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.
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)
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. 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?
To 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 Helix 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?
One 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. 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:
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.