Now this is how you kick off a preview season.
A card that is going to have dramatic implications across every conceivable format, Assassin's Trophy is the most exciting removal spell printed in years. There were about ten minutes after this card had been revealed that my brain spent insidiously insisting that the card had the words "nonland permanent" somewhere in its text box. Even under this completely fictitious limitation, I was still convinced this card was solid.
But no. IT. HITS. EVERY. THING.
Assassin's Trophy's ability to deal with problematic lands is what assures this card is going to enter the pantheon of all-time great removal spells alongside Fatal Push, Swords to Plowshares, Abrupt Decay, and of course, the obviously comparable Path to Exile.
My fellow author, Jadine Klomparens, covers the strategic implications of the "search their library for an (untapped) basic land card" clause in depth today, but I still feel compelled to say a word on comparisons to Path to Exile.
There's no question that relying on Path to Exile as your method of removal can occasionally be punished. If you're removing one and two mana creatures in the early game, you're accelerating your opponent's mana growth at precisely the wrong time. A Rampant Growth on turn 1 or 2 can be a backbreaking play. On turn 5, Rampant Growth is often irrelevant. Therefore, it's important to understand that Assassin's Trophy's ability to destroy an early permanent should be viewed as an emergency safety measure. Think about the removal spells you'll replace with Assassin's Trophy carefully. It's not meant to be a replacement for your Fatal Pushes. It's your new flex slot all-star. Assassin's Trophy is here to deal with sticky permanents like planeswalkers and lands, not to obliterate your opponent's Llanowar Elves.
I plan on targeting a lot of permanents with Assassin's Trophies in the coming months, but there are some cards that really have it coming-the types of cards that have held down base Golgari decks for far too long. This article is here to put the following cards on notice.
10. Back to Basics
The greedy manabase punisher du jour in Legacy, I chose Back to Basics as my first entrant on this list to illustrate a very important point. Assassin's Trophy's true strength will always be its versatility. Sultai decks (and Jund decks, when they exist again) have completely reasonable options to answer Back to Basics at instant speed, Abrupt Decay chief among them. However, with the decline in Counterbalances, there's less incentive to play a tool as narrow as Abrupt Decay.
Fair decks in Legacy need to be able to answer every conceivable type of threat that can be thrown at them (like Miracles) or need to be able to close the game relatively quickly once they've established control (like Grixis Control). A deck like Sultai currently struggles at accomplishing both tasks.
Now, this style of deck can simultaneously shore up its weakness to weird Legacy "I win" cards such as Back to Basics and Ensnaring Bridge, while still maintaining outs against virtually anything else that can be thrown their way. This versatility is indispensable for any Legacy deck attempting to play the long game.
Gurmag Angler - and to a lesser extent, their friends Hollow One and Street Wraith - has made its living off its falsely inflated mana cost. Too expensive to be Fatal Pushed or Abrupt Decayed, too large to be Lightning Bolted, the presence of Angler in Modern and Legacy has forced the inclusion of loads of one-of Dreadbores and Terminates, all of which have never been in our hand when we needed them. Thankfully, those days are over. No longer must we look at our converted mana cost-based removal and wither in the face of these threats. While Assassin's Trophy would much rather take out a nice juicy lategame target, the option to not just scoop to a 5/5 is very much appreciated.
I again want to emphasize that I'm not blind to Assassin's Trophy's dangerous downside. Giving my opponent an extra untapped land isn't something I intend to do without careful consideration. However, there are some targets that require no real debate, and it's these spots where Assassin's Trophy will truly shine.
Is it better to give your opponent an additional Jace, the Mind Sculptor activation or another basic land? I know which option I will choose 99 times out of 100. Jace may have gotten off to a slow start in Modern, but there's no question that he's now hitting his stride. Jace also took down the last Legacy Grand Prix. For Golgari decks to reclaim metagame share in either format, they must present a clean answer to this card. Sorcery speed answers are simply not effective once the lategame has been reached, and no deck wants to rely on Liliana ultimates as their primary means of keeping Jace, the Mind Sculptor in check.
I've heard it said that no Legacy deck benefitted more from the printing of Assassin's Trophy than Golgari Depths, and I'm inclined to agree. A deck already sitting on the precipice of greatness, Golgari Depths is adept at dealing with countermeasures contained in an opponent's hand, but things get stickier as those cards enter the battlefield. There are only so many Pithing Needles to go around, and let's be honest, no one has ever been thrilled to play Pithing Needle.
Being able to pick off a Wasteland at instant speed gives the deck a new wrinkle that should force opponents into an even more defensive posture. Bolstered by a card that will function as a high-quality defensive and offensive tool, I think Golgari Depths can now successfully implement a two-pronged attack.
If I had a week one post-Guilds of Ravnica Legacy tournament to play, I would happily register this deck.
We've now reached the Standard portion of our list, and in general, the cost of providing your opponent with an untapped basic is much higher in Standard than it is in Eternal formats. Games are often dictated by who can stick a five or six-drop first, and it wouldn't surprise me if Assassin's Trophy is played in more limited numbers in Standard than it is in Modern or Legacy.
Despite this trepidation, there are some high-profile targets available, and one is this scarily efficient removal spell that I anticipate seeing a lot of play post-Guilds of Ravnica release. In general, instant speed ways to unlock your threats from your opponent's enchantment-based removal only see widespread play in sideboard games. The versatility of Assassin's Trophy liberates us though, and opponents will never feel secure that our threats won't re-enter the battlefield at the most impactful possible time.
There's no planeswalker in Standard that better exemplifies "must-kill" than Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. And not only does this card need to leave the battlefield for you to have any realistic chance at winning a prolonged game, it needs to leave quickly, before your opponent gets to untap some mana and deal with whatever spell you were preying could free you from a Teferi-centric nightmare.
This was one of the cards I was really concerned about going into the Guilds of Ravnica Standard. Teferi tends to encourage a very specific way of playing games. You must either generate battlefield presence, answer the sweeper, and kill Teferi, or have access to Vraska's Contempt and hope you get a window to cast it. Otherwise, you lose. Assassin's Trophy turns this paradigm on its head and will encourage a more diverse and interesting metagame.
Basically, see everything I said about Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and slap it on a much more difficult to deal with card type. This card was primed to absolutely terrorize Standard for the next year or so. Now we have access to a card that can deal with both transformed and non-transfomed modes, and we don't have to feel quite as bad about giving our opponent that untapped mana, since we're targeting a land (or soon to be land).
In the absence of Assassin's Trophy, I would have doubted the viability of three-color decks that weren't playing their own Search for Azcantas. Trying to play anything but an aggressive plan without access to Field of Ruin was going to be an exercise in frustration.
In current Standard, it is telling that Azorius Control can find a respectable matchup against Rakdos Midrange despite being comprised of a couple Search for Azcantas, 4 Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and 69 of the most forgettable cards to ever hop into a set of sleeves. Rakdos Midrange lacks ways to interact with Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin outside of Sorcerous Spyglass, which the Azorius Control deck is all too ready to remove.
Thankfully, this isn't the world we find ourselves venturing into. Powerful answers are back in vogue, and I'm willing to bet a midrange deck packing Assassin's Trophy will be able to keep pace with the best Search for Azcanta decks.
2. Urza's Mine
1. Urza's Tower
Look, Karn, we've had some crazy times together. Remember that time I cast you on turn 3 and my opponent just conceded on the spot? Or that other time I cast you on turn 3 and my opponent conceded on the spot? Or how about that time where I cast you on turn 3 and my opponent didn't concede and just sat there with no permanents on the battlefield. Fun stuff.
The truth is though, I don't think I like who I am when I'm with you. I'm cackling at the people complaining they didn't get to play Magic. I'm obsessively counting to seven. I'm just disregarding people who try to suggest that Blood Moon can slow me down.
Beyond that, it's always felt like you've robbed me of any autonomy in our relationship. Like you were the one making all the decisions. I'm better than that, Karn. I can play a game where I do more than get you your precious Urza's lands. I can extend the game out twenty turns and trust myself to make the proper decisions on all of them. With Assassin's Trophy, I can finally allow myself to play fair in Modern again, and I won't have to have you sitting across the table from me, reminding me how foolish I am for abandoning you.
Sometimes, the planeswalker that's right for us in the moment isn't the planeswalker that's right for us for the rest of our lives. That's you, Karn. You're not right for me. So get out of my life, and take your stupid Urza's lands with you. But you can leave that pretty Antiquities Urza's Tower. I'm keeping that as a trophy.