Affinity has been feared since its release in Mirrodin. Players were casting Frogmites and Myr Enforcers for 0 in conjunction with Seat of the Synod, Vault of Whispers, and the rest of the artifact lands. The banning of these colored artifact lands has done a number on the keyword affinity, but the deck that bears the namesake has continued to thrive.
If players are not prepared for Affinity, they will lose. It really is that simple. Affinity is blisteringly fast, powerful, and surprisingly consistent. They also have to play a number of cards that are underpowered or borderline useless on their own, so even still, it isn’t as consistent as some other choices. There are enough payoff cards that even drawing the weaker ones will likely be enough to subdue an unprepared opponent.
Let’s take a look at a sample list that helped propel known aggro master Paul Rietzl to the Top 4 of the World Championships:
Paul Rietzl, Top 4 at the 2015 World Championship
Memnite and Ornithopter are artifacts that have no casting cost. That’s a pretty nice feature for a deck relying on the affinity mechanic, but that’s no longer the case for these decks. That doesn’t mean that these creatures have any less utility. They cost nothing to enter play and work perfectly with all of the payoff cards. Anything that can pump power, cares about the number of artifacts in play, or requires having an extra body to tap combines perfectly with these cards. It’s common to see 7-8 of them make the cut.
Mox Opal is broken. It’s a powerhouse in various Vintage decks, and the legend rule change to allow you to play a second copy despite having one in play, generating a Lotus Petal effect, has been fantastic for this deck. Accelerating your mana at no cost is a key difference in separating this deck from any other aggro deck in the format. 4 copies is a no-brainer.
Signal Pest already offers the deck a payoff for having creatures it can dump onto the battlefield on turn 1. As effectively an Anthem for only 1 colorless mana, it also adds to the artifact count to help cards with metalcraft. Signal Pest does nothing on its own, but is an excellent threat and a key piece of the deck. The evasion ability can combine with equipment or modular to be a huge threat without going wide. Another easy 4-of.
Arcbound Ravager has finally made its way into Vintage and\ emerged as a format all-star in Mishra’s Workshop decks. Unsurprisingly, it’s amazing in Modern. It threatens to make any unblocked creature into a huge, if not lethal, threat on every turn. It turns your excess permanents, of which there are often quite a few, into extra damage. Have an extra Mox Opal? It’s now a 0-mana +1/+1 counter that you can move around onto other creatures at your leisure. Ravager does it all and is a huge payoff for loading your deck with artifacts. Easy 4-of.
Cranial Plating is the card that keeps Affinity on the map. Without it, Affinity would be a mediocre archetype that relied too heavily on Arcbound Ravager. The card would be broken without the ability to move it at instant speed, but the deck can regularly activate even the tough double-black cost. In combination with any creature it threatens to end the game quickly, and with Inkmoth Nexus, it might just take one hit.
Steel Overseer is interesting in that it’s a huge payoff for going wide, makes your 0- and 1-mana creatures significantly better, and is a great combo with the Nexus lands. It also costs 2 mana, which is actually on the expensive side for this deck, and has no impact the turn it’s cast. If it’s not dealt with immediately, however, the game is very likely over, especially against any fair strategy. It’s certainly not automatic to include 4 copies, but 2-4 should make the cut.
Vault Skirge doesn’t do anything special, but it’s deceptively good. A 1/1 flying lifelink for 1 mana that enables all your artifact synergies is incredible in a race. Great with Ravager, Plating, Overseer, Signal Pest, and just about everything in the deck. There are matchups you don’t need this guy, but it’s still an easy 4-of.
Etched Champion is the toughest card to evaluate for this deck. There are matchups where it’s completely unbeatable, the best card in your deck, the focus of your game plan, and you absolutely want 4 of them. There are others where this is a 2/2 for 3 with no ability, which is unplayable in Modern and any Constructed format. Your expected metagame should dictate how many Champions you sleeve up, at least for your main deck, and I’ve seen decks with 0 copies, 4 copies, and everything in between.
Springleaf Drum has some serious diminishing returns, each needing an additional creature to do anything, but that’s an acceptable condition in a deck with Cranial Plating and Arcbound Ravager that can turn a 1-mana artifact do-nothing into damage. I would expect Affinity pilots to play 3-4 copies consistently.
Blinkmoth Nexus and Inkmoth Nexus are additional payoffs for having cards that pump power in your deck. These help give Affinity some incredible consistency since they cast almost all of your spells on turns 1 and 2 before becoming serious threats on turn 3 and later. Far too good to not play 4 of each.
The rest of the cards in the deck vary dramatically. Galvanic Blast is common, as is access to a single basic Mountain (useful in a Path to Exile format), since it’s an upgrade on Lightning Bolt in this deck. Thoughtcast actually does have the affinity mechanic, but the majority of Affinity decks play this card. A single mana to draw 2 is solid, but even at that price, the fact that it requires a colored blue mana makes Thoughtcast an occasional inclusion. Welding Jar is a nice one in that it comes down immediately and can be game-winning against removal spells, but it also doesn’t actually do anything, which is tough for an aggro deck to afford. Spellskite also sees a bit of play because of its position in the format and ease to cast, but it’s still a 0-power creature for 2 mana and doesn’t do much to improve your proactive game plan. Master of Etherium or Hangarback Walker are also options for decks not opting to run the red in Galvanic Blast.
As far as sideboard options, Affinity is nice because it has access to them all. Mox Opal, Springleaf Drum, and Glimmervoid all tap for any color of mana, so the world is really your oyster when it comes to what you want to sideboard. Here are some sample sideboards from recent events:
Owen Turtenwald, Top 4 at the 2015 World Championship
Aaron Webster, 2nd place at Grand Prix Pittsburgh
Joseph Reiter, Top 8 Grand Prix Oklahoma City
All four players have opted to run exactly 2 copies of Thoughtseize.
Affinity doesn’t have much interaction in game 1, but it does present a very quick clock. You don’t want to do too much to disrupt that after sideboard as removing consistency and giving your opponents too much time to set up means that your disruption will have less power anyway. Thoughtseize does a lot to stop unfair decks and unfair cards. Disrupting a combo deck or stripping an opponent of a key Shatterstorm is enough to swing a game. Against decks where you want Thoughtseize, you usually don’t need more than 1, so a pair makes sense.
Ancient Grudge is so good against Affinity that every version here has opted to play between 2 and 4 copies, depending on the metagame they expected to face. There are uses in other matchups, but Ancient Grudge is the best thing you can possibly have in the mirror and every copy significantly changes how the game will play out. Broad answers such as Stony Silence and Shatterstorm don’t work when you’re playing the same deck yourself, so Ancient Grudge is the best option possible as a sideboard card.
Whipflare is the best tool that Affinity has against aggro since it’s the only one that doesn’t also wipe out its own creatures. Aggro decks aren’t necessarily the most prevalent right now, especially decks that are smaller than Wild Nacatl, but it can take out Lingering Souls tokens, any creature from Infect, or wipe the board of Elves, so there are definitely a number of applications.
Ghirapur Æther Grid was a new innovation from Worlds that many Affinity pilots picked up. It’s great against blockers, like Lingering Souls tokens, and is happy to let the game go long. It does nothing against the unfair decks, as it’s slow and grindy, but in wars of attrition against opponents prepared for Affinity, this can be a nice answer.
Most sideboards include graveyard hate to stop Snapcaster Mage or Ancient Grudge, as well as entire strategies for decks like Grishoalbrand. Grafdigger’s Cage and Relic of Progenitus are cheap and easy to cast, so 1-2 copies usually make the cut.
Counter magic is another way to interact with unfair decks or players who want to play spells that really ruin your day. Thoughtseize can only stop what’s in their hand and not what’s on top of their deck, so Spell Pierce or Stubborn Denial to stop a big spell is often enough to allow Affinity to finish an opponent off.
Blood Moon is a pretty common 2-of inclusion. It can completely beat a deck on its own, which is nice, and the fact that you can cast it on turn 2 fairly often with the aid of Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum is game-changing. Amulet Bloom can be simply too fast for a deck like Affinity to get through 20 damage or 10 infect counters, so having a way to shut them out is nice. It does turn off the Nexus creature abilities, but that’s not a big loss if your opponent can no longer cast spells.
The sideboard options from there are a wide range. More copies of Etched Champion, if they aren’t main, are available in the sideboard. Spellskite is nice against Infect, Bogles, Twin, and more, so that’s a reasonable option. Torpor Orb is a cheap artifact that shuts off a number of decks—mainly the Splinter Twin combo.
Sideboarding with Affinity
The cuts are usually pretty easy. There are cards that are simply weaker in the main deck, like Memnite, and then there are cards that are just actively not needed in a variety of matchups. Cards like Etched Champion, Vault Skirge, and Galvanic Blast will be pretty obvious when they are not a necessary part of the game plan. Because you are sideboarding only a small amount of cards in each matchup, finding the necessary cuts is rarely challenging. Leave the broken cards that are the payoffs for playing Affinity and you should be more than fine.
Sideboarding Against Affinity
Affinity is such a good deck that if you don’t have some dedicated hate, you can’t be confident about winning. They can kill on turn 3, and on turn 4 with disruption. Don’t sleep on this deck.
There are plenty of haymakers in Modern that you really want if you can fit them. Shatterstorm and Creeping Corrosion threaten to kill every nonland permanent they have on the battlefield. This isn’t easy to come back from, although if you get low enough in life to cast your 4-mana spell, it’s possible a Nexus can finish you off, especially if they got to sandbag a card like Cranial Plating. Fracturing Gust should easily win the game, but it costs 5 mana to do so.
Stony Silence is awesome. This actually shuts off a number of their mana sources, turns Arcbound Ravager into Arcbound Worker, makes Steel Overseer a 2-mana 1/1 vanilla, and won’t allow Cranial Plating to equip. Without access to their Darksteel Citadels, Springleaf Drums, and Mox Opals, it’s possible they can’t cast spells. It’s also possible that their Plating is already equipped and you’re going to die to it shortly. Cards like Signal Pests can certainly still beat you even if you get a Stony Silence down early enough, so it’s not quite game over, but it’s totally back-breaking.
Ancient Grudge is just so good. The deck has a lot of enablers to fuel the big payoff cards and Ancient Grudge gets to target the 2 best. This often comes after a bigger mana investment, such as casting and equipping Cranial Plating. Grudge can kill Ravager and then whatever gets the counters. Being able to kill 2 permanents for 3 mana is amazing. The percentage points gained each game where you’re able to cast a single Ancient Grudge is dramatic.
There isn’t much else you can do that completely changes the way the match against Affinity gets played, although you can certainly improve your deck. You want cheap interaction, such as targeted removal, if you have access. Abrupt Decay is solid, since it can kill a Steel Overseer or a Cranial Plating, but you aren’t trading up on mana there. Lightning Bolts and Path to Exile are nice, but similar in that you aren’t going to gain value, just buy time to set up.
Lingering Souls is excellent—each token threatens to trade with Memnite, Vault Skirge, Signal Pest, and either Nexus. It can also chump an Arcbound Ravager. That being said, Lingering Souls costs 3 and only puts 2 creatures into play at first. There is a reasonable chance they can kill you right through those tokens and if they were able to get a Steel Overseer active, the tokens are not going to be anything but some chump blockers.
Pyroclasm has a very real chance to add a ton of value and is cheap enough that sweeping up the first wave of creatures is valuable. It also does little against an already resolved Arcbound Ravager and the impact on Cranial Plating or a Nexus is also slim. Zealous Persecution can be cast at instant speed and potentially sweep up some Nexuses with it. Persecution works even better with cards like Lingering Souls to make sure you’re taking down some creatures in combat.
Fulminator Mage is a common card to be boarded in against Affinity as a way to deal with the Nexus lands. Fulminator certainly isn’t great as it’s a 3-mana sorcery-speed spell, but these decks tend to have so many mediocre or bad cards in the matchup that it makes sense to bring these in. They are far from outstanding, but if you can find ways to keep the board under control, it’s a useful way to make sure you don’t get poisoned out.
I’ve seen a number of players board in Blood Moons against Affinity. I really don’t like this. It’s a 3-mana card that doesn’t impact the board when it comes into play against an incredibly aggressive deck. Turning off the ability to use a Nexus is nice, but the cost is just too high. If this is where your game plan has led you in order to try to beat Affinity, things have likely gone horribly wrong and you should reevaluate.
If I’m going to win a Modern tournament, I’m not going to sleeve up a deck without at least 2 dedicated anti-Affinity sideboard cards, with likely access to 3 more that are fairly solid in the matchup. Affinity is a powerhouse tier 1 deck and we have seen throughout history that any time people have started to sleep on it, even just a little bit, it has come back and crushed the event.
Do you have any unusual sideboard cards that you really like in your Affinity deck? How about tools nobody else has found to try to beat Affinity? Sound off in the comments below!