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Browse > Home / Strategy / Articles / "Explorers of the Deep" Precon Upgrade Guide | Merfolk +1/+1 Counters | Lost Caverns of Ixalan Commander

"Explorers of the Deep" Precon Upgrade Guide | Merfolk +1/+1 Counters | Lost Caverns of Ixalan Commander

Lost Caverns of Ixalan preconstructed decklists have been revealed and with it comes another round of my precon upgrades. We're going to do a thorough analysis of each deck, highlighting its goals and how well it accomplishes them, check out its deckbuilding fundamentals, identify its strongest and weakest cards, then use all that information to create an optimized $50 upgrade path!

You can find my other precon upgrades here:

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Explorers of the Deep is a Blue / Green Merfolk deck with a +1/+1 Counter subtheme. The goal of the deck is to flood the board with Merfolk and buff them with lords like Deeproot Elite and Emperor Mihail II, overwhelming the table with a fishy onslaught. The deck's +1/+1 Counter subtheme adds some depth to the strategy, rewarding you for having counters on your merfolk with cards like Tributary Instructor and Inspiring Call.

So if you want to play a Merfolk deck that buffs your army with layers of lords and protects them with tons of cheap interaction and tricks, then Explorers of the Deep is the deck for you!

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The Precon List

Before we talk upgrades, let's take a look at the stock list to see what we're working with:

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Merfolk have a relatively deep pool of cards to build with, so it's no surprise that this precon manages to fill up on its primary theme: I count 35 Merfolk creatures and 6 more cards that reward you for playing Merfolk such as Deeproot Waters and Path of Ancestry. In addition, there are 24 cards that either add +1/+1 counters to creatures Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca or care about +1/+1 counters Zegana, Utopian Speaker.

You would think the precon's name and face commander would indicate there's an Explore theme to the deck, but that isn't the case: the only repeat explore engine in the deck is the face commander, Hakbal of the Surging Soul, though admittedly he's really good at it. There are only 3 other cards that reference exploring, but two of the payoffs -- Nicanzil, Current Conductor and Topography Tracker -- are both incredible, definitely worth it if Hakbal is your commander but the first cuts if you swap commanders.

Choosing Our Commander

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There are a whopping 8 potential commanders in this precon, but there's only two real contendors for the best leader: Hakbal of the Surging Soul and Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. Both of these reward you for playing Merfolk and both generate a ton of card advantage and +1/+1 counters, but despite these similarities there's some key differences:

  • Hakbal of the Surging Soul is one of the most powerful explore engines in the game: you can easily explore 4+ times per turn with very little setup. Explore by itself is a ton of value -- you guarantee your next land drops and are buffing your army -- but it's especially good here due to synergy potential with +1/+1 counter payoffs (Tributary Instructor) and graveyard payoffs (Deeproot Historian). If you manage to find one of your two big explore payoffs like Nicanzil, Current Conductor then you're swimming in value. On top of this, Hakbal can also ramp you by attacking, but you do need to buff him so he'll survive combat -- which the deck also provides. Hakbal provides steady consistent value to your deck, and while he doesn't do anything game-breaking you're always going to be happy to cast him.
  • Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca is a commander I've written about last time we visited Ixalan. Kumena turns Merfolk into a Tap/Untap deck: we tap down our army to draw cards and buff them with counters, then utilize mass untappers like Intruder Alarm to do it again and again. Kumena requires a lot more setup than Hakbal but becomes far more powerful once you've got the right board state. If I just have my commander and 2 merfolk on board, I'd much rather have Hakbal to explore 3x and then move to attack. But imagine Kumena, some merfolk, an untapper like Intruder Alarm and like Cryptolith Rite: you can tap to draw some cards, cast merfolk to untap the board, then keep tapping to draw and cast more merfolk and keep going!

Basically Hakbal has a higher power floor than Kumena, but Kumena has a higher power ceiling. Hakbal requires a lot less setup to get value, but Kumena generates way more value once you're fully set up. Kumena requires you to run untappers to get full value while Hakbal doesn't need that.

So which is better? The boring answer is "it depends." Do you want a consistent mid-value commander? Then stick to Hakbal. Want a riskier high-value commander? Go Kumena.

Because I like both commanders so much, I'm going to do something I usually avoid: I'll be providing two upgrade paths, one for Hakbal and the other for Kumena. I can't usually do this due to extra work / hitting deadlines but this will be an exception, so hopefully this makes both Hakbal and Kumena fans happy!

Analyzing the Precon & Identifying Weaknesses

Now that we've glanced at the stock list and settled on our commander, let's take a closer look at the deck itself to identify what parts benefit the most from upgrades.

As I often explain in my Budget Commander articles, every time I build a rough draft of a deck, I make sure I have a certain ratio of mana, interaction, card advantage, etc. This gives me a reference point to compare to the deck and see which areas may need improvement. My general ratio is:

  • 50 mana; lands and ramp, usually a 37–13 split
  • 10 card draw; cards that net you 2+ cards in hand
  • 8 targeted removal; split between creature / artifact / enchantment removal and countermagic
  • 3 board wipes; creature-light decks might want one more, creature-heavy decks might want one less
  • 2 graveyard recursion
  • 2 flexible tutors; higher budgets I recommend more tutors
  • 1 graveyard hate; since you need to keep Graveyard decks honest 
  • 1 finisher; something that can win games the turn you cast it without too much setup

That's always my starting point, which is then tweaked to suit the individual deck's strategy and further tweaked with playtesting. I always find it immensely useful to figure out some quick ways to improve the deck in question.

Let's see what the rough ratios are for Explorers of the Deep and how it compares. I count:

36 lands worries me, but with Hakbal in the command zone it's probably enough assuming we can explore a couple times. The other ratios are fine, though I'd probably add another board wipe.

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$50 Upgrade

Disclaimer: Card prices are volatile and may be different at the time you read this article.

I'll be providing two upgrade guides for Explorers of the Deep: one led by Hakbal of the Surging Soul and the other by Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca. There's a lot of overlap between the two, so the bulk of the upgrades for both will be featured in both $50 upgrades:

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We're going to add the remaining good Merfolk cards first and foremost. The most notable one is Vodalian Hexcatcher, another well-costed lord that provides countermagic in a pinch. Forerunner of the Heralds is a great tutor in the deck and Silvergill Adept doesn't look like much but it's a cheap cantripping body that fuels our commanders. There's a few other good ones too!

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For Hakba the single biggest upgrade is Roaming Throne, doubling all of our explore triggers and so many other merfolk triggers it's obscene! The other big thing is ways to play additional lands since we'll be drawing so many extra ones, so Azusa, Lost but Seeking and Oracle of Mul Daya are clutch.

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For Kumena, mass untappers are clutch: Seedborn Muse, Intruder Alarm, Merrow Commerce, Quest for Renewal are all huge here. Additional ways of tapping for value are great too like Cryptolith Rite.

Also hot take: I don't think running lots of +1/+1 counter support cards are good here! Hardened Scales and Inspiring Call are fine, but Branching Evolution is just an overcosted Scales in this deck because we're never adding more than one +1/+1 counter at a time. I definitely wouldn't recommend adding Doubling Season to this deck.

Hakbal $50 Upgrades

The single biggest upgrade is Roaming Throne which doubles the efficiency of Hakbal and so many other merfolk in the 99. Beyond that though we're adding generic Merfolk upgrades (Vodalian Hexcatcher), more ways to play extra lands per turn (Oracle of Mul Daya), some good +1/+1 counter payoffs (Smell Fear), and the remaining good explore payoff (Twists and Turns).

We're cutting the weakest Merfolk cards and less synergistic interaction / ramp.


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Kumena $50 Upgrades

We're adding generic Merfolk upgrades, the best untappers (Intruder Alarm), and more tap payoffs (Inga and Esika).

We're cutting basically the same cards as we did with Hakbal but also any explore payoffs since they no longer work as well (Topography Tracker).


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Further Upgrades

In my opinion, the top two cards to upgrade Hakbal / Kumena further would be Cyclonic Rift and Raise the Palisade. These are two of the best one-sided wipes for the deck and can either prevent you from losing or remove any blockers so you can win. Then I would snag Growing Rites of Itlimoc, it's absurdly good in a creature-heavy deck like this one and a steal at $6. After that I think Heroic Intervention, Fierce Guardianship, Swan Song, and Mana Drain are all huge in making sure your own board doesn't get wiped. Beyond those are little pick-ups like Lord of Atlantis for the final good Merfolk lord.

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One Down, Three To Go!

I hope you enjoyed this in-depth guide to our fishy friends. The next three precon upgrades will be coming soon this week. I apologize for the delay on these: covid knocked me out for a few days so I'm a bit behind on work, but I'm feeling much better now and look forward to getting back on track!

Also let me know what you think of the $50 upgrade budget. Is it too much? Would you prefer $20? Or maybe just 5 card swaps instead of a whole bunch of them? I'm always curious if you all would prefer a different format for these. Thanks for reading!

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