When New Phyrexia was printed, one of the most exciting new cards was Deceiver Exarch. Combined with Splinter Twin, Exarch created a two card combo that simply won the game on turn four. Unfortunately, due to the legality of Stoneforge Mystic and [card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace[/card], Twin combo didn’t get a chance to shine in standard.
The second Jace and Stoneforge got banned, I knew Twin was going to be one of the premier decks in the format. As a combo player, I wanted to try it the first chance I could get. Very early into the post banning standard format, I attended an SCG open in Seattle. I hung out and tested in Seattle for a week with Zaiem Beg and Conley Woods and eventually came up with a sweet twin list:
I ended up finishing in top 4 of the open losing to the menace I thought I no longer had to deal with: Caw Blade. Edgar Flores and Nick Spagnolo’s one-two finish with the same 75 proved that a little banning wasn’t enough to keep Caw Blade down.
While I was happy with my finish at the tournament, I knew the Twin deck was going to have to evolve to compete in a Caw heavy metagame. Thus, I turned to my friendly neighborhood Wrapter to give me some advice. After explaining that Hawk was putting on a lot of pressure and that Spellskite was annoying because unlike all the other disruption, Dispel didn’t stop it, Wrapter came up with solutions to both problems.
To solve Squadron Hawk, Wrapter suggested Grim Lavamancer. With so many Fetch lands and cantrips, the Lavaman has plenty of fodder, and he completely blanks all opposing Hawks. To solve Spellskite, Wrapter suggested cutting some Into the Roils (a pretty weak answer to Spellskite) for Twisted Image (the stone cold nuts against it). Here’s what Wrapter came up with:
I played this list to a 6-2 record in the standard portion of US Nats, leaving me just short of top 8. My first lost was to a B/r Vampires deck. Vampires is a terrible matchup do to their incredibly fast clock and abundance of ways to interact with you but fortunately isn’t very popular. My second loss was to Pyromancer Ascension playing for top 8. I lost game one due to simply not finding the combo (which is frustrating, but does happen occasionally) and lost game two when I boarded out Twisted Images and he played turn 2 and 3 Spellskite.
After Nats, I ran back the exact same maindeck at GP Pittsburgh with a few small sideboard changes. Here’s the sideboard I played:
Essentially, I decided that Negate was just better than Deprive. In addition, I concluded that I could cut Jace’s Ingenuity (which I never really liked due to being clunky and looking at less cards than my one drop draw spells) and an Into the Core (which became less necessary as Tempered Steel fell off the radar) for three Dragonmaster Outcast. Outcast is great against UB control since it gives you a way to apply pressure that you can protect with Dispel and gives you an alternate win condition against Surgical Extraction or Memoricide all with one sideboard card and I figured UB would be more popular after Ali Antrazi’s Nats win. However, Outcast turned out not to be that great as UB wasn’t really that popular.
I lost twice in the swiss and ended up losing in top 8 to the dominant Yuuya Watanabe. My 3 losses all came to Caw Blade. The Caw matchup is very close and over a long tournament in which you play against Caw Blade 5 or 6 times, losing 2 or 3 makes sense.
Playing Splinter Twin is all about understanding how each piece of the puzzle fits together. Here are some tricks to playing with some specific cards:
Arid Mesa/Scalding Tarn/Misty Rainforest: Getting full value out of your fetch lands is crucial. Rarely should you crack a Fetch that isn’t shuffling away garbage from Ponder or Halimar Depths. As far as Scalding Tarn goes, be sure you know which color you need when you crack it. The deck operates mostly on blue mana, but you need two red to actually cast Twin. It’s very embarrassing to find the whole combo and then not be able to cast it because you screwed up your mana.
Halimar Depths/Ponder/Preordain: When playing a dig spell, you are generally looking for a few things: Deceiver Exarch, Splinter Twin (and the red mana to cast it), and Dispel. What makes this complicated is when you have some things but not others. Do you keep a Dispel when you don’t have the full combo yet? Do you keep Ponders and Preordains when it may be clunky? How do Shrine of Piercing Vision and Grim Lavamancer enter the equation?
All of these questions are completely matchup and situation based. In general, I would keep Dispels even without the combo, especially in matchups where I expect Dismember. Durdling too much is a possible problem, and I wouldn’t keep too many cantrips on top (although of course how many is too many depends). Shrine is something you certainly want on turn two, and may want later in the game in slower matchups. Grim Lavamancer is a card you generally want early and not late, but obviously is also matchup dependant.
As far as sequencing goes, Halimar Depths usually goes first since it’s a land. You want to cast Ponder the turn you play a fetch land, and Preordain is the most flexible. Preordain can be used as a way to get rid of garbage seen with Depths or Ponder, but you’d rather use a fetch to do that if you have one.
Shrine of Piercing Vision: Do everything in your power to cast Shrine as soon as possible. As far as when to crack the Shrine it’s a little tricky. When you are using it to find a combo piece or Dispel, you generally want to wait until the turn before you combo on your turn. By cracking it on your turn, it allows you to hit a cantrip into the card you are looking for. When you are looking for an answer to something, like a Twisted Image for a Spellskite, you often crack it earlier, as it may be too clunky and mana intensive to crack it the turn you combo.
Twisted Image: Twisted Image is one of the most high variance cards in the deck. Killing a Spellskite, Birds of Paradise, or Overgrown Battlement makes you feel on top of the world, but having a cantrip stuck in your hand is sometimes frustrating. A lot of the time you can use Twisty in combination with Grim Lavamancer to get some value. When you are Twisted Imaging and Lavamancering against a Sea Gate Oracle or Deceiver Exarch, make sure to Lavamancer first as it prevents them from Twisting back to save their guy. When there are no targets on the board, it can be correct to cast Exarch just to give yourself a target. Twisty can even help out your beatdown plan by giving your Exarch four power.
Grim Lavamancer: Grim Lavamancers main job is to buy time to extend the game. Killing Squadron Hawks and other small aggressive creatures can give you enough time to set up the combo through disruption. If that was all Grim Lavamancer did, he wouldn’t be worth playing. I won three games at GP Pittsburgh on the back of Grim Lavamancer damage, and probably won a few more because the threat of damage made my opponents react. In general, I try to attack with Lavamancer for as long as possible since I don’t like wasting cards in my graveyard. Once your graveyard has eight or so cards, it is reasonable to just keep the Lavaman back and ping them since you will probably kill them before you run out of cards. One other cool interaction with Lavamancer is that Exarch can untap it to help it take down bigger things. Killing a Spellskite with a Lavamancer (Spellskite can’t steal the Exarch’s untap ability because it says creature you control) is a huge game.
Deceiver Exarch: Obviously, Deceiver Exarch is a combo piece. However, it is so much more than that. Deceiver Exarch’s ability should always be getting value. The most obvious use is tapping an opponent’s land or creature. This can buy you time or prevent them from casting as many answers. Another way to use Exarch’s ability is to main phase Exarch and essentially make it a two mana spell by untapping a land. This is a line you often take when you have multiple Exarchs in hand. It risks losing an Exarch to sorcery speed removal, which is why you generally shouldn’t do it unless you have more than one Exarch. Unlike multiple Twins, drawing multiple Exarchs is often a good thing. Leaving a second Exarch on top with your dig spells is completely reasonable. When you have two Exarchs, your goal should be to get your opponent to play a removal spell on the first Exarch without you casting Twin on it, which allows the second Exarch to have less hate to battle through. One last trick that can be helpful is using an Exarch to untap your own Exarch against Nature’s Claim. When you make a token with Exarch, they cast Claim in response, and then you cast Exarch untapping the Exarch enchanted with Twin and make infinite guys.
The last thing you need to know before playing Twin is sideboarding. Like any combo deck, sideboarding with Twin is tricky as you have to balance the cost of diluting your deck too much with the benefit the sideboard cards will add. There are also some cards that are good or bad depending not just on which deck they are playing, but exactly which sideboard cards they have (eg. Twisted Image against Caw with or without Spellskite). For game two, you often have to make an educated guess. If you see a Caw deck with Hero of Bladehold it is more likely they have Spellskites because they would want them to protect Hero, so you should leave in Twisted Image. If it is a more stock list, you may want to hedge your bets and leave in only one or two Twistys. Here’s a rough guide of how I would sideboard by matchup.
For Reference, here’s what I’d probably play if I had a standard tournament tomorrow:
This sideboard takes the spike in popularity of Twin and Mono Red.
Against Caw, you want to add an additional Lavamancer to make sure you draw one early every game. In addition, you get Mental Missteps to fight their Pierces and Missteps. If you see Skite you have to fudge the numbers a little more since you have to leave in Twisty, but I really don’t mind cutting a Twin because the games go long enough that you’ll find one anyway.
Against mono red, you get a huge upgrade. The one tricky part of the matchup is they can have anything from Torpor Orb to Combust to Act of Aggression as hate cards so it’s hard to know which to play around. Obviously against a more Goblin-y version Lavamancer may be good in which case you’ll have to board out different cards, possibly Shrines.
The reason the mirror plans are different is that when they have Lavamancer and are on the play they will usually get one active before you. When that is the case, I like to go for the full blown combo plan. However, if you can get Lavamancer advantage, it is nice as it encourages them to pull the trigger first and allows your Twistys to become removal for Exarch.
You don’t have a very good sideboard for Valakut, but the matchup is so good I don’t think it matters especially now that they mostly don’t Memoricide. If they aren’t Combusting, they are probably Dismembering so Mutagenic Growth is almost always good.
This is the bare minimum you should be doing against Pod decks. Against RUG versions, Growth might be good as they often have Combust. If you want to play a more controlling role, Bolt might be solid. If they have some hate card Spellskite can answer, bring him in. Spell Pierce is probably the best of the worst so if you don’t want any of these cards just leave in the Pierces.
Splinter Twin is one of the trickiest standard decks to play, but the benefits for learning it are great. Putting your opponent’s in a situation where they never want to do something is incredibly powerful. Twin has a great matchup against Birthing Pod and Valakut, and has close, interactive matchups with all of the other metagame decks. I hope you enjoyed this look into the development and inner workings of Twin combo.