If one alludes to an article, one needs to follow-through. In literature, the principle is known as Chekov's Gun. Last week, I created expectations for an article about my experiences testing Humans, so this week I have to actually write that article. Which is fortunate; I've tested enough that I'm able to discuss the various variations I've encountered, because I've actually tested them. And the conclusion I've reached is that Humans is in a weird place in this developing metagame.
That's not much of a revelation. It's a new metagame filled with new decks; of course a deck will be in a weird place. The whole format is weird, how could it not be? And that is true. However, what I mean is that Humans has a ton of options available, and the correct decision is entirely based on how everything else shakes out. Some options are better in a slower Modern, others fast, and many could be good in either depending on what decks are seeing play. So it is obviously impossible for me to cover everything in one article. However, I can give a general overview of post-Modern Horizons 2 Humans and provide some guidance for tuning the deck once the metagame starts to make sense.
The Key is the Core
The key to tuning any deck is remembering what the deck wants to do and the cards that make that happen. I realize that this seems obvious, but I've made the mistake of over-tuning my deck before, just like everyone else, so it bears repeating. Every deck has some core of cards that define that deck and are critical to its identity, strategy, and metagame position. Any changes made to that core are risky, though potentially rewarding, as Jund Rock learned when it adopted Death's Shadow and Lurrus of the Dream-Den. The Humans core is rather small, which makes brewing and tuning around it relatively easily. Players also seem to agree on that core, based on decklists I've seen anyway, though I don't think it's ever been outright stated anywhere. Which is odd, because it's only four cards:
I process a lot of decklists to make the metagame updates, and when Humans make the standing, these four cards are (almost) always four-ofs. Every other card varies wildly in number and even whether it's included. These four cards are always in a Humans list, and are never less than a three-of. In those rare cases, it's almost always Meddling Mage getting trimmed. The reason these are the core cards is that Humans is an aggro deck first and foremost, and uses creature-based disruption to seal games. Champion is the best beater available. Lieutenant is both another beater and a way to make the team an actual threat. Mantis is another solid body but also has haste and evasion, making it a burn spell too. Meddling Mage is the best disruptive creature at its mana cost, but it also requires a lot of format knowledge, which is why it's often cut.
This list does not include Aether Vial. Vial is a card I'd never cut from Humans or even trim maindeck, but that is not a universally held position. I've run across a number of decks that didn't run Vial. I find that mystifying, but it happens. However, even if Vial was universal, I still wouldn't place it in the same category as the core creatures. Vial facilitates the disruptive aggro plan, but is not a part of it. Vial is also doing a lot of mana fixing and smoothing, making it the key enabler for the deck, but not part of the core strategy. Semantics aside, I'd still never cut Vial from Humans.
Don't Forget Your Roots
The other key to remember with Humans is that there is a reason that 5-Color Humans has been the standard for the deck since 2017 (although there have been numerous other versions over the years). A not-insignificant aspect is that the prismatic mana base allows Humans to play the best humans available while any less colorful deck will have to make compromises if not sacrifices. It also means that the Humans sideboard is among the most flexible available. It's not necessarily more powerful than any other sideboard, but if there's an effect that's needed (and it's on a creature), Humans can run it.
However, the biggest reason for 5-Color's displacement of other variations is that it has the best game 1 against the field. Every Humans deck must ask itself if it has a better opening sequence than Noble Hierarch into Mantis Rider, attack for 4. In certain contexts and matchups, that is absolutely possible. For example, Esper Sentinel into Thalia is stronger against many control lists. However, in a vacuum, the answer is no: there is no more aggressive Humans opening. And remember, killing the opponent is the ultimate form of disruption. I've tested plenty of Jeskai and Esper variants recently, and while they have advantages over 5-Color, it's only in very specific instances. Thus, I'd stick with 5-Color unless something drastically changes in the metagame where said specific instances are more common.
Thus, the first question when dealing with Humans post-Modern Horizons 2 is whether it's even worthwhile to change the deck. The template from 2017 is still quite solid, which is probably why it's the most common version I've seen so far. Humans has received a lot of Modern playable cards over the past year. I've tested and/or actually played Charming Prince, Containment Priest, General Kudro of Drannith, Drannith Magistrate, Elite Spellbinder, Luminarch Aspirant, Sanctum Prelate, Sanctifier en-Vec, and Silverquill Silencer. There's no way to integrate all those cards, so maybe don't bother. Humans has always played 1-3 flex slots, so rather than try to reinvent the wheel, just slot in the right card for the job given the expected metagame. I ran this fairly standard list to 3-1 at my last FNM, beating Amulet Titan, Grixis Death's Shadow, and a 4-Color pile, losing to Burn when I drew poorly.
The deck runs as well today as it ever has, so why change everything? I was running Prelate anticipating lots of Prowess, control, and cascade. There was a lot of control present, but I didn't hit any. In fact, I only drew Prelate once against Burn where I was mana screwed. Had I cast Prelate, I probably win that game, but I couldn't and don't. The deck was still solid in the open meta, my sideboard was broad enough to cover the field, and a blistering Humans attack was still very strong. There's no compelling reason for me to change up the formula.
I did test Sanctifier en-Vec over the Grafigger's Cages. Sanctifier is much better against Prowess and Dredge, but significantly worse everywhere else. I didn't expect much Dredge, but I did expect lots of Collected Company decks, so Cage was the choice.
The Big Weakness
The biggest problem with this list is that it's so well known at this point, every competitive player should have a plan against it. Humans is just as weak to Torpor Orb, Blood Moon, and sweepers as it ever was. And as soon as your first tribal land hits the field, your opponent will be drawing on their years of experience against Humans to plan their counter. And it will work because, again, this is Humans 2017 style.
The Big Strength
That's not the end of the world, because 2017 Humans is still very strong. Plus, it's not exactly a metagame force online anymore. Any player that is basing their deck and sideboard decisions on MTGO will overlook Humans to your advantage.
However, there are players trying to actually innovate with Humans. The first place I saw them go was incorporating Shardless Agent for basically the same reasons that Jund ran Bloodbraid Elf. And it works.
When I tested this deck, I thought it was a bit top-heavy, and ended up cutting a Reflector Mage to add back Kitesail Freebooter. The curve felt better, but Freebooter wasn't the most inspiring cascade hit. Which was something of a problem for Humans. Agent does its job very well, but all it finds are 2/2's for 2. The best hit is Lieutenant, but it's very annoying that Agent isn't on the battlefield when Lieutenant resolves. Still, the deck was still very solid and a reasonable option.
The Big Weakness
That said, I feel that a lot more work needs to be done to make Shardless Humans a real contender. A lot of the aforementioned problems are more my unreasonable expectations in comparing Agent in Humans to Bloodbraid in Jund. The former will always be weaker than the latter, and it's unreasonable to expect anything else. Shardless is being played because it's a human that can find another human and immediately cast it, netting a huge swing in card advantage and tempo.
The problem is that sometimes that doesn't happen. Hitting a Hierarch in general isn't great and Phantasmal Image on an empty board is heartbreaking, but both are manageable. The worst is hitting Aether Vial, and in fact that card is Agent's biggest stumbling block. Drawing lots of Vials is a great way to lose with Humans generally, but cascading into a card which will be effectively blank at that point in the game really hurts. The bigger problem is that Agent is only valuable when it is cast. Vialing in Agent is a huge waste, and that is frequently the only way to hit three drops in a 19-land deck. My testing indicated that Humans would be better off dropping the Vials and running extra lands and some more hits to maximize the Agent. However, that deck had its own problems.
The Big Strength
That said, it is definitely worth trying to make Agent work because Humans has forever longed for a card advantage creature in grindy matchups. Militia Bugler tried but couldn't really fill that slot, and Dark Confidant was just too fragile. Shardless has some of Bugler's problems in that it can't hit Mantis Rider, but it always hits a card right away and pays for it, which is miles better than Bugler or Confidant can manage. If the format were more Jund and control oriented, Shardless would be the way to go. The question is how to make the cascades better.
The other option that players (including myself) have tried is Imperial Recruiter. Again, Humans wants card advantage creatures, and Recruiter is a tutor and a body. An amazingly anemic body that still doesn't tutor for Mantis Rider, but it does hit every other commonly played human. I ran two in my flex slots and thought they were pretty meh. Finding a Lieutenant to break through was great, and so was finding Meddling Mage right before a combo turn. However, Recruiter was such a weak threat on its own that unless I'd set up everything with Vial already, its impact was mediocre. Still, other players are finding success using Recruiter in a toolbox fashion.
Madaa really went all-in on the toolbox with a sideboard filled with tutorable bullets. And if you want to go this route, I would advise fully committing, perhaps even more than madaa did. However, there is a problem with the deck.
The Big Weakness
Or rather it's a problem with toolboxes in general. If you fill the maindeck with bullets but aren't in the right matchup for that bullet, you're drawing a blank. Plus, toolbox decks necessarily lean heavily on said their tutors. This deck is playing fewer disruptive creatures than the other decks with the expectation that Recruiter will make up the difference. And that is a huge weight to place on a three-of 3-drop. In my testing, Recruiter struggled to carry that load, which consequently meant the deck really struggled and felt clunky.
The Big Strength
The same strength that every toolbox deck has: when it works, it really works. For all Recruiter's struggles in game 1's, it shone in sideboard games. Casting Recruiter on turn three and Vialing in the right piece of sideboard hate is utterly devastating in many matchups. To the point that I feel like the Recruiter deck wants to maximize that aspect. This means a full set of maindeck Recruiters and possibly another land to make casting Recruiter easier. This might mean trimming the other three drops more.
The thing with Humans is that it is always a strong deck and infinitely adaptable. I'm sure that more and wilder lists will make waves before too long. As for me, I'm going to stick with what I know and the standard Humans list because I don't think I need to fix what isn't broken. And also because my attempts to go a bit wild haven't worked out well, but that's a topic for next week!