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AFFINITY FOR MODERN JOAO CHOCA 01/07/2017

The Modern PPTQ season is fast approaching and choosing a deck is no easy task. It all started in a small PPTQ last year, where I really didn't want to play Bant Eldrazi and a friend wanted to play Scapeshift. I picked his Affinity deck up for the tournament and was so impressed I never looked back.

So what is Affinity?

Ever since the printing of Arcbound Ravager back in 2003, Affinity, in some shape or form, has been tier 1 in Extended/Modern. The deck survived many bans and despite both formats shifting, it has remained a powerful, yet reasonable, deck.

At its core, Affinity is an aggro deck that abuses synergies to play 'bad cards' and combine them into powerhouses. Affinity often starts with a lowly 1/1 or even 0/2 as the sole creature for turn 1 and kills you on turn 4 before you realise what really happened. If the field isn't prepared, Affinity can easily take a tournament down with fast (and disruptive, if needed) starts. However, Affinity has the inherent flaw that it loses to anyone who really wants to beat it and brings a higher number of sideboard cards for the matchup.

Without further ado, let's explore the deck in its current form.

4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Inkmoth Nexus

First off, the 12 uncuttable lands - these are the reason the deck is as powerful as it is right now: Citadel allows for some 'broken' starts in conjunction with Mox Opal, whereas the Nexuses give the the ability to close out games and flood protection. Not only that, but Inkmoth Nexus also gives Affinity the ability to 'combo' off from nowhere, as a single top deck can suddenly turn a poor board into 10 points of infect.

4 Mox Opal
4 Springleaf Drum

Mox Opal is quite possibly the single most broken card in the current iteration of Modern. It is one of only 5 ways to have access to 2 or more mana on turn 1 (the others being Simian Spirit Guide, Eldrazi Temple, Chancellor of the Tangle and Gemstone Caverns) and it is the only one that works on the play and is reusable. Despite it being legendary, I can't imagine running less than 4 due to its explosive power.

Springleaf Drum is far less flashy, but it also fills a very important role in the deck, providing a 'free' artifact for the synergies that can also ramp you and enable some broken starts in conjunction with the 0 mana creatures.

4 Ornithopter
2 Memnite

Ornithopter is deceptively very powerful in the deck - not only does it help enable Mox and its ability to produce broken starts, but it also has evasion when you find a way to make it have power. Memnite's lack of evasion makes it much worse, but you still need a critical mass of 0 drop creatures and I wouldn't run less than 6 copies of these cards.

4 Signal Pest
4 Vault Skirge

This pair of 'fliers' is also important in making the deck tick - both have very important abilities in various situations: sometimes lifelink is extremely relevant and Skirge goes from a fringe 1/1 to your best card (such as vs Burn) while Pest has the ability to present a lot of damage without exposing your board to sweepers in conjunction with the manlands.

4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Cranial Plating
4 Steel Overseer

And finally we get to the payoff: as a very broad rule of thumb, you shouldn't keep a hand that doesn't contain one of these cards (after all, a board of 1/1s and 0/2s isn't very impressive). Steel Overseer shines in matchups where combat matters (Company or Vial decks), Ravager is a very powerful tool against decks with a lot of removal and Plating is simply your biggest source of damage and the main reason this deck is competitive (as it allows for turn 3-4 kills).

2 Etched Champion
2 Master of Etherium

This slot is a bit mix and match depending on where the meta is, but I generally like a split to hedge your bets against the broad format. In general though, you want Etched Champion when everyone is playing removal and Master when you need to be faster and win races.

This gives us 10 slots to tinker with which aren't fixed:

The 16 v 17 land debate - there's a lot of discussion on the internet to decide whether 16 or 17 land is correct in Affinity. After playing the deck for a year, I think the correct number is 16.5. Before you roll your eyes in disgust, allow me to explain: the deck seems to generally cope with 16 lands when on the draw, but often feels a little land light with 16 on the play. As such, I usually register 17 land and go down to 16 on the draw.

How many and which basics? - This is another hotly contested topic, where the second basic has steadily become more popular. The reasons for having a basic in the deck usually boil down to having a painless extra coloured source that also diminishes the impact of Path to Exile or Ghost Quarter. Since these cards have been seeing more play recently, I'm an advocate of playing the second basic. This, together with the need to have coloured sources, means 5 of my 10 slots are:

3 Spire of Industry
1 Island
1 Mountain

Island and Mountain are chosen as the maindeck spells are blue and red (spoilers!).

One of the remaining slots is also secretly locked - the deck needs the consistency of having access to a 7th 0 cost artifact. There is a little leeway in which artifact you run - Memnite, Welding Jar or, in very extreme metas, Tormod's Crypt. With Fatal Push numbers being higher than ever, I am currently leaning towards Jar being correct, although this isn't at all set in stone.

Last but not least, we have room for 4 coloured spells. Usually this is a combination of Galvanic Blasts and Thoughtcasts, but cards like Dispatch, Thoughtseize, Shrapnel Blast and Ensoul Artifact have all seen play in the maindeck (even Tarmogoyf has shown up before!). In the current meta, the need to be fast and interact with cards such as Steel Overseer, Devoted Druid or the fact Death's Shadow likes to go to as low a life total as they can, I am a proponent of running 4 Galvanic Blasts right now.

4 Galvanic Blast
1 Welding Jar

These 4 last slots are very adaptable and you can be as wild as you like, but I would suggest keeping the remaining 55 cards close to what's suggested here

The Sideboard

The Affinity sideboard is where you can be a little more flexible depending on the decks you expect to play against. There are some rules you should follow to help out:

- You need enough cards that can come in for the mirror as cutting Signal Pests and Etched Champions is crucial. In my sideboard, I want to have 6 cards that can be brought in against the mirror
- You don't want to have many (if any) matchups where you board more than 5 or 6 cards in. There are some exceptions, but you want to keep sideboarding to a minimum
- You have no way to find your sideboard cards, so you want them to overlap as much as possible to cover your bases
- You need to have a plan, be it through sideboarding or through specific cards, to beat Stony Silence
- You also need a way to contain Lingering Souls

I am going to post the sideboard I registered for GP Copenhagen with notes on why I chose these cards:

2 Ancient Grudge
This is the most efficient card in the mirror and is here mostly for that reason. It bleeds into Lantern, Eldrazi Tron (Batterskull and Collar) and somewhat Tron, but the main purpose is to make the mirror less miserable.

2 Etched Champion
I wouldn't leave home without 4 copies of this card in my 75. Whilst the card is slow and sometimes embarrassing in some G1s, Champion is your trump against the likes of Grixis, Jund or Abzan midrange decks. Having access to a threat that can carry a Plating or Ravager counters with impunity is worth 4 slots in my 7.

2 Ghirapur AEther Grid
The Grid is here for two reasons, one of which is obvious; you want Grid in matchups like Elves, the mirror or Infect, where having access to a recurring pinger effect is very powerful. What is perhaps not obvious, however, is the Grid's ability to let you fight through Stony Silence effectively. Turning all those Moxen and Drums into 2-3 damage a turn may not seem like much, but it does a solid impression of a Sulfuric Vortex that midrange/control decks struggle to beat.

2 Thoughtseize
This slot is the another source of much debate - should we run Thoughtseize, Spell Pierce, Stubborn Denial or a split? The truth is that there is no correct answer, but I much prefer having access to the powerful discard spell rather than having to hold mana up for several turns - mana that might make you miss out on Plating equips, for example. I am against trying to fight cards like Kolaghan's Command or Snapcaster Mage with discard effects - their deck is designed to grind you out, trying to play their game won't get you anywhere - but Thoughtseize is important at being a flexible answer against all flavours of combo and so it earns some slots.

1 Chalice of the Void
Chalice is one of the most erratic cards in this sideboard - in the times where Infect was a tier 1 deck, I had 2 copies making sure the matchup remained winnable, but now the value of Chalices has gone down a lot. It is here primarily for 3 decks - Death's Shadow variants, '0 converted mana cost spell' variants (Living End/Restore Balance) and Ad Nauseam (they struggle to beat Chalice on 1). Death's Shadow being such a large part of the metagame and Chalice also bleeding into matchups like Burn or Lantern means I'm happy to leave a copy here for now.

1 Dismember
I was very close to registering a Dispatch for the GP, but ultimately went with the easier to cast option. Dismember is here as a fifth removal spell against anything that requires creature interaction, although I should add a warning that it is extremely poor against Jund Shadow (whereas it's very good against normal Jund), mostly due to both Death's Shadow and Tarmogoyf often reaching 6 or more toughness.

1 Eidolon of Rhetoric
This was a late addition and a response to Storm becoming the number 1 deck on MTGO. We expected this extremely poor matchup (they are faster and have access to Shatterstorm post board) to be popular and wanted to have a silver bullet that just shuts it down. Eidolon gets the nod over Rule of Law due to being able to carry a Plating and gets the nod over Ethersworn Canonist due to avoiding both Lightning Bolt and Shatter effects.

1 Grafdigger's Cage
This was another very late addition and an answer to the rise in Vizier Company. That matchup is also fairly poor if you aren't prepared, so we 'upgraded' one of our graveyard hate slots to be able to deal with Collected Company.

1 Relic of Progenitus
The other graveyard slot goes to the incredibly versatile Relic. For me, the main advantage of Relic is giving you the option to bring in a low cost sideboard card against decks with Tarmogoyf or Snapcaster Mage. Worst case scenario, it does something and cantrips - best case scenario it takes over a game that you were likely to lose otherwise.

1 Sea Gate Wreckage
I am going to make a controversial statement here, but it is one I fully believe in: Sea Gate Wreckage is the single most important card in the sideboard and understanding why it exists is a crucial step towards understanding Affinity.

You might be wondering why Affinity doesn't run Wear/Tear (or similar) to handle Stony Silence. You might also be scratching your head as to why the sideboard has no (obvious) ways to beat a Stony Silence. Well, the reason for no Wear/Tear is simple - white mana is very hard to come by when you don't have access to your Moxen or Drums. The latter part, however, is answered by the presence of this innocuous land.

Having Sea Gate Wreckage, or in broader terms 'a land', in your sideboard means you can sideboard out 2 Darksteel Citadels and remain a functional deck on 16 land. Having less Citadels in your decks mitigates how crippling a Stony can be for a start, but the previous decision to run 2 basics together with the fact most Stony decks run Path to Exile as their removal spell of choice, means you are still able to cast most your spells under Stony.

Now, I'm not going to claim that Stony is suddenly beatable - after all, that would be insanity. Having Sea Gate Wreckage in your sideboard, however, as well as the lands, means you have a realistic contingency plan to beat Stony. It won't always happen, but gaining percentage points against enemy number one can be the difference between a loss and a win.

1 Whipflare
The last card in our sideboard was decided the night before and is why the sideboard breaks the '6 cards for the mirror' rule. We anticipated a surge in popularity in the Vizier Company deck and wanted to have a dedicated sideboard card for the matchup. Whipflare is narrow in application, but when you need it, you really need it.

0 Spellskite
Spellskite was the last cut from this sideboard and is a card worth mentioning: Spellskite is possibly the single least impactful card in this sideboard, but it is also the one with the highest number of applications (whilst being an artifact to boot). Whilst it is true that you want to have powerful silver bullets in a format like Modern, having an all-rounder option that gives you points across a huge number of matchups is useful, even if Spellskite doesn't really shine anywhere anymore.

You’re probably thinking ‘sweet, this 75 looks good… but how do I play it?’ I can’t tell you exactly how to play the deck in a short article, but I can give you some tips:

You should only keep hands that have a plan or need one of many cards to be good

You might look at a hand of Mox Opal, Blinkmoth Nexus, 2 Ornithopter, Memnite, Springleaf Drum, Vault Skirge and think it looks great, as you get to play 7 cards on turn 1. However, this hand is on the lower end of the spectrum and unless you immediately draw Plating, it doesn’t really do anything. This is a fairly easy mulligan.

Another example on the other end - you might look at Inkmoth Nexus, 2 Darksteel Citadel, Steel Overseer, Cranial Plating, Arcbound Ravager and Etched Champion. Whilst on the surface this has a lot of power, this hand is super slow - slow enough that you’re playing a bad Limited deck… in Modern. If any of these 2s were a Vault Skirge, I might be tempted to keep on the play (especially if I know what my opponent is on), but it’s still a borderline do-nothing hand.

 

One last example here: Mox Opal, Spire of Industry, Vault Skirge, Signal Pest, Steel Overseer, Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating. This hand is very interesting - on the play, you have one draw step to find a 0 or a land and make this acceptable, but you’re more likely to have a workable 6. However, on the draw, I would keep this - if you do hit one of your 7 0s or a Darksteel Citadel, this hand is decent. If you hit these or any other land by turn 2, then the hand is still workable, even if a little slow. This has the potential to backfire, but the upside is enough that makes me want to keep.

Don’t be afraid to go ‘all-in’

You should remember that Etched Champion is a pain for midrange decks to deal with - and Etched Champion + 2 Darksteel Citadel is a ‘hard lock’ against most of these decks. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice your entire board to an Etched Champion if it leaves you with a 2-3 turn unblockable unkillable clock. You should be wary of decks with access to Liliana of the Veil, but even then, giving them only 1-2 draw steps to find it is often worth it.

Likewise, they can’t always have the removal spell. Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk and trying to kill them in one turn rather than giving them more draws to find the removal, but knowing when it’s correct to go for it will be easier once you play the deck more.

Sideboard little and with care

I’ve already touched on the fact you shouldn’t sideboard a lot in, as that hurts the core consistency of the deck. It’s worth noting that you should keep a close eye on your artifact count - bringing in Ghirapur Aether Grid might be correct, but the power of the card will decrease a lot if your artifact count goes down considerably.

Learn which threats to prioritise and which to hold

Count your damage and check how many turns you think you’ll have. If your opponent is on a midrange deck, it's likely you want to try a Steel Overseer first and hold a Cranial Plating to protect it from Kolaghan’s Command or Abrupt Decay. However, if your opponent is on, say, Ad Nauseam, it might be correct to make the Cranial Plating now as you won’t have time to activate Overseer multiple times and might need the extra mana to one-shot them with Inkmoth Nexus.

Play to the top of the deck (of both players)

This is more general Magic advice, but it holds particularly true with Affinity. You have 14 cards that have the potential to win the game on the spot - Master of Etherium, Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating and Galvanic Blast. These are all capable of producing a large amount of damage with ‘haste’ and you should design your turns in such a way that allows you to have the maximum number of these live as top decks.

Consider sacrificing an extra pointless Springleaf Drum so they they go to 9 then 4, rather than 10 then 6 so that Galvanic Blast is live. Consider sacrificing an Ornithopter that is unlikely to attack or block and go ‘all-in’ on this now 5/5 Inkmoth Nexus - if they don’t draw an instant speed removal spell right now, you kill them next turn.

Know how your cards work!

This is again general advice, but there are a couple of really niche interactions which can make all the difference

  • An Arcbound Ravager gives +2 power to another Ravager if you sacrifice it, not just +1. You get a counter from the sacrifice and a counter from the modular.
  • If you think they have a removal spell, you can sacrifice 1-2 things to Arcbound Ravager 1, then sacrifice Ravager 1 to Ravager 2 to modular, say, 3 counters to your Vault Skirge to make it Lightning Bolt-proof, then sacrifice the rest.
  • Blinkmoth Nexus has 2 abilities - and the pump is very useful on defence
  • If you block a 1/1 infect creature with your Nexus, then pump it, you’ll end up with a counter on it, but the pump keeps it alive - you’ll end up with an extra land (and Wastes is better than no Wastes!)
  • Do you have a habit of tapping your equipment/auras together with your creature? You should stop doing that immediately, especially in Affinity - you can attack with your guy and have the Plating and another artifact available for Ghirapur Aether Grid
  • Galvanic Blast checks on resolution - if you lose metalcraft with it on the stack, you can still activate a Nexus to regain it
  • If your opponent Spellskite your Arcbound Ravager’s modular trigger, you can choose ‘no’ - it’s a may ability!

Last but not least - count, count, count!

There are multiple ways in which damage changes - Signal Pest triggers, Master of Etherium buffs, Arcbound Ravager activations, Cranial Plating and Steel Overseer activations (especially with Arcbound Ravager also!) all mess around with your maths. Find a way to make this faster, as you often need to count damage multiple times a turn to make sure you have enough to get the job done. The maths can get real messy, so here are a couple of tips:

  • Arcbound Ravager plus Cranial Plating is damage neutral, sacrificing things when a Plating guy is connecting is never worth it (with the exception of infect damage)
  • If you plan on activating Steel Overseer, activate it first to minimise time spent counting - if you have a Nexus or two to worry about, count the mana first, then use Overseer to make your maths simpler
  • 2x Arcbound Ravager = 1 extra damage (as above)
  • Signal Pest has ‘effective power’ equal to the number of other attacking creatures
  • You can’t miss the extra damage off Master of Etherium, your creature’s base power or counters - announce your Signal Pest/Modular triggers and make sure you count these
  • Blinkmoth Nexus can give another Nexus +2 power under a Plating (one from becoming an artifact and one from pump)

Affinity looks like a pile of terrible cards, but they synergise with each other extremely well. It has been tier 1 in Extended/Modern for over 10 years and looks to stay that way so long as Mox Opal doesn’t get banned (even if it does, I’m sure the deck can adapt in some way).

The deck punishes mistakes, but it is ever so rewarding when you’ve learnt the ins and outs and understand each and every interaction within it. For me, picking the deck up was one of the best decisions I’ve made in Modern and I have no intention to drop the deck.

Thanks for reading and may your Cranial Platings always be on top when you need them!

About Joao Choca:

Joao started playing competitive Magic in England in 2007 and has been a Grand Prix grinder since then. Joao has retained Bronze status since induction and has been rewarded for his consistent results with a win in Grand Prix Turin 2018. He enjoys thinking outside the box and is one of the more creative team members when it comes to fresh ideas. His approach is one of gradual improvement and he is constantly looking for flaws to fix in his game. His aim is to achieve Silver and stay on the Pro Tour circuit.