Play The Surveil Lands In Your Commander Deck!

Drake Sasser • June 16, 2024

Welcome back, readers! Modern Horizons 3 is officially released, and people are already off to the races trying to discern exactly how broken all of the new cards are in various eternal formats. While the majority of the content you have seen released here at Commander's Herald has been in the same vein, I want to take a moment to revisit the first release of the year, Murders at Karlov Manor, and more specifically the format-shattering cycle of lands it brought with it: the surveil lands.

The Surveil Lands

The surveil lands were introduced as a complete set in Murders at Karlov Manor only four months ago. Since then they've had a massive and immediate impact on Standard, Modern, Legacy, and Commander. On preview, it was immediately apparent they were inspired by the Temple designs released in the original Theros block. The Temples are lands that enter tapped and allow you to scry 1 when they enter the battlefield. While they appeared modest, they showed up in high counts in Standard at the time and even a bit in Modern! Some Standard decks even went out of their way to play off-color Temples just to get a few more into the manabase!

As we learned when Consider was printed, surveilling is much more powerful than scrying, and the stock in Opt reflects this fact. Synergizing with graveyard strategies is a large part of modern Magic, and allowing your selection mechanic to enable the wide range of graveyard synergies is more than enough to make surveil a clear winner over scry as a mechanic.

The largest upgrade to surveil lands, and what pushes them far outside the bounds of reasonable lands, is of course having the basic land types seen on shock lands and dual lands. Allowing these lands to be fetchable means that any deck with a spare fetch land and nothing else to spend the mana on can find a surveil land and use that mana they otherwise would spend on a spell instead on a selection ability from a surveil land! Being able to delay the decision through an opponent's turn allows you to represent the ability to find an untapped land and interact while raising the floor of your turn by allowing you to spend the mana instead, further smoothing your draws out.

The land typing also rather subtly improves cards that ask you to find a typed land. Cards like Farseek or Nature's Lore pick up some additional flexibility simply by having surveil lands in your deck, and having one of your permanents tagged by Boseiju, Who Endures also ends up being a tad more beneficial for you because the land enters tapped anyway.

All of this is easy enough to decipher, but why does that mean they belong in your Commander deck?

ETB Tapped Lands Are Trending!

When I was learning the fundamentals of Limited a long time ago, I was told that the player who most often wins is the one who uses all their mana every turn. Naturally, this introduces the concept of mana curves and why they're important in your Limited decks. To discern what makes surveil lands appealing, even as ETB tapped lands in Commander, one must look no further than that concept once again and compare playing a surveil land with casting a cantrip, like Consider.

While Consider sees quite a lot of play and works for a variety of synergies, like instant and sorcery synergies (ex., Arclight Phoenix), graveyard synergies (ex. Treasure Cruise), and sometimes even "draw a card" synergies (ex. Duelist of the Mind), what makes it powerful is the selection it provides to smooth out your draw. Being only one mana allows you to fill out your mana curve nicely where otherwise you would have unspent mana, and it provides a bit of extra selection to help you find either lands or spells, so the act of casting it smooths your curve, and the act of surveilling also helps smooth your curve on future turns.

Compare those benefits to the benefits provided by surveil lands. Surveil lands provide selection without having to spend a card in hand, or fill your deck with curve-smoothing selection spells, like Consider, and come at the same mana cost of a single mana. Having your land enter tapped is the same as "spending that mana" for the sake of analyzing how mana was spent each turn, and surveil lands provide a dual color land, still often at instant speed thanks to fetchlands, that allows you to get a little extra selection in your deck while still working with many of the graveyard synergies. Additionally, being a complete cycle of lands means that nonblue decks especially get a lot out of the deal, because they had limited access to card selection spells to begin with!

EDH or cEDH, They Belong In Your Deck

Reframing what the surveil lands bring to the table is important for breaking the common stereotype that ETB tapped lands are unacceptable across the board in higher-powered formats. While the Triomes from Ikoria were among the first land cycles to really push this concept to the forefront, the surveil lands have proven to be equally as defining for manabases in high-power formats, appearing in similar numbers to Triomes!

In cEDH, the number of surveil lands I believe is optimal to include varies based on how many colors your deck is, but generally I believe if you don't have at least one in your deck, it's very likely your deck is leaving some equity on the table. Even the fastest turbo decks, like RogSi, have come to support at least one in the manabase thanks to the low cost of including just one. For the Grixis deck, including just one provides a high number of "virtual copies" in the form of the seven fetch lands that can find it. This means that including allows you nearly eight copies for the sake of analyzing opening hands and how much selection your deck can provide which is an important impact to highlight in a singleton format like Commander.

While many cantrips, like Consider, see diminished play in cEDH, being able to spend only a single card slot to juice up your deck's ability to smooth its draws so dramatically is a no-brainer. For decks that include more than three colors, the low land count means more lands have to be dedicated to ensuring you have the colors you need when you need them so playing even one surveil land starts to become dubious, especially if there's not a clear dual land that is primarily fetched for.

In casual EDH, however, the sky's the limit as far as I'm concerned. Every single casual deck I have that can play a surveil land does, and the fetchlands are becoming more and more ubiquitous in casual Commander as they continue to be reprinted in sets such as MH3 and made cheaper and more widely accessible. Games being slower and land-based ramp being more common are massive boons to surveil lands. Even if you decide to pass on fetchlands, Temples and surveil lands could be reasonable options still, especially for two-color decks, so again, if you aren't playing at least one and your deck can, I believe you are leaving some very low cost equity on the table.

Lessons Learned

While it seems most of Magic's competitive player base has all come to accept surveil lands are here to stay, I've seen more resistance in Commander spaces recently to include lands that ETB tapped in decks that I would have expected. This is especially true of cEDH, where there are some folks with staunch opinion who believe that surveil lands don't belong.

I hope this article can help move the needle for some of the final holdouts as well as provide the tools necessary to properly analyze the difference between Salt Marsh and Undercity Sewers when it comes to the necessary value to be worth including. This framing can also help when analyzing other ETB tapped lands printed in the future, such as Waterlogged Teachings, to understand why a cEDH deck may be interested in an ETB tapped dual land with a little bit of additional upside, even if you would never dream of putting Salt Marsh in your cEDH decks.

Do you have surveil lands in your Commander decks? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments, and thank you for reading!

Drake Sasser is a member of cEDH group Playing With Power, a commentator for Nerd Rage Gaming, and used to grind Magic tournaments on the SCG Tour.