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Deck Evolutions: Modern Humans

Five-Color Humans has been all the rage in Modern over the past couple of months. Seemingly out of nowhere, the deck took down an SCG Modern Open and parlayed this finish into heavy play, both in the paper world and Magic Online. While it might seem like Five-Color Humans appeared out of thin air to become a tier deck in Modern—and it is true that Humans are one of the later-developing tribes in Modern—like with most decks, Humans went through several iterations before eventually developing into a top-of-the-format deck. Where did Modern Humans come from, and where might it go next? That's our topic for today, as we are going to take a few minutes to explore the evolution of Humans in Modern and the path the tribe traveled to the top of the format!

Today's Modern Humans Deck Evolutions is actually the seventh installment; in the past, we've covered Modern Tron, Legacy Miracles, the now-extinct Modern Twin, Modern JundModern Dredge, and Modern Death's Shadow, so make sure to check them out if you missed any of them the first time around! Anyway, let's break down the evolution of Humans in Modern!

Naya Aggro Humans—April 2016

While the development of Humans in Modern started a while before the eventual breakout performance that brought the deck to the forefront of the format, it's also true that as far as Modern decks are concerned, Humans is one of the newest tribes on the block. Modern has been a format since 2011, and the first tournament finish posted by a Human deck was toward the beginning of 2016. What happened in 2016 that suddenly made Humans a playable tribe in Modern? Shadows over Innistrad block was released and gave the tribe a powerful two-mana lord. 

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The evolution of Humans in Modern started with the printing of Thalia's Lieutenant, which made playing a true Human tribal deck a possibility. The two-drop works not only like a lord, by pumping all humans with +1/+1 counters when it enters the battlefield, but also as a backup version of Champion of the Parish—one of Humans' biggest threats. Speaking of Champion of the Parish, it did show up in fringe Modern decks before 2016 but not really in Human tribal decks. Its most common home was lifegain / Soul Sisters decks that used Norin the Wary as a way to grow the one-drop or in Allies—even though Champion of the Parish isn't an Ally itself, the rest of the Allies happen to be Humans, which made it a good secondary one-drop for aggressive builds. 

As you can see, the first build of Humans to show up in Modern was a pretty straightforward Naya brew looking to get aggressive with a bunch of one-drops, dump its hand quickly with the help of Burning-Tree Emissary, and then use Thalia's Lieutenant and Mayor of Avabruck as lords to turn the small Humans into real threats. Maybe the most interesting part of the deck is that it doesn't play Aether Vial or Collected Company, instead filling out the deck with a bunch of burn spells, making the initial build of Modern Humans into an all-in aggro / Zoo-style deck.

4C Company Humans—July 2016

Major Additions: Collected Company, Mantis Rider, Reflector Mage, Meddling Mage, Jace, Vryn's Prodigy, Path to Exile.

Unfortunately for Naya Humans, people realized pretty quickly that if you are just looking to play efficient threats and back them up with burn spells, you're better off playing literal Burn or even Zoo than Human tribal, so the aggro / burn-spell build of Humans never really took off. However, the tribe evolved just a couple of months later, morphing from an all-in aggro shell to a more resilient, slightly slower Collected Company build. 

It's here that we start to see some of the pieces associated with the current Five-Color Human deck enter the fray in Reflector Mage, Mantis Rider, and a single copy of Meddling Mage. Of course, the initial reason to put these cards in the deck was to improve Collected Company, which is a bit less powerful when you are hitting Savannah Lions compared to Reflector Mages and Mantis Riders. 

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The strange thing about Four-Color Human Company is that it didn't catch on right away. While it had a couple of other random tournament finishes in 2016, the real story of 2016 is that it was the year of experimentation as far as Humans in Modern are concerned. At this point, one thing every Human player seemed to agree on was that Champion of the Parish and Thalia's Lieutenant formed the foundation of a potentially competitive deck, but no one was really sure which support shell was best. Over the rest of 2016, we saw straight GW Human Company show up at GP Lille, Mono-White Human Aggro win a SCG IQ, and a Four-Color No Collected Company build 5-0 a Magic Online league. Basically, a lot of players recognized that the tribe had potential, but these players disagreed on how best to harness the power of Humans in Modern. While this changed in 2017 with Humans becoming more streamlined, there is one more 2016 Humans list that deserves some credit.

Five-Color Human Aggro—September 2016

Major Additions: Five-color lands like City of Brass, Mana Confluence, Gemstone Mine, and Ancient Ziggurat

Five-Color Human Aggro was basically a mashup of the first two lists we discussed, featuring the explosive power of Burning-Tree Emissary from the Naya Aggro build of Humans along with some of the top-end threats (like Mantis Rider) from the Collected Company builds of Humans. While the list itself wasn't great, putting up a single 5-0 on Magic Online before fading away, it is notable for one specific reason: Five-Color Human Aggro was the first build of the tribe to explore the potential of the five-color mana base that is so influential to current builds of the deck. Along with mainstay Cavern of Souls, the deck used City of Brass, Mana Confluence, Gemstone Mine, and even an Ancient Ziggurat to be able to cast any color Human at any time. 

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Having a massive 15 lands that tap for any color of mana to cast Humans allowed the deck to curve out in some really strange and powerful ways, like having white mana for Champion of the Parish on Turn 1, black mana for Dark Confidant on Turn 2, and both blue and red mana for Mantis Rider on Turn 3. Later, this five-color mana base would more or less become synonymous with the Human tribe in Modern. While some of the card choices in the deck were less than ideal, which kept the build from really breaking through, it does deserve credit for bringing the five-color mana base to Humans more than a year ago.

Five-Color Company Humans—May 2017

Major Additions: Sin Collector, Thalia, Heretic Cathar, the five-color sideboard.

By the first part of 2017, Humans was a tribe on the rise in Modern, and Collected Company had become the standard. The all-in aggro builds of Humans were just about completely gone, replaced by strange four- or five-color Collected Company builds. Much like the last evolution we talked about, you can argue that Five-Color Human Company was in some ways (more or less) a direct mashup of two of the previous builds. Toward the end of 2016, Humans builds were either five color without Collected Company or two / three color with Collected Company—the builds over the first few months of 2017 maintained the five-color flavor and some of the five-color lands but also added Collected Company to the mix. The combination of easy color fixing and Collected Company means that suddenly any Human was playable, which led to some interesting sideboard choices.

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While it was Hall of Famer Olle Rade who popularized the deck on Magic Online, putting up several strong finishes in a row in May 2017, as far as I can tell, the initial finish for Five-Color Human Company came from zOOrg89 on May 10, 2017. While the zOOrg89 build was rough around the edges, it did set the stage for the explosion of Five-Color Human Company lists over the next several months and deserves a lot of credit for the mashup of previous builds. 

The Five-Color Company build of Humans was the first time the tribe had experienced sustained success in Modern. In fact, the deck put up more finishes in just the months of June and July 2017 as all Humans builds combined managed in all of 2016. While there were some small tweaks to the build as time went on, with cards like Anafenza, the Foremost and even Abzan Falconer coming in and out of the deck, most of the Five-Color Company builds of Humans were within a handful of cards of the build that zOOgr89 and OlleR played in May. 

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While I'm not going to give the deck its own heading, since the build is very similar to the normal Five-Color Human Company list we've been talking about, it is worth mentioning that over the course of the summer of 2017, some Five-Color Human Company lists started slotting the Knight of the Reliquary / Retreat to Coralhelm combo into the deck. While the shell is essentially the same as Five-Color Company Humans, some players realized that it didn't take that many slots to make the semi-infinite combo work. Plus, Knight of the Reliquary already fit the theme of the deck as a Human. The other upside to playing Knight of the Reliquary in the deck is that it allowed for some powerful tutor-target lands, including Ghost Quarter to help against Tron, Horizon Canopy for card advantage, and Kessig Wolf Run as a finisher. While Retreat to Coralhelm never became the Standard for Human decks, it did show up in enough builds that it's worth remembering.

Disruptive Five-Color Humans and Stuff—August 2017

Major Additions: Spell Queller, Falkenrath Aristocrat, Lyev Skyknight, Meddling Mage, Qasali Pridemage

In some ways, the build of Humans that emerged in August 2017 is the clearest forerunner to the current build of the deck. Instead of relying on the aggro beatdown plan or Collected Company value, Disruptive Five-Color Humans and Stuff (yes, a horrible name, but it does describe the main idea of the deck) decided to go a more controlling route. While not a true control deck, it was almost the Human version of Death and Taxes, moving multiple copies of Meddling Mage into the main deck along with Spell Quellers, Lyev Skyknight, and Qasali Pridemage as additional ways to disrupt the opponent. 

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While some of the ideas put forth in this build of the deck have proven to have staying power (like playing a bunch of Meddling Mages in the main deck, along with the disrupting, taxing theme), Disruptive Five-Color Humans and Stuff had one huge problem: the "stuff" part of the deck. Unlike the other builds of Humans over Modern's history, which had all been dedicated to the Human plan, this build is pretty scattered. While it still has Human mainstays in Champion of the Parish and Thalia's Lieutenant, it also has a surprising number of non-Humans that don't really help the deck's primary plan. Both Spell Queller and Qasali Pridemage are powerful cards, but the fact that they aren't Human to trigger Champion of the Parish or benefit from Thalia's Lieutenant is awkward, and while Falkenrath Aristocrat can lead to surprise kills by sacrificing a bunch of Humans for a lethal attack, this is a very risky strategy, considering it only takes a single Path to Exile to ruin everything. 


Major Additions: Aether Vial, Kitesail Freebooter, Unclaimed Territory.

While the Five-Color Company builds of Humans brought the tribe into the Modern consciousness over the first half of 2017, it was the second half of 2017 when Humans finally came into its own, thanks to a couple of cards from Ixalan along with one major innovation. Before talking about the changes that suddenly pushed the Human tribe to the very top of the Modern format after nearly two years of building, innovation, and evolution, it's important to point out that while Collin Mullins deserve a ton of credit for popularizing the current build of the deck with a string of impressive tournament finishes, many of the innovations to the current build came from the Magic Aids YouTube in a video posted shortly after Ixalan was released.

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In some ways, the current build of Humans isn't that much different from the last build we talked about, with a primary game plan of being disruptive rather than being fully dedicated to aggression or Collected Company value. However, the release of Ixalan, which brought with it the printing of Kitesail Freebooter, allowed the deck to drop the "stuff" and eliminate a lot of the anti-synergy that came along with Spell Queller and Qasali Pridemage. With Kitesail Freebooter in the fold, Humans could be disruptive while also playing 100% cards that trigger Champion of the Parish and Thalia's Lieutenant, which was a huge improvement for the deck. 

The second big Ixalan addition to the deck was Unclaimed Territory, which gives Humans the ability to play the five-color mana base that first popped up back in 2016, but without taking damage from City of Brass or Mana Confluence and without worrying about running out of Gemstone Mine counters. With the combination of Cavern of Souls and Unclaimed Territory to go along with Ancient Ziggurat, the deck had 12 five-color lands that came with very little downside. While taking a bit of damage here and there might not seem like a bit deal—and in most individual matches, it isn't that big of a deal—having good mana for free is actually a huge improvement when it comes to being able to win large tournaments with a deck, where losing a single round thanks to City of Brass damage or Gemstone Mine mana screw can easily be the difference between making and missing the Top 8.

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While the new Ixalan cards certainly helped the deck, perhaps the biggest innovation came in the form of one of the oldest cards in the Modern format: Aether Vial. Surprisingly, in all of my research on the history of Humans in Modern, I couldn't find a single tournament finish for a Humans list featuring Aether Vial before the current build. Having the one-mana artifact is a huge boon for the deck by further improving the mana base while also allowing for some powerful tricks like putting a Kitesail Freebooter into play on your opponent's draw step to steal whatever they drew for the turn or pumping your team with Thalia's Lieutenant after blockers are declared. 

This combination of a powerful old card that apparently was never tested with Humans before along with some new additions created the perfect storm that pushed Humans to the top of the format. The Collected Company builds that were so popular just a few months ago have almost completely faded away, while the new Aether Vial build has become the default version of Humans and is currently the third-most-played deck in the format. 


What does the future hold for Humans in Modern? While we'll have to wait and see if the current build of the deck has staying power, there's little doubt that Humans have made a place for themselves in Modern and are here to stay. Not only is the tribe already a top tier deck, but more Humans are printed in just about every set. Take Ixalan, for example. Even though the set is about Dinosaurs, Pirates, Merfolk, and Vampires, Humans had more tribe members printed in the set than half of those tribes. In fact, 142 Humans are currently legal in Standard, more than double the next most popular tribe. This means that Humans are improving, set by set, faster than any other tribe in Magic. They already have a strong foundation to build from, with the Champion of the Parish / Thalia's Lieutenant base that has been played in Modern as long as it has been legal. This combination means that, even if the current build of Humans doesn't end up being tier one over the long haul, it would be shocking if Humans aren't back near the top of the format before long. They are already overloaded with powerful tribe members and are still improving quickly. 

As far as the evolutions of Humans, it's really interesting to see the way that the deck has evolved into the tier-one monster it is today. If you look back over the various iterations, most of the changes are relatively small, and many were essentially mashups of two of the previous builds of the deck. This constant mashing together—Aggro Humans with Collected Company, Collected Company Humans with the Five-Color Mana, Five-Color Mana with Aggro Humans—after nearly two years finally gave us a super-sweet deck. Perhaps my favorite part of the entire history of Humans is how the list that was most similar to the current breakout build put up a 4-3 finish and was only published thanks to the fact that Wizards publishes the top 32 decks from Magic Online format challenges without regard to the deck's record. If the deck had been played in a league instead of a format challenge, a link in our evolutionary chain might be missing, and it's possible that we'd still be playing Five-Color Company Humans, instead of the sweet new Ixalan-infused Humans deck we have today!


Anyway, that's all for today. What do you think of the current build of Humans? Does it have the necessary power to stay near the top of Modern? What do you think the next evolution for the tribe will be? Let me know in the comments, and as always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions. As always, you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at

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