This week was dedicated to the Simic Combine; A guild both very popular with most Magic players and very hard to really understand - also in Limited. We'll try to explore what the guild is trying to teach us and how best to tackle its oddities in draft.
The Simic guild is one of the hardest to understand, both philosophically and in the Gatecrash limited format. Many Simic decks can look very impressive only to fall completely flat, and it can be hard to tell exactly what - if anything - you are doing wrong. As with everything else concerning the Simic, the solutions to this problem seem to pull in two different directions at once.
Let me explain; the Simic seem to me to be split between two different goals that can be hard to unite. On the one hand, it has a lot of Evolve creatures that clearly need work to be profitable running; especially Cloudfin Raptor makes little sense out of context. On the other hand, some of Simic's creatures (notably cards like Drakewing Krasis) are very fine cards on their own. Sometimes, I feel like the best way to draft Simic is to just ignore the Evolve keyword and evaluate its creatures without it - but that's obviously not the optimal solution.
It does, however, give us a good starting point when evaluating Simic's creatures; some of them are fine additions to your deck even if they never evolved. Couple that with the fact that most of them have stats that will almost assuredly let them evolve once, and you can reasonably judge what cards you want and what cards you don't. Crocanura is one of my favorite commons in Simic (or, in green) because its base stats make it an excellent blocker - but a single evolution turns it into a formidable one - our good old trusted Giant Spider. Another evolution might even allow it to go on the offensive. Another great hit - which Simic drafters will have to themselves, unlike the Crocanura, is Shambleshark. This is a format where blocking and trading two-drops is a great option to have. Presenting a surprise blocker is great against Boros whereas adding an attacker to your board at the end of the opponent's turn can really mess with the otherwise well-laid schemes of Dimir opponent, and there's the dream of evolving a blocker - like the aforementioned Crocodile Frog - mid-combat for blowouts. (Elusive Krasis) is another great blocker that can present a problem to controlling decks if not dealt with (it's even a little resilient to both Orzhov Charm - at least 4 life lost - and Executioner's Swing which it gets out of range of pretty fast).
Using this method it seems easy to justify the inclusion of most Evolve creatures (perhaps except Adaptive Snapjaw), but if you strike a wrong balance, you'll quickly end up with a pile instead of a real deck. Here's where I'd like to wax philosophical a little; the philosophy of the Simic is one of improving nature. Translated into a more broad context, one should pay attention to how things are proceeding and only then intervene to help that process along. In drafting and deckbuilding, this translates to "listening to the cards".
This is an important ability in any limited format and one of the most important things for getting a good impression of a set from the spoiler and getting the hang of a limited format before everyone else: Ask yourself what the cards are trying to tell you, and act on it. Why does Agoraphobia have that activated ability? Why is a card like Mortus Strider in the set? What is a card like Bioshift asking of you? This was what led me to one of the predictions I am the most proud of in my original Gatecrash review; the power of the Dimir control deck. It seemed to me that what Dimir really wanted wasn't as much to win the game as to not lose it. It has the tools for whittling down either an opponent's library or life total: what might in a race situation be called "goal confusion" becomes a "two-pronged attack" and "inevitability" in a long, drawn-out game. When listening to what Dimir wants you to do, you end up picking up all the tools to stay alive first (removal, good early blockers, counterspells) before assembling whatever win condition(s) you need.
Simic is slightly different. It is possible to just draft a deck with evolve creatures and have it be reasonably good, but the secret lies in what evolve creatures you pick. Often, you will want to start out with Cloudfin Raptors, hopefully in multiples. These do a ton of work in a dedicated evolve deck - if you can enable them. Moving up the curve, you want defensive cards in the two- and three-drop slot that can hold down the fort, evolve your raptors, and hopefully themselves grow larger later. I've already mentioned Crocanura and Elusive Krasis, but cards like Frilled Oculus and Incursion Specialist are also good. Shamblesharks serves this role decently too but are better in more aggressive decks.
Now is when some Simic decks get it wrong: you also need cards - probably a little later on your curve - that have no need for a high toughness (though it obviously doesn't hurt). Once a few counters are on your guys, almost all of them will have a toughness of around four. Trying to evolve them off toughness becomes significantly harder. Instead, try grabbing a few cards like Crowned Ceratok and Drakewing Krasis. Rounding out with cards like Sapphire Drake and the important Leyline Phantom should get you there.
Now, those are the creatures. But what about tricks and spells? In this department is where you really want removal, something which Simic has in very scarce quantities. Pit Fight is decent but only in the late-game; Agoraphobia is very good but uncommon, and (Rapid Hybridization) often doesn't exactly do what you need. Simic is by far the worst guild in terms of removal in the set. If you can't adapt to that (and it does take a bit of adaption), your Simic decks will probably not be top-class even if it has a really solid creature base. You can't just ignore the handicap Simic has in this section because then you'll die to an annoying Deathcult Rogue with a Shadow Slice under it or a couple of untouchable Basilica Screechers draining you while also nibbling away at you in the air. You have access to cards like Aetherize, Simic Charm and even Burst of Strength. A Simic deck's way of dealing with a problem creature is either to attack into it with a trick (which means you really want a few of those - (Ghor-Clan Savage) is a great one which can also evolve your guys in a pinch) or make it attack into a trick. While stockpiling 22 creatures does make your evolve chain more potent, it also sometimes just causes you to lose to a Basilica Guards on turn three.
This is mostly true for the faster Simic decks; the ones that prioritize one-drop evolve creatures and which want to get in there with a few Shamblesharks early on. In the slower Simic decks, you can - and often will need - a splash to make your game-plan viable. Whether it's the larger creatures that especially Gruul has to offer or just the solid removal suite in Black or Red, planning on going to the long game with a Simic deck almost always means you need to splash. Green offers great enablers for this in Verdant Haven and Greenside Watcher - these are disgusting together, by the way - and your slower deck speed also means that you can reasonably get to use Keyrunes (the ones in Simic's neighbouring guilds are both fairly decent).
What you need to watch out for, then, is either to end up with a combination of evolve creatures that have a hard time evolving each other (as good as Crocanura and Elusive Krasis are - they are much better if they can get to 2 power!), or to end up with not enough evolve creatures to justify running cards with "extreme" power and toughness (such as Adaptive Snapjaw, which is too fragile to be a good five-drop on its own). There are also some Simic cards that look powerful but do not tie into the evolve theme effectively or are too slow to actually live up to their looks. (Zameck Guildmage), while still perfectly reasonable, is a lot worse in draft than he looks, and Urban Evolution really asks a lot of your early defense (and the quality of your other cards) to be cast in a deck that is not ramping aggressively.
On the other hand, if you are not buying into the whole evolve mechanic, you can still draft green-blue to a decent result. Here, instead of focusing on cards playing up your theme, you need to be picking only cards that are powerful in their own right; Frilled Oculus is a card that does not particularly help evolve but doesn't lose any utility in a deck without evolve creatures. Drakewing Krasis is a solid way to punch through in the air, especially with bloodrushers like Ghor-Clan Savage or Batterhorn that can push through extra damage and make it survive combat.
With all of that said, Simic is still the guild that I have the least experience with in draft: it can quickly become a mess, and my advice is to not try and move into it (no matter how cool the guild is, flavor-wise) unless you are getting passed strong signals to move in (a third or fourth pick Guildmage or Fathom Mage is probably a decent indicator). Simic draft decks that don't get there have a lot less to fall back on than the other guilds because of its intricate mechanical skeleton, and the easiest way to get a bad impression of the guild is to play three rounds with a really bad deck in its colors and then decide not to try it again.
I know this article might have been a little less wordy than I usually make them, but I really wanted to get it in despite a busy week, and I hope you all enjoyed the read and learned something. In any case, I would appreciate comments or elaborating questions if you have any.