Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Give a man a Fish deck in Legacy and he might flounder.
-Brian Braun-Duin "The Crayfish Chronicles"
Last week was StarCityGames.com Open Series: Washington DC. In Standard to the surprise of absolutely no one I played the Monks and Artificers (also known as Naya) deck from my article last week. I went a disappointing yet still respectable 7-2-1. It wasn't quite the finish I had hoped for but I still liked the deck.
I lost a couple of close matches to Matt Costa and Max Tietze two very talented Magicians. If the cards had broken slightly differently in either of those matches—which in MTG terms means "If I was a better player and made less errors"—I could have gone 8-1-1 and potentially had a berth in the Top 8. Alas it was not to be. I naturally finished in 33rd narrowly avoiding the Top 32 and improving my running in the SCG Open Series "most near misses" race.
On the other hand Ian Shore did make Top 8 with the same 75. Unfortunately in the quarterfinals he was dispatched by a vicious predator wielding a lethal weapon. By that I mean he lost to a really nice guy named Reid Duke piloting the 60 pieces of cardboard that comprised his Wolf Run Blue list.
But that's enough about Standard. Today I want to talk to you about a slightly different format. I'm referring to "Emeril" Legacy that broken format where you can play a variety of decks that let you do the most powerful things in Magic. BAM!
Put Emrakul into play on turn 1. -Show and Tell
Activate Charbelcher to win on turn 1. -Belcher
Cast Tendrils of Agony with a storm count of 10+ on turn 1. -ANT
Cast a 2/2 for three on turn 3. -Merfolk
You get the idea. It's a powerful format.
I decided to harness the latent power of Legacy by playing a bunch of Bears and Grey Ogres backed up by a weak mana base some soft counterspells and no card draw or manipulation. I play only the most powerful decks my friends.
It went about as well as expected. I barely managed to sneak my way into Top 64 with Merfolk at a record of 6-3.
Something's Fishy Here
After Merfolk won the SCG Legacy Open in Buffalo in the hands of Josh Cho I thought perhaps the deck was well positioned again and it was time to dust off the Cursecatchers and Silvergill Adepts to give it another spin around the metagame merry-go-round. Last year I played Merfolk a good bit and had some minor success with it but I never really broke through with the deck. I eventually gave up the deck for Stoneforge Mystic and never went back. Well that is to say I didn't go back until last weekend.
You see Merfolk has a new Lord in M13 Master of the Pearl Trident which provides a huge upgrade to the creature base. With eight Lords that provide Islandwalk you can pretty much guarantee you will have one or two per game which means if your opponent is playing blue they will have a very hard time ever blocking your creatures. This may not seem like much but it lets you do things like kill your opponent the turn after they put an Emrakul into play without letting them block or allow you to successfully race a Griselbrand or Batterskull.
I wanted to try out this neo-Fish that now had a lot of redundancy in the coveted two CMC Lord position. Sadly the deck put up a poor finish in my hands and the hands of everyone else who piloted it netting a whopping zero Top 8 competitors. It's possible that even despite the mediocre finish the deck is still well positioned right now. The issue is that even if it is well positioned Merfolk has some fundamental flaws to overcome and until it does I don't think it can ever be a truly dominant force in Legacy.
Before I talk about what I dislike I want to point out the things that Merfolk does right. It has disruption for unfair decks. Daze Spell Pierce and Force of Will let you slow down opposing combo decks hopefully long enough for your Bears and Ogres to finish the job. You have Aether Vial which lets you dodge countermagic generate significant mana advantages and create situations where your opponent doesn't know whether or not they have to play around a Lord at instant speed to buff your team. Islandwalk makes combat difficult for other blue decks and since Merfolk is more aggressive than any other blue deck your opponent has to try to race your faster deck since they can't just beat you with bigger creatures in combat. That is often a losing proposition for them.
With that being said there are a number of problems with Fish in its current form.
No Library Manipulation
What's one common theme among all the popular and successful decks in Legacy? They have a way to manipulate their draws or Tutor for the cards they need. All the combo decks play Brainstorm and Ponder. Stoneblade and RUG Delver also play Brainstorm. Maverick has Sylvan Library Green Sun's Zenith and Knight of the Reliquary to Tutor for the cards they need. Even Goblins has Goblin Matron and Goblin Ringleader to keep the spice flowing.
What does Merfolk have? Nothing. With Merfolk you are playing a number of situational cards like Aether Vial Daze and Spell Pierce. What if you draw them against the wrong deck? What if you draw them at the wrong time? There's no way to control your draws in this deck. You have to just hope that you draw your cards at the right time and in the right order. You want Aether Vial on turn 1 but you don't want to ever draw it later in the game. You want Daze in your opening hand but you don't want to top deck it on turn 6. If a game drags on you are completely at the mercy of the top of your deck and playing situational cards while your opponent is presumably filtering their draws and drawing more relevant cards than you are.
Weak Mana Base
It's sad to think that a Legacy deck has a weaker mana base than most Standard decks especially a mono-colored Legacy deck but Merfolk certainly does. It's possible that Merfolk has a weaker mana base than most Limited decks. Dwell on that one for a second. Fish only plays twelve Islands yet the current crop of Merfolk decks play ten creatures that cost UU: Master of the Pearl Trident Lord of Atlantis and Coralhelm Commander.
Frequently you will have to mulligan an opening hand that is otherwise great because you have no blue sources and a few UU spells. The weak mana base makes you extremely reliant on Aether Vial as a way to put creatures into play because there is really no guarantee that you will be able to reliably cast them otherwise.
This can hurt you in another way. Oftentimes you have to keep hands that rely on Aether Vial resolving to win. It may be an amazing hand otherwise. It probably looks something like:
This is a good grip but if your opponent has a counter for your Aether Vial or another way to remove it such as Ancient Grudge or Pithing Needle you could find yourself swimming with the fishes in short order. I would almost never mulligan that hand but a single Spell Pierce Daze or Force of Will could destroy your entire game. With Merfolk you often have to make very risky keeps like this.
And then there's a hand that looks like this:
You have to throw that one back. This is a classic case of the Fish and Ships.
No Alternate Game Plan
What do these cards have in common? Merfolk is almost drawing dead to all of them. Hoping to have a Force of Will or Daze when your opponent casts these cards is a very very loose game plan. Peacekeeper can be beat by Dismember and Llawan can be beat by both Dismember and Aether Vial but most of the time you will just lose to these cards. I'm sure there are plenty of other cards that are likewise devastating.
It's very easy to hate out Merfolk. What do Merfolk decks have to fight the hate cards? Nothing for the most part. Is there any reason that Fish decks should just auto scoop to a number of cards people can play? I don't see any reason why this should be the case.
Adopting Dismember has been a good start for Merfolk to give it ways to combat problem cards but I don't see why it has to stop there. There are ways to beat all of these cards but it's up to us to play them.
Making Merfolk Better
Thankfully I decided that instead of just telling you why Merfolk in its current form is weak I'd also offer up some solutions for how to improve the deck. For once in my life I don't have a bigger fish to fry.*
Step 1: Don't Play Situational Cards
When your opponent leads with Cavern of Souls Goblin Lackey and your hand is Aether Vial Daze Standstill Spell Pierce Island Mutavault and a Lord of Atlantis you might as well just shuffle up for game 2. That hand would be awesome against U/W Control but sadly you hit the Goblins jackpot this time.
What's wrong with that hand? It's extremely situational. Most of those cards are good in some scenarios but also have a number of other situations where they are completely useless cards. When you're playing cards like this you're basically spinning the roulette wheel every round hoping you play against a matchup where they are good or that you draw the right cards at the right times to make them good.
Standstill is the biggest offender. While awesome against decks like U/W Control or combo decks it's typically very bad against any other creature decks. Its value also shifts significantly when you are on the play or the draw.
My recommendation is to cut cards like Standstill and trim the numbers on cards like Spell Pierce and Daze. If you want these effects play them in the sideboard and bring them in for the matchups where they shine.
Step 2: The Best Fish is Actually a Faerie Wizard
There is this idea that because this is a Merfolk deck that plays a lot of Merfolk Lords that pump other Fishies every creature in the deck has to be a Merfolk.
Yeah I don't buy into that. From my experience the best creature in the deck has always been the one that very few people actually play: Vendilion Clique. Vendilion Clique offers you a few sweet options that the actual Merfolk don't.
For one it has a different form of evasion than Islandwalk. This lets you beat cards like Moat or attack past walls like Tarmogoyf or Knight of the Reliquary that can otherwise be impossible to attack through. This also can be relevant against cards like Batterskull that can stymie your ground forces if you don't have an Islandwalk granting Lord in play. I like my fish beer battered but I typically prefer them skull-unbattered.
Secondly he allows you to filter out dead cards from your hand. Generally speaking you are going to want to target yourself with Vendilion Clique's ability. It's fairly likely that you are going to have something like a second or third Aether Vial or a useless Daze in hand by the time you put him into play. It's possible that you can disrupt your opponent by targeting them but if you filter away a card you are never going to get value out of the rest of the game it's basically the same as drawing a card. Would you play a 3/1 flash flying creature for three mana with the text: "when this enters the battlefield draw a card?" I know I would.
If your hand is good or putting a wrench in your opponent's hand is worth the card then you certainly have that option as well.
Finally it is a surprise. No creatures in the Merfolk deck have flash. Merfolk is entirely predictable. You are going to play a few guys on your turn during your main phase and you're going to hope your opponent doesn't do anything about it on their turn. Having a surprise creature on your opponent's turn can really throw off their game plan and this kind of unexpected play is often all you need to win a close game.
This applies to other creatures as well. There's no reason you can't run cards like Phantasmal Image or even off-color splash creatures like Geist of Saint Traft or Dark Confidant even though they aren't Merfolk. Following unnecessary restrictions like "all creatures must be Merfolk" or locking yourself into one mindset is an easy way to miss out on ways to improve a deck.
Step 3: There's No Reason You Have to Play Mono-Blue
The advantages to playing Mono Blue are as follows:
- You don't take damage from fetchlands.
- You aren't as vulnerable to Wasteland.
The advantages to splashing another color are as follows:
- You get sweet spells from that color.
- You play fetchlands and thus Brainstorm becomes a good card.
- Your mana base actually improves by trimming down on colorless lands.
The power of the fetch and dual mana bases in Legacy is that splashing colors is almost completely free. Goblins is a mono-red deck in Legacy that has taken this idea to heart by splashing for cards that solve problems that they can't solve in red alone. A single Taiga along with fetchlands gives Goblins answers to enchantments. Badlands gives Goblins access to cards like Thoughtseize Warren Weirding and Perish to improve a variety of matchups. Some Goblins lists even play Thalia who is neither a Goblin nor a red spell!
Why hasn't Merfolk adopted this ideology?
I think Merfolk can be significantly improved by splashing either white or black.
When you splash white you get:
Most of the time when I lose with Merfolk it's because my opponent simply kills all of my creatures. Kira is a great answer out of the sideboard to handle decks like Stoneblade and RUG Delver that strive to just point and click one-for-one removal at all your Lords until you run out of gas while they leverage Brainstorms and Ponders to keep the juice going. Sadly Kira isn't enough and her power level is pretty low. She's a legendary Wind Drake so drawing multiples is poor and her clock is very weak. Mother of Runes is cheaper and more effective and can also help beat the mono-removal decks. Mother also artfully dodges Red Elemental Blast a common removal spell against Merfolk. Sygg River Guide is another option for this role but I feel like the mana investment Sygg requires could be a bit much.
Geist of Saint Traft is another great way to beat decks that are simply trying to crush you under the heel of targeted removal. Unfortunately Geist can't attack through a Tarmogoyf but in combination with Mother of Runes Dismember and Path to Exile you can clear the way for him to beat your opponent down.
All the white spells I want to add to the deck work very well together with each other and are built with the idea of beating removal heavy decks in mind.
This isn't the only option though. Another possibility is to play with a black splash:
Dark Confidant is a great way to pull ahead against decks that aren't loaded with a lot of removal spells. Even against those decks sometimes they don't have it or even if they do it might mean that one of your Merfolk Lords gets to survive instead.
Perish is an awesome card for winning matchups that can otherwise be a huge uphill battle like Elves or Maverick. Perish also comes in against RUG Delver and keeps them from grinding you out with Tarmogoyfs and removal spells.
Thoughtseize may be unnecessary but discard spells give you another option against combo or control decks to combat their game plan. While these are generally good matchups that doesn't mean that you can't play cards to improve them nonetheless.
Lately I've heard an argument come from respected players that discard spells are bad in Legacy. I have to politely disagree on this one. Discard spells are not always good but they are very devastating against certain decks. This makes them perfect sideboard options to bring in for the matchups where they shine.
I have really loved discard spells in decks like Stoneblade and I have to assume they are only better in decks like Merfolk that have the kind of clock you need to ensure your opponent doesn't have the time to draw out of the disruption you level at them.
Step 4: Play Brainstorm
Play the best card in Legacy Brainstorm along with fetchlands. Questions?
Step 5: Have a Secondary Game Plan
There are some decks that you will simply never beat with the standard game plan of Fish. Either they have eight Swords to Plowshares effects with Snapcaster Mage or they have trump cards like Llawan Cephalid Empress Moat or Ensnaring Bridge. If you can't beat their game plan with your own the best option is to attack them on a different angle that they may not be ready for.
I think the most simple and universal way to accomplish this is Jace the Mind Sculptor. What Jace gives you is a source of repeated card advantage against decks that try to one-for-one you out of the game. He also provides a secondary win condition against decks that can easily shut down your main game plan. The final thing he does is serve as a huge thorn in the side against other Jace decks. Your U/W Control opponent is well equipped to beat you with Terminus and Swords to Plowshares but they aren't equipped to fight Jace. Furthermore they rely on their own Jaces to win which is much more difficult when you have the card as well.
Now that I've laid out my five-step process for frying your foe with Fish I'd like to take a moment and look at a rough draft of what a U/W and U/B Merfolk deck might look like:
- 2 Coralhelm Commander
- 4 Lord of Atlantis
- 4 Master of the Pearl Trident
- 4 Merrow Reejerey
- 3 Mother of Runes
- 4 Silvergill Adept
- 2 Vendilion Clique
- 1 Coralhelm Commander
- 3 Cursecatcher
- 4 Lord of Atlantis
- 4 Master of the Pearl Trident
- 4 Merrow Reejerey
- 4 Silvergill Adept
- 3 Vendilion Clique
Keep in mind that these are rough drafts. I'm sure there is a lot that can be done to improve them but the important thing is to try out new things and work to fix the problems with how the deck functions.
I cut Wasteland from both decks in order to improve the mana base and make casting spells easier. I'd rather be able to cast my spells than get a few occasional free wins from my opponents keeping hands that are weak to Wasteland. One thing about the Legacy format right now is that decks like RUG Delver and Maverick that can threaten to Waste you out of the game have brought about a change in the way people build mana bases. Decks are now built with the expectation of being hit by Wasteland a few times a game which makes the Wasteland plan from other decks like Merfolk a lot worse as a result. I can only think of one game that I played in the nine rounds at the Legacy Open in Washington DC where I was able to successful Waste someone out of the game.
I think it is reasonable to trim the count on Wastelands right now even in a mono-blue Merfolk list. It may be wrong to cut them altogether like I did but I don't think it's wise to run less than fourteen blue sources if you intend on casting your spells in a timely fashion.
At any rate I hope this has been helpful. Maybe Geist of Saint Traft doesn't fit into the U/W archetype but Mother of Runes is awesome and you want a full set. Perhaps Dark Confidant is so good that he should be maindeck. It's hard to say exactly and it can change from week to week but the most important thing is to always look for and try out new things to improve stale archetypes. Merfolk is the same deck now as it was six months ago but the metagame has moved on without it.
I don't like the way Merfolk decks are built right now. That just means there is room for innovation and change. There's no reason to give up on the pesky pesce.
She ordered a Fish Filet.
Thanks for reading
BBD on Magic Online
*I'm also well below my quota of fish related puns.