It’s been a while since I’ve written about Affinity. To a large extent, the extensive deck/sideboard/sideboarding guides I wrote during the Eldrazi Winter are still relevant today. But Modern has undergone some changes since then, and Dominaria has introduced several new cards. So let’s revisit the archetype.
How About the New Options From Dominaria?
When I first saw Karn, I thought it could be a solid anti-midrange card for the grindier matchups, effectively replacing Bitterblossom, Hazoret the Fervent, or Shapers’ Sanctuary in the sideboard. But I was skeptical about its main deck prospects, as Karn seemed rather slow. I strongly felt that Master of Etherium was better, at least in pre-board games.
I still believe this, but two things have changed since then. First, I saw the card in action. I’ve had Karn in play several times, and he has performed better than I expected. Thanks to Mox Opal and Springleaf Drum, Karn regularly comes down on turn 3, and he can easily dominate a game. Usually, you activate his -2 ability twice to put maximum pressure on your opponent.
Second, I realized that my previous Affinity builds also contained cards that, like Karn, are slow card advantage spells that increase threat density. I’m talking about Thoughtcast and Glint-Nest Crane. Yet these cards are worse than Karn. If I cast Thoughtcast and draw Memnite and Master of Etherium, then I’d rather just spend 4 mana to get two Construct tokens instead. I’d also prefer 2 Construct tokens over a Glint-Nest Crane that finds Steel Overseer. Since my latest pre-Dominaria list (which partly inspired the one that Jacob Golding piloted to the finals of GP Sydney) had both blue spells as 1-ofs, it made sense to replace them with Karn.
The 4 mana cost is reachable. With 25 mana sources, you can easily run four 3-drops and two 4-drops. Most 25-land decks run even more, but I wouldn’t increase Affinity’s curve further. After all, Cranial Plating is a pseudo 3-drop—you want to attack with your Nexi, and Mox Opal/Springleaf Drum aren’t as reliable as actual lands. Still, two 4-drops can be supported in the main deck.
The Antiquities War is similar to Karn and a good budget alternative, but I believe that it’s slightly worse in the main deck. In 5% of the games or so, you’re lacking colored mana to cast The Antiquities War. Even more importantly, Karn guarantees more damage on the turn after you cast him. Since many pre-board games are races, Karn is a better main deck inclusion than The Antiquities War.
But after board against grindy decks like Jund, The Antiquities War can become superior. Whereas Jund can attack or burn Karn, it has few ways to stop you from reaching the Saga’s third chapter, which is almost always game over. If you want a 4-drop in your sideboard and you don’t expect too many Cryptic Commands or Settle the Wreckages, then The Antiquities War is probably better than Karn.
The final addition from Dominaria is Damping Sphere. As a hate card against Storm or Ironworks, it’s just about as effective as Rule of Law or Rest in Peace. But where Rule of Law has applications against Living End and Rest in Peace is good against Dredge, Damping Sphere is useful against Tron or Amulet. Given the current metagame, I recommend starting with two Rest in Peace and then adding 1-2 Damping Sphere if you want more anti-combo sideboard slots.
The artifact nature of Damping Sphere is a small downside. Even though it turns on your Mox Opals, Damping Sphere is susceptible to the artifact hate that people are already bringing in. A 2 mana enchantment would probably have been better for us. But you can’t look a gift artifact in the mouth.
What’s My Current List?
I don’t play as much Magic as I used to do, but last weekend I competed at the Dutch Open Series (well worth the drive if you live in Belgium, Germany, or the Netherlands) with the following list.
Before going over the notable features of this list, I need to introduce the concept of a “sideboard-type card”. This moniker applies to Etched Champion, Welding Jar, Karn, and Galvanic Blast, and it basically means three things:
- The card is good in some matchups and bad in others. Etched Champion, for instance, is amazing against Jund or Jeskai, but it’s a vanilla Gray Ogre against colorless or combo decks. Welding Jar can range from a 0 mana counterspell to a do-nothing Darksteel Relic. And Galvanic Blast is great against Baral, Devoted Druid, or other creature-based combos, but it’s generally worse than a synergistic artifact otherwise.
- Even in matchups where they’re good, they get better after sideboard. Galvanic Blast, for instance, becomes more valuable against Humans after they board Kataki and Izzet Staticaster. In similar fashion, Etched Champion and Welding Jar shoot up in value after your opponents add Ancient Grudge and other interactive spells. And planeswalkers, including Karn, always get better in the longer, grindier post-board games.
- The metagame doesn’t dictate main deck inclusion. Basically, there is a non-negligible percentage of pre-board games where the card is bad. It’s hard to provide a specific cutoff, but let’s say that a sideboard-type card is bad in at least 1/6th of the matchups.
It’s not always clear whether a sideboard-type card should be go into the main deck or the sideboard. This depends on a variety of factors: the amount of matchups where it’s good or bad, its power differential over the matchups, the need to free up sideboard slots, and the alternative card options. But often, the most important aspect is a card’s floor, i.e., how bad it is at its worst.
Sideboard-type Cards With a Low Floor Remain in the Sideboard
Many Affinity decks run 2-3 Etched Champion and one Welding Jar in the main deck. That’s not wrong per se—I have done that often enough in the past. But at the moment, they reside in my sideboard.
The main reason is because they are sideboard-type cards with a low floor. That is, when Etched Champion and Welding Jar are bad, they are really bad. I particularly hate seeing them in my opening hand in game 1 because it’s unclear how good they will be. Against unknown decks, cards with such a high power differential make mulligan decisions more complicated.
As a second reason, the sideboard slots that could be gained by putting them main deck don’t feel as valuable to me. The introduction of Damping Sphere, which allows me to cover more matchups with a single card, strengthened this notion.
The third and final reason is because the metagame isn’t filled with Bloodbraid Elf and Jace, the Mind Sculptor decks. When those two cards were unbanned, my initial reaction was to add extra Etched Champions to the main deck. But they haven’t taken over the format, whereas plenty of colorless and combo decks remain. The last two Modern GPs were won by R/G Eldrazi and Ironworks, both of which are decks where Etched Champion is at its worst.
So that’s why I have three Etched Champion and one Welding Jar in my sideboard. I admit that I’m not sure about the Jar—it’s relatively low impact, and the fourth Etched Champion might be better. But since Etched Champion number four would always replace a Master of Etherium for mana curve reasons, it would represent a minor upgrade only, whereas Welding Jar does something more unique.
Sideboard-type Cards With a High Floor Are in the Main Deck
Karn and Galvanic Blast are similar to Etched Champion and Welding Jar in that they aren’t great in every matchup and improve after sideboard. The difference is that their floor is much lower. Even in matchups where they are at their worst, they can still support your aggro plan quite well. And in game 1 against an unknown deck, I’d much rather see Karn in my opening hand than Etched Champion.
I wouldn’t run more than two Blasts in the current metagame. The main role of Galvanic Blast is to break up creature-based combos, and while there are some good targets (like Baral or Devoted Druid) the metagame isn’t infested by them. I’d even lean towards cutting down to one Blast. Especially with Master of Etherium, I’m usually attacking for 12 or 0, so I don’t need them for reach.
4 Master of Etherium, 3 Memnite
Many lists run only one Master of Etherium and only two Memnite, mainly because they have Etched Champion and Welding Jar instead.
I don’t like to go below two Master. Even though it’s easy to answer, you need to have enough cards that can turn Ornithopter, Vault Skirge, Blinkmoth Nexus, etc. into real threats. Master of Etherium provides a fast clock and it’s never dead. This makes it the perfect game 1 card, where opponents don’t have enough removal to interact with your primary game plan, and it increases the range of opening hands you can keep. I probably like Master of Etherium more than most, but over the past 2.5 years I’ve played most tournaments with four Masters, and I have been satisfied with that.
As for Memnite, I definitely want three. With Affinity, an important goal is to maximize your explosive draws, and Memnite is excellent at turning on Springleaf Drum or Mox Opal on turn 1. Memnite also gets better the more Master of Etherium you have in your deck. By contrast, Welding Jar doesn’t activate Springleaf Drum.
3 Spire of Industry, 1 Glimmervoid, 1 Island
Most of the time, the first Spire of Industry is better than the first Glimmervoid. But if I draw multiple five-color lands, then I’d rather see one Spire and one Glimmervoid than two Spires. Therefore, I have a 3-1 split.
I have an Island instead of a Mountain because I run more blue than red cards in the main. The lack of a Mountain could hurt after board, especially when I’m holding Ghirapur Aether Grid and my opponent casts Path to Exile, but all things considered, the mana of my deck is still better with an Island.
No 1-for-1 in the Sideboard
In the past, my sideboards usually contained several versatile 1-for-1 interactive spells. At the moment, I have none.
Affinity has always favored high-power, specific sideboard cards over low-power, versatile ones. After all, every card you remove from the deck weakens your synergies and the deck’s explosiveness. If you’re cutting engine cards, then you preferably want to get a really powerful card in return, not just a marginal 1-for-1.
This has always been true, but the Modern format has evolved:
- There are fewer combos that you can break up with a single interactive spell. In the past, you could stop Deceiver Exarch/Splinter Twin with a single Dismember and Angel’s Grace/Ad Nauseam with a single Stubborn Denial. You’d even net a 2-for-1 in the process. Nowadays, the most popular combo deck is Storm, and Ironworks is gaining a foothold too. Although a single interactive spell is useful against them, they can easily beat it. To stop their combo altogether, you need a card like Rest in Peace or Damping Sphere.
- There seem to be fewer hate cards like Stony Silence around. After Bloodbraid Elf prompted Abzan players to switch over to Jund, Ancient Grudge became the most popular artifact hate card in Modern. I always liked Thoughtseize as a proactive way to fight hate cards like Stony Silence, but there seem to be less of a need for that nowadays.
- Modern has gotten more powerful as a whole. If you compare Affinity lists from 2018 to lists from 2013, they look very much alike. Meanwhile, all other decks have improved substantially. Whereas in 2013 you merely needed a few low-risk, low-reward sideboard options to compete, you need more high-risk, high-reward cards in 2018. In other words, nowadays I’d rather maximize the number of powerful hate cards that can win the game by themselves.
My decision to cut the 1-for-1s altogether is drastic—perhaps too drastic. I don’t think it’s wrong to keep, say, two Thoughtseize as a versatile catch-all. In fact, versions with lots of main deck Etched Champions and Galvanic Blasts may actually need some to make their sideboard plans work out against decks like Tron. But given that my main deck composition contains almost none of those cards, I have little need for such versatility in my sideboard, and I felt comfortable cutting all 1-for-1s to gain more slots for high-impact hate cards.
Two of Each High-Impact Sideboard Card
All of these cards are quite backbreaking in the right matchup. It’s perfectly reasonable to play cards like Damping Sphere as 1-ofs, but since I believe they’re better than alternative options, I stuck with two each.
0 Blood Moon, 0 Spellskite, 0 Shaper’s Sanctuary
Blood Moon didn’t make the cut because there is not a lot of Scapeshift or Amulet of Vigor around right now. Blood Moon is also good against 3+ color decks with awkward mana bases like Jeskai, but it’s not all upside: Blood Moon shuts down your own creaturelands, makes it tough to cast Master of Etherium, turns on opposing Wear // Tears, and is poor when opponents fetch basics. It’s still good—just not good enough to make my sideboard.
Spellskite is great against Bogles and Infect, and it’s decent against Jund and Affinity. But as long as Bogles and Infect remains below 5% of the metagame, I wouldn’t bother with Spellskite yet.
This card has divided opinions. Gabriel Nassif was negative: “One card I’ve tried that seemed quite bad was Shapers’ Sanctuary…I’m fairly positive that you shouldn’t play it.”
Berthold La Rocca, who finished 9th at Grand Prix Lyon a few months ago, was more positive. As he told me, he was able to win several post-board games against Jeskai and Grixis Control because of all the extra cards he drew from the enchantment.
To add to the story: I met Berthold at the Bounty Event on Friday, where he told me that I inspired him to take up Affinity. When we got paired, he took it as a sign, and promptly got his best Grand Prix result ever. When I talked to him afterwards, he wasn’t even aware that his 13-2 finish came with a Pro Tour invitation…until I unknowingly said “best of luck at the PT!” I’m sure he would’ve learned eventually, but it was still nice to break the fantastic news to him.
But back to Shapers’ Sanctuary. I believe it is decent, but the difference between playing it on turn 1 and topdecking it in the late game is massive. I think Karn and The Antiquities War are both better because they remain powerful topdecks in the late game.
What Are My Sideboard Plans?
I like to be prepared, so I brought the following page with me last weekend. Besides the usual sideboard plans, I had a “notable cards” column to jog my memory on common sideboard cards and relevant main deck cards.
My plans had very little play/draw differences. In the past, I sometimes cut the 17th land when I was on the draw, but I no longer wanted to do that with the 4 mana Karn in the deck.
Another thing I renounced was the use of strict maximums for 3-drops or colored spells. While it’s still wise to be mindful of the corresponding dangers, I no longer base my sideboarding on such strict guidelines. A large part of the reason is because Modern has gotten more powerful as a whole over the past half-decade, and to compete with that, we have to sacrifice a bit of consistency for power. So if the matchup is slow and calls for it, then go ahead and sideboard as many powerful, expensive, colored cards as you want. (That said, it’s still extremely rare for me to board into more than eight 3-drops and/or more than 10 colored spells.)
Is Affinity Well-Positioned in the Current Metagame?
I think it is. Generally speaking, Affinity is good against creature decks that try to play “fair” since your game plan is simply more broken than Humans, Grixis Shadow, or Eldrazi Tron. Given that Humans is one of the most played decks in the format, Affinity has an advantage over the competition.
Fast combo decks are generally bad matchups for you, as you don’t have a lot of disruption and they have a faster goldfish. This includes Storm, Dredge, and Abzan Company. Another bad matchup is U/W Control, as they simply have too many good answers, sweepers, and Stony Silences. But these decks aren’t dominant right now.
Affinity is at its best when people don’t respect it and cut their hate. In the Top 16 decklists of the most recent Modern Grand Prix and a recent Modern Starcity Open, players had 2.3 dedicated artifact hate cards (like Fracturing Gust, Stony Silence, Hurkyl’s Recall, Shattering Spree, Ancient Grudge, Kataki, sweepers, Kolaghan’s Command, or 1 mana answers to Cranial Plating) in their sideboard on average. That is fine. If the average sideboard had contained three or more hate cards, Affinity would have been poorly positioned. But right now we’re good.
As a concluding remark, I want to highlight that Affinity is a deck with a large degree of customizability. My build suits my play style, but it may not be for everyone—feel free to fill the last couple slots to your own liking. Even if you don’t copy my list, I hope that you found the general principles behind my card choices to be insightful.