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By: RexDart, Chris J. Wynes
Jan 21 2014 12:00pm
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"It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead."

Love, Hate, and Oxidation: A History of Robots in Competitive Magic

Prologue

Despite being a fantasy card game, Magic had a couple early flirtations with science-fiction themes.  The 1994 set Antiquities utilized a steampunk aesthetic, and introduced "robots" of a sort into the game for the first time.  Looking more like they were cobbled together from spare parts by Joel on the Satellite of Love, these early robots lacked the slick futuristic look of robots in popular culture.  Thematically, the set gave us Triskelion and Tetravus, creatures that established the mechanical tone for giant robots as creatures made of detachable components.  Triskelion has in fact seen occasional competitive play through the years in fringe decks that sought to recur him in some way to dominate a board or directly kill the opponent.  The Antiquities robot with the most lasting impact on constructed Magic through the years doesn't even spend most of its time as a robot: Mishra's Factory.  

 

Magic returned once more to the world of steampunk robotics with Urza's Saga.  Though mechanically envisioned as an enchantment-themed block by designer Mark Rosewater, the story flashed back to the Antiquities-era of Urza and Mishra, and it was the set's artifacts that stole the spotlight in competitive play.  The legendary Kai Budde won the 1999 World Championships with Karn, Silver Golem and Masticore among his win conditions in a deck heavy with colorless mana-acceleration.  Metalworker became a staple of the mono-brown "MUD" decks in larger formats such as Vintage and Legacy.  

 

Though Karn made his mark on Type 2 play in the late 90's, it would be his creation of the metal-world, Mirrodin, that became the true legacy of robots in Magic.

Part One: The Rise and Fall of Affinity

“Over the road there was a church: a modern gray building, which constantly played a recording of church bells. Strange it was. Why no proper bells? I never went in but I bet it was a robot church for androids, where the Bible was in binary and their Jesus had laser eyes and metal claws.” 

-Russell Brand

Even if you weren't playing in 2003, you are probably aware that there was once a deck called "Affinity", and that in some older formats there is still a deck called "Affinity".  You are likely also aware that it was hated, reviled, dreaded, feared, despised, and generally bandied about as one of the great boogeymen of constructed Magic in the game's history.  So, if you decided to run a Gatherer search of cards with the keyword Affinity, you would probably be greatly surprised at how innocuous it all looks.  The most-feared deck in the history of Standard had a vanilla 2/2 in it?  How did we get to that point?

Affinity Discovered

The affinity mechanic reduced the cost of spells by one colorless mana for each permanent of a particular type you controlled.  It debuted in Mirrodin, the large fall set for October 2003.  The most powerful affinity spells were, by nature, artifacts with affinity for other artifacts.  Each one you cast would be discounted by the earlier ones and further reduce the cost of later ones, allowing you to have truly explosive turns.  But although the affinity mechanic was present in Mirrodin, the mechanic itself is not what made the eventual deck called "Affinity" truly degenerate.  Those cards would be printed later in the block.  During those early days, the most powerful affinity deck was Broodstar Affinity, a blue deck taking advantage of the namesake Broodstar and powerful card-draw spell Thoughtcast.  The affinity mechanic, and Broodstar Affinity in particular, was wildly popular at 2003 State Champs.

 

Broodstar Affinity
Randy Wright, 2003 Ohio Champs, 1st place
Creatures
4 Broodstar
2 Lodestone Myr
4 Myr Enforcer
10 cards

Other Spells
4 Aether Spellbomb
2 Assert Authority
4 Chrome Mox
3 Lightning Greaves
4 Mana Leak
4 Pyrite Spellbomb
4 Talisman of Progress
4 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Thoughtcast
33 cards
Lands
2 Ancient Den
4 Glimmervoid
4 Great Furnace
4 Seat of the Synod
3 Tree of Tales
17 cards

Broodstar

 

The deck only runs six actual robots: the playset of Myr Enforcer and the two copies of Lodestone Myr.  But the core idea of artifacts building upon other artifacts for cumulative effect is here.  The artifact lands are present, and the healthy volume of colored spells allow this deck to use Chrome Mox as well.  With the deck's threats heavily discounted to cast, spare mana can be left up for Mana Leak or Thirst for Knowledge.  Thirst is among the best draw spells in the game, and this deck adds Thoughtcast and the cantrip Spellbombs to help churn through your library.

Affinity Unleashed

Broodstar Affinity was considered a powerful deck, by some accounts sharing the top tier with Tribal Goblins, the breakout success from the prior year's Onslaught block.  Yet it is difficult to know exactly how good affinity was at this point, because of the relative dearth of major constructed events at the time.  One of the historical quirks of this era is that there were astonishingly few high-profile Standard events.  The vast bulk of Grand Prix during this period were limited events.  The pros would not be showing off what they could do with these cards until after the release of Darksteel in January 2004.  

Darksteel provided the final pieces to the puzzle.  Arcbound Ravager greatly diminished the value of opposing artifact destruction.  More importantly, as a free sacrifice outlet it combined perfectly with Mirrodin's previously overlooked Disciple of the Vault to give the aggro deck amazing reach. Remember those Spellbombs in the Broodstar deck that were there largely to help draw cards and be cheap affinity-enablers?   Skullclamp gave the deck a way to draw cards and re-fuel it's hand after a sweeper, and as a 1-mana artifact helped power out those Frogmites and Myr Enforcers.  Aether Vial similarly helped cheapen the affinity creatures, and pulled double-duty by also powering out the 1 and 2 mana threats such as Ravager and Disciple.  Those two threats were particularly nasty when Vial'ed into play at instant speed, as they severely punished any attempt to interact with Affinity either in combat or directly through a removal spell.  

Skullclamp was a runaway hit across the entire format, finding a home not merely in Affinity but also in Tribal Goblins and the "Elf and Nail" decks.  At long last, in February 2004, the world would get to see what the pros would do with these cards at PT Kobe.  The format was Mirrodin Block Constructed.  And naturally the breakout card of the event was... (Arc Slogger)?

Although Affinity was present in block constructed, the Big Red deck had such a good win percentage against it that Big Red dominated the tournament.   The success of the Big Red deck would be later cited by Aaron Forsythe in the decision to ban Skullclamp, alleging that the card warped the format indirectly by causing (Arc Slogger) decks to dominate.

Despite the absence of high-level events, it was well-known that Affinity was the top dog in Standard at this point.  Players may have assumed that Fifth Dawn, the final set in the block, would provide a hoser for the strategy.  Their expectations could not have been more wrong.

Cranial Plating is the card most associated today with Affinity decks in eternal formats.  It is the key spell, the one you must answer or die a quick death.  [Brief tactical note: Both Plating and Ravager are 2 cmc spells... remember to always pack your Spell Snares kids!]  In light of what was printed before it, and what the Standard environment shaped up to be, it is truly shocking that this card made it to print.  Developers really didn't understand equipment costs very well in those days, and one can only expect that this contributed to the problem with both Cranial Plating and Skullclamp.

Affinity Undaunted

In June of 2004, the DCI banned Skullclamp from both Mirrodin Block Constructed and Standard -- the card would also be banned from Legacy years later.  To accompany the banning announcement, a lengthy explanation was given of its development cycle.  According to Aaron Forsythe, Skullclamp had been pushed for constructed play about a month before the set went to print.  Because the development team had not been playing with the card's predecessor in their playtest league, and did not get a memo directing them to test Skullclamp in its new incarnation, the card simply wasn't tested during that final month.  Once the card made it out the door, WotC's development teams began to realize the mistake, but hoped that players would find answers for the card.  When they didn't, the DCI pulled the trigger.

This was not a targeted strike at Affinity, as the card was represented in multiple decks.  To paraphrase a popular saying from the later Titan Era, "Standard is wide open; you can play any Skullclamp deck you like!"  As it turned out, both Goblins and "Elf and Nail" took the loss of Skullclamp harder than Affinity.  

One month after the banning, in July of 2004, Affinity was ready to stand tall at Grand Prix Kuala Lumpur.  This was the first Standard-format GP in 11 months, and therefore the first Standard GP since Mirrodin's release.  At the first high-profile Standard event in months, Affinity was visibly dominating the field.  The deck placed five -- five! --players in the Top 8, including the winner Masahiko Morita.  In terms of high-level play, this event would prove to be the peak of Affinity's power.

 

 

One month later, a second Standard Grand Prix was held, this time at Nagoya, Japan.  Three Ravager Affinity decks placed in the Top 8.  This time, Keisuke Hashimoto was the highest finishing Affinity pilot, losing in the finals to a RG Goblins deck with four maindeck Oxidize.  The format had managed to keep Affinity from running roughshod over everything, but only by taking extreme measures and packing serious maindeck artifact hate.  

GP Nagoya would be the final Standard-format Grand Prix before Mirrodin block left Standard in the fall of 2005.  But Affinity had the spotlight on it twice more that year.  

The 2004 World Championships had a Standard component, and your best plan was either to play Affinity or play to beat it.  In a field of Affinity decks, anti-Affinity decks, and anti-anti-Affinity decks, Canadian player Aeo Paquette took his Affinity list to the finals where he lost to Astral Slide.

Affinity wasn't confined to Standard, even in those days.  Pro Tour Columbus 2004 featured the Extended format, a now-defunct quasi-eternal format with arbitrary rotations that was primarily played by PTQ grinders and in a few professional-level events.  At this point in time, the Extended card pool began at Tempest-block.  In light of the Skullclamp banning, most players had abandoned the effort to port Affinity into Extended, with only eight entrants piloting the deck that weekend.  Pierre Canali was one of the eight, and his Ravager Affinity deck cut through the field like a knife through butter, smashing future Hall of Famer Shuuhei Nakamura's Jackal Pup-laden Tempest Sligh deck 3-0 in the finals.  Canali's list is noteworthy in that it employed almost exclusively Mirrodin-block cards, even though it could produce any color of mana with relative ease.  Only a single maindeck City of Brass and a few sideboard cards came from outside the artifact block.  Affinity had pushed it's way out of Standard into the wider world, where it remains to this day.

 

 

 

Affinity Vanquished

The player community began to inundate WotC developers with feedback about Affinity.  They hated it.  It wasn't "fun".  It crowded out all the supposedly more fun decks they wanted to play.  Everything was Affinity or anti-Affinity, and there was no room for innovation.  The DCI listened to these complaints, and in the December 2004 update to the banned and restricted list, they announced to the expectant masses that... nothing had been banned.  The DCI was concerned that banning components of Affinity would just leave something like the Krark-Clan Ironworks deck to take its place.  Killing one monster of the metagame would leave another equally odious monster to take its place.

If this sounds familiar to more recent players, it should.  Much the same rationale was advanced during the height of the Caw-Blade era.  The fear in 2011 was that Caw-Blade's absence would allow the equally-despised Valakut deck to reign supreme.  But just as in 2011, the DCI eventually changed its mind about Affinity.

In March 2005, the DCI killed Affinity.  It cut off all its limbs, sent the limbs to the four corners of the Earth, had the limbs burned, and scattered the ashes into the mouths of eight hungry volcanoes.  All six artifact lands were banned, as well as Disciple of the Vault and Arcbound Ravager.  In the official explanation of the bans, developer Aaron Forsythe cited the high level of complaints from players as the primary motivation.  High-profile Standard events were upcoming in 2005, and WotC didn't want Affinity to dominate those events.  What they wanted was to kill Affinity so completely that they could announce the Standard format finally free of the menace, and welcome back the players whom the deck's dominance had alienated over the past several months.  To quote Forsythe: "The worst thing that could happen, in our eyes, would be for people to come back to Standard, full of hope and under the impression that Affinity was dead, only to lose to a weaker-but-still-potent Affinity deck in Round 1 of Regionals."  And so Affinity was ushered to the guillotine.

If you've been following along with me, I've discussed all the prominent Standard events of the Affinity Era, as well as some Block Constructed and Extended.  If you looked only at those events, ask yourself honestly: would you have thought Affinity needed to be killed?  It was clearly format-warping, and put up huge numbers at a Standard GP, but that's not exactly unprecedented.  There was no weekly StarCityGames Open series to show Affinity dominating week after week after week.  So how did Affinity cross the "something must be done" threshold, while other powerful decks did not?

I took you through all the major events, but what I did not show you - and cannot show you because these numbers are not available - is what happened at Friday Night Magic and other local events.  The Affinity bans were Magic's first true populist revolt.  It was widely reported that FNM attendance dropped like a rock during the Affinity Era.  This was an FNM-level problem, which generated FNM-level complaints, and the decision was made not for the benefit of professional competition but rather to bring Standard players back to their local game stores on Friday night.  The peasants were revolting, and WotC knew all too well that their game needed those players for its long-term health.  Affinity was an important part of the landscape at high level events, but at local events it was "omg, the worst thing ever, whoever made these cards should be shot from a cannon, I'm quitting Magic, die Affinity DIE!"  The decision to kill the deck would have implications in how the DCI treated the Caw-Blade deck several years later, as well as how WotC development approached the return to Mirrodin in 2010.

Part Two: Scarred by Mirrodin

"If popular culture has taught us anything, it is that someday mankind must face and destroy the growing robot menace."

- Daniel Wilson

WotC announced in early 2010 that the fall set would bring a return to the plane of Mirrodin.  As this was prior to the enormous explosion in player population which resulted from Duels of the Planeswalkers, many of the players in 2010 had also played during the Affinity Era.  Those players were naturally concerned, but also excited.  People just love playing with fire.  WotC development, on the other hand, did NOT want to play with fire.  There was to be no repeat of Mirrodin's mistakes.  There were, of course, to be Myr in the set.  But there would be no affinity mechanic.  The signature artifact keyword, metalcraft, was relatively low-power in comparison to affinity.  

Yet clearly WotC did want to push some sort of artifact deck towards playability.  They printed Steel Overseer in M11.  Memnite and Mox Opal gave us dreams of vomiting out our hand, pumping our creatures with Steel Overseer and Mirrodin Beseiged's Signal Pest, and smashing face.  All those things did come to pass, but for the most part it would not occur in Standard.

Tempered Expectations

During the first year of Scars of Mirrodin Standard, the block's influence was dwarfed by the higher-power Zendikar block, the printing of the Titans, and the dominance of Caw-Blade.  Following the rotation of Zendikar block, there was some initial hope that Scars would have time to shine.  Up until that point, only the Sword cycle had exerted much influence on Standard.  In fall of 2011, the robots would rise again...

The Tempered Steel deck at times resembled Affinity.  It could dump your entire hand on the board in a couple turns, and have you swinging for insane amounts of damage by the third turn.  It was an instant contender right out of the gates in SOM/ISD Standard, putting up solid finishes at 2011 State Champs and following through with plenty of 4-0 results in MTGO Daily Events.  The peak of the deck's popularity came in the wake of the 2011 World Championships in November, in which Tempered Steel was played by the entire ChannelFireball team.

 

Tempered Steel
As played by team ChannelFireball, 2011 World Championships
Creatures
4 Etched Champion
4 Glint Hawk
4 Memnite
1 Mikaeus, the Lunarch
4 Signal Pest
4 Vault Skirge
21 cards

Other Spells
4 Dispatch
4 Glint Hawk Idol
4 Mox Opal
4 Origin Spellbomb
4 Tempered Steel
20 cards
Lands
4 Inkmoth Nexus
2 Moorland Haunt
9 Plains
4 Seachrome Coast
19 cards

Etched Champion

 

Team CFB put four players in the Top 8 with this list.  The team had piloted a similar list in Scars Block Constructed at a Pro Tour, so it was an archetype they knew very well by this point.

Though the deck did seek to beat down an opponent with robots, it bore only a passing similarity to the Affinity deck of old.  There was a potential for ludicrously fast starts involving Memnite, Glint Hawk and Mox Opal, backed up by a Signal Pest or Tempered Steel to boost the team.  But the deck lacked the ability to quickly close out a game in the fashion of Disciple of the Vault, nor did it possess an equivalent to the reach provided by Shrapnel Blast.  And it was far less resilient than Affinity, worse at punishing removal or sweepers.  Tempered Steel decks relied on marginal cards such as Glint Hawk Idol and Shrine of Loyal Legions to rebuild their forces, as well as the far less embarrassing Moorland Haunt in this incarnation.  The deck was not completely without a Plan B of sorts, as Etched Champion could punch through a crowded board fairly well.  The deck may be best understood as a sort of hybrid between normal White Weenie and a quasi-Affinity deck that could occasionally have an unbeatable opening that typical weenie aggro decks couldn't match.

The deck was not very popular on the $5K circuit during those initial months, despite its success on MTGO and the professional level.  In early 2012, it evolved to add a green splash for Gavony Township and suddenly found success there as well, taking 1st place as well as several other money finishes at the SCG Open in Richmond.  The success was short-lived, as various Titan decks such as Wolf-Run Ramp rose to popularity and drove it back out of the metagame with their Slagstorms.  By the time Delver of Secrets ascended to combat the Titan decks, Tempered Steel was out of the picture never to return.

And Don't the Kids Just Love It!

In a complete reversal of sentiments from the Affinity Era, this robot deck was not reviled by the masses.  In fact, it was widely embraced at the FNM level.  Why this straightforward weenie aggro deck was deemed "fun" to play, while Affinity was not, is hard to fathom.  Affinity certainly seems more interesting to play with than Tempered Steel does.  There are a lot of moving parts to Affinity, and plenty of sick plays, whereas Tempered Steel is just beatdown with the occasionally amusing nut draw.  What did the masses like about Tempered Steel?

Part of its allure at the FNM level was likely due to its reputation as a solid budget deck.  The deck only contained two mythics: Mox Opal and Hero of Bladehold, the latter of which had been a pre-release promo.  Anybody could build a cheap version of the deck for not much more than the price of dinner at Applebee's, and it was always competitive at the FNM level even when it was out of vogue in the larger metagame.  It was also fairly straightforward to play, while still allowing for some flexibility and customization.  When the $5K circuit had abandoned Tempered Steel, the crowd on Friday night just kept on developing the deck.  Some players added a red splash for Galvanic Blast, which became a popular casual variant near the end of its run.  The deck held onto its devotees until rotation.

Fear of a Bot Planet

Given that the masses liked Tempered Steel, would they have liked it to be stronger than it was?  Would they have enjoyed playing it with the power level dialed up just a notch, enough to have made it a Tier One deck for an entire year?  I would suspect so.  

But the developers of Scars block were clearly afraid to push anything too strongly for constructed play.  Affinity's reign during original Mirrodin was something that absolutely could not be repeated, and they played it too cautiously on the return visit.  The Sword cycle existed above the power curve only because the cycle's mana costs were set during the infancy of equipment.  Apart from the Sword cycle, the block's reception in Standard was poor.  Both years of its existence there, it tended to be dominated by mechanics, cards and strategies made possible by the surrounding blocks and core sets.  Apart from the brief popularity of Tempered Steel and the tireless efforts of a few diehard Tezzeret enthusiasts, the block felt like a second-class citizen.  Development was also so afraid of artifact domination that they reprinted world-class artifact hate such as Ancient Grudge, and even a new Null Rod variant in Stony Silence to make darn sure it never reached that point.  WotC developers have gotten better at catching mistakes since Affinity, but they didn't trust themselves enough to approach the tantalizing boundaries of power that excite the player.   

 

Epilogue

"I suggest a new strategy, Artoo: let the Wookie win."

-C3PO

July 2012.  Grand Prix Columbus.  Modern format.  Modern hit the scene with a huge push from WotC in late 2011, and is just gaining steam.  Then it happens.  Top of the standings.  Arcbound freakin' Ravager.  Wizards' own announcer team keeps trying to rebrand the deck as "Artifact Aggro" or "Robots".  They don't want you to even think the name, lest you run panic-stricken into the cold night.  But you know what it is.  It's Affinity, back at the top.  Only this time, nobody cares.  No flood of angry letters.  No pronouncements that Modern was doomed.  No calls to ban Ravager, Frogmite, Cranial Plating and Springleaf Drum in some insane purge.  Just another deck.  In fact, this time it's the sign of a healthy metagame.  A deck people are finally free to enjoy, free to acknowledge that they enjoy.

Affinity will play nice this time.  It totally promises that it will.  It knows its place, and it learned its lesson.  If you want the other kids to let you stay in the game, sometimes you have to swallow your pride.  Once and awhile, just let the wookie win.

4 Comments

Excellent article, enjoyed by Rasparthe at Tue, 01/21/2014 - 15:44
Rasparthe's picture
5

Excellent article, enjoyed reading it start to finish.

Great article man. Top notch, by Cweaver at Tue, 01/21/2014 - 15:45
Cweaver's picture

Great article man. Top notch, I learned a ton since I just came back to Magic in ISD

It was really your best by Kumagoro42 at Thu, 01/23/2014 - 10:46
Kumagoro42's picture
5

It was really your best article. And it's saying something.

And apparently, J.J. Abrams was an affinity fan, too. :)

Great Article... by Fred1160 at Fri, 01/24/2014 - 15:51
Fred1160's picture

I really liked the article and it was nice to revisit those old decks. I quit playing paper when it got to the point that I went to a tournament and there were twenty players and eighteen were playing Affinity. One store I knew of stopped having tournaments because they went from thirty players every week down to four.
I knew of another store where the owner had his own personal ban list for the store. He banned enough of the cards from Affinity that he nerfed the deck totally and people had to come up with something else to play.

One minor quibble: in the last line it should read "once in a while," not "once and awhile."