Assassin’s Trophy

It’s not every day that a newly spoiled card ignites a genuine excitement within the Modern community, but Assassin’s Trophy has accomplished just that.

It’s been a long time since the G/B community was this thrilled about a set release. Maybe since Fatal Push was printed in Aether Revolt? Or perhaps Shadows Over Innistrad with Grim Flayer? Or maybe we have to go all the way back to Return to Ravnica (six years ago) and the release of Deathrite Shaman and Abrupt Decay to compare the excitement we’re seeing for Assassin’s Trophy. It will undoubtedly make a splash in Modern and it’s clear people are pretty eager to try it. Let’s look at what we can expect from this new chase-rare and how it affects our deck construction.

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“Deathrite Shaman” by Steve Argyle

What’s so different about Assassin’s Trophy compared to other removal spells we’ve gotten in the past?

The most important things about Trophy are its range and rate. The ability to hit everything, including Planeswalkers and lands, for two mana at instant speed puts this card above anything else we’ve used for this effect in the past. Maelstrom Pulse, at the top of our curve and at sorcery-speed, was a necessity because it was our only answer to tricky permanents like Planeswalkers and enchantments. Abrupt Decay was cheaper and an instant but could only hit cheap spells. In a world full of Gurmag Anglers, Teferis, and Hollow Ones, it has felt lackluster as of late.

Enter Assassin’s Trophy.

The card does what both Decay and Pulse want to do but better, because it can ALSO hit lands, a historically difficult permanent for G/B decks to interact with.

The scenarios where this card is relevant and above par are innumerable: destroying Teferi on turn five before untapping two lands, destroying a Tron land before turn three, destroying a Raging Ravine or Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, and so on. It’s pretty easy to replace cards like Terminate, multiple Maelstrom Pulse, and Abrupt Decay for this card. While this may reduce the diversity in our removal against cards like Meddling Mage, I think the upside is too high to ignore.

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“Golgari Guildgate” by Eytan Zana

Great, so you’re saying Assassin’s Trophy is good? We kinda already guessed that.

Right, of course we know that, but let’s not get too excited and caught up in the hype here. This card will not make G/B an unbeatable deck or even a dominant one. The meta is still wide open and our bad match-ups will still be bad. Don’t go up against Tron thinking it’s in the bag just because you have four copies of Trophy in your deck.

G/B decks are good when they can have as many main-deckable answers to the most-played cards in the format. Picking up game one is highly advantageous for us since our deck becomes even better in sideboarded games when we can tweak our deck for the match. Even in an open meta, G/B decks will be able to gain some percentage points by replacing cards with narrower application, like Terminate and Decay, with Trophy. The big BUT to this is that it will not make our deck some kind of unbeatable menace in the format. To dispel unrealistic expectation, I think it’s best to approach this card simply as another removal spell and leave it at that.

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“Golgari Signet” by Raoul Vitale

What does Trophy mean for deck construction?

Obviously we’re looking to replace more narrow cards with this catch all, but beyond that there might be some other considerations. For one, if you’re in a three color combination and you’re expecting to face Trophy, it may be beneficial to hedge against it and add another basic to your deck. Similarly to when Field of Ruin entered the format, people were caught off guard and quickly realized they were susceptible to Ghost Quarter effects. You can expect G/B rock to play Field of Ruin right along side Trophy and Abzan may do the same with Path. To be safe, I would consider adding an extra basic while the hype is high.

For Jund players, if Bloodbraid Elf hasn’t impressed you, it may be time to revisit the infamous berserker.  The worst part about BBE is that the value can be underwhelming. We’ve learned that we can’t jam a bunch of three drops for value, because then decks are able to aggressively attack under us, so playing efficient cards can sometimes mean bad cascade hits. We’ve adapted and understood that it comes with the territory and either accepted it, or simply stopped playing her. Now there is a card that is efficient and will ALWAYS have a target, even if it’s just a land. Trophy may help eliminate some of the doubt people were feeling about BBE’s place in Jund, including myself. I’ve been a pretty big proponent of cards like Huntmaster of the Fells over BBE, but I may spin the wheel once more now that Trophy helps those cascade odds.

Abzan already had great creature removal with the combination and efficiency of Path and Push. Recently players have been trying to cut Path because of the Rampant Growth it gives the opponent. Players felt that the mana advantage it granted made the card an improper fit for the strategy. Now, Abzan players are talking about running opponents out of basics with Path and Trophy in the same deck. It’s hard to ignore Trophy as an incredible asset, so if you’re already playing a card that accelerates your opponent’s mana, you might as well play the most efficient one mana removal spell in Modern as well.

For G/B Rock, the need for playing cards like Dismember and Cast Down should be pretty small now. With excellent removal and excellent consistent mana, I can see why many people are interested in cutting a third color with the addition of Trophy.

Trophy also may give birth to a G/B deck I’ve yet to mention on this site: Sultai. The deck has a lot of composition problems because blue’s card advantage and permission spells don’t pair well with the typical Rock style strategy. If a Sultai deck exists, it will probably ignore cards like Mana Leak and Serum Visions, which are cards that compete with the natural curve of discard into threat. More than likely it will minimally splash for Creeping Tar Pit and Snapcaster but not much more. Can you imagine playing Snapcaster and giving Trophy flashback? It sounds amazing and I’m excited to try it!

Not only will Trophy affect our mainboards but our sideboards as well. People will no longer need to play 4 Fulminator Mages with multiple Alpine Moons and Damping Spheres to have a chance at beating big mana decks. Having a versatile Stone Rain effect in our mainboard will allow us to drop some of these dedicated slots and pivot our 75 towards the meta as a whole and not just our bad match-ups.

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“Thoughtseize” by Lucas Graciano

How many Trophies should I run?

To start, I would just go ahead and jam four copies. It’s hard to know where the floor and ceiling is for the card if you’re only playing one or two. Play the full four and then if it ends up under-performing, you can trim copies. Take note of what you use it on and what card you would have had available instead of Trophy to help evaluate its impact.

Here’s a 5-0 Jund list from user xXlogosXx that we can look at to see where Assassin’s Trophy might fit.

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With the release of Trophy, I’m interested in trimming the singleton Decay, Dreadbore, and Terminate along with one Liliana of the Veil. Remember this is just to test the mettle of Trophy while trying to understand how powerful it is. It’s possible over time that people will settle on a different number than four copies, and the fourth Liliana could be re-added. But, I believe new cards like this are best evaluated when they are played as a playset.

Next, lets look at a 5-0 list from user Fallleaf and do the same thing for Abzan.

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In this list, I like cutting the Decays once again along with one Path to Exile and one Liliana of the Veil. Decay will most likely be sidelined in every version of these decks moving forward. Unlike Legacy, where blue permission is very powerful, Modern just doesn’t have many blue decks that can afford to load up on reactive cards like Mana Leak. Even when they do, they tend to go a bit bigger than three mana for their finishers. Take Jeskai for example; It’s great when you can snag a Search for Azcanta without having to worry about permission, but Trophy not only hits Search for Azcanta, but also the flipped version and all of Jeskai’s powerful Planeswalkers. Pulse will most likely remain since it can hit larger threats than Decay and can also sweep multiples.

Lastly we’ll look at a G/B Rock list that went 6-1 in a Modern Challenge piloted by _kg.

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As mentioned before, the need for cards like Dismember, Cast Down, or any other weak Doom Blade effect should be mostly unnecessary now. For this reason, I would cut the Dismember, both Decays, and one Maelstrom Pulse.

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“Overgrown Tomb” by Rob Alexander

Many people are going to be sleeving up Assassin’s Trophy this weekend with high hopes. Some are new to the archetype and others will have a renewed sense of excitement for the deck they love.

Remember, you’re not going to suddenly win all your bad match-ups just because you’re playing four copies of Trophy. I think the excitement for this card is warranted, but don’t let that enable unrealistic expectations. Playing G/B means you’re never playing on easy mode.

Keep or Mull?

It’s a fun exercise you’ll see a lot on Twitch streams. They’ll show a picture of a seven card hand, some information about being on the draw or play, what you know about the opponent’s deck, and the question posed for audiences:

Keep or Mull?

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It’s a puzzle designed to make you weigh the positives and negatives of your mulligan decision. Will you get to a red source for Unlicensed Disintegration or a fourth land for Gideon? Will the Fatal Push and Ballista carry you long enough to get to the lands you need? There’s a lot to contemplate and a lot to consider before deciding whether or not you need to go to six cards. Of course going to six cards is not ideal since we’ll be starting the game with fewer resources than our opponent. Because we want as many resources as we can get to start the game, thinking hard about whether or not a seven card hand is good enough is very important.

While this can be a fun game to play while watching the pro tour, it’s also a useful exercise to use when evaluating your own hands. Some hands are no-brainers, you know, the “all spells, no lands” or the “all lands, no spells” kind of hands. Others, like the one above, are not so straightforward.

When evaluating your hands, try thinking through the first couple of turns to better understand how good or bad your opener is. Do you have a decent curve of spells? Do you have all of your colors? Will you be able to sequence your fetches and tap lands to properly cast your spells on curve?

Let’s look at some opening hands on the play against an unknown opponent.

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This hand is completely hinged on drawing a string of lands over the next couple of turns. If we don’t, there’s a very good chance our hand will get jammed up and will be too slow and clunky. Don’t convince yourself you “just need one more land.” While you only need one more land to be able to cast spells, you need a lot more than just one more land. Convincing yourself that a hand is keepable because of a card you MIGHT draw is flawed logic in any scenario. Work with what you know you have, and in this instance, you don’t have the resources to cast any of your spells.

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This hand has a nice balance of lands and spells but we’re missing a color. Our early interaction isn’t reliable without a black source of mana and our late game plays may end up not mattering if we spend the first three turns doing nothing. That’s a big enough risk to make this hand a mulligan.

abzan close keep

This hand is pretty close. We have some early game interaction we can cast and aren’t too far off from casting the top end of our curve either. We have a number of different ways we can play out our hand and even if we don’t draw a land we’ll have two castable pieces of interaction and a threat.

Thinking through this hand, I would play the tap land turn one and turn two Thoughtseize off the Vent. Then, I can use the Catacombs to fetch Overgrown Tomb to Push a turn one or two play from my opponent. If they don’t cast a spell that can be Pushed, I can leave the fetch up going into my turn. By refusing to thin my deck, I’m increasing my chances of drawing a third land. Turn three I can play my Tarmogoyf. Of course all of this is without the information of my future draws which could potentially change these decision points. The fact that I have a plan going all the way into turn three makes this a fine keep in my opinion. On the other hand, the first two examples just don’t have a reliable plan that doesn’t involve luck and good draws. Going to six does not automatically mean you’re conceding to your opponent because you’re down a card, so don’t be afraid of mulliganing!

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“Careful Study” by Scott M. Fischer

Game one it’s important to understand the limitations of your deck when it comes to mulligans. Decks like Bogles and Tron can mulligan down to four cards and still be able to function properly and win. A deck like Burn or Elves require a high concentration of action to win and going down to six or below can make that difficult. Understanding your limitations can help you better judge when you need to stop mulliganing and just accept what you have. There is a certain threshold for each deck where mulliganing beyond that point will significantly decrease your chances of winning. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa has done many Keep or Mull articles in the past and separates these two deck into “quantity” and “quality” decks. Decks that can afford to mulligan because the cards they want in their hand are powerful enough to negate the downside of starting the game with fewer cards are “quality” decks. The decks that have very redundant spells, where mulliganing can simply equate to having one less of the same spell, are “quantity” decks.

With G/B decks, a good hand game one often means just having a balance of spells and lands. I believe this makes G/B a sort of hybrid “quality/quantity” deck. We want to start the game with enough resources to execute our game-plan but aren’t relying on redundancy to determine good hands. Our deck is split into three categories: threats, disruption/removal, lands. Having a mix of these game one is all we can ask for.

Against an unknown opponent, we don’t know which cards will be the strongest. Being able to simply make your land drops, get all your colors, and cast your cards will typically be good enough for a keep. A hand that is removal heavy and threat light is bad against Control but good against Humans, unfortunately we can’t know if the hand is right for the match until we keep it and play through it. If you have to mulligan game one, I would be hard pressed to go any lower than five. I believe this is the threshold for G/B decks game one. Going beyond that greatly limits the decks capability to function as a three color deck that wants both threats and interaction in our opening hand.

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“Strategic Planning” By Zhang Jiazhen

After sideboarding, our frame of mind needs to change in accordance with what our opponent is playing. Now we know what cards are strongest in the match, and we’ll be looking for them in our opening hand.  A balance of mana sources and spells is of course still very important when considering whether or not you need to mulligan post sideboarding. What many people forget to do is also evaluate the cards in hand for the match-up in specific. Often times players will automatically keep hands that have three lands and some spells even though the cards don’t do much against the opponent.

Correctly determining when to aggressively mulligan against a known opponent is an important skill to learn. Aggressively mulliganing means throwing away seemingly capable hands for ones that have a better chance at winning. In G/Bx mirrors, almost any hand with a nice balance of spells and lands will do and the difference between a game one keep and a game two keep may not vary by much. It’s hard to know exactly what you’ll need in a match-up with so much attrition that will inevitably come down to top-decks anyway. On the other hand, when facing a very narrow deck like Dredge, you’ll need some specific cards to navigate the match successfully.

Let’s look at an opening hand against Dredge playing G/B Rock and see if it’s worth keeping. This is game two and we’re on the play.

Keep or Mull?

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This is the trap hand. We can play what we have, we’re not gonna die to mana screw, and while it looks like a nice keep-able hand in most situations, the question this hand fails to answer well is, “Does this win against dredge?” This is the most important question and is often times the question ignored. In postboard games always ask yourself this:

“Does this hand win against the opponent’s deck?”

The fact that this hand has a nice balance of spells and lands creates an illusion that this is in fact a good hand when it actually isn’t because it does absolutely nothing against Dredge. People get so caught up in making sure they don’t lose to their own deck, that they’re willing to concede to their opponent so long as they get to cast a couple of spells first. This is the most important point I want to make with this article as I believe it’s the most difficult hurdle to overcome when learning to mulligan better.

I get it. It’s not fun to pitch hands that have a nice balance of lands and spells only to keep questionable one landers or mulligan to five. Unfortunately, the hand above falls into the same category of “cross my fingers and hope I draw what I need,” without the helpless feeling of missing land drops or having uncastable cards in hand. The comfort of casting a couple of spells and making your land drops before dying should not make your loss any easier to stomach.

I see it happen all too often. Players who keep hands with little to no interaction appropriate for the match-up only to turn around and blame their loss on variance and bad draws. While there’s no way of knowing if mulliganing would have ended up better for them, by refusing to do so, they gave themselves only the lowest possible chance of winning.

There is a chance you could draw hot and get your hate cards on curve to win with this hand, but the same could be said about any hand against any opponent. As it stands now, it’s pretty slow with Fatal Push not being a great answer to any of the recursive threats in Dredge and Tireless Tracker being very slow.

Okay, we’ve decided this hand just won’t cut it and we need to mulligan to six. Is this keep-able?

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This is when we start shaking our head with disappointment. “Ugh, why didn’t I just keep my seven. Can I afford to go any lower? Had to get lucky in this match anyway, right?” Yes, this is worse than the seven, but it’s still on par with the first hand in that it does not have a winning line. Unfortunately we have to go to five.

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Now you regret driving two hours to this big tournament. You internally feel both defeat and frustration. We have some awesome cards for the match in Scavenging Ooze and Kalitas but don’t have enough lands. Guess we’re going to four.

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Hey, now wait a second. This…this might actually work. This looks like a hand that could actually beat Dredge! Maybe the match is salvaged! Our opponent won’t have access to their graveyard from the get-go and we have a clock to back it up. We can pretty safely bottom two of these lands and the Fatal Push to end up with a pretty decent four card hand for the matchup.

Dredge is HEAVILY dependent on the graveyard for its power. Taking that away before the game begins can buy you a lot of turns. This four card hand is ten times better than the original opening seven because of how strong our interaction is.

This match is hinged on some very specific cards to win, and without them, Dredge can be almost unstoppable. Keeping a hand that’s light on this kind of interaction is just asking to get ran over. In this scenario, we’ve properly adapted our mulligan threshold for the match-up and found the winning line after going to four.

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“Military Intelligence” by Craig J. Spearing

Mulliganing isn’t an exact science, it can’t be, there’s just too much variance involved in your future draws and the unknown information of your opponent’s hand. You can do a lot of research into the mathmatics of mulliganing with the odds and percentages of drawing certain cards in certain situations. However this doesn’t help as much in the moment when there isn’t time to conduct those calculations. Most of our keeps and mulligans are based on a small amount of information like knowledge of our deck, our opponents deck, our possible draws, and instinct. Instead of memorizing percentages  and odds, I can offer some simple guidelines and practices to recap:

  • Play out the first couple of turns in your head to create a plan. Ensure you have a curve of threats and disruptions with the appropriate lands to execute. If a good plan can’t be produced from the cards in hand, then go to six.
  • When you need to mulligan, don’t be afraid to do it. If you don’t have a good plan with your opening seven, then ship it back without fear. I’ve kept multiple five card hands that were infinitely better than the opening seven. Trust that there are better sixes and fives that have winning lines when your seven does not. Don’t keep mediocrity for the sake of having more cards in hand.
  • Postboard, it’s important to understand the match-up, the cards needed to win, and how aggressively you need to mulligan to find those cards. Knowing what cards are above par in the match and whether you need to mulligan balanced hands to find them is an important skill to master.

Mulliganing is a difficult thing to perfect, and even professionals struggle sometimes when weighing the pros and cons of their openers. Modern games are usually decided within the first three to four turns. This often means that your opening hand will have a lot to do with your success or failure in a match-up. Recognizing the hands that will bring you success from the ones that will bring you defeat will help you answer the difficult, important question:

Keep or Mull?