In last week's article, I described why Knight of Autumn is the best card in Guilds of Ravnica for Modern and that it was even better than Assassin's Trophy, which I took to be its closest rival for that honor. After the first week of the new set being legal, Assassin's Trophy has already earned its first trophy, and it even did so as a four-of in the main deck! Today I'm going to talk about the Black-Green Rock deck JisOrange won the MTGO Modern Challenge with this past weekend and what Assassin's Trophy does to improve the archetype as well as what sort of overall impact Assassin's Trophy and Knight of Autumn are likely to have on the Modern metagame.
Here is the winning list:
This archetype has been around for nearly Modern's entire existence, but it often splashes red or white. One of the reasons for splashing is for a card advantage card such as Bloodbraid Elf or Lingering Souls and another is for cheap efficient removal spells Like Lightning Bolt and Terminate in the case of Jund or Path to Exile in the case of Abzan. The printing of Fatal Push really started to put straight Golgari variants back on the map as that combined with Abrupt Decay and Maelstrom Pulse meant that they no longer needed to rely on white or red for that early removal. Also the printing of Tireless Tracker made the need to splash for Lingering Souls for card advantage less necessary.
With the printing of Assassin's Trophy, you no longer need to run Abrupt Decay. This is a downgrade in some matchups, especially those where you really want your spell to not get countered, such as when you want it to kill a Chalice of the Void or against decks running Spell Snare and Snapcaster Mage. But in most matchups it is an upgrade because even though the opponent (usually) gets a land out of the exchange, the increased flexibility of what the card can destroy is a huge upgrade.
In general, this style of deck is a more controlling deck, although it can apply a reasonable amount of pressure when needed. The first order of business of this archetype is to disrupt the opponent's Game Plan. It is so good at this because of how cheap and generically applicable all its disruption cards are.
For hand disruption it has Thoughtseize, Inquisition of Kozilek, Collective Brutality, and Liliana of the Veil. Thoughtseize is the most flexible in that it has no restrictions on what it can take other than lands. That is similar to what Assassin's Trophy offers with respect to dealing with an opposing permanent. Inquisition of Kozilek can only take cards with low mana costs (the equivalent of Abrupt Decay) but comes without the drawback of paying two life. Collective Brutality can only take instants and sorceries, but it has other useful modes. Liliana of the Veil lets the opponent choose but can be used multiple times and is also versatile with her other two abilities.
Aside from hand disruption, the deck also has excellent and flexible permanent disruption. Fatal Push is cheap and can hit most creatures, especially in conjunction with fetch lands. Collective Brutality can kill small creatures while disrupting opposing cards in hand. Maelstrom Pulse can kill any non-land permanent but is sorcery speed and costs three mana. It can sometimes kill multiple permanents, which is usually an upside but can sometimes be a downside if you really want to kill an opposing Liliana of the Veil or Tireless Tracker but you also have one of your own on the battlefield. Assassin's Trophy is the most versatile of any of them – able to destroy any opposing permanent including an opposing land (come at me, Urza!).
Speaking of Urza, Field of Ruin was already a Game Plan against a lot of decks that barely run any basic lands or which rely on assembling Tron. Now between Field of Ruin and Assassin's Trophy you actually have a legitimate Game Plan against Tron decks or at playing mana denial against decks with few to no basic lands. As a longtime Death and Taxes player, I love land destruction more than most, so I can certainly appreciate this new dimension that Assassin's Trophy offers. Being able to run four copies of Field of Ruin is probably the biggest appeal to Golgari over Jund or Abzan.
The third pillar of this archetype is pressure. Tarmogoyf hits the hardest and fastest. Scavenging Ooze can disrupt opposing graveyards, gain life and get really big. Tasigur can come down surprisingly early and can also start yielding card advantage with its activated ability. Tireless Tracker is really the sweet spot for this deck because it grows to apply a lot of pressure on its own while also leaving behind clues to provide a flow of card advantage. Fatal Push and Tireless Tracker in the deck mean you almost never want to crack a fetch just to thin your deck. Now that we see how the deck functions, let's look at how it plays out against some of the major decks in the metagame.
Against Humans, you have lots of cheap removal spells as well as creatures that can size up reasonably well against theirs. This looks like a really good matchup. You won't want Liliana of the Veil here though, so you should bring in Cast Down and Damnation for two of those. It might even be correct to bring in Natural State for their Vials and even Obstinate Baloth just as a 4/4 that gains four life. That seems better than Liliana in this matchup.
Against White-Blue Control, your discard spells should be used to protect Tireless Tracker, which is your best card in the matchup. Scavenging Ooze will prevent Snapcaster Mage from flashing anything back. You'll want to take out removal spells in this matchup. Fatal Push is your worst one, so you'll want to replace those with Fulminator Mages and Nissa, Vital Force. You can also cut an Assassin's Trophy or Maelstrom Pulse.
Against Burn decks you have Scavenging Ooze and Collective Brutality to gain life. Keep the Ooze in hand as long as you can to avoid losing it to a Searing Blaze. You definitely want Obstinate Baloth, and you probably want Cast Down, and you definitely don't want Thoughtseize. This is a matchup that was really skimped on as you really don't want Liliana of the Veil here either, but you don't have enough cards to bring in.
Affinity is a very solid matchup. Bring in Cast Down, Damnation, Natural State and perhaps some number of Fulminator Mages for the Inkmoth Nexus. I would take out Liliana of the Veil and maybe a Thoughtseize. Don't lose to Cranial Plating or leave yourself open to a Ravager all-in and you should usually be fine.
Bant Spirits can be tricky. Collected Company is a very powerful card in the matchup. You really want to take it with Collective Brutality or Thoughtseize. You can usually let Aether Vial stick around instead of killing it with Assassin's Trophy. On the play, you almost certainly take it with your first turn Inquisition of Kozilek unless they have a second copy in hand. The biggest problem with this matchup is all their ways of giving creatures hexproof from our removal spells. Their creatures also fly, so we can't rely on our creatures to block. Often the best plan is to use a few discard spells to slow them down while racing them with our ground creatures. If you have them discard their Collected Company and their hexproof-granting creature, then our removal spells can kill the creatures we leave them with.
Dredge is pretty bad game one, but we get four copies of Leyline of the Void post-board, which also help against Hollow One. Damping Sphere and Fulminator Mage are extra hate against Tron. Nissa, Vital Force is great against any of the midrange matchups such as Jeskai or Jund. Obstinate Baloth is good against Burn but also against the Liliana of the Veil decks.
Overall, your sideboard plans are pretty straightforward. Against decks with a lot of fast creatures, you take out some slower cards and/or discard spells for more removal. Against decks with few creatures, you take out your least useful removal spells in favor of better disruption.
Between Knight of Autumn and Assassin's Trophy, it is much easier now to play main deck artifact and enchantment hate. I suspect this will have the effect of making decks like Affinity and Bogles less popular as they will no longer be able to prey on the fair decks like they used to. I also expect that decks relying heavily on a single card, such as Lantern relying on Ensnaring Bridge or any deck relying on Leyline of Sanctity against Rock decks will take a hit. I also suspect that all variants of GB/x Rock will become more popular. Some people will play straight Golgari because the mana is better or because their name is Sol Malka. Others will splash red for Bloodbraid Elf because cascading into Assassin's Trophy is useful a much higher percentage of the time than is cascading into Abrupt Decay. And Abzan has the option to run both Assassin's Trophy and Knight of Autumn, so that archetype may also spike.
If these predictions come true, then the next level of iteration in the metagame would be to add more basic lands to your deck and also to increase the mana curve in your deck. The first will ensure that you will always be able to find a land off an opposing Assassin's Trophy and the second will ensure that you can utilize that extra land and therefore minimize the effectiveness of the removal spell against you. And, of course, not playing decks that rely on a single permanent.
Overall Assassin's Trophy is good news for Rock decks and bad news for their opponents, especially those relying on a single permanent. My vote still goes to Knight of Autumn as the best card in the set for Modern, but Assassin's Trophy is certainly a worthy second best.