Two Tournaments, One Deck, One Card in Particular

Posted in Feature on November 3, 2004

By Mike Flores

Michael Flores is the author of Deckade and The Official Miser's Guide; the designer of numerous State, Regional, Grand Prix, National, and Pro Tour–winning decks; and the onetime editor-in-chief of The Magic Dojo. He'd claim allegiance to Dimir (if such a Guild existed)… but instead will just shrug "Simic."

The sad fact is not that Affinity seems to be the best deck in every format from Mirrodin Block Constructed to Standard to Extended, but that a disturbing number of players aren't approaching it correctly. When you have a deck of such sheer power, such boundless forgiveness, as Affinity, not playing it yourself can be thought of as a handicap (in making a dissenting archetype choice, you are simply denying yourself the best tools for the job of winning a tournament). That said, it is one thing to object to playing Affinity -- there are certainly other viable decks -- but it is another thing entirely to handicap yourself once you have already chosen the dark path of artifice by not playing the basic cards that everyone else has.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, here are the Top 4 decks from last week's Columbus Last Chance Qualifier:

Bryn Kenney

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Matt Scott

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Michael Day

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Semion Bezrukov

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As you can see, fully half of the PT Columbus invitations were taken by, surprise surprise, Ravager Affinity. More than that, they were taken by decks with Aether Vial. Once upon a time, I thought that it was okay to play different kinds of Affinity decks. I no longer think that. The more I watch this deck play out, the more obvious it is to me that not playing Aether Vial once you have already decided to play an Affinity deck is strictly wrong. What are you going to play instead? Ornithopter? Ornithopter gets in with Cranial Plating once in a while and that can be exciting, but no one lives in fear of Ornithopter. Consider the reverse: Anyone who says that they don't care when the opponent opens on a Darksteel Citadel and Aether Vial is just lying. It was the best opening play in Mirrodin Block, the most consistent play in Standard, and just finished proving itself as the kind of play that can totally reverse a nigh-unwinnable matchup in the finals of an Extended Pro Tour!

I detailed in a previous column, Across the Room, Across the Ocean, some of the reasons you might want to play Aether Vial. But more than its speed, more than its ability to trick the opponent and force mistakes, I now have another reason: Aether Vial fixes your colored mana. That's it. Affinity is the most powerful deck. It is perhaps held in check only by its greatest advantage: artifact lands. The artifact lands make the Affinity mechanic go. They make Thoughtcast cost one mana and Frogmite cost less; more than that, they power up non-Affinity cards like Arcbound Ravager and Disciple of the Vault. Our resident development guru, Aaron Forsythe, even pointed to the artifact lands as the "real culprits" behind the deck. Though the artifact lands are the problem behind the deck, they are also its greatest limitation.

The artifact lands are clunky on the colors. You can't really play more than four copies of any color-producing lands. You are limited to four, say, Great Furnaces. That is why it is foolish to do something like making a two-colored Affinity deck for purposes of "color consistency." It is actually MORE color consistent to play lots of colors and spread out the colored cards. Limiting yourself to not playing Thoughtcast, for instance, is pure folly. People rightly cringe when Thoughtcast is played for that lone blue in the midgame. We think of Kiki-Jiki as the Mirror Breaker, but methinks that Thoughtcast has quietly ended more games than any other spell in recent months.

That is not to say that the mana of a three- or even four-color Affinity deck is not a ponderous proposition. It is. You will see lots of hands with Great Furnace and Disciple of the Vault or Tree of Tales and Atog. But that is where Aether Vial comes in!

Pierre Canali, PT Columbus '04 ChampionI watched Pierre Canali play all weekend. As soon as Pierre locked his spot in the Top 8, I called this rookie as the eventual champion. He led the Pro Tour on Day One and ran through the Top 8, sweeping his worst matchup 3-0 in the finals. Most critics credit Canali's innovations to the Affinity deck -- those same changes that make it look much like a Dump Truck deck -- as the reasons he was able to do so well. It's hard enough to cast a regular colored spell, but Canali had cards like Meddling Mage supported by two lonely Ancient Dens. Do you think that he would have done so well without those Meddling Mages? Do you think they would have hit the table without Aether Vial?

Pierre Canali

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Pierre's deck looks an awful lot like a basic Affinity deck that you might see in Standard or even Mirrodin Block. Besides Chris Pikula, Pierre didn't play a single non-Standard card in his Affinity deck. He could have played Shrapnel Blast in a format that is known for its speed. But he didn't. He saw the consistency of Aether Vial as a better choice than the potentially greater explosiveness of a quick kill spell. It's just like my Top 8 commentary partner Osyp Lebedowicz said... I can't believe that there are still Affinity players out there not playing Aether Vial in their Affinity decks.

Blatant self-promotion aside:
Speaking of the Top 8 commentary, the webcast hits the archives of Pro Tour-Columbus today. If you didn't get a chance to view the live webcast, I invite you to check it out.
End aside and back to Aether Vial.

Despite its complete and total dominance this past weekend, I don't know that Vial Affinity is a legitimate problem in the sense of Tolarian Academy or Necropotence. Affinity is quite beatable in Standard. It's the best deck, but every color besides white has excellent tools for Affinity containment (which is only fair, given that white used to have the single best anti-Affinity card). Moreover, Canali would be the first to tell you that he was a great beneficiary of everyone else being under-prepared for his archetype. He figured out how to beat Pernicious Deed, while the rest of the hate -- Energy Flux, Meltdown, Pulverize, even Powder Keg -- just didn't show up in great enough numbers to beat him. If players want to beat Affinity in Extended, they can. They just have to devote the space... something that few pros did this past weekend.

Aether Vial makes the best decks better. It gives them greater speed and smoothes out mana draws. We think of Aether Vial as an Affinity card, but it can go in many decks (once I heard about the White Weenie deck of Gabe Walls, Neil Reeves, and Jelger Wiegersma, I thought about trying it with Aether Vial... too bad about that Pernicious Deed card). Columbus Top 8 competitor Olivier Ruel didn't play Aether Vial in his Red Army-style Goblin deck, but many other teams did. While most of Team TOGIT played Psychatog, a couple of their top players ran a b/R Goblin deck with Aether Vial:

Gerard Fabiano – Goblins

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Note how a deck with a high number of two drops can really break Aether Vial. Turn one Aether Vial, turn two Mogg Flunkies (or Goblin Piledriver) plus a one-drop off the Vial, turn three Goblin Warchief plus another two-drop will pump a ridiculous amount of damage. In the worst-case scenario where the two-drops are "only" Mogg Flunkies, the opponent is looking at an attack for nine on turn three, and if they are both Goblin Piledrivers, we are talking about something on the order of 17 on turn three.

The Red Army-style Goblin decks have a lot of play, and Ruel's Burning Wishes humiliated opponents with plays like Reanimating their Akromas, as well as baffling the eventual champ through five games in the quarterfinals so the jury is still out. But for a beatdown Goblin deck? Aether Vial seems a lot better than Seething Song to me.

If we want to succeed, we need to hit the minimum…

As sharks, we are all trying to get ahead. We try to get a line on the best tech, the secret tech, the next deck that will help us win FNM, PTQs, Regionals, and even premiere events. Sometimes we can identify a great card, add it to the deck we love, and come out ahead with the next generation. But we too often concentrate not enough about just not falling behind. If we want to succeed, we need to hit the minimum before we go reaching for that elusive next level. Just before last year's US Regionals, before Relic Barrier was re-released, before Aether Vial started dropping Uktabi Orangutans in a big way, Brian David-Marshall devoted an entire episode of this very column to Hirata Tatsuya's Affinity deck, specifically his sideboard. For Tatsuya, Seething Song and Furnace Dragon was tech, was brand new, was innovative. It led him to an admirable second place finish in his Kanto Regionals. But for everyone else, by the very next week, that sideboard combination became the minimum.

Want to qualify for the Pro Tour like Bezrukov and Day? Want to take it on your first try like Canali?

Don't bring a knife when you know you are walking into a gun fight. Don't be the guy with nothing more impressive than Shatter when everyone else is ready with Seething Song. If you want to get better, meet the minimum before you go running off... don't "tech out" your deck by cutting the best cards. Swim with the sharks but devour everyone else. Study and grow strong.

Next week: Phelddagrif

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