By Neil T Stacey
I frequently play Affinity in Modern and I have had some success with the deck, as have many other people. It’s been a major player in Modern for almost as long as the format has existed, and it’s a big component of our local metagame.
Anyone serious about playing the format needs a solid plan for handling Affinity. If there is one matchup you should take the time to prepare for, this is it. Fortunately, it’s a matchup that rewards good preparation. It’s a synergy-based deck that relies on specific cards at key moments to get its wins. Knowing what resources to value and how to time your removal spells will appreciably boost your win percentages in the matchup. The key is to practice the matchup enough to get a good feel for what resources matter the most.
Exactly which resources are most important is somewhat dependent on what deck you are playing. For instance, Naya Zoo decks pack enough brawn to compete in combat on the ground, but they have few ways to block fliers. Consequently, they need to focus their removal on flying attackers. Decks with Lingering Souls, on the other hand, can brick-wall Affinity’s fliers, which mostly have 1 or 2 toughness, making them easy meat for a swarm of Spirit tokens. Lingering Souls also lets you chump block a single big threat, so your biggest concerns are threats that boost Affinity’s whole board, like Steel Overseer or Master of Etherium.
As a Burn player, you need to be worried about two things. Attackers that can kill you right now, and Vault Skirge. It’s also useful to keep in mind that Atarka’s Command giving your creatures +1+1 and Reach can result in blowouts where your squad gets to swat down a bunch of dinky fliers.
It would be convenient to lump combo decks together as one archetype, but there is a huge difference between them in terms of the exact cards that they have access to, which means that the matchups play out very differently.
Whether or not you can permanently destroy Cranial Plating often determines your role in the matchup. If you can, then it’s fine to use your removal for maximum value and control the board. If you can’t, then some random throwaway threat can kill you from nowhere late in the game. Consequently, you need to use your removal for maximum tempo rather than maximum value, to buy yourself the time to achieve your own win-condition before you run out of interaction. There are exceptions to this rule, however. Amulet Bloom has Nature’s Claim to kill Plating but is otherwise so light in interaction that it’s generally forced to play for tempo rather than value. Twin, on the other hand, generally lacks mainboard answers to Plating but is so efficient at mopping up small threats that it can often totally stabilize the board.
Different decks have to focus on different angles to fight Affinity so the key is knowing your deck and knowing how to use it. The other factor, of course, is having the right sideboard cards.
I’ve piloted the robotic menace enough times to know which sideboard cards are scariest, and which ones are duds. I’ve also seen and heard a few opponents fall into some major pitfalls when it comes to preparing for and playing the matchup. I’ll run through some of the best and worst sideboard (and maindeck) cards, and talk you through some of the mistakes you’ll want to avoid.
Cheap removal is the first line of defense against Affinity, letting you kill their best threats at opportune times. And by cheap I mean one mana. Lightning Bolt, Path to Exile and Disfigure spring to mind. Path is the best of those, with the caveat that you don’t want to fire it off turn 1 for fear of accelerating Affinity’s already fast mana. I’ve heard it argued that Affinity doesn’t care that much about getting an extra land but the truth is that with all its equip costs it’s quite a mana-hungry deck. That one extra basic can be just the excuse they need to feed a couple more mana-producing artifacts to a Ravager, or to Ensoul a Darksteel Citadel without worrying that it’ll be attacking instead of tapping for mana. You can be punished for being indiscriminate with Path, so try a little patience. An amusing anecdote is that for Pro Tour Fate Reforged, Paul Rietzl company factored opponents’ Paths into their manabase calculations.
Another card that is an absolute slog for Affinity to fight through is Lingering Souls. I can’t emphasise this enough. 1/1s are able to trade with many of the creatures in Affinity, so this sorcery can end up netting you a four for one. And when something with more toughness is attacking, you can hold it off with a string of chump blocks. If you happen to have space for some copies of this in your sideboard, it’s a worthwhile inclusion in any deck that can run it. Those tokens get to attack eventually too, so you aren’t diluting your deck’s ability to be pro-active the way most sideboard cards do. Grim Lavamancer is similarly difficult. Most Affinity builds will have some cheap burn that can get rid of Lavamancer before it gets to activate but that’s no great loss and when it goes unanswered, it’s nigh-unbeatable except by draws that are heavy on Arcbound Ravager and Ensoul Artifact.
Those were all maindeck playable cards that deserve mention because of their effectiveness in this particular matchup. The real haymakers, however, are bit narrower and have to come from the sideboard.
I’ve always found the single toughest card to face is Ancient Grudge. Instant speed, mana efficient and hits close to everything in the deck, all while getting you a two-for-one. Although it can’t always hit Etched Champion, it is often capable of stripping away Metalcraft, leaving an innocuous 2/2 on the other side of the board. You can also get random card advantage if you mill Ancient Grudge off of something like a Thought Scour.
The other sideboard card I have found genuinely backbreaking is Kataki, War’s Wage. Of the 23 mana sources that I play, 11 of them are artifacts and one of them, Springleaf Drum, also requires a creature (read: artifact) to produce mana. There are very few draws that give me a board that I can keep in the face of a Kataki, and even with those draws the choke on mana makes it difficult to operate. Kataki is more than a headache, and although I have handful of burn spells that can kill him, the damage is generally done before I get to cast them. Kataki is also a creature that can attack and block, so it at least has some function outside of hosing artifacts.
Sweepers are also exceptional against Affinity. Shatterstorm is particularly brutal, since it mops up equipment that might later be attached to a man-land. You can’t, however, be totally reliant on a turn 4 play to beat the robots, however, since the deck can quite often win on turn 3, and Stubborn Denial and Spell Pierce are both played, so be careful about walking into a counter. The best bet is to focus on cheap interaction and add in a sweeper or two if you have the sideboard slots available for it.
Not all sideboard cards are created equal. In fact, some of the popular sideboard options have become a bit antiquated.
Stony Silence is a card I used to worry about until Ensoul Artifact was printed. In the past, most of the deck’s angles of attacks didn’t work without activating artifacts (and this includes those mana sources I mentioned earlier). Now, there are several ways the deck can win without being affected in the slightest by Stony Silence. It doesn’t stop a swarm of Signal Pests, dorks and man-lands beating in, it doesn’t stop an Ensouled beater and it’s generally possible to set up a big Ravager in response to its casting. Master of Etherium and swarm of artifact guys also works in the face of Silence. I recall a game 3 where my opponent triumphantly slammed down a Stony Silence on his second turn, only for me to untap and kill him by way of simply attacking with Ensouled Signal Pests. Worse still, Stony Silence is a complete do-nothing in a vacuum. It doesn’t do anything pro-active, so bringing it in inherently dilutes your deck. With all of the ways to work around it and the extra time afforded me by an opponent spending a turn to cast it, it’s often not difficult to manage a win against it.
Hurkyl’s Recall is a card that people will often flash after a match, by way of showing me that they should have won because look how great their sideboard cards are. My internal response to that, which I have so far managed to keep from blurting out, is that two mana is a lot for Fog.
Many of Affinity’s creatures cost zero mana. The others are cheap. Artifacts like Mox Opal and Springleaf drum can be replayed to make mana immediately. Hurkyl’s Recall frequently doesn’t do very much. Yes, it’s decent against a bunch of Ensouled guys or against a creature that’s been powered up by a Ravager but those situations tend to come up later in the game after a bunch of interaction has already happened. Running out a Recall in the early turns tends to have a negligible effect because it’s possible to rebuild so quickly. In the later turns, it’s still conditional. And it’s a bounce spell after all, meaning that it often represents card disadvantage for its caster. No good.
Another misapprehension that people have is that it’s okay to auto-lose game 1 against Affinity because your sideboard cards will let you win the postboard games.
That notion is wrong on many levels. Firstly, if you bring in four sideboard cards, you have approximately a coinflip’s chance of drawing one of them in a relevant time-frame in any particular game. If your strategy for winning tournaments is to win two coinflips in a row every time you play a common matchup, then you won’t win many tournaments. If you’re bringing in a whole heap of sideboard cards then that’s a whole bunch of other issues right there. Firstly, there is such a thing as diminishing returns on making more sideboard changes; each card you take out dilutes your deck’s main plan, so at some point your percentages aren’t increasing by much with each subsequent sideboard change. Secondly, by stacking your sideboard for one matchup, you neglect other matchups. Sideboard cards are massively powerful in Modern, so that’s a big cost.
If your game 1 matchup is genuinely hopeless then there isn’t much you can do to truly fix it, and you risk ruining your other matchups by trying. The conclusion is that if a deck can’t win at least 30% or so of mainboard games against Affinity then you have to consider the possibility that the deck simply isn’t viable for Modern.
So there you have it. Your deck has to have some game before sideboarding or you’re in trouble. Play cheap removal and know when to cast it. Choose your sideboard cards wisely. Stop complaining about Affinity and start beating it.