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How to build better decks in 7 Point Highlander: Lock or Prison

In this article, I analyse a macro-archetype that players tend to love or hate: Lock, also known as Prison. If you could lock your opponent out of the tennis court, then you could win at leisure (provided the umpire was on board!). You can sort of do this in Magic, locking your opponent out of the game. Your opponent is at the table, but not meaningfully participating. Given this unconventional aim, Lock decks tend to require off-beat deck building and earn the ire of opponents.

Reading this article will give you insights into how to approach building and beating Lock decks. First, I identify the key features of Lock according to Patrick Chapin, then I examine two Lock decks that have succeeded in 7 Point Highlander: Neil Crompton won the GP Melbourne side-event in 2012 playing a deck that he characterised as blue-white-red Control and Phillip Nicholson placed 12th at the 98-person GP Melbourne side-event in 2018 playing a deck that he characterised as green-black Pox.

Lock on Chapin’s array

The history of Lock decks is rich enough for Patrick Chapin to feature Lock on his macro-archetype array. What can we gather from Lock’s position of 8 o’clock-ish?

Chapin's Wheel
This figure features on p. 176 of Next Level Deckbuilding. Reproduced with permission from Patrick Chapin.

Lock is a Control deck in that it almost always aims to defend rather than attack early in the game. It drags the game out to accrue advantages. But it is not actually “reactive”, as Chapin’s y-axis suggests it is. Lock is proactive, progressively putting a lock in place. Turning to the x-axis, Chapin usually uses the word “unfair” to mean operating well beyond the norms of mana, life and cards. But occasionally he seems to refer to a play pattern that is so one-sided it feels like cheating. Lock is unfair in the second sense. It secures a non-game, when all goes right for it. The opponent can’t really play at all. That is the logical endpoint of wanting control.

Chapin observes that to avoid non-games “Magic design has moved away from the sorts of cards needed to make Lock decks work” (Next Level Deckbuilding, p. 348 – all page numbers refer to this book.) This may be especially the case in the era of ‘FIRE’ design (2019 onward), with its emphasis on cards being fun and inviting. Thankfully the old cards still work and design mistakes still happen.

Lock’s game-plan of strategy suppression

Chapin divides any deck’s game-plan into three stages. In Stage One, a deck is setting up. In Stage Two, it is in full swing. In Stage Three, it is closing out the game. Lock decks “build to a Stage Three that deprives the opponent of options or actions” (p. 332). This is the defining feature of Lock. Then it doesn’t matter how you actually win. Stage Three “tends to continue for many turns” while the Lock pilot “wins with a series of attacks (or Millstone taps, or whatever)” (p. 332, emphasis added). Lock decks often have few win conditions, sometimes only a single card (p. 342). While “Many Lock decks can theoretically win without first locking”, trying to do this is generally a gambit (p. 337).

For Lock, Stage Three “can look or feel like a completely different game” (p. 332). In the prior stages, Lock pilots typically use mana “proactively” and “on their own turns” to try to control the board, “interacting with their opponent’s permanents” (p. 332). This contrasts with Draw-Go Control, which, to preserve options for its mana, prefers to use mana reactively and on the opponent’s turn, deploying instant-speed removal or counter magic.

Chapin writes that “Lock decks often have some permission component”, but Lock pilots typically use it “strategically to protect the positions they’re setting up rather than tactically to stop their opponent’s threats” (p. 332). This reflects the Lock deck focussing on “strategy suppression” rather than “mere threat suppression” (p. 333). This is very important. If you can’t attack at all (because of my Ensnaring Bridge), then I don’t need to deal with any of your would-be attackers (via removal or counter magic, say). And if you can’t cast any spells (because of my Trinisphere and having destroyed your lands), then I don’t need to worry about any spells you might be drawing.

But I do need to keep the Lock in place (I don’t want you removing my Ensnaring Bridge, say). A Lock deck’s weakness is any card that can “completely refute the … lock single-handedly” (p. 337). This is where the Lock pilot most wants permission (I will play a little counter magic just to stop your removal spell aimed at my Ensnaring Bridge.) Drawing extra cards is one way for the Lock pilot to try to ensure that they have what they need to prevent the opponent from breaking out of the lock (p. 335-6).

There is no point locking the opponent out of attacks when they are accruing different game-winning advantages (say, when they are upticking Jace, The Mind Sculptor toward his ultimate ability). And there is no point locking the opponent out of spells when they are attacking you to death with creatures. The Lock pilot needs to lock down all angles from which the opponent is likely to attack (see p. 336). Sometimes the Lock pilot uses supporting tools (like plain old removal) to mop up whatever might slip past the lock (p. 341).

Lock decks often play cards with a symmetrical effect, but then they use another card to make the effect asymmetrical. For instance, Winter Orb (p. 340-1) affects everyone, but not equally when the Lock pilot can, say, tap Winter Orb with Icy Manipulator to untap their lands. Another way to break the symmetry of some effects is to simply rely on some feature of the Lock deck as a whole. For instance, the Lock deck may contain no creatures, so Ensnaring Bridge is wholly one-sided, or the Lock deck may contain mostly permanents, so it can continually feed a Smokestack when the opponent’s permanent-light deck cannot. Lock decks often “aggressively suppress” the opponent’s mana” (p. 341). This is one way of locking the opponent out of the game, where the opponent may have “lots of cards in hand” but “a hard time getting rid of any” (p. 342).

Successful Lock decks in 7 Point Highlander

Neil Crompton won the 2012 GP Melbourne side-event with the below blue-white-red Control deck. He had wanted “something super slow” and prison-like, with lots of planeswalkers because he “liked the superhero flavour” (personal communication 2022). He got what he wanted. Neil won the final by concession because his opponent was hungry and the match had already lasted for over two hours. Neil missed the last train home and had to call his parents.

GP Melbourne 2012 – (1st) Blue-White-Red Control by Neil Crompton

GP Melbourne 2012 - (1st) Jeskai Control by Neil Crompton

This deck might look dated. But it took me a while to get into The Beatles because of the old sound. Don’t miss out.

Neil had refined the deck over several tournaments. His primary strategy was to prevent the opponent from meaningfully using creatures. Neil played no creatures, making his Balance, Humility, Moat, Ensnaring Bridge, Rolling Earthquake, and Wrath of God one-sided. Neil mostly won with Celestial Collonade, which dodged Neil’s anti-creature package. Neil’s many planeswalkers functioned as win conditions that sometimes helped to attack the opponent’s creatures or mana.

Singleton mana bases tend to rely on non-basic lands, as the success of Blood Moon in 7 Point Highlander keeps showing, decade after decade. Neil preyed on this fact, attacking the opponent’s mana using Ruination and Back to Basics (and Blood Moon and Conversion post-sideboard). Back to Basics, in particular, “did a lot of heavy lifting” (personal communication 2022). Even Pithing Needle could disrupt the opponent’s mana, say by naming a fetch land. (And it could answer an opposing planeswalker, given that Neil lacked creatures to attack it.) Neil’s mana attack suppressed the opponent’s strategy, whatever it was, and helped to prevent the opponent from breaking out of the anti-creature lock. Neil even played a single counter spell in Spell Snare to help resolve or protect a lock piece. And he played some selection and card draw to help him ensure he had what he needed (see the Brainstorm, Ponder, Sensei’s Divining Top, Enlightened Tutor, and Ancestral Vision).

Six years later, Phillip Nicholson placed 12th at the 98-person GP Melbourne side-event playing green-black Pox.

GP Melbourne 2019 – (12th) Green-Black Pox by Phillip Nicholson

GP Melbourne 2019 - (12th) That's so Raven's Crime by Phillip Nicholson

Phil described the game-plan as follows. You want to “reduce them to a state where they can’t participate in the game”, ideally by eliminating their creatures, lands and hand simultaneously, “then you can figure out a way for you to actually win”. You don’t have to be happy or flush with resources; you just “want them more sad than you are”. Sound fun and inviting?!

Phil also remarked “My opponent can’t play Magic better than me if they can’t play any Magic”. This half-joke contains a profound insight. You can close a skill gap, at least somewhat, by reducing the opponent’s opportunity to leverage their superior play skill. Take note: this is an advantage of playing Lock.

Phil was happy to use symmetrical cards like Smallpox to get the game to a low-valence state, where both players lacked resources. (This is the Pox game-plan.) This is because Phil’s deck could break the symmetry, with a resource-recovery engine like Life from the Loam or Crucible of Worlds, or with a resource-creation engine like a planeswalker, accruing game-winning advantages when left alone.

Phil attacked your creatures, your mana and your hand. The mana and hand attack made it harder for you to break out of the lock.

Your creatures faced removal in Innocent Blood and Smallpox, sweepers in Toxic Deluge and Damnation, and a lock piece in The Abyss, with additional options like Chainer’s Edict and Flaying Tendrils post-sideboard.

Your mana faced Strip Mine and Wasteland recursion via Life from the Loam, Crucible of Worlds and Ramunap Excavator. You could lose all of your lands quickly if Phil also resolved Exploration or Fastbond. Regrowth, Titania, Protector of Argoth and Nissa, Vital Force were good for an extra Strip Mine or Wasteland activation. Smokestack and the deck’s original inspiration of Braids, Cabal Minion could remove all of your permanents, including your lands, and lock you out of meaningfully playing more. Liliana of the Veil’s ultimate could remove half of your permanents. Sinkhole, Smallpox and Dust Bowl were also chipping in to remove the odd land. Nether Void made the mana attack especially impactful and could slow the game down to suit Phil.

Finally, your hand faced erosion by Liliana of the Veil’s uptick, Raven’s Crime being thrice Retraced thanks to Life from the Loam, and the more conventional Thoughtseize, Collective Brutality and Hymn to Tourach (with Duress and Inquisition of Kozilek on stand-by in the sideboard to help Phil against combo).

Phil loaded the sideboard with cards to help against aggro and combo because fast decks can win before a lock is fully in place. A lock needed to be fully in place against combo because Phil’s deck won slowly, as is typical of Lock. A partial lock only buys you time. You need to complete the lock or add aggression to win the game. Phil could side in creatures after the opponent had probably sided out removal, seeing few creatures from Phil in game one. This tactic has proven effective for Control, including Lock.

You can hear more about Phil’s deck in a 25-minute video primer:

Why are Lock decks rare in 7 Point Highlander?

In 7 Point Highlander, decks often have a Lock component, but dedicated Lock decks are rare. It is not easy to pinpoint why.

Hybrid decks are common in 7 Point Highlander, because venturing beyond one archetype can help you to maintain card quality. But this can’t be the full story, because dedicated aggro and control decks, say, have been highly successful.

Playing Control, including Lock, may be harder than ever in the era of FIRE design, when the quality of proactive threats continues to increase, but there were many years prior in which to confidently try playing Lock and few people did.

The 7 Point Highlander Committee has articulated a position that is implicitly hostile to Lock. The most important thing for the committee is fun, in the following sense:

Even if a format has excellent diversity, some games may still not be fun due to a card being too powerful or due to one player not being able to actively participate in the game … Non-interactive matches are for most people less fun than interactive matches. A card or deck which tends to significantly reduce interaction is more likely to be pointed than a card which sees play primarily in fair decks

The Committee wants each player meaningfully participating in the game, preferably by tactically interacting with each other’s cards. The Lock deck designer wants precisely the opposite, so they may have to pay a points premium. Fast mana, tutors, and Strip Mine and Wasteland are pointed, weakening Lock. But plenty of decks keep appearing and winning in spite of the points list! So this can’t be the full story either.

Any vulnerability to decks that can win before a lock is fully in place (namely aggro and combo decks) can be reduced with the right lock piece or sideboard, but it may be hard to reduce vulnerabilities to aggro and combo simultaneously. In 7 Point Highlander, one deck might be mostly Savannah Lions, whereas the next might be Storm Combo or some two-card combo deck. This means the Committee has succeeded in fostering diversity. But this success means that it may be difficult to lock down all angles from which the opponent is likely to attack, at least in game one. Ultimately this may be the reason why dedicated Lock decks are fairly rare in 7 Point Highlander.

But surely you want a deck-building challenge! Neil and Phil rose to it and won a lot of games. So can you.


Drew Carter

In 2018, Drew joined the Adelaide Eternal team, mainly playing blue-white-red control, blue-white-red aggro and colourless ramp. By day, Drew works as a Research Fellow in Ethics in the University of Adelaide's School of Public Health.