Hello everyone! My name is Steve Locke and I'm going to be interrupting your regularly scheduled programming today to share my thought processes that lead to me winning Grand Prix Phoenix this past weekend with Five-Color Humans.
I will do my best to make it worth your while. I promise! But first, a brief introduction…
I first started playing magic during Mercadian Masques and started my first regular venturing into competitive Magic tournaments during the original Ravnica block. I have played my fair share of Constructed archetypes over the years, but several of my best performances have come from creature-based decks that primarily look to apply pressure backed up by disruption while maintaining high adaptability to different roles and game state textures. Decks such as Rebels, Faeries, Tribal Zoo, Five-Color Rally the Ancestors, Zombies, and now Five-Color Humans, are the types of decks that are by far my favorite to play.
Five-Color Humans caught my eye right away when it burst onto the scene with the release of Ixalan and the arrival of Kitesail Freebooter and Unclaimed Territory, adding another disruptive two-drop and unlocking the powerful five-color manabase, respectively. The initial versions were very powerful and the evolutions of the archetype to include Phantasmal Image led it to be the most popular choice for Pro Tour Rivals of Ixalan, even landing two copies in the top 8.
So what has changed since then?
The strengths and restrictions of these powerful new cards to the format have been well documented by other writers, so instead I will fast forward to the results of the Magic Online World Championship. Jund was highly represented, G/W Hexproof won the tournament, and zero copies of the Humans deck were registered. This narrow metagame snapshot paints a hostile picture for Humans. But, as Modern tends to do, in a matter of weeks, the format rebalanced and we saw the likes of G/R Ponza, Storm, Infect, U/W Control, Colorless Eldrazi, Tron, etc. find success at the first Modern Open since the unbannings.
As for Humans, the wider the format gets, the better. The deck thrives in a wide open Modern format because it is presents a fast clock with the tools to disrupt many of its faster opponents. In fact, I believe Humans to be among the five best decks in Modern in a vacuum. Despite that, I don't think it was getting the attention it deserves from the rest of the player base, and I saw several Modern strategy articles that didn't even include Humans in their rundown of matchups, which means that cards were not being chosen for their applications against Humans specifically. Further, that meant there were going to be several people playing flexible spot removal spells like Abrupt Decay and Collective Brutality instead of the more powerful Anger of the Gods and Grim Lavamancers.
Without further ado, here is the list I ran to a first place finish at Grand Prix Phoenix:
- 4 Champion of the Parish
- 1 Dark Confidant
- 1 Dire Fleet Daredevil
- 4 Kitesail Freebooter
- 4 Mantis Rider
- 4 Meddling Mage
- 1 Mirran Crusader
- 4 Noble Hierarch
- 3 Phantasmal Image
- 4 Reflector Mage
- 4 Thalia's Lieutenant
- 3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
In preparing for the tournament, I was actually having a lot of success with the stock list of Humans that included the fourth Phantasmal Image, fourth Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and the first Kessig Malcontents. However, I did expect a lot of Jund and felt there were a few issues that needed addressing in that matchup.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben is a good threat in the matchup, but sometimes, while it hinders my opponents ability to develop Planeswalkers or disrupt my battlefield, oftentimes they are left needing to use their disruption on other creatures like Meddling Mage and Kitesail Freebooter or they just stall the ground with Tarmogoyf and/or Scavenging Ooze, and Thalia ends up not dying. One of the biggest ways to lose to Jund is to draw too many dead cards in the matchup, and too often the second Thalia can get stuck in your hand as a dead draw with the way the matchup plays out. I replaced this fourth copy with a single copy of Dark Confidant, as it's still a potent two-drop in the matchup and can still be deployed if you have Thalia on the battlefield.
Similarly, you can get stranded with Phantasmal Images in hand without any good targets on the battlefield versus their removal heavy draws and needing to apply pressure, so I also replaced one with a single copy of Dire Fleet Daredevil, a potent card versus decks with cheap interaction.
And lastly, while I think Kessig Malcontents is one of the best main deck cards in the deck, you have to sideboard it out more often than not, so I decided to play a main deck Mirran Crusader instead. Although it's not nearly as good as the last threat you play, it's still a potent threat in the mid stages of the game and it's much better as your primary threat and a pretty great companion to a turn 1 Noble Hierarch, which can sometimes win a game versus Jund or Death's Shadow variants by itself due to its protection.
I have always found sideboard guides to be helpful baselines on how to approach specific matchups so I have provided my general thoughts on why I included certain cards and what cards I generally bring in and out in certain matchups below, for the most played archetypes from Grand Prix Phoenix.
You're a slight favorite in this matchup as a lot of your draws line up well vs. theirs, as your creatures can get large quickly and race and disrupt their burn spells. The games they win generally involve them getting damage in with their creatures as they remove your first couple creatures and finishing you off with burn spells or games that revolve around Grim Lavamancer.
Sin Collector and Dire Fleet Daredevil are nice ways to gain ground in the matchup without having to play specific hate cards. Dire Fleet Daredevil can often kill Grim Lavamancer at the cost of throwing away a creature, which is often worth it, or steal a backbreaking Lightning Helix and Sin Collector can help then run out of gas ahead of schedule.
You're definitely the aggressor in this matchup and are looking to maximize the traction you are gaining on the battlefield each turn. However, sequencing is generally going to be more important than pure speed, and it's important to think about the way your cards will trade and line up with the order they will be able to deploy their own spells.
After sideboard, the goal is to minimize the amount of cards in your deck that would be a bad top deck, because while you're still the aggressor in the matchup, you'll need to be able to sustain that aggression over several turns, and one of the common ways for Jund to take over the game is for the Humans deck to take their foot off the gas by drawing an irrelevant card in the mid game (think Aether Vial or too many irrelevant 2/2s). Thalia's Lieutenant is also a liability if you leave too many in, as they can target your other creatures with their discard spells and leave you with an unimpressive two mana Champion of the Parish. However, it's still one of your better aggressive cards so I still like to leave in a couple to grow your creatures.
I have also positioned several of my sideboard cards in this matchup to be able to potentially remove or ignore Tarmogoyf or Scavenging Ooze as you can still attack into a Dark Confidant or Bloodbraid Elf with your smaller creatures.
Sideboard plans for other black midrange decks would be similar. And if Anger of the Gods becomes more mainstream, I would look to bring in some number of Sin Collector in this matchup and/or switch the second Xathrid Necromancer out for a Selfless Spirit.
Unfortunately, this matchup can be quite tough if your opponent is good at assembling turn 3 Tron. There aren't that many cards available to sideboard for this deck that changes that, as a single Kitesail Freebooter or Meddling Mage effect just won't be able to disrupt their big mana threats from taking over the game, so I decided just not to play any cards specifically for this matchup.
The best thing you can do is mulligan into your most aggressive hands, which means looking for a one-drop along with your beefier cards in Champion of the Parish, Thalia's Lieutenant, and Mantis Rider. I bring in Xathrid Necromancer as sometimes you can provide enough pressure to get under an Oblivion Stone and it's more relevant than the cards I take out.
VS B/R Hollow One
This matchup is generally favorable as their general gameplay is to play to the battlefield with big and wide creatures and you can generally just do that better than they can, and they aren't too disruptive to your game plan.
After sideboard they bring in a little more disruption and potentially Blood Moon, so there's a little tension with Aether Vial as you would like to trim some of them but need to respect their ability to potentially Blood Moon you. You also have Thalia and Kitesail Freebooter to fight Blood Moon if need be. I like to side out my Meddling Mages entirely as they can Faithless Looting away any cards that get locked away and it generally isn't all that effective in the matchup.
VS Five-Color Humans
The mirror can be weird because the hate bears are actually the worst cards in the matchup. Thalia and Kitesail Freebooter are mostly textless, and Meddling Mage can be awkward with your own cards and their Aether Vials. The best cards in the matchup are the ones that are able to affect the number of large creatures on the battlefield. I side out Meddling Mages and Thalias for a bunch of fair cards and removal. Izzet Staticaster is one of the better cards in the mirror, as it can control Phantasmal Images and unprotected one toughness creatures like a late Champion of the Parish or Thalia's Lieutenant. Kitesail Freebooter having flying is surprisingly relevant despite its small size, so it gets the nod over the other two-drops. Dire Fleet Daredevil also gets the nod over Thalia, as it's just better since it isn't legendary, but sometimes it can steal a Dismember or Gut Shot.
Of note, this is one of the matchups that you would have still been happy to have Kessig Malcontents after sideboard.
This is a tough but winnable matchup. Similar to Tron, you need to find your most aggressive hands and try to race them, but you're at the mercy to Steel Overseer as it can often get out of hand too quickly and their battlefield will be too hard to overcome.
However, unlike Tron, you actually have some options to improve after sideboard. I opted for the more hateful Kataki over the more broad answer of Vithian Renegades this tournament because I specifically wanted to have the most powerful card versus Affinity and Lantern. It would be nice to have access to Gut Shot instead of Dismember here as they generally kill the same creatures, but Dismember costs an additional mana and two more life; I believe you need the slots to also be useful against Jund and other green midrange decks right now.
VS U/R Gifts Storm
Humans is a natural predator to Storm, and I'm always happy to be paired against it, but the matches can play out pretty tight and I usually lose a game in the process. Sin Collector is useful as additional spell-based disruption and Izzet Staticaster helps control their potential to Empty the Warrens. I haven't had as much success recently sideboarding in Grafdigger's Cage as several Storm players are bringing in Pyromancer Ascension or will just go for Empty the Warrens instead of Past in Flames if that's the case, so I have been leaving that in the sideboard.
VS U/W Control
Their deck is kind of slow and full of four-drops so your disruptive two-drops are quite good against them, and the games you win usually involve continually applying pressure to the battlefield while using your disruptive elements to keep them off a wrath effect. Generally I will look to hold Mantis Rider in case they're able to get their wrath through. Getting Reflector Mage out of your deck is priority number one after sideboard and you get to bring in four additional cards that make it hard for them to sweep the battlefield, something they usually need to be able to do to win the matchup.
Grixis and Jeskai are less reliant on wrath effects and are generally better against Humans because of it, but Humans will sideboard in a similar way versus them.
Similar to the B/R Hollow One matchup, the Eldrazi decks don't play a lot of disruption and are generally trying to beat you with big creatures, something which you'll be able to do better than them on average. I like to bring in Xathrid Necromancer as well as some additional removal to play around All is Dust and because it makes it hard for them to close the game since they don't play evasive threats and you can continually block until you draw into more action. You can also get away with sideboarding out a Seachrome Coast since they won't be attacking your Noble Hierarchs, making them reliable mana sources.
There are several other decks you could face throughout a Modern tournament, and it is hard to cover them all so I hope that the above examples will lay the framework for similar matchups or thought processes behind when I like to bring in/out each card.
A quick round by round tournament recap is provided below for those interested in what matchups I faced and how they played out. Luckily I didn't get paired against Tron, Affinity, or Hexproof, which are some of the decks tougher matchups, but I did face and defeat Jund three times and felt good about the tweaks I made to list to help better address that matchup.
Round 1: Bye
Round 2: Bye
Round 3: Win (2-0 VS Burn)
Round 4: Win (2-1 VS B/R Hollow One)
Round 5: Win (2-1 VS B/R Hollow One)
Round 6: Win (2-0 VS Eldrazi Tron)
Round 7: Win (2-0 VS Ironworks Combo)
Round 8: Loss (0-2 VS B/R Hollow One)
Round 9: Win (2-0 VS Burn)
Round 10: Win (2-1 VS U/R Gifts Storm)
Round 11: Win (2-0 VS Jund)
Round 12: Win (2-1 VS U/W Control)
Round 13: Win (2-0 VS Five-Color Humans)
Round 14: Win (2-1 VS Jund)
Round 15: Intentional Draw
Quarterfinals: Win (2-0 VS R/G Eldrazi)
Semifinals: Win (2-1 VS Bant Company)
Finals: Win (2-1 VS Jund)
Thanks for tuning in, and hopefully this helps you prepare for your next Modern tournament from either side of the matchups!
And now back to your regularly scheduled program…