Tribal Knowledge: The Diversity Of Humans And Their Allies

In his latest foray into the world of Tribal Standard, Jay tackles the largest of tribes – the Humans. With five decklists of various colors and creeds, there’s sure to be something for everyone!

Well, I had a pretty good run there of eight straight weeks of Tribal Standard (or Standard Tribal… I still haven’t decided which way I prefer to talk about the format) articles. The whole reason I gave up writing “Building On A Budget,” though, is that I needed more flexibility in my weeks. As a result, I knew that I would take some extra time at least once during this Tribal series.

Three things have conspired to limit my Magic playing time. The first is work, with projects I’m leading hitting peak moments at the same time. That’s going to happen in any job occasionally, particularly non-routine jobs like mine. The second reason I’ve been swamped is that “Pop,” a.k.a. Future Sight, is deep in the throes of names and flavor text writing. Nights I would usually spend playing are now spent flavor text writing, usually in a two-week-on-two-week-off kind of way. As Mark Rosewater mentioned recently, the entire Time Spiral block has been tough from a flavor standpoint, so it’s probably taken up more time than other sets.

The third reason is that, after denying my urges for two years, I’ve succumbed to the game City of Heroes. At my core, I’m a superhero guy more than a fantasy guy (though I’m both, obviously), and my wife and I knew that if I ever bought City that I might never return. I took the plunge when she and the kids were in Connecticut for two weeks, and, yep, I’m addicted. If you’re worried about me writing about Tribal Standard after these ten articles, worry about this third reason most of all. Seriously.

Work, creative writing, and virtual superheroes aside, I have been tinkering with Coldsnap and continuing to play Tribal Standard. I’ll dedicate my next article to Coldsnap and all of its snowy goodness. Today, I want to talk specifically about the other Big Tribe in the current Standard, Humans.

Human: The Gathering

Why Humans? Two reasons. First, I figured that I’ve already spent time on Spirits, leaving Humans as the eight-hundred pound gorilla still in the room. My examination of Standard Tribal simply wouldn’t feel complete if I didn’t dedicate at least one article to my own tribe. The second reason is, as I said in my Coldsnap review, Humans are by far the biggest tribe in Coldsnap. By focusing on Humans today, I give myself a nice excuse to try out the new cards.

There is good news and bad news when it comes to Humans in Standard. The bad news is that they are essentially a bunch of smallish creatures without any true Tribal enablers. That is, most Human decks are going to feel like aggro weenie decks, and no Humans exist to build a true Tribal deck around. There is no Human “lord.” There are no cards, creature or otherwise, that provide a bonus for playing a pack of Humans. As a result, Human decks can be pretty straightforward and boring, using strong – but not particularly memorable – creatures to bash an opponent senseless.

These points against Humans are the only – and I do mean only – reasons I think Tribal Standard might thrive after being released from Kamigawa’s shackles. It’s clear that Humans will outnumber even large tribes two or three to one when Time Spiral enters Standard. At first, I thought this meant that Human decks would be everywhere, and that we would be living through a Human Problem. After looking at Human’s limitations, though, I’m slightly more optimistic. Human decks don’t offer the awesome synergies of many other Tribal strategies. The trick from R&D’s perspective, it seems to me, is how to give other tribes enough handholds to compete with Humans without making those tribes’ themes so strong that we have another dose of Spirits and Snakes on our hands.

The good news about Humans is that there are a lot of them to choose from. In fact, there are almost two hundred Humans spread across all five colors. You can literally make a Human deck in any color combination, from mono-colored to five-color, without sacrificing card quality. Moreover, without real Tribal enablers, Human decks are bound to look remarkably diverse. You could conceivably play ten Human decks in a row without seeing two of the same deck. That’s good news both for Tribal Standard aficionados (who quickly grow tired of seeing the same deck game after game) as well as deckbuilders.

In fact, today I’m going to embrace the diversity of Humans. Rather than go deep into one deck as I did with Spirits, I’m going to offer up a variety of Human deck ideas. To frame my thinking, I’m going to talk through the allied color pairs (Green/White, White/Blue, Blue/Black, Black/Green, Green/Red), hopefully tickling your deckbuilding imagination in each color pair. If this experiment works and you like the approach, I can always write another article tackling the five enemy-color pairs. As always, this means you should speak up in the Forums to let me know if you like or don’t like today’s article.

I think my Avatar deck (and more on this deck at the end of today’s article) turned on my Casual Deck brain. Whereas I started looking at Humans with a serious and semi-competitive lens, I quickly realized that I wanted to have more fun than that. Thus I’ll give you a sense for what I think makes up a “serious” look at each color pair, but the decklists I highlight will be much more casual faire. Again, let me know what you think of this approach.

Ready, Neuman? Let’s get zoomin’! It’s time for Humans!

Selesnya Humans

Playing It Straight

Your best crop of Green/White Humans are going to include Hand of Honor; Paladin En-Vec; Iwamori of the Open Fist; Descendant of Kiyomaro; Veteran Armorer; Isao, Enlightened Bushi; Juniper Order Ranger; Skarrgan Pit-Skulk; Soul Warden; and White Shield Crusader. That’s not a comprehensive list of your choices, obviously, but it’s where I would start in terms of building the nucleus of the deck.

What does that list suggest? To me, it suggests hard-hitting aggro. As such, you’re probably using creature-pumpers like Moldervine Cloak, Wildsize, or Glorious Anthem. You’re probably also using aggressive non-Human creatures like Watchwolf, Loxodon Hierarch, and Kami of Ancient Law. My guess is that you don’t need staples like Faith’s Fetters, but I could also see taking your foot off of the throttle a little for Fetters and something like Yosei, the Morning Star or Adarkar Valkyrie. The only other card I can see making it into the deck simply because of sheer power is Glare of Subdual, which plays nicely with that fistful of aggressive creatures.

Zzzz… Snort!?

Hello? What was I saying? Oh. Well, that’s what I would do in a straight-laced, focused Green/White Human deck meant to compete at Premiere Events. You can see where I had an urge to expand beyond these sorts of boundaries.

Playing It Casual

Because the population of Humans is so large, it’s hard to pick one “fun” idea from the list of possibilities. I mean, you can make a competent Human deck with a Samurai or Soldier angle to it. With twelve legendary Green/White Humans, I could see a Reki, the History of Kamigawa deck. Azusa, Lost But Seeking; Budoka Gardener; and Groundskeeper are all Humans. I can see Juniper Order Ranger, Eiganjo Free-Riders, and Soul Warden form a deckbuilding nucleus.

Instead, I picked up on the fact that my favorite Druid suite – Verduran Enchantress, Yavimaya Enchantress, and Gatherer of Graces – are all Human. I also noticed that Auratouched Mage is Human, though not a Druid. Clearly these cards all want to play around in the same deck, especially now that Shape of the Wiitigo is available.

The deck that resulted has two aims: One is to play around with Enchantments generally and Enchant Creature cards specifically, thanks to all of the cards I mentioned in the earlier paragraph. The second aim is to generate enough mana to cast big spells like Auratouched Mage; Shape of the Wiitigo; Konda, Lord of Eiganjo; and Darien, King of Kjeldor. Note these last two fellows are also, in fact, Human.

No, you’re not missing any tricky tutors in there. Shape is the only one-of I can actually tutor for in my deck. Privileged Position is a random, generally-useful addition, whereas the four creatures all look good with an Aura attached to them and are all legendary. I could easily see dropping Konda and Darien for two more Juniper Order Rangers, which have been excellent. Or maybe one Ranger and the fourth Faith’s Fetters. This is just a skeleton, and one that wins in dramatic enough ways that it feels like a foundation on which to build.

Azorius Humans

Playing It Straight

The good White/Blue Humans slant towards the White side of the house. By my reckoning, there’s Hand of Honor, Paladin En-Vec, Ninja of the Deep Hours, Descendant of Kiyomaro, Soul Warden, White Shield Crusader, and Veteran Armorer, all of which suggest a White Weenie deck splashing Blue for the Ninja. For slower decks there’s Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, Jushi Apprentice, Order of the Stars, Minister of Impediments, Haazda Shield Mate, Thought Courier, Weathered Wayfarer, and Sky Hussar, which are a bit more balanced but still more White than Blue.

This means that a White/Blue Human deck has the choice of a) being an aggressive weenie horde with Glorious Anthem, Kami of Ancient Law, fliers, and cheap removal, b) being a control deck with counterspells, bounce, Devouring Light, legendary Dragon Spirits, and Faith’s Fetters, or c) some combination of both. In my opinion, this gives White/Blue more design space than Green/White and as a result probably offers more of a chance to find the right sweet spot for your metagame.

Playing It Casual

The more fun ways of looking at White/Blue Humans are similarly wide open. I think the first thing that comes to mind is a deck using Azorius Aethermage along with Blue’s host of Ninja and Soul Warden. Arcum Dagsson isn’t going to build an Artificer deck anytime soon, but it makes a great centerpiece to a Human deck. Speaking of Coldsnap, I could see a snow-focused deck with Heidar, Rimewind Master; Balduvian Frostwielder; and Rimewind Taskmage along with Adarkar Valkyrie, Squall Drifter, and the like (I’m saving this idea for my next color pair, in fact).

The White/Blue deck I chose feels a little tamer than the other decks listed today. I took a few of the best weenies in White, plus Ninja of the Deep Hours, and sprinkled in Soul Warden, a bunch of comes-into-play creatures like Court Hussar and Azorius Herald, and a full four Peel From Reality. Other than Peel, there’s only one card that felt wacky to try. I’ll see if you can pick it out:

I never realized until writing the decklist into this article that my only non-land, non-creature card was Peel From Reality. That’s just bizarre. Still, the deck does a surprisingly good job of beating up on opponents, especially since Black and Red are so popular in the Casual Decks room. This probably goes without saying, but Soul Warden and Paladin are murder for Red, while Hand of Honor and Paladin give Black fits.

Anyway, did you find the weirdo card in the deck? If you guessed Vedalken Plotter you would win the plush toy. When I did a search of comes-into-play creatures on Gatherer, I thought the Plotter was a fun novelty that could sometimes nab Miren, the Moaning Well or another legendary land. What I didn’t realize was how well it works on the “Karoo” lands – like Selesnya Sanctuary – that are so popular these days. I can often use Tendo Ice Bridge to cast my Plotter, giving my opponent a generic colorless land while I get their Karoo. That’s fantastic disruption for a deck putting pressure on an opponent with weenies. Thanks to Peel From Reality and my Ninja, I can sometimes effectively deny my opponent a critical second or third color with Vedalken Plotter. In other words, I’ve been quite happy with my quirky little addition. I don’t quite feel good enough to bump it up to its fourth copy, but it has surprised me by earning its place in my deck.

There’s something about the mana-curve of this deck that doesn’t quite feel right. Specifically, my three-mana men always strike me as clunky targets for Peel or Ninja, even though Azorius Herald is obviously a solid choice for both. The WW for Hand of Honor and Paladin are sometimes tough, too. If I keep tinkering with the deck, my guess is that I’ll work on lowering the mana-curve (Savannah Lions or Isamaru?), which in turn probably has me sacrificing some of my tricks and ending up with a deck that looks an awful lot like “playing it straight.”

Dimir Humans

Playing It Straight

When I look at the list of Blue/Black Humans, the ones that stand out in terms of sheer power are Dark Confidant; Ninja of the Deep Hours; Hand of Cruelty; Nekrataal; Dimir Guildmage; Garza’s Assassin; Minamo Scrollkeeper; Maga, Traitor to Mortals; Thought Courier; and Royal Assassin (maybe with Minister of Impediments backup). That’s cutting pretty deep into the pool of available Humans, but it highlights how slanted a Blue/Black Human deck is going to be to the Black end of the spectrum. One thing that makes me happy is that we’ve hit on the first allied-color pair that can use its Guildmage. Woo!

Although a slow, control deck looks possible in Blue/Black with the aid of removal, reanimation, and either discard or countermagic, I don’t think a slow Human deck is going to be as competitive as a more aggressive one using Last Gasp, some other quick beats like Moroii, and a sprinkle of discard. Or, maybe the answer to a winning Dimir Human deck is more of an aggro-control strategy that balances the quick “weenieness” of Humans with Black and Blue’s disruptive strengths. I’m not sure, but I am pretty confident that Dark Confidant plays a major role.

Playing It Casual

Things slow down a lot when you start stepping away from the Premiere Event goal of Blue/Black Humans. Not surprisingly, this is the color combination that perhaps best supports a slow, grinding strategy (along with, again not surprisingly, White/Blue).

Most of the decks I think would be fun to build use a legendary Human as a centerpiece. Arcum Dagsson is there again, waiting for Tenth Edition and Platinum Angel. Circu, Dimir Lobotomist can team up with Lore Broker, Lurking Informant, and of course Traumatize to make a dedicated milling deck. Toshiro Umezawa, a personal favorite of mine, is terrific as a centerpiece given all of Black and Blue’s juicy instants. A defensive deck with Maga, Traitor to Mortals as a finisher (maybe with a Dragon Legend or two thrown in for kicks) certainly seems possible given Minamo Scrollkeeper, and the plethora of Blue tappers like Puppeteer. Higure, the Still Wind helps a Blue/Black Human deck have a Ninja slant to it if that’s what you want to do, while Azami, Lady of Scrolls gives Humans a Wizard bent. Other, non-legendary, Blue/Black Humans that could make good deck centerpieces include Spawnbroker and Smogsteed Rider. Like I said, lots of ideas to pursue.

Probably the most obvious “fun” idea in Blue/Black Humans involves all of the yummy comes-into-play creatures like Nekrataal, Highway Robber, Maga, Sakashima the Imposter, and Blue’s tricks, including Ninja of the Deep Hours, Peel From Reality, and Followed Footsteps. I just made a deck like this in White/Blue, though, so I’m less tempted here. Still, it’s a deck concept that never seems to bore me.

This time around, Blue/Black was the place I aimed to fully explore the new snow mechanic in Coldsnap. I started thinking the deck would center on Heidar, Rimewind Master, but I found him to be slow, unreliable, and not nearly splashy enough as a deck centerpiece, even when combined with Blizzard Elemental. Instead, I was attracted more to Rimewind Taskmage and his interaction with Royal Assassin. Here is the very weird deck that resulted:

Honestly, I could (and maybe should… Speak up in the Forums!) spend an entire article writing about this deck. You can see it received the most revisions of today’s decks, and it’s definitely the one I’ve played most often because of all of those shiny new cards from the shiny new set. Still, it’s a deck that feels very far from perfect. I fully expect that once I’m comfortable with Coldsnap’s cards and mechanics that I will look back at this deck and shake my head.

The mana is wonky, and it is indeed hard to have the BBB for Garza’s Assassin. Every time I think I’ll drop one or two colorless sources of mana for Snow-Covered Swamps, though, Mouth of Ronom will kill a key creature at a key time, or Scrying Sheets will net me three extra cards over four turns. I’ve thought about dropping my two Islands for Swamps, but right now the mana seems to work okay if not efficiently.

The rest of the deck looks like a mess, but the idea is to tap down creatures for Royal Assassin, Ninja of the Deep Hours, and/or Exhaustion. Both Rimewind Taskmage and Icy Manipulator also act as mana denial alongside Exhaustion. The removal is heavy, which is appropriate for a slow Tribal deck without a lot of strong win conditions. Blizzard Elemental is the workhorse of the deck, dinking my opponent for two a turn, disrupting her gameplan, and generally being annoying. None of the deck’s themes (snow, tapping, removal, card-drawing, mana denial) are particularly strong on their own, but they are strong enough and complement each other. That said, it’s a hard deck to play correctly, and I found my first dozen or so games were fraught with obvious play errors.

If you’ve tried a snow deck along these lines and have a different (or better) take, please speak up in the Forums. I’d love to hear your experiences and see a decklist or two.

Rakdos Humans

Playing It Straight

Since you don’t have access to enchantment or artifact removal, you need to kill an opponent quickly. The good news is that you are packed with suicidal goodies, including Dark Confidant, Garza’s Assassin, Hand of Cruelty, Rakdos Augermage, Nekrataal, Ronin Houndmaster, and Lyzolda, the Blood Witch. You have to watch your manacurve carefully since it could skew towards three mana or above, but those are good tools for an aggressive deck. Add burn (Seal of Fire, Shock, Volcanic Hammer), removal (Last Gasp), and discard (Cry of Contrition, Blackmail, Distress), and I think you may be on to something. Taste For Mayhem surely makes an appearance as well.

There is a potential slower deck to be made here, too, since Kumano, Master Yamabushi and Godo, Bandit Warlord are both Humans. My guess is that Red is going to get more mileage out of a different support color than Black for such a deck, though (Green, White, or even mono-Red appear to be better choices). It seems to me that the most deadly Black/Red Human deck, if one exists, is going to be fast and brutal.

Playing It Casual

Reanimation is a favorite of mine in this color set, and Humans have tasty treats like Anarchist, Nekrataal, Highway Robber, and Sparkmage Apprentice with which to play. I’ve made enough reanimation decks for awhile, though, as fun as this sounds. Other thoughts I have in scanning the Black/Red Human list include a Homura, Human Ascendant deck, maybe with Stoneshaker Shaman and/or Martyr of Ashes. Toshiro Umezawa looks great dressed in Red and Black, as does Fumiko the Lowblood.

Me, I tried to make a dedicated Lyzolda, the Blood Witch deck. It has a lot of the same elements as the aggressive deck I described before, but it’s really meant to focus on Lyzolda at the expense of foot-to-the-floor beatdown. Instead of using cards like Taste For Mayhem, I’m using cards like Golgari Thug to complement Lyzolda. Can I just say officially, too, that based on the art (and for how much easier it would make building my deck) that I think that Crypt Champion should be a Human Zombie? In fact, isn’t Zombie more of a subtype than a race or class?

Alright, I’ve calmed down about the whole Crypt Champion thing. Really. I’ll be okay. It’s the stress of working with the Rakdos guild that must be getting to me.

Gruul Humans

Playing It Straight

Finally we have the Red/Green pack of Humans. As you’d expect, the good Humans here are generally aggressive and on average fatter than other color combinations. The ones I would start by considering are Iwamori of the Open Fist; Skarrgan Pit-Skulk; Gruul Guildmage; Scab-Clan Mauler; Ronin Houndmaster; Isao, Enlightened Bushi; Godo, Bandit Warlord; and Kumano, Master Yamabushi. There’s a lot of good news here; The colors are fairly balanced, the creatures fall all along the mana curve, and most of the creatures complement one another. This may mean that of the allied color pairs, Red/Green is the easiest to craft into a competitive deck.

No points for guessing that Red/Green Humans is going to be a dedicated beatdown deck. Seal of Fire, Shock, Volcanic Hammer, Moldervine Cloak, Taste For Mayhem, and maybe a few other creatures like Dryad Sophisticate, Llanowar Elves, and Frenzied Goblin make it into the mix. I’m not sure of the exact ingredients, but a solid first draft deck should come together pretty effortlessly.

Again, since Kumano and Godo are sitting in Red with Green’s penchant for mana-acceleration, I’m not ruling out that a good control deck is possible in Red/Green Humans either. Loxodon Warhammer is probably Godo’s weapon of choice, along with Tatsumasa, the Dragon’s Fang. Savage Twister is probably a big part of the deck. My instincts tell me that you have to work harder to make this deck competitive, but some good tools are there for you.

Playing It Casual

Once again, the three Enchantress Sisters are sitting there, this time waiting for the likes of Galvanic Arc and Seal of Fire. Also again, the sheer volume of quality legends suggests pulling Reki, the History of Kamigawa from the back of your binder. I’m strangely attracted to the expensive-and-not-killer-combo of Gruul Guildmage and Groundskeeper, but the rest of the deck is a mystery to me. There’s the mighty mighty pinging deck, a la Kumano, Frostwielder, Ronin Cliffrider, Wojek Embermage, and Trophy Hunter, maybe with Seedborn Muse thrown in for fun. As with the other color pairs, the depth of Humans means that a lot of different decks are possible.

One of the things I noticed when scanning the Red/Green Human list is that Lovisa Coldeyes is Human, and it just so happens that a lot of Barbarians, Warriors, and Berserkers are also Human. This allows me to play a lot of good cards from three tribes without being stifled by the smaller size of those tribes. It also lets me use Lovisa as an in-tribe card rather than as one of my extras.

Truthfully, I’m not sure that a straight Barbarian, Warrior, or Berserker deck with Lovisa in it wouldn’t be more effective. I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be wackier, though:

This is one of my silly “It’s Tribal! Use all creatures!” decks, and if I were going to really nurture this deck my guess is that it would change considerably. I like the Time of Need toolbox, though, and all of my games pretty much end if Lovisa Coldeyes is on the table for more than a turn or two. The only thing that bothers me about this deck is that – much like AquaBeasts – my opponent can almost never guess which tribe I’m playing. Sometimes this is fun to watch, but somehow it annoys me in a Human deck more than a Beast deck because it feels outside the spirit of the format. Stupid Humans.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this admittedly drunken stroll down Human Lane. Like my Tribal Nations article, today was meant as a survey course more than an in-depth analysis. Alternating between deep dives into single decks like Avatars and giving a broad overview on a tribe like Humans is my way to balance these articles on Standard Tribal, but you may disagree. If you like one approach more than another, speak up in the Forums and let me know. Also, please chime in about how you think the format is going, how you’ve liked this series in general, and whether you think it’s worth my time to continue. Next article is the last of my self-imposed Tribal commitment – the fated tenth article – and I honestly haven’t decided what I’ll do next.

Speaking of Avatars, one of the great things about Coldsnap’s online release is that it means I could drop Scion of the Wild out of my Avatar deck for Herald of Leshrac. I also squeezed in a couple copies of O-Naginata per rmyung’s Forums suggestion. I’ve only been able to play a handful of games with this version, but it’s been super fun and a lot scarier.

In fact, I think a recent opponent playing Shamans said it best. I dropped Herald of Leshrac and Ryusei into my graveyard on Turn 3 with Avatar of Discord, used Vigor Mortis on the Herald turn 4 and Zombify on my Dragon turn 5. His response: “I’m failing to find this game fun all of a sudden.”

Next time, Coldsnap is dead in my frozen sights. Until then…

Think hard and have fun,

(currently StudentDriver on Magic Online)