Modern Affinity Deck Guide: The Main Deck

For the third year in a row, I registered Affinity at the Modern Pro Tour and piloted the robots to a Top 50 finish. It’s pretty bizarre actually: I finished 41st in 2014 and 49th in 2015 for an average finish of 45th. So what was my placement in the 2016 Modern Pro Tour? Why, 45th of course!

At least I’m consistent.

This year, my money finish was mainly on the back of a 6-0 draft record, as I posted a disappointing 4-6 in the Modern rounds. I had plenty of good, close games, but the combination of slow draws, mulligans, and a few poor decisions on my part led to too many losses. Oh well—can’t win ’em all. Still, I was happy to see two copies of my favorite archetype in the Top 8, especially since the overarching philosophy behind those lists was the same as mine.

The Eldrazi decks dominated the tournament—more on that later—but I believe that experience/familiarity with a deck is still a good way to get an edge in Modern. As for myself, I really enjoy the Arcbound Ravager math, the explosive draws, and the sequencing challenges; and I am familiar with the matchups and know how to sideboard. So I have no regrets about choosing Affinity for the Pro Tour, and if I were competing at the upcoming Modern Grand Prix weekend (I’ll be doing text coverage in Bologna instead) then I would choose the same deck again.

Today, I’ll offer an updated guide to the deck. For length considerations, I decided to split it into two parts. Today, I will discuss the new Eldrazi menace, Pro Tour teams, and main-deck card options. Next week, I will analyze sideboard card options, the matchups, and sideboard plans. But let’s start with the list I played at Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch:

Affinity

I’ll get to the main-deck card choices soon enough, but first let me share some stories to provide context.

Testing Stories – Eldrazi Decks

My team, Cabin Crew, tested Eldrazi decks as well for this Pro Tour. We started with a black ramp deck that Michael Bonde had played online before the release of Oath of the Gatewatch, but that one was quickly dismissed. I then built a newfangled Eldrazi deck with the creature base of Eldrazi Mimic, Thought-Knot Seer, Reality Smasher, Endless One, and so on, which was better, but it still didn’t perform well enough in testing.

Our problem was that I was stuck in the Urborg mindset. We tried minor splashes, but mostly our list was nearly mono-black with Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize as the key interaction spells. As a result, it was reasonably close to Frank Lepore’s deck from the Top 8 except with black discard spells instead of a few Eldrazi creatures and Scrabbling Claws. It also had a different mana base. The inclusion of Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize made sense in theory—you already want Urborg due to its synergy with Eye of Ugin, so you already have access to black mana, and the discard spells are among the best interactive cards in Modern.

But as it turned out, the deck would’ve been much better without them. Chalice of the Void and Ratchet Bomb are fine interactive spells too, and gaining access to Ghost Quarter or Blinkmoth Nexus (as opposed to diluting the mana base with numerous pain lands) is a huge boost, especially against decks like Infect or Affinity. And if, like Pro Tour champion Jiachen Tao, you would leap even further by abandoning Urborg completely, you gain access to Eldrazi Skyspawner (which can help block a Cranial-Plating-buffed Signal Pest), Eldrazi Obligator (which can profitably target Arcbound Ravager or a Cranial-Plating-carrying Ornithopter), and Hurkyl’s Recall from the sideboard (to provide a game-winning swing).

But no one, myself included, made the leap to abandon the black base and explore new possibilities. It may look obvious in hindsight, but it’s not trivial when you start from a different origin. What’s more, most of the people on my team had already picked an established Modern deck which they were experienced with, and this didn’t encourage us to dedicate time and effort toward improving the new Eldrazi deck or trying an adjusted build, especially in the face of disappointing early test results.

I hope you found this peek into one team’s testing process for Pro Tour: Eldrazi insightful. Another contextual aspect to help understand the Pro Tour results is that the winning Eldrazi decks had the surprise value on their side. For example, I didn’t board in Ancient Grudge against Matt Nass’ colorless Eldrazi deck because I didn’t know how many artifacts he had, I didn’t expect Eldrazi Obligator or Gut Shot when I was paired against Jiachen Tao, and I played around the wrong cards because I didn’t know the exact composition of their lists. With the knowledge I have now, I could have made different decisions to potentially turn my two losses against them into two wins. I also didn’t include any anti-Eldrazi cards in my sideboard because the initial testing results against our bad version of the deck suggested that the matchup was good for Affinity and that those sideboard cards wouldn’t be necessary.

Right now, my estimate is that a properly built Affinity deck can have an even-to-favorable matchup against the Eldrazi decks in the new Modern world. All in all, the sky hasn’t fallen yet. Sure, the mana boost offered by Eldrazi Temple and Eye of Ugin is really powerful, and perhaps one of these lands eventually deserves a ban, but no deck is unbeatable. An emergency ban is not necessary. Give brewers and the metagame some time to adapt, wait for the format to settle, and see what comes out of the upcoming Modern Grand Prix events. We can talk about possible bans (or, preferably, unbans) after.

Testing Stories – Team Affinity Aficionados

While I prepared for the Pro Tour as a member of Team Cabin Crew, I also exchanged ideas on Affinity with a number of people I knew who were locked on the deck: Alex Majlaton (who has several Grand Prix Top 8s with the deck), Pedro Carvalho (who has a Modern Pro Tour Top 8 with the deck), Patrick Dickmann (another Modern master, who switched from Splinter Twin to Affinity), and Hall of Famer Olle Rade (who had been playing the deck for many years as well). I eventually consolidated the discussion in a Facebook group affectionately appellated “Affinity Aficionados.” Pascal Maynard was in the same team as Alex Majlaton so they discussed their lists as well, but I only added him on Saturday night to offer last-minute sideboard advice and encouragement.

In this group, we didn’t share any techy (Eldrazi) decks from our teams or thoughts on Limited—we just had the goal of finding the perfect Affinity deck. Sharing this list further with our teammates was okay. Since we were all in a position where no or very few people on our “actual” testing teams were interested in Affinity, it was helpful to be able to discuss ideas on the deck that we all wanted to play with people who also had a ton of experience with the deck.

This would never happen for a Standard Pro Tour where everyone is trying to break the new format and it would be impossible to guess the deck that a player from another team will play. But Modern, where people can stick with a deck for years, is a different animal. I believe that the team helped all of us and didn’t hurt any of the people on our “actual” testing teams. It was a nice collaboration, and I appreciate everyone’s input.

Although we all went with different cards for the last few slots, it was good to see that we all agreed on the general approach to the deck and most of the deck’s composition.

The 55 Fixed Slots

Everyone I discussed the lists with before the Pro Tour, all the Aficionados, and all the Affinity players in the Top 8—I’ll spare you the Venn diagram—had these 55 cards in their main deck.

Yes, 4 Master of Etherium and 4 Steel Overseer is a lot, and I’ll have a few words on the third Memnite later, but in the current Modern environment, I am confident that I want to start my list with these 55 cards. I won’t discuss them here—if you’re new to the deck and want to learn more about the role of some of these cards, then you could check out Eric Froehlich’s recent beginner’s guide on the deck.

Okay, I guess I can offer a few words on the quadruple Master of Etherium. The Masters are needed for the same reason as Steel Overseer: you need to have enough cards in your deck that can turn Ornithopter, Vault Skirge, Blinkmoth Nexus, etc. into real threats. Master is not great against decks with Path to Exile, and three mana is sometimes a lot, but it presents a fast clock and helps the deck goldfish as quickly as possible. It also reduces mulligans because I mulligan pretty much every 7-card hand without at least one core payoff card (Cranial Plating, Arcbound Ravager, Steel Overseer, and Master of Etherium).

All these things were true a year ago as well. What changed is that in the new Modern format, Affinity and Eldrazi are on top. Master of Etherium always vied for slots with Etched Champion, but Etched Champion is embarrassing against those colorless decks. In contrast, Master of Etherium helps your Vault Skirge beat theirs in the mirror and can tower over a Reality Smasher. Therefore, Master of Etherium is the preferred 3-drop right now.

The 5 “Flex” Slots

With the above 55 cards fixed in the main, that leaves 5 open slots.

The 17th Land

One of the open slots should be the 17th land. If you only play 16, then in my experience you will mulligan or miss your second land drop too often. The new Vancouver mulligan rule didn’t change this. I sometimes board out a land when I’m on the draw, but I really want to have access to 17 in game 1 or when I’m on the play.

For the 17th land slot, there are several options.

A second basic land can help if you expect Path to Exile or Ghost Quarter to be very popular. Pascal Maynard had 1 Mountain in his Top 8 list. The downside is that a basic land doesn’t produce all colors of mana, so sometimes you will run into colored mana problems.

It’s a sideboard card for the grindy matchups that you can already put in the main deck to free up a sideboard slot. In the case of Sea Gate Wreckage, this comes at the cost of colored mana consistency because of the opportunity cost of a colored source.

Sea Gate Wreckage doesn’t fit well with your game-1 plan of winning as quickly as possible, but after board opponents often bring in cards like Ancient Grudge that slow down the game considerably, and then Sea Gate Wreckage can help you grind back.

I believe Pedro Carvalho and Olle Rade ran 1 in their main deck. I had one in the board because the land’s effect is mostly felt in post-board games, because I didn’t want to cut down on colored sources, and because I wanted to have the option to board up to 18 lands in certain post-board scenarios.

If you really want to go deep, a Sanctum of Ugin along with a few Myr Enforcers is a cute option. Unfortunately, it’s underpowered. To my knowledge, no one played it at the Pro Tour.

Glimmervoid helps out your mana situation everywhere: It produces blue and red for your spells, helps you equip Cranial Plating at instant speed, and can flashback Ancient Grudge after sideboard. I have been happy with the 4th Glimmervoid instead of something like City of Brass or Underground River because I’ve found that you lose fewer games to an awkward double-Glimmervoid draw than to damage from City of Brass or the inability to cast Ancient Grudge with Underground River.

I value mana consistency highly, so I played the 4th Glimmervoid, and so did Patrick Dickmann.

The Axiomatic Approach for the 4 Free Nonland Slots

For the 4 final slots, I have three axioms (stipulations based on my experience that aim to yield a smoothly running deck).

1. A maximum of 3 colored spells. Together with Master of Etherium, this yields a maximum of 7 total colored spells. Why? Well, as the Pro Tour showed, the best color in Magic is no color at all! Or, to quote myself for a better explanation: “Every nonartifact weakens Mox Opal and Cranial Plating, and in a deck that thrives on synergy, you can’t afford to play too many colored cards. Moreover, the deck only has 12-13 colored mana sources, so in a non-negligible amount of games, you’ll inevitably be stranded with an uncastable Galvanic Blast or Thoughtcast in hand. The cards are good, but only in moderation, and I want no more than 7 colored cards in my deck.” I wrote that last year, but it’s still true today.

2. Preferably 2 interactive cards. You can’t dilute the deck too much with cards that aim to counter an opponent’s strategy because an opening hand with 2 of them will often be too clunky, but having 1-3 in the deck can offer a different angle during a game and can free up sideboard slots. Spellskite, Galvanic Blast, Chalice of the Void, Thought-Knot Seer, or Stubborn Denial are all good at stopping opposing combos, and I considered them for the interactive slots.

3. No more than 2 two-drops. Since the 2-drop slot is already packed with Arcbound Ravager, Steel Overseer, and Cranial Plating, you don’t many additional 2-drops due to curve considerations. Chalice of the Void and Hangarback Walker count as 2-drops as well.

With these axioms in mind, let’s explore the final configurations of several players.

• Both Patrick Dickmann (who went 9-0-1 in the Modern Swiss rounds and made it to the semifinals) and Thomas Hendriks (a teammate of mine who went 7-3 in the Swiss) played 2 Spellskite and 2 Thoughtcast. This conforms to all my three axioms.
• Pascal Maynard (who went 8-1-1 in the Modern Swiss rounds and made it to the quarterfinals) had 2 Welding Jar and 2 Stubborn Denial. Again, obeys my axioms.
• I played 1 Spellskite, 1 Thoughtcast, 1 Galvanic Blast, 1 Ensoul Artifact. Axioms satisfied! I believe that Alex Majlaton had a configuration similar to my 1/1/1/1 sample platter as well.
• Pedro Carvalho favored Chalice of the Void, Welding Jar, and Ensoul Artifact, and Olle Rade ran with Ensoul Artifact and Galvanic Blast. I don’t have their exact lists right now, but if I recall correctly, their configurations were largely in line with the axioms I provided above.

So even though we didn’t play the exact same lists, we all agreed on the same basic composition. In other words, effectively we all played the same deck. It’s just that the specific configuration for the last few slots was largely based on personal preference. So let’s go over the options one by one.

The Interactive Options for the 4 Free Nonland Slots

Galvanic Blast is good at breaking up creature-based strategies. Glistener Elf or Steel Overseer come to mind. It also cleanly kills Thought-Knot Seer. On the other hand, you had to look for a Deceiver Exarchs to blast with a magnifying glass, and against decks without creature combos I’d rather have an artifact in my opening hand to turn on Mox Opal or Cranial Plating. Dealing 4 to the opponent isn’t bad, but it’s not the main reason why Galvanic Blast is in the deck.

I played 1 copy of Galvanic Blast at the Pro Tour, which was a case of running sideboard cards in the main to free up impactful sideboard slots. Looking at the top decks in the current metagame, Galvanic Blast seems decently positioned right now, so I’d like to keep at least 1 and possibly go to 2.

Chalice of the Void is a great interactive card against combo decks like Infect and Living End. It’s fine against Burn and Tron (but better post-board because they’re likely boarding in Path to Exile or Nature’s Claim) and it’s acceptable yet unspectacular against random Lightning Bolts, Gitaxian Probes, or Path to Exiles from various decks.

Unfortunately, it’s horrible in the mirror match or against Eldrazi, so I don’t think the metagame is right for a main-deck Chalice.

The card can single-handedly defeat Bogles and Infect, especially in game 1 when they don’t have many Stony Silences, Nature’s Claims, or Twisted Images yet. There’s no more Splinter Twin to deflect, but Spellskite is still fine against the occasional Lightning Bolt, Kolaghan’s Command, and Arcbound Ravager. It’s also decent against the Eldrazi decks as it redirects Drowner of Hope activations, blocks Matter Reshaper, and deflects a Dismember away from a key creature.

I should mention that in the mirror match, you’ll often see that Spellskite is boarded in, but it’s much better after board than in game 1 because Affinity players typically board Ghirapur Aether Grid and Ancient Grudge for the mirror. So in an Affinity-heavy metagame, I wouldn’t like to have Spellskite in my main deck. But right now it’s acceptable—I ran 1 at the Pro Tour, and I felt that was fine.

It’s disruption against combo decks and a threat in one. However, the 4/4 nonflying body often just runs into whatever ground blocker they have, and 4 mana is a lot if you can’t play Ancient Tomb. I believe the card is too slow for Affinity.

An okay catchall against combo decks, but it’s a little low impact against midrange decks. You may have seen me board in Thoughtseize against Abzan, but that’s to try and snag Stony Silence after board and doesn’t imply that it is a good card to have in game 1. But most importantly, Thoughtseize is a poor main-deck choice when Burn is one of the top decks.

It can counter cards like Karn Liberated, Scapeshift, or Become Immense to put a halt to your opponent’s strategy. It can also protect Master of Etherium. The problem is that, as a main-deck card, there are too many matchup where Stubborn Denial is almost dead. The Pro Tour winning list had 33 creatures, 3 Dismember, and 24 land! This is not the time to maindeck Stubborn Denial.

The Noninteractive Options for the 4 Free Nonland Slots

I’m not a huge fan of Thoughtcast, as I prefer getting on board quickly over drawing cards in an aggressive deck. But a few copies are okay to find lands and business spells.

I personally don’t like the 4-of Thoughtcast in Gabriel Nassif’s list because drawing multiple Thoughtcast often leads to a slow, clunky game and because I prefer a guaranteed action card in Master of Etherium in my opening hand when determining mulligans. But I don’t mind 1 or 2 Thoughtcast to smooth out the deck. I chose to run 1 at the Pro Tour.

It’s like a Reality Smasher that only costs 2 mana with the added bonus of flying and lifelink when put on a Vault Skirge or indestructible when put on a Darksteel Citadel. A second-turn poison kill with Inkmoth Nexus also becomes possible via a draw with Arcbound Ravager, Mox Opal, and Ensoul Artifact. Ensoul Artifact also shines in post-board games when the scissors can bail you out against a Stony Silence.

The downside, of course, is that Ensoul Artifact sets you up for an unfavorable 2-for-1 trade against Dismember, Path to Exile, or Abrupt Decay. Spellskite is kind of an issue as well. At the Pro Tour, after the Splinter Twin ban, I expected fewer decks with Abrupt Decay and main-deck Spellskite, so I played 1 main-deck Ensoul Artifact. However, it is quite poor against the colorless Eldrazi deck with 4 Dismember and 2 Spellskite, so I would likely replace it with the 2nd Thoughtcast or 2nd Galvanic Blast going forward.

The fixed slots I showed before included 3 Memnite. Some people play only 2, and I believe that is a mistake. With Affinity, an important goal is to maximize your explosive draws, especially against goldfish-style fast combo decks, and Memnite is excellent at turning on Springleaf Drum or Mox Opal on turn 1. It also gets better the more Master of Etheriums you have in your deck. The card is even fine in the Eldrazi matchup because it blocks Eldrazi Obligator, attacks into Eldrazi Mimic, and chumps a huge Endless One when you’re racing in the air.

So I definitely want 3 Memnite, and I considered Memnite number 4 for one of the free slots as well. The problem with running 4 is that this greatly increases the probability of getting a double-Memnite draw, which tends to be weak against decks with enough beefy ground blockers. You typically only need 1 Memnite to turn on Springleaf Drum or Mox Opal, so there are huge diminishing returns. But the upside for explosive draws is there, so I came very close to registering the 4th Memnite.

This card never got a lot of press, but it isn’t too bad. Getting +2 power for 2 mana is a poor deal in racing matchups, but the toughness boost can be quite relevant. In an environment with lots of opposing Vault Skirge, Pyroclasm, and Lingering Souls, Ghostfire Blade deserves some thought. I just don’t think the current metagame is at that spot right now.

It’s pretty good in the mirror match and fine to grind out Shatterstorm or Ancient Grudge after sideboard, but it doesn’t mesh well with your game-1 plan of speedy kills. I mean, sometimes Arcbound Ravager enables you to make a ton of Thopter tokens, which can subsequently benefit from a global boost from Signal Pest, Steel Overseer, or Master of Etherium, but most of the time, Hangarback Walker is slooooow. I see it as a sideboard card that you can run in the main deck if need be, but I didn’t play it at the Pro Tour.

As I mentioned before, Master of Etherium is a superior 3-drop. The deck could support a fifth 3-drop, but the current colorless-heavy metagame is as bad as it gets for Etched Champion. Even though I didn’t anticipate Eldrazi to be so dominant at the Pro Tour, I did expect decks like Tron or Infect and cards like Pia and Kiran Nalaar or Kozilek’s Return to be more popular than before, and Etched Champion is quite poor against those as well.

Etched Champion is still a good sideboard card against fair aggro decks or grindy midrange decks, especially when combined with Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating. But the sideboard is where it should stay for now.

You could classify this as an interactive card too, but I didn’t do that because Welding Jar doesn’t proactively stop opposing combo strategies. It just protects your Steel Overseer from a Lightning Bolt or powers up an early Mox Opal.

I’m not a big Welding Jar fan because there are too many matchups in which it simply doesn’t do anything. The Splinter Twin ban also made it worse because it reduced the need for Abrupt Decay, which meant that there would be fewer opportunities for Welding Jar to mana-efficiently protect my Cranial Plating or Master of Etherium from the instant.

Looking at the new Eldrazi decks, it is easy to see that Welding Jar doesn’t interact favorably against Dismember or Spellskite, and therefore I would play the 4th Memnite before the 1st Welding Jar in the new Modern metagame.

An Affinity Brew for an Eldrazi-Infested Modern

I’ll continue next week with an analysis of sideboard card options, the matchups, and sideboard plans. In the meantime, I have a different list for you that I brewed up for a metagame in which Eldrazi decks run rampant.

This list is untested, but the basic idea is to use Painter’s Servant to attack Eldrazi’s mana base after board and to lock them out with Ensnaring Bridge while you win with Tezzeret.

If you give opposing Eldrazi a color, then they are no longer colorless, which means that Eldrazi Temple and Eye of Ugin don’t work. It even shuts down Eldrazi Mimic completely (its trigger doesn’t work anymore, and your 1/3 will happily block their 2/1) and it also stops the power bonuses on Vile Aggregate and Ruination Guide in the UR version. Last but not least, it’s an artifact so it boosts your Cranial Plating.

It’s funny—because I saw the potential in the new Eldrazi deck, I already thought of Painter’s Servant a month ago and bought a copy from my local gaming store to bring with me as a potential sideboard card. In hindsight, I should’ve bought a hundred. It’s like that time when testing for Pro Tour Magic Origins indicated that Jace, Vryn’s Prodigy was good, but I figured that it couldn’t go up much more than its $10 price tag at that time. Yeah. I suck at Magic finance.

Thought-Knot Seer, Reality Smasher, and Endless One won’t be attacking when Ensnaring Bridge is on the battlefield. Meanwhile, you can still attack your opponent with Ornithopter, Signal Pest, Vault Skirge, and Blinkmoth Nexus and subsequently boost your creatures with an instant-speed Cranial Plating or Arcbound Ravager modular trigger.

Alternatively, you can use the time provided by Ensnaring Bridge to build a superior board presence through Steel Overseer activations and eventually sacrifice Bridge to Ravager when you want to start attacking. Or you can simply activate the ultimate on Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas while your opponent is still locked out. I also like that Ensnaring Bridge is randomly good against Goryo’s Vengeance and Bogles.

From the cards needed for this anti-Eldrazi plan, Tezzeret is the only one you can run in the main deck with a straight face. So I replaced the colored spells in my free slots with 2 Tezzeret and 1 Talisman of Dominance. It may be hard to defend Tezzeret from Reality Smasher in an average game 1, and the number of colored sources for the 2UB cost is still very much on the low side, so perhaps the Tezzeret part of the plan is flawed. But at least I would consider it an idea worth testing.

If you are planning to play Affinity at any of the upcoming Modern events and have the time to try out something funky, then I encourage you to test this build. Either way, be sure to tune in next week for the sideboard guide!

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