You know, I could grow used to this.
It started when they unbanned my old friend Bloodbraid Elf. I got to write an article talking about how she was the solution to all Jund's problems and how Jund would change to accommodate her. Then I got to a win a bunch at Magic tournaments by casting her. It was a good time, to be honest.
Then things started to change. The Modern metagame shifted and wins with Jund got harder to come by. People were no longer surprised to see your Raging Ravines and no one was ever caught off guard by a Liliana of the Veil. Whispers of Jund's demise became fact more or less overnight. Things got so bad I couldn't in good faith let the tournament results of my friends depend on Jund and instead played Burn in Team Unified Modern at Grand Prix Detroit.
Now, the cycle begins anew. Not an unbanning this time, but an altogether new card. Assassin's Trophy changes everything. Once again, all Jund's problems have been solved. Once again, Jund builds will have to change drastically to accommodate a new toy. Once again, I get to write about the new face of Jund, and very soon I will once again get to win a lot of matches with Tarmogoyf and friends.
And this time, I expect Jund's life expectancy to be longer. Much longer.
Take a look at the recent Jund list that won #SCGINDY a few months back:
Here's what I want you to hone in on:
Once upon a time, before Bloodbraid Elf got unbanned but after the Jund glory days, I was asked what my least favorite card in my favorite deck was. My answer was quick: Abrupt Decay. Many people love Abrupt Decay for its flexibility, I hate it for its limitations. Losing to a four-mana card with an Abrupt Decay in hand is one of the worst feelings in the world, and the card doesn't even make good mana exchanges to compensate. Terminate can trade up in mana but is limited to being helpful when you're losing to creatures. Maelstrom Pulse will solve any problem, but three-mana sorceries are a rough place to be in Modern.
The truth of the matter is that these cards were necessary evils in Jund. Midrange decks in Modern have it rough. They don't win fast enough to ignore what the opponent is trying to do, and what opponents in Modern are trying to do is rarely simple. Decks attack from several angles and present a wide-range of troublesome permanent types. Maybe in the past Thoughtseize and Lightning Bolt were enough to handle the problems presented by every deck in the format, but those days are long past.
Thus, we dutifully play our one or two copies of Maelstrom Pulse. We sit and have a long think about whether we'd rather lose to Reality Smasher or Cranial Plating this weekend and decide on our Abrupt Decay / Terminate split accordingly. We do what we must to have game against the field as a whole, but we're not happy about it.
The unique demands of Modern do more than shape our last few maindeck slots. They force us to double-down on niche forms of removal in the sideboard. Plenty of artifact removal to handle Ironworks and Affinity. Fulminator Mage to deal with Tron and U/W Control. The Jund sideboard is unbelievably taxed, chock-full of cards that interact in unique ways and have applications against several decks. Flexibility is prized above all else because Jund is forced to have a sufficient quantity of interaction after sideboard against decks that don't rely solely on simple creatures.
This problem has only grown worse over time.
I used to love the Azorious Control and Jeskai Control matchup. It was challenging to play proficiently but learning to do so was extremely rewarding. They had cards you could almost never beat, like Elspeth, Sun's Champion and Sphinx's Revelation, but they all cost so much mana that you had a plethora of ways to answer them before they were cast. But with the printing of Search for Azcanta and the widespread adoption of Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, the number of relatively cheap spells that invalidate the Jund strategy has grown out of control.
Azorious Control and Jeskai Control are just two matchups in the sea of matchups that is Modern, but their stories are a representative microcosm of the format as a whole. The range of threats that needs to be answered is wider than ever, and the price for stumbling in doing so is massive. Drawing Abrupt Decay when what you needed was Terminate spells certain doom, as does drawing Kolaghan's Command when you needed a Maelstrom Pulse. Jund's situational answers to diverse permanent types have been its biggest weakness in current Modern.
Enter Assassin's Trophy.
I know I needed two looks to be sure I wasn't dreaming.
This card answers everything. Urza's Tower. Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Cranial Plating. Hardened Scales. Mantis Rider. Thought-Knot Seer. Every troublesome permanent that has ever beaten you, all answered in a two-mana instant. The days of hedging are over. There's no need to choose to lose to Cranial Plating to beat Reality Smasher when you can just beat both of them, and that ability is exactly what Assassin's Trophy delivers.
I could go on forever about how good Assassin's Trophy is, but I get the sense that I don't need to. The card is powerful, and it will be played. The key point I want to drive home is that the strength of Assassin's Trophy in Jund isn't just due to the card's raw power level. No, Trophy's completely unprecedented flexibility is what has huge ramifications for how the Jund deck is built and how successful it will be going forward.
For starters, Jund's sideboard will change drastically. The flexibility we so desperately needed before is now superfluous. With Assassin's Trophy taking the slot of less flexible cards in the maindeck, we can be assured of having ample interaction for every opposing strategy without having seven or eight cards to bring in. This paves the way for Jund to get more mileage out of its sideboard and include more singularly powerful but narrow effects.
Some of Jund's historically awful matchups will swing on the spot. Tron, for instance. Without having actually played the matchup I can't say for sure, but I would not be at all surprised if Assassin's Trophy made the matchup favorable for Jund. A modal spell that can either take them off Tron or answer any of their massive threats is a huge boon for Jund players everywhere.
But like I said, I'm not here to convince you of the power of Assassin's Trophy. I'm here to discuss how Jund lists will adapt to best take advantage of the powerful new option at their disposal. It's time to talk about the downside of Assassin's Trophy. The card is going to be a player in multiple formats and revolutionize Modern Jund, but two-mana Vindicate it is not.
Lategame, Assassin's Trophy is the best removal spell for a Jund player to have in hand. Jund actively wants to reduce the game to a topdeck war, and once that mission has been accomplished Assassin's Trophy has close to no downside. Until then, that downside is a huge problem. Luckily, it's a downside that Modern already has a great deal of experience with:
It's obvious that giving your opponent a land is something that, all things being equal, you would rather not do. Of course, other things aren't equal and Path to Exile sees widespread play, establishing the historical precedent that removing any creature is worth the price of giving your opponent an extra basic land. It's important to note, however, that the downside varies in importance from deck to deck.
Aggressive decks playing Path to Exile rarely notice the downside on the card. If the extra land isn't letting the opponent cast Wrath of God a turn later, the extra land isn't going to do them much good. And since the decks that play Wrath of God and the decks that play creatures worth using Path to Exile on are rarely one and the same, Path to Exile is almost free in these decks.
Control decks playing Path to Exile have the game plan of answering everything their opponents try to do and giving them plenty of time in which to do it. As such, extra lands aren't of extreme importance, although control decks do strongly prefer to cast Path to Exile later rather than sooner to ensure they don't fall behind in tempo and lose the game as a result. But even when they do have to Path early and fall behind in tempo, they play plenty of cards capable of catching back up.
Abzan is the deck closest to Jund that plays Path to Exile, and it falls solidly between aggro and control. Like a control deck, it intends to give its opponents plenty of turns to try to execute their game plan. Like an aggro deck, it has few ways to catch up in a game its fallen behind in, tempo-wise. This leaves Path to Exile in an awkward spot where early Path to Exiles can spell disaster. It's no accident that the printing of Fatal Push saw a heavy reduction in the number of Path to Exile found in Abzan lists. The downside is at its worst in the Golgari-based archetype.
To illustrate this point in another way, let's think about the role of Liliana of the Veil and Thoughtseize in Jund and Abzan. Taken together, these cards indicate a strong desire to deal with cards the opponent has before they get to cast them. Every Jund pilot knows the pain of drawing a Thoughtseize after their opponent has no cards left in hand; giving the opponent an extra land in the early game lets them deploy all their cards faster, reducing the window of time in which discard is effective. This is a problem.
It's not an insurmountable problem. Assassin's Trophy is very good, downside or no downside. Still, we don't want to be casting the card on turn two. Giving our opponent a Rampant Growth early in the game is extremely counterproductive to the Jund plan. Trophy is fantastic late, miserable early.
To me, this means that we don't want to play four copies of the card. Drawing two copies in my opening hand sounds awful. Ideally, I want to draw Assassin's Trophy on turn three or four; early enough to make an impact on my opponent's plans, late enough that I've gotten plenty of mileage out of all the discard I've crammed into my deck. Three copies is where I plan to start, although I could envision two being correct; likely with additional copies in the sideboard.
Barring radical changes to the shape of the Modern format, I don't believe it likely that any copies of Abrupt Decay, Terminate, Dreadbore, or Maelstrom Pulse should be in Jund after Guilds of Ravnica. If the format ever narrows to a point where any of these cards are reliably your best answer against most of the format, it would absolutely be right to play them over Assassin's Trophy. I don't think that will happen.
The Jund of the Future
Moving forward with Jund, here's the things I'm thinking about:
- The need for speed has decreased. It certainly isn't gone entirely, but with the bump in interaction against unfair decks granted by Assassin's Trophy, closing speed no longer must be the number one priority. Fairly uninterested in kill-em-quick sideboard cards like Hazoret the Fervent.
- Fulminator Mage may be a relic and it has at the very least declined drastically in importance. Assassin's Trophy can deal with Urza's Tower, Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, and Celestial Colonnade. I'm going to start with two Fulminator Mages but intend to watch and see if they can be cut altogether.
- I want my non-Assassin's Trophy interaction to be good early. Given the option, I want to cast my Trophys late, which means I need other things to do the heavy lifting in the early game. I can't see going below five pieces of one-mana removal.
- Basic Mountain is unplayable. Without Terminate / Dreadbore giving an early Mountain something to cast, I have no desire to have a Mountain in my deck. The fourth Lightning Bolt can also be dispensed with since we no longer need to max out our closing speed. Bias the deck away from red.
- The sideboard has a lot of room to change, and I expect we'll see a lot of innovations in the first few months post-Guilds of Ravnica. Be open to new plans and keep an open mind.
With all that being said, here's my starting list: