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Priemer’s Primers: Getting Schooled on Merfolk

Written by Tyler Priemer on . Posted in Competitive Magic, Legacy

Priemer’s Primers: Getting Schooled on Merfolk

Tyler Priemer

Tyler has been playing TCGs for nearly 20 years. A long brewer with a knack for Legacy, there's nothing he loves more than making crazy decks a reality

There’s an age-old adage about buying into Legacy. You either buy a set of Lion’s Eye Diamonds, or a set of Force of Wills and Wastelands. The LEDs let you build nearly every combo deck in Legacy, and the Forces and Wastelands let you build the fair decks. This week we’ll be looking at one of the quintessential Force and Wasteland decks: Merfolk.


Legacy Merfolk Sample List
4 Lord of Atlantis
4 Master of the Pearl Trident
4 Merrow Reejerey
4 Cursecatcher
4 Silvergill Adept
4 Phantasmal Image
4 True-Name Nemesis
4 Force of Will
4 Daze
4 Aether Vial
12 Island
4 Wasteland
4 Mutavault
Lord of Atlantis

Merfolk has been a Legacy staple ever since Lorwyn gave it nearly an entire block’s worth of creatures to use, and has remained one of Legacy’s top-ranking tribal decks ever since. A pioneer and namesake of the “Fish” style of deck, Merfolk utilizes cheap, efficient creatures to beat down the opponent while protecting them with countermagic. What makes Merfolk an exemplary example of Fish is the unique synergy the deck’s creatures have. The deck packs an overwhelming 28 creatures (32 if we’re counting Mutavaults) and 8 “free” counterspells which free up your mana to drop lord after lord on to the table.


First and foremost is the sheer volume of creatures you have, and the redundancy in its creatures. Twelve of your creatures pump up the rest of your army, and another four can clone them to make them even stronger. As well, Merfolk is one of the few decks to really abuse Aether Vial. Aether Vial allows even the most mana-choked Merfolk player to drop multiple creatures a turn resulting in a massive army that can overpower most fair decks in Legacy. As well, because eight of your lords grant islandwalk to your team, it makes fighting through decks like RUG Delver a breeze. Your opponent can play True-Name Nemesis and Tarmogoyf to their heart’s delight, but they lose their walling capabilities when your entire board is unblockable.

I’d be remiss to not mention True-Name Nemesis. This recent terror has almost single-handedly warped the Legacy metagame, and Merfolk is one of the best homes for it. Apparently creatures with “protection from your opponent” are pretty good in Legacy, and when your deck routinely makes True-Name Nemesis into a 5/3 or can clone it for 1U, you’ve got a powerful weapon on your hands. Most decks seek to combat True-Name Nemesis through cards like Golgari Charm and Engineered Plague which may work against the various Delver decks that use Nemesis, but Merfolk casually negates these cards by playing creatures. There’s no better feeling than having your opponent slam down Zealous Persecution, only for you to Vial in a Lord of Atlantis to save your Nemesis. By easily ridding one of Legacy’s scariest monsters of its one weakness, its one point of toughness, Merfolk puts itself miles ahead of its competition.

Some more recent builds of Merfolk have opted to skip Wasteland entirely by swapping them out for Cavern of Souls. The logic behind this is that there are more fair decks springing up in Legacy that rely on countering your threats. By running Cavern of Souls over Wasteland, you blank your opponent’s countermagic and give them dead draws. As well, with the addition of True-Name Nemesis, Merfolk’s mana curve becomes slightly higher, so activating a Wasteland and potentially missing casting Nemesis on turn three can be a backbreaking setback. While you can’t interact with your opponent’s lands like the Wasteland build, it’s really just a matter of what you feel the environment will look like.


When you think about Blue Legacy decks, what do you think makes them so powerful? In Legacy, Blue has unparalleled card draw and deck manipulation in Brainstorm, Ponder, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor. Take a look at the above Merfolk list. Do you see something missing there? Aside from Silvergill Adept, Merfolk has no card draw, which means that you’re very dependent on the top of your deck, and if you start falling behind it’s very difficult to come back. You have to put pressure on your opponent from a very early position and maintain it, all the while trying to not mana flood in a deck with no fetchlands or Brainstorms.

In addition, while Merfolk does run eight maindeck “free” counterspells in Force of Will and Daze, as well as a set of Cursecatchers, the nature of these spells can often be harmful in certain matchups. Force of Will requires you to exile a Blue card from your hand, which is often one less Merfolk to attack with. Daze sets your mana production back a turn, and using Cursecatcher decreases your board presence. You can’t fire off countermagic whenever you feel like it with this deck. Because your counterspells set you back like this, you have to save it for spells that absolutely have to be countered.

As well, Return to Ravnica brought some serious weapons to use against Merfolk in Supreme Verdict and Abrupt Decay. In the past, control decks would have to use Wrath of God to try to fight back swarms of Merfolk, praying that it wouldn’t get countered. These days if a control player thinks you have too many creatures in play, they can just slam down a Supreme Verdict and there’s nothing you can do about it. You either play around it by maintaining a smaller board, sacrificing damage potential for not getting totally blown out, or run out everything you can in hopes of killing them before they can cast Verdict and keeping them off their mana with Wastelands.

Abrupt Decay, on the other hand, is the bane of Merfolk’s existence. Destroying every nonland, non-True-Name Nemesis permanent in your deck for just BG is brutal, and the only saving grace you have is that the opponent can only run four in their deck. Thankfully, the decks running Abrupt Decay have been on a bit of a decline lately, but even if you end up facing down Shardless BUG or Jund, you have True-Name Nemesis to attack with. Just try to avoid Liliana of the Veil (which nearly every Abrupt Decay deck runs), since they can kill off your non-Nemesis creatures then make you sacrifice what’s left.


You should be looking at cards that help deal with the deck’s weaknesses. Graveyard decks, Show and Tell decks, and non-Blue decks can be problematic, so you’ll want spells that can either slow them down long enough for you to push through lethal damage. Take a look at Greg Hatch’s second place sideboard from the Las Vegas SCG Invitational.

Legacy Merfolk Sample Sideboard
1 Grafdigger’s Cage
1 Pithing Needle
2 Relic of Progenitus
1 Spell Pierce
3 Submerge
4 Swan Song
1 Vision Charm
1 Umezawa’s Jitte
1 Llawan, Cephalid Empress
Llawan, Cephalid Empress

Grafdigger’s Cage and Relic do wonders against Dredge, Reanimator, and Tin Fins by forcing them to dig for their artifact hate, which you can just counter. They buy you plenty of time to build up your board presence. For Show and Tell, there is Spell Pierce,Pithing Needle, and Swan Song. Spell Pierce is one of the best one mana counters out there, and along with the full set of Swan Song, helps combat Show and Tell’s engines for cheating monsters into play. You don’t even care about the 2/2 bird token since your creatures are unblockable in this matchup anyway. The Pithing Needle helps edge against the Sneak Attack plan or even against Griselbrand if need be.

For the non-Blue decks, Greg Hatch employed a card that even I had to look up: Vision Charm. For just U you can make all your opponents lands into Islands for a turn, breaking up stalled board states and allowing you to push through the last remaining points of damage. For decks such as Elves and Maverick, Submerge is the best weapon you have. These decks search their libraries constantly, so being able to put a problem creature like Knight of the Reliquary or Heritage Druid on top of their deck in response to a shuffle effect effectively gets rid of their threat for zero mana investment.

Back in the days of Merfolk’s prime, Llawan, Cephalid Empress was used to break board states and lock out opponents in the mirror. It was a brutal, oppressive card back then, and there’s no reason why it can’t be today. While the creatures being bounced may have changed, they are still Blue and Llawan can still bounce them. Getting rid of everything from Delver of Secrets to Geist of St. Traft, she even gives you a way to prevent an opposing True-Name Nemesis from coming down. If Merfolk makes even more of a resurgence in the Legacy metagame, it might actually be necessary to go up to a second or even third copy.

Lastly, you have Umezawa’s Jitte. Under the previous Legend Rule Merfolk used to run Jittes to kill off opposing Jittes, but now they just have to settle on using The Game’s Greatest Equipment the way it was intended. You either get to pump your creatures, pick off the opponent’s creatures, or gain life in a race situation. These are three effects that traditionally Blue has never had access to, but are all more than welcome in a deck that’s primarily creatures. Umezawa’s Jitte gives Merfolk the reach that it needs in the creature-heavy matchups, and can often turn the tides in your favour when it hits the table.


Merfolk has a fantastic Delver matchup. Your creatures are considerably bigger than theirs, and they can’t be blocked since Delver’s mana is almost entirely Islands. Pretty much any deck looking to use True-Name Nemesis and play a “fair” game of Magic is going to get steamrolled by Merfolk.

All-in combo decks like Storm and Charbelcher are also favourable for Merfolk if you know when you use your counterspells. You don’t really need to worry about your board presence or setting yourself back on mana if you can stock up your counters for the turn they try to combo off. This boils down to familiarity and practicing the matchup to know what cards you should counter, but generally it’s safe to counter cards like Burning Wish, Infernal Tutor, and Ad Nauseum. These are typically the spells that precede the Tendrils of Agony so stopping them at these junctures depletes them of the most resources, leaving you plenty of time to beat them up with your fish.

Decks like Elves, Dredge, and Show and Tell are pretty abysmal game one, but games two and three become fairly easier when you bring in the appropriate sideboard cards. While I don’t encourage mulling too aggressively to find your sideboard cards in these matches, in the latter two decks it’s important to have at least one hate card in your opening hand because of how quickly they can go off.

You don’t want to play against the decks with the aforementioned Supreme Verdict or Abrupt Decay. These are decks like UW Miracles, Esper Stoneblade, Jund, and Shardless BUG. Their abundance of removal and ways to interact with your board often while ignoring or besting your countermagic makes them some of Merfolk’s biggest predators. Postboard, Jund and Shardless BUG become a bit easier with a combination of Submerges and Relic of Progenitus, and Vision Charm for Jund. Using Submerge to blank their draws and keep them off tempo can help you race them, and because of Deathrite Shaman and Tarmogoyf’s reliance on the graveyard Relic of Progenitus can neuter the opponent’s army long enough for you to overwhelm their board.

As well, I’ve found that BUG Control, Lands, and 12 Post to be incredibly difficult decks to fight. BUG Control not only has the Abrupt Decays and Lilianas, it also has Pernicious Deed and Jace, the Mind Sculptor to take you out the game and keep you out. Lands and 12 Post are difficult in that they have lands like Glacial Chasm and The Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale to lock down your board. Lands also runs Life from the Loam and Crucible of Worlds to mitigate your Wastelands, and runs both Ensnaring Bridge and Oblivion Stoneto do even further damage to your gameplan. 12 Post, on the other hand, runs Pithing Needle maindeck to stop Wasteland, and even has Bonfire of the Damned to sweep away your fish. Either way they’re a colossal pain to deal with, but with a fast enough start you might still have a chance. These decks don’t come up often due to the exorbitant cost of some of the cards, but they do appear from time to time in circles with Legacy veterans.


If you’re looking for a straightforward beatdown deck that’s almost entirely Modern playable, absolutely. Merfolk has been around as an archetype for nearly seven years, and so long as WotC continues to print Merfolk cards, it will always be able to adapt and get stronger. True-Name Nemesis gave the deck a real shot in the arm, and only time will tell if it is enough for Merfolk to rise above the various Delver decks to become the premier fair deck in Legacy.

For next week’s installment, I want to hear your opinions. Is there a Legacy deck that you would like to know more about? Sound off in the comments, and whichever deck gets the most Likes I’ll cover in my next article. As always, thanks for reading! Follow me on Twitter: @tylerthefro, or on Cockatrice: @tylerthefro

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