Magical Hack – Plenty More Fish In The Sea

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Friday, March 28th – With the ability to finally turn my eye away from Extended, it seems there is a rather interesting Standard metagame out there if you look for it. Unfortunately, I’d looked at the Standard metagame and neatly categorized it just like everyone else has, and came up with two different potential solutions to the current metagame: Merfolk, and Blue-based Control.

With the ability to finally turn my eye away from Extended, it seems there is a rather interesting Standard metagame out there if you look for it. Unfortunately, I’d looked at the Standard metagame and neatly categorized it just like everyone else has, and came up with two different potential solutions to the current metagame: Merfolk, and Blue-based Control. I say “unfortunately” because I publish my articles each and every Friday, and this week I’d found both the things I wanted to talk about covered here on StarCityGames.com on Wednesday.

Deadlines can be a real bother, sometimes. But scooped is as scooped does, and the differences will not be quite as large as I would have hoped but will just have to suffice. Luis Scott-Vargas started his article this week with a look at Mystical Teachings control, which he quickly settled on as unplayable due to the existence of good decks with Bitterblossom. I had not aimed to look at Teachings-based control, instead thinking that a more ‘Sonic Boom’-type approach might be a reasonable list, but it’s not really hard to convince me to leave it behind when LSV can present a fully-functional Teachings list and state quite frankly that it loses to what is currently the best deck in the format: Faeries.

You don’t have to twist my arm very hard to get me to leave behind a traditional control deck and start working on Merfolk instead. And given my experience with the Merfolk so far, I had some pretty strong notions. First of all, your decklist should be starting with four each of Stonybrook Banneret, Silvergill Adept, Lord of Atlantis, and Merrow Reejerey. Everything else is negotiable from there, but these are the four ‘Folk that can actually accelerate your aggressive push and give you something else to work with while you’re at it, because Bannerets and Reejerey can save mana like it’s nobody’s business especially when they are working together in concert. Add to that the fact that you have eight cheap Lords and suddenly we have something appealing to talk about.

With so little variability in where the creatures are going, what makes things truly interesting, then, is deciding on the supporting cast of spells. I think Benjamin Peebles-Mundy gets one very simple thing wrong in his analysis of Merfolk this week, and that is assuming that Ancestral Visions is fast enough to help you. While this is a card that is clearly excellent whenever you have the kind of time it takes to work, the simple truth is that Merfolk is not a deck that is about taking that sort of time to set up. It may require that time, incidentally, to win against resistance… but unlike Faeries backed by Bitterblossom, it is a tempo-based strategy rather than an actual strategy where waiting can get you what you want.

Working with this basic core of a few Merfolk I would like to include, there are two decision trees we can follow: we can stick with Merfolk’s presumed color pairing, the Blue/White treatment as arranged by the Lorwyn tribes, or we can chase another color pairing entirely for a suite of spells that better suit the tribe’s needs… Black. Blue/White has obvious benefits, in that you get to make use of Wanderwine Hub as a high-powered dual land and can dip into the White merfolk if you want them, but Blue/Black requires serious consideration as well when you look at how things work as the metagame plays out. White can get you a few small cards, and is generally only actually considered for Sygg and Mirror Entity, plus Reveillark just as a high-power White card that can accomplish the deck’s goals in the face of an opponent’s removal. Black can get you Nameless Inversion as a ‘merfolk’ and access to Thoughtseize as well, while coming at a very low cost to your manabase thanks to the variety of good dual lands available.

Taking two looks, then, we see the following:

4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Merrow Reejerey
4 Stonybrook Banneret
4 Silvergill Adept
4 Tideshaper Mystic
4 Sower of Temptation

4 Ponder
4 Rune Snag
4 Sage’s Dousing

4 Mutavault
4 Wanderwine Hub
4 Adarkar Wastes
2 Faerie Conclave
10 Island

This is a pretty good basic deck, and has a decent mana-curve with two different spells worth casting on the first turn and a little bit of Faerie Conclave action if you’re lacking the cheap drops… but is otherwise all Tribal synergy, with Merfolk that work very well together, lots of cantripping with the Adepts and Dousing, and a slight bit of added synergy with Banneret-into-Sower action. We have some significant changes to Ben’s version, skipping out on Sygg for more copies of Sower and ditching Unsummon for some more cheap drops instead. [Do we still need the White-producing lands? — Craig.] We also leave behind Ancestral Visions, the slow card advantage source, for the faster Ponder, which hurts the overall card-advantage scheme of the deck but does greatly improve the overall card velocity: the rate at which you see new cards. Waiting four turns for cards you want to do stuff with now is not my idea of a good time.

This is a pretty good start… but my sneaking suspicion is, you can do better. While I am a fan of several of these things, I’m pretty sure that Thoughtseize and Nameless Inversion will make me a good deal happier. The mana is practically free, since you can use River of Tears and Underground River at minimal cost and can even use Secluded Glen without getting very upset about it, as we are trimming the one-drops a bit and will have eight Faerie spells to reveal to Secluded Glen. This does unfortunately preclude us from playing Faerie Conclave as well, but that is a small price to pay considering they lack truly impressive synergy with the rest of the deck.

4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Merrow Reejerey
4 Stonybrook Banneret
4 Silvergill Adept
4 Sower of Temptation

4 Thoughtseize
4 Nameless Inversion
4 Rune Snag
4 Sage’s Dousing

4 Mutavault
4 Wanderwine Hub
4 Secluded Glen
4 Underground River
4 River of Tears
4 Island

We do lose something as far as sheer deck velocity goes… Ponder is an excellent ‘fixer,’ even without shuffle effects to select one of the three cards and get rid of what’s left, and the poor man’s Brainstorm is still a better Brainstorm than no Brainstorm at all. We do instead however get to play with Thoughtseize alongside the countermagic package, and now feature both Sower of Temptation and Nameless Inversion as our ‘removal’ package. Add this Faerie-esque removal suite to a deck whose creature base is intended to beat the Faerie deck, and things will presumably work out very well indeed: you can do a reasonable imitation of the ‘best’ deck, with your tribal synergy and the same overall counterspell and creature-removal capabilities, while otherwise reaping the benefits inherent to the Merfolk tribe.

The manabase is rather interesting, as we are pushing in four Secluded Glens to help fix the mana off the presumption that at least some of the time it will be better than Frost Marsh… and Wanderwine Hub is a ‘better’ Island alongside the Rivers of Tears and Underground River, leaving us just four actual Islands to our name. Amusingly, this helps to both make us a Cryoclasm-proof Blue deck (how many of those do YOU want against a deck with exactly four targets?) that won’t even be very subject to suffering an opponent’s Islandwalking, lessening the negative impact of Lord of Atlantis in a world where Mutavault is quickly becoming the single most-played card in Standard.

The creature suite of Lord/Reejerey/Banneret/Adept is the power that draws us into the Merfolk tribe, and with all of these Wizards lying around it isn’t hard to see why Sage’s Dousing is top on our list of potential counterspells to play with. When everything is firing on all four cylinders, you’ll see Nameless Inversions that cost one mana and untap that same land used to cast it, followed by low-priced Sage’s Dousing on a follow-up spell… drawing a card instead of untapping a land. Barring mass removal spells from the opponent, you would expect the tribal synergy to provide a potent attack force… and the tag-team of Thoughtseize plus countermagic is a powerful one that has made a notable impact as far away from Standard as Vintage, where it breaks up ‘real’ combo decks, not just the Reveillark combo deck. Picking a sideboard, then, for this ‘preferred’ list, is the next step… and you have to keep your targets firmly in mind: Faeries, R/G Big Mana, Elf Aggro, Mono-Red, and U/W Reveillark are the main components of the metagame, and the deck is only specifically poised to prey upon the other Blue decks. Presumably we will want a more thorough sideboard against the rest.

4 Flashfreeze
4 Damnation
4 Dragon’s Claw
2 Cryptic Command
1 Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth

The concept behind this here is as follows: against Reveillark, you need very little help, mostly only worrying about their Wraths and their ability to use the graveyard. No real substitution will dramatically improve the plan, since you already have the full boat of Sowers main and a solid tempo plan. Card advantage would be wonderful here, but you can’t really afford to spend a lot on it either mana-wise or turn-wise, so unless we are investing in Ancestral Vision after sideboarding I suspect that the main plan is already functional. The testing I’ve done so far has been against Reveillark decks, and I’d basically found that removing anything really just seemed painful. I settled finally on a light change: remove two Nameless Inversion, add two Cryptic Command, as this is the kind of matchup where you will actually have that kind of time.

Faerie decks are very similar, except for the fact that Nameless Inversion is actually pretty good against them, so I’ve been changing zero cards and calling it a day. Considering the mission overall was to horn in on the Reveillark and Faeries’ territory with a competitive aggro-control deck, this shouldn’t necessarily be very surprising. Against Elf decks you will want to replace Rune Snag with Flashfreeze and Thoughtseize with Damnation, as the new plan becomes to let them develop their first load of creatures, kill it, then mop up from there. Urborg as the 25th land helps get to double-Black and to get to four mana on time, and is generally better than the 4th Banneret. Nameless Inversion should be saved for man-lands if possible, as otherwise your sweepers, counters, and Sowers do fine. Against R/G Mana Ramp, Rune Snag dies out in usefulness but Nameless Inversion is well and truly useless against a deck with only four targets even worth aiming it at… which happen to leave a few handy tokens around while it’s at it. With six cards to bring in, we’ll hold onto two Rune Snags because they aren’t absolutely dead, and add in the four copies of Flashfreeze and two Cryptic Commands.

And Mono-Red burn… it’s like Athlete’s Foot, no matter the format these days it seems it’s the deck that just won’t go away. The standard sideboard card du jour is Dragon’s Claw, to preserve your life-total while keeping things under control; four Claws come in for four Thoughtseizes because Shocking yourself to take a Shock out of their hand is an absolutely awful proposition… and four Rune Snags become four Flashfreezes, for presumably the obvious reasons. The small men are not happy to play against a ton of Red spells, especially when some of those spells are Pyroclasm, but thankfully some of these cards cantrip and your Horns can make their spells highly ineffective when pointed at your face, so your mission should you choose to accept it is to find a way to kill them with Merfolk and lands before they kill all of your men and work on you with their lands. Point your countermagic accordingly… because it is already a chore to try and tackle them with individual Merfolk instead of a team of them, and if they kill all of your threats then they will have the luxury of working you over with man-lands at their leisure.

Now, for an actual play-by-play, let’s have a look at a sample match against one of the most powerful decks in the format: U/W Reveillark, the natural evolution of the U/W Blink strategy. We are unfortunately on the draw for the first game, but as you’ll see that doesn’t work so badly for us overall. Our opening hand is Nameless Inversion, Silvergill Adept, Silvergill Adept, Thoughtseize, Island, Underground River, and Rune Snag. They lead with Faerie Conclave, identifying themselves as any of Faeries, Merfolk or Reveillark… no real information is gained.

Underground River into Thoughtseize is awfully painful but just what the doctor ordered; their hand is a Plains plus Riftwatcher, Mirror Entity, Body Double, Venser, and a Riftwing Cloudskate… and takes Cloudskate, as the rest is currently of no relevance and this play buys the most tempo. On turn 2 he plays his Plains and nothing else, so that Thoughtseize has done its job. For our second turn we play an Island and cast Silvergill Adept, revealing Nameless Inversion and drawing a second copy of the same. His third turn is a time-buying Riftwatcher, off a freshly-drawn Island; our third turn is a second Silvergill Adept which draws us a third land finally, and we play River of Tears. The opponent plays a second Faerie Conclave, yet another land off the top coming to rescue his sorely-weakened hand after that Thoughtseize, and suspends a Riftwing Cloudskate, leaving the remainder of his hand as known information: Venser, Body Double, and Mirror Entity.

For our part we are looking for some more land drops as well, but drew something reasonable at least instead and point Thoughtseize at the opponent, taking Venser out of the picture since it is one of the few ways he can do anything interesting at Instant speed to force a spell through. We are now at 14, all self-inflicted by Underground River into Thoughtseize. His permanents fade and he casts Careful Consideration, which thankfully walks right into the Rune Snag we’ve been waiting to deploy. On our turn again we draw and play an Island, glad to have more mana with which to deploy our spells, and on his turn his Riftwatcher goes away leaving him a full ten life higher than us… a gap we can now start to close. Riftwing Cloudskate fades to one. The opponent still hasn’t found a fifth land and evokes Mulldrifter to remedy that; Sage’s Dousing nullifies his attempt to draw more mana and gives us a card to boot.

A fresh Underground River for our side gives us our fifth land, and two Adepts crash in to knock him down to a mere twenty life again. With a hand full of permission and Nameless Inversions, we end the turn. Riftwing Cloudskate comes in and bounces River of Tears, which provokes a fight over that Cloudskate with my Nameless Inversion. He hasn’t drawn a Blink yet, and we had Rune Snag to answer it if he did, since with only one White mana he can’t outfox us with two Blinks. He then draws for the turn and plays an Island, finally getting to five mana. He casts Body Double which falls to another Rune Snag, keeping his hand near-empty and the path clear for the Merfolk. Stonybrook Banneret comes down on our side and the Adepts crash him down to 16… still three life points higher than we ourselves possess. The opponent draws, doesn’t play a land and casts Mirror Entity, leaving just that mystery card drawn this turn in reserve, and Sage’s Dousing merrily cantrips for us while killing his threat. Merrow Reejerey ups the clock to “dead next turn” with yet another counterspell in reserve in case a White source plus Wrath of God is his hand plus the top of his deck, and the opponent concedes after drawing his next card.

For game 2, we’ve switched the two Cryptic Commands in for two Nameless Inversion, and again things look like they are going to start favorably. We mulligan a weak hand and keep Secluded Glen, Island, Mutavault, Lord of Atlantis, Silvergill Adept and Sage’s Dousing, which at least promises to get some early action in and draw some cards to recover from the mulligan. An Island on the opponent’s part starts the game, while we lead with Secluded Glen with no Faerie to untap it even if we wanted to. Turn 2, the opponent follows with Plains into Mind Stone, while we play Island plus Silvergill Adept. The opponent takes advantage of his mana-ramping with Adarkar Wastes into Careful Consideration, discarding Wrath and an Island… basically ensuring there is a second Wrath in that hand. Our third land is a Mutavault and we begin the long, hard tap-dance across our opponent’s face with that Adept and pass the turn.

For turn 4, the opponent leads with Faerie Conclave then casts Mirror Entity leaving one Blue up, and again Sage’s Dousing eats his card while giving us a fresh one. Underground River plus Lord of Atlantis ups the damage with Rune Snag in hand. Whether our opponent will choose to not play around the Rune Snag becomes academic when he plays another Island and thus has the mana to pay for a Snag anyway, and casts that second Wrath of God we suspected. A second Mutavault comes down on our next turn, as our fifth land, and we leave two up again for that Rune Snag. The opponent then starts his next turn by casting a second Mind Stone, then all but tapping out for Body Double… clearly a misplay as now we can Rune Snag the Body Double, where otherwise he could have chosen to ‘only’ expose the Mind Stone to Rune Snag. We do of course counter the Body Double, then lead with Thoughtseize on our turn seeing just Adarkar Wastes and Momentary Blink, stripping the last spell from his hand… which is good because we are now out of countermagic.

Merrow Reejerey and two Mutavaults attack, since we are out of countermagic, and dropping eight life off his total is way better than bluffing something we don’t have. The opponent falls to 5, making our next attack very potent, and their draw off the top is Mulldrifter. Their next two cards can’t be that interesting though, as his best plan is to block with one of those Conclaves to not die, and the game is cleaned up by declaring attackers, letting the opponent activate a Conclave (he’s dead otherwise) and lock the game away with a Nameless Inversion killing the Mulldrifter and tapping the Conclave. Sometimes you just have to stop playing control and brute-force the game home.

We played a third game based on the question “What if I topdecked the Wrath there?”, as his other card was Reveillark and the following turn would allow him to Reveillark + Blink the entire ‘combo’ into play, setting himself up at infinite life and me back to zero permanents in play. In this third game, I led with Thoughtseize into Lord of Atlantis into Merrow Reejerey, playing a second Lord on turn 4 and keeping up mana for Rune Snag on… whatever… and having the fourth land plus Cryptic Command the following turn to clear away anything problematic if I needed another turn. I didn’t. So some games are the aggro-tempo “bash bash bash” games, and it is a very different game when you are on the play. Starting from the back foot I was able to claw my way ahead of him in both cards and tempo, in the first two games… on the play, well, it was a horrific mess of fatal aggression backed with disruption and countermagic.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Merfolk might be a contender for Hollywood and thus also the Regionals due to follow it… since it is looking very, very solid at the moment. I am well-known for being a man who loves me a Merfolk, I mean I was casting Sandbar Merfolk while everyone else was casting Yawmgoth’s Will, Yawmgoth’s Bargain, or Replenish… or sometimes Tinker, just for variety. You don’t have to twist my arm very far to convince me the little Blue men and the Lord of Atlantis are playable again, and this is a very sexy suite of Merfolk we have available to us right now. Put them in the proper soil… which to my mind may just be Thoughtseize plus Nameless Inversion as the fellow support cards… and voila, call it a deck.

Whether this does in fact have significant benefits over the heavier-White splash, which has never been known to deal three damage to itself casting Thoughtseize on the first turn, that is presumably up to more playtesting to figure out… but my experiences with Thoughtseize complementing the counterspell suite has been very positive so far. And come Hollywood and afterward, it seems like we may have even better mana to work with… we could play the exact same deck with literally zero Island if we wanted, if you play with the Orb of Insight and note that the words “Graven” and “Cairns” show up once time each. In the world of Hybrid mana, it seems, we will be seeing our first set of Future Sight expanded cycles, as it looks as if Graven Cairns is going to get four friends to play with as well… and the U/B hybrid mana land would seem to be an excellent fit alongside what we are already playing.

But that’s thinking for a month or so from now, not now… if you are looking for something new and perhaps a bit more interesting with which to tear up the format, it seems the time of the Merfolk may just be now. And just because I am a biased member of the media doesn’t make such claims “media bias.”

Sean McKeown
s_mckeown @ hotmail.com