Strategy & Sideboard Guide: Humans

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?

 humans.png

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.  

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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.

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“Gather the Townsfolk” by Dan Scott

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.

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“Aether Vial” by Karl Kopinski

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.

jundhumans

Out:

jundout

In:

jund in

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.

abzanhumnas

Out:

abzan out

In:

abzan in

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.

Coming in we have more one-for-one removal and two sweepers with Languish and Damnation.

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.

rockhumans

OUT:

gbout

IN:

gbin

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.

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“Kessig Malcontents” by John Stanko

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.

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“Thalia’s Lieutenant” by Johannes Voss

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. 

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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.

Playing on a Budget

You’ve just finished watching Reid Duke make the Top 8 at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan with Abzan. It was awesome. You start looking up YouTube videos of other players crushing the competition with Abzan, Jund, and G/B Rock; players like Willy Edel, Yuyu Watanabe, and Jadine Klomparens. You decide,

“This is it! This is the deck I’m going to play in Modern!”

You go online to look up the most recent list and find something a bit discouraging.

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Notice anything about Jund compared to the other decks in the meta? It’s nearly $1,000 more than any other deck among the top most played decks in Modern. G/B decks are notorious for being expensive. Tarmogoyfs have only recently dipped below $100 this past year. With Bloodbraid Elf’s unbanning and the resurgence of Jund, almost every staple has doubled in price. Cards like Liliana of the Veil have shot up from $70 to $130 and Dark Confidants have gone from $40 to $80. Why is the deck so expensive?

The deck has a very low synergy with itself. All of the cards are capable of standing on their own as powerful and strong. They don’t require other cards to make them good and don’t need any kind of set up to be effective. Compare this to a card like Thalia’s Lieutenant:

Thalia's Lieutenant

The card is very powerful, but only under certain circumstances and in certain decks. The card requires you to play a decent amount of Humans in your deck to fully take advantage of its enter the battlefield trigger. On a board full of humans, this card could add a lot of damage to that turn’s attack. By itself though, on an empty board, it’s just a two mana 1/1. Yes, it can grow from there, but again, your deck needs to have humans in it for that to happen.

These kinds of cards have narrow applications,  therefore their price tends to stay fairly low even though they’re considered very strong cards. Other examples of cards like this are Prized Amalgam, Baral, Chief of Compliance, and Cranial Plating.

 Prized AmalgamBaral, Chief of ComplianceCranial Plating

Now let’s look at a card like Dark Confidant, and why it’s so expensive compared to other Modern staples. A two mana 2/1 is a fine rate, it’s easy to cast with its only restriction being that you play black-producing lands, and it doesn’t require other specific cards to be good. It can come down on turn 2 by itself, or be similarly just as powerful on a complicated board turn 7. It’s only downside is its life loss, which means it has a small deck building restriction when it comes to the CMC of your cards. In any deck it’s played, it’s a threat poised to take over the game. Nothing feels quite as powerful as keeping your opponent’s hand empty with Liliana of the Veil while drawing two cards a turn with Dark Confidant.

Dark Confidant

Not only is Dark Confidant incredibly good but he’s also leaps and bounds ahead of his imitators. Wizards of the Coast has tried for years to make Dark Confidant look-a-likes but in the end, nothing sticks. They just can’t seem to make a card similar to Dark Confidant’s power without falling miserably short.

 Pain SeerBlood ScrivenerDark Tutelage

Most of these imitators have the same CMC as Dark Confidant, have a similar power and toughness, and may give you a sense of familiarity, but none of them come close. Their restrictions and clauses are too much to make them reliable. Confidant’s ability is essentially free and nothing beats that. In the case of Dark Tutelage, you’re not even getting the option to attack and block.

Because Dark Confidant is so unique and efficient at what it’s trying to do, it demands a big price tag. The same thing could be said about most of the cards in Rock decks. What can replace Tarmogoyfs? Sylvan Advocate? Lotleth Troll? Grim Flayer being perhaps the best option, and yet still not as good. Don’t even get me started on Liliana of the Veil; the card encompasses multiple different cards every turn.

Powerful, unique, and impossible to replace; its no wonder these cards come with a hefty price tag. So to create  a budget deck in these colors, where do we begin? When building a deck without Dark Confidant, but with Dark Confidant in mind, the best questions to avoid here are –

“What looks like Dark Confidant?”

“What cost the same as Dark Confidant?”

“What other cards reveal the top card of my library, put the card in my hand, and make me lose life equal to it’s CMC?”

Instead we should look at what role Dark Confidant is playing in these decks. What’s its purpose? Why are we playing it? When you realize that the answer to that question is recurring card draw, you can begin to look at a broader range of good options.

Tireless Tracker

The best example of this is Tireless Tracker. If you ask someone what card most closely resembles Dark Confidant, I would bet next to no one would guess Tireless Tracker. One is green and the other is black, one is larger than the other, and one generates card advantage on your upkeep while the other does it via land drops. That’s okay though, remember: we’re not directly substituting for Dark Confidant but rather playing a different card for the role. A deck playing Dark Confidant probably can’t swap one for one with Tracker. Confidant decks play a low curve and has been heralded as an early tempo play as much as it card advantage. Conversely, a Tracker list probably wouldn’t want to swap one for one with Confidant. Tracker lists tend to play a more painful manabase with more fetches and have a higher curve making Confidant too painful. It’s important to understand that the cards are very different even though they are filling similar roles. To further prove the point that they are as wildly different as they are similar, some decks even opt to play both; Dark Confidant as early tempo card advantage and Tracker as an end game finisher. Of course another big advantage of Tracker, and what we’re focusing on in this article, is that it’s 1/8th the cost of Confidant right now.

Let’s look at another example with Tarmogoyf. What questions should we be asking ourselves?

Tarmogoyf

“What other creatures have */* in their power and toughness?”

“What other creatures cost two mana?”

“What other creature’s power and toughness are based on graveyards?”

Nope. Like with the Dark Confidant, instead of trying to find the cheap knock-off, we want to figure out what role the Goyf fills. What’s its purpose? Tarmogoyf’s role is simple: to be a big stupid idiot that hits your opponent hard. The card doesn’t have any cool abilities and doesn’t even have any key words like Trample. It’s expensive because it’s the best big stupid idiot in the game, and that’s all.

A two mana 4/5 or 5/6 is an incredible rate of efficiency. When looking at your own deck, if Tarmogoyf is a card you don’t have access to, you’ll need to find your own efficient beater. Remember that it doesn’t have to resemble Tarmogoyf at all to be good. An example of this could be Tasigur the Golden Fang. The card can be cast for very cheap with a graveyard full of cards, hits hard with a 4/5 body, and even has the ability to generate some card advantage. It can be a very powerful finisher and dodges a lot of popular removal in the format like Fatal Push, Abrupt Decay, and Lightning Bolt. Like Confidant and Tracker, comparing Tasigur and Goyf is like comparing apples and oranges. The cards are very different but they can both fulfill the same role as a strong finisher.

Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Now, repeat this process for other cards you may need. What’s your choice in discard spells? Removal spells? Hard-to-handle threats like planeswalkers and creature lands?

Once you have all your spells, you’ll want to evaluate your mana base. This is where budget decks get hit the hardest. Lands are expensive, especially fetch-shock mana bases. Since most Rock decks are 3 colors, it can be difficult to deviate from this at times. Modern has a very large card pool though, and every block has a land cycle that you can evaluate for your own deck. Some of the more budget friendly cycles of lands that are under $10 are Battle for Zendikar creature lands, check lands, cycle lands, Kaladesh fast lands, battle lands, and pain lands.

Shambling VentIsolated ChapelSheltered Thicket

 Blooming MarshSmoldering MarshLlanowar Wastes

Preferably, I would say you should prioritize lands with the ability to enter the battlefield untapped so you can use the mana right away. Generally you want to stay away from lands that enter the battlefield tapped unless they do something very powerful beyond mana fixing. Creature lands or cycle lands that turn late game draws into relevant spells can be worth the slight delay. If you can, try to avoid the land cycles that include Jungle Hollow, Sandsteppe Citadel, Forgotten Sanctuary, and Rakdos Guildgate. These lands will slow down your game-plan and don’t balance the downside of coming into play tapped with any relevant advantages.

So let’s put these techniques to use and look at some possible budget lists. Here are two separate Jund lists, the first one’s budget is $550 and the second one is $100.

jund550

This list looks pretty similar to a lot of optimal Jund list. We even get to squeeze in three Lilianas! Many of the cards are popular and powerful, including Thoughtseize, Bloodbraid Elf, and Fatal Push. The mana base takes the biggest hit here to preserve some of the more powerful cards in the mainboard. In the end, we still get to have a playset of fastlands and shocklands despite the budget restrictions. I should clarify that the mana base should absolutely be the first thing you upgrade, even over more Lilis or Tarmogoyfs. Modern is built on the fetch-shock mana base and G/B decks are no exception. Once you start assembling those pieces, it becomes much easier to build decks in the future.

jund100

This list is ultra budget, sitting at around 5% of the cost of an optimal Jund list. If you have next to zero cards in Modern, this may be the place to start. Vraska, Golgari Queen is in here because I think it’s important to keep a planeswalker slot. It’s good practice for anyone new to Magic or just new to Modern, and maintains the threat diversity that Rock decks employ. Players should get used to having one on the field and the strategical implications they bring with them. We’re still trying to keep the heart of the strategy alive here with discard, removal, creature lands, and other big threats.

Here’s a look at some possible Abzan lists with the same budget restrictions.

abzan550

Again we can see a lot of heavy hitters in this list despite our budget and again the mana base takes the brunt of the cuts. While I believe most would say that buying Modern mana bases is the first and biggest step when getting into Modern, I get it, people want to be casting powerful spells and would rather do that than fetch for shock lands. I just want to reemphasize that it really needs to be the first upgrade for these lists before switching out threats for more powerful ones.

abzan 100

This list is going a little bigger on the curve than the $100 Jund list with Smiters and Siege Rhinos. Sorin, Solemn Visitor is the Planeswalker of choice here and pairs very nicely with Lingering Souls.

Lastly we’ll look at G/B Rock with all the same budget restrictions.

gb550

Two things were important to keep here for me: fitting in all four Tireless Trackers and all four Fatal Pushs, since it’s the best removal spell for the deck. Like the other lists at $550 we get to play three Lilianas, a good diversity of threats, a good discard package, and good removal spells. Compared to all the other lists, this one requires the least amount of upgrades to the mana base with only slight changes required to fit in Verdant Catacombs.

gb100

This ultra budget G/B Rock deck maintains the Trackers even while on a $100 budget. This deck also gets to play an awesome grindy combination of Den Protector and Deathmist Raptor with Whisperwood Elemental to tie it all together. Deathmist Raptor can be nearly impossible to get rid of for good and Den Protector gives the deck a lot of late game play. The removal spells suffer here a bit without Fatal Push, but other budget options could include Hero’s Downfall, Smother, and Victim of Night.

 Victim of NightSmother

Depending on what cards you already have and how much money you can invest, these lists may prove to be fairly decent places to start. I tried to include as many cards as I could that can go towards the final iterations of these decks. It’s important you’re not wasting money on expensive cards that won’t be in the final versions. If you can invest more, you can take the $550 lists and start improving the mana base. If you can’t afford the $100 list, you can take the shell of it and eliminate some of the more expensive cards.

The point I want to make with these lists is that regardless of budget you can still play a Rock deck with threats, removal, and discard without playing the most popular or optimal versions. Everyone has to start somewhere and not everyone can dish out $2,000 before next week’s FNM. I find that most people, including myself when I started, were more than happy to throw something together that had a resemblance of tier 1 Jund or Abzan. I remember I just wanted to grind games and out maneuver my opponent, regardless of which cards I could do it with at the time.

bloodbraid-elf
“Bloodbraid Elf” by Steve Argyle

It can be disheartening when newcomers trying to join the community, looking for a place to start, prefacing that they do not have the money for tier 1 versions, are being turned away. Often times, you’ll see people say things like this:

“Just play Tron or affinity, those decks are cheaper.”

“If you can’t afford Goyfs or Lilianas then you shouldn’t play this deck.”

It’s hard to see someone who is trying to play a Rock deck, a strategy we all love and enjoy, be given the advice to play something else.

Could you play a different tier 1 deck for a 1/3 of the price of Jund? Yes.

Does this help you take steps toward playing the deck you want to be playing? No.

What this suggests is that somebody on a budget spend $600-$800 in the opposite direction of Rock decks. One of the biggest mistakes I made when getting into Modern was buying decks and playing them because they were cheaper than the ones I actually wanted to play. I enjoyed playing sub-optimal versions of Abzan ten times more than when I was playing cheaper, more linear decks. The advice to play other decks with no crossover cards is just not helpful. If someone wants to play a Rock strategy,  we as a community should welcome them and help them do just that, even if it means playing it for $50.

Not everyone is trying to play in a Grand Prix or a Pro Tour and if they are, it’s possible they may just need a place to start. When helping someone with their deck,  it shouldn’t be assumed that it’s always at the top tier of competitive play.  Some people just want to play with their friends at the kitchen table, and why shouldn’t they be able to call their decks Jund or Abzan just because they don’t have Tarmogoyfs in them?

Regardless of which direction you choose to take your deck or whether it ever evolves into the tier 1 versions, the most important thing, is that you enjoy what you play.