Merfolk is a relatively upstart archetype in the modern metagame. Relegated to tier 2 for almost its entire life in Modern, it only recently has had notable showings and started to command a respectable share of the field.
So why should you play Merfolk in Modern? It’s not as fast as Affinity, consistent as Burn, or as streamlined as Zoo. What it does have going for it is dodging the majority of the hate that the format brings for these decks. No catch-all disruption exists for beating Merfolk, apart from removal, which can itself easily be beaten by solid sideboarding and redundancy in our creature base. Combined with cheap spells and interaction that provides large tempo swings, the deck has more to it than just its tribal synergy.
Examining the List
Merfolk’s recent appearance is somewhat out of the blue – the core of the deck has remained relatively the same, outside of a few recent additions. So what has caused this fish resurgence? Merfolk’s sudden appearance started right after its placing at GP Copenhagen. Not one, but two Merfolk decks appeared in the Top 8 and ended up taking the whole thing down. What is interesting is how wildly different these two lists were outside of the “core” and just how many flex spots this supposedly crammed deck actually allows.
The eventual winner had a more typical build – that is to say along the lines of the previous norms for the deck, with a few changes. The deck had no splash (apart from non-island lands to beat Choke) and did not deviate far from the common build. Outside of Dismember and main deck Relic of Progenitus, the list was mostly stock.
Here’s the list I’m currently running:
Merfolk, by Will Archer
4 Lord of Atlantis
3 Merrow Reejerey
4 Master of Waves
4 Master of the Pearl Trident
4 Silvergill Adept
2 Harbinger of the Tides
2 Phantasmal Image
4 Aether Vial
4 Spreading Seas
3 Vapor Snag
2 Spell Pierce
1 Ghost Quarter
1 Cavern of Souls
1 Minamo, School at Water’s Edge
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
4 Hurkyl’s Recall
1 Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
2 Thassa, God of the Sea
2 Chalice of the Void
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After testing against the majority of the field, I can finally say I’m happy with where my current list is. Let’s touch on the card choices.
Card Choices: Maindeck
The core of the deck is the creature base, which is somewhat stock and unchangeable. Full playsets of the Merfolk lords is where you want to start – Merrow Reejerey is the lesser of the three (outside of specific instances, but is somewhat of a win more card) and at three CMC is the first one I’d trim down to three copies. Silvergill Adept is solid – drawing a card on a body is great when it’s of the relevant tribe – little more can be said other than you want four.
The remaining creatures are all somewhat stock, but hotly contested by some players. Cursecatcher, for starters, is seen as low impact and occasionally is dropped all-together, but I’d caution against this route. While a poor top deck late game and really then only having its creature type going for it, turns one through four is where it shines. Its ability to slow the opposing player and gain tempo while just sitting on the board is hard to account for, or even see for a new pilot of the deck, and only noticed over a high number of games. Be it making them fetch poorly, shock themselves, or wait a turn to cast that Kolaghan’s Command, Cursecatcher more than makes up for its poor late game usage.
Master of Waves has appeared in lists anywhere from one to four copies, but I chose to run the whole playset. It breaks board stalls, is near irremovable against a large part of the field, and can sometimes win the game when Vialed in EOT against an unsuspecting opponent. As the curve topper, I would be hesitant to reduce this to less than three copies in the current meta.
Harbinger of the Tides is a very recent addition from Origins, but immediately has been slotted into the deck. Its uses are numerous and is easily one of the best cards in the list and occasionally a huge tempo swing. I like two, but three would be easily defensible, as it is an all-star outside of a few matches.
Phantasmal Image is a great catchall creature. Be it lords 12 through 14, copying an Adept to draw a card, Harbinger to bounce, or copying your opponents best creature, it is an extremely good card that promotes knowing the format, when to use it, and just what you can do with it.
The interaction in Merfolk has to do a few things. One is be cheap. Outside of the Aether Vial on turn one draw, you will be using your mana every turn and rarely will have more than one or two open on your opponents turn. Two: be as high-impact as possible. You win games because of how consistent and streamlined the deck is, being tribal, and you want the interaction to also be as streamlined.
Spreading Seas is a great card. Enabling islandwalk can turn a stalled board into the signing of a match slip in one turn. It doubles as splash over Tron hate – keeping them off Urzatron for even a few turns can be enough to win the game before Karn and friends show up. It also punishes greedy three color mana bases like Grixis and Jund, and turns off annoying manlands. Oh, and it also draws you a card. I like four, but have tested three and am comfortable at that number.
Vapor Snag is great and sometimes game-winning. Cheap, effective, occasionally a huge tempo swing as well as helping push through attacks or stymie them, the card does a ton of heavy lifting in Merfolk. Bouncing a delved out creature is a huge play, and with the rise of Grixis Control, a play that happens quite often.
Spell Pierce does a lot of the same thing. Cheap, effective, and occasionally a huge tempo swing. It’s highly underused in Modern and very rarely respected. Easy to hold up, it’s great against many of the greedy decks.
The land base is fairly straight forward. Mutavault is great, doubling as a Merfolk (and Elemental!) that beats sorcery speed removal. Ghost Quarter is currently at its all-time high in playability and the deck can handle one more colorless land outside of the worst of draws. Islands fill up the rest, as well as any non- basic blue providing lands you want to run if Choke is a concern. While it seems like you can skip on them, they are actually more important then they appear. Dodging Choke is critical, as that is the only real “hate” card floating around in sideboards. Minamo, School at Water’s Edge is sometimes relevant, being able to untap a Kira or Thassa, and Oboro can provide fuel for Liliana’s discard ability in a pinch.
Card Choices: Sideboard
The sideboard, in my opinion, is the biggest contributing factor to winning with Merfolk. We have a lot of great matchups but a few very, very bad ones. I personally do not believe you can play Merfolk and be okay with sacrificing the bad matchups, so the sideboard will have to make up for this.
Hurkyl’s Recall and Chalice of the Void are nods to the worst match-up for the deck: Affinity. Chalice on zero or even one, if you can wait that long, are game breaking. I’d still consider it tough after board but dedicating 6 slots makes it a lot better. Chalice is also near unbeatable for Bogles as well as Burn, so it isn’t a narrow inclusion.
The Negates provide further interaction against decks we need to have answers for. Scapeshift, Tron, and Grixis are all decks I’m happy to bring these in against to provide tempo swings when countering high costed spells like Karn or Cryptic Command.
Kira, Thassa, and Spellskite are all nods to the high amount of removal some decks bring to the table. Kira, Great Glass-Spinner stops the spot removal that can be the bane of the deck. Thassa, God of the Sea is indestructible card selection that is easily turned on and creates more ways to make your team unblockable Spellskite is a catch-all answer to the formats most maddening decks and cards. All of these are very broad answers to a lot of decks and provide consistent answers to the most troublesome problems the deck can face.
We round out the sideboard with two Hibernation. Hibernation is a concession to the newly popular (but still mostly tier 2) Elves deck, which is a horrendous matchup, as well as doubling as an answer to the other Collected Company decks. An aptly timed Hibernation sometimes just reads “win the game”, so while a narrow answer, it’s a sad necessity.
Cards That Didn’t Make the Cut
- Splashing a second color
Adding white is usually the way you can go if you want to add a second color, due to the lands (Wanderwine Hub and Seachrome Coast) being easily added. The most common cards added with white are Path to Exile and more/better Affinity sideboard hate in the form of Kataki, War’s Wage or Stony Silence. Personally, I feel this is not needed and we do not gain enough from it. Path is great removal but not where the decks wants to be. Spreading Seas becomes a lot worse at cutting off mana sources, and the tempo generating cards we run become less effective when you are ramping your opponent.
While great removal and a perfectly fine inclusion, Merfolk has a lot of added bonus in the fact it takes zero damage from its manabase/cards. Not taking 1-3 damage against the other aggressive decks in the format automatically make our match ups much better. Continuing with this, playing a card that you will automatically take 4 from just to cast doesn’t seem like where the deck wants to be. I feel Vapor Snag does (mostly) what you are looking for out of that slot.
- Further permission
I can absolutely get on board with more permission in the side, but be careful. Without cheating on mana with Aether Vial, we routinely tap out turn after turn. One-mana answers are where we want to be (Spell Pierce, Swan Song, Dispel, etc.). I would be hesitant to run more then a few two mana answers (Negate, Remand, etc.).
- Grafdigger’s Cage
A perfectly fine sideboard card against Snapcaster Mage, random graveyard strategies, Collected Company decks, and more. I find these matchups to already be somewhat good for Merfolk, but if you are having trouble this is a great card to add to the board.
- Tidebinder Mage
Great at locking down any annoying green creatures, this is another card you can easily put in the board if you are concerned about it. I believe our natural evasion via Seas can somewhat make this card redundant, but nevertheless is perfectly fine if that is a match up you are concerned with.
- Pithing Needle
Merely good in a large number of matchups, it is a good catch all answer, if a tad unimpressive at times. Great against Affinity and sometimes Tron, it’s susceptible to splash-over Vial hate/bounce which can lead to blow outs. Use with that in mind.
Next Level Playing TIps
General Deck Tips
- Use your mana efficiently
While ideally you will always have a turn one Aether Vial, reality is different. The deck is smashed full of two drops that all want to be played as soon as possible for the tribal bonuses. Sequencing is extremely important: think ahead multiple turns to when you want to use your low-costed interaction, and play out your creatures accordingly.
- Aether Vial counters are important
Knowing when to go from two to three, or even to four, is an acquired skill that has huge ramifications. Think of all the possible draws and how exactly you’d want to sequence them, and plan out the ticking up or holding of the counters. You will quite often keep it at two as most of our creatures as well as creature based interaction comes from that CMC.
- Think before you tap your mana
The deck has a glut of double blue cards. Think about how you tap your mana and what you need to leave up. Don’t accidentally tap double blue for the Silvergill Adept and face palm when you draw into the Lord of Atlantis you would have been able to play.
- Don’t Vial creatures in with no purpose
When used well, Vial is easily one of the best cards in the format. Not only does it let you cheat on mana, and avoid counterspells it lets you play creatures at instant speed.
- Become skilled at doing combat math
With all the lords in the deck, damage can easily be missed, or the clock you have miss-read. Double check your power and toughness (as you are responsible for doing that checking).
- Watch your devotion!
When playing with Master of Waves, I notice people missing Spreading Seas. You control the enchantment and thus it counts as another pip for devotion. Easily missed and sometimes beneficial if you have a Thassa and your opponent doesn’t realize.
- Play around sweepers
While the Modern format is relatively devoid of them, they still float around. Of note are Anger of the Gods in the majority of Grixis and Twin boards, and the occasional Damnation out of Jund. Don’t forget they exist in Modern by walking into them!
Single Card Tips
- Phantasmal Image versatility
This card has a plethora of uses and can do many interesting things. When Vialed in against Twin, you can copy the Deceiver Exarch or Pestermite in response to Splinter Twin and tap it down, giving you an extra turn to draw an answer or swing in for lethal. Watch out for them end of turn tapping your Vial though!
- Phantasmal Image triggers
Remember: Image gets any ETB trigger from the creature it copies! Some notable creatures to copy are Snapcaster Mage, Restoration Angel, Eternal Witness, Master of Waves, Siege Rhino, and Vendilion Clique to name a few!
- Harbinger of the Tides flash
The flash is very relevant. While it’s best to just Vial it in, don’t forget about it also has flash itself. Watch your mana – always remember against Twin they can tap one down before they go off. Harbinger is great interaction that gets around the commonly-held Dispel.
- Harbinger of the Tides and tempo
Against aggressive decks don’t be afraid to run it out as soon as possible for any tempo gain. It doesn’t always have to be a “gotcha” card. Sometimes returning the Birds of Paradise is all you need to get value out of it.
- Spreading Seas targets
Play these smart. Not only do they enable islandwalk but they can really mess up people’s mana base. If possible cut them off a colored source. Failing that, hit a manland or other relevant land.
- Spreading Seas and devotion
Don’t forget you control it! Relevant with both Thassa and Master of Waves for devotion.
- Spreading Seas against Tron
Against Tron, don’t run them all out. Play as many as have to that can keep them off assembling Tron, as Oblivion Stone only costs three to cast then five to activate and sweep them away.
- Spell Pierce
The longer you hold it, the worse it gets. Don’t be afraid to use it early against something somewhat relevant. It eventually becomes near useless, but is huge in the early game.
- Merrow Reejerey
His tap/untap ability only triggers on casting, not Vial-ing in Merfolk. You can occasionally go “off” and spill your hand with enough Merfolk. Remember, its tap or untap any permanent. Blockers, lands, Aether Vial, all great targets for its ability. Combined with an instant-speed Harbinger can really catch people off-guard.
Affinity is easily the decks worst match-up, and if anything is the only strike against the deck. Game one is extremely hard – winning the die roll is almost necessary to have a chance, as is seeing most of your interaction and curving out extremely well. Vault Skirge, Inkmoth Nexus, Cranial Plating, and Arcbound Ravager all spell doom for the Fish player, and putting any of these together without relevant interaction is almost impossible to beat. Because of this, the sideboard needs to be extremely slanted due to Affinity’s large share of the metagame. Chalice of the Void on zero is extremely hard to beat, (even on the draw, as Chalice on zero followed by a Recall is just as good) and Hurkyl’s Recall can enable an alpha strike or give you enough time to get ahead.
Twin (UR, Temur, Grixis) / Grixis Delver
I lump these together as they seem to blend together lately, and the sideboarding strategy is nearly the same. You want to bring in counterspells, Kira to dodge the targeted removal, Spellskite for the same reason as well as stopping the Twin combo, and Thassa as a hard to remove threat that improves your card selection to find relevant interaction. I sometimes leave a few Spreading Seas in if playing Grixis as you can occasionally take them off a color early. Overall, this matchup feels very good, and outside of them drawing extremely well, is one of our best matchups. Watch out for Anger of the Gods post-board.
Jund / Abzan
An average matchup, that gets much better after board. Watch out for Anger of the Gods in Jund. This match often comes down to how well you draw: it’s hard to beat removal-heavy hands pre-board. Thankfully our sideboard is tuned well to beat these style of decks. Aether Vial comes out to increase our deck’s threat density. Spell Pierce is okay here as it can often counter a Liliana or early removal spell.
A fairly decent matchup overall. Our creatures outclass them once we land a few lords, and we have cheap permission that is highly effective. Spreading Seas does a very good Stone Rain impression, and can lock them out of the game or off a splashed color in land light hands. Aether Vial helps you dodge damage from Eidolon of the Great Revel, so don’t be quick to cut it when boarding.
They are faster but outside of Blighted Agent we can block most of the threats. Spreading Sea hits the annoying Inkmoth Nexus while Cursecatcher and Spell Pierce can keep them off over-commitment into pump. Chalice on one can turn off half of the deck. Just be mindful of how you sideboard when you bring in Chalice as you do have a fair amount of one CMC spells as well.
An average matchup. Spreading Seas is merely okay against the bounce lands. We have to rely on drawing our permission and having a fast clock with this matachup. Chalice on zero can swing the game in your favor.
Blue Tron is the much easier of the two, but GR Tron isn’t the worst. Spreading Seas and permission coupled with a clock win this match up. Be careful not to play out all your Seas only to watch them get swept away by Oblivion Stone. If you have a lot of Tron in your area, Pithing Needle can be added to name Karn Liberated or Oblivion Stone.
Abzan Company / Elves
I lump these together as the sideboarding is somewhat the same. Unfortunately we do not have much we can do against these decks other then bring in Hibernation (which is often a ridiculous blow out). Watch out for Choke. Spell Pierce is merely okay, but catching a Collected Company/Chord of Calling is great.
Overall, Merfolk is in a pretty good place at the moment: it has great match ups against most of the format, is full of cheap tempo plays, and dodges specific hate that plagues the majority of the other aggressive Modern decks after board. These factors finally enable Merfolk to be considered a tier 1 deck. It absolutely rewards the experienced pilot, and gets to play one of the formats most underused and overpowered cards in Aether Vial.
I hope this primer was helpful, and as always let me know in the comments if you think I missed something!
Will has played Magic since 1999, his love of the game being forged in the dead of “Combo Winter”. He has recently dedicated his free time to the life of the Magic grinder. A modern enthusiast, he has two Modern GP money finishes and is currently chasing his Pro Tour debut.