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Deck Evolutions: Modern Twin


A few weeks ago we looked at the evolution of Jund in Modern. Jund's history was highlighted by some significant changes; sometimes brought about by players figuring out the optimal configuration of the deck (for instance, swapping Putrid Leech for Dark Confidant or Rise // Fall for Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek), other times necessitated by bannings including the loss of Bloodbraid Elf, Punishing Fire and Deathrite Shaman. This week we'll take a look at Splinter Twin, a deck built around the instant win two-card combo of Splinter Twin plus Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite. Many of the card changes in Twin's are more subtle, but you can argue that these small changes, over the course of years, have amounted to current Twin lists playing significantly differently than early incarnations. Like Jund, Splinter Twin was born in Standard, so to examine the origins of the deck we need to start off in August 2011, a couple months after New Phyrexia was released. 

When discussing Twin in Standard, it is important to realize that the card Splinter Twin itself had been legal in the format for more than a year before it saw any play. In fact, it was widely considered an unplayable bulk rare. It wasn't until Deceiver Exarch was printed in New Phyrexia that its combo potential was unleashed. The Standard version of Twin had only one way of winning a game — attaching a Splinter Twin to Deceiver Exarch — so the rest of the deck was filled with two types of cards. The first was cantrips including Ponder, Preordain, Gitaxian Probe and even Shrine of Piercing Vision (which, apart from Shrine, is pretty close to a Legacy suite of deck manipulation). The second group was ways to protect the combo, mostly counterspells including Mana Leak and Dispel

The other interesting aspect of Twin was that the birth of the archetype coincided with the birth of Modern as a format. New Phyrexia was released in May of 2011 and it was later in the same month that Wizards announced the creation of a new non-rotating format called Modern. 

Number of Counters: 7
Number of Cantrips: 17 (including Shrine of Piercing Vision, See Beyond and Into the Roil
Number of Combo Pieces: 8

The first recorded Modern build of Twin came but two weeks after the deck's introduction in Standard, although it might be a stretch to consider it the same archetype. In essence, this was a Hive Mind combo deck that just happened to have the Splinter Twin combo thrown in. While the deck looked to be a hot mess (and it probably was), there were a couple interesting aspects of the double-combo build. First, being able to run a full set of Pact of Negation to not only protect the Splinter Twin combo, but also enable the Hive Mind kill was pretty sweet. Second, Idyllic Tutor let you search for one half of either combo. Apparently this build wasn't good enough, however, because by the time Pro Tour Philadelphia — the first significant Modern event — rolled around a month later, Hive Minds and Pacts were nowhere to be found. 

Number of Counters: 8
Number of Cantrips: 10 (counting Remand)
Number of Combo Pieces: 8 (Twin combo only).

The early days of Modern were the Magic equivalent of the wild west. The initial ban list was based on decks that were powerful in other formats (Standard or Extended), but many format shaping bannings took place as a result of the craziness that ensued at Pro Tour Philadelpha. In a field full of pre-banning Storm, turn-two-kill Blazing Shoal Infect, and 12-Post, UR Twin cemented itself as the deck to beat in a sea of broken decks putting two players into the top eight and giving Samuele Estratti a Pro Tour victory. 

The biggest change from the Standard to Modern builds of UR Twin was the ability for the Modern deck to maximize the number of combo pieces. Not only did you get Splinter Twin, but also Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker. Not only did you get Deceiver Exarch, but also Pestermite. However, similar to the Standard builds, this version of Modern Twin was purely a combo deck. While it was theoretically possible to beat down with inefficient, combo-centric creatures, getting there one or two damage at a time was definitely Plan Z. This was reflected by the fact that the deck played almost no reach — only a single copy of Lightning Bolt and three main deck Firespouts. 

Number of Counters: 8 (+1)
Number of Cantrips: 9 (-8)
Number of Combo Pieces: 13 (+5)
Biggest Additions: Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Pestermite, Remand, Firespout, Pact of Negation and Spellskite
Biggest Subtractions: Bad cantrips (Shrine of the Piercing Vision, See Beyond) and Into the Roil

The next evolution in Modern Twin came about six months later with the birth of Grixis Twin. Gone were reactive cards like Firespout and in their place came in proactive one-mana discard including Thoughtseize and Inquisition of Kozilek. The number of counterspells in the deck was also decreased almost by half, but perhaps more importantly the cantrip suite was forced to change in response to bannings. Pro Tour Philadelpha was dominated by blue-based combo decks — not just Twin, but Storm and Mono-Blue Infect as well. As a result, the September 2011 Banned and Restricted announcement smashed the hammer on both Ponder and Preordain. The reasoning behind these bannings was that UR combo decks (including Twin) would be weakened, but not completely unplayable. As a result, tier-two cantrips like Serum Visions and Sleight of Hand took center stage in Grixis Twin. It's also worth noting that Cryptic Command, widely held as the most powerful blue card in Modern, was nowhere to be found in these early builds of Twin. Despite these changes, UR Twin was still wholly a combo deck with no realistic Plan B; It just was more proactive with discard, rather than being reactive with counterspells and board-wipes. 

While I'm not going to post the list, it is also worth mentioning that spring of 2012 was also the first recorded instance of a Modern player sticking the Splinter Twin combo into a pre-existing archetype when Brian Schneider realized that his UR Fairies deck played Pestermite and snuck a couple copies of Splinter Twin into his deck during a PTQ for Pro Tour Barcelona. This foreshadowed decks like Living Twin which appear in later years. Other than that, the Twin deck stayed remarkably consistent throughout most of 2012. Cards like Grim Lavamancer came and went from the main deck, and some people forewent the black splash altogether. However, no major innovations took place before the release of Return to Ravnica in the fall.  

Number of Counters: 5 (-3)
Number of Cantrips: 13 - counting Faithless Looting (no change)
Number of Combo Pieces: 13 (no change). 
Biggest Additions: Serum Visions, Sleight of HandInquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize
Biggest Subtraction: Ponder, Preordain, Pact of Negation and Firespout

The end-of-2012 version of UR Twin, like the deck used by Davis to win the PTQ, might be the most combo-heavy version ever put together. While the actual number of combo pieces was reduced by one from the long-held standard of 13, many of the reactive cards in the deck were there purely to force the combo through like the three main deck copies of Dispel. The fact that UR Twin was willing to main deck such a narrow card was a dead giveaway that this deck was solely focused on comboing off and not especially interested in playing a fair game of Magic. The same was true of the main deck copies of Spellskite, another way of protecting the combo.

The Return to Ravnica additions might not look like much: a couple copies of Izzet Charm and a single Desolate Lighthouse. But the latter was especially important since it will end up being one of the most impactful lands in the deck over the coming years, noted for its ability to break open the mirror match where whoever draws their "Loothouse" first is likely to end up the winner. Izzet Charm, on the other hand, isn't a staple in the archetype, but it does show up from time to time as the antithesis of Dispel. Where Dispel does one thing better than any other card in the game of Magic (counter an instant), Izzet Charm does a lot of things reasonably; the ability to be a combination removal spell, combo finder, and combo protector offers a lot of value to the deck. 

Number of Counters: 8 (+3)
Number of Cantrips: 15 (+2)
Number of Combo Pieces: 12 (-1)
Biggest Additions: Izzet Charm, Gitaxian Probe, Spellskite and Desolate Lighthouse.
Biggest Subtractions: All black cards (mostly one-mana discard like Inquisition of Kozilek and Thoughtseize). 

Innistrad was released in September, 2011 as the first set after the first Modern Pro Tour. Amazingly enough, in the year-and-a-half that followed, no one figured out that Snapcaster Mage was good in a UR deck full of counterspells and cantrips. In fact, it took a white splash for players to start playing Snapcaster Mage in Twin. Yes, Swanson only played it as a one-of, but often times, that is the way decks evolve in non-rotating formats. First someone tries a copy or two of a card and realize how awesome it is when they draw it, so then they start playing three or four copies. Sooner or later they put up a big finish, and before long everyone is playing the card. 

Along the same lines, although Lightning Bolt has been legal in Modern ever since the birth of the format, UR Twin simply didn't play it opting for things like Flame Slash or Electrostatic Bolt instead. This was probably even less logical than the lack of Snapcaster Mage, as basically every red deck in Modern started with four copies of Lightning Bolt and some decks (like Jund, for example) splash red primarily to have access to the powerful burn spell. 

Even discounting the inclusion of Snapcaster Mage and Lightning Bolt, Jeskai Twin was unique among the Splinter Twin decks of its era. This was the first big showing by a Twin deck that wasn't wholly devoted to comboing off. While the combo was still there and an important part of the deck, for the first time in the history of Twin in Modern, there was a legitimate Plan B. Apart from the combo finish, Jeskai Twin could win by beating down in the air with Celestial Colonnade and Restoration Angel, or it could finish off the game with Lightning Bolt, Lightning Helix and Electrolyze. The inclusion of these seven burn spells (and one Snapcaster Mage) meant that dealing damage with Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite was actually meaningful. While it was extremely difficult to deal 20 points of damage one or two at a time, dealing eight was realistic, at which point the Jeskai Twin deck can plan to burn out their opponent for the victory. 

Jeskai Twin was a landmark moment in the deck's evolution. While Jeskai Twin itself didn't have all that much staying power, it hearkened a shift in philosophy. Instead of seeing how well it could protect a glass-cannon combo, Twin suddenly became a real deck that could kill by damage and creatures and oh, and it might just randomly combo you off if you're not careful. It was this ideal that would shape the deck through the next two years. 

Number of Counters: 4 (-4)
Number of Cantrips: 9 (-6) (counting Wall of Omens and Electrolyze)
Number of Combo Pieces: 14 (+2)
Biggest Additions: Snapcaster Mage, Lightning Bolt, Restoration Angel, Lightning Helix and Celestial Colonnade.
Biggest Subtractions: Sleight of Hand, Serum Visions, Dispel and Spellskite

While the Jeskai Twin deck may have been the precursor of modern Splinter Twin, there is little doubt that Patrick Dickmann is the forefather of the the present day version of the archetype. Before really digging into the evolution of the deck, my understanding of Dickmann's contributions was limited to "he jammed four Tarmogoyfs into the Twin deck." But in reality, it was Dickmann who built the archetype into the monster it is today.

Possibly influenced by the Lightning Bolts and Snapcaster Mage of Jeskai Twin, Dickmann was the first to realize that Twin in Modern is a control deck, but instead of using a Morphling or Aetherling to finish the game, it uses the Splinter Twin combo. So when he showed up (and won) GP Antwerp in October of 2013 playing four Snapcaster Mage, four Lightning Bolts, along with Cryptic Commands and Vendilion Cliques in his UR Twin deck, the world took notice. In fact, the version he played nearly two years ago is quite similar to the most popular build today. 

The number of combo pieces were minimized. The number of counters were maximized. (Mostly) gone arewerenarrow spells designed to protect the combo. In fact, neither Splinter Twin or Deceiver Exarch could be considered the most important card in the deck anymore; it was clearly Snapcaster Mage. In terms of the evolution of the archetype, this was the fish that decided to walk out of the ocean and up onto land. It was the seminal moment in the evolution of Twin where the deck went from a glass cannon combo deck to the best deck in Modern.

Number of Counters: 7 (+3) - 11 counting Snapcaster Mage
Number of Cantrips: 9 (+0) - 13 counting Snapcaster Mage
Number of Combo Pieces: 11 (-5)
Biggest Additions: Snapcaster Mage, Lightning Bolt and Cryptic Command
Biggest Subtractions: Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker (down to one copy), Pestermite (down to two copies) and Dispel (down to one copy). 

While TarmoTwin gets most of the laurels, I firmly believe that Dickmann's Snapcaster Twin deck from the GP several months earlier was his greatest contribution to the archetype. This is similar to how casual music lovers will tell you that Velvet Underground and Nico is one of the best albums of all time — and to some extent they are right; it is pretty and accessible — but this completely misses the fact that White Light/White Heat is the band's real contribution to the lexicon. 

Don't get me wrong, TarmoTwin was an innovative deck. Tarmogoyf is one of the best "Plan B" options in Modern, but looking back now with the wisdom of hindsight, TarmoTwin is a blip on the radar. Sure it was pretty and rolls of the tongue easily for the casual observer ("hey, it's Dickmann, the guy who put Tarmogoyf in his Twin deck"), but make no mistake about it: Dickmann's true contribution to the archetype was showing the world that at its heart, UR Twin is a control deck.

Maybe the most stunning things about TarmoTwin at Pro Tour Born of the Gods is that most of the other pros were one, or even two, iterations of Twin behind Dickmann. Alexander Hayne played the old, combo-only Dispel/Spellskite build, while most of the other pros were on a deck very similar to Dickmann's GP Antwerp build. 

Number of Counters: 6 (-1)
Number of Cantrips: 11 (+2)
Number of Combo Pieces: 10 (-1)
Biggest Additions: Tarmogoyf
Biggest Subtraction: Vendilion Clique, Kiki-Jiki, Mirrorbreaker and Grim Lavamancer

For the rest of 2014, Twin was clearly among the best decks in the format and, except for a small break during the short lifespan of Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time towards the end of the year, every top performing Twin build could be classified by the two Dickmann builds we just talked about. While UR Twin was the more successful of the two (or at the very least the more heavily played), TarmoTwin did appear from time to time, especially in Europe. 

The final change to the deck came at Pro Tour Fate Reforged in February of 2015, where Twin players took Dickmann's innovations to their logical extreme with the help of some spicy sideboard additions including Jace, Architect of Thought and Keranos, God of Storms. While the main deck remained quite similar to UR Twin builds from more than a year earlier with 10 combo pieces along with a bunch of counters and burn spells backed up by Snapcaster Mage, these sideboard changes meant that after boarding, a Twin player could remove the combo altogether and play as a pure UR Control deck — quite literally becoming Twinless Twin. 

You might even be able to argue that the development of Grixis Control over the early part of 2015 can be tied to the revelation that Twin without Splinter Twin is a very strong deck. What if, instead of wasting slots on a combo that will be sided out some percentage of the time anyway, we just splash black, play Thoughtseize, Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Kolaghan's Command

Number of Counters: 9 (+3)
Number of Cantrips: 11 (+0)
Number of Combo Pieces: 10 (+0)
Biggest Additions: Jace, Architect of Thought and Keranos, God of Storms (in sideboard). 
Biggest Subtractions: All green cards (from TarmoTwin build), nothing of note (from UR Twin). 

Conclusion

Last time we broke down the evolution of Modern Jund and found that the narrative was one of a deck that despite bannings, format changes and other obstacles, stayed more or less the same over the entire history of the format. The story of Twin, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. It is the story of a deck that starts off as an all-in, glass cannon combo deck (perhaps the Belcher of Modern?) and ends up a full-fledged control deck that just happens to win some games with a combo kill (if the combo doesn't get sideboarded out altogether). 

Perhaps the most amazing part of the story is how so few cards from the deck have actually changed. Yes, there are more counters and less combo pieces today than in the earliest builds from 2011, but what has evolved the most is the theory of the deck. This just goes to show how deep of a game Magic truly is: by changing only a handful of cards, UR Twin evolved from an all-in combo deck in 2011 to the premiere control deck in Modern in 2015. Unless Wizards targets the archetype with a banning, it seems unlikely that Twin will disappear from the format any time soon. 

Anyway, that all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, opinions and criticisms in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter (or MTGO) @SaffronOlive. 


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