Modern is a pretty diverse format where the best decks shift often and there are a variety of playable decks that can win a tournament on "Any Given Sunday." However, if you were to try to pin down the best deck in Modern, you'd probably be looking at decks like Tron, White-Blue Control, Krark-Clan Ironworks Combo and Humans as options. What was that last one? Ah yes, Humans. This article is about that deck, also known in many circles as Humanitarian Tribal, led by the altruistic Noble Hierarch.
I've played a lot with Humans over the past six months, and believe that it is a strong deck in Modern, even if the format is shifting to beat it with decks like Hardened Scales Affinity as well as transitions in card choices in other strategies, such as additional Walking Ballistas in Tron. It would not be my first choice to play in my next Modern event, but it would still certainly be on the short list of decks I would consider sleeving up.
I've been wanting to write this article about Humans for a while because it's a deck that has a huge variety in how it can be built and I think there are a lot of flaws people make in deckbuilding. I'm not here to tell you what version of Humans you should play, but I am hoping to explain some concepts that will help you with card choices regardless of how you decide to style it.
There are two distinct camps that have broken out when it comes to how to build Humans in Modern. There are those who Bugle and those who do not. I'm talking, of course, about Militia Bugler, the Recruiter of the Guard look-alike creature. Some lists are all about utilizing it, while other lists eschew it entirely for more proactive cards like Thalia, Heretic Cathar.
Both camps seem to strongly believe that their version of Humans is superior to the other version, but I don't think the answer is as simple as that. There are pros and cons to playing slower card-advantage machines like Militia Bugler instead of proactive beat-sticks like Thalia, Heretic Cathar, and which one is correct depends both on how you choose to build the rest of your deck, your preferred play style, and the metagame you expect.
For reference, here is a Thalia, Heretic Cathar style build that won Grand Prix Detroit earlier this month.
And here is an example of a Bugler version from the Top 8 of Grand Prix Hong Kong last weekend.
Personally, I also played Militia Bugler at GP Detroit, with this list.
Granted, I chose these cards based on my expectations of what the metagame would look like in a Team Unified tournament, so some of the card choices were made with the expectation of decks like Tron, KCI, Burn, Humans and White-Blue Control being higher parts of the metagame than they might otherwise be, even though they are already very popular strategies. At any rate, it's very close to what I would play in a normal event.
So, what are the differences between a Thalia build vs. a Bugler build when it comes to deck construction and play?
I'm glad I asked.
Builds with Thalia, Heretic Cathar tend to be more aggressively oriented and focus on keeping the opponent off balance long enough to give them the cold, swift taste of lethal. One thing that most of these builds have in common is that they play the full set of Reflector Mage main deck, which many of the Bugler lists do not. That makes sense, because Thalia, Heretic Cathar is a card that slows down your opponent's development – in essence a tempo card – and Reflector Mage plays the same tempo-oriented gameplan. It is important to end the game in relatively short order, because neither Thalia nor Reflector Mage provide any lasting advantage, just time advantage. Reflector Mage also combos particularly well with Thalia in that you can bounce a creature that they can't immediately recast, and then when they eventually do, it comes into play tapped. You might as well have just killed the creature with how long it takes to be relevant again.
Thalia, Heretic Cathar is extremely punishing to fetch land mana bases as well as decks like Tron, and is pretty strong against basically every deck in the format when played on the second turn of the game, because of the clock and disruption it represents. However, as the game drags on, Thalia becomes more and more irrelevant, and the 3/2 first strike, while being decent at times lacks the immediate punch that even cards like Mantis Rider can still provide late game. Thalia, Heretic Cathar builds are not interested in grinding into the late game, because too many of the cards become duds at that point.
One advantage to a Thalia, Heretic Cathar build is that you increase the value of a card like Noble Hierarch and decrease the value of Aether Vial. It may seem backward to decrease the value of Aether Vial, but Aether Vial is going to be a disgustingly good card in the deck regardless, and hedging to make your deck better when you don't draw a Vial has value. Militia Bugler is extremely mana-intensive and requires Aether Vial to be most effective, whereas Thalia, Heretic Cathar played on turn two off a Noble Hierarch is sometimes even superior to getting the Vial in play, depending on one's opening hand, and can allow for less clunky draws.
When it comes to the sideboard of a Thalia, Heretic Cathar build, there are basically two options as I see it. The first is to build your sideboard proactively to pair with your aggressive deck. This means playing more removal spells – such as Dismember and Gut Shot – than the amounts typically played, because those removal spells are great at clearing a path for your creatures. It also means avoiding cards like Auriok Champion that prolong games to create slow advantages and instead play more aggressive and proactive options like Dire-Fleet Daredevil instead.
The other option is to transition after sideboard, like what William Courson did in his GP Detroit list from earlier in the article. That means that after sideboard, you can side out Thalia, Heretic Cathar and side into Militia Bugler along with more grindy and disruptive elements in matchups where disruption and card advantage is more important than raw speed or tempo.
At the risk of sounding like a Humans hipster, I've been playing Thalia, Heretic Cathar in Humans for half a year at this point, so initially when people started debating whether to play with Thalia, Heretic Cathar or Militia Bugler, I was strongly on the side of Thalia, as it is a card I have loved in the archetype for a long time. However, recently, I think the format is shifting in such a way that I've found myself liking Bugler builds more and more, especially since those builds align better with my playstyle.
The idea behind Militia Bugler builds is to use Bugler to amass more and more advantages as the game goes on, while denying your opponent options with cards like Kitesail Freebooter and Meddling Mage. Phantasmal Image plays an enormous role in this build to either become more Militia Buglers and create more advantages, or to double down on hateful effects like the aforementioned Kitesail Freebooter and Meddling Mage to reduce your opponent's options even further.
Kitesail Freebooter is a card that I hate in Humans, especially in Thalia, Heretic Cathar builds of the deck. It's slow, serves as only a temporary stopgap measure, and ruins the effectiveness of cards like Thalia, Heretic Cathar by giving your opponent a ton of time to recover.
Freebooter is way more effective in a build with Militia Bugler, especially with an Aether Vial in play, as you can do things like find one off of a Bugler and then Vial it in during your opponent's draw step to get full information on what to strip from their hand.
Since the goal with Militia Bugler is to play a more grindy game – although the deck is still very aggressive – efficient cards that add to your board while denying your opponent access to resources are valuable. After sideboard, this can be amplified when you replace less effective cards with more effective ones.
While a Thalia, Heretic Cathar sideboard should be built with more aggression in mind, a Militia Bugler sideboard should be built as a toolbox of two or less power creatures that you can find with Militia Bugler to generate advantages. Cards like Auriok Champion, Gaddock Teeg, Phyrexian Revoker and Sin Collector are all examples of cards that shine in this strategy while being less effective with a Thalia, Heretic Cathar build. Another easy example is a card like Riders of Gavony for the Humans mirror. In a Thalia build, Riders of Gavony is a card that can just one-shot lethal your opponent paired up with aggression. In a Bugler build, I would Opt toward something like Whirler Rogue that can be found with Militia Bugler and has utility in killing opposing Phantasmal Images.
One thing that I think is important to note is that Militia Bugler vs. Thalia is not an all-or-nothing thing. You don't have to play three copies of Militia Bugler just because you decided you were going Bugling. It's fine to play two copies or just one copy or just play them in the sideboard, like some Thalia builds are doing.
One thing I would not recommend, however, is putting too many Buglers and Thalia Heretic Cathars in your deck at the same time. The deck can sometimes get clumped on three mana plays as it is, and Bugler cannot find Thalia and Bugler already cannot find Mantis Rider, so there is a real cost in having too many bricks for the card. Also, the two strategies do not overlap well. Thalia favors aggression while Bugler favors grinding.
Thalia tends to be better in formats where speed is of the essence. Thalia is great against decks like Tron, for example, where it delays their ability to cast big threats and hits hard. Bugler is better in more grindy metagames, like against control decks or Mardu strategies, where Thalia just gets hit with removal spells but running them out of answers with Bugler is a reasonable plan. Even in matchups where Thalia is better than Bugler, like against KCI, sometimes the reverse is true after sideboard. Bugler tends to be better once you have access to cards like Gaddock Teeg and Phyrexian Revoker to lock down their deck.
I don't have a lot of rules when it comes to Humans, but there are two which I will not break in the vast majority of cases.
The first is do not play less than four copies of Meddling Mage. I keep seeing lists with three Meddling Mage and four Kitesail Freebooter and I lose my mind every time. Freebooter is a mediocre card at best in Humans and typically gets worse in multiples, as additional copies sometimes "miss" at stealing a card from your opponent's hand. Freebooters are harder to cast, less effective, and have a worse body than Meddling Mage. Meddling Mage also gets better in multiples, allowing you to blank entire chunks of your opponent's deck and sometimes just lock them out of the game completely.
The second is do not play less than four copies of Phantasmal Image. Phantasmal Image is the glue that holds the deck together. It is extra copies of Mantis Rider to clock your opponent, extra Meddling Mages to lock them out or extra Thalia's Lieutenants to just build an overwhelming board presence and clock them. It can also copy opposing creatures, which is extremely relevant in the Humans mirror match, but can also be a strong play in some other matches. I have copied Tireless Tracker and then bounced it with Reflector Mage many times to get value when I was otherwise flooding out, and Phantasmal Image copying Bedlam Reveler is, "a sheer delight," as the kids say these days.
One tip that comes up frequently when playing the deck is the Thalia's Lieutenant and Aether Vial trick. The way this works is that you cast a Thalia's Lieutenant, and with its trigger on the stack, you Vial in a Human. The Human you Vialed in will still get the buff from Thalia's Lieutenant, since its ability hasn't resolved yet, and Thalia's Lieutenant will also get a boost from seeing a human enter the battlefield.
Horizon Canopy is an interesting card in that sometimes it is correct to make Horizon Canopy one of the earlier lands you play from your hand, even if you take damage from it. In matchups where that damage doesn't matter, sometimes you will run into situations where you might need to crack two Horizon Canopies in the same turn to dig for gas, especially with Vials in play, and you will need one copy already in play to do this as you can't play two lands for turn.
Sometimes it is also relevant to crack Horizon Canopy in your upkeep in response to an Aether Vial trigger. If you draw a three-drop off of the Horizon Canopy activation, you might choose to tick Vial up to three in case you draw another three-drop for turn, allowing you to play both. If you don't, then you can leave it on two, which gives you options like vialing in tricky cards like Phantasmal Image, Kitesail Freebooter and Thalia's Lieutenant at instant speed.
Another tricky play with Aether Vial is that you can respond to the ability to tick it up by putting in a creature with it. For example, let's say you have a hand with a lot of one-drops and three-drops. On the turn where Aether Vial is about to tick up to two, you can respond to the trigger and put a one drop in from your hand, and then tick it up to two afterward. The following turn it will be at three and available to help deploy your big plays, but you didn't waste any activations or mana from it in the meantime.
I see a lot of lists playing basic Island. I understand the appeal, as it is a land you can find from getting Field of Ruined or Path to Exiled, and it can sometimes help cast cards from under Blood Moon. However, I don't like it, and would not play it if I have cards like Gaddock Teeg or Auriok Champion in my sideboard. I'm not interested in any game where I draw a basic Island and can't cast my spells, and Gaddock Teeg is already hard and awkward to cast in the deck, since Cavern of Souls and Unclaimed Territory don't do the trick unless you name Kithkin or Advisor from them. The second Seachrome Coast never did me wrong.
Be mindful of curve when sideboarding. In some matchups it is appealing to cut a lot of two-drops and bring in 90 three-drops, but this will make the deck really awkward, slow and vulnerable to getting mana screwed. This is what leads to the shameful but sometimes necessary play of the turn two Thalia's Lieutenant with no humans in play.
Overboarding is a real thing. For example, I think cards like Sin Collector and Reclamation Sage get boarded in way too much. Both have mediocre bodies and cost a lot of mana, and Reclamation Sage isn't even a Human! Sin Collector isn't a two-for-one if the body trades with a quarter of a Lingering Souls. The main deck in Humans is devastatingly powerful, and there is a real chance that sometimes you just make your deck by trying to upgrade powerful Humans with mediocre ones from the sideboard.
The first and easiest upgrade is Knight of Autumn, which is just a better, albeit harder to cast, Reclamation Sage. Reclamation Sage is already a card desirable against Burn because many burn lists play Ensnaring Bridge, or at the very least have Eidolon of the Great Revel. Knight of Autumn can still blow up those cards, but it can also gain you four life and a 4/3 creature is a reasonable body when neither of those effects are warranted.
The biggest takeaway with this card is that just because it has a lot of modes doesn't mean that it should be sided in too often. I would still only board it in where I would also board in Reclamation Sage, because frequently that's all it will be. It's also not a human, like Rec Sage, which is a very reasonable drawback in a deck where the other lands and creatures are designed to play into the human theme.
One card that is exciting is Tajic, Legion's Edge. That card ticks a lot of boxes in the deck. It's a human, it's aggressive, has haste, has relevant combat abilities with your other Humans and can protect them from burn spells and red sweepers. The one drawback is that Humans doesn't have the mana capabilities to give it first strike, which is an extremely relevant part of a card that must attack to provide its major benefits and that is easy to trade with in combat.
However, what if we did have the mana capabilities to give it first strike?
I've been working on a humans list that eschews Ancient Ziggurat and Kitesail Freebooter in favor of a mana base that allows you to cast spells from your sideboard like the all-powerful Rest in Peace and Stony Silence. This build tends to be more aggressive and thus favors cards like Tajic that improve the aggressive elements of the deck.
I've named this deck the John Mayor of Avabruck Fan Club.
Perhaps a build like this could incorporate Tajic and all his wondrous abilities effectively. I feel like this build isn't quite there, something is missing, so perhaps Tajic, improving the mana base, and a better threat distribution can finally push this over the edge.
- Brian Braun-Duin