Welcome to Milling Week! This week I'll be telling you everything you every possibly wanted to know about the intersection of milling and Magic design. Don't know what milling is? Don't worry, when I say I'll tell you everything about milling, I mean I'll start from the beginning, including what milling is. (Hint: it's Magic slang for an ability you're probably familiar with.) Sound good? Then let's get the Millstone rolling.
- Where There's a Mill
Milling is Magic slang for putting cards from the top of a player's library directly into that player's graveyard. Here for example are the three milling cards in Magic 2010:
Why is it called milling? Well, now we get to peek behind the scenes of Magic slang and see how it gets created. Most Magic slang comes about because a card gets released that does something that no other card had previously done in Magic. People wanting to talk about that ability tend to use the card name as a shorthand for the effect as it's the most obvious thing that connects to it. If there is a keyword or an ability word or even a word used in the title of multiple cards using this ability, then we (being Wizards) have done our job to help name this ability. Often, though, the cool thing starts on a single card.
The first card to "mill" was an artifact from Antiquities:
The card was named Millstone. In the beginning, you "millstoned" another player, but with time "millstone" became "mill" as "mill" is actually a word, and a verb at that, so it sounded better. Now, what does a millstone— either of a pair of stone wheels used to grind or crush things—have to do with putting cards from your library into your graveyard?
The answer, I believe, is this. The library represents the mental capacity of the planeswaker. The hand is what they are currently focusing on mentally. If a spell is in your library, it is something you know and eventually you'll be able to recall it (a.k.a. draw it). Milling is a mental attack where you are going after knowledge inside the planeswalker's head. Discard spells, by the way, are spells that attack the player's current thoughts. ("Oops, did this blow to the head make you forget what you were about to do?")
The word millstone can also mean a mental or emotional burden. The Antiquities designers (Skaff Elias, Jim Lin, Dave Petty and Chris Page—and yes, back then much of the naming was done by the design teams) were being clever with wordplay. The name was both a real thing and a description of an emotional upheaval.
The slang makes sense as long as you understand where the word comes from. Millstone, unfortunately, was not reprinted in Magic 2010, so now the card that defined the slang is no longer in print or even available in the Standard environment. Confusing? Welcome to the world of slang. (CC'ed anyone lately?) Now that I've defined milling, let's dive into the next important topic: where did it come from?
- In for the Mill
The history of milling actually starts before Millstone was printed. Even in the beta testing of Magic, there were decks that won by running the opponent out of cards. I remember hearing about a deck that Charlie Catino (our current Director of New Business in Ramp;D) played where he kept using Timetwisters to keep shuffling graveyards back into libraries. He would deck you by playing Swords to Plowshares to remove all your creatures from the game, thus shrinking your library so that he would eventually deck you. (Yes, the original playtesters did truly playtest the game.)
This brings up the first question about milling. Why did Richard Garfield make you lose the game when you ran out of cards in your library (known in Magic slang as "decking")? Any guesses? As with any good design, the reason is quite simple. It was the easiest answer to the question "What happens if I run out of cards?" Remember, barring Charlie's deck, most games back then that came to decking dod so because they ran long. The decking rule helped keep the long games from running any longer.
Once an alternate way to win existed, players were soon attracted to it as a means of winning because well, that's what gamers do. In the early days, decking was a win condition for decks that prevented anything from happening. It was a way to win without having to devote a card to actually winning the game.
All this changed though when Millstone came out in Antiquities. Instead of milling being a passive win condition, it became an active one. All of a sudden, a deck could aggressively mill the opponent. The Antiquities designers were nice enough to also give deck builders a tool to make sure that they weren't decked, a little artifact called Feldon's Cane.
Millstone would have a huge impact on one other Magic player. This person had started in Alpha. Antiquities instantly became his favorite Magic set upon release, and Millstone became one of his favorite cards. I bring this player up because his love of milling would lead to the creation of a huge amount of milling cards, including a few sets with strong milling subthemes. That player was, of course, me.
- Mill Crazy After All These Years
Where does my love of milling come from? Without a doubt, it stems from my love of alternative win conditions. There's just something about winning in a different way than normal that revs my Johnny sensibilities. As I explained in a previous column, for a while I was responsible for the vast majority of alternative win card in the game (we finally hired some other designers who also thought alternative wins were cool). This is a separate issue from my true alt-win love: poison. If only you knew about the various attempts over the years I've made to get poison into a set. When the day comes, I will have an awesome poison article about all the times I tried and failed to get poison back into Magic. My point is that I love alternate ways to win in Magic, so milling, from the day I first saw Millstone, was always close to my heart.
It's interesting when you look back how certain abilities we use all the time now were almost nonexistent back in the day. For example, let's look at all the milling cards in Magic before I showed up at Wizards—that is, from Alpha through Homelands. Note that I am only including cards that milled for the sake of milling, not cards that happen to put a card or two into the graveyard while accomplishing some other task. The cards are:
In the first two years of Magic, there were four cards that you could loosely call milling cards. Ray of Erasure was more about removing a known top card from a library but as it does nothing but mill a card, I included it. Vexing Arcanix was also not really about milling, but anyone who's every played Ice Age sealed knows how often you use it to mill out people in Limited games (if they don't die to the damage first that is). That leaves Millstone and Reef Pirates as cards actually dedicated to milling your opponent out.
Once I was at Wizards, I made it an effort to lobby for milling where I could. I was the one championing Vision Charm's mill option. I made sure the first set I designed (Tempest) had a cool new milling artifact in it (Altar of Dementia). I tried real hard to get at least one milling card in per block.
Then came Odyssey block. The theme of the block was the graveyard so we had numerous mechanics that cared about having cards in your graveyard. Early in design we realized that this had cool interaction with milling. In fact, for the first time, there were serious reasons to mill yourself. The design handoff for Odyssey had a milling subtheme much greater than what ended up being printed. I had overloaded the set, and it was believed that milling created some tension that development wanted to lessen. Nonetheless, the block did turn out a few popular milling cards.
The next set large set I led was Mirrodin. Milling had definitely been established as part of artifacts' slice of the color pie (more on this in a bit), so Mirrodin was an excellent block to put more milling artifacts in.
Next for me was Ravnica. There I got a whole guild, Dimir, that had a milling theme. Interestingly, while I created the dredge mechanic, the self-milling component was created during development by Ravnica lead developer Brian Schneider.
Zendikar also had a minor milling theme that was cut back a bit in development (although the Hedron Crab is nothing to laugh at.)
In the early days there was some doubt as to how much popularity milling has, but every time we've made a push towards an exciting milling card, the audience has been very receptive. This has been helpful in my (and others') push to get more milling cards into the game.
- Mill Waters Run Deep
Now that I've talked a little about the history of milling, let's get to some nuts and bolts. To start I'd like to examine milling's place in the color pie. What color(s) get(s) the ability to mill? The answer is sort of three: artifacts, blue, and black.
Artifacts – Magic design has a lot to do with inertia. If something proves popular in a certain space, it tends to take root there. Milling started on an artifact, and as such much of the follow-up milling effects were also put onto artifact cards. Over time, this just cemented itself, so much so that one of the few abilities we give to artifacts' slice of the color pie is milling. Artifact milling cards are almost always tapping artifacts that repeatedly mill the opponent.
Blue – Blue is the sneaky color. It loves to mess with the mind of the opponent. As milling has a mental attack flavor, it is very natural in blue. The flavor is natural in black which also has mental attacks. Because we like to differentiate where we can when two colors overlap in a flavor area, we have decided that blue's milling is nondescriminate. That is, blue just mills away random cards off the top of the library. Because this is weaker than what we give to black (more on this in a second), blue gets to remove more cards from the library than black. Blue's milling tends to come in two mechanical parts: spells that mill numerous cards once, and permanents, most often creatures, that can repeatedly mill smaller amounts of cards.
Black – If blue confuses, then black lobotomizes. Black, we decided for flavor, can go after the library, but in a more controlled way. Black tends to make you forget the one or two things it needs you to forget. As such, black's milling is less sweeping and more tactical. The result of this is that black tends to not mill out players nearly as much. It severely weakens their ability to react and then takes them out some other way while they are in a weakened state. Black tends to work best for milling when paired with blue, because its small attacks do advance a milling strategy.
- A Bitter Mill to Swallow
So players love milling? Not exactly. Time has shown us that players like some forms of milling, basically the ones where you mill your opponent. We have also played around with cards where we allow you to mill yourself as a cost. These have gone over poorly even when the card in question was powerful. The poster child for this was of course Arc-Slogger.
Ramp;D was worried about this card before it came out because it was pretty powerful. When it came out, though, it did so to a very lukewarm response. Players, we learned, just didn't want to play it. (Yes, there were some Spikes who got what the card was doing .) From this we learned an interesting lesson.
Let's say a player plays a game and never draws his awesome Dragon. Is he upset? Not majorly so. Players get that they are not going to see every card every game. Sometimes your most powerful card is just on the bottom of your deck. Let's take the same player and have him get milled. Among the cards that get put into his graveyard is his Dragon. What we've discovered is that this is rather upsetting for most players. Seeing their best card go to their graveyard is a big morale blow.
But why? What's the difference between the card getting milled and it just being the bottom card of the deck? Logically, very little. Psychologically, a lot. The card sitting in your deck is potentially your next draw. Sure, you might never draw it, but you don't know that. The lack of knowledge about where it is gives a player hope. A similar phenomenon can be seen with lottery tickets. A man buys a lottery ticket for a fifty million dollar payout. The ticket is exciting until the moment he learns that it's not a winner. Until the drawing, the ticket is potentially fifty million dollars. That's exciting even if the math says the chance of getting that money is infinitesimally small.
The result of this lesson is twofold. First, we are very hesitant to make players mill themselves. Second, we have to be aware that milling has a stronger psychological impact than logic would assume. Players are much more likely to be feel milling effects are stronger than they actually are. Also, because of this reaction, we have made a conscious decision to limit how much milling we'll do in any one set. Sometimes getting milled out is okay, but having it happen all the time would be problematic.
- Mill 'Em Up
Finally, I thought I'd walk through the design of a few milling cards just to give you some insight into their design.
I created this card because I liked the idea of shaking up what a mill deck looked like. At the time mill decks tended to be mono-blue or white-blue and were all about controlling the environment, using milling as a win condition once control was established. These decks were usually creatureless. Altar of Dementia was just me pushing back. How about a milling deck that required you to play creatures? What would that look like?
I'll just answer this question I get most about this card. Why thirteen? For exactly the reason that so many people have to ask "Why thirteen?".
While I love milling for its alt-win awesomeness, I also love it as a designer for a different reason. Often we have to make cards that scale based on some factor. In this case, it was a creature that was going to have a triggered ability that would get used over and over. As such, we needed a blue ability that is weak enough that using it ten-plus times isn't a problem, but that means enough that you care that you've done it ten times. In blue, there are very few mechanical things that fit this need. Milling is the best, and one of the reasons you see milling used is that it is perfect for cards like this one.
This card started out in a very simple place. One way to do multicolor cards is to find an overlap between the two colors and push the power of the cards with the idea that if you spend both colors that can do the effect, you get something stronger than any one color could get. Okay, blue and black get milling. Put them together and you get the best two-drop milling spell ever. Little did I know what we tapped into. This card was the second most popular card in the Ravnica godbook study. Number two! Even I, a die-hard believer in milling popularity, didn't see that one coming.
The Crab first got the milling ability based on the logic I explained above in Drowner Initiate. It wasn't until we started drafting that we saw its true potential. For a long time it had an awesome combo with a card in Worldwake, but it turned out to be a little too powerful, and the Worldwake card changed to a different mechanic. (Remind me when Worldwake is public and I'll tell you about it.)
One of things that is very subtle about planeswalkers is how we try to craft their abilities to match the kind of wizard each of them is. Jace has the ability to mess with people's memories. His attacks are mostly mental in nature. This is why he has a milling Ultimate ability.
For most of this card's existence, it had a much more complicated ability. During the final week of development (I was on the Shards of Alara development team), we were doing a pass on the rares trying to spiff them up when we ran across this card. What did this card do exactly? Basically, it milled the opponent every time he or she cast a spell. Why don't we have the card just do that rather than making the player jump through three hoops to get there? The team agreed, and the card was changed to this much cleaner version.
This card started with the following idea: what if the card's trigger was your opponent untapping his or her permanents? From there we had to figure out what effect it could be. As it would happen a lot, it had to be something small that over time could turn into something big. Milling proved to be the obvious answer.
Originally the chroma ability for this card counted mana symbols on permanents in play, but we had too many chroma cards doing that and we were looking for some different places to look for mana symbols. I suggested using cards from the top of your library because I liked the balance that you were using your library as a means to deplete your opponent's library.
This card came about because we were riffing on different milling effects. I asked the team what the biggest milling effect we could create was. Somehow we got onto the discussion of the mythical car that can travel half the distance you want to go. It can never get you to your destination, but it gets you awfully close. That discussion led us to make the "mill you for half" card, and it's also the reason why we had the card round down.
I decided early in Future
- Mill Me Later
That's all I got for Milling Week. I hope my rambling gave you some insight into how milling is designed.
Join me next week when Worldwake previews begin.
Until next week, may you get to ask, "How many cards are left in your library?"