In any Constructed format some match-ups are inevitable. Knowing your deck and, more importantly, how your deck works in opposition to your opponent's can provide the crucial advantage you need to win.
In this article we're taking a look at the Modern pairing of Abzan versus Affinity from both sides of the battlefield, evaluating what opening hands each player can keep or has to mulligan, how they're sideboarding, and if and when they think they have the advantage.
Representing Affinity in today's article is Justin Bransfield, who started GP Charlotte with a perfect 10-0 record by unloading swathes of damage with his colorless swarm of artifact creatures. Abzan's champion is Brian Braun-Duin, who also started GP Charlotte 10-0 by clearing a way for his rhinos with a suite of discard and removal.
Affinity's linear strategy doesn't vary much from one match-up to the next, and this is reflected in the opening hands the deck wants to see, whether it's playing Abzan or another deck in the field.
“I'm always looking for about two mana sources, one or two large threats - which for Affinity are your two-mana cards like Cranial Plating, Arcbound Ravager, Steel Overseer, or Master of Etherium - and then a couple small enablers and mana accelerants like Springleaf Drum,” Bransfield said. “Against Abzan specifically, or decks that have targeted discard, the only thing that changes is that you should be much more reluctant to mulligan. If you mulligan, you will often only have one large threat in your opening hand which can then get Thoughtseized or Inquisitioned before you can actually play it.”
On the other side of the table, Abzan is hoping for a key card to hold off Affinity's small fliers.
“Lingering Souls is just the best card against Affinity,” Braun-Duin said. “They have a lot of flying creatures with one or two toughness, like Signal Pest, Vault Skirge, and the like. Beyond that I'm interested in removal spells. Removal spells are pretty important because you have to keep Steel Overseer and Master of Etherium off the table, as well as Cranial Plating. Generally you want something to clock them with while you're holding them off. Usually I'll keep a hand with Tarmogoyf too.”
Because Affinity puts a lot of pressure on its opponent in the early turns of the game, Abzan can't rely on their more powerful but also more expensive creatures.
“The hands I'm going to mulligan against them are the hands where I don't really have a lot of pressure or a lot of interaction,” Braun-Duin said. “If I have a hand that's just four creatures I'll probably mulligan that if I know I'm playing against Affinity because there's no way I'm ever going to be able to interact with what they do. They make their creatures so big and kill you so fast that you can't really keep a hand like that.”
An important part of any match, and any match-up, is knowing your deck's plan in the context of the pairing.
“My Plan A is to flood the board early, especially with fliers,” Bransfield said. “And to try to get out a Ravager or other big threat early. Just having Ravager on the board makes it very difficult for them to deal with anything.”
“My plan A is to basically survive, and the way I look at surviving is keeping Arcbound Ravager at bay,” Braun-Duin said. “The four main cards are Arcbound Ravager, Cranial Plating, Master of Etherium, and Steel Overseer, so I'm saving my removal for those four cards and I'm trying to take as little damage as I possibly can.”
Of course, plan A doesn't always work out, in which case decks have to fall back on whatever secondary plan they can muster.
“When they have a really good draw with a lot of removal you're going to end up trading all of your cards,” Bransfield said. “Then the games usually come down to you nickel and dime-ing them out with Inkmoths and Blinkmoths, which is why Abzan is a worse match-up for you than Jund is. They have Lingering Souls, which is very good against that plan.”
“My plan B is just to hope that they draw really bad,” Braun-Duin said. “Sometimes you can win by just beating them down and playing a bunch of [Siege] Rhinos if they have a bad draw, so I guess that's plan B.”
When it comes to sideboarding, Affinity's one-track game plan means that players don't want to dilute their deck too much. If they do, they risk losing the explosive draws that make the deck so powerful.
“In general and against Abzan I sideboard pretty lightly,” Bransfield said. “I bring in a Dismember to interact with Tarmogoyf, Siege Rhino, and Kalitas. If they don't have a clock on you you're going to outdraw them because you have more threats than they have answers. I like Stubborn Denial for their big haymakers like Stony Silence and Creeping Corrosion, and I like Etched Champion - it's the best card in the sideboard against them.”
Braun-Duin agreed that Stony Silence is a deciding card in the Abzan versus Affinity match-up and the main card Abzan wants to bring in from the sideboard.
“If you can play a Stony Silence on turn two usually you win that game,” Braun-Duin said. “It shuts off almost everything they do. Past that point there's a number of options. I have a Fracturing Gust this weekend which I'm definitely bringing in against Affinity. I also have Zealous Persecution which I bring in because killing off their one-toughness creatures is pretty powerful, and it's good with Lingering Souls as well. Some people bring in things like Fulminator Mage to blow up Inkmoth or Blinkmoth Nexus.”
While Bransfield thinks the Abzan/Affinity match-up is very favorable for his deck in game one, Braun-Duin disagrees, putting the odds at about 50/50, though Abzan's chances of winning often comes down to whether or not the player draws Lingering Souls. Both Bransfield and Braun-Duin agree, however, that sideboarding favors Abzan.
“Post-sideboard I think [Affinity] is unfavored on the draw, probably 40/60 and maybe worse because of Stony Silence and Lingering Souls,” Bransfield said. “Post-board on the play I think it's about 50/50.”
“Games two and three I definitely feel like Abzan is favored,” Braun-Duin said, “especially if they ever draw Stony Silence.”
Whether a match-up is favorable or unfavorable, Modern rewards players who come to the tournament knowing their deck inside and out. What hands to keep, which cards to bring in from the sideboard, and the best game plan to execute in any given situation are the decisions and knowledge on which matches are won. Check back in at future events as we continue to look at some of each format's classic match-ups!