Hi All. Last weekend I attended yet another Modern PPTQ to battle it out for the RPTQ slot. In this article, I’ll provide some coverage of the event. I played against a lot of control decks (spoiler alert) so I’m also going to share what I’ve learnt about playing against control decks with this aggressive creature deck. If you play Humans and are struggling to beat control decks I hope some of these insights are helpful to you. Despite the focus being on Humans, there are some broader points that will apply to any creature beatdown deck trying to beat control so hopefully non-Humans players also find something of value.
In advance of the tournament I decided to explore some new perspectives and ideas for playing 5c Humans. I stumbled across an article by Pro Tour 25A Top 4 competitor Branco Neirynck, who played Humans in the Modern seat for his team.
His sideboard plans were a bit different to things I had tried previously, but I liked the philosophy behind some elements, particularly going back to Dismember as a removal spell. My maindeck from the last event I played was the same as his so I simply changed my sideboard to match his despite having the following intuitions about some of his card choices:
- I didn’t think the Riders of Gavony would pay off because I didn’t expect to face many matchups where it shines;
- Two Kataki, War’s Wage and one Reclamation Sage felt the wrong way round because the Sage is a much more flexible card;
- Only one Auriok Champion felt like too few, I expected to face decks like Burn and Death’s Shadow.
However, I decided not to change anything. My main reason for doing so despite the above intuitions was not because I have unfailing trust in this player and list, but more that at this point I wanted to try new things, being open to the fact that my intuitions about Humans could just be incorrect even though I’ve been playing the deck for a while now. For example, maybe I don’t need two Auriok Champions to beat Burn or Death’s Shadow, maybe a high impact card in Kataki, War’s Wage is more important than a flexible card like Reclamation Sage.
I travelled to the PPTQ, which was held at Patriot Games, with fellow Leeds players Laurence Arnelll and Tommy Hayward. Both were playing Jeskai Control. At the event we met up with, Craig Stevenson, Callum Bousfield and Noli Nikitakis on White/Blue Control and Mono Blue Prison respectively. Callum kindly lent me some dice to enable my playsets of Champion of the Parish, Aether Vial and Thalia’s Lieutenant as I had forgotten mine.
The event was attended by 29 players which meant five rounds of swiss before a cut to Top 8. Here’s how the swiss rounds played out:
- Round 1 vs Mono Black 8 Rack 2-1 WIN
- Round 2 vs White/Blue Control (Craig) 2-0 WIN
- Round 3 vs Grixis Control 2-0 WIN
- Round 4 vs White/Blue Control 0-0-3 ID
- Round 5 vs Bant Spirits 0-0-3 ID
In all honesty, there was very little to note from the swiss rounds that I won’t be covering in detail when I discuss my thoughts about playing against control. The games generally went smoothly for me, and fortunately I made less mistakes than some of my opponents.
The only specific point I want to make is about the 8 Rack matchup. Many say you want to be on the draw against the 8 Rack deck, but in game three I still chose to be on the play. I think the matchup is basically a race and getting your 1 drop down be it Vial, Noble Hierarch or Champion is going to maximise your ability to get pressure on the board quickly before it’s discarded away. In the games I won I was able to be faster than my opponent and the opposite was true for the game I lost.
Myself, Laurence, Tommy, Callum and Noli all made Top 8 which meant it was a good showing for the Leeds-based players. Here is how the Top 8 played out.
- Quarterfinals vs White/Blue Control (Opponent from round four, who was kind enough to buy me a coffee during the round itself – thank you!) 2-0 WIN
- Semifinals vs Jeskai Control (Laurence) 2-0 WIN
- Finals vs Jeskai Control (Tommy) 2-0 WIN
Most of what I have to say about the Top 8 matches will also be covered in the discussion in the next section of the article.
I proposed the usual prize redistribution I do when in PPTQ finals which is that the winner of the match obtains the RPTQ invite and the loser obtains all other prizes that would be awarded to first and second place. I’ve probably lost out on quite a bit of ‘value’ as I’m pretty sure I’ve won a lot more than lost in PPTQ finals I’ve played out after proposing this. However, the invitation to the RPTQ is worth way more to me than almost any amount of booster packs most stores put on offer as prizes for top finishers. Also, despite being lucky enough to win more than lose, I can attest that losing in the finals is a blow that warrants softening.
Cards against Humanity – playing against control decks
As you have probably noticed, five of the six matches I played were against control decks. All of these matchups (except Grixis) I actually consider unfavourable for 5c Humans, particularly Jeskai. However, I do not consider them ‘unwinnable’. I decided it might be useful to write a bit about my experience playing against these decks. This is because, despite my recent success, I really think a pre-requisite for any 5c Humans player to succeed against these types of control decks is to have a few tricks up their sleeve and be confident in implementing some important techniques during the match when relevant.
Know thine enemy
One thing I have to consider advantageous for me, but not necessarily every 5c Humans player, is the fact that, before picking up 5c Humans, I played a lot of Jeskai Tempo, Jeskai Control and White/Blue Control in Modern between 2011 and 2017. Although the deck has moved on a bit over time and new cards have been printed. I find it quite easy to put myself in the shoes of a pilot of either of these control decks. I often have a good idea of what they want to happen, what they don’t want to happen, what cards they are playing to, what their outs are. While this doesn’t give me strict telepathy of my opponents’ choices, being well-versed in the primary strategy of my opponents’ deck really helps me understand which choices will cause them the most trouble while piloting my deck. I would encourage any Humans player who is struggling a lot in either matchup to try and ensure they have a good understanding of what the other side is trying to do. This will help in general as described above but also specifically with sideboarding and your use of Meddling Mage.
The differences between Jeskai and White/Blue control
Before we dive in, I just want to clarify that there are slight differences between the two aforementioned control decks. Jeskai has much more 1-for-1 removal in the form of Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix in addition to Path to Exile and maybe one or two sweeper effects. White/Blue doesn’t have the burn spells but it will likely be armed with a higher number of sweepers. Expect multiple Terminus, Supreme Verdict or Wrath of God. Note also that Detention Sphere can also take out multiple threats. After sideboarding, both decks will often add more removal spells, not only because that’s a good thing to be doing against creature decks but also because they have a lot of countermagic to take out which isn’t very good against you. Both have access to Celestial Purge Settle the Wreckage, Supreme Verdict and Wrath of God but Jeskai could also add cards like Anger of the Gods, Izzet Staticaster and Engineered Explosives so keep an open mind. White/blue will likely have more Field of Ruin. It’s worth noting their ability to ‘colourscrew’ you out of the game but bear in mind that they probably need to be casting at least one Path to Exile during the game to stop you.
Now I’ll share some more specific tactics. I can’t cover you for every possible scenario, but these are the ones I consider most important.
Aether Vial ‘on two’
Aether Vial is really good in this matchup! In general, leaving it with two counters on it is going to serve you better than moving it up to three most of the time because it gives you more opportunities to play ‘tricks’ on your opponent. Some examples:
- Draw step Kitesail Freebooter – can be done in response to the ‘Miracle’ trigger of Terminus.
- Draw step Meddling Mage in response to the ‘Miracle’ trigger of Terminus
- Thalia, Guardian of Thraben/Meddling Mage in response to a spell in the graveyard being targeted by Snapcaster Mage to prevent it from being cast
- Thalia’s Lieutenant in response to damage-based removal to save creatures – this can be a huge blowout when on the offense! (It was also key for beating Laurence in game one of the semifinals last weekend)
- Phantasmal Image – complete flexibility of any of the above (if you have them on board) at any time
There are some exceptions to this obviously, these come up a lot less often but it’s worth making a note of them:
- Beginning of Combat step Mantis Rider after the opponent has used Cryptic Command to tap the current attackers on the battlefield
- Deploy a 3-drop threat at the end of your opponent’s turn after an expected sweeper to continue to apply pressure.
- You only have access to two mana but need to advance your board by playing a two drop AND a three drop in quick succession.
Making their removal bad
This might sound like a difficult task, and to some extent it is. Their deck is full of very efficient creature removal – however there are things a savvy 5c Humans pilot can do to weather the storm – and every little helps.
- There’s value in playing a Lieutenant on a smaller board simply to grow your Mantis Rider or Militia Bugler into a X/4 to make them immune to Lightning Bolt and Lightning Helix;
- Get Thalia down on the table as soon as possible. I pretty much always play this on turn two over Kitesail Freebooter. This is because they need to play a removal spell on her first to continue to play the game as efficiently as possible. This is still relevant against White/Blue, but sometimes they can be a bit more passive and rely a little more on a single sweeper effect in a turn or two – Jeskai gets much more bottle-necked as it will try to eliminate your board presence via multiple spells;
- It’s not always obvious what to try to shut off with Meddling Mage. They have a lot of diverse removal – name one and they could play other spells. Try to therefore have an understanding of the opponent’s hand if you can or spot if they’re playing to a Snapcaster Mage (most players look at their graveyard when they draw it). If you play it on turn two after a turn one Champion, look at their mana and see what they could possibly play on that Champion to kill it. Most players will ‘Bolt’ or ‘Path’ while the Mage is on the stack out of fear of not being able to do so once it resolves. If they don’t, it’s a big clue that they could be holding a Lightning Helix (or nothing) instead. In this matchup, I see Meddling Mage more as a contributor to making their removal-based gameplan more awkward and clunky than a hard ‘lock piece’.
- Force them to have it: I think it’s generally better against Jeskai to adopt the default position of applying as much pressure as possible, and giving less consideration to being blown out by a sweeper. It might feel bad on a moral front to watch your creatures getting shot down bolt by bolt, but this is forcing your opponent to spend cards at as rapid a rate as possible. This isn’t a hard and fast rule and sometimes you’ll need to deviate – but as a starting point, it’s what you want to be doing and what they won’t be wanting you to do. Just bear in mind that sometimes adding creatures to the board doesn’t always change the clock in terms of number of turns.
- Their removal doesn’t care about creature size so the tip about X/4s (above vs Jeskai) doesn’t apply (except to make your creatures do more damage);
- Thalia is still good, but a little less than against Jeskai. If you are on the play and your opponent’s first land is Celestial Colonnade, you might want to consider playing a Kitesail Freebooter instead of Thalia. White/blue can sometimes afford to be a bit more passive and lean on a sweeper effect to beat you so you get to see whether this is the case, or whether you’ve been lucky enough to snatch that single Path to Exile. Having cleared the way, Thalia can sometimes be enough trouble for them on turns three or four where a 4cmc sweeper is concerned;
- Meddling Mage’s best ‘name’ in the absence of information on their hand is Path to Exile, but you should also think about the way they’ve played the game so far. If they are very passive for the first few turns they probably are relying on a sweeper effect (they would have already Pathed away that Champion of the Parish that is beating them down) so adapt based on what you see.
- White/blue generally has more sweepers than Jeskai so you should play round them a little more, however don’t go into this matchup fearing ‘random topdecked wraths’ too much or you’ll end up wishing you hadn’t given them time by playing too conservatively. Getting 2-for-1’d by a sweeper feels bad, but it’s actually fine if you managed to get some damage in with your threats first and can ‘reload’ post wrath. I would always try and maintain an ability to reload if possible, but putting the opponent in a ‘topdeck a sweeper or you lose’ situation is the right call more often than not. If the top of their deck is kind to them, it’s more likely variance than ‘the wrong play’.
The first thing I want to clarify is not to ‘oversideboard’. There’s a bit of a misconception that simply having more sideboard slots for a particular matchup will always improve it for games two and three. This can be true to an extent, but I think in the case of Humans, you don’t want to put your primary gameplan at risk as a result of this. Therefore, please be mindful that you want to still maintain ability to apply a lot of pressure on your opponents.
You sideboard quite similarly against both decks but there are a few nuances. This is how I sideboarded in the tournament last weekend (with Branco’s help of course).
- On the play: -4 Reflector Mage, -1 Phantasmal Image // +3 Sin Collector, +2 Dismember
- On the draw: -4 Reflector Mage, -1 Seachrome Coast // +3 Sin Collector, +2 Dismember
- On the play: -4 Reflector Mage, -2 Thalia’s Lieutenant // +3 Sin Collector +1 Reclamation Sage, +2 Dismember
- On the draw: -4 Reflector Mage, -1 Thalia’s Lieutenant, -1 Seachrome Coast // +3 Sin Collector, +1 Reclamation Sage, +2 Dismember
Some notes on these plans
- It might seem counterintuitive, but I like Dismember as these decks are now commonly bringing in Lyra Dawnbringer or Baneslayer Angel as a trump card and it’s very tough to beat if it lands. I really don’t like keeping a Reflector Mage in for this. The common ‘backup’ use for Dismember is to allow you to attack through a Colonnade but it can also prevent Snapcaster Mage or Vendilion Clique from chump blocking (In fact, the last play of the finals last weekend was Dismember, which I had been sandbagging for Lyra, on Tommy’s Snapcaster to ensure lethal in combat);
- I bring in Reclamation Sage in against White/blue but not Jeskai. The former runs Detention Sphere in addition to Search for Azcanta so it’s simply down to there being enough targets in only the White/blue matchup to justify it;
- This is the first time I tried cutting a land on the draw and I think it’s fine. You mitigate the number of lands you could draw by a small amount, but your opponent is probably going to cast Path to Exile which should get you a land anyway;
- I don’t like bringing in Izzet Staticaster to answer Vendilion Clique, Snapcaster Mage or tokens from Timely Reinforcements or Secure the Wastes. This is because every card you add that doesn’t help you apply pressure on your opponent’s health total takes away from the strength of your primary strategy. In addition, Colonnade, Lyra / Baneslayer and the planeswalkers are much more threatening. Having answers to their weaker threats just isn’t worth it.
- Sin Collector is a bit of a no-brainer. I think it’s very important for beating these matchups and you definitely want many. Three feels correct. There are less Instant and Sorcery cards in White/blue than Jeskai but I still board them all in. Denying them a sweeper effect is absolutely huge!
If your sideboard isn’t the same, I can perhaps provide the following additional suggestions:
- Dire Fleet Daredevil is only marginal in this matchup in my view and if you have Sin Collector and this card AND Dismember you risk over sideboarding. You might blow out a Snapcaster or get to play a counterspell if you have Aether Vial but turning their removal spells against them has limited applications.
- If you have Gaddock Teeg in your sideboard naming ‘Path to Exile’ with Meddling Mage and adding him to the battlefield often locks a White/blue control player out of the game barring the odd Detention Sphere or 5/5 Angel. The same isn’t true against Jeskai though due to some much redundant cheap spot removal. When you are playing to this plan against White/blue, it’s risky to attack with either of these ‘lock pieces’ because of Condemn or a flashed in Snapcaster Mage/Vendilion Clique.
In a previous article I detailed some important considerations for mulliganing with this deck (which expands to mulliganing in Modern in general) and the same principles apply. Yes mulliganing aggressively to five to get the Champion of the Parish down on turn one only for it to be shot down immediately by removal can feel bad, but this is often going to be much better than keeping a slow hand. In such a case, at the very least, you’ve forced your opponent to play a removal spell immediately.
Sometimes the control deck is simply forced to keep a slow or slightly ‘unfocused hand’ – especially when they don’t know what they are up against. This is just in the nature of their reactive strategy, but it’s also an axis on which your deck can punish them. For instance, a Jeskai player is very unlikely to mulligan a hand like this on the draw against an unknown opponent:
But if you sequence turn one Champion of the Parish, turn two Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, turn three Kitesail Freebooter, which can be done on a mulligan to five, they have very big problems if they don’t draw a Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile! My intention is not to inform you that control players will commonly keep hands that don’t work against you, it’s more to demystify the belief that to have success in these matchups you need to start with lots of creatures in your hand because of how much removal is in their deck. Potential for explosive pressure is more important so don’t be afraid to ship slow sevens or even sixes.
Next week I have the RPTQ in Cardiff. The format is Standard, which I haven’t been playing as much lately due to grinding PPTQs. I haven’t entirely settled on which deck to play but it will likely contain Hazoret the Fervant or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and/or Vraska’s Contempt!
I’m also going to GP Hong Kong in two weeks! The format is Modern – everyone knows what I’ll be playing!
Win or lose, I’ll let you know how these events go!
You can find me on Facebook, Twitter (@Chris54154) or at most PPTQs in the North of England, RPTQs, GPs in England and some other large competitive events like Mega Modern and Legacy Masters that arise during the year in the UK.
As always, thanks for reading, good luck and have fun in your next event!