Insider: Navigating the Twinless Modern Market

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Splinter Twin is banned. Whether you've been living off in your Desolate Lighthouse, were enjoying a weekend of Rest for the Weary, or are in a state of Stubborn Denial, I'll say it again to let the words sink in: Splinter Twin is banned. Summer Bloom too, but that shouldn't be remotely surprising to anyone who's read my articles on the banlist and on Bloom's egregious turn four rule violations.

But Twin? The January 18 announcement, released days early after enterprising players discovered glaring absences from the MTGO Beta, is a stunner to even the most hardened Twin haters. It's going to take months to process the card's departure, understand its implications on the metagame, and rebalance the format around new strategies.

You're going to read a lot of articles over the next weeks that open with some variation of the "Splinter Twin is banned" line. This will likely include a future Modern Nexus article of my own, just because the words are so powerful as to demand repetition. Before we dive into today's advice on investing in the post-apocalyptic Modern Wastes, we need to understand the most important consideration of the Twin banning.

We are now living in totally uncharted Modern territory.

Anyone who claims they know where the format is heading is either grossly overestimating their predictive abilities or outright lying. Anyone who says they have tested all the post-Twin possibilities to determine a "best deck" is either wildly optimistic in their 50 test games, or has recently invested in 300 foil copies of the deck's core staples.

Be skeptical of any claims that happen before the Pro Tour because the metagame has never been more in flux.

Possible Inheritors to the Twin Throne

With those cautions in mind, I'm going to try and give three big-picture takeaways on the announcement. First, I'll talk about the implications for banlist policy itself. Then I'll move to the metagame implications for decks that can replace Twin, as well as those that get better or worse with the strategy's absence.

Ban Policy Implications

Before I attempt to map out possible metagame shifts, I need to say a few words about what this announcement means for subsequent banlist updates and long-term Modern prospects.

To start, take a moment to read the actual update article itself. Not the angry (or elated) Tweets and Reddit posts. Not just my unhappy op-ed posted on the Nexus yesterday. Go read the update itself. Once you've looked at the article's language and evidence, we can start situating it in the broader Modern context.

Although Splinter Twin is getting all the news, Summer Bloom is also a prominent player in the update (poor Cloud of Faeries too!), and Bloom is where we need to start in assessing long-term banlist policy consequences.

I did not predict the Splinter Twin ban. Nor did any other serious writers I know, for that matter, but I still admit to missing it. Summer Bloom is another story. I slammed that baby out of the park, which suggests the wider Modern community has a strong understanding of how the turn four rule works and is executed.

Going ahead, we should be much better at predicting legitimate turn four rule violators than we were before Bloom took the axe. Wizards' language in their banlist update is almost identical to the language I repeatedly used in banlist prediction and theory articles. This confirms we were right on mark in those previous articles and their logic, and we should be comfortable reapplying them in the future.

Based on that, I strongly recommend the following articles if you want to grasp the evidence behind the ban or learn more about the so-called turn four rule.

Although these are not the only articles on the turn four rule and Summer Bloom's banning, I wrote them because there was a disturbing lack of evidence, context, and rigorous analysis surrounding the rule and Bloom. Going ahead, we should aim to understand these articles and process them in the context of the update itself.

Then there's Splinter Twin.

Will Work for Food

There are two sides to Twin's departure from Modern. The first is in the update itself, although those words do not tell the entire story. According to Wizards, Twin fell "in the interest of competitive diversity." Wizards is always on the lookout "for decks that hold a large enough percentage of the competitive field to reduce the diversity of the format," and gave a series of Top 8-focused statistics as the basis for Twin's banning.

Notably absent from this explanation were Grand Prix, Star City Games Opens, and Pro Tour Day 2 numbers. Or MTGO shares. Or any metagame stats beyond Top 8's alone. This blunt and not particularly nuanced style of metagame analysis is not what I use to predict overall format shifts, and we need to understand that rationale going forward.

The second side to Twin's banning is its proximity to the Pro Tour and the relationship between bans and Pro Tour formats. This was most succinctly summarized by Aaron Forsythe himself, who took to Twitter yesterday to discuss the changes with players.

This appeared at least two times in the discussion:

I also questioned Mr. Forsythe about the ban and got a similar response:

Although these comments don't directly go out and say "Splinter Twin was banned to shake up the Pro Tour," the suggestion is so inescapable that I have no problem concluding it. I encourage other players to do the same.

This will have massive implications for future banlist updates. If Modern remains a Pro Tour format, we can expect to see similar top-tier bans primarily to spice up an impending tournament. If players rally against a Modern Pro Tour to prevent this from happening again, we can expect to see a different support structure for Modern and a different flow of banlist changes. Either way, it's going to be a wild 2016.

Financial Takeaways

If you're investing in a fast combo deck in danger of turn four rule violations, we have yet another set of cutoffs for the deck. Review those articles I linked above to learn more about these parameters.

Similarly, we now know a deck must both be top-tier and win too frequently before turn four in order to trigger the rule. Grishoalbrand may win a lot on turn two and three, but its prevalence is way too low to be considered top-tier. Infect may be a major Tier 2 and even Tier 1 (at times) player, but it isn't consistently winning before turn four so it's safe for yet another year. Same with Affinity.

As long as your fast combo speculation doesn't fall afoul of both those criteria, your investment should be safe.

Turn Four Rule Safety

Format diversity bans are much dicier. If URx Twin can fall, anything is on the table for a future round of bannings. This includes Affinity and BGx Midrange, both of which enjoyed Twin-level shares in 2015 and could get better in 2016 to reach Twin status. It also includes R/G Tron, Burn, B/x Eldrazi, and really any other deck that pushes into Tier 1 range and sustains it in event Top 8's.

Modern is an investment. You put not only money into a deck, but also practice time, emotional energy, tournament hours, and general resources. You expect it to be an investment because Modern is the non-rotating format successor to Legacy. This update, however, turns the non-rotating promise on its head, suggesting an artificial rotation schedule centered around bans.

This means no top-tier deck is as safe as we once thought it was.

Banlist update coming up? Better check to see if Affinity had a good run recently or your deck might bite the dust. Same with Tron. Or Jund/Abzan. On the flipside, Tier 2 and Tier 3 strategies become significantly better investments because every top-tier shakeup will benefit those lower-tier decks that were often kept down by a big player. You can mitigate these risks by investing in synergistic decks where no one ban would torpedo the strategy, but it will still be present and it will still sting.

Of course, this also increases price volatility in Modern as players speculate even more wildly around banlist updates, especially deep into fringe decks to try and strike gold.

Such a dynamic may increase Modern's profile and generate a lot of discussion around the format, but it also might scare players away and is certainly contrary to the format's premises when it was announced. Expect 2016 to have even wackier spikes than those seen in 2015.

Immediate Metagame Implications

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't upset about the banlist policy implications of this update. The entire context of the announcement, whether the Pro Tour factor or the Tier 1 deck consequences, makes me very nervous and I am sure we'll see more about this as the year proceeds.

That said, I'm much more optimistic about the metagame itself.

I've often maintained URx Twin was an important police deck for the format, setting a speed limit on opposing strategies and punishing interaction. With Twin gone, many players fear the format will succumb to a host of unfair, linear strategies interested only in racing. Although this is possible, I think it's far less likely than many believe. Modern is a powerful format with surprising resilience, so as much as I loath the ban policy itself, I think the metagame will be fine.

Decks That Replace URx Twin

Let's start with decks that step up to fulfill Twin's role as a blue-based regulator. The most obvious potential winner is, unsurprisingly, a deck that has many similarities with Twin itself: Scapeshift and its many variants.

Twin presented a turn four win against an opponent who refused to interact and couldn't win through a turn two Lightning Bolt/Remand followed by the end-step Deceiver Exarch on turn three. Scapeshift moves that clock closer to turn five, but it does so off one non-creature card while also keeping Twin's interaction. This makes the deck a natural next step for Twin expatriates.

We're already seeing this play out in the speculation realm. Scapeshift itself is up over 20% into the $40-$45 range. Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle is also in the throes of a buyout, with fewer than 30 copies left on TCG Player while I'm writing this piece. Bring to Light builds haven't impacted the markets yet, but any Scapeshift pickup you can snag is worth the price.

Another option, one Wizards cited in the actual update, is Jeskai Control. This includes both the traditional Celestial Colonnade beatdown versions and Shaun McLaren's Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker control list from Grand Prix Minneapolis.

Jeskai Control Options

Jeskai Control has always distinguished itself by packing excessive removal to handle linear, creature-based decks, which will surely be at play in a metagame that might host plenty of Affinity and Burn. If you want to invest into these strategies, angle your money towards the Kiki-Jiki versions. Modern is not a format that rewards passivity, and the Mirror Breaker gives you enough action with Restoration Angel to close out games against complacent foes.

Additional successors could include Blue Moon strategies (U/R Control with maindecked Blood Moon), U/R "Twinless Twin" decks doubling down on Pestermite for tempo and Kiki-Jiki as the finisher, and any number of Grixis strategies on the Inquisition of Kozilek-midrange to Cryptic Command-control spectrum.

When betting on these decks, either as a player or a speculator, look for decks with a proactive Plan A (Scapeshift, 4-Color Gifts) or Plan B (Temur Moon, Grixis Midrange). Purely reactive decks are still going to struggle in a format with too many threats to react to, so you want to stay on something that can switch gears if needed.

As a final note, Snapcaster Mage and Scalding Tarn are likely to drop as a result of the update. Don't get cold feet on these cards: they remain excellent even after the ban.

Decks That Get Better Without URx Twin

By far the two biggest winners are R/G Tron and Affinity. Both of these decks suffered from terrible Game 1's against URx Twin and only bad-to-passable Game 2-3's. Tron was already on the upswing, with Affinity enjoying considerable success throughout the year, and their lead is only going to persist in the short term. I will caution that the uptick in other linear decks might work against any gains Tron gets from the vanished Twin, but we'll need to wait and see how that plays out (Tron also gains plenty of sideboard space).

From an investment perspective, almost everything in Tron is almost at BGx Midrange price levels, so there isn't much left to buy into there. For Affinity, however, Inkmoth Nexus has limitless potential. I advised you to pick up copies late last year and I'm advising it again. Even if you get them now and sell them away during the Pro Tour, you will probably turn a profit.

Beyond the obvious Tron and Affinity, a variety of linear decks also advance their format position. Bogles is a major winner here, and although the deck is relatively fringe, a big finish could push Horizon Canopy even higher than its current $55 tag. Infect improves too (more reason to get those Inkmoths now!), especially with the Pro Tour coming soon and Infect remaining a strong pro fallback.

Speaking of pro fallbacks, count on Storm and Ad Nauseam also gaining some ground with Twin out of the picture. We've seen both decks enjoy some limited success throughout 2015 and Twin's banning opens up space for both decks to succeed. There isn't too much risk in picking up Ad Nauseam, Angel's Grace, and Spoils of the Vault copies (among others), and the upside could be big off a major finish.

Modern is full of random linear decks. I've spoken out against many in the past but those objections are less relevant with Twin slashed from the metagame. Be ready for performance and price spikes among every weird contender including Slivers (Sedge Sliver returns!), Allies (Kabira Evangel awaits!), Suicide Zoo (Death's Shadow is watching!), and many more.

Decks That Get Worse Without URx Twin

In the immediate aftermath of the ban, more decks are likely to gain ground than lose it. The big exception to this is BGx Midrange, which could always rely on a decent-to-positive Twin matchup in varied fields. After the ban goes into effect, BGx strategies will need to navigate a gaggle of linear decks, playing sideboard roulette to determine which cards to include in which ratios.

Cards like Tarmogoyf are unlikely to budge much, especially if we see other blue decks adopt the beatstick as their proactive Plan B. On the other hand, Liliana of the Veil is a perfect investment after her inevitable fall in the face of excessive aggro and combo strategies. Prepare to sweep up copies if she starts to drop.

Merfolk fans will also be sad to lose one of their best matchups. Heightened Affinity presence is an even bigger nightmare for the fish. In the long term, we might see these forces alleviate some pressure from Aether Vial and other Merfolk staples like the $15 Cursecatcher. Then again, we might also see price memory keep those prices high, so look for the dip but don't count on it.

We're likely to see other indirect evolutions emerge from Twin's metagame hole, but many of those will come in a Stage 2 development after the Affinitys and Infects have carved out a niche. Stay tuned for a post-Pro Tour world to see these changes crop up.

Long-Term Metagame Implications?

The Pro Tour is likely to shape Modern for a few months, but the format will undoubtedly be reshaped again and again in the events to follow. Modern experienced similar flux following Birthing Pod's removal, along with the delve sorceries, and those format pillars were actually less important than Twin. Prepare for erratic metagames and frequent changes as 2016 moves from Pro Tour to Grand Prix season.

What changes do you expect to see in a Twinless world? How do you feel about the ban generally, whether the update itself, its implications down the line, or its relationship with Modern's management? Any other cards you have your eye on as the new Modern opens?

I'll be checking the comments to get your feedback and look forward to seeing where our format goes from here. Hang tough and I'll see you all next week!

3 thoughts on “Insider: Navigating the Twinless Modern Market

  1. As a jund player for almost 3 years, I’m not optimistic about bg/x strategies surviving in the short term or even the long term. We haven’t been given any new tools to fight off the big mana decks and now one of our better matchups is gone from the meta. The linear decks that will eventually take its place just make things worse for us bg/x mages as you just can’t prepare for everything. Unfortunately I have to wait probably several months to see how the meta adapts before Liliana and friends can come back out, but bogles is my backup deck and I’m glad I started building it last month. I don’t think any of us knew that this would be the price for a modern pro tour and if this is truly the case, I’d gladly go back to all standard pts. I’m hopeful that the meta can rebound, but it’s hard for me to not imagine a degenerate modern landscape where people are only interested in playing magic at each other, not with each other.

    1. I also am not optimistic about BGx’s short-term prospects, but I do see Jund picking up some ground beyond that due to Bolt’s likely relevance in a post-Twin world. Wizards might even release a series of blue cards and maybe BBE into this new nightmare, which would undoubtedly impact BGx’s prospects.

      Anyone who wants to buy into BGx should do so over the next few months, when the format is likely to become very hostile to the midrange strategy and prices might sink.

  2. Excellent article and a great read! Certainly a great deal of surprise and subsequent questions for the community.

    As I become more involved with the Modern format (due to waning support for Legacy), the unexpected banning of Splinter Twin certainly raises some concerns for long-term investment into tier 1 decks and/or staples. Given Splinter Twin’s recent reprinting in MM2, it seemed as though Wizard’s was willing to support the archtype as a Modern pillar (or at least not ban it less than a year after its reprint). Clearly that is not the case, which leads me to believe that a recent reprinting by no means ensures safety from a ban.

    I like to have a variety of decks that I can build/play, but this recent development certainly makes me wary of investing in strong/promising archtypes. Do we now need to worry if a deck reaches X percentage of the format, that a key component will get the ax?

    Just some random thoughts as a player/investor looking to become more involved in a (personally) less familiar format. Guess we’ll have to see how things shake out.

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