This article is an interesting one. As many of you know, my column typically goes up here on StarCityGames.com at the 11am update on Monday morning. Coincidentally, that would be shortly after the internet knew whether a certain notorious delve/convoke spell from Modern Horizons would make its way to the Modern Banned List…
The changes to Modern ended up being much more than just about Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis. Taking the extra step to bring the banhammer down upon Faithless Looting and unban the infamous Stoneforge Mystic has completely turned Modern on its head. The Hogaak ban was to be expected; the deck was winning far too much, and no one realistically expected to be able to cast Hogaak in a Modern tournament past Monday ever again. Faithless Looting’s ban and Stoneforge Mystic’s unban, however, toss out every assumption we’ve known about Modern for the last year, and will fundamentally change how we play the format moving forward.
The act of banning a card or two from a format does little to change a format that much. The removal of Faithless Looting and Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis simply means that the decks that utilized those cards will either disappear or manifest into a different, presumably weaker form. The introduction of a card that has never been legal in Modern before, however, opens the floodgates in terms of possibilities for the format and how we play it. As stated by Wizards of the Coast in Monday’s announcement, this change is risky, and they’ll be monitoring this change moving forward, as it seems extremely unlikely that Stoneforge Mystic has a minimal impact on Modern like Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor have.
Not even a month ago, I wrote about how I would update Humans in Modern under the assumption that the biggest, baddest graveyard deck on the block would be the one we’ve been contending with for months on end at this point, Dredge. It hasn’t even been a year since Creeping Chill was printed and gave Dredge the biggest shot in the arm the deck has had since the printing of Prized Amalgam and the short-lived unbanning of Golgari Grave-Troll.
I’m frustrated to report that my assumptions I made in this article were not only incorrect, but wildly so. The version of Hogaak that Modern has had to contend with for the last month or so will go down in the history books alongside decks like Eldrazi with Eye of Ugin, Splinter Twin, and Ironworks as some of the most broken decks players will ever have the opportunity of playing in the Modern format. After a fairly brief love affair with Eldrazi Tron immediately after the banning of Bridge from Below, I decided I would have to be on the right side of history and play the broken deck while I could, with the regret of never getting around to playing Eldrazi pre-Eye of Ugin ban as a big motivator.
Thankfully, Modern should once more be in a less broken place. More than I had even hoped for, with the banning of Faithless Looting. As Wizard of the Coast states, it is likely that games will be won via the hand and battlefield as opposed to the graveyard, as has been the case for the last year or so in Modern.
Humans is, and will continue to be, one of the best decks in Modern. It will always likely be a Top 5 contender at all points in the format barring an extreme rise in power level beyond even what Hogaak and Ironworks had to offer. Modern Horizons provided a pretty large shot in the arm to a lot of other archetypes, offering Humans very little, but Humans has even then continued to be an exceptional non-Hogaak deck to play for the last couple of months.
When Ironworks was the top deck in Modern in the latter half of 2018, I began to notice that winning with Humans became increasingly difficult as the deck became more widely adopted and the format began to warp around it. If we think of the similarities of a deck like Ironworks and a deck like Hogaak, their intersection in deck design is that they try to pressure opponents into doing something both meaningful and powerful an entire turn-cycle and change faster than before.
While Humans can present a meaningful piece of disruption on Turn 2 and Turn 3, the problem was that if you had an aggressive draw (think multiple Champion of the Parishes and Mantis Riders but no Meddling Mage or Kitesail Freebooter) against a deck like Ironworks, they might just untap on their Turn 3 and combo off on you while there was nothing you could do about it.
Similarly, Hogaak simply does too much on average on Turns 2 and 3 of any given game, leaving you once more feeling helpless if you happen to be on the draw and only present an Aether Vial or Noble Hierarch before you opponent assembles fourteen-plus power and then passes the turn so you can play a second land. Even Izzet Phoenix, to some extent, can present the daunting task of trying to stop Thing in the Ice from transforming into Awoken Horror in Turn 3, which the deck can do quite easily with a Manamorphose or two and a few cantrips.
The running joke of Modern for some time now is that the format’s speed has surpassed what has been generally accepted as Turn 4 format. Many point to the banning of Splinter Twin, a deck that literally could not win the game prior to Turn 4 if playing a traditional build of the deck, and wonder why decks like Hogaak and Ironworks (and many others, to be honest) were allowed to stick around as long as they did. The fact of the matter is, once bannings happen and the format’s degeneracy is knocked down a peg for a brief period of time, Humans thrives, as it can present a lethal attack on the fourth turn of a game in Modern while also presenting a piece or two of disruption along the way.
Looking forward, players in Modern will begin to figure out how best to push that Turn 4 boundary once more. The biggest contender for doing so, in my opinion, is a deck that has been crushing Modern tournaments alongside Hogaak, boasting win rates equal to or even slightly higher at times than Hogaak itself, but didn’t really quite get the love it deserved:
I’ll be honest – for SCG Dallas, I’m firm in my belief that Grixis Urza will be the deck that finally breaks out and even wins the entire tournament. While it is true that this deck didn’t have the worst Hogaak matchup, after thinking about it, I don’t think that Grixis Urza’s win rate is inflated that much by the metagame it has thrived in for the last month. This deck should be on everyone’s radar if it isn’t already, as it will punish you severely if you don’t know what’s coming.
With that in mind, I want to look at how Humans can make appropriate adjustments with Hogaak finally removed from Modern. Before I do so, I’d like to share what I think are the Top 10 decks in Modern post-Hogaak ban. This is not a power ranking, simply a list of the decks that you need to be paying attention to in the early weeks of a new Modern format.
- Grixis Urza
- Eldrazi Tron
- Mono-Green Tron
- Azorius Control
- Azorius / Bant Spirits
- Amulet Titan
- Mardu Death’s Shadow
This list is quite different from the one that I submitted for my normal Monday article publication time, given I did not realistically expect changes past a Hogaak ban. For posterity’s sake, here’s what the list looked like before I had to go back to the drawing board:
- Grixis Urza
- Eldrazi Tron
- Mono-Green Tron
- Azorius Control
- Izzet Phoenix
- Mono-Red Prowess / Phoenix
Looting’s removal did a ton to axe some of the pillars of the Modern format for the last year or so. Beyond just Hogaak and Dredge, Faithless Looting getting banned leaves Arclight Phoenix decks in a terrible place, as the card was instrumental in getting the Phoenixes into the graveyard to begin with. The three decks that I added to the updated list above are essentially decks that were next in line (Mardu Death’s Shadow, Amulet Titan, and Spirits). Spirits makes the list mostly as a benefactor of the Stoneforge Mystic unban. I imagine the flying tribal strategy will make very good use of the Equipment package and expect to see this deck a lot more moving forward.
It seems that after several years of Modern as a format being around, the silly decks you might run into at any given Modern tournament and the “play what you want” attitude towards the format have faded away, producing clear winners and losers. Gone are the days of Selesnya, Ad Nauseam, Gifts Storm, and Scapeshift, at least if you’d like to win the tournament. A combination of insanely powerful cards being printed into Standard legal sets and sets like Modern Horizons and a desire for more competitive players to really dig in deep and figure out what stands above the rest in the format has produced the above result.
Enough rambling from me, though. Here’s where my testing currently has me for Humans heading into the Modern Open in Dallas this weekend:
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 4 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 2 Deputy of Detention
The biggest form of relief for Humans post-Hogaak ban comes in the sideboard. I wrote this quote in my last article on Humans that proved to be unfortunately untrue at the time, but I’ll repeat it here since this time it’s actually true!
“Thankfully, I’m happy to say that Humans can go back to playing graveyard hate that can actually be cast, like the occasional Grafdigger’s Cage or two. Those four sideboard slots dedicated to Leyline of the Void were fairly painful to lose, and it is a relief to have them back (for now).”
Those slots were indeed painful to lose, and while it will be likely that graveyard hate will be important with players resleeving their Prized Amalgams, it will feel much better not having to register a four-mana enchantment that makes you want to cry when you draw it in the middle of a close, grindy game since you can’t ever hope to dream of casting it (unless your nice Dredge opponent decides to play Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth for some reason).
A lot of the sideboard is mainly the same as it has been, with an increased focused on Auriok Champion, a card I think is very important in Modern right now. It has been instrumental in its ability to win games against a lot of the better non-Hogaak decks in Modern, like Mono-Red Prowess / Phoenix, even forcing the deck to play clunky and fairly bad sweeper effects like Kozilek’s Return so that they at least have an out. It’s not even the worst against a deck like Jund that now utilizes Wrenn and Six as a way to pick off some of Humans’s smaller creatures.
Collector Ouphe is by now a staple in the sideboard of Humans. Many continue to play Damping Sphere in their sideboard in its place, which I don’t quite understand. Damping Sphere was there almost explicitly to handle Tron and Collector Ouphe does that and then some, while still also having power and toughness so that you can actually win the game. It serves as a multi-targeting Meddling Mage for Walking Ballista and Oblivion Stone and can even just straight-up lock opponents out of winning the game if cast on Turn 2 on the play by turning off their Chromatic Stars and Spheres and their Expedition Maps. The card is also serviceable against Grixis Urza, even though it doesn’t completely shut them down, as it at least prevents them from being able to gain infinite life and Thopter tokens.
Gaddock Teeg is a nod to Azorius Control, which I believe to be the best fair deck in Modern at this point, as it shuts off a lot of their best avenues to victory (their planeswalkers like Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, as well as sweepers like Supreme Verdict). It seems like Azorius Control players have moved towards more creature-heavy builds of the deck utilizing Restoration Angel and Wall of Omens, something Teeg doesn’t really deal with particularly well. It may be that that build was the best way to build the deck in a Hogaak world and they will shift away from this package, but it is something to be mindful of so you don’t send your Mantis Rider into a 3/4 that gobbles it up. We’ll also have to contend with Stoneforge Mystic, but I imagine that its impact will not be as large against Humans as one might expect. Teeg is also great against Karn, the Great Creator decks, like Mono-Green Tron and Eldrazi Tron.
I liked Plague Engineer a lot against Hogaak, and still like its inclusion in the sideboard for now. It has great applicability in the mirror, as well as being good against a deck like Grixis Urza, since it prevents them from making a bunch of Thopter tokens and slowing you down enough for them to combo off on you. It is also obviously great against the chaff of Modern that you will inevitably run into, like Elves, Goblins, Gifts Storm (Empty the Warrens), and, believe it or not, Azorius Control, where you can name Monk for Monastery Mentor, Wizard for Snapcaster Mage and Vendilion Clique, and Soldier to wipe away those Timely Reinforcements and Elspeth, Sun’s Champion Solder tokens.
Xathrid Necromancer sits in a slot currently occupied by a rotating list of haymakers for the Jund matchup, for which I have yet to find a solid solution. As the list above shows, I think it might be reasonable to try more four-drops again like Whirler Rogue and Hostage Taker, something the deck was keen to do about a year ago. I like Necromancer a lot since it also lines up so well against a handful of other top decks in Modern. It’s fantastic to use Aether Vial to flash it onto the battlefield in response to a sweeper effect, something Mono-Green Tron and Azorius Control have plenty of, and is even good at just grinding against a deck like Izzet Phoenix that typically wants to just remove all of your creatures in the sideboard games.
Another great consideration for this slot is Mirran Crusader, but it seems like it would be very narrow and only really applicable for the Jund matchup. It was something I was fonder of, again, when Hogaak was still around, as it was neat in that matchup too, since it could block everything (something Auriok Champion can’t do because of Vengevine). When Urza and Yawgmoth were previewed, I postulated that those two might make for good options against decks like Jund as well but ultimately never felt them good enough in a Hogaak world. This might be their time to shine.
Knight of Autumn is nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to the unbanning of Stoneforge Mystic and may be unnecessary, but I want the hedge for now. I actually think that Kitesail Freebooter will do a ton of the heavy lifting in making Stoneforge Mystic look much worse against Humans than people expect, but I like having the hard removal spell for it to start. Knight of Autumn is serviceable as well against Burn and Mono-Green Tron, two decks I expect to be very popular in the early days of this new Modern format.
The few maindeck flex slots that seem to get more attention than they rightfully deserve currently belong to a couple of Deputy of Detentions. I think they will be vital in giving you a fighting chance against Grixis Urza moving forward, and since the deck began playing it, it rarely lacks a target. Being able to handle just about anything under the sun that you need to get out of the way to push through a lethal attack is invaluable, and I would look to keep the two in the maindeck for the time being.
Good Riddance, Hogaak
Modern will finally feel a sigh of relief akin to the one it felt when Ironworks was banned away over half a year ago. I will likely be examining Humans as a frontrunner choice for SCG Dallas, and I look forward to not having to play with or against the Hogaak menace ever again. I did not expect Arclight Phoenix decks to be taken out with the Faithless Looting ban, so the power vacuum in Modern seems to favor the decks that have been mainstays and had no card taken away from their deck. I expect Mono-Green Tron, Burn, Jund, Humans, and Grixis Urza to be the frontrunner favorites to win SCG Dallas.
Let me be the first to welcome you to the third iteration of Modern as a format in as many months. Enjoy your stay.