Keeping my faith in humanity: playing Modern at Magic Fest Birmingham

Last weekend I participated in the Grand Prix event at Magic Fest Birmingham. The format of the event was Modern, and with another banned/restricted announcement due on the 26th of August, this was anticipated to be the last major event I’d play in with Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis still legal. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, I played Humans! In this article, I’ll unpack some Humans-related ideas I had in terms of deck modification for this event, provide some brief coverage of my tournament, and give some speculations on how I’d tweak the deck going forward.

Before I dive in, I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to approach me in Birmingham to congratulate me on my recent MCQ win, it was great meeting some new players too! Whether you were a familiar or new face, it is very much appreciated!

Tuning the Humans 75 for Birmingham

Here are some ideas that I either ‘theory-crafted’ or tried out (but probably not enough) in the run up to the GP.



In my opinion, Hogaak is the most powerful deck in Modern and Leyline of the Void is the strongest ‘hate’ piece against it. It enters play quickly enough and prevents Hogaak from being cast from the hand as well as the graveyard. However, in the end I decided not to run leyline for a couple of reasons:

  • Sideboard space: Given that this card is most effective when it shows up in the opening hand, there’s a huge incentive to run four copies. This means cutting other sideboard slots, which are very precious.
  • Uncastable: Humans can’t cast this card if it’s drawn during the game (unless the opponent controls Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth). Combined with the fact that Humans doesn’t see many cards during its games and the need for the deck to curve out properly, leyline being a dead draw will hurt the deck more than others.
  • Necessity: I don’t feel that Humans always needs graveyard hate to beat Hogaak – it’s actually able to win games handily without it. Other slower decks that cannot either force a race or deal with their opponent’s battlefield very quickly might find themselves in a situation where it’s ‘Leyline or bust.’ Humans is certainly not one of those decks.



Hogaak sideboards answers to permanent-based hate like Leyline of the Void and Grafdigger’s Cage, but it can’t really afford to run Thoughtseize against Humans. This makes Ravenous Trap harder for them to interact with. The only problem is that it has to be drawn in time to be used at the crucial moment. For example, even playing a Grafdigger’s Cage later than planned can sometimes impact the game later on. However, with Trap there’s a sense of the moment having already passed, likely never coming again. I tried playing more Ravenous Traps and, as I anticipated, they were excellent when the opportunity to use them as intended came up, but were otherwise not that great. Cage felt like a more reliable card, so I went back to running two Cages and one Trap. I think this is better than three Cage because diversifying our hate keeps the ‘Gaakers’ on their toes.



I was on the fence about which of these cards to run more of for some time. The cards are good in different match-ups. Kitesail is better against classic Tron, combo, and control decks that aren’t entirely removal-based (and even then, it’s still fine). Mariner is better against red and burn decks as well as decks that are stacked with removal. In the end, I stuck with playing three Freebooters and only one Mariner because I just felt that Freebooter was a safer option in a field as open as a Grand Prix. Having said this, I think that if I had read the latest metagame trends a bit better, I was actually much more likely to face burn, prowess, and Jund than Tron, Azorius control, and other more fringe decks. Perhaps a combination of my confidence going into the burn/prowess matchup and accepting that the Jund match-up was ‘unwinnable’ skewed things for me.



I’ve been playing Chalice of the Void recently with the intention of using it to stop a wide range of decks including Izzet Phoenix, Burn, Prowess, Hogaak, and other fringe decks like Infect or Bogles. I assumed that Izzet Phoenix would be on the decline, and because Hogaak was now running multiple two-drops, I didn’t think Chalice was going to be as effective as it previously was. Also, prowess now plays multiple copies of Abrade in the sideboard, which ended up being the deal-breaker for me. I didn’t want to spend a turn playing a lock-piece against this deck if they were packing insurance for it (and presumably Ensnaring Bridge), especially when that ‘insurance’ also functions as a decent removal spell against humans already. So, I replaced this card with copies of Auriok Champion. While it does nothing against non-red fringe decks, it is obviously good against the red decks. Against Hogaak I still sideboard it in as it can block Carrion Feeder, Bloodghast, and Gravecrawler. I did also sideboard it in against Jund, but this isn’t because it’s particularly good – it’s just better than Meddling Mage and Phantasmal Image which I want to remove for games two and three.



Again, in trying to make sure I was prepared enough for the Hogaak matchup, I thought Mirran Crusader would have real impact. The match-up often comes down to a race, and this ‘unkillable’ card is likely to swing it (most Hogaak decks are running Fatal Push over Lightning Axe). I also thought it would be quite good against Jund, a match-up in which Humans struggles. I’d run the Crusaders over Militia Bugler, which is part of the sideboard for ‘grindy’ match-ups. I then realised that against Jund, the impact of the Crusader might not be as high as I first thought because of discard spells,  Lightning Bolt, and Liliana of the Veil, and that extra sideboard cards against Hogaak were likely not necessary. In addition, I thought the Crusader would end up being much worse than Militia Bugler against the mirror and Azorius control.

My deck

Here is what I registered for the event.

Not many changes from my MCQ list. If you want to know more about most of the card choices, click here to read my previous article where I discuss them (and sideboarding) a bit more.

The event

I had two byes for the event so I didn’t attend the player meeting, but I think the event had 911 players. This is much lower than Barcelona which had much closer to 1500 players. Here is how the Swiss rounds played out from round three.

  • Round 3 vs Hogaak 2-0 WIN (3-0)
  • Round 4 vs Mono Red Prison 2-0 WIN (4-0)
  • Round 5 vs Jund 1-2 LOSS (4-1)
  • Round 6 vs Burn 0-2 LOSS (4-2)
  • Round 7 vs Mono Red Prison 2-1 WIN (5-2)
  • Round 8 vs Hogaak 2-0 WIN (6-2)
  • Round 9 vs Eldrazi Tron 2-1 WIN (7-2)

Technically, the cut for Day two is after round eight, but we were playing round nine on Saturday. Leaving the venue at 7-2 felt quite positive. Here are some interesting points from day one.

  • The Mono Red Prison match-up is not great, so don’t let my victories against this deck suggest otherwise. The deck has so many cards that are horrible for Humans, especially if I’m on the draw. Blood Moon, Ensnaring Bridge, Torpor Orb, and Anger of the Gods all present ways to trump our strategy of deploying Humans and beating down (which relies heavily on our ‘enters the battlefield’ triggers). Fortunately, the prison deck lacks consistency and I was playing Kitesail Freebooter, which is able to mitigate the impact of their noncreature spells.
  • In game three against Jund, my opponent played a Plague Engineer on turn three. I had played around this by playing a Thalia’s Lieutenant on turn two to keep Noble Hierarch alive (I would otherwise have played Thalia, Guardian of Thraben). I then used Reflector Mage to return the Engineer to my opponent’s hand and hopefully try to get as much beatdown in as possible before it was replayed. Unfortunately, my opponent untapped and cast Damnation. This was really bad for me as I had effectively ‘saved’ their Plague Engineer which they could then replay the following turn. I didn’t expect my opponent to play both cards, but I left that match wondering if I had just been ‘next-levelled,’
  • My match against burn was disappointing all round, and I think I should have been more disciplined with my mulligans. I went down to six in both games, and both hands had a curve but nothing a decent barrage of burn spells couldn’t sort out. An encounter decided by undisciplined mulliganing.
  • On the flip-side, my match against Eldrazi Tron felt like redemption for the undisciplined mulliganing I may have been doing earlier in the tournament. I won game one on a mulligan to five, lost game two when I mulliganned to three and turned round another mulligan to five in game three. All sevens were keepable but did not appropriately curve out. If you want to know more about my mulliganing philosophy with this deck, click here to read a previous article where I discuss it a bit more. I will admit that the format and mulligan rule have changed slightly, but the reasons for keeping the kinds of hands I want to keep are the same.

Here is how the Swiss rounds played out on day two.

  • Round 10 vs Mono Red Prowess/Phoenix 1-2 LOSS (7-3)
  • Round 11 vs Burn 0-2 LOSS (7-4)
  • Round 12 vs Mono Red Prowess/Phoenix 0-2 LOSS (7-5)
  • Round 13 vs Hogaak 2-0 WIN (8-5)
  • Round 14 vs Hogaak 2-0 WIN (9-5)
  • Round 15 vs Jund 0-0-3 ID (9-5-1)

Here are some interesting points from day two.

  • Losing the first three rounds was crushing and an indication that perhaps I didn’t prepare adequately against these decks. My first match against Mono Red Prowess was very close throughout but Round 11 against Burn was very one-sided. I mulliganed repeatedly and got destroyed. In round 12, my opponent drew out of a losing position and flipped the game completely on its head in game one, and a well set-up Anger of the Gods in game two created an easy victory for them. I discussed card choices with each of my opponents. My burn opponent was packing Searing Blood and my opponent in round 12 said their sideboard contained both Anger of the Gods and Kozilek’s Return. It’s fair to say they had prepared adequately to face my deck.
  • The wins against Hogaak felt routine and I was happy to have played against the deck multiple times and not dropped a single game! I’ll share some tips for the match-up in the next section.
  • I didn’t know my opponent in round 15 was on Jund, but there was incentive to ID to guarantee cashing the GP, as opposed to risking losing (missing out on cash entirely) for a 10-5 record that likely wouldn’t yield a higher cash prize than 9-5-1.

In 96th place I was just outside the top 10%, however I did manage to cash the event!

Humans vs Hogaak

I think if you’re an experienced Humans pilot you have a very good chance at winning both pre and postboard in this match-up, barring the nut draws from the opponent when you’re on the draw. Here are some tips.

  • Name Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis with Meddling Mage. Perhaps this tip is too obvious, but I’ve not seen it employed often enough. It might be tempting to name known cards in hand or Gravecrawler if you see it, but shutting off their best card weakens the deck a lot! There do exist other circumstances when other cards need to be named, but those situations come up much less often. Sometimes you’ll want to name Hogaak even when one is in play because you can then multiblock the 8/8 or draw into Reflector Mage to shut it down.
  • The size of your Thalia’s Lieutenant is going to be relevant more often than giving Noble Hierarch a +1/+1 counter. Getting a Lieutenant to a 3/3 to block Bloodghast and Gravecrawler or a 5/5 to block Vengevine is much more valuable than a Hierarch with power UNLESS you need to go wide and attack or need to play around Plague Engineer (which you often can’t do anyway). Play your Lieutenant before your Noble if you are going to play them both.
  • In post-board games, I always play Grafdigger’s Cage on turn one if I’m on the draw over other one-drops – a turn two Cage is just too slow. On the play it’s defensible to play the other one drops instead, but I still like to play it on turn one if I want to play Meddling Mage on turn two (naming Hogaak), as Cage doesn’t prevent the opponent from playing it from their hand.
  • Our best cards are Reflector Mage, Deputy of Detention, Meddling Mage, and Mantis Rider. The first three interact well with the deck, and you should save Reflector or Deputy for the main problem cards if possible (Hogaak, Vengevine and Carrion Feeder). Mantis Rider is a card with which the opponent will struggle to interact. If you know you’re up against the Gaak, then prioritize opening hands with these cards.
  • Being at 11 or more life can be very relevant, as returning Bloodghast with haste can allow them to win a race that they look like they’re losing. If there are ways to avoid using Horizon Canopy or Waterlogged Grove, do so. Having said this, you will need to assess the board first. Sometimes the race will be won through being able to block with Noble Hierarch rather than saving life on the previous turn by tapping it for mana instead of Canopy or Grove.

Post-Hogaak Humans

It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the 0 mana 8/8 is departing from Modern on the 26th. This will cause some changes to the metagame, leaving me a little more nervous as a Humans player.

The format may well return to how it was just before Modern Horizons with Dredge, Tron, and Izzet Phoenix increasing in popularity from where they are now after the ban. The first two are difficult matchups for Humans, and Izzet Phoenix can be if it runs more removal spells like Gut Shot over Surgical Extraction. I think Mono Red Phoenix/Prowess and Eldrazi Tron will decline slightly with one less positive matchup on which to prey.

I also expect decks to play less graveyard hate cards. For example, removing four Leyline of the Void from a sideboard and replacing them with only two or three hate cards will provide sideboards with space for more anti-creature cards. This means I expect all decks to get slightly better against Humans once Hogaak is gone. In a world without Hogaak, this is a list I would consider playing.

I’ve cut the Kitesail Freebooters for Unsettled Mariners as, despite predicting a rise in Tron, Mariner will help more against the anticipated general rise of the opponent’s interaction as graveyard hate declines a little. I’ve added Pithing Needle and Phyrexian Revoker as additional ways to combat Tron, the Needle can also hit Blast Zone out of Dredge.

What’s Next

Despite being qualified for the Mythic Championship in Richmond, I will still play the European Modern Series Final in September, which will include Modern and Modern Horizons Draft. On the brink of Commander 19, it’s fair to say I’ll also be looking to see what new cards and strategies to employ as I voyage the format.

You can find me on Facebook and Twitter @Chris54154, feel free to hit me up with any of your thoughts! 

As always, thanks for reading, good luck, and have fun in your next game!


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