A while ago, I wrote an article about what each tribe would need to compete in Standard. Now, with the full Rivals of Ixalan spoiler already out, we get to see how they fared. This will be a series of four articles, one on each tribe, where I go over the tribal cards from Rivals of Ixalan and try to analyze what the best build of that tribe will be, and whether it can compete in Standard or not.
This week, I’m going to analyze Merfolk.
In my first assessment, I thought that Merfolk was by far the weakest of the new tribes. It had no cohesive identity and no rewards for dedicating to it. Rivals of Ixalan seems to have changed that—there are now several Merfolk lords that reward you for filling your deck with every Merfolk you can find, and then several playable Merfolks to accompany those. Here are the most promising Merfolk from the new set:
Not a Merfolk itself, but a Repulse reprint if you have a Merfolk. I used to love Repulse back then, and it’s possible this will see play. Merfolk decks are traditionally very Merfolk heavy since they have a bunch of lords, so you’re usually going to be able to cast this at instant speed, at which point you’re getting a good rate. The main problem is that because Merfolk decks have to be so Merfolk heavy, there’ll be a limit to the number of spells you can play, and Crashing Tide might not be good enough to make the cut.
This is not a powerful card, but Merfolk have to be evaluated in the context of their synergy. If you have a multitude of lords and cards that want you to have more Merfolk, then this card can add a lot to the board for only 1 mana. As an unblockable creature, it’s a prime target for all those +1/+1 counters too. Depending on how aggressive Merfolk decks go, I can see this being great.
Silvergill Adept is obviously amazing and will see play in any Merfolk deck. It has a respectable body by itself and is just a great creature in swarm strategies because it’s effectively free.
This is a Metallic Mimic with two upsides. First, it counts as a Merfolk if it’s in your hand for Silvergil Adept purposes. Second, it can distribute the counters however you want. This means that you can immediately attack with a pumped creature, or pump one important creature enough that it survives removal. You can also just pile up on an unblockable creature, like Mist-Cloaked Herald. This upside is definitely worth the 1 point of power you’re giving up, and this card will be played in Merfolk decks.
Jade Bearer is a 1-mana Merfolk that you don’t really want to play on turn 1, and that’s fine. Eight of the lords in Merfolk (Mimic and Deeproot Elite) want you to play your Merfolk after you play them anyway, so you’re gaining a bit by holding it. I think this card is a good fit for the deck because there are several 2-drops, and it allows you to play a 2-drop plus something on turn 3. A curve of turn-2 Metallic Mimic, turn 3 Merfolk Mistbinder + Jade Bearer leaves 10 power in play, which is very respectable for what is essentially an average start.
I think Jadelight Ranger is an extremely good card, but not necessarily a good Merfolk. Merfolk decks are all about getting a bunch of small Merfolk in play and using synergy effects to make them more valuable, and Jadelight Ranger is not a small, cheap Merfolk—it’s a value card. I think this card will be used more in grindy decks, or perhaps Winding Constrictor decks. You can get a 6/5 for 3 with two filters if you follow a Winding Constrictor with it, but it will probably not be played much in the heavy Merfolk decks because it just doesn’t do what the deck wants.
This is mostly a Draft common, but I think it could actually see play given the number of lords you have. 3 power and 3 toughness for 3 isn’t good, but this effectively gets “double pumped” by lords, so it could see play. It likely won’t, however, because I think there will be a lot of competition in the 3-drop slot.
This is a nice card, but shares Jadelight Ranger’s problem—it’s not necessarily what the deck is trying to do. It probably won’t have a multitude of instants, so it will be very obvious when you should play around Swift Warden, at which point I don’t think it’s going to be worth it. It’s possible that it’s good in a less swarmy version of Merfolk, with Crashing Tide to make use of the mana if they don’t try to target one of your creatures.
A+. Merfolk really needed a lord in this set, and this is definitely good enough. At a UG cost, it makes sure you don’t have to bend your mana base too far in one direction or another.
Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca
What a weird card. All in all, I think it’s very good. It has a respectable body and will win almost any stalemate. The best ability is the “draw a card” one, which then gets you to 5 Merfolk so you can use the third ability to close the game out.
Overall, it seems to me like Merfolk really wants to swarm. You have 12 lords, and then you have Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca, which is effectively a lord. If you play three of those, then that’s 15 cards that make your Merfolk better, at which point putting a non-Merfolk in your deck is a real cost. You probably cannot afford a single non-Merfolk creature, and you have to be very careful about how many spells you play.
The first Merfolk build that comes to mind is just extremely-aggressive Merfolk. The way I see it, this is the aggressive core:
This is 31 cards, all creatures. With 12 one-drops and at least 16 two-drops, your goal is always to go turn-1 one-drop, turn-2 two-drop, turn-3 one of each. This mana base demands 4 Unclaimed Territories, so you have to be careful about which spells you play. You’ll likely have only about 12 sources that tap for colored noncreature mana, so playing any double-cost spell will probably be impossible.
After the 31 creatures, there are a couple of options you can play. If you want more creatures, Merfolk Branchwalker is a solid Merfolk, but it’s yet another 2-drop, and we already have so many. You could play Kopala, Warden of Waves to make sure your lords survive, or perhaps Jungleborn Pioneer if you want even more bodies (which I do).
As far as spells, the deck should probably just try to ignore creatures for the most part. Your way to beat creatures is to simply play bigger ones. The things that worry you the most are your opponent’s spells, particularly sweepers—a card like Fumigate will be almost impossible to beat. Spot removal should be good against you as well since killing a lord removes a lot of power from the board and makes every one of your cards worse.
There are three good ways to deal with spells in this format: Blossoming Defense, Spell Pierce, and Negate. Blossoming Defense doesn’t deal with sweepers, but it’s the best at dealing with removal spells, and it can act as a combat trick. Negate will deal with removal or sweepers, but costs 2 mana, which is problematic because it’ll be hard to play on turn 3. Spell Pierce is sort of the cross between the two. It will usually be able to deal with sweepers, and it costs only 1 mana. It’s not the best at dealing with Magma Spray and Fatal Push, but you can still play it on turn 3 alongside a 2-drop to stop Harnessed Lightning, Abrade, or Lightning Strike. I think Spell Pierce is probably a better version of Negate here.
Another direction you can take is to play Deeproot Waters. It’s not a very fast card, and you take a turn off to play it most of the time, but your deck will have a lot of Merfolk, and the 1/1 hexproofs will quickly turn into 2/2s or 3/3s. It does have an issue in that it works non-optimally with Metallic Mimic (if you cast Mimic, you don’t get a token), but if the Mimic is already in play then it works perfectly. Deeproot Waters also works fantastically with Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca.
This deck will have even less room for interaction. In fact, you could justify playing 4 Deeproot Waters, 23 lands, and 33 Merfolk. Given that you have 4 Deeproot Waters, you don’t care nearly as much about spot removal. Your late game will be better and your threats more resilient. Because of that, I think Negate takes the nod—you’re really mostly trying to stop a sweeper from killing everything and it’s the best at doing that.
Another alternative is a deck that’s a little less all-in. I think this approach will be worse. The strength of the Merfolk deck is the fact that it’s going all-in, and every card gets better the more Merfolk you have, so adding interaction will make them all worse. Still, I want to see if I can come up with a list to see how it looks. The idea is to play a slightly slower game, and try to be a little more reactive. You’ll still be capable of fast starts, but not nearly as many because you don’t have as many 1-drops.
I think Rebuff is probably the best counterspell here. The ability to counter creatures should be relevant, and no one is playing any artifacts that you care about. Between Crashing Tides, Rebuffs, Commit // Memory, and Swift Warden, you have a lot to do on their turn if you pass with mana up, so it’ll be hard for them to predict what you have. I think this deck should play less like traditional Merfolk and more like Faeries.
A last option is to cut blue and embrace the power of Winding Constrictor. Both Deeproot Elite and Metallic Mimic add counters, so they work very well with Constrictor despite it not being a Merfolk. It also works well with Explore, and particularly well with Jadelight Ranger, which can enter the battlefield as a 6/5 on turn 3 with some added card selection to boot. With black, you get some removal and better sideboard cards.
It’s unlikely to be better than the blue deck, as the blue lords and Silvergill Adept are very good, but I don’t think the deck can be 3 colors, and I want to give Winding Constrictor at least a try with this many +1/+1 counters in the deck.
Verdict: I think the swarm aspect of Merfolk is good, and the deck will be very fast. It will be a real Standard deck, but will probably settle at tier 2. Whether Deeproot Waters is good or not will depend on what you expect to face. If you’re racing a lot, then it’s not good, but if you’re playing versus a lot of spot removal it has the chance to shine.
The deck’s biggest weakness will likely be its sideboard. You’ll never be able to go below a certain number of Merfolk or your deck is going to get much worse, and there’s nothing you really want other than more counterspells. If you play against problematic creatures, there isn’t any good removal you can play in those colors, for example. I struggle to think of what a sideboard for this deck would even look like. I think you probably want Deeproot Waters in there if you don’t have them main already for decks with a lot of spot removal. The fact that there are 4 Unclaimed Territories means you’re also not good at casting some of the spells you’d potentially want to play.
You can play a less dedicated all-in Merfolk deck, and I will try to, but I suspect it’s not going to be good enough. All the Merfolk cards just snowball so well, and by having more interaction in your deck you make them all weaker. This is probably the type of situation where “if Swarm Merfolk isn’t good, then you probably don’t want to be Merfolk anyway.” Still, it reminds me of Faeries, so I’ll try it.