Black Magic – Legacy Merfolk

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Tuesday, January 11th – With the StarCityGames.com Legacy Open events proving extremely popular, Sam Black discusses the heavily-played Merfolk archetype. With a power, disruption, and a manabase to die for, can Sam’s improvements take the deck over the top? Read on to find out!

As I’ve mentioned in the past, with the growing importance of Legacy this year, I’ve been looking for opportunities to write about the format. This weekend in Dallas, three of the Top 8 and five of the Top 16 decks were Merfolk. It was the most played deck in the tournament, but it was still only 12% of the field, so it performed substantially above expectation.

I’m not excited about Merfolk because I think it’s the best deck in Legacy, or the deck to play. I’m just happy because it’s the deck I know the most about, so I’m glad to see it have such a significant impact on the format.

I don’t think people understand Merfolk’s role in Legacy. It gets played a lot because it’s cheap, relatively straightforward, and it’s done pretty well historically. Personally, I also like that it’s pretty flexible. It can play a wide enough range of answers that there are very few decks it can’t beat, and specifically, it has some game against combo, which makes me feel less helpless in the format. However, Merfolk is not the most powerful deck in the format, so it doesn’t seem to me like it should be dominant. It seems more like a metagame deck. It’s great against most other Blue decks, good against most control strategies (specifically those with a lot of counters), and pretty good against combo. It should have a pretty solid matchup against burn, and enough room in the sideboard to choose another few decks to beat. For example, the deck is pretty terrible against Affinity or Dredge, but devoting sideboard slots to the right mix of Annul and Energy Flux would fix the Affinity matchup, and Leylines and a few other hate cards would beat Dredge… but you can’t do everything.

Building Merfolk

Everyone seems to agree on the following cards for the maindeck:

4 Aether Vial
4 Cursecatcher
4 Daze (one player in the top 16 played only 3, but I’m going to go with 4)
4 Standstill
4 Silvergill Adept
4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Merrow Reejerey
4 Force of Will

Most people play 20 lands (I like 21, some play 19), usually with 12 Blue sources. That leaves 8 flexible maindeck slots. At least two should be Umezawa’s Jitte. I think at least two should be creatures, ideally merfolk, but arguments for Vendilion Clique, Kira Great Glass-Spinner, Sower of Temptation, or Tarmogoyf could be made. The last few spaces are for hate or general utility cards like Back to Basics, Spell Pierce, Pithing Needle, Relic of Progenitus, or Stifle. The lands should involve 4 Wasteland and 4 Mutavaults (but I’m going to consider cutting some Mutavault).

Most players stick to mono Blue, because playing 12 basic Islands and no fetchlands is extremely powerful. You never take damage from lands, Stifle is extremely weak against you, you can play Back to Basics, you aren’t likely to get locked out by Wasteland, and other non-basic hate like Price of Progress is pretty bad against you. The manabase is one of Merfolk’s greatest strengths. Despite this, I’m still tempted to add another color. The reason is that I don’t think the list above has enough creatures to consistently put enough pressure on the opponent, and I don’t like the Blue creature options for the last slots.

The most common solutions are Merfolk Sovereign and Wake Thrasher, but both add a lot of three-mana spells to a deck with only 20 lands, and Merfolk Sovereign is asking for two Blue mana with only 12 Islands in the deck. Aether Vial can fix this problem, and both creatures are excellent with Aether Vial, but going that direction forces the deck to rely very heavily on Aether Vial. In most matches, you’re in excellent shape if you stick a turn 1 Vial, so I like to build the deck for when that doesn’t happen. Kira and Vendilion Clique have basically the same problem. Sower of Temptation seems crazy to me if you’re not willing to increase the land count.

My solution the last time I played Merfolk was to play Cosi’s Trickster, but it wasn’t even a 2/2 as often as I would have liked, so I don’t think it’s the best card for the slot. In Blue, I’d consider Merfolk Looter or Sygg, River Cutthroat. Merfolk Looter seems much better to me, since you won’t consistently be able to do 3 damage, and looting away extra lands and late game Dazes seems fairly powerful.

The solution that I think I prefer, however, is splashing White for Sygg, River Guide. Sygg is amazing. He’s an extra Islandwalker in the mirror and against Counterbalance decks, he provides a respectable clock, and he gives you something to do with the mana Vial saves you. The cost of playing White lands is substantial, but the benefit of being able to play other White spells helps counteract that. The explanation hinges on Merfolk’s matchups and what I want to be doing with the deck, so let’s get to that, focusing on the decks that were most played in this SCG Legacy Open.

Dredge was the second most popular deck. Winning game 1 is probably not happening. If you maindeck a few Relics, you can hope to draw one, but there’s a good chance that won’t be enough. Your only real hope is to slow them down with free counters and get a Jitte online, but it’s rough. Most sideboard cards won’t help unless they’re specifically intended for this matchup. In all likelihood, you’re just boarding up to 3-4 Relics and hoping, but I think making room for Leyline of the Void isn’t entirely unreasonable. You obviously have to side out Standstill, and after that I’d probably cut Aether Vials. (As a side note, I’m more willing to side out Aether Vial and Force of Will than I assume most players would be. I view both of them as metagame cards rather than necessary cornerstones of the deck. The fact that I want to have the option to side out Aether Vial is part of why I don’t want more three-mana creatures.)

Burn is a pretty good matchup, for the most part. You have a good clock, and your counters often keep you just out of range. Also, you win the game if you connect with a Jitte, which is really what the match is about. On the other hand, Grim Lavamancer is a huge problem, and they have some very powerful sideboard options, like Volcanic Fallout. Ideally you’ll have some number of Blasts to bring in, and that will give you an out to Grim Lavamancer. Mind Harness in another option. This is a matchup where I like to cut Force of Will, as the one life it costs is substantial and the game can come down to something of an attrition battle (which you want, thanks to Silvergill Adept and Standstill), so I don’t want to pitch a card. Spell Pierce would be a fine card to side in as a replacement. This is another case where I would definitely cut Aether Vial. It can give you some speed, but it costs a card, and the opponent is really the one who controls whether the game is about speed or attrition (although they’re much better set up to race, for the most part). Still, I don’t think Vial provides enough speed in this case (though I do worry a bit about cutting Vial, as it’s very similar to siding out land, so I almost never side them all out; when I suggest siding out Vial, I’m talking about cutting around two of them rather than four). Standstill is good, since you’re likely to be winning on the board, but it’s much more awkward than I’d like it to be. If you have one creature and you cast Standstill and they kill the creature in response, they can happily wait and build a board full of lands to turn off your Dazes, and a full grip of burn, and then just break the Standstill when they have you dead. You can’t really break Standstill yourself without just dying, so you generally need at least two creatures or for your opponent to be tapped out, unless you just have the read on them being bad enough to break Standstill without really thinking about it, which honestly might not be that rare. If you have a lot of cards to bring in, I could see cutting Standstills for this reason.

ANT and combo in general is a little less favorable than I would have liked to believe. Combo decks are generally built to be able to deal with a Force of Will, and you can expect them to have something like Duress or Silence to get through your relatively small amount of countermagic. You have pressure, but your deck’s not really the fastest. You need to be sure to look for aggressive hands. You’re not really going to win a late game. I think it’s probably right to use Stifle aggressively if you have it, to hit a fetchland, rather than to get greedy and try to stop a storm trigger, since it will probably be too late by then. Because of this I might even prefer Spell Pierce as a tempo card. I’d consider siding out Standstill. They’ll break it, but most of the cards you draw won’t matter at that point. It’s just not a matchup where card draw is what you’re looking for, especially if it might also slow you down. Jitte is another card that’s likely to come out. I’d leave Vials in here, as the speed and ability to leave mana up are both important.

Zoo is a really bad matchup. Their creatures are bigger than yours, and you can’t really hope to change that by drawing a bunch of lords because they have so much removal. Grim Lavamancer is as much of a problem here as he is out of the Red deck, but here he has better support. Standstill has the same problem it has against burn, except that here you probably weren’t ever ahead in the first place. Jitte is the most realistic way to take a game, and you need to play for that. Mind Harness is probably the best sideboard card against them, but Submerge and Blasts are also good. If you have Stifles and Wastelands, there’s a chance you can win on mana denial, but I’m not optimistic. I like Relic of Progenitus a lot against them as it fights Tarmogoyf, Knight of the Reliquary, and Grim Lavamancer. You’re siding out Standstill, Cursecatcher, and if your sideboard’s deep enough and you have enough answers to Tarmogoyf and Grim Lavamancer, I’d cut Force of Will, since attrition can be extremely important.

Aggro Loam is another bad matchup. Tarmogoyf and Dark Confidant are both huge problems to which you’re low on answers, and Seismic Assault is basically game over. You don’t have a good way to fight their engine or kill them quickly. Force of Will feels less like it’s buying time to win the game, and more like it’s delaying the inevitable, since they’re attacking so efficiently on so many fronts, and any one of their cards matters so little. You have to be able to fight their graveyard, but Relic often isn’t enough. This match, like 38-43 land, is another reason I’d consider having access to Leyline of the Void. Bring in Annul or Spell Pierce if you have them, to counter Seismic Assault (and potentially Mox Diamond), as well as Blasts. With graveyard hate, if you can keep them off of Dark Confidant, you can win an attrition game, and if you can’t, you might be able to race them with lords. I’m torn on the issue of cutting Vial. You need other stuff, but they’re going to be attacking your mana a bit with Wasteland anyway, so you probably can’t afford to cut more than one. Jitte seems a little slow, but it also seems like one of the few ways to deal with their creatures. This matchup is an argument for Threads of Disloyalty over Mind Harness, but I really don’t like the 1UU casting cost the way the Merfolk manabase is built.

Counterbalance is one of your best matchups, but it shouldn’t be considered a bye. Aether Vial is amazing against them, and Standstill’s very good. Merfolk is largely built as a metagame deck against this deck, so you don’t need to do a lot of sideboarding. You probably want to bring in whatever answers to Tarmogoyf you have, and I’d probably be comfortable trimming things like Cursecatchers and Force of Will.

Enchantress isn’t a deck I’ve played against. It seems like they’re pretty slow and rely heavily on a few spells, so that’s a good start, but they do have cards like Moat and Elephant Grass that are fairly problematic for you (incidentally, that looks like the exact kind of deck that should be playing The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, but it generally doesn’t). Side in cards like Annul, Spell Pierce, and Echoing Truth, and cut Jitte, Stifle, and Cursecatcher.

Survival is more or less the same situation. I haven’t played against it, and it can mean a lot of things. You want the same things against them, except bounce is worse, Jitte is better, Stifle is fine, and Graveyard hate might be worthwhile depending on their deck.

Threshold is similar to Counterbalance. They’re playing Blue, so your Islandwalk is on, and a lot of their counters can be blanked by Aether Vial. Their creatures are the best thing they have going for them, so bring in graveyard hate to keep those manageable.

38-43 land is another rough one. They have a lot of cards that are very good against you, cards that you have very few ways to handle. You can’t really put enough pressure on them, since they’re designed to beat much better creature decks than yours, and counterspells don’t really get you anywhere. The only way you’re going to have a chance here is with graveyard hate, and I still don’t like it.

Goblins is another hard matchup. The fact that Goblin Piledriver has protection from Blue just doesn’t feel fair. Hope you have a lot of Blasts in your sideboard, and pray for an active Jitte. Their Vials are awesome against you, and yours are terrible against them. Standstill is even worse. Cursecatcher is also bad.

I don’t really know anything about NO Bant, but it sounds like another Blue creature deck where Vial and Islandwalk are going to shine.

Belcher is pretty good for you game 1. They usually just have to hope you don’t have a counter, and you often do, but you’ll certainly lose sometimes. Game 2 they have things like Xantid Swarm and Duress, and things get much worse. If you have anything that can deal with a Xantid Swarm, bring it in, as it’s basically game over otherwise.

Dream Halls sounds like it should be a relatively bad combo deck against you, but I don’t really know the details. I can only imagine cards like Spell Pierce and Annul are excellent against them and that Jitte is too slow.

Eva Green and other decks with Tombstalker are generally very difficult matchups. Tombstalker himself is extremely hard to handle, and Hymn to Tourach isn’t a card to which you have a good answer. Tarmogoyf, and their removal spells, are also bad for you, and the fact that they might have Engineered Plague is just miserable. Relic of Progenitus and Submerge are probably the best things you’re likely to have against them, and you should cut as many Aether Vials as you can get away with, since you can’t really afford to go down a card, and you’ll save relatively little mana since you won’t have that many creatures to play anyway. Beyond that, I’d cut low impact cards like Cursecatcher, and I’d like to cut Force of Will if I had enough ways to deal with their problematic creatures, since I don’t feel like it’s getting you to a point where you can win the game.

Affinity is much faster than you, and has much bigger creatures and better evasion. Jitte will often get turned off by Ravager, and their creatures are often too big to get killed by it anyway. The matchup is going to be extremely hard without dedicated hate, but it’s not widely played enough to bother with the hate. Side out Cursecatcher, and probably Jitte.

Stax is another deck I haven’t played against. I would assume it’s something like Enchantress, where they have a few cards that matter, and if you deal with those, it’s easy for them to fall behind and draw cards that don’t really impact the game.

Painter’s servant decks are generally pretty rough because of all the maindeck blasts. Also, they don’t have to invest heavily in their combo, so disrupting something doesn’t set them back far, and, thanks to the blasts, is very hard to do anyway. Most of their other filler cards are also bad for you. It’s a rough matchup, but if you can bring in enough cheap one for ones, like blasts of your own, you can hope to relegate them to the kind of deck like Stax and Enchantress where they just have some key cards that you need to answer, and some of their other stuff and be situationally ignored. Also, Jitte can be pretty good against them.

That takes us through the decks played in Dallas. I could find other decks to write about, but I think I have enough of a sample here to discuss why I’m interested in the deck the way I am:

Standstill is extremely powerful, but it’s worst in your bad matchups, especially Zoo and Goblins. If you had a real card draw spell in those matchups, you could try to play an attrition game after sideboarding in answer to their most problematic creatures… but when you have to side out your card draw, that option becomes less realistic. You have to try to deal with their more efficient creatures with your less efficient creatures, which just isn’t going to happen with normal draws. One solution to this would be to replace Standstill with Ancestral Visions. The biggest problems with this are that both cards are excellent on turn 1 and get dramatically worse after that, and Ancestral Vision is terrible against opposing Standstills, making the change very difficult when Merfolk is the most played deck. Following the U/W Tempo deck’s lead on Fathom Seer isn’t out of the question, and Merfolk Looter is another possibility. Fetchlands and Brainstorm, while not actually providing card advantage, could mitigate the problem, but I think the cost is too great. The point is that I’m not entirely sold on Standstill as the best card for that slot. I wish the answer was Jace, but that’s probably too slow and expensive. I can’t say I’m entirely above trying one or two though. I’d also like the solution to be Accumulated Knowledge, but I don’t think it makes sense when you’re trying to end the game quickly.

Next, adding White. Swords to Plowshares would be an excellent card to have access to against Tarmogoyf, Dark Confidant, Tombstalker, and Grim Lavamancer, and I would feel much better about siding out Force of Wills against decks that had those cards if I had a good answer to them like that, which is a very compelling reason to play Swords to me, because I would love to side Force of Will out against most decks that play those. Disenchant wouldn’t be an unreasonable card to have access to, since it deals with a lot of problematic cards (opposing Jittes, combo pieces, moat, Engineered Plague, etc). I don’t think the sideboard would have room for Burrenton-Forge Tender, but it is an amazing card against the burn decks, since you almost can’t lose if you draw it and Jitte. Maindeck Sygg is still the biggest reason I’d want to play white at the moment, but it wouldn’t be enough without Swords.

Adding White can either be done with fetchlands and a few Tundras, and maybe a Plains, to keep the number of basic Islands you’ll have in play high, or it can be done with 4 Tundras and 4 Wanderwine Hubs to avoid pain and getting Stifled. Personally, I think the damage is the most important consideration, and I would play the 8 non-basics in place of 7 Islands and a Mutavault (Sygg generally increases colored requirements and gives you something else to do with mana, making Mutavault less useful). I would only consider fetch lands if it was because I wanted to try to take advantage of Brainstorm, and I wouldn’t play a Plains, as you really can’t afford another non blue land.

The deck I would probably play if I were to play Merfolk right now is:

It’s hard to settle on and exact sideboard in a format as diverse as Legacy, but I think Swords and Spell Pierce have wide enough applications to allow the dedicated graveyard hate, and Swords help make up for the low Blast count, so I feel pretty good about that sideboard.

Vendilion Clique is thrown in, even though I haven’t said much about him, because I really want twenty creatures. I don’t want to play 4 Syggs because of the Legend Rule, and I like having a flier to potentially wield a Jitte. Also, his effect is excellent against combo decks, of course. I played him in the last Legacy event because I couldn’t find a Wake Thrasher, which I wanted to try, and I was very happy with the Clique. You’ll also notice that I’m playing 4 Mutavaults after I just finished saying I’d cut one. I was suggesting cutting a Mutavault from the deck most people play. I like to play a 21st land, which was a Riptide Laboratory that I essentially counted as a spell. I cut that for the 4th Mutavault, also counted essentially as a spell.

The one maindeck Swords was originally going to be one Relic of Progenitus, but then I decided that was probably overkill given how many sideboard slots I was devoting to the graveyard, and decided to cut it and move one Swords to the main.

Standstills are still in the deck. I wish they could be something else, and if Merfolk was less popular, I would probably try Ancestral Visions, but it seems too risky in the mirror, and I can’t really recommend cutting Standstill in good faith without having played a replacement to the point where I’m happy with it.

A quick point for people who are more concerned with PTQs at the moment: The following deck has done very well in Magic Online events. It’s probably worth taking seriously.

Bloodbraid Elf is an excellent Wood Elf, even when it doesn’t hit Search for Tomorrow or Sakura-Tribe Elder. This deck has so many different lines of attack and defense. You need to be able to handle the aggressive creature draw, Jitte, and Punishing Fire, all while winning before getting killed by Scapeshift. Basically, the deck puts the opponent on the defensive to buy time to Scapeshift for the win, and if it doesn’t happen to find Scapeshift, the other cards can probably get the job done. Thought Hemorrhage and Blood Moon attack other Scapeshift and a variety of other combo decks. I don’t like the Hypergenesis matchup at a glance, but this deck has a lot of really good things going on, and 2 PTQ Top 8s in Sunday’s PTQ, plus a PE win earlier in the week to back it up.

Thanks for reading…