I know many Modern players who read the January 18th ban announcement and wanted to eBay off their collections on the spot. Or burn them and overnight the charred Splinter Twin remnants to Wizards in Hallmark condolence cards. Have faith, ye Modern faithful! I too am deeply dissatisfied with Wizards’ handling of this recent update, but I’m also a devoted Modern player who retains an unfailing optimism in the format’s ability to adapt and evolve. It’s time to lace up our boots and take a deep breath after getting the wind slugged out of us. Pack your bags, put a smile back on your face, and join me on the Great Modern Quest of 2016.
Is this the hunt for an Ancestral Vision unbanning? Not yet. An Innocent Blood reprint? Maybe next block. A new linear monster to replace Amulet Bloom? Let’s hope not. Instead, come with me as we start to answer the most important Modern question of 2016: what deck(s) will fill the metagame gap left by Splinter Twin‘s banning?
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, URx Twin and BGx Midrange formed a buddy-cop duo that regulated Modern and kept degenerate decks at bay. Its absence will likely cause a short-term uptick in linear decks such as Affinity, Tron, and Infect (among others). I believe we will push past this initial imbalance and return to the same format diversity we enjoyed throughout much of 2015, but a Twin successor will be an integral player in this narrative. Today’s article is a first step towards finding an inheritor to Twin’s mantle. I’ll identify the three most important themes contributing to the strategy’s success, giving some suggestions about how these can play out in months to come. Our search may be a fool’s errand. Maybe URx Twin was the only “Twin” deck and no replacement exists. Perhaps Modern doesn’t even need a Twin replacement at all! We can’t know until we look, and that’s where our journey begins.
The Importance of Internal Regulation
Some of you will likely challenge this article’s very premise, asking if we even need a URx Twin alternative when Wizards just took a bite out of the original. After all, didn’t Twin get banned for reducing format diversity? If my time with Modern Nexus has taught me anything, it’s the importance of policing decks in our format’s metagame. Twin and BGx Midrange were the top cops on that block. We saw this in monthly update after monthly update, and today I want to highlight some of these 2015 examples to illustrate why regulators like Twin are important. This will dovetail with the more conventional theories about Twin’s relevance, but with an added layer of data often missing from such assessments.
Checks and Balances in Early 2015
As with all quests, this one starts at the beginning. Back in February 2015, right after Birthing Pod and the broken delve sorceries were sent to the gallows, Modern was a wide open format once again. Pro Tour Fate Reforged was right around the bend and everyone was excited for a new metagame. At least, until most people took a gander at one of the least balanced Pro Tour fields in recent memory. Day 2 saw about 30% of the field on some kind of Abzan (overwhelmingly the generic Abzan Midrange with a few Abzan Liege upstarts). The next four decks after Abzan were all linear sledgehammers: Burn (12.4%), Infect (7.4%), Affinity (6.6%), and Zoo (5.4%). Add RG Tron (3.1%), Storm (2.3%), Amulet Bloom (1.9%), plus a few other random stragglers, and you had a metagame that was even more linear than it was Abzan.
Once players began processing event data, however, things looked significantly better. Adrian Sullivan wrote an excellent piece on these numbers, which I’ll draw on here. With the exception of Infect, which was extremely well-positioned against Abzan, all of the most-played linear decks imploded en route to the 18+ points bracket. Burn, Affinity, and Zoo all posted sub-15% conversion rates, which was partly to be expected given how many people were on the decks, but moreso a testament to their positioning: the decks weren’t as good as many believed. Meanwhile, good old UR Twin had a rock solid 18% conversion rate (second of all the decks with 12+ players). Antonio Del Moral Leon also won the entire event with his list. Following the Pro Tour, Grand Prix Vancouver flipped the metagame narrative on its head, with URx Twin immediately seizing the Day 2 crown at 18.5%, sending four players to the Top 16, and giving Dan Lanthier his win. This reversal from linear infestation to Twin regulation could find a parallel in the months to come.
As an amusing historical note, Amulet Bloom proved remarkably resilient to Twin’s policing during this era. Despite its supposedly subpar matchup, Bloom still managed excellent conversion rates at the Pro Tour and notable Top 8s at both the Pro Tour and the Grand Prix. Part of this was opponent’s inexperience, but it also speaks directly to Bloom’s strength and eventual ban this year.
Fighting the Linear Menace of Fall 2015
There are a few more instances of Twin’s regulatory effects (beating back big-mana decks at Grand Prix Charlotte, keeping Amulet Bloom at the bottom edge of Tier 1 in November, etc.), but my favorite came in the September, October, and November metagame snapshots. Starting in July and moving through September, we had seen a gradual Twin decline as players tinkered with Grixis alternatives and moved off their trusty combo. The result was a massive Affinity spike, culminating in the robots’ 11% share in September, a 4% leap from August. October also saw an alarmingly linear Grand Prix Porto Alegre, a Burn and Affinity hegemony at the SCG States events, and Tron’s continual rise from Tier 2 wallflower to Tier 1 mainstay. Gruul Zoo even hit Tier 2 for the first time since I started analyzing Modern numbers in 2014. With all these different pressures, especially a seemingly unstoppable Affinity preying on the false sense of Kolaghan’s Command confidence, Modern was looking much sicker than it had in June.
Deceiver Exarch, to the rescue! The November update saw most of these October and September trends retreat as the format rebalanced itself around this format pillar. We saw the beginnings of Twin’s return in October, when the traditional UR version climbed 1%, and this continued into November when it jumped another 1% and dominated the RPTQ circuit with a 15% share across tournaments. Although RG Tron (and that darn Amulet Bloom) solidified its Tier 1 status in this time period, all the other linear decks dropped back into equilibrium. Twin’s resurgence was integral to that change: one need only watch the Grand Prix Pittsburgh Top 8 to see this principle in action.
All of this is to give some hard data behind the common assertion about Twin’s regulatory role in Modern. Twin’s presence may have pushed out other options, but this is true of any Tier 1 deck. More importantly, Twin played an important role as a format policeman, something we see in the data above. We won’t be getting the enchantment back anytime soon, but this analysis underscores the importance of finding a replacement to Twin if we can. Modern will likely fall out of balance in the future, just as it did over 2015. When that happens (not “if”), we’ll want Twin’s successor lined up to Restore Balance.
Rising to the Twin Challenge
Now that we’ve given some important quantitative and qualitative context to Twin’s importance, we have a better understanding of what’s at stake in a Twinless Modern. This should galvanize us to find a Twin successor. Reflecting on the URx Twin role over 2015 (and in earlier years), I’ve identified three larger themes to the deck’s success that Twin successors will need to meet. There’s a long line of candidates for the job, and if we are to successfully separate the next big thing from wasteful flops, we’ll need to see how the applicants meet (or don’t meet) these criteria.
Criterion 1: Always Threaten the Win
If there was any single secret to Twin’s success, it was its ability to always threaten a win starting on turn three. The very fear of an Exarch/Twin combo forced players to keep mana open and lose tempo even if the Twin player didn’t have the combo and the opponent didn’t have the interaction. This abject terror demanded you mulligan away certain hands and sideboard certain cards. It required foes to scry defensively off Serum Vision, maindeck a Spellskite or Qasali Pridemage bullet, and hold back multiple burn spells just to combat the four-toughness Exarch. Ban supporters will point to this commanding table presence as a justification for Twin’s banning and I counter that it was a necessary consequence of nonrotating formats having strong, regulatory decks. Let’s table that discussion for now and just agree that if we want a true URx Twin successor, it needs to hold the same kind of fear and respect as the original Splinter Twin.
Naturally, for the threat of a win to be omnipresent, the win condition must itself meet some benchmarks.
An opponent shouldn’t see your win coming. If victory requires you to play a permanent and then untap with it a turn later, you aren’t always threatening the win. Why? Because when that linchpin permanent isn’t in play, your opponent has nothing to fear. As long as you have cards in hand, your enemies should be sweating in the knowledge you might win at any moment.
You need to execute your big win no later than turn five. Ideally, it should be turn four or earlier. On the play, you really need your opponent to sacrifice their vital turn three Liliana of the Veil or Tasigur, the Golden Fang because they needed to hold up Terminate mana: there’s a huge power gap between turn three and turn two plays in Modern, and we want opponents to make the tough choice. With enough disruption, you can push this up a turn, but only if you have powerful interaction along the way (e.g. Anger of the Gods, Supreme Verdict). Anything past turn five is too slow.
Our Twin 2.0 win condition must end the game on the spot unless an opponent immediately interacts with it. Virtual wins won’t always cut it. A turn four Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger might spell certain doom to the opposing Grixis mage, but the Burn pilot is going to gleefully answer double Vindicate with double Lightning Bolt. The win doesn’t need to be guaranteed in all corner cases (Scapeshift counts even if Soul Sisters and Abzan Company laugh at Valakuts), but it should be final in the vast majority of matches.
These three qualifications are best served by single card combos that don’t require a lot of setup (Scapeshift), instant-speed cards you can cast without warning (Restoration Angel, Gifts Ungiven), and synergies that don’t leave room for response (Through the Breach into Primeval Titan won’t end the game immediately in most cases). Based on that, here’s a brief and nonexhaustive list of cards and combos which might meet the “always threaten the win” criterion.
- Restoration Angel and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- Deceiver Exarch and Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker
- Through the Breach into Emrakul, the Aeons Torn
- Gifts Ungiven for Unburial Rites and fatty
I’m leaving off a lot of “I win” synergies because they might not support the other two criteria (sorry, dear Goblin Charbelcher), but this is still a great starting point before we incorporate our other parameters.
Criterion 2: Role Flexibility
If you take on the URx Twin mantle, you’ll find yourself in positions where your primary win condition isn’t online. Maybe an opponent Thoughtseized the pieces. Perhaps they are presenting removal mana. Either way, our heir to the throne must be able to shift gears into a new role to beat the hate and emerge victorious. Twin was notorious for this approach, achieved in Game 1 with reach from Snapcaster Mage, Lightning Bolt, and Pestermite, and augmented in Games 2-3 with haymakers like Keranos, God of Storms. Temur and Grixis variants accomplished this with a midrange gameplan courtesy of Tarmogoyf and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, while Alex Bianchi’s Jeskai list leveraged Celestial Colonnade. Of course, this gear-shifting must never preclude the threat of our primary win condition. Opponents need to think twice before spending valuable interaction on a rogue Tarmogoyf, lest we Exarch them out in response.
Taking the Twin example, we’ll either want a tempo or a control Plan B to our Plan A. It’s no coincidence many considered URx Twin the “true” control deck of the format, something showcased in every game where Brian Braun-Duin packed his own UR Twin list. Indeed, in many respects, we wouldn’t be wrong describing Twin as a Plan A tempo or control deck with a combo Plan B! This role fluidity makes in-game decisions and sideboarding significantly harder than if we were a pure combo deck. Opponents must weigh disrupting the combo against interacting with our Plan B, which often necessitates different spells and lines of play. Our role flexibility gets weaker if opponents can answer both dimension of our strategy with a single card: Jeskai Twin had great positioning at Pittsburgh because bullets that stopped the Twin combo were useless against Colonnade.
Focusing on tempo and control options (although it would be interesting to explore aggro or ramp ones at a later time), here are some frontrunning cards and combinations we’ll want to remember as we craft the Twin successor.
- Tempo threats: Vendilion Clique, Pestermite, Restoration Angel
- Manlands: Celestial Colonnade, Wandering Fumarole, Lumbering Falls
- Early clocks: Tarmogoyf, Tasigur, the Golden Fang, Geist of Saint Traft
- Burn reach: Snapcaster Mage, Lightning Bolt, Lightnign Helix, Electrolyze
- Haymakers: Keranos, God of Storms, Jace, Architect of Thought, Ajani Vengeant
We’ll want to focus on these categories as we outfit our deck for post-banning success.
Criterion 3: Bolt, Remand, and Snapcaster
In highlighting these three staples, I point both to the cards themselves and also the effect they represent. Twin enjoyed so much success not only because it leveraged these Modern icons themselves, but also because it capitalized on the advantage they presented in games. Lightning Bolt is the cheap removal spell that allows early interaction, gives options in the midgame, and widens reach into later turns. Remand is the virtual time walk that punishes flashy and expensive plays, steals tempo, and buys time for either your Plan A or your Plan B. As for Snapcaster Mage, the Wizard requires little introduction: he’s arguably (read: probably) the best card in Modern and is one of the only cards that appreciates in value at every stage of the game. Without these three effects, Twin would not have been the powerhouse we remember it as, and although Splinter Twin is gone today, its royal guard remains.
Unlike my last two criteria, this one is color-specific. You need to be in URx to abuse Modern’s Bolt/Remand/Snapcaster trinity, which naturally places some deckbuilding restrictions on any post-Twin strategies. I don’t have a problem with these constraints. Bolt is going to be more important than ever in a metagame swarming with Wild Nacatls, Goblin Guides, Signal Pests, and (Bl)Inkmoths. The same is true of Snapcaster, which will remain the best reason to play blue until/unless they ever unban Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Some have argued Twin was not the best deck because of the combo in itself, but because it was the best way to build around Snapcaster Mage. I won’t disagree with this, and we’ll want to make a similar commitment in 2016.
Remand is also a worthy contributor to the Twin cause, although it’s relevance is more questionable today than it was three months ago. Rising linear decks in the Stage 1 Twinless world will be poor targets for Remand‘s talents. Much more worryingly, Bx Eldrazi decks circumvent the tempo loss with Blight Herder‘s and Oblivion Sower‘s on-cast effects. Remanding a turn three Karn Liberated is as good as it gets. Remanding the turn four Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger? Not so much. These decks make the counterspell much worse than it was in an earlier metagame, benefiting from the double-cast and often having enough mana to negate it early. Because of this, our Twin successor might need to evolve beyond its Remand origins, even if we keep the instant in mind if the format becomes more hospitable.
Bolt-Snap-Bolt doesn’t have replacements, but there are plenty of viable alternatives to Remand‘s place in the Twin picture. Here are just a few I’m scoping for future brews.
The Search is On!
It might feel oversimplistic to distill URx Twin’s enduring success to just three themes when so many other internal factors and external contexts were at play. These possible complications aside, I’m comfortable starting with this trio as we look for the next contender to take up Twin’s fallen sword. We can add to them as we learn more about the new metagame, and adapt them as we see what a Twinless Modern looks like. You can bet I’ll be brewing, testing, and crunching the numbers to see what comes next.
What deck do you think will inherit the Twin tradition? Any tech you’re keeping an eye on? Do you even believe Modern needs a Twin deck, or that Twin was the policing force I make it out to be? Take it into the comments and I’ll see you all there as we navigate this new format together! I’ll be posting a Part 2 to this piece in the coming week after I’ve conducted some more tests.