Deep Analysis – Why U/W Merfolk?

States is coming!
Wednesday, October 29th – With the StarCityGames.com $5K Standard Open Top 16 decks now in the public domain, Richard looks at his much-discussed Blue/White Merfolk deck, a copy of which placed fifth in the main event. He shares his current thinking regarding card choices and sideboarding options, and brings us a ten-game set against Faeries…

First off, congrats to Chris Woltereck, winner of the 5K, and to Jarrett Taylor, 5th place with my Merfolk list (same 75!) from last week. Well played, Jarrett! Enjoy the $200.

Before I get into the reasons for my deckbuilding choices with this deck, I want to start off by bringing you up to speed on some critical updates I’ve made to it this week. First, I had to try out Knight of Meadowgrain. I expected him to be good against Red, not as good against Five-Color Control and Reveillark, and solid against Faeries.

Faeries was first in line. I saved the game-by-games for the Bonus Section at the end of the article so as not to disrupt the flow here, but the result was 5-5 again. Meadowgrain easily won me one game pretty much singlehandedly, and caused me to mulligan an otherwise-keepable hand once (in a game where I slaughtered the opponent despite my mull). He was quite solid overall; I don’t think I misjudged his strength in the Faeries matchup.

Next, I decided to try a few new tricks. I decided Knight of Meadowgrain’s mana requirements made it pretty clear that my lone Island should become a Plains, as I have really never had any trouble with Blue mana requirements. Also, my observation had been that my most common reasons for mulliganing a hand were a lack of land or a lack of two-drops. Moreover, the most common reason I lost a game was due to missing my third land drop.

I have fifteen two-drops if you count Remove Soul, and thirteen if you don’t. Unfortunately, when looking at an opening hand, it’s almost never safe to count Remove Soul as a two-drop unless the opponent is specifically White Weenie, Elves, or maybe Red. I decided to cut the pair of Remove Souls for an extra land (the fourth Plains) and an extra actual two-drop (the third Stonybrook Banneret). This brings me to 24 lands and 14 two-drops – and as a bonus, if Banneret survives, he can act as a third land if I am stuck on two. As I discussed at great length in the forums of my last article, I consider Banneret practically a Legend, and not want to play four – but will happily play three for similar reasons to why I am happy playing three Sygg.

I know that 24 land is on the heavy side for a curve like this one. I expect it to work out because so often I find myself wishing I had an extra land so that I can get in with Mutavault this turn, or so that I can alpha strike with all my manlands, instead of just two out of three. I have rarely found myself in a position where I had more mana than I knew what to do with.

Finally, at the suggestion of forum poster snowden, I want to experiment with Windbrisk Heights over Plains. I’m not sure what the right count of these is – maybe four, maybe two, maybe zero… who knows? I’ll start with the maximally greedy count of four, doubling my comes-in-tapped count from 4 Faerie Conclave to 8 total, and see where that takes me. I want to do this for two reasons: one, to see how bad the drawback is when I’m pushing it as far as I can, and two, to see Talen Lee reaction when he realizes that not even my two-color decks feel obliged to play any Basics.

So the new configuration was -2 Remove Soul, -3 Plains, +4 Windbrisk Heights, +1 Stonybrook Banneret. I ran it against the Red list from Gerry’s article.

The result blew me away: 7-3 in favor of Merfolk. That’s a Keanu Reeves “whoa” moment right there.

The Knights of Meadowgrain were much better than I thought they’d be. I’d make sure that Knight was the last card in my hand to hit the table, forcing Red to expend as many burn spells as possible before I put a Knight in jeopardy. What surprised me wasn’t that I never lost if a Knight stuck; what did surprise me was how often I could get one to stick. As I mentioned last week, I expected the Knights to mainly be good in the late game when the opponent had run out of burn. This proved largely true, though whenever I had one as my only two-drop and the opponent didn’t have the burn spell for it, I may or may not have done a little dance. What surprised me was that often when I played one in the late game, I could just leave countermagic mana up and pretty much win from there. Even if I had more mainphase cards to play, I could just win on the back of gaining two per turn while beating down as long as I successfully defended Meadowgrain from burn spells and Demigod races.

The Windbrisk Heights were beyond incredible. I thought they’d be weak in the matchup where all of my guys die as soon as they hit the table, but they were just the opposite. Their critical role was in converting games where I barely stabilized. I’d run Red out of burn on all my dudes, then I’d play Sower of Temptation to steal an Ashenmoor Gouger, attack with those two and a Mutavault next turn, Heights out a Knight of Meadowgrain, and suddenly the game had been turned completely around. When I’ve just finished running the opponent out of resources, getting a sudden bonus two-mana spell on my side has a much greater impact on the game than it would on, say, turn 4.

Here’s the complete, updated list:

Manland Madness

This deck now has the claim to fame of the deadliest manabase in Standard. Half of its lands function as spells. Now even if I flood all the way out to 8-10 lands (and have the right manlands out), I can convert my flood into an attack for six and a Windbrisk Heights activation. More realistically, I can often expect to activate Heights even if I only have one creature in play. This should be especially good against Five-Color Control, and I expect it will help compensate for the fact that I’ve moved Cursecatcher (and, of lesser concern, Remove Soul) out of the main.

In discussing this deck with Adrian Sullivan, Adrian made a very good point: while most two-color Merfolk decks travel down the path of Fish, with extremely cheap creatures, lots of card drawing, and ample countermagic, I have veered off and approached the deck like U/G Madness did. My strategy is less about “small guys, then counters” than it is about an overload of threats backed up by a few disruptive counterspells.

Just like U/G Madness used to do back in Odyssey block, games with my U/W Merfolk list typically have a few different stages to them. Stage 1 is where the deck tries to get down some cheap, solid beaters (Wild Mongrel/Arrogant Wurm, or Knight of Meadowgrain/Wake Thrasher) and, if possible, defend them with countermagic (Circular Logic or Sage’s Dousing/Cryptic Command). If that draw doesn’t come together, you enter Stage 2, where the deck fights to push through evasive beats (Wonder or Sygg) until the opponent succumbs to the damage. If that fails as well, you enter Stage 3, where you replenish your arsenal using resources that have been lying dormant (Deep Analysis/Roar of the Wurm, or Mutavault/Faerie Conclave), attacking the fact that the opponent has probably used up most or all of his resources to stop you from killing him back in Stage 2.

So why do it like this? Why play two-color Merfolk at all, when you could go for the full five? I am not exactly the type to shy away from playing more colors, as evidenced by my Block deck featuring such casting costs as BB, 1UUU, 2GG, and BGW in the same deck.

I play two-color because of the lands. The original reason I went with straight Blue-White was so that I could play eight manlands in the form of Mutavault and Faerie Conclave. In a five-color Merfolk list, it is ambitious to play three manlands. With the addition of Windbrisk Heights, the difference is even more striking: by limiting myself to two colors, I get to reap the benefit of having half of my lands act like spells. Heights gives me a better midgame and the manlands give me a better late game, and these bonuses outweigh the drawback of having to compromise on the exact spells I’d play if I had the full range of colors to work with.

Flavors of Merfolk

So that’s where the U/W comes from – what about the specific Merfolk and supporting cards I chose?

There is a certain minimum core to every Merfolk deck that is based on a set of well-known synergies. Deviation from this core is hardly unthinkable, but my current list does not happen to deviate from it. The minimum core is:

4 Cryptic Command
3 Sage’s Dousing
3 Sower of Temptation
4 Silvergill Adept
3 Stonybrook Banneret
2 Sygg, River Guide

I have seen many lists that include or exclude Merrow Reejerey, so I cannot really call it part of the minimum core. Many will also play the fourth Banneret or Dousing, but almost no one (surely only crazy people!) plays more than two Sygg. On top of this 19-card core, there are typically at least 8 more Merfolk to power Silvergill Adept, 8-11 other spells, and 22-25 lands.

In Justin Perdue’s 4th place list from the Cruise Qualifier, the extra Merfolk are:

4 Chameleon Colossus
4 Nameless Inversion
1 Stonybrook Banneret
1 Crib Swap

The remaining spells are:

3 Firespout
2 Loxodon Warhammer
2 Oona, Queen of the Fae
1 Glen Elendra Archmage

… and 23 land brings us to 60.

Aside from the maindeck Warhammers, this is fairly similar to what I’ve seen from five-color Merfolk offerings. Some like to include Jace or Vendilion Clique in the maindeck (or both), in place of Warhammers and Glen Elendras, and many will maindeck Merrow Reejerey or Cursecatcher as well.

Now compare this expansion on the Merfolk core to my own. My extra Merfolk are:

4 Merrow Reejerey
4 Wake Thrasher
1 Sygg, River Guide

My remaining spells are:

4 Knight of Meadowgrain
4 Oblivion Ring

… and 24 land brings us to 60.

There is literally not a single point of overlap in our maindecks, beyond the accepted Merfolk core. (We both do board Wispmares, though.)

There are a few things to note here about the decks’ mana curves. First, I am way more aggressive on my two-drops; I have a full four more creatures to play on turn two (the Knights of Meadowgrain) than the five-color version does. Second, I am lighter on the top end of the curve. Instead of 4 Colossus, 1 Glen Eledra, and 2 Oona – a top end similar to that of Faeries – I have only three-drops, specifically 4 Wake Thrasher and 3 Reejerey. I also play a 24th land.

All of this comes together to give me a more consistent early game, and gives me more free mana in the late game. Was it my intent to build the curve this way? Not exactly. Really, what happened first was that I was looking for a big, quick finisher to replace Chameleon Colossus, and Wake Thrasher seemed to be the answer. Though Thrasher is infinitely more vulnerable to removal and far less damaging against Faeries, it comes down earlier and does not demand Green mana. Since I was going to have to deal with the downsides of his fragility anyway, it made sense to reap the benefits of a lower curve by not choosing to replace Colossus with another four-drop.

So where else do we differ? We both have some three-cost removal spells, in the form of Oblivion Ring for me and Firespout for five-color. Five-color also backs up the three Spouts with four Nameless Inversions, whereas I start adding Reejereys. One of the upsides of playing so many colors is that you have the flexibility to play extra Changeling removal spells to help deal with Sower of Temptation and the like, while still covering your Merfolk count for Silvergill Adept. This consideration is what led me to add Crib Swap to my board (in place of anti-Red cards; I don’t think I need to go the whole hog with Forge-Tenders and boarding out most of my Merfolk if I can be so successful with just Meadowgrain and supporting cards). If I’m going to board in a removal spell against Faeries, I definitely want it to kill Mistbind Clique.

Strategy and Card Choices

First, whatever flavor of Merfolk you play, please don’t just play 2 Sygg. The guy is just a huge blowout, even on turn 2. He’s almost like a Dolmen Gate stapled to a Grizzly Bear. If you beat with mana open to protect him and your other Merfolk attacker(s), what’s the opponent going to do with his tradable blockers? If he blocks, you pay two mana to give your combatant protection and get a zero-for-one. If he doesn’t block, then awesome! Thanks for the damage, Sygg. The only time this doesn’t work is in the few circumstances where the opponent has blockers that are actually bigger than your guys – even first strikers must fear the Sygg. I’m happy to draw Sygg early, and I’m happy to draw him late. The only time I’m not happy to draw him is when I’ve already stuck one to the table, which is where the count of three comes from.

Second, the most important difference between this build of Merfolk and Fish-style builds is threat overload. I have several fragile threats that are a real beating if they stick: Sygg, Wake Thrasher, Sower of Temptation, and in some matchups, Knight of Meadowgrain all fit this bill. I don’t have to play any particular one of these with countermagic mana backup; instead I just play them one at a time, tapping out to throw down as many threats as possible, and wait for the opponent to run out of answers. As soon as he does, I untap and defend against his topdecked answer with my countermagic.

Often I play Sygg on turn 2 even when I have Silvergill Adept, simply because I’m trying to draw a removal spell away from the real bomb, my third-turn Wake Thrasher. Or I use Wake Thrasher to bait the removal spell for my real bomb, the fourth-turn Sower of Temptation.

In a perfect world, I’d have a nice one-mana counter like Circular Logic or something, so I could just wait a turn and play my best threats with countermagic mana available immediately to answer removal spells. However, that’s simply not possible in Standard’s card pool. Acknowledging that and acting to circumvent it by building in an overload of threats and jamming them out onto the table as quickly as possible, without waiting for countermagic backup, lets me put on a lot of pressure without sacrificing my potential to get the “untap and defend with countermagic” aggro-control moments.

Speaking of Wake Thrasher, I’m surprised at how little love this guy gets. As long as you are on the offensive, he is about a 7/7 for three. The first turn you untap with him, he will “only” be a 4/4 or 5/5 on the attack, but the turn after he will probably be a 7/7 or 8/8. He only gets better from there. In the late game, you can topdeck him, tap your multitude of lands to activate manlands, then untap and swing for a ton. Also, few people will remember that he triggers whenever you untap something, even if you used a Reejerey trigger to do it; if you are aware of this and they are not, it can skew the race math in your favor.

Another important element to this strategy is the mix of creatures, removal, and countermagic. I have only seven removal spells (Cryptic Command doesn’t count), and seven counters. The rest of the deck is solid creatures: 18 Merfolk, 4 Knight of Meadowgrain, and 3 Sower of Temptation. My spell mix is slanted hugely towards the creature side, and deliberately so.

I believe it was Randy Beuhler who once noted that the problem with “pure” aggro-control is that it works great when you draw your creatures and then your counters, but not when you draw your counters before your creatures, or when you draw one but not the other. I am avoiding this problem as much as possible. I have set the deck up so that I can easily just curve out like a Merfolk Beatdown deck, with no countermagic whatsoever, and still be competitive. Meadowgrain and Wake Thrasher are strong beaters by themselves, and Reejerey and Sygg make my other Merfolk into real men. I also play 25 creatures and eight manlands, to keep the odds of the “all answers, no threats” draw as low as I can while preserving my ability to have aggro-control draws.

In contrast, the five-color versions of the deck have a slower curve and fewer creatures. They have fewer two-drops, more four-drops, and extra removal where I have extra creatures. Although Chameleon Colossus certainly qualifies as a beating in his own right, he is not very quick about getting his beat on. These factors both increase the chances that a given hand will need to be mulliganed due to slowness, and the extra colors also increase the incidence of mulligans.

In sum, the guiding principle behind this deck is to focus less on getting the ideal aggro-control draw and focusing more on making sure you win even the games where you don’t get that draw. By overloading on threats, the countermagic becomes unnecessary in some cases, by including a lot of manlands, you can win a protracted attrition war, and by running a lot of creatures, you minimize your chances of getting stuck with a threatless draw. So far the principle seems to be treating the deck very well!

Next week, I’m going to run the deck through the gauntlet of the Top 16 decks from the $5K and see how it does against a wider range of opposition. With its new powerhouses of Meadowgrain and Windbrisk Heights in the mix, I’m excited to see what it can do!

See you then,

Richard Feldman
Team :S
[email protected]

Bonus Section: The First Ten Games Against Faeries

Game 1: Merfolk opens Plains, Mutavault, and Blue spells. Ship it. Keep Faerie Conclave, Mutavault, Silvergill Adept, Remove Soul, Sage’s Dousing, Cryptic Command. Faeries keeps Mutavault, Island, Underground River, Spellstutter Sprite, Vendilion Clique, Cryptic Command.

A pair of Silvergill Adepts turn up a third land, which leads to two Cryptic Command-countered Reejereys and finally an unanswered Wake Thrasher. The Thrasher, backed up by two Dousings and a Command, gets there.

Game 2: Faeries sees Faerie Conclave, 2x Mutavault, 2x Bitterblossom, 2x Scion of Oona. My greedy side wants me to keep this hand, as if it topdecks a Black source, it is nuts. On the other hand, failing to topdeck a Black source, it is pretty slow and terrible, and the second Bitterblossom will probably turn into a liability. Ship it back for Sunken Ruins, Island, Mutavault, Remove Soul, 2x Sower. Merfolk mulls a one-lander into Faerie Conclave, Mutavault, Plains, Island, Banneret, Oblivion Ring. Pretty bad, but better than five.

After using Oblivion Rings on two Mistbind Cliques and a Bitterblossom, I am out of gas when he plays two copies of Sower of Temptation.

Game 3: Merfolk keeps Plains, Mystic Gate, Silvergill Adept, Sygg, Meadowgrain, Reejerey, Wake Thrasher. Faeries mulls five lands plus Agony Warp and Spellstutter Sprite into a two-lander plus Agony Warp, Scion, Mistbind, Cryptic, into Island, Secluded Glen, Agony Warp, Spellstutter Sprite, Cryptic Command.

Sygg resolves, then so do two Wake Thrashers. Cryptic Command slows them for a turn, but then it’s all over.

Game 4: Faeries mulls a one-lander and keeps Secluded Glen, Sunken Ruins, Agony Warp, 2x Spellstutter Sprite, Jace. Merfolk mulls a two-Mutavault hand into 2x Adarkar Wastes, Knight of Meadowgrain, Sygg, Remove Soul, Sower.

Merfolk doesn’t draw a third land until it’s too late.

Game 5: Merfolk keeps Faerie Conclave, Mutavault, Sygg, Silvergill Adept, Knight of Meadowgrain, 2x Oblivion Ring. Faeries mulls Conclave, Sunken Ruins, Thoughtseize, 2x Jace, Mistbind Clique, Cryptic into a keeper of 2x Underground River, Bitterblossom, 2x Spellstutter Sprite, Cryptic.

Merfolk misses its third land drop for four consecutive turns.

Game 6: Faeries mulls Island, Mutavault, 2x Sunken Ruins, Thoughtseize, Spellstutter, Cryptic, into Swamp, Mutavault, Underground River, Bitterblossom, Vendilion Clique, Sower. Merfolk keeps Conclave, Mystic Gate, Adarkar Wastes, Banneret, Reejerey, Oblivion Ring, Cryptic.

I Oblivion Ring his first Sower of Temptation on Wake Thrasher, but have only and end-step Cryptic to answer his second, which he easily counters with Spellstutter Sprite.

Game 7: Merfolk mulls five lands, Reejerey, Wake Thrasher into Adarkar Wastes, Mystic Gate, Knight of Meadowgrain, Banneret, Silvergill Adept, Oblivion Ring. Faeries mulls a five-lander into 3x Mutavault, Island, 2x Bitterblossom. Better odds than with five…

Instead of drawing a Black source, Faeries draws straight uncastable Blue spells until it is far too late to recover.

Game 8: Faeries keeps Underground River, Faerie Conclave, Sunken Ruins, Bitterblossom, Agony Warp, Remove Soul, Sower. Merfolk keeps Plains, Mutavault, Mystic Gate, Adarkar Wastes, Banneret, Sage’s Dousing, Sower.

Unfortunately, my Knight of Meadowgrain is killed by Agony Warp, leaving me with just Silvergill Adept with which to try and race. His discount is irrelevant this game, and his tiny body does nothing against Bitterblossom and zero of four Islands drawn for the opponent.

Game 9: Merfolk opens Wanderwine Hub, 2x Mutavault, Silvergill Adept, Sage’s Dousing, Sower of Temptation. Unless I topdeck a Merfolk, this hand is quite bad. No thanks. Ship it back for Conclave, Wanderwine Hub, Island, Adarkar Wastes, Knight of Meadowgrain, Reejerey. Faeries ships a two-Mutavault-one-Ruins hand for Secluded Glen, Sunken Ruins, 3x Bitterblossom, Cryptic Command.

This one comes down to the wire. He has so many tokens, and a Mistbind – it’s really tough to deal with so much pressure. Thanks to Sygg and Knight of Meadowgrain, I end up doing a Sygg alpha strike that takes out his Mutavault and makes Wake Thrasher lethal next turn. He can only attack back for seven, and I am at eight. Knight of Meadowgrain gained me eight life this game; without that, this race would have been a massacre in favor of the Fae.

Game 10: Fae mulls 3x Secluded Glen, Thoughtseize, 2x Sower, Mistbind into Secluded Glen, Mutavault, Bitterblossom, Remove Soul, Sower of Temptation, Mistbind Clique. Merfolk sees Adarkar Wastes, 2x Mutavault, 2x Meadowgrain, Oblivion Ring, Wake Thrasher. To make this hand good, I need to topdeck either a white source or a Silvergill Adept or a Banneret. I have about a 1/3 chance of doing that on either draw step, which are not terrible odds, but also not so good that I want to keep it. Ship it back for Faerie Conclave, Wanderwine Hub, Sygg, Silvergill Adept, Sower.

I bust out turn 2 Sygg, turn 3 Wake Thrasher. My opponent has the misfortune of lacking a removal spell, and I untap. The game is over three turns later.