How to Build Merfolk in Standard

Posted in How to Build on September 26, 2017

By Corbin Hosler

It all began in Limited Edition (Alpha).

Merfolk begin in Magic's very first set, and my favorite tribe started off with a splash. The quintessential Merfolk has proven so popular it's been reprinted time and time again, working its way into many a Magic player's life and heart at the same time.

Who can forget such an iconic creature?

Ah yes, the seminal creature of the tribe: Merfolk of the Pearl Trident . . . Wait a minute, something's not quite right there. Let's try again.

That's a little better. Merfolk entered all of our lives nearly 25 years ago, and I've never looked at sushi the same way since. Beginning with the very first printing of Magic and up to the release of Ixalan this week, Merfolk have been an integral part of the Multiverse (except for a dark period we don't like to mention). In that time, the tribe has put together quite the storied history, making their scaly presence known from the kitchen table to the Top 8 of the Pro Tour.

So you can be sure that when I found out Ixalan contained Merfolk, I was hyped beyond measure for the opportunity to sleeve them up in Standard again. But first we have to answer a more basic question: what makes Merfolk good?

How the School Swims

First and foremost, it's key to know that fish swim in schools for a reason. It offers community protection, and of course there's strength in numbers.

Merfolk operate the same way. Thanks to a critical number of "lords"—namely, Lord of Atlantis, Master of the Pearl Trident, Merrow Reejerey, and sometimes even Coralhelm Commander or Merfolk Sovereign—Merfolk can create a very large board very quickly, despite that all the creatures in question are simply 2/2s by themselves. With a few lords on the field, suddenly a couple Cursecatchers and Silvergill Adepts represent a devastating army.

And often that army can't be stopped—literally. Thanks to the eight two-drop lords, islandwalk is a very real threat, especially in older formats where players are almost always playing some form of blue cards. And when they aren't, no problem! Spreading Seas takes care of that issue while denying opponents a color and drawing you a card at the same time.

It's a simple recipe, but one that has proven stubbornly resilient through the years, from Vintage to Legacy to Extended to Modern and even Standard.

Tomoharu Saito's Legacy Merfolk – 1st place, Grand Prix Columbus 2010

Download Arena Decklist

Marijn Lybaert's Merfolk – Top 8, Pro Tour Amsterdam 2010

Download Arena Decklist

Simon Slutsky's Modern Merfolk – 1st place, Grand Prix Los Angeles 2016

Download Arena Decklist

As you can see, the strategy has stayed fairly consistent over the years, and the same core pieces have led to sustained success. The climate around them changes, but the Merfolk swim on.

That brings us to Ixalan, a brand-new exciting world where Dinosaurs roam the land alongside bloodsucking Vampires while Pirates raid along the coast. But while the swashbucklers may sail around the sea, these waters still belong to the Merfolk.

The Merfolk of Ixalan

There are two major mechanics associated with the Merfolk on Ixalan, and both are something a little different. But first we have to take note of something major: Merfolk are green again! We've seen a touch of this before, all the way back in Apocalypse with Gaea's Skyfolk, but in Ixalan this has been pushed even further to pretty great effect. Being in green makes perfect sense for the primary mechanic Merfolk take advantage of: the distribution of +1/+1 counters and the tricks that enables.

Being focused across blue and green gives the aspiring Merfolk player a ton of options, including the ability to make Herald of Secret Streams truly devastating. There are a ton of Merfolk in Ixalan that can pump the team with +1/+1 counters, and the exciting Kopala, Warden of Waves will follow things up to protect your team—or at least your River Sneak, which will end games all on its own with a little tribal support.

The second mechanic somewhat associated with Merfolk is explore, which is one of my favorite mechanics Wizards has released in years. After all, it is a pretty cool all-upside mechanic where both outcomes are desirable but also very different in their application. Merfolk Branchwalker is very similar to Silvergill Adept, my favorite card ever printed and a staple of Merfolk decks through the years. Branchwalker brings that same power to Standard and will form the backbone of any Merfolk deck that pokes its head over the surface.

The last time a competitive Merfolk deck was in Standard was a decade ago, when Jan Ruess took the Merfolk-Wizard hybrid to the Top 8 of Pro Tour Hollywood 2008 following the release of Shadowmoor and the addition of Cursecatcher to the deck.

Jan Ruess's Merfolk – Top 8, Pro Tour Hollywood 2008

Download Arena Decklist

As you can see, the deck then was very reliant on being tempo-oriented. Cursecatcher was the ideal one-drop, but Tideshaper Mystic would do in a pinch. From there, a host of good two-drop Merfolk filled the curve, while Stonybrook Banneret could also accelerate a turn-three Sower of Temptation or Venser, Shaper Savant. Cryptic Command would then sit at the ready to clean things up while Sygg, River Guide made combat a sinking proposition for opponents.

We can apply some of those same tactics to Merfolk in Ixalan Standard. Kumena's Speaker is an aggressive one-drop, and River Sneak will end games quickly while we keep opponents busy with disruption like Kopala, Warden of Waves or the newly Merfolk-themed Spell Pierce. Merfolk Branchwalker provides a lot of advantage no matter what you're exploring, and Shapers' Sanctuary guarantees you won't be beaten by spot removal. We don't have any of the "traditional" Merfolk lords, but Metallic Mimic does a mighty fine impression, and Vineshaper Mystic is an outright bomb a lot of the time.

Putting it All Together

Ixalan Standard is going to have a lot going for it. A lot of fun decks survive rotation—as does Ramunap Red—but the tribes coming in the newest set are certainly going to make an impact. That includes Merfolk, which are tricky to build with but will certainly be able to take people by surprise. Here's where I'll be starting with at my first Ixalan Friday Night Magic.

Corbin Hosler's Ixalan Merfolk

Download Arena Decklist

There are a ton of ways you can go with Merfolk in Ixalan. One fun card I passed up is Deeproot Waters, which provides an unending source of Merfolk tokens in the right deck. And it's possible some sort of Sultai (black-green-blue) deck could take advantage of Vineshaper Mystic and Herald of Secret Streams to go nuts with Winding Constrictor. I'm sure we've only made a ripple of the surface of what Merfolk will be able to accomplish in Ixalan, but I'm sure looking forward to playing my favorite tribe in Standard once again.

Thanks for reading!

Corbin Hosler

Latest How to Build Articles


January 27, 2020

Gavin Verhey's No Longer Secret (Lair) Year of the Rat Commander Deck by, Gavin Verhey

Gavin Verhey got his hands on Secret Lair's Year of the Rat drop and immediately began plotting on how to infest his Commander games with the cute vermin. And now a look at @GavinVerhey...

Learn More


August 23, 2019

Personalizing Commander 2019: Primal Genesis by, Cassie LaBelle

As a fan of Magic's story and flavor, there are few products I look forward to more than the yearly Commander decks. Unlike normal sets, which highlight a single Plane and time, the Comma...

Learn More



How to Build Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All