This week Glenn returns to the Modern format with a look at some Splinter Twin decks and a recent innovation with Pyromancer Ascension.

Personally, I’ve always had the impression that the European Modern metagame favors combo decks more heavily. Unfounded bias from my perception? Perhaps, but combo has seemed very successful in their Modern Grand Prix events, and a number of international travelers have taken combo into the top slots in events around the world—notably in the first and most recent Modern Pro Tours won by Estratti and Cifka, respectively.

Looking at the last European Grand Prix, the results don’t lie. In spite of a conventional metagame distribution that placed Pod and Jund as the two most-played archetypes, we saw Splinter Twin winning the event with Living End dominating the tournament. The Top 16 featured a bit of Jund and Pod, but Antwerp’s Top 8 told a pretty different story. The combo decks were out in force and proved successful throughout the weekend.

Aside: Seeing two Living Ends in the Top 8 makes it slightly more unusual, but I’ve been expecting a surge in that deck for a long time. It gets very little respect, is very consistent, and can battle through a lot of the hate. Fulminator Mage offers plenty of free wins on its own, as disturbing as that might seem. End aside!

Truthfully, the results are mostly meaningless for generalizing European metagames owing to sample-size considerations. You can’t learn an entire metagame from one Grand Prix, but you can spot some tendencies. A successful result for Splinter Twin and a predilection among strong players to favor combo decks? That’s been reasonably represented.

Of course, I’ve spotted Cifka online with Affinity, so there are other omens . . .

The biggest generalization I could make about Europe is that many of its best professionals appeared in the past to have an aversion toward Jund, which is very different from the situation here in the States. Jund and Junk decks are all more popular among American players, and these are the decks that pack the most effective countermeasures against Splinter Twin. Between Thoughtseize, Abrupt Decay, and Liliana of the Veil, Jund can quickly threaten disruption that Twin struggles to claw back from while large monsters finish the job. Jund had a surprisingly big showing at Grand Prix Prague this past weekend. But we didn’t see a lot of recognizable names in the Top 8, and it also didn’t win!

Perhaps its biggest obstacle will be its own success. Winning the Grand Prix was a wake-up call for live tournaments, while online the deck has continued to be one of the winningest decks in Daily Events. If you really decide to pack the hate, Twin isn’t a tough deck to beat. Torpor Orb, Damping Matrix, Abrupt Decay, Combust, and Spellskite are all effective tools available to a variety of decks. Even a significant amount of cheap removal, like Path to Exile, can often be enough to put Twin behind.

Twin’s best defense? A different offense.

Fraternal Twins

Patrick Dickmann’s Antwerp-winning Twin list demonstrated significant attention toward overcoming combo-specific hate by remaining a fully functioning deck with traditional game plans. There are basically two schools of thought regarding Twin lists: hybridization or combo. The full combo decks are cantrips, combo, counters, and some Boomerang effects—straightforward and vulnerable, but consistently threatening combo kills. Lists like the one Patrick chose however can threaten an aggro-control route. Spend too many turns with mana open and unused and a flurry of Snapcaster Mage fueled Lightning Bolts might close the game out. Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite can make a surprisingly strong beatdown team . . .

It can be tough to separate Twin archetypes into distinctive lists since many players blur the lines. For example, David Caplan’s Grand Prix Detroit Top 16 list is heavily dedicated to the combo in the first game but can sideboard into a deck that plays a pretty well-rounded game when it needs to thanks to those same sideboarded Batterskulls. You can see some very similar ideas when you compare Dickmann and Caplan’s decklists.

David has been very successful with Twin live and online, so he’s worth paying attention to if you’re looking for lists. He did stray toward Jund in a relatively recent MOCS, but I have no doubt we’ll see him keeping the faith once more soon enough.

Long-Lost Twin

We’ve also seen Twin hybridized with Storm decks. I’ve seen a lot of lists that incorporate this concept, either boarding from Twin into Storm or from Storm into Twin, but the player I most strongly recall associating with this strategy is Magic Online’s KWay. Here’s one of his lists from 2012 just to give you the idea—he’s since moved on to other archetypes.

Once you think about it, Storm and Twin are really fundamentally identical engines—they just end the game in different ways. Using blue cantrips and red combo pieces, they can both explode for quick kills. Storm’s got more raw power and is more consistent, but the Twin deck recovers from failure better and is capable of playing a more diverse range of games. Storm only has one mode, as enjoyable as the fables of Electromancer beatdown may be!

This list looks a lot different from more modern Storm decks—owing to some of the cards being banned and lists having evolved—but it’s also a reminder that Modern offers a lot of options in this department. You could definitely go back to the drawing board here and construct a more contemporary Ascension Storm list that offers the sideboard option.

Today we’re going one step further.

Bizarro Twin

Recently, I spotted a fun revival clinching one of the undefeated slots in a Daily Event! This version, piloted by lordmorpheth, adds black to the mix for Terminate and adjusts its cantrip lineup pretty significantly.

Pyromancer Ascension is deceptively powerful, and you can claw your way out of some pretty absurd situations once you’re firing off a Fork or two per spell. What’s better than Cryptic Command? Two Cryptic Commands obviously!

Given my history with Pyromancer Ascension and my love of "getting" people with Shadow of Doubt, I immediately loaded the deck up and went to town. It felt a lot like previous Ascension Control lists I’d played—you’re just draining the opponent’s resources and capitalizing on your cantrips to dig into whatever solutions you need at the time. It’s easy to make a mistake with shuffling and scrying, so be careful! Outside of that planning on how to string together an amount of damage that’s actually lethal is important. You’ve actually got a real engine going—Snapcaster Mage plus Cryptic Command can draw a lot of cards while flashbacking a lot of Lightning Bolts and Electrolyzes.

Going for those Terminates did feel worth it—I spun around a lot of situations thanks to the pinpoint removal, and it bought lots of time in several matchups. It’s relatively rarely dead and pretty efficient to cast—although the mana often makes it tricky, as I’ll discuss later. It’s especially handy against Splinter Twin decks amusingly enough. It’s not the biggest of games against Jund decks, but it’s a live card for sure.

Now, there are a couple of awkward issues to address with regard to the actual sideboard switch, especially as presented here.

1) You’re really banking on the opponent cutting a lot of their removal after seeing your nearly creatureless maindeck. That’s not a difficult leap—only Electrolyze and Abrupt Decay are likely to stick around, with Lightning Bolt depending upon the deck. For those reasons, I’d rather go to the full four Deceiver Exarchs in the sideboard, as they’re less likely to be vulnerable to the holdovers in games 2 and 3.

2) Speaking of Abrupt Decay, it’s still a problem. Real Twin decks can actually hold their own because they have room for Mizzium Skin and Spellskite as countermeasures and often sideboard to weaken the card. Meanwhile, Grixis Ascension’s opponents will be sideboarding and mulliganing with an emphasis on the strengths of Decay and Thoughtseize, which both remain very strong.

3) I’m also a bit confused by the sideboarded Relic of Progenitus, as Nihil Spellbomb is a stronger hate card for graveyard strategies while the Terminates should soften our Tarmogoyf problems. Those slots are for sale for sure. I’m not exactly sure what to use them for, but there are plenty of options within the colors.

4) Having no Ancient Grudges for Spellskites and Torpor Orbs means you’ll rely a lot on Cryptic Command—or on winning through damage—but both are very doable depending on the obstacles presented. Multiple pieces of disruption will require multiple Commands, so there’s merit to Ascension if you expect to face those permanents. You can split the difference, threatening Twin and Ascension at the same time—you’ll have to shave some Twin stuff down to make it work, but it’s viable.

This deck has the look of a first draft to me—a cool idea that still needs its numbers tuned. It took only a handful of games for me to find the flaws in the mana base, which almost certainly doesn’t need the Swamp (singleton Blood Moon notwithstanding) and probably doesn’t want the second Mountain. That Sunken Ruins is questionable as well; three-color Cryptic Command decks can be tough to nail on the first try, but I imagine looking toward successful U/W/R mana bases—and keeping in mind that Tectonic Edge is not an option on this land count—will be helpful.

Truthfully, Splinter Twin’s a tough archetype for me to write about. I respect it a great deal because it’s one of the best decks in Modern, but it’s not the easiest. Sideboarding with Splinter Twin is a very difficult art; just look at Dickmann and Caplan’s sideboards and imagine the swath of options and approaches available in every matchup. There’s plenty of room to be flexible and nuanced, with the pilot’s own tendencies taking precedent. There weren’t a lot of Molten Rains in Splinter Twin sideboards in Antwerp, but Patrick knew what he was doing! While it might overlap with Blood Moon in some ways, it’s hardly the same card, and any change can significantly affect overall utility.

That’s one reason these transformational plans have always appealed to me—they’re easy to understand and solve with some theorycrafting and a little practice. It’ll take months of practice for me to be able to claim the level of expertise I’d need to feel comfortable with the archetype. Slicing out one combo for another? That’s a cinch!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—I’m a simple country sorcerer.

The first Modern Grand Prix of 2014 has passed, and now it’s time to sit and wait for the Pro Tour. Will we see some innovation within the format? I think so—any awesome Nykthos strategies will wait until the PT to emerge, and there’s also the potential for some earth-shaking adjustments to the banned list. If you’re eager to see some kind of Nykthos strategy making waves, you’ll need to wait a few more weeks . . . although Sam Black has courteously given us another brew you might enjoy over on Premium. Bon appetit!