Merfolk Is Back On The Menu In Modern

How did Merfolk of all decks reach the finals of a Magic Online Showcase Challenge? Ari Lax breaks down the why and how of a Modern classic’s return to the spotlight.

Svyelun of Sea and Sky, illustrated by Seb McKinnon

Merfolk is winning in Modern again.

And not just some Merfolk specialist getting their one highroll a year. If anything, Tulio_Jaudy is best known as a next-level metagame specialist with a list of SCG Tour Online finishes with decks that are one step ahead of the metagame. If that person is winning with Merfolk, you should pay attention.

This can only mean one thing: we’ve officially reached peak BS season for Modern. Don’t worry, this happens every year or so. Even if you are a Merfolk skeptic, this is the part you should pay attention to.

Violent Outburst Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer Sigarda's Aid

First, people figure out the best linear decks in the format. In a past age of Modern, those was things like Five-Color Humans and Ironworks Combo. Fast, resilient, and interactive decks. In the current Modern, they were the dominating results that cascade decks, Izzet Midrange, and Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus) had over the summer.

Teferi, Time Raveler

You then get a really targeted answer to beating those top decks. In the Ironworks-Humans metagame, it was Bant Spirits. Today, that’s almost exclusively the job of Azorius Control (Kaheera) and the Four-Color offshoots, whether you choose Yorion or Kaheera as your companion.

Then things get weird. Really weird.

Omnath, Locus of Creation

When the Four-Color Blink (Yorion) decks popped back onto the scene as a reaction to Azorius Control (Kaheera), I made the observation that while the Four-Color decks preserved a lot of the good Azorius aspects against that most powerful trio of cascade, Izzet Midrange, and Mono-White Hammer (Lurrus), it started to get rough around the edges against other linear decks. At the time, those were Boros Burn (Lurrus), Mono-Green Tron, and Dimir Mill (Lurrus), the tier of linear decks that are a bit less resilient or interactive than those top three decks but still on their own level.

Spreading Seas Sunset Revelry

Eventually the Four-Color and Azorius decks fit in the right interactions against those decks, but the layers of the Modern onion are pretty thin. If you pull back those first two tiers, there are another ten decks right beneath them waiting to beat up on your very specific control deck.

Goblin Charbelcher Master of the Pearl Trident

And that’s how we get to Gruul Belcher (Kaheera) playing against Merfolk in the finals of a large Modern Showcase Challenge.

But why is Merfolk winning now? It’s just…. so Merfolk.

Modern Horizons Cards Are Good

Archmage's Charm Subtlety Svyelun of Sea and Sky

In a big shock to no one, Merfolk is winning in large part because Modern Horizons and Modern Horizons 2 gave it a lot of good cards.

Merfolk Trickster Harbinger of the Tides Merfolk Mistbinder

If you look at the years leading up to June 2019, a lot of interesting Merfolk cards were released. The problem was, “interesting” was just bad. When you put a card like Merfolk Trickster in your deck, it meant that you drew a stupid Runeclaw Bear instead of a card that represented more literal power on the battlefield. Merfolk just had to play a million Lord of Atlantis variants because all the other cards you could put in the deck sucked.

Lightning Bolt Snapcaster Mage Tarmogoyf

There was a really a function of what happened in most games of Merfolk versus midrange. They wouldn’t be able to kill every creature you cast because your deck would have 30 actual creatures, but they didn’t have to if they just stranded you with Runeclaw Bears. Your hope was that you would draw more copies of Lord of Atlantis than they drew removal, so that maybe your random creatures would battle into Tarmogoyfs or the creature half of Snapcaster Mage without being utterly embarrassed.

Force of Negation

There was some buzz around Merfolk with Force of Negation when Modern Horizons came out, but anyone with a fundamental understanding of why Merfolk struggled in the format knew that wasn’t going to matter. When the problem is your Lord of Atlantis dying to Lightning Bolt, throwing away two pieces of cardboard won’t solve it. Your Lords were cardboard-intensive payoffs, and your opponent could just wait to cast the removal spell on your turn if they really cared. All Force of Negation did was put another bad topdeck into your deck.

Svyelun of Sea and Sky

In what should be shocking to no one, Jund Guy went to Wizards of the Coast (WotC) and made a card that let Merfolk play more like Jund.

Imagine that same scenario of playing Merfolk against creatures that are bigger than they are and backed by removal, but substitute Svyelun of Sea and Sky for whatever Lord of Atlantis you had before. Instead of your good creature dying to removal, it’s indestructible. Instead of drawing medium cards at parity with your opponent, it looks a lot more like the Curious Obsession games from Ravnica Allegiance-era Mono-Blue Aggro where you make twice as many plays a turn as your opponent while your undersized but interactive bodies bog them down. Everything that was a bad exchange for old Merfolk decks is good for a Svyelun-based one.

Taken to the extreme, Svyelun can lead you to a Merfolk deck that looks as silly as this one by noted monocolor connoisseur MHayashi.

But let’s get back to decks that are a bit more like the Merfolk decks you all know and have some variey of good and/or bad feelings about.

Archmage's Charm Subtlety

MHayashi does have one thing right: Merfolk Harbinger and Merfolk Trickster should be the start of your interaction with Svyelun, not the end of it. You still have that Force of Negation pickle to work out too. Sometimes you don’t draw Svyelun, and in those games you have the old Merfolk issues where every non-Merfolk card you draw is a huge loss.

Modern Horizons and Modern Horizons 2 offer up some partial solutions to that problem in interaction that can provide proactive support. Archmage’s Charm literally just turns into two new cards instead of dead-ending a draw step at a Counterspell, and Subtlety literally has power and toughness. Neither card is a hallmark of efficiency, but when it comes to those grindy topdeck battles against control or midrange, neither card rots in your hand while you look for a way to force through the last few damage.

Mutavault Glasspool Mimic Minamo, School at Water's Edge

Archmage’s Charm comes with another noteworthy change: goodbye Mutavault, and honestly good riddance. Merfolk is an extremely mana-intensive deck. Too often, Mutavault is forced to tap for mana to cast spells. When you’re a normal deck with normal spells that’s less of an issue, but half the Merfolk deck is all-in on devotion to blue. Mutavault needs to tap for mana to cast your spells, but it isn’t even able to do that when your spells are Archmage’s Charm and Merfolk Trickster.

Instead, you get Glasspool Mimic as your creature-land, and this is probably the best the card has ever been. The games where Lord of Atlantis is good are when you’re stacking multiples, and it does that while you’re able to cut down on the actual Lords that don’t play interactive Magic. The games where you want to interact, Glasspool Mimic does a Snapcaster Mage impression and doubles down on the interaction you drew and wanted. If Merfolk Trickster eating half an Urza’s Saga is a tempo blowout, following that up with Glasspool Mimic is the full-on nightmare. Mimic being a blue spell for Subtlety is the cherry on top, and I guess that makes the play of Aether Vial flashing in Mimic to copy Subtlety the sprinkles on the Merfolk sundae.

I’ll also shout this out as a rare chance for Minamo, School at Water’s Edge to absolutely shine. Giving an indestructible Svyelun pseudo-vigilance makes some games impossible to lose.

But why is Merfolk winning now? It’s still…. so Merfolk.

Merfolk Hits a Metagame Spot


Dom and I spent last week talking about a bunch of non-Merfolk tribal decks, and that all kicked off with one caveat. Playing tribal decks into Fury is going to be a struggle no matter which tribe you play.

But we had a caveat to that caveat: people are cutting Fury from their decks.

Crashing Footfalls Risen Reef Ephemerate

With Temur Footfalls falling out of favor, with Four-Color Elementals (Kaheera) getting consumed by the Four-Color Blink (Yorion) deck, and in turn that deck getting pushed out by the Four-Color Control (Kaheera) decks, decks maindecking Fury are rare sights these days.

And even if you run into one of those worst-case scenarios, Merfolk has more of a buffer against that Incarnation. Subtlety forces another card-negative recast of Fury at mana parity. Archmage’s Charm punishes hard-casts. The ward granted by Svyelun makes a Fury trigger a pain to resolve, and Svyelun itself can be immune to four-damage shots.


Compared to the fear of Fury, Solitude is a joke for Merfolk. The various control decks are heavily punished by trading two-for-one in your favor early, and the full 3WW hard-cast is punished by Archmage’s Charm and Subtlety. The cards you want to play anyway are good against the cards and Azorius decks you’re already trying to beat.

Urza's Saga Merfolk Trickster Tide Shaper

Merfolk is weirdly good against Orzhov Hammer (Lurrus). In addition to all the tricky Merfolk triggers being good at stifling Colossus Hammer attacks, Merfolk has a bunch of incidental ways to manage Urza’s Saga and the Construct tokens that come with it. A kicked Tide Shaper turning Urza’s Saga into an Island is the obvious one, but Merfolk Trickster as a Shriekmaw when it removes abilities from a 0/0 Construct is backbreaking tempo.

Oh, and you have Thieving Skydiver out of the sideboard. Absolutely adorable.

Archon of Cruelty Primeval Titan Goblin Charbelcher

Even if Force of Negation is bad against normal Modern decks doing normal Modern things, Merfolk can also easily sideboard and adapt to beat up on decks that lean heavily on a single big play to turn the game around. You have access to eight great pieces of free interaction, and then as many Spreading Seas, Miscasts, or Spell Pierces as you could want in the sideboard. Maybe Tulio_Jaudy’s exact list doesn’t cover a small portion of the spread, but it’s not hard to do so.

That all said….

Can Merfolk actually be good now? It’s still…. so Merfolk.

Merfolk Is Still Merfolk

Yup. Merfolk is still so Merfolk. It isn’t a perfect deck that is going to take over the format; it’s just really good right now. At any moment the format could take a big turn for the worse and make it a bad choice.

Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer

The big glaring issue is Ragavan, Nimble Pilferer. I want you to imagine the following nut draw out of the Ragavan decks as the Merfolk deck.

Turn 1 Ragavan, go.

That’s it. That’s the nut draw. The Merfolk deck has no real recourse against Turn 1 Ragavan, and that often pans out regardless of who’s on the play due to how few one-drops the Merfolk deck actually has. From there, we all know what happens. The Ragavan deck gets to make a million mana, do whatever it wants on every turn, and probably end up ahead a card or two, and the Merfolk player dies a horrible death. The best-case scenario is often just trading a two-drop for their one-drop after it already nets them a mana. The worst-case scenario is they cast your Svyelun, because I don’t think Merfolk has ever had a real plan for when their Dark Confidant makes another Dark Confidant.

Unholy Heat Lightning Bolt

There’s also the structural issue of the Ragavan decks showing up with all the efficient removal and doing the anti-Merfolk midrange thing. You can fight that just fine with Svyelun, but starting off behind a full Ragavan percentage in basically every game makes the matches an uphill battle.

Murktide Regent Dragon's Rage Channeler Lurrus of the Dream-Den

If you’re always going to face off against Izzet Midrange, I think you can still argue Merfolk is in the right part of the margins. You just need to Subtlety their Murktide Regents, Merfolk Trickster their Dragon’s Rage Channeler, and any game that comes down to them trading often favors you. I wouldn’t say you are a favorite, but it’s a match.

But the more Ragavan decks turn towards the Rakdos (Lurrus) versions, the worse things get. The literal card Lurrus is the start of your issues, and Kolaghan’s Command the next one, and honestly it doesn’t get better from there. After getting second in the Showcase Challenge, Tulio_Jaudy 5-0’ed a League with four Ancestral Vision in the sideboard, which helps but doesn’t solve things.

Living End

I mentioned Fury out of some of the cascade decks being an issue, but I can’t imagine the non-Fury cascade deck being any less of a problem. Like, have you read the text on Living End? If you need to control creatures and it resolves, things don’t look so good.

Indomitable Creativity Hardened Scales Amulet of Vigor

Fortunately for Merfolk a-fish-ionados out there, the Modern metagame is a giant mess right now. Maybe you run into a problem for Merfolk over a long session of matches, but most of the time things will go swimmingly.

Plus, if no one knows what the right deck to play really is, do they even have a leg to stand on if they want to criticize Merfolk? Just point to the scoreboard and keep playing Fish.