Splinter Twin is the best deck in Modern.
If you'd asked me three months ago, that's the answer I would have given you. If you'd asked me last week, same answer. And now that Pro Tour Fate Reforged has come and gone, well, not a whole lot has changed in my book.
I admit some bias here, it's the Modern deck that got me to Hawaii last year, and as far as play style goes, Twin is right in my "do nothing till you win" wheelhouse. Still, Twin is one of the most flexible, most adaptable, and most powerful decks left in Modern, and it has a string of successes to its name to back up my claims.
I've heard a number of complaints from professional players about Modern, how the linear nature of many of the decks creates an environment where two players are battling on separate axes and only tangentially interact. The final match of PTFRF is, on the surface, an excellent example of this phenomenon, where two powerful and linear combo decks are battling in a way that has very little to do with traditional Magic the way it's played today. To further exacerbate the issue, cards like Blood Moon, Stony Silence, Rule of Law, etc. exist – one-card combos that are so effective as hosers for a specific linear deck that the game becomes a matter of "did you draw the hate card? Yes? I lose. No? I win." As compelling an argument against the format these may be, I can't help but love it anyway.
See, with my background – that of a Legacy player first, and a grinder far, far second – these are the sideboards I'm used to seeing. I'm quite familiar with the game plan of "mulligan to Force of Will," "mulligan to Tormod's Crypt," "mulligan to Swords to Plowshares" and the like. I cut my teeth in a format where the entire metagame revolved around the capability of a deck to deal with a 1/1 creature on turn one, through removal and Wastelands. When I started playing Magic competitively, Goblin Lackey was the singular focus of the Legacy world. To me, the "play the powerful trump card that beats a specific deck" sideboard plan is just how you play the metagame.
And, not so coincidentally, two divergent strategies passing each other like trucks on a dark desert road is exactly where my familiarities lie as well.
What appeals to me about Splinter Twin is the manner in which you can turn on a dime, and go from defensively posturing to maneuver away from losing, into closing the game in a blink of an eye. You go from no board presence and few cards in hand – but the instant your opponent drops their guard, you pounce, cutting them off at the knees before they have an opportunity to react. At the same time, you get to play offensively – nickel and diming them, delivering death one agonizing point at a time, all the while threatening to win on the spot if they commit too many resources to stemming the bleeding.
Twin accomplishes all of this, of course, because it has the capability of being the best Faeries deck in the format – playing on the opponent's turn and capitalizing on the unknown better than any other deck. I believe it was Brian David-Marshall who said it during the coverage: "Splinter Twin wins the information war every time." And in the world of marginally interactive linear combo decks, information is the key.
This weekend there were a number of sub-strategies paired with Twin that made their way into the spotlight. Though the pair of lists that made Top 8 were both the traditional Blue/Red version, even those two lists were quite different in execution. Beyond those two, both Grixis and Temur lists were popular, and had success in the Modern portion of the Pro Tour as well.
Todd Anderson and his team arrived at this list of Grixis Twin, featuring multi-format All Star Tasigur, the Golden Fang, which garnered Todd a 7-3 constructed record:
What I find interesting about this list is how little it relies on Twin itself. As more of a midrange tempo deck, Todd and Co. decided to use the "black Tarmogoyf" as the primary means of victory, relying on the card advantage and selection afforded by the Grixis shell to find the pieces despite the lower overall numbers in the list. The combination of Thought Scour and Tasigur powers up your graveyard for Snapcaster Mage and Grim Lavamancer to feed on. In exchange, Lavamancer can help to shape the graveyard for better odds on returning specific spells when activating Tasigur.
For another take on the Grixis-style list, Jeremy Payen went 6-4 with the following list:
There's a lot here to digest. First, Jeremy eschews many of the traditional elements of the UR list – Cryptic Command, the full set of Remand, Pestermite – to make room for black hand disruption spells. We also saw this take from Makihito Mihara, who had an incredibly creative list we'll discuss in a bit. Jeremy also ran a singleton Rise // Fall, which I expect is utilized as a way to re-buy Snapcaster Mages for secondary use, as well as returning an Exarch that may have been killed or milled. Of course, it also opens up some interesting implications when combined with the unique sideboard strategy Jeremy employed – a Gifts Ungiven package. Combining the Rise // Fall with Snapcaster Mage and a pair of redundant (but differently named) spells, or with an Exarch and a spell, gives you access to a wide array of lines to get all the cards back into the needed zones. I would imagine this is the main reason for the split between Inferno Titan (which I have seen in a few lists prior to this weekend) and Grave Titan in the board, as well as the assorted one-ofs in the main and board. I do wonder, though, if there isn't some argument to be made for a split between Exarch and Pestermite in Jeremy's list, specifically for that reason. I would assume Jeremy considered this, and recognized that once you put Rise // Fall, Snapcaster, and Exarch into the Gifts pile, you've guaranteed yourself the Exarch, though it may take a little work to get there; making the fourth card a freeroll.
Jeremy is also the only player I saw running Olivia Voldaren in the sideboard, which interests me as both an answer to commonly played one-toughness creatures as well as a pseudo-Control Magic for the grindy Abzan matchups. As a threat that can neither be Abrupt Decayed or Slaughter Pacted, it does have some inherent protection from many of the format's major removal spells, and has a way of marginalizing any number of Tarmogoyfs, given enough mana.
On the Temur-Twin train was Jason Schousboe, who also went 6-4.
Jason took a very traditional line for the construction of his deck, but it affords us an opportunity to really break down the advantages gleaned from running a creature like Tarmogoyf or Tasigur in your Twin deck, rather than use those slots for more combo pieces.
By adding a color for a "generic" threat, you're making a purchase of added flexibility and resiliency at the cost of consistency. Tasigur and Goyf add nothing to your ability to Combo, but they serve another important role. By playing a significant threat at low cost that can end the game by itself, you're forcing your opponent even more into the uncomfortable role of dedicating their Limited Resources to dealing with a card that is decidedly not the scary part of your 75. Most decks do have some number of ways of dealing with both Goyf and Tasigur – as two of the more prominent threats in the format, they're part of the plan you have to be capable of executing in order to have a "real" deck. Why these threats are effective in this style of deck is specifically because most of the format's major interactive players will have a difficult time both answering the threat of a powerful and undercosted beatstick and protecting themselves from the combo half of your shell at the same time. All the Negates in the world won't stop a two-man 5/6 from beating down, and you certainly can't stop Pestermite/Twin with a Spell Snare. This diversity of threats allows you to play a more varied role in complex situations, and place the burden on the opponent for having the right answers at the right time.
This added flexibility does come at a cost, as I mentioned above. While you improve some of your midrange matchups and have better means of interaction with the board, you lose the speed and consistency that comes with being a streamlined combo machine – which can cost you in your unfair matchups. By adding a third color, you also cut yourself off from access to one of the single greatest tools in the Twin arsenal – Blood Moon – and give up a number of free wins as a result. Jeremy Payen managed to sneak a Moon into his 75, but we can generously call that an "expert level" play that should not be expected for wide adoption.
Perhaps the most unique list of Splinter Twin devised for this weekend's event was played by Makihito Mihara – whose interest in Twin and unique decklists should surprise no one. Though details are sketchy on the exact contents of Mihara's list, as he found marginal success with his build, we know the deck featured a full set of Humble Defector from Fate Reforged.
Defector opens up some interesting avenues for the natural play combinations of Splinter Twin. By putting a Splinter Twin on the creature, or by using it in combination with Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, you can create a token Defector, who is quite willing to draw you two cards and be passed to the opponent, since he's planning to die at the end of the turn anyway. This allows you to freely draw two extra cards each turn in an effort to set yourself up for victory. If a Twin or Kiki are not on hand, you can use the other half of your combo engine to get yourself ahead on cards by responding to the activation of the Defector with one of your combo creatures, untapping the Defector and re-activating it, netting you four cards before the traitor changes sides, and keeping you two cards up on the opponent once they activate the Defector as well. Mihara also played at least three maindeck Spellskites to protect his combos, many more than I've seen in Twin builds before. Because of the inherent disadvantage of supplying your opponent with free draw spells (regardless of how much better it may be for you), Mihara decided to replace the traditional Counterspells of Splinter Twin with discard, facilitated by a hearty black splash.
You can see Mihara's deck in action during the round seven feature match versus Lee Shi Tian, either on the official coverage page or here:
Unfortunately Mihara didn't make it out of that match unscathed, but you do get to see a bit of the interesting tricks it has in action.
If you're a Twin player – and let's be honest, you really should be – the major takeaway from PT Fate Reforged should be that the archetype has a wide array of options, and plenty of space for innovation even within the established skeleton of the deck. You can get away with minimizing the number of combo pieces and still retain the basic principles of the deck, or you can favor a traditional take on the archetype and play it with precision. Either way, the inherent advantaged gained by being a largely instant-speed deck with an immediate and efficient combo grants you the luxury of minimizing the interaction you have to invest into your opponent's strategy. When in doubt, make them have it. Many times, they won't.