Peebles Primers – Merfolk in the Modern Standard

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Wednesday, March 26th – If you check the Top 8s of Standard events both online and in real life, you’ll soon see that Faeries is the deck to beat. One way of taking down the flying menace is through copious use of Islandwalkers. Enter Merfolk, one of the more under-appreciated tribes in Lorwyn Constructed. BPM takes us through his own brand of Merfolk goodness, examining an archetype that is definitely on the rise.

People who are interested in a given Constructed format usually have a great way to find out about what’s going on: Magic Online Premiere Event replays. With the Morningtide release events finally over, Standard players around the world can finally sit down to take a look at the replays from all of the different Top 8s.

If you’re watching the same replays I am, one thing will immediately become abundantly clear: Blue-Black Faeries is the deck. When I started writing this article, there were eight events finished. Six of those eight Premiere Events had at least one Faerie deck in the finals, and one even had four Faerie decks in the semifinals. Most of the Top 8s were relatively diverse, with Big Mana, Reveillark, Elves, and RDW all making plenty of showings, but none of those decks put up more than two finals appearances.

So, it would seem that if you’d like to win a tournament these days, you’d better be ready to beat up on some Faeries.

Of course, that’s been true for a while now. The thing is that the Constructed queues I’ve been fighting my way through don’t really work the same way as the Premiere Events. I’ve played in about six queues in the past day or two, and I’ve only run into Faeries once. If, though, I were planning to run a PE, I’d basically know for a fact that any successful run would wind up with a Faerie matchup somewhere along the line.

Now, people have clearly realized this. Chapin’s article earlier this week ran with the inclusion of a deck that was supposedly tailor-made to beat up on the Faeries: Big Mana can run all sorts of ridiculously powerful cards against little flying guys, whether we’re talking about Cloudthresher, Sulfurous Blast, Pyrohemia, or various Hurricane effects. However, players on Magic Online seem to be coming to another conclusion, and so did a poster in Chapin’s forums: the best decks are playing Islands, and Merfolk come ready-made to walk all over people running Islands.

Appropriately, one of the two finals that didn’t include Faeries was won by a Merfolk build. When I first heard about the idea (my teammate Steve ran into a Merfolk deck in the first round of the StarCityGames.com 5k), I dismissed it, but after losing to it in a queue I began to think about it in the back of my mind. The idea behind the deck is that you play the same game as the Faerie player: you slip in underneath the slower decks with evasive dorks, you control the big spells with your countermagic, and you win while your opponent is trying to get his feet on the ground. Flying might usually be better than Islandwalk, but when you’re facing Bitterblossoms, Mulldrifters, and Squall Lines every round, you might begin to think otherwise.

With all this in mind, I’m going to walk through my own version of the Merfolk deck. Chances are good that my version is going to be very similar to someone else’s, and that that person will have come up with the idea before me. I want to make sure that it’s clear that I didn’t invent the Merfolk deck, I just tried my hand at building my own version.

The Men

Your threat composition is actually pretty tough to figure out. In addition to trying to work the Merfolk angle, you also have to think about how much you want to push the Wizard side of things. After all, Stonybrook Banneret also reduces the cost of your Wizards, and superstars like Sage’s Dousing and Sower of Temptation will love this benefit.

The real problem is just that there are too many good Merfolk to be able to play them all. However, there are a few that I think most people would agree are simply too good to not play. These men include:

Stonybrook Banneret — Reducing costs is extremely powerful in the modern Fish deck, since you’re looking to apply pressure and leave mana open for countermagic. In the ideal curve, you could drop a Silvergill Adept for just one mana on the third turn, and still have mana open to Sage’s Dousing your opponent’s threat. The whole exchange, of course, costs you zero cards.

Lord of Atlantis — One of the big reasons to play this deck is to walk all over people’s Islands. Not only is he a perfectly serviceable 2/2 for two mana, his built-in Anthem and team-wide Islandwalk are exactly what you’re looking for.

Merrow Reejerey — Much like the Banneret, the Reejerey can help you with your plan of leaving up some counter mana by untapping your lands with his triggered ability. Of course, he can also let you swing through the Tarmogoyf your opponent is using to hold your side at bay. And, as everyone already knows, he also pumps your team.

Silvergill Adept — This guy is the most arguable inclusion in my list of must-haves, simply because he’s just another guy. The thing is, he’s just another guy that gives you a free card, and he’s perfect to take advantage of all the benefits of the Banneret, Lord, and Reejerey.

Beyond these four creatures, which I’ve seen in every Merfolk deck for a long time, you’re looking at some other solid hitters:

Sygg, River Guide — With a protection ability reminiscent of Eight-and-a-Half-Tails, Sygg can walk over your opponent’s Islands with no extra help, and save your guys from Skreds and Incinerates while he’s at it. Also very relevant is the ability to protect your Anthem man from an end-of-turn Sulfurous Blast, which will in turn protect your whole team.

Grimoire Thief — Much like Lord of Atlantis, the Thief starts out at a very reasonable size for his cost. While the ability he sports might be worse than the Lord’s, it’s still very relevant. Simply removing cards from your opponent’s deck might cripple them, in the case of the Reveillark matchup, while the counterspell ability is always at least solid and sometimes backbreaking (think Dragonstorm). However, he doesn’t provide your other guys with any abilities, and it’s rare to find a game where you actually win by milling.

Tideshaper Mystic — Pretty much everything I’ve talked about to this point costs two or more mana. The allure of Tideshaper Mystic is that he gives you something to do with your first turn, and also lets your Lord of Atlantis make friends with your Big Mana opponent. Of course, he’s got some other fringe benefits, like being able to mana-fix you for White, being able to turn off opposing answers (usually Cryptic Command), and providing a Wizard for your Sage’s Dousing.

Mothdust Changeling and Shapesharer — I’m talking about these two cards together because I think that running one means you should run the other. The Moth is a fine one-drop; he’s got a form of evasion, he likes all your anthem men, and he’s a Wizard for whatever interactions that gives you. Shapesharer is pretty clunky on its own, but it can start throwing around copy abilities that suddenly make your team huge when your Mothdust and then your Shapesharer both become Merrow Reejereys.

Mirror Entity — Personally I think that the pump ability on Mirror Entity is worse than the simple Anthems you get out of Lord of Atlantis and Merrow Reejerey, but Mirror Entity can threaten some serious damage out of nowhere when you’re sitting there with two Bannerets and an Adept in play. One of my best ways to win games with Reveillark was to slowroll an Entity and then send some Mulldrifters over the top for seven points each; such a strategy might work here as well.

Finally, there are a lot of creatures out there that you should consider playing even though they aren’t actually Merfolk. Just because they’re not going to get pumped by Lord of Atlantis doesn’t mean they’re unplayable; they just need to work extra hard to earn their spot.

Voidmage Prodigy — Many of the creatures that I’ve mentioned so far are Wizards, so a late-game Voidmage can be quite the lock on spells. The main place that a card like this is good is against someone like Big Mana or Reveillark, where you can expect to have a handful of guys lying around and you’ll need to stop huge spells like Siege-Gang Commander or Reveillark.

Sower of Temptation — Extremely powerful in both Faeries and Reveillark, there’s no reason for Sower not to make the leap into the Merfolk deck. It doesn’t gain the pumps from your Lords, but its cost is reduced by Stonybrook Banneret, which means you can follow the Banneret with a third-turn Sower against the aggressive decks, which is usually extremely strong.

Reveillark — Just because there’s another deck that uses Reveillark in a combo fashion doesn’t mean that everyone else is disallowed from using it. The first loss I took to Merfolk in the queues involved a Reveillark that threatened to kill me in the air or return a Sygg and a Reejerey to kill me on the ground. It costs a lot of mana, so it’s unlikely you’d run more than two or three, but this card is simply amazing, and I personally think it’s well worth the space.

The Spells

Given our plan to slip under the slower decks’ defenses and then hold them off with countermagic, the most important spells to take a look at are the counters we plan to run. While we’re not talking about actual Counterspell, the options we have are numerous and very strong.

Rune Snag — This is the standard for today’s two-mana counterspell. Against aggressive decks on a tight curve, each and every Rune Snag should hit a spell you’d like to see gone, whether you’re Snagging for two or for eight. Many of the slower decks have Into the Norths or Mind Stones to build up their manabases, so you might have to try a little bit harder to get the first Rune Snag to hit something. Taking out their accelerator is a very reasonable play; not only will it slow their game down, it will make your other counterspells more threatening.

Flashfreeze — Really only an option for the sideboard, Flashfreeze is still something that you need to keep in mind. It’s amazing against Big Mana and still very strong against many Elf and Rock decks, so there’s a very high chance that it will deserve its space in the board.

Sage’s Dousing — One of the main attractions of the Merfolk deck, to me at least, is the ability to profitably run Sage’s Dousing. At its full cost, the card is still extremely good. After all, Mana Leak is usually good for it, and Cryptic Command is amazing at impersonating Dismiss at a much heftier cost. However, this card is made even stronger by the presence of Stonybrook Banneret, which brings the cost down to Rune Snag or Force Spike levels, allowing you to really get people.

Cryptic Command — This card is seeing play in Block Constructed, Standard, and Extended, so it’s reasonable to think that it would be included here. The reasons to run it are numerous, but the cost is very strenuous and it’s reasonable to conclude that you won’t be able to manage it. Command is so good in Faeries because they can run their threats in at the end of the opponent’s turn when they don’t need to tap out for it; in Merfolk, you might not be able to apply pressure and leave mana for this one up.

Pact of Negation — At this point we’re getting to cards that I don’t expect to see making the cut, but it’s a good idea to keep this one in mind. The best use for it is to protect a high-cost spell that you need to force through; it’s usually seen backing up Crovax, Ascendant Hero in other decks. In addition to forcing through something like Crovax (or a particularly good Sower of Temptation), Pact allows you to really put the pressure on someone like Dragonstorm and still protect yourself when they decide to pull the trigger.

While we’re going to want a solid number of counterspells in the deck, we won’t be able to get by on just Merfolk and counters. The following are all spells that I feel are worth considering, but there is no consensus that I know of on any of them.

Unsummon — I’m going to start out with an old favorite of mine. In the Premiere Event won by Merfolk, you can see the player using Unsummon to protect his Lords and buy time against fatties. I’ve also loved the card for a while now for its uses against Faeries and Reveillark. Against Faeries you might find yourself bouncing their only Champion outlet (or the Clique itself to avoid the Mana Short), bouncing a random guy to stop an exact Spellstutter Sprite, or getting rid of a Sower so that you can protect your guy when it comes back down later. Against Reveillark, you can buy a lot of time by using Unsummon in response to a Momentary Blink, but most importantly it breaks up the combo if they go for it with only one Body Double. In fact, they’ll need an extra Body Double for every Unsummon you have in your hand.

Condemn — Of course, it’s not really fair to talk about Unsummon without mentioning Condemn. However, unlike Reveillark, the Merfolk deck is only dipping its toes into White, so it’s unlikely that you’ll run this, since it might not even come online until the mid- or late-game. In addition to its harder-to-handle cost, Condemn doesn’t have the same applications as Unsummon when you’re not looking at attacking baddies.

Boomerang — And, while we’re at it, I might as well mention this one. The big draw to playing Boomerang over Unsummon is that you can hit people with it Magnivore style, setting them back to nothing on the board when you drop it on them on the second turn, which usually brings a discard with it at the end of their turn. However, chances are good that this fringe case isn’t worth the double cost.

Ancestral Vision — Ancestral has been making its way into more and more Faerie decks after Grand Prix: Shizuoka was won by it, but the card is good in the Merfolk deck for many of the reasons it was good in Faeries. The most important one is that there’s not much you can expect to do on your first turn, so why not set up a draw three for the middle of the game? However, the extra cards aren’t needed as desperately here, as Silvergill Adept and Sage’s Dousing both cantrip.

Ponder — I need to preface this section with a disclaimer: I’m not a Ponder fan. Without the ability to shuffle my deck on demand, I’m not a fan of getting into situations where I’m looking for a specific card but need to soldier through two bad draw steps to guarantee I hit what I need. However, many people disagree with me here, and Ponder has made its way into most of the Merfolk decks I’ve seen, so I might simply be allowing personal preference to color my opinion of its power level.

Deluge — I have only seen this card once, and I wouldn’t personally recommend it, but I think it’s worth letting people know that this option exists. Of course, the idea here is that you might find yourself locked up by multiple Wall of Roots and Tarmogoyfs while a Doran or Cloudthresher fires at you relentlessly. Deluging at the end of their turn and then dropping a Lord can be enough damage to win the game your opponent thought they had completely under control.

Psionic Blast — The other option to break up stalemates, Psionic Blast might allow you to squeak out the last few points of damage, kill a Garruk, or take down a threat that needs to be dealt with. People have played with Char enough to remember that it’s very good when you can put your opponent under fast pressure, so the question becomes whether or not Merfolk is the right home for this card.

Crib Swap — Another option that I don’t think is ready for prime time, Crib Swap allows you to play Swords to Plowshares, especially if you have some Bannerets out to reduce its cost. However, the drawback is even more relevant in this deck, since there’s a decent chance you’ll be giving your opponent a 2/2 Islandwalker.

The Lands

Another great thing about the Merfolk deck is that its mana is extremely consistent, to the point where you can run lands like Mutavault without having to worry about your two colors not coming together. In the other sections, I went over various possibilities card-by-card, but here things are straightforward enough I’m just going to talk about the lands as a whole.

Obviously you’re going to take advantage of Wanderwine Hub. While other decks have to weigh the fact that it might come into play tapped against its benefit as a color-fixer, you can rest safe with the knowledge that the only time it will need to play Coastal Tower is when you don’t have a guy to cast with it anyway. Your other White source should be Adarkar Wastes, not Nimbus Maze. The Wastes pings you, yes, but if we’re not running Plains, Nimbus Maze is no better than a basic, and a land that gives you two colors but sometimes hurts is better, in my opinion, than a Plains.

As far as man-lands go, Mutavault is a definite inclusion. It provides colorless mana, which might be annoying with Lord of Atlantis or Sygg, but you’ve got plenty to do with the colorless it provides, and the threat it builds is very potent due to Lords you’re running. Faerie Conclave is less obviously involved; coming into play tapped is a big downside, and the creature it makes is not going to get any better than a 2/1 flyer. Still, some people believe that to be plenty, and the fact that we might not have any first-turn plays means that it’s certainly worth considering.

And… The Deck

With all of these options weighed, I present my own build of Standard Merfolk:

The creature configuration is the one I think provides the best attack force while also allowing your various fellows to play nice with each other. The only guy that isn’t in for group fun is Sower of Temptation, and he’s at least friends with the Banneret. The spells give you a fair bit of countermagic, some extra cards, and Unsummon to mess with your opponent’s plan. The lands are as consistent as I feel that they can be; 18 of them allow you to Suspend an Ancestral Vision on the first turn, and the rest attack your opponent alongside your other fish.

The sideboard was made with five decks in mind: Faeries, Green-Black, Reveillark, Big Mana, and Red Deck Wins. My sideboarding strategies are rough at this point, as I haven’t had nearly as much time playing with this deck as I have had with others; after all, it’s really only picked up steam in the past few days. Despite the fact that the board was built with Faeries in mind, you’ll notice that there’s nothing much for the Faerie matchup. This is mostly because the maindeck is already quite powerful against Faeries, so I felt that I could better spend the slots somewhere else. If you really want something to bring in against them, I’d recommend Wispmare. Another card that just barely missed the cut is Teferi’s Moat.

The Dragon’s Claws are for burn decks, though they’re also serviceable against Dragonstorm. The Flashfreezes are obvious in their application, and Voidmage Prodigies are for decks where you expect to untap with him in play, locking your opponent up. Reveillark is for any deck where you want extra long-game staying power, while Pithing Needle has applications against Treetop Villages, Planeswalkers, and Mirror Entities.

It’s harder to say which cards you should board out. The problem is that the Merfolk all work together so well that it’s difficult to cut any of them without hurting the rest. The easiest cut is Sygg, since he doesn’t actually power up his buddies, just protect them.

Against Reveillark, I would cut the four Ancestral Visions and one Sygg for Prodigies and Pithing Needles. I know that I just finished saying that Sygg was an easy cut, but you need Wizards to feed to your Voidmage, so you don’t want to get too cut-happy on your Wizard count. If you think that you’ll have plenty of Wizards, you might want to leave in two Ancestrals and take out those last two Sygg.

Against Big Mana I would board out three Unsummon, two Sower of Temptation, and a Sygg for four Flashfreeze and two Reveillark. You’ll have a ton of counters post-board, so you should be able to stop all of their big game-winners from resolving. At that point, the Reveillarks just give you more threats to make sure you can actually end a game.

The board plan for Red Deck Wins is a little bit strange. You definitely don’t want Unsummons or Sowers, and you also don’t want Sage’s Dousing (three mana is too much to spend on Lightning Bolt). You also don’t really have a ton of time on your hands, so one Ancestral is a painless cut. This gives you room for ten cards: four Dragon’s Claw, four Flashfreeze, and two Reveillark. The Claws and Freezes will let you stem the bleeding, so your only worry will be that your opponent will turn all of his burn on your men. The Reveillarks will fix this problem, either requiring three burn spells to answer, or simply flying over the top for the win.

Lastly, I’d make only slight modifications against Green-Black Elves. Unsummon isn’t very strong against them, with very few real targets to hit. As such, swap them out for three Flashfreezes; Flashfreeze isn’t the greatest card in the world, but it’s a good answer to things like Imperious Perfect, Chameleon Colossus, and Primal Command. If they really get their Elf engine rolling, your Merfolk will have a hard time keeping up, so overloading on counterspells will help make sure that the big problems don’t resolve.

As I write this, the newest Standard Premiere Event saw another Merfolk deck make the finals. His build featured Tideshaper Mystic and Mothdust Changeling to increase his Merfolk numbers and early plays. I didn’t see Reveillark or Sower of Temptation at all; the pilot must have decided that those cards weren’t worth diluting the Tribal engine.

Either way, it appears as though this deck is on the rise. With good game against two of the most powerful decks in the format, as well as the ability to swarm over the other reasonable decks, Merfolk is certainly going to be a contender in the online metagame.

As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me in the forums, via email, or on AIM.

Benjamin Peebles-Mundy
ben at mundy dot net
SlickPeebles on AIM