Dragon’s Maze: Simic Domination Review (Part 1 of 2)
It is the nature- and some might even argue purpose- of art to stir strong passions in the viewer, and you would be hard-pressed to find a more divisive pair in the classical era of the game than the husband-and-wife duo of Phil and Kaja Foglio. Sure the cartoony, whimsical pieces like the art for Al-Abara’s Carpet or Infernal Darkness have had their day, but for many this sort of art had a defining imprint on a bygone era.
Although it’s the characteristic that seems to linger in the minds of their critics, their art wasn’t entirely silly, either- particularly Kaja’s. Cards like Field of Dreams, Kismet, Revelation, and Teferi’s Puzzle Box show a more serious approach, and indeed it is the latter of these that frames our look at Dragon’s Maze today. In many ways, Dragon’s Maze was very much like that puzzle box- tightly-wound and intricately filled with small moving parts that need to come together just right for it to have its solution. Indeed, in setting up the block structure Wizards ended up giving itself quite the riddle of the set’s third act.
As befitting the analogy, the problem was one of space. In the original Ravnica, the ten guilds were portioned out over the three successive sets. Ravnica, the large set, introduced four of the guilds, while the small sets of Guildpact and Dissension rounded out the lot with three apiece. This made for solid design, but in looking back Wizards felt that there was room for improvement. In a way, the block was a victim of its own success. Players responded so well to the notion of “guilds” representing two-colour combinations that there was concern that players might become disenfranchised if they didn’t continue to see their guild supported. “Your guild showed up in one set and that was it,” observed Mark Rosewater. “That was all the goodies you were going to get.”
With Return to Ravnica block, the approach was going to instead be two large sets which would each support five guilds, then a small set which represented all ten. This worked well in theory, but it was a logistical challenge for Dragon’s Maze. Not only did the set have to work in all ten guild mechanics, but it needed to do more than simply be a rehash of them. There also needed to be something there to satisfy the expectations of a new mechanic, something which had to exist outside the guild structure. Though we touched on the “fairness issue” with regards to the guild selection for the Intro Packs in our review of Azorius Authority, this was assuredly a red line for R&D within the set itself- no guild would be getting something new that the others wouldn’t be a part of.
Still, it had to be something that fit, not only within the set and setting but also within the tight restrictions of the available 145 card slots. It would need to supplement the guilds without favouring any one. It would need to be simple and easily “grokkable” given that the set was already going to contain a highly dense amount of mechanical complexity thanks to the presence of all ten guild keywords. In the end, Wizards was able to find a solution that hit all of these criteria in the fuse mechanic.
Fuse tweaked the original “split cards” mechanic that had featured in Ravnica (though were created in Invasion). Although they play in the same design space area as mechanics like kicker and entwine, they do so in a way that’s both distinctive and unique, while giving the set that extra level of support for the guilds. Fuse cards- one of which is contained in each of the Dragon’s Maze Intro Pack decks- allow both halves of the split card to be cast if the mana cost is paid. In a stroke, they both support the guilds, integrate with the design space allotted, and yet give us the feeling of something mechanically new. And as the icing on the cake, the split card from today’s deck, Give // Take, was the preview card when the mechanic was spoiled!
The original Simic Synthesis was very poorly reviewed here, and proved to be something of a disappointment. We’d played with evolve back when it was a component of the Great Designer Search 2 competition with Ethan Fleischer, and had high hopes that the Simic deck could deliver the same amount of crazy creature-growing fun. Alas, it didn’t live up to its antecedent, boasting a poor supporting suite of spells over a mediocre evolutionary curve. Though the latest upgrade boasts the same amount of creatures (22), will a deeper card pool to build from make the difference?
To be sure, Simic Synthesis looked for a more even creature curve, with roughtly the same amount of creatures broken out over its different drop slots. Not so with Simic 2.0, which gorges on three-drops and splashes everything else. Certainly the deck seems to feel that it has all the tools that it needs there, and the rest of the deck is tightened up as a response. Gone is the one-drop Chronomaton and Kraken Hatchlings. Instead, we double up on the best-in-class card Cloudfin Raptor, a definite upgrade. We often found that an average game seemed to allow for a reliable three triggerings of evolve, making these a solid and sturdy 3/4 if played early enough.
In the two-drops, we lose out on the speedy services of the Shambleshark and utility of the Zameck Guildmage. Instead, there’s a dose of mana ramping with the deck’s non-foil rare card, Gyre Sage. This is useful but not great, considering how saturated with mana this environment is. When you’re packing 26 lands and two Simic Cluestones, you’ll have less trouble getting to the top of the curve. On the upside, the Gyre Sage helps get you there faster- but only if she’s deployed early enough. She’s a poor late-game draw, as her middling 1/2 power/toughness won’t do much to trigger evolve.
The other two-drop here, the Murmuring Phantasm, takes the tactical position held in the first deck by the Hatchlings. Not only is it a massive wall that can help absorb incoming damage and give you the time you need to grow your creeps, its high toughness is a tremendous evolve enabler, making the card a welcome draw at any point in the game.
Moving on to the three-drops, this is the very core of the deck. Our evolve army gets a boost from a pair of Battering Krasises (Krases?). These are small at the outset, which has both pros and cons here, but their trample is a very welcome addition. They’ll take some growth to live up to the pricetag- well outclassed at the outset when compared to something like Garruk’s Packleader– but like much of the deck it’s something of an investment project. To help things along, there’s also a pair of the Elusive Krasis. These, too, need to evolve to be useful (thanks to their 0 power). Much like the Phantasm, though, their outsize toughness will almost certainly help move things along for some of your other evolvers.
The last member of the three-drop’s growth cycle is the Crocanura. A familiar face from the first go-round, the Crocanura is the Simic’s version of Giant Spider. Neither flashy nor sexy, it nevertheless fills a role. If the head count of the Azorius air force is any indication, it’s even more useful now than ever. The Simic aren’t totally reliant on the Crocanura for air defense, either, as a pair of Beetleform Mages can attest to. A pair of the mana sinks not unlike the Frilled Oculus from the first Simic Deck, these 2/2’s can become 4/4 fliers with an investment of two mana a turn.
Next up are a trio of Centaur Coursers. These are are solid as they come here, a 3/3 for three mana. Though they have no abilities of their own, their power and toughness are a solid addition to the team s they can help keep things moving along the evolutionary way. If you don’t hve the patience to grow things organically, though, you can always hope to draw your premium rare guild champion, Vorel of the Hull Clade. A 1/4 body is already quite useful here for the same reasons as the Phantasm and Elusive Krasis, and while Vorel will never naturally gain any +1/+1 counters, he can double the ones you already have in play for only two mana, each turn. The ability to essentially kick your army into evolutionary overdrive makes Vorel a must-answer threat for your opponent, even as high high toughness makes him a difficult one to kill. This is a great card here, doing everything the deck needs. This is a huge upgrade over the first Simic deck’s rare selection of a too-slow Fathom Mage and nearly useless Unexpected Results.
Moving on to the rest of the deck, we find a familiar face in the four-drops with the Crowned Ceratok. This 4/3 trampler offers a nice bonus for your other creatures, giving trample to anything with a +1/+1 counter on it. You also get a pair of Opal Lake Gatekeepers, the Blue member of the Gatekeeper cycle. If you control two or more Gates you get a free card when you play them, and again they have that high toughness so prized by this deck.
At the top of the curve we have some legitimate closing options- no growth required. Species Gorgers are massive 6/6’s with the useful ability of letting you return a creature to your hand each turn. Sure it’s worded as a “drawback” since it’s not optional, but the prospect of replaying the Phantasm over and over again to continually trigger evolve is a prospect any Simic mage would salivate over. And hey, a little more muscle in the red zone doesn’t hurt either.
Next up is the Sapphire Drake, a counterpart to the Crowned Ceratok. Rather than trample, the Drake simply lets your creatures with counters on them take to the air- a prospect which often can bring the game to a swift and painful end. Finally, there’s an Archweaver at the top of the mana curve. From Return to Ravnia, the Archweaver has a robust 5/5 body alongside reach and trample- more than enough to make a meal out of most fliers you’re likely to face.
Infinite Dinner Plate
If the creature selection of Simic Domination seems to represent a small upgrade over the original, the noncreature support suite is a massive swing for the better. In the original deck, we found counter-shifting in Bioshift as the deck’s only useful combat trick (Tower Defense is more mediocre as it carries no power boost), which was useful but not great since it didn’t add any power to the board that wasn’t already there, and it needed an evolved creature to be present before it came on-line. Here we get a bit more ability to be proactive, albeit at sorcery speed. Phytoburst gives a single creature a massive +5/+5 growth spurt- just the thing to make your opponent sit up and take notice of that Elusive Krasis that’s been sitting about. Give adds a trio of +1/+1 counters to any single creature, while its opposite number Take removes counters from a creature to draw you cards. There’s also a Hindervines as before, a conditional Fog that can blow out an opponent whose creatures don’t have counters on them.
Where the deck really strengthened itself, though, is in removal. A pair of Encrusts and a Sleep was about the extent of it in the first deck. Although the Sleep will be missed, Dragon’s Maze offers some useful options through Runner’s Bane and Mutant’s Prey. The deck carries two of each, which should give you some options for removing the more nettlesome of your opponent’s creatures. Runner’s Bane is the lesser of the two, though, thanks to its diminished ability to remove a threat from the board. There aren’t a lot of creatures with 3 or less power that will demand removal outside of utility creatures, and the Bane won’t shut off their activated ability (though it may make it more difficult to use).
Krasis Incubation, on the other hand, will, making it a superb inclusion. It’s a unique card, offering applications for both your own as well as your opponent’s creatures. Seven mana is a lot to spend, but being able to repeatedly give your creatures more counters is a useful way to spend late-game mana that would otherwise go unused. Although there’s a cost to do so, having the ability to bounce an Arrest around the battlefield in response to your opponent’s plays also can be quite handy.
Finally, a pair of Bred for the Hunts are a useful enchantment that unfortunately falls in a drop slot already overloaded by your creatures, but can occasionally pay handsome dividends if you skip a summons to play it. By turning all of your creatures into Thieving Magpies, you can very quickly start to rack up some serious card advantage.
As mentioned above the deck packs in a pair of Simic Cluestones, the replacement for the Keyrunes each of the first cycle of decks boasted. There’s also a full playset of Simic Guildgates, so you should seldom have to worry about mana screw. Mana flood, on the other hand, may well be the new normal for this environment.
Overall we’re very excited about the updates made to the Simic template, and will be interested in seeing how the deck performs in field tests. We’ll put it through its paces and return in two days’ time to render a verdict. See you then!