Putting the Pet Deck Out to Pasture

By John McCurdy

For a year and a half now, I’ve proudly pronounced to all who would listen. If you held still long enough, I’d read you my white paper on the ins, outs and in-betweens. My passion toed the line of insanity on occasion. It led to unproductive daydreams, questionable trades and a middling win rate - and I don’t regret a second of it.

“I play Merfolk in Standard.”

You’ve all heard this from me about a million times at this point. You’ve put up with me inevitably turning any conversation of the format to how “my” matchups looked. You’ve graciously swapped your janky Ixalan block schlock for whatever I could offer.

You’ve smiled and nodded as I regaled you with how this card blew me out once, how that card just doesn’t quite fit, how everything just came together in this one match. But now Wizards’ yearly cash grab - sorry, “Season of Renewal” - is upon us, and it’s all going to end.

Calling Standard Merfolk my “pet deck” is something of an understatement. But now, it’s time to put the fish out to pasture.

A Brief Love Letter

One of the first things I point to when it comes to explaining my affinity for Ixalan block’s Merfolk is the art and overarching visual direction of the tribe. The blues, purples, pinks and greens of the plane’s rainforest and river inhabitants caught my eye right away. As I studied it more, I took note of how the use of jade adornments harkens to the mineral’s importance in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, particularly the Olmec, which is a subtle but impressive detail in worldbuilding.

Next is undoubtedly the synergy between the cards. This is something inherent to tribal designs - which I have always enjoyed, having built both Vampire and Werewolf Standard decks during the Shadows of Innistrad days - and speaks to me in particular as a self-identified “Melvin.” That a deck becomes stronger than the sum of its parts, rather than simply sporting the most effective spells at each spot of the curve, scratches my brewing and “Johnny” itches just right.

Finally, the fact that the deck generally played aggressively suited my play style. While it could easily be undone by spot removal or board wipes, a dream curve of Kumena’s Speaker into Deeproot Elite into Merfolk Mistbinder and another one-drop was a stylish and speedy way to end a game and had me giggling maniacally on many mornings as I finished up my Magic Arena chores.

“So Long and Thanks for All the Fish”

To be totally honest, I am looking forward to the new Standard once Throne of Eldraine releases. Besides the many awesome cards already spoiled, I’m sure there’s even more to come, and there are also a handful of Standard decks that will be playable post-rotation that tickle my fancy.

The Red Cavalcade of Calamity builds are glorious heaps of chaff somehow turned into a deadly weapon. Boros Feather may need to dip into green once it loses Reckless Rage, but its similarity to Heroic decks of Theros is a sweet call back (and possibly forward, with the announcement of Theros: Beyond Death in early 2020).

And hey, if I want to stick with tribal, Elementals builds are running rampant, and Knights looks to be particularly viable once Eldraine drops. I think I’m most excited for the latter, because while I love drawing infinite cards off Risen Reef, I’d really rather just put my opponent in the dirt with a bunch of Orders of Midnight buffed to the ceiling by equipment and Inspiring Veterans.

This Can’t Really Be Goodbye

Considering the amount of time and love I have given this iteration of Merfolk - as well as my personal enthrallment with the plane of Ixalan, its art and its tribal structure - I can’t not memorialize it in some way. And while the massive Jade Bearer poster that I’ve framed and hung on the wall next to my bed is one of my favorite purchases of the year, I also need a way to play with the cards.

And so, with this motivation, as well as inspiration from Brian DeMars’s article on the “Limited Constructed” format, I’ve designed and just about completed an Ixalan “mini-battle box.” It’s four 40-card decks, one for each of the plane’s four tribes, built with the parameters that DeMars outlines - only cards from the draft format (in this case, Ixalan block), no more than two copies of any card besides basic lands, six total uncommons, two rares and one mythic.

I landed on this setup rather than regular Block Constructed decks based on a couple of reasons. For one, I don’t really want to shill out for four copies of tons of rares and mythics, even if they’re going to be very cheap after rotation. And more importantly, I want these decks to be fairly simple and evenly powered so that they can be a tool for teaching newer players - something I’m actually in the midst of doing right now with several of my friends whose planeswalker spark I have recently ignited.

What we have in the decklists are basically very, very good draft decks. Conveniently, Ixalan’s mechanics are quite simplistic, as so much of the design complexity went into the tribal synergies. Raid, Treasure tokens and Enrage all do things that are part of Magic’s most basic gameplay (attacking, making mana and taking damage), so my disciples won’t have to learn a litany of complicated keywords.

For those curious, here’s how they ended up - subject to tweaks with testing:


2 Mist-Cloaked Herald (C)

2 Jade Bearer (C)

2 Kumena’s Speaker (U)

2 Deeproot Elite (R)

2 Merfolk Mistbinder (U)

2 Silvergill Adept (U)

2 Shaper’s Apprentice (C)

2 Watertrap Weaver (C)

2 Jungleborn Pioneer (C)

1 Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca (M)

2 River Herald’s Boon (C)

2 Dive Down (C)

1 Crashing Tide (C)

2 Evolving Wilds (C)

7 Island

7 Forest


2 Dusk Legion Zealot (C)

2 Bishop’s Soldier (C)

2 Adanto Vanguard (U)

2 Legion Lieutenant (U)

2 Skymarch Bloodletter (C)

2 Paladin of the Bloodstained (C)

1 Sanctum Seeker (R)

2 Anointed Deacon (C)

1 Vona, Butcher of Magan (M)

2 Moment of Craving (C)

2 Squire’s Devotion (C)

2 Call to the Feast (U)

1 Legion’s Landing (R)

2 Evolving Wilds (C)

8 Swamp

7 Plains


2 Otepec Huntmaster (U)

2 Tilonalli’s Knight (C)

2 Ravenous Daggertooth (C)

2 Frilled Deathspitter (C)

2 Thrash of Raptors (C)

2 Grazing Whiptail (C)

2 Charging Monstrosaur (U)

2 Regisaur Alpha (R)

2 Colossal Dreadmaw (C)

1 Carnage Tyrant (M)

2 Commune with Dinosaurs (C)

2 Savage Stomp (U)

2 Evolving Wilds (C)

8 Forest

7 Mountain


2 Kitesail Corsair (C)

2 Kitesail Freebooter (U)

2 Storm Fleet Aerialist (U)

2 Sailor of Means (C)

2 Fathom Fleet Boarder (C)

2 Siren Lookout (C)

2 Deadeye Rig-Hauler (C)

2 Hostage Taker (R)

1 Admiral Beckett Brass (M)

2 Deadeye Plunderers (U)

2 Skullduggery (C)

2 Pirate’s Cutlass (C)

2 Evolving Wilds (C)

8 Island

6 Swamp

1 Mountain

It’s largely theory-crafted to this point while I await the last few cards to come in the mail or be traded for. I kept them to two colors with the one exception being Pirates, as they have easy access to treasure and one very flavorful splash to make. Merfolk can go down to 16 land easily and may go down to just 15, while Vampires may end up going down to 16 with testing.

I’m a little wary of Hostage Taker, Carnage Tyrant and Regisaur Alpha simply being too powerful, but I think the evasion and sheer speed of Vampires and Merfolk can help them take games before those cards come down. I may give it some fancy name referencing the story at a later time (something something Golden City, something something Immortal Sun).

In general, though, I’m excited that I’ll have this little time capsule for myself to look back on a deck and format much beloved. Thank you all for putting up with more of this self-indulgence, and hit me with feedback if you’d like!

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