Since Ixalan was spoiled, several archetypes have forced themselves to the forefront of limited discussions. Dinosaurs are stomping on everybody, vampires suck, but in a good way, and pirates made a splash with the introduction of aquatic vehicles! But what about our scaly, webbed friends? Today, let’s look at merfolk, the archetype that’s trying to break to the surface!
When assessing a new archetype, I like to look at the commons and uncommons that fit into the archetype, and assess how many of them fit into other archetypes, and evaluate the archetype by using past instances of similar archetypes. Generally, the more cards that fit solely into your archetype, the easier it is to tell when its open, and the more often you’ll pick up cards you value late in the draft.
Merfolk appears to be very aggressive; there are a lot of cheap, evasive creatures, bounce spells, and several abilities oriented towards attacking your opponent. Consequently, other aggressive drafters will likely be taking some cards that the merfolk deck would want. One way we can evaluate the power level of this archetype is by looking at another aggressive strategy from Hour of Devastation: WB Zombies!
This deck worked because its crucial uncommons (Accursed Horde, Unraveling Mummy, and Unconventional Tactics) were rarely playable outside of the archetype. Additionally, there were several commons (Mummy Paramount, Marauding Boneslasher, and Khenra Eternal) that were mediocre in other archetypes and could be picked up later than more versatile commons. This meant there were clear signals when the deck was open, and you could obtain these cards late in the draft. With WB Zombies as a frame of reference, let’s look at the cards that will benefit most from being in a merfolk deck and are unlikely to be played in other aggressive decks.
There are only a few blue and green cards that benefit significantly from being in the merfolk deck. Shaper Apprentice, Kumena’s Speaker, and River Sneak all get significant upgrades by playing other merfolk, and are likely not going to be playable without a high density of merfolk.
Similarly, River Herald’s Boon and Vineshaper Mystic can buff other merfolk with +1/+1 counters, but have little impact in decks without merfolk. Consequently, these cards will likely not be picked up by other aggressive decks very often, so they are cards that should indicate when the archetype is open. None of these cards’ power level increases in the merfolk shell to the degree that Accursed Horde or Unraveling Mummy did in the zombie deck, and consequently we can expect the base power level of merfolk to be lower than that of Zombies.
Jade Guardian can be a fine component of the merfolk deck, but its real value comes when you pair it with One with the Wind. A 5/5 hexproof flyer will be an excellent finisher and extremely difficult to deal with, so this combination could be a great way to add a powerful threat to your deck.
Storm Sculptor, on the other hand, can be very weak if the cost of returning a creature to your hand is high. However, if you find creatures like Watertrap Weaver that you actively want to return to your hand, Storm Sculptor’s ability becomes advantageous and leaves you with a powerful, evasive threat.
Lastly, Wind Strider (and evasive creatures in general) should be valued slightly higher than normal because Raid incentivizes drafting evasive creatures, so you will likely need to pick Wind Strider and other evasive creatures a little bit higher than you normally would. Look for these cards later in each pack, but make sure to adjust where you pick them based on what you’ve already drafted!
Now let’s look at the other merfolk cards that do not require a merfolk shell to be at their best. Shapers of Nature is shaping up to be one of the most powerful uncommons in the set, and will be taken by any blue or green deck. Similarly, Tempest Caller, Watertrap Weaver, Deeproot Warrior, and Merfolk Branchwalker will be powerful additions to most aggressive decks, and will be taken relatively early.
While WB zombies had several powerful cards that other decks didn’t want, most powerful merfolk cards will be taken highly by anyone drafting an aggressive deck. There are few powerful cards that merfolk can reliably pick up, and so will often rely on how many can be drafted early. These factors suggest that merfolk will be considerably weaker than WB zombies was, so you’ll need a careful plan to ensure that you end up with a viable deck.
So how do we tip the scales in merfolk’s favor? First, don’t try to force the archetype! There are few benefits to being in merfolk in the common and uncommon slot, so forcing the deck will likely yield an underpowered deck. Instead, start by drafting as you normally would, and if you pick up powerful blue and green cards that are oriented towards an aggressive deck, then look for the synergistic cards like Shaper Apprentice, River Herald’s Boon, and Jade Guardian/One with the Wind. Keep in mind these won’t be signals that the archetype is open until after pick 8, but if you do see them, you can safely move in. Prioritize cheap creatures to keep your curve low, and pick up evasive threats to ensure that you can push through damage.
One problem you will encounter with this archetype is the lack of removal. Blue has access to several bounce spells but no hard removal, and green only has savage stomp at uncommon and pounce at common. Unfortunately, Savage Stomp and Pounce will be picked up early, and will be underpowered in the merfolk deck because most merfolk have low power and toughness. You will want the first pounce so you can remove important 2 and 3 toughness creatures, but after that focus on bounce spells so you can push damage past your opponent’s larger threats.
Cards like Depths of Desire, Perilous Voyage, and Run Aground will allow you to keep your opponent’s board in check while you deploy and attack with your evasive creatures. In general, I would recommend against trying to splash removal in this deck, as it is crucial that you start the game quickly, and mana issues are a sure way to derail an aggressive start. However, if you are light on non-creature spells and you pick up treasure token generators like Depths of Desire, you should consider splashing removal like Perilous Interdiction or Unfriendly Fire. Perilous Interdiction is an excellent way to hold back your opponent’s largest creature while buffering your life total, and Unfriendly Fire can remove your opponent’s best 4 toughness creature or be the last points of damage you need to defeat your opponent!
Where does this leave us with merfolk? While you won’t have the most powerful cards at your disposal, you will be able to pick up more relevant cards late in the draft than you could if you were drafting dinosaurs or pirates. This will give you greater access to the early threats the deck needs, allowing you to punish early stumbles by your opponent and win before they can deploy their large threats!