Last updated on September 2, 2021

Dragon's Rage Channeler - Illustration by Martina Fackova

Dragon’s Rage Channeler | Illustration by Martina Fackova

Graveyard-based mechanics are some of the most popular ones in MTG. There are tons of ways to interact with the graveyards and generate a long-term value. Eternalize, embalm, unearth, and escape are all examples of abilities that are used to bring creatures back from the graveyard.

Other strategies use Unearth or Exhume to bring their dearly departed creatures back to life. But that’s just bringing them back. What about ways to put them in the graveyard in the first place?

Today I’m covering one of the most popular abilities that was recently reintroduced with Modern Horizons 2: surveil. I’m also going to analyze how the mechanic works and the decks that exploit it.

Let’s get started!

What is Surveil in Magic?

Deadly Visit - Illustration by Scott Murphy

Deadly Visit | Illustration by Scott Murphy

Surveil is a keyword ability that lets you look at the top X cards from your library, and then you may choose to put any amount of them into the graveyard or at the top of your library in any order.

On top of this, if another card’s effect lets you look at more cards from your library while you surveil, those additional cards are added as part of the effect. This means you can put more cards into the graveyard.

History of Surveil

Doom Whisperer - Illustration by Vincent Proce

Doom Whisperer | Illustration by Vincent Proce

This ability was first introduced with Guilds of Ravnica, the 79th expansion, in October of 2018. It was the signature mechanic for Dimir and the most significant one of the set by a large margin.

The first surveil card that was revealed was Unexplained Disappearance. It was used along with Deadly Visit to explain how the mechanic works in the mechanic’s set spotlight video.

Surveil is a mechanic that has a similar effect to scry or explore. Most decks don’t need to be built around it for it to work. Some cards are already very good even without a surveil-themed deck, like Thought Erasure and Sinister Sabotage.

The mechanic has also been included in other supplemental expansions like Modern Horizons 2 and the digital-only set, Jumpstart: Historic Horizons.

Here’s the complete list of the sets surveil has been printed it:

Metagame History

Citywatch Sphinx - Illustration by Magali Villeneuve

Citywatch Sphinx | Illustration by Magali Villeneuve

Control decks ran some of these cards during Guilds of Ravnica’s Standard meta since they just happened to benefit from putting cards into the graveyard, but by no means were they built around it.

Despite the dominance of aggro decks, surveil made its appearance on two different archetypes at the Pro Tour Guilds of Ravnica. Teferi, Hero of Dominaria was one deck’s centerpiece and Sinister Sabotage played a significant role in controlling the game while crafting the following turns. It also incidentally helped Search for Azcanta get activated quicker.

Another deck benefited from the surveil mechanic since Discovery // Dispersal worked in tandem with surveil to enable synergies between more than a half of the deck. This archetype later got into Historic as the infamous Izzet Phoenix deck that dominated the meta for a while before Brainstorm was banned.

Jumping a bit into more recent history, Doom Whisperer saw a bit of play in the Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath Sultai decks that dominated Historic a while ago. It wasn’t a deck that relied on surveil to work but the card had great synergy with the rest of the build.

Surveil was then reintroduced in June 2021 as one of Modern Horizon 2’s set mechanics. Dragon’s Rage Channeler has seen the most play since its introduction. Not only does it enable itself to get bigger, but it also synergizes very well with cards that benefit from filling the graveyard. A new modern deck became viable in the meta with MH2’s release: Izzet Tempo. We also saw an already-popular archetype, Izzet Blitz, get buffed with the introduction of this card.

Surveil vs. Scry

Dakkon, Shadow Slayer - Illustration by Richard Kane Ferguson

Dakkon, Shadow Slayer | Illustration by Richard Kane Ferguson

Surveil is very similar to scry as both are keyword abilities that let you craft your turns based on looking at the top X cards from your library. However, putting your cards in your graveyard with surveil instead of the bottom of your library is a definite advantage. This subtle but important different enables more synergies like the ones we covered in the decks I mentioned earlier.

I have to mention one tiny downside, though. Many Dimir decks in Guilds of Ravnica draft found themselves unable to win before running out of cards. Decking yourself is a possibility with this ability, so keep that in mind if you want to build a surveil-based deck.

It might be better to scry a card rather than mill it in some situations. For example, you’d be better off putting a creature card in the bottom of your library in a Grenzo, Dungeon Warden deck. Scry works better if you want to put a free creature on the battlefield with this legendary rogue.

Another application where scry is better is in combo decks like those that run Thassa’s Oracle and Tainted Pact. You can enable easy wins by combining these cards with Brainstorm.

How to Use Surveil in MTG Arena

Surveil can be a tricky thing in MTG Arena, but don’t worry! I’ve got you covered.

1. Once a spell with surveil has resolved, the “Surveil” interface will appear with two boxes: “Library” and “Graveyard.”

MTG Arena surveil interface

2. The number of cards you surveilled (indicated in the card’s text as “surveil X”) will appear in the “Library” box. Click and drag on each card to move it to where you want it to be, whether that’s in the Graveyard pile or in a certain order on top of your Library pile.

MTG Arena surveil interface drag to graveyard pile

3. When you’ve moved all of the cards you want in your Graveyard to that pile and arranged the remaining cards in your desired order in your Library pile, click “Done.”

MTG Arena surveil interface Done button

Can Opponents See What I surveil?

Your opponent can only see what you surveil if the card has been placed in the graveyard. Otherwise it remains on top of your library, hidden from your opponent.

Surveil Card Gallery

Here’s a complete list of all the cards with surveil.

The Best Surveil Cards

So far I’ve already mentioned a couple of good surveil cards, but let’s talk about them individually and list a few more!

Dakkon, Shadow Slayer

Dakkon, Shadow Slayer MH2

The list can’t start without the signature surveil planeswalker. Dakkon, Shadow Slayer’s surveil ability is very nice, especially in early turns. You can also put your permanents in the graveyard to later enter the battlefield for free thanks to Dakkon’s last ability.

Discovery // Dispersal

Discovery // Dispersal

As we saw, Discovery // Dispersal was heavily played in the Pro Tour by Yuuya Watanabe. It helped put key cards like Arclight Phoenix into the graveyard to later be played in multiples for “free” thanks to the Phoenix’s ability.

Doom Whisperer

Doom Whisperer

While Doom Whisperer was an excellent finisher in Uro Sultai decks in Standard when it lived there and then again later in Historic, it also helped find and enable the powerful titan.

Dragon’s Rage Channeler

Dragon's Rage Channeler MH2

As you may have already guessed, Dragon’s Rage Channeler is a total powerhouse that shook both Modern and Legacy’s meta. Multiple graveyard synergies often come together thanks to this creature. Additionally, having a 3/3 for one mana is a format breaker in every format it touches.

Lazav, the Multifarious

Lazav, the Multifarious

If you’re building a Commander deck around surveil, Lazav, the Multifarious is the best you can get. Not only does it enable itself, but it can become a huge threat if left unchecked.

Sinister Sabotage

Sinister Sabotage

Sinister Sabotage is a great option as far as Cancel effects go. I like this one for its versatility, but it’s heavily contested these days by Saw it Coming.

Thought Erasure

Thought Erasure

If you’re looking for Thoughtseize alternatives, Thought Erasure is the card for you. Especially in a format like Commander where you need multiple copies of the same effect over different cards.

Bonus: Surveil Deck

Mission Briefing - Illustration by Matt Stewart

Mission Briefing | Illustration by Matt Stewart

As a treat for all the commander fans, today I present you with the best surveil deck I could find featuring the already mentioned Lazav, the Multifarious:

This is a combo control deck that aims to reanimate big creatures and put them into the battlefield or just make a copy of them with Lazav. The primary strategy is to blink cards like Sphinx of Uthuun and Rune-Scarred Demon with the help of Conjurer’s Closet.

It’s a fun deck to play, and I highly recommend it if you want to run a nongreen reanimator deck.

Wrap Up

Sinister Sabotage MTG card art by Mathias Kollros

Sinister Sabotage | Illustration by Mathias Kollros

In my personal opinion, surveil is a busted mechanic. You can build around it and it’s perfect for combo and tempo decks. Dragon’s Rage Channeler is a signature card that has shaken multiple formats since its introduction, and milling yourself to generate resources that can be reused along with graveyard-based strategies is huge. I can’t wait to start brewing decks with it once it’s available in Arena thanks to Jumpstart: Historic Horizons!

What about you? Do you like surveil? Do you think it’s fair, or is it broken? Please let me know in the comments below, and I’d be super happy to see any new and fun surveil decklists you have that you want to share. Be sure to follow us on Twitter and check our blog for more awesome articles.

As always, take care and have a good one!

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