For those of you who don't know, I live in Oklahoma. It's routinely derided as a "worse" place to live than the coasts, but it has its own benefits for me. Low cost of living, family nearby and a great local Magic community.
We also have this small basketball team you might have heard of called the Thunder. The Thunder are playing in the NBA Western Conference finals right now, and it's the only thing on anyone's mind around here. When the game is on, everyone is watching and my phone is blowing up with texts and tweets about the game. It's a great time.
Except last Sunday. While everyone else was watching the Thunder game, I had my eyes glued to something else.
Merfolk in the finals Grand Prix Los Angeles.
Simon Slutsky defeated Affinity to win the Grand Prix (Jump to the 9 hour 10 minute mark to see it!), the second Modern title Merfolk has taken down in the past year.
It's safe to say I was a little excited.
As anyone who has heard me talk about Magic for five minutes knows, I'm a huge fish fan. My first-ever Legacy tournament was an Open in 2011, and a friend loaned me Legacy Merfolk after he made the decision at the last minute to play Zoo. I legitimately had never played with or against a dual land in my life, but the Fish carried me to a finals appearance. I later battled with the fish to a Top 16 finish at an Invitational. I own a custom-painted Silvergill Adept playmat, and I've played Merfolk since the second Modern was created and capping it off with full-art Mutavault was a longtime goal of mine that I fulfilled at Grand Prix Las Vegas last year.
Like I said, I was just a little excited when the deck took down the Grand Prix. I take a lot of friendly abuse on the coverage team about my love of the deck, so you can be sure I'm looking forward to hanging this over their heads for the next few months.
So, while the goal of this column is to explore lesser-known decks—which Merfolk doesn't qualify as—I couldn't pass up this opportunity to write a current primer on the deck. The last time I wrote about the deck was two years ago back when I was still working to convince people to not play Remand or Cosi's Trickster. Enough has changed since then that it's time I revisit it.
Let's start by talking about Simon's list. From what I understand he ran the Wanderwine Hub because he didn't have access to Minamo, School at Water's Edge so that explains that otherwise "odd" choice. The truth is, while some Merfolk decks splash white for Path to Exile or Stony Silence, even the mono-blue lists sometimes run Wanderwine Hub to avoid vulnerability to Choke. I don't personally think it's worth it or necessary since you already have plenty of lands plus AEther Vial to dodge the annoying enchantment, but it's an option if you really don't want to get Choked out of the game. I also don't believe the utility offered by splashing a color is worth either increased inconsistency or taking damage from a fetch land manabase.
The big omission from Simon's list is Harbinger of the Tides. Heralded by many as "the next big thing" when it was spoiled, Harbinger has been a mainstay of most Merfolk lists until now. While I don't like cutting them entirely, it's hard to argue with Simon's results. He opted for removal in Dismember over tempo in Harbinger, and with decks like Abzan and Jund running around where you really need to just kill the Tarmogoyf, this change makes some sense. This was a great meta call, as was sneaking a Tidebinder Mage into the maindeck.
The important thing to remember when looking at any Merfolk list is that despite a large portion of the deck being predetermined with lords and the other staples, there are 4-6 spots that can vary widely based on expected metagame. Dismembers could easily become Spell Pierces, for instance, and as Simon showed Harbinger is not irreplaceable, nor is the fourth Merrow Reejerey.
That said, let's look at my list which I use as a starting point for any tournament. I'll also hit on the cards that may be in the sideboard as they fit.
Lord of Atlantis, Master of the Pearl Trident and Merrow Reejerey are the reason Merfolk exists in the first place. Chaining together lords and islandwalk means Merfolk can attack with impunity against any blue deck. Chaining together lords can get your board out of Pyroclasm or even Lightning Bolt range extremely quickly, and while any singular lord is "bad" on its own, together they form an extremely consistent shell for the deck.
Let's talk about Merrow Reejerey. At first glance it's hard to understand why we play Reejery but not Merfolk Sovereign. They're both three-mana lords after all, right?
The truth is Merrow Reejerey is so much more than just another lord. It's a combat trick sometimes. It's a Falter sometimes. It's even a "combo" piece sometimes. It really does it all. Here are some of the things you can do when you untap with a Reejerey and play a Merfolk:
— Tap down a blocker.
— Tap AEther Vial to play a creature, then play a Merfolk from your hand and untap the Vial for another use. remember, only casting Merfolk spells trigger Reejerey, which means it happens before the spell resolves, but putting a Merfolk into play with AEther Vial does not trigger Reejerey.
— Cast Harbinger of the Tides, using the Reejerey to tap down an opposing creature, then bouncing it with the Harbinger when it enters play. With four mana open you can even use this trick on your opponent's turn.
— Cast a Merfolk and untap your own lands. This allows you to stretch 3-4 mana into 5-6, exploding onto the board with a bevy of Lords. With two Reejerey in play things get even more absurd, as two-drops become "free" and Cursecatcher actually allows you to net mana. I've cast Master of Waves off of three lands before thanks to this.
Of course, if Merfolk were just a bunch of lords, the deck wouldn't be very good; opponents could just kill them one at a time and leave you with a 2/2 at the end of it.
This is where the rest come into play. Cursecatcher is great at filling out the curve as a 1-drop while also playing an important disruption role against opponents, holding off sweepers or combos while attacking all the while.
Quick note on Cursecatcher. When lead with this and have a lord in hand, obviously the natural inclination is to play the lord on our second turn and attack for two with the Cursecatcher. But in many cases this actually the incorrect play. For instance, if our Jund or Jeskai opponent passes the turn with one red mana open, we can reasonably assume they have a Lightning Bolt. Similarly, if a Mana Leak opponent passes with two mana open, we can expect a Counterspell.
Now, the beauty of Cursecatcher is that it can sacrifice itself to counters these spells. And, on the second turn of the game, that's what ends up happening quite a bit of the time. However, because we can expect our opponent to hold that removal spell or Counterspell for our two-drop, it's usually correct to attack with the Cursecatcher before playing the two-drop, since this way we get in one damage before we presumably will be sacrificing Cursecatcher. Yes, sometimes they don't have the Counterspell or removal spell and we miss out on one point of damage, but in my experience if they pass with that mana open rather than tap out, they almost certainly have it. Mastering sequencing like this is the difference between an average Merfolk player a great one like Simon.
Silvergill Adept is the best card in the deck. I said it, and I mean it. AEther Vial and lords are nice, but Silvergill is the card that ties everything together. I don't think Merfolk would be a competitive deck without it.
Harbinger of the Tides
Great at stealing tempo. You can pay four mana for it in a pinch, but you can also AEther Vial this guy in from two counters to get the benefit at instant speed anyway. Great against decks that want to race you or tap low to cast creatures.
Similar to Harbinger, Tidebinder represents a huge tempo swing. Locking down their Goyf or Monastery Swiftspear even for a turn can often be gamechanging, and if the opponent doesn't have a removal spell for it you've effectively removed their creature while adding one of your own.
Though Image isn't in my list at the moment, in truth this guy does a lot. The most common play is copying one of your lords to grow the team even more, but I've copied every single creature in the deck before with Image, including Mutavault. Sometimes you want an extra card by copying Silvergill, sometimes you want more disruption by copying Cursecatcher, sometimes you want to use this to help you "go off" with Merrow Reejerey. And plenty of times it just copies an opponent's creature to either give yourself a Dark Confidant or Vault Skirge or Emrakul or what have you.
Thassa, God of the Sea
I know a lot of people don't play Thassa much these days, but I'm enamored with the sea god. Scrying every turn is just so powerful against slower decks or combo decks where you need to find disruption, and Thassa helps remove the dead draws like a late AEther Vial or land. Not to mention that with Spreading Seas you can get to five devotion without having an otherwise-impressive board state. On-demand unblockability is just the icing on this god-sized cake.
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner/ Monastery Siege
Not much feels better than playing a pair of lords and then following up with Kira to protect them. While it's not a Merfolk, Kira is plenty powerful enough to earn a spot or two in the 75.
Note that this is currently bugged on Magic Online, so in the videos we aren't playing it. Monastery Siege is a great replacement, and actually has enough benefits over Kira that I play one in my paper list as well. With Abrupt Decay so prevalent, Monastery Siege actually does a better job a lot of the time of protecting your creatures while not dying to Pyroclasm, and has the side benefit of affecting opponents trying to Lava Spike or Thoughtseize your face. And the "Khans" mode is a lot better than you might think at first — I've happily chosen that mode plenty of times.
AEther Vial is a must. It allows your most lord-heavy hands to kill on Turn 4, and the virtual mana acceleration it gives you is better used in Merfolk than any other deck in the format.
Likewise, I would never not start with four Spreading Seas. Not only do you get to "hate" on decks like Tron, but just picking off random creature lands like Inkmoth Nexus or Raging Ravine is great on its own. That said, this gets even better in multiples, when you actually begin to prevent opponents from casting spells in their hands. Oh yeah, it also conveniently gives opponents an Island for your creatures to islandwalk over.
Spell Pierce / Vapor Snag / Dismember
Meta-dependent, but the best Counterspell in main deck Merfolk. The key here is the fact it only costs one mana. Nearly every hand you play in this deck wants to cast either a two or three-drop on the third turn, and Remand or Mana Leak just doesn't jive with that gameplan. With those in the deck you end up being forced to choose between casting a creature or holding up a counter, and it's just not worth it. Sure, you'll have the god draws with an AEther Vial where everything works out perfectly, but the inconsistency isn't worth it.
Spell Pierce, meanwhile, works perfectly with this plan, as does Vapor Snag or Dismember. While Dismember is usually preferable, the life loss can definitely matter, as can the fact that Vapor Snag can be used to save your own creature. As I said earlier, these are largely preference or meta-based decisions.
Oboro, Palace in the Clouds and Minamo, School at Water's Edge exist to keep you from losing to Choke. While they have some fringe applications (untapping Thassa or bouncing back to your hand in response to a Liliana of the Veil activation), those are good things to be aware of but don't come up that often.
The big talking point with my list is the 3-3 split on Cavern of Souls and Mutavault. With so many more blue decks in Modern thanks to Ancestral Vision, I'm happy with three Caverns to combine with AEther Vial make their Counterspells almost completely dead.
Three Mutavaults is a little more controversial, and most Merfolk lists you'll see are playing four because Merfolk has "just always run four." That said, every Merfolk player knows the pain of not having two blue mana on the second turn to cast a lord. With Harbinger of the Tides adding more double-blue cards — plus Spell Pierce and Swan Song postboard that you need to be able to cast reliably while still playing a lord on Turn 3 — I believe you lose more games to that fourth Mutavault than you win with it. Cavern of Souls can be used to cast that Lord on Turn 3 while leaving up an Island for the Counterspell, and for that reason I choose to keep the Mutavault at three. I certainly can't fault anyone for playing four, but I've lost way too many games to having UU on Turn 2 to still play four copies.
There are too many decks in Modern to hit everything, but I'll try to hit the broad strokes here.
We board out Aether Vial in these matchups. The reason is that with Thassa, Siege, Kira, Silvergill, Spreading Seas and Master of Waves we aren't scared to play the long game. We can usually outlast the one-for-one removal from these decks (Liliana is the biggest concern) and out-value them over the long game. Depending on their build you'll want to bring in the Dismember, Relics and Tidebinders.
This is where we can board out Harbinger of the Tides and usually the fourth Reejerey to pick up Relics, Swan Song or Spell Pierces and Skaab Ruinator. Ruinator may seem like an odd one, but it's great against Wrath of God decks. Sometimes you get to "cheat" by Vialing it in, and only Path to Exile answers it cleanly. It takes two Lightning Bolts, and if they Wrath it and your board away you can just recast it from the graveyard. There is a little anti-synergy with Relics, but you usually can get by just activating Relic once a turn in these games, or at the least can form a plan for the next few turns if you draw one or both of these.
A terrifying matchup, but not unwinnable. Board out all the supplementary three-drops you can as well as the fourth Master and bring in Recalls, Dismember and Chalice on the play. This is the worst matchup by far and the dice roll is super important, but you can pull through it. If you're looking for additional options I would suggest trying out Steel Sabotage.
Chalice, Swan Songs, Tidebinders and Dismember all come in, while the slower cards (again, the three-drops and a Master) come out.
I actually consider these to be favored for us, though I know plenty of players on the other side of the table who feel the opposite. Either way, board out the three-drops (except for Siege) and get in the Tidebinders, Chalice and possibly further Spell Pierces if they are creature-light.
This is another difficult matchup since Kitchen Finks itself is so good against our deck, plus they can randomly turbo out infinite life that we can't beat. Board out the slower cards and bring in Swan Song, Tidebinders, Dismember, Relics and Hibernation. We have eight cards to board in here, so this is my general outline.
2 Swan Song
2 Tidebinder Mage
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Master of Waves
1 Thassa, God of the Sea
1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
1 Monastery Siege
2 Merrow Reejerey
1 Harbinger of the Tides
Obviously this represents a ton of decks, but for ease I'm going to specify "spell-based combo," like Storm or Ad Nauseam.
Again, board out the slower cards (except Monastery Siege against Ad Nauseam), and get in the Spell Pierces, Swan Songs and Relics where applicable. Don't forget about Chalice of the Void if you're on the play, and Hurkyl's Recall can sometimes be very good if your opponent's combo relies on artifacts.
I know this deck better than any other in Magic, so if you have any questions I didn't address in the body of this ask me in the comments and I'll be sure to chime in! I want this primer to be used as a resource for a long time, so I've done my best to make it as complete as possible. I tried to walk through some of the more complex tips like sequencing in the videos, so I hope that will also be helpful.
As always, thanks for reading!
@Chosler88 on Twitter/Twitch