Tribal decks in Modern have fallen on hard times over the last few months. Many new format staples like Prismatic Ending, Fury, Unholy Heat and Solitude are all exceptionally good versus traditional tribal strategies. That being said, there is one tribe that got an exceptional amount of support from Modern Horizons 2, and has a ton of flexibility with the ways you can build the deck. That tribe is Merfolk, and in my opinion is a powerful and underplayed strategy in Modern.
Svyelun of Sea and Sky is absolutely the biggest incentive to play a Merfolk deck in Modern. The card does everything you could want the top end of a tribal deck to do. It provides card advantage to keep a steady stream of card advantage coming, and it heavily taxes your opponent’s removal by granting itself indestructible and your other Merfolk ward 1. Your best draws involve this card, and when you draw it you should formulate your game plan around resolving it and protecting it.
Tide Shaper is less flashy than Svyelun, but is also a huge upgrade to the archetype. The card fills a lot of important roles that Merfolk needs. It’s a flexible threat that can often be played as a one-mana 2/2, it can disrupt your opponent’s mana, provide your other Merfolk an Island to Islandwalk with or remove an Urza’s Saga.
While not a Merfolk itself, Subtlety gives Merfolk access to the one thing other tribal decks are desperate for: an efficient answer to Fury and Solitude. While decks like Humans and Goblins have a really hard time coming back from a Fury, Merfolk can fight back with their own Incarnation. Despite Merfolk having a lot of versatility in the way it is built, Subtlety gives Merfolk such a huge degree of resilience that I view it mandatory for the deck’s construction. Subtlety is also really hard to play around for any deck, and will lead to a surprising amount of blowouts.
These three cards are crucial to give the deck a big power boost, but there’s almost no shortage of different ways to build the Merfolk deck. Like other blue tempo decks you have tons of options for deck building and it’s important that if you want to familiarize yourself with the different variants so that you can choose the best list on any given weekend.
Right now, there are three main archetypes that you’ll encounter in the metagame, but there are plenty of other sub variants that you can explore. If you’re interested in diving deep into these dozens and dozens of Merfolk variants, I recommend following Youtuber and Twitch streamer Nikachu MTG, who’s always trying to push the limits of the archetype. That being said, for now, let’s just take at the three main versions: