I know why you're here. You want some Guilds of Ravnica content. Well, friends, I'm here to give it to you. This week, we're going to be focusing on the mechanic from the Dimir guild: surveil. We've already tried a lot of Surveil cards on VS Live! where some have been hits and others...not so much. But one thing looks pretty clear: Surveil is effectively scry, except it helps fuel graveyard mechanics. But what we haven't really tried yet, until today, is a deck focusing on the cards that get turbo-charged if you continually cast spells or use abilities that surveil.
Willy Edel started it all. After a cryptic tweet a few days ago , I was inspired to go hard on the mechanic. Alongside Dimir Spybug, something like Doom Whisperer could result in a combo-kill play where you surveil until you hit one or two copies of Creeping Chill, which allows you to surveil some more and ultimately attack for lethal with the Dimir Spybug.
Yes, that does get blown out by a single spot removal spell. However, you don't really need to shove all-in unless your opponent is losing the game that turn and they're relatively low on mana or tapped out. Instead, we can just small-ball them with cards like Notion Rain. And when you start to play multiple creatures that get bigger as you surveil, things start to get pretty scary.
One thing I learned from filming VS Live! yesterday was that both Dimir Spybug and Thoughtbound Phantasm have some real power for a very small investment. Thoughtbound Phantasm plays defense incredibly well while you set up the rest of your turns. And when you surveil for the third time, it starts getting in some serious damage. And while it isn't exactly a big tempo play, the turn where you start attacking with Thoughtbound Phantasm is the turn where the game starts to shift in your favor.
What I was afraid of was not having enough cards that actually surveil, and that my payoff creatures wouldn't do enough to justify playing all these cards. However, as the games played out, I found myself almost with an abundance of surveil and not as many payoff cards as I would have liked.
Here's the deck I played yesterday.
- 2 Blood Operative
- 4 Dimir Spybug
- 3 Doom Whisperer
- 4 Nightveil Sprite
- 4 Thoughtbound Phantasm
- 2 Lazav, the Multifarious
A few key notes before we do a deep-dive into the archetype.
- It worked! Trying out a new mechanic or deck is usually a tough process that involves dozens of iterations before you really "nail" it. I don't think I nailed this one down just yet, not even close, but it's rare that a deck just "does what it's supposed to do" on the first try. Everything that I wanted to happen did happen. Every synergy that I expected to come up did come up!
- Doom Whisperer is a messed-up Magic card. Every time I cast the card, it completely changed the shape of the game. Alongside Dimir Spybug and Thoughtbound Phantasm, you get to turn the corner in an instant at the low cost of some life and a free Demonic Tutor. My next build will almost assuredly have four copies, though I'm afraid drawing two will lead to some awkward early draws.
- Dimir Spybug and Thoughtbound Phantasm were important to play early, but were still okay later in the game. Being cheap meant casting them alongside one or two other spells on the same turn, which let me keep casting removal or more threats as I drew cards with Notion Rain or brought back Blood Operative. I rarely ran out of cards, and when I did I usually had three or four major threats already on the battlefield.
- Nightveil Sprite exceeded my expectations. Even though Ross killed it most times it entered the battlefield, that means it was powerful enough, or possibly scary enough of an engine, that it was actually more important than my payoff cards. Like Mono-Blue Devotion a few years ago, this deck is looking to play a few low-powered cards in order to produce scary effects if they go unchecked. And if the opponent must choose between killing the engine or killing the payoff card, they're almost certainly going to choose killing the engine. And being a beacon for removal is certainly powerful for a deck relying on drawing very specific creatures in the early turns of the game.
- If my opponent isn't playing removal, I think our threats and synergy is powerful enough to race a lot of decks. Alongside cheap removal like Dead Weight and Cast Down, I felt safe from potential threats like Legion Warboss or other cheap creatures my opponent could throw at me. While I ended up siding out all my removal in that particular match against Ross, I think it's important for a deck like this to have that kind of interaction to buy enough time for your engines and payoff cards to come online.
Now that we have that out of the way, let's look at ways to potentially change the deck for the better.
Lazav, the Multifarious is a great card when you start to combine it with other cheap creatures that get put into the graveyard. And, if you have enough mana, you can cast Lazav, the Multifarious and turn it into either Dimir Spybug or Thoughtbound Phantasm with the surveil ability on the stack, generating a +1/+1 counter. And, if you end up going late into the game and end up with a ton of mana, turning Lazav into a Doom Whisperer is awesome.
I'm not exactly sure if this card is worthwhile in the strategy. The fact that it returns to your hand as opposed to the battlefield, as well as the steep cost of three life, means Blood Operative is relatively slow. I also found that it trades with virtually every creature your opponent puts in front of it, which means the lifelink is essentially just paying for the cost of re-casting Blood Operative. Unless you play a ton of removal, it's unlikely that Blood Operative will ever connect and actually gain you life.
Is Blood Operative a good Magic card? I certainly think so, but it certainly isn't a free-roll. I'll have to think on this more.
I expect Spell Pierce will end up in my maindeck at some point. It just feels so good to counter a big removal spell from the opponent, or even a cheap removal spell in the early turns. And as the game progresses, cards that would normally give you fits might be completely invalidated for a single mana.
It's also possible that, in a deck like this, Spell Pierce is just a worse version of Dive Down, since protecting your creatures is what you want to be doing more often than not with that particular slot. The tension comes from wanting to spot very specific things, and we don't have enough information at this juncture to know if we should be trying to fend off Ravenous Chupacabra or something like Cleansing Nova/Settle the Wreckage. My gut is leaning toward the former, since Azorius doesn't have Hallowed Fountain or any new cards from Guilds of Ravnica.
This is the part of the deck I'm having the most trouble figuring out. As a deck based around the surveil mechanic, it's important to find a balance between interaction, enablers, and payoff cards. If we have too many types of any one aspect, there's a chance we draw the wrong parts of our deck and just get destroyed by a "good stuff" deck playing a bunch of more powerful cards. After all, a draw featuring a bunch of Dimir Spybugs and Thoughtbound Phantasms isn't going to do much if we can't turn them off. Similarly, if we draw a bunch of Thought Erasure and Notion Rain without any payoff, we're just spinning our wheels.
But we also need to find a way to be interactive with our opponent in right spots at the right times. Cheap removal like Dead Weight seems to fit nicely, as it allows us to use all those extra cards we get from Notion Rain. But as we get deeper into the game, finding an answer to a Planeswalker is also equally important. In the past, decks like Turbo Surveil have been incredibly difficult to construct because all the cards look pretty bad on paper. It's only when you start to see them all interacting together do you really get a feel for what's working and what isn't. And right now, I have no idea how good or bad the removal suite is because the only matchup I've played is one where all my opponent's creatures were expendable.
Once we get a better idea of what the format has to offer and what decks we need to come prepared for, we should be able to find the winning formula for how this deck should be built. In the meantime, my gut is telling me that Cast Down isn't worthwhile, but Dead Weight is likely very good just because it only costs one mana. I'm also going to keep two copies of Vraska's Contempt around for now, though it's possible that we want more tempo-oriented cards like Ravenous Chupacabra or even Exclusion Mage to fill that role. And if we have creatures start to carry the heavy-lifting of our spell-like effects, that means we could end up wanting more cards that interact with our graveyard.
As for Price of Fame, I disregarded this card when I first saw it because of the strict mana cost. However, as I play more with Turbo Surveil, it's clear that inefficient cards with surveil are generally better than they look on paper. And while we don't exile the creature and can't get rid of Planeswalkers, there's a lot to be said about triggering all our creatures with a removal spell attached. I've also found that the cost-reduction comes up every now and then when dealing with stuff like Emmara, Soul of the Accord. Long story short, Price of Fame is probably one mana too expensive to be good, but that's true for a lot of cards that "fill in the gaps" for decks relying on synergistic effects.
This is certainly a card I want to get into the archetype. I think The Eldest Reborn is one of the most powerful effects in the Standard format and was a sideboard sleeper for a very long time in the previous Standard format. As we got to the waning weeks and months, it was clear that most decks with black mana in them should be playing at least one or two copies of this card, if only in the sideboard.
And if we start to lean toward spell-like creatures ala Ravenous Chupacabra or Exclusion Mage, The Eldest Reborn only gets better since we keep them off-balance. They need to be trading via combat when possible, which means the edict-effect can be backbreaking. And if we end up with a toolbox of creatures to choose from once we fire off the third chapter, The Eldest Reborn becomes a fix-it-all, especially so when we can choose to continually surveil these types of creatures into our graveyard as the game progresses.
Am I going too deep here? Can we really afford to play more five-drop cards when I already cut a Doom Whisperer in the initial build? Well, at the very least, it's something we should consider. And if anything, it should be a fantastic sideboard card against any non-token deck in Standard.
We still have a lot of stuff to try out when it comes to these new mechanics and new decks. With that said, this is the version I'd like to try out next.
- 4 Dimir Spybug
- 4 Doom Whisperer
- 2 Exclusion Mage
- 4 Nightveil Sprite
- 4 Thoughtbound Phantasm
- 3 Lazav, the Multifarious
All I want to do is play this new Standard format. Guilds of Ravnica has given me a shot in the arm and is looking to produce one of the best Standard formats in recent memory. Of course, one or two decks could ultimately sit on top of the format, and there are still some really annoying cards we have to pay very close attention to. But when a deck like Turbo Surveil can exist, and might actually be good, it gives me hope for the future.
It's no secret that the last few years of Standard have been...mediocre at best. One or two best decks that fight for the title week after week? Cards being banned every six or so months? We've definitely been through the ringer as of late. But if I've learned anything from playing Magic over the last decade and change, it's that there always comes a time when the pendulum swings in the other direction.
And hey, if it doesn't, we still have Modern!
Before I sign off, I wanted to take a moment to talk about one card in particular that has been getting some buzz when it comes to the surveil mechanic, and one that I briefly mentioned before but didn't do a deep dive into.
When you go off with Dimir Spybug and Doom Whisperer, this is certainly a card you want in your deck. After all, it gives you some much needed life back while also fueling your "combo kill." If you hit two copies of this with both Dimir Spybug attacking and Doom Whisperer on the battlefield, it's enough to do lethal if you've attacked with Dimir Spybug at least one time. That's pretty scary by itself, but you also have to realize that there's a huge downside to playing cards like Creeping Chill in your deck.
Like Narcomoeba before it, actually drawing the card Creeping Chill is downright embarrassing. And without Brainstorm to fix that problem and our only real option for putting Chill back into our deck being Riverwise Augur, you start to get a glimpse of the real problem. In order to play Crippling Chill in our deck and have it be effective, we have to keep lowering the overall power level of our deck to a point where I don't feel comfortable facing off against the likes of Rekindling Phoenix or Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Synergy will only get you so far.
But what I have been thinking about is a much more combo-oriented version of this deck revolving around Enhanced Surveillance.
Hit a few Creeping Chills already? Or decided to discard one or two via looting effects? Feel free to shuffle them back in. Additionally, we get to surveil for two extra each time we use Doom Whisperer, which makes it more likely that we actually find our Chills. Is this a good idea? I don't honestly know. But what I do know is that there are some pieces here that are very curious, and the Dimir Guild is notoriously tough to figure out. I'm likely grasping at straws here, but this interaction just feels a little too convenient, and there's a distinct possibility that someone way smarter than me ends up figuring this out in the next few weeks, assembling some easy combo kill that we all missed. Anyway, just something to think about!
That's all for me this week. And if you haven't heard about it already, we've been doing VS Live! for the last few weeks. And for the foreseeable future, we'll be doing them every Tuesday and Thursday over at twitch.tv/SCGTour at 1:00pm ET. And if getting to see Guilds of Ravnica in action before the Prerelease doesn't strike your fancy, I don't know what will. See you soon!