Thopter/Sword vs. Exarch/Twin

Which combo is better in Modern? Is it Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek, or is it Deceiver Exarch (or Pestermite, or Village Bell Ringer or—you get the point) and Splinter Twin? I think this is a pretty interesting question to consider. Splinter Twin was banned, and one cycle later Sword of the Meek was unbanned. The implication is that either WotC feels like Splinter Twin is the more egregious of the two, or perhaps they just want to mix things up. Regardless of what WotC thinks, I’m curious as to which of these combos is actually more oppressive in Modern.

I posed the question on Twitter:

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There was still some time remaining in the poll when I captured this stunning screenshot, but much like how they call U.S. elections with some votes still uncollected, I felt pretty safe in calling this one in favor of Splinter Twin.

I believe that Thopter/Sword is actually a more powerful combo than Exarch/Twin in Modern. Not only did I believe that Thopter/Sword was better, I also expected people to agree and for this poll to be a victory in favor of Thopter/Sword. I was surprised that not only did Thopter/Sword lose, but that it lost by an enormous margin. Less than 1 in 4 people believe Thopter/Sword is better.

It’s certainly possible that I worded this question poorly. I think a better poll might have been: “Which is a more oppressive combo for the Modern format?” Powerful might imply “which one is better when executed” and Splinter Twin wins the game on the spot whereas Thopter/Sword doesn’t. But I’m not sure that tells the whole story. I think if I asked this same question for Legacy and the two options were Top/Counterbalance and Exarch/Twin, Top/Counterbalance would win by an enormous margin, despite Exarch/Twin being a more powerful combo when successfully executed.

Regardless of whether or not the poll was perfect, 78% of people felt that Twin was a more powerful combo in the context of Modern. Let’s examine that claim.

Twin has a number of advantages on Thopter/Sword. For one, you can play Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite at instant speed. This is important for a variety of reasons. You can bluff them when you don’t have them, you can represent having other cards, people play in fear of the combo, it introduces a surprise element to the combo, and you’re not locked into spending your turn playing those cards if you need to instead play other things. Deceiver and Pestermite also serve as a form of disruption on their own.

As I stated earlier, the Twin combo also wins the game. Although not something that will happen that often, it’s certainly possible to still lose a game after assembling an undisrupted Thopter/Sword. On that note, however, a number of people I spoke with didn’t seem to respect how powerful Thopter/Sword is when assembled. Decks that are trying to win with creatures, which is most decks in Modern, basically stand no shot of successfully beating this combo. Thopter/Sword creates a near endless stream of chump blockers and gains a significant amount of life in the process. If you had 8 copies of Tarmogoyf in play, you’d be basically breaking even against 6 lands and the Thopter Sword combo.

In some ways, Twin is more mana efficient than Thopter/Sword. While the Twin combo costs significantly more mana to set up, you really only have to spend 3 mana at instant speed at some point in the game—you actually get something useful out of that 3 mana, and then the 4 mana you spend on Splinter Twin doesn’t fully count because the game is over when it happens.

At least, that’s the argument in favor of Twin being more mana efficient. It’s not fully true, though. The reason it’s only a half truth is that if you spend the 7 total mana to assemble the Twin combo and it gets disrupted, you’re down a huge investment. Typically, this form of disruption involves a removal spell on the creature, which means you’re down 7 mana and 2 cards, and in order to reassemble the combo, you have to invest another 7 mana and another 2 cards.

Splinter Twin also has a high rate of failure. You frequently cannot cast Twin because of the risk of a removal spell, and going for the combo and failing is game over most of the time because it’s too much to overcome the loss in cards and tempo. The Twin combo also takes up a larger chunk of the deck, generally 10 slots. While you can play versions of Twin that skimp on the combo, those versions nearly always perform worse.

Thopter/Sword on the other hand, requires a smaller deckbuilding investment. At most, it represents 8 cards in the deck. Certainly, you can play other cards like Muddle the Mixture to find the combo, but you’re not obligated to play those kinds of cards, and it’s no different than how Twin decks can play supporting pieces like Spellskite or Dispel.

Much like Twin, you can play Thopter/Sword in a control shell. People who overload on beating the Thopter/Sword combo can simply lose to the rest of your deck, similar to how people can load up on Spellskites, Ghostly Prison, and the like, and then lose to Keranos, or Pestermite beatdown, or Jace, Architect of Thought.

One major advantage that Thopter/Sword has is that it doesn’t fold to traditional removal. Modern is a format where removal spells are a must in most decks. Almost every deck plays cards like Lightning Bolt, Terminate, Path to Exile, etc. and those cards can all serve as disruption for the Twin combo because all it takes is the ability to kill a creature to disrupt it. Those cards all do nothing against Thopter/Sword. There are a few overlapping pieces of disruption, like Abrupt Decay, which kills both Thopter Foundry and Deceiver Exarch, or Kolaghan’s Command, which can kill Pestermite and Thopter Foundry, but there are very few main-deck pieces of disruption that handle just Thopter Foundry and not Deceiver Exarch.

The cards that beat Thopter/Sword are generally sideboard cards, like Ancient Grudge or Stony Silence. While effective at stopping the combo, decks that rely on those cards to beat it are generally going to lose game 1, and Thopter/Sword decks can anticipate the hate and find other ways to win after sideboard, much like Splinter Twin did. In that regard, I think Thopter/Sword is a harder combo to interact with or stop.

Another huge edge for Thopter/Sword is that there is no risk in going for the combo. If you have a Sword of the Meek in play and cast Thopter Foundry, you’re not risking anything. If they have an Abrupt Decay, then the worst that happens is you lose one combo piece and can try again later. Thopter Foundry and Sword of the Meek also both cost 2 mana, so you can assemble the combo as early as turn 3, and then just sit back on interactive spells while the combo takes over the game.

Thopter/Sword is also a very resilient combo in that you don’t need Sword of the Meek to be in play to start the combo, removal spells and discard are ineffective against a full 50% of the combo, and Academy Ruins lets you rebuy Foundry.

A lot of people consider the fact that Thopter/Sword is an artifact-based combo a significant drawback because of cards like Ancient Grudge or Stony Silence. I actually feel the opposite. Being an artifact-based combo instead of a creature-based combo is a giant benefit. For one, creature removal is more ubiquitous than artifact removal, especially in game 1. Secondly, there are just as many cards that interact favorably with artifacts as there are that interact negatively. Being an artifact combo means that Thopter/Sword decks have access to cards like Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas, Mox Opal, and Academy Ruins—all powerful cards that take advantage of artifacts.

All things told, I think Thopter/Sword is easier to assemble, carries less risk of assembly, is more resilient, folds to less hate, and slots into more decks than Splinter Twin does. Splinter Twin is more powerful when assembled, and has more play to it by virtue of the interactive nature of Deceiver Exarch and Pestermite, but I don’t think that’s enough for it to be a more powerful combo.

78% of people who took the poll thought Splinter Twin was better than Thopter/Sword. Not only do I disagree, but I also think Thopter/Sword is going to reflect a metagame shift that players should prepare for. People are going to figure out how to build decks around this combo, and when they do, it’s going to be a big deal in Modern. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see if I’m right. If history is any indication, I’m probably not.

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