Building a Better Affinity – Grand Prix Vancouver Top 8
Since I’m neither a theoretical physicist nor an electrical engineer, I’d say that the most valuable thing I learned in university was how to make the most out of insufficient time. I was always a procrastinator/crammer. If it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done, etc. Early on, this worked out great for me as I was able to master test material in the short 24-hour window before the midterm or exam. At some point, however, bad habits caught up with me and I was forced to adjust. After spending six of twelve available hours on Unit 1 of 5, you need to start cutting corners. It’s important to recognize when this is the case, and to quickly formulate a plan of action that will help you get the most out of whatever limited time you have.
Grand Prix Vancouver was a great example of this. I was busy tidying up loose ends in Montreal as I prepared to move across the country to Victoria, and knew that I would not have time to fully explore post-ban Modern and the rise of previously fringe strategies like Puresteel Paladin and Eldrazi Tron. Rather than investing a lot of time trying out these new decks, I felt that my best chance would be to fall back on something I was familiar with.
That still left a decent number of candidates. Lantern Control was my first thought, but after starting out 10-0 and finishing 10-5 in Dallas, I can’t say that I was super excited at the prospect of going to time every round while trying to make my opponents play faster. A particularly frustrating incident was having a judge watch my match as my opponent was trying to force a draw by taking 30 seconds per turn when all he had in hand was land. All but one card was public knowledge thanks to Lantern of Insight, and I knew from context that his last card was also useless, but the table judge did not. He kept the card face down on the table for five or six turns as I worked to gradually assemble my soft lock. Out of frustration, I finally cast an Inquisition of Kozilek just to reveal the card and force the judge to act on the slow play. That completely backfired as I eventually let him draw a Stony Silence that I had an Abrupt Decay for. Later on, I had to use a Lantern to shuffle away an otherwise useless Thoughtseize that would have allowed him to protect the enchantment. With the Inquisition in hand, I could have just taken the Stony Silence and let him draw the discard spell. I thought it was probably safe since I had seen on an earlier Surgical Extraction that he only had three threats left in his deck. Unfortunately, he drew a Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and killed me before I could find an Ensnaring Bridge. That was a very frustrating way to lose considering I would never have cast the Inquisition if it weren’t for my opponent trying to stall. Back to the drawing board.
In such an unsettled metagame, I was naturally drawn to Affinity as it always seems to be a great choice when it doesn’t have a huge target on its back. My only concern was whether people would be playing extra Stony Silences as a way to beat the Puresteel Paladin combo. While most of that deck continues to function under lockdown, Mox Opal is a key piece that allows them to go off with multiple Retracts and generate red mana for the eventual Grapeshot. People were telling me that it was good against them, but I couldn’t see it. It does slow them down, but they can still draw a bunch of cards every turn until they eventually find Echoing Truth. I concluded that even if Stony Silence was worth bringing in, it wasn’t a card people would be adding to their sideboard specifically for that matchup. Despite not playing a single league or test game, I locked in on Affinity and decided to spend what little time I had updating my list rather than trying to figure out what to play.
I certainly can’t complain about my decision as it carried me through a diverse field to a Top 8 finish. My only losses were to Sultai Control in Round 5, to the mirror in Round 11, and to Merfolk in the quarterfinals. Here’s the list I played:
Affinity for Grand Prix Vancouver – Jon Stern
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Inkmoth Nexus
3 Spire of Industry
2 Ancient Grudge
1 Blood Moon
2 Etched Champion
2 Ghirapur Aether Grid
1 Master of Etherium
1 Pithing Needle
1 Rule of Law
1 Wear // Tear
Building Affinity is really an exercise in tweaking the percentages, as roughly fifty of your sixty main deck cards are untouchable. The deck relies on a very high degree of synergy in order to get the most out of cards like Cranial Plating, and it’s pretty clear that some cards are much better than the other available options. That said, some of the choices you do have can make a big difference in certain match-ups and are worth thinking about.
Etched Champion and Master of Etherium fulfill very different roles, but are sort of tied together by the fact that you can’t play too many three drops due to curve considerations. Affinity wins such a high percentage of Game 1s that you don’t want to risk drawing too many clunky spells and being unable to generate an early advantage. There are a few things to consider when deciding on your main deck split.
There are a fair number of minimally interactive Modern decks that just try to kill you on turn four or five. Master of Etherium is a great way to speed up your clock while also helping you build towards insurmountable board presence. Etched Champion, on the other hand, allows you to grind out opponents who are trying to dismantle your deck by taking out your key threats with removal.
Historically, I’ve liked Master of Etherium much more as a main deck card because of how much better it is in the mirror. Also, few opponents have enough main deck interaction to nullify your primary game plan and force you to rely on Etched Champion. There is a risk of playing too many coloured spells, however, and Champion will occasionally allow you to win games against cards like Lingering Souls and Kolaghan’s Command that no other card will.
Overall, I like a main deck split with extra copies of both cards in the sideboard. Most people run the full complement of Etched Champions in their seventy-five, but bringing in extra Masters is more of a personal innovation, or at least less commonly seen. As an Affinity player, your disruptive options are somewhat limited and underwhelming, and Master of Etherium is simply the best synergistic thing you can be doing against decks that are trying to beat you in a game of solitaire. I like boarding in the third copy and would consider going up to four in some meta-games.
I am sort of mystified by the fact that this is still a debate. I dislike Galvanic Blast as a card because it doesn’t add to your synergy, but there are enough match-ups where a single piece of cheap disruption can make the difference between winning and losing. It’s also just an extremely efficient burn spell that can sometimes increase your clock by a turn.
By contrast, Thoughtcast helps you dig for key cards like Cranial Plating and fight an attrition war. While this was, at one point, a decent way of fighting Ancient Grudge, other sideboard hate like Stony Silence, Shatterstorm, and Damnation are too backbreaking to combat with draw spells, even extremely efficient ones. Although it still might make sense to consider Thoughtcast in a Grixis and Jund-heavy meta-game, it’s so bad against decks that just try to kill you that I’m not interested in it at all in the diverse field you usually face at a Modern Grand Prix.
Once an automatic four of in Affinity decks, Memnite just gets blanked so often by ground creatures that it’s become more of a necessary evil than something you actively want in your deck. I think you have to play at least two copies in order to facilitate explosive starts with Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum, but you should treat additional copies as meta-game specific options. Welding Jar is another card that often does nothing but is sometimes the best card you can draw when all you need is to keep a Steel Overseer or Cranial Plating on the board for a turn. I decided to play a single Welding Jar over the third Memnite mainly because I expected more Kolaghan’s Commands than usual and was happy with that decision.
These two cards are effectively equivalent in the vast majority of situations, so the debate is really about which liability will hurt you more in the long run. Glimmervoid is almost always a painless City of Brass with no drawback, but in about one of every forty or fifty games, it will cause you to take suboptimal lines or lose outright. In one game at the Grand Prix, I was forced to mulligan a hand on the draw that would have started with a turn one Glimmervoid and Vault Skirge. It was a hand that needed help, but that would have been worth keeping if it was a Spire of Industry instead. I would have had two draw steps to hit a second mana source to turn on the rest of my hand which was quite powerful. With Glimmervoid, however, I would risk missing on the first draw step and losing the game immediately to a Lightning Bolt or other removal spell.
Although you will feel the effect of Spire of Industry more often, the occasional point of life is very unlikely to matter in most match-ups. Affinity tends to win or lose by a lot, and the close games are usually about navigating through a swath of removal or fighting sideboard hate rather than a race that comes down to a single life point.
Without the massive amounts of data I would need to be certain, my feeling is that Spire of Industry is slightly better than Glimmervoid, but think that you’d almost always rather have one of each than two of either. If you are playing four copies, a 2-2 split is likely ideally, but I could see three Spires actually being correct.
The Fifth Glimmervoid/Spire of Industry
With all the coloured spells in the sideboard, I’ve often wished for a fifth Glimmervoid and even considered playing a Tendo Ice Bridge at one point. Without that option, I’ve erred on the side of making sideboard concessions rather than messing with the mana base. This is especially true in match-ups where you can’t count on Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum due to opposing Stony Silences. Wear // Tear and Ray of Revelation, in particular, are extremely risky spells to rely on as a solution.
The printing of Spire of Industry allowed me to revisit this decision, but it was really the emergence of Fatal Push that eventually convinced me to cut a Blinkmoth Nexus. Darksteel Citadel and Inkmoth Nexus are too important to consider shaving, but Fatal Push suddenly makes going all in on a man-land a lot more risky, especially when it isn’t killing them immediately with poison. Though I understand that this might be unpopular with some Affinity players, I was happy running the fifth colour-producing nonbasic and will likely continue to do so going forward. I might even consider a sixth at some point, as being able to cast enchantment removal may now actually be a viable way to fight Stony Silence.
The Basic Land
Most people just run an Island by default since Master of Etherium is the main deck coloured spell you really want to cast on curve. I think this is a mistake, however, because drawing the Island against Merfolk is a significant liability, allowing them to start racing you without having to tap two mana for a Spreading Seas. It’s bad enough in that matchup that, if you are playing an Island, you should definitely board it out. Even if you’re willing to cut the Island, you do want at least one basic land to search for off a Path to Exile or Ghost Quarter activation. For the GP, I just added a Mountain since I do have four main deck Galvanic Blasts and a bunch of red cards in the sideboard like Ghirapur Aether Grid. Although there were no issues with the Mountain, I don’t think the debate should necessarily end there.
I’ve seen some people running a Plains as an extra way to cast Wear // Tear to get out from under a Stony Silence. I don’t hate this plan, especially with Dispatch in the sideboard. The truth, however, is that, under normal circumstances, you almost always have access to coloured mana by the time you need it. After giving it some more thought, I think that Swamp might actually be the best call, as you do get into situations where you want to attack with all your creatures but have to leave something back to activate Springleaf Drum in case you need to move Cranial Plating at instant speed. While getting a single coloured mana isn’t usually a problem, generating two black mana from lands and Mox Opals is much harder to achieve, and the Swamp would make a tangible difference.
Dispatch vs Dismember
I’ve been playing Dispatch in my sideboard for awhile now, and the resurgence of Death’s Shadow makes it even better. Dismember is a good card, but there are a few matchups like Burn or Merfolk where paying life is a very real and, in some cases, prohibitive cost. It was difficult to make sideboard numbers work when I couldn’t bring my removal spell in against decks like these. Dispatch is also much better against Master of Etherium, Griselbrand, and Primeval Titan for example, all of which are present in the current meta-game to varying extent.
These spells generally come in against combo decks and as a way of fighting sideboard hate. While the discard spell does leave you vulnerable to top decks, that’s much less important in a deck like Affinity that will usually only give a one turn window to resolve a sweeper. Your opponents are also much more likely to have that key card in hand because of how important it is for them to mulligan aggressively in search of it. The kicker for me, however, is that keeping up a mana every turn for Spell Pierce slows you down enough that they can often just play around counter magic, especially because of how obvious it is that you have it. Thoughtseize can also be brought in against decks like Eldrazi that have good targets aside from the hate, and it can give you important information about when it’s safe to go all in with an Inkmoth Nexus. To be honest, I don’t love any of these cards, but think that Thoughtseize is the best of the bunch.
These slots are very meta-game dependent and, in retrospect, might not have all been the best choice. The one card I was happy with was Pithing Needle as a way to shut down problematic cards like Engineered Explosives, Aether Vial, and Walking Ballista. I didn’t board it in often, but was happy with it whenever I did.
Blood Moon is a horrible card to play in your Affinity sideboard but is occasionally still worth playing. You don’t get nearly as many free wins as you would think, and shutting off your own man-lands is a very real cost. It is still a good card against Bant Eldrazi, though, and can be considered if that deck rises to the top of tier list. While I did bring Blood Moon in against some other decks, it ranged in effectiveness from marginal to completely useless.
Rule of Law was a similar hedge against specific decks like Puresteel Paladin combo and Storm. I prefer Rule of Law to Ethersworn Canonist or Eidolon of Rhetoric because I don’t want my hate card to be shut down by an artifact or creature removal spell. Although it comes in for a few other match-ups, this was an unnecessary precaution as the Puresteel Paladin deck just isn’t very good or heavily played.
Going forward, I would keep the Pithing Needle and probably replace the other two with a third Dispatch and a second copy of Wear // Tear. Dispatch is more valuable after the performance of Death’s Shadow, and the extra Spire of Industry makes Wear // Tear a little more reliable as a way out from under Stony Silence.
Given all of these considerations and how the format continues to evolve, this is how I would build Affinity right now and what I would consider a starting point for Grand Prix San Antonio and Las Vegas later this summer:
Post-Vancouver Affinity – Jon Stern
3 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Inkmoth Nexus
3 Spire of Industry
2 Ancient Grudge
2 Etched Champion
2 Ghirapur Aether Grid
1 Master of Etherium
1 Pithing Needle
2 Wear // Tear
Sideboarding in Modern is difficult since there are so many viable and semi-viable decks. Rather than spending the hours it would take to come with a comprehensive sideboard plan, it’s more important to understand your deck and what your game plan is for each matchup. For Vancouver, I simply looked at a list of the thirty or so most popular decks and wrote down any cards that stood out as something that I needed to keep in mind when making sideboard decisions and evaluating lines of play. While the coverage team made a big deal about the fact that I had sideboard notes for my win-and-in against 8-Rack, the truth is much less impressive. While it’s more than most would have for such a fringe matchup, this is all I actually had written down:
md 4x ghost quarter
Knowing about the main deck Ghost Quarters would remind me to sequence my lands in a way to minimize my vulnerability, and might even prompt me to bring in Pithing Needle if I had enough cards to board out. The possibility of Ensnaring Bridge was enough incentive for me to bring in Ancient Grudges as a hedge since, worst case, it could kill The Rack. Flaying Tendrils makes Etched Champion a lot less interesting, and noting the possibility of sweepers would serve as a reminder not to overextend unnecessarily. I wasn’t really worried about Night of Souls’ Betrayal, but marked it down as a card that had seen some play and might be brought in against me.
With simple notes like this, I was able to remind myself of key considerations and rely on my experience with the deck to work out the details. If you’re picking up Affinity for the first time or are having trouble figuring out how to sideboard, here is rough guideline.
Sideboarding with Affinity
Most Modern sideboard cards are fairly straightforward. Dispatch comes in when there are key creatures you want to kill, and Ancient Grudge comes in against artifacts. The anti-Stony Silence plan usually involves bringing in Wear // Tear, Thoughtseize, and Ghirapur Aether Grid. Thoughtseize has additional utility against sweepers and when stripping a single key card like Ad Nauseam or Scapeshift can set your opponent back significantly. Ghirapur Aether Grid can also come in for the mirror and against any small creature deck like Elves.
As for what to cut, Memnite should often be boarded out against any creature deck that will make attacking on the ground difficult. Even with a Cranial Plating, your creatures are fragile and rely a lot on evasion. You will want to keep them in against decks that put you on a very fast clock, however, to help fuel your more explosive draws.
Although it does have evasion, Signal Pest often attacks with zero power, making it especially vulnerable to Lingering Souls and other cheap flyers. I also dislike it in the mirror as it only trades when it has a Cranial Plating attached.
Steel Overseer is a great card for building up a board position, but is pretty slow. You should board it out against decks that are trying to play solitaire against you or shut you down with sweepers and Stony Silence. It’s also particularly bad against Ensnaring Bridge, as is Master of Etherium.
Etched Champion is only worth keeping in against midrange decks with a lot of removal. It’s particularly bad in the mirror and against Eldrazi where you are often paying three mana for a vanilla 2/2. Whether to leave it in against Jund Death’s Shadow decks really depends on what version you are facing, as it’s quite good against their creatures and removal, but pretty bad against Temur Battle Rage.
Master of Etherium can be shaved in match-ups where Etched Champion is good, as it does usually die to a single piece of interaction. Leaving in a some number against an attrition-based deck like Grixis Control is not the worst, however, as you do want to have a fairly high density of threats.
Ornithopter, Vault Skirge, and Arcbound Ravager are almost never boarded out since nothing your opponent is likely to do post-sideboard would make them a bad option. The same is true for Mox Opal, Springleaf Drum, and Cranial Plating. These cards are essential to your deck’s functionality and should basically never be touched. I used to shave a Springleaf Drum when I wasn’t sure what else to cut, but I think that’s almost always a mistake.
Finally, Galvanic Blast can be cut against decks without good must-kill targets. For the most part, you aren’t interested in random burn spells, though you can keep a couple copies as a way to speed up your clock when your other options like Steel Overseer are just too slow.
While it would probably be impossible to generate a sideboard plan with the perfect number of ins and outs for every matchup, this should get you pretty close. When things don’t work out exactly, the main thing to remember is to not over-sideboard. Your deck is highly synergistic and reliant on being able to quickly deploy a large number of cheap artifacts. You also want to be careful not to board in too many coloured cards as, even with Spire of Industry, you may have some trouble casting your spells. As a general guideline, try to figure out if you are trying to win fast or slow, and sideboard accordingly. Steel Overseer and Etched Champions are great cards, but won’t stop your opponent from killing you on turn four.
Overall, I was obviously very happy with my deck choice in Vancouver. I had predicted a diverse meta-game and was rewarded by playing against thirteen different archetypes in the thirteen rounds I played. It’s really hard for your opponents to make concessions in order to beat Affinity when there are so many different decks they could face. Although the format is settling down a bit now that the first post-ban GP is in the books, I still think Affinity is well-positioned and a very good choice to play in an upcoming event. Although I wouldn’t suggest it for your first foray into Modern, it’s a great deck to gain experience with as the non-blowout games are very intricate, and playing against it requires a lot of the same skills it takes to pilot it well.