It’s Time For Humans To Make A Comeback In Modern

Humans may not be Modern’s flashiest deck, but it might just get the job done! Ross Merriam updates the archetype post-Arcum’s Astrolabe.

Champion of the Parish, illustrated by Svetlin Velinov

Last weekend saw the return of Super Qualifiers to Magic Online, which was particularly timely for Modern given the ban of Arcum’s Astrolabe last week has left the metagame in flux. We now have our first major results to examine the emerging post-ban metagame.

Two of the big winners from the weekend were Eldrazi Tron and Grixis Death’s Shadow. Neither deck likes to play against Ice-Fang Coatl, so a nerf on the snow mechanic reducing the powerful snake’s numbers was a big help.

With the success of these decks last weekend, and the prevalence of them in leagues right now, I’m approaching Modern with these two archetypes as high priorities. So the question then becomes how to properly attack them.

Oddly enough, to look forward in the current metagame we must look backward. It was only a few years ago that Eldrazi Tron and Grixis Death’s Shadow were dominating Modern over the summer, with many calls for Death’s Shadow itself to be banned. It wasn’t until that fall that the metagame properly adapted to these decks, when the printing of Unclaimed Territory allowed Humans to emerge in its current form.

Against Grixis Death’s Shadow, Humans presented a consistent curve of relatively equal threats, so it was difficult to disrupt them with discard and removal, while Reflector Mage made putting a single large blocker in the way of their team a risky proposition at best. In the Eldrazi Tron matchup, Reflector Mage once again shined, while Cavern of Souls and Aether Vial rendered Chalice of the Void quite poor.

It wasn’t entirely Humans that kept these decks in check, but the deck’s emergence was a big part of it, and its prevalence in the metagame the following year led to the rise of many removal-heavy strategies like Mardu Pyromancer and Jeskai Control that were designed to prey on small creatures.

Right now we’re back in the sweet spot where the metagame is largely reliant on spot removal with few sweepers, and there’s a good number of linear decks that Humans can prey on with its consistent combination of pressure and disruption. It’s time for Magic’s most polychromatic tribe to make a comeback.

You Can’t Go Home Again

It would be a mistake to simply port a Humans list from months or years ago and proceed from there. So much has changed in Modern since then, and that change has largely been bad for Humans. The deck hasn’t seen many upgrades while several excellent tools have been provided for other decks to combat it. Primary among these tools are Plague Engineer and Wrenn and Six. So before we can devise a list we have to consider how these cards affect the way Humans must be built.

Plague Engineer Wrenn and Six

The good news is that neither card is prevalent enough to be devastating to Humans. Wrenn and Six sees play in Jund and some of the blue control decks, while Plague Engineer is largely a tutor target and sideboard card which targets the new Rakdos Goblins deck. So while these cards are problematic for Humans, neither is a death knell.

Also, both cards affect Humans in similar ways, punishing the various one-toughness creatures in the deck. You can add Lava Dart to that list as well. So it’s clear that in order to adapt, Humans needs to move away from one-toughness creatures as much as possible. Noble Hierarch is a core part of the deck and isn’t going anywhere, but cards like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Kessig Malcontents are less valuable than they were a few years ago.

Looking more to the bigger picture, the Modern format has had a substantial increase in power level over the last year and change. Between Modern Horizons and the many powerful cards printed since then, Humans isn’t going to compete as well on a card for card basis with the rest of the format. As a result, it must compensate for that deficit with aggression. I’m looking to end games before my opponent’s more powerful cards take over.

That means I’m not interested in putzing around with Militia Bugler, which I’ve never been a big fan of in the deck, nor am I interested in Kitesail Freebooter. Freebooter is a solid piece of disruption in some matchups but two mana for one power isn’t going to end games fast enough.

My Preferred List

With these principles in mind, here’s how I would build Humans for the current Modern metagame:

There are two recently printed cards playing a significant role in this list, General Kudro of Drannith and Unsettled Mariner, and I’m excited to see what they do for the deck.

General Kudro of Drannith

General Kudro is the clear choice to supplement Mantis Rider and Reflector Mage in the three-mana slot in the curve. The additional Anthem effect both helps close games out quickly and protects against those pesky Plague Engineers and Wrenn and Sixes. The activated ability won’t come up that often, but will often be game-changing when it does since killing creatures like Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath and Glorybringer is very important and Humans historically doesn’t interact much with creatures.

But the most exciting text on the card is the triggered ability. These days it seems like every deck in Modern uses the graveyard to some extent, but few use it so much that you want to devote a full slot to disrupting that zone with something like Soul-Guide Lantern or Relic of Progenitus. General Kudro lets you pick off cards like Uro, Cling to Dust, and Lava Dart; shrink Tarmogoyfs; and keep your Prowess opponents off Bedlam Reveler. It can mitigate the damage done by Lurrus of the Dream-Den and other recursion effects like Unearth. And in combination with Aether Vial, you can even interact with the graveyard at instant speed against those pesky Mystic Sanctuaries.

Every single ability on General Kudro is relevant in Modern right now, and for a card with as much text as it has, that’s saying a lot. It’s the major recent addition to the card pool for Humans, and a significant part of why I think the deck can thrive in the current metagame.

Unsettled Mariner

With Thalia’s stock dropping by virtue of having one toughness, it’s time to adopt an overlooked but powerful card from Modern Masters in Unsettled Mariner. Slowing down the opposing removal while gaining tempo with Aether Vial is the hallmark of Humans in Modern, so Unsettled Mariner fits nicely, and now you can have two tax effects on the battlefield at once, making even the most efficient spot removal into a positive exchange.

Unsettled Mariner is particularly punished by sweepers but there aren’t many copies of Supreme Verdict and Anger of the Gods around these days, so it should be quite effective.

Note that Mariner also taxes spells and abilities that target you and all of your permanents, so discard spells; Field of Ruin; burn spells; Teferi, Time Raveler; and Gifts Ungiven all fall under its purview. And that list is far from exhaustive.

Thraben Inspector

This is the other deviation I’ve made from the stock Humans list, and one that looks innocuous but is important. I’ve played the card in Humans before, taking down a Classic a few years ago with a couple of copies, and I’ve long been a fan of keeping the Humans curve as low as possible. Lowering the curve is even more important now because of the need to be aggressive in the face of more powerful mid-game strategies, as well as the presence of an additional Anthem effect in General Kudro.

With few sweepers around you won’t be punished often for extending hard to the battlefield, and unlike the other options for this slot – Avacyn’s Pilgrim and Kytheon, Hero of AkrosThraben Inspector isn’t vulnerable to Plague Engineer, Lava Dart, and Wrenn and Six. Sinking mana into the Clue works nicely when you have an Aether Vial ready to put a creature you draw onto the battlefield, and every extra body makes all your other creatures stronger.

The games where your Vial activates on one counter or you double-spell starting on Turn 2 snowball out of control far more quickly than when you have to wait until Turn 3 and the cost to play Thraben Inspector is extremely low. It’s easy to overlook the impact such an innocuous card has, but when it comes to aggressive decks, curve is king.

The sideboard is a work in progress, but the cards I feel strongly about are Auriok Champion and Dismember. The former overperforms against Grixis Death’s Shadow, Boros Burn, Dredge, and Prowess variants. It’s so widely applicable that you can afford to spend the full four slots to ensure you have access to them early and often.

Auriok Champion Dismember

Dismember is important against Death’s Shadow, Tarmogoyf, and Eldrazi since you necessarily have to interact a bit more after sideboarding. If your opponent stymies your early aggression, your disruptive creatures like Thalia and Meddling Mage are at risk of being brick-walled by larger bodies. After sideboarding your opponents will all have better removal so this situation becomes more likely.

With the blue decks hit most by the Arcum’s Astrolabe ban, midrange decks have come back in a big way, and against those decks a timely removal spell can cement your early advantage. Dismember is absolutely critical in those matchups.

Humans…and Birds?

There is another school of thought to Humans in Modern. Rather than take a more aggressive route to compensate for its lower individual card power, you can look to supercharge the synergies with everyone’s favorite Bird: Yorion, Sky Nomad. There are tons of enters-the-battlefield triggers to abuse with Yorion here, from Thalia’s Lieutenant and Reflector Mage to resetting Meddling Mage and Kitesail Freebooter to more relevant cards.

This take on the deck can be seen in last weekend’s Modern Challenge, putting up a solid Top 32 finish:

Yorion is a very powerful card and can certainly allow this deck to compete against decks whose cards are more powerful on a one-for-one basis. There’s also the potential for kills out of nowhere with Kessig Malcontents, Charming Prince, and Phantasmal Image. Yorion doesn’t target so it can reset your Phantasmal Images, letting you generate a ton of Malcontents triggers that can easily deal double-digit damage in one go.

The three-mana tax for companions is certainly awkward in this deck, but as you get into the late-game and your Aether Vials lose a lot of their utility, ticking one up to five sets you up for a three-mana Yorion that will often put you very far ahead.

Yorion, Sky Nomad

With Yorion serving to provide resilience against disruption, this list can lean more heavily into one-toughness creatures, notably using Avacyn’s Pilgrim as its last one-drop over Thraben Inspector since the mana acceleration is valuable with Yorion and the large number of three-drops in the list.

The downside here comes from the decrease in consistency. With 80 cards you’re not going to start on Aether Vial as often, and since there are naturally more options for two- and three-mana plays than one mana, filling out the list involves raising the curve. Yorion must pull a lot of weight to compensate you for those sacrifices, but if the last few months have taught us anything, it’s that Yorion is an exceptionally powerful card.

When it comes to aggressive decks, curve is king.

Looking at the early results for Modern, it seems that the Arcum’s Astrolabe ban has taken a metagame most players were satisfied with and made it better. Blue control decks are weakened but still contenders, and there’s now room for more variety from big mana, midrange, and various linear strategies. Modern is at its best when its diverse and there’s a huge variety in gameplay, and that’s what we’re looking at right now.

Fortunately, that kind of metagame is also beneficial toward proactive strategies that have wide-ranging disruption, which describes Humans perfectly. No matter your opponent, you can impose your will with a quick clock and just enough disruption to keep them off-balance. The new additions Humans has received may not be as exciting as Uro or Conspicuous Snoop, but they are enough to once again push the deck to the upper echelons of Modern.

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