Last updated on April 3, 2024

Hakbal of the Surging Soul - Illustration by Tyler Walpole

Hakbal of the Surging Soul | Illustration by Tyler Walpole

Explore is one of those mechanics whose power you’ll only realize after you’ve played with the cards. Not unlike scry or surveil, explore lets you smooth out your draws, manipulate the top card of your library, fill in your graveyard, and much more. It was a very popular mechanic in the original Ixalan block and naturally, it returns in The Lost Caverns of Ixalan and Lost Caverns of Ixalan Commander.

Today we look at the explore mechanic and its most powerful cards, considering old cards and new, and we’re going to rank the best ones. Most of them are Limited designs, but if we look deep, we can find the real gems.

Ready to see which explore card reaches the top? Let’s go!

What Is Explore in Magic?

Jadelight Ranger - Illustration by Jason Rainville

Jadelight Ranger | Illustration by Jason Rainville

Explore is a keyword action in MTG that’s often found on creatures. Whenever a creature explores, you’ll reveal the top card of your library. If it's a land, you’ll put it in your hand. If it’s a nonland card, you instead put a +1/+1 counter on the creature that explored and decide if you want to put the card in your graveyard or leave it on top of your library.

Each time a creature explores, you get a different benefit based on what you find on top of your library. Either you’ll draw more land or your explorer creature gets bigger and you’ll have card selection.

Most instances of explore are found on creature cards, but MTG designers often find clever ways to get the most out of a mechanic, so you’ll see sorceries that let creatures explore, or vehicles that make the creature crewing them explore.

#19. Emperor’s Vanguard

Emperor's Vanguard

Original Ixalan was known to have a low power level, and this card shows it. The problem with Emperor's Vanguard is that it’s a fine creature, but a weak rare. It’s very good to explore repeatedly, but a 4/3 for 4 mana isn’t on rate, so it can be difficult to connect the first time.  

#18. Merfolk Branchwalker

Merfolk Branchwalker

Merfolk Branchwalker is one of the finer 2-drops with explore. It’s seen some play in Constructed formats, and it’s a good value creature, but nothing special.

#17. Deadeye Tracker

Deadeye Tracker

The best application for Deadeye Tracker is to be targeted graveyard hate. Exiling a key card from an opponent’s graveyard before they can use flashback or stopping recursion feels good, and you’ll even get to explore on top of it.

#16. Twists and Turns

Twists and Turns Mycoid Maze

This card lets you explore and also potentializes your explore triggers by giving you a free scry first. It’s a 1-drop, so it’s not a huge cost to put it into your deck, and I also like the fact that Twists and Turns later becomes a land similar to Search for Azcanta / Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin, but for creatures.

#15. Kinjalli’s Dawnrunner

Kinjalli's Dawnrunner

Kinjalli's Dawnrunner is one of those creatures where exploring and adding a +1/+1 counter is a huge difference. You’ll play a 1/1 double strike creature in decks that have +1/+1 counter synergy, buffs, anthems, and typal bonus.

#14. Cenote Scout

Cenote Scout

A 1/1 that draws you a land or a 2/2 for only 1 mana is usually a good proposition. It’s also a merfolk which is a relevant creature type. Cenote Scout is probably costed to see play in Standard in some aggro decks or even typal merfolk decks in other formats.

#13. Legion Vanguard

Legion Vanguard

Legion Vanguard is a fine sacrifice outlet that explores. Getting to explore is a good out to an enemy removal spell or after chump-blocking, and if you fill your deck with creatures that actually want to die, it’s profit on both ends.

#12. Topography Tracker

Topography Tracker

Topography Tracker provides exploration for other creatures in the form or Map tokens and also doubles the explore triggers. I like Map tokens as a way to make already pushed creatures explore because explore creatures are usually below rate to account for the mechanic. Once you start doubling all the explore triggers, it’s insane.

#11. Path of Discovery

Path of Discovery

Path of Discovery is slow as a 4-mana enchantment that doesn’t do anything. This card shines when you have lots of creatures entering the battlefield though, either in a blink deck or a tokens deck.

#10. Jadelight Ranger

Jadelight Ranger

Jadelight Ranger is an awesome 3-drop. Being somewhere between a 4/3 or a 2/1 that gives you two lands is strong, and it shines in green ramp decks or +1/+1 counter decks. This card saw play mainly in Golgari recursive decks when it was in Standard.

#9. Subterranean Schooner

Subterranean Schooner

Subterranean Schooner is a nod to Smuggler's Copter, a vehicle that’s big, easy to crew, and gives you card selection. The fact that this card makes other creatures explore is interesting, as you can buff a weaker creature and get it ready to attack later by itself.

#8. Jadelight Spelunker

Jadelight Spelunker

Creatures with X in their mana cost are very flexible and are usually good early and late. Jadelight Spelunker gives you the ability to explore X times, and you can have a mix between a 1/1 that explores once or maybe a 5/5 in the late game that gives you some land.

#7. Amalia Benavides Aguirre

Amalia Benavides Aguirre

Amalia Benavides Aguirre starts small as a kind of Ajani's Pridemate and has some protection in ward 3. If you have enough triggers from lifegain, Amalia grows and filters your draws. Just attacking with some lifelink tokens triggers explore a bunch of times. It’s at its best in a deck filled with vampires and vampire tokens or in bleed/extort decks. It’s a strong build-around card, and sometimes you’ll even use the 20-power wrath.

#6. Jenny, Generated Anomaly

Jenny, Generated Anomaly

Jenny, Generated Anomaly has the combination of dealing combat damage and exploring, all that while having double strike. You can even do a two-punch combo where the first hit makes Jenny explore, then it can get a +1/+1 counter and hit harder in the normal strike. It’s nice growing creatures with combat-relevant abilities, and double strike is one of the more relevant ones. 

#5. Astrid Peth

Astrid Peth

Astrid Peth already gives you a Food when it ETBs or attacks, and you can pump it while cracking your Food or Clue tokens. The combination of exploring and cracking a Clue is very strong since it gives you card selection and advantage, and you can have this all in a 2-drop.

#4. Deepfathom Echo

Deepfathom Echo

Deepfathom Echo is one of many clone variants with some upside. Here you can explore every turn, clone the best creature you control, and attack. It’s interesting that +1/+1 counters stay on the creature, and you can also do clone shenanigans with legendary creatures with strong “when it dies” trigger.

#3. Francisco, Fowl Marauder

Francisco, Fowl Marauder

As a potential 2-mana partner, Francisco, Fowl Marauder joins the ranks of pirates that want to deal damage to your opponents like Malcolm, Keen-Eyed Navigator and Breeches, Brazen Plunderer. Exploring each turn is a nice ability to have on a commander since it’ll potentially give you more land in the early game or grow Francisco. It’s a nice outlet for reanimator decks and once this commander has even a single +1/+1 counter, it can fuel its own ability.

#2. Hakbal of the Surging Soul

Hakbal of the Surging Soul

Hakbal of the Surging Soul makes every single merfolk you control explore, including itself. It’s a very nice go-wide merfolk commander, and especially in Ixalan, merfolk are drawn to +1/+1 counters. Simic Ascendancy is a very fitting card for this commander since you’ll put +1/+1 counters on your creatures like crazy.

 #1. Seasoned Dungeoneer

Seasoned Dungeoneer

Don’t get me wrong, the main reason Seasoned Dungeoneer is at the top is the initiative mechanic, which is a busted mechanic in many formats. This card does a decent job of protecting its buddies and making them explore, behaving like a real tank in the dungeon. It fits especially well with rogues that need a little evasion to connect and activate their saboteur abilities.

Best Explore Payoffs

There’s actually a bunch of explore payoffs in Ixalan sets. First, there are cards like Wildgrowth Walker that give you a huge benefit while exploring. In Standard, the Wildgrowth Walker + Jadelight Ranger curve was real, leaving you with a 3/5 and 6 life on top. In The Lost Caverns of Ixalan we have Twists and Turns, Topography Tracker, and Nicanzil, Current Conductor which will boost any explore-like strategy.

Explore puts +1/+1 counters on your creatures, so that’s very good with proliferate and cards like Hardened Scales. Graveyard recursion is also a great fit for the explore mechanic because you’re putting some cards in your graveyards while exploring, and you can put them in your hand later in the game. The same thing can be said about reanimation strategies. Finally, decks that do a great amount of exploring make their land drops more often, so it’s only natural to play big impact cards like 7MV+ cards. Ramp decks with a lot of land cards benefit heavily from explore.

Wrap Up

Twists and Turns - art by Deruchenko Alexander

Twists and Turns | Illustration by Deruchenko Alexander

The Lost Caverns of Ixalan looks like a very powerful set overall, and explore’s looking pretty good. Explore is a very nice mechanic that checks a lot of boxes. You can play explore cards that let you hit your land drops more efficiently, it helps to play 3+ colors or expensive spells, it sets your graveyard for shenanigans, and much more.

Although mainly in black and green, there are strong explore cards all over the color pie, and you can even build an explore-based Standard or Commander deck with everything that’s going on. It’s nice that WotC’s been using explore in different Commander sets, and I hope that the trend continues.

What did I miss? Any powerful explore cards that didn’t make the list? Let me know in the comments below or over on Draftsim’s Discord.

Thanks for reading, and may your explore triggers give you what you’re hoping for.

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