I think, on some level, I was always going to play Affinity. My first real success at the Pro Tour was at Kobe in 2004, when Skullclamp and Disciple of the Vault were legal in Block Constructed. I made Top 8 of Grand Prix Portland in 2013 with Galvanic Blast and Thoughtcast. I’ve played the deck in more online tournaments than I can count.

I have nightmares about Ancient Grudge.

With Wizards announcing the bans of Dig Through Time, Treasure Cruise and Birthing Pod, I decided to try out a diverse set of archetypes online in the weeks leading up to Pro Tour Fate Reforged. I spent significant time attacking with Wild Nacatl, casting Through the Breach to put Emrakul into play, flashing back Lingering Souls, blinking Geist of Saint Traft with Restoration Angel and trying to poison people with Glistener Elf. I was mostly winning with all of these decks, but they didn’t excite me. I didn’t want to go to this Pro Tour and just play another tuned stock deck. So I tried a new approach—I thought about the format.

Birthing Pod decks have always been a major natural predator for Affinity. The ability to play a solid defensive game plan, find annoying bullets like Orzhov Pontiff or Kataki, War’s Wage, and the possibility of assembling infinite combos made it a very tough matchup. Treasure Cruise-fueled Delver decks were also tough on Ravager and friends. Young Pyromancer was very annoying, but the ability to just load your deck with removal spells (including Smash to Smithereens), Snapcaster Mage, and card draw turned out to be a pretty good plan. And Dig Through Time-based Scapeshift was another rough deck to face. While Affinity could sometimes run a bit faster game one, Scapeshift could pack lots of Ancient Grudges, Shatterstorms, and Creeping Corrosions and had the tools to find them.

The neutering or elimination of these decks immediately improved the situation for Affinity. But the multitude of terrifying sideboard cards remained. Here are the top five scariest cards, and the decks they often show up in:

  1. Ancient GrudgeTwin, Jund, Affinity Mirror, Zoo
  2. Stony SilenceJunk, Jeskai Tempo, Zoo
  3. Kataki, War’s Wage – Junk, Jeskai Tempo, Zoo
  4. Shatterstorm – Twin, Jund, Scapeshift
  5. Creeping Corrosion – Basically Anything

To be sure, there are other hateful cards out there. Pyroclasm and Anger of the Gods can be annoying. Seal of Primordium, Nature’s Claim, Wear // Tear, and Destructive Revelry are efficient answers. We won’t even get into Fracturing Gust, which very few people actually play. But those five cards are the most common countermeasures.

Here is the secret to Affinity: people misunderstand what is important when building the 75. You are favored against almost every imaginable deck game one. Most people design their Affinity decks to maximize efficiency game one and then answer the opponent’s game plan post-sideboard. That’s why you see decks with 4 Steel Overseers that board into narrow and inefficient reactive cards.

What if we took a different approach? What if we played a card that was proactively phenomenal against the top five scariest cards? What if we pre-sideboarded our deck?

Enter Tempered Steel.

 

Here’s an interesting fact: Pro Tour Fate Reforged was the first Modern tournament ever in which Tempered Steel was legal but Birthing Pod was not. Tempered Steel solved a lot of our problems. If we stuck it, we could laugh off a Stony Silence. Ancient Grudge could be overloaded (if still effective). And we had serious game against Creeping Corrosion, Shatterstorm, and similar effects such as Damnation. We’d often untap and attack with multiple 3/3 Nexi.

There were two other major benefits: Our random little creatures were much more likely to survive the odd Pyroclasm-effect. And we were heavily incentivized to play the full amount of 0-cc creatures, to maximize the explosiveness of our Tempered Steel draws.

To fit the enchantments, we had to make some harsh cuts. Master of Etherium and Steel Overseer are just not reliable ways to pump our creatures in a Lightning Bolt/Snapcaster Mage format. More importantly, they play right into the hands of our opponents’ expected sideboard plans. But you can’t Ancient Grudge a Tempered Steel!

The major flaw in the plan is the double-white casting cost of Tempered Steel. The 4 Mox Opal, 4 Springleaf Drum, 4 Glimmervoid and 1 Plains would normally be a bit light to try to cast it on turn 3 or 4. But we realized that getting an Arcbound Ravager or Cranial Plating’d creature Path to Exiled in the early turns was a fairly common play in Modern, especially given the popularity of Junk. Once you have the Plains out, WW is not so hard.

Of course, there are other options to mitigate the difficult mana. Team Work teammate Ben Stark tried a radical version with 9 basic Plains. My problem was that this version had to cut Darksteel Citadel, significantly reducing the potential of your most explosive Mox Opal draws. Another possibility was to play some number of Seachrome Coasts and Thoughtcasts. Again this required shaving Darksteel Citadels.

Thoughtcast is a weird card. It is objectively powerful, and leads to some great draws. It’s a fantastic topdeck. And it matches up really well against the most devastating sideboard hate card, Ancient Grudge. But it creates another strain on the colored mana of the deck and does nothing to proactively advance your game plan. In order to fit Thoughtcast, you either have to shave a card that leads to better explosiveness, like Memnite or Springleaf Drum, or cut threats. The result is that you can sometimes find yourself up a bunch of cards due to Thoughtcast, but unable to do anything with excess Citadels and Glimmervoids.

Frogmite deserves its own special mention. We just didn’t have enough time to adequately explore the potential of Frogmite in our Tempered Steel deck. Obviously, an ostensibly free 4/4 (or larger) that naturally plays nice in your coherent attack is worth mention. The issue, as always, is the opportunity cost. The Steel Overseer and 4th Tempered Steel are the easiest cards to cut, but they are also the best combos with Frogmite.

Here is the final deck that Matt Sperling and I registered for the Pro Tour:

Finally, an abridged tournament report:

Round 4 – Brian Weller-Gordon, USA – Tasigur Twin

Tasigur-based Splinter Twin decks were one of the main reasons we were excited to have access to 4 Dispatch in our deck. In game two I had to fade multiple turns where a Splinter Twin would’ve killed me, but thankfully it never came.

1-0

Round 5 – Sol Malka, USA – GB Rock

I easily won game one and looked to be on my way with a Tempered Steel in game two, but a surprise Unravel the Aether ruined my plans. Game three was very close, but Sol had just enough removal to keep me under wraps.

1-1

Round 6 – Shouta Yasooka, Japan – Faeries

I’ve wanted to play this man for so long, and it was quite an honor. He used Inquisition of Kozilek on the first turn and saw a hand of Ornithopter, Mox Opal, Springleaf Drum, Inkmoth Nexus, 2 Arcbound Ravager and a Tempered Steel. He smartly took the Ornithopter, realizing that I could not turn on my Opal or cast any of the threats in my hand without another land or 0-cc creature. I never found it and lost game one. Thankfully, blue/black is one of the archetypes with the least sideboard options against Affinity. I had a great draw in game two and used Dispatch to deal with Vendilion and Mistbind Clique in game three and I was back on track.

2-1

Round 7 – Nelson Guilbert, Canada – WUR Twin

Interestingly, our team scouting listed Nelson as WUR Keranos. After easily winning game one, I sideboarded out all my removal for game two and was quickly combo’d out. After bringing all my Dispatch/Dismember action back in for game three, I was able to protect myself from the combo and apply a tremendous amount of pressure with Cranial Plating to take the match.

3-1

Round 8 – Alex Li, Netherlands – Junk

Another of the main reasons we liked Affinity so much for this tournament was its strong matchup against Junk. In game one their deck is so impotent it’s comical. In game two you have to watch out for the aforementioned sideboard cards, but Thoughtseize, Tempered Steel, and Spell Pierce give you a great chance to deal with them. I had another great draw in game two and Alex didn’t have any of the scare cards.

4-1 (6-2 overall)

Round 12 – Paul Jackson, Australia – Junk

Sometimes you get paired against your best matchup and nothing goes right. In both games Paul had a turn-one discard spell, a 2nd turn Abrupt Decay, interaction for turn three, and a hammer to drop turn four. Drown in Sorrow and Stony Silence with 2 Abrupt Decay game two made it a particularly uncompetitive contest.

4-2

Round 13 – Eugene Hwang, USA – Burn

Burn is another extremely strong matchup. Burn decks are naturally strong against decks that take damage from their own mana base, which Affinity does not. Moreover, hitting once with a Vault Skirge wearing Cranial Plating is almost always game over. And your clock is faster. It’s just really tough to lose.

5-2

Round 14 – Valentin Mackl, Austria – Tasigur Twin

One of the main flaws of decks like Tasigur Twin vs. Affinity is how much set up they require. Mana and time spent casting things like Serum Visions, Thought Scour, and Peek is mana and time the Affinity deck is spending trying to get you dead. We played a close three-game match, but ultimately the efficacy of my removal suite against Tasigur made the difference in game three.

6-2

Round 15 – Jon Finkel, USA – Infect

I’ve always felt like Infect was a good matchup for Affinity. We have removal, Etched Champion, and are almost as fast. Honestly, TeamCFB Pantheon’s version of Infect was about as difficult a version of Infect as I’d ever faced. Specifically, the focus on non-interactive kills and unblockability is key. Jon won the roll and won game one by a turn. Game two I was a few points short of lethal and had to give Jon one last draw step. That draw was Become Immense, and I became dead.

6-3

Round 16 – Kale Thompson, Canada – Junk

This match played out exactly as we drew it up. It’s easy to face down Lingering Souls and Tarmogoyfs when you have Cranial Plating and Tempered Steel. Kale either didn’t have or didn’t draw any of the most devastating sideboard cards, and I found myself with a pretty good record in Modern.

7-3 (11-5 overall)

I felt like Affinity was a great choice for this event and that Tempered Steel is a great place to take the deck moving forward. Watch out specifically for the rise of Wear // Tear and Fracturing Gust. If they become sideboard options of choice, this deck will quickly lose its edge.

On a personal level, I’ve got 32 Pro Points and a real shot at the World Championships again. I’d love another shot at that trophy. I felt a bit outclassed last year, but I know on my best days I’m capable of competing at that level.

Thanks for reading,
Paul