Gatecrash: Simic Synthesis Review (Part 1 of 2)
In the Autumn of 2010, Wizards of the Coast kicked off the Great Designer Search 2. The first one, held four years prior, had proved a tremendous success, and had resulted in the hiring of some tremendous creative talent. It had been won by Alexis Janson, who’s first lead design (Dragon’s Maze) is the third set in Return to Ravnica block. In addition, Wizards also scooped up the runners-up Ken Nagle (who we’ve covered before), Graeme Hopkins, and Mark Globus (who has led design for Magic 2012 as well as the most recent Planechase release). As we touched on in our review of Boros Battalion, this was the “Fourth Age” of Magic design.
Longtime readers may recall that this second iteration of the competition tangentially involved Ertai’s Lament. When it was announced that one of the design challenges involved the creation of an Intro Pack deck, four of the aspiring designers asked us to put their creations through their paces. The first to do so was eventual GDS2 winner Ethan Fleischer, whose deck Tooth and Claw took advantage of his design’s primary mechanic, evolve. Fleischer imagined a prehistoric setting to be the backdrop for his set design. Named “Epolith,” it was filled with dinosaurs and early mammals, all fighting for survival on a world where time was accelerated. Rather than evolving over millions of years, creatures could change before your very eyes! Evolve invoked that feeling through the use of +1/+1 counters which creatures would get when another creature with a higher power entered the battlefield under the same player’s control.
When Wizards set about the design of the ten guilds for Return to Ravnica, the Great Designer Searches offered a wealth of material to draw from and they took full advantage. The disperse mechanic from Ken Nagle’s original submission slotted right in as overload for the Izzet. The Boros mechanic, battalion, came from GDS2 runner-up Shawn Main’s proposal, where it was called assault. Finally, evolve was adopted with its name intact, though it did undergo a few minor mechanical tweaks (it now looks at either power or toughness as opposed to just power). Asked one reader on Mark Rosewater’s Tumblr whether or not Return to Ravnica was “going to be the Great Designer Search block,” and the reply was “yes.”
Although the prehistoric world of Epolith is now a thing of the past (ha!), evolve’s flavour makes it a perfect fit for the Blue/Green biomancers of the Simic Combine. Originally featured in Dissension, the original Simic mechanic was graft. Like evolve, graft involved the bestowal of +1/+1 mechanics when a creature entered the battlefield, though this was largely a zero-sum game. In order for one creature to get a counter, another had to give one up. Like many things in Magic, evolve offers something of a trade-off. It’s more conditional than graft, but is no longer constrained by being a zero-sum game. Instead, the number of times you can evolve a creature is limited only by your ability to continue to play bigger and bigger beaters.
Seeds of Change
The important thing to be mindful of as we go through the creatures of the deck is the different ranges of power and toughness. In order to maximise the benefit from evolve, you’re going to want bodies which check in at the extreme ends of the spectrum, even if it means that means they’re shortchanged in the other direction. The nightmare scenario for Simic Synthesis is a deck filled with 2/2’s and 3/3’s.
We open with a perfect example of this, the Kraken Hatchling. Not only is this a stellar defensive creature to help give you some cover while you build up your evolve engine, but it can itself evolve almost any other creature in the deck thanks to its high toughness. This gives the Hatchling a versdatility it wouldn’t ordinarily possess, useful either early to stall an onrushing opponent or later to trigger some +1/+1 counters for your troops. A clever inclusion.
From there we have two more one-drops, the Cloudfin Raptor and the Chronomaton. The Raptor is our first evolve creature, a humble 0/1 flier. Although weaker than an Ornithopter, played early enough it should evolve up the ladder quite nicely thanks to its small starting size. The Chronomaton, on the other hand, is a card that can grow itself. This isn’t terribly useful on its own, as it can take a few turns to reach respectable size, but it does synergise with a few of the other cards in the deck that look for +1/+1 counters.
One of these is the Zameck Guildmage. Like all of the guildmages it has two activated abilities, and one of these lets you remove a +1/+1 counter from one of your creatures to cash it in for a card. In tandem with the Choronomaton, that’s three mana to draw a card once per turn- nice, but not world-shattering. The Guildmage’s other ability allows each creature you summon for the rest of the turn to enter play with a free +1/+1 counter.
We find another evolve creature here in the Shambleshark, and the deck gives you two of them. A humble 2/1, the Shambleshark can set up a surprise for your opponent thanks to flash, either to ambush your opponent with an unexpected creature, or to evolve one or more of your creatures at instant speed. The deck carries a pair of them. Lastly for the slot, we find a Frilled Oculus. Another asymmetrical body, this 1/3 has the ability to gain +2/+2 once per turn two mana, offering a useful mana sink later in the game when you may have more mana than you have things to do with it.
Moving on to the three-drops, we find the deck’s evasive core. The Drakewing Krasis has both flying and trample, and as a 3/1 it’s exactly the kind of card the Simic like to run. The same goes for the Elusive Krasis at 0/4. The Elusive model is from a similar vein as the Cloudfin Raptor, beginning life with 0 toughness but with the tantilising prospect of growing ever bigger from evolve triggers. Should your opponent try running any evasion of their own, you’ve also got a pair of Crocanura here, a 1/3 with both evolve and reach. The Simic stand-in for the Giant Spider, thanks to evolve the Crocanura has the opportunity to grow into a respectable beater.
Next up are the trio of four-drops, including the deck’s foil premium rare, Fathom Mage. The Fathom Mage is horrendously overcosted at first blush, since all you’re getting is a 1/1 that brings nothing else to the table when it touches down. Instead, Simic Synthesis asks you to regard this card as an investment, paying a lot for it up front but with the prospect of getting far more than your mana’s worth in return. As a 1/1 with evolve, it’s almost certain that you’ll get to at least raise up the Mage once, at which point the card replaces itself. In addition, there are some non-evolve-based tricks that can draw you even more, such as Forced Adaptation or our next creature, the Ivy Lane Denizen.
Another card that fails the “vanilla test” (a comparison of power/toughness to converted mana cost, as employed by the fellas at the Limited Resources podcast), under the right circumstances you can make up the difference with +1/+1 counter generation. Useful early and nearly as useless late, when little time remains to get the most from the effect, the Denizen is another in the string of conditional cards filling up Simic Synthesis.
Then there’s the Crowned Ceratok. As mentioned above, there are some creatures in the deck that don’t themselves generate +1/+1 counters, but interact in a positive way with the physical attributes of the mechanic. The Ceratok is one of these, giving all of your creatures with +1/+1 counters on them trample. Moving up a rung to the top of the mana curve, we find another in the Sapphire Drake, which similarly conveys flying. Both of these are on sturdy bodies as well, making each quite useful (though the Drake does come with a hefty pricetag).
In addition to the Drake, there are some other closing options on tap here at the top as well. The Adaptive Snapjaw comes with a delicious six points of power, and its asymmetrical toughness is both a blessing (evolve triggers) and a curse (dies easily). At 5/5, the Leyline Phantom can evolve most anything at least once, and here its drawback of returning to hand after dealing combat damage is not without some upside, since recasting it lets you potentially set off more evolve triggers. Finally, Merfolk of the Depths is a 4/2 with flash, which offers the same promise of “combat trickery” that the Shambleshark did. One wonders if this was a factor in costing the card, because it doesn’t seem like a good deal at six mana. Still, like much of the deck, it may not be individually impressive, but as part of the team effort it can repay any faith placed in it.
The rest of the deck’s cards offer a fairly mixed bag of support. There’s a touch of removal in a pair of Encrusts, but by and large this deck like the Boros will be doing the bulk of its work in the red zone. With that in mind, there are a number of combat tricks and other nasty surprises in store for your opponent. Bioshift allows you to move +1/+1 counters from one creature to another at instant speed. This not only lets you inflate your target creature, but it also gives the creature that lost them leave to begin accumulating them once again. Tower Defense offers a hefty toughness boost as well as reach, which can help ground an air-focused opponent if you have enough blockers held in check. Hindervines is a conditional Fog that exempts any creature with a +1/+1 counter on it from seeing their damage output blanked. This is the type of card that inspires wispy dreams of one-sided blowouts, but that is typically much more the exception than the norm.
For more counter shenanigans, you also get a pair of Forced Adaptations. These auras do only one thing, which is to give the creature they enchant a +1/+1 counter each upkeep. As mentioned above they combo particularly well with the Fathom Mage, but overall the effect probably isn’t worth a card here.
Sleep locks down an opponent’s defenses, leaving them vulnerable to a massive inswing. This is a great closing card, and to their credit Wizards often sticks it in creature-based decks that employ Blue. It’s a fine fit here, giving you liberty to test out all those new creatures you’ve spent all game growing.
The next two cards offer a bit of card drawing. Urban Evolution simply lets you draw three cards, with the option to play a second land on the turn. Unexpected Results, the deck’s other rare, has a very unique effect in giving you a free casting, with a hedge in case you whiff with a land. Although many players started having dreams of hitting Eldrazi-sized creatures with this, this is more of a fun inclusion than a serious card, since most often you’ll simply be overpaying for a random creature or spell from your library, assuming you didn’t pay four mana for a free land or two. People enjoy random effects (see: cascade), but on the whole this card is woefully out of place- particularly for a rare.
Finally, there’s the expected pair of Simic Keyrunes, which offer up a fairly useful body in the form of a 2/3 with hexproof. Throw in a Guildgate and you’ve got yourself a deck! We’re off to put the deck through its paces. See you in two days when we return to score Simic Synthesis!