Ikoria may be the Lair of Behemoths, but it wasn't Beasts that got the most tribal support in the set. Instead, that honor goes to one of Magic's least iconic tribes: Humans.
Normally the tribe is confined to Modern. There's enough Human payoffs across almost two decades of Magic to come together across all five colors of mana with the help of Cavern of Souls and Uncharted Territory. The deck plays a role as both aggressive and disruptive thanks to the fairly deep pool of unique creatures that Humans has. When Ikoria cards were previewed, Humans players salivated at the new toys they got, especially because General Kudro of Drannith provided both graveyard hate and another lord effect to fill a three-drop slot that had rotated constantly over the past few years.
The cards could definitely impact Pioneer as well, where many of the payoffs from the Modern version of the deck still exist. At the Pioneer Players Tours, some players took it as their aggro deck of choice. Even if it didn't ultimately get there two months ago, a pair of new cards in the form of Drannith Magistrate and General Kudro of Drannity could be enough to invigorate the archetype.
Early on in spoilers, I wanted to turn my attention to how General Kudro of Drannity would play in Standard, though. Additionally, I thought that one card spoiled around the same time had flown a bit under the radar: General's Enforcer. These two cards together made me want to revisit an old friend: Mardu Hero.
On top of the simple synergy that General's Enforcer triggers Hero of Precinct One, it just so happens that we have a trio of legendary Humans that work with both: Judith, the Scourge Diva, Tajic, Legion's Edge and, of course, General Kudro of Drannith.
Additionally, Dire Tactics is an incredible Magic card in its own right. It comes with a little bit of a deck-building restriction in that the deck needs a reasonable number of Humans, but the threshold is pretty low, and the deck I was looking to build already was looking to play many of them. The bonus synergy with Hero of Precinct One is of course welcome, and it's possible that non-Humans decks could get away with playing the card on the back of Hero of Precinct One. Regardless, it was an auto-include from the beginning.
With a core of cards I was looking to play, I threw together several shells for the deck. Some focused on playing one-drops and taking advantage of Tournament Grounds and the Knights that also happen to be Humans: Fervent Champion, Stormfist Crusader and Venerable Knight:
Some included Knight of the Ebon Legion as well, as the card is simply too powerful not to run in an aggressive deck sometimes. This lead me to one interesting build that I never got around to testing, as it seemed a little low on power, but I'm likely to revisit when I have some time:
The Mardu versions with Tournament Grounds proved a little too ambitious on the mana, and would probably mean I'd have to cut down on General's Enforcer. Considering I already had tried Mardu Knights two sets ago and thought it was too clunky, I wasn't interested in it now in a more powered-up Standard, and I scrapped it.
The lists I thought had some promise went a little bigger, eschewing one-drops for better mana and some cards up the curve like Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis, who works incredibly well with Priest of Forgotten Gods, a little piece of technology I'd learned trying to make her work last set.
While the deck felt "fine," it didn't seem that it did anything particularly well. It was aggressive, but slower than other options in the field, and not fast enough to punish decks like Temur Reclamation or Jeskai Fires. And while that might be okay against Fires of Invention, where they may just lack the threats to actually win the game, it's a bit of a no-go against Wilderness Reclamation. It also had a bit too much vulnerability to Bonecrusher Giant, with almost every two-drop and several threes dying to it.
I put the deck down for a couple days to work on other ideas, to target the Gyruda, Doom of Depths combo deck that our own yoman5 had innovated, until late on Saturday all the decks I was playing to try and beat Gyruda started getting their teeth kicked in by low-to-the-ground Lurrus of the Dream-Den decks on ladder.
Suddenly, companions were everywhere!
Fed up with losing, I decided I really wanted to punish decks built so heavily around the Standard version of Commander cards and replaced Stormfist Crusader with Drannith Magistrate in the maindeck.
When they don't get to freeroll the first copy of Gyruda, Doom of Depths, there is a high chance those deck do nothing. Nice pile of 1/1s and 1/2s, friend Lurrus of the Dream-Den. Maritime Guard says hello. Maybe they can Claim the Firstborn it, but frankly if they have to use a Claim the Firstborn on a two-cost 1/3 then something has gone seriously wrong for one player or another.
I played the deck on ladder for fun Saturday night, woke up on Sunday to play Mono-Red Aggro at the suggestion of my friend and trusted Mono-Red expert Emily Carrick, who thought the deck was well positioned against Lurrus of the Dream-Den and Gyruda, Doom of Depths, then promptly scooped when we got paired against each other early in the tournament and dropped. Frankly I was happy, because I wanted to keep tuning Mardu. I couldn't lose with it on ladder.
The deck has a lot of unexpected strengths and synergies built in that put opponents in awkward positions. The one that most people fell prey to was the combination of General's Enforcer and Tajic, Legion's Edge. Against decks playing all damage-based removal (Jeskai Fires, Temur Reclamation, some builds of Jeskai Control), this represents a soft-lock on your board. There are suddenly combinations of cards that can sweep the board, but until they find them, Deafening Clarion and Storm's Wrath are completely dead. While they should be able to find a bounce spell or a Bonecrusher Giant eventually, the key with these two is that they end the game fast. Tajic, Legion's Edge both has haste and mentors a +1/+1 counter onto General's Enforcer, representing about a three-turn clock with just these two cards alone.
Additionally, Drannith Magistrate was surprisingly effective against just about everyone. Companions are of course shut down, but it has applications against escape cards, Adventure creatures, turns off a Lurrus of the Dream-Den that's already in play, and (most amusingly) strands cards in exile from Light Up the Stage. Even just having that third point of toughness felt so crucial for the deck so that it dodged Bonecrusher Giant, and if it got a counter from Tajic, Legion's Edge or +1/+1 from General Kudro of Drannith it could dodge Deafening Clarion as well. It was a bit cheesy, but Humans has historically done with a little disruption anyway. With everyone and their grandmother playing companions, Magistrate picked up plenty of equity for me last weekend.
The final piece to the puzzle was everyone's favorite companion: Lurrus of the Dream Den. Not as a companion, mind you, but in the deck itself. With 16 high impact two-drops and another accidental synergy with Hero of Precinct One, Lurrus was a way for the deck to play a relatively low-cost creature as well as grind opponents out who had to expend resources early fighting the first waves of Humans. Each of the two-drops is absolutely devastating to certain opponents in different situations, and recurring them was often the last little bit I needed to get the win.
With the format moving away from Gyruda, Doom of Depths and Lurrus of the Dream-Den and toward decks like Temur Reclamation and various flavors of Bant/Shatter the Sky decks, the deck needed to be updated a bit. While I'm not convinced that the deck is well positioned currently, it's proven itself to me as having a place in the metagame when the right conditions are met. Even now, it feels like Temur Reclamation players are moving away from Storm's Wrath to instead play Flame Sweep, and that could leave an opening for the deck to do well sometime soon. And it's still a deck that wins on ladder, and is a blast to play.
Below is how I have the deck built currently, a quick summary of how I'm sideboarding, as well as cards I've tried in the matchup in case it's relevant to you. As always, I'm still figuring out the deck myself, so don't be afraid to experiment with how to build or sideboard with the deck.
This is one of the matchups that I built the deck to beat. Grafdigger's Cage shuts off their combo completely, and their creatures are awful at blocking if there's any sort of board presence—which there should always be, because they basically don't have a relevant sideboard against you. At best they'll have a couple Wilts.
It's possible to play Extinction Event or Mythos of Snapdax, but I didn't find I needed them, they were usually overkill. If I were going to play one, it'd be Mythos, solely because it may have some broader applications. I don't find that to currently be the case, however. If Obosh, the Preypiercer becomes powerful, Extinction Event may be worth considering.
I leave a couple Priest of Forgotten Gods because at the end of the day, it's a 1/2 blocker against a deck full of 1/1 creatures. Even if you're never going to activate its ability, that's still probably better than a card like Angrath's Rampage or Dawn of Hope. Frankly Grafdigger's Cage shuts them down so incredibly hard that all you're looking to do is survive until their creatures no longer matter. This doesn't take long when they're playing Hunted Witness or Whisper Squad in the year 2020.
Once Grafdigger's Cage is in play, there's really only one card that still matters: their Priest of Forgotten Gods. Kill this card on sight, even if it means taking 2 from Dire Tactics. You can sometimes get away with leaving it around if Hero of Precinct One is going, since trading multiple creatures for them drawing a card and you losing a token is probably fine for you.
I also choose to leave in the four-drops that lose a lot of text with Grafdigger's Cage in play: Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis and Luminous Broodmoth. The Broodmoth gets a pass as a 3/4 flier in a matchup where they sometimes have infinite ground blockers. Elspeth on the other hand creates multiple bodies that trade with their creatures and can gain 5 life, which the deck is weirdly short on.
If you wanted an extra card for this matchup, play Shadowspear. Honestly, I don't know how they beat that card on any reasonably sized creature.
Jeskai is probably a bad matchup, but damn if your answers don't hit theirs well too. Fires of Invention should typically be stripped from their hand by a discard spell, but if it resolves there are a pair of Desparks to handle them. That card acts as both enchantment removal and copies five and six of Dire Tactics, meaning that they can have a very difficult time just keeping a threat around.
Unfortunately they tend to be better in a long game, and the random tokens from Dawn of Hope don't feel like they're relevant enough in this matchup because they close the game so quickly. It's possible that it's worth it, however.
Sideboarding against Temur Rec right now really depends on how their deck is built. If you're playing in a Magicfest Online Qualifier, then you know exactly what they have in their 75 as threats. I doubt anyone brings in Legion Warboss or Robber of the Rich against a deck of all blockers, but stranger things have happened. My bigger concern is the more Flash-like builds that play Nightpack Ambusher main. There I would probably board exactly as I did against Jeskai Fires, because that card is terrifying and Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis is never resolving anyway. It also may be worth leaving in some Priest of Forgotten Gods to try and snipe one, but I assume that's bad.
Either way some Dire Tactics should stay in for Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath anyway. You don't need many, because General's Enforcer and General Kudro of Drannith should mean that they have neither Uro nor the cards to escape it in their graveyard, but just in case one slips through they're worth having.
This is the matchup I still don't know, and it feels like people are generally trying to figure out their lists also. Currently this is about how I'm boarding.
Judith, the Scourge Diva comes out here because she's the weakest of the three Human legends, especially on her own. A little bit of wrath protection is nice, but it's rarely relevant. I would rather try to disrupt them and attack for a bit less on average than risk drawing Judith late and playing Grey Ogre.
Luminous Broodmoth is a bit of a strange card in that it's like an Unbreakable Formation that you don't have to leave up mana for. They have ways to bounce it, or remove it with Elspeth Conquers Death, but that doesn't solve the fundamental problem they have that the Humans are attacking them quickly.
Dawn of Hope is mostly the best of a lot of bad options White has to go long against control decks. It will draw more cards, which in turn should help fuel Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis's escape cost. I don't think I would play more than one, mostly because it doesn't scale very well.