here's trouble brewing under the sea.
Merfolk is a deck Modern players have been talking about since the format's inception. As a staple of the Legacy format, it always seemed like the deck was teetering on the edge of Modern playability. Its tempo-based, disruptive-aggressive strategy serves as a foil to the spell-heavy combo decks, and its creatures grow so quickly that the sea-legged creatures can even roll over midrange decks!
Merfolk just won a StarCityGames.com Legacy Open and that decklist isn't too far off from Modern legality. Just one more push, and it seems as though Merfolk could join the upper ranks of Modern.
Enter: Master of the Pearl Trident.
Master of the Pearl Trident
| Art by Ryan Pancoast
With a new Merfolk lord in town courtesy of Magic 2013, it might be high
time tide for the Merfolk to make their mark on Modern.
The deck is reasonably well positioned. Although traditionally weak to quick beatdown decks, anything slower is bound to have a ton of trouble. Modern might still be wide open and being an aggro-control deck has its advantages. Everybody has spells you can counter and life totals you can pick away at; you don't have to run any narrow answers.
Let's take a look at Yonatan Goderez's Modern Merfolk decklist and work from there:
Yonatan Goderez's Fish
So, how do all of these little fishes come together to form one gargantuan assault force? The answer: synergy!
Tribal decks are glued together by synergy, and Merfolk is no exception. With an array of lords that improve your other Merfolk, it means all of your creatures are constantly growing. The Merfolk deck has so many different lords available that it's often like you start the game with Coat of Arms on the battlefield!
Æther Vial | Art by Greg Hildebrandt
While Merfolk isn't as blisteringly fast as something like Goblins and doesn't hold the combo potential of something like Elves, it has a major strength: blue disruption. Cheap countermagic is a Merfolk staple because of how well it fits into the plan. (Note that although there isn't any in the above main deck currently, I will definitely want to add some.) The lack of Force of Will and Daze have hindered Merfolk's transition to Modern—but fortunately the decks in Modern are a little slower to make up for it.
The super-powerful Æther Vial plays into this countermagic plan nicely as well. The Vial allows you to continually deploy creatures while keeping mana up, developing your board while simultaneously constricting theirs.
In addition to countermagic, Merfolk also has access to blue's various other forms of disruption. Some cheap bounce is always an option, and options such as Kira, Great Glass-Spinner and Sower of Temptation help frustrate your opponents even further.
Yonatan has an excellent Merfolk core here, creature-wise. In revisions, I'm going to be looking at which spells we want since it is a little light on disruption right now. But before we go into that, let's take a quick look at how the individual pieces of this deck works.
One of the few non-lord creatures this deck plays, Silvergill Adept is a Merfolk staple. While a 2/1 for isn't an especially exciting rate, drawing you a card in the process makes all the difference in a deck full of high-impact lords. As a cheap 2/1 that is then pumped up by your lords and refuels your hand, Silvergill Adept is invaluable.
It's also worth noting that you can Æther Vial the Adept out with only two counters on the Vial. A free 2/1 that draws a card? Sign me up!
Cursecatcher is a real hit or miss sort of card. In some matchups, such as Storm, it's vital for slowing them down. On the other hand, if you try to catch some curses against a Birthing Pod deck (like the ones from the Top 8 of Grand Prix Yokohama), you're going to come up empty-handed.
While Cursecatcher has become a staple in Legacy Merfolk decks, that format is significantly more spell heavy than Modern. Cursecatcher-heavy hands are not something you will often want to see with this deck. Even against Storm, a hand with two Cursecatchers and little else isn't going to apply enough pressure quickly enough to stop them from successfully setting up.
However, Cursecatcher does fill the crucial one-drop spot alongside Æther Vial. It also supplements Spell Pierce nicely after sideboarding, making casting spells a nightmare for your opponent. It's a card I'm going to move to three copies main deck to prevent drawing too many of them, but I would absolutely not be afraid to sideboard Cursecatcher out if opponents don't have enough targets.
Merfolk is so short on one-drops that Yonatan looked to Skywatcher Adept. While the proposition of an eventual 2/2 that comes down early for is tempting, this deck doesn't have a ton of extra mana to spend for leveling up and will want to use it to keep countermagic up. It also doesn't provide an extra advantage aside from its body, like your other non-lord creatures do. While I'd love to have another solid one-drop here, Skywatcher Adept doesn't make the cut for me.
When I said there were a lot of Merfolk lords available in Modern, I wasn't kidding.
And those are just the ones in the deck! Merfolk Sovereign is left on the benches here, and if you really wanted to run mono-lords you could even play Adaptive Automaton.
They are all somewhat similar cards with the same silhouettes but different shadows. However, there are enough differences that it's worth counting the shadows and culling some if you're looking for space. But where do you start?
The best Merfolk lords are the two-mana ones that provide a static bonus without requiring any additional mana investment. You can play them and attack with pumped creatures on the same turn right away, and since this deck is often working under tight mana constraints that's a huge boon.
Lord of Atlantis and newcomer Master of the Pearl Trident are at the top of the lord list for Merfolk. They both immediately start pounding on the drums of war, costing only cost , pumping all of your creatures, and even providing occasional evasion!
Closely after the Master and Lord of Atlantis is Merrow Reejerey. The static bonus places it high on the list, and it can also tap down blockers or—my personal favorite—untap your lands so you can spit out your entire hand of Merfolk at once!
| Art by Jaime Jones
Next up is Coralhelm Commander. This oddball creature is weaker than the other lords to start, but can also gain evasion. Despite the mana necessary to get him active, the 3/3 flier is pretty strong on its own and something that, well, you just don't see very often on a Merfolk.
This is the core of Merfolk lords I would definitely play. After these, it begins to change some.
Once you get past the ones above, the next two to look at are Phantasmal Image and Merfolk Sovereign. Sovereign is a three-mana lord with a mediocre ability, and Image is only as good as the other lords you've drawn. A hand with three images but no lord is a sad one indeed!
Considering that I know I'm going to want to cut some cards for disruption, Image is on the chopping block here because you don't want to draw too many of them. I'm likely going to head down to two copies. Good enough to supplement my other lords, but never something that will be the focal point of my hand.
As for Sovereign, I think Yonatan was right to keep this one on the sidelines. Too often it's just an Adaptive Automaton that works with Silvergill Adept—nothing too exciting.
Æther Vial is one of the most frightening cards in a Merfolk deck. It produces virtual mana each turn by letting you play creatures for free and allows you to keep mana up for disruption. I definitely don't want to cut any of these.
Path to Exile
Splashing in a single-color deck isn't too difficult in Modern thanks to the plethora of good dual lands available. Some might choose black for Thoughtseize and Dark Confidant, but in this case, Yonatan chose to touch a bit of white for one of the most efficient removal spells ever printed: Path to Exile.
Yonatan is absolutely right that some removal is necessary in Merfolk. While Dismember is splashable, Path is so much more efficient and doesn't hurt you in the process. I would only main deck three because you can't afford to draw too many early on, but I definitely think having access to some is a good call regardless.
It's amazing the difference a couple of card changes can make to how a deck plays. Although the core of this Merfolk deck is very much staying the same, adding some disruptive spells goes a long way.
The spells of choice?
Mana Leak is one of the most efficient counterspells in Modern. For two mana, it will usually counter a spell early in the game—which is conveniently when Merfolk is putting plenty of pressure on your opponent.
This deck doesn't run a ton of lands, so hitting the requisite four mana isn't always easy. Still, little can go wrong with a single Cryptic Command. Your hand will never be clunked up with two of them, and when you finally hit four mana it does a lot of good work. It can do anything from break through a creature stall to Dismiss an opponent's spell when he or she is desperately trying to claw back into the game. I wouldn't main deck more than one or two—but they're so powerful that having access to the effect is worthwhile.
You don't want to play many of these because they are situational. However, with blue costs all the way from one to four, it's not hard to turn this into a Force of Will in many situations. It gives you a little bit of wiggle room in rough situations, catching your opponent off guard and giving you the initiative. I wouldn't want more than two, but it does have a place in Modern to try and fill in the Force of Will role.
Okay, so it's not disruption, but it was absolutely worth bringing up regardless. This decklist doesn't have Mutavaults, which are practically mandatory in a Merfolk deck. They're free creatures—and often quite large thanks to your lords. Mutavault is part of what makes this deck tick, and I wouldn't leave home without it.
Put all of these elements together, and you end up with something like this:
Although the splash for white might look odd with so little to use it on, it costs the deck very little in terms of life or speed. It's not that unusual—Legacy Merfolk decks have touched white or black before in a very similar fashion. In Modern it's even better, since there's no Wasteland to punish you for playing nonbasics.
Before getting into the individual matchups, let's take a look over why each card is here.
This is an excellent counterspell against combo decks and some control decks as well. While I wouldn't want to main deck any right now because of the popularity of spell-light decks like Birthing Pod and because I value the consistency of Mana Leak in most matchups, it's extremely good in the matchups where it's good.
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner and Sygg, River Guide
One of Merfolk's strengths is all of its lords—but those are also its weakness. If your opponents have a lot of removal, they can pick apart your board until you have nothing but glorified Grizzly Bears and Gray Ogres left. That's where Kira and Sygg comes in. Versus a deck like Jund that tries to attrition you with removal spells, Kira and Sygg provide you with the attrition upper hand.
This quirky colorshifted Headhunter helps put a major source of pressure on combo and control decks. Sometimes those decks can play around your hand full of countermagic to kill you, since your clock is reduced by having extra countermagic taking up creature slots.
Not so much with the Pilferer around! While the Pilferer might only represent 1 point of damage without a lord around, discarding a card every turn is the death knell for those kind of decks. It'll force them to act—and play right into your countermagic in the process.
Path to Exile and Dismember
These fill out the set of Paths and give you a couple extra cheap removal spells for attrition-heavy matchups.
Relic of Progenitus
There are numerous Modern decks that take large advantage of the graveyard. Decks like Loam aren't as popular as they were in the past, but they're still out there. There was only room for one more card and most this deck's other matchups had the right amount of cards going in and out, so at that point, rather than over-sideboard and make my deck worse, I would rather look for cards good in a more corner-case matchup. It also has the added bonus of being strong against the Pyromancer Ascension combo deck!
Now, for how to sideboard in each matchup:
-1 Cryptic Command, -3 Cursecatcher, -3 Mana Leak
+1 Path to Exile; +1 Sygg, River Guide; +2 Dismember; +3 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Against beatdown decks like Zoo or similar, you just need to stabilize and then focus on plinking away. They are going to have a lot of removal, but it's okay—you can play either the beatdown or control deck in this matchup depending on how the cards come up.
Some games, you will have an aggressive draw and stick a couple of early lords they don't remove. Perhaps you protect them with Sygg or Kira as well. In these games, you want to be pressing your advantage and attacking at every opportunity.
More commonly, the games are going to be attrition-heavy, since they brought in removal to dismantle your Merfolk core. Fortunately, you brought in extra removal for them as well! In this mode, trade off your creatures when you can early on and use cards like Coralhelm Commander that can be large on their own to close once both players are low on resources.
-3 Cursecatcher, -4 Merrow Reejerey
+1 Path to Exile; +1 Sygg, River Guide; +2 Dismember; +3 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
The midrange matchups play somewhat similar to beatdown, except they almost always end up like the attrition-heavy version of the beatdown matchup. Don't count on the normal plan of amassing a school of Merfolk in this matchup. Instead, you will want to be scrappy and kill them with whatever is left over after the dust settles. That's why you board out the Reejereys: you don't need all of the lords, and the extra mana makes a big difference.
Kira and Sygg can go a long way toward giving you the upper hand, so try not to lose either of them without at least forcing the opponent to spend two cards dealing with the threat they pose. The games will hopefully go long and they give you the trump in an attrition war.
Versus Combo and Control
-3 Path to Exile, -4 Coralhelm Commander
+3 Riptide Pilferer, +4 Spell Pierce
This sideboard plan can vary significantly depending on the matchup, but the above are good guidelines for against a deck like Storm (though make sure to bring in the Relic too) or a control deck with few creatures of their own. The general idea is you take out your removal against decks with few creatures and take out your Commanders because you need to keep countermagic mana open instead of leveling them up.
However, against something like Birthing Pod combo, you will want to bring in all of your removal spells over Cursecatcher, since they have so few actual spells. Against something like Faeries, you might want a couple Kiras as well to help protect against Vedalken Shackles. Start with the base above, and modify it according to what you see out of your opponent.
I received a boatload of exciting decklists for Modern this week. It's clear after looking through these that there's a ton of room for innovation in this format—take a look at the decklists below and see what I mean!
Daniel Haas's Faith's Reward Combo
Tony Camper's Mono-Blue Tezzeret
K.C.'s Soulshift Pod Modern
Jan Beetz's Enchantress
Dom Camus's Project Y
Marcos's Greater Good
Ifor Edwards's Faithful Eggs
Aaron Golas's Teysa Combo
Neil Jenkins's Heartbeat Combo
Another Modern challenge, yet another awesome set of decklists to look at.
Does Merfolk have what it takes? I don't know. Missing surefire free countermagic hurts it some, but it has some draws robust enough to compete with the best decks out there. Give it a try and find out!
I love working on this format, and you all come up with some great choices to send in. I'm sure I'll be doing another Modern challenge soon enough—but for now, it's back to Standard!
Deadline: Monday, July 23, at 6pm Pacific Time
Send all decklists via email by clicking the "Respond via Email" link at the bottom of this article
With the metagame shifting and new decks rising to the top thanks to Magic 2013, what do you think could be a good solution to the format? Which new cards are being underplayed, or which older cards from Standard are perfectly poised to strike now? Show me what you can come up with!
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me on Twitter (@GavinVerhey). I also read through the forums, so if you post your feedback in there I'll be sure to read it.
Next week, I'll be back with the results of the budget challenge. See you guys then!