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Frank Analysis – Grand Prix Antwerp: *14th* with Affinity

I tried to look for a new exciting deck filled with Theros cards. I really did. But I failed to find anything that was viable and eventually showed up with Affinity. Not the most exciting deck choice, but it did carry me to a 14th place in Antwerp. In this article, I’ll share my playtesting experiences and my thoughts on the Affinity deck.

Devotion in Modern

I started testing the week before the Grand Prix. Raphael Levy, Martin Juza, and I tried out various devotion strategies. This new Theros mechanic had proven itself in Standard, so we wanted to try it in Modern as well. One of the first attempts was constructed by Martin:

Modern Blue Devotion

[deck]Main Deck
4 Scalding Tarn 
4 Arid Mesa 
2 Seachrome Coast 
2 Hallowed Fountain 
2 Steam Vents 
1 Sacred Foundry 
3 Sulfur Falls 
1 Plains 
1 Mountain 
3 Island 
4 Training Grounds 
4 Serum Visions 
4 Lightning Bolt 
4 Manamorphose 
4 Azorius Guildmage 
4 Izzet Guildmage 
3 Vendilion Clique 
3 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner 
3 Thassa, God of the Sea 
4 Master of Waves [/deck]

The idea behind this deck is similar to its Standard cousin: play a bunch of permanents with multiple blue mana symbols and smash with [card]Thassa, God of the Sea[/card] and [card]Master of Waves[/card]. However, the Modern version has access to several cards that are not legal in Standard. Among them is [card]Kira, Great Glass-Spinner[/card], which ardently protects [card]Master of Waves[/card]. The Modern card pool also includes [card]Training Grounds[/card], [card]Azorius Guildmage[/card], and [card]Izzet Guildmage[/card]. These permanents can turn on devotion, give a good late-game presence, and even enable an infinite combo: [card]Izzet Guildmage[/card] + [card]Training Grounds[/card] + [card]Manamorphose[/card]. The way that combo works is that you keep responding to the original [card]Manamorphose[/card] by copying it with [card]Izzet Guildmage[/card]. Due to [card]Training Grounds[/card], the copy ability costs only one mana, so you gain a mana every time. Eventually, you’ll draw your deck and kill your opponent with [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] copies.

While the combo was nice, the deck wasn’t. It struggled against Jund, Melira Pod, and Affinity. Against Melira Pod and Affinity, the devotion payoff ([card]Thassa, God of the Sea[/card] and [card]Master of Waves[/card]) was simply not strong enough. Thassa and Master can’t stop the Melira combo, and they can’t block a [card]Vault Skirge[/card] carrying a [card]Cranial Plating[/card]. Against Jund, it was hard to beat their spot removal and discard. [card]Master of Waves[/card] was decent as it could not be removed by [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] or [card]Liliana of the Veil[/card], but when facing [card]Thoughtseize[/card] and [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], it was nearly impossible to animate [card]Thassa, God of the Sea[/card]. Moreover, the disruption cards in Jund dismantled the [card]Izzet Guildmage[/card] combo way too easily.

After discarding the blue devotion deck, I tried an Elfball deck based on explosive draws with [card]Heritage Druid[/card] and [card]Elvish Archdruid[/card]. This deck had recently gained [card]Elvish Mystic[/card] and [card]Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx[/card], and I was hoping that these cards would push the deck over the top. Unfortunately, they didn’t. The deck had a hard time beating [card]Linvala, Keeper of Silence[/card] and [card]Orzhov Pontiff[/card] from Melira Pod. It was a turn too slow to beat Affinity. And against Jund’s onslaught of removal spells it could almost never establish a real board presence. The additions of [card]Elvish Mystic[/card] and [card]Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx[/card] didn’t adequately shore up the deck’s weaknesses.

In the end, I decided that devotion decks just weren’t going to cut it in Modern. So, an unexciting, established deck it was. Looking at earlier Modern Grand Prix, it appeared that Melira Pod, Jund, and Affinity had put up the best results. And from those three decks, I liked Affinity the best.

Affinity, I Choose You!

One thing I liked about Affinity was that it excels at powerful synergies and explosive draws. Turn one [card]Darksteel Citadel[/card], [card]Mox Opal[/card], [card]Springleaf Drum[/card], [card]Ornithopter[/card], [card]Memnite[/card], [card]Memnite[/card], [card]Cranial Plating[/card], go? Yes please.

But more importantly, I felt comfortable playing Affinity. My experience with the deck dates back to the original Mirrodin Block Constructed, in which I had a money finish at Pro Tour Kobe 2004 and a Top 8 at Grand Prix Zurich 2004. Those tournaments taught me to do the combat math with [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] and [card]Cranial Plating[/card], and that experience stuck. Even though Affinity in Modern doesn’t run [card]Vault of Whispers[/card], [card]Myr Enforcer[/card], or  [card]Disciple of the Vault[/card] anymore, artifacts are still artifacts, and I like the types of decisions that artifacts present. Nowadays, when you have [card]Springleaf Drum[/card] and/or [card]Mox Opal[/card] in your opening hand along with tons of other cheap artifacts, there are many possible ways to sequence your cards, and I enjoy figuring out the puzzle of how to maximize the damage clock.

In a format as open as Modern, with so many viable decks, I think it is important to pick a deck that you have experience with and that you enjoy playing. For me, that deck was Affinity. All the little tricks (for example, declaring [card]Blinkmoth Nexus[/card] as a blocker and then pumping itself, or sacrificing an [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] to another [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] to get an extra counter) come natural to me because I’ve done them all before. That’s a big plus.

Once I had set my mind on Affinity, I had to find a good build. I briefly toyed around with the idea of adding [card]Birthing Pod[/card]. This would allow me to turn [card]Myr Enforcer[/card] into [card]Griselbrand[/card] and [card]Frogmite[/card] into [card]Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker[/card]. Cute, but I figured it was probably too slow to be competitive. Moreover, I was afraid that [card]Myr Enforcer[/card] would frequently cost an inefficient 3-4 mana and just run into [card]Tarmogoyf[/card] or [card]Voice of Resurgence[/card].

My real starting point was Justin Robb’s deck from Grand Prix Brisbane. He won that tournament with this list:

Justin Robb’s Affinity

[deck]Main Deck
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Darksteel Citadel
3 Glimmervoid
4 Inkmoth Nexus
1 Island
4 Mox Opal
4 Springleaf Drum
2 Memnite
4 Ornithopter
4 Signal Pest
4 Vault Skirge
4 Arcbound Ravager
3 Steel Overseer
3 Etched Champion
4 Cranial Plating
4 Galvanic Blast
4 Thoughtcast
Sideboard
3 Ancient Grudge
2 Spellskite
2 Thoughtseize
2 Whipflare
3 Blood Moon
2 Dispatch
1 Wear Tear[/deck]

After playing a bunch of games with this version, I noticed a few problems.

Problem 1: Too many colored spells

[card]Thoughtcast[/card] and [card]Galvanic Blast[/card]s are nice when you already have many artifacts in play, but they merely feed upon the synergy. They do not turn on the synergy. With so many cards in the deck that only do something if you have a bunch of artifacts in play, every non-artifact spell in your deck weakens [card]Mox Opal[/card], [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card], and so on. If there’s anything that my experience with Affinity in Mirrodin block taught me, it’s that artifact cards are good and colored spells are bad. Besides, you sometimes lack the colored mana to play them. With only 12 colored sources in the deck, there is a 9% chance of not drawing any in your top 10 cards. That’s small, but not inconsequential.

All in all, the plethora of colored spells led to too many awkward opening hands. To illustrate the downsides, consider the following opening hands:

[draft]Signal Pest
Arcbound Ravager
Steel Overseer
Thoughtcast
Blinkmoth Nexus
Inkmoth Nexus
Darksteel Citadel[/draft] [draft]Cranial Plating
Etched Champion
Galvanic Blast
Mox Opal
Springleaf Drum
Glimmervoid
Inkmoth Nexus[/draft]

Currently, these hands are borderline keepable, but not great. Now look at those hands again but with a [card]Memnite[/card] instead of the colored spells. Suddenly they are much better! Artifact synergies are that important.

Problem 2: The land count

Although 24 mana sources (including [card]Springleaf Drum[/card] and [card]Mox Opal[/card]) is nice, Justin’s deck only contains 16 actual lands. That’s not a lot—there is a 25% chance of having less than two lands in your top 8 cards, which translates to an overly high chance of missing your second land drop or being forced to mulligan. [card]Springleaf Drum[/card] and [card]Mox Opal[/card] are not reliable, especially in the early turns of the game. To ensure good board development, you usually need a land on turn two.

Modern Affinity reminded me of the Extended Elves deck that took Pro Tour Berlin by storm in 2008. Instead of [card]Mox Opal[/card] and [card]Springleaf Drum[/card], that deck was based around [card]Llanowar Elves[/card] and [card]Birchlore Ranger[/card]s, but the idea was similar: you don’t want to draw a lot of lands, but you really want to hit that second land drop. Most good versions of Elves ran 17 lands. To me, that indicated that Justin Robb’s Affinity deck had one land too few.

Problem 3: Lack of business cards

[card]Vault Skirge[/card] and [card]Ornithopter[/card] alone don’t get the job done. I played several games against Jund in which my opponent used [card]Inquisition of Kozilek[/card] and [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] to take out my [card]Cranial Plating[/card] and [card]Steel Overseer[/card], and then I had no real threats left. I needed more “big” cards that could beef up my little robots.

My Build

Based on these three problems, I decided to make a few changes to Justin’s deck. I cut 1 [card]Thoughtcast[/card] and 3 [card]Galvanic Blast[/card]s from the main deck and replaced them with a [card]Glimmervoid[/card], a [card]Memnite[/card], a [card]Steel Overseer[/card], and a [card]Master of Etherium[/card]. This change solved all the problems that I saw.

I also made a few tweaks to the sideboard.

I wasn’t convinced that [card]Blood Moon[/card] would be powerful enough against GR Tron, as it shuts down our Nexuses and our own colored mana while delaying our opponent by only two turns or so. I much prefer my sideboard hate cards to turn on my own artifact synergies. For that reason, I replaced [card]Blood Moon[/card] with [card]Grafdigger’s Cage[/card] and [card]Torpor Orb[/card]. They’re for different matchups, but I prefer artifact hate cards.

I didn’t want reactive cards like [card]Wear // Tear[/card]. [card]Stony Silence[/card] is difficult to beat, but I prefer a proactive answer that doesn’t sit dead in our hand when our opponent doesn’t draw the enchantment. [card]Spell Pierce[/card] felt better in that slot.

[card]Dispatch[/card] seemed like a less versatile [card]Galvanic Blast[/card], which I didn’t even want 4 of anyway because of my dislike for colored spells, though I added one extra Blast to the board against creature combo decks.

Finally, I made room for an extra [card]Etched Champion[/card] and [card]Master of Etherium[/card], which allowed me to adjust the 3-drop slot based on the matchup. [card]Etched Champion[/card] is good in creature-heavy and removal-heavy matchups, while [card]Master of Etherium[/card] presents a fast clock against combo decks. It’s also better in the mirror match, of course.

Here’s what I registered in Antwerp:

Frank Karsten’s Affinity

[deck]Main Deck
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Glimmervoid
4 Inkmoth Nexus
1 Island
4 Mox Opal
4 Springleaf Drum
3 Memnite
4 Ornithopter
4 Signal Pest
4 Vault Skirge
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Steel Overseer
3 Etched Champion
1 Master of Etherium
4 Cranial Plating
1 Galvanic Blast
3 Thoughtcast
Sideboard
3 Ancient Grudge
2 Spellskite
1 Whipflare
1 Thoughtseize
2 Spell Pierce
1 Etched Champion
1 Galvanic Blast
2 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Torpor Orb
1 Master of Etherium[/deck]

The reasoning behind the 3-ofs in the main deck is that they are bad in multiples. Three is usually the ideal number if you’re happy to draw one copy of a certain card, but not two during a game. As [card]Memnite[/card], [card]Etched Champion[/card], and [card]Thoughtcast[/card] are slow and/or clunky in multiples, three is enough.

The reasoning behind the 1-ofs and the 2-ofs in the sideboard is similar: you want to draw a sideboard card in every matchup, but drawing multiples usually slows you down too much. Moreover, you can’t cut much from the deck without breaking up synergies, so you can never board too much anyway. Since I already have a few copies of [card]Thoughtseize[/card] and [card]Spell Pierce[/card] to fight combo decks and artifact hate after sideboard, I went with a mix of [card]Grafdigger’s Cage[/card], [card]Torpor Orb[/card], and [card]Spellskite[/card]—not four copies of one card.

Overall, I was happy with how the deck turned out, but some small adjustments can always be made depending on the metagame. If Splinter Twin becomes more popular, then I could see going to 2 [card]Thoughtcast[/card], 2 [card]Galvanic Blast[/card] maindeck. This would also open up an extra sideboard slot. If Living End becomes more popular, then I would replace a [card]Grafdigger’s Cage[/card] with a [card]Relic of Progenitus[/card]. Finally, the numbers on [card]Spell Pierce[/card] and [card]Thoughtseize[/card] could be swapped. I ran more [card]Spell Pierce[/card] than [card]Thoughtseize[/card] because I figured it could yield a nice tempo boost if the opponent has to pay for his spell first, but the discard spell may be better because you don’t have to constantly keep up mana and the information is valuable. For the time being, I’ll stick with my Antwerp build, but I’ll certainly try out some of these adjustments later.

An Example Game with Affinity

With Affinity, it is important to mulligan aggressively and to do the math with [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card]. Here’s an example game to illustrate these decisions. We’re on the play and see the following 7-card hand:

[draft]Blinkmoth Nexus
Glimmervoid
Mox Opal
Springleaf Drum
Vault Skirge
Ornithopter
Memnite[/draft]

This hand is all mana and no threats. Attacking for 3 damage per turn is not going to cut it. You have to mulligan in search of a big threat.

[draft]Glimmervoid
Mox Opal
Arcbound Ravager
Steel Overseer
Cranial Plating
Etched Champion[/draft]

Plenty of big threats, but the mana is not cooperating. You won’t achieve metalcraft for [card]Mox Opal[/card] any time soon, so you really need a second land. Unfortunately, the risk of not drawing one is too high. If you can’t cast a 2-drop on turn two, then you won’t establish a good board presence in time. I would mulligan down to five.

[draft]Inkmoth Nexus
Darksteel Citadel
Arcbound Ravager
Springleaf Drum
Ornithopter[/draft]

This five-card hand is excellent. On turn one, you lead with [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card], [card]Springleaf Drum[/card], and pass the turn. You play [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card] over [card]Darksteel Citadel[/card] because it may want to attack next turn if you draw [card]Mox Opal[/card]. You keep [card]Ornithopter[/card] in hand because you’re not going to attack with it, you don’t want to give your opponent information, and you don’t want to give your opponent the opportunity to Bolt it before it can tap for a free mana.

Our opponent plays [card]Stomping Ground[/card], [card]Deathrite Shaman[/card]. This indicates Jund.

We draw [card]Ornithopter[/card]. We dump our entire hand in play, but we don’t pass the turn yet. After all, if we pass, there’s a good chance that our opponent plays a big blocker for [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] and eventually has [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] to counter the modular trigger. It’s better to go for the risky all-in play. Sacrifice [card]Springleaf Drum[/card] for mana, and subsequently sacrifice [card]Springleaf Drum[/card], [card]Ornithopter[/card], and [card]Ornithopter[/card] to [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card]. Ravager is now 4/4. Animate [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card], then sacrifice [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] to itself, moving the counters over to [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card]. As a 5/5, it presents a deadly two-turn clock. Not bad for a mulligan to five, even if it cost everything we had.

Well, that’s Affinity. But it is surprisingly difficult to answer a [card]Darksteel Citadel[/card] and an [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card] with four +1/+1 counters. Most removal spells ([card]Lightning Bolt[/card], [card]Abrupt Decay[/card], and [card]Maelstrom Pulse[/card]) cannot touch it. If our opponent has [card]Terminate[/card] or double [card]Lightning Bolt[/card], we almost certainly lose, but I do believe that this is the right percentage play. If you play Affinity, you have to take calculated risks.

Matchup and Sideboard Guide

When sideboarding, you can generally cut 1 [card]Memnite[/card] or 1 [card]Ornithopter[/card], 1 [card]Steel Overseer[/card], the 3-drops, and colored spells without harming the deck’s engine too much. The specifics of which cards to cut depend on the matchup, however.

Jund

You’re usually faster than them, and they have trouble dealing with evasive creatures. If you manage to beef up [card]Etched Champion[/card] or [card]Vault Skirge[/card] with [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] or [card]Cranial Plating[/card], then you’re in good shape.

In

[draft]2 Spellskite
2 Spell Pierce
1 Thoughtseize
1 Etched Champion[/draft]

Out

[draft]2 Memnite
1 Steel Overseer
1 Galvanic Blast
1 Master of Etherium
1 Thoughtcast[/draft]

After sideboarding, expect [card]Ancient Grudge[/card] and [card]Shatterstorm[/card]. To answer [card]Shatterstorm[/card] in particular, we bring in [card]Spell Pierce[/card] and [card]Thoughtseize[/card]. We also bring in [card]Spellskite[/card] to deflect [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] and to counter [card]Abrupt Decay[/card] on [card]Cranial Plating[/card].

Junk

This matchup is similar to Jund, but the sideboard plan is a little different.

In

[draft]2 Spell Pierce
1 Thoughtseize
1 Master of Etherium
1 Etched Champion
1 Whipflare[/draft]

Out

[draft]2 Memnite
1 Galvanic Blast
2 Thoughtcast
1 Signal Pest[/draft] [card]Spellskite[/card] is less powerful if there is no [card]Lightning Bolt[/card] to deflect. [card]Signal Pest[/card] just runs into 1/1 flying tokens. Good ways around [card]Lingering Souls[/card] are [card]Master of Etherium[/card], [card]Steel Overseer[/card], and [card]Whipflare[/card], so we keep those. Cross your fingers and hope to dodge [card]Stony Silence[/card].

Affinity

In the mirror match, [card]Steel Overseer[/card] and [card]Master of Etherium[/card] are among the best things you can do. These cards allow your [card]Vault Skirge[/card] and [card]Blinkmoth Nexus[/card] to fight theirs and live, which is a good path to victory.

In

[draft]3 Ancient Grudge
2 Spellskite
1 Galvanic Blast
1 Master of Etherium[/draft]

Out

[draft]3 Etched Champion
4 Signal Pest[/draft] [card]Signal Pest[/card] just runs into [card]Vault Skirge[/card], [card]Blinkmoth Nexus[/card], etc., so I think it is too weak. [card]Etched Champion[/card] is a [card]Grey Ogre[/card] with no upside in the mirror match, which is horrible. Instead of these cards, we get spot removal. We also add [card]Spellskite[/card] because it can deflect the modular ability of [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card]. This prevents them from building a huge [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card], although smart opponents will choose not to use the modular ability upon resolution.

R/G Tron

I’ve never played this matchup, so this sideboard plan is merely my best guess.

In

[draft]2 Spell Pierce
1 Thoughtseize
1 Master of Etherium[/draft]

Out

[draft]3 Etched Champion
1 Galvanic Blast[/draft]

Melira Pod

It’s a race! Your goal is to kill them with evasive damage before they can assemble their combo. There is a relevant interaction between [card]Melira, Sylvok Outcast[/card] and [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card]. If both cards are in play, then [card]Inkmoth Nexus[/card] will deal neither regular nor infect damage to your opponent.

In

[draft]2 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Torpor Orb
1 Whipflare
1 Thoughtseize
1 Galvanic Blast
1 Etched Champion[/draft]

Out

[draft]2 Memnite
3 Thoughtcast
1 Steel Overseer
1 Master of Etherium[/draft]

You get a lot more interaction after sideboard. They gain [card]Kataki, War’s Wage[/card] and [card]Harmonic Sliver[/card], so watch out for that.

UWR Control

This is not a great matchup, as they have a lot of spot removal. [card]Electrolyze[/card] is often a 3-for-1 against us, and [card]Stony Silence[/card] from the sideboard is difficult to beat.

In

[draft]2 Spellskite
2 Spell Pierce
1 Thoughtseize
1 Master of Etherium
1 Etched Champion[/draft]

Out

[draft]4 Steel Overseer
2 Ornithopter
1 Galvanic Blast[/draft]

Most of the cards you board in are proactive ways to deal with [card]Stony Silence[/card]. [card]Steel Overseer[/card] is weak against [card]Electrolyze[/card] and [card]Stony Silence[/card], so it gets cut.

Splinter Twin

This is a bad matchup because they often have relevant interaction to delay your clock, while they present a turn-4 combo.

In

[draft]2 Spellskite
2 Spell Pierce
1 Thoughtseize
1 Galvanic Blast
1 Torpor Orb
1 Master of Etherium[/draft]

Out

[draft]1 Ornithopter
1 Steel Overseer
3 Etched Champion
1 Vault Skirge
2 Thoughtcast[/draft]

Evasion and lifelink doesn’t really matter against them, so you can cut a [card]Vault Skirge[/card].

Scapeshift

Similar to Splinter Twin, except that now their clock is slower. Dealing 18 damage ([card]Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle[/card] plus 6 Mountain) isn’t good enough against us, so you are able to race them more often than not.

In

[draft]2 Spellskite
1 Thoughtseize
1 Master of Etherium
2 Spell Pierce[/draft]

Out

[draft]3 Etched Champion
1 Galvanic Blast
1 Ornithopter
1 Vault Skirge[/draft]

Living End

In this matchup, [card]Arcbound Ravager[/card] is key because it allows you to sacrifice all of your creatures in response to a [card]Living End[/card].

In

[draft]1 Thoughtseize
2 Spell Pierce[/draft]

Out

[draft]1 Galvanic Blast
1 Master of Etherium
1 Steel Overseer[/draft]

Note that [card]Grafdigger’s Cage[/card] doesn’t work against [card]Living End[/card].

Conclusion

May you dodge [card]Shatterstorm[/card] and [card]Stony Silence[/card] as often as I did in Antwerp, and may the Artifact Gods (which are notably absent in Theros, by the way) shine upon you!

If you have any questions or would like me to explain specific card choices, then please post them in the comments below.

Discussion

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