1st Place Report 8-Player Modern Tournament – 3-0 UG Merfolk
The End Games, Charlottesville, VA, 10/28/17
If you like to play tribal decks or themes in Magic, and even if you hate blue, you can’t help but love Merfolk. The synergy of the tribe comes together like no other because of the three cards with this little bit of text:
“Other Merfolk creatures you control get +1/+1”
Merfolk embody teamwork in a straightforward and flavorful way. It’s fun to play because half of the deck not only represents a threat to your opponent, but grows your entire team. No other deck in Magic plays quite like it, and while you might argue slivers are similar, astute readers will notice I left out the one crucial bit of text that means Merfolk more or less don’t give a drop about your opponents’ creatures:
“and have islandwalk.”
My experience with the deck suggests this is central to its gameplay: if it doesn’t kill our Mer we don’t care about it. Let it be; islandwalk on by. This concept informed the decklist. After the report is a list of explanations and logic for individual card choices.
4x Kumena’s Speaker
4x Master of the Pearl Trident
4x Lord of Atlantis
4x Silvergill Adept
4x Merfolk Branchwalker
4x Harbinger of the Tides
4x Merrow Reejerey
1x Kira, Great Glass Spinner
1x Kopala, Warden of Waves
4x Aether Vial
3x Spell Pierce
4x Spreading Seas
3x Breeding Pool
4x Misty Rainforest
3x Botanical Sanctum
3x Cavern of Souls
3x Ceremonious Rejection
3x Relic of Progenitus
2x Echoing Truth
2x Heroic Intervention
3x Natural State
This ended up being a small tournament, perhaps in part because of the draw of the SCG Events in DC this weekend, so while there were many archetypes represented, the maximum of three rounds prevented this from being a longer day of testing. The prize was a shiny and sweet foil Liliana of The Veil from Modern Masters 2017 that I’d been salivating over in the days leading up to the event. Blue-Green has interaction against any deck with a significantly better sideboard than Monoblue, and after playing with two Merfolk Branchwalkers in the Ixalan prerelease, I was excited to switch to essentially eight Silvergill effects. Monoblue certainly isn’t dead, but with a better clock and Aether Vial being significantly better in a deck that never has to tick it to four, as well as an advantage in the mirror (being the aggressor and having Botanical Sanctum which taps for U and isn’t an island), I feel UG is very much where Merfolk wants to be. The kicker is that you also get to play with fresh cards from the newest set, which is always fun.
With recent finishes at large events, I think it’s becoming harder and harder not to respect Merfolk as a Tier 1.5 deck in modern, and one I believe will continue to snowball in popularity. As any Master of the Pearl Trident would say, “let the land dwellers know the coast is no longer the border between our realms. A new age of empire has begun.”
The tournament went very smoothly, as I 2-0’d each round playing against RW Prison, Retreat Combo, then Mono Red Burn.
Round 1 — RW Prison (2-0)
Game one was the longer of the two. I kept a hand going first with Misty, Cavern, Branchwalker, Adept, Lord, Lord, Spell Pierce. I drew a Vial on turn two and played it over the creatures. My opponent played two early lightning Helixes targeting my early creatures to stay at 17 before stabilizing with a Spellskite into a Chandra, Torch of Defiance (tick up for another Spellskite). He played Blood Moon to choke my mana down to a single island, but I used the single blue to Adept into a Spreading Seas, then targeted my own land with it before I played another Adept and drew another Lord. He ticked up Chandra to six rather than shoot a Lord, so I played another Lord on the next turn and attacked in to kill Chandra, leaving me with the Spell Pierce and a single blue for his next turn, which countered his Ensnaring Bridge on four land. The turn after he scooped.
I boarded in the Ceremonious Rejections, Natural States, and Echoing Truths, taking out Kopala, Kira, two Merrow Reejereys and the Harbingers, given that my opponent didn’t seem to be attacking.
In game two, I mulliganed a four-land, three-Cavern hand, before seeing a hand with Ceremonious Rejection, Natural State, Vial, Botanical Sanctum, Echoing Truth, Branchwalker. I scried a land to the top. I was met with exile Spirit Guide into Chalice on 1 to stop my Aether Vial, but I bounced it with echoing truth at the end of his turn 3 to lay down the Vial and a freshly drawn Kumena’s Speaker on my turn, holding up a Natural State. When he played a Blood Moon I floated green and killed it before the end of the phase. He was stuck on three land and missed three land drops before I dropped him to 0.
Round 2 — Retreat To Coralhelm Combo (2-0)
I’d played against this opponent before on this deck, and was pretty confident I could win if he didn’t sneak out early combo kills. In game one, I kept a hand with plenty of action including 2x Harbinger of the Tides, and a Vial for turn 1. He played birds and passed, I played vial, and he played Pridemage to take out the Vial with mana from the bird. I bounced the bird with a Harbinger on two, then played a Retreat to Coralhelm. I knew I was probably going to be dead if he drew into a Knight of the Reliquary. Next turn he Spell Quellered a lord. I drew a third Harbinger and passed, waiting to bounce the Queller if he attacked. When he did, he played a second Queller to exile my second Harbinger. Up to this point, I still had no other lords, but drew another on the next turn, played Harbinger to get my lord from the Queller, played the second Lord, and swung for the fences. He continued to draw things other than knight and died.
I sideboarded in the Echoing Truths, the Relics, and the Dismembers and took out Spreading Seas and Spell Pierce. Game two I mulliganed a five-lander into a good six with three lords and an Aether Vial. Despite two lords getting Pathed and me having no more islands in my deck (drawn one, played one), I continued to draw lords and Adepts until I overwhelmed him.
Round 3 — Mono-R Burn
Each game was going to be a nail biter, I knew, against my burn opponent, on a list with Spark Elementals, Shard Volleys, and Searing Blazes. We both had a lot of action, as my opponent consistently hit me with Goblin Guide and Burn Spells down to 10 before I could get a superior board presence and prevent further attacks. A Spell Pierce had snagged a Skullcrack, and an early Spreading Seas had taken out one of his mountains, and while he had three land, the only card that he could cast with blue was Skullcrack. As I started to hit with islandwalkers, I took a few more hits from his hand. He Searing Blazed after a fourth land to kill a lord and put me at 7, swung with a guide to put me at 5 with a Grim Lavamancer up, one mountain and one island. When I swung for lethal he revealed the burn spell that he could have played were it not for the Seas.
I looked through my sideboard happily going to grab my dispels when I remembered I’d removed them for Dismembers at the last second. Hoping to run hot on the draw, I kept my maindeck the same and shuffled up.
Game two he played a turn 2 Eidolon that dealt both of us eight or so before I blocked it with a lord during an attack and he let the trade happen. I Spell Pierced a Shard Volley in response to a Spreading Seas to take him down to two lands. He had two Monastery Swiftspears and a Lavamancer that couldn’t swing through my lord-buffed Merfolk. Eventually he had to block my larger creatures and couldn’t recover.
Overall I was very happy with how the deck played and couldn’t have asked for friendlier opponents. I wish the tournament had been a little bigger but I’m looking forward to the next time I can break out the deck.
On the deck:
The Best Card In The Deck
is Spreading Seas. It’s such a powerful magic card in the modern format that I’ve often considered whether 4x Sea’s Claim in the sideboard might be viable (I still think it might be). No, it isn’t a merfolk, but it enables the “your creatures don’t matter” strategy, while doing several other things: Taking a multicolor opponent off a single color is significant. Giving your opponent an island is significant (though this doesn’t even matter for the UWx control decks that also have begun to play more of this card recently). Naturally hating out Tron is significant. Replacing itself is significant. But even better is that against any deck that is any combination of low-land-count, nonblue, and color-cost-intensive, most notably burn in real terms, Spreading Seas can function as 2-for-1 land destruction, and just steal any land-light hand as an auto-win by locking them out of casting their spells. Is this feel-bad when it happens? No, it is not. Modern is a punishing place, and dishing it out is better than taking it. This is in many matchups the best card in the deck.
0x Removal / 3x Spell Pierce
It seems simple. It seems scary. It seems like smart opponents would rub their hands greedily together. But the consistent pressure of Merfolk and power of its cards means there’s only so much time that player has to remove our key pieces before they just kill them, and our opponents don’t have two extra mana. We don’t care about their creatures.
Vial vs. CoCo
Just in case this hadn’t been “settled” elsewhere, Aether Vial is better than Collected Company by a country mile. I’m not going to go into the metric ton of reasons why this is the case, but suffice to say that Merfolk is probably at its best with one-land-and-vial hands (watch out for T1 Thoughtseizes on the draw).
Monoblue merfolk players might see it as hypocritical to switch to UG to be lower to the ground and then cut its only significantly played one-drop creature. Against discard or spell-based combo, Cursecatcher is one your best cards on the play. But it still kinda sucks on the draw. It’s a crappy topdeck at any point, and it’s only good trick only works if you keep your first vial on 1 (or draw a second vial and a cursecatcher after turn one, which is terrible anyway), at which point any smart opponent still has to be desperate to tap out against you for an instant or sorcery.
The card is still good, but it’s not as good as Kumena’s Speaker, and given the nature of Aether Vial, we only have one turn to play a one drop unless we miss our second land. Eight one-drops between Vial and Speaker is enough, and unless I knew my meta was full of thoughtseizes, spell-combo, and 8-rack, I wouldn’t feel the need to go back to Cursecatcher.
1x Kira, 1x Kopala
There are people who scoffed at Kopala when she was spoiled as strictly worse than Kira. I agree that she’s not as powerful. You know what’s better than Kira, though? Kira and Kopala. Having one of these cards against opposing removal can be a lifesaver (remember not to try to vial these in in response though; it won’t work). Having both essentially turns off removal altogether. Two of these effects is about where the deck wants to be, but if you draw both, having one of each is infinitely better than sitting on a second copy of one.
0x Master of Waves
Master of Waves is a really really good magic card but Aether Vial is a better one, and ticking up to 4 to play one with only three other cards in the deck that then worked with it never felt good. In UG, leaving it on 2 is perfect with 20 two-drops. By the time Aether Vial can go up to three, we should have at least two lands in play to continue playing two-drops. Between this, UG giving up some number of blue pips for green cards, and Master of Waves giant 4-cost in a deck with 19 land, it’s a sensible cut.
Originally when I put the deck together I cut the Reejereys (Cursecatchers were in their slot). But switching this made the deck far more powerful, and three-cost is usually fine in the deck. There are so many incredible tricks to pull with Reejerey’s ability (especially when flashing in a Harbinger or being able to play three or more other Merfolk the turn after you play it) that it deserves its slots, and the lord bonus makes it a solid 4-of.
Mutavault is probably the second best card in the deck, allowing us to fight through board wipes and also enabling earlier kills. Mutavault isn’t that tough on the mana base even in UG. It can still play vial on turn one, and with four different four-of’s that take colorless mana, its power justifies the occasional single-blue annoyance. I played with three caverns but I think two is the right number, given that my second opponent was able to path two lords while I had both my islands already. Botanical Sanctum is great but usually bad in multiples, thus the three-of, while the fetch-shock damage is fine because we can outrace all but the best of burn hands.
This is where you’ll find me hedging against my own conception of the deck, with two dismembers. I’ve since taken them out for 2x Dispel, because Harbinger of the Tides is usually all the tempo we need. What we do need are ways to fight unfair strategies, Ensnaring Bridge, and board wipes. Natural State is the best card in the sideboard, and hits everything we care about (Blood Moon, Bridge, Cranial Plating—one of the only cards that can race a good start). Ceremonious Rejection is necessary for many of these but also for all flavors of Tron. I’m still up in the air on the Heroic Intervention, but given that it’s the most efficient card that gets around Supreme Verdict (except, interestingly, Spell Queller), it’s given the nod for now.