I think I've been waiting my entire life for this moment.
Or my entire Magic career, at least. The very first large tournament I played in was a Legacy SCG Open in 2010, and on a whim a friend handed me Merfolk since I had never played Legacy before. I spent all day asking people what colors their duals made, but it was a pretty cool experience all around.
I ended up splitting the finals of that Open.
From that moment on, Merfolk has been my thing. From my foiled-out Modern Merfolk deck (with the good Mutavaults) that I love so much to my association with fish friends across Merfolk forums around the Internet, it's safe to say I've fallen for the fish.
All of which brings us to the thing you're here for.
Enough about me. Let's talk tropical, both Standard and Modern (and let Bruce expertly cover all Kumena's Commander applications tomorrow).
Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca does a little bit of everything, and for a tribe searching for an identity in Standard, Kumena offers what may be one of the most important attributes possible – a clear gameplan. Merfolk are going wide, and to find success with Kumena, you're going to want to be swimming in Fish. That provides direction in deckbuilding, and helps inform both the way we build Standard Merfolk and the way we aim to play the tribe. I worked hard on this archetype after the release of Ixalan, but it was clear the deck needed more help to become a serious contender in Standard.
Of course, the first question is straightforward: is Kumena worth building around? I think the short answer is yes. The longer answer is that Standard these days is often a midrange-fest, with even Ramunap Red and some versions of blue-black being more about controlling the board than racing out lightning-fast or playing the long game with Approach of the Second Sun. These decks do exist, of course – Approach decks and Mono-Black Aggro fill those roles – but by and large Standard is a bunch of Energy flavors trying to grind out incremental advantage on board and turning the tides with cards that go over the top – The Scarab God, Hazoret the Fervent, Vraska, Relic Seeker and so on.
In this environment, Kumena offers several benefits. The first ability – tapping another untapped Merfolk to make Kumena unblockable – allows you punch through any number of Whirler Virtuoso tokens or Bristling Hydras as you want, most likely for a sizeable chunk of damage thanks to cards like Vineshaper Mystic. And both the second and third ability also offer ways to break board stalls. Drawing cards on an opponent's end step is huge – giving Merfolk decks a way (albeit a slow one) to offset the card advantage provided by something like Glint-Sleeve Siphoner. And Kumena can one-up Bristling Hydra by putting counters on every Merfolk you control. The fact that Kumena is Merfolk-specific also makes it better against cards like Confiscation Coup.
The question, then, is how to reach this board state where you can use Kumena's abilities to turn the tide? The only other relevant Merfolk card we've seen from Rivals of Ixalan is a huge addition to the archetype and perfect for this strategy: Silvergill Adept.
I've long said Silvergill Adept is the best card in any Merfolk deck, and I believe that will be true in Standard as well, though Merfolk Branchwalker is very close. Curving Kumena's Speaker into Silvergill Adept or Branchwalker into Kumena offers opponents a series of hard choices – do they lose tempo by removing your one-drop with a two-mana removal spell if they don't have Shock in hand, do they go down a card by removing Silvergill or do they wait for Kumena and find that their Abrades are useless or that their Harnessed Lightnings need help getting the job done thanks to the four toughness on Kumena, allowing you to draw a card in the process?
Of course, many opponents will instead choose to execute their own gameplan – Attune with Aether into Glint-Sleeve Siphoner or Servant of the Conduit into Bristling Hydra. I'm not trying to downplay the power of the current Standard decks because they are obviously finely tuned machines, but Kumena offers Merfolk their first chance to really find a payoff card to a solid curveout that gets closer to competing with the top decks.
Let's take a look at what a Rivals of Ixalan Merfolk deck might look like, with the cards we currently know.
This list is a little light on one-drops (here's hoping Rivals provides us another one), but with 16 strong two-drops and 11 good three-drops the potential to curve out with high-value creatures is high. Of course, this is just one way to build the deck – we can explore Deeproot Waters strategies or try to go deeper with River Herald's Boon, which is a blowout in many situations but more mana-intensive than Blossoming Defense. Nissa, Steward of Elements is also an all-star here, needing to tick up just once before using the zero ability repeatedly to put all but eight other cards in the deck directly into play.
Whatever route we take, the strengths and weaknesses of the archetype are pretty clear – it's a deck great at flooding the board and protecting its creatures while gaining value on a card-for-card basis while sneaking in damage with unblockable threats. On the other hand, it's extremely light on strong removal and needs to win combat to get ahead on board. It's also lacking much interaction in the main deck against "combo" strategies like God-Pharaoh's Gift, Approach of the Second Sun or Drake Haven decks. A lot of those questions can be answered with the sideboard (and I like Deeproot Waters there as a way to grind out Settle the Wreckage decks), along with countermagic.
Will Kumena (and Silvergill Adept) bridge the gap between Merfolk and the rest of Standard? It is unlikely that based on these cards alone we'll see the fish taking down a Grand Prix anytime soon based on what we know today, but I do think this is a huge step towards at least being a deck that can take down FNM. The one-two punch of Silvergill Adept and Merfolk Branchwalker is strong enough to tilt Modern lists, so squaring off against it in Standard is no joke. Kumena gives the deck a way to pay off the tribal synergy at the top end, which is key for building the tribe in the first place.
As for what it will take to make my dreams come true and give Merfolk a Grand Prix (or Pro Tour) title, at least before rotation, I have a small wishlist. At the top of it is Mausoleum Wanderer for Merfolk – they've been one-upping Cursecatcher for years but seem to have forgotten about the tribe that popularized the card – but Wanderwine Hub for the new green-blue color pairing would also be a huge step, allowing you to cast cards like Blossoming Defense more reliably while also making both colors needed for the creatures. Of course, the deck could also do with better removal, but realistically there's only so much we can expect in this color pair, so I'll take what we can get.
It's a lot harder to tell where Kumena fits into Modern. The release of Ixalan brought the limelight to the Simic build (or "Tropical Fish," as some have called it), but after a few Top 8 finishes early it fell off. I think this is much more due to metagame shifts than anything with the deck itself, but Kumena's Speaker and Merfolk Branchwalker are huge additions to the deck, making it more streamlined and aggressive while also upping the power level of its early plays.
I'm not sure if Kumena fits in. The lists are already pretty tight, and adding another three-drop when we're already trimming Merrow Reejerey is a tough sell. There's no question that there are a handful of matchups that come down to board control where Kumena would fit in, but it's hard to imagine it as much more than a sideboard card.
Still, the power level remains high, and punching through damage against an Abzan or Tokens player spamming the board with Lingering Souls isn't something to scoff at. Of course the deck already has that angle covered with Spreading Seas and islandwalk-granting lords, but it's something to consider. Drawing extra cards with Kumena is also a real consideration – and again four toughness is huge against Lightning Bolt – so against a deck like Jeskai Tempo Kumena could be the card advantage/selection engine out of the sideboard that Merfolk decks have long looked for and at times turned to in the form of Thassa, God of the Sea, Monastery Siege or Smuggler's Copter.
While Kumena may not revolutionize Modern Merfolk, I believe Rivals of Ixalan has the potential to. The colored mana issue I touched on before is especially prevalent in Modern, where you can either choose to play fetch lands and Breeding Pools and have access to actual green cards in the sideboard like Natural State, or you can lean more heavily on Cavern of Souls and save yourself land damage but also restrict your mana options. Again, a Wanderwine Hub-type card could pair with Botanical Sanctum to give us the best of both worlds, and that would help in some of Merfolk's worst matchups (Affinity comes to mind). And I know I sound like a broken record, but I'm drooling at the possibility of a Cursecatcher upgrade, because Mausoleum Merfolk would crank up the deck's aggressive-but-disruptive starts to the max.
Hey, a friend of the fish can dream, right? Regardless, you can be sure that when Rivals of Ixalan and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca release you'll be able to find me playing the Fish at FNM on my favorite playmat that I had custom-drawn.
Thanks for reading,