Everything I Know About Orzhov Humans In Pioneer

Ross Merriam refines his Orzhov Humans list for Pioneer and offers a comprehensive sideboarding guide for the post-Zendikar Rising metagame.

General Kudro of Drannith, illustrated by Ryan Pancoast

I spent much of last week working on both the Humans lists I wrote about in my last article. Over that time, it became apparent that the Orzhov list was the superior of the two. The Four-Color Humans list utilizing Collected Company and more disruptive creatures has a tough time in the current Pioneer metagame, because the sacrifice in speed for the sake of resilience and interaction is a negative one.

By that I mean the metagame is hostile to decks that make such a tradeoff. Archetypes like Temur Reclamation and Four-Color Omnath have such strong end-game plans that your added resilience isn’t enough to consistently win long games against them. You have to get these decks dead.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most popular and successful aggro deck in the format is Mono-Black Aggro, whose trademark is its resilience against interaction. The best way to combat this strategy with another creature deck is to beat them on the battlefield, rendering creatures like Bloodsoaked Champion and Scrapheap Scrounger irrelevant because they can’t attack profitably. Orzhov Humans is better equipped to do this because of its many Anthem effects and lower curve to ensure it doesn’t fall behind in the early-game.

So I focused my efforts on the Orzhov deck and have been quite happy with my results. I fell just short of a Top 8 in the Pioneer Challenge last weekend, losing my win-and-in round, and while my Showcase Challenge went poorly, juzam_gin took my list to a Top 8 finish:

It’s always a nice jolt of validation as a content creator when someone performs well with your list, and I’ll be interested to see if other players take up the deck and innovate it further. That said, I’ve made a few changes from this list, though the deck is mostly the same. Here’s what I’d recommend going forward:

I’ve found Fatal Push more useful than Dire Tactics, since it’s more efficient and often answers the bigger creatures that Dire Tactics is meant to target anyway. Its efficiency is particularly important against other aggro decks and the card Lotus Cobra, which is the most important card for Four-Color Ramp to have against you.

Potential Changes

Moving forward, the list isn’t going to change much, because for the strategy to work you need to have a high number of one-mana creatures and Anthem effects, and the list already has all the best examples of those effects. I know many versions of Orzhov Humans play Benalish Marshal, but I’d rather have a lower curve with Luminarch Aspirant once you already have General Kudro of Drannith at the three-mana spot on the curve.

Luminarch Aspirant Venerated Loxodon

In fact, I’ve been so impressed by Luminarch Aspirant that I’m considering the fourth copy in place of the fourth Venerated Loxodon. That’s a tough change for me because Venerated Loxodon is one of my favorite cards printed in the last five years and an incredibly powerful one in this kind of strategy. However, it is a liability against Supreme Verdict, which is seeing significant play right now. Luminarch Aspirant can function as a standalone threat or with one other creature, allowing you to minimize how much you play into such a sweeper.

That said, Venerated Loxodon does help against small sweepers like Anger of the Gods and Deafening Clarion, which also see significant play right now. It will ideally raise several of your creatures to four toughness, but just being a four-toughness creature itself is excellent. The underrated aspect of sweepers is that the aggro player has to take a turn to rebuild their battlefield, so any time you can force a sweeper while retaining some of your battlefield and keep the pressure on, you’re in good shape.

Mardu Woe-Reaper Soldier of the Pantheon

That’s it for the maindeck. I had been considering Mardu Woe-Reaper over Soldier of the Pantheon but the latter showed its value over the weekend. It comes out quite a bit since it’s the worst one-drop whenever its protection isn’t valuable in the matchup, but when that ability is relevant it’s one of your most important cards. When it comes to one-mana creatures, I tend to favor those with a high upside like that.

I also considered a second Plains over a Shefet Dunes to limit the damage the mana base deals, but this deck is the beatdown in every matchup, so it’s rare for that damage to burden you, and Shefet Dunes is great for pushing through the last few points of damage.

In the sideboard, I haven’t been happy with the Selfless Spirit; the two copies of Rest in Peace; and the Gideon, Ally of Zendikars. The Rest in Peaces almost never come in, and I’m willing to go up against Oops All Spells armed with only Thoughtseizes for disruption. The other cards are simply unreliable as cards that provide resilience against sweepers.

Xathrid Necromancer Lurrus of the Dream-Den

A card like Xathrid Necromancer may be better than those, but Necromancer looks embarrassing in the face of Anger of the Gods, which is a problem. Lurrus of the Dream-Den is another option that can serve as a great post-sweeper play that works particularly well with Dauntless Bodyguard. You definitely want to sideboard something that helps against sweepers, but exactly what the right card for the job is remains unsettled.

The other card I’m interested in trying in the sideboard is Archon of Emeria. It should help quite a bit against Four-Color Ramp since it significantly slows down their engine and attacks over Felidar Retreat, which is their primary tool for stabilizing the battlefield before they pull away with Escape to the Wilds and Genesis Ultimatum. Archon would also serve as a hate card for Lotus Field Combo, a deck that performed quite well last weekend.

Sideboard Guide and Matchup Notes

VS Mono-Black Aggro


Soldier of the Pantheon Soldier of the Pantheon Soldier of the Pantheon Soldier of the Pantheon Kytheon, Hero of Akros Luminarch Aspirant


Apostle of Purifying Light Apostle of Purifying Light Dire Tactics Fatal Push Fatal Push Fatal Push

With recursive creatures, Mutavault, and Castle Locthwain, Mono-Black Aggro is advantaged going long, so you have to take an aggressive posture in this matchup. The one exception here is Apostle of Purifying Light, which often plays defense to make their attacks awkward before getting in for the final few points of damage. The key creatures for them are Knight of the Ebon Legion; Spawn of Mayhem; and Rankle, Master of Pranks, so try to save your removal for them. In the case of Knight, you should be wary of letting it grow beyond the size of your own creatures.

Mutavault is also an important card here because it blocks through Brave the Elements. In the games where they’re able to get ahead early, usually through a combination of them being on the play, having a draw full of one-mana spells, and/or you stumbling, you can be forced into a defensive position. In these games you’ll often try to remove their flyers while slowly growing a huge battlefield that can one-shot them with Brave the Elements. Be sure to consider potential Mutavault blocks here before making your move.

As for the exact cuts, Soldier of the Pantheon is the easy one. Beyond that, I cut a Luminarch Aspirant in order to keep the curve as low as possible, and because they often have plenty of one-mana removal that would love to target a two-mana creature. A Kytheon comes out because once you’re cutting down on one-drops, the downside of drawing two copies becomes more pronounced, because you might not have another creature to cast instead, potentially delaying a Venerated Loxodon and slowing you down in general.

VS Orzhov Auras


Soldier of the Pantheon Soldier of the Pantheon Soldier of the Pantheon Soldier of the Pantheon Luminarch Aspirant Luminarch Aspirant


Fatal Push Fatal Push Fatal Push Dire Tactics Apostle of Purifying Light Apostle of Purifying Light

This is a tough matchup because you don’t have a lot of ways to interact with their threats, and it’s difficult to race a giant lifelink creature. I much prefer to play against the Selesnya version of this deck which slows down to play Season of Growth and has one fewer lifelink creature, making it much worse at racing.

If your removal lands you’ll be in good shape, but the real percentage points are gained by knowing when to block. In general you’ll want to wait until the last minute so you can attack back as much as possible and maximize the damage saved by each chump block, but doing this could make you vulnerable to Gryff’s Boon taking away your ability to block at all. You’ll want to look a few turns down the road and see how valuable that creature is to your clock versus how likely it is they have the Boon. Weighing these variables isn’t an exact science, but it’s the most important skill you can build to help in the matchup.

There’s an argument for bringing in Thoughtseize and cutting Brave the Elements in order to max out on disruption, but I like Brave for its ability to effectively Fog an attack with a blocker or get through a large lifelinker that has vigilance from Sentinel’s Eyes. I even bring in Apostle to block Hateful Eidolon effectively, though the graveyard hate is also relevant. 

VS Four-Color Ramp


Legion's Landing Legion's Landing Boros Elite Boros Elite


Fatal Push Fatal Push Fatal Push Dire Tactics

Early in my testing, I was fretting about how many Thoughtseizes to bring in. I needed to be able to take a key sweeper or Escape to the Wilds from their hand, but I knew I absolutely needed removal for Lotus Cobra and Omnath and also needed a high enough threat density to end the game before they draw another key threat. I started by trimming on Brave the Elements to keep the creature count high, but now I just don’t bother with the Thoughtseizes.

Brave the Elements is important for attacking through Cat Beast tokens from Felidar Retreat as well as countering Anger of the Gods or Deafening Clarion. Once you accept that you need to leave in all the Braves, you don’t have room for Thoughtseize. As I noted earlier, Four-Color Ramp’s end-game is too strong for you to bring in a pile of disruption and compete. Eventually they’ll find enough copies of Escape to the Wilds to bury you or an Ugin, the Spirit Dragon.

If you’re able to keep Lotus Cobra and Omnath off the battlefield, you can race them. Escape to the Wilds is a slow card if they don’t have Lotus Cobra to keep generating extra mana. Focus your removal on those cards and put enough pressure on them that they don’t have the time to safely cast Escape as a set up spell for their next turn.

VS Esper Control (Yorion)


Boros Elite Boros Elite Boros Elite Boros Elite Venerated Loxodon Venerated Loxodon Dire Tactics


Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Selfless Spirit Gideon, Ally of Zendikar Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Without the over-the-top end-game of Four-Color Ramp, you can afford to slow down in this matchup and not overextend into sweepers. This makes Venerated Loxodon and Boros Elite, cards that are dependent on you playing to the battlefield, liabilities. I do get more aggressive if my opponent is starting to build a significant battlefield of enchantments to blink with Yorion, Sky Nomad, since at that point the Yorion is likely to bury you. If you have a second copy or some other way to mitigate Supreme Verdict, it’s often wise to wait on Thoughtseize until after they put the Yorion into their hand so you can take it.

Your key card in this matchup is Soldier of the Pantheon. It survives several of their removal spells and attacks through Yorion. It’s the card you want to have on the battlefield after a Supreme Verdict, so protect it with Dauntless Bodyguard if possible. Also, they will often Fatal Push any creature you cast on Turn 1, so you shouldn’t lead on Soldier unless it’s your only option. Soldier should also get priority to gain counters from your Anthem effects.

Your other priority is transforming Legion’s Landing, since Adanto, the First Fort is very powerful in any control matchup. I’m willing to risk a three-for-one on a sweeper to do so, otherwise I’ll only extend what creatures I need to ensure any planeswalker can be attacked to death immediately.

VS Five-Color Niv-Mizzet


Boros Elite Boros Elite Boros Elite Boros Elite Venerated Loxodon Venerated Loxodon Brave the Elements


Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Gideon, Ally of Zendikar Gideon, Ally of Zendikar Dire Tactics

This matchup is very similar to Esper Control (Yorion), except you need Dire Tactics for Niv-Mizzet Reborn and Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath. Selfless Spirit is also weak since it doesn’t work against Hour of Devastation or Shadows’ Verdict. To fit the extra Tactics, you trim a Brave the Elements to keep your threat density high. If they play Shadows’ Verdict over Hour of Devastation, I’d keep in all the Loxodons and instead trim two copies of Luminarch Aspirant since the Elephant survives the sweeper.

One note on Brave in this matchup — Solar Blaze, a common sweeper in Five-Color Niv-Mizzet, has the creatures deal themselves damage, so you need to name white on Brave to stop your creatures from dying.

VS Four-Color Reclamation


Legion's Landing Legion's Landing Boros Elite Boros Elite Luminarch Aspirant Luminarch Aspirant


Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Selfless Spirit Dire Tactics

Another matchup similar to Four-Color Ramp, where you’re concerned about getting them dead before their end-game comes online, so you only leave in the most important disruption. In this case that means leaving Fatal Push on the sideline and loading up on Thoughtseize and Brave the Elements to stop Anger of the Gods. You also need Dire Tactics to answer Omnath, Uro, and large Shark tokens.

Since Venerated Loxodon survives Anger of the Gods, it gets to stay and Aspirant gets trimmed. Also, since this deck is light on spot removal, I want to stay aggressive by leaving in some copies of Boros Elite and instead cut the Legion’s Landings, since Adanto is not impressive against Explosion for ten.

VS Jeskai Lukka


Boros Elite Boros Elite Boros Elite Boros Elite Dire Tactics Venerated Loxodon Venerated Loxodon


Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Selfless Spirit Gideon, Ally of Zendikar Gideon, Ally of Zendikar

Jeskai Lukka exists in a space between Esper Control (Yorion) and Four-Color Ramp. They have lots of sweepers, but aren’t as removal-heavy as Esper, and also a strong end-game, but not as robust as Four-Color Ramp’s. My solution is to try to use Brave the Elements to stop Agent of Treachery and treat them like a control deck. If they don’t have a sweeper, you’ll often build a big enough battlefield to win through Agent of Treachery anyway, so those are the key cards in the matchup.

That said, Gideon, Ally of Zendikar is questionable here, because it’s a great target for Agent that you can’t protect with Brave. Pumping out a stream of Knight Ally tokens is tough to win through since at the very least it buys them a ton of time. This is one of the reasons I’m hesitant to keep Gideon in the deck.

Beyond their sweepers, I like to target Fires of Invention with my Thoughtseizes, since without it their deck is quite clunky, and you can often end the game before they deploy all their powerful spells.

VS Gruul Aggro


Soldier of the Pantheon Soldier of the Pantheon Soldier of the Pantheon Soldier of the Pantheon


Dire Tactics Fatal Push Fatal Push Fatal Push

This matchup is all about control of the battlefield. It’s rare that you will be able to run them over since their creatures are bigger than yours on the early turns. You usually spend the early-game deploying your small creatures and then try to get them larger than your opponent’s before they can kill you. Once you stabilize, it’s a matter of playing carefully to not get punked out by an Embercleave or an end-step Collected Company that overloads your blockers.

To this end, you’re not as concerned with their red creatures as you are the green ones. Killing their early Elves makes it hard for them to pressure you quickly, buying the time you need to build up your creatures. Lovestruck Beast, if they have it, is the biggest creature on the battlefield and Questing Beast is a nightmare with an Embercleave. Prioritize removing these, as well as any Glorybringers they may have. Only kill Goblin Rabblemaster or Legion Warboss with removal if you aren’t able to contain the tokens in combat. Sometimes those creatures are even a liability for them, since you can pump a Vampire token and start gaining life every combat.

Scavenging Ooze is also a priority since it gets quite big as the game goes long and the lifegain makes it difficult to one-shot them with Brave the Elements, a common way to win from the Orzhov side.

VS Lotus Field Combo


Brave the Elements Brave the Elements Brave the Elements Brave the Elements Dire Tactics Legion's Landing Legion's Landing Giant Killer


Fatal Push Fatal Push Fatal Push Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Thoughtseize Selfless Spirit

It may seem strange to bring in Fatal Push against a combo deck, but Arboreal Grazer, Fae of Wishes, and Vizier of Tumbling Sands are their primary defense against aggro decks and removing them increases your clock a ton.

Because you’re bringing in seven noncreature spells, you have to cut Brave the Elements, which is mediocre at best in the matchup regardless. They do have an Anger of the Gods to Granted for, but it’s difficult to disguise a Brave in your hand in this deck and they have other sweepers that ignore the card. So Brave will only be relevant if you have enough pressure that they absolutely need to cast a sweeper that turn but have exactly seven mana.

Your worst one-drops are Legion’s Landing and Giant Killer, since their other modes are mostly irrelevant and their bodies are hard to pump out of blocking range. If I had another good card to bring in I’d cut the second Giant Killer, but Rest in Peace isn’t relevant enough since it just stops Dig Through Time from costing less than eight mana. You could leave in the Dire Tactics as another removal spell that also hits their sideboard copy of Niv-Mizzet, Parun, but I think most of the time they would go for Niv they can just get Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and end the game on the spot.

A New Aggro Deck Has Arrived

Mono-Black Aggro has been the top aggro deck in Pioneer for months now, but I’m high on Orzhov Humans, especially with Lotus Field on the rise as a counter to the various midrange and big-mana decks. Humans has a great clock and retains access to Thoughtseize so it checks all the boxes there, and its creatures are better suited to win in combat against every creature deck save for Orzhov and Selesnya Auras.

The fact that Orzhov Humans is performing well in a metagame that has plenty of sweepers is a testament to its raw power. The addition of Luminarch Aspirant has pushed the deck over the top, and it won’t be long before the deck starts getting the respect it deserves.