Deck of the Week – Naya Humans

We’re revisiting our weekly article structure throughout December, so we’re bringing back the “Deck of the Week” spotlight we ran earlier in the summer and fall. This will hopefully give brewers some new sources for inspiration, veterans some neat tech (or a couple of laughs), and Modern players format-wide a chance to see original decks. We’re kicking off December with an explosive Naya Humans list that earned 5th at a StarCityGames Invitational Qualifier in Galtinburg.

Lightning Mauler art

This is the second time we’ve looked at a Humans list in “Deck of the Week”, following our foray into the five-colored version back in July. The 5C Humans list leaned more heavily towards catchall utility creatures such as Meddling Mage, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, and Anafenza, the Foremost. Naya Humans doesn’t have time for this slowrolled interaction. Deck pilot Phillip Kendall doesn’t have a single Human with a converted mana cost over two, which is exactly what we’d expect when Humans moves into the same colors as the million-and-one Zoo variants. These are Nactl-sized shoes to fill, and Kendall’s list does its best to meet the high bar.

Naya Humans, by Phillips Kendall (5th, SCG Gatlinburg 11/2015)

Creatures (29)
Mayor of Avabruck
Boros Elite
Burning-Tree Emissary
Champion of the Parish
Ghor-Clan Rampager
Lightning Mauler
Monastery Swiftspear
Kytheon, Hero of Akros

Instants (11)
Atarka’s Command
Boros Charm
Lightning Bolt

Lands (20)
Forest
Mountain
Plains
Arid Mesa
Cavern of Souls
Sacred Foundry
Stomping Ground
Temple Garden
Windswept Heath
Wooded Foothills
Sideboard (15)
Firemantle Mage
Deflecting Palm
Destructive Revelry
Path to Exile
Kataki, War’s Wage
Melira, Sylvok Outcast
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

Whenever we’re looking at a rogue aggro list, we need to be asking ourselves a few questions. Are we playing a worse Affinity or Burn? If we’re playing tribal, are we a worse Merfolk? Do we have an answer to Twin? Can we race random combo decks or beat them out of the sideboard in games 2-3? These contextual questions help us situate a deck in the broader Modern scene as opposed to just analyzing cards on their own merits.

Turn Three Potential

If you’re playing aggro in Modern, you need to be winning by turn four with all but the most mulligan-crippled hands. Ideally you can also sneak in turn three wins if uncontested or against opponents who are too suicidal with their life totals (see turn 1 fetch-shock-Thoughtseize). If Naya Humans can perform at these benchmarks alongside Burn and Affinity, that’s a promising start for a nascent aggro build.

There are almost zero Naya Human hand configurations that don’t kill on turn four if undisrupted, so Kendall’s list is already meeting the standard for Modern aggro viability.Kytheon Card Can it push a turn lower though? For reference, both Burn and Affinity can blast off with turn three wins under the right circumstances. Thankfully for humankind, the tribe has a turn three edge too. Turn one Kytheon into turn two Burning-Tree Emissary and Lightning Mauler hits for six on the spot and flips the walker. Follow that up with a turn three swing off all your creatures (eight more damage) and then add your pick of Boros Charm, Atarka’s Command, Lightning Bolt, or Ghor-Clan Rampager. Command and/or Bolt combine with any of the other finisher to get you to lethal. You also have a wide array of creature combinations that make it there on turn three, typically involving Emissary but sometimes just leveraging Swiftspear and Atarka’s. Add in an opponent’s self-inflicted shock/fetch damage and it’s even easier!

Why Not Burn?

monastery swiftspearTo skeptical readers, this entire approach probably sounds very Burn-esque, which begs the question about why we aren’t just playing Burn. Or Nacatl Burn, Nacatl Burn plus Kird Ape, Gruul Zoo, or any of the other aggressive decks on the Burn spectrum. What makes Naya Humans special?

Unlike the standard Red Decks Win variants, or the Naya ones, we’re running a turn four aggro deck that is much harder to “break up”. Contemporary Burn pilots rely on those initial Goblin Guides and friends to chip in 4-6 damage from turns 1-3. That’s how the Burn mage gets you into Bolt, Spike, and Command/Crack range. It’s no coincidence that Bolt itself is one of the best ways to stop Burn: answering that first Guide or Swiftspear is often enough to buy time for an eventual game-win, even if it’s earned by inches. For its part, Naya Humans derives damage from redundant creatures, not from spells. This means a Humans opponent can’t depend on Bolting an early threat and eking into the midgame. That Bolted threat quickly gives way to two more un-Bolted threats as the Naya player clogs the board with creatures. It’s a Gruul Zoo approach, but with slightly better synergies that let you go a bit wider at the cost of lower-powered solo threats.

Sustained damage also gives Naya Humans some innate resilience against anti-Burn bullets like Feed the Clan. By a similar token, an enemy Lightning HelixKitchen Finks becomes much more palatable because it’s not effectively countering a spell and killing a creature. You only lose one guy and can take back the regained life in another attack phase. As an added bonus, you don’t have to worry as much about a lone Tarmogoyf outclassing your entire board: you’re going far wider than the Goyf can effectively contain. That all said, Humans’ creature emphasis turns Kitchen Finks into your worst nightmare, especially if the Finks are backed up with even a single removal spell. Lingering Souls is equally problematic, although Rampager mitigates it. Tron’s Pyroclasms, and similar sweepers out of red boards, can be gamebreaking, but our Charms and Commands can insulate us from these effects if used properly. All of this just means you’re shifting Burn’s vulnerabilities, making Naya Humans a metagame call in a similar fashion to Gruul Zoo.

Because we’re playing tribal aggro, we also have to ask why we aren’t playing Merfolk. The biggest reason is explosiveness. I’ve never seen Merfolk win on turn three in a real game, although its turn 4-5 wins are some of the most consistent in the format and are often backed up with interaction like Cursecatcher, Spreading Seas, and Vapor Snag. We trade that interaction for an all-in aggro approach, which is a slight edge we have over Merfolk. I’m not seriously suggesting Naya Humans is better than Merfolk, but our speed is an advantage we have over the fish.

Improving the List

I haven’t answered a glaring question from earlier in the article, and it’s front and center in this improvements section: what the heck do we do about URx Twin? Affinity can try racing Twin and at least has a one-mana kill for Exarch in Galvanic Blast. Burn lists also play the footrace game, although they have slightly worse spot-removal to actually interact with the combo. Naya Humans? We have the worst of both worlds, with slower creatures than Affinity and worse damage-spells than Burn. Our turn three wins are also more vulnerable and less consistent than those in Affinity and Burn, even if we trade this for immunity to catastrophic hate like Stony Silence and for some creature width Burn doesn’t have. So how do we manage Twin?

Path to ExileOne option is to cut the Boros Charms and replace them with Path to Exiles. Path has the added bonus of exiling those pesky Finks’ and giving us better removal against random decks that want to do bad things to us with creatures during turns 1-3 (looking at you, Primeval Titan and Wurmcoil Engine). Dismember is another option, but I’m already nervous about the Burn race and Dismember doesn’t do you any favors there. It also doesn’t answer Engines and Titans, even if it does remove Exarch. The Path-Charm swap would definitely reduce our turn three kill rate, but the percentage points gained in the turn four race might be worth the marginal loss of a few turn threes. Shipping Charms to the board still leaves us the option of protecting our army from the inevitable games 2-3 sweepers.

A big danger in adding Path is that we are trying to be something we have no business being: a Naya Zoo imitator. True Burn decks don’t play Path and don’t screw around with dedicated removal outside of the board.Goblin Guide Path might dilute our strategy more than enhance it. A much better option is probably ditching those highly questionable Boros Elites and replacing them with Goblin Guide or Wild Nacatl. Guide seems like a better option here because it gives us way more lines for flipping Kytheon, and Guide’s net damage output should exceed the cuteness we get in Champion counters, batallion triggers, and Mayor’s buff. Topdecking Elite on turn three is a huge buzzkill. Topdecking Guide can close a game, especially if a Command is waiting to support the Goblin. Running Guide also lets us randomly win off multiple hasty Goblins. A pair of the one-drops will deal 10 damage over three turns. A pair of Elites or Champions? 3-5 damage if you’re lucky.

In the end, I’d probably just make the following change ot the maindeck and see where we can go from there:

-3 Boros Elite
-1 Champion of the Parish
+4 Goblin Guide

Naya Humans in Context

Ultimately, my biggest takeaway from Kendall’s finish has little to do with the strength of Naya Humans and much more to do with the power of linear strategies in Modern. If you’ve ever played Jund or Abzan, especially in recent months, you can attest to this. There are too many weird decks doing too many weird things, and it’s next to impossible to cram sufficient answers into your 75. Only a master of reading metagame information will make those calls correctly. Naya Humans exploits whatever holes remain in a BGx or Grixis board, attempting to race the other weird decks or just stomp them flat in games 2-3 with sideboard trumps (Kataki, War’s Wage, Melira, Sylvok Outcast, etc.). In that respect, Naya Humans shares a lot with other decks floating at Modern’s fringes, and we should expect to see more renegade aggro finishers like this in the future.

Sheridan is the former Editor in Chief of Modern Nexus and a current Staff Author. He comes from a background in social science data analysis, database administration, and academia. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and Modern since 2011.

18 thoughts on “Deck of the Week – Naya Humans

  1. This deck reminds me a lot of competitive goblins lists – you go much wider and more creature heavy than burn, but you’re still capable of turn 3 kills and average a turn 4. This specific deck lacks access to goblin grenade, but all of the other main features are there. Aggro in modern is in a VERY strong place and it is great to see so much diversity in the archetype.

    With this said, I think a deck that might be poised against this sort of metagame is the RB 8-Rack strategies that pop up from time to time. So many decks get hosed by Anger of the Gods and Ensnaring Bridge.. so why not play both maindeck? I know the deck isn’t perfect and has many other problems, but it seems VERY strong if it’s in the right place.

    1. Agree on the Goblins similarities. That’s another random aggro deck that is just as likely to appear as a Humans deck, or any of the other weird, tribal, “go-wide” strategies. There are a few differences between the lists (Humans have a cheaper lord, the average Goblin requires more synergy to deal damage than the average Human, etc.), but the two decks are definitely similar.

      As for those other decks, 8Rack is not what I want to be doing in a Burn-packed metagame. It’s also not what I want to do against Affinity. Insofar as 8Rack is a Bridge deck, Lantern Control is going to be significantly better because it has a much higher chance of finding the Bridge due to its cantrips. You could maybe fix this with 8Rack maindeck adjustments, but as it stands, I’d rather play Lantern Control if I wanted to do a prison, Bridge strategy. RB 8Rack strategies do a better job at this by playing better board control en route to finding the Bridge, but those decks have other problems in Modern.

  2. For some reason I think those creature-heavy aggro decks should play either Aether Vial or Collected company to make sure they act fast enough or just continue to put pressure. Vial seems not in place here cause there’s not that many crazy interactions from creatures entering battlefield at instant speed. But Collected Company could be an option. Maybe.

    1. The problem with CoCo in these sorts of lists is that you’re often actually getting shorted on mana. You have so many 1 and 2 drops that at most you’re getting mana parity, which isn’t what you really want. CoCoing into extreme speed advantage (elves), into combo (Melira), or into extreme value (Bant Coco – Smiters, E-Witt, Geist, etc), are all where the card shines. 2 1/1s? Not so much.

    2. Niall is spot-on with his analysis. There are only a few situations where I want to play Company in aggro. The first is if I’m playing dorks. Turn three Company is waaay stronger than turn four Company, even if it’s just the threat of it. The second reason is if I’m playing more expensive creatures that beat the CoCo mana value. Flipping a Smiter and a Goyf at instant speed is gamebreaking. Flipping a Mauler and an Emissary is just sad. This makes Naya Humans a poor choice for Company much like Gruul Zoo is a poor choice.

  3. In this new article structure, is there any chance you’ll do a new edition of “matchup win rates and analysis” ? I really enjoyed those, and with the ever growing pool of viable (and semi-viable) Modern decks, it would be nice to get an updated version with (if possible) more data and more decks.

    1. I think that’s rather unlikely. The primary data for those win rate analyses came from dailies. With dailies being largely abandoned following the entry fee increase, there’s much fewer matches to go through. The alternative(that isn’t more detailed data from WotC) is scraping 8mans for matches, which you really need bots to do as it’s an incredible time sink to do manually. MTGGoldfish launched such a scraping program, but WotC told them to stop it.

    2. KJ hit the nail on the head. MTGO’s revamp took away our main source of data, and Wizards shut down the data-scraping programs used by MTG Goldfish. This puts these projects on precarious grounds, especially if we’re using any kind of automation to collect the data. There might be other ways to obtain this information, but it’s not looking great right now.

      1. That’s really unfortunate. I guess I can understand that WotC doesn’t want people “solving” the format, but at the same time, Modern is expensive and it’s nice to know how a deck is likely to perform in your local meta before shelling out 500-1500$. I guess I’ll just have to flip a coin to decide what my alternate deck will be :p

  4. What about changing the Boros Elite with Honored Hierarch? It has the same -lack-of-haste issue, but if it gets through once it’s only one power weaker (2/2 instead of 3/3), isn’t reliant upon two other creatures, and can help enable combat-tricks. It might be too cute, but Boros Elite is rather unimpressive; the new gideon does what it wants to do, just better.

    1. Hierarch just seems slow. This deck is also in no position to abuse the dork factor, because any card we’re accelerating into also wants us to be attacking with more creatures. We can do a turn three Charm/Command, but now we’ve committed one of our potential attackers to making that happen. And then we lose out on a possible Kytheon flip. Agree that Elite is really quite terrible, but I’d rather go for random Guide wins and abusing Guide speed than stick too heavily to a slower Human theme.

  5. You covered why this deck isn’t a bad Burn deck, but to me, that was never the question. What makes it not a bad Zoo deck? After reading the article, it still seems to me like Kird Apes, Goyfs, and Wild Nacatls are better than Lightning Maulers and Mayors of Avabruck. And like you mentioned, Boros Elite is just horrible, silver-platter giving opponents an actual opportunity to “break up” your meager synergy. Small Zoo does exactly what this deck tries to do, and is packed with the most efficient, vanilla creatures in the format, which allows it to dodge the synergy-breaking tools boasted by Modern’s top-tier interactive decks (Inquisition, Thoughtseize, Bolt).

    If you really want to beat Twin, Path in the board doesn’t seem useless, and there’s always Rending Volley for the desperate. I actually think Goyf + Bolt decks might be the biggest challenge for Naya Humans.

    1. Hey Jordan! Honestly, the deck is going to be a slightly worse Gruul Zoo in a lot of situations. The one place where Humans has an edge is in that early-to-midgame transition where Gruul Zoo is still rolling around with 3/3s and Humans has some indestructible 4/4s and a scaling one-drop that grows better than E1. You’re also going to go a bit wider with a potentially flipped Mayor (or an unflipped Mayor buffing the team), and you have slightly better defensive options off Kytheon. Multiple Mayors also go significantly wider than Gruul Zoo can hope to match.

      Goyf is still a major problem here because it’s an aggro two-drop that outclasses almost everything we’re doing, and I think the marginal benefits in the early-to-midgame phase and in going wide don’t outweigh the consistent speed of Gruul Zoo. Even so, these are still some differences that distinguish the decks, even if they won’t always be decisive.

  6. I think the big hole in this article is looking at why you play humans at all – i.e. what is the tribal payoff?

    1 – champion of the parish
    2 – mayor of avabruck
    3 – cavern of souls

    To me you need to explain what these cards are providing – when is champion better than wild nacatl? When is mayor better than lord of atlantis? Does the combination of a nacatl+lord make it better/different than zoo/merfolk? Is mayor ever going to flip in this deck?

    Because if champion+mayor are not pulling their weight, there is absolutely no reason to hem yourself in with the human tribe – not a single other card in the deck (besides cavern which other tribe decks play too) pays you out for humans only.

    Goblin-wide decks are the same – it comes down to grenade and piledriver in those lists and many of them don’t even run the piledriver. For the wide goblin deck to be good goblin grenade has to be amazing (and it often is). Champion/mayor are not as easy to figure out as a grenade.

  7. I address most of this in my response to Jordan above. Historically, I’ve always looked at Burn and Affinity as the benchmark aggro decks, but with the recent rise of Zoo and the Burn hybrids these also need to be included. I’ll definitely be sure to explicitly address those in future Deck of the Week posts on aggro decks.

  8. I get that this deck’s goal is to start fast and overwhelm decks that can’t disrupt it efficiently enough, but I’m very surprised that the frankly inconsistent Mayor of Avabruck is the only Human support in here. Where is Adaptive Automaton? Where is Hamlet Captain? Where is Gather the Townsfolk? (Heck, was Riot Ringleader considered?) There’s lots of juice in the tribe that’s not being used in this deck, and the reasons why aren’t very clear to me.

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