Feature Article from Adam Yurchick

Surveiling Surveil

Adam Yurchick

9/20/2018 11:02:00 AM

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Guilds of Ravnica is now fully spoiled, so we finally have a complete look at the post-rotation Standard cardpool. Everything is on the table, and in two short weeks the new format will be a reality, so it's time to start brewing. This Standard rotation is really going to shake things up because the bulk of its staples and best cards are in the departing sets, so that leaves a room for the new set to make an impact. There are some really strong cards and mechanics in the set, and many are very clearly Standard-playable, so there's a lot of incentive to figure out how to make the most of them.

Take surveil, for example, which is the least flashy of the mechanics in the set but plays out like a more powerful scry, which is already one of the best mechanics in the game. It's going to make for some great gameplay because it adds decisions, and it is going to make for some great deck building. It plays really well with the graveyard, so there's a lot of crossover synergies with mechanics of its allied guilds, jump-start and Undergrowth. What has my interest piqued is the possibility for a surveil-based deck that takes advantage of the many great surveil enablers and payoffs.

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A card in the running for the most powerful in the set is Doom Whisperer, which is an unbelievable surveil enabler that can be activated multiple times for no mana. The card reminds me the most of Griselbrand, except that it surveils into the graveyard rather than drawing into the hand. It's a big distinction to be sure, but its potential in a graveyard deck or in one that has payoffs for Surveil like Thoughtbound Phantasm and Dimir Skybug, it could be a broken finisher. It starts to look even more silly when you consider its potential with other graveyard payoffs.

For example, Narcomoeba has a history of being a broken creature in Dredge decks, and it's nasty when put into play for free by Doom Whisperer. There's a new card with a Narcomoeba effect but in spell form, Creeping Chill, and it's particularly synergistic with Doom Whisperer. Gaining three life off a surveil trigger is perfect for fueling the next one, and chaining them together would be devastating to the opponent's life total. It might be a real consideration in an aggressive surveil deck as some extra finishing power, or could be used in a more combo-like deck with Enhanced Surveillance, which combined with Doom Whisperer would allow you to surveil through your entire deck, assuming the opponent didn't deal too much damage.

While it's might not quite be on the level of Narcomoeba, Bloodghast or even Gravecrawler, Blood Operative is the newest creature that can be returned from the graveyard, only this one requires surveil. Doing so won't be difficult in a dedicated surveil deck, which should also have no problem digging into a Blood Operative and surveilling it to the graveyard. A 3/1 lifelink is a hard-hitting creature, and while it isn't robust, its ability means it doesn't really have to be. It should be a great grinding tool for surveil decks, and will help round out the creature base in in the deck.

One other key difference between Doom Whisperer and Griselbrand is the mana cost, and Doom Whisperer wins that battle every time. Five mana for a 6/6 trampling flier is a very reasonable cost for a large threat, one that can realistically and reliably cast, compared to Griselbrand being almost entirely reserved to being snuck into play an alternative way. That makes it a perfect top-end threat in an aggressive surveil deck, which is the vision I have for the archetype.

Thoughtbound Phantasm and Dimir Skybug look like quite efficient and powerful creatures in a deck that consistently surveils through the game. They start to look broken, or at least Doom Whisperer does, when you consider it can come down on turn five and activate a few times, maybe nine times, and make the creatures enormous for a quick K.O. Still, these payoff creatures are only as good as the other enablers, but luckily there are lot of quality options.

The set contains a toolbox of utility spells with surveil, the best of which will combine with the creatures to create the core of a deck. Sinister Sabotage is effectively a strict upgrade over a past staple in Dissolve, and will be one of the best spells in the format now – and best of all in a surveil deck.

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Another great tool for the surveil deck is Thought Erasure, which combines a surveil trigger with a discard spell. Castigate was a staple years ago, and even Transgress the Mind was a staple recently, so Thought Erasure seems like a good bet. A discard spell and a Counterspell is an excellent disruption package for a deck, so combined with the very cheap and threatening creatures, I can see the makings of a real deck coming together.

Helping to hold it all together is Notion Rain, which acts like a functional reprint of Read the Bones, except with the graveyard-filling upgrade of Surveil. It becomes really powerful in a surveil deck where the trigger has value, whether it be adding +1/+1 counters to creatures or digging to Narcomoeba or other graveyard toys.

Price of Fame combines a Murder-effect with a surveil trigger, and it's going to be very good in a surveil deck. If Surveil 2 is worth a card, which I'd venture to say it is in a surveil deck, then this spell is something like a removal spell and card draw in one, which isn't something we really ever see printed because it's too strong. The spell gets ridiculous when it targets a legendary creature and can be cast at half cost, and it's likely to get an opportunity to do that because there were some very good ones printed in the set that are all but locks to see play, including Emmara, Soul of the Accord and Tajic, Legions' Edge. Four mana for the sticker price is a lot, so the deck might want to diversify with more traditional removal like Cast Down, but if there are really legends everywhere maybe that's not such a good idea.

Perhaps a better compromise is Unexplained Disappearance, which combines surveil with an Unsummon effect, and could be very well what the deck needs if all it cares about is tempo, which might be the case. Thoughtbound Phantasm and Dimir Skybug are very Delver of Secrets and Young Pyromancer-esque in how they hit hard and hit early and will quickly win a game if unchecked. These creatures lend themselves to the tempo-oriented style of gameplay where a card like Unexplained Disappearance shines. Alternatively, if the gameplan is simply to dig for Doom Whisperer and survive until it hits play and takes over the game, then Unexplained Disappearance is a perfect fit.

There's another legendary creature that's likely to see play, Lazav, the Multivarious, and it might bring the surveil deck over the top. In addition to its surveil 1 trigger, Lazav, the Multifarious can pay the converted mana cost of a creature in your graveyard to copy it. That has various implications for the deck, the biggest of which seems to be that it can copy Doom Whisperer. Being able to surveil Doom Whisperer into the graveyard and then copy it later will be very useful, and being able to have up to effective eight copies against disruption in grindy games will be hard to deal with. Lazav, the Multifarious really starts to stand out when considering the ability to copy Thoughtbound Phantasm and Dimir Skybug. Copying for just one or two mana sounds like a Bargain, and it could really help amp up the pressure. Of course Lazav, the Multifarious is only as good as the creatures in the graveyard, and it's not going to have a whole lot of options on turn three when it first has a chance to copy something, but I see it being pretty effective overall.

Note Mephitic Vapors in the sideboard. This piece of tech is an effective sweeper against token strategies, which I expect to be popular in the coming months. Not only will White-Green Convoke with cards like March of the Multitudes be popular, but I've heard about aggressive token-oriented Boros decks too. There's also the real possibility that Goblins or even Elves is competitive. This sideboard hoser plus surveil will be the perfect go-to against all of these creatures decks if any of them become a major part of the metagame.

Another synergistic card with sideboard applications is Whispering Snitch. I discounted it at first, because its ability is restricted to being used just once a turn, clearly a safety valve against it being too powerful with Doom Whisperer, but I think it might have what it takes as a sideboard card against aggressive red decks. Gaining a life a turn, maybe two since it can also be triggered on the opponent's turn, would go a long way towards beating them, especially because as a two-mana 1/3 it is a solid blocker.

One card on my radar but that I chose not to include is Nightveil Sprite. It can trigger surveil every turn, so it's almost like a looter that also triggers surveil payoffs. It might play decently, but I suspect it's just too weak for Constructed and is designed more for Limited play in mind.

Disinformation Campaign is another card that will excel in Limited but probably fall flat in Constructed, but it does seem pretty annoying for control because of its potential to generate so much card advantage over the course of a game, so it at least needs to be tried.

The surveil deck has a wealth of cards available, and the ease at which a complete deck came together while leaving plenty of other options on the table for customization leads me to believe this strategy is going to be viable post-rotation. Surveil is heavily supported with efficient, high-quality enablers and payoffs, including a card with the potential to be truly broken, Doom Whisperer. I didn't even begin to explore other ways to use Doom Whisperer and surveil in general, especially the synergies with Izzet's jump-start in a Grixis deck and Golgari's Undergrowth in a Sultai deck. The polychromatic Ravnica is a world of endless possibilities, and I'm eagerly awaiting its imminent return.

-Adam

@AdamYurchick