Strategy: Mill-osophy

February 4, 2015

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Strategy

By Aaron D. AKA Uncle Landdrops

Aarons avatar







Hey-O! Landdrops here on another Hump Day, bringing you some more sweet, strategic Commander archetype insight.

Slow your roll, Sammy J. I have neither camel nor quarrel with you.


So, yeah, we’re talking about Milling. As there is no deception in the decks which implement today’s strategy segment, there is no deception in its title. Mill-osophy is a silly portmanteau I thought would help get everyone into a deeper, meditative mode of thinking as it relates to one of our format’s most difficult methods to victory.


Phenax hates the name his parents gave him.


If you like stereotypical literary references, a Mill deck is one of the “White Whales” missing from my Deck Portfolio, which is a hardcore set of restrictions based on color, set symbols, and archetypes that I’ve laid out for all the decks I’ve designed and will design (shameless plug here if you want to take on the project yourself) in the future.

This missing Mill deck is not for lack of trying. Since I first opened an M10 copy of Traumatize, I’ve tried every so often to build one. And every time, just like Eddie Murphy or Snoop Dogg, or whichever real Magic character is actually in this picture, I feel like Ambassador Laquatus is smacking me in the face with his mind. It’s frustrating.



So in order to stop building bad Mill decks, and prevent you future Mill players from letting the History Channel repeat itself (Yeah, I know what I said), I’ve put together all the Facts and Myths I’ve proved and debunked in my quest for this deck, so’s we can all learn, relate, and solve the problem that is, in the case of Mirko Vosk, drinking everyone’s minds, and getting away with it.


When the first print didn’t sell, Mirko’s publisher snuck  into each bookstore and moved them to Teen Romance.

When the first print didn’t sell, Mirko’s publisher snuck into each bookstore and moved them to “Teen Romance.”


Myth: It doesn’t take a lot of skill to pilot a Mill Deck.

Honestly, I think Milling as a game plan could be one of the most intensive exercises in card recall and management I’ve ever experienced, especially in multiplayer. Keeping track of your opponent’s graveyard is a constant check, and a game of increasing luck and odds as we eliminate some cards but also enable others, depending on what people are bringing to the table. Without constant graveyard hate like Rest in Peace, the amount as well as the kinds of cards that get put into the graveyard can be an overwhelming amount of data. Learning to sift and process this when there is other levels of game going on (i.e., combat math, counterspells, Stack interactions), can be a tall order.


Fact: Pure Milling is never going to be an effective strategy in Commander.

Discard, Windfall, Force Draw, Exile, and Sadistic Sacrament-style effects get lumped under the Mill umbrella, but they are not the same thing. These mechanics actually have a multitude of different effects that most players might forget when building their decks. It’s important again, to identify the characteristics of these cards, and attempt to build for more consistency, rather than just power. Having the same cards doing the same thing might not be optimal, but keeping theme is a good way to keep your head straight in the game.


Myth: Self-Mill and Mill decks are the same thing.

While some cards may stay the same, these two archetypes, in my mind, could not be more different.

Self-Mill is a much more palatable strategy, because it’s built with known quantities, consistency, and some subtlety (I mean, when you’re not playing Hermit Druid or Lab Maniac). It’s also less political in terms of its end product. Milling strategies, while mechanically the same, are more volatile, even if you know every card in your opponent’s deck, in addition to being much more political, even if you are playing against Reanimator decks. This fact leads nicely into the next two.


Fact: Laboratory Maniac does not get cooler the more times you win with it.

If you must, do it once, and then do what my old writing professor used to tell us to do with our crappy short stories: “Put it away, and never look at it again.”


Fact: My Lab Maniac “W” came in a Prime Speaker Wizard Tribal deck I built where I Flashed him in on my opponent’s upkeep with no cards in the library and a Brainstorm in hand, fighting off every removal spell the table had for both. I haven’t seen him or the Prophet since.


Fact: Mill decks annoy people.

Being on the other side of Mill as a strategy isn’t as oppressive as Mindslaver lock, or some assembled board state predicated on allowing you to play while others have to watch.

Still, most non-infinite Mill decks are tedious enough to poke and poke and poke like a goofy Facebook feature that a crazy person from high school still decides is fun or cute to do. Be warned- this is off-putting to people.

This is because there is a perception that by pursuing an alternative win-condition, you are somehow succeeding in your plan if you have somewhere between 20 or 60 cards in someone’s graveyard. However wrong or right the perception may be, what you need to recognize as the Mill player is that you are going to attract negative attention, and if you aren’t prepared for it, the deck will never be successful.


Myth: Mill decks durdle.

These decks tend to have a staunch, aloof board presence at the table, but I think that’s changing a little because of Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker and Consuming Aberration, not so much because we have more creatures to turn sideways, or even better creatures, but simply because having creatures on the boardstate to battle, block and interact with is part of the game. For a long time, we had to resort to Traumatize, Keening Stone, and other noncreature-based nonsense to power up this archetype. While the printing of Mind Grind still helps them maintain that status, we at least have a few better cards and Commanders to play than Szadek, Lord of Secrets and the expensive Glimpse the Unthinkable.


Life’s tough for the old Dimir Guild Leader. What looks like an awesome underworld Steven Seagal-looking Yakuza Vampire is actually a stimuli which should provoke any of the following reactions: a comforting hand on the shoulder, someone saying, “Please don’t do this, you have so much to play for,” or searching out the nearest drug store for a sympathy card. Szadek Nation is Sad-ek Nation.


Fact: Milling an opponent in Commander, short of infinite combos, will take more than 5 active turns.

They may not play with themselves like other Combo decks do, but they are much slower decks in general. We’re talking about counting upwards from Turn 5, which is about the time when a Mill player can cast their first Traumatize, making an incremental mill deck the eventual Turn 10+ winner if they can survive.


Myth: Your deck has to be centered around milling to win by milling.

I think this is where a lot of players, including myself, have really failed in Milling strategies, and probably a lot of other deck designs too. One thing I’ve learned in writing and playing EDH is that identity is not nearly as fragile as our intentions. Whether it’s who we are, or what our deck does, there is always going to be more to it than what we are “trying to do,” or who we are “trying to be.” The latter is actually part of a much deeper existential conversation about purpose, goals, and life roles, but the deck-based context is a lot easier to understand – designing and playing with these aligned intentions create a high level of expectations that can set us up for a lot of disappointment.

We talked about that briefly in my Trick Voltron article, but this is translatable. Whereas Trick Voltron was a quicker, more focused, tempo-based deck, Mill strategies want to play longer games. Longer games cater to attrition, control effects,  and using a lot of cards. Designing around some of these strengths will not only vastly improve Mill decks directly, but also work to improve your framing of an archetype or strategy as a deckbuilder in other areas too.

The best decks I’ve ever played, designed, or seen always seem to have backup plans, usually working well with cards that interact with Plan A. For example, my buddy who plays Phenax likes to joke, “Plan A is to mill. Plan B is the Zombies. Or maybe it’s the other way around.”

Similarly, the Barrin, Master Wizard deck I play is a no-counterspells, creature-based deck that has actually won games by milling, limit-breaking multiple Jaces, attacking with a Pearl Lake Ancient with multiple Prowess triggers, and most recently, by copying an Army of the Damned.

With every strategy, not just Milling, we’re always constrained by like cards that we want to cram together and make work. I’m not saying it’s wrong, or that it won’t yield results. I’m just saying that maybe, in order to solve deckbuilding problems like this one with Milling, we should learn where to break design constraints, not because we have the intention of going back on restrictions or strategies we place on ourselves, but because we are creating a deck with the culmination of ideas, not just a few conscious intentions, and they need support  in order to create whatever kind of success we’re looking for.


Welp, that’s a lot to think about, so I’ll leave you to it. Feel free to post lists, talk shop with me in the comments below, shoot me an email at, or find more of my stuff at The General Zone.




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8 Responses to “Strategy: Mill-osophy”

  1. Dan said

    Great article! It took me a while and a lot of trial and
    error to get there, but I’ve come to a lot of the same conclusions as you did
    in your article about the strengths and weaknesses of mill in commander.

    The straight mill victory is always a longshot, but a fun
    one worth taking. It’s just not one a player can bank on all the time. I have
    found that having a few options that synergize well with the milling but can snag
    a win on their own are the way to go. I have a Mirko Vosk deck that tries to do
    that with milling/drawing, support equipment, reanimation, and graveyard related

    • Hey Dan! Thanks for the kind words and the decklist share!

      My last try at Mill was a Mirko Vosk list too, but it wasn’t as effective. Ended up relying heavily on a combination of not-Mirko Vosk permanents like Mesmeric Orb and Dreamborn Muse, because most of my opponents listen to me and what I write on my blog so they have around 38-40 land in their deck, making for a sadder Mirko.

      What I like about yours is the combination of tangible, regular winning strategy and power so that the game gets disrupted and stretched long enough for you to find the pieces you need. Gives you a nice “Plan B” that is most deck’s “Plan A,” but also keeps both goals in the scope. I think that’s a quality of the better Mill decks I’ve seen work, so nice job!

      • Dan said

        Thanks for the feedback!

        I’ve been a big fan of what you do over at General Zone and I’ve learned a lot from your various articles. And you were great on the Tiny Leaders episode here. Looking forward to more appearances and great articles on both sites.

    • Hey Dan! Thanks for the kind words and the decklist share!

      My last try at Mill was a Mirko Vosk list too, but it wasn’t as effective. Ended up relying heavily on a combination of not-Mirko Vosk permanents like Mesmeric Orb and Dreamborn Muse, because most of my opponents listen to me and what I write on my blog so they have around 38-40 land in their deck, making for a sadder Mirko.

      What I like about yours is the combination of tangible, regular winning strategy and power so that the game gets disrupted and stretched long enough for you to find the pieces you need. Gives you a nice “Plan B” that is most deck’s “Plan A,” but also keeps both goals in the scope. I think that’s a quality of the better Mill decks I’ve seen work, so nice job!

  2. Tavian Makovsky said

    The second Commander deck I ever built was Circu, Dimir Lobotomist, and it was at heart a control deck with win condition of “mill” (i say in quotes because everyone in my group had at least one eldrazi, so the purpose was to exile decks). The only cards i had that took cards out of my opponent’s library were Circu, sadistic sacrament, Consuming Aberration, and Mind Grind. The coolest part about the deck in my opinion was that i made the deck a color-based synergy deck, where the casting a multicolored spell would regularly at least give me 2 life, exile 2 cards off a library, draw me a card, make you discard a card, and ideally, bounce itself back to my hand for free so i could do it again and again. The deck was extremely effective, and although it’s now in pieces, was my favorite deck i ever made.

    The point I’m laboriously trying to get to is that long after I took it apart, i tried making a dedicated mill deck with Phenax, and it was awful i needed so many things to go right and get a bunch of things to stick to the table, and when it got there it would kill a library in a turn or two, but it rarely got there. I dedicate that to “trying too hard” on the mill and combo plan.

    I think that milling is a great alternative way to win a game and it’s probably my favorite, but it’s definitely not the easiest.

    • Tavian, sounds like a pretty neat deck, and a great way to adapt to the metagame while also attacking the Mill game plan with a more creative approach, which isn’t easy. It’s just too easy to play Oona + Altars.

      I actually didn’t get my Phenax deck fully sleeved before I took it apart. Again, it felt like a lot of work, and without him as a creature, I wasn’t liking the amount of value being generated. Since then, I’ve actually played against a very nice Phenax Mill deck, loaded with a Zombie backup plan, which I thought was a great way to counteract some of the issues I’d had.

      Perhaps you should just put together your old Circu deck? Mostly, I’m just listening to the way you’ve talked about it, and it sounds like you’re attached to making a Mill deck like it- so why not the real thing?

      Generally, I think the best decks (especially in Commander, or casual 60) come from having and developing connections with the cards we’re playing. So it’s to our advantage to find what we like, even if we end up playing something suboptimal. In my mind, it’s this quality that makes decks a lot more interesting than some of the more competitive lists on the Internet. Anyone can play the best cards, but the truth is that the best cards are the ones we want to play the best, or most, right?

  3. schweinefettmann said

    what i did in my mill deck was start leeching stuff out of said opponent’s graveyards with wrexial while graveyard hating the chaff. its not an easy win, and it doesn’t feel like a 75% deck either, but i think most of the weightlifting was done by my opponent’s stuff.

    great article by the way! took a bit of time to parse all the ideas, but mostly echoes my thoughts. especially the last one. i think my mill deck generally wins more often via damage than actual mill.

  4. Jiisuri said

    You know, this reminds me of a story of one of my EDH games. It was a match between me playing Niv Mizzet Dracogenius spellslinger vs a friend playing Kruphix. He had a consecrated sphinx out and I had a copy of said consecrated sphinx. Naturally, both of us did the stupid thing and drew a shitton of cards. He then decided to play Laboratory Maniac and was going to win the next time I drew. So I drew my card, and he drew into empty deck. I then Trickbind-ed Lab Maniac’s triggered ability.

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