The Company, Collected
Orzhov Humans was one of my first Pioneer decks. I played it a bit on paper, though, this was during peak pandemic times and I was mostly relegated to MTGO and Arena. On Arena, I reached Mythic rank exclusively playing Mono-White Humans in Alchemy when it first launched (I know, I know) and had some success in Historic with a similar Abzan deck. Thankfully, I don’t have to play Alchemy or Historic to get my on-the-go MTG Humans fix anymore, because I have been granted the glorious gift of Explorer.
No matter what format it is played in, Humans is, of course, a tribal strategy first and foremost. Different color combinations make for different playstyles (straight-up aggro, midrange, or even sacrifice with Pyre of Heroes), but the deck usually focuses on the synergy between cards with the Human creature type.
As Anthony Dolce wrote about rather extensively in his recent History of Pioneer Humans article, Mono-White and Orzhov were some of the first viable builds in Pioneer, later to be opened up to Abzan and Selesnya for Collected Company and Werewolf Pack Leader and then four and five-color with the printing of Secluded Courtyard, which provides copies five-eight of Unclaimed Territory.
Here, I will be diving into Abzan Humans, which has rather solidified itself as the premier humans build (and, quite possibly, the premier CoCo build) in Explorer thus far.
Starting with one-drops, humans players almost always have some number of Dauntless Bodyguard, varying between one and three. I have settled on two, as it can be a bad CoCo hit at times, but the prevalence of Rakdos Midrange’s single-target removal in the format has kept me from going to one copy. It’s also a fine dry turn-one play.
Hopeful Initiate / Thraben Inspector
I have seen the lists with four Hopeful Initiate and zero Thraben Inspector. I have tried it, and I have had blowout games with Hopeful Initiate being buffed to infinite by training off whatever is being buffed by Luminarch Aspirant and have happily destroyed a few Fable of the Mirror-Breakers with its ability. Other times, the card draw off the Clue Token that Thraben Inspector produces would have done me far better. Psychologically, there is little worse than putting several turns into training a Hopeful Initiate just to have it die to a Fatal Push when it is threatening lethal. Call me old school, but a humans deck without Thraben Inspector just feels wrong. I’m at a 3-1 split.
So good they had to nerf it in Alchemy, Luminarch Aspirant can spiral out of control quickly if not dealt with. That being said, most Rakdos Midrange have seven one-mana spells that deal with it in game one and even more in game two. I’ve cut down to three for this reason, to make room for better CoCo hits that don’t die to a dry Fatal Push or a un-kicked Bloodchief's Thirst.
Always a four-of, this card is one of the stronger reasons to play humans and is one of the better tribal creatures available in Explorer or Pioneer, especially with the printing of Extraction Specialist in Streets of New Capenna.
Though not a staple in Pioneer humans decks of the past, Charming Prince got support with the printing of Extraction Specialist, which allows for some pretty powerful loops, which we’ll get to in a bit. Otherwise, scrying two in a Collected Company deck can mean a lot mid-game, either by securing the fourth land you need, digging for Collected Company or ensuring a good hit off the CoCo already in your hand. Gaining three life off a 2/2 blocker is sometimes just enough to get out of range of Mono-Red, too. All that being said, I’m running two – as it’s only really a good CoCo hit when Specialist is down and there is a graveyard target or you really need that three life and a blocker. This is a card I could see going up to three or even four-of if I were to go deeper into the Extraction Specialist route.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben
I’m running three mainboard and one sideboard, and could probably be convinced to go to two main and two side. Keeping your opponent off-curve for most of the early-game is backbreaking for some decks. A lot of the time, though, the card just reads “Fatal Push/Bloodchief's Thirst/Play With Fire costs one more this turn”. Against the uninteractive decks that can’t cleanly deal with her, she is extremely powerful, and for this reason I will likely always have access to four copies in games two and three. Rarely has her presence cost me a CoCo that would have saved the game for me.
As most sets do, Streets of New Capenna gave us a few good humans – Tenacious Underdog being one of two in this deck. I’m running two, as many of the circumstances where it should be really strong, it actually isn’t. Against Mono-Red, it’s great to have a recurring threat, but paying two life to recur it every time is not feasible. It’s also great to have a recurring threat against removal-heavy decks like Rakdos Midrange, but Graveyard Trespasser shuts it off. Against UW Control, it’s great to have the extra pressure of a recurring 3/2, but exile removal abounds. That being said, it’s a decent opponent-end-step CoCo hit.
Werewolf Pack Leader
I remember realizing that this card was actually a human in September 2021, while I was watching Ruckman from Crew3 Podcast stream Selesnya CoCo Humans. There are a lot of circumstances where you are drawing a card on the attack every turn with this down, and the four-mana trample ability can give you some reach in the later-game. I’m only running two, but I could see dropping Charming Prince entirely for two more if I want to lean into a more aggressive strategy.
Mentioned a few times already, Extraction Specialist is the other human this deck was graced with by Streets of New Capenna. A 3/2 lifelink for three mana with the benefit of returning a two-mana or less creature to the battlefield is great, and in this meta you don’t need to focus heavily on putting creatures in the graveyard yourself – just let your opponent do it for you! The best hits for this depend on the boardstate and the matchup, but all of the deck’s two-drops (except Werewolf Pack Leader and Tenacious Underdog) are very good targets under the right circumstances.
I exclude Werewolf Pack Leader and Tenacious Underdog as the creature brought back can not attack or block for as long as you control Extraction Specialist, and Werewolf Pack Leader is useless without the ability to attack or block, as is Tenacious Underdog. Inversely, Thalia's Lieutenant, Thalia, Guardian of Thraben, Luminarch Aspirant and Charming Prince (and even Thraben Inspector and Dauntless Bodyguard) provide value without the need to attack or block.
Speaking of Charming Prince, an Extraction Specialist recurring a Charming Prince will allow you to blink Extraction Specialist, freeing up Charming Prince to attack and block (it’s not beholden to the new copy) and allowing Extraction Specialist to recur another creature. Also, to note, if a giant Thalia's Lieutenant is barred from attacking and blocking by an Extraction Specialist, a main-phase Charming Prince blinking the Specialist will free the Lieutenant, allowing you to swing in with a creature the opponent wasn’t expecting you to be able to.
Extraction Specialist is really sweet in Pyre of Heroes Human builds, but that’s not what we’re looking at here. Because we don’t have a way to sacrifice creatures (besides Dauntless Bodyguard), I am only running two Extraction Specialists and I board them out against uninteractive decks that don’t fill my graveyard with creatures. The lack of sacrifice is why I’m only on two Charming Prince as well, as this deck can’t reliably create loops. The incidental opportunity to do so, however, is what keeps me at two copies of each.
A three-of in my mainboard, Brutal Cathar is an absolute beast, and in a meta with a bit less UW Control would be a four-of. Getting blockers out of the way or removing problematic value engines like Omnath, Locus of Creation, Shakedown Heavy or Reflections of Kiki-Jiki on a 2/2 body that flips into a 3/3 with ward is one of my favorite things to do. There have been several games this season where a turn-three or four Brutal Cathar resulted in an immediate scoop. It’s also an extremely clutch CoCo hit on both your opponent’s end step or a gamble main-phase CoCo for lethal, a strategy largely viable thanks to Brutal Cathar. It feels bad to hit something with an ETB effect (like Bloodtithe Harvester, Graveyard Trespasser, Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger, Risen Reef, opposing Brutal Cathars, etc.), but not bad enough to board it out against those decks in most cases. Late game, it can be difficult for your opponent to trigger daytime, which allows you to keep a 3/3 first strike with ward: pay three life. If they do trigger daytime, you get to steal another creature.
Adeline, Resplendent Cathar
I’m at three copies, which can make for some dead draws and awkward CoCo hits (being legendary), but finding Adeline consistently is more important in this meta, where Fatal Push and Bloodchief's Thirst are so prevalent. She is a rather sticky threat, and makes 1/1s on every attack that become 2/2s and 3/3s pretty quickly.
General Kudro of Drannith
Our lord effect has built-in graveyard hate and creature removal and is most of the reason the deck splashes black. Again, I’m running three despite the legendary rule, but finding Kudro by turn five with a full board or off a CoCo can win games.
Of course, this is a Collected Company deck, and nearly every deckbuilding choice has been based on this strategy. Without CoCo, the deck would slant much more aggressively, exclude some of the three-drops and almost certainly not play green.
Game-one mulligan strategies ideally go one of three ways:
- Keep a two-land hand with a turn one play, a couple turn-two plays and a three-drop (aggressive strategy)
- Keep a three-or-four land hand with a green mana source, a couple one or two-drops and a Collected Company (CoCo strategy).
- Keep a two or three-land hand with or without a green mana source with a Collected Company and a Thraben Inspector or a Charming Prince to find the fourth land (curving out).
There are certainly very awkward opening hands game one that might end up being keepable depending on the matchup. In these cases, I have taken to assuming a turn-one Thoughtseize and mulliganing accordingly. With this in mind, five lands, a Brutal Cathar and a CoCo is not a keepable hand. I’m not necessarily recommending this strategy, but with four out of the ten most-played decks running 4x Thoughtseize mainboard, it’s not totally out there to mulligan this way.
Game-two mulligans are more focused. Depending on the matchup, you’ll want to mulligan a bit more aggressively into one of the three strategies above.
Against UW Control, you’ll want an opening hand with two or three lands, a one-drop and a few two-drops. Leaning too far into the CoCo strategy is risky, as it likely wont resolve if you’ve done nothing to create a boardstate that forces them to tap out to deal with.
Against Rakdos Midrange, you’ll want to lean more into the CoCo strategy, as it will resolve and a Skyclave Apparition, Adeline, Extraction Specialist or Brutal Cathar can turn the game around for you.
Fight Rigging, Greasefang and Angels can be tough matchups to navigate a decent mulligan for. You want three-drops for all three of these matchups (Brutal Cathar for Angels, Brutal Cathar and Skyclave Apparition for Fight Rigging and General Kudro for Greasefang), but you also need to build out your board against all three matchups. In this case, the “curving out” mulligan strategy is best here, and you’ll hope to hit the relevant disruptive three-drop off of a turn four or five CoCo, while building up a board in the first three turns to actually win the game.
- Sacrificing a Dauntless Bodyguard in response to your own Extraction Specialist’s ETB trigger (to return Dauntless Bodyguard, targeting Extraction Specialist) is a thing you can do, and if you could really use the lifelink, might be a thing you want to do.
- Dauntless Bodyguard off a CoCo you cast in response to removal will enter the battlefield and have the opportunity to sacrifice itself to protect that creature before the removal resolves.
- Before you decide to save your CoCo for your opponent’s end step, do the math and see if a Brutal Cathar removing a blocker or a Thalia's Lieutenant or General Kudro of Drannith will buff your creatures enough to swing for lethal. It can be a gamble to actually do it, but it’s good to always at least be aware of the possibility when evaluating your combat phase.
- On the same note, always be aware of the +1 power buff Adeline will get when you swing, as well as the additional human that will end up swinging in.
- Holding onto an opening-hand Dauntless Bodyguard is rarely correct without another one-drop in hand. Playing it dry as a 2/1 on turn one is almost always better than skipping turn one and holding it to protect something on turn three, especially blind.
Matchups and Sideboard Guide
|+2 Kitesail Freebooter||-3 Thraben Inspector|
|+1 Skyclave Apparition||-1 Adeline, Resplendent Cathar|
|+1 Elite Spellbinder|
I find this matchup to be even – if not favored depending on the Rakdos build. In game one, a wide board is usually all it takes, as Rakdos doesn’t typically have mass removal available in the mainboard. This is a matchup where you can usually count on your opponent putting your Charming Prince (and another two-drop) in your graveyard for you, setting up a powerful Extraction Specialist. Of the three mulligan strategies above, I tend to aim for the CoCo angle, as the Rakdos Player just has to let it resolve.
While Kitesail Freebooter is easy for Rakdos Midrange to deal with, it does a great job of tripping them up in the meantime. Locking up your opponent’s only single-target removal under a Kitesail Freebooter on turn two can hold up their gameplan until they draw another. Keeping them off their turn-three Fable or turn-four Chandra turn can be huge, too. Rakdos typically boards into a more controlling deck against Humans, and grabbing their Extinction Event with Freebooter can win games.
|+3 Kitesail Freebooter||-2 Brutal Cathar|
|+1 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben||-3 General Kudro of Drannith|
|+1 Elite Spellbinder||-1 Dauntless Bodyguard|
|+1 Guardian of Faith|
(+1 Lavinia, Azorius Renegade if it’s the Lotus Field ramp build)
Freebooter and Thalia are even more effective here than against Rakdos Midrange, as there are fewer clean ways for UW Control to deal with a Freebooter locking down a Teferi, Wandering Emperor or a wrath.
Elite Spellbinder is a powerful addition here, and would probably increase in number if UW Control was more prominent on the ladder. Delaying a wrath, The Wandering Emperor, Teferi, or Absorb is great here, and on an aggressively-slanted 3/1 body, it’s everything we want for this matchup.
Guardian of Faith is strong boardwipe protection, and is another card I might increase by one copy if UW Control continues picking up steam in best-of-three.
Lavinia, Azorius Renegade is tough to beat for the Lotus Field version of UW Control, but I haven’t seen much of this version in the last couple of weeks.
I leave one Brutal Cathar in to deal with the occasional Dream Trawler. General Kudro comes out, as the creature removal and graveyard hate aren’t as strong here and we want to get a bit lower to the ground.
|+2 Kitesail Freebooter||-2 Dauntless Bodyguard|
|+1 Brutal Cathar||-1 Extraction Specialist|
|+1 Elite Spellbinder||-1 General Kudro of Drannith|
Brutal Cathar is really tough for Spirits players to beat, relying on Brazen Borrower and Fading Hope to get their spirit back. It also soft-forces the spirits player to play cards on their turn (to maintain daytime), which they usually don’t want to do.
Elite Spellbinder and Kitesail Freebooter might seem strange, but having flying humans you can buff into fat blockers can go far in disrupting the spirits’ aggressive strategy, while also locking down a couple counterspells or Curious Obsessions (or anything, with Elite Spellbinder).
Dauntless bodyguard does nothing in this matchup, and Extraction Specialist is almost always a dry 3/2 lifelink – which isn’t the worst thing – but I cut one.
|+2 Skyclave Apparition||-2 Werewolf Pack Leader|
|+1 Brutal Cathar||-2 Tenacious Underdog|
|+1 Elite Spellbinder||-1 |
|+1 Lavinia, Azorius Renegade|
We’re taking the control role in this matchup, which isn’t exactly where we want to be, but we do have the tools to do it effectively.
Lavania shuts off your opponent’s turn-two three-drop on the play, but, more importantly, it usually shuts off the hideaway card from Fight Rigging entirely. The more I see this matchup on the ladder, the more I’ve considered going up to two Lavinia in the sideboard.
Skyclave Apparition can hit a Fight Rigging or a problematic Shakedown Heavy and Rotting Regisaur, which will become 3/3s if they deal with the Skyclave Apparition. Note: it’s usually correct to target the Fight Rigging and not the creature if you can help it, as the opponent only has four Fight Riggings and eight creatures that can trigger hideaway the following turn. Plus, you have Brutal Cathar to hit the creatures, whereas Skyclave is your only way to deal with Rigging.
I pull Werewolf Pack Leader and Tenacious Underdog, as I like to tech more towards a control role than an aggressive one in this matchup. Both of these cards are in the deck to attack, and neither can swing through a Rotting Regisaur or Shakedown Heavy or block them profitably.
|+2 Kitesail Freebooter||-2 Thraben Inspector|
|+1 Skyclave Apparition||-2 Tenacious Underdog|
|+1 Elite Spellbinder||-1 Brutal Cathar|
|+1 Outland Liberator||-1 |
|+1 Unlicensed Hearse|
This is a tough matchup, as the Cauldron Familiars just block your humans forever, and Claim the Firstborn hits all of your creatures. I bring in all of the flying humans I have available to get over the cats and disrupt their hand a bit, some graveyard hate in Hearse, Outland Liberator to apply pressure and have the artifact destruction always looming and Skyclave Apparition to hit anything I need, depending on the boardstate.
|+1 Brutal Cathar||-3 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben|
|+1 Skyclave Apparition|
(+1 Unlicensed Hearse against the Pyre build)
|-1 Dauntless Bodyguard|
|+2 Containment Priest|
|+1 Outland Liberator|
|+1 Unlicensed Hearse|
The mirror is largely a Brutal Cathar battle, so I bring in the fourth copy and a fifth copy in Skyclave Apparition. Opposing humans builds will also run some number of Containment Priest, so be aware of casting a CoCo when your opponent has two mana up.
|+1 Kitesail Freebooter||-3 Thraben Inspector|
|+1 Skyclave Apparition||-1 Tenacious Underdog|
|+1 Elite Spellbinder||-1 |
|+1 Outland Liberator|
|+1 Unlicensed Hearse|
|+2 Containment Priest||-1 Thraben Inspector|
|+1 Thalia, Guardian of Thraben||-2 General Kudro of Drannith|
|+1 Elite Spellbinder|
(+1 Lavinia, Azorius Renegade against the Fires of Invention builds)
|-1 Adeline, Resplendent Cathar|
Depending on the build, I find this matchup to be favored even pre-board, as it’s very possible to create an insurmountable boardstate before the Agent of Treachery comes down and steals one of your humans or a land. The Sage of the Falls combo build is a bit tougher, as if they put it together, the game is over.
Containment Priest is really in the sideboard specifically for this matchup (and other CoCo decks), as it is an easy counter to Transmogrify and Indomitable Creativity. Lavinia is here to prevent treasure ramping and turn off Fires of Creation.
Thalia, Guardian of Thraben and Elite Spellbinder are both there to delay the Creativity/Transmogrify turn.
Omnath Piles/Growth Spiral Decks
|+1 Brutal Cathar||-2 Dauntless Bodyguard|
|+1 Skyclave Apparition||-1 General Kudro of Drannith|
|+1 Elite Spellbinder||-1 |
Another favored match, Brutal Cathar does a lot of the work here, hitting Risen Reef, Omnath, Yorion, Lotus Cobra, etc. In game two, your hand disruption spells come in clutch depending on the build. Lavinia is great in the early game, turning off the utility of Lotus Cobra or Mana Elves. Later in the game, it also disables Emergent Ultimatum hits.