I'm back again with another one of my world-famous financial deck techs! This week we're going to talk about Merfolk, one of the most competitive tribal decks in Modern. The deck is particularly topical right now, financially speaking, due to a recent announcement by Wizards. This is something you'll want to be mindful of if you were planning to buy in soon.
Merfolk is basically as old as time itself, but never seems to fade away. Although there haven't been any real additions to the deck in a few years, it is still a potent deck as the tidal shifts in the format seem to bring it back. That being said, it's a relatively straightforward deck that doesn't really see a ton of deviation in lists. For my stock list, I'm going to use Jonathan Zaczek's 2nd place list from GP Vancouver 2017 (you know, the one where Death's Shadow was a big deal).
Who Is Merfolk for?
Merfolk, while a lot of people will disagree with me, plays a lot like a green creature deck that plays a lot of basic Islands. It's not a typical blue deck from Modern because it eschews a lot of the trickery that usually comes with the color. There are no Snapcaster Mages, not a ton of counter spells, and a significant lack of big ways to recoup card advantage. Instead it tries to beat the snot out of your opponent with large creatures sometimes affectionately called "fishies." It can also sometimes end up playing a tempo game similar to a Delver of Secrets // Insectile Aberrations deck, but rather than fighting with instants and protecting a 3/2 flyer, it beats down with a growing number of creatures that support each other and disrupts the opponent with Spreading Seas and Cursecatcher.
This deck has some intricacies that will appeal to seasoned players but is also fairly straightforward at the lowest level to appeal to newer players. It's a deck that is fairly hard to hate out specifically so you won't have to worry about your opponents having a huge advantage over you after sideboard.
The Future of Merfolk
Merfolk is a deck that I'm not sure anyone can predict any changes to in the future. The deck is pretty tight (much like Storm) and there aren't really many creatures or spells that can come in the near future to improve its ability to beat down. Merfolk are not terribly popular in recent years' blocks so it's unlikely we're going to get more cards for the deck. As always, anything can happen in the next few months as we find out more information about the newly announced fall set, Ixalan.
As far as legality of the deck is concerned, I don't view Merfolk as a potentially game-breaking deck that could see a ban coming in the future. Generally, small creature decks are not at the mercy of a banning announcement. Merfolk doesn't have the dominance numbers necessary even for a conversation about bannings.
Merfolk's popularity definitely waxes and wanes when manabases are more easily disrupted. Decks that really rely on mana (like Tron, Valakut decks, etc.) are much better matchups than decks like Ad Nauseam and Storm, where most of your interaction needs to be with their hand and the stack. With a full set of Spreading Seas and Tectonic Edge in the sideboard, it's obvious to me that the deck can really take advantage of some bad mana.
Normally, the core of a deck is all of the cards that aren't replaceable—the absolutely necessary components that make it tick. Due to how synergy-driven Merfolk is, there are not a ton of flex slots in the deck. I would say the core of the deck you would need to play without a significant disadvantage is Aether Vial, Spreading Seas, Mutavault, Cursecatcher, Silvergil Adept, Lord of Atlantis, Master of the Pearl Trident, Merrow Reejery, and Master of Waves. I'm not a Merfolk expert, but my analysis of the lists suggests to me that there is some wiggle room on the other cards in the main deck.
Which Purchases to Prioritize
I decided this was a good time to write about Merfolk because we recently got some news that should give you pause if you're considering buying the deck. Wizards of the Coast recently announced some change-up to the product release schedule, including Iconic Masters in November and Commander 2017 in August of this year. Normally, you'd think that the Masters set is the one to be on the look out for, but I'm actually more interested in Commander 2017. This year there are only four decks (instead of five) that include a mix of new and old cards—but more importantly, the theme is tribal.
I'm a pretty big Commander player, so I feel I have some insight here. Although they haven't released any information about what tribes they're going to choose, I'm sure that Merfolk is one that was at least in consideration of some love. It's an extremely popular tribe that doesn't really have a good legendary creature to help center it in Commander. They could use this opportunity fill that hole and reprint staples like Lord of Atlantis, Cursecatcher, Silvergil Adept, and Master of the Pearl Trident.
If a precon includes one of each you'd be getting a minimum of $20 worth of cards in a deck that costs only $35. This might not seem like a great deal until you realize that often the rest of the deck will be worth far more than the $15 extra you paid. Sometimes the new Commanders themselves are worth more than that (Atraxa, Praetors' Voice, for example, is $20). Basically, I think it's worth hanging tight for a few months if you're not in a rush. I think there is a reasonably high chance that Merfolk is one of the tribes that gets picked and the upside is pretty high if they are.
While you're waiting to see if there are any creature reprints, I would recommend going out and securing your Aether Vials before they climb much higher. They've eluded reprint once again in Modern Masters 2017 and they're a purely competitive card that will have a hard time finding a spot in a more casual reprint product.
Past this, I would probably look to get Mutavaults squared away. While we are getting a tribal Commander set, where they could appear, we've seen other under-printed cards seeing heavy play increase in price after a reprint. The last Commander product had four-color decks, and only one of the five included a Chromatic Lantern. Chromatic Lantern dipped to about $5, but when everyone else realized they still needed one it went back up to $9.50. If there is only one deck with a Mutavault, we might have the same problem. Assuming the other tribal decks might want one too (like Elves or Goblins) then we could see a big rise in the card's cost. As for the Modern deck, Mutavault is too integral to the Merfolk plan to avoid playing them in your deck.
The last few cards you should work on are in the sideboard. Zaczek's sideboard only cost a whopping $13 total, so you can just cross that one off quickly—it doesn't look like you need terribly more than what that sideboard has to offer. If you want to invest in some more flexible pieces for other decks, you can also look into playing some Surgical Extractions, but honestly this sideboard is pretty straightforward, and I wouldn't mess with it.
I have also seen some sideboards with Chalice of the Void. If you're willing to own or already own Cavern of Souls, then this is a great card to help combat spell-based decks that otherwise give this deck a fit. Much like Aether Vial, Chalice has dodged another reprint this time around and I'm not sure it's "iconic" enough to be included later in the year.
Some of the lands in this deck can be pretty easily substituted for basic Islands. Oboro, Palace in the Clouds, Minamo, School at Water's Edge, and Cavern of Souls are not integral to playing your game. They matter a ton when people are playing Choke but that card has mostly fallen out of sideboards at this point. If you know your LGS has a lot of people playing Choke, you can play Wanderwine Hub as $6 Islands instead of the $18, $19, and $45 Islands (the price tag of Minamo, Oboro, Cavern, respectively). Outside of the mana, however, there are not a lot of short-term compromises that you can make without sacrificing a ton of power.
Modern Masters 2017 prices have started to rebound and a lot of people seem to be upset. I'm not expecting another lull in prices until December, when players naturally sell off extra cards to pay for holiday gifts. Merfolk is a great deck to get into now since it wasn't expected to get a ton of reprints and the deck is naturally pretty cheap. It feels bad having to stomach the $9 it costs for a lowly Cursecatcher, but there might be some light at the end of the tunnel later this year in Commander 2017.