Ah, the Red Mill. Great place to get a burger if you’re chilling in Phinney Ridge out in Seattle. They’ve been frying up massive stacks of bacon since before bacon jumped the shark. Seriously. If you find yourself in Seattle, say because you won one of those weird Sunday Super Series events at a GP and are now planning a trip (on your own dime) to play at the Wizards of the Coast offices, stop by the Red Mill. Yum!

After our polar vortex experience last week here in Brooklyn, the weather turned all Seattle-like. Blame it on the rain, but today I want to talk about milling. Specifically, who do you target when you play a card in limited that has an incidental milling effect? This has been a recurring topic here in Hipsterdom. See, e.g., Matt Jones this week and Hunter Slaton two months ago.

In Magic, “milling” refers to putting cards from the top of a player’s library directly into their graveyard. The terminology harkens back to the OG from Antiquities, Millstone. You know, because when you want to make an omelette, you gotta break a few eggs. Or grind some wheat or something.

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You wanna get nuts?!

Milling is relevant to limited in two ways. It can be an alternate win condition or an incidental effect. When a player has to draw a card from their library but there are no more cards to draw, that player loses. Sometimes a limited environment will support this win condition, either through a critical mass of milling spells or effects, or through a single powerful card. Magic 2013 had Mind Sculpt, which could get you there if you got enough of them and cards like Archaeomancer to rebuy them. Other formats like Dark Ascension-Innistrad draft offer game-ending mill spells like Increasing Confusion. Then there’s my personal favorite from Avacyn Restored, Dreadwaters. That format was so bad and led to enough board stalls that I had fantasies of sideboarding in a copy of Dreadwaters as a late game stall breaker. I don’t think I ever succeeded in doing that, but there were games where I sided it in and it was my only out to win the game.

My focus today is on incidental milling, not milling for victory. Theros limited offers two cards that have an incidental milling effect, Returned Centaur and Thassa’s Bounty. Generally you play Returned Centaur if you want a 2/4 blocker, want to increase your devotion to black, etc. And you play Thassa’s Bounty if you want to draw three cards in the late game. In these situations, you don’t care much about the milling effect, but you have the choice to make: who do you target, yourself or your opponent. How do you make this decision?

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And now, your daily moment of Zen.

Cards in a library are random. If you don’t know anything about the location of specific cards in either deck (which you ususally don’t) then milling is a neutral play. If you know your opponent has a copy of Stormbreath Dragon, say because she was bragging about drafting it, milling her does not do anything to make the dragon more or less likely to be drawn in the game. You can calculate the specific probabilities involved if you feel so inclined. Maybe the situations where you hit blanks and thin their deck (slightly increasing the probability that they draw a bomb later) outweigh the situations where you mill the important cards, but I doubt it and that’s not what I’m interested in here. The randomness of milling has effects on the game that are measurable once you see the result of the milling, but you don’t get that information until after you make the decision.

Here are factors to consider when deciding who to mill:

  • Do you have any positive graveyard interactions that give you a benefit for putting cards in your graveyard?
  • Does your opponent have any positive graveyard interactions?
  • Is the game likely to go long where the number of cards in each player’s library becomes relevant?
  • Has either player put cards on top of their library that they want to keep there?
  • Do you want more information about the cards in your opponent’s deck?
  • Do you want to keep the contents of your deck hiddent from your opponent?
  • Is it likely that you or your opponent will be tilted or otherwise react to having cards milled into the graveyard?

Graveyard Interactions

The most important is whether either player can benefit from putting cards in their graveyard. Theros is not a graveyard-based set—no flashback or threshhold spells, for example. But Theros does have a few individual cards that interact with the graveyard. Whip of Erebos, Rescue from the Underworld, March of the Returned, Pharika’s Mender, and Mnemonic Wall can put creatures from the graveyard into hand or play. Nemesis of Mortals and Nighthowler look at creatures in graveyards, while Spellheart Chimera looks at instants and sorceries in the graveyard. Tymaret, the Murder King can rescue himself from the graveyard. Bow of Nylea can put cards from a graveyard on the bottom of your library. And that’s about it.

Looking at the list, most of these cards are black, with the main two-color pair being black-green. Blue has Mnemonic Wall and blue-red offers Spellheart Chimera, while black-red has Tymaret. If your opponent is playing black-green, or seems to be on the blue-red spells-and-scry plan, then you probably don’t want to give your opponent extra value by milling them. Otherwise, there is probably no downside to milling your opponent.

If you are playing a deck with graveyard interactions, you might or might not want to actively mill yourself (and this also relates to how much value your opponent will get from a mill if they are on these strategies). Cards that benefit passively from other cards in your graveyard provide the most value. If you mill three creatures into your opponent’s graveyard, their Nemesis of Mortals gets cheaper without them doing anything else, their Nighthowler gets bigger, etc. (Nighthowler checks both graveyards, so it may no matter much who you mill when it’s in play, depending on who has more creatures in their deck.)

Other cards, which let you draw out of your graveyard, like Mnemonic Wall or March of the Returned, derive less value from incidental mill. Those cards are usually best in a long attrition-based game, where you aim to exhaust your opponent’s resources through one-for-one trades, and then buy back your spent resources with a Gravedigger effect. Sure, you might be happy to play Pharika’s Mender on turn five and get back the Insatiable Harpy your opponent milled last turn with Returned Centaur, but you would probably rather draw Voyage’s End, cast it, and then buy it back later with Mnemonic Wall than have your opponent mill the Voyage’s End and force you to use Mnemonic Wall to “draw” it for the first time.

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He died of dysentery, gave me the watch.

Whip of Erebos works similarly. Unearthing a creature with Whip can be good, but the real value in Whip is the lifelink. You’d generally rather have the creature in play permanently, with lifelink, than get a one-shot attack out of it from your graveyard. If your opponent has Whip in play, and you mill them and hit Gray Merchant of Asphodel, that is not good. But if you hit their Prognostic Sphinx, you’re just fine with them getting a single attack rather than a permanent board presence. Being able to “draw” a card from your graveyard is always nice, and even a single use of a card is better than never drawing it, but it is a marginal benefit.

In a game of Theros sealed recently I had a blue-black deck with a Returned Centaur. My only graveyard interaction was a single copy of March of the Returned. I cast the Phalanx with March in hand and milled myself, putting a Gray Merchant into my graveyard. This seemed good to me. But my opponent had an agressive start and I did not have the time to spend nine mana casting March of the Returned and Gray Merchant. I would have been better off drawing the Gray Merchant and casting it, and holding March of the Returned for the late game (if we got there). So the lesson here is consider tempo when durdling with your graveyard. Even if you have positive interactions and see a benefit to milling yourself, you aren’t going to use that benefit if you don’t have time to spend the mana to get that value.

Will Milling Become a Win Condition?

If your deck and your opponent’s deck match up evenly and the game is likely to grind to a standstill where each player is hoping to topdeck a card that will break the stalemate, winning through decking can become a real possibility. This is rare, but it can happen, especially if one or both players are drawing extra cards to dig through their deck more quickly than by drawing one card each turn. In these situations, it can be important to maintain a larger library than your opponent. Returned Centaur can do yeoman’s work here, decreasing the opponent’s library by four while also adding another defensive body to deepen the board stall. Thassa’s Bounty is less useful because you are drawing three cards, but milling yourself on top will deplete your library by six while milling your opponent will keep your libraries at parity.

This consideration is very much a corner case, but you should be aware of it. I once watched a game of Theros draft where one player lost because he chose to sacrifice a Burnished Hart in the late game to thin two lands from his deck. He ended up one card behind on libraries and lost to decking. So if you think you won’t be able to win through damage based on the board state and the cards remaining in your deck, try to keep your library larger so you have the inevitability in the very long game. Again, this is a very marginal consideration, but this entire analysis is marginal. You want to know all the possibilities, and know how likely they are to matter, so you can make the best decision mid-game.

Milling Specific Cards off the Top

Generally your incidental milling will hit random cards off the top of a library. But what if you know the top cards? In Theros, there are only two ways this comes up. The major way is through scry. The extreme case is this: your opponent has Prognostic Sphinx, attacks you, gets to scry three, and keeps all three on top. Then you untap and play either Returned Centaur or Thassa’s Bounty to wipe out those cards. But this can apply to any amount of scry. It is possible, if your opponent knows you have milling cards, that they will keep bad cards on top off a scry in hopes you’ll mill them, but that is still risky for them as you might not have those cards in hand. Or if you have the soul read, you might know what they did and choose not to use a milling effect. Very unlikely.

Overall, if your opponent has kept cards on top with scry, and you have the opportunity to mill them, you should. The flip side where you have scryed cards on top of your library but don’t want them is less relevant. Mostly, if you scry and see bad cards, you will just want to ship them to the bottom. Maybe you scry precombat, then something happens in combat that makes you change your evaluation, and then you could play a Returned Centaur postcombat and mill the cards that seemed good to have on top of your library but no longer are. I’d be surprised if that ever happened.

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So I found a crazy video in this dead guy’s safe…

The second situation where milling can interact with knowledge of the top of a library is with Griptide. You can put their best creature on top of their library at the end of their turn, untap and play a Returned Centaur. That is quite good. But remember, your opponent can do this to you. How bad do you feel if you play a Returned Centaur and mill yourself, only to have your opponent Griptide a good creature onto the top of your deck in response? I had this come up in a Theros sealed once. My opponent was playing blue-green with Nemesis and some other graveyard interactions. I played Returned Centaur and chose to mill my opponent despite his graveyard synergies, because he had four mana open and I knew he had Griptide in his deck. When I targeted him with the mill, I even said “I’m going to mill you even though I know you have Nemesis.” After the game, he said “I wish you’d milled yourself so I could have used Griptide.” Depending on the situation, that can be a total blowout. You don’t want to walk into it.

Now there can be situations where your opponent has put a creature on top of your deck with Griptide, and you want to mill it so you don’t draw it again. For example, if they put a small creature on top in the late game to blank your draw step. However, it is unlikely you’ll have a chance to cast Returned Centaur or Thassa’s Bounty between the Griptide and your draw step, since it would have to happen during your main phase. If your creature gets put on your library during your attack, then you can consider milling it away to preserve a fresh draw step next turn.

Getting Information

The remaining factors to consider all involve getting information. Basically, you can learn the contents of your opponent’s deck, and more importantly, see how they react to the cards that you mill. That information can be very valuable, and in fact these considerations are my favorite part of milling and why I almost always prefer to mill my opponent unless I have a strong reason to mill myself. You can recognize the archetype each opponent drafted, and have a sense of what cards could be there. But solid knowledge that your green-white opponent has Savage Surge or Feral Invocation (or both) can be key, especially if you don’t have to walk into the trick to get that knowledge. In game one, milling your opponent can give you an edge for sideboarding. And once you know their deck, milling them can help you narrow the possibilities of cards in their hand.

In a recent Theros draft, I milled an opponent in game two and hit a Boon of Erebos. I had been worried that my opponent had Boon in hand for a few turns, so I had been saving my removal spell. Once I saw the Boon in the yard, I felt much safer and fired off the Sip of Hemlock. Sure, they could have a second Boon, but once you see one in the graveyard, the probability of a second being in their hand drops significantly. Unless you know they have two, you mostly want to take your chances.

The flipside is that if you mill yourself, your opponent gets to see cards from your deck. Is it really worth showing your opponent that you have two Gray Merchants, if you happen to mill both? Unless you have strong graveyard synergies that you can exploit in that game, you are probably better off keeping the contents of your deck a secret until you need to actually play out the cards.

Finally, the best part about getting information through milling is that you don’t just get to see the cards! You also see how your opponent reacts to losing those cards. What if you mill four lands, and then your opponent slumps in their chair? Now you have a good sense that they needed to draw those lands. What if they have one or two cards in their deck that are essential to their success? If you mill your opponent’s Bident of Thassa, and they say “well I can’t win without that card” then you have quite a bit of information. Maybe they are lying but you can probably tell how likely that is based on the rest of your interactions with that player.

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Value!

Just putting your opponent on tilt through an opportune mill can be more valuable than all other factors discussed in this article. Sure, you take the chance that you’ll mill four lands and save them from flooding, but that’s just as random as them flooding in the first place. You don’t know what you’ll hit off incidental mill until you do it, and you make the decision based on what you expect could happen, not based on what ends up actually happening. And hey, if you do end up milling their bomb, or the two lands they were planning to use to splash a third color, that’s just gravy.

So, to sum up, there are a lot of variables you can consider when deciding who to mill in situations where it probably doesn’t matter to the outcome of the game. All of these are possible ways to get a small edge. In general, I don’t think overanalyzing these things during a game is worth the effort—you spend a lot of mental resources for not much gain. But it is important to be familiar with these factors so you can make general decisions about what you prefer to do, before you play each game, and then use those ideas in game to adapt to specific situations.

In most situations, I will choose to mill my opponent because I don’t think I get much value from milling myself but I want to get the value of information and the possible tilt factor if I do hit something good in my opponent’s deck. Tilting or getting a good idea for sideboarding seems more useful to me than milling four lands to save my opponent from flooding seems detrimental to me. I go into each match with that baseline, and then I adjust depending on what I see that could change my analysis. Let me know what you think!

Brendan McNamara (MTGO: eestlinc, Twitter: @brendanistan) used to play Magic in the old days. His favorite combo was Armageddon plus Zuran Orb. After running out of money to buy cards and friends who were willing to put up with that combo, he left the game. But like disco, he was bound to come back eventually. Now he’s a lawyer by day and a Dimir agent by night.

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