They're two of the most successful archetypes in Modern. One is a strong tribal deck that recently finished in the finals of Grand Prix Vancouver in the hands of Jonathon Zaczek (aka Nikachu), and the other is a cornerstone of Modern that is a four-of in just about every strong tribal deck.
I'm talking, of course, about Merfolk (#4life) and Collected Company. The only problem? The two have never met.
I love Merfolk, and I've written extensively about it before. It's my favorite deck in Magic, so when the subject of splashing green came up, I knew it was time to give it a go.
The idea to play Collected Company in Merfolk isn't exactly new. After all, who doesn't think that getting a pair of Lord of Atlantis at instant speed would be awesome? The problem in the past has been several things. For starters, the deck is actually pretty tight as-is, and adding another non-Master of Waves four-drops is questionable. And then there's the mana base, which was traditionally seen as one of the biggest things holding Merfolk back from a splash, whether that was for white or for green.
Kaladesh solved one of those problems, at least. The introduction of Botanical Sanctum means that the old strategy of Misty Rainforest-Breeding Pool-Yavimaya Coast is not nearly as dangerous as it once was. One of the hidden benefits to traditional Merfolk is that the deck deals itself no damage, and opponents must actually deal 20 points of damage to win a game. Contrast that with other aggressive decks that play fast and loose with their own life total (looking at you, Burn), and you can see how Merfolk can gain an edge in a format where most decks expect to start at 15-17 life rather than 20. This isn't just good against the other aggressive decks that you would expect, it gives you an extra turn against Scapeshift, makes it harder for control decks to turn the corner, and makes racing difficult for the midrange decks.
While the previous incarnations of Green-Blue Merfolk threw away those benefits, the deck post-Botanical Sanctum can accomplish the same goal at a much lower cost. Sure, you still have to damage yourself with the lands, but at nowhere near as high a rate as before.
With access to green, we get access to a pair of strong cards in Noble Hierarch and Collected Company. Hierarch speeds the deck up and allows nutty draws like Hierarch-into-Reejery-into-Collected Company, which puts a ton of pressure on the board very quickly. And we all know what Collected Company does – it's great when ahead or when behind, and allows the deck to play on a much different axis.
There were certainly games in the matches I played where you can see those strengths coming out, and I certainly see why some people believe the appeal of the green splash is worth it.
But there is another side to it, and the main reason I played this deck (besides coming up with a clever excuse to plug Merfolk and Nikachu's GP finish), is because the splash has come up more and more recently among the school of fish players. I had to find out for myself if there was a possibility this version was better than the traditional builds.
After a week testing the deck, I believe the answer to that question is probably no. Cutting Master of Waves is painful, and the overall changes needed meant even the things you take for granted in Merfolk – paying two mana for Silvergill Adept, having triggers for Merrow Reejery, etc – suddenly become unsure. Occasionally green cards get stuck in your hand as the green mana refuses to come, or when it finally does it's in the form of a tapped Botanical Sanctum.
That said, this build of the deck certainly plays better in some metas. It has more raw card advantage than the traditional decks do, and Collected Company is still a hell of a card. So while I don't see myself making the change anytime soon, I do believe there is plenty to learn about the deck as a result of this kind of experimentation, even if in many ways that boils down to "you never know what you had until it's gone."
Merfolk never really goes away in Modern, even if its strength ebbs and flows with the format. Whichever version you choose to sleeve up, I can promise that it's fun to swim with the fishies!
Thanks for reading,