Ideas Unbound – The Tendrils/Merfolk Matchup

Wednesday, September 8th – I wanted to evaluate the Tendrils/Merfolk matchup for myself, so I played Bryant’s and Ari’s lists against Saito’s deck to get a feel for it.

The results from Grand Prix: Columbus show that the banning of Mystical Tutor hardly slowed Storm combo decks built around fast mana and Tendrils of Agony. Two Tendrils decks were at the top tables at Columbus for the entire tournament — and while Ari Lax lost playing for the top 8, Bryant Cook managed to make it to the elimination rounds.

However, Grand Prix: Columbus was eventually won by Tomoharu Saito, who played Merfolk. Conventional wisdom tends to hold that the Merfolk/Tendrils matchup favors the Fish; Jared Sylva metagame analysis of the StarCity Open Series shows that the Merfolk players have been bashing Tendrils pretty badly.

On the other hand, if you ask most players who actually play Tendrils, they tend to claim that they feel the matchup is either pretty close or that Tendrils is a slight favorite. Saito, who played Tendrils to a top eight finish at Grand Prix: Madrid earlier this year, said that the Merfolk deck that he played in Columbus was weak to Tendrils.

Analyzing empirical evidence from low-level tournaments* such as StarCity Opens is tricky for many reasons. It’s hard to control for specific decklists when you’re aggregating tournament data, and facts like whether or not the Merfolk player has Spell Pierce in the maindeck or if the Tendrils deck has access to basic land are quite relevant when you’re trying to figure out who is ahead.

It’s also pretty hard to control for relative skill levels. Patrick Chapin claims that tight technical play generates more match wins than all other factors in Magic combined. If, at a given tournament, you have four Tendrils players who just slam headlong into Force of Will at every turn but one guy who carefully picks his spots, sets up Duress, and waits until he has sufficient mana to play around Daze, it’s hard to draw conclusions as to what is going on — in that case it looks like most of the Tendrils players are getting annihilated, except for this one guy who is crushing all comers.

So when Ari Lax plays Tomoharu Saito at GP: Columbus and Ari wins, what does that tell us? Is it even useful to know how a matchup works when two masters face off when most of us are, you know, not? Is the StarCity data even more valuable, then, because it’s not controlling for skill?

I wanted to evaluate the Tendrils/Merfolk matchup for myself, so I played many games with both Bryant’s and Ari’s lists against Saito’s to get a feel for the matchup.

I found that the Tendrils decks were mild favorites. They were usually capable of generating enough mana to beat two Dazes, and were capable of finding a Duress to strip Merfolk’s Force of Will. It was difficult for the Merfolk decks to have enough pressure to threaten Ad Nauseam’s efficacy as a card drawer while presenting permission, and if Merfolk was long on permission the Tendrils deck had more time to assemble mana and Duress. Sometimes, of course, the Merfolk player had Aether Vial, Standstill, some creatures, and a bunch of counterspells; Tendrils could do very little in those games. I will go into more detail below, but first, the decks.

Here, we have the Tendrils deck that Bryant Cook played to a top eight finish at Grand Prix: Columbus — 


Bryant’s five-color mana base allows him to support Orim’s Chant and Silence** to circumvent opposing permission, as well as a Burning Wish toolbox in the sideboard. The Wishes give Bryant a lot of flexibility in dealing with potential hate cards (even in game one) and also allow him considerable utility when he’s going off. With Wish, Bryant has more access to his kill cards (Empty the Warrens, Tendrils of Agony) and can also set up Ill-Gotten Gains or Diminishing Returns in a pinch. Bryant also has an Empty the Warrens in his maindeck, which is a very powerful weapon against Blue decks.

Ari Lax has another take on Tendrils:


In contrast with Bryant, Ari has a much more streamlined list that he played to a record of , including an undefeated run on Day One of the tournament. In the wake of the Mystical Tutor ban, Ari has opted to eschew any answers to maindeck hate cards, presumably because he doesn’t want to include Burning Wish — and without Mystical or Wish, Ari can’t tutor up a Chain of Vapor consistently enough to make it worth the effort.

However, sticking to two colors and adding some lands makes Ari virtually impervious to Wasteland and other mana denial, and also helps him play around taxing counters such as Daze.


It’s generally best to test against the most hateful version of whatever archetype you’re trying to learn about. After all, if you can beat a deck packed to the gills with hate, you’ll probably steamroll people who aren’t as prepared to beat you.

Of course, you want to balance that out by testing against a list that’s pretty representative of what you expect to actually play against. The Merfolk list that Saito won GP: Columbus with fits both criteria.

Previously, most Merfolk decks left Spell Pierce in the sideboard to bring in for appropriate matchups, but Saito moved them main. He also left in Standstill, which more and more Merfolk players were cutting in favor of more creatures despite its power in the combo matchups.

This is probably the most hateful version of Merfolk that you could reasonably construct if you wanted to target the Tendrils matchup. Theoretically, the Merfolk player could go further and sideboard additional ammunition along the lines of Thoughtseize or Chalice of the Void or something equally obnoxious, but I’m not aware of any Merfolk players that have gone to such drastic lengths to strengthen their Tendrils matchup.

The Matchup Analysis
Merfolk is the beatdown in the matchup. Given enough time, the Tendrils deck can assemble plenty of mana and enough copies of Duress and Thoughtseize to strip Merfolk’s defenses.

Accordingly, Merfolk has to pressure Tendrils, hopefully reducing the power of Ad Nauseam as a card drawing tool. However, neither Bryant nor Ari are reliant on Ad Nauseam to win; both decks are quite capable of setting up loops with Ill-Gotten Gains or even jacking the storm count high enough to generate ten copies of Tendrils of Agony. Bryant can also create tons of Goblin tokens with Empty the Warrens, and can also use Diminishing Returns if left with no other options. Unmolested, both Tendrils decks are quite capable of goldfishing a kill on turn 2, with turn 3 being a slow draw.

Saito’s Merfolk grow to a large threat over time due tribal synergies between all of the Merfolk lords. However, for Merfolk to set up a huge board presence quickly, Merfolk will need Aether Vial to pump out additional creatures in the first few turns. Aether Vial also allows Merfolk to present a clock while keeping mana up for Spell Pierce. Once Merfolk has a Vial or approximately four power of creatures in play, Merfolk can play a Standstill and hide behind counterspells, waiting for Tendrils to break the Standstill and draw Merfolk into even more permission. Merfolk can also use Wasteland to keep Tendrils from building up enough lands to pay for all of Merfolk’s taxing counters.

By and large, Merfolk tends to win games where Merfolk draws Force of Will and Tendrils doesn’t draw Duress. It also tends to win games where Merfolk presents a quick clock and enough taxing counterspells to make Tendrils pay an additional three mana despite any Duresses.

There are some exceptions to these, of course; when the Tendrils deck is on an Empty the Warrens or Tendrils of Agony plan, Force of Will — while still good — isn’t quite as backbreaking as it is on a hellbent Infernal Tutor or Ad Nauseam. Drawing multiple Lion’s Eye Diamonds can blank any number of taxing counters.

The key differences between the Tendrils lists are Ari’s access to basic lands, as well as additional cantrips to find more acceleration or Duresses. Bryant’s Empty the Warrens is powerful, and his access to Burning Wish is certainly useful, but having fewer cantrips (as well as fewer lands) (as well as having all of his lands be vulnerable to Wasteland) makes the matchup a lot harder for Bryant.

Outside of Force of Will, the most frustrating cards for Tendrils are Aether Vial and Silvergill Adept. Aether Vial allows Merfolk to accelerate out lords ahead of schedule, or deploy creatures while attacking with Mutavault, or getting aggressive with Wasteland, or even merely representing Spell Pierce.

Silvergill Adept looks a lot more innocuous than the Vial… but Adept’s ease of casting and the replacement card are pretty valuable in a matchup where mana and cards are at such a premium. Also, the Tendrils player will usually be able to infer how many counterspells are in Merfolk’s hand by gauging how many lands and creatures Merfolk has in play, so the extra card goes even further.

If you look at the hypergeometric distribution of Merfolk’s mana base, you see that Merfolk is about a two-to-one favorite to have two Islands in play on turn 2. I get that you can run big cheats with Aether Vial — but doesn’t anyone like casting their spells anymore?

I get that Saito’s list cut Merfolk Sovereign and cut down on the double-Blue requirements. But Merfolk is usually so hungry for colored mana that passing the turn with U up is basically the same as jumping up onto the table, brandishing a megaphone, and boldly proclaiming that not only is Spell Pierce in your hand, but that you also don’t care who knows it. Sure, there’s some bluffing value there, but if you have excess mana such that you can afford to bluff Pierce, you probably don’t have a lot in the way of action.

As mentioned above, it’s hard for Tendrils to beat a solid clock and some permission, especially if Tendrils has to eat a Wasteland at some point. However, if Tendrils only has to contend with two of those elements, Tendrils tends to be a solid favorite. Obviously, if Merfolk is all creatures and no counters, eventually Tendrils is going to find Duress or be pushed into a spot where Tendrils has to go for it, and then the jig is up and Merfolk gets crushed in a flurry of fast mana.

On the other hand, if all Merfolk has are a couple of copies of Force of Will but has to hold their other blue cards to fuel the Forces, the Tendrils decks can eventually assemble enough copies of Duress or Orim’s Chant to break through Merfolk’s defenses. On that note, assuming you have sufficient gas in your hand, don’t be afraid to Infernal Tutor for a redundant copy of Duress if your opponent doesn’t look to be in any sort of hurry about killing you.

(An aside: When you notice your opponent is playing conservatively because they don’t want to make a high-risk, high-reward play and get blown out by a counterspell or a removal spell or whatever, don’t put them in the position where you force them to pull the trigger and hope that you don’t have whatever they’re afraid of — unless you actually have some sort of devastating trump.)

Merfolk is probably going to get obliterated if it doesn’t show a counterspell at some point; this is something to consider carefully in the mulligan process. If you’re playing Aether Vial on turn 1 and Standstill on turn 2 and the rest of your hand is awesome, sure, you don’t need Daze or whatever to keep. But most hands without permission should be considered highly suspect.

Evaluating opening hands for Tendrils isn’t as complicated; Tendrils doesn’t really want to mulligan, but has so many cantrips that it rarely has to. Almost any hand with lands and some cantrips is good enough; as long as you have some gas, most hands are totally fine.

When Merfolk should use taxing counterspells (Cursecatcher, Daze, Spell Pierce) to go after Tendrils’ fast mana. When is it better to wait to try and counter a single big spell (usually Ad Nauseam)? That’s difficult to say.

Ari’s version of Tendrils is usually quite adept at playing around taxing counters once Ari’s first Ritual effect resolves, but you don’t gain much advantage by countering Tendrils’ first Ritual unless you are attacking for so much on your next turn that you essentially blank Ad Nauseam.

Bryant’s deck tends not to hold up very well against multiple copies of Daze because its lower lands and higher color requirements make it hard to beat double Daze on a Rite of Flame (Daze) response, Dark Ritual (Daze that, too) line. Having a third land makes it pretty easy, of course, but sometimes the third land is a Mox and you need that extra spell.

(Of course, against Bryant’s deck, the maindeck copy of Empty the Warrens could put quite a damper on your sweet ‘counter their big spell’ plan. Having Empty maindeck gives Bryant essentially a free mixed strategy that it’s difficult for the Merfolk player to play against optimally.)

When should the Tendrils player break Merfolk’s Standstill? Generally, the answer is “immediately, with a cantrip.” Unless Merfolk has actually zero pressure, it’s usually more valuable to use your cantrips to continue making your land drops and ramping up mana than to try to deny Merfolk their cards for a turn or two.

If you have a spare land or two in your hand with a Brainstorm, though, and Merfolk has six or even seven cards in their hand, it’s usually worth waiting to crack the Standstill during Merfolk’s end step, forcing them to discard back down to seven cards and negating some of the card advantage from Standstill.

Ad Nauseam is a pretty powerful tool against Merfolk. It’s difficult for Merfolk to deal enough damage quickly enough to prevent Tendrils from drawing ten or fifteen cards with Ad Nauseam, at which point killing the opponent is usually fairly academic. If you have an alternative to Ad Nauseam if you’re below ten life and won’t have a ton of extra mana floating from the Ad Nauseam, you’ll probably want to take it… but sometimes you won’t have that option.

It is worth noting that casting Ad Nauseam with no land drop and no mana floating can be pretty dangerous; Ari’s list doesn’t have very many 0cc sources of mana, and while Bryant has Chrome Mox to help him out on that front, his Rituals are also all based in different colors, so he might need a source of 0cc Red and 0cc Black to generate enough mana to get up to Tendrils.

The Tendrils decks have several alternatives to Ad Nauseam-based kills, of course. The most obvious is simply casting Tendrils of Agony for twenty, which isn’t usually that difficult if your opponent helps you out a bit with the storm count by casting Daze or Force of Will. Or, if you’ve got a ton of extra mana laying around, you can Infernal Tutor for another Infernal Tutor to generate storm before finding a copy of Tendrils.

Ill-Gotten Gains is another option. When you cast Ill-Gotten Gains, you can usually net mana on the loop with Lion’s Eye Diamond and another ritual, and then use your third card (typically Infernal Tutor or Burning Wish) to find a win condition. Though Ill-Gotten Gains is commonly derided for being atrocious if your opponent has Force of Will, if your opponent only has a single Force of Will, you can generate extra mana and include a Duress in your post-Gains hand to deal with the Force.

Bryant Cook also has access (via Burning Wish) to Diminishing Returns, which is something of a nuclear option; you won’t have any control over your new hand, and you might ship your opponent a grip full of Force of Wills. You’ll usually want mana floating after a Returns, preferably a U to cantrip with and a B to start generating more mana, though sometimes you don’t have a choice and just need to mise. And, obviously, Empty the Warrens is an option as well.

After turn 1, it’s usually best for Tendrils to wait until the last possible moment before casting Duress, so that your opponent does not draw Force of Will after you spent all that effort Duressing him and make you extremely sad. If you don’t think that you’ll have enough mana to Duress and Ad Nauseam in the same turn, then by all means go ahead and cast it early. But try not to trade Duress for Daze; beating a Daze in the hand is a lot easier than beating Force of Will. Cast Duress, and then start cantripping or doing something else with your turn.

Sideboarding is fairly basic. Saito doesn’t have anything to bring in; it isn’t worth trying to fight Empty the Warrens with Engineered Plague, and the Spell Pierces are already maindecked. Ari’s list cuts two Preordains for the final two Thoughtseizes.

Only Bryant gains a new strategic element by sideboarding in three Pyroblasts, cutting an Infernal Tutor, a Chrome Mox, and a Ponder. This is a rare instance where sideboarding doesn’t introduce very many new dynamics to the matchup; Merfolk remains unchanged, while Ari has an easier time fighting Duress or Thoughtseize for Merfolk’s counterspells. Bryant’s Pyroblasts are a little more reactive than the Thoughtseizes, which can be awkward in sequences involving Lion’s Eye Diamond. Pyroblast also isn’t a particularly great answer to Spell Pierce, but it’s fairly serviceable. Using Pyroblast to kill a Cursecatcher during Merfolk’s end step is a pretty good way to catch your opponent off guard, though. Very few new lines of play develop as a result of sideboarding.

(You could try Xantid Swarm or Carpet of Flowers out of the board of Bryant’s deck. But Carpet isn’t that great against Merfolk, and both cards are pretty hard to cast; cashing in a Petal is hardly worth the effort.)

While you can usually derive a confidence interval for an answer to the question “If these decks played a hundred matches against each other, what would the outcome be?” from tournament data, the answer to that question isn’t particularly useful for most players. Instead, players want to know how they can increase the probability that they will win the match. They want to know how important it is to have Cursecatcher, or Force of Will, or Lion’s Eye Diamond, or which lines of play have a high probability of victory and which do not.

I find that playing Ari’s list of Tendrils and simply minimizing your exposure to Wasteland while setting up Duress into Infernal Tutor or Ad Nauseam is quite successful against Merfolk. Where Bryant’s list has to do a fair amount of work just to ensure that it isn’t completely kold to Wasteland, Ari’s list is a lot better equipped to play basics and cantrip into enough Duress effects to protect Infernal Tutor. Chrome Mox is Wasteland-proof, but it’s basically worse than a land unless you’re trying to get hellbent for Infernal Tutor or going off with Ad Nauseam.

Bryant has Orim’s Chant — sure, but at least in the Merfolk matchup, the efficacy of Orim’s Chant is hardly worth all of the effort of casting it. If they Daze your Chant and you don’t pay, you’ve basically accomplished nothing. But if you had to cash in a Petal to Chant, got Dazed, paid, and now get Dazed or Pierced again, life is pretty awkward.

That isn’t to say that Bryant’s list is a dog to Merfolk, though; it is simply less of a favorite. I feel that both Tendrils lists are favorites against Merfolk.


Max McCall

max dot mccall at gmail dot com

* – Namely, non-Pro Tour, non-Grand Prix tournaments (and, really, even Day One data from GPs is a bit suspect).

** – Presumably, the split between Orim’s Chant and Silence is based more around the fact that Silence does not target than it is to avoid Cabal Therapy shenanigans; few Cabal Therapy decks will be targeting Bryant’s Chants.