Discussing The Optimal Play: Humans Against Tron

Cedric is a huge fan of Humans, but he used to love Tron! Their complex relationship continues to evolve with this seemingly innocuous Magic turn! What would you have done?

As most of you know by now, I love playing Humans in Modern. It’s my
favorite deck in the format by far because it’s my favorite type of deck in
Magic – an aggressive one with lots of decisions. Kithkin, Goblins, and
Mythic were similar back in the day, but Humans has more decisions than all
of them and it makes for some rather fun and interesting games of Magic.

Case in point, on Sunday I was paired against my old paramour, Mono-Green
Tron. Already down a game, I was on the play with the following hand:

First things first, this is an obvious keep. I’ve got two different
one-drops, something that’s integral to playing Humans given the speed of
the format, disruption in Meddling Mage, a clock in Mantis Rider, and a way
to beat Wurmcoil Engine in Reflector Mage. My mana has chosen to cooperate
with me, as I have a five-color land and a Seachrome Coast in case I draw
Phantasmal Image (as Unclaimed Territory is obviously naming Human). I
really can’t ask for much more in an opening hand with Humans so I was
pleased to click keep.

The only simplistic part about playing this particular game was keeping my
opening seven. From there, things got a lot more difficult because I
realized that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to play on the first turn of the
game. And if you saw the thread on Twitter, neither was the community.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I’ll start by saying that to each person
who said something along the lines of “Turn 1 Noble Hierarch, Turn 2 Mantis
Rider to put the pressure on!” or “Turn 1 Aether Vial not close!” you’re
not being helpful. At all. It’s pretty clear that those are both options
and one who has a cursory understanding of Magic the Gathering knows that.
Pointing out both of these obvious options does nothing to help anyone get
better at the game of Magic or think about the game of Magic in the right
way. If it wasn’t a difficult question, do you think I would have bothered
asking in the first place?

No. I wouldn’t.

Also, if it wasn’t a difficult question, do you think two previous World Champions who teamed together for Pro Tour 25th Anniversary last weekend would have completely different answers?!

No. They wouldn’t.

With that out of the way, let’s break things down and actually try to learn
something shall we?

Where To Begin?

If we begin things with Noble Hierarch, we’re given plenty of options, the
most obvious of which is a turn 2 Mantis Rider and an attack for four
damage. That’s an aggressive start and puts Tron under a relevant amount of
pressure, but not so much pressure that it’s going to make them deviate
from their gameplan of completing Tron as quickly as possible and casting
large threats ahead of schedule.

However, It’s important to realize that Tron’s life total is one of, if
not, their most important resource, and they use it better than a lot of
decks do. As long as Tron isn’t dead, they can still overpower you with how
absurdly grandiose their big mana spells are. So it would stand to reason
that our best bet is to kill them as quickly as possible, right? If we
eliminate one of their most important resources, our chance of winning
should increase.

Not exactly.

One of the benefits of playing Humans is that you’re a deck that can
disrupt the opponent while putting a lot of pressure on their life total
(note the order). When you’re playing against Tron, you’re given a very
small window to disrupt their mana development, which is the entire reason
to play Tron in the first place. Of course, there are circumstances where
you can’t disrupt their mana development whatsoever:

  • They have two Tron pieces + Expedition Map
  • They have all three Tron pieces in their opening hand

On the play or draw, there’s nothing a Humans players can do about either
one of these situations, so I don’t ever let them enter my mind except for
the fact that if Tron has one of those two hands, good for them and it’s
time to hope to spike with my Meddling Mages and Kitesail Freebooters on
whatever their big mana threat is (unlikely), hope that Thalia, Guardian of
Thraben somehow slows down their big mana threat long enough for me to win
(similarly unlikely), or that Wurmcoil Engine is their payoff and I can
bounce it with Reflector Mage (doable with my current hand, but they don’t
rely on Wurmcoil Engine to win nowadays anyway).

Are there draws based around Tron that Humans can interact with? Of course:

Because I can interact with both of these situations, if I don’t see a turn
1 Expedition Map from my opponent, it behooves me to try to stop them from
completing Tron if it doesn’t set back my own development. Not setting back
your own development is key because we’ve seen over the years just how
resilient Tron is. Tron is a deck that shakes off Blood Moon, Ghost
Quarter, Field of Ruin, Fulminator Mage, and so much more with the greatest
of ease. It’s generally able to shake these things off because the opponent
isn’t pressuring them while messing with their mana. Tron is built in such
a way that it can keep assembling its mana through dedicated disruption –
it’s what makes the deck so damn good. But if you’re able to stop them just
long enough from assembling their mana while also killing them (note the
order), you’ve found the winning combination.

So if I have, say, a Meddling Mage and need to name something that stops
them just long enough from assembling their mana while also killing them
(note the order), I have to do it on the second turn of the game. That’s a
pretty precise turn that I have to do that exact thing, but when you’re
playing against Tron, you’re generally not afforded many luxuries. With
that in mind, should I name Sylvan Scrying or Ancient Stirrings?

Well that’s like saying should I name Demonic Tutor or Ancient
Stirrings because, in this instance, Sylvan Scrying is the equivalent of
Demonic Tutor. There will be instances, of course, that Ancient Stirrings
is the card they have and it finds the third Tron piece and you feel like a
fool. Again, that’s all part of playing against Tron from the Humans side
and there’s not a ton you can do about it. But once you narrow the scope of
how they can complete Tron by turn 3 and figure out how you can disrupt
that, the extra turn that you’ve probably been granted may be that one turn
you needed to kill them.

Ultimately, the idea of trying to kill them quickly by playing Noble
Hierarch into Mantis Rider is nonsense to me because you’re not doing the
thing that you need to do to beat them – disrupt their mana while
pressuring them (note the order). Instead, you’re pressuring them and then
hoping to disrupt/stop whatever their payoff card is. Here’s the problem
with that:

Look, if you’re really good at sniping their payoff card that destroys you,
click the back button on the browser because you certainly don’t need my
help. But I’ve played enough games against Tron that trying to guess what
the payoff spell is Is generally a fool’s errand. Sometimes you’ll get it
right, but more often than not, you won’t and you’ll die. It’s unfortunate
that Tron players have diversified their payoff cards in such a fashion
that naming the right one without the aid of Kitesail Freebooter feels like
getting lucky, but good for them for building their deck right, I’d say.

Some have said that if I play Noble Hierarch into Mantis Rider into
Meddling Mage + X (X being Aether Vial in this instance because it’s in my
opening hand), I just name Oblivion Stone with the Meddling Mage and I’m in
good shape. To that I say, “Why would that put me in good shape?”

Yes, my opponent is down to twelve and I have five power on the
battlefield. Which means the next turn I will, at the very least, knock
them down to seven, but potentially lower if my deck coughs up Thalia’s
Lieutenant, Phantasmal image, or another copy of Mantis Rider. But that’s
assuming my opponent does nothing relevant on their third turn of the game.
And for the sake of argument, let’s assume my opponent will be completing
Tron on turn 3 because if they aren’t, none of this matters anyway.

So I’ve named Oblivion Stone with Meddling Mage. Then my opponent casts
this a**hole:

I will exile your Mantis Rider.

So what’s your big plan now? Are you going to attack Karn with your
Meddling Mage and kill it since you have a Noble Hierarch? Neat! Then, post
combat, you might cast another threat, and then your opponent will untap
with at least seven mana and while you’ve locked out Oblivion
Stone, we’ve already spoken about their threat diversification so it’s
incredibly likely that they don’t care about being unable to cast Oblivion
Stone and mop you up with something else.

In this instance, Wurmcoil Engine doesn’t qualify because you have a
Reflector Mage, but everything else certainly does. Hell, even another Karn
is an issue because that might exile the Meddling Mage naming Oblivion
Stone to turn that aspect of their deck back on and then you have to kill
Karn because if you don’t, it will exile something else which means you’re
giving them additional draw steps because you’re not going after their life

You know what’s really fun? Giving Tron additional draw steps when they
have all of their mana

ready, willing and gable


Wait. No, it’s not.

To me, Karn Liberated is the only card you can name in that instance
because other cards have some risk involved, aren’t castable, or aren’t
prevalent in the metagame. A naked Oblivion Stone, for example, risks the
chance of being blown up by Reclamation Sage, a card that Humans has to
bring in with the hope that this exact situation materializes. If they play
Walking Ballista, Reflector Mage and Reclamation Sage enter the picture,
though Walking Ballista will likely trade with Mantis Rider. Ugin isn’t
castable yet, so I’m not terribly concerned with that one, and All Is Dust
isn’t ubiquitous in Tron lists at this stage so there’s no reason for me to
name that one.

What you ultimately find here is that Meddling Mage is much better on the
second turn of the game than the third for doing what leads to the most
wins – disrupting your opponent and pressuring them in that order.

But What About Aether Vial?

So how does Aether Vial work itself into the equation? Truth be told, it
does so in a couple different ways but most notably, I don’t want people to
forget that Aether Vial is essentially a really weird Black Lotus in
Humans. Yes, you don’t get to speed out a Mantis Rider on turn 2, but in
this matchup, I’d like to believe I’ve explained why that’s not good enough
to begin with. Aether Vial slows down your development on the first turn of
the game to make your development on the second, third, and fourth turn
completely insane. I know it’s tempting to get on the battlefield early
with Noble Hierarch and Mantis Rider, but starting with Aether Vial doesn’t
really set you back all that much in this scenario…

Instead of your opponent being at twelve and your Meddling Mage hoping to
shoot the moon by naming the right payoff card, your opponent is at
fifteen, your Meddling Mage has hopefully bricked a Sylvan Scrying or
Ancient Stirrings (again, I’d name Sylvan Scrying) and you have an Aether
Vial on two which allows you to continue your development accordingly, This
is a higher upside positon for a few reasons:

  • If your opponent has a Karn and you have a two-drop to Vial in, it
    makes taking care of Karn a lot more feasible
  • Aether Vial is one of the few cards that interacts favorably
    against Ugin in case it shows up.

  • Horizon Canopy and Aether Vial are best pals.

Given that I’m writing an article about a random opening hand on a Sunday
evening, I think it’s pretty clear that I lost the game. I led with Noble
Hierarch into Mantis Rider into Meddling Mage (naming Karn Liberated) +
Aether Vial and got wiped out by All Is Dust. I asked my opponent what
would have happened if I named Sylvan Scrying on turn 2 and they said they
would have gotten wiped out, but my Meddling Mage did brickwall two Karns.

A lot of good that did…