Assassin’s Trophy has been one of the most hyped card printings in recent memory. Some players were convinced that Golgari, Abzan, and Jund would rise to dominance in all formats. Others prophesied the death of Urza Tron, as well as most strategies based around key noncreature permanents. Now that Guilds of Ravnica is a mature set, I’m here to ask the question: Did Assassin’s Trophy live up to the hype?
Trophy in Standard
The short answer is: No, it did not.
Despite Golgari being one of the most successful decks in Standard, Assassin’s Trophy simply isn’t one of the stars of the show. It’s true that I’ve seen as many as three copies in some fringe deck lists, but it’s equally common for players to refuse to play it altogether. In my experience, the most common number of Trophies to see in Golgari decks is one.
Assassin’s Trophy is useful. Having an extra answer to a planeswalker or an Experimental Frenzy rounds things out nicely, and it’s sometimes the only out to a techy sideboard card like The Immortal Sun. But it comes at a high cost.
In Standard, even the most extreme decks can make use of an extra land. Virtually all decks curve up to at least 4 mana, plus it can allow players to double-spell, or use an activated ability like that of Adanto, the First Fort. I’ve even had the terrible experience of unlocking Heroic Reinforcements for my opponent off of a splash color, and this type of thing could wind up happening even more if R/b Goblin Chainwhirler decks have a renaissance with Ravnica Allegiance. Of course, giving extra land to a control deck is a certified disaster.
The result is that, yes, sometimes it’s fine to Trophy your opponent’s most important card on turn 5, but if you’re forced to use it on your opponent’s 2-drop, you wind up at a disadvantage from which you often can’t recover. Because of this, it’s best to sprinkle Assassin’s Trophy as a little spice into a well-rounded removal suite instead of jamming it in three or four copies. If you draw one Assassin’s Trophy and one Cast Down, then you get to Cast Down the 2-drop and save the Trophy for an emergency. If you draw two Trophies, you’ve painted yourself into a corner.
In a post-Ravnica Allegiance world, Bedevil strikes me as an amazing card for midrange decks. Even if you don’t have access to red mana, the mere existence of Bedevil might scare potential opponents away from The Immortal Sun, which would make Assassin’s Trophy even less necessary than it is now.
Trophy in Modern
Sadly, the role of Assassin’s Trophy is largely the same in Modern as it is in Standard.
I think it was simply printed at the wrong time.
Before Field of Ruin, control was really struggling in Modern, which meant that things were pushed toward extreme efficiency, and many players couldn’t do much with an extra land. Moreover, before Field of Ruin, some players didn’t play basic lands at all! Under those circumstances, Assassin’s Trophy would have been an instant-speed Vindicate for budget price.
Today, that’s not the case. Everybody shows up planning to get Path to Exiled, Field of Ruined, Ghost Quartered, and Assassin’s Trophied, and most of them can punish you for giving them an extra land.
I still play with 1-2 Assassin’s Trophies in my G/B and Abzan decks. I’ve always liked having an answer to something like Gurmag Angler or Reality Smasher, and Assassin’s Trophy is a much more versatile solution than Murderous Cut or Cast Down.
Reid Duke 53rd place at GP Atlanta
All of that being said, I’ve only offered you the perspective of a midrange player. Recently, there was a very different use of Assassin’s Trophy that caught my eye.
Aren Kasner, Top 8 at Grand Prix Portland
For most intents and purposes, Elves is a combo deck. It’s hyper-focused and single-minded, and any card you put in the deck that lacks creature type Elf comes at a high cost. Nonetheless, it does need versatile answer cards in the sideboard. You need a way to kill Ensnaring Bridge and Worship, and sometimes there’s a Grim Lavamancer, Izzet Staticaster, or Death’s Shadow that you really need to take out.
Aren Kasner and his G/B Elves deck turned to Assassin’s Trophy to solve all of these problem at once, and I have to say that I love it. Rolling all of the answers into one card saves precious sideboard real estate, and means that you don’t have to guess before game 2 which hate cards your opponent is going to be packing. Equally important, the small disadvantage of giving the opponent a land is far less important in a deck like Elves, where you can dramatically overpower your opponent and kill them quickly when things are going well.
The best home for Assassin’s Trophy is in the sideboard of combo decks.
Trophy in Legacy
Nowhere am I more excited about Assassin’s Trophy than in the sideboard of my Legacy Elves deck. A card I first overlooked, and later considered as a minor upgrade, now has my attention as a tool that might revolutionize the archetype. The banning of Deathrite Shaman was a blow to Legacy Elves, but Assassin’s Trophy solves so many key problems that it could propel the deck up to tier 1 status.
Abrupt Decay, the previous go-to, is good, but misses some key hate cards like Moat, Night of Soul’s Betrayal, and Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. One of the pitfalls of Elves is the ability to get cheese-doodled out of a game by these cards, no matter how strong your hand or your board position.
Even in matchups where Abrupt Decay does work—say, to kill a Delver of Secrets or an Umezawa’s Jitte—it might once in a while come up short against a Gurmag Angler or a Thought-Knot Seer. A card that can kill everything at once gives you that safe, secure feeling, and is exactly what Elves needs from a sideboard card.
But the real win comes against Lands and other Dark Depths decks. Prior to Assassin’s Trophy, these were my nightmare matchups, and not just because they were unfavorable. For the other big problems—Reanimator, Storm, Counterbalance, Chalice of the Void—you at least had access to sideboard cards that could help. Against Lands, the choices were either to sideboard a bunch of extremely narrow cards in order to put a band-aid on the problem, or to cross your fingers and hope for the best. I typically chose the latter, to mediocre results.
Lands could kill my creatures with Punishing Fire/Grove of the Burnwillows. It could disrupt my mana with Wasteland, Rishadan Port, and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale. It could lock me out of the game with Glacial Chasm. But the worst part was that these things only mattered in the games where they didn’t kill me on turn 3 with a 20/20 indestructible flyer!
Assassin’s Trophy kills Dark Depths at instant speed. This means that in the pure race games, you can blow them out, or at least make them think twice about going for it. If they try to sit behind Glacial Chasm, you’re free to combo off, draw your whole library, and find Assassin’s Trophy to kill the Chasm. Under any other circumstances, you can use it at the end of their turn to punch a hole through their disruption, freeing you up to have a powerful turn. Trophy does all of this, plus gives you insurance against any Chalice of the Voids or Sphere of Resistances they might sideboard in.
The most important use where Assassin’s Trophy compares unfavorably to Abrupt Decay is for killing Counterbalance. For that reason, I don’t necessarily see a deck like Storm transitioning to all Assassin’s Trophies. But the cards are close enough in value that I could envision a mix, just to gain the ability to snipe a Thought-Knot Seer or Leyline of the Void every once in a while.
Finally, let’s bring it all full circle and consider Assassin’s Trophy in fair Legacy decks. I made the claim that at a different time, this card could have been a much bigger player in Modern. Well, Legacy doesn’t have a lot of Field of Ruins and Path to Exiles, and many decks—both aggro and combo—still play with zero basic lands. It’s a solid card against anything from Delver to Reanimator, and is exceptional against Eldrazi and Dark Depths decks.
For that reason, Sultai and Abzan decks might have a bright future in Legacy. The recipe of big green creatures backed up by Assassin’s Trophy is a stone cold killer for Eldrazi decks. Therefore, decks in this vein could wind up being good metagame choices that are still well-rounded enough to have game in a diverse field.
I’ll leave you with this beautiful deck list from a recent Legacy Challenge, complete with three Assassin’s Trophy between main deck and sideboard.
Rage990, 4th place at 1/13/19 Legacy Challenge
So did it live up to the hype? The short answer is no, but the long answer is that Assassin’s Trophy is an important player in every format that it’s legal. The combination of being a fair and reasonably efficient removal spell, plus an out to niche sideboard cards makes for something pretty special. In particular, the ability to destroy a land gives Assassin’s Trophy something that the black and green colors usually have to work pretty hard to get. In the matchup where these subtleties matter, they tend to matter a lot.