Why People Like Milling
Lots of Magic players love milling. As a very new Magic player, this confused me very much. I came to Magic from tournament chess, where I cared mostly about winning. Milling-based decks never actually did well at the tournaments I had read about, so it bewildered me that everyone else around me loved it. (Aside: I bet that not many other players were introduced to cutting-edge Magic theory by the legendary web site The Dojo before they owned more than three hundred cards.)
It is true, however, that lots of players love milling as a strategy, and I now have a much better understanding of why. Let me tell you some of the reasons.
1. It's easy to understand the connection between milling and victory.
It is sometimes difficult to understand what actually leads to winning a game of Magic. It is always easy to gauge numerically how close one is to victory—one must only ask what the opponent's life total is. However, over time Magic players learn from experience that having their opponent at 1 life is not a 95% guarantee of victory, no matter how much it feels like it should be. The opponent can still gain life, or counter all the rest of the burn spells, or put out an impenetrable defense against creature attacks.
Milling is quite different. In order to snatch victory from the jaws of being nearly milled to death, you must either find a way to restock your deck with cards or find a way to stop your library from ticking away one draw step at a time. These are much more difficult things to do than gaining life or building a creature defense, so it's harder to escape death by milling than death by damage.
2. Milling is non-interactive.
Magic is a frighteningly complex game. This fact may be invisible to you if you have played a lot of Magic like I have, but it's still true. Creatures are the most common route to victory in Magic, but games of Magic are quite capable of becoming enormous board stalls with tons of creatures on both sides. When this happens, it can become quite unclear what a player is supposed to do to move toward winning.
These sorts of games arise quite rarely in high-level tournament play because strong Magic players have a very keen grasp on when attacking is correct and when it is not, and games with lots of attacking tend to see lots of mutual creature deaths. This keeps the board relatively clear. Newer players, however, are much more attached to the lives of their creatures, and are often hesitant to attack with their creatures if there is even a possibility that some of them might die in combat. Because of this, their games evolve into massive board stalls much more often than games played by experienced players.
Although this kind of interaction is something that many Magic players consider important to the fun of Magic, it creates more complication in game play. New players who discover that their creature-oriented games often degenerate into confusing, creature-infested board positions sometimes react to this complication by building decks that dodge interaction as much as possible. One way to do this is to build a deck that wins through milling. Opponents can block an Enormous Baloth all day long, but they can't block a Traumatize or a Tome Scour. A milling deck doesn't require a player to keep track of the board position nearly as much; all the player must do is keep pointing Hedron Crab activations at the opponent and hope to get through all the opponent's cards in time.
3. Milling is an alternate win condition.
Mark Rosewater's article from this week talked a lot about this aspect of milling, but it deserves to be talked about here. Damage is the most common way to win a game of Magic, but many players like to feel clever when they win, or want to experience variety in how they win. Winning a game through milling can scratch either of those itches, as it is something that doesn't happen very often in the grand scheme of things.
4. Milling is a griefer mechanic.
Mark's article from Monday hinted at the opposite side of this. As he pointed out, the opportunity to draw a card each turn is something like a lottery ticket. Let's say that in your 40-card Magic 2010 Limited deck you have one copy of Shivan Dragon. When you have twenty cards left in your deck, you have a 5% chance that your next draw could be that Dragon. That's pretty exciting. Now, suppose that earlier in the game you got hit with a Tome Scour, and your Shivan Dragon is sitting sadly in the graveyard. Now you have a 0% chance of drawing that dragon, which isn't that huge of a downgrade. However, it's a lot less exciting to think about.
Let's flip it around, and pretend you're the one who cast the Tome Scour, and you got to watch your opponent's reaction on seeing Shivan Dragon get milled into the graveyard. If you're playing at, say, a Grand Prix, your opponent might frown and squirm in his seat a little bit. At a Pro Tour Qualifer, perhaps he or she remarks about how lucky you are and is visibly sad. At a local store draft, or in the comfort of your own home, your opponent might react violently by punching the table and unleashing a stream of invective at you. In any of these situations, you get more of a rise out of your opponent than is considered normal for the environment.
The gaming world calls people who enjoy getting a rise out of their opponent "griefers." I wrote half an article about how we make those people happy here. Milling is one of the mechanics that makes those players happy, since they get to point to all the delicious cards in their opponents' graveyards, say "If it weren't for me, you still would have had all those!", and watch their opponents be sad.
Who Gets Milled?
We have to be somewhat careful about the quantity of milling cards we print. As with any linear mechanic, having too many powerful cards that push in one direction can cause a juggernaut of a deck to arrive that does only one thing and cares about nothing else. This usually isn't that fun, so we are careful to make sure that there are enough cards to make a milling deck but not enough powerful milling cards that milling as a strategy eclipses other normal strategies in power.
There is, in some sense, a limit to how powerful a deck dedicated to single-mindedly milling out an opponent can be. Such a deck usually doesn't interact that much with opponents, which leaves the door open for fast creature decks or other noninteractive decks to race them effectively. There are also plenty of Feldon's Cane-like cards around to restock a library with cards.
However, a common development question we have to ask ourselves is whether we want to allow a milling card to target its caster. A deck designed to mill itself can be powerful in much more dangerous ways than one designed to mill the opponent. For example, dredge-based decks have been doing very powerful things in Extended since Ravnica's release, and unless the opponent came prepared to interact with an opposing graveyard, those Dredge decks are very strong in ways that are hard to stop. Before that, things like Hermit Druid, or Cephalid Illusionist combined with a way to target it for free an infinite number of times, gave players the ability to mill their decks in one fell swoop, Reanimate a Sutured Ghoul, make it 20/20 or bigger, put Dragon Breath on it from the graveyard, then attack for the win.
Similar things can happen even with less powerful milling cards than Golgari Grave-Troll or Hermit Druid. Check out this deck that 2008 United States National Champion Michael Jacob played at the 2009 World Championships. (There is also a video deck tech with Jacob about the deck here.)
This is a strange little deck. His goal is to get lots of cards in his graveyard, activate Crypt of Agadeem to get lots of mana, then unearth a ton of creatures to attack for the win. Note that he can also use an unearthed Fatestitcher to untap the Crypt for even more mana. He uses cycling creatures like Monstrous Carabid, Viscera Dragger, and Architects of Will to help get black creatures in his graveyard for the Crypt, but the deck would not work without Hedron Crab and Tome Scour helping to put even more cards in the graveyard. It's also very important to the deck that Grim Discovery be able to rescue a milled Crypt of Agadeem from the graveyard. This deck would simply not be possible without Tome Scours and Hedron Crabs being able to hit their controllers.
One recent high-profile card we had to ask this question about is Archive Trap. We sometimes go back and forth about whether a milling card should hit only opponents or any players, but on this card, Magic developers and playtesters were nearly unanimous. We knew that upon Zendikar's release both Standard and Extended would be full of fetch lands, which would make Archive Trap cost nothing quite a lot of the time. A free way to mill oneself for thirteen cards would make Extended Dredge decks and Standard decks like the one listed above very, very powerful, so we chose to require Archive Trap to target opponents.
We like it when decks like this exist. However, we do not like it when they are so powerful that you are obligated to play them. To keep them in this space, we allow smaller milling effects like Hedron Crab and Tome Scour, and huge but expensive ones like Traumatize, to target any player, but we keep huge and cheap milling effects pointing at the opponent.
Milling in Limited
When we want to enable an alternative strategy in Limited, we sometimes turn to milling. The most high-profile example of this is in Ravnica. The Dimir guild, one of four guilds in the set, had a strong milling theme, with cards like Vedalken Entrancer, Lurking Informant, Psychic Drain, and Duskmantle, House of Shadow allowing players to mill their opponents away. This gave it a very strong identity as compared to the other guilds, which each played very differently.
Sometimes it's not appropriate for us to build in a strong alternate theme. For example, Magic 2010 is a core set, which means that we prefer to keep to basic Magic game play as much as possible. That doesn't mean that we don't give the tools to do other things; it just means we don't push those other things as hard as we might otherwise. For example, did you know that there is a mill deck in Magic 2010 limited? Tome Scour and Burning Inquiry both take cards off of an opponent's library, and an enterprising drafter who collects enough of both of those cards, perhaps with the help of a lucky Traumatize or Jace Beleren, may not have difficulty milling an opponent out.
We also like to add single cards that support milling strategies, often at uncommon. One great example of this is Dampen Thought, which provided an archetype in itself in Champions of Kamigawa draft. A perfect example of this kind of deck is this one, which was drafted by former Limited Information author Quentin Martin at Grand Prix–Paris, where he finished 11th:
A more recent card that does similar things is Hedron Crab. In Zendikar Limited, I have been decked by green-blue landfall decks that played a single Hedron Crab as an alternate way to break through ground stalls. I have also heard stories of decks with a whopping four Hedron Crabs that were built entirely around milling the opponent out with them. We love doing things like this. Variety is the spice of life, and when we can add entire decks to a format with a single card, that adds a lot of value to drafting a set without costing us much in terms of card slots.
Last Week's Poll
|What is your favorite way to win a game of Magic?|
|Reducing your opponent to 0 life||7133||58.4%|
|Your opponent being unable to draw a card||2129||17.4%|
|A card that says 'You win the game'||1790||14.7%|
|Your opponent having ten poison counters||1156||9.5%|
I hope that the reason behind this poll is clear now that you know what week it is. Thanks for the responses!
Last Week's Bonus Poll
|Is this bonus poll constructed well?|
I received a number of emails from readers complaining about the insufficient selection of options on this poll. I claim that, in that case, the answer to the question is simply "no." Also, this was a metajoke. Move along, nothing to see here ....
This Week's Poll
Worldwake previews officially start next Monday, but there are already some cards in the Visual Spoiler, including this one: