Where should I begin?
I suppose I could start a few years back with the first Modern Pro Tour, but so much has changed since then. I could start a year ago at Pro Tour Born of the Gods, I suppose. In that tournament, I opted to play Wild Nacatl. I also did poorly, which I assume has a correlation with playing Wild Nacatl. But from that tournament came the rise of Patrick Dickmann and Temur Twin, a deck that I have fallen in love with over the last year. Ever since that tournament, I've played Temur Twin in various forms in nearly every Modern tournament I've played. Simply put, the deck was awesome, but not for the reasons you might think.
For reference, you should probably read my Temur Twin primer from a while back to get the full idea of what I'm talking about.
Suffice it to say that misdirection is a powerful tool in Magic. Making your opponent believe one thing is important is an easy way to gain an advantage. With Temur Twin, putting emphasis on Tarmogoyf when you had the Splinter Twin combo in hand was phenomenal. And putting emphasis on a useless Deceiver Exarch was equally powerful when your true gameplan was to beat them down with Snapcaster Mage and Tarmogoyf. The cards you play, and even how you play the games, can lead an opponent down a certain path. Rather, it can lead them down the path you want them to go down.
And that is one of the reasons why Temur Twin was such a strong deck. I want to emphasize the word "was" because Temur Twin fell by the wayside when Khans of Tarkir came out, thanks to the printing of Dig Through Time and Treasure Cruise. One of my favorite gameplans with Temur Twin was siding out the combo package entirely, save for a few copies of Pestermite to apply the flying beatdowns. But it is much harder to grind out your opponent when they're casting Ancestral Recall for one blue mana. When every removal spell you play pushes them deeper into their deck and closer to resolving a Treasure Cruise, that side of your plan is not feasible.
So yes, I was glad when Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time were banned. I heard a bit of an uproar at the thought of banning Dig Through Time, since it had seen very little play. In my article on the subject of bannings in Modern, I explained that Dig Through Time simply didn't have a chance to shine because it was overshadowed by Treasure Cruise, but what would be the point in getting rid of one big card-drawing spell without getting rid of the other? Dig Through Time would just fill the gap left behind by the absence of Treasure Cruise, and ultimately punish many players for trying to interact with their opponent. Why replace one dictator with another?
I suppose Birthing Pod getting the axe wasn't all that surprising either, since it had continually oppressed so many decks in Modern. Personally, I enjoyed having Birthing Pod in the format, mostly because the games against Temur Twin were enjoyable. Trying to fight them on so many levels was often difficult, but I found that proper preparation ultimately led to victory regardless of which side of the matchup you were on. But Birthing Pod was another deck that punished people for interacting with it. If you tried to attack or block, you were going to have a bad time. For the most part, you needed to go way above or way below Birthing Pod to beat them. This was one of the major reasons Temur Twin had the Splinter Twin package to begin with.
But what should we do now that Birthing Pod is gone?
Well, let's go back three weeks ago to the Open Series in Washington, D.C. where I played an interesting Standard deck that was basically a constellation deck featuring Frontier Siege as an incredibly potent mana generator. BBD ended up getting ninth with the deck, while I played against Goblin Rabblemaster five rounds in a row, falling to it three times before giving up and preparing for the Modern Premier IQ on Sunday.
Here is what I registered.
The tournament started off smoothly with a 4-0 start against a few different archetypes. In the fifth round, I failed to hit my fourth land drop to Splinter Twin combo my Scapeshift opponent, who killed me the next turn. It was a bit disappointing but not exactly uncommon when only playing 22 lands. I squeaked past Merfolk in the next round, drawing my Dismember for his Master of Waves, followed by getting stomped by the eventual winner, David Heilker, playing Hexproof in the win-and-in match.
I have never missed my Engineered Explosives more than at that very moment.
But regardless, it was a learning experience. In that tournament, I only assembled the Splinter Twin combo once, leading me to believe that it was going to be much more difficult than normal. I guessed that the Pro Tour would have many fewer combo decks, which made relying on the combo much less enticing. It could still provide you with free wins, but the main draw of having the Splinter Twin combo in your deck is how it affects your opponent. If they think you can kill them at any moment, they are much less likely to tap out for a game-breaking effect. They will also tend to save their removal for your combo pieces, because that is the easiest way for them to lose. That means that if you have a Tarmogoyf or similar creature in play, it is much more likely to survive and especially so if they've seen your hand.
After I arrived in the Team Revolution testing house in preparation for the Pro Tour, I was confident I would play some form of Splinter Twin. Patrick Dickmann being on the team gave me a lot of confidence that we could find a great version of the deck to combat the rise of Abzan Midrange. Without Birthing Pod to keep it down, Abzan would likely just replace Jund as the bogeyman of the format. But some things had to change if we wanted to interact in a positive way with Abzan. Lingering Souls could potentially invalidate the plan of getting aggressive with Tarmogoyf or Pestermite, leaving you forced to try and kill them with the Splinter Twin combo.
This was a difficult prospect, as Abzan contains so many disruptive elements, including discard effects and removal spells. Traditionally speaking, B/G/X strategies give Splinter Twin a tough time. One of the reasons for the increasing stock of Temur Twin in the last year was due to the decline of B/G decks thanks to the banning of Deathrite Shaman. But now that Siege Rhino gives them some top end and Lingering Souls is such a potent tool against removal-heavy strategies, it is no wonder that Abzan was the most popular deck at Pro Tour Fate Reforged with 28% of the players piloting it.
But since I was likely to play Splinter Twin, I wanted to spend most of my time drafting. I had a lot to learn, since I didn't play all that much Khans of Tarkir Limited, but that gave me a fresh perspective. I was able to see more cards in a vacuum than most, and I was able to draft and develop strategies that weren't exactly common. I ended up having a reasonable win percentage in our drafts, but most of my better decks looked like piles of garbage on paper. One of my winning decks featured nine creatures, of which only five had greater than zero power. The only real way I had to win the game was Villainous Wealth, but I had enough removal and counterspells to beat any bomb my opponents could throw at me, as well as enough defensive measures to stall until I could find the Villainous Wealth.
On the other side of the coin, I loved drafting both G/R and R/W Aggro. In the G/R decks, finding ferocious creatures at three and four mana was key, so that you could turn on Barrage of Boulders, Savage Punch, and the like. In the R/W Aggro deck, having a game-breaking card like War Flare, Rush of Battle, or even Trumpet Blast was necessary to deal the last few points of damage. Both of these decks ignored many of the "best" cards in the format in favor of utilizing cards like Summit Prowler, which generally came pretty late in the packs.
But I don't know enough about Limited to give you an exact drafting order, nor do you likely want one. So let's get back to Modern.
Patrick taught me a lot about Splinter Twin. He taught me that interacting with Abzan in the early turns was key because they were going to outpace you in the lategame after hitting your hand with early removal spells. His main avenue of attacking early was Spreading Seas and Grim Lavamancer, both of which could have a significant impact on how the game played out. Grim Lavamancer could effectively invalidate a Liliana of the Veil, while Spreading Seas could screw up their mana so they couldn't cast more than one spell a turn, if any. Alongside Spreading Seas, Patrick thought Tectonic Edge was great, and I mostly agreed. The problem is that playing cards like Spreading Seas and Tectonic Edge make it harder to play stuff like Cryptic Command, a card I loved in Temur Twin.
Patrick was pretty locked on his U/R Splinter Twin for most of testing, but his major problem was a lack of alternative ways to win the game outside of the combo. He didn't like Vendilion Clique due to the rise of Lingering Souls, as it was a pretty mediocre threat when it traded for 1/4 of the card. Early on in our testing, we were having moderate success with Tasigur, the Golden Fang in Grixis Splinter Twin. This gave us access to a Tarmogoyf-like threat that didn't die to Abrupt Decay or get countered by Spell Snare. It also acted as a way to gain card advantage should the game go for a long time. And alongside Grim Lavamancer, you could eat away the useless spells so that you were more likely to bring back whatever spell was good in the current situation.
The main drawback of playing with Tasigur meant playing Thought Scour, a card that I initially hated because it replaced Gitaxian Probe. The information gained by knowing what was in the opponent's hand was great when planning out your early turns, and the sorcery in the graveyard often grew Tarmogoyf. But without Tarmogoyf, Gitaxian Probe was less useful than normal, and it would be unwise to fill your deck with too many cantrip effects and not enough powerful cards. The fact that Thought Scour made Tasigur and Grim Lavamancer so much better was a boon, and I soon grew to love it.
One other minor aspect of Thought Scour, or any instant-speed card drawing effect, is that it made Snapcaster Mage much better. Being able to hold up a Remand while simultaneously being able to play Snapcaster Mage for value while applying pressure was important. Too many games relied on you holding up mana, which meant you couldn't really use all your mana each turn without a significant number of instant speed effects. Thought Scour could also influence the top of your opponent's deck when they used their own Serum Visions, or reset your own scry when your opponent made a play that changed the texture of the game.
But I wasn't quite sold on Tasigur yet, and I had a few ideas for Temur Twin before I went blindly in the Dickmann direction.
As you can see, this version is also built on the assumption that the Splinter Twin combo is difficult to assemble. Fewer combo creatures and Splinter Twins mean you will rely more on attacking and burn spells to kill your opponent. I didn't love that aspect, as the Splinter Twin part of the deck is what made it so appealing to me in the first place. I loved forcing my opponent into awkward situations, but what if I could still do that without being too reliant on it? Once my opponent sees any part of the combo, or just suspects it, their entire approach to the game will change. Having so few pieces means less awkward draws and ultimately leads to better topdecks.
The biggest draw for me was Young Pyromancer, a card that almost singlehandedly invalidates Liliana of the Veil. It can also conveniently race Lingering Souls, so long as your Young Pyromancer survives for a little while. In a way, we are putting a lot of pressure on Tarmogoyf to deal damage to the opponent, which forces their hand to kill it early. That will often give you a window to land Young Pyromancer and start generating tokens.
What I loved about this version of the deck was how sleek it looked and how well it played games. I learned a lot with this version of the deck, mostly that you needed a cheap way to interact with Abzan in order to dictate the pace of the game. If they were constantly forced to deal with your threats instead of playing their own, it would lead to you gaining a huge advantage on the board. If you were on the other side of that fight, forced to deal with their threats, you would usually lose thanks to their much more powerful spells.
This is what made Grim Lavamancer so extraordinarily good.
But after playing and watching a lot of matches with the Tasigur version of Splinter Twin, I ultimately decided that it was much more powerful, albeit a bit more clunky. There are quite a few decks in Modern where you just have to combo-kill them, so having more copies of the combo in your deck gives you a significant edge against them, even if it lowers your chances of beating Abzan.
One major factor for getting me to play the version with Tasigur was trusting in my teammates. Dickmann had a lot of good things to say about the archetype and a good general theory on how to build and play the deck against the field. We disagreed on some points, but I was able to extrapolate enough information from those chats to make card decisions that would work best for me. Ultimately, here is what I played at Pro Tour Fate Reforged.
- 1 Deceiver Exarch
- 2 Grim Lavamancer
- 3 Pestermite
- 4 Snapcaster Mage
- 3 Tasigur, the Golden Fang
- 1 Vendilion Clique
This version of Splinter Twin had it all. Hard removal in Terminate, counterspells to help out against Abzan with Spell Snare, and even a splash for Ancient Grudge. What isn't to love? To be quite honest, I went a bit off the beaten path from Dickmann. He was still sold on playing Tectonic Edge and Spreading Seas, two cards that I felt were deviating from the main theme of the deck. I do like those cards in general, but I actively wanted to hit my land drops in this deck and hold up for countermagic in the meantime. I didn't mind if my opponent was casting spells, because that meant I could gain value off Remand. I also wanted all of my lands to stay in play so that I could use Tasigur to its fullest extent.
Dickmann also disliked Cryptic Command, but I think it fits into this deck perfectly. Being able to activate Tasigur while holding up Cryptic Command is huge. Alternatively, just holding up counterspells in general while having access to Tasigur's ability or just a Snapcaster Mage, Pestermite, or what have you is awesome. I loved Cryptic Command in almost every version of Splinter Twin I've played in the last year, and this one is no different.
I was also deathly afraid of Affinity, which you can see by the green splash just for Ancient Grudge. I only played Affinity once in ten rounds, but the Grudges singlehandedly won me that match, so it is hard to argue against them. I also expect that Affinity will continue to be one of the more popular archetypes in Modern, if only because it isn't all that expensive and can be incredibly explosive. People like to do flashy things, and playing your entire hand in the first two turns is pretty appealing (if you're into that sort of thing).
The deck itself was a production of everything I had learned about Modern in the week leading up to the Pro Tour. I wanted to make my deck resilient to Abrupt Decay, which made Tasigur and Sower of Temptation potent weapons against Abzan. I wanted an early threat that could dominate the board if left unchecked, which made Grim Lavamancer the prime candidate. It is also important to note that I killed multiple Siege Rhinos with a Lightning Bolt thanks to Grim Lavamancer. On top of his ability to trade evenly with Liliana of the Veil, Grim Lavamancer could also protect you from Lingering Souls, given enough time.
Terminate was also a fine choice for a removal spell, though it played out awkwardly with the basic Islands in the deck. Terminate gave you hard answers to gigantic creatures like Tarmogoyf and Siege Rhino, and didn't deal you damage like Dismember, or eat up your graveyard like Murderous Cut. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably play one more Sulfur Falls over an Island. This version of the deck is hungry for colored sources of mana, including red thanks to Grim Lavamancer. Having another Sulfur Falls would have made things a little easier.
Awkwardly, this version of the deck was much more susceptible to aggressive decks. Unlike Tarmogoyf, it is difficult to play Tasigur on Turn 2. Your defenses are much harder to set up, but that's the nature of the beast. I didn't expect to play against Zoo very much, if at all, and hoped that my Snapcaster Mages and Lightning Bolts would get the job done. Without Birthing Pod in the format, I didn't even want to play Anger of the Gods, which made the Zoo matchup even worse.
I will be completely honest: I assembled the combo once, and it was broken up by Abrupt Decay. I won zero games with it. I sided it out in nearly every matchup because my post-board configuration of the deck was not set up to combo my opponents out of the game. Instead, I would let their awkward sideboard cards gum up their draws while I played big threats like Batterskull, Keranos, and Sower of Temptation. I won most of my games after sideboard by throwing Lightning Bolts at my opponent's face while Vendilion Clique and Tasigur dealt them a few points of damage. Overall, I'm not even sure if Splinter Twin is worth having in the deck.
But having the threat of Splinter Twin is often better than having the combo itself. Everyone knows how to play against it, or so they think. The key is using that to your advantage. I ended up going 7-3 in the Modern portion of the Pro Tour with a 4-2 record against G/B/X, though the deck could certainly be built in a way to make the matchup more favorable. I also lost to Burn, which is pretty terrible without Tarmogoyf or a lot of Deceiver Exarchs to implement the combo. I would also like to try a Batterskull in the maindeck if I can find room. The card was outstanding.
Ultimately, I failed in Limited with a 3-3 record. I felt comfortable in the format, but neither of my drafts ended up in a place I was happy with. I made some mistakes during the actual draft itself and a few mistakes along the way in games, but this was the first time I actually felt confident about a Draft format going into the Pro Tour. I have a lot of work to do if I want my Limited game to get better.
At the moment, I am not qualified for Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir in Brussels. I was one win short at the Pro Tour from getting an invite, but the dream isn't dead yet. I still have a few PTQs this weekend, as well as Grand Prix Memphis (or potentially Vancouver). It will be a pretty big sweat, as I haven't played much Standard over the last few weeks, but the format seems pretty awesome, and I am eager to learn all that I can about it leading up to the events.
I am happy with my performance at the Pro Tour, though it could have certainly been better. I worked pretty hard for the event, and I'm sure I'll work even harder for the next one. Even if that isn't in Brussels, I won't let it get me down. I'm having fun again, and that's all the inspiration I need.