What Assassin's Trophy Means for Sultai in Legacy

Rich Cali
October 02, 2018
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WotC dropped a bomb on us with Assassin’s Trophy. At this point, enough has been written about Assassins Trophy that everyone knows how powerful it is (it is absolutely absurd). Instead of discussing it abstractly, this week I want to look at exactly how it will fit into Legacy. Specifically, I want to discuss how it will shape Sultai decks going forward and what it will do for that archetype.

Why Sultai? Outside of 4c Loam strategies, non-blue midrange decks have always been less effective than the Blue ones. Adding Blue provides so much more than any other color, and the cards it gets access to are much more effective, in general.

Since the banning of Deathrite Shaman, though, Sultai decks have really fallen out of favor. The ability to consistently have access to more mana, and have a cheap, versatile threat was a huge boon to the Sultai archetype. However, there are still a ton of good Sultai cards to work with, and I think Assassins Trophy can bring these decks back to the top.

The first question to ask is what problems does Assassins Trophy solve for Sultai that the current removal suite doesn’t?

Killing Planewalkers

In the past, a resolved Jace, the Mind Sculptor (or any 4+ mana Planeswalker, like Karn, Scion of Urza) would essentially be game over for most Sultai decks. Abrupt Decay doesn’t hit 4-drops, Maelstrom Pulse was too clunky to play in too many numbers, and having to play Creeping Tar Pit to pressure Planeswalkers can be pretty damning to one’s early development.

Assassins Trophy is a much cleaner and more efficient answer to Planeswalkers. Its presence as a main deck card will provide Sultai decks more ways to pull back into the game and stem the bleeding that Planeswalkers cause.


Killing 5+ CMC Creatures

Sultai has been limited in the CMC of creatures it can remove. Abrupt Decay and Fatal Push being the removal spells of choice make Gurmag Angler and Reality Smasher gigantic pains to deal with. Assassins Trophy gives the deck the ability to play a creature removal spell with no limits, which is something it was sorely lacking. Diabolic Edict has seen some play recently mostly for this reason (this also helps the True-Name Nemesis issue). However, Edict is relatively unreliable at killing the exact creature you want it to.


Lands

Sultai has always been a Wasteland deck, so killing lands isn’t something that the deck was lacking, perse. However, now its premium removal spell gets to kill lands, as well as anything else, so this makes interacting with annoying lands even easier.

Technically, it is worse than Diabolic Edict when it comes to dealing with Marit Lage. However, the fact that it can just stop the combo in the first place, as well as kill Maze of Ith, Eye of Ugin, and any other land (have I mentioned that this card is ridiculous?) means Sultai really has a lot of tools against the various value lands of the format.

I think these 3 features that Assassins Trophy provide to Sultai definitely make it a shoe in for the wedge. Of course, it also just answers anything. Helm of Obedience, Smokestack, Stormbreath Dragon, Humility, you name it. However, I think the 3 issues I highlighted are the biggest weaknesses Sultai has at the moment, and Trophy helps all 3 of them.


The Shells

Sultai decks have always sported a wide range of shells to support its best cards. The cards are so versatile and powerful that there are a lot of directions to take it. I want to review a few options that I think are great starting points and suggest possible changes in a world with Assassins Trophy.

The first deck I want to look at is a variant of True-Name Sultai, played to a top 8 finish by Karel Vapenik at MKM Prague:

 

This deck is an updated version of the deck Reid Duke popularized when Leovold was printed. Of course, losing Deathrite Shaman is a huge deal, which has been a major reason that this deck hasn’t been very successful recently. The core strategy is still very solid, though, and a resolved Leovold hasn’t really lost any of its luster. The 1-2 punch of “Noble into True-Name” is still backbreaking, too, but without a Noble, this deck still plays out like a traditional Sultai midrange deck.

This is definitely a clunky deck, though. The mana base is often pulled in too many directions, and running 4 Wastelands doesn’t help that. This isn’t the type of deck that can keep the opponent’s board completely clear either, so Edict definitely doesn’t work too well in this deck.

Assassins Trophy will mostly just be a removal spell upgrade here, but I think the presence of Trophy might also reduce the necessity of Wasteland to such a degree. The 2/2/2 split of Push/Edict/Decay is fine, but as I said, this deck can’t just kill every creature. Adding a targeted removal spell over Edict will weaken the deck against True-Name Nemesis, but it will make its removal far more impactful. In addition, this deck plays Snapcaster Mage, and the interaction between that and Trophy is something I personally want to push.

Here’s what I would try with 2 Assassin's Trophy maindeck and 2 in the board:

 

 

Add in 2 Assassin's Trophy to the main deck and 2 to the sideboard and voila.  The first change I want to try is trimming a Wasteland for a basic land. Not only do we want to have access to at least 1 basic land in a Trophy world, but Trophy also helps interact with annoying lands. This does remove some of the tempo element that this deck has, but adding a multicolored card will likely require more colored mana sources. The next is to cut Sylvan Library for an extra Snapcaster Mage. These are definitely different cards, but Snapcaster is still a source of card advantage. I want to push the Trophy + Snapcaster interaction as much as I can. Lastly, I cut all of the Edicts because I do think Trophy will be a strict upgrade here. The second deck is a 2-drop heavy midrange deck, featuring a very underrated Legacy card: Dark Confidant!

I was sure that i’d like the Noble Hierarch version more, but it didn’t take long for ol’ Bob to convince me otherwise. This is based on MTGO user Kikurek’s list found here, and I’ve been very impressed with it. Dark Confidant is not the best creature Legacy has to offer, but it certainly never stopped being a powerhouse. Having Bob in play allows us access to more cards, thus we see our removal and disruption more often, which helps keep the deck moving forward. The ago-old strategy of “Turn 1 discard spell, turn 2 Tarmogoyf/Dark Confidant” is fully in effect here. Further pushing the theme with Daze really makes this deck feel very proactive. In many ways, it feels like the old Team America deck I loved so much, so it’s exciting to have a deck that looks like this. I like this deck as a shell for Trophy more than the other one, as well. This is 2-fold: Playing Dark Confidant makes having unconditional removal spells way better. Not only is Trophy an incredible catch-all, but it’s relatively cheap at 2-mana. This will make turns where you untap with Bob better because you can more frequently convert your resources into an advantage, and give you more outs to any permanent that will present a huge problem. Outside of combo decks, playing Force of Will is less necessary when you have a way to remove any permanent. If a Jace sticks on the board, for instance, no longer will it just end the game every time because you can draw a relatively clean answer to it. This means that the number of Forces played can be trimmed in the main deck, which makes Dark Confidant much better. These 2 factors, combined with all of the reasons Sultai wants to play Trophy (3 in this list) in the first place, leads me to this list: I’m not sure that the numbers here are right at all, but I really want to push the power of the 3 main deck Assassin's Trophy in a Dark Confidant build. Again, i’m thinking that trimming a Wasteland for a basic land is a solid choice. Trimming 2 Forces might give this deck more of a Jund-esque feeling, but I think that’s a good thing against fair decks. The combo match is a little tough in the pre-board games anyway, and it will still get far better post-board. I’m really excited to try out this version more, in particular. The final Sultai shell I want to suggest for Trophy is a deck I that I was pretty sure wouldn’t survive the banning, but Assassins Trophy could be the push it needed!

I haven’t tried any versions of Shardless Sultai since the banning, but Shardless Agent into our 3  Assassin's Trophy seems perfect. Occasionally Abrupt Decay didn’t have any targets when it was Cascaded into, but Trophy will almost always have a target. In addition, playing Shardless Agent means you have access to more ways to find Trophy, and mitigates the 2-mana cost of it greatly.

I am not sure if this deck has what it takes to flourish without Deathrite Shaman, but having less blank hits off of Shardless Agent is really appealing to me. It might be too slow, with Shardless being a 3 mana 2/2, but I think it’s an avenue worth exploring.

The Cost of Assassins Trophy

Of course, Trophy has a downside. Allowing your opponent to search up a land is card disadvantage and that makes this a pretty poor early game play. This makes plays like ‘kill your Jace after it Brainstormed” a functional 3 for 1. As such, I don’t think Trophy’s presence removes the need for other types of removal spells in the deck.

However, there are two reasons that I think this card will flourish despite this:

  1. Many decks in Legacy don’t play many basic lands. While this has changed over time, and the popularity of Back to Basics has already led people to find space for at least 1 basic in their decks, the number of basics is still usually pretty low. I expect that the presence of Trophy will cause those numbers to increase a little bit more, but certainly not to absurd amounts.
  2. The upside of being able to kill these varied permanents outweighs the downside. Sure, killing Jace will often be a 3 for 1, but not answering it at all will often lead to losing the game. Gurmag Angler would often run rampant in these games because it was really challenging to kill it. Giving them the land is a cost worth paying, especially at instant speed and 2 mana. The true downside is when you would be inclined to kill something like a Noble Hierarch, but that’s why Trophy isn’t the only removal spell in these lists.

The other sacrifice that needs to be made is in the decklist: What gets cut for Trophy? The clearest 1 for 1 trade is likely Abrupt Decay. When your goal is to solve the aforementioned issues Sultai has, this exchange makes sense. However, Abrupt Decay has a unique feature that has made it a staple for so long: It’s uncounterable

Killing Counterbalance has always been a major reason Decay has seen ubiquitous play. Killing Delvers safely is no joke either, and both of these will be more challenging with Trophy. These are also early game threats, which line up poorly with Trophy’s downside. For both of these reasons, as was demonstrated in my lists, I don’t think every Abrupt Decay gets thrown to the side. I do think Trophy will be correct to play in higher numbers over Decay, though, and I will pay close attention to the metagame to see if that holds true in the future.


Assassins Trophy is the Real Deal

I have no doubt that this card will be incredible. In the past, I would consider playing white in my Sultai decks and add Vindicate just to get this type of effect. Trophy is way better than Vindicate, and I can’t wait to add it to my decks.

I don’t know if this will be enough of a push for Sultai decks to overtake Grixis as the blue midrange decks of choice, but I think it will definitely be close. I also don’t know if these versions and deck lists are going to be anywhere near optimal, but I know this is where i’ll start.

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