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Merfolk Versus: A Contemporary Guide to Sideboarding

A veteran Merfolk player, Scott Muir brings us guidance, strategy, and reasoning to effective sideboarding with the popular tribal Legacy deck.

The last article I wrote was my 3rd place SCG tournament report with Merfolk. This article is for all the Merfolk players who need some advice about many of their unfavorable matchups (and a few a favorable ones!). Unless you have been playing Merfolk—or any deck for that matter—for a long time, sideboarding can be a daunting task.

This article will explore the three basics of sideboarding for each matchup:

  1. What your opponent is really trying to do.
  2. Which cards may be good against an opponent.
  3. Which cards should be taken out.

These keys are the most integral part of sideboarding, so much so that misguided sideboarding may even jeopardize the integrity of your deck—and ultimately cost you your match.

Now, for your reading pleasure: The Matchups.

vs. Zoo

Unfavorable

This is just a bad matchup all around. They have 12 removal spells (Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt, and Chain Lightning) that one-shot all of your creatures. It’s 14-16 if you count Grim Lavamancers. For this reason, Kira, Great Glass-Spinner is a bomb against Zoo.

You should think for quite awhile before mulliganing an opening hand with Kira. Unless your opening grip screams “Worst. Hand. Ever!”, then you should keep it. I am not saying that it is an auto-win if you land her, but she’s one of the few ways to ensure that your lords live long enough to buff your creature’s toughness past three.

Of course, there are other aspects to this matchup than trying to land two or more lords. One thing I’ve found to make this matchup much more bearable is to counter their turn one play. This is easy to say if you have a Mental Misstep or Daze in hand, but I’m talking about even using Force of Will. Forcing their turn one Wild Nacatl will save you about 9-12 damage as it will almost always be a 3/3 turn two (not even counting the turn two Qasali Pridemage). Countering their Grim Lavamancer is a no-brainer, as it’s extremely difficult to come back from behind against that card.

Another thing to note is that Zoo typically plays between 21 and 24 lands. This means that you shouldn’t sacrifice your Wastelands (unless you’re sure of the tempo advantage), and that Dazes are ineffective after turn three.

Sideboard Options

Excellent cards to bring in:
Mind Harness
Threads of Disloyalty
Relic of Progenitus
Perish (for those of you who still play Dark Folk)

Good cards to bring in:
Umezawa’s Jitte
Dismember
Submerge

Okay cards to bring in:
Echoing Truth
Pithing Needle (naming Grim Lavamancer, Qasali Pridemage, or Knight of the Reliquary)
Hibernation

Cards that you should take out:
Force of Will
Daze
Sower of Temptation

Take out Force of Will?!

Yes. The card disadvantage is too great to keep it in. You need all the threats you can get.

Daze is even more detrimental than Force. The tempo you lose significantly hurts your chances of winning.

If you Daze their turn one play, then you are stuck playing another creature on turn three at the earliest. By this point your opponent could easily have 2-3 other creatures on the board, each bigger than yours.

Daze is also useless after the very early game because of the amount of lands that Zoo runs, so it’s better to replace it with a card that’s amazing at all points in the game.

The last card to take out is Sower of Temptation. The reason for this is because it dies too easily. You can’t reliably maintain control of that stolen creature. In fact, it can be a liability. A Lightning Bolt or Path to Exile during combat or EOT can wreck your whole board.

vs. Reanimator

Unfavorable

This matchup is… weird.

Reanimator is a combo deck. The way this deck works is through the roughly eleven two-card combos available in the deck.

Getting the combo online just once is enough to win the game.

This is very different from the more conventional combo decks that try to play a combo around a mere one or two cards, giving it added resiliency. Another way that this deck differs is that it plays more counter magic than Merfolk does, enabling it to protect itself extremely effectively. All other cards are draw spells.

So, how do you play against this deck? DRAW MORE COUNTERSPELLS.

Seriously. Do your absolute best to bluff them if you can. If your opening hand doesn’t have any counterspells, feel free to mulligan—assuming you don’t have the nuts draw with a turn 3 or 4 kill. If your six-card hand still has no counterspells, then keep it and hope you can damage your opponent quick enough so that they can’t cast Reanimate, thus bringing down their playable reanimation spells to seven or eight in the deck.

Sower of Temptation can also be a blowout if they didn’t reanimate a shrouded creature or an Iona naming Blue.

Sideboard Options

Excellent cards to bring in:
Relic of Progenitus
Tormod’s Crypt
Leyline of the Void
Faerie Macabre
Spell Pierce

Good cards to bring in:
Llawan, Cephalid Empress
Karakas
Counterbalance
Echoing Truth

Okay cards to bring in:
Pithing Needle (to name fetchlands)

Cards that you should take out:
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Aether Vial
Umezawa’s Jitte

These cards do nothing for you in this matchup, with a couple exceptions. If you suspect your opponent to be reanimating a Llawan, Cephalid Empress and maybe Iona, then go ahead and leave in the Aether Vials.

vs. Dredge

Favorable

Dredge is a weird deck, but fortunately counterspells make things very difficult for the opponent to combo off. Cursecatcher is an absolute bomb against everything Dredge can play because Bridge from Below has a very convenient wording for us. The way it’s worded means that whenever the Dredge player casts an instant or sorcery—the only spells they ever cast—you can sacrifice Cursecatcher to remove their Bridge from Belows before any tokens are created.

Daze is almost always a hard counter and Mental Misstep counters virtually every relevant spell they cast. Force of Will is just icing on the cake.

It’s important not to hang around too long, though. Ichorids and Narcomoebas can rack up the damage, and facing down a 22/22 Golgari Grave-Troll due to a well-timed Dread Return can ruin your day.

Dredge has 20+ ways of discarding cards. This means that it’s impossible to counter all of them. The player might even just go up to 8 cards to discard a Dredge a creature, so you just want to try and counter the first one or two spells so that you have time to build up some pressure, saving your counters.

Merfolk Sovereign can also be an Ace in the Hole because it doesn’t let your opponent chump block with his creatures, thus preventing more 2/2 zombies if Bridge from Below is in the graveyard.

Sideboard Options

Excellent cards to bring in:
Relic of Progenitus
Ravenous Trap
Tormod’s Crypt
Leyline of the Void
Spell Pierce

Good cards to bring in:
Echoing Truth,
Umezawa’s Jitte

Okay cards to bring in:
Pithing Needle (to name Cephalid Coliseum)
Dismember

Cards that you should take out:
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Aether Vial
Standstill (Dredge doesn’t need to play spells to get out Ichorid, Narcomoeba, or Zombie tokens.)

vs. Goblins

Unfavorable

There isn’t much to say about this deck except that it can be very explosive and that there’s not much you can do about it. The things you always want to counter are Goblin Lackey, Aether Vial, and Goblin Piledriver. It’s usually a good idea to Wasteland their stuff because Goblin’s mana curve essentially starts at three.

Coralhelm Commander is a VIP in this match. Goblins has no flyers, so you just need to hold off on dying for 4-5 turns after he lands.

Sideboard Options

Excellent cards to bring in:
Mind Harness
Hydroblast
Dismember
Umezawa’s Jitte
Engineered Plague

Good cards to bring in:
Echoing Truth
Threads of Disloyalty

Okay cards to bring in:
Pithing Needle (Naming Goblin Incinerator is probably your best option)

Cards that you should take out:
Force of Will (Similar to the Zoo matchup, this card loses you too much card advantage)
Don’t take out Kira because Goblins will bring in Pyroblast and Pyrokinesis. She also protects you from Goblin Incinerator.

vs. ANT (Ad Nauseam Tendrils), TES (The Epic Storm), and Belcher

Favorable

These decks are all fundamentally the same. They have core cards that you can hate on and strategies that you can exploit. Most of what I say applies only to ANT and TES, but the sideboard options are pretty much the same for all three.

These decks can win on turn two, and sometimes turn one, so always keep the resources you need for counterspells open.

You should always Wasteland their lands.

Here’s how you should generally play your counterspells:

  • It’s usually okay to let the cantrip spells (Brainstorm , Ponder, etc…) go through, but you should generally try to counter Infernal Contract and Cruel Bargain.
  • ALWAYS try to counter Orim’s chant. Use up your Mental Missteps before using other counterspells.
  • Use Daze and Cursecatcher for their first mana ritual. You’d be surprised at how many times they fizzle afterwards.
  • Save Force of Will to counter Burning Wish or Infernal Tutor. They will usually sacrifice LED in response to one of these spells, so they’ll no longer have a hand to continue the combo with.
  • As far as creatures go in these matchups, Cursecatcher and Silvergill Adept are your priorities. It’s also important that you set up a reasonable clock so that they can’t just sit there and sculpt the perfect hand.

Sideboard Options

Excellent cards to bring in:
Mindbreak Trap
Null Rod
Leyline of Sanctity
Arcane Laboratory
Thoughtseize
Spell Pierce
Pithing Needle (to name Goblin Charbelcher)

Good cards to bring in:
Umezawa’s Jitte (It forces a higher storm count, and it can win against Empty the Warrens)
Hydroblast

Okay cards to bring in:
Relic of Progenitus (prevents threshold and cycles through your deck)
Energy Flux (on the off-chance that they fizzle and try to start again on a later turn)

Cards that you should take out:
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Aether Vial
Sower of Temptation

vs. Burn

Slightly Unfavorable

This matchup actually falls pretty close to even. But, with the sheer number of different ways to build burn, it’s hard to really say what could happen.

Using a Force of Will on a Lightning Bolt is just about the worst feeling in the world, but it is usually far from being a bad play. I would say that it’s worth it to save your creature but is situational when they are targeting you as the value is based on your life total.

One important reminder is that against a Burn deck, being at twelve or less life is to be in the Red Zone. I played Burn for awhile and there was nothing more satisfying than playing Bolt > Bolt> Fireblast > Sac. Barbaring Ring for the win. Burn can draw those types of hands relatively often. Because of this, it can be an agonizing ordeal to decide whether to save yourself or your creatures. My answer to this is that it’s entirely situational. If you only have one creature, then yes, it is usually worth saving. If you only have one counterspell in hand, then make sure that it wins you the game and that you’re not just playing it to temporarily stay in a winning position.

The main reason that this matchup isn’t a complete blowout is that Burn tends to run out of cards very quickly. I’ve seen decks run Isochron Scepter and Dark Confidant to resolve this issue and they work if they resolve. But, if they don’t draw them, then they just run out of gas and you can come back to win it.

Just be very careful as he gets to three mana or more because it’s very possible that he’s running Ensnaring Bridge. This is pretty much an auto-win against Merfolk unless you mainboard Echoing Truth.

Also, don’t forget about Price of Progress. If this gets played, then remember that you can always Wasteland your own Mutavault in response.

Pretty much anything you can do to reduce damage is worthwhile.

Sideboard Options

Excellent cards to bring in:
Hydroblast
Umezawa’s Jitte
Spell Pierce
Leyline of Sanctity

Good cards to bring in:
Relic of Progenitus

Okay cards to bring in:
Engineered Plague (naming Elemental)
Dismember

Cards that you should take out:
Aether Vial
Sower of Temptation

vs. Enchantress

Favorable

Talk about a fringe deck. This deck can blindside any player who hasn’t seen it in action before.

There are two cards that you need to counter in this deck: Sigil of the Empty Throne and Words of War. These are the deck’s main win conditions , but cards such as City of Solitude and Replenish can make it difficult to keep them off the board.

Enchantress can also ramp up tons of mana with Serra’s Sanctum and hard-cast Emrakul, the Aeons Torn to just completely ruin your day. There isn’t much to say about this except that you should attempt to destroy all of their multi-mana producing lands before this can happen.

This deck is just one giant toolbox of enchantments, so it will be impossible to deal with every relevant card. But Enchantress runs only one Oblivion Ring, so feel free to ramp out as many guys as you want.

Coralhelm Commander will be your MVP in the match on the off-chance that they land a Moat.

Sideboard Options

Excellent cards to bring in:
Relic of Progenitus
Spell Pierce
Echoing Truth

Good cards to bring in:
Hydroblast
Dismember
Threads of Disloyalty (targeting Angel tokens)
Pithing Needle (naming Words of War)

Okay cards to bring in:
Mind Harness
Submerge
Umezawa’s Jitte

Cards that you should take out:
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
Aether Vial

vs. U/W StoneBlade

Slightly Unfavorable

The first thing you do against this deck is to give your opponent a very stern glare for playing a (previously!) Standard combo in Legacy. The second thing you need to do against this deck is to counter Stoneforge Mystic because this (used to be) Standard-legal combo is enough to give Merfolk trouble. If that fails, then you need to hope that you can draw enough creatures enough to both attack and block with.

This deck boasts enough counter magic to consistently land Stoneforge Mystic and/or Jace, the Mind Sculptor, so you will always have to draw well enough to beat either of those threats. The fact that Batterskull has vigilance AND lifelink means that you cannot effectively retaliate. If you have a chance to kill the Batterskull germ token (without crippling your field), take it. It will usually take them at least a turn (sometimes two) to replay the Batterskull.

With the exception of a Batterskull or a Sword, it shouldn’t be hard to run this deck down. With Wastelands for their Mishra’s Factory and Aether Vial (at least in game one) for their counterspells, you should be able to turn the game around in your favor.

Sideboard Options

Excellent cards to bring in:
Null Rod
Threads of Disloyalty
Dismember
Thoughtsieze
Pithing Needle (naming Mishra’s Factory, Stoneforge Mystic, Jace, the Mind Sculptor, or Batterskull if it’s in play)

Good cards to bring in:
Energy Flux
Spell Pierce

Okay cards to bring in:
Umezawa’s Jitte
Echoing Truth

Cards that you should take out:
This really depends on what you are siding in. If you’re putting both Null Rod and Pithing Needle into the deck, then I suggest taking out the Aether Vials. This is simply because you don’t want to be unable to play Force of Will when you really need to. It also ensures that you’re not drawing dead cards if you have a Null Rod in play. Other cards to take out are Umezawa’s Jitte and Echoing Truth.

vs. Merfolk

Even

All competitive Merfolk decks are the same, with the exception of slight variations between the number of lands/Dazes and Mental Missteps. Assuming you have playtested extensively with your own Merfolk deck, you should be able to know exactly what to expect from your opponent.

Always expect a surprise lord from Aether Vial. Coralhelm Commander is your MVP in the match because it is always safe to attack with him.

Aether Vial. This is probably THE match-defining card. It’s very hard to over-value this card unless you have zero creatures in hand. Even then, top-decking instant speed creatures is still really, really good. Other than that, Vial should be self-explanatory.

Remember that your opponent’s Lord of Atlantis buffs your own guys, so don’t be so quick to counter it. Also, one very nifty trick to keep in mind is that if you only have one or two islands in play you can Daze them back to your hand so that you can block your opponent’s creatures if someone has a Lord of Atlantis in play.

Sideboard Options

Excellent cards to bring in:
Llawan, Cephalid Empress
Dismember
Threads of Disloyalty
Umezawa’s Jitte

Good cards to bring in:
Pithing Needle
Echoing Truth
Spell Pierce

Okay cards to bring in:
Karakas (assuming they don’t side out their Kira’s, and it lets you have another chance at countering Llawan)

Cards that you should take out:
Kira, Great Glass-Spinner
1-2 Lord of Atlantis

My Sideboard

Here is the sideboard that I am currently using for my Merfolk deck:

I will go ahead and explain my choices in this.

First, I believe that Relic of Progenitus is the best graveyard removal spell for Merfolk. This is because it helps against all of your biggest threats (Tarmogoyf, Terravore, Knight of the Reliquary, Grim Lavamancer, Dredge, and Crucible of Worlds decks). It can just whittle away at your opponent’s graveyard and can draw you an extra card if you really need it.

Null Rod is a fantastic card against much of the field. It straight up beats Affinity, MUD, and Belcher, and it really helps out against Storm, Mishra’s Factory, and equipments.

Pithing Needle is another catch-all type of card like Null Rod that can be brought in against any number of decks. I chose Pithing Needle instead of Phyrexian Revoker because the utility of being able to name lands is greater than that of having a 2/1 killable body on the field. Some of the important lands that come to mind are Mishra’s Factory, Wasteland, Rishadan Port, Mutavault, Cephalid Coliseum, Maze of Ith, Pendelhaven, and Barbarian Ring.

Echoing Truth is also another catch-all that just helps filter out some of the “random” you come across such as Ensaring Bridge, Moat, Empty the Warrens, Propaganda, and anything else that just shuts you down.

Umezawa’s Jitte is a card that’s good against most creature-based decks and other decks strive to deal exactly 20 damage (i.e. Burn and Storm).

Mind Harness is there almost solely to help in the Zoo matchup, but it’s also good against the RUG decks that have been running around because it steals Tarmogoyf and Grim Lavamancer.

The entire strategy I use for my sideboard is to just pick cards that are good against a relevant percentage of the battlefield. This sideboard plan, much like the deck itself, is set up so that it good in most matchups – not just excellent in some.

Until Next Time…

I hope this article will help you on your road to Merfolky success. Just remember that although this is set of guidelines, it’s up to you to perform the rigorous playtesting that teaches you the feel of the deck, allowing your instincts to develop and aid in deciding which cards to take out and which replace them with.

Good Luck!

-Scott Muir

Post categories: Free, Strategy


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6 thoughts on “Merfolk Versus: A Contemporary Guide to Sideboarding

  1. I enjoyed this article, and it makes for a good reference. I also liked the hyper-linking to each matchup.

    One question: what is the purpose of bringing Threads of Disloyalty in against Enchantress? Argothian Enchantress has shroud, and the only other creatures I generally see that deck have are Angel tokens (and if they're making those, I don't think Threads will help).

    1. I completely forgot that Argothian Enchantress had shroud. I would probably move it down to "Good" instead of Excellent because of that. As for stealing Angel tokens, that is the entire reason to put them in. I honestly can't say I have extensive experience playing against Enchantress, but the times that I have, my opponent was usually down to the last ten or so cards before they cast Sigil of the Empty Throne. They have to play an extra two enchantment spells for every creature you steal (a token to replace the one you stole, and a token to replace the one you block), so the plan is to hope that they mill themselves.
      This is obviously a last-ditch effort, but since no one ever prepares for Enchantress I figured it worthwhile to include some sort of plan instead of holding onto very weak or dead cards.

      1. Scott,

        Updated the placement for Threads in the Enchantress matchup, as well as made a quick note regarding the relevant and ideal target actually being the Angel tokens. Thanks for the clarification!

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