You Can't Drown a Fish: an FNM Report

My first love.
Friday, October 10th, was my first opportunity to play Standard constructed since the release of Shards of Alara, and I had been dreading that day. When I started Magic all those years ago (during Revised, just before Fallen Empires), I was pretty young and not very good at these types of games. But shortly after the release of the second worst set—Homelands takes the title of worst—my brother helped me build a deck that could actually win. I can't remember the full list, but it had Lord of Atlantis, River Merfolk, Vodalian Knights, Merfolk of the Pearl Trident, a couple of Seasingers, Boomerangs, and Counterspells, as well as Phantasmal Terrains to enable the Lord's islandwalking ability.

I kept that deck in one form or another all the way up to 2006. Around the release of Onslaught, I even took second place with it at a small unsanctioned Legacy tournament at the local university. Merfolk, being one of my first decks, has always had a place near my heart. So imagine how my curiosity piqued when Wizards of the Coast reprinted Lord of Atlantis in Time Spiral's Timeshifted subset. Then imagine my face when I read that Wizards of the Coast was going to bring the fish-men back in Lorwyn. Needless to say, as soon as that set became Standard legal, I was at the shop's Friday Night Magic running my brand new Merfolk deck.

And I ran that Merfolk deck ever since. Sure, it evolved. Morningtide, Shadowmoor, and Eventide compelled me to make additions and subtractions to my decklist, but I never really stopped playing it. I piloted that deck at Regionals, where I took fifth place. I ran that deck to a prize finish at so, so many FNMs. Really, it was Merfolk that got my constructed rating from a 1653 to an 1851.

So as the release date for Alara neared, I could not help but feel sorrow over the idea of losing Lord of Atlantis, and the rest of Merfolk with him. In fact, I was in such denial over the whole thing, that I began looking at Merfolk without Lord of Atlantis, trying to figure out if I could make it survive. And you know what: I think I did.

For nearly the entire week after Shards of Alara's release, I toyed and tinkered with decks, trying to find the one to replace my baby. Nothing really wowed me, though. Nothing really jumped out at me. So I made a few decks that I knew worked and went to the card shop early on Friday to playtest with friends, figuring I'd play whichever deck performed the best. After just a few games, I was so pleased with the way the new Merfolk deck played, that I ran it.

Here's the deck:

The interaction between Sygg, River Guide and Wake Thrasher is so sick, I almost forget that Lord of Atlantis ever existed. Sygg and Mutavault give the deck a way to tap a lot of lands at the end of the opponent's turn without mana burning, which means that they give the deck a way to really pump up a Thrasher. And after untapping and making the Thrasher huge, Sygg also provides that muscly-armed Merfolk with a much needed form of evasion: protection from whatever color the opponent's creatures happen to be.

The jab that leads into...
An online Wake Thrasher gets in for so much damage that the deck really doesn't feel like it lost any of its aggro capabilities at all. Sure, I can no longer go turn one Cursecatcher, turn two Lord of Atlantis and swing for 2, turn three Merrow Reejerey and swing for 6, capped with a turn for Lord of Atlantis followed my an Aquitect's Will, swing in for a lethal 12 with mana still open for a Sage's Dousing, courtesy of the Reejerey untapping my land. But I can still ramp up with a turn two Stonybrook Banneret, followed by Reejereys and Silvergill Adepts to barf my entire hand onto the board in Merfolk's effective imitation of Affinity, which is followed by a turn four Cryptic Command to tap down any blockers.

...the cross-hook finisher.
Or I can build a steady board, dropping early Cursecatchers for defense, followed by Adepts for hand fixing, a Thrasher on turn three, and a Sygg on turn four, leaving enough mana open for a Sygg activation. That start may not be a turn four kill, but it is still a very strong opening that's hard to beat, especially if my turn two-drop is a Banneret. A Banneret means that the two mana left open after dropping the River Guide could be used to play a cost-reduced Sage's Dousing, an ideal spell for countering board sweepers (hello card advantage).

But enough theorizing about the deck. I'll let its performance speak for it.

My first match was against a friend that had just built a new Zombie-based deck. He ran both lords, the old Lord of the Undead and the new Death Baron, ran the best Zombies he could in Festering Goblin, Tidehollow Sculler, and Stillmoon Cavalier, and ran a removal spell that has awesome synergy with the Lord of the Undead: Nameless Inversion. It's like a poor man's Haakon, Stromgald Scourge machine-gun combo, but I like to think of it more like a lever-action sniper rifle. It doesn't fire that fast, but it hits when and where it needs to.

My friend won the die roll and played first. My opening hand consisted of two lands, a Sage's Dousing, a Wake Thrasher, a Cryptic Command, a Merrow Reejerey, and a Silvergill Adept. He kept his seven. So did I, figuring the Adept would help me dig to that necessary third and fourth land. He opened with only a land drop. I drew another Wake Thrasher and then mimicked his turn. Then he dropped Tidehollow Sculler, and took away my Adept, leaving me with only three-drops and no third land. But I got lucky and drew one on my turn, played a land, and passed turn.

Sight the enemy...
Turn three, he dropped a Lord of the Undead and swung in for 3. My turn three, I drew my fourth land and played the Wake Thrasher. I had two of them in hand, so if he had the removal, I'd rather he spend it on the extra Thrasher over my Reejerey, who could help me come back on board position.

His turn, he played a Death Baron and came in for 7. My turn, I untapped and turned my Thrasher into a 4/4. And then I drew a Sygg. Some upstairs must like me. Down came Sygg, in went the Thrasher. I figured I'd at least get in 4damage before he swung in with scary amounts of pain next turn. But my opponent blocked with his Death Baron, not realizing that he granted the +1/+1 and deathtouch to other Zombies he controlled. So no damage, but now the board looks a lot friendlier for me.

...and squeeze.
His next turn wasn't too bad. He came in for 3 with the Sculler, which I took, keeping the Sygg mana back for spot removal. Then he cycled a Viscera Dragger, made a land drop, and played the Stillmoon Cavalier, tapping himself out. During his end of turn step, I used my open mana to give Sygg pro-black.

I untapped five permanents, making my Thrasher a 6/6. I drew a Mutavault, played it, and put down the Reejerey. My now 7/7 Thrasher went in unblocked. I passed turn.

At the start of his sixth turn, my opponent had 13 life and I had 7. He didn't make a land drop. The only thing he did was give the Cavalier flying and send it in for 3, putting me at 4. During his end step, I floated two mana, then let it burn when the phase ended, dropping me to 2. If I were to spend the mana on a Sygg ability, I'd give my opponent a window to drop a kill spell. But by letting it burn, I ensure my lands are tapped but don't give him that window—I burn when the end phase ends, and my opponent won't gain priority again to cast a spell until my upkeep step.

So when I untapped, my Thrasher got +6/+6, turning him into an 8/8. I drew another land, played it, then played the Cryptic Command to tap down all his guys and leave myself with two lands open (a standard move when Sygg is on the board). My Thrasher, Sygg, and Reejerey swung in for 13 damage.

I won. 1-0

He's like Thoughtsieze on a body.
As his deck was new, and I wasn't sure how it would play, I decided not to do any sideboarding for game two. He did do some sideboarding, and if it was anything nasty that kicked my butt, I'd at least have game three to board in some answers.

In game two, we both kept our opening seven. He started with land, Festering Goblin. I only played a land, then he hit me for one and played the Sculler on turn two again. This time, he took the Cryptic Command out of my hand, leaving me my two-drop—probably because I had my third land in hand this time. I played the Adept and passed. He got in for three damage and played a Cavalier, then passed. I played a Wake Thrasher and got in with Silvergill Adept for 2 (no mana to give the Cavalier first strike). On his next turn, he cycled a Viscera Dragger, trying to get some gas for his hand, and came in for 5 more.

I played Sygg on my next turn, and hit with the Thrasher and Adept for 7. His next turn, he swung for 5 and played Fleshbag Marauder, sacrificing his Festering Goblin. I sacrificed my Adept, of course. He tried to kill my Thrasher with the -1/-1 from Uncle Fester, but I used Sygg to keep him going. My opponent did not have a removal spell to play behind the activation.

The rest of the game played like the last one, with me dropping Merfolk while leaving Sygg mana back and him trying to keep up the with the Thrasher. This one didn't end with a Cryptic, though, just me swinging in with a bunch of Merfolk and a pair of Mutavaults.

I won. 2-0

Match Results: 1-0-0

Big Butt. Lifelink. Tempo.
My next opponent was a new guy at the card shop, but not a guy new to Magic. He had a Bant-themed control deck. Essentially, it was a blue/white deck running Cryptics and Wrath of God with a splash of green for Bant Charm and Rhox War Monk. It's a cool deck. It has a lot of life gain to tempo out on an aggro deck, the best mass removal spell, and the best spot removal in the format (Oblivion Ring). Oh, and that life gain is tagged onto creatures that can work as good beaters or blockers: Kitchen Finks and Rhox War Monk.

After some friendly chatter, he won the die roll, and we both kept our opening hands. He opened with a tapped land, the way these three-plus colored decks tend to. I only dropped a land. He played a land, and dropped a Jhessian Infiltrator. This threw me off a bit. When I saw it, I figured I was playing against some kind of Bant-exalted deck, not what it actually was (note: this card didn't really belong here, and the player mentioned this to me after our match). My turn two, I played a Mutavault and a Stonybrook Banneret. His turn three, he dropped a War Monk and swung with the Infiltrator for 2. My turn three, I dropped both a Silvergill Adept and a Wake Thrasher thanks to the Banneret.

Still the best of the best.
On turn four, my opponent swung in for 5 then played a Wrath on the second main. Ouch.

Luckily for me, I still had a Sygg and a Merrow Reejerey in hand. Turn four, I dropped Sygg with backup mana. My opponent tried to keep up, but post Wrath I had a Sygg, a Reejerey, and drew another Mutavault, and I kept drawing gas. It wasn't a fast game, but it was steadily in my favor.

I won. 1-0

Most of my sideboard is designed to deal with red decks and, really, Merfolk's main board has great game against these types of control decks, so I didn't do any sideboarding for game two. Again, if he boarded in something amazing, I still had game three to account for it.

Game two, we both kept our seven. He opened in an expected fashion: with a Vivid land. I still had no one-drop in my opening, so I just played a land. He played a land and passed. I played a land and put down a Silvergill Adept. He evoked a Mulldrifter on turn three. I made a Reejerey play, holding back a Banneret, a Sage's Dousing, and a Thrasher. Turn four, he did not play a Wrath. In fact, I'm fairly certain he never saw one that game, despite the digging he did. Turn four, I dropped both the Banneret and the Thrasher, keeping lands untapped to deal with a Wrath. He slowed me down with a Cryptic Command, but really, he was fighting an uphill battle, and when I finally drew a Sygg, his only out would be trumped by my own counter.

I won. 2-0

Match Results: 2-0-0

For match three, I got paired with the store's kid prodigy. He's only eleven and started Magic only nine or so months ago, but he makes FNM pretty much every weekend, and he's been paying attention to the strategies and tactics. Games against him are getting hard. And even worse, he's also running Merfolk. The prodigy won the die roll and chose to go first. He played a Wanderwine Hub, revealed a Cursecatcher to get it untapped, and played the Catcher. My turn one was identical to his. Turn two, he played a Stonybrook Banneret, and passed turn. My turn two, I attacked with the Catcher, figuring I could get some damage in. He blocked. Hmm. I was about to find out why I should have saved my Cursecatcher. I didn't have any two drops, so I passed turn.

Not a Mutavault, but still darn good.
Turn three, he played a Faerie Conclave (he doesn't own any Mutavaults), and swung in for 1. Turn three, I tried to play a Wake Thrasher. He Doused it. Turn four, he hit for 1 again, and played another Conclave. Turn four, I attempted a Reejerey. Sage's Dousing. Jeez. His turn five, he drops another land, and came in with both the Banneret and a Conclave. He still had two mana open. A third Dousing? I got a little lucky; I drew an Adept. He let the Adept land, but countered the followup with the second Reejerey. He had the third Dousing. But his hand was pretty much spent now - he must have hit a land pocket - and his only play on his next turn was a third Faerie Conclave.

I managed to get down a Wake Thrasher. He kept drawing land and bashing me in the face with the blue man-lands, while I kept drawing gas and returning the favor with a Wake Thrasher. I got him down to one life. He got me down to one life on his next turn. I swung in, and he had no answers.

I won. 1-0

The sideboarding in this match is pretty easy. At least, in my mind it is. I've done this mirror match so many times. So out comes Sage's Dousing, in goes Pollen Lullaby. In the older versions of this deck, when Lord of Atlantis was still legal, the sideboarding was a bit more involved. I really didn't like leaving him in the deck knowing that if I played him, and my opponent managed to survive the alpha strike, my own Lord would ensure my demise. So I would board him out for Sower of Temptation (that's right, they weren't maindecked in my old Merfolk deck. It was too fast for them outside of a few specific matchups.), I'd board out the Dousings for the Lullabies, and I'd board out the pair of Aquitect's Wills for a pair of Unsummons, which were great for throwing the opponent's math off just enough to snatch victory from defeat.

A Stonybrook Banneret on the table
makes this a Mana Leak that cantrips.
A note on Sage's Dousing: Merfolk isn't a control deck. It's an aggro deck that gets to run counterspells to protect its board. That said, the Dousing is great for stopping a board sweeper or that late game bomb that would end the game, but it's not very good against a rush deck. As Merfolk can play like that, the Dousing is of much less use in the mirror.

Game two, he chose to play. Neither of us made a turn one play. Sadly for him, he missed a two-drop. I played a Stonybrook Banneret on turn two. He played a Merrow Reejerey on turn three. I stole it with a Sower of Temptation on my third turn. From there, the game went quickly. I was stuck on only three lands, but didn't need more than that - my whole hand was gas. I played a second Reejerey on turn four, and dropped five other merfolk that same turn, which included a Sygg, a Catcher, an Adept, and two Thrashers. He valiantly tried to hold me off with two Pollen Lullabies, but it just delayed the inevitable.

I won. 2-0

Match Results: 3-0-0

He's worth every one of those colored
For match four, I went up against the kid prodigy's father. He started playing Magic at the same time his son did (a nice bonding activity for the two of them), and he's been learning just as quickly. He runs monored Demigod, one of Merfolk's hardest matchups. I won the die roll for the first time tonight. I can be pretty superstitious, and I had been winning all my matches when I lost the die roll, so when I won the roll, I vocalized that my luck my be changing that match. My opponent, a pretty humble guy, assured me that I would probably win. Let me stress that humble part again. This guy is a getting to be a solid Magic player.

My opening hand was nice, and apparently so was his. We both kept. I came out with an Adept on turn two, a Thrasher on turn three (I had two of them in my hand), and finally a Sygg on turn four. Only the Sygg stayed alive - my opponent matched every play with a burn spell, and the only reason he didn't kill Sygg outright was that I had mana open to protect him. But since he was on the draw, he did all his killing between his turns, killing the Adept before his turn two, killing the Thrasher before his turn three, and dropping a Boggart Ram Gang on turn three.

On his turn four, I had to take the Ram-Gang in the face - I couldn't risk Sygg yet - and he dropped an Ashenmoor Gouger. Thankfully, I made my fifth land drop and put down a Wake Thrasher after I hit him for 2 with the River Guide. Thank every god ever imagined that the Gouger can't block. Turn five, he dropped a Demigod of Revenge and beat my face in. Since he was tapped out, I was safe to block the Gouger and use Sygg to give the Thrasher pro-red. He put me down to 6. On my turn, I swung with my two guys (my Thrasher was 7/7), knocking him down to 9 life.

On his turn, he drew, then swung out. Or, I should say he tried. I Cryptic Commanded his guys tapped before the declare attackers step. He had no other creatures to play, not that it would have mattered. My Sygg and Thrasher were going to be lethal, and I had the mana to make them both pro-red with a backup activation.

I won. 1-0

This guy could single-handedly
defeat multi-colored decks.
Oh boy, time to board in the red hate. In goes a quad of Burrenton Forge-Tender, three Reveillarks, and something new. I put in a full set of Hindering Lights. In the old days (a month ago), I'd be putting in Unsummons to deal with an early Magus of the Moon, bouncing him off the table, then going for the counter on his way back down. But with him gone, I was free to explore new hate for red. Hence, Hindering Light. After all was said and done, I decided this was not the best card for my deck. Monored Demigod tends to kill everything as I play it, and I never have the mana for the Light when it would be most effective. Or I already have Sygg in play, making the Light unnecessary and a bad top deck.

But back to the game. Out of the deck came the Sowers (I hate spending four mana to have it trumped by a one-mana spell), the Cursecatchers (they are minimally useful against monored, which runs a lot of land, and take the same spot as the extremely awesome Forge-Tender), and three of the Sage's Dousings. Again, red can play like a rush deck, reducing the usefulness of the Dousing.

My opponent chose to play for game two, and we both kept our opening hands. I shouldn't have. It had one Silvergill Adept, four cards that needed me to have white mana to play them, and two Islands. Not only did the Adept not help me dig for white mana, he didn't help me dig towards any lands. I got stuck on two. Needless to say, Monored trounced me that game. It was like watching the deck goldfish.

I lost. 1-1

So I don't change my board at all as I got land screwed last game, and that isn't any indicator to the effectiveness of the board. I chose to play for game three. My hand wasn't bad. I had my white mana sources, and I had Merfolk to play on a curve. The only sad thing was that I didn't have a turn one Burrenton Forge-Tender. That was especially unfortunate as my opponent laid a turn one Figure of Destiny, and pumped that thing between burn spells aimed at all my creatures.

A one man creature curve.
On turn four, I played a Reejerey that got to stick and a Burrenton Forge-Tender. The two of us stalemated for a few turns as we drew land - which only brought him closer to an 8/8 flying first striker. In fact, on his turn six, I ate that 8, bringing me down to 7 life. I top decked a Reveillark. That, with the two Wake Thrashers in the bin, meant I might be able to steal this game after all, as a Wake Thrasher and another Merfolk had each gotten in once, putting him down to 12 life.

That was the board, and he had two cards in hand. I only had one: a Hindering Light I couldn't play at the moment because I only had one land untapped. On his next turn, he drew, thought about it, and played a Pyroclasm, killing the Reejerey and dealing two damage to the Reveillark. Then he played a Shock on the elemental, leaving him with only one card in hand. I brought back the two Thrashers. He came in with the Figure, and I sacrificed the Tender to prevent the damage.

He played the last card in his hand. Another Figure of Destiny. Really, all that mattered was that it could block. My top deck? A Merrow Reejerey. If I still had the other in play, or another Merfolk in hand, I could have tapped down his blocker and gone in for the win. Alas, that Hindering Light (which was in my hand all game, but I could never play) just wouldn't get there for me.

I lost. 1-2

Match Results: 3-1-0

Those results got me a second place finish, which was nice. But really, what I liked was the chance to see Merfolk in action, and to see it still doing well. It did really well against two home-brew decks (and, other than a Jhessian Infiltrator, those decks had pretty solid lists). I won the mirror match, though that's not really a test of the deck's design. It was the mirror. Its only losses all night came at the hands of a deck it has always had troubles with. My verdict: Merfolk has survived losing the Lord of Atlantis. It's not the same deck it always was - it lost its turn four win capabilities - but it plays the same, and the Wake Thrasher more than makes up for the loss of a lord.

When States comes round this November, I'm pretty sure I'll be there, piloting the latest make-over my first love has gone through. I'll be there with Neo-Merfolk.


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