Countermagic in Grixis Twin

Every format has its pillars. These decks might not always be the most-played or even the best lists in their respective formats, but they are ones you have to expect and respect going into any serious tournaments. Recent Standard seasons have seen Abzan Midrange and Mono Black Devotion fill these slots, just as Legacy continues to be defined by pillars like Delver variants, Miracles, Show and Tell, and Death and Taxes. Modern also has its defining decks, notably the midrange policemen of Abzan and Jund and the aggro core of Burn and Affinity. But there is perhaps no deck in Modern that has given more definition to the format than Splinter Twin combo. Twin has been embodying both the turn 4 rule and blue-based control since the format’s inception. But it was only recently that a new version of Twin roared onto the Modern scene to supplement (even supplant!) its UR and Temur predecessors.

Exarch art

Based on the strength of cards from Khans block, many Modern players have now recognized Grixis Twin’s relevance. But few have reached a consensus on the best way to build the deck, or even the most important considerations that go into the deckbuilding process. In this article, I look over past results and overall metagame cues to identify a number of important concepts that Grixis Twin deckbuilders need to understand. In that spirit, the article is less about defining a single “best” list for the archetype and more about giving a framework for Grixis Twin players to optimize their deck. I’m going to focus on one of the most important decisions in that regard: selecting countermagic. This may seem like a nuanced points, but it is a critical decisions for determining your success, and also important as a concept for Grixis Twin opponents.

Recent History and Finishes

TasigurTasigur, the Golden Fang and, to a lesser extent, Kolaghan’s Command forever altered the Modern landscape by powering up a number of otherwise underpowered decks. Grixis Twin is a direct result of their impact. Without Tasigur, Twin players would still be stuck on Tarmogoyf and the traditionally Temur colors that accompanied Tarmo-Twin. In the post-Tasigur world, however, Grixis Twin players are able to leverage powerful removal like Terminate alongside relevant interaction like Inquisition of Kozilek, all while still getting to run a “black Goyf”. This shores up a lot of historic weaknesses in Twin decks while keeping many of the strengths of both the UR and the Temur versions of the deck.

Metagame changes reflect the deck’s newfound prominence. Looking at the period between May 1 and June 1 on our Top Decks page, we see Grixis Twin was tracking a 2.8% format share even before June. This was evenly balanced between MTGO (2.8%) and paper (2.6%) and although those are hardly Grixis Delver numbers, they are still respectable indicators of success. Indeed, Grixis Twin has been around since Pro Tour Fate Reforged back in February, when a number of pros (notably Todd Anderson) piloted Grixis variants to 18+ point records. The deck saw some scattered successes since then, including a 1st place finish at the 208-player Arcanis Deluxe in March and a finish in 4th and 5th respectively at SCG Cleveland and SCG Dallas.

The recent SCG Open and Invitational at Columbus showed further indicators that this archetype will be a successful one as the summer progresses. Looking over the results, we see a total of four Grixis Twin lists in the publishes lists. Following those finishes, here are the two highest placing Grixis Twin lists from both events. The first is Rudy Briksza’s build from the Open, which finished 2nd in the 15-round event.

Grixis Twin, by Rudy Briksza (2nd, SCG Open Columbus 2015)

Enchantments (4)
 Splinter Twin

Creatures (13)
Deceiver Exarch
Pestermite
Snapcaster Mage
Tasigur, the Golden Fang
Vendilion Clique

Instants (15)
Cryptic Command
Dispel
Electrolyze
Kolaghan’s Command
Lightning Bolt
Remand
Spell Snare
Terminate

Sorceries (5)
Inquisition of Kozilek
Serum Visions

Lands (23)
Island
Mountain
Swamp
Blood Crypt
Bloodstained Mire
Cascade Bluffs
Desolate Lighthouse
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Steam Vents
Sulfur Falls
Watery Grave
Sideboard (15)
Dragon’s Claw
Spellskite
Grim Lavamancer
Izzet Staticaster
Blood Moon
Dispel
Flashfreeze
Rending Volley
Olivia Voldaren
Keranos, God of Storms
Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver
Anger of the Gods
Thoughtseize
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

The second Grixis Twin representative is from Kyle Boggemes, who brought his Twin list to an 8th place finish at the Invitational. Although Standard results also helped bring Kyle to that point, the Twin list was a strong performer throughout the tournament.

Grixis Twin, by Kyle Boggemes (8th, SCG Invitational Columbus 2015)

Creatures (12)
Deceiver Exarch
Pestermite
Snapcaster Mage
Tasigur, the Golden Fang

Enchantments (4)
 Splinter Twin

Instants (14)
Cryptic Command
Kolaghan’s Command
Lightning Bolt
Remand
Spell Snare
Terminate

Sorceries (7)
Inquisition of Kozilek
Serum Visions

Lands (23)
Island
Mountain
Swamp
Blood Crypt
Polluted Delta
Scalding Tarn
Steam Vents
Sulfur Falls
Watery Grave
Sideboard (15)
Engineered Explosives
Spellskite
Sower of Temptation
Blood Moon
Dismember
Dispel
Kolaghan’s Command
Spell Snare
Vendilion Clique
Pyroclasm
Buy deck on Cardhoarder (MTGO)Buy deck on TCGPlayer (Paper)

The Open also saw a 6th place Grixis Twin list and another in 20th. You should see a lot of similarities in looking over all these versions. Indeed, in many cases, chunks of the deck are essentially identical. This includes the creature grouping of 4 Exarch, 2 Mite, 4 Snapcaster, and 2 Tasigur. It also includes usual suspects like 4 each of Twin, Bolt, and Visions. I wouldn’t go so far as to call these inalienable cores of the deck, but they are definitely strong starting points. They also aren’t necessarily the most important deckbuilding choices in Twin, specifically because they are so binary the more you look at lists. That’s why I want us to focus on the differences between the lists and where deckbuilders need to focus when preparing their own Grixis Twin builds for tournament success.

Selecting Countermagic

Most Grixis Twin lists range between about 6-9 countermagic slots, split between some combination of Cryptic Command, Spell Snare, Remand, Dispel, and/or Mana Leak. If you are just netdecking, perhaps because you don’t have the time or interest to prepare your own Grixis Twin lists, it’s easy to overlook the nuances in those 6-9 slots and what cards comprise them. But this is exactly the sort of decision you need to think about if you want to succeed at 16 rounds of Grand Prix Modern. This will even be relevant in events as small as your three-round Modern weekends, especially if you are using those to prepare for bigger tournaments.

Slots are necessarily a function of the cards filling them and how many different roles they can occupy. One need only look at Abrupt Decay or Kolaghan’s Command to see slot economy in action. Countermagic slots work the same way, especially given Modern’s lack of a true Counterspell that is categorically relevant in almost all scenarios past turn 2. And if we are talking about slot economy with respect to countermagic, we have to start with Cryptic.

Cryptic Command

Cryptic CommandIn a format full of Summer Bloom, Tarmogoyf, and Become Immense, it seems odd that the humble 4-mana Cryptic Command would remain so relevant. But this is still probably the best (or second-best after Remand) counterspell in Modern and one that finds a perfect home in Twin. Snapcaster Mage into Command remains one of the best fair plays in Modern, and the card is almost always relevant in even some faster matchups. Of course, in grindy contests with Abzan, Jund, Grixis mirrors, etc., Command is an all-star. But that said,, Command is also not where you want to be on turn 1 or 2 against Amulet Bloom, Burn, or Elves. All of this plays into your final Command count. Barring huge metagame shifts, you will never want 0 copies of this in your deck. It’s just too good and too relevant in such a large metagame subset. By a similar token, there are enough matchups you are likely to encounter (particularly at a 7-8 or 16 round event) where Command is not something you want to see in your opening seven, which means 3-4 copies is also off-limits. That leaves 1-2 slots to negotiate. Generally speaking, you almost always want 2 Commands. We just aren’t in a metagame where there are so many bad matchups that you need to cut down to 1. But such a metagame might one day exist, which is why Grixis Twin pilots need to be aware of the flex between those 1-2 slots.

Spell Snare

Spell SnareLike Command, Spell Snare has some internal tensions which complicate our deckbuilding with the card. On the one hand, Snare is relevant in almost all matchups. Just looking at tier 1 decks, it hits multiple cards in all of them. This includes Goyf and Ooze in BGx, Confidant and Terminate in Jund, Ravager and Plating in Affinity, Eidolon and Command in Burn, and Snapcaster and Remand in Twin. Not only do all decks have Snare-bait, but these are important cards in each of their respective decks. But on the other hand, Snare is a card you don’t necessarily want to see past the early turns, and rarely in multiples. No one complains about chaining Commands in the mid-to-late game. Topdecking Snare on a problematic boardstate, however, will make you wish you had zero. This tension bring us back to the 1-2 split we saw with Command. Snare is too relevant to not use at all but too limited to go past 1-2 copies.

How do we negotiate this? When I look over the metagame, I see enough matchups where Snare is important to justify 2 copies of the card. 2 is also the sweet spot where you are unlikely to get Snare flooded when you don’t want it, but still maximize the likelihood of having this in your opening hand (especially on the draw). The only thing that would make me drop down to 1 to free slots for other cards is an Affinity and Burn decline. These decks overcommit earlygame resources, especially in the two-drop slot, which makes early Snare very strong. If those decks decline, Snare loses two of its most important matchups. This might bring me down to 1 copy, especially if the decks were replaced with grindier control builds. But even there, if those grindy decks are rocking Terminate, Leak, or Remand, I’d still keep 2 Snares: going turn 3 Tas with Snare backup is just too important. Indeed, this is the core consideration of Snare. You use the card both to interact with an opponent (something independent of Twin’s color composition) but also to protect your own threats (something much more important in Grixis Twin, where you want to defend your high-value Tasigur). Given the dangers posed by Remand and Terminate, you really can’t leave home without 2 of these.

Remand vs. Mana Leak

RemandThat brings us to Twin’s arguably most iconic counterspell: Remand. Historically, Twin lists always run the full Remand playset. This has been true of both successful UR Twin lists, as in the winning builds at PT Fate Reforged and GP Vancouver, and the same is true of most Grixis Twin lists we’ve seen these past months. But other lists go down to 2 Remand, freeing slots for more removal, discard, or to use other countermagic in its place. Mana Leak is a big player here, which is a decision Jordan Boisvert discussed in his Temur Delver article last week. Remand has the tempo advantage here, wasting an opponent’s turn and replacing itself in the process. Leak is a more permanent answer, removing the problem spell completely (at least, over the first 4-5 turns of the game). As with Snare and Command, the Leak and Remand split is a metagame context call. Remand is at its absolute worst against aggressive decks with lots of cheap spells. In those situations, Leak is basically a hard Counterspell. Similarly, Remand is at its best when countering 3+ mana threats, or in the early game when you are setting up a combo. Remand is particularly unfair against delve spells: catching Tas or Angler is a massive resource swing. By extension, Remand is bad in a metagame full of stuff like Burn, Affinity, Merfolk, etc., and Leak is bad in a metagame where games go late, e.g. against Grixis Moon, Jund, Abzan, etc.

Mana LeakThis might suggest we should operate on some 2-2 or 3-2 split between Remand-Leak, especially in a diverse metagame with unknown opponents. Jelger Wiegersma ran a similar split in his UR Twin list at the Pro Tour. But to me, this seems like a miscalculation. For one, there are just too many decks trying to abuse delve spells. Remand is to valuable in those situations to pass up, and with about 25%-30% of the format trying to do something with Tasigur or Angler, you want to be able to ensure that blowout. Remanding a turn 3 Tasigur doesn’t just stop him for a turn. It probably stops him for at least two, while the opponent refills their yard. And even then, he’s still probably more expensive than when you first countered him. Leak is much less consistent here: indeed, it’s outright bad against delve spells because it’s much easier to pay the extra 3. The second reason I don’t like Leak here is that the metagame is increasingly shifting to longer games or to decks trying to go over the top of fair ones. In both these cases (e.g. the Grixis Twin mirror or the RG Tron/Amulet matchup), Leak is not something you want past turn 3-4 in a game that is all but guaranteed to go past turn 6. This isn’t the February metagame where everyone is playing Abzan or playing decks that try to go under Abzan with burn spells, robots, or infect critters. Games and decks are trending slower (see the delve spells), and that’s where Remand is going to shine. All of this points to a full playset of Remands and leaving the Leaks at home, although if the metagame shifts away from these points, the 3-2 or 2-2 split becomes more feasible.

Additional Countermagic Options

DispelThe final thing we need to consider is singleton countermagic (e.g. Dispel), and non-traditional countermagic more common in sideboards (e.g. Counterflux). Assuming a 2-2 split between Command and Snare, as well as a full playset of Remands, that leaves 1 or maybe 2 more slots for different bullets. Dispel is the obvious contender here, a must-have for the sideboard that is often strong in the maindeck. There’s no more efficient way to defend your combo or protect Tasigur, and Dispel picks up bonus points for utility in the Burn and Infect matchups. For me, this comes down to one card and one card only: Path to Exile. If your metagame has lots of Path decks, then +1 maindecked Dispel is a good decision. This is the only commonly-used removal spell that kills Exarch and Tasigur (both cards are Bolt-proof) and isn’t also picked up by Spell Snare. So if you are expecting lots of UWR decks, Abzan, and Abzan Liege, Dispel becomes very valuable. Otherwise, leave Dispel at home and free up the slot for an additional cantrip or Inquisition of Kozilek.

Other options might include Negate, Countersquall, Counterflux, or even something techy like Izzet Charm. Generally speaking, these are all going to be inferior to either the main countermagic options discussed above, or the other cards that could go into these last slots. For every time you catch something with Negate, you are going to have a half dozen situations where you will wish that was just Kolaghan’s Command or Inquisition. Remember that every countermagic slot you add is a slot taken away from some other card role. That’s fine with the heavy hitters like Cryptic, Snare, and Remand, but becomes much riskier with less important options.

Grixis Twin and GP Charlotte

If this last weekend is any indication, expect to see a solid Grixis Twin showing at the upcoming GP. After the late Pod, Twin is the deck with the most recent GP wins in Modern, and I wouldn’t bet against it at Charlotte. The Grixis color pairings are a big part of this, shoring up old weaknesses and giving the deck new reach. Expect to see lots of it at the event, and expect to see lots of countermagic backing it up. Whether you are playing the deck or plan to beat it, I hope this article has given you some nuances and details to help you take games. At its core, Grixis Twin is as much a control deck as it is a tempo or combo one, and countermagic is the heart of that gameplan. Understanding that countermagic will give you the tools you need to win with it or win against it at upcoming events.

Sheridan is the former Editor in Chief of Modern Nexus and a current Staff Author. He comes from a background in social science data analysis, database administration, and academia. He has been playing Magic since 1998 and Modern since 2011.

One thought on “Countermagic in Grixis Twin

  1. Hi Sheridan! Thanks for the article, I enjoyed the read. As a grixis delver player this really makes me want to dust off the splinter twins and try it out. The mana leak vs remand debate is provoking, in my experience remand has seemed to be a bit more situational than leak. I suppose the local meta here is very burny/infecty so I may be biased. I did notice that splinter twin was noted as an 8 of in Kyle Boggemes deck, though. Thanks for the content.

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