Merfolk Resurfaced

Posted in Feature on June 25, 2008

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at

What? Hey. Huh? I thought merfolk were a creative no-no. Didn’t we say we’d never—? Wait. Yeah. No. I read this somewhere. I thought the scaly ol’ fishtails were a problem for the whole “imagine two rival mages fighting each other across a battlefield” thing, so Wizards kinda phased them out. Aquatic creatures weren’t, like, meshing right in the flavor scenario (what I like to call a “flavenario,” saving an entire syllable out of the Vorthosian day—you’re welcome) of the summoned armies fighting one another on the landscape, being flappy fish from the waist down and all. That’s why there’ve been vedalken (who have feet), and moonfolk (who also have feet), and more vedalken (yep) filling the role of the go-to blue-aligned humanoids since Mirrodin.

And now there are tons of merfolk around all of a sudden. So whuh? First there’s a revival of merfolk in Time Spiral Block and Tenth Edition (which turned out to be setting the stage for some upcoming tribal block), then there’s a whole army of merfolk in Lorwyn Block (which turned out to be that upcoming tribal block), and then there’s a whole bunch more merfolk in Shadowmoor (which turned out to be set in a sort of flip-side darkened version of the aforementioned tribal block, and needed to continue to populate creature cards with many of those tribal creature types from Lorwyn in order to support continued tribal deckbuilding).

That is a lot of mer-dudes all up ins, for being a race that creative wasn’t happy with. What. Gives?

Let’s back up.

Islandhome and Aquatics

The story starts with aquatic-flavored creatures. Almost all Magic sets have had a smattering of aquatic creatures, going all the way back to the beginning. Alpha had its share: Sea Serpent, Pirate Ship, and the original tribal mer-buddies, Merfolk of the Pearl Trident and Lord of Atlantis. Arabian Nights added Merchant Ship, Dandân, and (a personal favorite) the massive Island Fish Jasconius. They continued on in dribs and drabs like this—Devouring Deep, Giant Shark, Electric Eel—but Magic never really hit a true aquatic race until merfolk and homarids hit the big time in Fallen Empires, a set that boasted—count ‘em—six big Merfolk creatures.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we have to look at Magic‘s flavorful mechanics for being aquatic.

Sea Serpent

And the modern version of that wording:

Sea Serpent can’t attack unless defending player controls an Island.
When you control no Islands, sacrifice Sea Serpent.

Those two lines of text set a trend that would last right up until the present day. Blue tends not to get enormous ground creatures at common unless they have a drawback, and the drawback of not being able to live or fight outside of the water is quite flavorful. These two facts have coexisted together, creating a symbiotic bridge between mechanics and flavor, for Magic‘s entire history. At this writing, twenty-five blue creatures have some form of the first line (all the way up to Morningtide‘s Floodchaser), and thirteen have had the second (all the way up to Time Spiral‘s Slipstream Serpent), representing quite a pattern.

These two lines were even keyworded at one point, during Mirage block and Fifth Edition, as “islandhome.” However, the keyword was abandoned when it became clear that it would only be used in limited fashion, and that it unnecessarily added to the number of basic keywords players would have to remember. (Only five cards were ever printed with islandhome. Can you name them? Answers at the end of the column.)

Islandhome is a great attempt to represent the flavor of a water creature in card mechanics. You can’t send it swimming over to attack your foe unless there’s an Island, a bunch of water, nearby. And it can’t survive unless you continue to have a body of water that will support it and let it breathe. But ultimately, it’s a drawback mechanic, and a wordy one at that (even with the keyword, it still represents a few lines of reminder text). It makes sense in your mind, but is not exactly an attractive ability for your blue monsters to have. It’s not like islandwalk, which doesn’t ever do anything bad for you and occasionally, when your opponent is playing blue, becomes terrific—it’s only rarely ignorable, and very often makes you bend over backwards to accommodate it. Your creatures having islandhome is basically always worse than if they didn’t have it. Like echo and fading, drawback mechanics always have built-in strikes against their widespread use.

Furthermore, if an entire race—like, say, merfolk—were forced to all have an ability like islandhome, it would tragically junk up the creatures’ text box. And even more importantly, it would hamstring design and development’s ability to create and balance creatures of that race, and blue creatures overall in sets containing them.

Okay. Fine. Islandhome is junky. Let’s get back to the merfolk part of our story.

Not long after merfolk (and homarids!) hit their stride in Fallen Empires, the issue of islandhome was raised and dropped. That was very important for merfolk—clearly the fish-tailed humanoids would have strong flavor reasons for having Island-related mechanical restrictions. But they didn’t go the way of the Sea Serpent, all getting mechanics to represent their aquaticness; like Merfolk of the Pearl Trident, their cards just sort of ignored the whole aquatic thing, and got down to business attacking mages in their arid mountain strongholds and surviving with only a City of Brass in play.

This made Merfolk a good candidate to be a basic humanoid race for blue. They got support from Vodalia in the Fallen Empires era, from Rootwater in the Tempest era, and from Saprazzo in the Mercadian Masques era.

Interlude: The Merfolk of Rootwater

Some of my favorite merfolk in the history of Magic are the Rootwater merfolk. As the story goes, the elves and merfolk who had been portal-slurped into Yawgmoth’s plane of Rath were none too friendly with each other, and they fought over limited water resources. When the elves took it upon themselves to push the roots of Skyshroud deep into the merfolk’s body of water, the resulting mangrove-choked marsh became known as Rootwater. That affront, together with a little genetic tweaking from the evincars of Rath, made the Rootwater merfolk into savage hunters. Their appearance, consequently, was far more animalistic and bestial than the merfolk of other worlds, which I always thought was a cool departure.

Rootwater Hunter
Art by Brom

Rootwater Mystic
Art by Michael Sutfin

When Daren Bader reillustrated Rootwater Matriarch for Tenth Edition, he was given references for the Rootwater merfolk so as to reproduce their distinctly animalistic, vicious-fish appearance.

Rootwater Matriarch
Art by Daren Bader

Merfolk Take a Hiatus

Even after several planes’ worth of merfolk, the race fell out of favor with the creative team. They take a lot of explaining. They generate a lot of mail. They create visual and narrative problems when trying to show them interacting with other races. They always have to be around a riverbank or a well, or there has to be a water-breathing spell (for the non-merfolk) or an air-breathing spell (for the merfolk) involved. They just don’t do what an iconic race needs to do, which is walk.

For all these reasons, merfolk were phased out as of Mirrodin in 2003, which (not that coincidentally) coincided with the rise of the cunning—and leg-having—vedalken. The vedalken loomed large throughout Mirrodin and Ravnica blocks, doing all the things that the other colors’ humanoids could do visually and narratively speaking, thanks to those feet of theirs. Then in Kamigawa, where vedalken wouldn’t have felt very natural, the new soratami (Moonfolk) race appeared, also having legs while embracing blue-aligned flavor.

Vedalken_Entrancer Meloku_the_Clouded_Mirror

The vedalken and soratami are cool races, and we’ll probably do more of them someday. But remembering an early hit among the Magic community, players (including members of Magic R&D) missed their merfolk.

Interlude: The Merfolk of Shadowmoor

I was fond of the savage, more-fish-than-man Rootwater merfolk, and I guess that’s why I’m such a fan of the cruel, covetous merrows of Shadowmoor.

Merrows after the Aurora lose much of their formerly human-like appearance and courteous demeanor. Their features become fishlike and monstrous. Their mouths, wide-jawed and full of teeth, have lost the ability to render language with precision, so their communication is relegated to hisses, a bubbling froth through the gills and nostrils, and their own gutteral version of landspeech. Among their own, merrows usually use secretions from scent glands to transfer simple facts and moods.

Their skin is made up of tiny diamond-shaped scales topped with even smaller barbs, which can catch and rip delicate flesh. The crisscrossing pattern of scales gives off an oily sheen. Long, needle-sharp structural spines support merrows’ fanned swimming and rudder fins. The spines can, in some cases, deliver poison for hunting and defense.

Shadowmoor merrows have developed musculature in their tails that allows them to sit upright on land, along with sets of specialized “walking” fins that they can use to dig into the earth and drag their bulk along the ground. This mode of transportation is clumsy and inefficient, but it allows raiders and hunters to collect goods and prey before returning to the dark waters of the Lanes.

The mind of a Shadowmoor merrow is consumed by covetousness. Wracked by envy of the wealth and acclaim possessed by others, yet outclassed in power and reach by the larger races and monsters in Shadowmoor, their deepest desire is to deprive the “haves” of Shadowmoor of whatever they have, by whatever means possible.

This covetousness is backed by a cruel intelligence; merrows concoct devious plans to secure their quarries. Some lure solitary travelers to the riverside with deceiving magic and promises of treasures from the deep, whereupon two or three merrows can drag their prey underwater with net and claw, later fighting over the looted valuables. Others weave a form of hypnotic magic, creating temporary servants with whom they build influence and carry out tasks on dry land. Still others sneak onto the land themselves, using their primitive walking fins to invade homes and farmlands for weapons, produce, livestock, and gold.

As enormous symbols of power, giants in particular evoke the ire of merrows. Merrow schemers may spend weeks preparing a system of tripwires across a stretch of land in order to bring down one of Lorwyn’s shaggy giants. Merrows believe that the blood and tissue of giants brings them strength, and some merrows carve jewelry, axes, and even lairs from giants’ sturdy bones.

–From the Shadowmoor style guide

Merfolk Return?

Merrow_Reejerey When it became clear that Lorwyn would be about tribal mechanics, merfolk were allowed to poke their heads up out of creative exile for a little bit. That little bit became four sets on one plane (with a split personality), plus some support in Time Spiral Block and Tenth Edition, so their little peek above the surface of the water became quite the show-stopping career relaunch. And I think the community has responded. The merfolk have a storied history, and certain deck builders and story fans have always loved them. I think their big-time reemergence as of Lorwyn has put a fishy grin on those players’ faces. The feedback has been pretty clear: people like ‘em.

What to do about the creative problems? Well, it’s always an issue, but I think in order to love merfolk, you have to love their uniqueness. They’re not like landlubbing species. They’re problematic because they’re odd. Their whole concept is that they bridge two worlds—that’s the whole point of their dual nature.

So will merfolk continue to see print in the future? Actually, despite the creative team’s past problems with them, I give it a “probably.” They’re ingrained in the Magic consciousness so much that I doubt they’ll ever be gone forever. Maybe they’ll show up in amphibious forms, maybe they’ll have lung-magic, maybe they’ll have hydrokinesis to throw their water wherever they need to go. They’re problematic. But that’s what makes them merfolk.

Islandhome Quiz

Only five cards were ever printed with islandhome. Can you name them? For the answers, click here

Kukemssa Serpent (Mirage)
Manta Ray (Weatherlight)
Pirate Ship (Fifth Edition)
Sea Serpent (Fifth Edition)
Dandan (Fifth Edition)

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,

I was asked to ascertain to which class Merfolk belong: Mammalia, or a fictional piscine class? They obviously have breasts in Lorwyn / Shadowmoor, but not necessarily mammary glands; they seem to lack hair; and mammals have bellows lungs, never gills.

Assuming this is a fictional class under the subphylum Vertebrata, could you name this class so I can answer the smart-aleck players that ask me?

Merrow_Harbinger Oh, no. You’re sly, Eli, but you’re not tricking me. See, Eli let me drop my guard by opening the door for a fictional class, making it seem like a natural thing for a Vorthos to do, and thereby almost got me to implicitly grant him the legitimacy of applying the Linnean system of biological classification to the Magic multiverse. If I were to say that merfolk are, say, part of the made-up class Piscemammia or something, as creatures with both piscine and mammalian anatomy, that would represent my implied agreement that you can fit everything in Magic in that Earth taxonomy.

But, as sympathetic I am to the project of taxonomizing, it’s not possible. Magic would need its own enormous, ever-branching tree graph to encompass all the oddities. And that’s even assuming that all of Magic‘s creatures come down to biology—which in the case of stuff like golems, spirits, elementals, and a bunch of other stuff I could name, they just plain don’t. A Lorwyn faerie has mammalian characteristics and insectile characteristics, for example, but it’s not some sort of primate evolved from bugs—it’s a creature of magic. Many Magic creatures are irreducible in this way.

However, the root of Eli’s question is interesting. What is going on with merfolk physiology?

First of all, merfolk have magical origins, not biological (that doesn’t mean they were a race engineered by wizards, although that is possible). Even today, as they reproduce and evolve like normal animals, their lives and physiologies are still wrapped up with magic.

Do they nurse their young? No. Merfolk breasts are there as a holdover from their magical origins, and are not functional for lactation. Originally, the humanlike upper bodies of both male and female merfolk gave them the ability to lure humanoid prey into the water. Today most merfolk have a quite non-human appearance, even above the waist. However, individuals vary.

Waterspout_Weavers Rootwater_Diver

Eggs or live birth? Although I don’t know of any source that has nailed this down either way, I don’t see how they could have mammal-style live birth. Card art, at the very least, has little need to decide this issue, so it just hasn’t come up.

Breathe air or water? Most merfolk species have both gills and the capacity to breathe air, at least for a short time. Lorwyn merrows can pop up in wells for chatting. Shadowmoor merrows can leap over strips of land, and even move sluggishly over land.


Hair or no? Some do, some don’t. Most merfolk do have long spines and sweeping tendrils that can resemble hair. Some have true hair, although sometimes it’s not the same color or texture quality as traditional mammalian hair.

Thanks for your question, Eli!

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