Just the Person: Should Splinter Twin Come Back?

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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.

We considered what one would do with the cards from a Splinter Twin deck with Splinter Twin banned. In the case of some Jeskai or Temur, there are very similar decks to build.

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?

Diversity Gain

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.

Jordan Boisvert

Jordan is Assistant Director of Content at Quiet Speculation and a longtime contributor to Modern Nexus. Best known for his innovations in Temur Delver and Colorless Eldrazi, Jordan favors highly reversible aggro-control decks and is always striving to embrace his biases when playing or brewing.

View More By Jordan Boisvert

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26 thoughts on “Just the Person: Should Splinter Twin Come Back?

  1. Small nitpick: You mentioned decks rarely get above 7% of the metagame. However, Humans is currently at 10%, Burn at 9%, and UW Control at 8%, all of those decks having sustained that percentage for a good while. Moreover, Grixis Shadow and Eldrazi Tron have also maintained a greater than 7% metagame share in the past year. So this statement seems wrong. I’d argue as far as metagame share goes, Twin was par for the course for a tier 1 deck, and keep in mind that 10% is including several different variants.

    I was surprised you didn’t mention the argument I hear more than any other: That Twin would increase the level of interaction in the format. I suppose it kind of fits into the “fun” category. But anyways, Modern is infamous for being a format full of blisteringly fast decks that sort of ignore each other. I suppose some people do enjoy that kind of a format but I would be surprised of the majority of players didn’t enjoy interactive games more. Twin would definitely increase the level of interaction in the format. Decks such as Tron, Boggles, and Eggs are notoriously unfun to play against, and Twin would reduce their metagame share while increasing that of midrange, control, and fair combo.

    For me, the most convincing argument is that Wizards’ initial motives for banning Twin were, at least in part, heavily influenced by the upcoming Pro Tour. To my mind, any card on the banlist should prove itself before ending up there. Likewise, any card that hasn’t proved itself and is banned should come off, unless it is undeniably busted like Mental Misstep and Skullclamp. Even if Twin coming off the banlist reduces diversity, it doesn’t matter, because it never violated any format rules in the first place.


    1. I refuse to believe that the threat of a turn four infinite combo leads to the format being more fair. The argument of “well you can play a tempo game with snap-bolt-snap” always leaves out that it is because your opponent is forced to play suboptimally due to the existence of an immediate infinite combo win. By that logic, storm does twin’s job, because most opponents have to represent removal to deal with an attempted one-turn victory by playing a reducer critter and going off in the same turn.

      Humans can interact, burn can interact, but they can do so proactively. That’s the real point – the twin fans want a REACTIVE game, not an INTERACTIVE one.

      1. Depends on your definition of fair. I think it’s unarguable that it leads to the format being more reactively interactive, but agree with you that the switch ain’t free.

      2. The format becomes more fair because midrange and control decks increase in metagame shares while uninteractive decks decrease due to having a hard time against Twin.

        Reaction IS interaction, so I’m not entirely sure what you’re saying.

        1. A lot of folks consider “fair” to mean “not cheating on resources” or exclude infinite combos from the definition. It’s a contentious term and tough to have a discussion around without first establishing meaning.

          Re: interaction, there is also proactive interaction, such as targeted discard and sorcery-deployed taxing effects. Reactive cards are always interactive, but proactive cards can be interactive or not. Twin asks us to consider the difference, since a huge subset of Modern’s current go-to interaction could be invalidated by its presence.

      3. The reason why Twin made the format more interactive was because of the pressure it put on the format, especially when it was at 12% of the meta deck. Twin punished linear and uninteractive aggro and combo decks. If you refused to run interaction, Twin would slow you down until they found their combo and killed you. This made a lot of these decks run maindeck pieces of interaction, which diluted their linear plan and slowed them down. On the other hand, Twin lost to the interactive fair decks. If you could prevent them from comboing, they were nothing but a shitty version of Blue Moon. Jund would grind you into the dirt, and the UWx control decks would just out-interact you.

        So that’s why Twin would make the format more fair. I don’t think Twin would be a 12% deck today still, but even if it’s at 6% it would have a small effect.

    2. Where are you getting those numbers though? The fact remains that nobody is churning out the kind of comprehensive metagame numbers we had three years ago. And while I’ve seen similar numbers thrown around, I can’t remember a period in which those numbers didn’t shift significantly every month at most. In addition to being the winningest deck of large event Top 8s, Twin hovered around 10% for most of its legality, which I don’t think any current deck can lay claim to.

      As for interactivity, check out Zach Stackhouse’s comment below. I think he’s right in specifying that Twin’s present forces a certain kind of interaction: instant-speed kill spells. Modern currently houses interactive strategies that don’t fit this mold and might therefore be punished, most obviously Humans. Doesn’t forcing one kind of interaction over another work against diversity? Besides, “interactivity” in a vacuum doesn’t seem like something Wizards is particularly interested in generating in Modern, especially not at the cost of that diversity.

      1. I think Humans has stayed at 10% almost since it was discovered. While other decks have come close you’re right, not many have consistently stayed above that mark. It does seem pretty arbitrary though… Is the difference between 10% and 7% really that significant? My data comes from mtgtop8 which is commonly agreed to be the most reliable source of metagame data currently. I sure do miss the modernnexus monthly breakdowns though 🙁

        While it’s true that instant speed kill spells are the specific cards that interact with the combo, I think it’s also safe to say that the types of decks that play instant speed kill spells will likely also play many other forms of interaction, so indirectly all interaction would increase.

        1. You’d have to ask Wizards if it’s significant enough! mtgtop8 may be considered the best currently, but I’m sure we both agree that it’s not close to as comprehensive as the data we used to have, so the numbers may be off. Part of the reason for that is that Wizards has deliberately made it harder for third parties to amass that data in hopes of preventing the metagame from becoming “solved” so easily.

          As for 7% vs 10%, assuming what numbers we do have currently are correct, it would appear that there is a difference, as Wizards has not banned a card out of Humans.

  2. Great piece! B&R List discussions are always interesting and fun for me. 🙂

    As for the safer options, what are your top 3 safest choices for unbanning in Modern?
    In no particular order, mine are:
    – Artifact Lands: Robots (as I prefer to call Affinity, since the deck doesn’t really use the mechanic) and other heavily artifact-based decks have come a long way and would not necessarily benefit from unbanning these cards. The least safe of these would probably be Tree of Tales, since it would give KCI decks another artifact to sacrifice for mana.

    – Stoneforge Mystic: Not much explanation needed for this card. Playing this on turn 2 and flashing in Batterskull on turn 3 won’t do much against a lot of Modern’s players right now.

    – Preordain: In a previous article here, this was tested as a slot replacement for Sleight of Hand. It didn’t have much of a positive impact on the deck it was tested with (that was Storm iirc) and I doubt that it would have a lot of impact if players try replacing Serum Visions in their Uxx decks with this card. There are some strategies that would benefit being able to draw the 2nd top of the library, but there are also strategies that would benefit getting a blind draw but also sculpting the 2nd and 3rd and potentially having access to another blind (and possibly better) draw after scrying.

    P.S. I wanted to ask for your top 5 at first. Then as I was trying to pick 5 for my list, I could barely get to three. XD

    1. Power-wise, I think Stoneforge and Preordain could come off right now. Zenith is riskier but should also be looked at IMO. Unbans are a tool Wizards uses to generate excitement about Modern, so I don’t think they will unban something unless there’s a lull of some sort, no matter how safe something is or isn’t.

  3. Maybe it’s maturity, but I’m of a minority of former twin players in accepting that the deck’s biggest issue was it being the best thing to be doing with islands. While other blue decks are casting wraths on the fourth turn, twin is winning outright, plus there’s blood moons and the awkward, yet effective man-plan. The deck can lose to anything, but also win against anything too. The format would survive an unban, but top eights would become less interesting…as would the decks that I bring to tournaments.

    1. That was only true at the time because all the other blue decks sucked. Twin was the only competitive one. That was why the other blue decks didn’t suddenly spring up to fill in the meta vacuum the Twin ban created. Twin wasn’t suppressing them, they just were bad. That isn’t true today. UWx Control is very good, and Grixis Death’s Shadow is good. People would still play those decks if Twin was legal.

      1. There’s no way to know if that’s actually true, which i think will hold Wizards back from an unban. The risk of again homogenizing blue decks outweighs the potential benefit (?) of a metagame reshuffle.

        1. Considering that both Shadow and UWx would likely have very favorable Twin matchups, it seems highly unlikely a Twin unban would harm them in any way.

  4. Okay, rant incoming (first time commentor btw), so I fell in love with Twin, first modern deck i enjoyed and i haven’t found a deck I actually enjoy playing since its banning so I’m biased there, but I don’t think my points reflect that (though affinity came close).

    First, the only defensible reason that twin should stay banned is the metagame share it held while playable. I would counter this with a couple different points, a few coming as a refresher as you covered some in your article; i) blue decks sucked back then as evidenced by none of them taking twins spot post-ban (excluding Jesakai but that only held 3-5% share before the ban anyways); ii) being that twin was the only viable blue deck it makes sense it would have a disproportionately higher metagame share given it was the only playable deck featuring that color of the pie, and that doesn’t count as “homoginizing” the format if all the other options where bad not being stifled; iii) you can’t cling to the arguement of, it homogenized the format when it didn’t, as evidenced post-ban and therefore, we have no evidence that it would homogenize the format now that we do have a couple playable blue decks; iv) the blue decks that currently encompass the space play on a very different axis with a very different gameplan than what twin plays on.

    So the reasons it shouldn’t be banned; please see this entire article. If it didnt have the desired effect, if in fact nothing changed at all, than the idea that it should stay banned is simply wrong and the idea that we gained diversity by twin being banned is similarly wrong. We gained diversity with new cards that where printed, boosting the colors overall power level (thank you power creep). Furthermore, there is no deck akin to twin currently; which wasnt a control deck but a blue-based tempo deck featuring a combo finish. The closest competitive comparison would be GDS and they don’t play remotely similar game plans and the blue portion of that deck is rapidly being replaced by RGB. You shouldn’t unban twin for a “diversity reshuffle” as you suggested, you should unban it because banning it did not provide the desired result; not only not the desired result but not any of the desired results as you already mentioned mentioned.

    This leads me to the next reason it is still banned; it pushes the format toward reactionary interaction as opposed to proactive interacting. But “Doesn’t forcing one kind of interaction over another work against diversity?”, so you mean sort of like shaping the format in such a way that you force one kind of interaction (proactive) over another going against diversity? This thought process literally cant withstand it’s own logic turned so that’s where I’m going to leave it. I also dont see how the decks who do strive for proactive interaction / current creature (spell-less decks) will struggle with a twin unban. The top decks right now are RDW, Spirits, Humans, UW control, affinity and dredge. RDWs doesnt care about twin and was a 50/50 matchup previously; spirits runs tons of interaction with the inclusion of spell queller, wanderer, vial and coco to name a few disruptive elements. Humans has meddling mage, reflector mage backed with vial, thalia, hell, phantasmal image to copy your exarch and tap your land on upkeep. UW control with path and counterspells, affinity and dredge will just kill you if you dont combo them on t4. Like the deck has counters/is countered/ is at best 55/45 against most of the tier one decks right now and these decks dont even run the powerful new kill spells like fatal push or trophy out of the true reactionary decks of moderns past. And on top of all that; there are already decks that require you to kill a creature on t2 or t3 or you die. I dare you not to kill that Baral on t2 and see if you live until your t3 for example.

    I dont think you give enough credence to the idea that they wanted to “spice up the pro tour” it seems entirely viable to me and your own comments back up my claim on this; “Unbans are a tool Wizards uses to generate excitement about Modern, so I don’t think they will unban something unless there’s a lull of some sort, no matter how safe something is or isn’t.” If this applies to unbans, isnt it equally possible it can apply to a ban?

    Finally, I get it, salty tears from a twin player. That said, I still think it is insane that a deck loved by so many, a deck that is the epitome of moderns rules and power level, with a high skill cap and low barrier to entry; is banned for reasons that didnt event come to fruition. There is a reason it became a meme, hopefully, I laid out a strong, relatively articulated opinion on why it became one.

    1. Re: reactive interaction: A format full of decks doing their own thing is bound to be more diverse than a format full of decks running the same high-powered interactive cards. There’s always more room for diversity among proaction. See Legacy as an extreme example of a homogeneous format (relative to Modern) thanks to the sheer power of the best disruption cards in the format. Modern also appears far more diverse now to many players, myself included, even if GP/PT Top 8s (a tiny sample size, albeit one Wizards seems hell-bent on monitoring when it comes to the ban list) don’t reflect that reality.

      Re: Baral: The difference between Baral and Exarch is that Baral dies to pretty much everything while Exarch requires more heavy-duty removal. Also, Baral can be removed at a player’s leisure, while the mere threat of Exarch asks players to hold up mana for that expensive removal spell as of turn four. Same goes for other must-kill creatures in Modern, such as Devoted Druid and Blighted Agent.

      1. I get what you’re saying here other than the heavy-duty removal part. Doesn’t this literally mean non-Bolt removal? I hardly think that’s a fair distinction.

        1. By heavy-duty, I mean removal spells that remove a wide set of creatures but come with a significant drawback. Path gives opponents a land, and is in one of Modern’s least-splashable colors; Push requires you to essentially Stone Rain yourself to have revolt available, and regardless is more medium-duty in the greater scope of the format. The other ways to kill Exarch at instant speed cost two or more mana, so holding those up turn after turn generates an immense tempo loss.

          I don’t just mean non-Bolt, but even if I did, I think the distinction would be fair. Bolt is currently played in 3637 of all Modern decks according to MTGGoldfish, and Path in 25%. A lot of the burden of removing creatures rests on Bolt and Path, which are listed as the only “Top-10 cards in Modern” removal spells. The only others on the Top 50 list are Push (kills Exarch conditionally), Trophy (costs 2), Brutality (doesn’t kill it), Abrade (doesn’t kill it), Anger (doesn’t kill it), and Dismember (currently in just 8% of Modern decks for obvious reasons). (source:

          To summarize, the only three spells listed in this post that unconditionally remove Exarch at instant speed are Path, Trophy, and Dismember. I would consider all of them heavy-duty both for their coverage and costs.

      2. I wasnt even disagreeing necessarily with proactive decks leading to more diversity, my main point about that is there are no reactive decks in modern, in the reactive sense, that play the way twin did; and the current forms of reactive decks we have are UW (Jeskai) Control, jund and shadow which all play far more on a proactive axis than a reactive one. Jeskai being the closest and only true reactive strategy in modern.

        And about Baral, I agree it is easier to kill than exarch; my point was more to the effect that there are already cards in the format that require an immediate answer the turn they are cast or you die. The only difference is exarch comes eot and baral can be targeted by sorcery speed removal (even though that point is largely mute considering how little sorcery speed removal is played, especially in the first 3 turns). He does get killed by more removal spells and I agree that it wasnt a perfect example, but that wasnt my point at large, although, I do see where those concerns come from. In this scenario I think simply dismember would see a raise in popularity.

        Also idk how much diversity is a good thing. I agree the more decks the better generally, but we are in a spot where every deck attacks at its own angle and games arent fun anymore bc both players are simply goldfishing each other. Twin had that element to it, but the games where often far more interesting and I personally miss that aspect of modern. Also alot of the tiered decks have answers to twin that arent strictly removal, through thalia, spell queller, meddling mage, etc.

        All in all, the point I want to hit home the most is if the ban didnt accomplish any of its goals and the community can’t definitively decide on whether the resurgance of the strategy would be a net negative, then it shouldn’t be on the banned list.

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