Merfolk is one of the most popular decks I’ve never played in any format (save Vintage and Lorwyn Draft). The little fish have always felt under-powered to me, but I’m proven wrong over and over by results. Spend weeks testing for any PT with Ondrej Strasky and Petr Sochurek and you will hear more about Merfolk than anyone ever should, so let’s take a closer look.
None of the individual cards in Merfolk are overtly powerful, which is probably what turns some number of people away. They’re all incredibly synergistic, however, and work together to form an impressive strategy.
At the heart of it all are the Lords. Just like Human decks have Thalia’s Lieutenant in Standard, Merfolk has cards that pump your fish to get past some of the larger creatures in Modern. Lord of Atlantis is the original lord, first appearing in Alpha. Master of the Pearl Trident is nearly a functional reprint, with one small difference. Pump effects from many years ago were often global—compare the Sliver of Tempest to those of Magic 2015. Lord of Atlantis pumps all Merfolk in play and gives them islandwalk, while Master of the Pearl Trident only grants these bonuses to your creatures. It’s not common that this matters, but it is actually relevant in the mirror and against opposing Mutavaults.
Merrow Reejerey costs slightly more mana than the other Lords, but provides some additional utility. With so many Merfolk spells in your deck, triggering the Reejerey lets you untap mana sources for additional spells, creatures to block with, or tap opposing blockers and lands precombat.
Master of Waves is the newest addition to Merfolk decks. Those who played a few years ago will recognize the Master as the king of Mono-Blue Devotion, creating an army of Elemental tokens to swarm your opponent. With so many cheap blue creatures, many with UU in their mana cost, Master of Waves can create a huge team to end the game the following turn. It’s also a Merfolk, so it gets those bonuses while granting an additional +1/+1 to your Mutavaults.
Silvergill Adept is this deck’s version of Elvish Visionary or Thraben Inspector, although it’s likely more powerful than either. Assuming you have another Merfolk or a way to cheat the Adept into play, you’re getting 2 power for 2 mana and a card. That rate is incredibly strong even before factoring in having a dozen Lords to pump them up.
Cursecatcher is the lone 1-drop in this deck, but it’s a great early play that really disrupts tempo. So much of Modern is about using your removal spells for cheap or setting up your quick combo. A single Cursecatcher can mess that up, and multiples can just end the game. It’s also a Merfolk that starts growing with each Lord, so it’s one of the most critical components to the deck in both Modern and Vintage.
The final creature to make the list is Harbinger of the Tides. It provides a nice casting cost for your Master of Waves devotion, but it’s mostly a great tempo play to set your opponent back. Racing against Tarmogoyfs isn’t always easy, but this changes that.
Aether Vial is your best turn-1 play and will make a ton of mana for you over the course of the game. You have 16 creatures that cost 2, so that will be your target number of counters, but once you have the lands in play to cast any of those, you’ll move up to 3 for Reejerey or 4 for Master. Casting Harbinger or a Lord at instant speed can completely swing any game, not to mention an unexpected Cursecatcher to counter something.
Spreading Seas is the final component of the deck. Mana bases in Modern are tight, and they’re also often land light. A deck like Death’s Shadow can easily operate on 1-2 lands, but not in the face of a single Spreading Seas. This also turns your islandwalk on, making your creatures unblockable with a Lord of Atlantis or Master of the Pearl Trident in play, which is a nightmare for opposing creature decks.
Merfolk continue to be one of the best strategies in Modern, even if they don’t look powerful on paper. Small creatures with synergy and mana disruption make a recipe for success.