It's not often when I first read a preview card and I know it will immediately change every format I play, but that's exactly what Assassin's Trophy is going to do. It will undoubtedly be a heavily played Standard card, but that's not what I'm here to talk about today. It will certainly see some play in various decks in Legacy, but again that's not what I'm here to talk about today. I'm here to talk about Modern, the format I play the most and what Assassin's Trophy will do to help out one of the most underplayed shards in the format, Sultai. Before we begin with that, let's look at the card first and talk about what it does.
A two-mana removal spell is just the right cost to see play in Eternal formats. Sure, one mana is preferred, but two-mana spells are perfectly acceptable if they're powerful enough. For that two mana, Assassin's Trophy allows you to destroy any permanent your opponent controls. That's right, any permanent your opponent controls from Teferi, Hero of Dominaria to Urza's Tower. Bryan Gottlieb wrote about the ten cards he wants to destroy the most with Assassin's Trophy to give you an idea of some of the more problematic ones.
Now this unprecedented power isn't without a drawback. Your opponent is then allowed to search for a basic land and put it on to the battlefield untapped. The basic land entering the battlefield untapped makes sense from a gameplay perspective, because being able to cast it on your opponents' upkeep to destroy a land and therefore cause your opponent to stumble for a turn isn't the best gameplay. Anyway, Assassin's Trophy is simply another reason along with Field of Ruin and Path to Exile to have plenty of basic lands in your Modern deck.
This powerful removal spell will obviously only fit into Golgari decks due to its mana cost, and therefore, Jund is the deck most people on social media are excited to play Assassin's Trophy in so far. This makes sense as Jund is currently the most-played Golgari-based deck, but I don't believe Assassin's Trophy is designed with Jund in mind for a very simple reason.
Think about the games you've played against Jund where the Jund player wins. Likely it starts with a Thoughtseize on turn 1 to take your best spell, followed up with a Dark Confidant on turn 2, and then Liliana of the Veil makes you discard a handful of cards as you lose to the two-drop creature. This is a simplistic version of the gameplan of Jund, which is to reduce the total resources the opponent has. Jund tries to use the most mana-efficient, interactive spells in the format to trade resources one for one which then allows the card advantage from Dark Confidant to bury the opponent, Tarmogoyf to end the game before the opponent can rebuild, or Liliana of the Veil to ultimate, leaving the opponent with far too few resources to compete.
While Assassin's Trophy is an efficient removal spell, it leaves behind an extra basic land for the opponent which can be a disaster for Jund. The goal when using Liliana of the Veil to reduce the resources both players have access to is to have your opponent end up with not enough lands to cast their most powerful spells that would allow them to pull ahead. This can make Assassin's Trophy, which doesn't trade one for one, a liability for the Jund player. Now this isn't to say Jund doesn't have the ability to adapt. In fact, Jadine Klomparens is telling you today exactly how Jund can adapt to playing Assassin's Trophy in her article today.
But Jund isn't the only deck that's excited to see the printing of Assassin's Trophy. You have Abzan, which can pair it with Path to Exile to lessen the downside of the opponent getting a basic land out of their deck. There is also Golgari Midrange, which will use four copies of Field of Ruin as well as Crucible of Worlds or Ramunap Excavator alongside Assassin's Trophy to try and run the opponent out of basic lands. While this may be right up my alley with what I love to do in Magic, these decks are already fairly established and ready to go. This leads us to Sultai, the most popular archetype that has never been very successful in Modern.
I think this could be it though. Assassin's Trophy has the ability to finally make Sultai an established Modern archetype.
The Problem with Sultai in Modern
There isn't a three-color combination in Modern that has been more disappointing to deck builders than Sultai. It combines black for removal and discard, green for large creatures, and blue for card draw and countermagic. Sultai should have everything, but it's never been good in Modern before, and the reason is two-fold.
First, the blue and the black cards often played in these decks don't have a cohesive gameplan. The black cards want to restrict the number of resources in the game, which is a gameplan of Jund, and the blue cards want to increase the number of resources in the game, which is the gameplan of Azorius Control. Mixing the two means your deck is fighting against itself, and although the individual cards look powerful on paper, the end result is your cards end up doing less than normal.
Two prime examples of this are Liliana of the Veil and Snapcaster Mage. When playing Liliana of the Veil, you want to trade off your resources to empty your hand as soon as possible so the +1 ability has a minimal negative effect on you. However, if you're playing card draw and countermagic, you want as many cards in your hand as you can have. These two deck designs are completely opposite, and therefore, Liliana of the Veil is not a card I want in my Modern Sultai deck.
Snapcaster Mage is a card that's best played during the late game when you have a graveyard filled with options. However, if many of those options are discard spells and your opponent doesn't have cards in their hand anymore, the strength of Snapcaster Mage is significantly weakened. Instead of being able to use Snapcaster Mage to protect yourself from the top of your opponent's deck like the blue-based control decks are able to do by pairing it with countermagic, you need to hope you have the specific removal spell in your graveyard that can deal with the card your opponent draws.
While I could continue on with other examples of this flaw with Sultai, I often times see people try to put Snapcaster Mage and Liliana of the Veil in the same deck which I believe has even worse consequences than putting either one individually with the cards they don't work well with. You need to pick a lane with Sultai and stick with it, and for my decklist below I've included Snapcaster Mage over Liliana of the Veil.
Second, while Sultai has always had the tools to beat the decks that make up the middle of the Modern metagame, it's struggled mightily against the extremes. Both Burn and Tron have always been very tough matchups for Sultai, which is a terrible sign when you struggle to beat either extreme. Usually midrange decks can be tuned to be better against one side or the other depending on what the predicted metagame is for a given week, but Sultai has always been weak against both.
That's where Assassin's Trophy comes in and hopefully improves our Tron matchup quite a bit. It gives us a maindeck way to destroy lands and can pair nicely with Surgical Extraction in the sideboard to get rid of all of one of their Tron lands for good. Now this means Tron players will have to adapt to Assassin's Trophy and more maindeck land destruction in the format, which may mean having cards like Thought-Knot Seer or Thragtusk maindeck, but overall this is a huge win for Sultai. Now we don't need as many slots for Tron and instead can build Sultai with the rest of the metagame, including Burn, in mind.
This is where I'm starting with Sultai when Guilds of Ravnica releases and I'm incredibly excited to try it out. As you can see, I'm playing a Dimir control deck that splashes green for Tarmogoyf to end games quickly and Abrupt Decay and Assassin's Trophy for added removal against problematic permanents. I wanted to have enough removal for the aggro decks like Humans and Spirits while still having 60 cards I'd like to have in the maindeck against control and combo. The metagame will adjust over time to Assassin's Trophy, but for week one this will be the first list I'll try to tune before SCG Columbus. A couple of notes about it:
- The manabase contains five basic lands and twenty-one blue sources if you count the two Fields of Ruin. This should be enough blue sources to cast Cryptic Command, where you want a minimum of nineteen blue sources. Cryptic Command doesn't necessarily play well with the rest of the deck, but it's such an incredibly good card that I believe if you're playing Sultai you should try to fit it in to the deck. The five basic lands is the lowest number I'd want access to, and it may not be enough. Between our own Fields of Ruin and opposing ones, opposing Path to Exile and Assassin's Trophies, and wanting to fetch for basic lands to not take damage, there really can't be enough basic lands in decklists these days.
- Yes I'm playing Snapcaster Mage with discard spells instead of countermagic, but I believe it will work out just fine. In this deck Snapcaster Mage will often times fill the three-drop slot on my curve, by either flashing back a discard spell before their hand is empty or using Opt to refuel. Assassin's Trophy is also a much better spell for Snapcaster Mage to have access to than what previous Sultai decks had access to, because you can always use it as a Ghost Quarter if you don't have anything else to do.
- This card is better than Serum Visions in every midrange and control deck. This is something I've explained over and over again on my Twitch stream when playing blue decks, but instead of typing out all of the reasons why you can trust the words of Ross Merriam.
- Jace, the Mind Sculptor is an incredibly good card and the biggest single reason why I'd want to add blue to my Golgari deck. That being said, it's possible the value of Jace, the Mind Sculptor will go down after the release of Guilds of Ravnica due to Assassin's Trophy's ability to answer it. Most likely not, as Dreadbore is already a played card in the format and Jace is somewhat weak to Lightning Bolt and haste creatures, but I'd just like to point out that it's a possibility.
- I've played as many Surgical Extractions as anyone to be a tool against both Tron and Storm, and the printing of Assassin's Trophy makes that plan even better. Right now, I only have six land destruction abilities between Field of Ruin and Assassin's Trophy, and it's possible I'll need a little bit more. In this decklist, besides Tron and Storm, Surgical Extraction is also meant for TitanShift, Ironworks, and the dedicated graveyard decks. I wouldn't recommend bringing it in against anything else, but I still would start with it as a four-of in the sideboard.
Sultai has long been a fan favorite in Modern, but it's never found a home for a variety of reasons. However, I'm excited for its prospects with the addition of Assassin's Trophy, and think the deck now has all the tools it needs to be one of Modern's top contenders. One of my favorite things in Magic is playing new decks that take my opponents off guard, so don't be surprised if I end up bringing Sultai soon to an SCG Tour® event near you!