Commander Spotlight: Tsabo’s Assassin

If you sought out the progenitors of the (then) EDH format in their Alaska locale and asked them if they ever thought what they created would eventually become the de facto casual style of choice for most multiplayer games of Magic, chances are they would have said no.

Chances are they’d also have wondered how you knew the future too, which, in reality, would probably have been the much more interesting part of your conversation…

Still, here in the first months of 2015, Commander has firmly cemented itself into Magic’s culture. With structured deck construction and the promise of thematically building a deck around a single card, Commander possesses elements that cater to both the challenge-loving tournament player and those who insist on a concise deck flavor, as well as the general casual player who enjoys playing with lots of different toys in their toy box without being cajoled for it. Commander thrives because it provides a healthy mix of cohesion and relaxed play style in one package. As a result, not only is Commander not going anywhere anytime soon in the hearts of the players, but now that Wizards of the Coast is making annual product for it, the company now has a vested interest in keeping the format moving.

These annual products are interesting, though, because they inadvertently serve a dual purpose in terms of the format’s popularity. On the one hand, having a tested and packaged product makes it much easier for new people to try their hand at the format. Just compare the general reaction of last year’s Commander releases with when the first Commander sets came on the market in 2011.

When the first wave of decks came out, the response from the casual player population was more mixed than it is now. There were those who were excited that functional EDH decks were being made for consumption and were eager to pick them up, but there were also quite a few people who acquired decks simply for the cards themselves. As Commander sets are one of the few Magic products whose individual contents are consistently worth more than the MSRP of the decks themselves, they’re generally a good deal if they have cards that you want, regardless of what you ultimately do with them. The 2011 sets were popular in part because they could be quickly deconstructed for their cards.

In just a few short years, however, the attitude amongst the casual gamer popular changed rapidly. Plenty of people bought Commander 2014 decks strictly for their contents too, but the percentage of those keeping the decks intact (with or without modifications) is much higher now. Indeed, the fan base for EDH grew seemingly exponentially in the intervening time span, but although the desire was there, for many the act of creating decks for the first time was a hindrance to playing. That’s where formalized product comes in handy. Wizards correctly ascertained there was enough market demand for another round of decks, and it paid off. These new decks helped fill a demand gap while simultaneously perpetuated further interest in the format.

Welcome to market forces at work.

The second indirect effect these packaged decks serve towards making Magic more popular is that they also shape the expectations of the player base. This is especially true with last year’s releases because of their monocolor nature. In most places, players were now used to Commander as a format, but the majority of decks seen in most gaming groups still tended to be multicolor. This was true, in part, because many players felt that it was too difficult for a single color deck to successfully function as well as one with two or more. Players attempted to counter those arguments over their years with worthwhile homebrew decks, but the success of five powerful monocolor decks in Commander 2014 proved once and for all that single color EDH was able to go toe-to-toe with the rest.

That said, the old arguments about color limitations persisted – and with good reason – as the colors do have limits. Not all five colors can do everything, nor should they. Hence the expectations issue. Some new to the format (or Magic in general) started bringing up the age old color pie debates. Ergo, a byproduct of Commander 2014 was months of online debate over why Blue is the sole domain of useful counterspells or why Red and Black can’t get enchantment destruction.

The more things change…

In the end, as one would expect, it was reiterated yet again what the colors could and couldn’t do, and although it was conceded there is some room for stretching in casual environments where the unique cards aren’t Standard or Modern legal, that doesn’t mean the colors are ever going to be functionally identical. Red still burns things, Green still makes stompy creatures, and Black, well, it goes and kills things.

So, in honor of the chatter about color importance, EDH, and Black’s more destructive nature, enjoy this week’s card choice.

Today we have: Tsabo’s Assassin

Tsabo's Assassin

Name: Tsabo’s Assassin

Edition: Invasion

Rarity: Rare

Focus: Creature Destruction

Highlights: Since the game’s very beginning, Black has never had a shortage on assassins. They always pop up here and there to do the bidding of more nefarious organizations, and in most cases, that means destroying something. From Royal Assassin to Silumgar Assassin, each hired gun has had their own manner of getting the job done. Tsabo’s Assassin was part of that lineage.

Tsabo’s Assassin came about during an era where the colors of cards mattered to get certain effects, and it is beholden to that era’s design mentality. (Granted, it is a bit strange that the personal assassin of one of Phyrexia’s most notable generals ever would care about the color allegiance of who it’s killing, but that’s a different issue.) Nevertheless, we ended up with this color-based hitman, er, thing.

At the time, Tsabo’s Assassin was not seen as terribly powerful, for two reasons. First, the era of its creation saw a lot of color fluctuation on the board, and it was often difficult to lock down something to destroy without manipulating the board in your favor. Second, although other creatively designed assassins existed, stuff like Royal and Stronghold Assassin were still more preferable because they were less unpredictable in their targeting. Tsabo’s Assassin was at once more and less restrictive than its predecessors, as it could kill any color creature in any state – so long as it was the most plentiful. Over time, other assassins have been made with other kinds of restrictions, and this one was largely forgotten, as few sets since Invasion have implemented a ‘color matters’ scheme.

Now that monocolored EDH decks are much more common, Tsabo’s Assassin can find a new home in Commander. Its originally perceived weakness can actually be inverted here into a point in your favor. That is, in most cases, it will only be able to destroy creatures of the most common color on the board. By and large, this means stuff controlled by the player currently with the best board state. This can help politically; if other players know the assassin can (mostly) only target the player who is largest threat, they’ll be far less concerned in perceiving you or your creature as an issue to be dealt with. This means it can potentially stay on the board without generating immediate threat from all side. If anything, other players may give you a hand in taking the leader down a peg.

Beyond it’s color-attenuated provocation, however, Tsabo’s Assassin is otherwise very straightforward. Like most assassins, it’s a generally frail creature for four mana, but its effect is incredibly useful when utilized right. This assassin is most adept at keeping the person at the top in check somewhat, and when the winds inevitably shift to another player, statistically its color preference for killing should shift with it.

And that’s one colorful manner of execution.

Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.

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