Flores Friday – Shuhei versus Ruess Redux

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Friday, May 30th – In the Pro Tour: Hollywood Top 8, Jan Reuss and his Merfolk overpowered Shuhei Nakamura’s Black/Green Elves over four games in the semi-finals. However, in the final, against Charles Gindy’s similar Elven offering, the Merfolk folded quickly. Today’s Flores Friday sees Mike thrash out the Elves versus Merfolk matchup in preparation for Regionals…

One of the things that stood out to me after the conclusion of last week’s Pro Tour Hollywood Top 8 is the effortlessness with which eventual winner Charles Gindy dispatched his finals opponent Jan Ruess… whereas the same Ruess — and Merfolk in general — were the deciding foil, and in fact only deck, that took a match or matches off the decorated Shuhei Nakamura and his Elves deck.

In case you hadn’t heard, I hired Josh Ravitz for the summer, so now we can dish about Magic in real life while eating fattening Cuban food, or whatever / whenever. Josh continues to claim that he is retired, but it is obvious to anyone paying attention that he is accumulating the fire again (like he did last summer when he was a PTQ Top 8 machine until he won that Predator PTQ), and tonight we had our second consecutive IRL playtest session in as many nights.

Tonight the matchup was Shuhei versus Ruess. Josh was the Elves; we did something different and I played first the first five games (just so “we would have one less thing to keep track of”) with the intention of Josh playing the second five; I found this to be a pretty eye opening playtest technique and I suggest you add it to your bundle of sticks.

For reference:

Our pre-session conclusions were that Gindy’s deck is just better than Shuhei’s because Shuhei’s is light on heavy offense; I tested a little against Gindy’s deck last night and believe me, getting tagged once or twice by Chameleon Colossus will teach any control player a measure of respect.

Again, Ruess / Merfolk went first in the first five games.

Game 1:
Josh opened on the mulligan (pump the fist). His first play was mana Elf; I had Banneret; he went Perfect, I went turn 3 Sower of Temptation. With a double Banneret draw, it was like I had infinite mana and I was suddenly in for 13. No contest.


Game 2:
I opened on Cursecatcher and started tagging for a little damage.

The first really important play was turn 4. Josh played a Tarmogoyf and I had the option of running either a Cryptic Command or a Sage’s Dousing; I opted for Dousing to leave Cryptic Command for an alpha later. This was a disaster because Josh just pointed Nameless Inversion at my Cursecatcher so that I would not draw a card.

The game dragged a little and we both accumulated power, but Merfolk can’t really race Elves on even merits… Merfolk is good when it can overwhelm Elves, but less so when Elves has Perfect and Mutavaults, or if there is no Lord on the Blue side, even Elves and Pendelhaven. So I was trying to set up for a Cryptic Command alpha kill (I had drawn a second, having used the original for a successful Dismiss) but I needed double Lord and Josh got me the turn before I could do just that… My top card was Merrow Reejerey, meaning if I had drawn a card on the Sage’s Dousing two-for-two turn, I would have been able to pull it off. Just.


Game 3:
I was a little worried about going down 1-2 as I started Game 3 on a double mulligan. However, trusty Cursecatcher was there to give me an early drop, and doubly to slow down Josh’s draw and I drew some lands. I got Silvergill Adept and got back in the game and we kind of traded damage; all of a sudden I was seeing daylight whereas Josh needed to peel Profane Command, and he didn’t. Winner winner.


Game 4:
Just a blowout. There are some games on the play where Elves can never beat Merfolk. Merfolk just goes Cursecather, Silvergill, Banneret, Banneret, Silvergill, multiple Lords with one mana Sage’s Dousing in grip, and… You get the picture.


Game 5:
We both went to Paris on this one, which typically favors the player on the draw. However, I got Sygg, and that made up a lot of ground. Won a long and slow one.


After the 4-1 start, with the one loss being due to a play mistake (that I probably wouldn’t have made with more familiarity with the deck… I had just picked it up, and let’s be honest, the last time I wrote about Merfolk I thought there were Anglers in the deck), it seemed like a pretty dominating matchup. My initial analysis of the matchup was that Shuhei’s deck can’t do very much about the overwhelming tempo that Merfolk can accumulate.

Josh’s operating plan was to just ignore Cursecatcher. Thoughtseize seemed kind of mediocre from Josh’s side, and Garruk was either irrelevant or dead (it is not difficult to get a big enough Merfolk through blockers with Reejerey, or just by attacking, if you really want to kill Garruk). Josh only had one Profane Command in the first five games, and it was an unexciting “kill a Lord that already has two points on it” play that returned a sad little Wren’s Run Vanquisher… which I promptly zoinked with Sower of Temptation. Sower, along with Sygg, were pure gasoline. All in all, should have been 5-0.

At this point we broke for a small excursion to Atomic Wings, where Josh got a turkey burger and I got a regular burger. We got them with “abusive” level hot sauce, which was Josh’s call; I found it a little too hot. When we returned to the office it was learned that they apparently lock these office buildings up after 9pm, and it looked like we would have no reading material for the evening, seeing as we were locked out and our bags and books were on my desk; we decided to wait five minutes before scooping. Three minutes in, the little lights above the elevators started to move and the good people from the cleaning service left, necessarily opening the front doors, which we used to reenter, and resume playtesting.

For the second set, Josh played first each game.

Game 6:
I had Cursecatcher, which Josh met with Tarmogoyf. He followed up with Perfect, which resolved.

For my part, I had a pair of Silvergill Adepts, which I followed up with two copies of Lord of Atlantis… you know, land and spells. Sygg came down, and Josh could not race my combination of size and open mana.


At this point Josh flashed the other side of the proxy deck — the other side on which we had Sharpie’d Gindy’s version of Elves — and threatened to get me back “tomorrow night.” I of course could not imagine a situation where I would lose to these silly Black and Green creatures… It was Merfolk for me, just like Jonny.

Game 7:
I had a strange opening. I could play Faerie Conclave on the first turn, which would let me play anything on the second turn (probably Silvergill Adept), or I could play Adarkar Wastes and Cursecatcher. I figured it was important to get Cursecatcher down going second, and anyway, I had some peels to rip a land and get my draw going. That didn’t happen, and though I traded my Cursecatcher for a small animal, I was soon on the wrong end of three Imperious Perfects! The Ruess deck, by the by, has no main deck creature elimination per se, and even Sower of Temptation just gets killed by Nameless Inversion (it cannot be protected by Sygg, what a bummer).

I tried to match Josh with my own array of Lords, but he showed me. I blocked some dork with a 5/5 Merrow Reejerey, but he had the Nameless Inversion. “What does that do?” Apparently, Nameless Inversion removes creature types! I think that is the first time that has ever come up for me. Anyway, after a few turns of churning out three 4/4 Elf Warrior tokens, Josh broke the standoff by finally drawing Profane Command in an important spot. I think I would have gotten him in a turn or two, but I, you know, didn’t.

“Well, we know I can win the games where I successfully play three Imperious Perfects.”

I would not make that first turn play again, and if I played Merfolk for real, I would not play Faerie Conclave.


Game 8:
I mulled this one… Probably should have double mulled. I was never in it in it, but I was trying to hold on. I actually thought I could do some Cryptic Command or Reejerey tricks, but Josh ran a “I’m not going to miss the play Gindy did” because apparently “Merfolk gaining Islandwalk” applies to the opponent’s Mutavault, too.

“If I win four in a row, you definitely can’t play that deck at Regionals. It’s time to pack it up.”


Game 9:
We both went to six again, but Josh had the nearly optimal opening of Vanquisher into Perfect. As I said before, the Merfolk can’t reasonably race the Elves deck card-for-card (it’s more about setting up a big Alpha), and Vanquisher on the play in that spot will knock Merfolk to 12 before almost anything. As it turns out he battered me to 11 (Adarkar Wastes), then down to 2.

I came back big, with a flurry of nice plays. I actually sent an unenhanced Banneret into the waiting maw of a Mutavault, but that was so I could nab it with my Sower of Temptation. I had a lot of Mutavaults, and then a Lord, and eventually Josh’s Perfect. Would three 4/4 Mutavaults get there? What about Sygg? I actually thought I had a clever win when I tapped Josh’s team and bounced his as-yet dormant Mutavault on the second-to-last attack, but he had two guys to stop my Alpha (he later pointed out the Mutavault alone would have done it); there was no way I could live through his next strike from 2.


Game 10:
That bastard pulled the Profane Command off the top again. 5-1 to open, 0-4 to end it ?


I thought I knew how important going first was, but to go from a blowout matchup of 4-1 — and nearly 5-0 — to an equal 1-4 was pretty dizzying. That’s how important going first is, apparently.

To be fair, the first five were almost all blowouts, whereas even though Merfolk went 1-4 in the second set, one of those was a blowout, two of the losses would have been won but for a topdecked Profane Command, and were much more competitive as a whole (one game maybe even came down to my not running the bad Faerie Conclave down on the first).

In the second half of the set, where Josh was much less subject to adverse tempo, he was able to get down Vanquishers and resolve Perfects (his second most important card). One of the things we were worried about having watched the coverage is what Shuhei did with his Profane Commands in sideboarded games. Do not sideboard out your Profane Commands; I know that Shuhei had access to Profane Command in at least one sideboarded game, but we weren’t sure if he sided any out… It really seemed like that was the big card from the Elves side (even more important than Cryptic Command from the Merfolk side), so I think you really want all of them in. Half of Josh’s wins in the second set required topdecking this card. It can break up a standoff, brain yours truly for lethal, or get a stack of 4/4s in for free.

Some conclusions on the Merfolk deck:

4 Mutavault
This card is pretty good. One of the difficult things about the deck is colored mana management in the early turns. I think this especially a function of the corner case games where you draw Ancestral Vision, which I would cut.

4 Wanderwine Hub
I don’t think I ever had to play this tapped (though I probably played it tapped on the first turn at some point, I don’t remember), so it is basically Tundra.

4 Adarkar Wastes
I was not a huge fan of this card in this deck. There is very little White required, so I don’t know that it is necessary, at least as a four-of. The only White card in the main deck is Sygg, River Guide, and I feel like I took a little more damage from Adarkar Wastes than it was worth given that… I think I would consider playing some Mystic Gates even though the deck has a lot of one-drops (maybe I am wrong, but I didn’t love the Adarkar Wastes in this aggressive matchup). As the deck really doesn’t require any White mana except in the middle turns to activate Sygg and demolish the opponent, maybe Reflecting Pool would be good (two?).

1 Faerie Conclave
I don’t think I ever activated this in a game that I won. I think I lost every time I had to play it in the first three turns. I am definitely cutting this piece.

11 Snow-Covered Island
Any variation here would be specifically for adding things like Pools (almost no downside in this deck) and possibly Gates.

4 Merrow Reejerey
Staple, obvious.

4 Cursecatcher
This was much better than I thought it would be initially. Definitely stays a four-of. It cannot, however, counter creatures (which we thought it could do initially).

2 Tideshaper Mystic
I didn’t think this was very impressive. I haven’t played the deck enough to say if the deck needs this many one-drops. I never switched a land to an Island (though I watched most of the coverage so I know that Ruess did, and to good effect). I think I only ever used it to power up a Reejerey for a late game attack or force accumulation.

3 Stonybrook Banneret
I liked this a lot and would consider playing a fourth.

4 Silvergill Adept
I liked this a lot; one of the main reasons you play Merfolk.

4 Lord of Atlantis

2 Sygg, River Guide
Hands down the All-Star of this version of Merfolk. After watching the coverage and playing a set against a pretty awesome playtest partner, I am now shocked that all the other Merfolk decks I had been poring over for the last several months didn’t play Sygg. We are pretty sure we want a third either main or side, and would consider the fourth. This card is just awesome and Josh says that it is certainly a good enough reason to play the White splash, sideboard unseen.

3 Sower of Temptation
I can easily see playing four. This card is almost always awesome, and if they don’t kill it they usually just lose.

2 Venser, Shaper Savant
This didn’t do anything for me, and as much as I love a Venser, he is kind of off-tribe for the format. I think Ruess probably needed it because going into the Pro Tour you don’t know what you are up against, and sometimes you need to be able to deal with a permanent. In the matchup we tested, Venser didn’t do very much… Certainly he was worse than Cryptic Command every time I drew him in terms of either defense or tempo, and he was too small to make a difference on the board whatsoever.

2 Ancestral Vision
I would definitely cut these. Having them in the deck will just make you play badly I think. You want to play Cursecatcher on the first turn and this card is erratic as a two-of, especially going deep into the game (Merfolk can win by Reejerey or alpha strike via a one or two turn window, so you might never draw the cards). One of the things that I would want to do with the Merfolk deck is to just smooth the mana out a little bit and Ponder or even Aquitect’s Will do a better job. As it is, I would cut these for a Sygg and a seventh Dismiss.

3 Sage’s Dousing
Very good. If I cut a Venser I would consider adding the fourth copy, if I did not add the fourth Sower (probably the fourth Dousing, though).

3 Cryptic Command
I am definitely adding the fourth over one of the Ancestral Visions.

When I say “I am going to do blah blah blah,” what I mean is that if I were to actually play Merfolk at Regionals, I would make such changes. At present we continue to test Ruess’s deck as it was played at the Pro Tour. The first five games had me believing (minus the Ancestral Vision)… But even given Josh’s opportune topdecks, the last four games… not so much.

The importance in going first seems to be the ability to generate unblockable damage for Elves (either a fast Perfect generating 2/2s or a 4/4 Vanquisher on the back of Perfect) which put Merfolk on its heels or in a position where Profane Command will win it. For Merfolk, it’s kind of that Elves can’t get that draw if Merfolk is playing out threats, viz. 3/2 Silvergill Adept that runs into 3/3 Vanquisher, so that Elves is soft enough that a sequence of Lords or one of the important four mana spells will allow for a lethal alpha. Sygg is very important in the games that can go either way because it allows Merfolk to get in three or so damage incrementally in the ones where the certainly alpha strike is not clear. Sygg can also help restrain the Elves “attack with one guy for which you have no good block” plan, which is the Green side equivalent of the same.

Generally I think Merfolk is not particularly well suited to beating creature decks with a solid ground game; of the available Elves decks, this session reinforces my belief that Gindy is the better option, though we think that deck should have an additional Pendelhaven.