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Introduction to Elder Dragon Highlander

Hello, my name is Sean Catanese and I want to recruit you.

I’m a Level 1 judge residing in Sacramento, California. I run Friday Night Magic and other Magic events for Great Escape Games, which houses the largest play area in the region. I’ve spent some time evangelizing Elder Dragon Highlander, also known as EDH, at my local stores with the goal of expanding the player base beyond judges and their friends. I think it’s working.

Recently, momentum among players has shifted such that EDH is no longer limited to judges after hours at premiere events, but it is a refreshing and increasingly popular variant around kitchen tables and alongside FNMs as well. Every week, I’ll be bringing you new ideas and old debates on this variant format in the hopes of bringing new players into the fold and giving the old hands something new to chew on.

EDH Rules

This opening article is meant to serve as a basic rules primer for those interested in learning more about EDH and set a foundation for musings to come.

A variant format designed with an eye toward creating epic, refreshing, and uncommonly interesting games, EDH casts players into unique circumstances against multiple opponents, each with exactly 100 cards at his disposal and twice the typical starting life total. Like every game of Magic, every game of EDH really begins in deck construction, and the format has very specific deck construction rules that give it its unique flavor and strategic approaches.

EDH owes its name to two essential components of every deck’s construction. “Elder Dragon” refers to the original quintet of Elder Dragon Legends (Chromium, Arcades Sabboth, Palladia-Mors, Vaevictis Asmadi, and, of course, Kresh the Bloodbraided). Each EDH deck has a “general”, a legendary creature selected to guide the deck’s construction. The mana cost of a deck’s general dictates the cards that the deck can play. All colored mana symbols on cards in your deck must match those in your general’s mana cost.

For instance, if Kresh the Bloodbraided is your general, you can play with Shivan Emissary and Birds of Paradise, but not Quenchable Fire or Noble Hierarch. It’s interesting to note here that the few legendary creatures with off-color activated abilities – Thelon of Havenwood, Memnarch, and Bosh, Iron Golem – exclude themselves from general duty and are not currently legal choices. The only other illegal general is Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary. Simply put, he’s pretty incredible as a normal creature in most decks, and he’d just be too awesome as a general.

In keeping with this structure, you can’t include lands with a basic land type that makes them tap for mana outside your general’s colors. Mountains – of the basic, Madblind, or Blood Crypt varieties – aren’t legal in a deck commanded by Doran, the Siege Tower. A land like Wooded Foothills, though, that merely references a forbidden realm of mana production is fine.

Lands you control can only produce mana of your general’s colors and make colorless if they would make mana of another type. So, even though your Maze of Ith doesn’t normally do mana production, it can tap to produce (B) if Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth is on the table and your general is Zur the Enchanter, and it will only tap for (1) if your general is Rafiq of the Many. Oddly, this means that you can include Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth in any EDH deck, and it will “turn on” non-mana-producing lands like Arena, Maze of Ith, or even Sorrow’s Path. (Ok, so no one has ever played with Sorrow’s Path, but I suppose it’s technically possible.)

Your general has a special role in playing the game too. It begins the game face-up in the removed-from-game zone. It can be played from this zone almost as though it was in your hand. This allows you to send your Vendilion Clique general into the fray at your opponents’s end phase and set up your Tunnel Vision without needing the full (6)(U)(U)(U) at once. The “almost” is there because cards with an intervening “if” clause like Wild Pair won’t see you play your general, generals with the intervening “if” clause like Myojin of Night’s Reach won’t make your opponents cry if they’re played this way, and Dramatic Entrance won’t allow you to cheat General Progenitus into play at half-price.

Once your general is in play, chances are it will find a way to get killed. However, if your general would be put into your graveyard, you can put it back in the removed from game zone as a replacement effect. This also works if your general would be put into the graveyard from any other zone like your hand or library. If you put your general back in the removed from game zone (or if it finds its own way there through Path to Exile or Apocalypse) it can be replayed as normal with an additional cost of (2) for each time it’s been played from the removed from game zone. The ability to replay a general offers a degree of consistency in a format with more variety than most. For example, one game this weekend saw Adun Oakenshield played nine times before his owner, Gabe, was killed, hitting the board at a staggering cost of (16)(B)(R)(G) in his last incarnation.

Because EDH offers the ability to recur significant threats from the removed from game zone without the advent of Reya Dawnbringer and her ilk, removal to places other than the graveyard and removed from game zone are commonly played. Cards like Condemn and Hallowed Burial are staples for any deck running white. Similarly, its ability to shuffle away multiple opposing generals gives Warp World a special place in the hearts of some EDH players.

Also, spells that affect cards in the RFG zone will see your general, which is why Riftsweeper is banned in the format. You can take advantage of this, though, and use Glittering Wish or Living Wish to get your general into your hand and play it without the additional costs you’d have to pay otherwise.

Finally, your general is a win condition all by itself. If your general deals 21 points of combat damage to another player, that player loses the game. This special quality of your general can create awkward combat situations where the “right” play is to chump-block your opponent’s Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir and let his Sundering Titan smash your face. That combat damage specifically is counted becomes important when generals like Jaya Ballard, Task Mage come into the mix. Also, each general’s damage count is noted separately, so if you kill off the player wielding Kamahl, Pit Fighter after he’s come in for 18 damage, your other opponent’s Kamahl, Fist of Krosa won’t be able to finish the job by swinging in for just 3 more. Also, it’s important to note that you don’t need to control your own general as it’s dealing the combat damage needed to eliminate a player. So, in the wrong hands (i.e. your opponents’), your own general can kill you.

Highlander

That’s where the ED in EDH comes from and what it means. “Highlander” is a reference to the mid-90’s television show with the tagline “In the end, there can only be one.” [Actually, it was originally a movie from the mid-80’s. –Riki] The digital term for Constructed one-of Magic is Singleton (and EDH’s Magic Online analogue is called Commander), but in real cardboard-and-shuffling Magic, Highlander is the common vernacular. In real terms, this deckbuilding restriction means that, excepting basic lands, each and every one of your one hundred cards must be unique in the deck.

The Highlander restriction creates an incredible variety of opportunities to be creative in deckbuilding. Rarely, if ever, are any two EDH decks identical. One of the format’s major draws is the potential for a wide range of players to utilize the aging pieces of their collections without needing to invest in playsets of Polluted Deltas or Force of Wills. Exploration of new interactions among Magic’s 10,000 interchangeable pieces can be a goldmine of opportunity, yielding deck ideas and developing playskill in ways that can apply back in more competitively structured formats. Beyond this, EDH offers players the chance to use the one-of foils, alternate art, full-art promo, foreign, or modified versions of cards without creating a deck rife with marked cards – just be sure you have Gatherer on hand or can believably fake a Russian-to-English translation as needed.

When it comes to actually playing the game, the Highlander rule makes for a much less predictable experience than most players can expect to encounter in their local FNMs, PTQs, or even around the kitchen table. Formats like Standard and Extended, with their well-defined archetypes, extensive metagaming, and one-on-one structure, are ultimately predictable. When your opponent at a PTQ lays down a Windswept Heath, Stomping Grounds, and Wild Nacatl on his first turn, chances are that a cursory glance at recent tournament reports and message boards will allow you to deduce the rest of his decklist without much trouble. Even among players that know each others’ decks inside and out, the sheer variety of possibilities means that few games are predictable. That said, some generals are more commonly played than others. My personal favorite, Rafiq of the Many, is a common choice considered strong by many players, though multiplayer games can control for particularly strong or annoying decks at the table by temporarily changing the name of the game from “Elder Dragon Highlander” to “Let’s All Kill Vinnie’s Combo Deck, Then We Can Play Elder Dragon Highlander.”

The random nature of EDH can make for some drawbacks, though. Games do tend to run longer than an average match of the 40 or 60-card variety, but this owes as much to the politicking inherent in multiplayer games as the doubled starting life totals and atypically-sized decks. As with other formats where matches are decided by a single game, each player has one free mulligan at the game’s outset.

Balance

Also, the format’s guidelines make for some particularly broken interactions that are so powerful that they attract the attention of a special group of judges informally responsible for maintaining the EDH banned list, which is supplemented by the Vintage banned list. This is perhaps the most controversial deckbuilding restriction in the format, and it’s common to hear players new to EDH complain, “[Card X] is legal, but they’ve banned [card Y]? What the [expletive deleted]?!” The details of how and why cards are banned in EDH are really deserving of their own article, but the basic determinants are these:
1. A card is so expensive to obtain that most players can’t afford it and it can make games unfun.
2. A card can’t be interpreted the same way each time by each group. This is why silver-bordered cards aren’t allowed.
3. A card has specific aspects that unfairly unbalance multiplayer games given factors like its mana cost or additional costs.

The official banned list as of this article’s writing is below. Future updates are certain as Wizards of the Coast adds to our ever-growing family of 10,000 cards to enjoy.
– Ancestral Recall
– Black Lotus
– Balance
– Biorhythm
– Coalition Victory
-Crucible of Worlds
– Grindstone
– Karakas
– Kokusho, the Evening Star
– Library of Alexandria
– Limited Resources
– Lion’s Eye Diamond
– Mox Emerald
– Mox Jet
– Mox Pearl
– Mox Ruby
– Mox Sapphire
– Panoptic Mirror
– Protean Hulk
– Recurring Nightmare
– Riftsweeper
– Sway of the Stars
– Time Vault
– Time Walk
– Upheaval
– Worldgorger Dragon
– Yawgmoth’s Bargain

Whether a card fits any of the criteria that make a card ban-worthy is a topic of heated debate among judge and non-judge EDH players alike. Consensus is usually elusive, but the casual, non-sanctioned nature of EDH makes for easy resolutions to such conflicts. Often, certain cards will be subject to house rules banning them or modifying how they function. For instance, in my house, we’ve banned what I would argue is the single most unfun card printed: Mindslaver.

The need to ban Mindslaver in our games came up one day when I built a deck to abuse the MindslaverAcademy Ruins lock, with Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir as my general. Gabe, playing Zur the Enchanter, became the target of my ire. He was able to use the last of his mana to Flickerform away his general in my end phase so it wouldn’t be around for my (ab)use of his turn, but his game ended there. He had Decree of Pain in hand and plenty of mana to play it. I made him play the Decree, and he drew 36 cards. By the end of his turn, he had played every tutor in his deck, put all the relevant cards into his hand that he could, and then discarded down to five Swamps, a Vivid Creek, and a Vivid Marsh. Though he had not been eliminated, the single turn under Mindslaver had succeeded in making me what fellow judge Nick Fang would undoubtedly call a “fun-sucker-outer” on a grand scale. More so than in any other format, interaction among players is at a premium in EDH. I’ve witnessed dozens of premiere event matches go from beginning to end in near silence, each player waiting for a simple nod indicating that it’s his turn to try and combo off. EDH can’t function like that, though, and Mindslaver is a card that literally removes the ability of a player to participate or interact with the game while often keeping him alive at the same time. I would be hard-pressed to find a more unfun card. However, I don’t sit on the rules committee for EDH and the local social pressure to avoid using cards like Mindslaver is the extent of my current influence on what can and can’t be played in EDH.

This brings me back to a central premise for this column going forward: EDH as Magic’s grassroots format. Few methods of building a Magic deck and playing it have so many format-specific rules, yet still fewer formats retain the degree of freedom EDH does. The format gives you the opportunity to express exactly who you are as a player if you’re Johnny, win in a very big way if you’re Timmy, or use the best of everything out there if you’re Spike. The rules of the format are themselves a nod to Vorthos’ love of flavor, and how can a format promulgated primarily by judges be anything less than a day in paradise for Melvin? In short, EDH offers something for everyone, including you.

Until next time, this is Sean Catanese, telling you to go call down some thunder.

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