Underdog's Corner - Experiment Kraj

Seasons of Ravnica

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the latest addition of the Underdog’s Corner! As you know, the full spoiler for Guilds of Ravnica has been released, and I have to say that it is an impressive set. Keep an eye out for EDHREC’s reviews this week! With that in mind, I wanted to take a step away from the Commander 2018 legends and focus on the legends of our previous visits to Ravnica! While I won’t write any articles for the newest batch of Ravnican legends until EDHREC is populated with data, I wanted to look back in time to the original Ravnica: City of Guilds block, the Return to Ravnica block, and any legends from the plane that may have been released in a supplemental set!

Ravnica remains one of the most iconic planes in all of Magic, and it has released some of the most iconic legends in the game. In this installment, we’re going to look at a legend that first appeared in the original Ravnica block, in the set Dissension. Our newest Underdog today is Experiment Kraj! Among Simic legendaries, this horrifying amalgamation of cytoplasts ranks as the 9th most played legend in the color combination. However, with legends like Tatyova, Benthic Druid, Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca, and the upcoming Simic legends from Ravnica Allegiance, it is very likely that we will see this this card ooze further down the list. Regardless of status, this creature is still something to fear, and as it becomes less popular, the threat it poses only becomes more potent. Let’s get started!

Experiment Kraj

Kraj remains one of the most unique legends in blue-green, even after the years have given us so many more Simic commanders. I lament quite often that new Simic legends are typically all just card advantage engines, but Kraj doesn’t fall into that simple category.

Experiment Kraj has all activated abilities of each other creature with a +1/+1 counter on it.

{T}: Put a +1/+1 counter on target creature.

At its most (Momir) basic, Kraj is able to buff creatures by putting counters on them, including itself. However, most of you are likely rolling your eyes at me right now, because that’s an incredibly disingenuous statement. While buffing is one way to look at Kraj’s abilities, it’s obvious to see that we’re going to be focusing on Kraj's capacity to copy the activated abilities of other creatures. This makes our first search using Scryfall very easy:

[id<=ug t:creature o::]

It looks odd, but using [o::] will find the vast majority of cards with activated abilities. There are some exceptions that you’ll have to work around. For example, since Outlast is an activated keyword ability, colons won’t show up when we search it, as Scryfall doesn’t search for reminder text (at least I don’t know how to search for that.)

While copying activated abilities will be powerful, we need to remember a few key things while building. The first is that Kraj is a six-drop; our commander is expensive. While Simic can mitigate the high cost through ramp, having Kraj removed more than once will set us back immensely. If we build too much with our commander in mind, we’ll be stuck with synergy pieces that can’t work cohesively without our linchpin.

The second thing to keep in mind is that Kraj is still a commander that interacts with +1/+1 counters. While we want to copy abilities, we don’t want to neglect cards that are cornerstones for +1/+1 counters. Sometimes all you need to win a game is have enough large creatures. (Man, I sound like Scot Sutton!)

Lastly, Kraj is a six-drop. Yes, we’ve already established this, so why are we coming back to it? We need to remember that Kraj will be coming down late, and that influences the decisions we make on a turn-by-turn basis. Are we going to build a board state where we can immediately play Kraj for value? Are we going to play Kraj into an “empty” board and hold up pieces to play later? Or are we going to try to use Kraj as a late-game finisher? We have options, and the timing of when we play it matters. Let’s also not forget that many activated abilities require tapping. In fact, using Scryfall, we can see that 500 of the nearly 1200 creature cards with activated abilities in UG require tapping. So where do we even start?

Finish to Start to Finish

If you’re like me, you read Kraj’s ability and immediately thought, “How does this combo?” Just like Mairsil, the Pretender, Kraj’s abilities read like a ticking time bomb. While I may not enjoy playing “combo decks” myself, I can’t help but recognize when they exist. I always think it’s important to have a few combos available as a way to end a game, even if that’s not my primary goal. For this approach, I like to only include pieces that can interact with the rest of the deck so the card isn’t “dead” outside of the combo.

Umbral Mantle is one of those cards that seems to combo with anything and everything. Most often, it is paired with a creature that produces more mana than the Mantle costs to untap, as a way to generate infinite mana (with the secondary effect of creating an infinitely large creature). We need a way to generate 3+ mana repeatedly, so we need to consider what mana dorks to include.

Selvala, Heart of the Wilds is probably one of the most infamous legends that uses this combo to great effect. While Selvala is an incredible creature, her price and/or reputation may be a deterrent for some people. We still have other cards like the humble Karametra's Acolyte that can fill in with reduced efficiency. However, while the Acolyte seems to scale well enough on its own (especially with our general's mana cost), cards like Viridian Joiner and Marwyn, the Nurturer are likely to be more consistently powerful, since we're going to have a secondary focus on +1/+1 counters.

While Umbral Mantle is one of the usual suspects for infinite combos, Kraj's ability to borrow abilities actually opens up a few more synergies than normal. Untapping is a powerful and abusable mechanic, and Simic is no stranger to such shenanigans. We have access to Auras such as Freed from the Real and Pemmin's Aura, which are the cleanest way for Kraj to repeatedly untap itself. Devoted Druid is a clean infinite combo that requires much less setup than those Auras; as long as we can tap Kraj, get a +1/+1 counter on the Druid, and land a Hardened Scales, we can generate infinite green mana. Even without Kraj, the Druid offers a lot of burst potential, especially if we can start stacking counters.

There are more cards that fall into these categories if you want to go deeper on this untappy-combo aspect of the deck, and Scryfall makes finding these cards incredibly easy:

[id<=ug t:creature (o:untap or o:"untap symbol") o::]

Mutual Evolution

The Simic Combine has brought up two counter-based mechanics on our two visits to Ravnica, and it'd be a shame to not at least take a look at them.

Let's work a bit backwards. Evolve, while powerful, lacks some of the raw synergy that Graft has with Kraj. Despite that, the mechanic doesn't feel out of place, and the cards we're going to look at feel right at home in the Simic Combine's identity. Gyre Sage should immediately set off alarm bells with our previous discussion of Umbral Mantle. However, beyond the combo potential, it's still a two-cost mana dork that can grow very quickly. This is going to be an incredible piece within the core of counter cards we're planning to include and it can help us power out an early Kraj or a stronger board presence.

Fathom Mage is a card whose existence perplexes me. The design makes sense, but the fact that the text "Whenever [CARDNAME] evolves" exists on Renegade Krasis but not on Fathom Mage is just absolutely befuddling. Regardless, I'll happily take the card draw. Combined with any number of counter accelerants such as Hardened Scales or Kalonian Hydra, Fathom Mage will bury our opponents in card advantage if left unchecked. An 80% inclusion rate according to EDHREC is certainly a seal of approval if you have doubts.

Simic Manipulator was in my very first EDH deck, but has sat untouched in a binder since that deck's dismantling. However, coming back to it, I think this is the perfect deck for it. 55% of Kraj decks currently run it, and I think that's perfectly acceptable for a card reliant on the environment around it. I like to think positively, and the idea of potentially being able to steal two creatures a turn, even if small, is exciting. It's important to note that the Mind Control effect of the Manipulator is permanent.

Spreading the Love

When we look at Kraj and Graft side by side, it raises the question if the legend or the mechanic was designed first. Regardless of the answer (which seems easy enough to guess), I'm grateful that the two work so well in tandem. Despite being a nightmare for online play, Graft creates a lot of interesting interactions that most mechanics never come close to matching. Not only does it do everything we want to do and more in this deck, but most of the playable cards come with activated abilities as well. It's basically a love letter to the Johnny and Vorthos in us all.

There's a lot of parallels to draw between Graft and Evolve, and we even see that overlap in the abilities that appear on cards as well. That similarity even appears in names of Simic Manipulator and Cytoplast Manipulator. While the Cytoplast version doesn't permanently steal creatures, the trade-off is a much easier hoop to jump over. Among the Graft cards, Plaxcaster Frogling is probably the most notable, as it has the second highest inclusion rate and the highest synergy rating on Kraj's page. Protection is key for an expensive general like Kraj, and our Frog Mutant friend provides just that. Novijen Sages is a bit harder to include as easily as the other two, but it's worth a shot if it can be of use in your meta.

While Graft allows us to move counters from one creature to another, those cards are luckily not the only ones that do so.

Forgotten Ancient is the quintessential card for moving counters. Increasing the overall power on board passively is a great boon, and with accelerants like Hardened Scales, a single spell turns into four counters total after they're moved away from the Ancient. That's a lot of power and a lot of efficiency. Those counters don't necessarily add utility all on their own, but that's what Rishkar, Peema Renegade is for. While Rishkar doesn't have the raw counter production as our Ancient, he is able to turn all of our creatures with counters into Llanowar Elves. If played early, Rishkar represents a quick burst in mana production. While Rishkar and Ancient both create counters, we also have ways to move counters around as well. While the second ability is incredibly niche, Simic Guildmage's first ability is versatile enough to at least garner a look. While only appearing in 18% of Kraj decks, there's still a home for it if we're looking for a repeatable way to move counters around.

Let's also not neglect that we have lands that are "free" counters as well. Oran-Rief, the Vastwood and Llanowar Reborn should be slam dunk in the majority of Kraj decks.

One For All, All For One

We've spent so much time discussing support for Kraj that we actually haven't talked about what activated abilities we should include. Rather than digging through for obscure interactions, let's look at the top EDHREC picks for Experiment Kraj.

The "-Ling" cycle is only one card away from completion in every color, but here we already have the cards from that cycle that we need. I'm actually surprised to see that only 20% of Kraj decks are running Aetherling compared to 56% of decks running Thornling. If I had to guess why this was the case, my bet would be that the downside of having Kraj repeatedly come down without haste is a deterrent. However, regardless of reasons, having four or more options for abilities from a single creature gives us a wealth of options. Also, we shouldn't neglect the progenitor of the cycle, Morphling, which is included in more decks than either of the other two -Lings.

Next up are two very different picks when it comes to function, but which represent the highest synergy ratings on Kraj's EDHREC page that we haven't yet discussed. Arcanis, the Omnipotent is an expensive and slow target when it comes to copyable abilities, but being able to potentially draw six cards a turn with Arcanis and our general is enticing enough to at least try it. This is a pick you will see often in Mairsil decks, and I think it is likely still better there. However, the Pretender can't even include the next signature card. Gilder Bairn is one of the strongest options we can include with our focus on stacking counters. Despite the strange wording that the Ouphe sports, it basically reads "double the amount of +1/+1 counters on target creature." That's a powerful line of text, but we need a way to safely tap the Ouphe before we start to abuse it.

Lastly, I can't leave you without a pick that's off the beaten path, and the last two cards I want to talk about are currently only in three and one Kraj decks, respectively. When I first looked at Kraj, I asked myself if there was a way to grant activated to creatures through Auras or enchantments. That search first brought up Presence of Gond which is a combo enabler every time that I've seen it pop up. It adds quite a bit of utility when put on our untapping creatures, generating a steady stream of tokens. However, despite being overlooked for Kraj decks, this pick appears in three decks compared to our last pick's singular inclusion.

Dragon Throne of Tarkir is an interesting pick that isn't obvious at first glance. As an equipment, it turns one of our creatures into a once-per-turn Overwhelming Stampede. However, it does so by granting a creature an activated ability to do so. Hello Kraj, here's your new throne.

It's a lot of mana to set up, but this deck shouldn't have issues with that by design with a six mana commander at the helm. Combined with our various untappers, this presents a very real threat to kill the table with combat damage quickly.

Cleaning Up the Lab

That's the end of our run-through of the multitudinous ways to approach Experiment Kraj, and I'm sure there are plenty of cards that I didn't discuss that you will want to include in your own personal deck. This is one of the most modal commanders out there, and I encourage you to continuously experiment with all of the possibilities. Below is my version, if you'd like to check for more ideas.

”The Mother of All Experiments”

View on Archidekt

Commander (11)
Creature (178)
Instant (60)
Sorcery (39)
Enchantment (25)
Artifact (34)
Planeswalker (9)
Land (112)

Once again, thanks for joining me in the Underdog's Corner! Keep an eye out for my Guilds of Ravnica Set Review this week, and I'll see you next time with another denizen of Ravnica in the next Underdog's Corner! If you have requests, let me know!

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