This week, we’re going to look at what matters in the Merfolk mirror match. It’s an exciting match to talk about because it’s such an interesting and popular deck in Legacy, so you’ll run into the mirror a lot if you play the deck yourself. Further, there are lots of cool dynamic edges in the deck because it has a good mix of disruption and tempo. Consequently, it’s a brutal deck against many other decks in the format, but has a dramatically different mirror match. Many of the cards that Merfolk runs are questionable in a match against another Merfolk deck and the mirror favors prepared players. We’ll look at the good cards for the mirror in the maindeck and sideboard and check out what we should be taking out. We’ll then look at what we want to see in an opening hand and throughout the game. I’ll finally wrap up with some experimental cards that could give an edge in the match. Let’s get started!
A Bird’s Eye View of the Merfolk Mirror Match
The first game in a Merfolk mirror is a strange affair; depending on what both players have chosen for their disruption, they might be looking at essentially blank Spell Snares or Stifles. One player might have drawn the “creatures” hand while the other drew the “permission” hand; the player with more creatures will probably take the game. It’s sort of hard to give a lot of advice about this first game, because your mulligan, one of the most important decisions in the mirror, is undertaken blindly unless you know that the opponent is on the Fish too.
The sideboarded games get very interesting, with both players pulling out some strategic cards (like Umezawa’s Jitte) and tactical answers (like Echoing Truth) to do battle for the rest of the match. The mulligan is much better informed and the opponent’s sideboarding is usually predictable. I’ll be concentrating on this part of the match for most of the article.
The “Bad” Maindeck Cards in Merfolk
Some of the most brutal cards in Merfolk are near-useless in the mirror. Here they are, with explanations:
Standstill: The Blue Enchantment is often powerful, since Merfolk can play a creature or two and then drop it as their draw engine. Sometimes, it can play it after an Aether Vial or with a Mutavault and play normally while the opponent looks for an opportune time to give their opponent an Ancestral Recall. However, the mirror match is a different matter because opposing Merfolk decks have many ways of getting under a Standstill. It’s a matter that’s as old as UR Fish from Vintage; if an opponent leads with a 1-drop, then your Standstill gets a lot worse. If their lead is an Aether Vial, that Mutavault you were counting on to make the enchantment apply pressure may not get there! Thus, the usual strategy in the mirror is to remove Standstills during sideboarding and to avoid playing them in the first game unless you’ve got a position that basically guarantees a win anyway.
Stifle: Simply put, Stifle doesn’t have fetchlands to snack on against Merfolk. It then loses its strategic application of denying an opponent a land and reverts to much less dazzling effects, like fuzzing an Aether Vial activation. Against most decks, stifling a land is worth spending a card on, but the best you’ll probably get with Stifle against another Merfolk player is stopping them from drawing with Silvergill Adept.
Lord of Atlantis: This guy is, without a doubt, the weirdest part of the Merfolk mirror match. Like Goblin King in the Goblins match, it enables a player to alpha-strike against an opponent with Islandwalk, but it’s much worse by itself because it makes the opponent’s creatures that much better against yours. It even makes Island a liability! The really sticky part is that Lord of Atlantis usually doesn’t get sideboarded out, since a 2/2 bear is essential to fighting the opponent throughout the entire match.
Cursecatcher: Like Stifle, Cursecatcher is much less powerful against Merfolk because there are few spells that actually qualify for its ability. It’s outclassed by just about every other creature in a Merfolk deck, but like Lord of Atlantis, you usually need to keep it in because you need a critical mass of warm bodies.
The “Good” Maindeck Cards in Merfolk
Just like the bad ones, there are some that are especially relevant. They are:
Silvergill Adept: One theme that crops up over and over when looking at this match is that you’re bounded by this Magic rule that you only draw one card each turn. Thus, anything that generates another card or replaces itself is good, and Adept is the banner card for that in Merfolk. It makes two power for two mana and draws a card, which makes it nearly a free threat. It dies to just about anything the opponent can put in front of it, but a Lord can make it into a formidable attacker.
Wake Thrasher: Though this creature has been cut in a lot of Fish decks recently, it’s a powerhouse in the mirror because there’s nothing that comes close to it in terms of power. Even on a stalled board, Wake Thrasher can get to 5/5 size or more, which will punch through a serious wall of defenders. It’s obviously insane when it Islandwalks or is unblockable with Merfolk Sovereign.
Force of Will: Having to discard a Blue card is a serious issue in a deck that relies on the draw step, but Merfolk needs the capacity to counter an opposing creature or Umezawa’s Jitte. The card takes a much more tactical role in the mirror because you’re thinking more often about countering a creature so you can get another attack in, as opposed to holding it for big threats. In some ways, it’s the deck’s Cryptic Command because it can foil an opponent’s attacking strategies. Keep in mind, though, that Aether Vial undoes Force of Will to a great extent!
Mutavault and Wasteland: These cards come in a pair; Mutavault is another creature and Wasteland gives you superiority over an opponent’s Mutavaults. It’s basically dead otherwise, but Mutavault matters a lot in the mirror, so clearing out enemy Wastelands and manlands is worthwhile.
Worthy Sideboard Cards in Merfolk
While there are hundreds of cards that are good in the mirror, there are only a few that show up with regularity. For example…
Sower of Temptation: Representing one of the coveted two-for-ones that Merfolk wants in the mirror, Sower both flies over and significantly changes the battle math. It’s powerful in the mirror because Sower isn’t easily answered by opponents. The downside of the card is the high mana cost. Honorable mentions for creature stealing include Seasinger, Threads of Disloyalty, Vedalken Shackles and Legacy’s Allure (namedrop!).
Umezawa’s Jitte: Much of the mirror match postboard involves fighting around Jitte, since it, more than any other card, can determine a game if it’s left unanswered. The Legend Rule is especially relevant here.
Echoing Truth: Purely a tempo card, Echoing Truth can bounce away opposing creatures and mess with combat math as well. It can bounce creatures on both sides at once, so it can be tricky to use effectively.
Propaganda: Usually packed with cards like Back to Basics to form a lock against decks like Zoo, Propaganda makes the fallout from tapping out to attack less severe by reducing the number of attackers the opponent can put through. It also practically shuts down Mutavault.
Sideboarding Effectively In The Mirror
You’ll likely end up with many more cards that you want to take out than cards worth putting in. The first cut is Standstill, and from there, it’s nebulous. If you run Stifles, they’re the next to cut; if you pack Spell Snares and you need to make room, they’re next also (but: they can counter Umezawa’s Jitte, Silvergill Adept and Lord of Atlantis). You’re probably bringing in between two and five cards in their place, but you don’t want to over-sideboard. I’ve seen many Merfolk lists with Relic of Progenitus on the sideboard, which is a great card. However, I don’t think it’s worth sideboarding out even something mostly-dead like Stifle for a card that only has the game text of “Cycling: 1+1.” The one exception is that if you don’t have enough cards to bring in for the four Standstills, Relic is a better option to fill those last spots. If that happens, though, you’ve probably built your sideboard incorrectly. If you have a pile of awesome cards to bring in, you can cut the fourth Daze or Force of Will because though good, they’re your least good postboard because they cannot attack or carry a Jitte.
So, the cards that you want to sideboard in the most in the mirror are, ranked in order:
And the cards that you want to sideboard out the most are:
A Look At Mulliganing In The Mirror
Like I said before, you’re bounded by only drawing one card per turn, so any card you draw should be of the highest quality. The mulligan makes sure that you’ve got enough creatures to mount an early attack. Your best indicator of a good hand is having two or more creatures and sufficient lands or an Aether Vial to get them out there. You almost always want to keep any hand with an Umezawa’s Jitte and a way to cast it and equip, since it can make even suicidal blocks with a Cursecatcher into combat deterrents.
I used a mostly-stock Merfolk list that’s been in my gauntlet. It has Vendilion Cliques and Spell Snare with no Relic of Progenitus in the maindeck. I sideboarded out the four Standstills for two Propaganda and two Echoing Truth (with two Jittes in the maindeck). Let’s look at some opening hands…
What’s the first thing question we have to ask when we look at this hand? Did you say “who won the first game?” That question matters so much because Daze is just miles better on the play instead of on the draw. On the play, this hand is a likely keeper. Our first turn is playing the Cursecatcher with a possible Daze to stop an Aether Vial. Our second turn is a Silvergill Adept, revealing our other Cursecatcher. Here, we’ll almost definitely use our Daze if we didn’t stop a Vial with it before. After that, we can run out the other Cursecatcher. While the 1/1 is wimpy on its own, most Merfolk lists run 10+ Lords, so having three guys out on the board when you land Lord of Atlantis means that the opponent gets tagged for an immediate seven damage. Wow! On the draw, the hand is a little slow for what we want to do; it doesn’t have as many good plays because it’s a turn behind in attacking the opponent.
Aether Vial is what makes this hand worth a look. We have to, again, ask whether we’re on the play or the draw. On the play, we probably keep this hand. You lead with a Vial, then on turn 2 play the Jitte or activate Mutavault and attack. On the third turn, you drop a Silvergill Adept with the Vial and get in another Mutavault swing (or equip the Adept if the opponent has threats). On the draw, however, you expose your Vial to Daze and you are stunted pretty hard by an opposing Wasteland. Outside of Mutavault, the earliest turn you can get a creature on the table is the third turn. I would keep this on the play but send it back, with some consternation, on the draw.
This is a middle-of-the-road hand. It has the advantage of having two manlands and a decently solid curve, culminating in a Propaganda to slow things down. However, it lacks Jitte, Vial or Silvergill Adept, meaning it has no real sources of tempo or card advantage. I would keep this hand, but I wouldn’t expect to win against an opponent who leads with an Aether Vial.
Yuck! No Islands makes this hand a likely mulligan, especially with the two Blue-intensive Faeries sticking around. However, it does have the potential to play out Mutavaults and Jitte, allowing you to attack with the animated land and its magical sword. Force of Will either protects the Jitte or prevents an opponent from playing a creature before you attack, letting you snag two charge counters. When I played this hand (on the draw), it won because the opponent kept a 1-land hand and only had Aether Vial to accelerate most of the game. A charged Jitte killed their side and I won. However, it is a hand that was, by no means, a sure thing. A mulligan would have been a smart decision too.
This illustrates a weak hand; it’s got plenty of lands, but nothing to use them for. We’d have to hope for a strong topdeck to pull us out, which is something that Merfolk is not good at doing. In this case, the next creature is probably going cost three mana and come out on the third turn, which is too slow to matter at all.
This has the potential to be a very pesky hand. Though it lacks any real pressure, it has two counters that can stop a substantial threat from an opponent and a Propaganda that can slow things down more. If the Cursecatcher were any other creature, this hand would be better. As it is, it’s too reactive for my tastes and I would mulligan it. That’s because this hand requires a lot of “ifs” from the opponent to do well. If they play a 2-drop and you have a blue mana up, Spell Snare is good. If they play a Mutavault, your Wasteland is good. If they only run out a Silvergill Adept early, your Cursecatcher is good. Nothing is especially strong in here on its own, so I would mulligan.
Merfolk Mirror Maxims
Fishy combat, attacking and blocking in ways that Merfolk does in the mirror, is uncommon in Legacy. There are a few important maxims to keep in mind while playing the mirror. They are:
– You only die at zero life. Yes, obvious, but remember that tap-out attacks are fine, even if they entail a return salvo. You want to pay a lot of attention when your life total is equal to the amount of damage they can deal on the return swing plus an extra damage per creature, which represents an opponent drawing and playing a Lord.
– Having four Umezawa’s Jitte post-sideboard is not crazy.
– A Cursecatcher only really shines with a Lord effect in play.
– Merrow Reejerey can untap, as well as tap, permanents.
– Daze is worth playing around, since it’s so easy to play around and the downside of waiting a turn to run out another card is lessened by the power of blanking an opposing card. The one exception is that it’s the correct play to run an Aether Vial in the face of Daze on the first turn. Taking the opponent down a land is an okay consolation prize if you lose Vial and the Vial is best on the first turn and declines dramatically if it lands later.
– Lords are good to play pre-combat; everything else is better post-combat, since post-combat creatures can punish an opponent’s blocking decisions.
– However, trading Cursecatchers is very dependent on whether you have another Lord in hand or whether you think they’ll land another one. If you cannot answer that Lord hitting, try to force the trade. Otherwise, hold onto yours, especially if you can pump it up in the next turn or two.
Wrapping Up With Experimental Sideboarding Plans
Two cards come to mind when I think about how to solve the weakness in Merfolk of postboard threat density and card advantage: Faerie Conclave and Compulsive Research. The former is effectively a 1-drop, and while it turns on opposing Wastelands, it can also pull down Vendilion Cliques and fly over carrying a Jitte (if you have all the mana in the world). I would not run more than two in the maindeck, but it was a solid card in the UR Fish mirror because it was a steady stream of damage. Compulsive Research is probably the best card draw for the Merfolk mirror, turning superfluous lands into one or two more creatures. It’s an example of outside thinking to address weaknesses with a sideboard, but both cards are purely experimental and meant to get you thinking about the sorts of cards you should consider.
If you use this information to get an edge in your next mirror match, email me or post on the forums! If you think I got something wrong or undervalued a card, give feedback! Happy fishing!
Until next week…
legacysallure at gmail dot com
P.S. I set up a Twitter feed for this article at twitter.com/legacysallure and you can consider it a sneak-peek for the weekly column, another discussion place for feedback and a way to read up on topics I think are talk-worthy but not article-worthy. I look forward to communicating there too!