In Development – The Only Aggro Deck in Modern

Okay, so that title is hyperbole.

Regardless, Affinity is not only the default aggro choice in Modern, it’s likely the best one. There are some other viable decks, but Affinity has the right combination of speed and resilience to get the job done.

Today I’ll take a look at why the Modern environment favors Affinity as your aggro choice, what your core card choices are, and which cards you should probably swap out or consider playing.

Why Affinity Is Your Main Modern Aggro Option

Although there are other aggro decks that can win, the current Modern environment really favors the combination of traits bundled into typical Affinity decks. In contrast, other aggro options such as Infect or G/W “Little Kid” builds can find themselves stalled out when they run into typical midrange or controlling opposition, or simply outrun by one of many viable combo decks.

Here’s why.

Removal Is Fast and Plentiful

That’s a representative sampling of the first few turns of removal options from recent Jund builds. There’s the highly efficient [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] at one mana, followed by two different “kill almost anything” cards, finally segueing into a true “kill anything card” at three mana with [card]Maelstrom Pulse[/card].

Or to put it another way, if you’re dropping one creature per turn, the Jund deck (which you may be playing against as much as a third of the time) is happily killing that one creature per turn—until it hits [card bloodbraid elf]Bloodbraid[/card] mana and cascades into something that kills the last creature you’ve got on the board.

This means that aggro decks have considerable trouble getting “under” a Jund deck’s removal simply by being fast. Instead, the aggro decks need to be resilient, able to take the defensive fire, and keep coming anyway.

Your Enemies Clog the Board

Ah, Jund again.

…and any other deck that cares to run [card]Lingering Souls[/card], which I assure you will include many control decks in the coming Modern PTQ season.

With this pesky card producing four flying 1/1s, simply attacking with one or more creatures isn’t a useful option anymore. It’s especially bad for decks like Infect or anything with a lot of X/1 creatures, where you have to burn a lot of extra cards to avoid simply trading your win condition for one-fourth of your opponent’s sorcery.

One approach is to go big, as we see in the G/W decks. Although this means the Spirits are only ever chump blockers, the downside should be apparent—it buys your opponent time to find their removal or win conditions.

Combo Decks Can Just Win

The other downside to going big is that it tends to come at the cost of being slow. Given that Modern has multiple viable combo decks that can easily win on turn four, being a big, dumb aggro deck often doesn’t cut it.

The presence of viable combo in the current metagame demands that a successful aggro deck be able to win quickly. You can never pack enough disruption into your aggro deck to buy you more than a little bit of time, so speed pretty much is the answer here.

The Core of Modern Affinity

Although we can (and will) do a lot of customization to suit our specific metagame and play style, there remains a fairly consistent set of core cards for Modern Affinity decks. This card set builds the basic framework of a deck that is both fast and resilient—the two needs we just talked about for a successful aggro deck in Modern right now.

Curiously, there are no cards with the affinity mechanic in this core.

Let’s take another look at these key features that make Affinity work as an aggro deck, then look at the specific cards which provide those features.

Speed Backed by Attrition

This is a conceptual charting of how some of the better-known aggro decks in Modern rate in terms of attrition and speed.

Attrition as I’m using it here is the ability of the deck to absorb removal and keep moving forward on its aggro game plan. The Infect deck has problems in terms of attrition—it has very few attackers and can end up getting many-for-one’d if you throw a lot of the booster spells at an attacker only to lose it to one more unexpected removal spell. Tokens is at the other end, churning out waves of attackers, overwhelming point removal, and recovering readily from mass removal.

Speed as used here refers to how quickly the deck deploys its aggro game plan—or, more simply, how fast it can win against zero resistance. Here’s where Infect wins, being able to kill on turn 2 or 3. Tokens kind of crawls in comparison, with no real “I just win” plays in the first few turns.

Affinity’s position in this conceptual chart shows why it’s the likely best aggro choice for most Modern metagames. Although it’s not as fast as the fastest or as resilient as the toughest, it is basically “second best” in both areas. Compare that with the G/W builds, which are kind of mediocre in both speed and attrition.

Whereas an Infect deck may regularly outrun combo, an Affinity deck often will and a G/W deck probably won’t. Similarly, a tokens deck will probably overwhelm a midrange opponent and an Affinity deck often will, but a G/W deck has a good chance of running into trouble.

Core Card Choices

These core cards give the Affinity deck the speed and toughness that let it be competitive in the Modern metagame.

Speed is ensured by a combination of low casting costs and somewhat unfair accelerators. Although the deck isn’t as broken in terms of acceleration as it was in the days of true affinity, [card]Mox Opal[/card] and the combination of [card]Ornithopter[/card]s and other cheap creatures with [card]Springleaf Drum[/card] serve to make a deck that can drop quite a bit of its hand in the first few turns.

Speed also comes from cards that leverage the deck’s high artifact count, such as [card]Master of Etherium[/card], [card]Steel Overseer[/card], and above all else, [card]Cranial Plating[/card]. [card]Cranial Plating[/card] is the single most important card in the deck in terms of both speed and attrition. It allows attacks for massive damage (speed) and lets you turn any random creature into that attacker (attrition).

The key cards on the attrition side are [card]Cranial Plating[/card], [card]Master of Etherium[/card], [card]Steel Overseer[/card], [card]Blinkmoth Nexus[/card], and [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card]. The first three, especially [card]Cranial Plating[/card], increase the deck’s resiliency by converting its seemingly endless supply of cheap artifact creatures into heavy hitters. The two creature lands, on the other hand, provide resilience not only by letting your lands serve double duty as attackers, but also by dodging removal.

Consider all the non-instant-speed removal you’re likely to face in Modern right now:

Having eight creatures that essentially “don’t exist” on your opponent’s turn—and that can all carry a [card]Cranial Plating[/card] and be enhanced by [card master of etherium]Master[/card] and [card steel overseer]Overseer[/card]—provides tremendous resiliency against removal.

Cards to Leave Out

As Affinity has evolved over time, some cards have naturally lost some of the value we would previously associated with them. As we adjust a deck for a new format or a moving metagame, it’s natural to find that some cards that felt like auto-includes simply aren’t. One of the following two cards is an auto-include I no longer like including, and the other is a card with a legacy of power that doesn’t really click in Modern.

Arcbound Ravager is High Risk and Low Yield

[card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] is classically a core Affinity card, but I think it needs a break in Modern.

In previous formats, [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] benefited from cards like [card]Disciple of the Vault[/card] (below) that converted its artifact-devouring ability into genuine reach. Even without that, it was just handy to be able to convert essentially your entire board (thanks, artifact lands!) into damage hitting your opponent in the face.

That “all your eggs in one basket” approach was reasonable enough when all you had to do was dodge removal—especially since you could suicide your Ravager, dump the tokens onto an already-attacking [card blinkmoth nexus]Blinkmoth[/card], and kill your opponent. However, now that you might be running the Ravager and friends into a wall of [card]Lingering Souls[/card] Spirits, this approach is far less appealing. These days, Ravager is an especially high-risk choice that doesn’t really do anything to advance your speed or resilience.

Disciple of the Vault Isn’t Enough Reach

Ever since BDM exclaimed about Disciple being legal in Modern during GP coverage, I’d wanted to give it a shot.

Unfortunately, Disciple really wants to live in an Affinity deck with a profligate artifact count (again, artifact lands) and an [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] that will convert them all into damage at your opponent’s face. In the current evolution of Affinity, Disciple’s role ends up being to moderately punish your opponent for killing your creatures and smashing your [card]Cranial Plating[/card]s. This will make them play more carefully, but it won’t win games for you.

So it’s back to the sidelines for Disciple.

Cards to Play

I’ll end today’s article with a look at three cards that either could or should go into your Affinity deck. Two of them are new additions to the Affinity canon thanks to our recent return to Mirrodin. The third is a blast from the past, a card that appeared for a time in Affinity decks in Extended.

Etched Champion—the Ultimate Plating Carrier

I agree with Ari Lax on this card—it belongs in your main deck.

[card]Etched Champion[/card] will almost always have protection, which means it lives most of its life completely unblockable by your opponent’s [card]Tarmogoyf[/card]s, [card]Lingering Souls[/card] Spirits, or whatever other roadblocks they try to place in your way. Protection also nullifies all targeted removal—which a quick glance back in this article will show is most of the removal you’ll have to deal with.

Champion is an essential reach component for Affinity in the current Modern metagame. It’s best in this role when you can slap a [card]Cranial Plating[/card] on it, as that’s likely to mean 7+ points of unblockable damage per turn. That ends things quickly.

Whipflare—the ultimate Spirit “cleaner”

Asymmetry is always a good starting point for effective strategies—after all, it’s part of why Affinity works so well. [card]Whipflare[/card] is a one-sided [card]Pyroclasm[/card] for no extra cost in this deck. That alone is good reason to have it in the deck, possibly living in the sideboard.

Facing so many decks that run [card]Lingering Souls[/card] is why I’m a fan of Whipflare as a main deck choice. Clear those Spirits out and just keep attacking.

[card]Whipflare[/card] also conveniently kills [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card], [card kataki, war’s wage]Kataki[/card], and any other X/2 that’s been giving you trouble.

Dark Confidant—the Thoughtcast that Attacks

It may seem paradoxical that I’m suggesting a card that [card]Whipflare[/card] will kill right after lauding the one-sided nature of [card]Whipflare[/card], but bear with me.

[card]Dark Confidant[/card] is my suggestion right now to replace [card]Thoughtcast[/card] as a “reload” option for Affinity decks. As in literally every other deck in which it appears, [card]Dark Confidant[/card] is powerful because it is card advantage that also attacks, all for just 2 mana.

Confidant works well in Affinity because the deck’s average casting cost is very low and much of the time you’re the aggressor, so it doesn’t really matter that you’re trading life for cards anyway. In addition, whereas [card]Thoughtcast[/card] simply nets you two more cards, Confidant gives your opponent four more things to think about killing as you overload their removal suite. Confidant or Master? Confidant or Overseer? Neither of those is a comfortable choice for someone sitting with just one [card]Path to Exile[/card] in hand.

If you’re skeptical, I recommend giving it a try. In a deck like Affinity that is cheap, wants to keep attacking, and would like to somehow reload on cards as well, Confidant is a solid choice.

Like a Swarm of Piranhas Punctuated with Sharks

In tuning your own Affinity build, keep in mind that this deck wins on its unique combination of speed and resilience. Drift too much in one direction or another and you’ll likely find that one of the other aggro decks is a better choice for that trait. Maintaining this balance is what keeps Affinity the killing machine it really wants to be.

Are there powerful choices for Affinity that didn’t make it into today’s brief review? What are your favorite tweaks on the archetype? Let us know in the comments.

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