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Budget Magic: $99 (26 tix) Merfolk (Modern)

Tere, Budget Magic lovers, it's that time once again! Most often on Budget Magic, we play unique brews, but we are trying something a bit different this week. Rather than playing a crazy brew, we're playing a budget version of a tier deck in Modern: Merfolk! One of the strange aspects of the Merfolk tribe is that pretty much all of the best Merfolk fit in under our budget—the creature base of our $100 budget deck looks almost exactly the same as the much more expensive tier build of Merfolk. Instead, a couple of powerful utility cards are missing: Aether Vial and Mutavault. The question today is simple: can a budget build of Merfolk without Aether Vial, Mutavault, and some sideboard cards work in Modern? If the answer is yes, then Merfolk seems like a good budget option, since you'll have a playable deck right away, and slowly, over the course of time, you can add in the missing pieces and end up with a real Modern deck! Just how good is Aether Vial- / Mutavault-free budget Merfolk in Modern? Let's get to the video and find out; then, we'll talk more about the deck!

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Budget Magic: Merfolk (Modern)

The Deck

When it comes to tribes, we often talk about competitive advantage—what the tribe does better than anyone else. For Merfolk, the competitive advantage is obvious: they are the best "lord" tribe in Modern, not only having a ton of lords but also being one of the rare tribes that has two-mana lords with additional upsides. As a result, the primary plan of Merfolk is to play as many Merfolk lords as possible, make our Merfolk as big as possible, and hopefully kill the opponent quickly before they find a sweeper or a bunch of spot removal to deal with our lords.

The Lords

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The two most important cards in our deck are Lord of Atlantis and Master of the Pearl Trident, which are essentially the same card, not just pumping our Merfolk but also giving all of our other Merfolk islandwalk. Having eight copies of Lord of Atlantis is one of the hallmarks of Merfolk, and the redundancy allows us to build around the islandwalk effect, which is what makes Merfolk so scary. Pumping our creatures is great, but giving our creatures islandwalk (and then giving our opponent an Island if they don't happen to have one) means that all of our Merfolk not just huge but also unblockable, which usually allows us to close out the game in just one or two attacks. 

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Coralhelm Commander is just a two-of, but it gives us a backup lord in the two-drop slot. The downside of Coralhelm Commander is that it isn't a lord right away, requiring four mana of leveling up to pump our other creatures. However, Coralhelm Commander also comes with an upside, being a mana sink when we flood out but also ending up as a massive 4/4 flier, giving us a way to force through the last few points of damage with an evasive creature if our islandwalk plan isn't online. 

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Merrow Reejerey is our one three-mana lord, but it's also one of the most powerful cards in our deck. One of the things that makes the tier build of Merfolk powerful is Aether Vial allowing the deck to cheat on mana and dump a handful of Merfolk quickly. Merrow Reejerey does something similar by untapping a land every time we cast a Merfolk. This means that all of our two-mana Merfolk suddenly cost one mana and that our one-mana Merfolk are free. If we manage to untap with a Merrow Reejerey, we typically can empty our hand on our next turn, building a devastating board state that can kill the opponent in just a turn or two. Plus, if we don't need to untap our lands, we can always use Merrow Reejerey's ability to tap down opposing blockers to force through big attacks, if we aren't islandwalking over for tons of damage.

In the end, this leaves us with a massive 14 lords, all with upsides, with 10 of them costing only two mana. This means that almost half of the Merfolk in our deck pump our other Merfolk, which allows our board state to spiral out of control quickly, with all of our random 2/2 Merfolk becoming 4/4s or 5/5s in no time.

Support Merfolk

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Silvergill Adept might not look like much, but it's actually one of the best Merfolk in our entire deck. Apart from our lords, all we really want is to get as many Merfolk onto the battlefield as quickly as possible. Silvergill Adept is essential to this plan, since it not only puts a Merfolk on the battlefield but also draws us a card to find even more Merfolk. Plus, thanks to all of our lords, Silvergill Adept typically ends up being a 4/3 or even a 5/4 and often unblockable, making it a reasonable threat. Basically, once we have some lords on the battlefield, one of the most powerful things our deck can do is to chain Silvergill Adept into Silvergill Adept to build our board state.

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Cursecatcher does two things for our deck. First, it gives us a one-drop Merfolk, allowing us to start our curve a turn early and start getting Merfolk on the battlefield from the very beginning of the game. Second, Cursecatcher gives us a way to interact with spell-based combo decks. As you'll see in a minute, Merfolk actually have a bunch of tribal ways to deal with creatures, but Cursecatcher is the only Merfolk to fight against spells. Against a deck like Storm or Ad Nauseam, we can't keep our opponent from comboing off forever, but we do have a fast clock, so just making our opponent wait one more turn to combo off thanks to Cursecatcher is often just enough to allow us to get in one more attack and (hopefully) close out the game.

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Rounding out our support Merfolk are two different ways of dealing with creatures, which makes Harbinger of the Tides and Merfolk Trickster the primary removal spells of our deck. The downside of these cards (compared to other removal spells) is that they are more tempo plays than real removal, by bouncing or tapping our opponent's creatures. The upside is that Harbinger of the Tides and Merfolk Trickster are Merfolk, so they benefit from our lords, give us more on-tribe Merfolk on the battlefield, and often end up as big attackers thanks to all of our lords. Harbinger of the Tides slows down our opponent by bouncing one of their attackers, while Merfolk Trickster works best offensively, flashing in at the end of our opponent's turn to tap down a potential blocker (although as we saw against Skred, it's also good at fizzling an attack by tapping down something like Glorybringer). Together, these two cards give us a few ways of interacting with our opponent's creatures to, (hopefully) slow our opponent down just enough to steal the win.

The Finisher

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While we often just win by playing a bunch of Merfolk lords and islandwalking over with a bunch of random Merfolk, we do have a dedicated finisher in Master of Waves. Nearly all of our two-mana Merfolk have double-blue casting costs, which means we naturally support the blue devotion plan of Master of Waves to make a ton of Elemental tokens. If you think of a typical curve in our deck—Turn 1 Cursecatcher, Turn 2 Lord of Atlantis, Turn 3 Lord of Atlantis (or any of our two-drops really)—when Master of Waves comes down on Turn 4, we're making a massive six 6/1 Elementals, which gives us a ton of blockers if we are on the defense or a massive attack force to close out the game. Of course, if our opponent can kill our Master of Waves, we end up losing all of our Elementals as well, but protection from red helps us to avoid some removal. Plus, having protection from red means that Master of Waves by itself can beat some decks like Burn or Goblins, since they typically don't have any way to remove it from the battlefield.

Utility Spells

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Finally, we have a few non-Merfolk spells. Spreading Seas is actually very important to our deck, since it helps to support all of our islandwalk lords. While some decks will just naturally have Islands, being able to give our opponent one with Spreading Seas not only messes with our opponent's mana but also makes all of our Merfolk unblockable, assuming we have a Lord of Atlantis or Master of the Pearl Trident, allowing us to swing through any number of blockers and win in just an attack or two. It also gives us main-deck hate for annoying lands like Tron lands or some creaturelands. Otherwise, we have a single Vapor Snag. Most tier Merfolk decks play Dismember in this slot, but Vapor Snag has some upside, since apart from bouncing one of our opponent's creatures, we can also use it to save one of our lords from a targeted removal spell by returning it to our hand.


All in all we finished with a 3-2 record, which is fine for a budget deck. More importantly, our matches really illuminated the power and flash of playing Merfolk on a budget. The good news is that even in budget from, Merfolk can win a lot of games. Simply curving out with Merfolk lords is enough to beat a lot of decks, especially backed by Spreading Seas to make all of our creatures unblockable as well as a handful of tricky, removal Merfolk. 

On the other hand, our two losses provided good examples of why Aether Vial and Mutavault are so good in the deck. Against Humans, we were playing two creatures each turn, and our opponent was also playing two creatures each turn, but being able to Aether Vial in an additional creature for free each turn was enough to swing the matchup in our opponent's favor. Meanwhile, against UW Control, it looked like we had lethal, only to have our team tapped down by Cryptic Command for multiple turns in a row. If we had Mutavault in the mana base, we would have been able to activate it after Cryptic Command resolved and kill our opponent. As such, budget Merfolk is just as good as the tier builds of Merfolk in maybe 75% of games. It's the other 25% of games where lacking those couple of really expensive but powerful cards ends up making the difference. 

In the end, our matches suggests that $100 Merfolk is powerful enough to win a lot of games in Modern, even without Mutavault and Aether Vial. While every once in a while you'll run into a matchup where you lose thanks to the missing cards from the tier deck, in a majority of matchups, it won't matter all that much. Even on a budget, Merfolk can certainly compete at the FNM level, with the idea being that you can slowly add in Mutavaults and Aether Vials and have a tier deck once all of the upgrades are complete! For more ideas on the upgrade process, make sure to check out the "non-budget" section below.

Unfortunately, it's not really possible to build traditional tribal Merfolk for $50. The most expensive cards in the deck are the lords, especially Lord of Atlantis, which is $28 for a playset, but the deck wouldn't really be the same if we cut the islandwalk lords. As such, to make an ultra-budget version of Merfolk, we need to completely rebuild the deck from the ground up, without any of the islandwalk synergies. In place of Lord of Atlantis and Master of the Pearl Trident, we reach into green to play Merfolk Mistbinder, Deeproot Elite, and Merfolk Sovereign as our lords, and instead of trying to play a longer game, we get more aggressive with Kumena's Speaker alongside Cursecatcher in the one-drop slot. This leaves us with an ultra-budget tribal deck that can still win when things go well by stacking up lords but loses out on the explosive islandwalk kills from the budget build of the deck. This build is probably fine for the kitchen table, but I wouldn't expect to pick up many wins in a tournament setting.

For our non-budget build this week, we have a list of Merfolk that recently 5-0'ed a league on Magic Online. As you can see, the creatures in the deck are almost exactly the same as in our budget build, minus the Coralhelm Commanders and a couple of Master of Waves, and with two copies of Kira, Great Glass-Spinner for protection from targeted removal. The big additions are Aether Vial and Mutavault along with a couple of Cavern of Souls to fight through counterspells and some not-very-necessary fetch lands for deck-thinning purposes. The deck also has a handful of sideboard upgrades but nothing too expensive. This means our budget build is essentially three cards short of being optimal:

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Of the upgrades, Aether Vial is the most important, although it's also quite expensive, with a playset being nearly $150. Unfortunately, Aether Vial is really an all-or-nothing upgrade, as adding just a single copy is probably more trouble than it's worth. Part of the reason why Aether Vial is so important it that it allows us to play more colorless lands, like Mutavault. Without Aether Vial, there's a risk that we'll get stuck with hands that aren't able to cast our double-blue lords on time thanks to Mutavault, which is an easy way to lose games. However, once you have Aether Vials in the deck, you can slowly add Mutavaults one at a time as you acquire them, with each additional copy upping the power level of the deck as an additional source of damage and as wrath protection. Finally, we have Cavern of Souls, which is by far the least important upgrade for the deck. While it is helpful against control, especially once we have Aether Vial in the deck, Merfolk can beat counters even without the land. While it's still a good idea to play some copies if control is a big part of your local meta or you are looking to win a big tournament, Cavern of Souls is the last upgrade you should make, and if you aren't playing on the Grand Prix / SCG level, it might be worth waiting for Cavern of Souls to be reprinted to bring down the price.


Anyway, that's all for today. As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at


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