Monday, November 13, 2017

Modern: Humans

If you have played Modern in the last few weeks, it is likely that you have come across the new Humans-based tribal archetype. Collins Mullen won the SCG Cincinnati Open with it, and then won his local SCG Regionals at Durham a few weeks later.

I have had some success with the deck as well, winning the SCG DC Classic, and putting up a 6-2 finish at the SCG Philadelphia Regionals and an 8-2 finish in this weekend's Magic Online PTQ, losing in the quarters to Dredge. Four of the Top 8 decks in the PTQ were Humans, which should tell you something about the power of this deck (though one of these lists had Collected Company and Path to Exile instead of Vials).

I have also played about 20 leagues with the deck, with roughly a 63% win rate, even though I've been trying some sub-optimal builds. Since people have been asking me about it, I thought I'd share my thoughts.

The Main Deck

Here is my list (I'll discuss the sideboard later in the post):

I think the deck is good but not broken; it has good and bad matchups like any other deck in Modern. While the deck is capable of some hyper-aggressive draws (with an early Aether Vial/Noble Hierarch into multiple Champions, Thalia's Lieutenants, and Mantis Riders), the deck is basically pre-boarded to battle combo decks, with 4 main deck Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, 4 Meddling Mage, and 4 Kitesail Freebooter.

Having access to effectively 12 rainbow lands is what allows us to play all five colors. Collins' original list played 20 lands, with 3 white fetches, 2 Horizon Canopy, 1 Plains, 1 Temple Garden, and 1 Hallowed Fountain. Since then, Collins has moved to a 19 land manabase, cutting a white fetch for a fourth Mayor of Avabruck. Following his lead, most Humans players have also trimmed a land, including myself. (I should note, there are other builds out there with more fetches and shocklands and less Ancient Ziggurats, which allows the pilot to choose other sideboard options such as Stony Silence, Unified Will, or Rest in Peace, see, for example, Voltzwagon's 5-0 daily list).

While the move to 19 lands is probably correct, I think the deck should absolutely be running all 4 Horizon Canopy. The cost is not great, as we can mitigate the life loss by playing a Razorverge Thicket and a Seachrome Coast over the Shocklands, and Humans doesn't really mind paying life in any case, since it is usually the aggressor in most matchups. The upside of playing 4 Canopy is too great to ignore: it turns top-deck land draws into re-buys for more threats. Often, the Humans player will have played out their entire hand by turn 4, and you can cycle the Horizon Canopy and cast the drawn creature in the same turn because of an Aether Vial. The downside of having less Blue sources is fairly small: I've only had it come up a couple of times over the course of hundreds of games, and both times it involved trying to cast a Mantis Rider on t2.

The only other changes to Collins' main deck list that I would recommend are playing a Dark Confidant over the fourth Mayor of Avabruck and the fourth Reflector Mage over Thalia, Heretic Cathar.

Mayor of Avabruck   Reflector Mage   Thalia, Heretic CatharDark Confidant, Magic, Ravnica
Mayor of Avabruck is just the worst card in the deck in a lot of situations: it is vulnerable to every type of removal, it is a 1/1 for 2 mana, it often doesn't save your creatures from damage-based sweepers like Anger of the Gods (because Mayor never survives, and the other humans lose the anthem effect), it doesn't become a big hitter like Champion of the Parish or Thalia's Lieutenant. The card even gets worse post-board, when your opponents are bringing in interaction. Mayor of Avabruck needs a lot of humans in play to be most effective; in the post-board games, your opponents will be trying to keep your humans off the battlefield as much as possible. If we could play more copies of Thalia's Lieutenant over Mayor of Avabruck, we would. The Mayor's inclusion in the main deck really is only justified by his anthem effect for your other humans so that you can beat your opponent quickly.

On the other hand, I want to have access to all four Dark Confidant in the 75, as it is a must-answer threat versus any of the attrition-based decks, like UWR, UW Control, Jund, Junk, Grixis Shadow, Grixis Control, BW Eldrazi Hatebears, and BW Control. I even bring in Dark Confidant in matchups where I need to cut really bad cards, like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben in the mirror. So I don't mind having a single copy in my main deck: I want to save slots in my sideboard for other cards and Dark Confidant is just a good card by itself. Indeed, there are probably metas where it might just be right to play all four Dark Confidant in the main!

Thalia, Heretic Cathar is a polarized card: when it is good, it is very good, and when it is bad, it is pretty bad. You don't want multiple copies of her, you don't want to draw her late, she dies to every type of removal, and she is not very good in a lot of matchups, such as Storm. I have found that she tends to be the "straw that broke the camel's back," in the sense that, when she does make an impact on the game, I already have a dominating board presence, and all she really does is delay them a turn or two or makes blocking more difficult. She is best in creature-based matchups, but in those situations, a fourth Reflector Mage is also great. She does blank the UR Through the Breach combo with Emrakul, Aeons Torn (at least if they cast it on their turn), as well as the Kiki-Deceiver Exarch and Saheeli Rai-Felidar Guardian combos, but those decks have plenty of ways to remove a 2 toughness creature (er, Lightning Bolt?).

Put short, Thalia, Heretic Cathar is a card that is most effective when you are already the aggressor, when you are already ahead on the board. But Humans is already pretty good at winning in situations where they have put their opponent on their back foot, so I would rather have a creature that can be great when I'm behind.

Speaking of that kind of creature, the fourth Reflector Mage does everything and he is great both when you are ahead and behind. Often, you find yourself wanting to draw Reflector Mage, either as an out to a threat (e.g., vial in a Reflector Mage in response to a Through the Breached Emrakul, or to stop a Collected Company player from comboing you out), or as a way to push through lethal damage (e.g., often against Junk or Grixis Shadow stonewalling you with Tarmogoyfs or Death's Shadow). Reflector Mage is an absolute beating versus early Tasigurs and Gurmag Anglers!

The Sideboard

Here is my sideboard, as of the writing of this blog post (it has been in constant flux since I started playing this deck!):

We are limited to what we can play in our sideboard because of our manabase. If you want to play spells like Stony Silence, Rest in Peace, Path to Exile, Unified Will, you should cut some number of Ancient Ziggurats and play more fetches and shocklands.

Obviously, a sideboard should be tailored to an expected meta. I am constantly making changes to my sideboard depending on whether I am playing in paper or online, whether it is a more casual event or a more competitive event.

I am looking to beat up on Storm with Ethersworn Canonist, as I want to tax their Lightning Bolts and Dismembers as much as possible while preventing them from storming off. Unfortunately, Ethersworn Canonist is a very narrow card, really only coming in versus Storm and Living End. So while I have not found much utility for Canonist in other matchups, I do expect Storm to be over-represented (I think it is the best deck in Modern), and I have therefore included 2 Canonists in my 15. It is possible that I replace Canonist with Kambal, Consul of Allocation.

Grafdigger's Cage is not currently being played by other Humans pilots, and I think that is wrong. The Collected Company combo decks (with either Viscera Seer-Kitchen Finks-Vizier of Remedies or Vizier of Remedies-Devoted Druid-Walking Ballista) are bad matchups, as it is very difficult to prevent them from putting together the combo with Collected Company and Chord of Calling. Cage is also an acceptable card to bring in versus the attrition-based Snapcaster decks such as UWR and the graveyard-based decks, like Goryo's Vengeance or Dredge. I know there tends to be some disagreement with bringing in Cages versus Snapcaster decks, but UWR's entire plan is to grind you out with Snapcasters, using Cryptic Command to bounce their Snapcasters. I do not bring in Cage versus UW Control, since it often does not even run a full 4 Snapcasters, and I will likely leave Cage out versus Grixis Shadow, since that matchup tends to be much faster. Grixis Shadow is really looking to clear the way for a few hits with Death's Shadow and Gurmag Angler rather than attrition you out over the long game. I might consider bringing in a Cage or two versus a Corey Burkhart-style Grixis Control deck, but no one plays that deck anymore.

Dismember also helps to keep Collected Company combo decks in check, but it also lets you eliminate high-threat cards from decks such as Affinity (Steel Overseer), Infect (Blighted Agent), Merfolk (any Lord), the mirror (Mantis Rider, Riders of Gavony), Storm (Baral or Electromancer), Elves (Heritage Druid, Archdruid, Ezuri), Grixis Shadow (Tasigur, Gurmag Angler), and even Junk (if you see opposing Dark Confidants).

As I said earlier, I want access to all four Dark Confidants in any attrition-based matchup. Bob is just the best at what he does, and you can often vial him into play during your opponent's end-step to try to protect him from removal.

Mirran Crusader and Anafenza, the Foremost are sticky threats for attrition-based decks, with Mirran Crusader coming in versus any black based deck such as Junk and Grixis Shadow and Anafenza coming in versus any Lightning Bolt/Anger of the God deck. In those attrition matchups, you want threats that (1) are hard to deal with and (2) hit hard on their own, since your opponents are often just killing all of your other creatures with 1-for-1 removal. I've gone back and forth on the inclusion of Anafenza, but I've found that I've been losing a reasonable amount to decks playing Anger of the Gods (Titanshift, UR Blood Moon, RW Chalice). She is also good versus Burn, Living End, and Dredge.

Izzet Staticaster is the best card in your deck in a lot of situations. Some lists are starting to run 3! I bring Staticaster in versus Storm (to combat Empty the Warrens), Elves, Affinity, Mardu Midrange (to battle Young Pyromancer) and Infect. Staticaster can be high variance in the mirror: it is great when you are on the play and you can snipe their creatures before they get large, but it is pretty bad when you're behind. I usually do not bring it in.

The number of situations where I thought I would have wanted to bring in Vithian Renegades has gone down since I first started playing Humans, so I've gone down to only 1 copy. It is obviously great versus Affinity (I often save it to snipe a Cranial Plating), but we already have 2 Izzet Staticasters and 2 Dismember for that matchup. You obviously also bring him in versus Lantern (which is a fairly bad matchup, since your opponents can cast Whir of Invention to get an Ensnaring Bridge even though you've named it with Meddling Mage), and also other Vial decks (though Renegades is often too slow on the draw with a non-Hierarch hand). Bring Renegades in versus the BW Eldrazi deck to kill Tidehollow Sculler, since you don't want any of your cards sitting in exile for too long: Wasteland Strangler is a massive beating.

Other Ideas?

Despite the mana limitations, there are quite a few Humans that are good enough to be in the sideboard of a Modern deck. I'll start with the more commonly played cards that are not currently in my sideboard and then I'll briefly overview the cards that really are not good enough to make the cut.

Tireless Tracker

This should be obvious but Tireless Tracker is just not as good as Dark Confidant in Humans. Tireless Tracker needs you draw and play a land to get a clue (and Humans only runs 19 lands), it needs you to pay 2 mana to draw that extra card (and yes, you can't do that with Ancient Ziggurat), and it dies to basically every removal spell. So it is not that much of an independent threat (whereas Anafenza and Mirran Crusader can sometimes be difficult to remove) and it does not generate card advantage at a reasonable pace.

Fiend Hunter

While I think Fiend Hunter is a more reasonable card than Tireless Tracker, it is just a worse Reflector Mage in most situations. It is not much of a threat on its own and there are chances of blowouts where your opponent might be able to remove it with, say, a Path to Exile or their own Reflector Mage. Yes, Humans wants to be able to interact with creature-based combo decks, but Dismember has just been more effective at doing what Fiend wants to do. Indeed, versus those creature combo decks, you want to be able to interact at instant speed. Fiend Hunter needs an active Vial to do that and Dismember just needs an untapped land.

Kambal, Consul of Allocation

Kambal, Consul of Allocation is one of the more interesting sideboard cards to me. I really want this card to be good. It is possible that this card can basically do what Ethersworn Canonist does in the Storm matchup, while also being a significant threat versus Burn. The three converted mana cost is a major downside, however, as a 3-drop on the draw versus Burn or Storm is often too slow. I'll be testing this card in the upcoming weeks.

Sin Collector

Sin Collector is a neat idea, though he only takes instants or sorceries. If it was a Duress type effect, I would totally be on board! One of the downsides of playing Kitesail Freebooter and Meddling Mage is that they don't actually stick around. The removal dense decks, such as UWR or Junk, are able to trade 1-for-1 with Freebooter or Mage (or worse, they cast Damnation or Anger of the Gods or Supreme Verdict). Sin Collector, on the other hand, could rip a Path or a Bolt from your opponent's hand while leaving you with a 2/1 body. Not too bad, but also probably too narrow. There are going to be circumstances where you go to Sin Collector your opponent and they flip over a hand consisting of land, land, Snapcaster Mage, Detention Sphere, Gideon Jura (or, say, Tarmogoyf, Liliana the Last Hope, Scavenging Ooze). And if your opponent only has a removal spell left in hand, they're going to fire it off at instant speed in response to the trigger (this play pattern frequently occurs with Freebooter as well).

Xathrid Necromancer

Xathrid Necromancer has been a 2-of in almost all of the Humans sideboards, for reasons passing my understanding. Best case scenario for this card is that you vial it in when your opponent taps out for Supreme Verdict. Now that control players know about this card, they might know better and may play around it. If you don't have a Vial, this is usually the first card that dies. If they Path it (and all of these decks are running Path these days), you don't get anything. If they Bolt it, you get a 2/2 which can be blocked by basically everything (Tarmogoyf, Snapcaster Mage, etc.). To make this card even worse, all of the red decks (Titanshift, UR Breach/Kiki, maybe even Burn soon) run Anger of the Gods. This card is only good when you're ahead in the attrition-based matchups, and when you're ahead, almost any card will be good. However, the way you lose these attrition-based matchups is that your opponent removes all of your creatures from the battlefield, leaving you with an empty board state. Xathrid Necromancer is a card that wants you to have a large battlefield presence (like, by definition, for this card to be good, you have to already be ahead). I get the urge to play this card, (hey, it's a human with neat human synergies!) but the way that games often play out versus attrition decks, it's better to have stand-alone beaters (like Anafenza or Mirran Crusader) and card generation (Dark Confidant). If you want this kind of effect, there is actually a better option...

Liliana, Heretical HealerLiliana, Defiant Necromancer

Liliana, Heretical Healer essentially does the same thing that Xathrid Necromancer (she makes a 2/2 when another creature dies) but she flips into a Planeswalker and almost immediately rebuys you a creature in your graveyard. It also makes your opponent discard cards, when you are probably already out of cards and top-decking anyways. Being able to attack your opponent on a non-creature axis is pretty powerful, since your opponent will be expecting to only kill creatures and not Planeswalkers post board. And Liliana also has Lifelink so she has some applicability versus Burn! All of that said, this card is also probably too cute to warrant sideboard inclusion. For you to flip Liliana, like Xathrid Necromancer, you almost surely will be required to vial her in in response to a non-Path removal spell on another creature, and even then, it is possible that your opponent has two removal spells in hand so that they are able to kill her before the other creature dies. There may be some edge cases where you are able to make a large enough Champion or Lieutenant such that your opponent is forced to kill that before Liliana, but I am not looking to include cards in my sideboard for edge cases.

Riders of Gavony

Riders of Gavony is the cute sideboard tech for the mirror: name Human and swing for lethal! It can also come in versus Merfolk and Eldrazi Tron (and marginal decks like Goblins, Faeries, or Spirits). I have tried playing this card a bit, but I think the Merfolk and Eldrazi Tron matchups are good enough to not need additional narrow cards, and the Humans matchup is pretty much a coin flip. Being on the play and having a very strong curve ending with Reflector Mages is how you win the mirror. The player that casts more Champions, Lieutenants and Reflector Mages is often the player who wins. A 4 converted mana cost card is also probably too expensive in a deck with 19 lands and 4 mana dorks and you will probably be dead before you can vial it in. All that said, given the recent success of this deck, I am expecting to see a lot of this card in the mirror, so I will have my Dismembers ready.

Not Good Enough!

Abzan FalconerMelira, Sylvok OutcastUlvenwald TrackerGrim LavamancerHanweir GarrisonStorm Fleet AerialistMagus of the MoonKytheon, Hero of AkrosHarsh MentorCombat CelebrantBlade SplicerFiendslayer PaladinIntrepid HeroRoyal AssassinOrzhov PontiffLyev SkyknightLantern ScoutHero of BladeholdMangara of Corondor

I have tried some of these, and others just seem self-evidently bad to me. You can't play Grim Lavamancer unless you include a Sacred Foundry or Stomping Grounds with a bunch of fetches, and it wouldn't even be that great anyways, since you don't put many cards in your graveyard. Ulvenwald Tracker is a cute idea versus decks like Abzan Company but, again, there are going to be a significant number of games where you don't have green mana sources. Cards like Melira, Sylvok Outcast and Harsh Mentor are too narrow, attacking very specific and underplayed decks such as Lantern and Infect. Stormfleet Aerialist, Kytheon, Hero of Akros, Blade Splicer, Lyev Skyknight, Hero of Bladehold, Abzan Falconer, and Hanweir Garrison (all those Lieutenant and Champion triggers!) are all fine, but they do not attack other decks in a unique or haymaking way, and are all just generally worse aggressive creatures than the ones already in the deck. Izzet Staticaster is almost strictly better than Orzhov Pontiff.

The Matchups

I plan on doing a sideboard guide later on, but for now, I'll just tease with what I believe to be the good, bad, and close matchups. Some of this might be surprising, so I will defend my opinions in that later post. 

Good Matchups:
  • Burn
  • Merfolk
  • Affinity
  • Eldrazi Aggro
  • BW Hatebear
  • Grixis Shadow
  • Living End
  • UW Control
  • 4c Scapeshift Control
  • BR Hollow One
  • 4c Death's Shadow
Close Matchups:
  • Storm
  • UWR (good matchup if they have Geist and Spell Queller, harder matchup if they have Helix and Ajani)
  • Dredge
  • GB Tron
  • Junk
  • Jund
  • Abzan Company (this is usually a bad matchup but I think my sideboard plan mitigates some of the difficulty)
  • Any Anger of the Gods deck, including:
    • UR Moon/Through the Breach/Kiki-Jiki
    • RW Chalice
    • Titanshift
    • GR Ponza
  • UB Mill
  • Elves (I'm not really sure about this matchup. Intuitively it seems bad but I have been beating it)
Bad Matchups:
  • Infect
  • Bogles (not that bad if they don't draw Daybreak Coronet; unwinnable if they do)
  • Lantern
  • Mardu Midrange
I haven't played versus marginal combo decks like Bloomless Titan or Taking Turns but I would expect them to be good matchups.

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