Sit down and listen for a spell, because I might just sooth your soul.
Last time I talked about Modern I got some helpful feedback that perhaps I needed to play the format a bit more and catch up on what was doing well. Apparently I was a little out of touch, which I took to heart and began battling two weeks ago with various decks. Last week my friend Mike Dy shipped me his Affinity deck and I went to work relearning Affinity from yesteryear. Around that same time someone posted some very interesting Japanese PTQ results prominently featuring a new Magic 2015 card.
So after bashing with the robots a bit on Magic Online and looking at those lists, I brewed up a sweet one. Then Caleb Durward saw my Facebook post and poked me about a better version he had, which I immediately copied with gusto. I took that, changed a few cards, and got some real life testing in at the shop with other Modern aficionados, including Community Cup member Paul Cheon, and I was ready to battle at a PTQ this past weekend. I ended up making the Top 8 before being defeated by another CFB regular, David Mintz, in the quarters. Meanwhile Paul made it all the way to the finals before losing to another (presumably better) Paul. Despite my defeat, I loved my deck.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, today we’re going to talk about Ensoul Artifact and Affinity.
“Arcbound Ravager is your Fairy Godmother…” -Osyp Lebedowicz
This quote still holds true as Arcbound Ravager remains one of the few cards in Magic that is both difficult to play optimally, difficult to play against optimally, and powerful enough to not care if you made the 2nd or 3rd best play with it. There have been a few other powerful Affinity cards which require a bit of finesse, but none with as much room to error as Arcbound Ravager. It singlehandedly makes the mirror into a giant grind where every combat step takes minutes to play out as each player tanks.
For example, Cranial Plating is a no-brainer, slam it down and watch the opponent scoop as he loses 8 life a turn. Sometimes you get into delicate situations where you need to equip the right creature or sequence it correctly to get around a removal spell, but at its core it’s a blunt object. You don’t need to be a major league hitter to crack someone upside the head with a baseball bat.
Which brings me to Ensoul Artifact.
Ensouling for Fun and Profit
Ensoul Artifact is a lot closer to Plating than Ravager in terms of finesse. What you get from Ensoul Artifact is the ability to clobber someone with a 5/5 haste creature they weren’t expecting, and sometimes you can get creative with it and really bring some carnage to the table. Obviously by now everyone has seen the seeded combo in Magic 2015 with Darksteel Citadel producing a 5/5 indestructible land. What you may not have realized is all the other fun things you can do with it in an Affinity deck.
Here’s a list of things I did with Ensoul Artifact this weekend:
- Made a 5/5 indestructible with Darksteel Citadel
- Made a Baneslayer Angel via Vault Skirge
- Poisoned someone for exactly 10 with Ensoul and Plating on Inkmoth Nexus
- Made at least a dozen 5/5 haste guys by enchanting otherwise useless Mox Opals and Springleaf Drums
- Put my Spellskite out of Lightning Bolt and Flame Slash range
Here’s a list of things I wanted to do had I realized it:
In this deck, Ensoul Artifact completely replaced Steel Overseer, and from that change stemmed another, which eliminated Galvanic Blast for the maximum number of Thoughtcasts instead. Once that happened the switch to Mono-Blue Affinity was an easy one. Realistically my only loss was making my sideboard go from bad to terrible, and it turned out most of the cards I had were still legitimately good. I have no idea why people continue to run Ancient Grudge in Affinity while Hurkyl’s Recall is legal. Gee, you blew up two of my artifacts, allow me to retort with instant-speed Upheaval.
I’m getting off message though, the important change is the removal of Steel Overseer from the deck. Why cut what has traditionally been one of the staples of the archetype? Well a lot of it comes down to the number of decks against which it can reasonably be expected to live for more than a turn. Steel Overseer is many things, but we can all agree that fast-acting is not one of them. It lazes around the house like an entitled housecat and may or may not be planning your doom at a future date. It takes multiple turns to have a major impact on the game and it always needs help.
None of these by itself is a dealbreaker of course, but when put into the context of a format where your creature will die against the vast majority of decks, and that it requires you to vomit your hand onto the table, things don’t look that rosy. Ensoul Artifact, on the other hand, is heavily resistant to red removal, and can attack on the same turn you play it. It also has bonus uses thanks to all the neat abilities your various artifacts have while Overseer is content to do one, and only one, particular service.
Back in the day we used to ask the hypothetical of what would Tarmogoyf stats have to be as just a vanilla creature to still be as strong? The typical answer was usually 4/5 or 5/5 with a few conservative answers of a 4/4. Ensoul Artifact requires a little more commitment, but is effectively a 5/5 with haste for 1U most of the time. In this particular deck Ensoul Artifact is just a better Tarmogoyf than the real deal is in BGx decks.
“But Josh! Aren’t you worried about getting 2-for-1’d right out of the game? It seems like if Affinity’s main concern is turn 3/4 combo decks and sideboard hate, isn’t this card awful?”
To answer this let me clear up the 2-for-1 concern. Yes, it is technically a 2-for-1 blowout when they cast a non-Path to Exile removal spell on an artifact enchanted with Ensoul Artifact. Typically this is an issue because you’re losing a card on the battlefield that is already dealing damage or providing. But what typically gets enchanted is a Springleaf Drum or Mox Opal you aren’t using, which means while you may get blasted by an Abrupt Decay or Dismember, you’re losing the Ensoul Artifact and a card that really wasn’t helping you advance the board anymore. Most of the time after turn two or three you’ll have excess artifacts that are mostly just Ravager fodder anyway. Rarely is it in your best interest to enhance an existing threat unless you’re sure they can’t stop you or that it provides some other bonus.
So while you lose out in pure card advantage, you often are making a new threat out of something that held marginal value before. You typically don’t lose a ton of tempo, mana, or relevant cards when your enchanted artifact dies.
Ensoul doesn’t specifically help against combo decks, but often clocks better than Overseer would have in those non-interactive matches. Meanwhile in grindy games it gets around Lightning Bolt, Flame Slash, Electrolyze, and Anger of the Gods, and on Darksteel Citadel it reduces the options to Cryptic Command, Path to Exile, Dismember, Abrupt Decay, or Maelstrom Pulse. The fact that some of those hit Ensoul itself or Ensouled creatures is no different from anything else in the deck other than Etched Champion. It isn’t like Arcbound Ravager hot potato is getting any easier with the sheer amount of removal half the Modern decks play.
A common argument I’ve heard is that the metagame will adapt and I’m not really sure how most decks can. The removal already listed is good and all, but people playing those cards already have them as 4-of. Ensoul Artifact actually gives you legitimate options against both Kataki, War’s Wage and Stony Silence. Obviously you can still lose to those cards, but you turn the game into a real race. Considering some players will keep practically any 7 with a sideboard card and mana to cast it, this can often be enough to get there.
I actually like Ensoul in part because it strains cards like Abrupt Decay even further, instead of them being able to sandbag it for Cranial Plating. It puts a greater burden on the all-purpose removal spells these decks have and doesn’t require the kind of board commitment that Steel Overseer often does. In essence that’s the key behind Ensoul Artifact—it looks like a card that has a bunch of restrictions, but Affinity already fulfills all of them without having to change any of the core cards. I feel that Ensoul Artifact provides a crucial upgrade to the threat base of Affinity.
Now Steel Overseer has two major upsides I didn’t talk about: The first is that Overseer is an artifact, which helps the actual count stay high. Right now the biggest issue with my particular list is that I likely went a little too low on the artifact count. I’m down from the typical 43-45 to 38. That’s a significant drop off and I want to get back to at least 40. Overseer’s second major advantage is that in matchups with minimal removal it can quickly get out of hand and overwhelm an opponent’s board.
What matches have minimal removal and typically end up with large quantities of creatures staring at each other? If only we had a mirror somewhere…
Steel Overseer is still amazing in the mirror and game one against Pod decks when they don’t see their namesake. That’s about it… Oh and it only costs colorless mana. Now I’ve listed everything good about it.
Strangely that still may be enough reason to keep 1-2 in if Affinity continues to grow in popularity. I’m not a huge fan and I’ll be looking for other options before going back to it, but I won’t just dismiss any build still running them. I will say that you should at least have equal or more Ensoul Artifact than Overseers.
On Other Affinity Lists
Nathan Jones take on Affinity from GP Boston is a good starting point if you want to stick with the existing Affinity base while inserting Ensoul into the mix.
Between our two builds the main difference outside of Overseer is that Nathan prefers Galvanic Blast while I like Thoughtcast still. My preference toward Thoughtcast can be chalked up to being comfortable playing the longer grindy game against GBx and URx decks. Divination for one mana in a format with only a handful of commonly played ways to really gain card advantage shouldn’t be underestimated. Chaining them in an attrition match almost always leads to a victory, barring a large number of bricks.
Galvanic Blast does bring some interaction against Twin, which I mentioned was lacking, and also does wonders in the mirror. It also helps against the matchups where Affinity is behind the 8-ball—other goldfish decks like Infect and Storm. I’m not against moving back to a dual-colored mana base, but I do want to remind people that there are advantages to limiting your colors. Not having to draw Glimmervoid in post-board games where it’s very possible to have all your artifacts destroyed or bounced and your land exploding is a real drawback.
Moving forward I’ll definitely give Nathan’s deck a try, and the other option I want to try out is to include UB lands and one basic Island. Darkslick Shores and Underground River can potentially minimize my exposure to the issues Glimmervoid presents while allowing me to take advantage of Cranial Plating at instant speed, and pay for Dismember and Thoughtseize in the sideboard. I’m also firmly of the opinion that other builds of Affinity have been underexplored until now.
The Japanese PTQ lists are all incredibly ambitious, some to their own detriment, and all bring good ideas to the table. Sometimes that happens where you try three or four ideas at once and most of them are good, but it spoils the overall flow of the deck and can lead to misinterpreting results. Seeing such a burn-heavy Affinity deck with Tarmogoyf and Ensoul Artifact as well took away from the headline of, “Remember that Galvanic Blast and Shrapnel Blast are a whole lot of damage in a compact shell.”
Taking advantage of that was Mary Jacobson this weekend at our PTQ, who had a solid looking burn-heavy Affinity build that can goldfish Twin game one a lot better than my slower Ensoul build. Even the Tarmogoyf iteration has real potential, especially if people move back toward more sweepers and bounce spells, since ‘Goyf avoids the vast majority and grows into a 3/4 or 4/5 if any of your other creatures hit the graveyard.
I played the PTQ at Eudemonia in Berkeley which ended up being larger than I expected. I had heard the cap was going to be around 210 players, but they wrangled some extra space so we ended up with nearly 250 players! Modern sure has come a long way from just a few years ago where it was putting up numbers equivalent with old Extended. This meant 9 rounds of Swiss, so after picking up the last few cards from various parties I was off to the races.
Instead of just doing a round-by-round report, I’m just going to list what I played against and some highlights and lowlights.
I beat two Affinity, UR Twin, Fish, UWR Delver, GB Rock, and a Melira Pod going 7-0-2 in the Swiss. I ended up losing to Jund played by local David Mintz in the Top 8.
Highlights & Lowlights
• The aforementioned exactsies infect kill.
• Plowing through Fish and killing on turn four both games despite multiple lords on the table.
• Multiple games where I committed to getting around any removal spell instead of going all-in to put them on one specific one. Against UWR Delver I could’ve forced my opponent to have a Vapor Snag or just lose and instead threw away multiple artifacts to double Lightning Bolt.
• I only made a Blinkmoth Nexus a 5/5 with Arcbound Ravager when I could’ve easily made it a 6/6 for only a slight loss. Instead I walked it straight into Dismember. Well played.
• Multiple games where I got opponents to commit removal against my Signal Pests and Ornithopters early by slowrolling my big threats and letting them haumph a small Arcbound Ravager. Following those up with Ensoul generally left them with few relevant outs or involved at least two cards. The reverse was also true, I simply baited out Abrupt Decay with Ensoul and then played a Plating the next turn for an immediate kill when chumping or taking 5 would’ve been far superior.
• Lots of groans at multiple Spellskites.
• Getting to remind people what Gut Shot actually did.
• Winning off a mulligan to five against Jund on the play where my first relevant play was a turn 4 Ensoul Artifact on Darksteel Citadel. After a bunch of trades, I ended up pushing through the last 6 damage with a 2/4 Ornithoper while my opponent drew lands and a useless Anger of the Gods.
I definitely made plenty of mistakes at the tournament and won’t claim to be some amazing Affinity player. In fact had I wouldn’t recommend Affinity to anyone picking it up for the first time, you probably don’t have time to get good with it before the end of the season. I only got through the Swiss unscathed by virtue of playing Affinity off and on for years and blasting a bunch of test games the week before the PTQ to get a feel for Ensoul. It helps immensely to have a fairy godmother in the deck to bail you out of bad choices and Affinity has enough raw power to just not care about a number of subtle mistakes.
A lot of my screwups came from when I was ahead and just didn’t know how to close the game out correctly. Most decks only have to to three lines to take at any given moment. Affinity with an active Arcbound probably has ten to twenty, though you can typically knock the lines down to four or five real ones. Of those you often have to pick between the best play in a vacuum, best against card X, best against Y, small-ball do-nothing, or even taking a worse line that tempts the opponent to commit to a play. Play some post-board Affinity mirrors and have fun with some of the board states that pop up.
For Affinity matches in general I only feel really miserable about other goldfish combo decks, Living End, and Twin game one. Combo decks are rather obvious and Living End combines that with the equivalent of multiple Wrath of God effects and quad Ingot Chewer post-board. Twin is a more interesting setup and its difficulty in the first game is self-inflicted, by only having two cards that interact with their combo instead of four or more. They can disrupt you with light countermagic and Lightning Bolt, then win before you can squeeze through enough damage. Ensoul Artifact also has a bad time against Pestermite and Deceiver Exarch while traditionally the big Affinity threats can be moved around with ease.
Against the decks that board in hate and want to take the game long, I really like having Ensoul and so many Spellskites to help take the pressure off my other resources. Note that they aren’t a sacred cow though, just like Plating gets a bit worse when faced with loads of artifact hate. Ensoul isn’t at its best post-board and taking one or two out (depending if you play the full set or not) is totally reasonable. Most of my sideboard plans involve taking out Memnite, 1-2 Ensoul, 1 Plating, and usually 1-2 other cards. I never board in more than six cards in a given matchup and I try not to take out all creatures while boarding in spells.
This is what I’ll be playing moving forward, but it’s very open to change:
If I were playing in the TCG Modern States or a PTQ this weekend I’d feel very comfortable about battling with this deck. Next week I’ll be writing a bit about M15 Limited before GP Portland and then I’ll be back with some updates on this and the other flavors of Affinity, along with some matchup details and boarding plans. Modern is a sweet format.
Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org