Sullivan Library – Swimming with the Fishes: Standard Merfolk

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Tuesday, April 7th – Today’s Sullivan Library tackles the other Blue tribe from Lorwyn: Merfolk! While the Standard metagame doesn’t reveal their power at first glance, those in the know are aware that these fishes have teeth. Adrian contrasts a couple of successful lists, and suggests one of his own…

Last week, I went over the full Standard metagame provided by the StarCityGames.com $5000 Standard Open in Indianapolis. Slogging through five pounds of decklists to get all of the info that I could was a lot of work, but, to me, it felt oh-so-worth it.

One of the things that was most exciting to me was the sheer diversity in the decks. Sure, none of the twenty-one combo decks made Top 64, but it was still cool to look at decks like “Rad Nauseam” or an actual Elves! combo list. In the event, I was taken down by Elves!, unable to find a second Black source to Infest away everything in time, but still putting up quite a fight.

The big call I got from a number of people was to here more about Merfolk. The little fishes, it seems, have their fans.

There were only six players out of the 432 who chose to play Merfolk. I was almost one of them, but I didn’t end up going there. My own list, a Bant Merfolk deck, was playing out surprisingly well, but wasn’t anywhere near good enough against Red/White, especially Vengeant Kithkin (my current pick for default “best deck” of Standard). Oh, I could make some game happen versus Boat Brew, sure, but Vengeant Kithkin was just a monster, and so I abandoned the fishes for an update on the Elves beatdown list I gave to Sam Black for U.S. Nationals.

Two players didn’t give up, though. Alex Gfroerer and Lee Cote played their versions of Merfolk into 17th and 28th place, respectively. Alex was actually tied for 9th place, and was a mere 0.2% away from 16th, on tie-breaks. Lee was more clearly settled into his 28th place, while tied for 22nd, his breakers were clearly nowhere near the cusp of Alex’s.

With only six players, the success of two is hard to go on. It really isn’t that much in the way of data to look at, and standard deviation mucks it up, hard. Still, though, as the data mining I pushed out last week shows, only Boat Brew was able to have as good of a conversion into Top 64. Even if the data knocks up against standard deviation, it still seems like it is something to look at.

Merfolk is often almost laughingly referred to as “Faeries Light” or other such names. Lee Cote even named his decklist, “Worse Than Faeries” (highlighting the initial, just in case someone reading it didn’t get it). The common wisdom is that Merfolk is simply a Faeries deck without Spellstutter Sprite and Bitterblossom, and that there isn’t much to see there, move on.

Where Merfolk are different is in their ability to actually just be attacking from the get-go. A two-drop in Merfolk can start attack for 2 or 3 on turn 3. Faeries doesn’t get to that same level of damage on the attack until turn 5. By that point, the Merfolk player will be way ahead on damage, if they are both fighting the same goldfish. The real issue, in comparing the two, is that Merfolk actually die, and the closest thing they have to the replenishing power of Bitterblossom is the card draw that comes out of Silvergill Adept.

In practice, what this means is that Merfolk aren’t typically going to be living the life they want if they’re under a hail of bullets. While a Faerie player isn’t necessarily having a picnic either, even though their life is precariously ticking down, they are being supplied with a steady supply of little man to cause a hassle for an opponent. For the Merfolk player, waiting around is typically just a way to lose. They want to kill, kill, kill, and they want to do it faster than the opponent is ready for.

In many ways, Merfolk epitomizes the problems with aggro-control, in general. One (weak) critique I’ve always heard is that sometimes you draw the wrong cards in the wrong order, and I have to say I think that is not a characteristic particular to any strategic archetype, even if it can be a characteristic particular to a deck. The critique I do like is this: both aggro and control decks can take aggro-control out of its strategic moment. The aggro deck can sit under the curve of the aggro-control deck, and force it into a place where it is either looking for answers or in a race that it is too slow to face, and the control deck can just hang on for good if it ever gets out from under the aggro-control deck’s power. Faeries, on the other hand, sits quite perfectly in its role as a hybrid-control deck, playing the control deck until that turn when it shifts gears into an aggressive role.

For the most part, though, the Faerie player has to either wait for that moment to shift so it can move to aggression, or it goes for it as quickly as possible, forced by the cards in hand (or an incompetent pilot) into marching in with its pants down. Either way, it leaves the Faeries player open to Volcanic Fallout and other countermeasures in a way that Merfolk is not nearly as vulnerable to. It’s fully possible for Merfolk to have killed someone before they’ve drawn a Fallout, if they play it, where a Faeries player virtually assures that their opponent will draw one.

Volcanic Fallout can wreak a heck of a lot more damage against a Merfolk army, in many ways, but the Merfolk do have one general that really helps out a lot in that fight: Sygg, River Guide. Sygg is one of those cards that I know that I initially dismissed as not powerful enough, but after having played for some time, came to realize was incredibly powerful. While the mana-activation on Sygg can be quite intensive, it still functions to make your Merfolk, overall, unstoppable. Many games against slower opponents often end on turn three, when a Merfolk player untaps with Sygg in play. While more aggressive opponents often don’t care, even a Five-Color Control deck with its Volcanic Fallouts main can struggle when fighting against Sygg.

The other advantage to playing Merfolk comes strictly from being able to be a bona fide aggro-control deck. There is no other strategic archetype out there that so has you in its clutches as an aggro-control deck in its element. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these decks, you know exactly what I mean: you have all of the right cards to take care of things, but that little bit of countermagic they run keeps you off of doing everything, and you die, despite having had a seemingly unstoppable hand. Once an aggro-control deck has down sufficient threats, just one or two counterspells can hold off any contingency.

Here are the two lists:

Alex Gfoerer, 17th Place, Indy $5K

4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Wanderwine Hub
3 Mutavault
2 Mystic Gate
9 Island
3 Reveillark
2 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
3 Ponder
4 Cryptic Command
4 Merrow Reejerey
2 Wake Thrasher
2 Stonybrook Banneret
4 Silvegill Adept
4 Path to Exile
3 Sage’s Dousing
3 Sygg, River Guide
3 Cursecatcher
1 Familiar’s Ruse

2 Ranger of Eos
2 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
2 Negate
2 Sower of Temptation
1 Oblivion Ring
2 Celestial Purge
1 Pithing Needle
3 Wrath of God

Lee Cote, 28th Place, Indy $5K

4 Island
1 Plains
4 Wanderwine Hub
4 Mystic Gate
4 Adarkar Wastes
4 Mutavault
2 Windbrisk Heights
1 Faerie Conclave
4 Stonybrook Banneret
4 Silvegill Adept
4 Sygg, River Guide
3 Wake Thrasher
4 Merrow Reejerey
3 Sower of Temptation
2 Glen-Elendra Archmage
2 Reveillark
3 Path to Exile
3 Sage’s Dousing
4 Cryptic Command

1 Ranger of Eos
4 Forge[/author]-Tender”]Burrenton [author name="Forge"]Forge[/author]-Tender
1 Remove Soul
1 Reveillark
2 Celestial Purge
4 Wispmare
2 Wrath of God

They both have a similar approach to the metagame, essentially relying on almost a “classic” Block approach, rather than the approaches put forth by me, Richard Feldman, or Adam Prosak, for Standard. Path to Exile makes its appearance, and both players push a little onto Reveillark as a plan to fight against elimination. In many ways, this looks much like the Pro Tour: Hollywood Standard Merfolk sideboard plan, but put into the main, perhaps acknowledging the omnipresence of Volcanic Fallout in control decks.

Alex Gfroerer particularly chases this one down. With Forge-Tender main, and access to the full set plus Ranger of Eos against controlling decks after board, he seems well-suited to fight this menace. On the other side of the spectrum, versus aggressive decks, he has access to 3 Wrath of God and 2 Sower of Temptation — while not so many cards as to put the lights out on a Kithkin player, it is still a pretty aggressive push into their comfort zone.

Lee Cote’s build also has access to a full set of Forge-Tender, but he waits until after board to bring them. Much more of his sideboard is seemingly set into fighting the ol’ Faeries menace, with 4 Wispmare and 2 Celestial Purge around to fight Bitterblossom, where Gfroerer only has the Purges (and, potentially, Oblivion Ring).

Cote’s deck also climbs up the curve, to almost Esper-Lark style spaces, using Sower and Glen Elendra Archmage to make the Reveillark all the more potent. This isn’t all good, as this does set up Cote’s curve much higher, and potentially less capable of firing off a good beatdown.

Let’s compare their curves:

1-drop: Gfroerer 12, Cote 3
2-drop: Gfroerer 10, Cote 12
3-drop: Gfroerer 9, Cote 10
4-drop: Gfroerer 4, Cote 8
5-drop: Gfroerer 3, Cote 2

While Alex has a tinge more in the top-top drops, he is otherwise significantly lower in the curve. He also only runs 22 land (with 3 Ponder to help), only 3 of which are man-lands, compared to Lee with 24 land, and 5 man-lands.

Of the two lists, Alex’s list looks better to me. I like the low curve, and the acknowledgement of Volcanic Fallout’s omnipresence. Red, in general, is pretty rough for Merfolk, and running those two Forge-Tender main may have helped in a format where it seems likely that fully a quarter or more of the decks would either have Fallout or have access to it (the combination of Five-Color Control and Red variants). Cursecatcher also seems potentially spicy, holding off things just enough to perhaps cause real problem.

I do wonder if there might not be room for a third Wake Thrasher to provide just a touch more beats. While Merfolk doesn’t need to be completely full of beatdown, it is nice to have enough to keep people on edge. Further, the sideboard strikes me as potentially questionable, and seems as though it may have been in deep flux for Alex too. It is riddled with cross-offs of cards, and change-arounds of numbers. I’m willing to bet that the “final” list of Merfolk, if we’re going to use Alex as inspiration, is perhaps a few cards off of the list he played, though I have no doubt that he’s overall happy with his deck choice.

As for Lee’s list, it also performed quite admirably. Personally I don’t like it as much, and I have to wonder if his “Worse Than Faeries” moniker he gave the list spoke to actual negative feelings for the list, or if he was being ironic. From my own experience, 4 Sygg, no matter how good he is, is a lot of Sygg, and 4 Banneret also feels excessive. To my mind, this list might perform better if it moved in either the direction that Feldman went with his Merfolk list, and became more aggressive, or went the way Prosak did and become more controlling.

My own Merfolk list is radically different than both of these. I like it a lot, even if it is kinda crazy. Still, I didn’t play it in the $5k, and there was a reason for that: I thought there were better decks to play. If you’re looking for something different, you can try this, my update to my States Merfolk list:

It’s a lot of fun, and I wish I could have gotten it to the point where I would have liked it to be for the $5K. This deck plays out much more controlling, and actually can go toe-to-toe in a control-on-control war against slow decks. One of the keys is to just don’t be afraid to be patient.

As a result, it does lose the aggressive oomph that is often the hallmark of the archetype, preferring a more “George”-like Merfolk style that was first in prominence back in Tempest Block. Incremental advantage can be quite powerful. A note about the singletons: I’m quite pleased with all of them, except Broken Ambitions, which is basically a place-filler/mind trick device. Giant Growth serves as a pseudo-counter much of the time, is excellent against Fallout and occasionally acts as an Ancestral Recall. Loxodon Warhammer can serve the same function, while turning around games that are getting out of hand. A singleton Aquitect’s Will almost never gets in the way of your draw, shrinks your deck, and makes Selkie all the more dangerous. The single Oona’s Grace helps alleviate the deck’s potential for flooding.

The big thing that pushed me away from this deck is Kithkin. That matchup is incredibly rough, and there is little that you can do in the main to turn it around without becoming another deck. I still think this deck has a great shot in the metagame at large, having a good game against other decks with Cryptic Command, and being solid against many of the popular mid-range decks.

On another note, this coming weekend marks my last chance to qualify for Pro Tour: Honolulu. Wish me luck!

Adrian Sullivan