Merfolk Mastery

The multitudinous Merfolk of Rivals of Ixalan have Collins Mullen brewing up a storm! Get his takes on specific high-profile cards and check out his decklists for Standard and Modern dominance at SCG Dallas!

Rivals of Ixalan is right around the corner, and one tribe in particular has me very excited to start brewing again.

That’s right, it’s Merfolk!

Merfolk got a lot of sweet new toys in Rivals, and it looks like some of them are poised to make an impact in both Modern and Standard.

This is excellent news for Modern Merfolk, because although the deck made a big splash in Modern directly following the release of Ixalan, Merfolk hasn’t really shown up as much lately. This may be due to the rise in popularity of Jeskai Control decks, but it’s also likely that the Merfolk deck in Modern proved to not quite have what it takes to compete in Modern. I’m hoping that Rivals of Ixalan will change that.

Standard is also overdue for a shake-up, and the power level of some of these cards is high enough to give me hope that this could actually happen.

First, let’s go over the notable Merfolk that are set to be released in Rivals of Ixalan.

I expected there to be some kind of Merfolk “lord” in the new set, but I expected it to be three mana and more oriented towards Limited play. When I first saw Merfolk Mistbinder revealed, I was fairly surprised. A two-mana lord is about as good as it gets. This card has huge implications for Modern because the current Modern Merfolk decks want as many two-mana lords as they can get their hands on. Some lists were even going so far as to play Phantasmal Image for another pseudo-lord effect.

This card is fascinating, and rather difficult to rate without actually playtesting with it. My initial instincts tell me that Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca has potential to be excellent in Standard, but not quite good enough for Modern. Kumena excels at winning battlefield-stall scenarios and is reminiscent of Cryptbreaker from the Zombies deck in the previous Standard format.

Kumena’s second ability gives the Merfolk deck the ability to generate massive value after clogging up the battlefield, and just a few activations of the third ability should be able to end the game quickly. This is a great effect for Standard, but the Modern Merfolk deck is already excellent at breaking battlefield stalls, as it runs so many lords that the creatures become overwhelmingly large, and it has the ability to make all of their creatures unblockable.

Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca even benefits from having four toughness, which gets it out of range of many of the damage-based removal spells in Standard, such as Lightning Strike and Abrade. It still dies to Harnessed Lightning, but that card might as well be Terminate.

Deeproot Elite is strictly worse than any two-mana lord, and for that reason I don’t believe Deeproot Elite will make the cut in Modern. It does have potential to shine in Standard, however, as long as the Merfolk deck has the ability to cast a lot of Merfolk relatively quickly. One angle to take on that would be having a very low curve with multiple one-drop Merfolk. Luckily for us, we were given Kumena’s Speaker in Ixalan, which is an excellent one-drop Merfolk. We even have a couple more one-drops that are worth taking a look at.

Many players might overlook these one-drop Merfolk when evaluating cards for Constructed play, but I believe these one-drops have a lot of potential in the right aggressive shell. Jade Bearer isn’t the best Turn 1 play, but if our plan is to continue to curve out with efficiently costed Merfolk past Turn 1, Jade Bearer does an excellent job filling out our curve. It’s a good body to trigger Deeproot Elite and acts as another body to help fuel Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca.

Mist-Cloaked Herald is an effective reprint of Triton Shorestalker, so it isn’t actually new to Modern. But its printing alongside Jade Bearer has me thinking that there could be a new and interesting way to build Merfolk in Modern. Perhaps instead of playing Aether Vial and a bunch of two-drop creatures, we could lower the curve to make the deck more aggressive. More on this later.

This card also plays an important role in the Standard version of the deck because it’s likely that the Standard deck will also want to be low to the ground. Mist-Cloaked Herald will be another efficient Merfolk to synergize with Deeproot Elite and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca.

Silvergill Adept needs little introduction, as it has already demonstrated its power in the Modern Merfolk deck. Adding a relevant body to the battlefield while drawing a card is a powerful effect. While its reprint in Rivals of Ixalan doesn’t affect Modern at all, it is an excellent sign for Standard players hoping for a new archetype.

Swift Warden is an excellent card against any control deck for Merfolk, whether in Standard or Modern. Having a flash threat can make things awkward for a control player, and the ability to give one of your creatures hexproof at instant speed can be a huge blowout if done in response to a critical removal spell. I don’t know if this card will end up making the maindeck of any Merfolk shell, but it does seem like an excellent sideboard option in any Merfolk deck.

This card has huge implications for Modern in particular because it helps out a lot with the matchup that has proven to be troublesome for Merfolk: Jeskai Control. Swift Warden gives you another threat to flash in after a Supreme Verdict as well as a just-plain-annoying card that the control player will always have to keep in mind.

I’m not very excited about Jadelight Ranger because it doesn’t seem to have a high enough impact for a three-mana card. Maybe I’m completely undervaluing the explore mechanic, but it seems like a good amount of the time you’ll end up playing a three-mana 4/3. This is a decent rate, but it doesn’t really fit in too well with the synergies I’m looking for in a Merfolk deck.

If a Merfolk deck wanted to be more value-oriented, I could definitely see it wanting this card, but my perspective is that the Merfolk decks already have plenty of ways of getting extra value between Silvergill Adept, Merfolk Branchwalker, and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca.

Now that we’ve gone over the new Merfolk cards, let’s see some decklists!

I’m quite excited about this Merfolk list. It can put your opponent under explosive early pressure with Deeproot Elite and Merfolk Mistbinder in combination with all of the one-drop creatures, and it also has the ability to grind well with a bunch of value creatures.

Silvergill Adept, Merfolk Branchwalker, and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca all do their part in keeping the gas flowing, which gives the deck much more staying power than all of the one-drops might indicate. I can easily see Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca quickly taking over a game in this deck by burying the opponent in card advantage and battlefield presence.

The Unsummons play towards the overall aggressive tempo plan that the deck wants to enact and make the deck less dead to something like a Glorybringer. Appeal // Authority also seems like a good way to punch through because the deck should have no problem going wide early on.

This deck got me thinking that there might be a new and more aggressive way to build Merfolk in Modern.

This deck should be slightly faster at playing to the battlefield than previous iterations of Merfolk, which allows it to take better advantage of the fact that we can now run twelve two-drop lords.

The downside to this version, however, is that we lose out on two very powerful Modern Merfolk cards:

Because we are playing so many one-drop creatures, we would much rather curve out with a one-drop into two one-drops than lead with Aether Vial. We also can’t really afford to play Mutavault in a deck that depends so much on casting all of its one-mana creatures and double-colored lords.

The aggro version might be a bit too out-there, so a safer bet would be sticking to a recipe that we know works well and updating it with the new Merfolk Mistbinder.

This list is very close to previous U/G Merfolk lists that have done well in the past, but I’ve replaced Merfolk Branchwalker with Merfolk Mistbinder. I started off thinking that Merfolk Branchwalker was just Silvergill Adept number two, but in practice I have been underwhelmed with the Branchwalker. I believe the rest of the deck is too strong to mess with too much, so I ended up cutting the Branchwalkers altogether in order to fit in the new lord.


I’m sure there are many other directions that we can take Merfolk in both Modern and Standard, and I look forward to seeing what people come up with. There definitely could be a Modern list that uses Collected Company over Aether Vial or a Standard list that is more value-oriented and less aggressive.

That’s part of why I love new sets so much: all the room to explore and try new things. Happy brewing.