Lorwyn: Merrow Riverways Review (Part 1 of 2)
Gamers of a certain age might remember a particular commercial that used to come on the television on Saturday mornings and during the afterschool cartoons. There were a number of variations, but the central narrative went something like this. A person is walking down the street eating chocolate. Another is walking the other way eating peanut butter (I know, but bear with it). Madcap slapstick hijinks happen, and the chocolate lands in the peanut butter. They pull it out, hesitantly take a bite, and… nirvana! And so Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are “born.” A not entirely dissimilar process went in to the flavour of the races of Lorwyn- minus, of course, the madcap slapstick.
In our desire to commemorate the “year of firsts,” you may notice that there was one tag that we didn’t hang on Lorwyn: first tribal set. Despite that being one of the attributes most closely associated with it thanks to its own innovations in that area, it was hardly the first. From the outset, there had always been a small tribal element to the game. Alpha gave us tribal lords like the Zombie Master, Lord of Atlantis, and Goblin King, but there were only a handful of relevant creature types in that first set. Legends made a go of tribal Kobolds, while Fallen Empires ladled out hefty doses of the common tribal creatures as well as a few lesser ones like Orcs, Dwarves, and Thrulls.
However, while successive sets added to the available card pool for most particular tribes, little was done to unify cards among that tribe. Put another way, you might have been able to play an all-Goblin deck, but outside of the fun of playing a bunch of Goblins there was little that tied it together and made the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This changed with 2002’s Onslaught, the game’s first fully “race matters” set. Suddenly, you had Goblins that cared that you were playing other Goblins in your Goblin deck, and their power level grew to match the level of your commitment. The Reckless One drew its power from the number of Goblins you’d put into play, while the Sparksmith’s damage output ramped up in direct proportion. With enough Goblins, the Skirk Fire Marshal could wipe the board (and toast your life totals), while the Goblin Pyromancer gave your Goblins a “rush and a push and the land is ours” opportunity- or else. This was reinforced further by the following two sets of the block, including Magic’s first all-creature expansion (Legions).
Meanwhile, around the same time as Onslaught block, changes were afoot with Eighth Edition. As Mark Rosewater explains in his Eighth Edition column “Small Change,” R&D had a wish list of cards that they wanted to see in the Core Set release. Since at the time these sets were all-reprints, that meant weaving them into sets first, and one of the things found missing were Merfolk. As Rosewater explains, the decision to kill the tribe was grounded in flavour. If the overall conceptual framework of a single game of Magic was a pair (or more) of planeswalkers having a duel, then it seemed somewhat incongruous to have strictly aquatic-based creatures involved. The worst offenders were cards like Giant Shark, which left to the imagination whether they ‘swam’ around the battlefield in a sphere of water, or flopped about on the ground biting as they went. Sadly for the Merfolk, their fate was sealed. As we know now, the ban didn’t last forever. Due to popular outcry from players (as recounted here with some dramatic license), the Merfolk were primed for a comeback and in Lorwyn they found occasion for a triumphant return.
And that part in the beginning, about the chocolate and peanut butter? With a tribal block already firmly established in Magic’s set history, R&D determined that they needed to do some mechanical innovation when it came to crafting another, something to give it a distinctive look and feel all its own rather than just being “Tribal II.” This also represented a shift in focus. “The Onslaught tribes,” wrote Rosewater, were more about doing what the color did rather than having a crafted mechanical identity.” What if instead of hewing to the same old archetypical colour pattern for your tribes, you mashed a couple of flavours together? What design space could open up, for instance, if Goblins and Elves were allowed to bleed into Black, or Merfolk into White? This not only broadened the mechanical horizons, but it also expanded the flavour of each tribe. Just what sort of Goblins, Elves, and Merfolk would these be? This alone was one of Lorwyn’s greatest innovations, though as we’ll see in the next review it certainly had its share of keyworded ones as well.
This seems, however, a fine time to pause and take a look at the Merrow, the clever fish-folk of Lorwyn that serve as couriers, merchants, and guides to the plane’s many shifting waterways and rivers.
Swim the Minds
The Merrow are some of Lorwyn’s craftiest denizens, and the Merrow Riverways deck is designed to showcase their intricacy in a way we’ve not seen before. At its fundamental core, the deck is designed around the interplay between tapping and untapping. Essentially, burrow through to its pulsing heart and there you’ll find a Twiddle.
Towards that end, when assessing the deck you want to keep an eye out for certain things. First, what sort of abilities do your Merfolk give you when tapped? Secondly, how can you exploit this? Finally, how does this all come together? In other words, how does the deck look to win?
That first category is the most populous. From one end of the deck’s mana curve to the other, you have a number of Merfolk who bring special abilities to the table. We begin with the Tideshaper Mystic, a 1/1 which has the ability to turn a land into another basic land type. This has limited applicability, but it’s useful in two ways. First, being a two-colour deck there are times when your lands just aren’t cooperating with you. If you’re in dire need of, say, a Plains, you can use the Mystic on one of your Islands (or vice versa). In addition, there’s a small amount of islandwalk here, as you might expect. The Mystic ensures you that no matter what colour(s) you’re facing up against across the table, islandwalk will always be relevant.
Moving up the mana cost ladder, we find a large number of two- and three- drops. The Silvergill Douser can blunt your opponent’s assault by nerfing another creature’s power, while the Harpoon Sniper can deal damage outright. Of course, being White, that means that its targets are limited to attacking or blocking creatures, but it’s very easy to see how the damage could stack up fairly quickly. The danger with cards that ask you to have a bunch of creatures in play to be good is that you are only one Pyroclasm away from ruin, but in the Lorwyn Theme Deck environment you’ll find no such danger. Assemble away!
Speaking of islandwalk, if you were to distill what this deck wants to do down to a single representative card, you could do worse than the Streambed Aquitects. A three-mana 2/3, they have two synergistic activated abilities. The first one gives one of your Merfolk +1/+1 and islandwalk until end of turn. The second turns a land into an Island. This might seem counterproductive- you can use one or the other, but often neither are quite as useful without the other. Therein lies the rub- Merrow Riverways lets you have both. In that sense, the Aquitects are virtually a one-card combo in miniature, once you’ve set up your suite of enablers.
The last couple of creatures in this category are the Drowner of Secrets and the Fallowsage. Both of these break from the norm in that they have tap abilities of a different sort. The Drowner of Secrets bestows its milling ability to any untapped Merfolk, and the fact that it says “tap an untapped…” means that you can even tap the Drowner (or any other Merfolk) for this ability the turn you play it. Since it’s not an activated ability of the creature, its unaffected by summoning sickness. Although you don’t have a ton of milling effects in the deck, with enough Merfolk in play this can very quickly become an alternate and viable win condition. The Fallowsage, on the other hand, has a much more local benefit- whenever it becomes tapped, you may draw a card. If you swing with him, draw a card. If you tap him for the Drowner of Secrets, draw a card. This Wizard doesn’t care a whit how it happens, only that it does. As we’ll see, there are plenty of ways to accomplish this that don’t involve risking him in the red zone.
The next creature we’ll be taking a look at wears two different hats. On the one hand, the Stonybrook Angler is like the above creatures in that it has an activated ability that requires it to tap. On the other hand, it’s also an enabler of the deck because that activated ability taps or untaps a creature. That makes it in essence a bit like a Clone, taking on the special ability of any one of your other Merfolk. Meanwhile, the Merrow Reejerey offers a similar arrangement, but extends the offer to untap any permanent, not just creature. This makes this creature one of the deck’s strongest, as in addition it offers a +1/+1 bonus to all of your troops. Since its ability is passive, you can trigger it multiple times in a turn just by casting your Merfolk.
In a similar vein, the Judge of Currents offers another passive reward for using your Merfolk to their fullest- whenever one becomes tapped for any reason, you gain 1 life. This makes a great tandem with the Drowner of Secrets, letting you pad your life total as you race your opponent’s remaining library capacity. Not for nothing, the deck packs in a trio of Judges, giving you plenty of opportunity to find one.
The deck’s remaining creatures fill in a variety of supporting roles. The Merrow Harbinger, like all Harbingers, lets you tutor up a Merfolk card (creature or otherwise), while the Silvergill Adept replaces herself in your hand when cast. A pair of Avian Changelings give you a touch of presence in the air, and since they are Changelings they also count as Merfolk. The deck’s legendary creature, Sygg, River Guide, can protect your Merfolk from dying thanks to its protection ability, and is a great way to slip a creature past your opponent’s defenses. The ideal candidate? The deck’s Wanderwine Prophets. Not only do they pack a powerful punch (as a 4/4), they enable you to take an etra turn (or more), all at the expense of sacrificing a single Merfolk.
A Word of Forbiddance
If parting company with one of your precious creature cards is an unsettling proposition, you might be happier sacrificing a 1/1 Merfolk token. A pair of Summon the Schools– the traditional White token-maker (a la Master’s Call, Join the Ranks, and Lingering Souls) ensure you’ll have at least a few on offer, and once you begin playing it you can recur it to hand by tapping other Merfolk. Your creatures can further help your deck’s ambitions by beating the Springleaf Drum to add a mana of any colour to your mana pool.
With all of the tapping that’s going on, it’s a good thing the deck gives you a way to hit the reset button. With Merrow Commerce in play, your Merfolk will be free do do a whole ‘nother round of shenanigans on your opponents turn, making this tribal enchantment a wonderful thing. The rest of the noncreature support cards fill in the usual slots. You have a splash of countermagic in Broken Ambitions (which has a unique twist with clash), while Ponder helps you find the right Merfolk (or anything else) for the job at the right time, whatever that job might be.
Removal comes in the form of a trio of Oblivion Rings, in this set a common card (later moved to uncommon in Magic 2012). A single copy of Whirlpool Whelm again fuses clash with a standard staple- this time, Unsummon.
Overall, Merrow Riverways has a very unique feel to it, deeply mining a mechanic of the game that typically goes unnoticed (tapping/untapping). We’ll be putting these Merfolk into the pit to see how they hold up, and will return in two days to render a final verdict.