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Frank Analysis – Chalice Affinity at GP Madrid

Khans of Tarkir has had a huge impact on Modern. With the introduction of cards like Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, Windswept Heath, and Monastery Swiftspear, many decks got substantial upgrades. Affinity, unfortunately, was not one of them. Moreover, U/R Delver—one of the main beneficiaries of the Khans of Tarkir cards—is not a great matchup for Affinity because their one-mana interactive cards can efficiently deal with the robotic threats while Young Pyromancer takes over the game. So, the prospects for Affinity were looking grim.

So what was I to do at Grand Prix Madrid?

On the one hand, I have a lot of experience with Affinity and I greatly enjoy the way the deck plays. Comfort and familiarity with a deck is a big factor in Modern. It does add to your win percentage. Moreover, I was hoping that people would over-prepare for the “new” decks and possibly cut some of their artifact hate cards in the process.

On the other hand, as I mentioned above, Affinity wasn’t positioned perfectly, and it couldn’t use any of the sweet new toys from Khans of Tarkir. I was afraid that it would simply be a mistake to not play a deck without Treasure Cruise or Dig Through Time.

After weighing both sides, I decided that I would only play Affinity if I could tune it to improve its matchup against Treasure Cruise decks. Fortunately, I found a way. I noticed that the Treasure Cruise decks (U/R Delver, Burn, Jeskai Ascendancy combo, and so on) all rely heavily on 1-mana cards to fill their graveyards quickly. They kind of need spells like Gitaxian Probe, Serum Visions, and Lightning Bolt to turn Treasure Cruise into a 1-mana card. In many of these decks, about half of their non-land cards have a converted mana cost of 1!

My solution (and that of many other people who came up with the same idea independently) was Chalice of the Void. Once it comes down for X=1, decks like U/R Delver suddenly don’t operate all that well anymore. It’s pretty much the same for the other Treasure Cruise decks, and Chalice is also randomly good against Bogles, Living End, Ad Nauseam, and a long list of other fringe Modern decks. Besides, Chalice fits very well in Affinity because it pumps Master of Etherium, it adds a point of power with Cranial Plating, and it can sometimes be played on turn one with Mox Opal.

Here’s a great example from a playtest game on Magic Online:

19:53: frankkarsten keeps this hand.
19:53: whateverfor keeps this hand.
19:53: frankkarsten skips their draw step.
19:53: frankkarsten plays Darksteel Citadel.
19:53: frankkarsten casts Memnite.
19:53: frankkarsten casts Mox Opal.
19:53: frankkarsten casts Chalice of the Void. (X is 1).
19:53: whateverfor has conceded from the game.

ChaliceTurnOneScoop

As it turned out, my opponent was playing U/R Delver, and likely kept an all-1-drop hand. That first-turn concession was enough to convince me to bring Affinity with Chalice of the Void to Madrid.

But how many Chalice would I put in my deck, and how would I split them between main deck and sideboard?

Affinity is generally not hurt much by its own Chalice because it doesn’t run many 1-drops that get countered by it. Vault Skirge, in particular, always has a converted mana cost of 2, so it will never be countered by a Chalice of the Void for 1, even if you cast it for 1 mana and two life. So that’s an argument in favor of running several maindeck Chalices.

However, I didn’t want to run four Chalices because it gets worse in multiples—once you have a Chalice for X=1 in play, the second one is usually just relegated to Arcbound Ravager fodder. Moreover, there are plenty of Modern decks that don’t care too much about Chalice. Against Scapeshift, for example, it can randomly counter a Lightning Bolt (so it’s never completely worthless) but I wouldn’t be happy to draw it.

After weighing these pros and cons, I decided that 2 Chalice of the Void in the main deck and 1 Chalice of the Void in the sideboard would be good numbers. I expected enough Treasure Cruise decks to make maindeck Chalice a good metagame call, but I didn’t want to go all-out.

The next question was what I should cut for Chalice of the Void and how its addition would affect the rest of the deck. My starting point was the following deck, which I played before the release of Khans of Tarkir. I liked the mana curve and the mix between lands, support cards, and big cards.

Changes to the Main Deck

To make room for 2 Chalice of the Void in the main deck, I cut 2 Galvanic Blast because (i) I liked the amount of disruptive cards in the previous version, so I wanted to retain that number, (ii) I had to cut down on 1-cost cards because I was planning to put down Chalice of the Void for 1, and (iii) in the new Modern metagame I expected fewer Deceiver Exarch and Melira, Sylvok Outcast and thus less need for Galvanic Blast.

But having adjusted the deck in this way, there’s kind of a cascade effect that affected a lot of other slots as well. First, to reduce the likelihood that my own Chalice would hurt me, I cut one Signal Pest and one Springleaf Drum. The fourth Drum was always kind of questionable since it’s bad in multiples, and Signal Pest has always been one of the worst creatures in the deck, especially since Vault Skirge or Lingering Souls tokens can easily block it. I won’t miss them all that much. However, without these 1-drops, hands would get slower, so I had to compensate for that. I retained the explosiveness of the deck by two adding 0-cost cards: the fourth Memnite and the first Welding Jar. This change is particularly nice because these additional 0-cost cards increase the likelihood of going Mox Opal into Chalice of the Void on the first turn, which is exactly when a Chalice for 1 is at its best.

There are two further effects of cutting Blast for Chalice: the number of 2-drops increased and the number of colored spells decreased. I compensated for the glut of 2-drops by cutting an Ensoul Artifact for a Thoughtcast. Thoughtcast can be frequently played for a single mana to smooth out the mana curve, and the card draw nicely compensates for the removal of a mana source in Springleaf Drum. I compensated for the decrease in the number of colored spells by cutting an Etched Champion for a Master of Etherium. If the colored mana is not a consideration, then I consider Master of Etherium to be superior to Etched Champion, especially in the new Modern world where it races combo decks and protects us from Forked Bolt.

Finally, we have a problem: Etched Champion and Galvanic Blast, which we cut from the main deck for good reasons, were effectively sideboard cards that could be played in the main deck to end up with more sideboard slots. Now that these cards are out, we suddenly lack sideboard space to fit in all the powerful hate cards.

To mitigate this, I put a Spellskite in the main deck. It’s one of those cards that is great in some matchups and mediocre in others, but it is rarely a truly dead card. Even against Pod, for example, it can randomly block and protect you from Murderous Redcap. So it’s an acceptable maindeck card, and to make room I cut a Steel Overseer. This gives us one fewer “big card,” but that reduction is offset by the addition of the third Master of Etherium.

Moreover, with the rise of Forked Bolt and Electrolyze in U/R Delver, Steel Overseer frequently sets your opponent up for a 2-for-1, so it had gotten a little worse anyway. One could go even further by cutting extra Steel Overseers for Ensoul Artifact or Thoughtcast, but my general philosophy when it comes to Affinity is that artifacts to set up the synergy are usually better than colored spells that exploit the synergy, and I didn’t want to add colored spells when I had just cut a Springleaf Drum.

Adding up all the changes to the main deck, we get the following:

Added:

Removed:

Changes to the Sideboard

First off, I cut Rule of Law for the third Chalice of the Void. Both are good against decks like Living End or Ad Nauseam, so it felt like a natural replacement that gives me additional game against U/R Delver.

Next, I made some tweaks based on the expected metagame. With the introduction of Treasure Cruise, Dig Through Time, Jeskai Ascendancy, and Monastery Swiftspear, I expected more U/R Delver, more Scapeshift, more Jeskai Ascendancy combo, and more Burn. I also expected more Bogles because it has a good matchup against UR Delver. At the same time, I expected a downfall in Affinity, Splinter Twin, UWR, Jund, G/R Tron, and other decks that don’t benefit much from the new cards and/or have a bad matchup against UR Delver. Hence, I cut 1 Ancient Grudge (because I expected less Affinity) and 1 Torpor Orb (because I expected less Splinter Twin, which felt like a worse home for Dig Through Time than Scapeshift) and I added 1 Back to Nature (against Bogles in particular) and 1 Stain the Mind (which is strong against one-card combo decks like Jeskai Ascendancy and Scapeshift). I tried Choke against U/R Delver, but I ran into too many Sulfur Falls and basic Mountains, so I cut it again.

Afterwards, I made some adjustments based on the changes in the main deck. Since I cut an Etched Champion and added a Spellskite, I had to make the reverse swap in the sideboard. Moreover, I cut 2 Thoughtseize (as they could get countered by our own Chalice) and added 1 Dismember and 1 Whipflare (because without Galvanic Blast in the main deck, I needed additional cards to kill combo creatures).

Finally, I checked if there were enough cards to board in and out for every matchup, and I discovered a problem with Scapeshift: I wanted to take out Chalice of the Void and Spellskite against them, but didn’t have enough cards to board in. To solve that, I added a Blood Moon. To make room, I cut Etched Champion. That was a painful cut, but I felt it was reasonable because I expected less Jund and UWR at the Grand Prix.

Adding up all the changes to the sideboard, we get the following:

Added

Removed

My Deck at Grand Prix Madrid

Sideboard Plans

I’ll provide sketches for how you could sideboard, although it’s important to look for tweaks in every match. For example, the plans below say to leave in Chalice of the Void against Splinter Twin and take it out against Junk, but I may switch that up depending on who is on the play (Chalice is better when you’re on the play and have the chance of putting it down before they can cast all of their Thoughtseizes or Serum Visions) and whether or not they saw Chalice in the previous game (if they did, then they may adjust their deck by taking out a few 1-drops, which makes Chalice less effective).

UR Delver

Add

Remove

Scapeshift

Add

Remove

Birthing Pod

Add

Remove

Affinity

Add

Remove

Burn

Add

Remove

Splinter Twin

Add

Remove

Bogles

Add

Remove

Junk

Add

Remove

UWR

Add

Remove

Merfolk

Add

Remove

Jeskai Ascendancy Combo

Add

Remove

Martyr of Sands

Add

Remove

Urzatron

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Remove

How did my tournament go?

I was getting good results on Magic Online (including some rounds that I recorded on video) so I was feeling good about the deck:

4-1 vs. U/R Delver
2-0 vs. Splinter Twin
2-0 vs. Bogles
2-0 vs. Burn
1-0 vs. Junk
1-0 vs. WB
1-0 vs. RUG
1-0 vs. Amulet
1-1 vs. Melira Pod
0-1 vs. Zoo
0-1 vs. Scapeshift
0-1 vs. Tezzeret

Unfortunately, the Grand Prix didn’t go as well for me. Here is a round-by-round recap.

Round 4: My opponent mulliganed to five in game one and then passed several turns in a row without playing a land, faced a Chalice for 1 to rub it in, and scooped before having to discard. That was unfortunate for my opponent, but it also put me on the spot: Without having any information to go on, how do I sideboard? I felt that a Serum Visions deck would be slightly more likely to keep a zero-land 5-card hand, but I couldn’t be sure, so I didn’t sideboard at all. As it turned out, he was on Birthing Pod, and I overpowered him in the second game to win my first match of the day.

Round 5: I played against Junk, and my opponent had a turn-two Stony Silence in both post-sideboard games. I tried to fight back with Blinkmoth Nexus and Etched Champion, but it was not to be.

Round 6: I won the Affinity mirror match. My opponent was probably not as experienced as I was with the deck, and that experience is essential in navigating these difficult combat steps where both players have Arcbound Ravager in play. Another important interaction is that Blinkmoth Nexus can pump Inkmoth Nexus. It’s a minor thing, but it can sometimes decide a game.

Round 7: I beat Birthing Pod. Holding Mox Opal and Whipflare in hand was key, as it allowed me to deal with Kataki, War’s Wage and the rest of his board in one swoop.

Round 8: I lost to another Junk deck due to Stony Silence. Boo. They always have it on turn two! And where are all these Delver decks that I was preparing for, by the way?

Round 9: I was on the bubble and had to win for Day 2. After winning the die roll, I saw an interesting opening hand: Darksteel Citadel, Darksteel Citadel, Blinkmoth Nexus, Inkmoth Nexus, Glimmervoid, Mox Opal, and Master of Etherium. This hand provides a turn-two Master of Etherium that’s safe from Lightning Bolt, but it only contains one threat, so it’s very weak to Thoughtseize or Path to Exile. I still decided to keep the hand because it threatens a turn-four kill with most draw step sequences, and that’s indeed what happened after I drew Vault Skirge and Memnite. My opponent (who was playing Scapeshift) was unable to race me. In game two, I had to mulligan down to five, but saw Blinkmoth Nexus, Glimmervoid, two Ornithopter, and Stain the Mind. Far from an aggressive hand, but I did feel good about my chances when I resolved Stain the Mind on turn two, naming Scapeshift.

However, I was only able to remove two Scapeshift from my opponent’s deck and saw that he had boarded into a RUG Control deck featuring several Obstinate Baloth, Inferno Titan, Krosan Grip, Ancient Grudge, Pyroclasm, and so on. Needless to say, I lost that one. For game three, I actually boarded out Stain the Mind and put back all of my Etched Champions (which is a good example of how to adjust sideboard strategies based on the specific composition of the opponent’s deck) but it was to no avail; I had a mediocre hand, my opponent had all the removal in the world, and I was out of the tournament.

Looking back, I’m still feeling happy about my deck choice. The metagame at the Grand Prix was very close to what I had expected and I think my updates to the deck make sense, so I would just register the exact same list once again. Even though I didn’t do well at the Grand Prix, I still believe that Chalice Affinity has what it takes to compete in Modern.

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