The Beautiful Struggle – Thanks, Merfolk!

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MTGO didn’t have “Nix Tix” drafting over Thanksgiving weekend as they have in the past; probably as a result of server stability concerns. However, I still had some product and tickets saved up, and some downtime when the family was off doing their own things. During that time it seemed like the fish-men were flowing freely, and bringing victories with them. On Sunday alone I won two drafts and split in the finals of a third, all with decks that had at least 75% Merfolk among their creature counts.

Good morning, we are coming to you LIVE from Kansas City International Airport! A Thanksgiving airline snafu has led to me being stuck here for the next five hours, during which I wrote the majority of this article. My original plan was to do a Magic Online draft from this very airport and report on it for you, but the wireless here at KCI is slow and unreliable. That’s always bad for drafting, but it would be doubly bad right now, because I have been forcing Merfolk in just about every draft I did over Thanksgiving weekend.

MTGO didn’t have “Nix Tix” drafting over Thanksgiving weekend as they have in the past; probably as a result of server stability concerns. However, I still had some product and tickets saved up, and some downtime when the family was off doing their own things. During that time it seemed like the fish-men were flowing freely, and bringing victories with them. On Sunday alone I won two drafts and split in the finals of a third, all with decks that had at least 75% Merfolk among their creature counts.

Now, part of this was due to the fact that I was drafting in 4-3-2-2 queues, where the majority of players just can’t seem to read the signal that a second-pick Merrow Reejerey or a third-pick Summon the School might mean an opportunity to move into a certain tribe. But part of it is also that people don’t seem to be taking the Merfolk deck very seriously just yet. Most of the pros I talked to at GP: Daytona would much rather have been in Faeries, due to the flying, the ambush factor of Pestermite and Sentinels of Glen Elendra, and the unmistakable awesomeness that is resolving Peppersmoke with a Faerie in play. Brian-David Marshall recently told me that he thinks “Green is the new Blue,” with the Elves and Treefolk flowing freely. Merfolk just aren’t getting the same kind of good press. That gives the clever drafter an opportunity to jump.

Before I get to the pick orders, I want one thing to be very clear: these are not set in stone. When you are drafting Merfolk, you are trying to assemble a deck, almost as though you were building it for Constructed. If you take Pestermite and Sentinels of Glen Elendra over Judge of Currents and Streambed Aquitects every time you have the choice, you’ll more than likely end up with a Faerie deck, not a Merfolk deck. You need to know what you need at any given pick: a defensive wall of tappers, –X/-0, and lifegain, some tricks and support creatures, and a win condition such as:

* Decking via Drowner of Secrets
* Swarming the opponent with Summon the School tokens
* Using Merrow Reejerey to tap down opposing blockers and pump the team
* Fliers, typically Faeries since the work well with Silvergill Douser
* Aquitecture; that is, giving your opponent Islands with Streambed Aquitects or Aquitect’s Will and Islandwalking on them

Also, remember that you won’t always be sure from the very first pick of the draft that you are picking a Merfolk deck. The real question is, which cards do a Merfolk deck make, and which one would you take higher if you were in Merfolk and encountered two of them? The answers lie below:

The Obligatory Merfolk Pick Orders

0. Nameless Inversion
0. Mulldrifter
They are the two best commons in the set, and both can easily be fit in alongside your Merfolk, so you’d be insane not to first-pick them. Many times you would be insane to pass Nameless Inversion at all, because it’s not hard to splash into your deck. However, you’ll rarely see them unless you open them, so they don’t officially get a number on the list. The same goes for just about any non-Merfolk, but strong and splashable, card that you don’t see on the lists below.

1. Silvergill Douser
This guy is just unreal even if he didn’t count your Pestermites and Sentinels of Glen Elendra. There are few things in the world as disappointing as seeing this guy resolve across the table when you have no removal in hand. You will take him over every non-Changeling Merfolk except Merrow Reejerey, Summon the School, Drowner in Secrets, and certain rares.

2. Stonybrook Angler
Clearly tappers are great, and being able to tap Veteran of the Depths or untap a Douser is even better. However, don’t get too cocky about this guy. The thing that you will realize about the Merfolk deck is that it needs a lot of mana. Usually you’ll want to play a Merfolk on the current turn, or you might have something like Summon the School going, and then you have activated abilities. That’s a lot of mana, and it often makes the Angler a lot less impressive during game situations.

3. Sentinels of Glen Elendra
Much like Gilt-Leaf Ambush, just leaving the mana open for this guy will often stop an opponent cold. Also, sometimes you’ll first-pick a Silvergill Douser, and you’ll find yourself in what I call the Second-Pick Problem: there are no Merfolk in the second pack (or something like Paperfin Rascal which is not deemed second-pickable). In that case you need cards that are fine on their own and keep you from moving out of Blue or out of Merfolk. The Sentinels are perfect in this regard.

4a. Oblivion Ring
4b. Moonglove Extract
Look, removal is still removal, and each is a fine solution to the Second-Pick Problem. Note that you still pick Dousers over these every time you are sure you will be Merfolk, and most of those times you will take Anglers, Judges, or Aquitects over them also. Remember, to have a good tribal deck you have to take tribal cards much earlier than you would take a non-Merfolk that had the same text box.

5. Pestermite
This guy is ridiculous gas even if the Douser didn’t count Faeries, since you could just untap the Douser. Of course you can never go wrong with fliers anyway, and the Merfolk deck is a little light with the three-drops.

6. Streambed Aquitects
It’s this evaluation, coupled with the next one, that really puts you into a Merfolk deck as opposed to a generically good Blue/X deck. In a build heavy with Merfolk, he’s basically a Kabuto Moth, plus the win condition of Aquitecture is obviously named with him in mind. Thanks to this guy, I’ve battered many an opponent who would otherwise have built a wall with Mudbutton Torchrunners. Also, your Judges are pleased by random tap abilities that you will always have targets for, and at the bare minimum the Aquitects can give you that.

7. Judge of Currents
I had him as high as 3 when I first sketched a list for this article. Why is he that important, despite the fact that he tables constantly in the 4-3-2-2s? Basically, because you will be lacking removal. In order to have a tribal deck you usually have to pick necessary cards in your tribe over objectively better cards like Oblivion Ring, or else risk that one or both of the guys to your left will move into that tribe. The life that this guy generates for you — and even without a Summon the School or Drowner of Secrets, it can be an unreal amount of life, because there are a lot of tap effects amongst the fish-men — will often be as good as tapping down your opponent’s best attacker.

True story: I won a game in which my opponent resolved turn 3 Battlewand Oak; turn 4 Forest into Doran, the Siege Tower; turn-5 Forest into Dauntless Dourbark; and later on played a Oakgnarl Warrior. It was my Judge, in concert with my tap effects and Streambed Aquitects, that allowed it to happen; it bought me time in the single-digit life totals until I could topdeck first Neck Snap for the Doran and later Summon the School to turn the tide.

8. Avian Changeling
Realistically, the Judge tables a lot and the flier never does, so you will often take him over the Judge. In fact, sometimes you will take this guy over an Angler or other decent Merfolk; maybe there are too many Merfolk in the pack and you’re just going to try to put the next guy or two on your left into Merfolk instead. Trying to put this card in a pick order is exactly why I hate pick orders.

9. Goldmeadow Harrier
My favorite non-Merfolk in the decklists you’ll see below, I like having him around because he makes a fine combo with common Merfolk cards like Springleaf Drum and Judge of Currents. Also, the fact that he is cheaper than the Angler can sometimes be quite important.

10. Neck Snap
Now we start getting to the cards that you don’t mind having one copy of, but rarely will you want two, and you don’t fall all over yourself to get the first copy. This is not quite as good removal as the cards listed above, because many of the creatures which pose the biggest problem to the Merfolk deck don’t do a lot of attacking (Tar Pitcher, Imperious Perfect, Smokebraider, etc). Also, most opponents see it coming when you leave 3W open and three or four cards in hand.

11. Paperfin Rascal
This guy gets a bad rap. I recently said I didn’t mind having him in my deck, and Stephen King looked at me like I was … well, like I was a monster out of a Stephen King story, I guess. However, as I’m sure many of you have found by now, clashing has a strongly positive effect on your draws even if you lose. As long as you can accurately determine whether you need the card on top or not, the Rascal will set you up perfectly, and he can be quite the badass if you should win the clash.

12. Deeptread Merrow
Two power for two mana is perfectly reasonable, and can help you out as a win condition if you get some Aquitects going. However, it will only rarely impress you. If I had this guy on turn 2 and my opponent attacked with a Leaf Gilder on turn 3, I would block without a second’s hesitation, because this guy is much worse than either a Gilder, or whatever trick an aggressive deck would use to save that Gilder.

13. Springleaf Drum
It’s not trivially easy to get many of the Merfolk “If ~THIS~ becomes tapped…” abilities activated. Or rather, it wouldn’t be easy, if not for the presence of this marvelous card at common. The only reason it’s not higher is because you’ll often want to cut every Deeptread Merrow and Paperfin Rascal you see, just so any other potential Merfolk drafters at the table get the point.

14. Ponder
On Monday Chapin remarked that Ponder should have been in his main deck at GP: Daytona, because not playing Ponder in a Blue deck “is just crazy talk.” I can’t really say it any better than that. Note that even with a Ponder you will usually not want to go down to 16 lands because of the mana-hungriness of the tribe; maybe if you have two copies and a Springleaf Drum, but I would be tempted to go 17 even then.

15. Whirlpool Whelm
Meh. I was a big fan of Snapback in triple-Time Spiral draft, but the Blue decks were a lot more tempo-based at that time, and Snapback could be free. You could score a total blowout by bouncing a creature for free after its echo was paid or when somebody tried to slap a Griffin Guide on it. Whirlpool Whelm, on the other hand, has never scored such a blowout for me. It has been my final cut from more than a few decks.

16. Faerie Trickery
You would really like to have an out against Hurly-Burly or Final Revels, and the deck is mana-hungry enough that Broken Ambitions may not quite cut the mustard.

17. Aquitect’s Will
It cycles and it lets your Islandwalkers run wild. Beyond that, though, it’s not so impressive since it doesn’t have an immediate effect on the board. It’s often the last cut from my decks.

18. Wings of Velis Vel
Personally, it has never made any of my Merfolk decks. Its best duty for me seemed to be as a counterspell for Nameless Inversion, Lash Out, Eyeblight’s Ending, and other removal spells, and I’ve never felt I needed such a thing badly enough. If you have a Reejerey or other aspect of your deck such that you think you will win through creature combat most of the time, then it moves way up, but I have had precious few of those decks.

19. Inkfathom Divers
By the time you get to five mana, you’ll either want infinitely more land (because you have Summon the School in hand or something), or no more land at all (because your opponent is still in the game and you need to draw more offensive or defensive cards). The Divers help set up your draws to meet these needs, and can get in there when you are Aquitecting. However, I prefer that my Merfolk decks end their curve at 4, and I never, ever want more than 1 of this guy.

20. Tidewater Mystic
Well, he enables your Aquitecting and might help with a splashed Nameless Inversion or whatever. However, if he makes your deck, it usually means your deck is subpar.

Key Uncommons

1. Merrow Reejerey
In a recent 8-4 draft I picked up a nice G/B Elf deck with a couple of Vanquishers, a Packmaster, and an Imperious Perfect. I remember shipping a fourth- or fifth-pick Reejerey with a sigh of relief, thinking, “no one can be in Merfolk if he’s coming that late.” So of course Jelger Wiemersma gave me the business in the second round with the, um, nut high Merfolk deck and the Reejerey that he got sixth or seventh.

I mean. This should not happen, ever. Opening a Reejerey will persuade me to force Merfolk regardless of whether something like Nameless Inversion is in the pack, and receiving one second or third will usually get me to abandon or splash any and all picks I made before. This guy does it all: pump the team, acts as mana acceleration by untapping your lands or Drums, gives you a second go-round on your tap effects, everything you could possibly want out of a single fish. Please stop passing him unless I am to your left.

2. Summon the School
I can understand passing this a little more than the Reejerey, because you have to be two colors and heavy Merfolk in order to get it to work, and by the time Pick 3 or 4 out of Pack 2 comes along, that kind of deck may be unfeasible. However, my jaw nonetheless drops when I see how late this comes around in the 4-3-2-2 queues.

3. Drowner of Secrets
On a couple of occasions I have had Merfolk decks where this guy was the only realistic win condition — a bunch of 1- and 2-power dudes with no Reejerey help isn’t very “realistic” — and it didn’t work out. Smart opponents will save their Lash Outs and Nameless Inversions for him. Still, few things in this set send the “drop everything and go Merfolk now” signal like a third-pick Drowner, and few boards seem as hopeless from across the table as does Douser-Judge-Drowner.

4. Silvergill Adept
Late last Sunday, I was in a draft where I foolishly ignored a signal of a second-pick Adept and took Smokebraider instead, to go with my first-pick Shriekmaw. I ended up with a nice little Elemental deck with double Mournwhelk. Of course, I lost in the first round to the Merfolk deck at the table, in part because he had turn 2 Adept in both games he won and my Whelks just seemed completely useless. My opponent had six cards in hand on the first turn where I could Evoke! Such is the power of the Adept.

This guy versus Silvergill Douser is an executive decision. Most times it will be the Douser, since you can still move out of Merfolk and go into Faeries with the Douser, but there is nothing wrong with first-picking an Adept and seeing what happens.

5. Merrow Harbinger
Always awesome, but especially important at tough draft tables, where you’re more likely to end up with one copy of each of your most important Merfolk. Brian David-Marshall says that this is one of the “lynchpin” Merfolk cards that he would not pass. Also, islandwalk blah blah win condition blee blee, as Tim Aten might say.

6. Crib Swap
This moves way up if you are still unsure about being in Merfolk, rather like Nameless Inversion. However, if you are definitely drafting the fish-men and a Douser is in the pack, you’d do well to ship the spot removal and take the Merfolk creature. The sort of Merfolk deck you are looking can make up for any given creature’s power with Judge lifegain, so the Swap, while nice, will not be strictly necessary.

7. Fallowsage
If you have him in play with a Drum or a Drowner, you really have to be trying to lose in order for it to happen. In a pinch, you can even tap him down with your Anglers; anything for some extra cards, right?

8. Harpoon Sniper
There are occasions where he’s devastating, but he’s just not a Douser. Playing this guy makes you realize how completely amazing the Douser is: the Sniper doesn’t count any spare Sentinels or Pestermites you might pick up (thus committing you to a tribe from the minute you pick him), he’s more expensive and has a mana cost on his ability. Still, he can kill the creature outright, which the Douser can’t do and which you will occasionally be in desperate need of, so he can be an important pick.

9. Turtleshell Changeling
Now we’re getting into “this card isn’t a signal that I should be playing Merfolk” territory. Any creature which strongly discourages opponents to attack is all right in my book, and this Changeling definitely does that. However, his ability is very mana-hungry (most tricks with his ability will require at least 2UU to work out and keep the Changeling alive).

10. Veteran of the Depths
By the first time you attack with him, he is a perfectly decent 3/3 for four mana, and of course he’ll get even bigger if you are correctly on theme. A guy that big obviously serves as a nice win condition. Having said that, I’ve never picked him, always preferring stronger commons like the Douser. Seeing this guy in the pack after the third or fourth pick just doesn’t get me excited the way the above cards on this list do.

11. Merrow Commerce
An overrated card that can safely be cut from a deck with 24-27 playables. Usually you can win without it, although sometimes it will be the final straw that causes the opponent to scoop. Note that you can tap it for a Drowner or to return Summon the School; seems obvious but I’ve seen many people miss it.

Among non-Merfolk uncommons, Ethereal Whiskergill deserves notice, since he teams up well with the Aquitecture to win in the air. Changeling Hero is obviously spectacular, although you often will have problems finding a creature to champion, since it would be nice to keep your Dousers and Judges in play.

I’m not actually going to list the rares in order since you rarely have to pick one versus the other, but you can guess who the usual suspects are going to be:

* The Blue and White Commands, Planeswalkers, and Elemental Incarnations should go without saying, as should Sygg, River Guide. Take them over everything.
* Usually you are a defensive deck, so you’ll never be sad to see Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile. She’ll often draw a removal spell away from the Drowner or Douser that your opponent may have been desperate to kill instead. I might pass her for a Douser or one of the top three uncommons, but I’ll take her over most everything else.
* Galepowder Mage is good enough as a 3/3 flier for four mana, plus you will randomly get awesomeness out of him (such as attacking with a Fallowsage into certain death just to draw the card, and then sliding it out). Take it very highly, even over Dousers if your deck is already good.
* I’ve never had Surgespanner in play. I played it once, in a match I was already winning by a mile, and my opponent scooped on the spot. With an ability like that, though, I have to assume he’s utter gas and should probably be taken very high, probably over everything if you have a Drum or two in your pile.

And now for some sample decks. I forget how this first deck started out — I didn’t take notes, as I wasn’t sure I was doing this article at the time — but as Harbinger after Harbinger came my way, I knew just what to do. However, I remember thinking that it wasn’t so great a deck because I had no Dousers or Judges, and if I recall correctly I lost in the second round to a hyper-aggressive G/W deck which was able to swarm me before my tappers could stabilize.

1 Aquitect’s Will
2 Goldmeadow Harrier
1 Ponder
1 Springleaf Drum
1 Deeptread Merrow
2 Stonybrook Angler
1 Avian Changeling
1 Drowner of Secrets
1 Faerie Trickery
1 Merrow Reejerey
1 Moonglove Extract
2 Paperfin Rascal
1 Pestermite
1 Fallowsage
3 Merrow Harbinger
1 Sentinels of Glen Elendra
1 Summon the School
1 Inkfathom Divers
10 Island
7 Plains

This next deck was from the very next draft I did, the following day. My dad came up to me while I was drafting and asked what I was doing. He knows the basics about Magic — it’s a card game, and the cards are collectible at different rarities, like baseball cards — so I explained to him how drafting works. “Wow,” he said, “that sounds tough.” I scooped up a fourth-pick Reejerey and grinned. “Not always.” This deck went 3-0 6-0, as I recall.

1 Crib Swap
2 Goldmeadow Harrier
1 Harpoon Sniper
1 Judge of Currents
1 Neck Snap
1 Summon the School
1 Amoeboid Changeling
2 Deeptread Merrow
1 Drowner of Secrets
1 Fallowsage
1 Merrow Harbinger
1 Merrow Reejerey
2 Paperfin Rascal
1 Ponder
1 Silvergill Adept
2 Silvergill Douser
1 Stonybrook Angler
1 Sygg, River Guide
1 Springleaf Drum
1 Vivid Meadow
10 Island
6 Plains

This last deck happened later on that same night, and is a fine example of when things go wrong. I first-picked a Surgespanner, figuring that the ability had to be the stone nuts, but then I faced a Second Pick Problem for the next three picks. I took Knight of Meadowgrain and two Kinsbaile Skirmishers with those picks, and then some Merfolk started coming, but by then I wasn’t sure if I should be a Merfolk deck or not. I ended up with a lot of powerful cards, including two Mulldrifters, but the synergy between them was slim. I bumbled and topdecked my way into the finals, and then was thoroughly destroyed by a G/B deck that used multiple copies of Gilt-Leaf Ambush to stall the ground, get to his Thorntooth Witch and then play a seemingly never-ending stream of Treefolk.

1 Sygg, River Guide
1 Moonglove Extract
1 Springleaf Drum
1 Deeptread Merrow
2 Ethereal Whiskergill
1 Fallowsage
1 Merrow Harbinger
2 Mulldrifter
2 Paperfin Rascal
1 Streambed Aquitects
1 Surgespanner
1 Turtleshell Changeling
1 Aethersnipe
2 Avian Changeling
1 Judge of Currents
2 Kinsbaile Skirmisher
1 Knight of Meadowgrain
1 Oblivion Ring
1 Vivid Creek
8 Island
8 Plains

This article written in-between my fourth and fifth re-readings of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Long Way Home” (a.k.a. “Buffy: Season Eight, Part 1”), written by Joss Whedon and penciled by Georges Jeanty. You were expecting something else?

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