How to Build Standard Merfolk: RIX Edition

Posted in How to Build on January 23, 2018

By Corbin Hosler

The last three months have felt like an eternity to me here on Ixalan.

Ixalan released a few months ago, and I got to meet a bunch of new fish friends, this time in green instead of blue. It was a bit different seeing Merfolk venture outside the rivers and lakes we were used to, but a good kind of different—like seeing a friend I've been missing since our last visit to Lorwyn has gone and come back a little changed, but for the better. The fact that all these new Merfolk wanted to do was go exploring the rest of Ixalan and the Magic world beyond was a grand adventure I could get behind; we would tackle the challenge together.

Long story short, it was a tough road. Not only were the rest of the tribes making the rounds in Standard a lot bigger than the fish (I mean, have you seen Ghalta, Primal Hunger?!), but there was this little problem of fire-breathing Dragons, not to mention a horde of creatures tapping into this unnatural energy to keep us from having any fun.

That was then. Rivals of Ixalan is now, and everything has changed for Merfolk.

Merfolk Mistbinder is just the tip of the Merfolk iceberg here, and with Magic's newest set, Merfolk are forever transformed, in both Standard and Modern.

Let's start with the former. For reference, here is the list I started with in Ixalan.

Corbin's XLN Merfolk

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I built this deck by looking at the historical success Merfolk found in Standard—most famously in the hands of Jan Ruess, who took the deck all the way to the finals of Pro Tour Hollywood in 2008. That deck had it all—early interaction in Cursecatcher and Sage's Dousing, card advantage in Silvergill Adept and Ancestral Vision, lord effects with Merrow Reejerey and Lord of Atlantis, and ways to break board stalls with Cryptic Command and Sygg, River Guide.

As you can see, we didn't have access to all of that with just Ixalan. The deck had its strengths, but we were just a little short of putting it all together. But with the arrival Rivals of Ixalan and the return of my favorite card of all time in Silvergill Adept, we are now closer than ever before to returning to the days of seeing Merfolk in the Top 8 spotlight at a Pro Tour.

Let's dig into exactly what Rivals of Ixalan offers.

More than anything, Merfolk needed an identity. With Ixalan, Merfolk was split between being a pure aggro deck and being a deck that wanted to go wide and get tricky with +1/+1 counters. For instance, did we want to go in on River Sneak and try to just zero out opponents immediately, or did we want to set up an overwhelming board with Deeproot Waters? Both had their advantages, of course, but their weaknesses as well—the aggressive build struggled with removal while the slower build had a hard time competing with the midrange decks of the world.

With Rivals, we're able to more clearly tailor our deck toward where we want to be, and there's support for either approach. If you want to go aggressive, Mist-Cloaked Herald and Jade Bearer allow you to overload on early plays to beat down an opponent. If you want to slow things down, Jadelight Ranger, Jungleborn Pioneer, and Seafloor Oracle will help you drown opponents in card advantage as you flood the board.

I've spent the last week playing a lot of Standard Merfolk, and I'm convinced the deck has the chops to rise to the upper echelon of our yet-to-be-explored Standard format. It turns out Merfolk are pretty good at exploring—and taking over a bogged-down board. Here's the current list I've been happy to play with. It's very similar to a build that put up a 5-0 finish in a Magic Online League right after the set's release, and it has a lot of hidden strengths that aren't apparent at first glance.

Corbin's RIX Merfolk

Download Arena Decklist

Let's break down exactly what makes this deck so powerful, with an eye to the historical parallels.

The One-Drops: Kumena's Speaker and Jade Bearer

The Rivals of Ixalan build of this deck looks awfully similar to Ruess's Hollywood masterpiece. With two different creatures occupying the one-drop spot, you have utility in both decks. For Ruess it was the taxing ability of Cursecatcher alongside the mana fixing of Tideshaper Mystic, while the 2018 version has more aggression in Kumena's Speaker along with the utility of distributing a +1/+1 counter at will in Jade Bearer. Both decks allow Merfolk to get onto the board early, beginning the assault of opponents while holding some value later in the game.

The Two-Drops: Lords and Card Advantage

If the one-drops in the 2018 deck looked similar to those in Ruess's deck, the two-drops are nearly a mirror image of each other. Lord of Atlantis becomes Merfolk Mistbinder. Silvergill Adept becomes Merfolk Branchwalker and . . . Silvergill Adept. That's a ton of card advantage packed into a two-drop that can also tussle with most creatures at the same spot on the curve, and Merfolk Mistbinder helps the fish grow out of control in a hurry.

While Stonybrook Banneret helped Merfolk cheat on mana costs, Deeproot Elite helps the deck cheat on the traditional bounds of power and toughness. The ability to distribute a +1/+1 counter at will allows the deck to make combat a nightmare for opponents, and followed up by the right three-drops, it quickly makes blocking a losing proposition.

The Three-Drops: More Lords

  • Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca
  • Jadelight Ranger
  • Jungleborn Pioneer
  • Kopala, Warden of Waves
  • Vineshaper Mystic

Kumena is the best kind of tyrant—the one on my side.

Merrow Reejerey was one of my favorite cards in traditional Merfolk decks. It allowed for all kinds of tricky plays, from tapping down blockers to giving creatures pseudo-vigilance to "ramping" Merfolk when called for.

We don't have Merrow Reejerey, but Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca is quickly cementing its own home in my heart. The card really does do it all, from sneaking in damage to drawing cards to pumping the entire team just like Merrow Reejerey used to do. I suspect Kumena will began his tyrannical reign over Standard quite soon. There is so much utility and flexibility packed into a single card that any parity in a board state will be broken in just a few turns by Kumena. And thanks to all the other card and tempo advantage in the deck, the tide can't be turned back once Kumena starts riding it.

There are plenty of other options at this point of the curve. Jadelight Ranger is Merfolk Branchwalker's role model, and Jungleborn Pioneer represents an absolutely terrifying follow-up to Deeproot Elite. Kopala, Warden of Waves can protect the team from most removal just like Sygg, River Guide did a decade ago, and if you really wanted you could turn to Vineshaper Mystic to push the counters theme to the breaking point.

The Rest

We don't have Cryptic Command. Sorry, but that's just the way it is, and it's probably not a bad thing that the feared four-mana do-everything spell has moved on to Modern. But we do have Crashing Tide—the best Repulse imitator I've ever seen—as well as good ol' Unsummon, which can keep opponents off balance for a massive tempo advantage while also setting up Spell Pierce to disrupt a key spell. In a format with Settle the Wreckage; Fumigate; Vraska, Relic Seeker; and more, Spell Pierce is quietly an MVP in a deck that can tussle with nearly any other creature deck but might struggle against spell-based strategies.

One of the best ways to build a deck is to look at historical precedent, and in comparing Merfolk today to the Pro Tour Top 8 deck of 2008, there are a ton of similarities that suggest Merfolk are primed to find success in today's metagame. It's obviously early in this exciting new Standard format, but there's one thing I know for sure: players are going to learn to fear the fish.

Thanks for reading,

Corbin Hosler

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