SOI: The mill deck

http://www.mtggoldfish.com/articles/the-mill-deck-in-shadows-over-innistrad-draft looks at the mill deck in Shadows over Innistrad draft.

M15: Mill and self-mill cards

Magic 2015 has only 2 cards that let you mill your opponent: Mind Sculpt and Grindclock (rare). Grindclock is playable as the only mill card in a control deck since it enables a turn 11 win if played on turn 2 and set to 5-9 counters. Mind Sculpt is unplayable, even in multiples; if you assume a typical game in this format runs about 10 turns (a generous assumption given the speed of aggressive decks in the format), you still have to mill 23 cards. That requires you draw 4 Mind Sculpts, 3 if your opponent plays any draw spells or self-mill cards. By turn 10, you’ve seen about half your deck, which means you need to have drafted 6-8 Mind Sculpts, but an 8-person draft will only have 2.4 of them on average.

The set does have a few other cards that let you mill yourself and several cards that benefit from you having more cards in your graveyard. There are 4 cards that allow you to mill yourself: Satyr Wayfinder, Necromancer’s Assistant, Jace the Living Guildpact (mythic), and the previously mentioned Grindclock (rare); Mind Sculpt only allows you to mill opponents. This means that an 8-person Magic 2015 draft has an average of only 5.6 cards that let you mill yourself. If you’re playing B/G/u and draft all 5.6 of these cards, this means that 1 out of 7 cards in the resulting deck will be a self-mill card, so you can expect to have 1 in your starting hand and draw another over the course of the game.

Next, let’s look at the cards that benefit from having cards in your graveyard to see whether 1-2 self-mill spells is sufficient to power them. Magic 2015 offers us Return to the Ranks (rare), Endless Obedience (uncommon), Gravedigger (uncommon), Liliana Vess (mythic), Soul of Innistrad (mythic), Unmake the Graves, Restock (uncommon), Undergrowth Scavenger, Vineweft (unplayable), and Profane Memento (uncommon). Looking at this list makes it clear that self-mill decks in Magic 2015 (as in most recent formats) are B/G. Of these, there are only a handful of common/uncommon cards that I’d be happy to play if I were only expecting to see 1-2 self mill cards over the course of a game: Endless Obedience, Gravedigger, Unmake the Graves, and Restock.

Looking at both sides of the equation, it seems that there are neither enough self-mill cards nor enough powerful commons and uncommons that benefit from them to make it worth trying to assemble a dedicated B/G self-mill deck. However, it could be a reasonable subtheme in a B/X deck that has a couple of Necromancer’s Assistants.

JOU/BNG/THS: Followup on the mill deck

Last week, I’d hypothesized that mill decks in Theros block draft should be U/B, or perhaps U/W. I then proceeded to draft a mill deck that was actually U/G, like the mill decks in Magic 2014. I suspect this color combination is unusual for mill decks in this format; it came together primarily because I opened an Eidolon of Blossoms in my first pack, then took a Bassara Tower Archer (over a Thassa’s Devourer), a Golden Hind, and a Thassa’s Devourer hoping that the first one would lap the table (it did). In Born of the Gods, I picked up a pair of Evanescent Intellects, and then focused on rounding out the deck in the Theros pack. Here’s the deck I played:

Creatures Spells/Land Sideboard
Sedge Scorpion
Bassara Tower Archer
Golden Hind
Triton Fortune Hunter
War-Wing Siren
Nyxborn Triton
Nyxborn Wolf
Nylea’s Disciple
Cloaked Siren
Eidolon of Blossoms
Prescient Chimera
2 Thassa’s Devourer
Archetype of Endurance
2 Evanescent Intellect
Triton Tactics
Savage Surge
Ordeal of Nylea
Pin to the Earth
Kruphix’s Insight
Eternity Snare
Interpret the Signs

Temple of Plenty
8 Forests
8 Islands

Guardians of Meletis
Pillar of War
Hunt the Hunter
Defend the Hearth
Unravel the Aether
Fade into Antiquity
Aerial Formation
Lost in a Labyrinth
2 Stratus Walk
Pull from the Deep
Ephara’s Enlightenment
Leonin Iconoclast
Ephara’s Radiance
Font of Vigor
Glare of Heresy
Ray of Dissolution
Claim of Erebos

There were several tough cuts from the final build:

  • I really wanted to run the pair of Stratus Walks for the constellation/heroic triggers they offered and the interaction with Kruphix’s Insight, as well as the cantrip effect. However, I decided to run Prescient Chimera and Cloaked Siren instead, even though my deck only has 2 sorceries, 2 instants, no other flash creatures, and 2 instant-speed activated abilities. This is because I really didn’t want to go down to 12 creatures while running 5 Auras, 2 bestow effects, and 2 combat tricks. I also wanted to ensure I had enough aerial defense since this deck can take a while to get set up. (I should probably have prioritized Shredding Winds when drafting this deck, since it is fairly short on removal.)
  • Ephara’s Enlightenment combos well with my constellation creatures, but I would have had to run at least 2 Plains in addition to the Temple of Plenty, and I didn’t want to mess up my mana base. If I’d seen any other color fixing, I would have happily picked it up and run Ephara’s Enlightenment and Leonin Iconoclast.
  • Guardians of Meletis and Pillar of War would have fit the deck’s goal, but I had enough ground defense and enough 3cc creatures. I also didn’t want to expose myself to incidental artifact removal such as Reckless Reveler and Wild Celebrants since I wasn’t running any other artifacts.
  • Fade into Antiquity and Unravel the Aether would have provided my deck some much needed removal, but I couldn’t afford to run potentially dead cards.

The deck ended up going 1-2, but both the matches I lost were quite close, and I felt like things could have turned out differently if I’d had fewer mulligans or if my opponent has slightly slower starts. A particularly disappointing loss was to a B/G graveyard deck whose pilot was aiding me by milling his own library. However, I did win a game against him by playing Sedge Scorpion on turn 1 and Ordeal of Nylea on turn 2, and swinging for the fences.

JOU/BNG/THS: The mill deck

Theros and Born of the Gods had a smattering of mill cards, but no particularly effective ones at common or uncommon other than Evanescent Intellect, which gave your opponent an opportunity to 2-for-1 you. Journey into Nyx brings Thassa’s Devourer and Countermand to the table. Does this give us a critical mass of mill cards in a block draft?

Let’s start by looking at all the cards in the format that help you get cards out of your opponent’s library, organized by set, rarity, and color. The number after the color indicates how many cards it mills. N / X means it is a reusable effect that mills N cards each time X occurs, whether that be a mana cost or an ability trigger.

Journey into Nyx Born of the Gods Theros
Common Countermand (blue, 4) Evanescent Intellect (blue, 3 / 1U+{T}) Thassa’s Bounty (blue, 3)
Thassa’s Devourer (blue, 2 / constellation) Forsaken Drifters (black, 4) Returned Centaur (black, 4)
Returned Reveler (black, 3)
Uncommon Dakra Mystic (blue, 1 / U+{T}) Siren of the Silent Song (U/B, 1 / inspired)
Rare Mindreaver (blue, 3 / heroic) Pyxis of Pandemonium (artifact, 1 / {T})
Daxos of Meletis (W/U, 1 / dealing combat dmg to opp)
Mythic Phenax, God of Deception (U/B, T / creature) Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver (U/B, 3 / turn)

Thassa’s Devourer is the strongest of the mill effects at common since it has a reusable effect with a reasonable trigger condition, and provides a strong defence that buys you time to mill out your opponent. None of the other common or uncommon mill effects in Journey into Nyx are worth building a deck around, and an 8-person draft will only have 1.3 copies of Thassa’s Devourer, so a mill deck is only possible in a draft with an unsually high number of copies of the card or in a casual draft with more than 8 people. If you’re already in blue and see a couple of copies going around, you can plan to take them if they lap the table. (If someone else takes them, you don’t want to be drafting a mill deck anyway, since the format does not have enough mill cards to support 2 drafters.) If you don’t end up drafting a mill deck, they can still be a good sideboard plan against control decks. Since you have to draw at least 1 Thassa’s Devourer for the deck to get going, you’re not likely to have a strong mill deck unless you draft at least 3+ copies of the card, especially since the format has a fair bit of enchantment removal.

Once you have decided to draft a mill deck, it is probably worth picking up Evanescent Intellect in Born of the Gods. While playing it still involves a certain amount of risk, I believe Journey into Nyx makes the card more playable since it triggers Thassa’s Devourer (and so can mill 5 cards on the turn it comes into play) and Countermand can protect the enchanted creature from removal. Like Thassa’s Devourer, Evanescent Intellect is likely to lap the table, so you don’t need to take them the first time around.

If you’re building towards a mill deck but are not yet in black when you get to Born of the Gods, you can also consider white as your second color. The color provides Dawn to Dusk and Griffin Dreamfinder as ways to get Thassa’s Devourer back if it is killed. It also provides access to Daxos of Meletis and Gods Willing in the Theros pack, although those are not passed quite as often as Returned Centaur. If you’re drafting this deck, you should also prioritize Griptide higher since it allows you to mill away your opponent’s best creature after putting it back on top of their library.

M14: Millstone and the mill deck

Now it’s on to evaluating artifacts, so we can determine whether it makes sense to maindeck artifact removal. Among the artifacts that I don’t have a good handle on yet is Millstone, even though I was forced to cobble together a U/B mill deck this weekend when I found both my colors cut off by the person to my right. I had Jace Memory Adept, Jace’s Mindseeker, Millstone, and 2 Tome Scours, but lacked early defense and was knocked out in the first round. Let’s look at the mill deck and evaluate how important Millstone is in that deck.

Other than Millstone, all the cards in the format that cause your opponent to mill/draw cards are blue:

  • Tome Scour (common) mills 5 cards.
  • Opportunity (uncommon) causes a target player to draw 4 cards, but you won’t usually want to target your opponent.
  • Traumatize (rare) mills half the library rounded down. If cast on turn 5, it will usually leave your opponent with 14-15 cards in their library.
  • Jace’s Mindseeker (rare) mills 5 cards and is a bomb even in the absence of any other mill cards because it’s still a 4/4 flyer that can give you a free spell.
  • Jace Memory Adept (mythic) can mill 10 cards each turn and is a bomb even in the absence of any other mill cards since it can single-handedly mill your opponent out in 2-3 turns if you can protect it.

An average draft will have only 1.2 Millstones and 2.4 Tome Scours, which are not enough to build a mill deck around, so you should only consider drafting the mill deck if you get Traumatize or are passed multiple Millstones late. (The mill on Jace’s Mindseeker is a one-time effect, and neither it nor Jace Memory Adept need a mill deck built around them. And late Tome Scours aren’t sufficient reason to draft a mill deck since you’d need to cast about 4-5 of them to win the game, which means you’d need to draft about 8-10 of them if that’s your only mill spell.)

Next, let’s figure out how fast you can mill an opponent out. Even if you play Millstone on turn 2 and mill your opponent on every subsequent turn, they still have 13 turns, which is usually enough for them to kill you, even in a slow format like M14. Even if you have a Tome Scour to go with your Millstone, they still have 11 turns to kill you. If you cast Traumatize on turn 5 instead of activating Millstone, your opponent still gets 10 turns. Even with a perfect draw consisting of a turn 2 Millstone, turn 5 Traumatize, and turn 6 Tome Scour (it’s better after the Traumatize), your opponent still has 8 turns to kill you; if you don’t have any creatures, they can accomplish that simply by playing a 2/2 creature on turn 2, a 2/2 creaure on turn 3, and attacking with both of them every turn. So clearly we need more than just the mill cards listed above.

Given this, I would say that Millstone is conditionally playable bordering on unplayable since it usually requires you to have certain rares before it is playable, and since takes a long time to mill out the opponent. However, it is still playable if you get those rares.

Blue does have several other cards that are quite effective in the mill deck:

  • Time Ebb allows you to get rid of a creature permanently if you can mill your opponent before their next draw step. And it slows them down significantly even if you can’t.
  • Frost Breath can buy you time by holding down your opponent’s 2 best creatures for 2 turns.
  • Essence Scatter and Negate have the same converted mana cost as a Millstone activation so you can decide whether you’d rather counter a spell your opponent is casting, or mill them and save the countermagic for another spell.
  • Archaeomancer allows you to reuse Tome Scours, Traumatize, or any of the spells listed above, and then chump blocks their largest creature.
  • Nephalia Seakite works well with countermagic.
  • Scroll Thief can block 2/2 creatures and force your opponent to play more defensively that they normally might. (Most people are far more scared of it drawing their opponent a card than they should be.)
  • Seacoast Drake and Armored Cancrix are unexciting but reasonable on defense.
  • Wall of Frost (uncommon) is one of the best defenders in the format because of its high toughness and because it effectively blocks 2 creatures if your opponent attacks each turn.
  • Elite Arcanist (rare) imprinted with Frost Breath, Fog, or Silence (rare) can potentially buy you a lot of time. Note that you can only imprint instants, so it does not work with Tome Scour.

What color is likely to work best with blue in a mill deck? On the one hand, white has great defenders in the form of Angelic Wall and Wall of Swords (uncommon), both of which fit quite well in this deck. Griffin Sentinel is also quite good on defense, and Pillarfield Ox and Siege Mastodon are okay if unexciting. Divine Favor can make a creature nearly impossible to get past, and if you’re lucky, you might also get Planar Cleansing (rare) which your opponent might be forced to overextend into if you have a Millstone on the table.

However, I think green actually has better defensive cards: Rumbling Baloth and Sporemound can gum up the ground effectively while Deadly Recluse and Giant Spider (and Plummet postboard) hold the air, Brindle Boar and Fog can neutralize entire combat steps (Fog is also great with Elite Arcanist, as mentioned above), Elvish Mystic and Verdant Haven help you get going faster, Briarpack Alpha (uncommon) and Rootwalla work well with countermagic, and Bramblecrush (uncommon) and Naturalize deal with troublesome noncreature permanents. The next time I try a mill deck, it will likely be U/G.

Finally, let’s look at the cards in M14 that are problematic for mill decks. Elixir of Immortality is the most concerning but is an uncommon, so an average 8-person draft will only have 1.2 of them. Cards that interact with the graveyard can also benefit your opponent if you’re milling them: Auramancer, Archaeomancer, Corpse Hauler, Rise of the Dark Realms, Shadowborn Demon, Vile Rebirth, Chandra’s Phoenix, Scavenging Ooze, and Trading Post. However, many of these are rare/mythic, and the rest aren’t scary enough that they make mill decks unplayable. So these cards shouldn’t concern you too much if it looks like you’re going to end up with a mill deck.