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January 30, 2013

22

Gatecrash: Simic Synthesis Review (Part 1 of 2)

by Dredd77

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.

Sound familiar?

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

Simic Synthesis Scorecard

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.

Shambleshark

Shambleshark

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.

Buried Oceans

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!

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22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Morten Dall
    Jan 30 2013

    Very interesting mechanic. However, the lack of removal might be a bit frustrating in combat. Can’t wait to see it in action.

    Reply
  2. Jan 30 2013

    I know the whole deal with simic is creatures but I would have been very happy to see a couple of counter spells or even rapid hybridization in there. I too am looking forward to see how it fares against the other decks.

    Reply
  3. Jan 30 2013

    I’m commenting on this one first because I went Simic during the prerelease. 🙂

    I took a lot of inspiration from this Intro Deck when I was making my own Simic Evolve deck. The Vanilla Test isn’t really that much applicable to the creatures of this deck because the main thrust of this guild is synergy and curving out. Most evolve creatures are useful early and useless late. Haha.

    It’s unfortunate that the extremely fun Unexpected Results has no synergy with the deck. Reminds me of the Red Sun’s Zenith in that one deck with Galvanoth. Bombo!

    Reply
    • Jan 31 2013

      I found that the Simoc Combine intro deck was ridiculously underendowed with Evolve creatures. I went Orzhov at pre-release, and only one guy chose Simic and I never paired up against him, so I picked up the Intro Deck to see how they played and…

      …I think they could be awesome, if only I’d seen them working properly instead of a weak Intro deck that doesn’t really utilise the very thing the Guild is about.

      Reply
  4. Lee
    Jan 30 2013

    Very fun looking deck although i suspect vulnerable to speedy ones or with lots of creature removal. No point of a creature that will get good in 4 turns time when you need it to be good now!

    Reply
  5. Jan 30 2013

    Both me and my friend played this guild at the prerelease, and most of your initial impressions seem spot-on:

    Evolve: Very good and fun mechanic.
    Cloudfin Raptor: Don’t be fooled, it’s Air Elemental in disguise.
    Zameck Guildmage: This guy is great if you draw creatures and very lackluster if you don’t. Part of the problem with cheap evolve creatures is drawing them late, and this guy lets you repeatedly pour excess mana into making them super-sized right away (like the multikicker creatures from Worldwake).
    Fathom Mage: It’s hard to lose if she sticks around, especially if you have Zameck Guildmage to double up on your draw.
    Sapphire Drake: Usually reads “If you control Evolve creatures, win the game.”
    Adaptive Snapjaw: This card can grow to a 9/5 with little trouble. Like Forced Adaptation, he was absurd against non-red decks.
    Leyline Phantom: Excellent as a 1 of. Hitting for 5 then recasting him on defense is great, and any Evolve triggers you set off are just gravy.
    Merfolk of the Depths: Was not impressive. I sideboarded it out eventually.
    Unexpected Results was awful. My friend played this card and I saw him reveal a card with higher CMC exactly once. When I asked him why he was playing it he said “I didn’t have any better on-color cards.”

    Reply
  6. Jon S
    Jan 30 2013

    I think the forced adaptation enchantment is probably downplayed a bit as its cost vs benefit of +1 counters could swing the game unexpectedly unless you run into creature removal.

    Reply
    • Jan 31 2013

      It’s an interesting card. Played early, it can provide some serious muscle. Its benefits steeply decline, though, the longer into the game you go until you draw it, and in those last couple turns before the game is over (one way or the other), it’s as good as a dead draw.

      These kinds of cards always set up a difficult trade-off. In order to get the best chance of drawing that crucial early Adaption, you need to include as many as you can- a full four copies. Which, as it turns out, also maximises your chances of drawing it later, when you really don’t want it. That’s why I tend to give cards like this a miss- and why abilities that let you throw away cards for benefit (like, say, cycling, or Spellshapers, or what have you) can be so useful.

      Reply
  7. tenthtechpriest
    Jan 30 2013

    Speaking from a prerelease and messing around with pre-release winnings perspective, a proper evolve curveout will win you the game quite easily, but the deck tends to get outclassed as the game goes on since other decks are playing creatures for full value while your drops are for the most part conditional and time-dependent due to the asymmetrical P/T ratios required for evolve, shifting your game towards a goldilocks ‘late early game to midrange’ ideal. That’s not to say they don’t have their late-game plans like the subtheme involving the manipulation of +1/+1 counter placement with things like zameck guildmage and fathom mage (a well placed bioshift or forced adaptation make the latter a beast, by the way)

    I feel cloudfin raptor gives a good cross-section of how a typical simic game would play out. If you drop it early and get a perfect curveout, you can ramp it up to a sizable 3/4 and basically win off that alone, or at least a less exciting but still useful 2/3 for your mana if you don’t have the dreamcurve.

    If you draw it midgame, it’s typically an inefficient 1/2 that you’ll likely be forced to sacrifice as a chump blocker because your early evolve didn’t work out and are playing a defensive game as the evolve builds up and most likey have your eggs in a different basket such as building up an Elusive Krasis or a Zameck Guildmage ‘dig for Crowed Ceratok/Sapphire drake’ plan (or your early evolve worked and drawing this card is irrelevant since you’re winning). Not to mention it isn’t triggering evolve itself thought that will be a problem even with your larger drops as things hit their feasible evolve ‘cap’ since well, your numbers can only go so high.

    Late game it’s usually a deader draw then THEIR dead draws because you’ll be out of evolve gas and it’s just an 0/1 whose lack of evolve gas hurts even MORE in this stage of the game, while they will typically at least have something with power to contribute to the clogged board state attrition or to help enable their finisher.

    On another note I feel unexpected results was a poor choice for this deck, as while there is a lot of ‘fun factor’ built into the card and it does hold a lot of potential for non-preconstructed formats, it just doesn’t contribute anything useful here.

    Reply
    • Varo
      Jan 31 2013

      Pretty impressive analysis. While i agree with your points, my jonnhy-simic lover side just wants evolve to be effective. While the precon doesn’t seem very good, i think evolve can work in a deck if you limit yourself to Cloudfin raptor, Experiment one and maybe Elusive krasis (Fathom mage can be nuts with counter tricks like Increasing savagery), and use beefier creatures at higher converted cost slots.

      Reply
      • Jan 31 2013

        Thanks! I have no doubt that evolve can be effective on paper- our playtesting from Ethan’s original deck for the GDS2 provided proof of concept- but the question remains whether or not it has the tools to thrive with what it’s been given in Gatecrash. My instinct tells me it does, and we’ll find out soon enough once Theme Weeks kick off on GatheringMagic.com . I’ll be Meddling this next slate of decks there as I did for RTR, and am looking forward to tuning this one up.

        Reply
        • Varo
          Jan 31 2013

          Cool! I really enjoyed the meddlings you did at gatheringmagic, looking forward to the gatecrash ones!

          Reply
    • Jan 31 2013

      Agree on all points. This is what we call a “feast or famine” mechanic- when it hits and can hit like a truck, but when it doesn’t it just stalls out. There’s a deck in there somewhere, but of course we’re not going to get a highly tuned version as the Intro Pack- just enough to let us know what it’s about and give us the glimmer of promise. Thanks for the in-depth write-up!

      Reply
  8. DJ
    Jan 31 2013

    Pretty excited

    Reply
  9. Jason
    Jan 31 2013

    I like the Evolve mechanic, but it would get flattened for sure by speedy decks. This one could definately use some “meddling”! Looking forward to that article.

    Reply
  10. Feb 1 2013

    Evolve has a problem. Cards are too mana expensive to play to soon to get more counters than if you put in the game some creature with the F/R you need in that moment.

    Reply
  11. Zack
    Feb 1 2013

    I can’t be the only one who doesn’t like creatures with an uneven distribution of power and toughness (0/2, 3/1, 4/5…), simply because it takes an extra couple seconds to do the math.

    I like the reptile/amphibian theme of this deck, but like others have already said, if Evolve doesn’t establish itself right away, it’s dead in the water (pun intended).

    Reply
  12. Chris X
    Feb 1 2013

    Is it just me or does anyone find it strange all the precons come with 25 lands now instead of 24.

    Reply
  13. Feb 1 2013

    I wasn’t really impressed with any of the intro packs when I first looked at them, and I can’t say this deck makes me change my mind. While evolve is a very appealing mechanic to me, I think that Ethan’s take on the evolve intro pack was more interesting, although I agree with the choice to move it from R/G, as it seemed to be back then, to G/U.

    Oh well, the good thing about waiting a few days to read these is now I can head over to the battle report and see if my doubts about this deck are true.

    Reply
  14. mcc1701
    Feb 7 2013

    Evolve has flaws, but if you were to mix this with either of the GU intro decks from the inistrad block you would see some interesting things.

    Grave power likes creatures, so a bunch of evolve creatures are great. In addition, boneyard wurm and splinter fright enter BIG so they should trigger each evolve creature you got, and of course if ghoultree doesn’t evolve every creature you have, why haven’t you won yet?

    While soul bond can seem a bit counter intuitive, it is the sub theme of this deck that is powerful: flickering. Cards like Wolfir Avenger and Vorstclaw are packed with value and size for their mana, but the real gem is Deadeye navigator. Sure Vorstclaw claw evolve your stuff once, but what do you think of evolving all your creatures for only 2 mana? Heck Deadeye is a 5/5 so he can trigger evolves on his own.

    I see evolve fitting is as primary early drops. Fathom Mage and flickering is required so your late evolves are not dead draws.

    Reply
  15. Limbonic_art
    Feb 7 2013

    The land excess issue is really bugging me because I love to play precons unchanged for the most part. For the sake of enjoyment, I may have to trim one or 2 lands from these Gratecrash decks to avoid frustration when confronting them in the future.
    Anyways the deck itself seems healthy curve-wise, evolve wants to hit its creature drops one after the other to strongly increment board advantage. However problem comes from the few evolve critters on the deck. There are only 9 creatures with evolve out of 21, out which 2 are 5 drops, which is effectively 7 evolvers that come out before turn four. Some of the creatures interact with critters with +1/+1 counters or give them out themselves but so few evolvers in the deck means there are few instances to trigger the counter generations. That is the main problem.

    Reply
  16. Feb 10 2013

    Experiment One is probably the coolest and best evolve card, but they didn’t include one here.

    Too bad there wasn’t Rapid Hybridization either, it can trigger evolve if you blow up your own dude for a Frog Lizard.

    Reply

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