Why Are You Still Sleeping On Humans?

Cedric Phillips has seen Humans crush Modern events over and over. Now he’s on a mission to make sure nobody sleeps on it for SCG Regionals!

Memorial Day was a day short on sleep and full of disappointment.

My flight home from SCG Minneapolis was scheduled to land in Seattle at 8:30am, a mere 30 minutes before a Modern Magic Online PTQ was set to take place. Part of me knew it was a bad idea to play, since I was up all night celebrating LeBron James’s eighth straight trip to the NBA Finals with friends at Lodestone Games. But the other part of me knew that I never pass up an opportunity for an opportunity and that I could catch up on sleep some other time.

When my flight landed 30 minutes early, I knew that getting back to my apartment in time for the tournament would be easy. As far as deck choice was concerned, there was only one option, and it’s a deck I’ve been tearing up Magic Online with in my (very limited) spare time:

Going 6-0, 0-2 in the PTQ was a brutal way for my Memorial Day to end, especially on three hours of sleep, but that tournament solidified something I already knew from covering SCG Louisville and SCG Minneapolis over the past two weekends:

Humans is so far and away the best deck in Modern, it’s bordering on a joke that everyone should be in on by now but for some reason isn’t.

It’s weird that a 37-creature, four-Aether Vial deck is the best deck in Modern, but for me, it isn’t even close. This deck has been busted for months and that’s not changing anytime soon. And the scariest part is that it can adjust to any metagame that surfaces around it.

One of my jobs in life is to communicate my thoughts about Magic with a headset on. When I’m not doing that, I edit articles like the one you’re reading right now to allow others to communicate their thoughts about Magic. Rarely do I have time to put fingers to keyboard to share my thoughts in this fashion, but with the Pro Tour a few days away, some members of the team needed the week off to put the finishing touches on their preparation.

As such, you get to hear me drone on about the best deck in Modern, some things that I see people do wrong with the deck, why you should play it at SCG CON, and why my build is the best. I might be washed up at this point, but I’ll never be too washed up to build a creature deck with no reach that revolves around Aether Vial.

At least, I hope not…

If You Don’t Have A One-Drop, Mulligan

Credit to Ari Lax for making this easy to understand a few months ago:

There are about a million ways to get crushed in a game of Modern. The best way to not get crushed is always show up at the start of each game ready to crush your opponents. Don’t keep hands that can’t do that.

I want to also state that keeping hands that could be an A+ or an F- is a good plan, as long as you are reasonably favored to “get there.” One-landers that go crazy with a second land are right in this range, as is basically every hand with Hollow One. The entire Snapcaster Mage side of the metagame basically operates in this realm every game, as sometimes a bunch of Lightning Bolts doesn’t matter, but usually they do, and sometimes they have Cavern of Souls for your three counterspells, but usually they don’t.

Part of the reason Humans is a dynamic deck is because it has incredibly explosive starts. Your Aether Vial starts are far and away your best ones because the card is essentially Black Lotus with the upside of leading your opponents into truly horrible mistakes. But you probably already knew that.

Noble Hierarch starts are similarly explosive, as the mana accelerant allows you to cast two spells on Turn 2 (Champion of the Parish plus Thalia, Guardian of Thraben) or a three-mana spell ahead of schedule (Reflector Mage or Mantis Rider). In addition to those obvious plays, a lot of Hierarch’s value comes from its ability to virtually attack, thanks to exalted, or actually attack later in the game thanks to Thalia’s Lieutenant counters.

Champion of the Parish starts are the worst of the three, but explosive nonetheless. Champion is this generation’s Wild Nacatl, and that card, in case you forgot, was banned in Modern for a nonzero amount of time (which seems downright laughable now). Given that almost every creature in your deck is a Human (spoiler alert, I know), we’re looking at a lot more than a one-mana 3/3 like the old kitty-cat was.

The point in all of this is that you need to get the game started in some fashion, and starting it on Turn 2 isn’t going to lead to a lot of wins. I used to keep hands where my first play was a Kitesail Freebooter, Meddling Mage (against an unknown opponent), or Thalia, Guardian of Thraben.

It’s easy to convince yourself that a hand is fine, especially if you’re on the play. In reality, you’ve likely kept a bad seven-card hand, which will probably amount to a six-card hand because you won’t be able to get all of your cards out of your hand in a timely fashion for it to matter because the window of things mattering in Modern is very small. Therefore, you’ve kept a six-card hand without getting to scry.

Remember when we used to take a mulligan and not get to scry? Can you imagine doing that now? Me neither. Well, that’s what you’re doing when you keep a seven-card hand and your first play is on Turn 2. And don’t get me started on if your first play is on Turn 2 when you’re on the draw…

Just mulligan. It’ll be okay. The power level of this deck is so high that the seventh card is, honestly, a luxury.

The Two Flex Spots in Humans Don’t Exist

I’ve spent a long time messing around with the two flex spots in Humans. If you’ve watched SCG Tour coverage the past two weekends, you know just how bad Dark Confidant has been for me in Humans by the sound Patrick makes every time it gets brought up, like a balloon letting out air. I could write for days about how bad Dark Confidant has been for me and how bad I think it is in Modern in general – it’s horrible and it shouldn’t be in a single deck right now – but I value your time as a loyal subscriber to this here Premium product.

Some folks have tried Kessig Malcontents. I played two of them at Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan on the recommendation of Jonathan “Rhymes with Awesome” Rosum because he had just come off a win at SCG Dallas with two of them in his 75. Rosum is a smart kid whose future is incredibly bright and his recommendation of two Malcontents wasn’t a poor one. The card is good in some unique situations and obviously works favorably with the four copies of Phantasmal Image that Humans tends to play.

But you can do better!

In this instance, doing better is not Dire Fleet Daredevil. Dire Fleet Daredevil is a really weird card with a huge gap between its ceiling and its floor. You know where I like those cards? In my sideboard for specific matchups where I know I’ll hit the ceiling more often than the floor, not in my maindeck where I’ll be furious when I draw it in the mirror or against matchups that are popular where it does nothing. Because, believe it or not, a lot of the time, the card does nothing.

I’ve seen some players try out Thraben Inspector. Um, Humans actively wants to draw Ancient Ziggurat, and you’re playing a creature that makes a Clue and can barely attack through anything? No thanks.

I’ve seen others try out Avacyn’s Pilgrim, a card that sees approximately zero play because it’s either the wrong creature type (not an Elf), doesn’t interact with Utopia Sprawl (unlike Arbor Elf), and isn’t Noble Hierarch (but what is). Kindly leave.

Stop putting bad cards in your deck. No one is making you do this.

Play me instead.

Before you say “I don’t want to put my Aether Vial up to four,” I’ll stop you right there and ask you, “Would you put it up to four if it would win you the game?” Unsurprisingly, your answer is probably yes. Now that the Level 1 argument is out of the way, let’s talk about what Restoration Angel actually does.

  • Flying is incredibly powerful in Modern, which is one of many reasons Affinity is so successful. It’s also the reason Mantis Rider is one of the best cards in Humans. While Restoration Angel isn’t on the same level as Mantis Rider, a 3/4 flier is worth a lot in today’s Modern format.
  • Humans has a lot of enters-the-battlefield triggers. Restoration Angel is good with those. And while that might sound simplistic, Magic doesn’t always have to be rocket science.
  • Four toughness is legit. Dodging Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix, Collective Brutality, and Kolaghan’s Command matters. Making life difficult for those casting Fatal Push also matters.
  • Restoration Angel gives the opponent the opportunity to make a mistake. I like cards that give the opponent the opportunity to make mistakes.

But most important of all is that both the floor and ceiling on Restoration Angel is high. Rarely will Restoration Angel be a bad draw and regularly will it be one of the best draws in your deck if you can cast it and/or Vial it in. Restoration Angel isn’t a situational card. It’s just a good one. The same cannot be said about Dark Confidant, Kessig Malcontents, and the rest of the gang I mentioned earlier.

I’m hyperbolic by nature, but I think the maindeck for Humans is as locked in as it’s ever going to be.

Sin Collector Is Busted

That leads up to the sideboard. In between rounds of SCG Minneapolis, Patrick asked me why Humans doesn’t just play four copies of Sin Collector. I thought about it a bit once he asked me and I didn’t have a great answer. In the matchups where you want Sin Collector, it’s often the best card in your deck, so it stands to reason that you’d want to maximize the chances of drawing your best card.

The fact that Sin Collector exiles whatever it takes cannot be understated. In a format with Snapcaster Mage, Search for Azcanta, Faithless Looting, Lingering Souls, and Bedlam Reveler, exiling a card instead of making the opponent discard it is a world of difference. My wins against Jeskai in the PTQ on Monday (two of them, thank you very much) were solely on the back of resolving a Sin Collector and copying it a bunch with Phantasmal Image. Not only do you get to strip their best card, you get information about what you need to play around while also getting to put pressure on your opponent, two things Humans values greatly.

Jeskai has been the talk of the town recently and with good reason. The deck has a lot going for it at the moment. It’s time to start fighting back, and maxing out on Sin Collector is a great way to do just that.

Dire Fleet Daredevil Does Its Part

This is the second piece of the “How to Beat Jeskai” puzzle. It may not seem like much to exile a Serum Visions and cast it yourself, but it’s way better than you realize when you’re playing against a deck with so much removal.

Jeskai’s goal is to kill all your stuff and eventually kill you. The way that they’re able to run Humans out of threats is by keeping the relevant cards coming via Serum Visions and Search for Azcanta. Humans can only draw additional cards with Horizon Canopy, so once they’re out of those, it needs great topdecks before Teferi, Elspeth, and Celestial Colonnade take over.

Dire Fleet Daredevil ensures that you keep the gas coming, not only by stealing a Serum Visions but, much like Sin Collector, putting pressure on your Jeskai opponent simultaneously. And remember, stealing a Serum Visions makes Snapcaster Mage and Search for Azcanta just a bit worse.

But what I’ve found with Dire Fleet Daredevil is that stealing a Serum Visions is the floor. Ever hit a game-winning Lightning Bolt or Lightning Helix? How about a backbreaking Cryptic Command to counter their Teferi via Aether Vial? Or my personal favorite of Vialing in Daredevil in response to whatever the opponent targets with Snapcaster Mage, since exiling the card happens no matter what.

There are a few other spots where I like Dire Fleet Daredevil, but if Jeskai Control is back, a few copies of should be in your sideboard.

Jeskai Control Isn’t That Great Against Humans

Speaking of Jeskai Control, to all the fans of that strategy, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news – your matchup against Humans isn’t nearly as good as you think it is. I’d actually argue that you’re an underdog Game 1 and things get much worse for you after sideboarding. Let’s use Jonathan Rosum’s second-place list that lost to Humans in the finals of SCG Minneapolis as a reference point:

So why’s your Game 1 matchup bad? Easy:

And the worst part for Jeskai Control?

  • They must build their deck this way to cover their bases because Modern is such a diverse format.

If Jeskai Control just wanted to beat Humans and nothing else, it could absolutely do that. But that means it would be worse against other decks. And the goal of a tournament deck, especially for a deck like Jeskai Control, is to be as good as possible against everything. Jim Davis and Jonathan Rosum did a great job of this all weekend long in Minneapolis, but they both lost to Humans when on camera with their Humans Smashing Machine.

Did I mention things get worse after sideboarding for Jeskai? Yes, Jeskai gets to sideboard their garbage out for Engineered Explosives, Timely Reinforcements, a bunch of other high-leverage singletons, and a few situation-dependent removal spells like Runed Halo and Celestial Purge.

Humans gets to sideboard out its worst card (Reflector Mage) for its best card (Sin Collector).

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s no room for error on the Humans side. One little slip-up and you’ll get buried by Jeskai. But I can say the same for Jeskai. Use the wrong removal spell on the wrong threat (say, Bolting a Mantis Rider instead of using Celestial Purge) and it could cost you the entire match. I watch it happen all the time.

Want to smash Humans into next week? That’s easy. Do what Marshall Arthurs did:

Why does Mardu Pyromancer have a better matchup against Humans than Jeskai? So many different reasons:

  • First and foremost, Mardu Pyromancer has access to an auto-win card in Blood Moon, where Jeskai Control doesn’t. Blood Moon doesn’t win every game against Humans, but it wins most of them.
  • In the games where Blood Moon isn’t an auto-win? Discard it to Faithless Looting and find what you need. Faithless Looting is what sets Mardu apart from Jeskai. If Jeskai could discard useless Logic Knots for real cards, they happily would.
  • Young Pyromancer and Lingering Souls buy you time to cast Faithless Looting multiple times to find what you’re looking for. Instead of hoping your removal spells line up correctly to help you buy the necessary time, Mardu has more control over what’s happening and has great ways to buy more time.
  • In order to combat the way that Young Pyromancer and Lingering Souls clog the battlefield, Humans has to sideboard Izzet Staticaster, a card that is purely reactive, doesn’t put any pressure on the opponent, and doesn’t provide information like Sin Collector does. There are far too many games where Staticaster does nothing, but it’s a necessary evil.
  • Jeskai gasses back up with a five-mana planeswalker (Teferi). Mardu does it with a two-mana 3/4 (Bedlam Reveler). That’s a world of difference.

Want to stop Humans? Play Mardu Pyromancer. Arthurs did in Louisville and he went undefeated on his way to the title.

What more could one ask for?