Dee-Twenty 2k tournament: 1st place with Affinity
By Neil T Stacey (@NeilTStacey on Twitter)
Restrictions breed creativity, as Mark Rosewater so often says. It is for that reason that finding new variations on an established archetype can be just as fun as brewing up something weird from scratch. Trying to find fresh approaches and new synergies is particularly challenging when you’re constrained to a core deck with only a small amount of room for modifications.
I guess that’s why I so enjoy tinkering with builds of Affinity in Modern. The majority of the cards in the deck are more or less set in stone but there is just enough room for creativity in the flexible slots.
My last grand experiment with Affinity saw my brother make top 8 in his first PTQ with two copies of Skirsdag High Priest in his maindeck.
At the time I built that deck, the High Priest was excellent. The format mostly consisted of decks that have to react to Affinity. High Priest was able to sidestep a lot of their interaction while being a must-answer threat
Modern has moved on since then. The matchup where it was at its best, Birthing Pod, is gone. Burn and Infect make up a big fraction of the field, and High Priest is just too slow to be relevant in either of those matchups. That’s true of Amulet Bloom too, and even Jeskai Ascendancy if someone should happen to get around to reviving that deck.
Putting the Human Clerics back in the trade binder left room for some fresh blood in the list, and a day or two before Dee-Twenty’s cash tournament I convinced myself that Stubborn Denial would be superb in the deck.
My reasoning was that the deck routinely puts together one scary threat able to win the game on its own, getting Ferocious online just as you most want a cheap protection spell. Besides that, Affinity’s main strength is generating more mana than any other deck during the first few turns of the game. Being able to use some of that mana advantage to interfere with your opponent is a great way to ensure that you have the breathing room you need to press home that early advantage. I have also found that the deck commonly has an excess mana left over that it can’t use in the first turn, either when it has no one-drop or if it has Mox Opal and no two-drop.
Open mana that doesn’t make your opponent suspicious is the perfect recipe for catching them off-guard with Stubborn Denial in Force Spike mode. I settled on running two copies, since I felt it would be poor in multiples and isn’t part of the deck’s core plan.
Denial worked well for me every time I drew it. I most commonly used it in Force Spike mode to get opponents wrong-footed in the early turns. Having access to a hard counter later on in the game feels incredibly strong in Affinity and Denial actually improves post-board where it serves as a way to fight off the sideboard hate that comes in.
In that role, it is theoretically inferior to Spell Pierce because it is much easier to play around. That’s not a problem yet, since no-one plays around it at all. At a later date I would consider sideboarding into some split between the two to make things awkward.
One tournament is hardly an adequate sample size to come to a verdict but I have been impressed so far and Denial won me a few games that would otherwise have been difficult.
The list I ran was as follows:
Affinity (Modern) by Neil Stacey (1st place at Dee-Twenty 2k)
4x Signal Pest
4x Vault Skirge
4x Arcbound Ravager
1x Steel Overseer
1x Etched Champion
2x Master of Etherium
Other Artifacts (11):
4x Mox Opal
3x Springleaf Drum
4x Cranial Plating
3x Ensoul Artifact
Instants and Sorceries (6):
2x Galvanic Blast
2x Stubborn Denial
1x City of Brass
3x Inkmoth Nexus
4x Darksteel Citadel
4x Blinkmoth Nexus
4x Ancient Grudge
2x Shrapnel Blast
2x Illness in the Ranks
2x Tomb of the Spirit Dragon
1x Illness in the Ranks
1x Radiant Fountain
Aside from Stubborn Denial the card choices are all regulation but as you can see, I’m guilty of running a bunch of 1-ofs instead of making firm decisions on some slots. Affinity has a bunch of two and three drops that are situationally very good but often underwhelming. These cards end up playing the role of filler. Steel Overseer in particular has not been impressive in the fast Modern metagame. I have been gradually trimming them from the deck and going forward I think I’ll just cut the last one and bring in the fourth Ensoul Artifact.
I also didn’t manage to get hold of a fourth copy of Inkmoth Nexus, which made space for a singleton basic land to fetch from Path To Exile. Don’t read anything into my running three Inkmoths; the card is excellent and it’s definitely correct to run a full set. Given more time to prepare for the tournament, getting hold of another copy would have been high on my agenda.
Most of the sideboard is fairly regulation, with a full set of Ancient Grudge for the mirror due to the popularity of Affinity in the local metagame. The unusual inclusions there are two copies of Tomb of the Spirit Dragon and a singleton Radiant Fountain because I didn’t want to go as high as three copies on the tomb, because of how bad multiples are.
These are a bit of an experimental inclusion, aimed at fighting Burn, which is generally a poor matchup for Affinity. Their clock is as fast as mine but they’re able to interact with me, whereas I don’t get much opportunity to do the same. They also get access to powerful sideboard cards, so the matchup seems quite poor overall and in testing my percentages were pretty poor. Bringing in some colourless lands to gain life seems a solid way to shore up the matchup at low cost.
Round 1: Findlay Matheson (Tron)
Tron is a solid matchup for Affinity and this went according to script; game one I had a good opening hand and won on turn 4 on the play. In game two Karn arrived early and made a mess of things. Game three I had another exceptionally good hand and got there fairly comfortably.
Round 2: Timothy Layton (Amulet Bloom)
I hadn’t done any testing against Amulet Bloom and I had only a cursory grasp of how the deck works and what it does, so this was a scary matchup. Fortunately, I happened to be exactly one turn faster two games in a row, and went on to 2-0.
Round 3: Dave Cohen (Merfolk)
Dave was unfortunately awarded a game loss for a decklist error, so I had the opportunity to take this round by just winning one pre-board game, an easy task for Affinity. My deck yielded me two Vault Skirges along with an Arcbound Ravager and two Cranial Platings along with the fast mana to spit them out quickly. With that much lifelink power, I was always a favourite to win the race and I was at 3-0 with a nice long break to grab a snack and compose myself.
Round 4: Enrico Guarneri (Burn)
Between winning the die roll and snagging an early Lightning Bolt with an early Stubborn Denial, I was first over the line in a quick game one. I boarded in my three life-gain lands along with three Whipflares for this matchup, removing 1 each of Inkmoth and Blinkmoth Nexus along with all of my three-drops and Steel Overseer which I consider much too slow to be relevant against Burn.
I mulliganed to 6 and kept a decent hand with a Tomb of the Spirit Dragon and a handful of cheap or free creatures. I didn’t have a quick clock, but I had an avenue for gaining a ton of life. Enrico’s opening of Goblin Guide followed by Monastery Swiftspear put me on the back foot and without any heavy hitters I struggled to stabilise the board. I was down to 3 life before getting myself enough breathing room to start activating Tomb and gaining life. Meanwhile, Enrico’s Grim Lavamancer got to work clearing my board and the game started to stretch. I gained a total of twenty-one life from the Tomb, while Enrico killed at least half a dozen creatures with a single Lavamancer, eventually clearing the way to start back to work on my life total, eventually getting over the line with about twenty cards left in his library and only two minutes left in the round, unfortunately not enough to get a third game in.
Unintentional draws aren’t part of the script for Affinity vs. Burn matchups, and that was certainly one of the most memorable games of Magic I have ever played, taking me to a somewhat awkward 3-0-1 score. I was impressed with Tomb of the Spirit Dragon in its first outing; it gave me a real chance to get back into a game that would otherwise have been over in short order. I didn’t happen to draw a way to close out the game, but I had the opportunity to do so and that was due to the work put in by the Tomb.
Round 5: Robert Wild (Infect)
Infect seems to be a fairly even matchup for Affinity; the decks kill in roughly the same number of turns and while Infect has access to more interaction, it is also more easily disrupted than Affinity is. I won this match in two games mainly by drawing very good hands.
One interesting situation arose where I ended up casting Ensoul Artifact on my Cranial Plating, the furthest thing from an intuitive play.
I had a Signal Pest with two +1+1 counters on it, a Cranial Plating, a Mox Opal, an Island and two Blinkmoth Nexi. My hand was Ensoul Artifact and a Vault Skirge.
Robert had a Pendelhaven, an Inkmoth Nexus, a Glistener Elf and one unknown card in hand, with a bunch of mana out. He was on 12 life and I was on 3 poison. I decided that I needed to have two blockers back, so as not to be dead to Become Immense. One way to do that would be to not cast Ensoul at all, play the Vault Skirge and block with it and with a Blinkmoth. However, that would mean that a removal spell would keep me off of lethal damage the following turn.
So I played Vault Skirge, equipped Plating to Signal Pest and attacked for 6. Then post-combat I cast Ensoul Artifact on the Plating. This gave me two blockers while also ensuring that I would have lethal damage past one artifact destruction spell on the next turn, since the 2/3 Signal Pest and the two manlands could fly in for lethal even with the Plating unavailable to equip. Meanwhile, even after tangling with an infect creature, the Plating would be a 4/4 and if Signal Pest were to die, it could get in for lethal damage alongside the two Blinkmoths.
Just one of those scenarios where doing something kind of weird-seeming offered a neat solution to the current board position. It worked out as planned and I moved to four wins and a draw going into the final round.
Round 6: Jason Ward (Merfolk)
With one draw on my record, I was fortunate to be paired up against the only 5-0 player. Moreover, Affinity is somewhat favoured against Merfolk, being about a turn faster. Hurkyl’s Recall out of the sideboard evens up the postboard games for Merfolk, but it’s one of the more beatable artifact hosers around.
Game one was over in quick time; Jason won the die roll but had to mulligan twice and I got a turn three kill courtesy of Ensoul Artifact on turn one and Cranial Plating equipped on turn two.
It was my turn to mulligan in game two but I got an excellent six cards with a Mox Opal accelerating out double Cranial Plating and exactly lethal damage on turn four.
Enrico won his match to join me on five wins and a draw, and I edged him out on tie-breaks to take the tournament win and R2000 in cash.
Personally, I’m in favour of moving toward cash prizes instead of sealed product for larger tournaments in South Africa. For competitive players sealed product rapidly loses its appeal once you’ve gotten hold of most of the cards you need from a set. Trying to sell or trade away boosters to recoup value is a time-consuming process at best. My assumption is that most of the players who are in contention at large tournaments will tend to feel the same way, so occasional cash tournaments will hold a lot of appeal.
The downside of cash prizes is higher cost to the store and that’s a real concern, considering the narrow margins our stores operate on. I see no problem with sealed product comprising the majority of prize support, and I enjoy cracking a few packs as much as the next guy. However, the occasional cash prize adds excitement and variety to our tournament circuit as well as putting up a prize that is relatable for non Magic players. If we want Magic to hold mainstream appeal in SA I think we need prizes that the mainstream can actually understand, and I hope to see more of these in the future.
Bonus deck-list: the deck I was originally planning to play was an aggressive red/black deck with Goblin Rabblemaster and Hellrider, backed by cheap removal and some burn. It didn’t pan out in testing, so the night before the tournament I switched to the Affinity list.
Black/Red Aggro (Modern) by Neil Stacey (abandoned after unsatisfactory testing)
4x Goblin Guide
4x Monastery Swiftspear
2x Legion Loyalist
4x Spike Jester
4x Goblin Bushwhacker
4x Goblin Rabblemaster
Instants and Sorceries (13)
4x Lightning Bolt
2x Goblin Grenade
2x Slaughter Pact
1x Murderous Cut
4x Bloodstained Mire
4x Wooded Foothills
4x Blood Crypt
2x Dragonskull Summit
This deck is capable of explosive draws and has a scary top end. Goblin Guide followed by Spike Jester puts a huge dent into a life total, and Rabblemaster followed by Hellrider is a real beating. However, the deck is soft to most of the removal in the format, and struggles to get past big blockers like Tarmogoyf and Siege Rhino.
It might be that I simply haven’t got the right mix here, or it might be that there just isn’t a viable deck using this shell. If you have any ideas for how to fix this up, let me know on Facebook or Twitter.