Who would have thought that in a multiverse filled with powerful planeswalkers, formidable beasts, and Eldrazi titans, it would be lowly humans that we would come to fear among the most?
There are many tribes in Magic; Elves, Goblins, Spirits, Merfolk, Zombies…the list goes on and on. Most rely on cards that synergize within a specific tribe. These cards tend to be narrow and weak on their own, but can be powerhouses when surrounded by those of the same creature type.
“Lords” can be one example of these cards. Lords are creatures that supply a static effect that usually involves giving +1/+1 to all other creatures of the same type. Examples of these lords could be Death Baron, Knight Exemplar, Elvish Archdruid, and Lord of the Unreal. Most of the popular tribes in Modern rely on these Lords to hasten their clock.
The Humans deck has very little synergy, making for an odd design and deviating from the typical tribal formula. The deck even opts out of playing its own lord, Mayor of Avabruck, and yet remains aggressive with cards like Mantis Rider, Kessig Malcontents, and Champion of the Parish which can become a 6/6 fairly easily. Among other tribes you’ll often see engine pieces and payoffs that heavily depend on the tribe’s presence like Heritage Druid, Goblin Grenade, and Silvergill Adept. If you look at Merfolk decks, you’ll notice that there are around 16 cards that have “Merfolk” in their text box. If you count Spreading Seas as an integral piece of the deck’s synergy, then that would mean half of the non-land cards in the deck are reliant on each other. The Elf deck is similar with around 16-20 cards referring to “Elves” in their text box and Spirits have 12-16. The Humans deck on the other hand only has 8-9 of these cards, half of most other tribes. What makes the deck even more unique beyond its minimal tribal synergies are the disruptive elements they bring to the table.
With so many creatures in tribal decks, there is typically little to no room for cards that can interact with an opponent. They sacrifice interaction for the ability to be fast and take advantage of tribal synergies. Most of the decks may only contain a playset of removal like Path to Exile or Lightning Bolt and have 1 or 2 creatures that interact with the opponent like Mausoleum Wanderer or Harbinger of Tides.
The Humans deck on the other hand is extremely disruptive without even playing one interactive non-creature spell. Since it doesn’t need to worry about non-creature spells, it gets to play powerful mana fixing lands like Ancient Ziggurat, Unclaimed Territory, and Cavern of Souls to support the best humans Magic has to offer spanning over all five colors. Thalia, Guardian of Thraben punishes spell heavy decks, Kitesaile Freebooter + Meddling Mage can make your hands worthless while paralyzing combo decks reliant on 1-2 specific cards, and Reflector Mage can be miserable to play against if you yourself are playing a creature deck. These disruptive elements, backed up by powerful payoffs, have been the driving point for the deck’s success.
Typically, removal heavy decks like Jund, Abzan, Jeskai Control, and Mardu Pyromancer, have a pretty favorable match-up against creature heavy decks like Death and Taxes or Counters Company. For Rock decks in specific, all of our removal spells line up very nicely and our threats are much larger than any of theirs. Meddling Mage can’t meddle very effectively since our removal options are so diverse, Freebooter creates a house of cards that can come crashing down with one removal spell, and without cards like Collected Company, it can be very hard to rebuild after a sweeper. Yet, in the face of all this, it can still be a very difficult match-up. Why is that?
Well, Thalia is still very good against us. We’re not as spell heavy as Jeskai Control but it’s hard to argue that Thalia is not impactful when 1/3 of our deck is non-creature spells. In the same way Affinity can steal games through speed, Human decks trade card advantage spells like Collected Company for the ability to play out their hand faster with Aether Vial to overwhelm their opponent. When played on turn 1, Aether Vial basically acts as a mana dork going into turn 2, a mana dork we can’t kill. On turn 3, they’ll have access to 5 mana (3 lands + 2CMC spell off Vial), 6 if they Vialed in a Noble Hierarch on turn 2. A very reasonable start from Humans can go like this:
Turn 1: Land, Aether Vial
Turn 2: Land, Vial in Champion of the Parish, Cast Kitesail Freebooter
Turn 3: Land, Cast Mantis Rider, Vial in Thalia’s Lieutenant, swing for 11 damage
This is not some absurd draw for this deck, this is just another regular Humans start. Not only did they attack for 11 damage, but they also got to disrupt us with Freebooter. I bet you were really hoping to cast that Anger of the Gods, weren’t you?
Aether Vial’s ability to flood the battlefield with threats and disruption puts a lot of stress on our removal. The speed at which the deck operates doesn’t give us much time to climb out of the hole it puts us in.
Aether Vial also has a surprise factor that comes along with it. The deck can keep you off-balance by Vialing in Thalia’s Lieutenant during combat, Freebooters during your draw step, and threats on your end step. It can make it difficult to know what the best play is when Aether Vial represents so many variables. Studying the Humans deck and knowing all the different possibilities for each counter on Vial can help you navigate these situations.
As with most matches in Modern, many of the outcomes are dictated by what happens turns 1-4. Humans certainly abide by this rule. Our early interaction is incredibly important, especially discard spells since they lose most of their value in the mid-late game. One mana removal spells are at a premium here, more so than most matches. Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, and Path to Exile are some of the more important pieces you’ll need in your opening hand. Opening hands that have a couple Tarmogoyfs, a Liliana, and some lands just won’t cut it. You have to mulligan aggressively into interaction or risk getting ran over.
Alongside removal, Tarmogoyf can still be a nice card to have in your opening hand since it stonewalls most attacks that can be made on the ground. For Abzan, Lingering Souls is a great way to buy yourself a lot of time to stabilize.
When examining a battlefield looking to remove a threat, it can be difficult to know what to kill when none of the cards lean on each other for strength. Against Elves, this is a pretty simple exercise since the deck hinges on one or two cards like Elvish Archdruid or Ezuri, Renegade Leader. Against Humans though, it’s a bit more complicated. Do you take out the Freebooter with another removal spell under it? The Thalia that is slowing you down? The Mantis Rider that’s been beating you to a pulp the past two turns? In my experience, the game favors our deck in the long run. This means you should try to manage their larger threats before anything else to preserve your life total. If you can keep your opponent off Mantis Riders, Lieutenants, and large Champion of the Parishes you’ll most likely find enough time to pull ahead.
As far as discard is concerned, it will almost always depend on what you’re looking at and what you have in hand. There is no single-handed “gotcha” card you can take from them. The difference between taking a piece of disruption, a threat, or a Vial to fight the deck at a fair pace, can depend entirely on what interaction you have in your hand and your angle of attack.
Now that we know a little bit about the Humans deck, let’s look at how we can sideboard to help shore up the match, starting with this Jund list that got first place at SCG Regionals in New York by Brad Schott.
The Thoughtseizes come out here because the discard loses a lot of value after a few short turns and Inquisition of Kozilek can claim anything Thoughtseize can anyways. The other cut is going to be Dark Confidant. He gets easily outclassed on the ground and the life loss can end up being detrimental when the Humans deck has an aggressive start.
Coming in we have our sweeper of choice with Anger of the Gods and all the removal we can get our hands on. Humans has over thirty-five creatures in it so any removal is welcome. Many of the creatures in the Humans deck are small, small enough to die to Collective Brutality, but they almost never stay that way. If you can prioritize the more situational removal like Bolt and Brutality early, you can mitigate their inefficiency later.
I’ve also switched out one Bloodbraid Elf with the Kalitas since he can be very good at stabilizing and getting more value out of your removal. You could also make the argument that Kitchen Finks could come in to help stabilize but I don’t think it’s needed as much.
Next let’s look at an Abzan list that got first place at SCG Regionals Nashville in the hands of Russel Lewis.
Again we’re going to reduce the amount of discard we have because of its linear loss of value as the game goes on and again we are cutting the Dark Confidants.
One thing I really like about this list is the inclusion of Stirring Wildwood. Abzan is already much better at stabilizing against flying threats because of Lingering Souls but Stirring Wildwood does an excellent job of actually making profitable blocks against Mantis Rider and Freebooters.
Lastly, lets look at a G/B Rock list that 5-0’d an online league by user Cantergiani.
With no Dark Confidants, the only cuts we’re looking at making are with the discard package.
Funeral Charm may have some utility as another piece of turn one interaction but I believe it is too narrow and loses too much value over the course of the game. G/B doesn’t have access to multiple turn one removal spells like Jund and Abzan, but I don’t believe Charm is the answer to fill that gap.
Coming in again we have more one-for-one removal and two Languishes.
You could make an argument for the third Collective Brutality but seeing as it’s already narrow removal for the match, I’m not sure what could be cut beyond the second Liliana the Last Hope if you really wanted to bring it in.
Coming out of the Human’s sideboard you can expect to see a couple copies of Dismember to deal with our large threats. It’s one of the only removal spells the deck can play with their mana base and it’s very efficient at clearing the way for their attacks.
Xathrid Necromancer is a way to get value out of our removal spells by replacing every human we kill with a zombie. It also makes both our blocks and attacks much worse knowing that every human that dies will be replaced.
Mirran Crusader can be a very difficult card to deal with and squeezes our removal even further by demanding a very specific answer.
Sin Collector can be a way to permanently remove a card from our hand. It’s better than Freebooter against us since, if given enough time, we’ll find a way to get that card back from Freebooter.
If you’re playing Abzan, expect your opponent to bring in some Izzet Staticasters to deal with your Lingering Souls.
Most of these cards are in sets of one or two and will be replacing Aether Vial mostly. The Humans opponent knows that if there is any chance of us turning the corner in the match, they’ll be in top deck mode sooner rather than later. Aether Vial becomes quite possibly the worst top deck when they’re trying to push damage and end the game. If you’re thinking of bringing in any kind of artifact hate for Vials, leave them in the sideboard. There’s a very good chance they’ll have no targets in games two or three.
The deck has taken the format by storm and doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere anytime soon. Most people thought this was just a meta call, a way to punish the linear decks that were dominating the format. I don’t think many people will forget Storm scooping 40 seconds into game one of the SCG Cincinatti finals.
Meddling Mage names Grapeshot and the Storm player has no other win condition and no way to remove the Meddling Mage.
It turns out the deck is much more than just the fun-police for combo decks. It’s aggressive, disruptive, and should be respected by everyone. Even our decks, which prey on creature based strategies, shouldn’t approach the match lightly.