Sarnia Affinity – Why It’s Better Than Yours

Through the course of this article, I’ll reveal to you what I consider to be the best Affinity build, show you how to play it, and reveal the theory behind it. It’s the Ancient Tomb and Mind Stone theory, which will be revealed to you inside. The important thing is that you learn to understand exactly why the Affinity deck is so robust, and once you do that, it will serve you in a proportionately greater fashion. You will be able to capitalize on the strengths of the deck – namely the fact that it essentially gets to play cards that aren’t even legal.

It’s been a while since I wrote a strategy article. The last one I did was a draft guide for U/R in Onslaught Block, a project that was simultaneously a great triumph and a massive drain on my energy. Since then, I’ve been travelling and spinning yarns, but I haven’t really returned to claw through the minutiae of the game since I finished off that draft series so many weeks ago. I’m actually surprised at how long it’s been! August 8th? A housefly has been born, lived it’s life, landed in some potato salad and then died during that span, all without a word from yours truly.

Even if you’re sympathetic toward the fly and his plight, that’s humbling.

I can’t just write just any strategy article, though. I have to stick to what I know, and in the unassuming city of Sarnia, Ontario (yes, that is our Taco Bell in”Bowling for Columbine”), the Magic we play is divided into two categories: Team Drafts, and Friday Night Magic.

The latter is a Friday tradition for me. I pack up my cards, head downtown, and try my best to nickel and dime my way up to a Nationals rating qualification, one piddling little 8k match at a time. It’s a great chance to hang out with friends and keep the skills sharp – or, at least, no duller than they were last week.

Recently, Magic for me has been a mix of great moments and bile-saturated defeats. My trip to Boston, for example, was more fun than one human being should have. Conversely, Provincials was a bust, as my Scepter-Control deck didn’t perform up to expectations and I missed out on prizes in the last round, falling to 5-3, a mediocre finish. The fact that a fellow Future Pastimes gamer (and my sometime playtest partner) Jean-Marc Babin managed to win the whole thing was simultaneously a joyous moment for us Sarnia boys, and a bitter pill to swallow.

If anyone from Sarnia is going to win, I generally prefer that it be me.

I was second-best on that day, though, as JM piloted his Affinity deck through a sea of Goblins and W/x control builds to take the championship, a feat that kindled my own interest in the archetype. Ten wins, one loss. Control decks were left flailing on the pavement in his wake. Do you know how many Akroma’s Vengeances resolved against JM in eleven matches? None. The big goose egg. That’s a compelling number.

Through the course of this article, I’ll reveal to you what I consider to be the best Affinity build, show you how to play it, and reveal the theory behind it. It’s the Ancient Tomb and Mind Stone theory, which will be revealed to you in subsequent paragraphs. The important thing is that you learn to understand exactly why the Affinity deck is so robust, and once you do that, it will serve you in a proportionately greater fashion. You will be able to capitalize on the strengths of the deck- namely the fact that it essentially gets to play cards that aren’t even legal.

Let’s get started. There’s been a lot of talk about how to build the best Affinity deck, but I think the optimal configuration is something along the lines of Jean-Marc Babin’s build, which took first place at Ontario’s Provincial Championships.

(Note that Nick Eisel was right about not playing Frogmites – after seeing the eight-creature version in action, I no longer think they have a place in the deck.)


(Jean-Marc Babin, 1st Place, 2003 Ontario Provincials)

4 Chromatic Sphere

4 Myr Enforcer

4 Aether Spellbomb

4 Thirst for Knowledge

4 Thoughtcast

4 Mana Leak

4 Broodstar

3 Pyrite Spellbomb

3 Override

3 Assert Authority

4 Island

4 Glimmervoid

4 Seat of the Synod

3 Ancient Den

4 Great Furnace

3 Vault of Whispers

1 City of Brass


3 Cabal Interrogator

2 Terror

3 Chain of Vapor

4 Pyroclasm

3 Circle of Protection: Red

You’ll notice some things right away. There are no Frogmites. There are no Lightning Greaves or Nim Shriekers. The deck has eight big creatures and ten pieces of countermagic.

Why so much countermagic? Well, I’m convinced that it’s the way to go. Time and again I would watch Jean-Marc play against a W/x control deck, and each time I would say to myself:

“This is like watching U/G Madness play against Wake after sideboarding in six more counterspells and the fourth Deep Analysis.”

Jean-Marc would simply get seven artifacts on the table and play a Myr Enforcer with all his mana untapped. Wrath? Counter. Angel? Counter. Vengeance? Thirst for Knowledge in response, then counter. Wrath? Override. And then the Myr Enforcer would come over for the final four points of damage, and the game. Often, JM would still have counters in hand after all was said and done.

It was easy for me to make the comparison, because I played Wake for a month or so at our local FNM events, and JM, playing his trusty U/G Madness, would always have four Counterspells and two Upheavals at the ready for games 2 and 3. Those games would turn into textbook aggro-control vs. pure control battles. JM would get a threat on the table, and then simply go about the business of reducing me to zero life. If I happened to kill one threat, he would play another, and then resume the attacks. Should I attempt to Wrath of God away multiple clocks, he would flash the Counterspell and dare me to make an issue of it.

The aggro-control Affinity build is very similar in the way it plays, and that is why I think Babin was able to play it as well as he did. Having practiced for more than a year with what might be the most powerful aggro-control deck ever to exist, it was no problem for him to fall back into the worn and comfortable shoes of his”drop a cheap 4/4 and protect it” routine. Experience with those situations was, I’m sure, a contributing factor to his success!

In a subsequent phone conversation, Jean-Marc drew a parallel to yet another tremendous aggro-control deck from days gone by. “Actually, I felt like I was playing Blue Skies,” he said, when I told him of the comparison I’d drawn between U/G Madness and ten Counter Affinity (or, if you prefer, JMB Affinity). I can see why he would say that. Blue Skies was all about beating down for six in the air while countering the removal, and that is exactly what his Affinity deck does.

In my opinion, if you’re not playing an eight-creature, ten-counter Affinity deck, you’re playing the wrong version. Jean-Marc played against many W/x control decks during Provincials, and do you know how many managed to resolve Akroma’s Vengeance against him? None. In the finals against Alex Masters Lecky’s Monowhite Control, he countered no less than three Wrath effects per game en route to the championship. At no time did an Akroma’s Vengeance resolve against ten-counter Affinity. In fact, at no time did a control deck beat ten-counter Affinity.

I’m sure you know the ins and outs of a generic Affinity build, so I won’t reproduce here the basics of the archetype, but I do want to point out to you a couple of the finer game theory points that make Affinity so great. There are two major ones, and no other deck in standard can boast these advantages. It’s all about the Ancient Tombs and Mind Stones. Read on.

First of all, every land in an Affinity deck, with the exception of the Glimmervoids and the couple of Islands that always slip into the mana base of each version, is essentially a painless Ancient Tomb. Ancient Tomb is powerful enough to be the most popular card in Extended, but only one deck in Standard gets to use it, if not in actuality than certainly in spirit. That deck is Affinity. What else can you say about a land that not only gives you one mana but also makes most of your spells cost one less? That’s a net gain of two mana. Eventually, you don’t have to tap your lands at all when you want to cast your 4/4 beaters. Late in the game, you will cast 8/8 fliers for UU. That sort of mana efficiency doesn’t exist in Standard outside of the Affinity deck.

With mana like this, it’s a waste of time to play Frogmite. Why waste such great acceleration on a card that trades with every Tom, Dick, and Sledder out there? Using our precious Ancient Tombs to play a 2/2 is like buying a Mercedes and then using it to transport pigs for Farmer Joe. Now, 4/4’s for free…that’s a little better. I can’t stress enough how amazing the mana is in this deck. The deck plays only twenty to twenty-three mana sources, but it nonetheless has probably the most stable manabase of any deck in recent history. Most of the lands essentially produce two mana, and the ones that don’t, well they produce any color of mana.

That’s no mana base, that’s a space station.

Second, that mana smoothness is helped along by the fact that Jean-Marc’s version of the deck plays a staggering eleven Mind Stones.

Mind Stones?

Yes, Mind Stones. Look that card up, because it’s the best way to describe the functionality of Pyrite Spellbomb, Aether Spellbomb, and Chromatic Sphere in the deck. Early game, these one mana artifacts serve to make your spells cheaper. Later on, they can be sacrificed to draw cards, kill morphed Exalted Angels, cast Assert Authority when you only have 1U open, save Broodstar from Wrath of God and so on. In this deck, they are better than Mind Stones. They cost half the mana, and do twice as much! Each one has important functions in addition to cheapening future spells.

Chromatic Sphere is an important mana fixer for your rainbow of sideboard cards, and in the late game against other control decks, they help you dig deeper. The flash point for artifacts is seven or eight. Once you have that seven or eight artifacts, you can start popping your extra”Mind Stone” to draw cards. This doesn’t happen often against aggro, but against control, the war of attrition may leave you with an excess of mana and not enough action. In such situations, it’s often a good idea to pop a Sphere, get a U, and then sacrifice a Pyrite or Aether Spellbomb. Those Thirst for Knowledge will just leap into your hand like salmon headed up the river to spawn.

Speaking of Pyrite Spellbomb, it’s the Mind Stone with an attitude. Exalted Angel is a problem card for Affinity if it gets out early, but with Pyrite Spellbomb on the table, control decks need to wait until they have six mana to lay the Angel down, at which point you can easily counter. It’s also a good card for the matchup against Goblins, which is not favorable at all until after sideboarding (and the addition of Pyroclasms and Circle of Protection: Red). The Pyrite also serves as finisher, and performs the unpleasant task of killing Dwarven Blastminer, a sideboard card that can be very annoying to play against.

Aether Spellbomb does it all. Yes, it draws the card in the late game when you need action. Yes, it makes your spells cheaper. We covered that. But we’re not done. This is the lightning round. It also removes blockers, saves large Affinity Men from destruction, and can sing a lovely rendition of”America, The Beautiful.” Aether Spellbomb provides all the bounce the deck needs.

You’ll note that this list does not feature any copies of Temporal Fissure, a card that was all over the place in the Frogmite builds, and that’s for good reason – Temporal Fissure does not work in this deck.

You need more free spells, like the aforementioned Frogmite, to make Fissure work. It would be a bad Unsummon for JMB Affinity. Because JMB Affinity is an aggro-control deck, you will not be playing more than one spell a turn on most occasions. None of this”Frogmite, Frogmite, Enforcer, Fissure your stuff” nonsense. This deck is all about a nervous silence followed by the game-ending run to twenty damage. This deck would never tap five mana to play a spell like Fissure against any deck that could reply with something even remotely punishing.

Instead, we tap two mana and start the slow and steady march to victory.”Broodstar. Counter your Wrath. Attack you. Counter your Vengeance. Attack you. Counter your Wrath, attack you. Good game.” I like that. It’s not really that slow, is it? Take eight. Take nine. Take ten. Gee gee, sir. Thank you for coming out. Your complimentary mint is in the basket on the way out. In fact, it’s like a song!

Broodstar on board,

something something,

take twelve!

Hey, this thing writes itself!

The deck may even be close to pure control than aggro, which is scary. Consider! JMB Affinity has eight card drawing spells, eleven cantrips, and ten pieces of countermagic, with only eight creatures. And the creatures are not small beaters like Basking Rootwalla, but big, burly bonecrushers ranging in size from 4/4 up to 20/20. Ridiculously enough, these threats come at the bargain basement price of zero to two mana most of the time. As I’ve said repeatedly, no deck in Standard succeeds at being this unfair. 8/8 Broodstar turn 7, with five mana untapped and the ability to counter twice? If there were referees in Magic, that would be a point deduction for using the elbows!

I have no official percentages or playtest data to throw at you, but I can explain how most matchups work, and that should be enough to get you started at your local FNM and other Standard tournaments. I’ll be using JM’s sideboard for these examples, but my own sideboard is different, and so too should yours be. Make sure it’s good against your metagame. For example, I play Tree of Tales in my JMB Affinity deck, to facilitate Naturalizes out of the board for the mirror and for the Slide matchup. Both decks are all over my local store like a bad rash.

I might also make room for a Scrabbling Claws to combat Oversold Cemetery decks, since some people at my store can’t seem to let Cemetery die off as it should. Really, though, you don’t even need Scrabbling Claws – just 10/10 fliers.

Vs. U/W Control, B/W Control, R/W Control, Mono-Black Control

Sideboard: +3 Cabal Interrogator, -3 Aether Spellbomb

In all cases, the Pyrite Spellbombs must stay in to keep Exalted Angels from unmorphing turn 4 and beating you by itself. If the W/B player is smart, he or she will actually bring in Interrogators against you, and they are, in fact, extremely good in the matchup – yet more evidence that JMB Affinity is more control than aggro. Despite the fact that the Aether Spellbombs are good for saving your creatures from Wraths and so on, I still wouldn’t take the Pyrites out. JMB Affinity should be a favorite in these matchups, though an early Lightning Rift or Astral Slide from R/W can be trouble, as can an early Phyrexian Arena from B/W.

Vs. Goblins and New-School Sligh

Sideboard: -3 Override, -3 Assert Authority, -2 Aether Spellbomb, +3 Pyroclasm, +3 CoP:Red, +2 Terror

This matchup isn’t exactly the best in the world, but it’s winnable. Just get a fat creature out there (preferably Broodstar), keep the Siege-Gang Commanders off the table with Pyrite Spellbombs, Mana Leaks, and Pyroclasms. Attack a bunch of times for the win. If there is a lot of this sort of thing in your metagame, you might consider adding a fourth Pyroclasm to the board.

Against Goblin Bidding, you might consider leaving some of the Overrides in. Obviously it’s important to keep Bidding from resolving. To that end, you can remove a couple of Chromatic Spheres instead, and leave your permission count somewhere around six. Alternatively, you can take out card drawing instead of permission. Both routes have their advantages.

Vs. The Mirror

Sideboard: ???

Jean-Marc has nothing in his sideboard for the mirror match, and this is something that needs to change. There will be Affinity decks floating around your local play area – the deck is cheap to build (you need only eight rares, none of them very expensive), easy to play (though, like any deck, difficult to play well) and has received a lot of press.

(If the stack of Affinity articles in my Inbox is any indicator, then Affinity is far and away the deck most players are interested in. – Knut)

Currently, my own sideboard contains four copies of Naturalize for the mirror match. I remove Override and one copy of Assert Authority to put them in.

Quick Tips for the mirror:

1. Make good use of Aether Spellbombs to save your Myr Enforcers in Myr on Myr combat.

2. Counter enemy Thirst for Knowledges if at all possible, and make sure your own resolve.

3. After number two is successful, maintain artifact advantage and cast Broodstar. If you have artifact advantage, your Broodstar is the pimp daddy of the block, and enemy Broodstars are nothing but two-cent hustlers.

But what about Cemetery? Clerics? Zombies? White Weenie?

I would tell you about other matchups, but I’m not 100% sure about them, so I think I’ll postpone. JM’s sideboard isn’t equipped to deal with much else in any case, and the reason for that is that they are all Tier 2 strategies that are underpowered compared to Affinity. Use your best judgment – I’m sure you can figure something out. I can give you some sideboard suggestions, though… there are tons of options out there, with a little land-tweaking, the deck can be configured to play them all.

Scrabbling Claws (Eternal Dragon, Bidding, Cemetery Decks)

Sacred Ground (Ponza)

Naturalize (Mirror, R/W Control – note that this requires you to play Tree of Tales)

Dwarven Blastminer (Mirror)

Viridian Shaman (Mirror – again, requires you to play Tree of Tales)

I think the ideal sideboard is some combination of Interrogator, Pyroclasm, Naturalize, and CoP:Red. That’s right… Four different colors. The scary thing is, this deck can handle it without too much trouble. Four Glimmervoids and Four Chromatic Spheres, along with the City of Brass (and I’ve been playing two instead of one) will allow you to play pretty much anything. Pyroclasm handles any weenie deck, Interrogator any control deck, Naturalize is for the mirror and troublesome enchantments, and Circle of Protection: Red helps with Goblins, which, really, is the only Tier 1 aggro deck.

Sorry, White Weenie players. Your deck is god-awful. My grandmother could beat down faster as long as she was wearing her support hose.

So that’s it. Tap UU and swing for ten, lay Ancient Tomb, cast Mind Stone. By now you should be ready to take JMB Affinity to your own Friday Night Magic and beat some face with it, leaving your opponents sullen and confused like courtroom Kobe. I hope it goes well for you.

I’ll be back next week, same Bat day, same Bat channel.

Geordie Tait


GT_ in #mtgwacky