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Vintage 101: More Human Than Humans!

More Human Than Humans!

Humans have done some amazing things throughout history. Humans put a human on the moon, and it was a human that created the polio vaccine. Humans even invented the device with which you are reading my words right now. More importantly than those things, however, is all the butt-kicking that humans have done in the Vintage format. In Vintage, players have to deal with insane card-drawing; lands that produce two, three, or even more mana; and all manner of deadly restricted spells. To put it bluntly, Humans as a tribe are a severe underdog in the eldest of eternal formats.

It's only as a tribe that Humans even stand a chance in this format. Taken as individual cards, most of the creatures in one of these Cavern of Souls / Null Rod decks are quite benign. However, when you add all of their abilities together, you start to see something dangerous. A good example of this would be Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. The original Thalia is a staple of any Humans deck, and her power has been utilized in hybrid tribal decks (like White Eldrazi) as well. 

Thalia is the great granddaughter of Sphere of Resistance. You can clearly see the evolution from the original resistor effect to Thorn of Amethyst, Lodestone Golem, and finally the Guardian of Thraben herself. 

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Resistor effects like the ones pictured above do not win games by themselves. In fact, just a single copy of any of those spells on the battlefield won't stop much outside of perhaps an easy Tendrils of Agony kill. However, when the mana tax is applied to an opponent in conjunction with things such as land destruction (Wasteland), mana denial (Phyrexian Revoker), or an aggressive board presence, then that one point of mana tax becomes severely detrimental.

The combination of utility, aggression, and prison elements is what makes a tribal Humans deck possible. Decks of this ilk aren't particularly popular, but they're better than people give them credit for. With that in mind, let's take a look at a five-color Humans deck that swept through a recent Magic Online Vintage League! 

Bleeding Rainbow—Tribal Humans in Five Colors

I have to say, this list looks really sweet. Playing five colors means that this archetype gets to use the best beaters and hatebears in each of the colors. Since this is Vintage, the mana isn't even hard to put together. 

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Cavern of Souls is a no-brainer in any creature-based deck that is even remotely tribal in nature. Cavern can give you perfect mana and the confidence to resolve your bombs with impunity. Up next, we have Mana Confluence, a slight upgrade from City of Brass. Although City and Confluence are almost functionally identical, the fact that Mana Confluence doesn't ping you when it's tapped down by Tangle Wire gives it a slight edge in Vintage (it also doesn't die to City in a Bottle).

Unclaimed Territory is an interesting choice, but I think it's actually perfect for Jogee's build. When this card was spoiled, it drew comparisons to Cavern of Souls, as it has the same text minus the uncounterability clause. The protection against counters is why people use Cavern, though, so I assumed that there wouldn't be a big draw to Unclaimed Territory. However, this particular list is built so that Unclaimed Territory can cast any creature in the entire deck. The only non-human here is Phyrexian Revoker, and the colorless mana this land makes works just fine for this application. So, in this list, Unclaimed Territory becomes a painless Mana Confluence. Notably, Jogee's list does not run any non-creature spells (other than some mana rocks). This differs from the strategy that previous Five-Color Humans decks have used.

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Wasteland and Strip Mine round out the lands in the deck. These are staples for creature-based decks, as they serve to hinder an opponent while allowing the deck to remain aggressive during the combat phase. While the land destruction isn't vital to each matchup, these cards can often turn the tide in otherwise unwinnable games. For example, a Turn 1 Strip of a Dredge player's Bazaar of Baghdad could slow them down to the point where they lose game one. The chances of taking game one against Dredge still aren't very high, but without one of these land-destruction cards, there's basically no chance whatsoever. 


One of the most interesting things about this list, in my opinion, is the fact that it drops nearly every single non-creature card that Five-Color Humans usually plays. Other than Black Lotus, the five Moxen, and Null Rod, all the non-land cards are creatures! Most of those creatures are used for disruption as well as combat. Let's take a look.

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Harsh Mentor was quite popular for a while, although it seems to have slowed down recently. Even so, its efficacy is well-documented at this point. The "other" Mentor serves to apply pressure via combat as well as by making most on-board abilities quite painful. 

Meddling Mage has been a staple of Vintage and Legacy creature decks for a long time. There's only one Mage in this list, so it's not a huge part of the strategy, but there are plenty of ways in which it can be of use. Kitesail Freebooter is a card that I've not seen played elsewhere in Vintage, but it seems like it could be very powerful in this deck (especially in combination with Meddling Mage, as it allows you to Peek at an opponent's hand). The Freebooter has an ability that we've seen on many cards, from Duress to Mesmeric Fiend. As a human, Kitesail Freebooter gives the deck an uncounterable Duress in conjunction with Cavern of Souls, and that seems like a fine ability to me. 

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Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Thalia, Heretic Cathar combine to do an excellent job of keeping opponents off-kilter. Each of the opponent's removal spells will cost more, and with their lands coming into play tapped, it will be that much harder to build up the mana needed to play spells. When facing an opposing deck that utilizes creatures (token-based or otherwise), Thalia, Heretic Cathar delays any attempts at building up a blocking force.

Phyrexian Revoker's ability plays well with the two Thalias, but it's fine on it's own as well. The primary use for Revoker is to shut off the opponent's mana artifacts, but it's also great at hitting planeswalkers or the occasional Time Vault. As a two-power creature for two mana, it's perfectly serviceable on the battlefield as well. 

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Kambal and Scab-Clan Berserker give this deck protection against the broken combo decks by making most "one big turn" type strategies impossible to utilize. The cantrip-centric builds that many Vintage decks use also become a liability when facing down Kambal, Consul of Allocation or Scab-Clan Berserker.

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Manic Vandal isn't incredibly impressive, but it's a Human that can take out an artifact. Sometimes, killing one artifact is the difference between living or dying in a game of Magic. It's also good to remember that "187 creatures" like the Vandal represent incremental card advantage as they trade for an opponent's card while leaving behind another permanent. 

Reflector Mage is one of the only ways this deck has to deal with an opponent's creature. This is an important ability that could save your life when you're fighting against a Griselbrand or Blightsteel Colossus.

Creatures Continued

A few of the creatures in the list exist solely to add pressure via combat.

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Mayor of Avabruck and Thalia's Lieutenant  act as anthem effects (or Crusade effects, if you're a dinosaur like myself). Mayor can also transform into a token-generating creature, but both sides of the card are here for the sole purpose of enhanced aggression. Of all the creatures in this list, I think these are possibly the ones I'm least excited about. I understand the job that they do, but I wonder if it would be smarter to use these slots on Containment Priest instead. Dredge and Oath seem quite prevalent in the current online meta, at least prevalent enough to make main-deck Containment Priests a decent choice. Still, a few turns into the game, either one of these power-and-toughness-buffing effects is likely to increase attacking power by quite a bit, and perhaps that's good enough to warrant the slots. 

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The last two creatures in the deck are Noble Hierarch and Dark Confidant. These two creatures are auto-includes in any creature-based deck like this, provided the deck is able to cast them. Noble Hierarch is great mana fixing, and the exalted ability is useful fairly often as well. Dark Confidant is the only source of card advantage in the entire deck, outside of any two-for-one trades with a utility creature. 

The mana curve is low enough that Dark Confidant can easily "draw" extra cards for you without you worrying about the life loss. The 2/1 body isn't amazing in combat, but it's on-curve and perfectly adequate. I suppose that creatures like this are the real reason for the Mayor of Avabrucks in the list. 

The Sideboard

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The sideboard is mostly made up of additional hatebears. Priest and Jailer are great against Dredge; Kataki is nice against Shops; and if you're facing Oath, you can bring in a combination of Containment Priest, Aegis of the Gods, and the single Grafdigger's Cage. Aegis can also do some work against combo decks that win with Tendrils of Agony.

The sideboard also contains Orzhov Pontiff and Thalia's Lieutenant. I'm not sure about those two. Additional anthem effects don't seem necessary to me. The Pontiff's ability to shrivel the opponent's creature's power and toughness could be relevant, but I feel like there are removal spells that could do the same job much better. 

Humans in Vintage

I have a lot of respect for this archetype. The strategy of playing a deck that's almost entirely made up of aggressive creatures has proven its merit, even if it's not a mainstream idea. Interestingly enough, this all-in aggro strategy is basically the approach that Workshop decks have evolved into over the past year. Since Shops decks lost more and more lock pieces, the decks simply replaced them with more beatdown, and it's worked well for them. However, Workshops and Humans are quite different in practice, so what works for one archetype won't automatically work for the other. 

Even though Workshop decks are playing more creatures than any other card type, it's important to remember that they are still packing a lot of prison elements. As long as a Human-based aggro / prison deck is playing enough hatebears and disruptive creatures, it's perfectly fine to play a small number of spells. It wouldn't take all that much to fit a few key spells into Jogee's Humans deck either. By replacing Unclaimed Territory with City of Brass or Gemstone Mine, this deck could open itself up to playing the restricted blue spells like Time Walk and Ancestral Recall. Both of those spells are worth playing, in my opinion, especially Time Walk

Other candidates for main-deck or sideboard inclusion would be Abrupt Decay, Swords to Plowshares, Chains of Mephistopheles, and possibly Stony Silence. Path to Exile could be even better than Swords to Plowshares in this deck, as it doesn't have any effect on your opponent's life total. The lack of removal in the list was a bit worrisome to me because good blockers are the last thing a deck like this wants to see. Swarming around a blocker is always a possibility, but oftentimes it would be better to just remove the problem entirely. 

For reference, let's take a look at an older (but still very similar) build of Five-Color Humans:

As you can see, most of the cards are the same. There are still a ton of creatures here, but there are five slots for instants and sorceries too: three copies of Abrupt Decay for removal, Time Walk, and Ancestral Recall. Taking an extra turn is exceptionally strong in an aggro deck, so including this makes a ton of sense. Ancestral Recall is also incredible, but I could live with cutting it, as it is difficult to resolve in a format with Mental Misstep. Other blue decks run their own Missteps or discard spells, so they have a better shot at resolving an Ancestral.

Sam Castrucci's build plays Grand Abolisher, which is a bit like a Defense Grid in that it can allow this deck to actually resolve its spells. If I were building a Humans deck, I would probably run Abolisher as well. It's nice to have more than just Cavern of Souls to protect against counter magic. 

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Stony Silence plays a prominent role in the sideboard of Sam's build, and I think it earns its spot. Paradoxical Outcome isn't nearly as big of a presence as it was formerly, but Stony Silence has applications in many other matchups as well. Sam was running Stony Silence in a field full of Arcbound Ravagers, but players were still stuck with Triskelion in their decks, as Walking Ballista had not been printed yet. The addition of Ballista to the format makes Stony Silence an even smarter card to play, in my opinion. 

Final Thoughts

I think that decks like Five-Color Humans, various Fish decks, and even mono-white Hatebears are better than people give them credit for. These decks do lack some of the raw power that the Workshop / Ancient Tomb decks have, but the trade-off is that these disruptive aggro decks are less restricted in which cards they can play. When you're playing a deck with one to five colors, you obviously have a lot more options than if you were solely casting colorless cards. 

Also, much like how Workshops seems to get better with time, these creature decks can often do the same. Wizards decided a long time ago that it wanted to push creatures over spells, so each set brings the promise of a potential new staple to discover.

Until next time, please be good to each other (seriously...). You can find me on Twitter / TMD / Magic Online @Islandswamp




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