Last updated on November 15, 2023
Hakbal of the Surging Soul | Illustration by Tyler Walpole
The Lost Caverns of Ixalan (LCI) is MTG’s first proper revisit to 2018’s 2-part Ixalan set, which introduced Magic to dinosaurs, pirates (kind of), conquistador vampires, and merfolk doing their usually fishy merfolk thing. Funnily enough, LCI wasn’t originally conceived with Ixalan in mind, but the setting was eventually used as a backdrop to the “journey underground” set that was already being developed.
That means the typal themes of the original Ixalan take a backseat to the spelunking and exploration themes of LCI, though the factions are still receiving ample attention. The Commander precons for this set focus on one faction each, giving us new support for some of Magic’s most popular creature types.
Deeproot Pilgrimage | Illustration by Rémi Jacquot
Lost Caverns of Ixalan Commander (LCC) features four decks, each centered around one of Ixalan’s main creature factions: merfolk, dinosaurs, pirates, and vampires. Explorers of the Deep is a merfolk deck, Magic’s first merfolk-themed Commander deck. Previous decks have had legendary merfolk as a main or alternate commander (Adrix and Nev, Twincasters, Tuvasa the Sunlit), but this is the first attempt at a fully fleshed out Commander deck centered on merfolk.
The deck also features a light explore subtheme and +1/+1 counter synergies. It’s probably best described as a merfolk beatdown deck with a +1/+1 counter strategy. Flood the board with fish-people, stack +1/+1 counters on them, and use evasive finishers like Herald of Secret Streams to finish players off.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Let’s start with positives. For one, the deck knows what it wants to be. Play merfolk, attack with merfolk, maybe put some counters on merfolk. That’s consistency, baby! This is a simple precon that works well for beginners, which is a breath of fresh air following the convoluted Doctor Who decks.
There are also new merfolk in nearly every set. I wouldn’t expect too many cool merfolk from Outlaws of Thunder Junction or Murders at Karlov Manor, but most sets have at least a few merfolk worth mulling over.
The reprint quality is also exceptional. I half-expected the designers to omit staples like Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca or Svyelun of Sea and Sky to encourage spending a little more on upgrades, but most merfolk mainstays are already present, plus a few surprise reprints like Branching Evolution and Thassa, God of the Sea.
If I had to pinpoint a “flaw,” it’s that there aren’t really any surprises coming out of the box. You know what you’re getting into when you purchase a merfolk deck, just don’t expect too much strategic depth here.
The +1/+1 counter theme is also maybe a bit over-supported, with several individual pieces dedicated to ramping up the number of counters you get. The deck is already soft to board wipes and interaction, so I’d like to reduce that aspect of the deck a smidge and bolster what we came here for in the first place: merfolk support.
As usual, my suggested swaps look to maximize the themes present in the precon while also trimming some of the less competitive or synergistic inclusions. I’m keeping it somewhat budget-friendly, and I’ll limit myself to 10 changes to leave some room for imagination.
Suggested Cut: Simic Ascendancy
Spreading Seas is a fun little nugget, providing “land destruction” that’s not quite as spiteful as a straight up Stone Rain. However, it’s also a flat enough card on power that there’s not usually much reason to run it. Unless you have islandwalkers, that is. The Modern combo of Spreading Seas + Master of the Pearl Trident is alive and well here, and the opportunity cost is low enough to make it work.
Simic Ascendancy is loads of fun to try and win with, but the games it comes close to winning are games where you’re already in a great position. To achieve this alternate wincon, you already have to be building up a formidable enough board that you can just smack people around in combat for the win.
Suggested Cut: Coralhelm Commander
Silvergill Adept is the perfect unassuming cantrip creature that gets you on board early at almost no cost and fuels all your merfolk synergies. Unexciting perhaps, but a good meat-and-potatoes card for the deck. I’m comfortable cutting Coralhelm Commander since it takes a bit too much mana investment to justify its place alongside the lords that always work without question.
Suggested Cut: Vorel of the Hull Clade
Vorel of the Hull Clade has always been weak, and that’s a hill I’m not coming off of. It’s slow, mana intensive, and sometimes just straight-up doesn’t work. Easy cut if you ask me, even if you’re leaning into the +1/+1 counter theme.
Let’s try out the new Deeproot Pilgrimage from the main LCI set. It’s pretty much a guaranteed 1/1 merfolk token every turn if you’re able to attack, and you can really go off with non-combat tap abilities like those on Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca or Kiora's Follower.
Suggested Cut: Kopala, Warden of Waves
For all its obvious merfolk synergy, Kopala, Warden of Waves is an underwhelming layer of protection for your creatures. It’ll overcharge an opponent once for a removal spell, which will almost always take Kopala out, and it does nothing to protect your merfolk in the face of an oncoming wrath.
Surprisingly, this precon features almost no countermagic, and while I commend that, you need some sort of stack interaction. Vodalian Hexcatcher is a must-have. You won’t have tons of expendable bodies, but you boost your merfolk lord count by one while adding a small amount of disruption to the deck.
Forerunner of the Heralds
Suggested Cut: Tributary Instructor
I’m not in love with Tributary Instructor. It assumes your +1/+1 gameplan is running smoothly, but then only does something if your board dies. Savvy players just snipe the Instructor first before wiping the board anyway. It’s all a bit clunky, though I suppose it’s quite the combo with Vodalian Hexcatcher….
You’re better served running Forerunner of the Heralds, or Merrow Harbinger if you’d prefer, though I’d bias towards the one with innate +1/+1 counter synergies. These let you find the right merfolk for the situation, whether that’s Herald of Secret Streams to push in for the win or Prime Speaker Zegana to refuel your hand. You can also guarantee a non-land hit for explore this way.
Suggested Cut: Bygone Marvels
In a deck dedicated to a single creature type, I’m not leaving home without Herald's Horn. Even when the reveal trigger misses, it’s still making your merfolk creatures cheaper to cast. Think of it like a mana rock that occasionally passively draws cards.
Suggested Cut: Island
The precon has roughly 25 blue sources of mana, so I think we’re fine to sub out one Island for another utility land. Mutavault’s not exactly a bulk bin card, but its price is within reason for the power it adds to the deck. It’s a merfolk when you need it to be, providing a simple but effective way to up your creature count for cards like Svyelun of Sea and Sky or Tishana, Voice of Thunder. Low opportunity cost, reasonably high upside.
Suggested Cut: Xolatoyac, the Smiling Flood
Merrow Commerce is a staple of any merfolk deck with tap effects in it. It’s better tailored to Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca, but that card’s already present, plus you’re already looking to add Deeproot Pilgrimage as another synergy piece.
Xolatoyac, the Smiling Flood fits the theme of the deck well enough – the counter half, at least. It does the same thing I recommended Spreading Seas for, but there’s a world of difference between a 2-drop cantripping spell and a 6-drop without protection or a relevant creature type. I’m really hoping Xolatoyac sees healthy play somewhere, but I just don’t think its best home is a merfolk-themed deck.
Path of Discovery
Suggested Cut: Evolution Sage
To me, Evolution Sage looks a bit like… dare I say it… a fish out of water. Yes, I know it combos with the commander, but you just don’t need to push the +1/+1 counter theme that hard here, especially when it means playing a handful of non-merfolk creatures.
Instead, I’ve opted to play another value engine with Path of Discovery, the original explore powerhouse (though admittedly overshadowed by some newer printings). It’s a way to get +1/+1 counters on new creatures entering the battlefield, and it plays into the few other explore cards already in the deck.
Sentinel of the Nameless City
Suggested Cut: Branching Evolution
Your goal should be getting a few +1/+1 counters on your creatures, not necessarily landing a bunch of Doubling Season effects and going absolutely nuts. And since most effects in this deck only place one +1/+1 counter at a time, Branching Evolution ends up playing out like a redundant copy of Hardened Scales for thrice the price. Trust me, the +1/+1 counter theme works fine without overloading on support like this.
That’s All, [Mer]Folks!
Merrow Commerce | Illustration by Steve Ellis
That’s my quick fix to take the Explorers of the Deep precon to the next level, though you can channel your upgrades in a different direction. You can go deeper on the +1/+1 counter synergies, you can try to find some more interesting, niche explore creatures, or you can dig into The Lost Caverns of Ixalan for more synergistic merfolk.
Of course, I want to hear how you changed this deck around! Remember, I went for a budget-conscious approach here, but you can certainly take your build up a notch depending on your collection/budget. How did you alter the precon, and what are your favorite new additions from the deck? Let me know in the comments below or over in the Draftsim Discord.
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