My name is Eli Loveman. I won the Mythic Championship in London a few weeks ago. I want to briefly discuss the tournament itself, but tournament reports aren’t my style. Instead, the bulk of this piece will be a comprehensive guide to Humans in Modern. You might expect a deck with 37 creatures to be straightforward, but there are a lot of nuances to the deck and it’s fairly customizable. I’m going to cover specific card choices, how to sequence and mulligan, and what your plan should be for the five most popular matchups.
My History with Humans
Going into the Mythic Championship in London, I did very little testing with Humans. Most of my efforts were based around trying to find decks that were consistent, and punished decks that were trying to take advantage of the London mulligan rule.
I looked at Ad Nauseam and various Death’s Shadow strategies because I thought they could beat the Tron, Dredge, and fast combo decks that I thought would be popular. But the weekend before the tournament, I started to hear about U/W Control and Humans picking up steam, which made me think twice about Shadow and Ad Nauseam. I
felt very comfortable making the switch to Humans almost at the last minute because I have played the deck for almost two years. I understood the mulligans, the sequencing, the deckbuilding choices, the sideboarding, the usual combat play patterns, and the in-game decision making, like Meddling Mage calls and how best to use Phantasmal Image.
My first experience with Humans was at GP Vegas 2017. I was going to play Living End because the format was based around big creatures in the form of Eldrazi Tron and Grixis Death’s Shadow. The only problem was that I hated Living End. You just had to hope that your board sweeper plan was good enough, and had to hope to stick your cascade spell. In the end, I decided to just play a deck that I liked, a brew from the 5-0 Modern League deck lists.
1 Forest 1 Plains 4 Windswept Heath 4 Cavern of Souls 3 Razorverge Thicket 1 Temple Garden 2 Mana Confluence 1 Hallowed Fountain 1 Misty Rainforest 2 Horizon Canopy 1 Overgrown Tomb 2 Anafenza, the Foremost 4 Champion of the Parish 4 Reflector Mage 4 Noble Hierarch 4 Thalia's Lieutenant 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben 2 Thalia, Heretic Cathar 4 Avacyn's Pilgrim 2 Sin Collector 2 Mayor of Avabruck/Howlpack Alpha 4 Collected Company 1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar 3 Path to Exile Sideboard 1 Gideon, Ally of Zendikar 2 Kambal, Consul of Allocation 2 Meddling Mage 2 Orzhov Pontiff 1 Path to Exile 1 Reclamation Sage 3 Rest in Peace 1 Sin Collector 2 Stony Silence
-Gainsay, Competitive Modern League 2017-06-13, (5-0)
It was a crazy Human tribal deck with some cards that I enjoyed playing with from Shadows over Innistrad Standard, so I thought it would be fun to play. But it turned out that Andrew Cuneo, Olle Rade, and the other players working on it were onto something. I ended up going 12-3 in Vegas that year, losing the last round to Affinity to miss a Pro Tour invite. The Humans deck trounced the most popular decks in Modern at the time (Shadow and Eldrazi) because it went wider than they could handle, and Reflector Mage and Path to Exile were the perfect solutions to big creatures.
After Ixalan gave us Kitesail Freebooter and Unclaimed Territory, I kept working on the deck. I tried various color combinations and techy cards. I’ve lost count of how many times I Gatherer-searched “Human.”
I was slow to adopt Aether Vial over Collected Company, but eventually admitted to myself that Modern was about speed and not value. I was rewarded an 11-4 finish in Phoenix in 2017 and a year after picking up the deck, I repeated my 12-3 finish in Las Vegas 2018. Although I only played a few leagues with Humans in the weeks leading up to MC London, I felt confident because I’ve played so many matches with it over time.
Humans at its core is a very powerful “Fish” deck. “Fish” has been used as a nickname for aggro strategies that also use disruption in order to facilitate their aggro game plan. They have also been called tempo or aggro-control.
Just like Fish decks of the past, you want to disrupt your opponent just long enough to allow your clean-up crew of big threats to get the job done. Thalia starts to get less effective once your opponent starts hitting their land drops, and when your opponent manages to kill Meddling Mage or Freebooter, it can set off a chain reaction where your opponent unlocks all of their cards again. You usually can’t lock your opponent out 100%, but you can certainly buy enough time to deal 20 points of damage.
Core Humans List
4 Ancient Ziggurat 4 Cavern of Souls 4 Horizon Canopy 1 Seachrome Coast 4 Unclaimed Territory 1 Island 1 Plains 4 Champion of the Parish 3 Kitesail Freebooter 4 Mantis Rider 4 Meddling Mage 4 Noble Hierarch 3 Phantasmal Image 4 Reflector Mage 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben 4 Thalia's Lieutenant 4 AEther Vial 1 Some other 3-drop Sideboard 1 Militia Bugler 1 Deputy of Detention 2 Damping Sphere 2 Dismember 7 Some other cards
I would consider this the core of any Humans list.
The flex slots are the fourth copies of Kitesail Freebooter, Thalia, Phantasmal Image, and the extra 3-drops. The fourth Kitesail and Thalia are at their best in combo-heavy metagames, but are also a fair inclusion versus control decks. If you expect more creature mirrors you’ll want to include the extra Phantasmal Images instead. Although, if deck lists are packing ways to trigger your Images for free, such as main deck Gut Shots, you will want to leave the fourth Image at home.
There are a variety of 3-drops that you can use to fill out that sixtieth card. Despite not being a Human, Deputy of Detention is so powerful that it merits inclusion. If your opponent can’t easily answer it, the swing it provides is backbreaking. It kills anything, and sometimes multiple things, no questions asked. If you chose to omit it from your main deck, you should include it in your sideboard.
Anafenza, the Foremost is a contender when Dredge or other graveyard decks become popular. It’s a hate card that is still serviceable in other matchups by just being a 4/4 for 3. But in my experience, Dredge and Arclight can get out in front of a 3-mana hate card, so she’s not a staple unless the meta is totally graveyard-centric. If you play more than one Anafenza, you probably should play a second Seachrome Coast over a basic Island.
Tajic, Legion’s Edge is another legend that has utility vs. Dredge because his static ability prevents your opponents from casting Conflagrate for full value. It’s also a fine card versus other matchups as a good attacker. I would consider Tajic if I was expecting a mix of Dredge, Valakut, and Lightning Bolt decks. Note that you can’t mentor or use Anafenza’s trigger on your Phantasmal Images.
Kessig Malcontents is the most all-in aggressive of the 3-drop options. Use it to speed up your clock by a turn versus combo decks, or to work around a board stall in the mirror. The Malcontents can be underpowered sometimes, but it’s also never a 100% dead card in any matchup. This makes it a great hedge. You can play this card if you don’t know what to expect.
The other side of this coin is Militia Bugler. Kessig Malcontents is the perfect hedge card if you think the meta is leaning toward non-interactive combo and aggro decks, but if you think you’re going to run into Bolts, Pushes, and Paths, you should include some number of Militia Bugler. Bugler can be slow sometimes, but Aether Vial allows you to get around this by generating a mana advantage. It’s also the best thing to copy with Phantasmal Image in the grindy matchups. In a pure, open metagame I would give the nod toward the Bugler. Even in the matchups where it’s “bad,” like Tron, its floor is still very high.
The sideboard of Humans is surprisingly flexible and powerful. One of the criticisms of the Humans deck is that your Cavern–Ziggurat mana base cannot cast traditionally powerful Modern sideboard cards like Rest in Peace, Stony Silence, or Ceremonious Rejection. While this is true, Modern has a deep enough card pool that you can cover all your bases with just creatures, artifacts, and free spells. You don’t get to play Rest in Peace, but you have Grafdigger’s Cage, Ravenous Trap, and Auriok Champion to keep Dredge in check.
I would consider nine cards in the sideboard to be mandatory: the first two Damping Sphere, the first two Dismember, the first three Auriok Champion, and at least one Militia Bugler and Deputy of Detention.
Tron will almost always be a popular deck, and Damping Sphere is really the only card that hits them hard. You get a little extra utility versus Storm as well, although you’re well set up to beat spell-based combo anyway. If you’re expecting a lot of Tron, feel free to add an extra copy of the “wet ball” to your board.
Dismember is just a very powerful card. It lets you beat the cards your deck normally folds to: creature-based combo decks. Haymakers like Devoted Druid, Elvish Archdruid, Thing in the Ice, and Lyra Dawnbringer are all answered cleanly for 1 colorless mana. I see a lot of deck lists trim or omit Dismember, but I would strongly advise against it. Even if you’re not facing down specifically creature combo, there are so many decks where the ability to reach out and tag something like a Steel Overseer or a Dark Confidant can be invaluable.
The last cards that I would consider sideboard-mandatory are Deputy of Detention and Militia Bugler. These two cards are sometimes main deck inclusions in the right metagame, but if you chose to omit these from your sixty, they should certainly be in your fifteen.
Auriok Champion covers a few different bases from Shadow, to Burn, to Dredge, and everything red and black in between. You really need the second copy of the card before it starts to make a big impact versus Burn and Dredge. Most other sideboard cards just stop your opponent’s game plan with the first copy, but Auriok works best in multiples. You’ll want all four copies if you expect Burn and Dredge in great numbers. (Unless Dredge adopts Blast Zone—then you need a new plan.)
If you want to hard target Dredge, the best card is Ravenous Trap and you’ll need a few copies if you want to make sure this matchup is serviceable. It’s also a fine strategy to spend your sideboard slots elsewhere and try to beat Dredge “au natural” or just hope to dodge the deck.
If you also want to also have a card to bring in against Collected Company or Vanifar, you can play Grafdigger’s Cage. Keep in mind—it is a worse option versus Dredge than Ravenous Trap because they are ready to answer permanent-based hate.
Izzet Staticaster also has some applications versus Dredge. You can use it to stop Bloodghast and Narcomoeba. It’s really for more normal small creature decks, but it has a surprisingly wide range of applications. You wouldn’t think that this card is good versus Dredge, but it is. You can randomly bring it in against a Dark Confidant/Lingering Souls Abzan deck. Hardened Scales, Elves, and the mirror are also places where Staticaster shines. When this card is in play a lot of decks stop working until Staticaster is dead. These small creature decks are also traditionally Humans’ worst matchups because they exploit your lack of removal and they dodge Thalia and Kitesail. This makes Staticaster one of the few cards that turn around your actively terrible matchups. Until very recently Modern was in a place where you didn’t need this card, but currently it would take very special circumstances for me to not play at least one Izzet Staticaster.
Kambal, Consul of Allocation is at its best versus Ensnaring Bridge decks. Whir Prison and Lantern Control have to deal with this Kaladesh legend before they can enact their game plan of hiding under a Bridge. Kambal does double duty versus control, Burn, and combo, but these decks are all going to bring in removal that kills him after board, limiting his effectiveness.
Gaddock Teeg is a very narrow card. Its main application is to lock U/W Control out from casting its sweepers. If you pair Teeg with a Meddling Mage naming Path to Exile, they don’t have a lot of recourse. Teeg is also good against spell-based combo and Collected Company/Chord of Calling decks, but don’t get sidetracked. This is a hard targeted card for U/W Control and if you’re expecting it, bring two copies. You don’t always get the opportunity to bring a hammer, so don’t pass it up.
Chalice of the Void is some technology that I have seen in the Magic Online “5-0 deck dumps,” but I haven’t seen it regularly in person. Aether Vial and Cavern of Souls mean that your 1-drops are still live after you drop a Chalice with a charge counter on it. I saw a lot more of this approach after Arclight Phoenix blew up, so if you’re trying to hate that deck out give this card a try.
If you want a card mainly for the mirror, there are a variety of 4-drops that are popular. Riders of Gavony is the most narrow of these options because you can only really bring it in for the mirror. Spirits or Elves don’t actually care about your team having protection from theirs. It can also be a liability because of opposing Phantasmal Images because your opponent can just copy your Riders. It’s not even good versus Deputy of Detention because it isn’t Human. I wouldn’t recommend Riders.
Hostage Taker is a big swing if it works and you can bring it in against a lot of different decks. It even can exile an artifact, like Ensnaring Bridge, in a pinch. But the addition of Deputy of Detention has largely invalidated this option.
The most stand-out option for the mirror is Whirler Rogue. You can break a board stall with the unblockable ability. Additionally it’s not a liability against Image, unlike Taker and Riders, because you can kill the Image with the activated ability. Most importantly, it’s not too narrow, because at its worst it’s a bad Lingering Souls. Whirler Rogue gets the nod.
Knight of Autumn is what you want if you’re splitting the difference between Burn and Mox Opal decks. Sideboard slots are precious in Modern, so being able to have something for two disparate matchups is nice. But Deputy of Detention has also made this card a lot worse. A recent move toward Welding Jar in Mox Opal decks, as well as a decline in Lava Spikes means that you’re better off with the Vedalken Wizard.
The nice thing about the Humans deck is that Wizards prints interesting considerations for the deck almost every set. There are a lot of cards that are worthy of inclusion depending on your local metagame and you can get a lot of mileage out of picking the right bullets from week to week.