The Lost Caverns of Ixalan has four new Commander precons with classic Ixalan archetypes, and this one features merfolk — one of the oldest and proudest archetypes in all of Magic. Given their venerated status, in the game and on Ixalan in general, we’re going to help upgrade these Explorers of the Deep.
Led by Hakbal of the Surging Soul, this new preconstructed Commander deck combines the mightiest merfolk of the Magic multiverse into a single, synergistic school. Including top picks from Lost Caverns of Ixalan, as well as a few completely new cards designed specifically to empower this deck, it has all the tools you need to launch an awesome aquatic army against your foes. But once we’re done exploring those cards, we’ll make some additional recommendations to help you reach even greater depths.
EXPLORERS OF THE DEEP: NEW COMMANDERS
As mentioned, the default commander choice for Explorers of the Deep is Hakbal of the Surging Soul, a brand new legend who supports the two-color identity of many Ixalan merfolk. “Surging” turns out to be a perfect descriptor for this noble scout, as the combination of his abilities will immediately jolt you ahead in almost any situation.
While Hakbal’s attack trigger is already great, it’s his first ability that I really want to gush about! Explore is a tremendously flexible mechanic, and it becomes even more dynamic when you trigger it in bulk like this.
Explore lets Hakbal decks utilize a huge range of possible sub-themes with their merfolk: +1/+1 counters, landfall, self-mill and recursion, topdeck mechanics like cascade and discover, even “hand-size matters” and self-discard.
Hakbal’s wording also gives us a very satisfying level of control over this process. You choose which order your creatures explore in, and with a few merfolk in play, you will have very good control over which card you leave on top at the end. The design here is just so tight that I almost can’t imagine having a bad game experience while Hakbal is at the helm!
Nevertheless, there are alternative commanders included in Explorers of the Deep to give you some variety and future deck building options. Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca is Hakbal’s immediate predecessor: both in the lore as leader of the River Heralds and in the metagame as the preeminent merfolk kindred commander.
Both Kumena and Hakbal incentivize building a wide board of merfolk, but Kumena’s abilities lend themselves to a more reactive, slow-paced game plan. Your other creatures will usually act as a defensive wall and resource engine, tapping down immediately before your turn to draw free cards (or later on, to grow their stats).
Meanwhile, you’re free to chip away with Kumena himself for unblockable commander damage, or just wait to attack with a critical mass of merfolk once you’ve put enough counters on with the third ability. How much you enjoy this kind of lone-attacker play pattern will probably decide whether Kumena is the right merfolk commander for you.
OH MY GOD LOOK, IT’S SO CUTE — AAAAAAAGH!!
Sorry, had to get it out of my system. Who would have believed a kaiju-type monster could be so damn adorable? I love the idea that Xolatoyac is basically just a big happy dog that doesn’t understand how much destruction its playtime will wreak on any coastal cities nearby!
Mechanically, this Salamander Serpent gives us a non-merfolk-specific option for players who’d rather not be so locked-in to that one theme. However, that does not mean it lacks good synergies across the rest of the deck, as has sometimes been the case with alternate commanders in past precons.
Ultimately, I think unlocking the true potential of the Smiling Flood as a commander will require a significantly different decklist. But even in the context of this merfolk-dominated precon, Xolatoyac is a functional role-player.
PRECON REVIEW: MERFOLK PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
When evaluating the potential of the new Explorers of the Deep exclusive cards, my first pick is the aptly-named Ripples of Potential. I think there’s a lot more than ripples here.
This is effectively a blue Heroic Intervention for counter decks, with a bonus proliferate trigger to make sure you run it over Negate. There’s arguably pros and cons to phasing as a defensive mechanic, but being able to dodge literally any effect while preserving all the counters, auras and other buffs benefiting your team should make up for any slight drawbacks.
I’ve already raved about how cool the explore mechanic is when discussing Hakbal, and for a niche mechanic with very limited direct support, Topography Tracker is quite a powerful value multiplier. Map tokens are not quite as strong as Treasure tokens, particularly in Commander, but I think they will still surprise plenty of people with how much they can impact a game!
Printing new support for underutilized themes is a really cool way to use these Commander precons, but it’s also good that Wizard of the Coast includes a few spells that look exciting for more “mainstream” decks. +1/+1 counter archetypes are extremely popular in these colors, and both Wave Goodbye and Tributary Instructor should be immediate inclusions for the majority of those decks.
Other than merfolk kindred decks, Deeproot Historian might be worth a look as a way to ignore commander tax for any deck with a druid in the Command Zone: Faldorn, Rashmi, Chulane, Kinnan and Tatyova are good homes, just to name a few.
Otherwise, I feel like kindred-themed Commander decks are always a bit more exciting in terms of reprints. There are many niche merfolk support cards that will basically only see the light of day for a product like this, so Wizards of the Coast had no reason to leave any of them in the vault unless they break the blue/green color identity (sorry Sygg).
It’s really cool to see both merfolk god cards together (Svyelun of Dominaria and Thassa from Theros), as well as various mortal leaders from different planes. There’s a surprising amount of +1/+1 counter synergy between original Ixalan cards like Herald of Secret Streams, Morningtide’s Sage of Fables and Simic-sworn merfolk like Vorel of the Hull Clade or Prime Speaker Zegana.
For non-creature reprints, I’m struck by the all-star team of enchantments picked out to enhance our amphibious assault: Deeproot Waters, Reflections of Littjara, Hardened Scales, Simic Ascendancy, Kindred Discovery and Branching Evolution.
That last one was previously a Jumpstart exclusive, which kept it out of reach for many players who might otherwise run the efficient +1/+1 counter enhancer. Shout outs to the design team for making it available here!
The landbase is also quite generous, with a good number of multicolor lands which ETB untapped to help get our aggressive creatures into play fast.
Explorers of the Deep: $50 BUDGET UPGRADE
Another benefit of a strong theme like merfolk kindred is you have a clear direction to take when upgrading the deck. Of course, Explorers of the Deep still has a lot of room for alternative strategies, but for our budget upgrade guide I’ll simply be streamlining the solid game plan that Hakbal and friends are already geared for.
We want to draw and cast as many merfolk as possible, put +1/+1 counters on them and make huge, indefensible attacks with the evasion from cards like Herald of Secret Streams, Zegana, Utopian Speaker, and Mist Dancer.
The stock decklist is pretty good at doing this, but there are some gaps in the plan we can still optimize. One thing it struggles to do is get value out of all the extra land cards that will inevitably end up in our hand thanks to explore triggers.
We’ll add Oracle of Mul Daya so we can play a few more of them and keep an eye on our top-of-library the rest of the time. We’ll probably still end up discarding lands to hand size, but that just means we can bring them ALL back later with Splendid Reclamation!
Next step is to ensure our creatures are always going to get their +1/+1 counters on the way to combat. One downside of explore is we do not fully control the outcome. If you flip a land, then that particular merfolk won’t be able to benefit from Herald of Secret Streams or Seafloor Oracle.
Path of Discovery essentially doubles our chances of getting that crucial first counter on our creatures by the time they’re ready to attack, while Master Biomancer guarantees it (albeit without the other upsides of explore).
We’ll also add a little card draw and a few efficient counterspells to protect our growing army from sweepers or other bad stuff, and then it’s time for some fun splashy purchases!
Lurking Predators offers immense value over time for any creature-heavy deck, especially if you don’t have a lot of situational ETB triggers to miss. We can also tip the scales on this card further toward us by using explore triggers to set up at least one nasty flip per turn cycle. I chose this over a somewhat similar option in Kindred Summons because it can actually help us bounce back if our army dies.
Finally, I wanted to include some on-brand game enders in case the generic merfolk beatdown is stymied. Wanderwine Prophets is a bit of a hidden gem that helps us overcome a major weakness of fair creature decks in multiplayer — needing to kill multiple players without them ganging up on you while you’re tapped out. Just sacrifice a trivial merfolk token after each swing and you can easily complete a victory lap of the table (or set up a different win con) over several consecutive turns.
Thassa’s Oracle might be a controversial card in many situations, but I think even its harshest critics would agree it’s a fair inclusion here. Not only is this a merfolk-themed deck, but the instant-win trigger allows you to literally win by exploring hard enough!
I love the story implication of Hakbal’s expedition digging deep enough to finally reach their true goal at Ixalan’s Core, and mechanically it’s a different (fairer) galaxy to the kind of non-games Thoracle is infamous for in cEDH or Constructed. I’m sure your playgroup will agree once they see it in action.
This is a proactive, heavily synergistic deck that needs mostly creatures and lands. So to make room for my additions, I mostly cut cards from outside those categories — along with a few of the least-efficient or most-narrow merfolk cards.
In particular, I think the bar for non-creature ramp cards like Kodama’s Reach is much higher in a deck like this. You really want to be curving out with early merfolk to ensure there’s already an army ready when Hakbal arrives, and as a four-mana commander, you don’t really benefit by ramping into him after turn two.
You can find the full decklist here.
I’m pretty satisfied with what we were able to add for $50, but there’s always a few more baubles to chase after if your budget will stretch for them.
An easy place to start is adding some of the other “additional land drop” effects, which were a little too pricey for me to go deep on: Azusa, Lost but Seeking, Kodama of the East Tree, Dryad of the Ilysian Grove, and Exploration are all excellent and will help you make the most of your explore triggers.
You can also reach for more of the real top-shelf kindred support cards. Urza’s Incubator is first to mind, as well as Kindred Summons and Obelisk of Urd. The Great Henge is probably the single most busted addition you can make to green creature decks, and The Ozolith would really complete the +1/+1 counter package.
More generically, you can spend extra money to upgrade your interaction and your land base. Misty Rainforest (and any other blue or green fetch), Breeding Pool, et. al., but also the newly-reprinted Cavern of Souls, plus Mutavault as a free bonus merfolk.
Free interaction like Force of Will, Force of Negation, Force of Vigor, Fierce Guardianship and Endurance is always impactful in multiplayer games where you’re sometimes trying to match spells with several opponents at once. You can also shield your key creatures from the worst interaction with premier equipment like Champion’s Helm, Commander’s Plate, or Sword of Feast and Famine.
Magic changes constantly, but the old reliable merfolk deck is much the same as it ever was. With a fun, powerful commander and a consistent, proactive game plan, you’ll be islandwalking your way to victory before opponents can so much as say “go fish!”
Tom’s fate was sealed in 7th grade when his friend lent him a pile of commons to play Magic. He quickly picked up Boros and Orzhov decks in Ravnica block and has remained a staunch white magician ever since. A fan of all Constructed formats, he enjoys studying the history of the tournament meta. He specializes in midrange decks, especially Death & Taxes and Martyr Proc. One day, he swears he will win an MCQ with Evershrike. Ask him how at @AWanderingBard, or watch him stream Magic at twitch.tv/TheWanderingBard.