Burn Assassin Counter-Play
The Alliance War expansion made an older deck archetype very consistent: Market Assassin (often also referred to as Burn Assassin) and Market Archer. In particular, the rise in consistency and popularity of the deck can be attributed to Spoils of War, Forked Bolt and to Debilitate (to some degree).
The idea of these decks is straightforward: get one or more copies of Swindler’s Market into play and “burn” your opponent with zero-cost actions from hand. Ideally this beat down is supported by a copy of Lillandril Hexmage. She deals an additional two points of face damage for each action played.
Most recently, Gnarl Rootbender was suggested as an addition to improve the card draw capabilities of the deck even further. In particular, this increases the deck’s consistency against control decks that are usually able to promptly remove the Swindler’s Market support or the Lillandril Hexmage, or both.
The deck is currently very present in the meta and can also be found in tournaments. While the deck can be banned in tournaments, you can’t get around it on the ladder. Therefore, let’s see how to counter-play Burn Assassin.
Recognising Burn Assassin
The first step in counter-playing any deck is being able to recognise it as quickly as possible. Ideally, you would do this during the mulligan phase, when players select cards for their opening hands. Since Burn Assassin is a combo deck, expect your opponent to swap some cards to find their combo pieces. Note, however, that not exchanging any cards doesn’t mean your opponent is playing a different type of Assassin deck. They might just have been lucky and got a lot of their combo pieces for example. Thus, the mulligan phase can provide valuable cues, but you shouldn’t take it as the only definitive indicator.
Let’s look at some decklists. We are starting off with a budget list.
And move onto some ladder and tournament lists to see what cards they have in common.
Burn Assassin decks usually play creatures like Suran Pawnbroker,
Murkwater Scourge or Murkwater Shaman who can spawn additional zero cost cards with their special abilities. An early Firebolt or Black Hand Messenger can give some cues that your opponent is potentially playing Burn Assassin.
Your Game Plan against Burn Assassin
Whatever your deck’s game plan is, you might want to reconsider it once you are pretty certain that your opponent is playing Burn Assassin.
If you are playing an aggro deck, you should really go face as hard and fast as possible. However, try to get your opponent to 26, 21, 16, 11, 6 health instead of getting them to 14, 19 or 25, if you can. This ensures that runebreaks won’t give your opponent more additional cards.
Ideally, you can finish your opponent with attacks across only two turns (i.e. each with about 15 damage). Typically, Burn Assassin decks run no prophecies, which is a bit of a relief; however, you really don’t want your opponent to draw their combo pieces. If you can get them to overdraw, do it!
With a mid-range game plan, try to swing aggressively and keep your removal for Lillandril or the supports. If you have guards, put them down. Ideally, you want them to have 6-7 health or more. If you can get a drain creature during mulligans, keep it!
… for Control
With a control strategy, your deck will usually have options to remove or banish creatures and supports. However, simply relying on removal only may be a little bit too dangerous, as Burn Assassin has the potential to generate an absurd amount of burst damage.
Therefore, if your control deck runs silence and point removal at a density that allows you to draw it consistently in the first four to five draws, you can consider to become the aggressor right from the start. Particularly, if your deck allows you to regain life or if your mulligan includes a creature with Drain. Try to protect your life total from small pings by their Thieves Guild Recruits and Suran Pawnbrokers by guarding or shackling them.
Once you have removal in hand, keep at least one spell to cope with Lillandril Hexmage. Your support removal cards are equally precious: make sure to not use them on anything else. If you can duplicate Shadowfen Priest’s summon effect, it’s even better! Will be A Night to Remember if you manage to remove their Market and silence their Hexmage on the same turn…
Knowing Your Maths
Your Burn Assassin opponent will attempt to deal a few points of damage to your face prior to pulling off their combo. This might allow them to play a one-turn kill combo to avoid removal of their combo pieces or for you to find other turnaround cards. Therefore it is crucial to be aware of the number of cards in their hand and tracking how many zero-cost cards they might have to trigger Swindler’s Market. If they play a Suran Pawnbroker, or something that spawns a Curse, you should be keeping track of that.
The following table shows an overview of how many points of damage a zero-cost action can inflict depending on the number of Markets and Hexmages in play.
|# Markets||# Hexmages||Magicka cost |
|Damage per |
In other words, your Burn Assassin opponent can inflict (8*3=) 24 points of burn damage from hand with 8 magicka, if they hold 8 additional zero-cost cards. Thus, if you get to keep your life total at 25-30, they will also need to have Spoils of War in hand to redraw cards or be able to leverage Gnarl Rootbender on board for additional draw.
Garnag, Dark Adherent can help in keeping their magicka below this threshold, so that they can deal a maximum of 16 damage from hand, assuming they cannot draw additional cards.
By avoiding an OTK and forcing your opponent to play the combo across multiple turns, opens up options for you to heal and remove or even banish their combo pieces.
The Obvious Counter-Plays to Burn Assassin – Banish, Removal, Silence
Banish, removal, and silence are obvious choices for counter-play. However, they are reactive and require you to force your opponent into playing his combo pieces across two turns. This can be pretty risky, actually, because oftentimes your opponent might attempt to get you to 0 life in a single turn.
Still, support and creature removal are reasonable ways to win a few games against Burn Assassin. Thus, including Shadowfen Priest, Dushnikh Yal Archer, Mummify, Lightning Bolt or Cast Into Time (to name a few) is definitely a good (if not required) option. If you can banish one of their combo pieces, you are on a good path to winning the game.
Using Lethal Creatures
Lethal creatures are potentially a little bit too slow, but if your deck is running Archer’s Gambit or Quicksilver Crossbow as well, you might be able to leverage these combos in similar ways. Be aware though, that Hexmage will oftentimes receive a Ward, so relying on this removal option is pretty risky.
If you can manage to pressure your opponent and force them to play the combo across multiple turns, you can even steal a Hexmage from them. The 7-cost action Arrest, when played on curve is a potential option.
While Miraak and Chodala’s Treachery are also possible options, they are probably a little too expensive. Therefore, unless your control deck has strong ramp included, these will likely not give you much of an edge, because oftentimes the game will not last that long for them to be playable.
Pro-active Counter-Play with Drain
A more pro-active way of winning against Burn Assassin (that complements, not replaces, these other methods) is to use Drain or other life-gaining cards to get your health well above 30 (or to force them into going another turn or two). Creatures like Giant Bat, Moonlight Werebat, Blighted Werebat, Brynjolf, Daedric Titan, Queen Barenziah, Hand of Dagoth, Golden Initiate, Bruma Profiteer, Undying Dragon, Barrow Stalker and many more can easily allow you to gain a bit of additional life during the early game. Ideally, you want your creature to have more than two health, as Burn Assassin can often damage creatures in increments of two points.
As these creatures hit board, they will immediately get the attention of your opponent, who will attempt to remove them. A more subtle way of draining is to use an item like Snake Tooth Necklace in combination with a creature tutor like Crucible Blacksmith. In particular, this can be a neat option for House Dagoth, but can also work for the Aldmeri Dominion or even House Telvanni.
The unique legendary Varen Aquilarios is a great way to counter Burn Assassin. Unfortunately, you will not be able to draw him in most match-ups because he is a unique card (Laaneth can help a tiny bit here). But, you draw him during your mulligan and you suspect to be facing a Burn Assassin opponent, keep him. Protect him (guards). Buy him new clothes (Ebonthread Cloak). Get his friends over (Tavyar & Rayvat, Shadowmaster, Keeper of Whispers). Let him watch his favorite TV show. Football, crisps, beer. Use the full range of tools for him to stay on board.
Hatebears – Tampering with Burn Assassin’s Combo
Withered Hand Cultist
Hatebears are another way of tampering with Burn Assassin. Withered Hand Cultist increases the cost of actions by two. He is very effective counter-play to Burn Assassin and your opponent has to deal with him in order to win across one or two turns. Ideally, you can buff the Cultist with items for him to go to 7 health or more.
Jorunn, the Skald-King
Jorunn, the Skald-King has a similar effect against Market Assassin. He increases the cost of non-creatures by one, thus affecting both your opponent actions and their support cards.
If you look at the curve of the Burn Assassin decks, Bedeviling Scamp is also very effective counter-play, but requires your deck to be on a rather greedy curve itself. He increases the cost of all cards to three magicka which forces your opponent to play only one card until they reach 6 magicka. This will limit their ability to chip in a few points of damage before their combo can go off.
Seducer Darkfire is possibly the most stylish way to prevent the combo deck to go off. The Daedra can prevent your opponent from playing zero-cost cards while she is in play. And with 7 health she is very tough to remove. However, the cost of 7 magicka might make her rescue come too late. Maybe in a ramp deck?!
Wrath of Sithis, Pact Shieldbearer
An additional option for at least a one-turn effect are Wrath of Sithis and Pact Shieldbearer. They increase the cost of your opponent’s card for next turn. Their use is pretty powerful, but also very limited in time. You will need to make a conscious decision on which turn to use their ability. A good point might be, when your Burn Assassin opponent is on a two-turn clock and you want to ensure your last turn can go without healing and as little disruption as possible.
Hallowed Deathpriest and Grummite Magus
Hallowed Deathpriest transforms the highest cost creature in your opponent’s hand into Shriveled Mummy. Oftentimes the Hexmage will be Burn Assassin’s highest cost creature. Therefore, the Deathpriest can be effective counter-play if you can hit the Hexmage.
An equally disruptive card is Grummite Magus (see Grummite Magus – Uses & Synergies). However, he does hit the highest cost action in your opponent’s hand. Oftentimes, this will be a Lightning Bolt or a Firebolt, depending on the exact build your opponent is running. If your Magus gets to hit a Spoils of War, you probably want to buy him a big sweetmeat…
Avoiding Damage from Burn Assassin
Stampede Sentinel is a card that prevents damage from supports. While this does not help against damage from Lillandril Hexmage, the giant can effectively rule out any damage dealt from Swindler’s Market. He also provides effective protection against Forked Bolt, Ravaging Elixir, Dark Rift or Ice Spike which some Aldmeri Dominion decks might be inclined to run. This Monthly Reward card has thus far not seen play on the ladder nor in tournaments. It might get interesting as a tech choice in tournaments to avoid banning the Burn Assassin deck.
Another option to avoid damage being dealt to your face by actions is Thalmor Embassy. Unfortunately, this support card works only against damage caused by actions. If you are running a tribal High Elf deck, you might want to include the embassy for the cost reduction and benefit from the additional protection as an additional bonus.
Stopping Burn Assassin From Turnaround
False Incarncate does not offer pro-active counter-play against Burn Assassin, but denies your opponent the life gain from Swindler’s Market. If you manage to beat down your opponent to 11 health, a False Incarnate can prohibit a turnaround swing, pressuring your opponent to win the game in just one turn. But even at a higher health total, it puts them under pressure, as they cannot use an early Swindler’s Market to heal just a few points to get out of lethal range planning to play Hexmage on a consecutive turn to finish you off.
Summary – Burn Assassin Counter-Play
The red Strength attribute can offer a good number of tech choices against Burn Assassin to prevent the combo deck from going off. In particular, this gives classes like Archer, Battlemage, Crusader, Warrior, House Dagoth, House Hlaalu, House Redoran, the Daggerfall Covenant, the Ebonheart Pact and The Guildsworn pretty decent options to tech against this match-up.
While Spellsword, Sorcerer, Tribunal Temple, and the Empire of Cyrodiil control decks can continue to rely on their silencing, removal, and banishing packages, you might want to review their life gain potential carefully when playing in a Burn Assassin meta.
Mage, Monk, Telvanni, Aldmeri Dominion, and Assassin decks might need to be tweaked to include a little more life gain as well. While these classes have no access to support removal in their primary color, there is an option to slot-in the neutral 3-cost action Dismantle or the 4-cost Vicious Dreugh who both allow you to destroy an enemy support. Usually, these cards are not as good as support removal in Endurance or Strength, however, you might want to consider them in a Burn Assassin meta.
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