on the ideas I had in the previous paragraph. I wanted to maximise card power and ‘accidental’ two-card combos, and Abyssian have both in spades. The plan was to run a pile of powerful dying wish minions, including a healthy amount of top end, backed up by swarm combo elements that would key off Lilithe’s BBS and the minions’ sticky board presence. A couple of rounds of tweaking trimmed out some of the worse dying wish minions for cards that would have a greater impact on the game, such as Klaxon (surprisingly underwhelming, mostly because I didn’t have any use for the shadow creep) coming out for the remarkably powerful Ruby Rifter.
I rapidly fell in love with the deck, and ended up giving it the bulk of my time and iteration. Between my testing with LEL7 (2-1), accidentally queuing it up on the ladder then rolling with it (twelve games at 9-3), nine round robin games (8-1), and nine tournament games in total (6-3, one loss in each round), I’m 25-8 in wins-losses with the deck.
How does it work?
The deck runs a mix of powerful value minions and a pocketful of swarm payoffs. With my opponents having limited access to removal, it doesn’t take very long before my minions are sticking on the board or trading off for full value. I’d have games where people would dispel a 3-drop and I’d look down at my hand of Reaper of the Nine Moons into Vorpal Reaver and laugh.
Between the big sticky value dorks, limited AOE options for my opponents, and Lilithe’s BBS, wraithlings start to build up on the board as well. It turns out that a lot of the Abyssian swarm cards are so powerful that you can quite happily turn a random 4/2 and a couple of wraithlings into a dominating play via Shadowdancer, Darkfire Crescendo or Soul Grimwar. Shadowdancer and Grimwar are particularly effective – I’ve won games where I had to run out Soul Grimwar on curve for no value, because the card is just that scary. Furosa, the underrated Void Steal, and Bloodmoon Priestess round out the swarm payoffs, and there are a few incidental wombo combos like Black Solus into Necrotic Sphere. Grandmaster Variax is perfectly fine with zero wraithlings on board, but I had a game where I played her after Bloodmoon Priestess and generated 10 or more 5/5s on the following turn.
You don’t need the swarm stuff to win – playing value minions into six- and seven-drops does the job too, or landing a really good Nether Summoning – but it does let you steal lethal or take over the game from out of nowhere. Vorpal Reaver is perhaps the best bridge between the two; it doesn’t get dispelled or transformed anywhere near as often as it would on the ladder, so once it’s been traded into or (god forbid) attacked, you can often jam a combo piece next turn and capitalise on the pile of wraithlings.
The fusion of midrange value plays, removal, and incidental combos worked surprisingly smoothly, and I will definitely try the same thing again the next time I brew a Highlander deck.
So, if everyone ends up playing valuefest decks with clunky curves and broken combos, how do you win? Play aggro!
With worse mana curves and reduced healing on the other side of the table, I felt it might be Zoohorn’s chance to shine at last. I crammed the deck with as many great aggressive creatures as I could find, aiming for a low curve with maximal tempo potential. It was time to go face.
It was when I played Thraex on my third turn and buffed four minions that I thought I might be on to something. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, I actually lost that game! I regained some honour by winning a couple of games after that, but the deck definitely felt more fragile than I was hoping. It’s entirely possible I built it wrongly, but without being able to turbo out combo pieces the way a ladder Decimus Starhorn does, I was relying on crossing my fingers and hoping I got the best curve ever.
There’s definitely some potential here, but I think it needs more burst – rush minions, direct damage, buffs, artifacts, whatever. I want to get my opponent down to 10 or less life and then Just Win ™ rather than jam whatever creatures I have left and hope they get there. The Kron package should probably be something less cute, replacing him and Aethermaster with a Lavaslasher and some kind of out-of-hand damage card (or just a Spelljammer?). Starhorn may not even be the right general for the job.
Speaking of which…
As a longtime Keeper Vaath player, I’m well aware of the power of Vaath’s BBS when properly supported, and I thought the overall reduced power level of Highlander would increase Overload’s impact. Replicating Keeper Vaath itself wouldn’t be particularly viable, but I could certainly build a deck full of healing and removal that just wanted to make a massive dinosaur and beat the opponent to death face-to-face. Crunch.
Sadly, this one also slightly underwhelmed me. I think it needs tuning more than anything – I only played a few games with it. It was able to eke out some wins against LEL7’s arsenal, but it didn’t feel as exciting or explosive as Lilithe or Starhorn. On paper, Overload (like Warbird) definitely has the power to do the job, but it might be that with only one copy of each of the great Magmar removal spells, I’m losing out more than I’m gaining. Perhaps a hybrid between this deck and the Starhorn one – using Overload to apply extra pressure rather than as a win condition – would be better than either individually.
I also forgot to put Grove Lion in. What have I become?
I built this one a few days after the others, so I tested it on ladder instead of against LEL7. I built it mostly to sketch out how good Argeon was, intending to build a similar deck for my partner so she could take part in the tournament as well. Katie ended up not having any time to prepare, but I got a solid deck out of it anyway.
Lyonar have so many good cards that this one came together pretty smoothly. I scrolled through the collection manager clicking on things that were too good not to include, threw in a few neutrals and called it a day. The deck was of course resoundingly clunky, due to its neutered removal suite and high curve, but the card power was through the roof and it turned out to be a lot of fun. It’s not every day you can run out Peacekeeper and have your opponent concede.
I would recommend something like this to anyone newer to the game or with little time to prepare for Highlander. It was easy to put together and probably isn’t hard to tune or customise to your preferences (and collection). Playing decent-sized minions and Roaring them is never a bad game plan, and Lyonar have tons of good cards at the lower rarities as well as entertaining legendaries like Solarius and Z’ir.
The Artifact Hunter turned out to be a touch too cute, but I like the idea a lot in theory – the card advantage and extra chances to hit Arclyte Regalia in particular seem well worth playing a 3/3 for 4 in a slow format.
This was another deck that I threw together as an experiment. I wanted to see if Songhai could survive the consistency hit at all.
As it turns out, they absolutely can! Even this unrefined pile managed to win a few games on the ladder. This deck is probably missing a lot – looking at it now, I see no Spelljammer or Cryptographer, for a start – but for a “click on things until it says 40/40” deck, it’s a decent start. Like the Starhorn deck, the curve is brutally low and there’s a fair bit of explosive potential. Mana Vortex isn’t common these days, but plays very well with the various Arcanysts to make up cheeky value as well as powering up cards like Twin Strike, Heaven’s Eclipse and Spiral Technique.
The deck’s plan is much the same as a lot of Songhai decks – a weird aggro/tempo/combo blend where you need to go face and soften your opponent up, get on the board faster than they do, remove their stuff to stay ahead, and set up deadly combos all at once. There are a few good ways to refill your hand (Trinity Wing, Calligrapher, Blue Conjurer) so you can fire off your cheap interaction early on more or less as much as you need to. Like a lot of other Highlander decks, this list is a Greatest Hits compilation of cards that don’t quite make it into people’s lists any more (remember when people used to play Xho in Spellhai?).
Playing the games out
As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of my Highlander games have been with the Hybrid Lilithe list, so I’m mostly going to focus on that.
I knew going in that Highlander would be clunkier and less punishing than normal Duelyst, but I was surprised by quite how much this is the case. In a lot of my games, my opponent played a dispel on turn 2-3, used a transform removal spell on 3-4, and then got ruined by a Vorpal Reaver. I did my best to hold back my removal, both to make sure I wasn’t taken by surprise later, but also because simply running away is as effective here as ever. Backing off and setting up minions that will trade if your opponent advances is probably at its most effective in Highlander of any format – on the ladder you’ll often be blown out by removal, and in Gauntlet you might not be able to make good trades with the minions you have in hand, either with your opponent’s board or whatever they develop next turn.
I even had a game where my opponent had a slightly damaged EMP and an 8/8 Shadow Watcher in play and I replaced Dark Transformation. Killing only one lethal minion wasn’t going to get me that far compared to having an extra shot at drawing my main out to the situation in general, Shadowdancer (my opponent was on low life and there were wraithlings everywhere). With only one card in hand, the Transformation had to go. I missed, sadly, but drew and dropped a Black Solus (which the EMP traded with), ran away and body-blocked for a while, and was eventually rewarded with a Necrotic Sphere on the now-21/16 Shadow Watcher and a freshly played Vorpal Reaver. Feels good.
Having a weak turn in Highlander is nowhere near as bad as it is elsewhere, either. I had a game where my turn 5 consisted merely of attacking my opponent’s 4/4 with a Spectral Blade, playing nothing, and passing. My opponent thought for a solid minute before deploying a Jaxi and shipping it back. I’ve lost tournaments to having less-weak turns than that before, and I was not in the least bit frustrated when I had to float five whole mana, but it turns out I wasn’t the only one. Pleasingly, my follow-up to my opponent’s Jaxi was (you guessed it) Vorpal Reaver, which handily won me the game.
Another common play pattern was that my opponent would have a very scary opening curve with a good amount of cards still in hand, then abruptly run out of gas and play nothing but random 1/4s and 3/3s. It turned out my Abyssian deck did a good job of not only avoiding that effect but punishing it, too – when the opponent had no real follow-up, a bomb, a strong swarm turn or a Nether Summoning on what turned out to be their best creature would put me ridiculously far ahead. I attribute this more to Abyss’ great card quality and incidental synergy than anything else, but it’s quite possibly also something to do with how I was playing.
The round robin
As far as I’m aware, the Highlander round robin league was the first of its type in Duelyst – massive props to Diplodoraptor for setting that up and running it! Despite the awkwardness that you’d think would come with an unscheduled week-long tournament, the whole thing went off very smoothly. We had a separate Discord channel for arranging matches, and I was able to get nine in despite being in an awkward timezone. Points were awarded for losing games as well as winning them, which I quite like as a mechanic; it encourages participation and rewards newer players. It did mean the victors were mostly people who managed to play a large amount of games with a good win rate rather than people who won a lot but didn’t play all that much, which when you think about it, is pretty reasonable, especially for a casual event. I came in fifth with 8-1; I think I had the best ratio of wins to losses, but couldn’t quite find the time to play as much as many of the other participants.
People played a variety of decks. Although we were allowed to change lists or factions between games, I ended up sticking with Lilithe all the way through, because it was reliably winning and I wanted to practice with it for the Saturday. My loss came from Gabriek running a sweet Cassyva deck, structured quite similarly to mine – I lost to Nocturne setting up Obliterate on top of removal and goodstuff. Outside of that, most of the games started out close or in my opponent’s favour, then I pulled out some nonsense and took over while my opponent wound up with filler in hand. Perhaps I was just running a greedier curve than most?
The standout match was a nailbiting Lilithe mirror that took around half an hour, maybe longer. We wound up topdecking for turns and turns and turns, trying to set up some sort of lethal. My opponent got down to very low health but then stabilised with a couple of big minions; I had to run away for a while until I found an answer (what I was actually looking for was Shadowdancer, but never mind). Eventually, the card that won it after all that dust had settled was Furosa, a one-drop. Nice.
I managed to once again make my all-too-common mistake of going into the tournament hungry. I had food ready just before it started, but between being starving and nervous, I was in a right state. I really need to stop doing that.
Round one was against Pirtz’ hastily-thrown-together Magmar deck. For all that it was improvised, this thing gave me a run for my money (Phalanxar aside. Poor Phalanxar). I lost a close game one, which didn’t do my stress levels any favours; won a close game two; and had an anticlimactic game three where I played Bloodmoon Priestess on curve and my opponent didn’t have any sort of removal or AOE in hand, letting me set up for a 15- or 20-damage Darkfire Crescendo turn.
Rounds two and three were against the dreaded Faie. Faie is most likely my Lilithe deck’s worst matchup, due to her having slightly more dispel/transform than other classes and an excellent bloodborn spell. My round 2 opponent, WhaleWhiskers, had an Arcanyst deck, whereas Briguy77 in round 3 had a more midrangey list with things like White Asp, Sunsteel Defender and Grandmaster Embla.
Every one of those six games came down to the wire. Tiny amounts of healing made a huge difference by buying whole additional turns – every game I won I gained a couple of life from Shadowdancer and a couple from Healing Mystic, and the final game against Briguy was swung my way by a Nether Summoning resurrecting only Shadowdancer. I had one game where I had fifteen or so 5/5 wraithlings rumbling their way across the battlefield, chowing through my opponent’s removal and body blocks, trying to get in for lethal damage before I died to Warbird. That game ended with me on 1 health having played Healing Mystic.
By the end of the event, I was keeping Shadowdancer in my opening hand regardless of the situation – the card was so good and its effect was so necessary that I felt like it was the single biggest differentiator between my wins and my losses. In a slightly slow, AOE-light format, Shadowdancer absolutely shines.
My conclusions on Highlander
Interestingly, it looks like my first guess at how to build Highlander decks turned out to be a great approach. That’s not a massive surprise given that it was based on lots of Highlander experience in Hearthstone, but I definitely wasn’t expecting the principle to translate quite so cleanly.
Highlander is also a bucket of fun! As a halfway house between Gauntlet and Constructed, it gives more breathing room to underplayed cards and janky combos while still demanding a high level of skill and rewarding knowledge of the card pool. Minions stick around more due to the reduced removal and the profusion of strong value creatures you can play, which I don’t think would necessarily be healthy for the game if it was the default experience, but is a refreshing break from the intensity of tempo-heavy ladder games.
I think my favourite thing about Highlander is, oddly, the clunky curves and inconsistency. Not drawing your main threats every game isn’t too big a loss, since there are plenty of different and great cards you can put in, but I really like that it’s ok for one or both players to sometimes have a bad turn. I’ve seen tournament games hinge on a moment where one player drew badly for just one turn out of the whole game and could never recoup the tempo hit, and that seems much less of a big deal in Highlander, where the optimal punishing plays are far less common and both players’ decks are kind of clunky. Paradoxically, it makes the game a bit less draw-dependent in that one specific way – if your deck doesn’t behave for a turn or so, you’re probably not just dead the way you would be in a normal tournament. Plus, your opponent doesn’t always have the Holy Immolation or the card you absolutely need to answer on-curve, so you’re under less pressure to come up with a counter.
I’m definitely excited for more Highlander tournaments in the future. I plan to play in as many of them as I can!
Thanks to ImprobableBlob, Diplodoraptor, Collazo, Hijump and anyone else I’ve missed for their roles in organising and running the Highlander events we’ve had so far – you have brought me much joy. Roll on the next ones!