The Flex slots in Humans
There was a time, for a brief moment, when everyone agreed on what the 60 mainboard cards in Humans should be. (Or at least, nobody was vocal with their dissent.) When [[Militia Bugler]] was released, everyone thought that the card would be an easy four-of in humans, as it really helped in most of your bad matchups (Jeskai, Mardu Pyro, and the then up-and-coming UW). A little bit of testing later and most people settled on three being the correct number. For about two weeks, almost every Humans mainboard was the same 60 cards. Gone were the days of [[Restoration Angel]] and [[Dark Confidant]], and the deck seemed stronger than ever. Alas, as history has shown us: peace can never last, and the next war began. This time the conflict was between the newly crowned [[Militia Bugler]] and the old favorite [[Thalia, Heretic Cathar]]. In this article I will be discussing not only my stance on this mainboard debate, but also going into all of the sideboard options that I think are worth talking about.
Now I have been playing and tuning my Humans list basically since the deck’s inception, and I have definitely built up a reputation as the guy to talk to in Bellingham with regards to the deck. I have been around since the days of [[Mayor of Avabruck]], and even through the turbulent times of trying to support [[Collected Company]] with a legitimately awful mana base. There is, however, a time that I think most people have since forgotten, and that’s when [[Thalia, Heretic Cathar]] was a mainstay in the deck. Thalia was a very consistent two-of in most Humans decks before [[Phantasmal Image]] grew in popularity, and she quickly got cut along with Mayor of Avabruck as soon as people realized just how good the Image was. I, however, was one of the few people who was so happy with [[Thalia, Heretic Cathar]] that I decided to make room for the Images elsewhere, cutting one [[Thalia, Guardian of Thraben]] and going down to 20 lands from the usual 21 of the time (and also going up to four [[Horizon Canopy]] because I felt the deck lost to flood more often than anything else). This left the deck with a few flex slots; most people’s favorites being the fourth [[Reflector Mage]], the fourth [[Thalia, Guardian of Thraben]] and one [[Kessig Malcontents]]. After some more time, people started experimenting with different flex slots such as [[Restoration Angel]] and [[Dark Confidant]]. All the while, I was still holding fast that Thalia was the flex slot of choice, and I played two in my deck up until Militia Bugler was released.
Bugler V Thalia
Clearly, I am a huge fan of [[Thalia, Heretic Cathar]]. As such, I am here to tell you why I think you should be playing [[Militia Bugler]]. So first and foremost, I should start by saying there is no strictly correct choice. The better card to be playing in your deck depends on what the meta you’re playing in looks like. Thalia is at its best against Tron, and is slightly better than Bugler in matchups that rely on creatures and play a good amount of non-basics such as Hardened Scales, Humans, and Spirits. Bugler shines in matchups where your opponent’s primary gameplan is dealing with all of your threats, such as UW, Jeskai, Mardu Pyromancer, and Jund. Bugler is also slightly better than Thalia in most combo matchups, because Bugler tends to be quite a bit better in the matchups where neither card shines.
In a normal tournament, such as Day 1 of a GP, a PPTQ, and even your local modern tournament, you will likely only play against tier 1 decks about ⅓ of the time, with another ⅓ being decks you will be familiar with but aren’t great, and the remaining ⅓ being rogue decks. I find that Bugler tends to be much better against most of the decks in that second category, because it will help you find your best cards that help you beat up on the decks that are fighting on a less powerful axis than you are. I also think that when Thalia isn’t good in a matchup, it is one of the worst cards in your deck - a trait that is almost never true of Militia Bugler. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of matchups where you will be boarding out Bugler. Even so, I tend to prefer consistent cards with a high floor in my main deck, and that is why I give the three slots all to Bugler.
Earlier, you may have noticed that when I mentioned that Humans lists have somewhat converged, I very specifically avoided mentioning the sideboard. That is because the current state of humans has the most disagreed-upon sideboard I have seen in Modern Magic. It seems as though every single player has a very different opinion on what your sideboard should look like - it is entirely possible for two players to be playing the same 60 card main deck and have zero sideboard cards in common. The variety of viable options you have to choose from is currently one of the biggest assets to experienced Humans players. You can customize your sideboard to beat whatever you think you will need to beat on any given day. I recommend you use this as a guideline for customizing your deck, as opposed to just copying somebody else’s list. With this deck you can afford to change your sideboard as often as you change your clothes, so utilize the versatility. With that, here is my opinion on the cards you can be playing in your sideboard.
[[Auriok Champion]]: This is one of the cards that I have a minority opinion on. I am not a huge fan of this card, as I think it is too low-impact in every matchup that isn’t Burn. I think your Burn matchup is good enough without this card that you don’t need to have dedicated sideboard slots for the matchup. I think Champion usually isn’t impactful enough against decks where you want it for the protection, as a 1/1 usually isn’t threatening.
[[Dismember]]: I like this card a lot. I find that the versatility you gain over a card like [[Gut Shot]] is well worth the extra mana and life. This card comes in against most creature matchups, a lot of combo decks, and even against control decks as an answer to [[Baneslayer Angel]]. This may be one of the cards that I bring in the most out of the sideboard, and I don’t think I would register a 75 without at least one.
[[Gaddock Teeg]]: As a non-Human creature in the sideboard, the bar has to be set pretty high for any card to make the cut. Luckily for Teeg, he may just be the best sideboard card for the current meta. As a complete all-star against Control, Tron, and KCI (3 matchups that are all close) I love having access to this card. Be careful not to go overboard on them as they are both legendary and difficult to cast.
[[Grafdigger’s Cage]]: This one is a bit less popular but it definitely has its uses. I don’t think that this card is super great against graveyard decks like Bridgevine or Dredge. While it disrupts their gameplan, you aren’t super scared of that axis of their deck. That being said, if it is in your sideboard you would certainly bring it in against those decks. Where I do think this card is very good is against the creature combo decks playing [[Chord of Calling]] and [[Collected Company]], such as Counters Company. Being able to turn off a large amount of their ability to find the combo essentially turns the matchup into a couple of creature decks, with yours being vastly stronger. As such I view this card as a narrow but strong sideboard card. I would put an amount of this card in my list if I wanted to beat Counters Company, and take the random upside against graveyard decks. I would not do it the other way around.
[[Gut Shot]]: As previewed above when discussing [[Dismember]], I think that this card is just worse. I have never really been a fan of the card as I think it’s just too low-impact. I want high-impact cards in my sideboard, and while I would bring this card in against things like Humans, it just doesn’t seem good enough to warrant a sideboard slot. Even against Infect where the card is at its best, [[Izzet Staticaster]] tends to be better.
[[Izzet Staticaster]]: This card is great. It’s the best card in a number of matchups and can really get out of hand in multiples. Two of this card is as close to a hard-and-fast rule in the Humans sideboard as you can get.
[[Kataki, War’s Wage]]: As previously stated, the bar for non-Human creatures is pretty high, and right now I don’t think Kataki is quite good enough. Affinity is at an all-time low except for the new Hardened Scales variant, against which Kataki is still very good against, but not nearly as game-ending. Kataki also has merit against KCI but once again isn’t the game-ending threat you want it to be, as a lot of their artifacts want to be sacrificed anyways, and their mana usually isn’t a problem when they are comboing.
[[Reclamation Sage]]: Another non-Human creature steps up to the plate in Rec Sage, and this one I think is a worthy competitor. Rec Sage took the spot of [[Vithian Renegades]] somewhat recently in most Humans builds as the added versatility of being able to answer enchantments became more relevant with the meta. I think this is a card you are almost forced to play at least one copy of right now, so you aren’t just dead to cards like [[Worship]] and [[Ensnaring Bridge]].
[[Riders of Gavony]]: The new hot tech for the mirror has arrived. People have been trying to tech their deck for the mirror for a very long time and it has always been somewhat in vain. The existence of [[Phantasmal Image]] means that any sweet creatures you put in your deck have the ability to just get copied and used against you, which happens tragically often. Another strike against this card is that I don’t actually think this card is all that game-ending in the mirror, like many people believe it to be. The mirror rarely plays out in a giant board stall; whichever player is on the play usually has good attacks and will thus be attacking, forcing trades/blocks/attack back. [[Reflector Mage]] is another card that lends itself to less stalled out board states. The common play pattern for this matchup means that your four-mana “mirror breaker” will usually come down and end up giving a couple ground creatures unblockable and get in for five or six extra points. That effect is good but often won’t change the end result of a game. As such I’m not super high on this card, and I think some of your best cards in the mirror are the ones already in your main deck: [[Mantis Rider]], [[Reflector Mage]], and [[Thalia’s Lieutenant]].
[[Sin Collector]]: This card has been great for me. As a three-mana 2/1 Human it’s about on cost with our other three-mana disruptive threats. Coming down and just exiling a card from your opponent's hand is very powerful. They don’t get it back, you never have to worry about it again, it’s just gone. This card is almost always a two-for-one against the decks you bring it in for, and paired with [[Militia Bugler]] it creates a very good plan to grind your opponent out of resources/answers and then kill them with some 2/1 creatures. I have had this card whiff fairly often because it only hits instant or sorcery spells, unlike [[Kitesail Freebooter]] which hits any noncreature nonland. That being said, I still love this card.
[[Kambal, Consul of Allocation]]: I played this card for a long while and was pretty happy with it, but ultimately ended up cutting it for an extra [[Sin Collector]]. As a three-mana card that comes in against Control, it gets value doing a little extra when it gets killed, providing a drain or two. That being said, the life loss is relevant but a little less relevant than I was initially hoping. The games against Control usually come down to you being able to strip their hand and then kill them as opposed to just killing them quickly. If the Control decks in the format change up their plans and killing them turns out to be the best choice, I think Kambal will definitely be a staple.
[[Whirler Rogue]]: This card is a less-seen one, but boy I am a fan. This card seems great not only against Control decks where the three bodies are all very relevant, but also in the mirror where the unblockable clause and the fliers are both super good. Four mana is a large commitment but you will assuredly get there against control decks and I am willing to take a small risk of getting it stuck in my hand in more aggressive matchups.I haven’t gotten a chance to try this one out yet but I will most certainly be packing one of these guys at PPTQs this weekend.
[[Reflector Mage]]: Most decks these days are playing three of this guy in the main deck. The question of whether or not you should be slotting the fourth into your sideboard is somewhat difficult. Initially I deemed that the fourth Mage was too low-impact to earn a slot in the sideboard and just settled with three. After a few weekends of playing a whole lot of mirrors at the top tables at PPTQs and realizing just how good the card was there, my opinion is starting to change. I think if you want to be a bit better in the mirror, this is one of the best cards you can have in your sideboard. That being said, the only matchup where you really want four Mages is the mirror, and as such I have left it out for now. I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone for including it.
[[Militia Bugler]]: A similar story to [[Reflector Mage]] in that most decks are only playing three main. Most people started by putting the fourth copy in the sideboard and I’m glad to say it looks as though that trend has subsided. Similar to reflector mage my opinion was that this card didn’t have a high enough impact to be in your sideboard - and unlike with Reflector Mage, my opinion on that hasn’t changed. I don’t think that compared to the other high-quality options you have available to you, this card is really ever going to be good enough to warrant putting in your sideboard. You have much better cards in the matchups where you would want to bring this in available to you.
[[Damping Sphere]]: One of the only reasons to play this card is for Tron. That being said, it is a very good hate piece against Tron. Tron is one of the harder matchups for the deck assuming, the Tron player has built their deck with Humans in mind. As such, I am okay playing a couple slots that are dedicated to Tron. It also has some crossover against Amulet Titan, Storm, and KCI, although against both Amulet Titan and KCI you need to be wary of [[Engineered Explosives]] as they almost always want to cast it with two counters anyways. (As a small aside, I actually think you maybe shouldn’t bring this card in against KCI for that exact reason - but I am not super sure about that, just a thought. Let me know what you guys think!)
[[Hostage Taker]]: This card, I am not a big fan of. At four mana, you will almost never be able to cast the card you are taking on the same turn as you cast Taker. Also, this card just isn’t very good at all against anything that isn’t a creature deck. The primary creature deck right now is Humans, and at four mana I am not super enthused about this guy. The possibility for it to come down and just get bounced by Reflector Mage is just too high for me to be willing to have this card get stuck in my hand.
[[Harsh Mentor]]: As a very aggresive card that’s focused on taxing the life of players, I could see this card plus [[Kambal, Consul of Allocation]] being good as a sideboard plan against midrange decks. Sadly, right now I don’t think the midrange decks are good enough or prevalent enough to warrant it. In a future meta I could absolutely see this card being a pain for Jund players.
[[Thalia, Heretic Cathar]]: This card is pretty great in a lot of matchups and although I don’t think it is as good as [[Militia Bugler]] in the main deck, I do think it is much better in the sideboard. This card is excellent against Tron which is a good enough reason to have it in your sideboard, along with the fact that I would consider it quite good against creature decks and most other decks on the play. This card is basically unbeatable on turn 2 off of a [[Noble Hierarch]] on the play.
[[Kessig Malcontents]]: This card became a mainstay as a one-of mainboard before the days of [[Militia Bugler]]. Those days are tragically gone, though I do have a soft spot for this card and I did try to make room for it after Bugler. I also tried to put it in my sideboard as I really didn’t want to let go, but alas, it is time for our friend to move on to bigger and better things. The card isn’t impactful enough to be worth bringing in. While it is good in matchups where you are trying to race, I found that there are usually just better options ([[Reflector Mage]], [[Thalia, Heretic Cathar]]).
[[Fourth Bridge Prowler]]: This card is awful, don’t play it. Honestly don’t have much more to say than that.
[[Anafenza, the Foremost]]: This card is pretty good as a 4/4 for three that also pumps your other creatures. The exiling effect is a little bit too slow to be relevant against most of the strategies utilizing their graveyard - Bridgevine in particular. I am currently not playing any of this card but I wouldn’t fault anyone for registering one in their sideboard.
[[Dire Fleet Daredevil]]: This is another card that I have never been too big of a fan of. It requires a lot of mana to be really good and it also has a setup requirement. A three-mana 2/1 that casts, say, a Lightning Bolt really doesn’t excite me very much - and that is the most common mode on the card. It can definitely be better than that, but that requires even more mana. Overall I think the card takes a little bit too much mana for what you get.
And that’s just about all of the potential sideboard cards that I can find for the time being! As I mentioned earlier there are a whole lot of options to consider when building your sideboard each weekend. Let me know if you guys think I missed anything, or if you disagree with anything I said.