At this point, we're all aware that the combination of Splinter Twin and Deceiver Exarch constitutes one of, if not the singular best deck in Modern. Whether it be in a Temur shell to facilitate Tarmogoyf, a Grixis shell for Tasigur, the Golden Fang, a Jeskai shell for Restoration Angel, or straight up Izzet for mana consistency, we've seen all the flavors of Twin find success in high-level Modern play.
Still, there is room for innovation in even the most stagnant of lists, and this was demonstrated quite skillfully by one of Magic's most interesting deckbuilders at Pro Tour Fate Reforged a few months back. When Makahito Mihara displayed his Humble Defector based Splinter Twin list, it was all the buzz on the livestream. Unfortunately in the match we saw on camera, Mihara's Burn opponent managed to best him, but the interest was sparked despite the result. For months, I've been salivating at the thought of Humble Twin, but had never been able to find a decklist for Mihara's build online.
For those unfamiliar with the concepts on display here, the basic premise is that Humble Defector combines with Splinter Twin to create a token creature with haste that taps to draw two cards. The token is then passed to the opponent (tapped), but at the end of turn it is exiled and your opponent gains nothing. This allows you a free Divination each turn you get to use the Defector.
Of note: Kiki-Jiki is worded subtly differently from Twin, in that you sacrifice the creature rather than exile it. THE RULES dictate that a player cannot sacrifice an object they do not control, so the token cannot be sacrificed and thus the opponent gets to keep the token Defector. You still get a hasty draw-two each turn, but your opponent does as well.
As cool as the combination of Twin and Humble Defector may be, they are by no means the only ways to "go off" with Defector. Each of your combo creatures allows you a second activation of the Defector before passing it to the opponent. Unsummon, a rare choice to be found in this type of deck, allows you to bounce the Defector back to your hand either before passing it to the opponent or before they untap with it. Each of these interactions are meant to irk as much value out of the creature as possible.
On the other side of the coin – that describing the things we're missing, rather than what we're including – it's important to point out the lack of Remand and Cryptic Command in Mihara's build. This conscious decision was made as a reflection of the way the match plays out with Defector on the loose. When your opponent is capable of drawing a few extra cards in each match when the games go the way you want, it's tough to keep up with them in terms of countering each of the relevant spells they could find. For this reason, Mihara chose to play the black discard spells instead of the reactive blue. Drawing two, casting Inquisition to ensure the coast is clear, and then proceeding with the combo if you have the opening is much more reliable than trying to skirt every possible interaction the opponent could have – especially with the extra cards they could be pulling from your traitor. In this way, Humble Twin plays more like a pure combo deck and less like a control deck than even the UR lists – you care about a selectively small subset of spells from a given opponent, but you absolutely must have protection from those spells. This plays into the reason Mihara played a full set of Spellskite in the main and board as well, though Spellskite is quite good in a wide array of matchups anyway.
With the added card draw from Defector, and the reduction in relevant instant speed action, Snapcaster Mage has reduced utility. Though Snapping back a Thoughtseize is still quite strong, you are likely to be taking much less aggressive attacking lines, so the "Bolt, Snap Bolt" play is a little worse when you replace Vendilion Cliques and Grim Lavamancers with 0/4 walls. You'll see the sideboard contains more permanent-based answers and less one-of instants than most lists as well, as this deck is much better positioned to protect a creature than it is to interact on the stack.
Shifting gears slightly, I believe the mana base is one of the most interesting and yet likely-to-be-overlooked parts of this deck.
For quite some time, I've been advocating the inclusion of Cascade Bluffs in UR Twin lists, generally over some number of Sulfur Falls. The single most common reaction to this is "I don't want to play any more lands that can't cast Serum Visions on turn one." Let that sink in for a few seconds.
In a deck that's trying, like many UR and similar lists are, to cast Kiki-Jiki and Cryptic Command at the same time, it seems silly to me to eschew Cascade Bluffs. You'll never be able to cast Kiki-Jiki off a Sulfur Falls and a Mountain (or Steam Vents). Having a single land capable of producing multiple red (or blue) mana has to be important, as I know personally I've been in difficult situations where I have been unable to get to two red for Splinter Twin through disruption, especially when other taxing effects are in play like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. Access to "RR in a can," even when it may be potentially awkward to draw a pair of Bluffs or a Bluffs + Lighthouse in your opener, seems like the kind of low-risk substitution we should be clamoring for.
River of Tears, on the other hand, is a land we basically never see in Modern – but I love it in this deck. When River was in Standard Faeries was the king of the hill, and the land was an integral part of that deck as it allowed you to cast a Thoughtseize on turn 1, and keep up blue mana on turn two for a Counterspell or Spellstutter Sprite. Having a land that acts like a Swamp on your turn, but an Island on the opponent's turn is basically the dream. I will admit, this land does not allow you to cast a turn one Serum Visions – and by many players' estimates this is a critical thing. In this particular deck, I would argue that casting a turn one discard spell is far more important (as there are six turn one plays for B to U's 4), and it is better for that task than any other land – including fetches.
In a format as burn-friendly as Modern, the difference between turn one [Swamp (or other pain-free black source), Thoughtseize] versus [Fetch, crack, take two (I'm Conley Woods!), Thoughtseize], is literally worth an entire card. You're willing to trade a Thoughtseize for a spell since on the aggregate you're saving a life or more by doing so – but any advantage you gain by shaving those life points is sunk by giving the opponent a free Lava Spike to get there.
I have to question the inclusion of Stomping Ground as the go-to green source in this list over Breeding Pool. In a typical UR list, Stomping Ground is included as an extra red source that can turn on your Ancient Grudge – but all of the fetchlands in the deck can usually find a Stomping Ground (typically they are Scalding Tarns and Misty Rainforests for this reason). In this deck, where the third color pushes you toward a specific set of fetchlands to make your mana – especially the basic lands – more consistent, having an off-color splash that can only be found via 1/2 of your fetches is questionable. Granted, a Stomping Ground allows you to cast both sides of the Grudge with the same land, but we have to assume the red mana is a foregone conclusion. I'd much prefer to have an effective nine green sources by using Breeding Pool rather than Stomping Ground, or alternatively by switching a pair of the Polluted Deltas for Bloodstained Mires – which would hurt your ability to play basics into Blood Moon slightly but allow you to retain the extra red source in Stomping Ground.
Last week, I had the rare opportunity to participate in an FNM event at an LGS, and used the occasion to test out a take on Tasigur Twin, coincidentally using a list not-so-far off from Mihara's.
Unfortunately I did not have access to a list using Humble Defector as I hadn't found it yet, but the principles outlined above were there – removal of Counterspells in favor of hand disruption, a general theme of "defend the queen," etc. I found Tasigur to be a strong addition to the shell, and was impressed by the added utility it provided. I wanted to track the number of times I activated Tasigur throughout the event in an attempt to compare its added utility to the extra power you'd gain by playing Gurmag Angler instead, but very quickly came to the conclusion that the combination of the activated ability and the potential for a turn two or turn three Tasigur (where it would have been difficult to play an Angler at the same speed) made the legend the stronger inclusion. I wouldn't be opposed to testing out Angler in a more dedicated Grixis delve list, but for Twin's purposes I feel the banana man is the choice. Because I planned to play more of a midrange/control role with this shell, I cut the Twins down to just three, and I have to say I didn't particularly miss them. With Defector back in the deck I expect you'd want the full set, but I wouldn't be afraid to trim the numbers here and there in the future.
Both Mihara's list and my own are walking a very fine line between running too many nonbasics (or too few basics, depending on your perspective) to support Blood Moon, and running too many to support all of the mana constraints in the deck. I tried to mitigate this to some extent by cutting all of the Kiki-Jikis from my deck, as well as trimming the number of Splinter Twins. Mihara did this by cutting the Cryptic Commands from his. There are still too many mana symbols in my list for me to be completely comfortable. I think the inclusion of Blood Moon is too important in matchups like Amulet Combo and Scapeshift to be removed completely despite the strain it puts on your own mana, but it certainly makes you question some of the spells that are taken for granted in the UR lists.
I'd like to invest some time into playing the Humble Twin list before I say for sure if the strategy is truly viable or if it's merely an affectation of an eclectic brewer. While Mihara didn't do particularly well with the deck at the Pro Tour, I think the strategy is sound. It's entirely possible that trying to play the Defector game is too cute for the speed and power of Modern, but there's certainly room for a little durdling in some matchups and drawing cards in a combo deck is almost always great. Whether that's enough to push this deck from a one-off novelty into viability is yet to be seen, but now that the list is out there we can actually find out once and for all.
Fortuna, et vigilate vestri tergum