When you came in the air went out
and every shadow filled up with doubt.
I don’t know who you think you are,
but before the night is through
I wanna do bad things with you
–Jace, to Deceiver Exarch
The combination of Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin is the most powerful thing to do in standard. It is a two-card combo that wins the game the turn it is assembled, provided the Exarch isn’t affected by summoning sickness. Other combos exist in standard, such as Primeval Titan and Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle or Eldrazi Temple, and there are a number of powerful cards to build around that can seem like combo decks when they get going, such as Puresteel Paladin, Pyromancer Ascension, or Fauna Shaman, but there is nothing else that is as powerful as Exarch-Twin. Due to metagame considerations other decks may be better choices but Exarch-Twin is the place to start if you want to do the most powerful thing available.
I like doing powerful things. Unless there is a compelling reason to avoid it based on the metagame playing the most powerful strategy available is usually correct. CawBlade, Ravager Affinity, Illusions-Donate, Tinker, Thopter-Depths…all of the decks that come to mind when thinking about periods of format domination were leagues more powerful, in the abstract, than anything their opponents were trying to do. When Affinity was legal it could goldfish a turn three or four kill, consistently. Some of the other decks at the time were Tooth and Nail, which tried to accelerate out the mana to use the namesake card to put a Leonin Abunas and Platinum Angel or a Darksteel Colossus or two into play, which it could do around turn four or most of the time. Another deck was the Big Red deck that saw Arc Slogger feature prominently in its game plan. Guess which won most: the deck that could win by turn four, the deck that could stop from losing on turn four or five, or the deck that planned to attack with a 4/5.
When Thopter-Depths was doing a number on extended people were playing decks with Steppe Lynx and Wild Nacatl. Thopter-Depths could make a turn two 20/20 with Dark Depths and Vampire Hexmage or a swarm of blockers while gained life with Sword of the Meek and Thopter Foundry, and people wanted to play 3/3s.
Obviously decks other than the most powerful strategy can and frequently do win tournaments. The finals of PT Kobe saw Masashiro Kuroda (with an Arc-Slogger deck) beat Gabriel Nassif (with a Tooth and Nail deck), Brian Kibler won PT Austin with a deck that featured neither Dark Depths nor Thopter Foundry, and some recent top eights had as few as four CawBlades. Here’s the rub though: in order to put up those numbers, the tier two decks had to play a tremendous number of hate cards. Gabriel Nassif’s Tooth and Nail deck maindecked eight pieces of artifact destruction and sideboarded more, Masashiro Kuroda’s list featured eight cards that directly interfered with the Affinity menace in addition to Electrostatic Bolt which counts as at least .5 and sideboarded another seven cards, and Kibler’s deck planned to sideboard in more than ten cards against Thopter-Depths.
Imagine how things would have played out had everyone not been coming at the most powerful decks with all guns blazing–they wouldn’t have had a chance. In a metagame that is not home to significant amounts of hate for the most powerful deck, play the most powerful deck.
Enough theory, onto the meat.
The best thing about the Deceiver Exarch+Splinter Twin combo is that it is compact. It only takes up eight cards in the deck, takes only three colored mana, and doesn’t force you to play any cards that are useless alone. Tapping a land with an Exarch at the end of turn to force through a threat or putting a Splinter Twin on a creature other than the Exarch is not amazing or what they were intended to do, but they are still powerful effects that have the ability to turn a game. This is a significant upgrade from many historical combos which had a drawback of forcing decks to play cards that did stone cold nothing without the presence of the other pieces.
This allows for a number of shells to be built around the combo. When it first debuted people were playing RBU, then Mike Flores started insisting RU was better, CawBlade adopted the combo and turned it into RWU, and now RUG builds have been gaining popularity. For those keeping score at home, that’s one point each for solo RU and every three color combination possible featuring RU.
Black Red Blue
The biggest draw to playing RBU is that it lets the combo play with targeted discard such as Inquisition of Kozilek or Duress. This leads toward a more combo-centric list–it is less concerned with a backup plan than some builds, but it is better at protecting the combo from interference.
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This was the list the first time the combo made a splash, taking second at an SCG Open. This list is very much a combo deck–every card digs for the combo, removes interference from hand or protects from it, or lets you live long enough to combo off–note there are only four cards that are devoted to creature removal. The Into the Roils are certainly good against creatures but can also remove any troublesome permanents such as Torpor Orb.
With only three Jace, the Mind Sculptor to replace this could easily be tuned for today’s metagame. A number of cards could be tried as Jace substitutes, such as Sea Gate Oracle or Augury Owl, or perhaps Shrine of Piercing Vision. Gitaxian Probe is not as good in this build as it would be in others because the presence of targeted discard makes knowing the opponent’s hand quite likely, turning the Probe into just a cycler.
With Valakut and RDW appearing to be the first picks to fill CawBlade’s throne, a Grixis build easily be the best choice for a combo shell. Spell Skite can be quite good against Mono Red and can buy a turn against Valakut, and the targeted discard is good against them both.
While I haven’t tested them yet, the Convertible Turtles (Calcite Snappers) in the board could be quite a beating. Coming in before most control decks have their counter shields up, the Turtles can let the deck attack from another angle to dodge any sideboarded hate. If Valakut adopts Rampant Growth over some of its creatures after the release of M12 it could also be useful there. The deck plays enough cantrips that hitting a land every turn to trigger the Turtle should not be too difficult if that is the game play you are on.
The UR build first gained attention when Mike Flores started loudly insisting it was superior to the Grixis flavored builds. Rather than trying to push for the combo as soon as possible and use discard to force it through, he advocated using the threat of the combo to keep opponents from being able to tap out for anything meaningful. If they were unable to cast spells after the third turn without giving him an opportunity to beat them they had very few relevant plays to make, while he was able to spend mana at will. He put his money where his mouth was shortly after, winning a 200+ player tournament with this list:
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A combo-centric list, this had the possibility to win without comboing off, but it was not a very large part of the game plan. A post-Jace list may look something like this:
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Losing the big Jace is bad news, but it is not the end of the world. Augury Owl digs deep, and can even be better than Jace, the Mind Sculptor would have been at times due to its ability to put unwanted cards on the bottom. It can also chump block or put surprisingly relevant pressure on opponent’s [cardTezzeret, Agent of Bolas]Tezzerets[/card], Jace Belerens, or other Planeswalkers.
The fact that Jace is gone can also be partially compensated for by Consecrated Sphinx. The Sphinx serves as a win condition three different ways:
1) a 4/6 flier is no joke–it can take out most Planeswalkers in only one or two hits or can attack a defending player, putting them at a dangerously low life total in a hurry. The last point of toughness is also quite relevant as Dismember, Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, and Lightning Bolt+any card that isn’t Lightning Bolt all make X/5s significantly less appealing than X/6s.
2) Whenever an opponent draws a card, you get to draw a card. This is the real kicker. This guarantees you a minimum of twice the number of cards as your opponent. The fact you can run Jace Beleren next to this is just icing on the cake, providing a near endless stream of cards for you to work with. After drawing that many cards the game is over, all that is left is finishing it.
3) Whenever an opponent draws a card, you get to draw a card. Preordain, looking for answers? You get a chance to rip a Mana Leak. Going Explore-ing? Sphinx is coming along for the ride. Opponent has a Jace Beleren? Reasonable chance you don’t even want to kill it, just let them keep using it and feeding you at the same time.
Gitaxian Probe is significantly better in non-black builds because of the diminishing returns on the information gained–if you played a Duress last turn there are significantly better topdecks than a Probe. Sure, it can still cycle, but the extra mana or two life can prove relevant.
One of the best things about this style of build is that it can easily transition into a control deck after sideboarding. If opponent’s are bringing in enough hate to make comboing off more trouble than it is worth you can swap out the combo pieces for more counterspells, six drops, and removal.
Red White Blue
If RDW and Valakut aren’t kept in check by something unforeseen, Leyline of Sanctity will be quite the appealing possibility. It won’t quite win the game by itself, but it will be quite a thorn in their sides. In order to make the most of the Leyline a deck needs to be able to cast it instead of just hoping to get lucky and having it in the opening hand, which means Red-White-Blue.
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This build is not as combo-centric as the other builds. It can fight on two fronts, wearing an opponent out of mana and cards with its control side until they have to commit enough of their remaining resources for an opening to emerge, allowing the combo to be pushed through. If an opponent never taps out or otherwise leaves their defenses down then the combination of Gideon Jura, Venser, the Sojourner, and Inferno Titan.
Maindeck Pyroclasm is an interesting choice, as it kills neither Deceiver Exarch nor Primeval Titan, the premier creatures of current standard. Still, it can take out a swarm of goblins if monored attempts to beat Leyline of Sanctity by adopting a more creature heavy build than the piles of burn that have been discussed recently, as well as doing good business against Elves, Lotus Cobra, or Fauna Shaman. The fact it doesn’t kill any of your own creatures (besides the singleton Pilgrim’s Eye) is a plus over Day of Judgment.
The playset of maindeck Spreading Seas is something I’d expect to see more of in the near future, as the only matchup where it is truly bad is Mono Red or Boros. Vampires is a deck with very few colorless mana requirements which turns Spreading Seas into a cantripping Sinkhole, the control decks have Tectonic Edge and creature-lands, and everyone is expecting Valakut to rise from the ashes of CawBlade. In this deck it also provides a good target for Venser, the Sojourner’s +2 ability if Wall of Omens or Sea Gate Oracle have died in combat.
A few possibilities for this build that are unavailable to other builds are Sun Titan and Totem-Guide Hartebeest. The Sun Titan can return any cantripping creatures to the board to dig a little deeper, Tectonic Edges if any can be squeezed into the manabase, and or Deceiver Exarchs for another chance to combo. The Hartebeest serves as a tutor for Splinter Twin at the moment, though it could also get Pacisfism or Angelic Destiny after M12’s release. While not particularly exciting on its own as a five mana 2/5 is hardly the deal of the century, it can act as a fifth Splinter Twin if that is wanted. If the first combo fails to a removal spell or other piece of interference it can also be blinked by [card Venser, the Sojourner]Venser[/card] to get another chance.
Another interesting card that is available to UWR is Due Respect. Due Respect buys a turn against an opponent comboing off (they can still make an infinite number of 1/4s with haste, just that only one of them is untapped) or against returning Vengevines, giving you a chance to untap and play an answer. It can also allow Gideon Jura to kill a Primeval Titan before it gets a chance to attack or serve as a nasty surprise in response to a Harrow if the opponent was planning on doing something else later in their turn. It may not be worth the slots, but it is a cantrip that has some intriguing potential.
Silence is a card I have heard some people murmuring about in this style of deck, but it does not seem like it does enough. It can provide another must-counter spell against opponents planning to stop the combo with counterspells, but it doesn’t do anything relevant if they are trying to stop you with permanents like Spell Skite or removal such as Doom Blade or the more common Dismember. You can play Deceiver Exarch, then untap and play Silence before going for Splinter Twin, but they can simply kill the Exarch in response. If Silence said opponent’s couldn’t cast spells until the beginning of the next end step you could Silence them at the end of their turn, then play your Exarch, untap and play Splinter Twin to win, but that’s not what it says. Into the Roil and Dispel seem like more of what this deck is looking for.
Red Blue Green
RUG is a natural home for the Exarch-Twin combo. Besides the color requirements, RUG can easily accelerate out an Inferno Titan or other large threat that demands an answer and use the window created by the opponent answering that threat to push through the combo. At this point in the format it is quite unlikely that the presence of Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin in any deck with blue and red mana will surprise any opponent, which means that opponents have to leave open mana and conserve resources or risk losing on the spot. This gives a natural mana advantage to the Exarch-Twin deck, which can be capitalized on most readily by RUG and its acceleration.
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This list is a fairly take on RUG with Exarch-Twin, from before the bannings. Unfortunately I forget where I found it, but it placed fairly well at a tournament large enough to be worth mentioning. It has acceleration, fatties, and the combo.
A close approximation, updated for the new metagame, could look something like this:
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This has a large number of cantrips and card draw, allowing it to find the combo fairly consistently. The full set of Lotus Cobra and Explore allow the maximum number of ridiculous draws (a turn two Cobra followed by an Explore into two fetchlands lets a Titan or Sphinx come down on turn three). This build is fairly weak to interference as it has zero Into the Roils or Spell Skites to play defense and few counterspells, instead using those slots for more cantrips and fatties. This lets it play a more aggressive game than some builds by having threat after threat in an attempt to overwhelm opponents if the combo plan fails at the cost of increased vulnerability to any answers the opponent is holding.
Another possible way to combine the combo with an aggressive secondary game plan is with the new and largely unexplored Birthing Pod.
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This spicy brew is the latest creation of Smitty, of Eh Team fame. It can use a Birds of Paradise to land a Birthing Pod as early as turn two, then begin Podding up the food chain from BOP to Nest Invader to Deceiver Exarch, allowing it to make a blocker and put one of the combo pieces directly into play without losing any cards in hand. At that point it can cast Splinter Twin and combo off, or it can continue the Birthing Pod chain, turning the Exarch into a Vengevine into Acidic Slime into a Frost Titan or Wurmcoil Engine, all without casting another spell from hand. This gives the deck more card advantage than it would appear at a glance while also beating any counterspells in an opponent’s hand.
Urabrask the Hidden is a nice touch, allowing the deck to combo off without having an Exarch in play for a full turn. With Urabrask out it can cast or Pod up an Exarch, cast the Splinter Twin, and win from nowhere. It can also “just” give the Inferno Titan, Frost Titan, or Wurmcoil Engine haste, which together with the Vengevines can let the deck deal twenty damage in a hurry. Only two Vengevine may look a little strange, but it seems correct–two is the minimum number needed to threaten a post-Day of Judgment board presence worth mentioning but lets the deck save on slots for other silver bullets.
While something along these lines is certainly viable, I have several issues with this particular list. First, the only three casting cost creatures in the deck are Deceiver Exarchs. I would like to play a Sea Gate Oracle, Pilgrim’s Eye, or other three drop to feed to the Birthing Pod when operating on that game plan so that it would be possible to continue the chain without lowering the chances of drawing a combo piece off the top.
Second, this deck has no way to interact with an opponent playing the combo besides the aforementioned Urabrask the Hidden. If Urabrask hits play they have to answer him before they can win, but he is vulnerable to the most commonly played answers–Into the Roil and Dismember. Other than Urabrask this list’s only plan of attack against another combo deck in game one is to win first. It has eight cards in the sideboard that would be reasonable to side in for a combo mirror match so perhaps the matchup is salvageable but I would want something else. At the moment it may be OK to concede game one to the mirror and presideboard against the rest of the field but I don’t expect that to last–Exarch Twin in some form is going to be doing a lot of winning before long and people are going to start playing it more often.
Third, it plays only three of the three best cards in the deck. Were I to play this tomorrow I would set aside the lands, Birthing Pods and combo pieces, then cut three cards at random to make up the forth copy of each of the three, confidant it would win more games throughout the day than the previous build. I haven’t played with Birthing Pod much and it is possible only three of each is correct and I would agree to cutting back to three after more testing but I am skeptical.
I’m still not sure exactly what build I like the most, but I do know that for the foreseeable future I’ll be playing decks that look like this:
Thanks for reading,