Sullivan Library – Fish for Standard

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Friday, March 28th – Merfolk, it seems, have gripped the public imagination. Earlier this week, we had Benjamin Peebles-Mundy and Kyle Sanchez sharing their builds. Today it’s the turn of Sean McKeown (below), and Adrian Sullivan. Adrian offers his own opinion on the phenomenon, and talks in detail about the builds offered by our other writers…

One of the most depressing moments in Magic for me has to be when my opponent, playing first, said the words “Merfolk of the Pearl Trident. Go.” But more on that in a bit…

All of us here on the StarCityGames.com team are largely independent operators. Sure, I talk to several of my co-columnists, and several of them talk to each other, but except on rare occasions, we aren’t particularly communicative with each other about what it is we’re going to write about. So, imagine my chagrin when I saw Benjamin Peebles-Mundy Merfolk article this week. Damn, I said to myself, there goes this week’s article. My editor was kind enough to share with me the other Fishy articles that are cropping up, so I even have some things to say about them!

The thing about Standard right now, though, is that it is a pretty big format in terms of territory. Sure, it is currently largely explored, with its borders mostly seen as falling between various Reveillark decks, Faeries, Elves, and the occasional Red/Green Big Mana deck. That said, we are in a moment where Standard might be as big as it has ever been — and it is only going to get bigger.

So, reading Peebles-Mundy’s Fish article made me a wee bit sad, up until I actually looked at what is in it.

It wasn’t that the deck was bad. I don’t really have an opinion yet on the quality of the deck. It’s just that it was completely not what my deck would look like.

When I think about Fish lists, there is something that should be abundantly scary about what they can accomplish. A Fish list should be definitively an aggro-control decklist. For the most part, the “Fish” archetype is largely rearing its ugly head up right now in a mutated form in the Faerie lists, able to lay down a clock, and hold the game until they get in that last bit of damage. On the back of Bitterblossom and Spellstutter Sprite, sometimes they aren’t simply holding the game, they’re just running all over the opponent. Still, there is room for some actual fishies in there, to be sure…

Classically speaking, Fish (as in Merfolk) predates on a format that is narrow. Take this fairly famous Fish list:

4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Merfolk Raiders
4 Manta Riders
4 Suq’Ata Firewalker
4 Man-o’-War
3 Waterspout Djinn
4 Force of Will
4 Counterspell
2 Force Spike
3 Nevinyrral’s Disk
2 Curiosity
18 Island
4 Wasteland

This is Nicholas Labarre’s list from Pro Tour: Rome. It was made to fight against Tolarian Academy decks, and it did a pretty good job of that up until he ran into Tomi Hovi in the finals. Labarre’s list shows us that we don’t necessarily need to be married to all Merfolk all the time to make a successful Fish list.

But, back to those depressing words from the beginning of the article…

When I heard “Merfolk of the Pearl Trident,” I knew that I was in for a real struggle. I was playing a Mono-Blue control deck (Chevy Blue), and from a pure archetype standpoint, this meant that I was almost certain to lose the match, even if I got good draws. That Fish deck would make an easy Top 8 at U.S. Nationals that year, piloted by Alex Borteh, and I’d be a match out of that same Top 8. Fish, as an aggro-control deck, is at its best when it gets to prey on slower decks. Well, if we look at the top decks from Grand Prix: Shizuoka, we can see that there is an environment right now that is similarly ripe for a Fish attack:

3 Reveillark decks
Doran Beatdown
2 Elves
2 Faeries

Faeries, right now considered the default “best deck,” struggles against Merfolk. They are in many ways the same deck, but Merfolk’s ability to Islandwalk and pump its men, and its positioning lower on the curve can make it the clear aggressor in the matchup. A lot of the Green hate that I’ve seen directed at Faeries is another thing that makes Merfolk something worthy of considering. Cloudthresher is the common card to worry about, but I know that in testing another deck, my opponent went right into Hurricane/Squall Line to great effect against me. Versus all of the Reveillark decks (Blink/Control/Combo), Merfolk is able to make use of the same advantages that Faeries has in the matchup, and the same advantage that Merfolk had over my old Blue control deck — the other deck’s spells are simply too expensive to deal with a honed aggro-control list. Elves and Doran are hard to reckon how the match might play out; they run some expensive spells, and a goodly number of cheap spells, but importantly they don’t have Islands (unless you give them some) to give your creatures bona fide evasion…

One of the big powers of a well-constructed aggro-control deck is making the deck full of ways to waste the time of an opponent (typically counters, but sometimes bounce or tapping which nullifies the time and opponent spent playing a spell instead). The key difference in this kind of control and a discard spell is in the time spent. It is this distinction that is definitively aggro-control.

I spent a long time looking at lists from all over, and trying to decide what it was that I was less excited by, and what I liked. I knew I wanted a deck that could exploit the nature of what makes Fish and aggro-control worthwhile. Here is what I came up with:

In place of the Guile, there’s always the “3 Aeon Chronicler” option.

In a lot of ways, this deck has a lot in common with Kyle Sanchez build. He and I agree on a number of topics. Most importantly, I think, is the rejection of White. What good is it? He brings up the big three draws (Oblivion Ring, Teferi’s Moat, and Sygg, River Guide), and how tepid they really are. I actually think that the only thing that is at all appealing about White is the reprinted Force Spike, Mana Tithe. I almost built my deck with Mana Tithe, but in the end it didn’t feel worth it to play the Tithe as the only real White draw.

One place I see us in disagreement is in the Banneret. I agree in a deck like his, highly oriented towards being a beatdown deck (note his aggressive plan with Cryptic Command), the Banneret doesn’t get you very far. In his deck, it helps out the Reej and the Adept, but otherwise has little to no impact. I wasn’t too keen on how the card worked until I started working with Surgespanner, where the acceleration of not only the Spanner, but also its interaction with Reejerey just looked too exciting. That said, I totally respect going another direction like he has.

The eight one-drops are a testament to his dedication to beating down. I think I’m more in line with six at most, but again, I respect his plan. I still don’t like Shapesharer, but that is a quibble. Starting on turn 1 with a Mothdust Changeling is far better than starting on turn 1 with a Merfolk of the Pearl Trident could ever be. The Changeling is likely to be able to get in damage versus a wide variety of decks, can Jump into the sky to take out a small Faerie, is a Wizard for Kai, a Merfolk for the Reejerey, and a means to tap the Surgespanner if you aren’t Island-walking all over them.

Speaking of the Surgespanner… This is likely to look like an unusual choice, and it is. Surgespanner is part of the reason that this deck runs an unusual amount of mana (25). While the deck has a reasonable number of ways to counter spells, especially after sideboarding in some matchups, the fact remains that some things are going to stick. Spanner, however, can be just incredibly potent at tearing up the board. With a Banneret, it can hit the table on turn 3, and just cause havoc from there on in against any number of opponents. Even without the Mothdust Changeling, the Reejerey can provide a means to continuously bounce things, so long as you are casting Merfolk. Still, four is a large number for the card, though this is mitigated by Looters.

The two lords, the Adept, and the Rune Snags I expect to see in every build of a deck like this. Reejerey is just shockingly good, capable of being a means to accelerate the deck, as well as a way to really aggravate an opponent’s mana. Reejerey is actually one of the reasons that I got on board with Stonybrook Banneret. A turn 2 Banneret can just make so many things possible.

Running Kai (Voidmage Prodigy) instead of some other spell-based counterspell is likely to be a bit controversial. A quick count of the Wizards in the deck places it at 23, including the Mutavaults. Sideboarded Sowers are also Wizards. The thing about using Kai is that he can potentially create many, many counters, even if he is vulnerable to a pre-spell creature kill. The choices for counters are all pretty expensive (Cryptic Command), or they are pretty limited (Broken Ambitions, Remove Soul). I still really like the ability to turn my many other critters into potential counters. Untapping with a Voidmage Prodigy out can just lock a game out.

Sideboarded Sowers are good against any non-counter based creature deck, sometimes entirely swinging games, but at other times just forcing yet another creature kill spell be used or else. Peebles-Mundy takes some time to put a pair into his main deck. Sean McKeown, on the other hand, goes all in with 4. That’s a reasonable plan for his deck, which also runs Inversions to have a great shot at handling the table. While I respect his use of the Black removal, I’m much less excited by both Thoughtseize and Sage’s Dousing. Thoughtseize can put you behind when dealing with an aggressive deck (aggro-control’s classic weakness) and doesn’t do anything to help out its archetypical strategy. Sage’s Dousing only seems remotely playable when a Banneret is out, and is otherwise a dangerously slow counter.

His interesting take, though, is maximizing his ability to avoid being Island-walked. He has so few Islands, and then he also has the Inversions to keep things under control. Sower piles on even more aggravation. This idea is very intriguing.

Now that Sower has been discussed, onto the remaining sideboard cards. Thorn of Amethyst is often impressively one-sided, and is a great way to nix a resurgent Dragonstorm deck, as well as make point-and-click burn a less appealing way of dealing with the deck. Still, it does feel like there needs to be another answer to burn. One solution is the Big Man solution. Guile seems like a good fit here, though I’m thinking Aeon Chronicler might also be good, serving as a way to refill the hand, and then coming out as a potential monster. Playing Red back in the day, dealing with a Chronicler was always problematic, especially if you were expending effort killing other little men. Guile does seem a bit more reliable, and untapping with one in play seems like it could be ridiculously good, especially with the likely inclusion of Flashfreeze in those matchups. Guile has the added benefit of just being a “well, I guess this might do something” in those matchups that are a surprise.

There are so many approaches to this archetype. I know that I have seen versions that max out the cheap-o counters (Mana Tithe/Delay/Snag), or versions like Peeble-Mundy’s that max out Island-walking. My version is just trying to do what aggro-control is good at: wasting your time while it kills you.

Until next week!

Adrian Sullivan