Pioneers of the Worlds
I want to talk for a minute about another Wizards of the Coast produced game: Dungeons & Dragons.
D&D is an awesome way to interact with your friends and escape to incredible fantasy worlds and play as a fantastical array of classes and races, such as Elves, Orcs, or… Humans.
Humans are a playable D&D race that always stands out to people as being seemingly the most mundane option of player races. But I’ve always been partial to playing humans in D&D because of the versatility they offer. In fact, the Fifth Edition Player’s Handbook says that humans are “the innovators, the achievers, and the pioneers of the worlds” and they “tend toward no particular alignment. The best and worst are found among them.”
I think that’s a strong representation of humans in fantasy settings, and it’s a representation that translates well to Magic. Humans have historically been mass printed in all five colors, have been both heroes and villains, and have had a large array of abilities without being locked into one main theme.
In the Beginning, MinCash Played Humans
In Pioneer’s history, Human decks have adapted and evolved over the course of format. For the most part, through all the format’s ups and downs – from combo winter to this moment – a Human-based tribal deck has been able to persevere through harsh conditions and prosper.
One thing nearly every Humans deck has had in common is that it is base White. There’s Mono White Humans (like we’re seeing right now), but there has been Orzhov, GW, Bant, Esper, Abzan, and both four and five-color variants. For the most part, though, the decks have been based in White.
For instance, in the MTGO Challenge from Oct. 28, 2019 – just a week after the format debuted – in a world with Oko, Thief of Crowns, Veil of Summer, and Felidar Guardian still legal, MTGO user MinCash piloted a now five-tix list to a 6-2 record, good for 28th overall in that Challenge.
Despite the fact that it’s missing several of the cards that give Humans their identity now, the core of today’s decks remain the same, with cards like Thalia’s Lieutenant and Thraben Inspector, which you will still see in nearly every humans list today regardless of color combination.
Humans Among Gods
As we venture into 2020, Humans decks stuck around – even with the printing of Theros, which brought on Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath to warp formats, as well as allowing new combos thanks to Heliod, the Sun Crowned, Thassa’s Oracle, and Underworld Breach. Even still, 5C Humans prevailed, with a Collected Company list piloted by Noah Miller to Top 8 a SCG IQ in Eau Claire.
Part of the draw to 5C Humans is that it feels like a port from the Modern list. While it doesn’t have access to Modern’s Aether Vial, Mantis Rider was and continues to be a pretty solid card to play, and, thanks to Mana Confluence and Unclaimed Territory, the five-color mana base could be handled acceptably at the time. These things have only gotten better as time has gone on.
Our Lord Hath Come
With the next expansion though – Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths – humans got some pretty significant upgrades in General Kudro of Drannith and Dire Tactics. All of the sudden, there was a pretty good incentive to play Black in your Humans decks, which wasn’t necessarily the case before this. Both Kudro and Dire Tactics can be seen on display in a list piloted by UrbanPope in a Pioneer Preliminary on June 10.
Ikoria also brought another card that some Humans decks would utilize well, even overshadowing a card like General Kudro. Obviously, that card is Lurrus of the Dream-Den, yet another format-warping card that finds itself on ban lists across all Magic formats. But Orzhov and Mono White humans were two of the many, many decks using Lurrus, with a variant on display in a league 5-0 by MTGO user MarcioMatthew.
Ikoria also brought another powerful human – although not one that is powerful in decks that only have humans. Rather, Winota, Joiner of Forces, required a tactical mix of humans and non-humans for her to reach her highest potential. And that potential was not wasted, as Winota was one of the most powerful cards in the format, able to cheat out cards like Agent of Treachery, Angrath’s Marauders, (and, more recently, Tovolar’s Huntmaster or Blade Historian) as early as turn four. Winota was powerful, and according to Wizards of the Coast, too powerful, even. Winota was banned in Pioneer on June 7, 2022, going where only one human had ever gone before as she joined Undercity Informer as the second human creature on the Pioneer ban list.
Core Set 2021 came and went without much fanfare as far as humans go, though I will give an honorable mention to Seasoned Hallowblade, which has shown up in a few different decklists, such as a challenge list from FujiColor400.
Zendikar Rising, however, would provide one of arguably the strongest humans ever, and was the most recent example in the trend of each Fall release consistently providing incredibly strong support for Humans. Luminarch Aspirant may not just be one of the best Human cards ever printed; it could very well be one of the strongest White creatures ever. Aspirant has become a mainstay of Mono-White and Orzhov Humans, though 5C Humans doesn’t typically play it. There’s an honorable mention from Zendikar, too, in Acquisitions Expert, which has seen some fringe play, competing with Kitesail Freebooter for the “two-drop disruption human” slot.
In addition to strong fall sets, Zendikar Rising kicked off a string of sets in which Human decks have gotten at least one relevant card. In Kaldheim though, the relevant Humans cards didn’t come in the form of creatures.
Rally and Pyre
Rally the Ranks has been included in some of the Lurrus Humans decks, but doesn’t get too much fanfare outside of that specific archetype. Streamer Conorman displayed Rally the Ranks after its debut in an Orzhov Humans list in a league in March of 2021 – a list that displayed another Humans role player in the common slot in Codespell Cleric.
While Humans decks to this point have looked largely the same, a Kaldheim card that spawned an entirely new Humans archetype is Pyre of Heroes. While Pyre decks still play a similar base to conventional Humans decks, Pyre of Heroes allows decks to play more silver bullet cards. One of the first iterations we saw was a five-color deck from Spencer Carver, which loads up on one-of Humans of all different abilities and colors. Pyre went through a bit of a lull period, but it’s been making a resurgence in Pioneer play as of late.
The other notable tool from both Kaldheim and Zendikar is, of course, the Pathway land cycle, with cards like Branchloft Pathway and Brightclimb Pathway, which gave Humans decks a cleaner mana base to work with.
Strixhaven, School of Humans
With Strixhaven came another standout human, and another addition to the ever-growing bevy of three-drops Humans lists have access to. Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa’s Mythic Championship card Elite Spellbinder burst onto the scene in April of 2021. Spellbinder added some firepower to Bant Company Human decks as an aggressive three-drop flier that could rip a wrath out of an opponent’s hand. It also gave that same versatility to Mono-White decks, which didn’t have the disruption options available in black to work with. Spellbinder is another card that has been pushed out of most decks you see now, (thanks to another white three-drop we’ll get too shortly) but it’s still a very reasonable card to jam in your Human deck.
Strixhaven also added another card we saw occasionally in Silverquill Silencer, which is a better fit for the most aggressive Humans decks, where the life loss can give a little bit of reach if you name the right card with it
Werewolves Are People, Too
Adventures in the Forgotten Realms added a strong option for the 5C decks, or at least incentivizing decks to splash green, depending on how greedy you want to be with your mana base.
Werewolf Pack Leader is a high upside, card-advantage generating two-drop, but the two G pips can make it a pain to cast a lot of the time. Nevertheless, some people are willing to overlook that casting cost, opting to look at the upside of the card, which is certainly plentiful.
The Humans of Innistrad
Of all the sets to juice up Humans in Pioneer, I think the most impactful one so far is Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. If you look at all the Innistrad sets, Humans have been one of the tribes to get the most support, up there with Spirits, Vampires, Zombies, and Werewolves.
In the first return to Innistrad, Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon, we got two of the cards that have absolutely defined Pioneer humans. You’ll find Thraben Inspector and Thalia’s Lieutenant in almost every Humans deck, nearly without exception. One of the key cards introduced to Pioneer for Humans was, of course, a reprint, as Thalia’s Lieutenant was joined by the original Thalia herself: Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Thalia had been one of the major cards separating Pioneer Humans from Modern, and reprinting Thalia gave Pioneer a huge boost.
You’ll see Thalia in most Human decks built since she became legal in the format – and rightfully so, as there was no speculation as to how good Thalia is. But now, you’ll also see Thalia curved out into another Midnight Hunt Legendary human in Adeline, Resplendent Cathar. Adeline was another huge boost for Human decks, though it took one additional domino to fall for her to really take off. Adeline creates a small army of humans on her own, and with four toughness, she cannot easily be killed. Both of these cards have given Humans decks (especially Mono White and Orzhov) a huge shot in the arm as of late, as they work in tandem. Sungold Sentinel also gets a little shout out here, as you’ll see Thalia and Sentinel in another list from Conorman below. Midnight Hunt also gave us Brutal Cathar and Graveyard Trespasser, adding even more options to the three-drop spot.
The second recent Innistrad set, Crimson Vow, gave the one-drop suite another option in Hopeful Initiate, which has seen a little play off-and-on, depending on how low-to-the-ground the deck is. A pet card of mine in Orzhov Humans decks lately has been Can’t Stay Away, and while this hasn’t made a push in lists quite yet for humans, I’m trying to lead the charge of people playing Can’t Stay Away.
Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty didn’t add much to Humans in the way of creatures, but it did juice up the land slot. Secluded Courtyard allowed the five-color mana base to become much more consistent, and also added the channel lands like Eiganjo, Takenuma and Boseiju, which you will see pop up in Humans lists. But between Kamigawa and Streets of New Capenna came a Banned and Restricted Update on March 7, 2022, which banned Lurrus from the format. Because of that, people started playing three-drops again, which led to the comeback of Adeline and Kudro, as you didn’t have to trade off the powerful three-drops for the immense power Lurrus provided.
As to where we are now with Streets of New Capenna, the big human addition was that of Extraction Specialist, which actually helped bring back the Pyre of Heroes archetype, specifically because of how Extraction Specialist, Pyre of Heroes, and Throne of Eldraine’s Charming Prince all interact with each other – which is to say they can create pretty absurd power loops with each other. But even without Pyre, Extraction Specialist has proven valuable in even Mono White decks, like Jon_W’s list here.
Hilariously, a non-human, Raffine, Scheming Seer, created a new archetype of humans, named after her. It’s an Esper deck that uses Raffine as a source of card advantage, and we also see newcomer Tenacious Underdog in this list, which is another incentive to play black.
New Capenna gets us to where we are now, and I think it’s interesting to see how the decks have changed as the new cards are released. You still have the mainstays like Thraben Inspector and Thalia’s Lieutenant that have defined the deck from the beginning, but at the same time, the decks are almost completely different. It’s interesting to compare the first Mono-White list from 2019 to a Mono White list you’d see now.
It’s adapted. It’s evolved. But most importantly, the deck has survived, and in many iterations. As of right now, you could reasonably play Mono W, Orzhov, Bant, Esper, 4C, and 5C. You can play mono-color, or two-color, or three or more with Pyre of Humans, Collected Company, or just straight up. And even two decks in the same color combination could look entirely different, just based on how many options there are to play (mainly in Orzhov). Heck, there are even two different Mono-White lists, just from last week’s preliminary, with this one from ura_first and this one from Bullz0Eye.
With Humans, much like in real life, there are endless possibilities in all shapes, sizes, mana values, and colors. There’s ways to adapt to every metagame within just the one archetype, and I think my favorite part is that while there are humans from many different planes – whether it be Innistrad or New Capenna – they stylistically still fit together, even though the differences in the world they live is drastic.
I’ll always have a soft spot for humans, and as one of the most-printed creature types in Magic, we’re bound to keep getting more and more as we go on, and I will look forward to seeing how the deck continues to evolve as more options present themselves.