Birthing Pod may have held the title for a good while, but Splinter Twin takes the cake as Modern's most controversial ban ever. Even today, players debate its place on the banlist ad nauseam, a discussion seemingly reinvigorated with each new deck and expansion; Twin's defense league has persisted to the extent of literally becoming a meme. Today, we'll try approaching the issue from a more academic lens, weighing the purpose of the banlist against available information to determine whether Splinter Twin could, or should, be released back into Modern.
Here's the deck that got the card banned:
Splinter Twin was a force to be reckoned with in Modern, and made up one of the format's interactive pillars (the other was Jund). As the premier police deck, Twin kept linear strategies in check, as those had to either win before turn four (which might lead to their banning, as with Amulet Bloom) or present interaction for the Twin combo as of turn three (a big ask for streamlined combo shells). It played a fair tempo game with flash creatures and taxed opponents mana as of turn three, when it began threatening the combo. Opponents then felt obligated to represent removal mana, giving Twin an additional tempo advantage. Against decks without ways to interact with creatures, or opponents who tapped out on turn three, Twin would simply go off.
Arguments For Splinter Twin
When Twin was banned, multiple outlets decried Wizards's decision. I seemed among the minority in defending the ban, citing that the company's stated motives appeared valid when explored. But many of the gripes players had with Twin's banning had little to do with its number of Grand Prix Top 8s, and those arguments are still made in regards to taking Twin off the banlist.
Twin Produced Magic at its Most Fun/Skillful
I think this point forms the backbone of most unbanning discussion, and is the primary reason for the outrage over Splinter Twin's ban. Modern's by-the-numbers best deck, Twin naturally had a devoted following. Prospective players and Twin veterans alike enjoyed a vast sea of content on and resources pertaining to the deck. Twin's raw power and stupid-simple combo element also provided even lackluster players with the wins they so craved, deepening what attachment the playerbase as a whole had to the strategy.
My issue with this argument is the subjectivity of its terms. Twin required skills of its pilots, sure, but so do many decks. For instance, skill sets required to play Twin are simply different from those required to play something like Lantern Control, a deck practically nonexistent during UR's dominance. Besides, I'd call it ambitious at best to attempt to measure the amount of skill required to play any deck.
As for fun, it goes without saying that there's no accounting for taste, in Modern and elsewhere. I know players personally who loved playing Twin and never found another deck they enjoyed as much. I also know players who hated playing against Twin and were inspired by the ban to become Modern aficionados. The most important group, in Wizards's eyes, is the biggest one—it's a company, after all. But given Modern's snowballing popularity over the years, catering specifically to the "unban Twin" crowd can't be high on Wizards's agenda. As with "skill," I don't find "fun" a compelling reason to unban Twin.
Modern Is More Powerful Now
Nearly three years have passed since the Twin ban, and in that time, countless strategies have reared their heads in Modern. Some may have been enabled by the Twin ban. Others, by new cards or freshly discovered technology. It's these decks that buoy this argument: with Fatal Push, Hollow One, Death's Shadow, Thought-Knot Seer, and Thalia's Lieutenant running around, would Splinter Twin even be competitive?
I think so, but me thinking won't do us much good. There's no way to assess with pinpoint accuracy how good Twin would be in Modern as we know it. I'm not sure how valuable it would be even to painstakingly amass a list of decks new to Modern since the ban, and one of decks gone from Modern since, and compare their apparent diversity. In three years, the format has shifted in many other ways that are impossible to control for at that level of analysis, so I'd think it more productive to focus on more tangible evidence.
The Ban Failed at Its Purpose
Embedded in the "competitive diversity" justification of the Twin ban announcement was the idea that other blue-based control shells were being suppressed by Twin. From the announcement:
Decks that are this strong can hurt diversity by pushing the decks that it defeats out of competition. They can also reduce diversity by supplanting similar decks. For instance, Shaun McLaren won Pro Tour Born of the Gods playing this Jeskai control deck. Alex Bianchi won our most recent Modern Grand Prix playing a similar deck but adding the Splinter Twin combination. Similarly, Temur Tempo used to see play at high-level events but has been supplanted by Temur Twin.
By almost any standard, the Twin ban did not leave metagame space for reactive blue decks. Soon after, Eldrazi showed up and was subsequently banned itself; even an Ancestral Vision unban did little for reactive blue decks, which continued to flounder. In regards to this goal, then, the Twin ban was a failure.
But what about in regards to metagame diversity in general? Consider the Top 8 numbers for this year's Grand Prix and Pro Tours versus in 2015, poached from Sheridan's data vault:
2015 GP/PT T8 stats
Unique decks in T8s: 28 (25 if Twin variants are grouped)
Decks that had T8s in 2018: 11
Decks that did not have T8s in 2018: 17 (non-Twin: 13)
Non-Twin blue decks in T8s: 4 (Twin decks: also 4)
2018 GP/PT T8 stats
Unique decks in T8s: 25
Decks that had T8s in 2015: 11
Decks that did not have T8s in 2015: 14
Non-Twin blue decks in T8s: 5
Here, too, the Twin ban appears to have failed. While blue diversity decreased in the past three years, total diversity remains constant.
With that being said, GP/PT Top 8s are not the only elements Wizards considers when banning cards. The Gitaxian Probe and Golgari Grave-Troll bans provide a solid example: according to Wizards, these cards were banned because of their warping of the format's strategy. I think it's also quite possible that their bans reflect their respective metagame shares, which were quite high on Magic Online.
This revelation plays into the Twin ban, too. Not only does Modern feel more diverse to me and many I've spoken with, what numbers we do have on a consistent basis (cherry-picked 5-0s and the occasional breakdown from someone brave enough to try their hand at a detailed summary) support this idea. During Twin's reign, the deck constantly pushed at consuming 10% of the format's shares, a figure that was therefore considered tolerable by most players. Today, few decks ever seem to break the 7% mark for more than a week at a time, even in the supposedly more inbred online metagame.
Reasons to Unban Cards
Twin's ban may not have achieved its goals. But is that reason enough to release it three years later? The format has changed, and the card must be evaluated within this new context. As almost every past unban has been for the sake of diversity according to its respective announcement, it's likeliest Wizards unbans Twin for this reason, if at all. So would unbanning Twin increase diversity in Modern?
Between Jeskai and UW Control, blue decks are already heavily represented. They're even relatively diverse, with fringe players like UR Thing and Madcap Moon carving out niches for themselves. While we again cannot know the result of releasing Twin into this picture, I assume it would prove more impactful than unbanning Sword of the Meek turned out to be.
That said, there is little evidence to suggest that unbanning Twin would lead to much additional diversity. I'd instead expect a diversity reshuffle, as we saw in the above GP/PT data. Decks like Delver, which have historically posted strong Twin matchups, may pick up steam; at the same time, tap-out strategies light on interaction, such as Hardened Scales, could fall by the wayside. Of course, we'd never know for sure until it happened, which makes such an unban all the more risky for Wizards.
That's not to say there's no precedent for this kind of unban. Bolstering the "things change" argument is Wizard's recent announcement unbanning Bloodbraid Elf, in which the company discussed the previous (and no longer relevant) homogenization of BGx decks:
There is now a healthy choice between, for example, adding red for Lightning Bolt and Ancient Grudge versus adding white for Lingering Souls and Stony Silence. With the unbanning of Jace, we may even see some of these decks shifting toward blue. On top of that, other midrange decks like Mardu Pyromancer have emerged. There are now sufficient options available to have confidence that Bloodbraid Elf will no longer be as detrimental to deck diversity as it once was.
I can envision a similarly phrased justification for releasing Twin now that other reactive blue options exist and perform. But again, we lack evidence that these decks wouldn't simply be better with Twin in them, as they were in 2015.
The worst-case scenario of Twin homogenizing Ux decks while rendering other strategies unplayable is something I doubt Wizards will take lightly when considering a Twin unban, and perhaps the biggest hurdle when it comes to unbanning the card for diversity reasons. Since that's the reason Wizards unbans most of their cards, I don't like Twin's odds currently.
Appropriate Power Level
There is one other reason Wizards unbans cards, although this justification is invoked far more sparingly. Consider this passage from Bitterblossom's unbanning:
At the time of Modern's inception, the dominance of Faeries in Standard was at the front of our minds. Therefore, we took the conservative approach of including Bitterblossom in the initial banned list. After observing the evolution of the Modern format, we feel that it is of an appropriate power level to compete with the other powerful strategies in the format.
Modern becomes more powerful every year. Given that trajectory, it's possible that Splinter Twin be given the Bitterblossom treatment eventually, as it is for many other cards on the banlist. I think Wizards will start with some of the safer options, though, i.e. Stoneforge Mystic.
Are Two Heads Better Than One?
Splinter Twin was polarizing three years ago, and it's polarizing now. So let's discuss it! Drop me a line in the comments if you think Modern is better off with or without the four-mana enchantment.