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The Modern Gauntlet: Abzan and Splinter Twin

The Modern format is slow to change. Except, of course, for the times when it’s suddenly turned completely on it’s head! We’re fresh off of a change to the banned list and a major Modern event in Pro Tour Fate Reforged. If you’re attending Grand Prix Vancouver, or have another Modern event coming up, this is the time to learn the format, choose a deck, and get a big edge over the competition.

Modern is a format of almost limitless variety. Shortly before the Pro Tour, I sat down with my teammates and wrote down a list of Modern decks. The list was meant to feature all of the decks that we, “wouldn’t be surprised to play against,” in the tournament. We named deck after deck—I reached the bottom of the page and had to turn to the next one in my notebook—28 different decks in all!

Being well prepared for a Modern tournament doesn’t necessarily mean building and testing against such an outrageous number of different archetypes. It means knowing your own deck well enough that you can handle the unexpected. Aim for a well balanced sideboard that gives you reasonable game against aggro, combo, midrange, and control.

B/G Midrange

If you only have time to familiarize yourself with one Modern deck, it should be Abzan. In the coming weeks, Abzan will be the top dog by a clear margin. In fact, I’d say it’s the only deck that you’ll definitely need to beat if you’re looking for a strong finish in a Modern tournament. A bad matchup against Infect or Urzatron is a small strike against a deck, but not necessarily a dealbreaker. If you can’t beat Abzan, however, I recommend looking elsewhere.

Three Abzan decks made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Fate Reforged. Jesse Hampton was the highest finisher, and also happened to have the most traditional deck list. Like so many G/B Modern players before him, he focused on discard spells, spot removal, and single threats capable of winning the game on their own. They served him well.

Jesse had a stellar result, but as is often the case in Magic, different players can have vastly different experiences with the same deck. I went into Pro Tour testing wanting badly to play a deck like the one Jesse Hampton settled on. Unfortunately, in our testing gauntlet, Abzan surprisingly proved to be a bit of a punching bag. Previous incarnations of the deck—Jund with either Bloodbraid Elf or Deathrite Shaman—played tons of close games, but always won the majority of them. Abzan seemed to also be playing a ton of close games, but now losing the majority of them! My conclusion was that Abzan was all-around just a little bit too slow to keep up with the pace of Modern. For a deck whose best early plays are answer cards, trying to keep up with two dozen different decks—many of which are brutally explosive—all at the same time is just too tall an order.

The other two Abzan players in the Top 8, Eric Froelich and Jacob Wilson, addressed this problem by playing with Noble Hierarch. Having at least one proactive early play is helpful, and I do recommend this approach if Abzan is your deck of choice. However, a problem remained that Abzan doesn’t have access to a good turn-one removal spell.

I detest Path to Exile in Abzan. It’s valuable to have a 1-mana removal spell against Infect and Splinter Twin, but for grindy matchups like the mirror, giving your opponent a free land is a huge liability. Path is an abysmal answer to a quick Wild Nacatl, Goblin Guide, or Dark Confidant. Dismember isn’t great either. When we’re talking about a deck whose main weakness is being slow, paying 4 life on turn one against an aggro deck isn’t an appealing option.

To make a long story short, I miss Lightning Bolt! I believe it may well be worth it to trade in your powerful top-end card (Siege Rhino) in favor of the most efficient removal spell in the format. Siege Rhino is a fantastic card, but Lightning Bolt plays a critical role in the archetype where Rhino is a little more replaceable.

Jund, by Reid Duke

In addition to Lightning Bolt, red offers Thundermaw Hellkite. Hellkite, while it might not be objectively as good as Siege Rhino, is also an appealing curve-topper in a format in which Lingering Souls is one of the defining cards. Ancient Grudge, Sowing Salt, and Grim Lavamancer are also powerhouse sideboard cards which Jund can access but Abzan cannot.

I absolutely love Kitchen Finks right now. Even after all these years, it remains the single best card against fast Zoo, and is excellent against Burn as well. At only three mana, it’s more difficult for Burn to set up Skullcrack, and it’s less devastating when they do. It shuts down Goblin Guide, Monastery Swiftspear, and Eidolon of the Great Revel dead in their tracks.

The application that might not be quite as obvious is as a buffer against Liliana of the Veil. One way to fall miserably behind in a B/G mirror is to get a single creature Edicted by Liliana’s -2, leaving you with no way to attack her on the following turn. Kitchen Finks is great at preventing this. Jund needs Kitchen Finks more than Abzan because it does not have Lingering Souls to play a similar role as a buffer against Liliana. (Jund also lacks the life gain of Siege Rhino). Nonetheless, Kitchen Finks can be a fine consideration in small numbers for Abzan as well, especially with Burn being among the top decks right now.

Along the same lines, I strongly recommend reconfiguring your discard spells to better fight the Burn deck. Do not leave home without four Inquisition of Kozilek in your main deck. Where Thoughtseize is nearly uncastable against Burn, Inquisition of Kozilek and Duress are some of the best cards you can have! An easy swap between Thoughtseize and Inquisition will change your greatest liability into a great strength in one of the format’s more important matchups. Your main deck should have four Inquisition of Kozilek and your sideboard should have one or two copies of Duress. Thoughtseize can round out the rest, depending on how many slots you choose to dedicate to hand disruption (I recommend seven to nine between main deck and sideboard).

I also recommend diversifying your removal, and not overdoing it on Abrupt Decays. As many of your removal spells as possible should be able to kill Tasigur, the Golden Fang, which can otherwise dominate the mirror match in a stall. A card I particularly like right now is Maelstrom Pulse, as it can kill expensive creatures, wipe up Lingering Souls, and gives insurance against unexpected cards like Batterskull. For Abzan, I like two copies of Maelstrom Pulse, three copies of Abrupt Decay, and rounding out the rest with a mix of Path to Exile, Dismember, and Victim of Night. Jund should be even lower on Abrupt Decays because Lightning Bolt also matches up poorly against Siege Rhino and Tasigur.

Finally we come to the greatest question of our generation: Tasigur or Dark Confidant? For the entire history of Modern, it went without saying that these G/B decks played four copies of Dark Confidant. It’s strange to me that it’s now become so marginalized as a card! I’ll grant that it matches up poorly against Burn, but it remains excellent against combo decks, control decks, and the mirror match. It’s generally one of the cards you’re happiest to see in your opening hand.

Tasigur, the Golden Fang is also quite good. It usually won’t come down until turn 4 or so, but the fact that you can cast it and a second spell in the same turn make it miles better than just an Erhnam Djinn. That’s not even to mention the activated ability, which comes up more than you might expect, especially when the B/G mirror is prone to dragging on for so long.

Dark Confidant and Tasigur don’t go great together, because of Tasigur’s high converted mana cost. It’s not completely out of the question to play them both in the same deck (my own suggested Jund deck list contains four Confidants and one Tasigur), but it’s not ideal either.

The decision of which to play is close, but I currently fall on the Dark Confidant side of things. Whenever possible, I like to streamline and play the cards that I’m happiest to draw in my opening hand. There’s still nothing like turn 1 Inquisition of Kozilek into turn 2 Dark Confidant! Especially since Abzan players will be loading up on Path to Exiles to beat Splinter Twin and Infect, a 2-mana, must-kill-immediately creature is very appealing. You’ll win a majority of games where your opponent Paths your turn 2 Dark Confidant. You’ll win even more games where they let it go unanswered!

As a side note, there’s no rule that says you have to play four or zero Confidants. Many of my decks in testing contained three copies.

I’ve talked at length about the different flavors of B/G that might be out there, and some recommended card choices for anyone considering playing the archetype. For everyone else, it’s about knowing public enemy number one, and finding the best way to beat them.

Unfortunately, Abzan and Jund are notorious for being well-balanced decks without specific holes that can be attacked. Fortunately, the corollary to that is that most decks will have at least decent game against them.

You can beat Abzan by being very fast, as in the case of Burn or Infect. Alternatively, you can fight it by chocking your deck full of powerful mid- and late-game topdecks, as in the case of Urzatron or Scapeshift. Finally, you can play a creature deck that simply does something more powerful than Abzan. Birthing Pod is gone, but B/W Tokens, Soul Sisters, and Affinity still exist!

The only thing to avoid is a deck that needs to assemble a two-card combo in its hand in the late game. Combos like Ad Nauseam plus Angel’s Grace or Faithless Looting plus Goryo’s Vengeance have a lot of strengths, but they’ve largely fallen out of favor because they lack resilience to Thoughtseize. If you enter a Modern tournament, be prepared to have your hand torn apart early and often.

Splinter Twin

The Splinter Twin deck has a devoted core of followers. Throughout Modern’s history it has remained a small, but noticeable—and often quite successful—portion of the field. After the recent bannings and Antonio del Moral Leon earning a Pro Tour title with the deck, it could reach an all-time high in popularity. After Abzan, it’s my second deck to beat.

Like Jesse Hampton, the top-finishing Splinter Twin player was piloting a relatively stock version of the archetype. Del Moral Leon’s deck featured a few controlling elements like Cryptic Commands and Electrolyzes, but for the most part it was rather dedicated to winning with the combo.

Ironically, Deceiver Exarch plus Splinter Twin is exactly the sort of two-card combo that I recommended avoiding. And indeed, the actual combo is not particularly great against Abzan. However, the deck has other qualities that give it quite a lot of game in the matchup. What makes Twin so dangerous is that it’s largely a normal, well-balanced deck that simply has the threat of winning the game out of nowhere. When players are forced to leave Abrupt Decay mana open every turn for the entire game, it’s easy to wear them down with Cryptic Commands and Snapcaster Mages.

Which brings us to Antonio del Moral Leon’s sideboard, which features an odd assortment of cards. Keranos, God of Storms, Threads of Disloyalty, Anger of the Gods, Blood Moon, and Jace, Architect of Thought give him the option to move partially away from his combo toward a more normal U/R Control deck. This balance is exactly the right way to play Splinter Twin. The deck is very much about making your opponent play guessing games, and finding the best way to win under any circumstances.

From my experience, the most challenging part of playing against Splinter Twin is that you never quite know how they’re going to sideboard. Some players will remain dedicated to their combo, while others will morph into a more controlling deck. Yet others will be trying to steal games away from you with Blood Moon. This is not even to mention other builds of Twin like TarmoTwin and W/U/R Twin!

The last thing you want is to overload on hate cards like Spellskite and Torpor Orb only to lose to a player who brought in Keranos, God of Storms and Batterskull. For this reason I have two important recommendations. First, focus on versatile sideboard cards like Duress and Thoughtseize. Second, don’t overtest against any one particular build of Splinter Twin. After ten games or so, either quit and move on to a new matchup, or search the web for a new deck list of Splinter Twin to copy and play against. Overtesting against one build can lead you into dangerous habits and subtract from your ability to expect the unexpected.

Your top priority for beating Splinter Twin should be to make sure you don’t fold to Blood Moon. This means both building your deck with some basic lands, but also practicing against the card. It’s a bad feeling to be eliminated from a tournament because you fetched the wrong land on turn 1. Blood Moon is a deadly card, and should absolutely be treated as such. Test against it, and have it in mind throughout any Modern tournaments you play.

Next, you need to be able to progress your game plan without leaving yourself vulnerable to the combo. Thoughtseize is the best way to achieve this goal, but other ways include cheap, instant-speed removal spells like Path to Exile, Dismember, and Slaughter Pact, or flash creatures like Vendilion Clique and Restoration Angel.

So there you have my picks for the most important decks to beat in Modern. Any of these decks would be good choices for upcoming tournaments, particularly if you have to the time to practice and make the decklists your own. Otherwise, be sure to include them in your testing gauntlet, and be prepared to face them in your next Modern tournament.

And we’ve only scratched the surface. There are many, many more decks to discuss in Modern. Next time I’ll cover some more of the most important ones, but remember that Modern is about choosing a balanced deck and being prepared for everything. Good luck!

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