Merfolk Or Pirates: Which Is The Better Tempo Deck?

Pro Tour Hall of Famer Patrick Chapin is all over Rivals of Ixalan! The two big projects at the moment? Finding the perfect Merfolk list…or maybe the perfect Pirates list! Join him for a number of new lists that utilize tempo to gain the early new Standard edge!





There are so many supported creature types, these days, one barely knows
where to start…

Oh, right, start with the blue cards.

Silvergill Adept is a very efficient Magic card. When it comes to
presenting an on-tribe threat without actually having to invest much of
anything, Silvergill Adept is among the best. Historically, one of the
weaknesses of any tribal strategy is needing to commit a lot to the
battlefield. When you’re playing some tribal lords that pay you for each
creature of the special type, you’re typically above average vulnerable to

Silvergill Adept sidesteps this problem by taking its tribal reward in the
form of another card in hand, rather than having to actually risk anything
on the table. Now, you’re just risking the two mana, and with two power to
start, along with whatever Merfolk bonuses it might be picking up, so
you’re not risking much.

The first Ixalan set wasn’t the greatest for Standard Merfolk, and
with zero legal from other sets, there were slim pickings to choose from.
Kumena’s Speaker is a conditional 2/2, but at this point, tons of tribes
have stuff like that. River Sneak isn’t the worst, but there just weren’t
enough good cheap Merfolk to make it relevant.

As if that wasn’t enough, the mana was pretty awful. Unclaimed Territory
was supposed to be the fixer for tribal decks; but how are we supposed to
take advantage of blue’s permission and green’s pump spells when Unclaimed
Territory helps cast neither?

Well, Rivals of Ixalan has so many more Merfolk incentives worth
considering than there is possibly room for, so one possible solution is to
remove or reduce our need for colored mana on non-Merfolk spells.

Merfolk decks in powered formats are frequently built with a ton
of their mana unable to actually cast colored spells. While most are two
colors, at this point, they’re mostly Merfolk, with only a very sparing
number of non-Merfolk, non-mana cards. Maybe we can take a page out of
their playbook?

Both Merfolk Mistbinder and Deeproot Elite are tribal lords that work best
when combined with spamming as many bodies as possible. Merfolk Mistbinder
is basically Master of the Pearl Trident without the islandwalk.

Yeah, there are a lot of those at this point. Let me get something out of
the way real quick:

Okay, so with regard to Standard, if Merfolk Mistbinder is our Lord of
Atlantis, then Deeproot Elite is our Metallic Mimic. It’s only a 1/1 base,
but the +1/+1 counters have virtual “haste.”

Isn’t Metallic Mimic still legal?

Oh, right. Well, as is traditional with Merfolk decks, this calls for a
list with far too many two-drops.

With twelve two-drop Lords and Silvergill Adept, it’s hard to find room for
more two-drops; but we’ve gotta pack Merfolk Branchwalker, too, right?

It’s not exactly Silvergill Adept, but when it’s not, it’s a 3/2 with scry
1. If we end up needing to shave two-drops, maybe we’re supposed to start
with Deeproot Elite or Metallic Mimic?

Crashing Tide means you can play Repulse in Standard, as long as you agree
to play some Merfolk (and for what it’s worth, you might be able to get
away with just sixteen Merfolk, or some other not all-in total).

Mist-Cloaked Herald’s unblockable helps make up for the lack of islandwalk,
and just being a remotely playable one-drop at all means a lot.
Mist-Cloaked Herald’s ability to keep punching through seems slightly
wasted here, however. How often are we really locking up the battlefield
and then winning with evasion? Isn’t that list pretty deep into “play all
Pack Rat” territory? It’s nice to be able to put Deeproot Elite’s +1/+1
counters on it and all, but what does the gamestate look like?

Now, Kumena is a pretty interesting Merfolk. For starters, 2/4 is a bigger
body than most. In a format with so many Shocks, Lightning Strikes,
Abrades, and Fatal Pushes, this is a pretty respectable stat-line. It’s
also well-suited to locking up battlefields, which plays into its three
abilities, which all help resolve battlefield stalls.

While Kumena’s first ability is most commonly a tactical weapon that can
threaten to end games or keep planeswalkers under control, the second
ability is probably the one that most jumps out at people.

Like Cryptbreaker, Kumena can draw lots of cards in a standoff; and since
time is money, it’s super dope that this ability has virtual haste.

Kumena’s final ability brings things to a head very quickly, since
activating it during your opponent’s end step implies at least +5/+5 worth
of value when you untap.

Once we’re playing this many Lords, are we supposed to be running Deeproot
Waters? I already think we’d want to sideboard it, even if we didn’t
maindeck it; but it might just be a better way to grind out decks full of
red spot removal. I also wonder if we’re supposed to cut the River Heralds’
Boons so that we can run less Forests and more Islands?

Similarly, I could actually imagine a style of Merfolk deck embracing the
tokens with so many lords. We could do worse than 3/3 across two bodies,
one of which has hexproof.

Forerunner of the Heralds looks appealing in that it’s another tribal lord,
it works with +1/+1 counter synergies, and it can keep the business
flowing. However, it sure is fragile for a four-drop. That said, there is
kind of an interesting assortment of tutor targets worth considering.

My first thought would be to try Tempest Caller instead of Herald of Secret
Streams so as to avoid getting blown out by removal. As for Seafloor
Oracle, well, it raises some interesting questions…

Curious Obsession is one of the Rivals cards I’m most interested about. Curiosity has seen plenty of play, and an extra
+1/+1 is the difference between Isamaru, Hound of Konda and Mons’s Goblin
Raiders. Besides, I was already interested in Sixth Sense.

The main problem I had with Sixth Sense decks was how much worse they were
when you don’t draw its namesake. The cheap evasion creatures just weren’t
strong enough on their own, but Mist-Cloaked Herald and River Sneak have a
lot of tribal synergies, as well as aura synergies, and Kumena, Tyrant of
Orazca isn’t too shabby, either. Even just buffing Kumena’s Speaker can be
solid, if you get the first hit in for free.

From here, an intuitive tingling has me intensely wondering about if
there’s a build featuring both Sixth Sense and Curious Obsession?

Silvergill Adept is a hard card to get away from, but is there any chance
we’re actually supposed to be playing Slither Blade?

It doesn’t work with the tribal lords, so the whole Merfolk angle probably
falls apart, but maybe Curious Obsession is the real angle we should be

First off, just to be clear, I kind of imagine that either Attune with
Aether or Rogue Refiner gets banned. Whichever one doesn’t could also be a
solid option for this list. If neither does, well, I’d recommend working
with the energy engine for a change.

Getting to play Blossoming Defense and Dive Down is yet another
opportunity for redundancy, helping protect our dozen evasive one-drops and
eight-pack of auras; and Siren Stormtamer kind of works like both an
evasive one-drop and a form of protection for our engine.

It doesn’t really work with this few of Merfolk, but if we did end up
playing an actual Merfolk deck with auras, we might consider small numbers
of Swift Wardens. Flash is a pretty sweet ability anyway, and a surprise
3/3 might be just what the doctor ordered against Longtusk Cub, Whirler
Virtuoso, and Earthshaker Khenra. If only the mana wasn’t so hard…

I’m not sure Deeproot Champion is really the best finisher, but it seems
like a good way to leverage all this card draw and mana efficiency. Once
we’re this focused on setting up an engine that can draw extra cards every
turn, we’re generally going to be more inclined to look for a “Baneslayer”
finisher, as opposed to a bunch of “Mulldrifter.” Our unblockable card
draw machines are already Baneslayers we had to build, so we might as well
get our money’s worth and play all Baneslayers.

With so many +1/+1 counter cards around, there’s a lot of pressure to
squeeze Winding Constrictors in somehow. The mana is a real challenge, but
one possibility is to cut blue.

Without Mist-Cloaked Herald, we kind of need another one-drop; so while
Jade Bearer isn’t super flashy, at least it’s even on theme.

It’s not the most one-drop-y one-drop in the world, but at least it has
value if we rip it later.

Okay, I’ve managed to go this long without discussing Jadelight Ranger,
which is kind of a feat, in and of itself. Not surprisingly, I suspect I’d
enjoy the Merfolk Mulldrifter.

2/1 Draw two.

3/2 Draw a card and Scry 1.

4/3 Scry 2.

These aren’t the worst options, even if the first scry can be slightly
awkward (since you do kind of want extra cards, but you also don’t
necessarily want to discard a sweet spell). Besides, play it after a
Winding Constrictor and you’re kind of doing it (since doubling two
explores is basically cheating).

Jadelight Ranger looks like the type of Merfolk one might be willing to
play in a non-Merfolk deck, and I kind of wonder if there’s a new type of
Merfolk deck possible that starts with these twelve:

4 Silvergill Adept

4 Merfolk Branchwalker

4 Jadelight Ranger

From there, we need at least a couple more Merfolk, but maybe the deck
isn’t supposed to be all Lords at all. It might even be able to look like a
normal deck (which might mean Longtusk Cubs and Rogue Refiner).

Before we get off the Curious Obsession tip, I wanted to try it in a Pirate
deck, as Siren Stormtamer isn’t the only Pirate with evasion:

We need more folks to wear auras, and there are plenty of two-drops to
choose from. Of the one many 2/1 flying options, one really stands out to

Warkite Marauder’s ability looks awesome, when ran alongside a bunch of
Shocks and Lightning Strikes. Being able to turn any burn spell into a
Terminate is very attractive and really helps make up for our lack of hard

It may not be hard removal, but Dreamcaller Siren contributes to the whole
“Skies” experience, and can be a very effective trick for stealing a bunch
of tempo.

Another fine Curious Obsession target, Storm Fleet Sprinter puts the
pressure on and keeps blocking a non-plan.

Direfleet Daredevil is ostensibly the red Snapcaster Mage. It has first
strike instead of flash and hits your opponent’s graveyard instead of
yours. It’s generally better than Snapcaster as an actual two-drop (and a
2/1 first striker is really not too bad at all), but it’s also near the
ceiling of its range less frequently.

While Dire Fleet Daredevil doesn’t have flash naturally, but with Siren’s
Ruse, we can fake it.

Siren’s Ruse is a potent blink effect that retriggers enters the
battlefield abilities like Dire Fleet Daredevil’s or Dreamcaller Siren. It
might pull us in a different direction than Curious Obsession, but both
seem worth checking out.

If we are dedicated to the Curious Obsession plan, we might also consider
Kari Zev, Skyship Raider. It’s an evasive two-drop with slightly more
durability, and it hits harder than most twos.

Alternatively, we could just lean into red aggro hard, with blue being just
fliers and maybe a tiny bit of permission, rather than worrying about card

Daring Buccaneer is pretty close to a 2/2 for one, and if you don’t mind a
creature without evasion, it does bring a lot of stats. It’s even cheaper
to backup plan than Goldmeadow Stalwart was.

With so many cheap Pirates, are we supposed to be turning to Fell Flagship
as an Anthem?

It’s not really in sync with the red aggro approach, but it might be a
solid part of a hybrid style that has at least a little focus on value.

So, Merfolk or Pirates?

Pirates or Merfolk?

Trick question.