Expert Panel: Merfolk on the Horizon
- Marin Magda
Modern Horizons 2 features a bunch of new Merfolk cards that are sure to improve the archetype. We are joined by two noted Merfolk experts to discuss the cards, to talk about the future of the tribe, and to find an updated decklist. Are the fish back in business? Will they be able to swim back to the top?
Merfolk have been part of the game from the very beginning. In fact, Lord of Atlantis was the most aggressively costed tribal card in the very first set. However, the once proud Modern deck built around the tribe has mostly been lurking in the shadows for the last couple of years. Because they swim under the radar, some players occasionally see success with Merfolk, but most attempts to perform such a feat end in failure. A fishy situation, the current metagame is full of horrendous matchups. To make things worse, the deck is very difficult to play and requires an experienced pilot to unlock its full potential.
It's obvious that blue in general and Merfolk in particular are about to receive quite a boost from Modern Horizons 2. I am aware of the power level of the new cards, but there is a catch. I am not a Merfolk player, not even a blue mage at heart, so I've decided to search the seven seas for backup. The ocean has answered my call, so for today's article I am joined by Kyoma and TheDogFish. While neither of them streams, both are long-time Merfolk specialists who keep posting strong finishes when swimming with the fishes. TheDogFish has amassed countless 5-0 records. Kyoma is a good friend of mine who's biggest claim to fame, among other things, probably is winning a qualifier tournament with Merfolk in the middle of Hogaak Summer!
The three of us—but mainly they—discussed each and every Modern Horizons 2 card that may be of interest to Merfolk. Below I am sharing their insight, not just regarding the cards but also into the future of the entire archetype in Modern.
Testing the Waters
As both Kyoma and TheDogFish say, Merfolk is a versatile animal. It's able to change its pace very easily, adapting to basically any metagame. When the majority of decks in a certain meta is known/expected, the fish swim through easily. Consequently, good deck building can then really benefit the pilot. Both players believe that it's great how there is an abundance of new blue cards, even though not all of them will see play, at least not in a single list. They are now in the Merfolk toolbox and, as such, are good to have, at least just in case. Let's go through each of them separately, in no particular order.
This one is very hard to evaluate. It's impressive at first sight, as it has islandwalk with an effect belonging to a Legacy staple attached to it. However, while it does have synergy with a mana denial game plan, it's counterproductive in an aggro plan. You're not applying enough board pressure if you're not attacking. It can provide match saving lines to an adept Merfolk pilot, but it is not proactive like most Merfolk that we know and love.
Holding up one mana instead of developing threats doesn't help you win games against big mana decks. It just helps you not to lose, keeping you alive. Sure, mana denial against sorcery-speed decks is threatening, but Merfolk are already not having a hard time with these. On the other hand, the Dockhand may find a home in lost, but not forgotten, builds with seven to eight Seas that heavily focus on mana denial. If a list is built in such a way, it will also work well with its newer counterpart, Tide Shaper.
The Dockhand avoids lots of removal with 2 toughness, namely Lava Dart. Also, combined with a Lord, it can block most early-game threats such as Goblin Guide or Thalia. This is seriously impressive for a one-drop, as well as the fact that it can disrupt, and still not die like Cursecatcher. Again, it's really to evaluate because if you're stalling Tron, you're not pressuring it. I think it'll definitely see play, the question is just how much.
Another interesting one-drop that is hard to evaluate. When seen as a one-drop, it falls down the list as it's exactly the same Kumena's Speaker. Merfolk pilots tend to find that, more often than not, you need to interact. A 2/2 fish (especially for one mana) is strong when punishing noninteractive decks and looking for turn 4/5 kills. However, a "bearfish" will often let you down. Cursecatcher, Benthic Biomancer, and now Rishadan Dockhand may all sit higher on the perch as far as one-drops go, but the high upside of Tide Shaper may change that.
This card can also be compared to a Spreading Seas at 2 mana. However, while having a body is very strong, it is much more fragile than Spreading Seas itself. Tron decks can still kill it with Dismember, Spatial Contortion, or Walking Ballista, and then kill you the following turn. Speaking of Tron decks, It also has a strange interaction with Blast Zone. You can tease your opponent, making them crack their Blast Zone on one in order to deal with Tide Shaper and Aether Vial. If that happens, you'll have fewer two-drops in play, as you've spent two mana for the Shaper. Basically, you're making sacrificing Blast Zone on one a much better play.
Even though Spreading Seas can beat red decks by itself with a bit of luck, Tide Shaper probably won't be able to. Don't get me wrong, this is still a great addition. Seas, Shaper, and Dockhand all complement each other really well, possibly making Merfolk a lower-to-the-ground deck that's all in on mana denial. In its current form, where Merfolk deploys four one-drops, none of these are strictly better than their alternatives. However, as a whole, they may create this powerful new build, or at least make decklists more diverse. Denying mana can be very strong, just like indestructible God creatures. Also, Master of Waves on a "Seased-out" opponent can end the game in a pinch. Tide Shaper may be a worse Spreading Seas, and a worse Kumena's Speaker, but no other card can be both!
This one is interesting as a one-mana 2/2, but is worse than Spreading Seas. Having 2 toughness greatly matters as it then can survive Lava Dart, Plague Engineer, and Wrenn and Six. Just like TheDogFish noticed, it's very flexible, but the kicker makes it underwhelming in my eyes. Not being able to flash it in neither with Vial or a flash effect makes it unable to shut down Valakut triggers. It would be great if you could pay one generic mana through an enter-the-battlefield effect.
Another issue with it is that it's good against Tron and control decks, which are good matchups already. All this makes it good only in certain situations, such as for pressuring Tron early with a Spreading Seas with legs, or if you're playing specifically an 8-Seas list. All in all, it'll be very hard to fit in, as Merfolk offers few flex slots. Having Vials, Tricksters, and Lords is still a must.
Svyelun of Sea and Sky
There's no world in which this card is not an absolute powerhouse. It's a Merfolk card advantage engine that provides interactive lines where skill and deck know-how really boost the entire tribe. Minamo, School at Water's Edge plays nicely here, providing tricks with an untapped indestructible blocker. Even better, activating Mutavault, or vialing in a Merfolk can lead to some very big blowouts, as that's when Svyelun of Sea and Sky usually becomes indestructible. Then swinging and drawing a card such as Force of Negation, a removal spell, or Trickster can be a potentially game-winning line out of nowhere. That's not to mention that deploying a Lord will often make the goddess unblockable. This is a card that's bound to secure wins.
I really like Svyelune's ward effect as it's severely messing with spot removal. Its indestructibility makes dumping your hand a reasonable play, but then you'll need to watch out for stuff like Out of Time, if it sees play, that is.
First of all, it's important to note that Suspend is possibly not a Merfolk card at all. Still, suspending a Primetime, Wurmcoil Engine, or an Eldrazi for two turns can win games. Unlike Dismember, it is not a permanent answer, you cannot play it through Chalice on one, and you cannot pay for it with colorless mana. It can, however, save your creature in a pinch to have it come back a few turns later with haste!
This card will be much worse against creatures with enter-the-battlefield triggers. On the other hand, suspending a Stormwing Entity or another prowess threat after letting it grow to a 7/8 could be devastating. This may be too cute of a card, but despite not being a perfect fit, it has an enormous potential. To be precise, it helps you stall the game, giving you time to find another Merfolk Trickster, Harbinger of the Tides, Suspend, or Brazen Borrower // Petty Theft, then swing for lethal damage. Testing may show that this card is an all-star, but it also may prove it to be a big letdown. This is a tribe that already struggles to deal with creatures permanently, after all. In the end, though, more tools in the toolbox can never really be bad!
Even if you do manage to slow down an opponent's beater, you're dead afterward. This is a good card if you can secure a kill in the following two turns, but even then, paying 4 life for a Dismember isn't that big. This is a better card than Dismember only in the lateg ame because the 4 life may greatly matter. It's also worse because it can't be cast for colorless mana.
This card is probably fringe, but again, Merfolk is a toolbox, and free cards are not to be underestimated—think Force of Negation. It may be strong against Tron, Titan, and certain control decks. Its high mana cost and non-Merfolk type are downsides, but its upside could be winning games against some archetypes. That's not to mention big creatures that may be played through a Cavern like Titan or Eldrazi. It will more than likely only remain sideboard material for Merfolk, but it has some interesting lines when paired with Suspend. Suspending a game-ending threat for two turns to topdeck a Subtlety in the meantime to remove the haste ability may look cute but is potentially powerful.
Subtlety probably won't see any play whatsoever. While it can delay a Titan, you'll still need to kill your opponent on the following turn. Removing a pacted Titan is strong, but cute. I still don't see myself in a situation where I want to two-for-one a creature just to put it on top of an opponent's deck. I honestly believe that it'll actually be much stronger against a mana dork. Similarly to forcing a Vial, this play can change the whole direction of a game, especially as you're shutting off their next draw.
Merfolk are great when either only you have a Vial, or when neither you, nor your opponent have one. Again, due to the aforementioned lack of flex slots, I doubt this'll see much play.
Seal of Removal
Seal of Removal still sees play as a one-of in Legacy, and I think that a similar thing can happen in Modern. Suspend plays a similar role and will probably be evaluated in a similar context to Seal. Other options may overshadow this card, but at least it is tried and trusted. If set down early or on a mana-efficient turn, it will protect your team or offer a nice bounce effect. This card definitely gets a thumbs up from me, but it is the least exciting.
The only thing I have to add here is that I believe it'll be played in Lurrus builds as a singleton. We'll still have to see if these builds see any play in the end, though. If they do, they'll probably look a lot like TheDogFish's list here. In that case, Seal of Removal might replace a single Harbinger, with Rishadan Dockhand possibly being a replacement for Cursecatcher.
TheDogFish and Kyoma:
The old faithful. Will be great for budget builds or just as additional countermagic. The trend in Merfolk is generally to play four to eight counters in your 75. There will be metagames where Force of Negation won't do what you need, requiring you to be able to counter a creature. It could even be the go-to main-deck counter, with Force moving to the sideboard. It is a catch-all card, but free spells are not to be underestimated still, so this will always be a meta call. We have to evaluate this card in comparison to what it is replacing. It is stronger than Mana Leak, but the double blue casting cost can be a nuisance with Mutavault and Cavern of Souls. Depending on what your manabase looks like, there may be corner cases where Mana Leak may be better for lower-curve stuff if you're afraid of the double-blue cost.
Now, in comparison to Deprive, Counterspell will be an upgrade 95% of the time. Bouncing a land back to your hand can be troubling if you need to cast Deprive during the early turns, or any turn really. There are just a few cases where this is good, such as when bouncing a Glasspool Mimic // Glasspool Shore, which I believe is a very underrated Modern card. Deprive can bounce a Mimic that was deployed early to your hand, after which you can recast or vial it in as a copy of any Merfolk or even a Mutavault! This can be a game-winning line in the late game versus control. The downside of Deprive suggests that it may not be worth playing with fire anymore, unless control is prevalent in the meta. As we all know, Counterspell will be nearly as strong in that matchup and, more than likely, stronger versus the rest of the field. Still, this is such a powerful line that it's worth noting.
Apparently, the only thing that's missing is a proper monoblue decklist. This is a great starting point for now.
|Kyoma's Monoblue Merfolk|
The Merfolk hype train is chugging along. More toys are great for any archetype, especially ones of such caliber. Older fish veterans will be happy, yet aware of these downsides and corner cases to their new tech and how they fit into the game plan. Not all of these cards will fit into the current Merfolk shell, but now it's more flexible than ever before. Builds with eight to twelve Seas are playable, and so is Azorius Lurrus Merfolk with all the tasty one-drops and mana denial.
Lower-to-the ground, efficient Merfolk builds are now much more appealing. Thick Monoblue Merfolk with Reejerey, Svyelun, and Glasspool Mimic // Glasspool Shore bring some heavy hitting lines to this classic build. For the first time in a long while, Merfolk pilots can play however they like, possibly keeping opponents guessing with all the options. That's especially dangerous for a deck that can play at instant speed fairly well. Things may change in the Merfolk 75 in a big way. Feel the tides, and praise goddess Svy!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily Cardmarket.