Unable to cope with the unstoppable force that is the Kaladesh energy mechanic, the tribes of Ixalan have been largely absent from Standard since the set's release.
Ixalan preview season was dominated by Dinosaur talk, mostly due to seemingly pushed cards like Carnage Tyrant and Regisaur Alpha, but they ultimately fell flat on their very large faces. Despite the novelty of being able to cast literal Dinosaurs in a game of Magic, the role of 'midrange G/R' deck had already done much better by Temur Energy.
Pirates also received a fair amount of press, but while individual cards like Hostage Taker and Ruin Raider have found themselves homes in various Standard decks, a true 'Pirate deck' never came to fruition. The raid mechanic asks for aggression, but a lack of good one-drops and little payoff for putting Pirates in your deck ultimately sank the deck from the start.
Amusingly enough, Vampires was the tribe that felt like an afterthought during Ixalan previews, but ended up being the only one to actually do well in a major event. Wilson Hunter took a unique Mono-White Vampires deck to 22nd place at Pro Tour Ixalan, which is one of the few victories that Ixalan tribal can claim in Standard so far. Still, the deck went silent after the Pro Tour.
Merfolk was the only tribe in Ixalan with serious precedent, as Merfolk Tribal has been a thing since day one thanks to Alpha's Lord of Atlantis. Merfolk has been a competitive deck in Legacy and Modern for ages, so naturally the expectation was for Merfolk to be the highlight of the Ixalan tribes.
Yeah... about that.
While people at least tried building Dinosaur, Pirate, and Vampire decks in the early stages of Ixalan Standard, Merfolk was universally ignored because most of the cards were frankly awful.
With Rivals of Ixalan on the horizon it's time to start paying attention, because Merfolk is no longer going to be the black sheep of the bunch.
It's common logic that tribal decks need a critical mass of playable cards to put together a deck, and frankly it makes a lot of sense that theIxalan tribes failed on their first go of it. Prior to Ixalan, there were zero Dinosaurs or Merfolk legal in Standard, and only pairs of Vampires and Pirates. With so few options available, building a tribal deck that can have a high enough power level to compete in Standard is very difficult. We saw this very recently with all of the Innistrad Zombies needing Amonket's help to finally break through.
Quality is important too, as what tribal decks really need to succeed is excellent one- and two-drops paired with big time payoff cards that reward you for putting a ton of a certain creature type in your deck. Think cards like Goblin Ringleader, Cryptbreaker, Priest of Titania, and Lord of Atlantis. Even with only a small amount of Rivals of Ixalan previewed so far, Merfolk is already getting quite the shot in the arm.
I'm sorry, did somebody just say Lord of Atlantis?
While Merfolk Mistbinder obviously lacks the islandwalk clause of Lord of Atlantis or Master of the Pearl Trident, without something like Spreading Seas in the format that isn't going to matter too much. Two mana "lords" are not something we see every day, with two mana being the sweet spot between 'payoff card' and 'early creature.' Merfolk Mistbinder helps to ensure that a Standard Merfolk deck can present a quick clock as well as build a battlefield, both very important traits in Standard. Turn 1 Kumena's Speaker, turn 2 Merfolk Mistbinder is a nice little beatdown curve, and there's plenty of precedent for successful two-mana lords.
What bodes best for Merfolk in Standard is that Merfolk Mistbinder is actually the least impressive of the three new Merfolk cards we're going to look at today. Modern Merfolk is often chided for being nothing more than a pile of Muscle Slivers- while a deck full of Muscle Slivers will have a reasonably fast goldfish, once they go up against a deck looking to interact they can often end up looking like a pile of Grizzly Bears. Increasing power and toughness by itself is nice, but is not enough overall.
Thankfully, the true hero of Modern Merfolk is ready to join us in Standard once again.
Silvergill Adept is the best card in Modern Merfolk and it's not particularly close.
Tribal decks usually operate through the idea of critical mass. The individual cards aren't as powerful as other non-tribal cards, but when you put a lot of them together at once they start to do very powerful things. Typically this comes through some form of card advantage, which snowballs as you get more and more of your tribe on the battlefield. You get more of your things on the battlefield, so your things get better, which lets you get more of them on the battlefield… repeat until you win.
- 4 Metallic Mimic
- 4 Cryptbreaker
- 4 Diregraf Colossus
- 4 Dread Wanderer
- 4 Lord of the Accursed
- 4 Relentless Dead
The most recent example of this is Zombies, which used cards like Cryptbreaker and Diregraf Colossus to create a steady stream of card advantage, but even a short look back into Magic's history reveals that most successful tribal decks operate under this model.
Faeries didn't have a ton of raw card advantage, but Bitterblossom provided the snowballing card advantage to power your tribal cards all by itself.
- 3 Gempalm Incinerator
- 1 Goblin King
- 4 Goblin Matron
- 4 Goblin Piledriver
- 4 Goblin Ringleader
- 1 Goblin Sharpshooter
- 3 Goblin Sledder
- 4 Goblin Warchief
- 4 Mogg War Marshal
- 1 Siege-Gang Commander
- 4 Skirk Prospector
Power and toughness is not enough to make a tribal deck successful and this is why cards like Silvergill Adept are so important. Being able to add a meaningful body to the battlefield that interacts profitably with your other cards and also replaces itself is quite a deal. Hell, Elvish Visionary has seen a ton of play across various formats in a color that usually has bigger creatures than blue. Silvergill Adept is the kind of card that wins you the game without you actually realizing it. All tribal decks need these sorts of nuts and bolts cards, and there aren't many better than Silvergill Adept.
If Merfolk are going to be playable in Standard, Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca is the reason why.
There's a lot of unpack in this legendary three-drop, so let's just go down the abilities:
Tap another untapped Merfolk you control: Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca can't be blocked this turn.
On the surface this ability feels quite underwhelming. Needing to tap two creatures just to do two damage is not very exciting, and with one other Merfolk available you would almost always rather just draw a card instead.
Where this ability shines in Standard is as a way to poke at planeswalkers on a congested battlefield. It doesn't matter how many Thopter tokens your opponent has to chump block, you can still get at that Chandra, Torch of Defiance or Vraska, Relic Seeker when you need to. It's not a huge draw, but it's a nice option to have.
Tap three untapped Merfolk you control: Draw a card.
Now we're talking... the three words every Magic player loves to hear!
Kumena's second ability is reminiscent of Cryptbreaker, which is lofty praise. Cryptbreaker was the best card in the Zombies deck and the reason it was able to grind through almost anything. Without the life loss clause, the only limit on the amount of cards you can draw with Kumena's ability is your deck size. Being able to turn all of your smaller creatures into a card draw engine is what allows you to overcome your opponent's objectively more powerful cards, the hallmark of a good tribal deck. We don't get these types of engines often in Standard, so it's important to recognize them when we do.
Now we can draw tons of cards and then find some way to win with all of our Merfolk!
Tap five untapped Merfolk you control: Put a +1/+1 counter on each Merfolk you control.
Wait, it's also a win condition too?! What can't Kumena do?
Having your engine card also be your win condition is astonishingly good, as it allows you to fill your deck with good cheap creatures and interaction. You can simply play Merfolk, draw cards, build a battlefield, play more Merfolk, and draw more cards until it's time for a double +1/+1 pump and a lethal attack. Having all of your Merfolk untapped to threaten the power boost will help deter attackers, and after your opponent doesn't attack you can just use those Merfolk to draw more cards instead.
The fact that Kumena is likely playable without this third, "ultimate" ability just goes to show the extremely high power level of the card as a whole. It's quite the nice cherry on top.
If you had shown me Kumena without a power and toughness, I would likely have guessed it to be a 2/2, but Kumena weighs in at a hefty 2/4. That's huge! It doesn't die to Lightning Strike, Abrade, or Sweltering Suns, and with a little help from Merfolk Mistbinder or Metallic Mimic, Kumena can get out of Glorybringer and Chandra, Torch of Defiance range as well. Kumena can also safely block many of the best two and three mana creatures in the format, giving you more time to get her engine online.
Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca is a serious game changer for Merfolk in Standard, and with any sort of reasonable supporting cast is likely to push the deck into tournament viability. With cards like Silvergill Adept and Merfolk Mistbender entering the fray we're probably about a good one-drop and a good piece of interaction away from an exciting new deck. It's not there yet, but the beginning core might look something like this:
4 Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca
Metallic Mimic joins Merfolk Mistbinder in the quest to make your Merfolk a little beefier, while helping to push your snowballing advantage. It's also quite nice alongside Deeproot Waters, which works very well with Kumena. Deeproot Waters is a card that would require some serious testing, but looks appealing in theory as an engine card. What's so nice about this proposed core is now nice of a mana curve it has. One and two-drops are the key for any creature tribal deck, and this many quality two-drops will allow Merfolk to double spell much faster than other decks.
The biggest issue is that blue and green lack any real form of removal. Standard is full of creatures that need to be killed and part of what made Zombies so good was its mixture of a great engine with good removal. We don't have that answer yet, and whether it's a new Rivals of Ixalan card (maybe a Merfolk Aether Adept?) or we have to splash a color remains to be seen.
Are We There Yet?
As someone who loved playing Zombies and drawing cards with Cryptbreaker, I'm very excited for the prospects of Merfolk in Standard.
Ixalan failed at the very difficult task of bringing tribal to an energy-riddled Standard format, but with almost zero support from the other Standard sets, it makes a lot of sense why it did. Now with Rivals of Ixalan we can only hope that there are this many great surprises waiting for all the tribes!