This is the first in a series of Modern Deck Primer articles that aims to cover the major archetypes of the format. These primers are written with enough simplicity that somebody new to the format can follow along, but with enough depth that more experienced players will still learn important aspects of the deck. I wanted to analyze Splinter Twin first because it placed an impressive 3 pilots into the Top 8 of Pro Tour: Born of the Gods. Even more impressively, each of the pilots was playing a different color combination, highlighting the versatility of this combo deck's core.
How It Works
Splinter Twin is a combo or "unfair" strategy. The deck aims to win by casting Splinter Twin targeting Deceiver Exarch. The Deceiver Exarch is then tapped to create a copy, the copy enters the battlefield and its ETB trigger untaps the original Deceiver Exarch. This process is repeated as many times as you like, after which you attack with your horde of tokens for lethal damage. This deck can win as early as turn 4. Deceiver Exarch + Splinter Twin is not the only way this archetype can combo. Any 1 of Deceiver Exarch, Pestermite, Village Bell-Ringer, Restoration Angel, or Zealous Conscripts can combine with either Splinter Twin or Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker to go infinite. There is one exception in that Restoration Angel + Splinter Twin doesn't work.
An Ideal Game
Turn 2: Cast Remand targeting whatever the opponent casts. This slows the opponent down giving you time to assemble your combo, and draws a card to help you find all the right pieces.
Turn 3: Hold up 3 mana until the opponent's end step. Then cast Deceiver Exarch tapping a land that the opponent might otherwise use to interact with your combo.
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In the early days of Modern, most Splinter Twin variants were purely combo decks. Over time, they have moved away from pure combo towards a hybrid strategy that relies on the efficiency of cards such as Snapcaster Mage and Lightning Bolt to play a "fair" game of Magic, backed up by the ever-present threat to combo off. Pure combo decks are generally more effective in the first game of a match, but they have trouble dealing with the wide variety of sideboard options available in Modern.
There are multiple instants, artifacts, enchantments, and even creatures that will cause problems. Path to Exile is a one mana, instant speed answer that can hack through the 4 toughness of a Deceiver Exarch to earn a game-saving 2-for-1 when cast in response to Splinter Twin.
Dismember does the same thing, without requiring any colored mana. Slaughter Pact requires black mana but can do the same thing, and is much more effective because it allows the opponent to tap out completely, where a player holding Dismember might want to leave 2 mana up to play around the "tap target permanent" ability from Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite.
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The creatures Spellskite and Linvala, Keeper of Silence are commonly played in the main deck by Birthing Pod strategies. Spellskite can redirect Splinter Twin, Pestermite's triggered ability, or Zealous Conscripts' triggered ability.
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Spellskite cannot stop Deceiver Exarch + Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, Village Bell-Ringer + Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker, or Restoration Angel + Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker because none of those have abilities that can target an opponent's Spellskite. Note that both Spellskite and Linvala, Keeper of Silence have 4 toughness which is just barely enough to survive the format-defining Lightning Bolt that most Splinter Twin decks play as a 4-of main.
Imagine trying to predict, sideboard for, and draw the right answer at the right time against all of those cards. You can see why people prefer to just play a hybrid strategy and win some fair games of Magic, 2 or 3 damage at a time. Note that as your opponent sideboards in cards like Damping Matrix to beat your combo plan, he/she is typically becoming weaker against your "fair" plan. You will often sideboard out combo pieces in favor of cards that are more helpful in a fair game of Magic. This is particularly effective considering what your opponent's sideboard plan is likely to be.
Now, let's take a look at one of the Twin deck lists from Pro Tour: Born of the Gods.
This list is relatively focused on the combo plan when compared to other Tempo Twin decks. It features 11 combo pieces, with both Dispel and Spellskite as relatively narrow cards that are at their best when protecting the combo. Durable Deceiver Exarch is favored over the 2-power, flying attacker that is Pestermite.
Snapcaster Mage, Cryptic Command, Electrolyze, and Lightning Bolt form the backbone of the "fair plan" in the main deck. Serum Visions allows for a lower land count and helps dig for whatever you need, most often a combo piece or a land. Vendilion Clique aids both plans as a 3-power, flying attacker that can remove meaningful interaction from the opponent's hand or, more rarely, target yourself to get value out of a redundant combo piece.
Splinter Twin on Spellskite can blank almost all opposing removal. Splinter Twin on Vendilion Clique is pretty weak because of the Legend rule. Spell Snare, Remand, and Izzet Charm can protect the combo, but are typically more useful as early interaction in a normal fair game of magic. Note that Izzet Charm can help dig for the combo or a particular answer in difficult positions.
This list plays a lot of 1-of, 2-of, and 3-ofs that perform similar roles in slightly different manners. This is a nice feature that allows the pilot to consistently execute a game plan while retaining access to a number of options from which to choose, allowing him to find the best possible line of play in a given situation without sacrificing the core functionality of each card's role. A deck with 60 1-ofs probably won't be consistent, and a deck with 15 4-ofs won't have as many options and thus, is less flexible at dealing with the multitude of possibilities a tournament will present. Desolate Lighthouse is at its best in a combo-focused Splinter Twin deck because the deck often creates standoffs in which neither player wants to act on their own turn, preferring the opponent's end step. These games tend to go long, giving the Loothouse the time it needs to work through your deck and stack your hand with the perfect cards.
Ancient Grudge is mostly a hate card against Robots. Batterskull out of the sideboard is the premier 5-drop in Modern for beating up on fair strategies. It can be slow and useless in game 1 against combo decks and fast evasive decks such as Robots, but in sideboard games where people typically weaken their proactive plan to bring in interaction for their opponents, the slow grindy Batterskull is a brutal beater. Sometimes people forget that you can pay 5 to equip Batterskull to one of your creatures. Don't make that mistake. It's important.
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Blood Moon was a good metagame call at "Pro Tour Wild Nacatl". So good, in fact, that a deck with 4 copies in the starting 60 made it to the Top 8. With so much attention focused on Blood Moon, I would expect it to be a poor metagame choice for the near future. If you decide to play this list, those might be the first 2 cuts you make to support more hate for whatever your expected meta requires.
Grim Lavamancer beats up on any deck that plays many small creatures such as Robots, Pod, or the mirror match.
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Relic of Progenitus is useful against a variety of graveyard strategies in Modern, and is quite a tricky card to play with and against. When you're combining Relic of Progenitus with a damage source to destroy an opposing Tarmogoyf, it's usually wise to refrain from activating Relic until the damage is on the Tarmogoyf. If you activate Relic before the damage is on the Tarmogoyf, your opponent might be able to save the Tarmogoyf by putting new cards in the graveyard after the Relic of Progenitus effect resolves and before the damage destroys the Tarmogoyf.
Next, we'll cover Tarmo-Twin and WUR Twin before moving on to other crucial Modern archetypes. While Tempo Twin is a formidable deck, make sure you check in again soon because one of these other two archetypes may actually give you a better chance to win games at your next Modern event. In the mean time, go check out some other Deck Primers!