Strategy & Sideboard Guide: Affinity

From trinket to trauma

Affinity’s history is a dark one plagued with bannings and memories of one of the worst eras in Magic’s history. Yet, through all the targeted hate that has been printed for it, through all the bannings, and through all problems it’s caused the game, it continues to be a tier 1 force to be reckoned with.

1000_Seat-of-the-Synod-e1516807682711-640x384
“Seat of the Synod” by John Avon

2002 was one of the best years for Magic. Odyssey was great and the over-powered train wreck of Urza’s block and Necropotence was in the rear view mirror. For the first time in Magic’s history, no changes to any banned or restricted lists were made for a complete year. Unfortunately, this was just the calm before the storm.

Mirrodin was released in 2003 and featured a world totally composed of metal. All of the animals, buildings, and terrain were made of machines and alloys. The five artifact lands showcased the metal landscape and animals that thrived there previewed a new key word, Affinity.

The idea was that the more artifacts you controlled, the more attracted these creatures would be to the area. Frogmites love tasty Blinkmoths. If there are a lot of artifacts, it could be a feeding ground or a new home. This explains the Frogmite’s affinity and attraction to areas saturated with artifacts. With enough artifacts, it takes no convincing, the Frogmite is a 0 mana 2/2. An artifact barren area is a tough sell though and it will instead cost you 4 mana for the same 2/2.

There weren’t a lot of these Affinity cards but a deck existed to exploit them nonetheless. The new artifact lands acted as free “Ancient Tombs” to easily power out Frogmite for 0-2 mana or Mry Enforcer for 3-4 mana.

The payoff for these cheap artifacts?

Atog.

The little monster loves munching on artifacts, and cheap artifacts meant cheap pumps to the Atog. Disciple of the Vault acted as a sort of aristocrat that punished the opponent any time Atog had a snack or the opponent used a removal spell. This allowed the deck to attack from two different angles. One was the aggro deck that attacked with free 2/2’s and large Atogs with a Shrapnel Blast finish. The other was to sit back and combo off by draining the opponent through Disciple and sacrificing permanents to Atog.

td82_ravager
“Arcbound Ravager” by Carl Critchlow

Matters only worsened when the next set, Darksteel, was released. The set didn’t have much to offer the other decks trying to compete against Affinity in Standard and only served the bolster Affinity itself. Skullclamp, Arcbound Ravager, and other support cards like Arcbound Worker and Aether Vial made the deck impossible to beat.

The ability to combo off with Disciple and Ravager while re-fueling your hand with Skullclamp was too much to overcome. WotC was forced to ban Skullclamp.

Taking its place was Cranial Plating. Not a bad runner-up if you ask me. Even after Skullclamp was banned in June of 2004, Affinity made up over 30% of the day 2 decks and 62.5% of the top 8 at Grand Prix New Jersey later the same year.

Event attendance dropped into the abyss and many people walked away from the game all together. WotC tried to fix the problem, but it was too little too late for many people. Just before they rotated from Standard, WotC banned Aether Vial, Arcbound Ravager, Disciple of the Vault, and the artifact land cycle.

Skullclamp and the artifact land cycle were banned in Modern at its conception and have never seen the light of day in the format. Even without these very powerful cards, Affinity was instantly a tier 1 deck in the new format. In the very first Modern Grand Prix, two Affinity lists made the top 8.

Its Modern debut showcased new inclusions like Mox Opal, Etched Champion, and Inkmoth Nexus with the return to Mirrodin and Steel Overseer from M11. With every set’s release, colorless cards are evaluated for their strength and compatibility with the deck.

The Affinity decks today don’t even play cards with the keyword Affinity anymore, aside from the fringe Thoughtcast builds. Nonetheless the deck still retains the name with all the baggage and history that’s associated with it.

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“Cranial Plating” by Adam Rex

While the deck has seen many cards come and go, the strategy has stayed mainly the same: win through speed. Affinity is capable of playing out most of the cards in hand on turn 1 which can be pretty hard for many decks to keep up with. A pretty decent start for the deck can go something like this:

Turn 1: Darksteel Citadel, Ornithopter, Mox Opal, tap Citadel for Springleaf Drum, tap Drum and Ornithopter for Vault Skirge paying 2 life, tap Opal for Signal Pest.

As ridiculous as that is, it’s all a set up for turn 2, the turn you should really fear. All the 0-1 costing spells are just the fuel for the 2 drops that will actually win the game: Ravager, Plating, Overseer, etc….

Turn 2: Inkmoth Nexus, tap Nexus and Citadel for Plating, tap Opal to equip Plating to Vault Skirge, attack for 10 in the air.

This isn’t even the strongest start the deck can have, which is just silly. It’s hard to stabilize when you’re at 10 or less life going into your second turn. There’s a lot of permanents on the table at this point so I want to go over some cards specifically so you can feel more confident when wondering where to aim your Push or Bolt.

BannerMoxOpal
“Mox Opal” by Volkan Baga

Steel Overseer: I asked my friend who was playing Hardened Scales Affinity how Steel Overseer had been for him in testing and this was his response:

“I don’t know. Every time I play it, it gets immediately killed or countered.”

This is a pretty understandable reaction for an opponent staring down an Overseer. The card just gets out of hand fast. Every turn this monster is left unchecked will add 4 to 5 permanent power to the board. That’s a pretty hard rate to race. When this card comes down, be ready to kill it or be killed by it.

Cranial Plating: Plating can add a ton of power to the board. It’s pretty annoying to die to an 0/2 Ornithopter that all of a sudden is an 8/2 flyer. Any creature the Affinity player draws, even 0/2’s, are instantly threats that need to be dealt with. Don’t overlook the BB activation cost. Affinity can produce the colored mana if it needs to and can make your removal look embarrassing as it trades heads mid-combat. This is one of the few payoffs you can’t kill, so you’ll need to have them discard it or have a Decay or Pulse in hand.

Etched Champion: Personally, I think protection from colors is dumb. While I believe cards like Blood Moon are fair game since they punish greedy deck building, cards like Choke or cards with protection from colors punish you for simply playing Magic. Protection from all colors is especially egregious.  Just as True Name Nemesis is a pest in the Legacy format with few answers to get rid of it, Etched Champion is the same way in Modern.

In 2017 I had made it all the way to the finals of the Kansas SCG State Championships piloting this Abzan deck and had to face Affinity. I felt pretty good about the match and even had a ton of cards to bring in out of the sideboard. What I lost to was 4 mainboard Champions. Typically you won’t see those kinds of numbers mainboard but boy was it good against me. Even if I drew my sweepers or all of my Stony Silences, I was dead to the onslaught of Champions.

Maindeck, Liliana of the Veil‘s edict ability is the only way to kill a Champion with Metalcraft, which is a difficult thing to do since Affinity always has small creatures hanging around. You basically have to strip this card with discard or snag it with a non-damage based sweeper to have a chance.

Signal Pest: The card doesn’t seem like much, even when it’s attacking as an 0/1. The deception here is that it’s never actually attacking for 0 damage. It’s attacking for however many other creatures are attacking. On a board with Vault Skirge and Ornithopter, the Signal Pest is actually adding 2 damage to an attack, making it the most formidable creature in that moment. Always count up the number of other creatures that would be attacking when evaluating the Pest’s impact. If you wait until attackers are declared, the damage is already done. For this reason the innocuous 0/1 certainly deserves your targeted hate.

Oh, and by the way, I hate to burst your bubble but it’s actually not a screaming baby chicken depicted in the art. The “screeching chicken” is actually it’s claw and it’s head is directly below it.

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“Signal Pest” by Mark Zug

Arcbound Ravager: I saved the best for last. It’s the card that started it all and is a staple in all eternal artifact based decks. While modern-day Affinity decks no longer play the Aristocrat strategy with cards like Disciple of the Vault, the card is still extremely good at becoming a large threat while making your removal fruitless. That’s the real power of this card. Every time you go to kill a creature, the Ravager is able to move its power around the board. For this reason, I find that the best time to kill a Ravager is on my opponents turn, after combat. They may just let it die and move the counter to another creature, or they may sacrifice some useless artifacts hanging around before sacrificing itself. The timing of this sequence makes it so that you have better information going into your turn to know what you need to kill next. If the Ravager dumped 4 counters on a Vault Skirge, you now know where to aim your next removal spell. This timing also ensures you don’t take any unnecessary damage. If you try to hit the Ravager during your turn or anytime on their turn before combat, you’ll risk additional power being put onto another creature that you can’t kill at the moment and can then attack you with.

The combo potential for the card isn’t completely dead either. Its main combo now is with Inkmoth Nexus. If you’re not paying attention and your shields are left down, a Ravager can sacrifice the entire board and then sacrifice itself to its own ability and put all that power on an Infect flyer. The combo can one-shot you out of nowhere and win the game on the spot. The way to stop this combo is to wait until the final moment when they go to put the counters on the Nexus, after the Ravager has sacrificed itself, and then kill the Nexus. If you try to hit the Ravager mid combo, they will just continue with the removal spell on the stack. It seems that after 15 years, the Ravager is still a force to be reckoned with.

The only other payoff is Galvanic Blast, which has taken the place of Shrapnel Blast over years with its reduced cost and more widely accepted casting requirement of Metalcraft. The rest of the cards like Memnite, Vault Skirge, Ornithopter, Springleaf Drum, and Mox Opal help set the stage for the payoffs. For the most part, it will be the usual suspects above, but every now and again you’ll see cards like Master of Etherium or Karn, Scion of Urza as well.

At the end of the day, this is a creature matchup. All of your removal is good here, so long as you know how to sequence it and what to prioritize. The Platings and Champions need to be hit with discard spells when possible since they are the most difficult cards to get rid of after resolution. Save your instant speed removal for the creature lands if you can since they dodge the sorcery speed removal and sweepers. The rest of the cards are pretty harmless without the payoffs so be sure to take care of those threats first.

Most G/B decks have very impactful cards in the sideboard that can help with the match. Let’s look at Abzan first.

new abzan.png

Out:

 abzan out aff

In:

 abzan aff in

Stony Silence is absolutely insane in this match. The card even stops mana abilities, something WotC doesn’t allow too often. This means that while it stops Overseer, Plating, and Ravager, it also stops Opal, Drum, and Citadel. The main downfall of the card is that sometimes it doesn’t impact the board enough if it’s drawn too late. To have an impact, it really has to come down on turn 2 or risk allowing the Affinity deck to get value off their 2 drops.

The sweepers are great here as well. Damnation is a great catch-all and Flaying Tendrils will get the job done most of the time. It’s important to note that Tendrils DOES kill a Metalcrafted Champion. Unlike the damage based sweepers, the minus sweepers ignore protection. On top of that the card is colorless despite its black mana cost.

Liliana, the Last Hope is great recurring removal in this match. Almost all of the Affinity creatures have 1 toughness meaning Liliana can gun them down every turn.

While Liliana of the Veil has the potential to answer a Metalcraft Champion, it’s just too narrow. Often times the Affinity deck will have more than enough fodder to sacrifice and they’ll almost never have cards in hand by the time she comes down. For this same reason, some of the discard needs to come out too. Thoughtseize is simply unnecessary when Inquisition of Kozilek hits every card in the deck. Saving some life is also a nice bonus against Affinity’s aggression.

Abzan’s best card in this match is Lingering Souls. The card trades with almost all of Affinity’s creatures and is the perfect spell to stonewall its numerous flyers.

Next lets look at how Jund adjusts to the matchup. I’ll use my most recent IQ Top 8 list.

slow jund

Out:

 jund aff out sb

In:

 jund aff sb

Jund has more shatter effects than Abzan which gives them more live draws at any stage of the game. While already having access to Kolaghan’s Command in the mainboard, the deck also gains Ancient Grudge from the sideboard. The card is a clean answer to anything and is a terrific two-for-one.

The conditional sweepers like Engineered Explosives and Anger of the Gods will answer most creatures coming from Affinity while Damnation will take them all. Remember that Anger of the Gods is damage based, so it will not kill a Champion with Metalcraft.

Kalitas could be switched out for Huntmaster here, but I see the two as fairly equal to each other in the match-up with perhaps a slight edge to Huntmaster for having the ability to kill creatures if it flips.

Just as with Abzan, Liliana of the Veils aren’t at their best here, as well as some of the discard.

While this version has terrific cards for the match-up in the mainboard like Olivia Voldaren and Grim Lavamancer, if you’re playing the Bloodbraid versions, you’ll want to trade them out if you can. The card is a bit clunky in the match and bringing in more recurring removal like Lavamancer, Olivia, or Liliana, the Last Hope would be better.

For either Jund or Abzan, if you’re stuck with too much to take out and not enough to put in, you could also consider Fulminator Mage as it’s a great answer to any of the 8 creature lands in the Affinity deck.

 affinity sb

Affinity has a whole range of sideboard options since the deck has access to all 5 colors, while simultaneously being a prominently colorless deck. Mana producers like Mox Opal, Glimmervoid, Spire of Industry, and Spring Leaf Drum allow the deck to have a functioning 5 color sideboard. Having access to all colors means it gets to play cards like Blood Moon, Spell Pierce, Thoughtseize, and Dispatch all in the same sideboard.

For Abzan, expect to see some Ghirapur Aether Grids. The powerful enchantment allows the deck to utilize its artifacts out from under a Stony Silence. The ability being activated is the enchantment’s, so Stony Silence won’t do anything to stop it. Whipflare is a great answer to Lingering souls and other X/2’s that you may also run into.

For both G/B decks, expect them to bring in extra Champions if they have any. Blood Moon will probably come in as well in an attempt to snag a “free win.” While I think cards like Rest in Peace, Dispatch, and Welding Jar are a bit narrow, you may run into them every now and again.

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“Stony Silence” by Wayne England

Affinity is in constant ebb and flow in the Modern meta. When people are prepared for it, the hate can often be too strong to overcome and the deck becomes suppressed to near non-existence in the meta. When people start cutting their second Ancient Grudge or leave their Stony Silences at home, Affinity suddenly wins a Grand Prix.

The tools are available to Modern to beat this menace so long as you’re respecting its possible presence at any given time. WotC has printed a lot of strong artifact hate over recent years as a sort of extension of the olive branch for Mirrodin block. Stony Silence’s flavor text says it perfectly:

Let Moss grow over gargoyles

-Gavony saying meaning “forget painful memories”

Never assume this deck will be absent from a tournament and never leave home without your hate. The time you don’t bring your Ancient Grudges and Stony Silences, will be the time the deck shows you what it can really do when left unchecked.

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