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Pauper: Death to Affinity!

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After nine months and three bans, Affinity is still arguably the best deck in Pauper. So, we need to debate its future again.

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Nine months after the release of Modern Horizons II, Affinity has experienced a total of four bans on Pauper.

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And yet, two weeks after the last Pauper Format Panel announcement, the archetype remains one of the format's top decks, or even the best Pauper deck today. While we're gradually seeing less representation in the Top 32 of this past weekend's events, it's evident the potential it still has — particularly when it gets three slots in the Top 8 of the Pauper Super Qualifier and four slots in the Top 8 of the Pauper Challenge.


All this in addition to the notorious presence of multiple Sideboard pieces to deal specifically with this matchup, such as the Boros Synthesizer list that won this Saturday's Super Qualifier, with four copies of Dust to Dust, four copies of Revoke Existence and two copies of Gorilla Shaman on the Sideboard.

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Overkill? Maybe.

But the point is that Affinity is still extremely present in Pauper even with three direct interventions taking place in less than a year. Therefore, today I would like to talk a bit more about what we are dealing with and the sensitivity that we seem to lack when we think about bans for one of the most powerful decks in the format today, and what can or cannot be done to solve this situation that has created significant differences between the community and the PFP, as well as trying to explain in a more objective way how complex the situation we are in really can be.

The Culprits

Let's start with the obvious: there is a cycle of direct culprits for Affinity's current success: the Bridges.

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I've repeated this a dozen times in my articles on Pauper and bans, but Bridges basically gave Affinity the consistency that allowed it to go from a "lottery" deck, which was powerful when it worked, but went through a sequence of games where it simply lost to itself, to an even more powerful Midrange based on Card Advantage and fast clock that absolutely no other deck available in the format can match, making it an almost perfect mix between Aggro, Midrange and Combo, until Wizards shut off the third specter through the Atog and Disciple of the Vault bans.

While Bridges are specifically what gives the archetype such consistency, we also have to admit that the deck has gained a lot of powerful new pieces in recent releases.

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All of these cards were released after Modern Horizons II, and they all give Affinity a new angle of more features without relying solely on Thoughtcast, which has become pretty much obsolete when compared to other "additional" effects on the cards above and pretty much sees play usually as a 2-of, whereas Reckoner's Bargain and Deadly Dispute always occupy three or four Maindeck slots each.

Experimental Synthesizer can be considered a new pillar of the format, and the main reason for us to see the rise of Boros decks again, in addition to the new Neon Dynasty artifact also showing up in other archetypes like Moggwarts. We cannot forget that Affinity also benefited from the inclusion of this artifact, and probably doesn't make better use of it than Boros due to the lack of interaction with Kor Skyfisher and Glint Hawk.

For me, the most peculiar piece is Blood Fountain because it's a recursion effect that only pays off in Affinity, as it adds two artifacts to the battlefield when it's cast, plus any creature it returns to your hand, such as Myr Enforcer or Gearseeker Serpent, is a threat on its own.


That said, the fact is that Affinity obtained many ways to generate high doses of card advantage “with benefits” in just one year, and it also didn't contribute for the recent bans to be enough, after all Affinity has:

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Chep creatures with a significant impact on the board that reward the deck merely for executing its game plan, allowing it to play both on the “go big” and the “go wide”.

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The format's best damage-based removal and a sweeper that punishes Go-Wide strategies (which could delay your game plan with chump blocking) by just one mana, allowing for greater range in the game, or the ability to remove blockers for attack on an empty board. Some lists are even including copies of Lightning Bolt for additional reach.

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The best Card Advantage engine in Pauper today, surpassing the significant power of cantrips like Preordain and Ponder by enabling quantity over quality in draws for virtually the same cost and giving access to the same number of cards.

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Powerful payoffs that add even more value to your engine, turning some of your cards into virtual Ancestral Recall, while synergizing well with your game plan.

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An alternative wincondition that doesn't rely on combat and still works as removal against small creatures and adds inevitability to the late-game.

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A plethora of flexible cards that can be given a slot on your maindeck or sideboard.

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All this makes Affinity the “monster” it is currently for Pauper, and the constant feeling of dissatisfaction by a good portion of the community regarding the constant presence of the archetype in the competitive scenario.

I believe that many players are simply tired of playing against Affinity and seeing it succeed as the best deck in the format due to the absence of a ban that seems obvious, but that doesn't happen for reasons that seem linked to preservation. That's because banning Bridges would not only be an impactful milestone for the entire format (after all, ten cards would be banned at once), but it would also likely weaken the deck significantly, as the absence of an efficient manabase, with the recent bans could make it too inconsistent to be worth playing with, even with the excessive amount of card advantage currently available.

After all, when you need to dedicate so many slots to a specific matchup, it becomes tiring to move between leagues and challenges, especially when the evidence you have of the results and the course of your matches is that such slots are really necessary because the deck that you hope to face and need to work against actually proves to be as prevalent as you expect, creating anecdotal evidences that "the format is broken".


I fully emphasize that anecdotal evidence has become an almost predominant recurrence when we debate Magic: The Gathering's competitive landscape at different layers, and it's not uncommon for players to no longer be able to discern evidence based on data from highly personally biased opinions. It's been that way for politics and science, why wouldn't it be the same for a hobby like Magic too?

However, what if we changed the perspective a bit and assessed this situation in a way that was less focused on a confirmation bias that “Affinity remains broken”?

Is Affinity the new Blue? Dust to Dust is the new Pyroblast?

For many, many years, we witnessed a predominance of Blue-Based Decks in Pauper that remained even after Blue Monday, and that still needed other direct interventions in the format afterwards, such as the banning of Mystic Sanctuary and Fall from Favor, creating a format and environment where Pyroblast was pretty much mandatory if you were playing red or even a card that made a splash for red on some lists.

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Pyroblast and its twin brother, Red Elemental Blast, were always pillars of Pauper's Sideboard, especially since they affected a significant range of archetypes between Faeries, Delver, Tron, Jeskai, among other strategies they had as a core, or key pieces, a base of blue cards.

Today, times have changed, and where Pyroblast seemed mandatory to handle Pauper's Metagame last year, today the format is dictated by efficient means of removing artifacts such as Dust to Dust, Gorilla Shaman, among other options.

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With artifact lists gaining more and more attention, it is only natural that such removals are included in Sideboards, especially those that serve more than one occasion, such as Abrade, Revoke Existence or even Dust to Dust itself because not only do they collaborate to deal with the best deck in the format, but they also interact with some archetypes that are present as real competitors now, ranging from Boros to the Cleansing Wildfire decks, and going through decks like Bogles (for Revoke Existence) or the recent Tron lists (which are basically geared towards a combo with low-cost artifacts and Foundry Inspector).

However, we also need to consider that these options, while relatively viable in other matchups, they were never and never will be as comprehensive as Pyroblast used to be when it comes to answering a significant range of threats.

In my particular view, what happens with Affinity is a situation similar to what we have seen many times with Blue-Based Decks: the surroundings of its base are so efficient and so well-structured that direct interventions removing specific pieces that are not are part of the “core” (in the case of Blue-Based, we were talking about cantrips and cards like Spellstutter Sprite and Ninja of the Deep Hours) just don't have enough impact to make the archetype at being far below what it used to be before the bans, setting it as a constant Metagame definer and requiring players, in order to compete, to always have to respect it as an opponent and dedicate Sideboard slots against it.


We can say that this isn't a healthy state for the Metagame, in the same way that for some content creators, it wasn't healthy to need four copies of Pyroblast and a few copies of Electrickery on your Sideboard to compete with the most popular decks in the format at the time, but it also seems necessary to assess what the practical consequences of Affinity's absence from the format are.

Would Pauper be better without Affinity?

After all, would Pauper be a better, healthier or more fun format if we simply took Affinity out of the Metagame for good, or weakened it to the point where it can no longer establish itself in a competitive landscape?

What archetypes would establish themselves in its absence, and in what scenarios would the format be healthier, or until when would we be satisfied with its absence until we need to point out another unbalanced deck and blame it for the poor health of the competitive landscape?

Before the recent bans and the predominance of Storm and Affinity after MH2, it was very common to read players commenting on their dissatisfaction with the format based on some mechanics and archetypes, such as Tron, Monarch, or the presence of Snuff Out as a “free removal”, and demanding a direct intervention that would contribute to diversification. What happened, however, is that more powerful cards came out between 2021 and 2022, significantly altering the format's nature and making room for recurring issues which includes the rise of Affinity. The question that remains is whether we really want the deck to cease to exist by removing its core, the Bridges, or whether another series of interventions based on the results is really necessary — a point of which seems too early to assess, since that it's only been two weeks.

In other words, we had a significant change across the spectrum of Pauper's competitive landscape. Decks like Faeries are now in Tier 1.5, while Boros and Affinity have risen to Tier 1, and archetypes like Monarch, Cascade and the like have diluted and made room for some more aggressive archetypes to succeed in events, as we've seen with Stompy or Burn recently.

Would the format be better if we removed Affinity from the math, or would it just return to a state that is equally uninteresting to a part of the community? Are we really dealing with a broken archetype, or do we just take a level of personal disgust from having to play against it and see it among the top contenders even after a string of interventions? Is Affinity too strong, or do we just don't like what it has become?

I don't have the answer to these questions, and I lack the data to fuel claims about how the format would be better or worse without the presence of the current best deck. However, with only two weeks of events, I consider that a lot of evidence being presented, even by experienced players, has points of which lacks consideration as to the complexity that this debate really demands.

What measures can be taken?

That said, I conclude this article by commenting on my personal perspective of suggestions regarding the resolution of this debate, at least for now.


First, observe and wait a little longer

We're in the second week after the last bans, and while I'm sure Affinity will remain an integral part of the format, we still need to give a few more weeks for the format to get established and enough data to be analyzed to consider the need for another direct intervention based on solid statistics such as winrate, representativeness, among others.

It is very likely that another Banned and Restricted announcement will occur after the release of Streets of New Capenna, an interference that could be somewhat late if Pauper goes into a deplorable state in the next two or three weeks, but I also consider it unlikely that Wizards will allow an announcement during the new set's preview season.

Until then, players have two options: either they play Pauper as it presents itself, or they don't. Both are valid options and have an argument and a placement referring to the format's current state. When you decide not to play a format or Magic: The Gathering at all, or fill up a Preliminary with a "ban request", you're taking a position on this topic. Yes, we should keep an eye on the Challenges and see the representation of Affinity and other decks in the coming weeks, but it still seems too early to say "the bans didn't work, the format is still broken".

Ban the Bridges, unban Sojourner's Companion

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If another direct intervention proves necessary, I believe that we are past the stage of deflecting the responsibility of Bridges in the current situation, even outside Affinity, where several other archetypes take advantage of them with Cleansing Wildfire, Makeshift Munitions and Deadly Dispute to the point that it no longer makes any sense to expect Pauper to be “fine” as long as Bridges are present in the format.

However, it also seems necessary to consider that without Atog, Disciple of the Vault and even Prophetic Prism, Affinity would become unfeasible and absolutely inconsistent without the presence of efficient manafixing, and as Prophetic Prism has become “too unfair” for the format because of how much Tron takes advantage of manafixing + draw, I suppose there is an option to maintain Affinity's viability by unbanning Sojourner's Companion, which would allow the deck to play with more colorless threats (a total of 12 with Frogmite and Myr Enforcer) while also acting as a useful manafixing with its Cycling ability, which could also be supplemented with Trinket Mage.

Essentially, this change would make the archetype again extremely susceptible to Gorilla Shaman or Shenanigans, which has always been the “police card” against it in the same way that Rest in Peace has always been the fun police for Dredge in Modern, while opening up the possibility of being able to “focus” on a two- or three-color base, with access to powerful colored spells, such as Blood Fountain and Deadly Dispute, without giving up any speed or consistency if the right colors don't come, for a higher amount of colorless threats it can turn to.


Deadly Dispute and Experimental Synthesizer Should be on Watchlist

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I'm sure that even if Affinity disappears, Experimental Synthesizer and Deadly Dispute will continue to establish themselves as mainstays of the format because they are individually too powerful spells not to play in some decks.

In the worst-case scenario, Deadly Dispute still is a Draw 2 for one mana with manafixing that interacts absurdly well with Ichor Wellspring and Chromatic Star, while Experimental Synthesizer is a pseudo-Light Up the Stage in the form of an artifact that can be reused in dozens of ways.

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We also need to consider that both pieces are very powerful in a shell that also has Makeshift Munitions which, despite being a compelling card for the format's environment, I consider an healthy addition to Pauper since it works as a potent "fun police" against Faeries.

However, it wouldn't surprise me if eventually both of the Card Advantage engines prove to be too powerful and end up becoming the target of another ban announcement by the end of 2022.


That's all for today.

It is very likely that in the coming weeks we will see Affinity take some positions in the Top 8 and Top 16 of the upcoming competitive events, as this is a natural event given that it still has its extremely efficient core and adds a lot of consistency and value, making it one of, if not the main, competitor of the format.

There are still a few weeks left until the start of the New Capenna preview season, and I suppose we can use this time to re-evaluate not only the format's current state, but also the positioning of the Metagame as a whole, speculate and consider at what points the absence of Affinity could be harmful or beneficial, and under what circumstances would it be possible to keep it in the format without it becoming fully predominant and looming over other competitive decks.

The debate about Affinity is relatively confusing, long, requires a certain complexity of factors and ends up being often simplified by the community, and what I tried to do in this article was to open an objective and direct debate about the format's current issue. I hope that it will serve to broaden the discussion a bit more in poles that are not specifically antagonistic and bilateral.

Thanks for reading!