Winning with your own brew is a deckbuilder’s dream. Ian details how he developed his Zoo Breach list, which has earned him four top 8s in a row.
7 Point Highlander is a singleton format using the Vintage card pool. Powerful cards are assigned up to 5 points each and players may include up to 7 total points in their deck. For more information about the format, visit 7ph.com.au.
One of my favourite features of highlander is the incredibly broad range of viable decks. Especially online, I’ve played many different brews since first picking up the format in early 2021, but there’s no doubt that Zoo Breach has become my signature deck.
I first built the deck in November 2021 and since then I’ve made top 8 in all 4 tournaments I’ve brought it to, including top 4 at Games Portal’s Summer Masters, top 8 at Moxing Day, finals at GUF Geelong’s February event and winning Maze of Fitzroy’s February Monthly. Overall, my record with the deck is 18-4, plus six intentional draws.
Breach combo 101
If you’ve played a bit of highlander (or Legacy, for the brief period before Underworld Breach was banned), you may already be familiar with how Underworld Breach works as a win condition. If not, then this section will explain how the pieces come together to create a (nearly) deterministic win.
The core Breach combo involves three cards: Underworld Breach, Brain Freeze and Lion’s Eye Diamond (LED). A key feature of escape is that it allows you to recast the same spell from your graveyard over and over – unlike similar mechanics like flashback or jump-start, which exile the spell after it’s cast.
This means that with their namesake card in play, a Breach player can repeatedly cast Brain Freeze to mill their library and generate storm. LED is used to make mana and the cards milled by Brain Freeze fuel the escape costs of recasting these cards. With sufficient storm, the Breach player can then turn their Brain Freeze on their opponent, leaving them with an empty library after a cast or two.
A common fourth card included in almost all Breach decks is Sevinne’s Reclamation. This lesser known Commander card significantly increases a Breach player’s access to their combo, by allowing Intuition and Gifts Ungiven to function as one card combos.
The standard Gifts Ungiven pile is Underworld Breach, LED, Brain Freeze and Sevinne’s Reclamation. This guarantees that the Breach player will be able to put Breach in play, either cast from hand or returned with Sevinne’s Reclamation, and that they will have access to both LED and Brain Freeze. It’s also an instant, which means it’s commonly cast at the end of the opponent’s turn, creating similar play patterns to old Splinter Twin decks in Modern.
For Intuition, which is more commonly played than Gifts Ungiven, the Brain Freeze is left out of the initial pile. After getting Breach in play, the player then needs to recast Intuition to find Brain Freeze. This requires extra cards in the graveyard to fuel the second copy of Intuition (and often an extra copy of LED to pay for this Intuition), but can still be done as early as turn three or four. If the Breach player naturally draws one of the four combo pieces, they don’t need to recast Intuition, which makes the combo much easier to execute.
Gamble is also used as a one card combo, albeit one that requires some luck. A brave (or desperate) Breach player can cast Gamble to find Breach, cast Breach, recast Gamble to find LED, then recast Gamble to find Brain Freeze, casting LED for mana if necessary. After the initial copy of Gamble, it doesn’t matter whether LED and Brain Freeze are kept in hand or discarded, as Underworld Breach allows them to be cast from the graveyard. However, the entire chain collapses if Underworld Breach is discarded by the first Gamble.
To recap, the Breach combo is a three card combo that uses the graveyard, an artifact and an enchantment. It’s vulnerable to Rest in Peace, Null Rod, Rule of Law and Disenchant – put that way, it’s easy to assume the deck isn’t very good!
However, the power of Breach comes from it’s small package. Breach packages are typically from five to eight cards, depending on how many tutors the pilot decides to play. Around this, Breach decks are commonly filled with generically powerful interaction, cantrips and threats. A lot of the cards in a Breach deck would look at home in a fair midrange or control deck.
This allows Breach pilots to lean on a fair gameplan and interact with their opponents in the early turns, before assembling a lethal combo, often with little warning. Once again, this gameplan mirrors the more well-known Splinter Twin decks of yore.
Side note: cards like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, which shuffle into their owner’s library when milled, seem like they would be problematic. However, a savvy Breach player can cast a Lion Sash, Scavenging Ooze or other piece of graveyard hate before beginning to mill their opponent. When the Emrakul is flipped, it can be exiled before it’s shuffled back in, and the storm count is generally high enough that milling the opponent’s library a second time is trivial. Cards like Emrakul are also very rare in Highlander.
The most common variant of Breach is four colours with no green. Brennan Crawford’s Cancon top 8 list is a good recent example, though several cards in the deck have since received additional points – don’t bring this exact 75 to a tournament!
The Black Breach decks are pure combo decks. They have a lot of interaction and threats that generate card advantage, but nine out of ten times they’ll win with Underworld Breach in play. This is especially true after the most recent points update, which added points to two of the deck’s best creature threats.
This means that if their opponent has a Rest in Peace, Null Rod or Rule of Law in play, the Black Breach pilot cannot combo. However, this variant features many cheap discard spells, counter spells and removal spells, including flexible removal spells like Prismatic Ending or Rip Apart to remove noncreature combo hate. Consequently, when faced with a disruptive permanent, the Breach pilot can sculpt their hand with cantrips, eventually finding a way to remove the troublesome permanent and combo off shortly thereafter.
When I first played Underworld Breach in highlander, this reliance on combo wins was a core limitation that I wanted to change. Although I do enjoy pure combo decks, my favourite macroarchetype has always been hybrid combo. RUG Splinter Twin with Tarmogoyf is a good historical example of this archetype, whilst Dimir Inverter in Pioneer is the example I have the most experience, success and enjoyment with. That deck could combine Inverter of Truth and Thassa’s Oracle for quick wins, but it could also position itself as a blue-black control deck that eventually won with Jace, Wielder of Mysteries, or occasionally even as a beatdown deck that looped a pair of Inverters of Truth. So, I knew my ideal Breach deck would be able to win through Rest in Peace, Stony Silence and Rule of Law.
When I first began exploring Underworld Breach decks, RUG Tempo was the clear best deck in Highlander. The deck featured snowballing threats, cheap interaction and powerful card advantage engines. Taking advantage of the small size of the Breach package, I wanted to try slotting it into the RUG core. In doing so, I was drawing inspiration from the Oracle-Breach deck which found great success in 2021’s Win-a-Mox online tournament by amalgamating the two best decks at the time, Breach and Oracle.
The major departures from a stock RUG list were changing the points distribution and cutting any permanents that cost more than two mana. This latter stipulation allowed me to play Lurrus, which is a key part of Breach decks because it’s a fantastic card advantage engine that also rebuys Underworld Breach.
(In my opinion, Lurrus is also an absurdly powerful card that’s probably under-pointed at one point, but that’s a topic for an entire other article.)
These principles led me to the first version of Zoo Breach, which I brought to Ringwood’s Summer Masters in early December 2021 and made it to the semifinals before being thoroughly Blood Moon’ed out of the tournament.
At this event, the deck earned its name after I surprised an opponent by casting a Wild Nacatl on turn one, followed by an Intuition on turn three to set up a turn four combo win.
Although my current list looks slightly different, most of the core principles are evident in this first version. The aforementioned Wild Nacatl game is a great example of the strength of this deck’s flexibility: in that game, my opponent was playing RUG, so I initially began by playing an early threat, casting a cantrip and removing their early creature. But, when they dropped their defences on turn three, I immediately pivoted to a combo finish.
In that first tournament (and to a lesser extent, every tournament I’ve played with Zoo Breach), I had a noticeable advantage because my opponents were surprised by the Breach combo in my deck. In many games, I can win with Tarmogoyf, Territorial Kavu or Hexdrinker, so my opponents often mis-sideboard and are blindsided by the Breach combo in game two.
Even when everyone is aware of the dual gameplans of Zoo Breach, they still support each other by stretching an opponent very thin. Having two viable game plans makes sideboarding tricky as well as in-game decisions.
Especially against fair blue decks, my primary plan is usually to attack with creatures. Often, this won’t be sufficient pressure to deal the full 20 damage, but it can occupy my opponent’s resources and create opportunities to resolve Intuition or Gifts Ungiven and finish with the combo.
To circle back to the comparison with Black Breach, the difference can be summarised by our answers to hateful permanents that stop us from comboing:
Since that first tournament, the core of the deck has remained the same, but there have been a few changes.
Firstly, the initial sideboard in that Summer Masters list was hastily thrown together and poorly planned. I’ve since updated it with a heavier target on what I perceive to be the most powerful and popular decks, and a greater emphasis on cheap and free spells.
When building my sideboard, I also place extra weight on fast, linear decks like MUD, and decks which I know are well positioned against me, like Blue Moon or Mono Red. This is why my sideboard features so many Blasts and Shatters. On the other hand, I’m not particularly concerned about fair blue decks, as I believe them to be structurally unfavoured against Zoo Breach’s multiple game plans and I feel confident in my ability to navigate the complex, decision-heavy games that usually occur in these matchups.
Secondly, the Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty points update hit several cards that were in earlier versions of Zoo Breach. A key goal of this points update was to weaken RUG Tempo, so given it’s origins, it’s no surprise that Zoo Breach also suffered.
Finally, there are several new cards in my latest version of Zoo Breach, from Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.
The most powerful of these is Lion Sash. This card is incredibly strong – enough so that I wanted to play Stoneforge Mystic primarily as a functional second copy of Lion Sash. By my own deckbuilding heuristics, including Stoneforge Mystic required me to find a second equipment to play, which is not an easy task when you are committed to Lurrus and have no points to spare.
In the end, I settled on another Neon Dynasty card, The Reality Chip. This card is quite powerful, though the Jellyfish typing is an undeniable part of the card’s appeal. Whilst Lion Sash is a fine standalone threat, The Reality Chip requires a higher density of creatures as it’s rather underwhelming when not equipped. This desire to squeeze more creatures into my list dovetailed nicely with another strategic realignment I’d been considering.
Flipping fewer coins
A core challenge of deckbuilding in Highlander is reducing variance. Magic is inherently a high-variance game and this variance only increases when shifting from traditional constructed formats to singleton. Two of the common ways Highlander players combat this is by playing cantrips and including multiple cards with similar functions, such as playing Lightning Bolt and Chain Lightning. I wanted to lean into a third method.
Recent Standard formats have illustrated the power of playing more mana sources coupled with mana sinks. When the Zendikar MDFCs were legal, it was common to see decks with 30 or more “lands”, which ensured these decks rarely stumbled or missed early land drops, whilst still drawing spells in the late game. My latest iteration of Zoo Breach emulates this by increasing the number of mana sources with mana dorks and cards which “draw” extra lands, like Wrenn and Six and Quandrix Apprentice.
Adding extra mana sources increases the risk of “flooding” or drawing too many mana sources, however Breach decks have one of the most powerful mana sinks in the format: Lurrus. So long as you continue to make land drops, Lurrus will ensure you can convert that mana into card advantage and board presence.
I’ve also added further mana sinks like Gifts Ungiven, which is less common in Black Breach decks because they often don’t play their fourth land on turn four. I’ve also included other mana sinks like Scavenging Ooze, Hexdrinker, and reconfigure creatures like Lion Sash and The Reality Chip. Underworld Breach is also a strong mana sink, as it can be used to flashback three or four spells in a turn rather than assembling a winning combo. Even though it is sacrificed at the end of the turn, it can be returned later with Lurrus or Sevinne’s Reclamation.
Mana dorks neatly satisfy my needs for both more mana sources and more creatures to carry The Reality Chip. They also provide a powerful tempo advantage in the early game. In a format dominated by cheap spells, having a mana dork in play can often mean casting an extra spell each turn. It also allows a Breach player to cast their expensive spells, like Gifts Ungiven and Intuition, a turn early, which can lead to more fast combo wins.
Zoo Breach is a deck that has brought me a lot of joy and success. It’s been through several iterations so far, but I know there is still more to develop and test.
If you’re looking for a powerful, flexible deck that can win in multiple ways, I highly recommend giving Zoo Breach a try.