The Simic Problem
With the cardpool and manabase available in modern, all colour combinations should be equally viable. While the manabase certainly allows any combination of colours to work (up to and including 5-colour tribal flames) the cardpool isn’t quite so accommodating. The blue/green colour pairing in particular – Simic, for those following the Ravnica guilds – leaves a lot to be desired. Hampered by a lack of efficient hard removal or any unambiguously powerful multicolored card, it’s a rare deck that can pair an island and a forest effectively in modern.
Before you reach for your torch and pitchfork I am fully aware of Infect, Bloom Titan, and Scapeshift (I won’t acknowledge temur twin as competitive as it’s been virtually stamped out by grixis with Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Kolaghan’s Command). The “simic problem” is not defined by a complete lack of presence at the top tables, but rather the absence of versatile synergistic pieces that can be ported between different decks. Think of Thoughtseize into Tarmogoyf, or Snapcaster Mage with Lightning Bolt. Now look back at those competitive decks with simic colours – can you put Tolaria West and Summoner’s Pact in a deck that does something remotely as powerful as tutoring Primeval Titan in the amulet bloom deck? Is there any scenario where putting Remand and Sakura-Tribe Elder in the same deck does something more efficient than building towards a Scapeshift kill? The honorable mention goes to Gitaxian Probe and Serum Visions fuelling a Become Immense, but for the vast majority of decks it is simply more effective to put those blue cantrips towards a cheap Gurmag Angler, Tasigur, or Murderous Cut than risk the 2-for-1 of Become Immense (suicide zoo notwithstanding).
That is, the few successes that have been realized by Simic in modern are driven by specific combos, and are pretty much dead ends in terms of further innovations in deckbuilding.
The Simic Problem becomes more apparent as we lower the bar to tier 2 and under. I have played a lot of modern, and the only pure blue/green decks I’ve seen or played would be turbo fog and undying pongify. Turbofog plays symmetrical card draw like Dictate of Kruphix and Howling Mine to overload the opponent’s hand, stifles their attempts to win with bounce spells and Fogs, and then wins with something like Ebony Owl Netsuke. Besides basically being a worse version of lantern control, the soft lock that turbo fog creates requires such a concerted effort that the synergy cannot realistically be leveraged in any other shell. By comparison, “Undying Pongify” uses Young Wolf and Strangleroot Geist with Pongify and Rapid Hybridization to try and create 1 mana instant speed 3/3s with upside. While this synergy is far more portable than the turbofog pieces, and partially answers the Simic weakness of hard removal, the “combo” is simply not efficient or powerful enough to be worth the downside of drawing one piece without the other, or having the entire attempt to generate pongify value thwarted by a lightning bolt or path to exile. If you want a Wild Nacatl, just play Wild Nacatl!
Expanding the lens to three-colour builds, I find it glaring that all three simic variants – Sultai, Temur, and Bant – are easily in the bottom five of the 10 different wedges/shards in modern. It is easy to think of effective Jund, Abzan, Naya, Jeskai, and Grixis decks – Esper has potential, Mardu is nowhere, and the three simic builds are somewhere between the two.
Looking at Sultai, I’m pretty sure that anyone with a playable Jund or Abzan midrange deck and a playset of Snapcaster Mages has at least tried pairing simic with black in either Sultai midrange or Sultai control. I would personally sum this experience up with two observations: 1) Snapcaster Mage and Abrupt Decay is a far cry from Snapcaster Mage and Lightning Bolt; and 2) counterspells and Liliana of the Veil do not play very well together. There simply does not seem to be any angle or advantage to playing blue over red or white, considering that black discard can more or less do the same work as counterspells and is better suited to the attrition game inherent to the black/green colour pair.
Turning to Temur, where Simic gains access to Lightning Bolt – or more accurately all of the powerful blue/red synergies gain Tarmogoyf – there is actually one very promising blue/green synergy that brewers should be paying attention to:
Stubborn Denial is a deceptively powerful card, but getting ferocious online and keeping a blue mana up on the same turn in the early game is a challenge. Pairing Tarmogoyf with some number of delve creatures goes a long way to having a beater and a one mana negate operational by turn 3. This is quite reasonable as during the first two turns it’s also very possible for denial to hit a strong card even without ferocious active – e.g. Expedition Map, Inqusiition of Kozilek, or Amulet of Vigor. So far the brew of choice with these cards is built around temur, leveraging Delver of Secrets, Snapcaster Mage, and Lightning Bolt, but the raw synergy is portable to both Bant and Sultai as well, at least in principal.
This twin-like instant-kill combo requires blue and green to execute, and will push deckbuilders to find ways to optimize around these colours. While the jury is still out on what, if any, shell can competitively present the combo, the potential is definitely there. By comparison, in the pre-BFZ world modern Bant was mostly a trap, as builds invariably looked like Zoo decks that traded lightning bolt and Wild Nacatl for Geist of Saint Traft and Remand – a trade that is almost certainly a downgrade.
Defining the Simic Problem
The deficit of simic brews and the absence of a competitive simic-based aggro, midrange, or control deck is ultimately defined by two things: 1) there is no cheap, reliable removal in the colour pair and 2) there is no actual blue/green card that provides a meaningful payoff for going into the colours.
In terms of removal, the other 3 colours all give you instant access to a premium modern removal spell: Path to Exile, Lightning Bolt, and take-your-pick of black removal: Dismember (pain free option!), Liliana of the veil, Murderous Cut, etc. Simic is left looking at cards like Vapor Snag and Prey Upon, or “gift” removal like Reality Shift, Pongify, or Beast Within that solve one problem but create another. While in theory blue counterspells (e.g. Stubborn Denial) could be Simic’s hard removal, modern’s suite of 1 and 2 mana countermagic is pretty conditional and is better used in a supporting role than as the primary or only source of removal for a deck.
In terms of a payoff multicolor card the closest thing simic gets is Noble Hierarch, which is frankly strong enough that if it only tapped for green it’d probably see the exact same amount of play that it currently does and nobody should look at this as a “simic card”. Continuing down the list to actual blue/green multicolored cards we hit Simic Charm, Coiling Oracle, and Mystic Snake as the closest to modern playable, but contrast this “potential” to the benefits of playing just about any other colour pair:
Only the blue/black Dimir share this dubious distinction of having no powerful multicolor card to pull modern players into the guild, and even there we can at least point to Glimpse the Unthinkable and Mind Funeral as backbones of the brew tier modern mill deck. While we might jump through hoops to play a couple mystic snakes, or try to leverage the body on cantrip oracle, or be occasionally impressed with the versatility of simic charm, these cards are simply not in the same class as those listed above.
Solving the Simic Problem
Effectively, Simic needs to get either a top tier piece of removal in green or blue (or more likely multicolored), and at least one universally good multicolored blue/green card in the modern format. I don’t think it’s correct for either colour to get a top tier removal spell as this is simply not what these colours should excel at, but it is absolutely acceptable for wizards to print one or two all stars for what looks to be the sadsack guild of modern. I won’t be designing cards for wizards anytime soon, but here are some examples of what it might take to put more modern players into simic:
Counter target spell with converted mana cost 3 or less.
Sign in Not-Blood
Draw a Card and gain 2 life.
Ferocious: Instead, draw 2 cards and gain 4 life.
I heard you like CoCo
2/1 Flash; When ~ enters the battlefield choose 1: draw a card or return another target creature to its owners hand.
Search your library for an island or forest, put that card into play tapped.
I can’t say for sure if these would be broken or balanced – I leave it to Wizards to put time into playtesting hypothetical cards and determining if they’re acceptable as I’m not the one with the power to actually print them if they work. But these are the kind of effects at the kind of costs that would make me feel a lot more confident about playing islands and forests together in the same modern deck. Until we get the blue/green equivalent of Abrupt Decay or Lingering Souls, it is unlikely that we will see many coiling oracles or mystic snakes even at the FNM level – there is simply too little to gain by going Simic.
Until next time, evolve or graft – either way you’re probably about to lose 😉