My teammate Rick doesn't really like to be called a "rogue" deckbuilder. He phrases it more in terms of avoiding mirror matches; he doesn't want to play the most popular deck, because he hates the idea of playing the mirror match all day. For States, he and I both determined that Affinity would be the most likely deck - and the mirror matchup he was hoping to avoid (although we agreed that quite a few people would play Black/Green as well). So for each of the various non-Affinity decks he designed, he needed to test them against Affinity. Thus, he needed someone to be playing Affinity - and that person was me.
Twice a week for approximately a month, I sat down and played some version of Affinity against a whole host of decks, from Mono-green Blasting Station to Mono-Black Control to Tooth and Nail to Red/Green Hate. When States finally rolled around, to say I felt well-prepared would be an understatement.
This is not a States tournament report, for a lot of reasons. The biggest reason is that tournament reports for Affinity are really boring. There are only so many euphemisms one can substitute for "I equipped my guy with Cranial Plating." Used the phrases "shiny hat" or "snazzy headgear"? Check. Reference Dark Helmet from "Spaceballs"? Check. Claim to have passed the Plating around like "the flu," "a mix tape," and "Paris Hilton"? Check. So, instead, I'm going to put all that testing experience to good use, showing you anything and everything that I learned about Affinity decks along the way.
PART ONE - MAKING THE BETTER BUILD
1. The Obvious
Let's get started by agreeing that the following 28 cards should go into just about every Affinity deck:
4 Disciple of the Vault
4 Arcbound Worker
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Vault of Whispers
These are the core cards, the ones who cause the Affinity deck to obey The Philosophy of Fire. For those of you too lazy to click the link, that refers to the idea that Shock is the baseline of damage efficiency in Magic; one card = two damage. Decks that obey the philosophy try to get at least two damage (and usually more) out of every card they run. So, for example, with a Disciple of the Vault and a Ravager/Atog in play, virtually every card in your deck becomes a Shock (one life loss from the Disciple, one damage when the Ravager attacks). I've read columns that say how Affinity is deceptively hard to play, that it requires a great many decisions be made correctly. They're right - but it's also useful to consider old-school decks which obeyed the Philosophy of Fire, like Deadguy Red, and note that Affinity is thematically the same. You're going to see ten cards over the course of the first few turns; if you can get an average of two damage out of each of them, you'll be almost certain to win. These core inclusions help you accomplish that. So, assuming a sixty-card deck (I doubt that 62 aficionados like Jamie Wakefield would play Affinity anyway), that leaves you with thirty-two slots to go. It doesn't seem like much, and yet it can create infinite possibilities...
2. Vial, Mox, Mantle, Or Other?
So we've established that you should be obeying the Philosophy of Fire. Like any fire, it's easier to get raging out of control if you use an accelerant. And, like any fire, the type of burn that you get is dependent upon the accelerant that you use - some fires burn very hot for a brief period, while others don't burn as badly but last much longer. One of the fundamental things about Affinity is that the type of accelerant you use defines your deck. It's usually a bad idea to mix accelerants, because then your deck loses consistency. For example, say you're playing both Chrome Mox and Aether Vial. If you then play with Somber Hoverguard to help the Mox, you lose slots for guys who can be Vialed out, and then the vial becomes strictly worse than, say, Chromatic Sphere. But guys who can be Vialed out, such as Atog, are so good that you don't want to put them under a Mox, making the Mox strictly worse than an artifact land. So choose good accelerants.
As the title of this section suggests, there are four ways you can go; I'll work backwards.
Chris Roy, 2004 New Hampshire State Champion
Identifiable by: Runs random cheap artifacts like Welding Jar, Ornithopter, Chiss-Goria parts, etc., to pump up the Affinity count.
Pluses: You can customize your deck, including cards which opponents may not expect and thus get ambushed by, such as the Chiss-Goria parts or Genesis Chamber. Also, if you run enough Ornithopters and Jars, you can have some really explosive turn 1s with this deck.
Minuses: You can also get some really atrocious draws with these builds; for example, most hands that have Ornithopter but not Cranial Plating will make you want to vomit. Also, you're still pretty vulnerable to hate because Oxidize laughs at your puny Welding Jars.
William Jensen, top 8 Grand Prix: Orlando
Identifiable by: Paradise Mantle, derf, used in combination with Ornithopter to obtain a first-turn Birds of Paradise which also helps your Affinity by two. Since the Mantle produces colored mana, it also uses a lot of colored cards such as Jensen's Somber Hoverguard, Night's Whisper, and Shrapnel Blast.
Pluses: Probably the most explosive of all artifact decks; when playing it, I've thrown down multiple Somber Hoverguards on turn 2. Because the Mantle is a zero-drop which itself produces mana, it's almost as good for you as a Sol Ring would be.
Minuses: Because it depends upon creatures to receive the Mantle, it's extremely vulnerable to hate; for example, it virtually scoops the cards against mono-red.
TJ Impellizzieri, top 4 New York States
Identifiable by: Chrome Mox and Somber Hoverguard (both to feed the Moxen and to be played by them). Sometimes runs other zero-cost artifacts such as Ornithopter or Welding Jar.
Pluses: Almost as fast as Mantle Affinity, and without totally being shafted by hate cards, since it doesn't depend upon equipped creatures to make its colored mana.
Minuses: The Mox sort of undermines the Philosophy of Fire - you're giving up two cards and you usually don't get much damage out of them. The result is that Mox Affinity can get some nice starts, but also fizzles out easier as the game goes long (of course, if you get a turn 2 Myr Enforcer consistently, the longer games might not be much of an issue).
Osyp Lebedowicz, GP: Orlando Champion
(Aspiring writers out there, take note: whenever your article starts to get boring, mention Osyp, even if you have never met him before in your life. Never fails.)
The obvious 28 slots, plus....
Identifiable by: You'll never believe this, but Aether Vial is prominently involved! Usually eschews Somber Hoverguard in favor of guys who can be Vialed out easily, like Atog, Moriok Rigger, or the Meddling Mages in Pierre Canali's Pro Tour: Columbus championship deck.
Pluses: The most consistent Affinity deck in the face of hate. Osyp's entertaining Orlando report tells a story of how he won after his opponent cast Granulate on turns 4 and 5. At State, I won a game against the eventual State Champion in which both Damping Matrix and March of the Machines resolved.
Minuses: Gets the fewest number of ridiculously explosive "whatever" starts of all Affinity decks, because it runs few or no zero-cost artifacts. However, if you watched the top 8 coverage from Pro Tour: Columbus, you saw that the deck can hold its own even in the Extended format.
3. How Many Cranial Platings?
Believe it or not, reasonable arguments can be made for running zero Cranial Platings. Obviously, it's one of the most hated cards in the format and is usually the first target for a Viridian Shaman. It's not unusual for Platings to get sideboarded out in some matchups, especially if artifact hate is a factor. So why not just cut it entirely, to be replaced by more damage (such as Shrapnel Blast) or more consistency (such as Night's Whisper)?
And even if you think that previous paragraph was a load of horsecrap, you may not want to run the full four Platings. This is usually done in order to maindeck a matchup card - for example, late in Block season it became popular to cut a Plating or two for Moriok Rigger, who is a complete house against base-green decks and the mirror. If you're in doubt, I would run four Platings, just because it can swing games in absurd ways. But, if you find your deck has some holes that need filling, keep in mind that it will not be completely neutered if one or two of those Platings goes by the wayside.
4. Shrapnel Blast Or No?
Never before, in the history of Magic, has there been a five-damage-for-two-mana card whose inclusion in an aggressive deck was controversial. Yet Shrapnel Blast finds itself in that very spot these days. Some people like to mention the obvious - that its inclusion in your deck basically causes the opponent to start the game at fifteen life (or ten, or lower). Others - Frank Karsten chief among them - have pointed out that instead of using that two mana + one artifact for one shot of burn, you could be using it to help put a fat beater into play such as Myr Enforcer. Unlike Shrapnel Blast, fat beaters are a gift that keeps on giving.
Almost every Affinity deck I have ever played (or played against) has had a Shrapnel Blast or two in the sideboard - you want your opponent to make his combat decisions in fear of it, and it's a great card to have while Death Cloud or Pulse of the Fields are on the stack. And, generally, if your Affinity deck doesn't care at all about the late game and doesn't try to preserve its resources in the long term - such as Mox and Mantle Affinity - then you're not losing much by having a couple Shrapnel Blasts in the main. But if you're running Vial Affinity or any other build that's designed to be resilient to hate, Shrapnel Blast should probably stay in the board, if you run it at all. You'll have enough problems managing your resources without trying to keep red mana available in response to your opponent's Oxidize.
5. The Big Beaters
In the beginning, there was Myr Enforcer. And the beatings were good. And then God made Eternal Witness, and sent it throughout the land. So the Affinity player did say, "let there be Somber Hoverguard!" And the beatings were good. But how do you choose?
Myr Enforcer is one mighty fat beater who can be easily summoned as early as turn 2. Enforcer often gets sideboarded out against green or against decks running March of the Machines, where he may never be cast if they put the proper amount of control on your artifacts. Enter Somber Hoverguard. He was amazing early in Block season, when flight-light decks like Monogreen Beats and G/U Tooth and Nail were trying to take over. And he can be very hot in the mirror, which is often decided by who gets to have a Cranial Plated flier first. But playing Hoverguard also increases the color card/artifact card conflict in a deck that can have problems with color-screw even in the best of times.
Again, the issue is what type of deck you are running. Look at Canali's Extended deck from Columbus, for example. He was clearly expecting a lot of Rock decks, against which Enforcer needs some help; he just gets infinitely chump-blocked until Spiritmonger or Kokusho, the Evening Star hit the table. Plus, Myr Enforcer is the suck against Energy Flux, which everyone knew about. So Canali added Somber Hoverguard, and obviously his deck turned out okay.
Finally, I would point out that some formats might call for neither of these guys. Witness Semion "Simon" Bezrukov's top 4 deck from the Last Chance Qualifier for PT Columbus:
Clearly, he was expecting a lot of mono-red and green-red control decks (against which Atog is strong) and Affinity mirrors (where E-Bolt allows him to obtain an advantage in the number of Disciples or Nexus on board), so Simon gained a strategic superiority in those matchups - at the cost of a card that he can easily win without.
6. Building The Deck
I'll finish the deckbuilding part by looking at my States Affinity deck.
I chose Aether Vial as my accelerant because I expected a lot of hate in Virginia, and Vial is the best build to fight through hate.As for the creatures to Vial in, I went with two Moriok Riggers and two Atogs. More than four such creatures were causing occasional color-screw during testing, and I wanted an even mix of Riggers and Atogs because I could not be sure if the field would be heavy red (where Atog is good) or heavy green (where Rigger is amazing).
As in most Vial decks, I went with four Chromatic Sphere to allow these guys to be hard-cast in color-screw situations.
Continuing the no-color-screw theme, I went with Myr Enforcer instead of Somber Hoverguard. I actually expected enough green cards in the field that Hoverguards might have been good, but I thought the mana consistency of Enforcer was just better for a wide-open field like States. I also thought that Blinkmoth Nexus would be good enough in the "hard-to-stop flying man" category.
Early on, I planned to go with four Enforcer and four Cranial Platings, but after testing showed how good Horobi, Death's Wail was going to be, I cut Plating and Enforcer down to three each and added two of the techy Scale of Chiss-Goria. Testing showed that Scale was a nice trick, allowing Frogmite to survive a rumble with Eternal Witness, protecting Enforcers from Electrostatic Bolt, and so on.
So the main deck ended up being:
The obvious 28 slots, plus...
4 Great Furnace
2 Darksteel Citadel
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Aether Vial
4 Chromatic Sphere
3 Cranial Plating
2 Scale of Chiss-Goria
3 Myr Enforcer
2 Moriok Rigger
I haven't listed any sideboards in this article because I have always believed that sideboards should be developed on one's own. For example, I ignored Rick's warnings about Damping Matrix and passed on Viridian Shaman for my board, because I was afraid the green man would cause more color problems for me. So obviously, I lost one match to Damping Matrix and another to a mirror match that did have Shamans in the board.
I did manage a 12th place finish at Virginia States with a 6-2 record, bringing home 21 packs (but no Cranial Extractions, frown). So all that work paid off, but it also showed some ways in which our testing had been flawed. That's the game for you.
Part 2 - How To Play Better Affinity
1. Mulligan better. I always go by the rule laid out by Frank Karsten in his Grand Prix: Zurich report: if your hand can't goldfish by turn 4 or 5, you should consider sending it back. Anyone who scoffs at that rule doesn't really understand why Affinity wins. In addition to the stereotypically ridiculous hands that involve multiple Frogmites and Enforcers early on, any hand that includes a Disciple of the Vault or a Cranial Plating can get out of hand in a hurry just because of the sheer number of artifacts that can be in play by turn 5 or so.
The key is not the number of lands you draw as much as it is the number of threats that you can play in the early turns. Vial Affinity, for example, can often turn a one-land hand into a monster start if it can Vial out a creature on turn 2. Conversely, what might be a reasonable number of lands in hand for a green deck - four, say - might be a mulligan-worthy hand in Affinity.Depending upon your build, you can keep some weird hands. At a Grand Prix trial during Mirrodin Block season, I played Mantle Affinity, and won a game in the mirror where I went turn 1 "Glimmervoid, Ornithopter, Mantle, equip" and did not play another land for the rest of the game! Of course it requires good judgement to keep such hands as these; more on this later.
2. Understand the value of the all-in. Because it has become the bogeyman of multiple formats, the ability of an Affinity deck to kill someone from any given position is often overestimated. The fact is, if you're playing Affinity and you're not killing people or establishing overwhelming board positions in the first six or so turns in the game, your task gets a lot harder - not impossible, mind you, but a lot harder. The reason is simple: Affinity is the beatdown deck in every matchup, and as such, time is not on its side. The Philosophy of Fire is not about card advantage - it's about putting your opponent to zero as quickly as possible. Most of the control decks in the format are about card advantage, either with Eternal Witness, or blue cards, or both. Give them too much time, and they'll catch up to your fast start.
So you should always be looking for the all-in kill: piling all of your modular counters on a Blinkmoth Nexus, sacking the table to an Atog, Shrapnel Blasting your most important guy at the opponent's face.... You might think that since Affinity is so widely played, calculating these kills would be easy. You'd be so, so wrong. It's not easy to count damage when you have to keep track in your head the amount of modular counters, Disciple life loss, Cranial Plating bonuses, Atog pumps, etc. Hell, I have trouble with it, and I'm a grad student in math. It's hard even at the highest level: Osyp and Randy Buehler both pointed out that Canali missed an all-in kill in game 3 of the final match of Pro Tour: Columbus.
I will occasionally see someone miss an all-in kill with Affinity where they win the game anyway and say missing the kill "didn't matter, since my position was too good." You should divorce yourself from this kind of thinking. Even if your position is so good that you must win eventually, you should get in the habit of killing the opponent the first chance you get, so that you're well-trained for those situations when it does matter. No position in Magic is so good that you'd rather keep playing than win the game.
3. The Mamet Rule.
"You ever cheat on a woman? ... Stand her up, step out on her ... Ever do that?"
"When you did, did you have an excuse?"
"What if she didn't ask? Was your alibi a waste of time?"
- from David Mamet's Heist
So. You're playing Affinity. In other words, the format hates you. I like to play this for laughs - you should see my "You mean there's artifact hate in this format?" routine, it's great - but in a tournament situation, it's deadly serious. You have to assume that your opponent tested against Affinity. Everybody tests against Affinity. These days, even the seven-year-old kids who bring their eighty-card decks to the table are testing against Affinity. And if the testing doesn't work out, they load up on more hate.
Hence, the Mamet Rule: Play as if your opponent has an answer, because even if he doesn't have it, your plan wasn't a waste of time.
In other words, don't make your Atog gigantic unless you can recover from Rend Flesh. Don't think your Somber Hoverguard will go all the way against monogreen unless you're sure he doesn't have Blasting Station. Don't pile all the modular counters on one guy without planning for Oxidize.
This is most important when mulliganing. Any build with Glimmervoid will inevitably draw one of those very tempting hands that could explode on turn 2, but only at the risk of losing the 'void to turn 1 Oxidize. No matter how many times you get away with keeping hands like this, it always comes back to haunt you at the worst times. That's the key to the Mamet Rule.
4. Sometimes, you just have to play Magic well. Let's say that your opponent has some blockers and a Molder Slug, which is swinging in to own you every turn. It seems like your best chance is to go all-in with modular counters on a Blinkmoth Nexus (rule 2), but you have doubts because your opponent has left a Forest open for a potential Oxidize (rule 3).Or, let's say you have mulliganed twice, and your five-card hand is pretty damned nifty: "Glimmervoid, Chromatic Sphere, Arcbound Worker, Disciple, Atog." You have mulliganed into an aggressive hand (rule 1), but it scoops if your opponent has turn-1 Oxidize or E-Bolt (rule 3).In both cases, two rules are in conflict. What now?
Read the title of the section, buddy. You just have to be a good player.
No set of rules can describe every situation that we as Magic players could face. This is why, even in a game with such a heavy luck factor, we can say that someone is "the best player in the world"; lots of tournament players know rules interactions, and plenty more people can build genius decks, but only a select few can consistently make the right decisions at the table. When faced with the complex situations, they can intuit a tough choice, and be right often enough to make all those top 8s.
So in the end, you have to do the sorts of things that good card players do: Read your opponent, play the odds, make the move with the highest expected value. I can't teach you how to do that, because if I could do it right every time, I'd be on the Tour myself instead of toiling to keep my rating over 1750. So that's where my knowledge runs out.
Until next time, here's hoping your opponent doesn't have a Ghostly Prison, Honden of Cleansing Fire, and a Honden of Infinite Rage in play against you (which happened to me in the finals of a Kamigawa draft last week).
This article written while listening to Talib Kweli's "The Beautiful Struggle."
mm underscore young at yahoo dot com Later.