Gatecrash brought one particular challenge in that it had the one color pair, green-blue, where both colors traditionally have the least amount of creature removal. Simic would face the challenge of holding the fort against some very offensive-minded opponents and, in many cases, doing so with creatures that initially enter the battlefield slightly understatted. While we've seen recent Limited formats where green-blue has shined via strong creatures in weak removal environments, like Avacyn Restored Limited, we learned our lessons there and wanted the removal to be significantly stronger in this set. So we'd need to get Simic combat-ready in other ways.
We knew this challenge would be compounded by Simic trying to evolve up its creatures over a period of time, when three of the five guilds had mechanics that rewarded attacking and extort, the remaining mechanic, could also easily finish off a Simic deck that might get off to a slow start.
In most games and competitive endeavors, being just a little bit slower than one's opponent isn't a good thing. Whether you're dashing for a finish line or trying to land the first punch, you are strongly rewarded for being even ever-so-slightly faster. Fortunately, in Magic, it can often be a good thing to be just a little bit slower than your opponent. If you are racing with creatures against a combo deck, or playing combo against combo, it's horrible to be slower. However, assuming you are planning on being able to interact via combat or spells, being a little slower means you have a better endgame if you survive. This is among the reasons why, in Constructed, midrange decks tend to prey upon rush decks, and why control decks tend to thrive against midrange decks. If you're far too slow, you'll be in trouble. Control decks, for example, have to play it honest in terms of being able to interact early and often against rush decks or else they fare poorly. Magic also has enough choices in deck building that you can always try to make card choices to even up some of the matchups, although usually at the expense of others, including when playing against a deck of similar speed.
If anything was clear from watching the Pro Tour this past weekend, it's that you most certainly need to be prepared for the early game. I saw a number of decks in Limited with three to five Foundry Street Denizens. The pros weren't messing around when it came to rushing out of the gates. This wasn't entirely unexpected. Simic can also certainly come out fast as well. For example, take a look at Zvi's draft deck from this past weekend. For this article, I want to take a look at how we set up things for the guild to survive.
Let's start with some of the creatures. The more we playtested, the more we realized the need to increase the number of early creatures with 3 toughness. We were finding it crucial that Simic could reliably get early creatures into play to slow down other guilds, and in particular Boros. Frilled Oculus had cast three mana for a long time but we moved it down to two mana. Sage's Row Denizen and Incursion Specialist also were given an extra toughness in the course of testing. Crocanura had been very powerful and I was involved in many arguments trying to defend its numbers, which remained stable from start to finish. Ivy Lane Denizen also picked up an additional key 3rd toughness. Elsewhere in the curve, we also added a toughness to all of the following cards: Sapphire Drake, Wasteland Viper, Elusive Krasis, and even some rares with Gyre Sage and Biovisionary. This may not make for the most exciting storytelling, but it is important to note that in this same time frame few creatures for Simic were gaining power. We were making a lot of incremental changes to make it more reasonable and safe to block more often.
Amusingly enough, changing stats on Simic cards wasn't always as straightforward as in other sets. It has been a while since I could remember increasing power or toughness on a card to weaken it, decreasing those stats to make the card better, or at least having lengthy discussions about it. Just for reference, the last time I recall us weakening a card by increasing its toughness was for Bitterheart Witch, due to concerns we had over its Constructed interactions with Heartless Summoning. In the case of evolve creatures, this was a much more generalized phenomena. For example, let's say Shambleshark was a 2/2 instead of a 2/1. Would it be better or worse? You could quickly make it a 3/3, which is particularly powerful in Limited, but it would be harder to evolve it to a 3/3 than 3/2, and similarly harder to evolve to a 4/4 than a 4/3. On the other hand, by being a 2/2 it could evolve other creatures in your deck more easily. In this case, Shambleshark is probably more powerful as a 2/2, as were many of the cards with better stats, but it was rather crazy that we could have these discussions at all.
At any rate, we did make a late change with Shambleshark. We gave it flash late in development so it could come down and block against an opponent who might have otherwise not have knowingly wanted to trade, or who might have been able to prevent it from doing so with Mugging, Court Street Denizen, Firefist Striker, or Bomber Corps. Providing Simic with this surprise blocker early in the game gave them a lot more control to deny a Boros player's battalion.
Leyline Phantom was a card I designed well before development to hopefully help Simic stabilize. To get a 5/5 for five mana at common, blue creatures typically need a drawback. Creating a drawback that could turn into an upside for Simic—by allowing the guild to play a large creature over and over to evolve their creatures—felt quite fitting in the set. I also enjoyed what it could do with Sage's Row Denizen.
In terms of spells, it was good to have a starting point where we knew that Simic could fight for Pit Fight during drafts. Beyond that Gruul card, we looked for what else we could do to help prevent bleeding. One of the stronger removal cards for blue at common often takes a form like Paralyzing Grasp. However, that had been utilized in Return to Ravnica, and where possible we looked to create cards distinctive between Gatecrash and its predecessor. I suggested Hands of Binding early on, but there was a lot of concern that it looked and played too much like the detain mechanic from Return to Ravnica. Ultimately, I decided that we really need it here both for blue's game play and as a good example of a cipher card that we could push a fair amount. I'm happy with how Hands of Binding has turned out in helping enable itself and buying time while not being too oppressive. It has also fit in well with aggressive strategies.
Agoraphobia was another card we created to buy early time. Rather than a simple version of this card, we gave it the ability to return it to hand in hopes that on some infrequent occasions players might find the time to put it on their own evolve creatures, making them easier to evolve, and later moving it to opposing creatures as needed. I'd given it a playtest name referring to radiation, as I recall deciding that fitting to help facilitate evolution. Be sure to snatch this card up any time you've drafted a Simic Manipulator.
While a little slower than some of the other cards I've been highlighting, Totally Lost, featuring our new fan-favorite Fblthp, was another card that could help alleviate pressure from anything going too horribly wrong. It could help deal with a Madcap Skills, a fully evolved creature, or a player who isn't being careful using bloodrush. It could also turn into real removal occasionally for Simic in concert with a Sage's Row Denizen.
When I was brainstorming other cards to help stabilize things for blue I stumbled upon the design for Ætherize. I was somewhat surprised that this relatively simple design didn't exist. At four mana, it is actually harder than you might imagine to bail you out of situations, but it has created some great stories in games I've watched. If nothing else, it can strike fear in the heart of an opponent who realizes you might have one in your deck.
As for green spells, Verdant Haven can help you gain life and ramp toward the powerful cards that many drafters are deeming too slow. It also helps you splash removal from other colors if you aren't concerned with seeking help from other guilds. It's a great way to ramp into the likes of a Mindeye Drake or Leyline Phantom if you are looking to buy time. I've also seen it lead to some silly draws with a Gate and Greenside Watcher. I wouldn't be surprised to see it doing something in Constructed a ways off in the future.
Tower Defense, notable as being the only card in the set I gave a playtest name to that stuck, is in many cases going to be a marginal card, but it was another card I hoped could give you security in making a block against bloodrush or battalion, if you could afford to keep up the two mana. While it can be used on your own attacks, it was another of a variety of cards like Smite, Ætherize, and Furious Resistance that I included to make a stand on blocking and hopefully come around later in drafts to players more interested in blocking than attacking in the early game.
Hindervines was another tool along this axis specifically optimized for Simic. In the end, it was moved up to three mana, though, due to concerns over having too many low-cost Fog-effects in Standard. As a result, it is a little pricey for this type of effect but it can be situationally very exciting.
In general, lifegain tends not to be particularly playable in Limited, and Predator's Rapport is situational on top of all of that. That said, the card can gain you a lot of life. Late in development, I priced it down to three mana on the off chance it might just be worth trying out now and then as one of the final cards you select to put in your Limited deck, or at least consider sideboarding in against a deck you might suspect you could beat if you could only stabilize—in particular against a highly aggressive deck with a lot of extort cards.
And so, while this set is fairly aggressively poised for Limited, I hope this article gives you a glimpse into a number of cards we added during design and develop to provide options for players more inclined to leisurely build up a highly evolved menagerie.
Thanks for reading,