Of all the Guilds of Ravnica mechanics, surveil has received the most attention. A scry variant doesn’t exactly scream “build around me,” but the guild seems pushed, and there are enough synergies that it makes me want to work on it. In our most recent podcast, Siggy, Sam Black, and I went through the process of building new Guilds of Ravnica decks together, and one of the decks we built was a surveil deck. Today, I’ll expand on our conversation from that episode and review each of the potentially playable surveil cards.
There are two reasonable ways to build a surveil deck. The first one is Turbo Surveil, where surveil is the theme of the deck. The second is just a control deck that happens to use surveil cards. The second style of deck will almost certainly be successful, but I like pushing mechanics when I first work with them, so I’m going to start with Turbo Surveil.
Some surveil cards are just good cards. Price of Fame, Thought Erasure, and Sinister Sabotage will probably see play regardless of whether there’s a surveil deck. But some of the surveil cards require building around them, and then give you a payoff:
I like this card a lot, and it has potential even if you aren’t full-on surveil. It’s easy to make this a 3/3 blocker on turn 2, and then a 4/4 blocker on turn 3, which should be good enough to halt most attacks. Then, at some point, it doubles as a kill condition. I think this will be one of the best cards in a surveil deck.
This is a more focused card than Thoughtbound Phantasm, because the base stats are worse, so you need to surveil for it to work. Thoughtbound Phantasm can at least trade with most early attackers with zero activations if you need it to. Once you do start attacking, though, it’s almost impossible to block.
This card is also deceptively powerful. The rate on it is obviously horrible, but getting the effect for free is amazing, especially because of how well it works with Doom Whisperer.
This is the best way to get a ton of on-demand surveil. A 6/6 flying, trample for 5 isn’t bad, filtering your draws is pretty good, and triggering surveil all the time is incredible.
These four cards work well together and are the core of the surveil deck I want to build. The basic idea is that Doom Whisperer can trigger surveil once for every 2 life you spend, which will put a counter on both Spybug and Thoughtbound Phantasm. If you have two of those creatures in play, then it becomes “pay 2 life: put a +1/+1 counter on two creatures,” which means that you just win the game if you have as much life as your opponent does. It also mills you for a hefty amount, looking for Creeping Chill and potentially Narcomoeba.
Consider this sequence:
- Turn 2, Dimir Spybug.
- Turn 3, attack (19)
- Turn 4, attack (18)
- Turn 5, play Doom Whisperer. Activate the ability five times, hitting a Creeping Chill. You’re now at 13 and they are at 15. Your Spybug is a 6/6.
- Activate the ability another 6 times, hitting another Creeping Chill. You’re at 4 life, they’re at 12 life. Your Spybug is a 12/12, and you can make it a 13/13 if you want.
This is lethal and only requires two cards! Obviously there is a lot going on—you could be at 5 life instead of 20, you could hit zero Creeping Chills, but there are also other things you can do over the course of the game, and this sequence has you completely skipping turns 1, 3, and 4. You could play a Thought Erasure turn 3, which will already put a counter on the Spybug. Or you could have drawn a Creeping Chill, which you can cast on turn 4. Or you can have a second Spybug, Thoughtbound Phantasm, or Lazav, so you need to hit no Creeping Chills. Or you could just hit all four Creeping Chills in the top 30 cards or so.
I think that the potential combo with those cards is so powerful that there has to be a deck in there somewhere. Here’s the rest of the supporting cast:
Lazav, the Multifarious
I love this card. 1/3 surveil 1 for 2 mana isn’t a good rate, but it’s not awful either, and it works really well with the deck—it triggers Thoughtbound Phantasm and Dimir Spybug, it benefits from previous surveils, and it lets you hit that “critical mass” of surveil-matters creatures to justify Doom Whisperer. It also works as other copies of Doom Whisperer, and it’s even sort of a combo with itself by acting as both pieces of the Doom Whisperer + Thoughtbound Phantasm combo. If you have both in your graveyard, you can attack with your Doom Whisperer, Lazav, and, after blocks, stack a bunch of surveil triggers and then morph it into a Thoughtbound Phantasm. Then, once it gets all of the counters, you can even morph it back into a Doom Whisperer.
You’re milling a lot of cards, so Narcomoebas could be getting into play for free a lot. The issue is that it’s just not that exciting of a card, even if it’s free. You don’t mill your whole deck like Dredge unless you have Doom Whisperer, you don’t have other creatures that combine to attack (Bloodghast, Prized Amalgam) and you don’t have a use for the body (no Dread Return or Cabal Therapy). I think this card will most likely not make the cut.
This is OK if you’re trying to put a lot of Narcomoebas into play, but not that strong of an effect otherwise. If the surveil-matters cards triggered based on the number of cards you surveil, then that’d be a lot different.
I’m a fan of this card. It sucks against Goblin Chainwhirler (story of every card’s life), but if they don’t have it, a 3/1 lifelinker is a decent card. The fact that you will be able to get it without spending a card at basically any point in this deck is great, as the surveil cards both put it in the graveyard and bring it back. Against control, it’s a resilient threat that demands a permanent answer.
This card is just great, and it works especially well here because you want to make sure that your creatures live.
Price of Fame
Another card I think is great. It competes with Vraska’s Contempt, but the upside is real—getting surveil 2 is much better than gaining 2 life overall, even if it doesn’t exile or hit planeswalkers. It’s also extremely cheap if you’re killing a legend, and a fair number of good cards are legends (Lazav is always a legend, Aurelia, Lyra, Sai, Ghalta, Nicol Bolas, and so on). I think this card will see play regardless of whether surveil is a deck or not.
I love this card as a Snapcaster-Mage-esque value card, but I’m not sure that a turbo surveil deck will have enough targets. It’s a creature deck, the spells are the support here, so this card probably doesn’t have a home, but control decks might want it.
Another card that is just good. Read the Bones was perfectly acceptable, and putting the cards in the graveyard is significantly better than putting them on the bottom. The main issue is that Read the Bones was usually played as a way of getting card advantage in decks that didn’t have blue, such as B/W or B/R control, and Notion Rain requires you to have blue, so you might just have better options available, but when you are a surveil-matters deck then you’re going to want Notion Rain almost for sure.
I do worry a bit about your life being taxed too much between Doom Whisperer, Notion Rain, and Blood Operative, so you probably can’t jam four, but Creeping Chill and Doom Operator go a long way toward gaining some life back, so you can play a couple.
Another “just great” card that will be a counterspell staple for years, the same way Dissolve and Disallow were. That said, I’m not sure it’s actually what you want here, as I envision this deck being more proactive.
The rate on this card is never good, but it’s not awful either, so having the ability to do it almost at will could be pretty good. It doesn’t impact the board much, so maybe a sideboard card?
This is a medium card—you’ll want it if you’re desperate for some cheap interaction and/or cheap surveil, but I’m not excited about it.
The new Rogue Refiner is probably too weak to see play. I like how it plays with Sinister Sabotage (you can leave mana up and then play one or the other), but surveil 1 is too small a number. Maybe with surveil 2 this card could have been good.
Getting surveil 1 each time you attack is pretty good—you don’t even have to connect, so you get to pump your surveil-matters dudes before damage is dealt. If you’re looking for another 2-drop, you could do worse.
Unfortunately not a major combo with Doom Whisperer, but still a minor one. If you have enough surveil, it could offset the life loss from Demon, Blood Operative, and Notion Rain. It’s also a good target for Lazav, and works better with instant-speed surveil cards.
This card is tough to evaluate. A 4/3 is a pretty bad body, and it can’t ambush much in combat, but it’s a good attacker—it’s more of a tempo play than a Torrential Gearhulk, really. The issue is that it’s a bit expensive, doesn’t work well with Lazav, and you don’t really want land number six here.
Surveil 2 at instant speed for 1 mana is pretty good, but this card is just so weak. The fact that you have to have a creature in play to target with it means that you can’t even keep one land Dazzling Light hands, which is awkward.
Connive // Concoct
This is an interesting card. Both effects are a bit narrow but potentially great, which is exactly what you want in a split card. In this deck, you’d be playing it more for the Concoct side. If you’re going to cast a Doom Whisperer, it’s better to just cast Concoct instead. But, overall, I think it’s not strong enough.
Discovery // Dispersal
This card you’d be playing most for the Discovery side, though Dispersal can also be quite good in the right situation. Is 2 mana, surveil 2, draw a card worth it? My inclination is that in a normal deck, it’s not—2 mana is too expensive for Preordain, even if it’s better than Preordain—but in a deck where you’re getting a benefit from surveiling beyond just the card selection, it might be good enough.
This looks like a Limited card, but if you assume that it’s always on, it’s a 2/3 deathtouch that draws a card when you hit them, which is not bad at all.
It is, however, quickly outclassed by this card:
Thief of Sanity
Boy is this card pushed. There is a subclass of creatures that you feel like you have to kill immediately or you can’t win. Dark Confidant and Grim Flayer are cards like this, and so is Thief of Sanity. It does cost 3, which makes it more likely that you can overrun them even if it’s working, but looking at three options and using mana of any color to cast one is just so strong. This doesn’t really interact with surveil in any way (unless you steal their surveil card, in which case mise), but I think it’s strong enough that you might want to play it anyway. It will be a lightning rod for removal, which will let your surveilers survive.
Search for Azcanta
The original surveil card unfortunately doesn’t have the keyword “surveil,” even though it does literally the same thing, but it still works well with the theme. It throws stuff in the graveyard (Blood Operative, Creeping Chill, Narcomoeba), and it’s very easy to flip if your other cards also fill the graveyard. I think Search for Azcanta will be the best draw engine for control decks, but is probably too slow for what the turbo version is trying to do.
Jump-start is a good mechanic to pair with surveil, since milling a jump-start card is good value, but unfortunately it seems like they played it really safe with this mechanic, and there aren’t any great jump-start cards for a deck like this. If you’re a control deck, then Chemister’s Insight is good, but it seems too slow for what you’re trying to do here.
So, all in all, here’s how I would build Turbo Surveil:
As a bonus, another potentially interesting build that plays a decent amount of surveil is U/R Drakes. Enigma Drake and Crackling Drake are both in Standard, and both benefit heavily from cards in the graveyard. I tried building an Enigma Drake deck before (I think it’s a powerful card), but the support cast was weaker. Now that there are two Drakes, one of which cantrips, and some ways to put cards in the graveyard for “free,” I think we can revisit it. In this context, the Dimir mechanic is actually better than the Izzet mechanic (though this is mostly a function of all the cards with jump-start being mediocre).
Here’s what I would try:
U/R Surveil Drakes
This is just a rough sketch, but it’s a deck style I’ve tried to make work forever, so I’ll certainly try it again with Guilds of Ravnica.