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Budget Magic: $65 Surveil Surprise

Hey there, Budget Magic lovers, it's that time once again! About a year ago, Wizards errata'ed surveil. Before that, a bunch of cards (like Consider) surveilled in practice but didn't technically have the keyword. The errata fixed this, making it so anything that surveils actually has the keyword "surveil." This change, along with help from Lost Caverns of Ixalan and a surprise transformational sideboard plan, makes our $65 budget Pioneer surveil deck possible today! The deck's plan is pretty sweet. In the main deck, we're hoping to stick surveil payoffs like Thoughtbound Phantasm and Dimir Spybug and grow them into real threats as we cast surveil cards. But in games two and three, we can bring in the sneaky, game-ending combo of Archfiend of the Dross and Metamorphic Alteration to catch our opponent by surprise if our surveil-beatdown plan isn't working! Can surveil compete in Pioneer on a $65 budget? Let's find out on today's Budget Magic! But first, a quick reminder that if you enjoy Budget Magic and the other content on MTGGoldfish, make sure to subscribe to the MTGGoldfish YouTube channel to keep up on all the latest and greatest.

Budget Magic: Surveil Surprise

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The Deck

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Before sideboarding, our deck is all about surveilling and surveil payoffs. For example, we kick things off with two cheap creatures that grow whenever we surveil in Thoughtbound Phantasm and Dimir Spybug. While these creatures might not look like much, the fact that they get a +1/+1 counter whenever we surveil makes them amazing in our deck since nearly every card in our deck surveils. We can stick a Phantasm and / or Spybug and, as we cast our removal, card draw, and other creatures, quickly grow them into massive threats that can win the game in just a few attacks. Of course, the problem with both cards is that they do die to all the popular removal spells, especially before they grow. But that's fine because we have a second, much grindier surveil plan as a backup...

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While the super-aggro plan of growing Thoughtbound Phantasm and Dimir Spybug into game-ending threats is great when it works, when it doesn't work, we can try to grind our opponent out with Disinformation Campaign. For three mana, it lets us draw a card and makes our opponent discard a card. Then, we can pick it back up when we surveil, which makes the enchantment a great way to grind out card advantage against control and midrange. In the past, Disinformation Campaign would mostly annoy the opponent by stripping their hand of cards but wouldn't actually win us the game. But this changed with Lost Caverns of Ixalan, which gave us Starving Revenant

Revenant hasn't even seen any Standard play, but it's surprisingly good in our deck. For four mana, it gives us a 4/4 that can draw us two cards (at the cost of six life), which basically makes it a painful, ground-bound Mulldrifter, if we want it to be. More importantly, if we can get eight permanents into our graveyard (which is pretty easy when almost all of your cards surveil), Starving Revenant drains our opponent for one whenever we draw a card. Toss in Disinformation Campaign to draw a few extra cards each turn, and Starving Revenant is a surprisingly strong finisher, thanks to its descend ability, that also supports our primary surveil plan with its enters-the-battlefield trigger. 

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Otherwise, we have a ton of surveil cards. Faerie Dreamthief, Consider, and Search for Azcanta offer card advantage and filtering while also surveilling to grow our surveil payoffs.

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Meanwhile, even most of our interaction—like Thought Erasure to pick apart our opponent's hand, Sinister Sabotage as a counter, and Pile On as removal—have the upside of surveilling. Sure, all of these cards have a bit of a surveil tax, but they are more than worth the price considering that they also grow our Thoughtbound Phantasms and Dimir Spybugs while filling out graveyard for Starving Revenant.

The Mana

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Before getting to our sideboard surprise, I wanted to mention the deck's mana base really quickly, mostly because I think it's the easiest way to upgrade the deck. The current mana base is fine for a budget deck, but we're playing a massive 17 basic lands, which sometimes means we have some issues drawing both of our colors. Ideally, the deck would run at least eight more dual lands that mostly enter the battlefield untapped. Most optimal are Watery Grave and Darkslick Shores, but Underground River is solid as well, and once Murders at Karlov Manor is released, the Dimir surveil land is a shoo-in. Really, though, it doesn't matter what dual lands you play (as long as they often come into play untapped)—the deck could just use a few more of them to add consistency.

The Surprise

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So, what is the surprise of Surveil Surprise? The combo of Archfiend of the Dross and Metamorphic Alteration in the sideboard! If you're not familiar with the combo, the short version is that Archfiend of the Dross enters the battlefield with four oil counters, we have to remove one on our upkeep, and we lose the game when we run out of oil counters. Meanwhile, Metamorphic Alteration turns the creature it enchants into a copy of another creature. So, the basic idea is that we play Archfiend, wait until our opponent plays a creature, and play Metamorphic Alteration on it to turn it into an Archfiend of the Dross. But since our opponent's creature will have already been on the battlefield, it won't get any oil counters, so we pass, and our opponent loses the game on their next upkeep! Basically, it's a super-janky version of Splinter Twin!

In Surveil Surprise, we bring in the surprise Archfiend Alteration combo for two different kinds of matchups. First, we bring in the combo if our opponent is playing a deck that can't easily kill Archfiend of the Dross (assuming our opponent's a creature-based deck, of course). Second, some decks (like Rakdos) are really good at killing our surveil payoffs. It's just not practical to win by scaling Thoughtbound Phantasm and Dimir Spybug against a deck overloaded with Fatal Push, Bonecrusher Giant, and more. While Rakdos can kill Archfiend of the Dross, it's still usually worth bringing in the combo just because our primary plan is weak in the matchup.

And that's basically the deck: try to win by surveilling our way into massive threats and, when the situation calls for it, sideboard in our janky Splinter Twin–esque combo to catch our opponent by surprise!


Record-wise, we went 6-6 with the deck, giving us a solid 50% win percentage, which is great for a $65 budget deck. Even better, the deck has room to improve! Not only can we immediately upgrade the mana base, but also, now that surveil is an evergreen mechanic, we get more surveil cards all the time (just see the Murders at Karlov Manor surveil lands), which means the deck should continue to improve little by little, set by set! If you are looking for a super-cheap Pioneer option or just like the idea of getting someone with a sneaky transformational sideboard plan, give Surveil Surprise a shot! It's not format-breaking or anything like that, but it does feel like a surprisingly solid budget deck!


Anyway, that's all for today! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions in the comments, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at

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