A Bridge Too Far – Is Affinity Too Good for MTG Pauper?

Since the release of Modern Horizons 2, Affinity has reemerged as a Pauper powerhouse. While initially overshadowed by Chatterstorm and Galvanic Relay, the metal menace has marched along, gradually picking up new pieces and surviving multiple bans. Some of those bans – namely Sojourner’s Companion – were less effective than others, but regardless, the strategy has adapted and adjusted and to this day remains a force in the metagame. Today, I’m going to take a look at how we got here and whether or not it can stay in Pauper while maintaining a healthy format.

But first, some disclaimers. I am a member of the Pauper Format Panel and as such am involved in discussions around the health and direction of the format. In fact, it’s because of my position on the Panel that I have shied away from writing articles of this nature. The last thing I want to do is set up a premise that may lead to anger or disappointment. While this article may cross that line, I do believe the subject matter is important enough to at least put these thoughts out there. 

Where do we start? I think the best place is at the beginning… of Pauper as an officially recognized format. Back before it was given a filter on Magic Online, Pauper was a bit of the wild west with different communities using different sets of rules. The Pauper Deck Challenge group – a community on Magic Online – would routinely hold votes to determine the banned list for a given season. Leading up to the official recognition, there was a debate around Affinity. Different tournaments had tried to constrain the archetype – which was still relatively new – due to the power of the eponymous mechanic but also Cranial Plating. Some events had restricted the lands – as only one copy of each – and let Plating run free, but Affinity was still a dominant force. In a player-run season before the official filter was added to the platform, the lands were unrestricted and Cranial Plating was banned. I only mention this because in the official announcement of the Pauper filter, the Magic Online team initially had Plating legal and the artifact lands restricted (this was corrected before the format went live). I share this as a way to show that the deck has long been the monster hiding under the format’s bed. 

 

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Pauper Affinity by intherain, 2009

 

Back then, Affinity was not nearly as refined. Scars of Mirrodin had not yet been released and due to wrinkles in the rules, Atog was not yet legal. Still, a deck packed to the gills with nearly  threats and card draw spells made things difficult for opponents. The saving graces from the past were cards like Tin-Street Hooligan and Ancient Grudge as it would be several years before Gorilla Saman showed up on Magic Online in the Coldsnap Preconstructed decks.

From 2006 until 2021, Gorilla Shaman was the biggest limiting factor to Affinity. The Mox Monkey could chew through artifact lands with ease for the bargain basement price of one generic mana per land. Gorilla Shaman was the risk in Affinity’s risk-reward balance as running into it could mean an extremely rough time. The correct play was to often hold back Shaman until the second turn to ensure it would trade for at least a land, if not more. If the opponent was able to untap with mana available and Gorilla Shaman on the board, the game was almost certainly over. Even so, Affinity remained a viable archetype in part because Gorilla Shaman was not unbeatable. 

What was the other part? Affinity’s ability to just overwhelm the opponent. Historically, Pauper has had trouble with decks and mechanics that cheat on mana. In a format without catch up mechanisms such as board wipes or ways to regularly generate value like planeswalkers, decks that are able to do several impactful things each turn cycle tend to pull ahead. This is part of the reasons cards like Gush and decks like Tron have proved problematic in the past – their ability to just do more each turn helps them pull away from the rest of the format. Yet even with this tremendous upside, Affinity was largely held in check by Gorilla Shaman and other powerful artifact destruction.

Pauper Affinity by JUJUBEAN_2004, 2021

 

All of that changed with Modern Horizons 2. In the preceding season – where Strixhaven was the latest set – Affinity was the fifth most popular archetype with 37 total Top 32 appearances, or just over 8.25 percent of total deck’s to make the Top 32. It also had 10 Top 8 finishes – alone in fourth place in that regard. It was hardly a very good deck and firmly in a tier just behind the very best decks. The indestructible artifact lands changed all of that. Without the risk of having their mana base obliterated, Affinity surged in popularity and in the first five weeks after Modern Horizons 2 hit Magic Online, Affinity was the most popular Top 32 deck with 93 such finishes (29.1 percent), 22 Top 8 finishes (27.5 percent) and four wins – and this was in a format where the Chatterstorm deck was legal!

Things only picked up after Adventures in the Forgotten Realms came out and brought Deadly Dispute along for the ride. Dispute was able to convert excess lands into new cards, giving Affinity another potent draw two (or more thanks to Chromatic Star and Ichor Wellspring) to pair with Thoughtcast. In the 18 Challenges from Forgotten Realms season, Affinity was once again the most popular deck in the Top 32 (144 appearances) and had 31 Top 8s with six wins. 

The intervening year has been extremely kind to Affinity. Despite a number of bans (Sojourner’s Companion, Atog, Disciple of the Vault, Prophetic Prism), the machine continued to add new parts. Crimson Vow gave the deck additional inevitability in Blood Fountain. Neon Dynasty brought along Experimental Synthesizer and Reckoner’s Bargain. Battle for Baldur’s Gate provided Kenku Artificer as another way to weaponize lands and now The Brothers’ War has added Gixian Infiltrator to the mix. Affinity has cemented itself as one of, if not the best deck in Pauper. Its success is many layered.

Pauper Affinity by Beicodegeia, December 2022

 

First is the mana base. Not only have the Bridges all but removed the risk from running Affinity, they provide a steady stream of material. Material is increasingly important in Pauper these days and any card that comes with an extra token deserves another look. This is due to cards like Deadly Dispute and its ilk but in Affinity, they serve another purpose. Affinity has established itself as a fantastic board control deck thanks to Makeshift Munitions and Krark-Clan Shaman. Together, these cards can keep the board clear of most small threats that could otherwise overwhelm Affinity’s defenses.

The fact that these lands are often better than Ancient Tomb cannot be understated. A single spell with Affinity means that each of these lands effectively taps for one of two different colors and then another generic mana. But as anyone who has been on the receiving end of a string of Myr Enforcers, they often produce far more than two measly mana. Even Tron, with its copious mana production, struggles to keep up with this bevy of resources. That they are ready made for Deadly Dispute and Makeshift Munitions means that once a sufficient number of lands have hit the battlefield, they can be converted into new resources. Few other decks in Pauper have the ability to turn useless lands into fresh cards at the clip of Affinity.

Currently, Affinity also has the ability to run all the best cards. The abundance of cheap card draw, dual lands and Treasure production makes it so that with a few adjustments Affinity can adopt almost any card it wants. While it has always been a multichromatic deck, the chromatic approach came with the need to run cards like Springleaf Drum. Now, Affinity can easily run Galvanic Blast, Metallic Rebuke and Cast Down in the main deck while bridging in sideboard all-stars like Leave No Trace and Weather the Storm with ease.

But I want to go back to the lands themselves for a second. The power of the artifact lands with Deadly Dispute has started to permeate the format. The package is so compact and powerful that you better have a good reason to not run it. Therein lies the problem. Once you start adding artifact lands, it becomes trivial to add cards like Galvanic Blast, and at that point, why aren’t you running Affinity?

Taken together all of this means Affinity is defining the metagame. Personally, I think it’s doing this in a way that is stifling Pauper. There is currently no effective hate for Affinity; Dust to Dust is the best option and it trades at a significant tempo loss. The deck is resilient to interaction thanks to Blood Fountain and can out-draw nearly any deck in the format. It has the ability to play a quick aggressive game with Myr Enforcer and Galvanic Blast or grind the opponent into dust with Makeshift Munitions. It’s not a single best deck, but rather several best decks.

So what steps can be taken? When the Bridges were spoiled back in 2021, I let out a string of expletives. I was hopeful that these cards would be additive to the format and for a while, they were. The past several months have shown that the Bridges are doing more to bolster Affinity than to help fringe strategies (like Cleansing Wildfire ramp). Removing them would not reduce Affinity’s power but would open the door to interaction. While Gorilla Shaman games might not be ideal Magic, they at least allowed Affinity to exist without running roughshod over large swaths of the metagame. After nearly a year and a half, maybe it’s finally time to burn the bridges.

8 thoughts on “A Bridge Too Far – Is Affinity Too Good for MTG Pauper?”

  1. Hey Alex! As always, I really appreciate your involvement with the format we love.
    The bridge situation is one we all think about and talk about with our pauper friends. I really think the bridges are a cool addition. They create strategies like cleansing wildfire, help run galvanic blast wich had a ton of utilities, etc. The card that is making everything complicated is the great survivor: Myr Enforcer… Yes, the old card that breaks the mana rules. Affinity can draw as many cards as it wants, pay all the colors, and have as many different win conditions as it pleases, but having a free, recurring, non-exhilable, above average size win-con is the deal breaker. You can’t wait for the affinity player to play two enforcers because they will sac them to dispute, bargain, munitions or shaman, because they have mana up AFTER PLAYING THE TWO. Fountain made ancient grudge unusable! Smash to smithereens really deals the damage!
    Efficient cards with cool new effects, or more efficient than the ones we have now will continue being printed, and it won’t be affinity that will be benefited by that. It will be Enforcer. Please ban Myr Enforcer.

  2. Unpopular opinion: Ban the five monocolored artifact lands (or some of them).
    This would still allow other strategies to use the bridges profitably (kenku artificer, cleansing wildfire) while forcing affinity to either play a fully “enters the battlefield tapped” manabase or give up on cards like enforcer and thoughtcast.
    Another collateral benefit would be to take a little bit of power away from kuldotha burn, which without great furnace shouldn’t be able to consistently turn on metalcraft for galvanic blast anymore.
    Long term, this choice could also allow the unbanning of cards like sojourner’s companion, and maybe even atog and disciple of the vault.

  3. I think as a format staple archetype for as long as Pauper has existed, Affinity shouldn’t have all it’s power cards banned until the archetype is no longer recognizable. It’s a fun deck and one of the few ways you can still play something that feels like a combo deck while remaining competitive, since Storm and High Tide have both been banned out of existence as archetypes.

    However, the recent indestructible Bridge cycle has removed Affinity’s one major weakness that kept it fair to play against and sideboard hate is no longer anywhere near as effective as it once was. As much as it pains me to say it, bedside I’ve been absolutely adoring playing Jund Cascade with Cleansing Wildfire the past couple months, I would be in favor of banning the indestructible Bridge cycle if the Atog, Disciple of the Vault, and Prophetic Prism bans were reversed. Affinity really does need some kind of color fixing if the Bridges have to go and Prism was quite fair, and I don’t think Atog and Disciple were ever really problems in the deck since removal options in Pauper are better than ever these days.

    That’s my two cents.

  4. I don’t think it’s even all the bridges that would need to go. Just the Drossforge Bridge.
    That wouldn’t hit Jeksai and other Cleansing wildfire decks as much. Other decks using the bridge don’t rely nearly as much on it, so we’d be hitting affinity without significantly hurting other archetypes too much.
    Slam a fountain ban too and it has to run reaping the graves to get it’s creatures back, which still allows it to have value in long games without having a card that adds +2 artifacts for one mana.

  5. I mostly agree with your point of view. That being said, it would be great if we found the right thing to ban, because WotC has been playing whack-a-mole for very long with this deck. The indestructible artifact lands are a problem, but if they’re banned and affinity continues to be the best deck and to make other decks unplayable – makeshift munitions has a role in Faeries being played less, for example – maybe the banlist could be streamlined in the following ways:

    The following cards are now unbanned:
    Atog
    Cranial Plating
    Disciple of the Vault
    Sojourner’s Companion

    The following cards are now banned:
    Any card that has both land and artifact card types

  6. In general I’m against banning cards from pauper unless it’s just blatantly busted. I’d rather see new cards get printed to bring power to other decks and enable new archetypes to combat the current top decks. Variety and viability are key factors for a healthy and fun format… in my opinion. I would argue to keep the bridges, but if you guys on the panel have any influence over new commons getting created in future sets, maybe look to help us deal with artifacts a bit better in different and creative ways. Like, whenever an artifact enters the battlefield under an opponent’s control, deal 1 damage to any target. Or maybe something like, whenever an opponent sacrifices a permanent… or maybe more cost-efficient ways to exile artifacts and/or artifact lands. Gorilla Shaman-style card that exiles instead of destroys might help too.

  7. Why doesn’t anyone want to get rid of Deadly Dispute? That part of the engine typically draws 3 cards and replaces the artifact used to cast the spell. Is Affinity even Affinity if it plays 8 total affinity spells? I think the best bans to hurt the deck while keeping a versatile and interesting land (bridges) legal would be:

    Krark-Clan Shaman (force them to find another means of interaction that doesn’t favor them with 1 for Xs and give them value at the same time when sacrificing card draw artifacts or easily recursive affinity creatures. Force their interaction to be a 1 for one rather than a multiple for one.)
    Deadly Dispute (The amount of on board value and in hand value this card generates is only going to enable more value issues long term).
    Myr Enforcer (If Affinity has to play 4 frogs will it still be affinity if it still plays 2 Thoughtcast? Does anyone care? Without Enforcer the deck will need to draw into munitions and hurt itself by forcing a decision of what to interact with: the board or life totals. That or it’ll have to move onto win conditions that aren’t beefy artifact creatures played for zero mana. Let the fountain recur the frogs, which are easier to match up against with smaller creatures.)

    All in all I think the lands are the big “here is where all the value comes from” sign that players fixate on when the Shaman and Deadly Dispute create huge board swings and negate multiple “on board resources” while creating value at the same time. The 2 for 1 math of affinity isn’t a huge problem when 8 cards in the deck take advantage of the “land math”. It’s the 1 for 3+ value/board/card engines that are problematic now and long term. Mathematically speaking, if that’s the aim, then aim for the value swings that create multiples higher than “1 land now creates 2 value” in the deck rather than a 2/2 frog and a 1 blue mana draw 2 spell.

  8. If the “indestructible lands” will be banned,. does Sojourner’s Companion and Atog has a possible chance to be unbanned?

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