I didn't think this day would come.
I've played Merfolk for almost as long as I've played Magic. And while the first version of the deck I ever Top 8'ed a tournament with – an SCG Open back in 2010 – did run a splash color in black, that was only for some sideboard cards in Perish and Engineered Plague, and wasn't a big deal thanks to Underground Sea.
But here I am, playing green in my Modern Merfolk deck.
The reason for the green splash? Well, Ixalan, of course, but more specifically it's Merfolk Branchwalker. I think I might be in love. I've long said Silvergill Adept is the best card in the deck – not to mention my favorite card in all of Magic – and it's the biggest reason why Merfolk is a competitive deck in any format.
Merfolk Branchwalker isn't Silvergill Adept but… it's close. And, in this list, about a third of the time it actually is Silvergill Adept 5-8, except without the “reveal another Merfolk” clause, which makes it a better topdeck when you have no cards in hand. And the other two-thirds of the time? Well, the “bad” side of the card is a 3/2 with scry 1 attached to it. That's extraordinarily powerful, and makes it a worthwhile addition to the deck. And, since we're in green, why not go up to eight one-drops thanks to Kumena's Speaker?
There is one thing missing here I'm sure you expected to see: Collected Company. It is my belief that Company is not good in the deck, and though I'm open to time proving me wrong here, this is the reasoning (shoutout to Merfolk Joe and the rest of the fish minds here who have discussed and theorized this at length with me.
I've played Collected Company Merfolk before (you can even find videos of me doing so here), and the truth is I've never been impressed with Company. Yes, it's obviously a great card, but it's worse in Merfolk than any other Collected Company deck. The biggest reason is that a lot of those decks are geared to go mana dork into three-drop into Collected Company. As such, they're filled with value three-drops that are insane to hit off Collected Company. Merfolk doesn't have that. What is has are a bunch of two-drops, and one of those is Harbinger of the Tides, which is sometimes a nonbo with Collected Company anyway.
But the biggest problem by far is the four mana required to cast it. Merfolk has long cheated on lands thanks to Aether Vial, which allowed you to jam up to four Master of Waves with near impunity. In the green-blue build of the deck we're cutting the Master of Waves entirely thanks to the green mana symbols, This naturally leads to skimping even more on lands – I ran only 18 in the videos here, though 19 is possibly the correct number – and in many games Merfolk will only have one or two lands in play. Without Aether Vial to cheat on our four-drops, it's very likely that the Companies will be dead in our hand for an extended period of time. If we did want to play Company, we would need to go back up to at least 20 land, but more realistically 21 or 22 or even 23, at which point you begin to really dilute a deck that consists one a bunch of spells that cost two mana or less.
Will the extra lands cost you more games than Collected Company would win? Considering that Merfolk is a tempo deck that wants to curve out and flood the board, I believe they would. Now, keep in mind that this is all very early in the testing process – and I'm not even sure the green splash is worth it – but given that even when we cast Collected Company we're netting less mana than any other Company deck in the format, I believe it's correct to leave them on the sidelines. Come at me.
Is Simic the future of Merfolk? I'm honestly not sure. There are some real advantages – Merfolk Branchwalker being the biggest – and the ability to play Natural State or other green cards out of the sideboard is great, but the life loss is also hugely relevant. Against Scapeshift, for example, that two damage you deal yourself is a full turn difference in their kill. Burn was always slightly favored in my experience with Mono-Blue Merfolk, but these newer builds mean that may not be the case anymore.
One thing I've considered but not even begun to test is if a painless green-blue mana base could work. Between Botanical Sanctum, Cavern of Souls and possibly even Unclaimed Territory, the deck can get awfully close to playing the green Merfolk without the need to play fetch lands and Breeding Pools. Of course, that means you're not getting much actual green mana for sideboard cards, but I think it's worth exploring.
My bucket list for Merfolk from Rival of Ixalan is short – an upgrade to Cursecatcher ala Mausoleum Wanderer, and some sort of Merfolk-specific land. I see Sliver Hive and Ally Encampment and am very jealous, but I'd settle for even a green-blue version of Wanderwine Hub to open up the land options.
As you can see, Modern Merfolk is very much a work in progress – even if the eventual answer is that not many changes are needed to traditional lists. Either way, it's an exciting time to be a fish!
Thanks for reading,