It’s not a secret to anyone who knows me that I love Merfolk. Or that anyone who may have heard me say anything in passing knows that I love Merfolk. Or that anyone who has ever had a single limited interaction with me knows I love Merfolk.
I have a good reason, after all. I’ve won several thousands dollars with the deck, from splitting the finals of an SCG Open at my first-ever Legacy tournament and an SCG Invitational after that.
Most people know me as a finance guy, and while that’s true, I like to think I also have some playing chops. The last major tournament I played in was Grand Prix Las Vegas, where I finished in the top 32 of a 4,500-person tournament in which I had zero byes. I’ve made top eight of a few PTQs and had a rating that earned me two byes (back when the system used an ELO score and I played competitively).
I’ve also played Merfolk since the day Modern was announced, so I like to think I know a thing or two about the deck. So for the rest of the article, at least pretend that I’m not a complete idiot.
Merfolk in Modern
Since Modern was created, I’ve been telling people that Merfolk was the best deck, and even though I knew it was a lie, I kept working to improve it. Thanks to the bannings and the new tools we’ve gotten for Fish, it’s actually a little less of a lie these days. Don’t believe me? A Merfolk deck made top 16 of Grand Prix Prague, just missing top eight in the last round.
There’s more. Every week, it seems a new “big name” is talking about it, and the results of this recent Premier Event on Magic Online also lend credence to the deck.
Merfolk also happens to be one of the more budget-friendly decks in the format, which doesn’t hurt it. Yes, Mutavault is expensive, but most players have it in their Standard decks already, and even if they don’t, it is at least available for trade in many binders. Any deck that doesn’t need Misty Rainforest, Scalding Tarn, or Verdant Catacombs to play will typically qualify as “budget” in Modern, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
So Why Would Someone Play Merfolk?
Several reasons. First of all, the deck is pretty flexible. You can adapt it based on the matchup: for aggro, add Vapor Snags; for Pod/Jund, add Tidebinder Mage; and for combo, play more copies of Spell Pierce. There’s also Dismember, which helps against most creature-based decks.
But why is Merfolk just now making a splash? The biggest reason has to be Master of Waves. I wasn’t a fan of it on paper when it was spoiled, but it happens to do something extremely important for Merfolk that no card has done before: it beats Jund.
It’s not a stretch to say that the card can actually “solo” Jund. I’ve had unimpressive board states, like a single Cursecather and Spreading Seas, and then slammed this guy and pretty much won on the spot.
The reason it’s so good is because it’s really just in the sweet spot. Making tokens means it can’t really be killed by Liliana of the Veil, a converted mana cost of four means it can’t be Abrupt Decayed, and protection from red means nothing in the typical Jund deck (outside of Maelstrom Pulse) can touch it. Throw in the Bloodbraid Elf banning from a while back, and suddenly what was your worst matchup is completely winnable.
It’s basically impossible to say that your Modern deck is good these days if it can’t handle Jund or just Deathrite Shaman. Well, Merfolk can. It also presents a fast enough clock with just enough disruption to handle value decks like Pod or RWU.
You also have the distinct advantage of being an aggro deck that happens to be blue. This means you get access to counterspells that other aggro decks don’t. There’s also that whole islandwalk thing that is relevant in every single game thanks to Spreading Seas, a quirky card that happens to do everything you want it to while also serving as maindeckable hate for the Tron decks.
If you ask somebody who’s not familiar with Merfolk what the best card in the deck is, you’ll stump them for a few minutes before they eventually decide the right answer has to be Aether Vial.
But that’s wrong. The best card, by a mile, is Silvergill Adept. It does everything you could possibly want to do. It costs two mana for your Vial, doesn’t take double blue to cast, is a Merfolk, and draws you a card. As we know, that last part is one of the most important things any Magic card can have on it, and every time your opponent has to trade a card for your Adept, you’re winning. I feel confident in saying that if Adept wasn’t a card, Merfolk wouldn’t be a deck. Of course, this is coming from the guy with this playmat:
The final piece of the puzzle to Merfolk’s new place in the world is Thassa, God of the Sea. Another advantage Merfolk has over the other “turn dudes sideways” decks (besides the obvious Aether Vial benefits) is that Thassa really helps you control your draws in the late game and prevent you from running out of gas.
Before we go any further, here’s my current list:
The sideboard is obviously dependent on the metagame you’re facing, and mine varies regularly. I don’t play Magic Online, but I’ve tested extensively with this list in paper. For the last three weeks, I’ve taken first or second in a local weekly Modern tournament that averages 15 to 20 players.
Okay, let’s talk some specifics to my list, and I’ll touch on the sideboard at the end.
I’ll start with what’s probably the biggest head scratcher: the fact I only run three Mutavaults right now.
Early in playtesting, I found that I would lose way too many games to simply not having access to double blue on turn two. Mutavault is sweet, but if you can’t cast a lord on turn two, you’re just going to lose the game. I’ve gone up to 20 land from 19 since those games, so it’s possible the fourth would be okay, but I think the theory still holds. Over the course of a long tournament like a Grand Prix, you can’t really afford to lose any games to color screw in your one-color deck.
Here’s another way to look at it: there is a certain percentage of games you’re going to win by having a fourth Mutavault in the deck; I just think that number is smaller than the games you’re going to lose because you don’t have access to two blue mana on turn two.
This is a metagame call for me. I get that you want a bunch of land destruction if Tron is rampant, but if it’s not, you get a ton more value out of Cavern.
There was one Tron deck in the top eight of GP Prague. There were 21 counterspells in that same top eight, and the winning deck ran eight of them. Extend that down to the top 16 and things become even more skewed toward counterspells.
I’ve tested the RWU matchup extensively, and having access to Cavern means there’s seven cards in your deck that can almost completely blank their counters. If you open on an Aether Vial or a Cavern of Souls, a lot of the time you’ve effectively made them mulligan to six or even five cards. When their counterspells can’t stop you from developing your board, their point removal just doesn’t go far enough. Add in the fact that Vapor Snag can allow you to save a lord from a removal spell or the fact that you can sometimes blow them out with a Spell Pierce, and suddenly the matchup is not all that scary.
And it’s not just RWU that runs counters. A lot of the combo decks rely on slowing you down for a turn with them, and the ability to fearlessly cast guys goes a long way toward accomplishing what Merfolk wants to do, which is overload the board quickly and throw in a timely piece of disruption.
Lists doing well seem to be split 50/50 on this right now, but I’ve been running it for around 18 months and will never cut it. It checks every major checkbox for Merfolk: it’s a two-drop, it has double blue for devotion, and it draws you cards. Since I can’t ignore the financial aspect, I’ll tell you that this could easily be the next Merfolk card to spike, especially since it’s from Shadowmoor.
I’ve heard the argument that Merfolk just wants to be as streamlined as possible and this card doesn’t help with that. I don’t buy it, though, because the point of streamlining your deck is to draw your best cards every game. Well, were I given the option, I would draw Sygg every single game. The problem is that you never, ever want to draw two of them, because it only has one power and is legendary. But I promise you will never be sad to draw this card. It punishes opponents for bolting themselves with lands, it makes their blocking awkward, it blocks plenty of relevant creatures early, and like Silvergill Adept, it keeps the gas coming.
Spell Pierce is another one of those cards you don’t really want to see more than one of in a game. It’s great in the right situations or against the right decks, but it’s completely dead against others and can also be really clunky. I’m happy running two along with Cursecatcher as a disruption suite against combo and control decks.
I include this card just so I can address all the tricks it enables. Remember, its ability triggers on casting, not on entering. So you can cast a Merfolk and get the trigger before it resolves, but you won’t get one from Vialing in a guy. If you have multiple copies on the field, you can actually generate mana with this by stacking the triggers to untap the same land and then tapping it for mana in between the resolution of the triggers. It also allows you to untap Vial or tap down one of your opponent’s blockers.
As the deck tech at the GP talked about, ticking your Vial up to four mana for Master of Waves can sometimes leave you with a turn where it’s on three mana and it doesn’t do anything. The singleton Kira is a concession to that. With this card, we have seven three-drops that we can drop into play.
I don’t understand lists that play this as a four-of. It’s a good card, but there are a bunch of matchups where it’s completely irrelevant. You are happy drawing one Master in most matchups to close out the game, but you definitely don’t want to put yourself in a position where you see two of these in the first three turns of the game. How miserable is it to play against Splinter Twin and see a Master in your first draw step? Two in the main and another in the board for Jund or other midrange decks is where I want to be.
I know a lot of people run this as a four-of, and I can’t blame them. If Tron were more prevalent in my area, I could see myself doing that. But to me, this is another card you’re happy seeing one of in a game but don’t always need. It’s too good to not play, but most of the time I’d rather play more dudes in the place of Seas.
0 Two-Mana Counters
I’ve been saying since day one of Modern that Remand is not where you want to be with Merfolk, and it’s nice to see that people are finally coming around.
Cards like Remand or Mana Leak are awesome in Magical Christmasland where you have a turn-one Aether Vial every game and then just sit back on counterspells, but that’s not how it works in the real world. A lot of the time you have to play hands without Vials, and two-mana counters are about the worst thing imaginable. You’re faced with the decision on turn two of playing a lord or holding up a counterspell, and I’m sure we’d all agree that playing the guy there is correct almost every time.
The problem is turn three. What are you going to do then? You’re either tapping out for a three-drop or playing another two-drop. That’s when Spell Pierce and Vapor Snag are at their best, because that’s the turn where you pull ahead of your opponent by stopping their play while advancing your board. Remand doesn’t let you do that. You just end up sitting there with an open Island and nothing to do.
Turn four is when your Remands would theoretically become good, except that we’re playing a 20- to 21-land deck and hitting four lands by turn four is by no means guaranteed. There’s a huge number of games where you’ll still be staring at a two-drop, a Remand and three lands on turn four, and you’re going to hate yourself.
So, please, save yourself the trouble and just play Vapor Snag and Spell Pierce instead. The one time we actually want two-mana counters is when we need a hard counter against combo decks, and that’s what a sideboard is for.
As I said, this varies quite a bit, and my sideboard is by no means as tight as it could be. I love the Tidebinder Mage, but I used to have more and it’s probably on the way to being cut. It’s a nice card against mono-red or Pod or sometimes Jund, but it’s not really a maindeckable card and a lot of the time you have plenty of other stuff to bring in anyway. I think I’ll end up cutting it for another Unified Will or Spellskite or something.
I’m not going to detail every matchup, but I will note that Affinity is very difficult. You can’t really have too much hate for it. Hurkyl’s Recall is obviously the best, but it can eat up a lot of slots. I started last year with Steel Sabotage, which a lot of people are going back to, but I’ve moved recently to Annul because you can also bring it in against Splinter Twin to give yourself another one-mana counterspell. Just know that no matter what you do, Affinity is going to be tough.
Relic of Progenitus is your all-star here, and I’d like to find room for a third, probably by cutting the Cage. Relic is insane against Jund, RWU, Living End, Pod, and probably several other decks I’m forgetting right now. It’s a must-include. Spreading Seas is obviously there for your Tron matchup. The rest should be pretty obvious as well.
Fear the Fish
So there you go, the long-overdue Merfolk primer by the world’s biggest fan of Fish. The deck is powerful, adaptable, affordable, and fun to play. In Modern, that’s all you can ask for, and more than you can say about most decks. It’s a great deck for anyone looking to get into the format, and it scales with the skill of the player playing the deck, since there’s way more thought than just the “turn dudes sideways” approach you may see at first glance.
Any questions, or anything I missed? Let me know!
Thanks for reading,
@Chosler88 on Twitter
P.S. Cosi’s Trickster is not a real card, nor is Mothdust Changeling or Aquitect’s Will. Of these, the most common one people ask about is Trickster. Tell me this: if you open with a hand of Aether Vial and Trickster, which one are you playing first? I don’t think there’s any way the answer isn’t Vial, but Trickster on turn two is about the most miserable thing you can do. Stick with Cursecatcher and disruption at one mana and you won’t regret it.