Why the Twin Ban Was a Mistake

If you follow me anywhere, it’s clear by now that I did not like the latest batch of Modern bans. I’ve already been pretty vocal about my opinion, so I wasn’t going to write an article about it, but then Sam Black wrote this article, and I thought it merited a response.

First of all, I think the Summer Bloom ban is great. No arguments here—that deck should be gone, so good job WotC.

The Twin ban, on the other hand, I have a few problems with.

I’d also like to clarify that I do not oppose the Twin ban in a vacuum. A lot of people assume I am emotionally attached to the deck—I am not. I’ve somehow acquired a reputation for being a “Twin player who is upset his deck got banned.” The first time I played Twin was last year, and I played it in three tournaments and never a Pro Tour. Throughout the history of the Modern PT, I’ve played Zoo, Jund, Scapeshift, and Burn, and I’ve played GPs with many different decks. I’ll play anything and the ban does not affect me more than it affects anyone who plays the format competitively.

I think Twin is a powerful strategy, and I think it’s annoying that you have to watch out for it with every deck you play. It’s even more annoying that it kills you out of nowhere—they could have two Islands and a fetchland in play, you pass the turn, and you’re dead. You didn’t even know they were playing red in their deck, let alone the Twin combo. It’s frustrating that you have to expect it from anyone, since it’s relatively easy to put it in your deck. So, I get the Twin ban.

If I get it, then why does it upset me? Because I think Twin played a very important role by being one of the few decks that could actually beat people without drawing dedicated sideboard hate.

As I wrote a while ago, one of my biggest concerns with Modern is that decks are way too powerful at executing their game plan, but not powerful enough at answering anything. This creates a scenario that demands specific sideboard answers, which often win the game on their own. The game then becomes a game of “did I draw my sideboard card?” where, if the answer is yes, you win, and if the answer is no, you lose. The difference between a game against Affinity in which you draw Shatterstorm and a game in which you do not is the difference between an easy win and an easy loss.

Decks like Affinity or Tron are extremely favored in a lot of matches game 1, because the best cards to deal with them are not in main decks. But those decks could lose to Twin. Twin could win game 1s, and it could win post-board games without drawing Stony Silence or Crumble to Dust.

Now Twin is gone, and the “did I draw my sideboard hate?” aspect of the format—which is my least favorite part of it—is intensified even more. I want to be able to win without drawing a specific sideboard card that KOs my opponent, I want to be able to beat sideboard cards that are played against me, and Twin was one of the decks that made both possible. Twin played the role that Force of Will plays in Legacy—a way to keep the degenerate decks in check game 1, and a way for someone to be able to beat them without having to run a specific card.

So, while I do not oppose a Twin ban on principle, I think that if you’re doing that you must either unban something or ban other cards on top of it. With all its flaws (which are many), Twin made the format healthier.

I also happen to think that the two main arguments used to justify the Twin ban don’t make much sense, and I’ll elaborate on them.

Twin Is Too Good and Too Prevalent

The first argument used to justify the Twin ban (and not other bans) is that Twin is too powerful. WotC cited the number of wins it had, Sam Black said “Splinter Twin was banned because it was too strong and it hurt the diversity of the format” and “Twin is too resilient and successful for Modern”, and Brad Nelson wrote that “[Twin] is […] the best deck in the format by win percentage…” Neal Oliver compared it to Pod, which was “a completely dominant and oppressive archetype that was very resilient to hate and had the numbers to prove that it was number one.”

I think those people are wrong.

Twin was not too powerful, too strong, dominant, oppressive, or the best deck in the format.

Was it strong? Of course, it was a tier 1 deck, among many others. Was it the clear best deck? No. Did it have the best win percentage? No.

Take this article, which analyzed almost 30,000 games (it is a little outdated, since they were told to stop doing this, but shouldn’t change much for our purposes). In this sample size, Splinter Twin won 53.64% of its games, placing it 12th (though there is overlap here so the real number is more like 8th). Of the major archetypes, Zoo won more games (multiple versions of it, but all won more than 53%) and Affinity won more (55.31%). Bogles also won more, and Infect and Abzan won almost the same amount.

That there is “too much Twin” is also not supported. This shows Twin as the third most popular deck, behind Burn and, surprisingly, Grixis Control—theoretically one of the decks that is being “held back” by Twin (though I would not be surprised if this is some sort of anomaly).

I always find Magic Online data a little suspicious, as it can be influenced by the specific metagame, card availability, and skill level—but it’s not just MTGO. On mtgtop8.com you can filter the popularity of Modern decks in a specific time span. In his article, Sam indicated that Twin had been twice as played as Affinity in the past two months in live events, but “live events in the past two months” is the only condition under which this happens. If we filter to “all events” in the past two months, we get 9% versus 11%. If we filter it for all of last year, it’s 9% versus 11%. If we filter it for all of Modern, it’s 9% versus 9%. If we look at the data for only GPs and PTs, Twin is 9%, Jund is 12%, and Affinity is 11%. This is not even counting the fact that Twin comprises multiple variants, whereas Affinity is basically just one build. I don’t think Sam cherry-picked the only possible data that supported his argument—he likely just tried one and it worked so he used it—but the fact remains that the argument that “Twin is too popular” is just not supported.

Let’s take PT Fate Reforged—which was won by Splinter Twin. This is the Day 1 metagame breakdown for that event:


This is the Day 2 breakdown:


So, Twin variants were 3.9% and 2% of the metagame on Day 1, and 5% and 1.9% of the metagame on Day 2. A good deck, but hardly dominant or overpowered.

Look at Worlds. Owen Turtenwald played hundreds of games of Modern, and concluded that Affinity was the best deck in the format—not Twin. 5 other people in that tournament played it too. There were three Affinity decks in the Top 4. There were only 2 people, out of 24 of the best players in the world, who played Splinter Twin at the World Championship: Kentaro Yamamoto and me. We both went 2-2. Now, of course, some of this is personal preference, and some is the expectation of a particular metagame (I doubt you’d have had this many Bogles players if it weren’t the World Championship), but for a deck that was dubbed “too strong for Modern,” those percentages are very small, both in representation and in wins.

Note that I do not think merely not being “too strong” is a defense against banning it. Amulet isn’t that prevalent and doesn’t win that much either, but I still think it should be banned. I can tell you reasons why Amulet should be banned that are not “it is too strong or prevalent,” but if I were to say “Amulet should be banned because it’s taking over Modern,” you’d be absolutely correct to stop me and say “no it’s not,” because it isn’t. But neither is Splinter Twin.

Twin Displaced Other Blue Decks—Now Those Decks Can Be Played Again

According to WotC, Sam, and Brad, there are a number of blue decks that ceased to exist because Splinter Twin was just a better version of them all.

One example of a deck that was supposedly “swallowed” by Twin is Grixis Control. Except that there were still people playing it—it Top 8’d GP Pittsburgh, and Patrick Chapin and Gerry Thompson often play and write about it. It’s definitely a real deck, with strengths and weaknesses compared to Twin. Another example is “Temur Tempo.” To my understanding, when WotC talked about Temur Tempo, they meant this deck.

This is a deck from March 2012! The metagame was completely different—and Splinter Twin already existed (there are in fact two Splinter Twin decks in the Top 8 of that tournament). Temur didn’t stop being good because of Twin, because Twin was already there. It stopped being good (if you assume it was ever good to begin with, which I don’t) because the metagame changed. Eventually it became good again because of Treasure Cruise, but then became bad when Cruise was banned.

I don’t know what specific change was made to the metagame that caused this, and it’s not my goal to analyze four years of Modern, but I don’t think “It stopped being good because of Twin” is at all intuitive. If you use this argument, then the onus is on you to prove it, or at least provide some evidence that it’s right. So far I haven’t seen any beyond “they share some colors.”

I also think the assumption that those decks will suddenly flourish again if Twin is gone is misguided. The key here is that nobody wants to play Deceiver Exarch and Splinter Twin—have you read those cards? They’re awful! I’d much rather be playing Snapcaster Mage or Cryptic Command instead of a 1/4 and a card that does nothing. But I play Twin because I have to. Without Twin, I am way less likely to beat a variety of decks such as Tron, Affinity, and Scapeshift. Because the format is so degenerate and the control options are so bad, narrow, and short-lived, I am forced to play a combo of my own to try to win the game, because if I don’t, what am I Remanding people for? Why am I playing Thoughtseize or Spell Pierce if I’m just going to die when they topdeck whatever card they need in the late game? I remember playing an Esper deck with many discard spells, Snapcasters, Lilianas, and Tasigurs and I just constantly lost to Storm because I could never kill them faster than they could recover.

In Sam’s article, he mentioned that Erik Lauer told him that Grixis Control was actually better than Grixis Twin against combo decks. I think Erik was likely using a very narrow definition of combo—for most combo decks I can think of, Twin is the way to beat them. The whole reason I play Twin in my decks is because it gives me a fighting chance against the unfair decks of the format. If he is right that Grixis is better against other combo decks, then I don’t think you needed to ban Splinter Twin to begin with, because Grixis would just be a better deck (since it’s better in the “mirror” and against Jund/Junk).

In a sense, they are right that I am playing Twin instead of those decks, but it’s not because Twin is overpowered. It’s because the other strategy is underpowered in this format. And banning Twin will do nothing to change that. I couldn’t play UBW before, I can’t play UBW now. If I could have, I would have, because I don’t want a card like Splinter Twin anywhere near my deck if I don’t need it. But I need it, and now it’s gone.

According to them, what’s going to happen is that the 10% or so that Twin occupied in the metagame will now be split among a variety of blue decks, and some of the people who played established archetypes will now return to playing “other” decks that they couldn’t play because of Twin.

That won’t happen. In fact, the format actually became more hostile to other control decks, because:

• Twin was one of their best matchups, and now it’s gone.
• Jund and Junk were also good matchups, but those decks were good against Twin. Without Twin, there’s less reason to play them. Even if you do play them, you have less reason to run Abrupt Decay, and those weren’t good against most blue decks.
• Decks like Tron and Scapeshift (and Bogles and Affinity and Storm…) were at least partially kept in check by Twin, and now should be more popular. Those decks were bad matchups for Grixis.

Could I be wrong? Of course I could, a metagame is a very complex thing and I don’t have all the information. But, logically, I don’t see this playing out any other way.

The Better Choice

So, in the end, what would I have done? I think there were three possible approaches:

Don’t ban Twin. Just ban an Amulet card and move on. I think this is better than banning Amulet and Twin. This is the “safest” approach, and probably would have been the most popular ban announcement possible—it offers a change, gets rid of something that had to go, and no one else gets angry.
Unban a card. Ancestral Vision would have been nice. It wouldn’t have let you beat decks like Affinity or Tron, but it would have made your deck better in general. There’s also the fact that losing Vision to an Eldrazi Processor is downright embarrassing.
Ban more cards. My preferred approach, but one I understand is not very popular. If it were up to me, I’d have removed or at least weakened Tron, Griselbrand, and Affinity (which is actually the best deck in the format, I think, and demands the most sideboard slots of any deck), and throw Lantern on the fire while we’re at it.

The Best Choice

In the end, I think the best approach is still to just cut the Modern Pro Tour. Modern is a non-rotating format, but non-rotating formats aren’t very exciting for high-level play, and I’m sure the Modern PT at least incentivizes more bans as a form of keeping it artificially fresh, on top of conserving a bad format for a while because bans have to wait until the PT (so, if you were miserable playing against Amulet anywhere in the past 5 months, you have the PT to blame).

I understand Modern is popular precisely because someone can play the same deck over and over, but at the PT level this is a bug, not a feature. At the local level it’s absolutely a feature, which is why I am glad Modern is receiving support even if I don’t personally like to play it. Still, at the Pro Tour level, it needs to go.

I hope people who play Modern understand that I don’t want their format to end. I still want sets like Modern Masters, and I still want Modern GPs, PTQs, and FNMs, I just don’t want there to be a Modern Pro Tour. I think this would be better for the Pro Tour in general, better for the new sets (since Modern rarely showcases new cards—this one will actually be an exception), better for the Pros (who mostly dislike playing it, as far as I know), and better for the people who enjoy Modern and won’t have to deal with as many disruptive bans.

That said, I don’t think this is the end of the world. I think this is a bad decision, but it’s not a disaster, and it can be reversed if it turns out that I am right (as all of those potential solutions can still happen). In the end, I disliked the reasons for the ban even more than the ban itself.


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