Unlocking Mill

Posted in Reconstructed on June 19, 2012

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Some Magic players out there have a collection of thousands of cards, with access to any card they might want for their decks. I could rattle off a list of cards and—given adequate time to scrounge around closet floors—they could put it together. Deck building decisions are first scribbled down on paper, and then later brought into reality.

Considering how central that audience is to the game's core, it might surprise you then that a gargantuan number of Magic players build decks very much the opposite way. How that group builds decks might look something like this:

Instead of building the deck then acquiring the cards, this group plays Magic in a fashion more akin to Duels of the Planeswalkers. You already have several decks, and then you "unlock" cards—also known as buying booster packs—to fit into your deck.

For Duels 2013 release week, I'm going to take a departure from my typical article to look at how to make small, individual changes to a deck. Whether playing through Duels or tweaking your own deck, understanding each card's role so you can make small changes is invaluable.

Of course, to do this I need a deck to make changes to! For this week, we're going to be taking a look at Ian Lovell's submission.

Ian Lovell's Green-Blue Mill

Download Arena Decklist

Yes, for everyone counting, this deck is sixty-two cards. You nearly always want to stick to sixty cards and there's no good reason to be over here (especially with cards like Laboratory Maniac!) but we'll set this aside until later in the article.

When you first start playing with a Duels of the Planeswalkers deck, it will look something like the deck above: full of one-ofs. Eventually, the goal will be to whittle down the singletons and create a more cohesive deck, but to start with your deck is going to be full of all kinds of cards that came stag to the party. As you unlock more cards you're going to choose cards to cut—but how?

Wreath of Geists | Art by Jason A. Engle

To make matters even more tricky, those clever Duels developers put in plenty of one-of cards that push you in different directions. Maybe you'll want to take a deck more aggressive or defensive, or maybe you want to play up one theme of the deck. Of course, you'll want to be making your deck more powerful in the process as well.

So, how can you figure out what to cut to accomplish these goals? Looking at all of the cards individually!

There are three categories I immediately try and place a card into: thematic cards, powerful cards, and cards that fill the deck's gaps. If a card can fit multiple categories, it always fits the highest. If a card does not fit any of those three categories, then it's in the bucket of cards that can go. If no cards can go, then I start at category #3—the least important category—when culling cards.

Ready? Let's go!

    Category #1: Cards That Fit the Theme

When building a deck, you often have a theme or a goal in mind. It can be as simple as "rush them with creatures" or as complicated as "play twenty spells in a single turn, then cast Grapeshot and kill them." The first thing you want to ask is if this card fits your theme.

In this deck's case, the theme is using self-mill cards—cards that put your own cards into the graveyard—to accrue an advantage and make your other synergy-based cards more powerful. Some thematic cards might mill you, benefit from having cards in your graveyard, or be useful if you mill them away.

Examples in this deck include Splinterfright, Deranged Assistant, Wreath of Geists, and Laboratory Maniac.

    Category #2: Powerful Cards

When looking very broadly, there are two kinds of decks: decks based on synergy and decks based on power. In general, I feel like synergy usually trumps power, but the two are very close. There are certainly some decks where I would reverse the question, and there are some decks which have the simple goal of "play the most powerful cards you can," in which case both categories are rolled into one.

Splinterfright | Art by Eric Deschamps

In something like Duels, it doesn't matter too much, though—I would generally try to never cut cards that are in categories #1 or #2. Ideally, you will be cutting category #3 and the uncategorized cards.

Examples of powerful cards in this deck are Merfolk Looter, Azure Mage, Ponder, and Splinterfright. Note that Splinterfright hits the ideal axis of synergistic plus powerful, which is the best place to be.

Power can be difficult to quantify, especially if you don't have a lot of experience with Magic. Some questions you can ask yourself when thinking about power:

1) What is this card's impact on the battlefield when it is cast? A huge spell like Day of Judgment has a huge impact on the board—it can destroy all of your opponent's creatures and completely turn the tide of the game for only four mana.

Doom Blade has a smaller but still very noticeable impact: you immediately remove one of your opponent's creatures.

A Wurm's Tooth does not have a high impact. Nothing happens right away.

2) How large is this creature at this point in the game? A 5/5 creature has a tremendous impact—if it can hit the board quickly. Though it doesn't directly affect the board immediately, the impact still radiates throughout your opponent's game plan. A 5/5 on turn four forces the opponent to act or be on the back foot.

Azure Mage | Art by Izzy

On the other hand, a 10-mana 5/5 doesn't have nearly the same effect. At that point in the game, your opponent might not need to deal with it to kill you or will have already amassed a sizable army.

How can you tell if a guy is overstatted or understatted for the cost? I'd say a good rule of thumb for size is this list:

1 mana: 2 combined power/toughness
2 mana: 4 combined power/toughness
3 mana: 4–5 combined power/toughness
4 mana: 6-7 combined power/toughness
5 mana: 8 combined power/toughness
6 mana: 10–11 combined power/toughness
7+ mana: Over nine thousand Highly variable power/toughness (At this point the abilities matter significantly more than the pure size.)

Now, this list doesn't account for abilities, so you have to factor in your creatures' sweet abilities yourself. It's also hard to account for the differential between, say, blue's creatures and green's creatures. But, in general, if a creature is beating this metric then it's above the standard curve for its cost.

3) Does this card help me if I'm losing? Imagine a game state where you're losing. Not irrevocably so, but behind in the game nonetheless. Will this card help you? The rougher situation this card can pull you out of, the better!

Let's go through some examples.

Wurm's Tooth? Nope! It's not going to pull you out of many losing situations. The life you recoup is not going to outrace the damage you're taking.

Searing Spear? Yes! It will deal with a single small-medium creature, especially evasive ones, which can certainly help you out.

Hollowhenge Beast? Yes! It can block most ground creatures and can singlehandedly deter a ground assault.

Final Punishment? Nope! It's only good when you can already get through with a bunch of damage.

Day of Judgment? Definitely! You can pull out of very tight situations by destroying all of your opponent's creatures.

4) Does this card keep me at card parity or better? If every one of your cards either provides you with an additional card or trades for one of your opponent's cards, you can hope to have the same number or more cards in hand than your opponent. If you have the same number of cards in your hand as your opponent you will be on roughly equal footing, and if you have more cards than your opponent that means you will have extra options to help win you the game.

Divination | Art by Scott Chou

Let's go through another set of examples.

Turn to Slag? Yes! You are usually killing a creature with this, trading one of your cards for one of theirs. Bonus points if you hit an Equipment also!

Lava Spike? No! You are dealing 3 damage to them, but you are losing a card without gaining one back anywhere.

Divination? Yes! You are trading one card for two additional cards.

Annihilate? Absolutely! You are trading one card for one of your opponent's cards and also gaining a card in the process. This is a textbook two-for-one: providing two cards' worth of advantage for the cost of only one card.

Hollowhenge Beast? Yes. Well, no. Well, yes. This one is tricky. It doesn't provide you any cards on its own, but it is a large enough creature that it is likely to trade with one of your opponent's cards.

Wurm's Tooth? Nope. A bunch of life won't translate into cards on its own. Poor, poor Wurm's Tooth.

Mons's Goblin Raiders? Not usually. A 1/1 creature is unlikely to trade with another creature in combat, and it will just be negated by a larger creature as the game goes on.

Thieves' Auction? Uhhhhhh...

In any case, onto category #3!

    Category #3: Cards that Fill the Missing Pieces

The final named category is cards that help plug any remaining holes in the deck. These are cards that don't synergize and aren't necessarily super powerful, but make for some nice utility cards.

Negate | Art by Jeremy Jarvis

Often these cards might be one mana more expensive that you'd like or just don't have a pronounced enough effect on the game. Cancel is one example. Other times, they're just things you need to make the deck function, like a mana-ramping spell. Unless I really need this hole filled, most times I would rather just have a synergistic or powerful card.

A place where this happens most commonly is with creatures. Your deck might not have enough, so you end up with some middle-of-the-road creatures just so you have a reasonable clock on your opponent. In this deck's case, you also need creatures to ensure your Splinterfrights and Wreaths are supercharged.

Examples of category #3 cards in this deck would be Negate and Hunter's Insight.

If a card does not fit into one of these three categories, you need to reconsider why it is in the deck in the first place. Golden Urn, for example, doesn't provide you with synergy, power, or really fill a missing hole considering how much life gain is in the deck already. That would be an easy cut to make. (And is, in fact, a cut I will make since the deck is sixty-two cards to begin with.)

It's also worth noting that these rules aren't completely hard and fast—there can be synergistic cards that aren't worth playing. However, I'd rather have a Shriekhorn—even though it's a fairly weak way to mill myself—than a weak hole-filling card.

    You've Unlocked a New Card!

To put all of this discussion into action, I wanted to unlock some cards of our own and then talk about the changes I would make using them. However, since this isn't a Duels of the Planeswalker 2013 deck, I needed to "unlock" some cards of my own—the old fashioned way!

To simulate the computerized process of unlocking cards and replicate the real process of opening packs, I'm going to open up three packs of my own! Then I'll go through the blue and green (and land and artifact) cards in each, and talk about how I would look at each one as though I unlocked it in this deck.

But before I open packs let's talk about...

Ah, who am I kidding—let's open some packs! I don't get to do this often enough.

...ahhh, new card smell. And sweet, a Human token!

But let's not get too distracted. (Though c'mon, you gotta respect the smell.)

Oh, right, where was I before I opened that pack? Oh yes: cards to cut.

Spider Spawning | Art by Daniel Ljunggren

Narrowing it down, these are cards in this deck that don't fit into any categories we're really looking for:

Brindle Boar
Caravan Vigil
Golden Urn
Hunter's Insight
Make a Wish
Woodland Sleuth
Spider Spawning (unless you add a couple sources for it)

Especially for synergy purposes, this deck doesn't want many noncreature spells, so Negate is also a reasonable cut. I'd pick two of those cards and cut them to get the deck down to sixty. Then I'd start adding some of the cards opened below, cutting your least favorite card from the above each time, keeping in mind that ideally noncreatures want to go before creatures.

Anyway. Right. The pack.

This pack started on a pretty strong note, with seven cards we could potentially play!

Up first: Haunted Fengraf.

I'm not usually too excited by this card, but this deck doesn't have any colorless lands currently and could probably support a couple. The fact that you're milling yourself means it'll usually be active to get you something back—though whether or not it's of value is up to chance.

Still, the potential to trade a land in the late game for a creature is worthwhile, and has a low enough cost to putting it in this deck that it's a card I'm happy to add.

Next: Favor of the Woods.

This card is a creature enchantment which has no synergy deck in our deck, isn't very powerful (doesn't affect the board, help you when you're losing, or keep card parity) and doesn't really plug anything that's missing. It doesn't come close to fitting into one of our categories. I wouldn't add this.

Next: Artful Dodge.

This card isn't particularly appealing on the power scale, but it does have some synergies since you can mill it and have it be useful. When a good man needs to go to war (say Splinterfright or a Wreathed creature) it gets the job done. Usually, effects like this aren't worth a card since they don't impact the board, but since you can flash it back after milling it away I'd certainly consider adding it if you feel comfortable with the number of noncreature spells. Right now I'm not comfortable adding more noncreature spells if you can help it, but it's something to keep in mind in case we drastically up our creature count.

Next: Dawntreader Elk.

This guy is a solid fit for us. He's a little synergistic, filling the graveyard as a creature (synergistic), and also accelerates you (filling a hole), and trades himself for a basic land, which sort of helps maintain card parity. He's definitely going in!

Next: Bone to Ash.

This isn't a category #1 or #2 card, but it does fit squarely into category #3. This deck is light on ways to deal with creatures. However, another noncreature—and one I have to hold four mana for—isn't really something this deck is crazy about. I wouldn't put it in. This deck doesn't want to play more noncreature spells if it can help it.

Next: Tower Geist.

Tower Geist is excellent for this deck! It's synergistic, powerful (creates card parity), and is also a creature. An easy add.

Finally: Briarpack Alpha.

Now, this card is not a category #1. Its only synergy is being a creature. However, it is certainly powerful. It can help you when you're losing, can ambush a creature and create card parity, has a high impact on the battlefield, and has a great ability on top of its average size. Perfect!

Alright, the first pack was pretty good for this deck. What does Pack 2 have in store for us? Time to rip this open...

Alright! Pack 2 wasn't nearly as strong for us as the first pack, but there are still four cards to talk about.

First up: Headless Skaab.

This kind of green-blue deck can quickly pile creatures into its graveyard thanks to its milling effects. Though it does want to keep creature cards in its graveyard, the low cost of one creature card isn't too rough. This card has high stats for the cost and, while he does have a drawback, he's still worth playing here. Headless Skaab is good to go!

Next: Saving Grasp.

I really only mention this for completeness's sake—with a white flashback cost, this deck isn't going to be able to flash it back. The card's ability isn't so synergistic that it's worth not having white. Definitely not a contender.

Next: Crushing Vines.

Creature removal is something this deck is interested in, but not such a conditional piece. This doesn't fit category #1 or #2, and such conditional removal on a noncreature isn't what this deck wants for category #3.

Finally: Evolving Wilds.

Now this card is actually fairly exciting. It's not particularly synergistic, but is deceptively powerful. Being able to cast your spells is one of the most powerful things you can do in Magic, and Evolving Wilds helps fix this two-color deck's mana base without a Hinterland Harbor in sight. It's not as optimal as the Harbor, but I'll happily take it!

Alright, two packs down and there have been plenty of good options. I can feel the deck slowly improving, piece by piece. Now let's tear into that third pack!

...alrighty, let's see what we have here. Looks like there are five options this time around.

First up: Thought Scour.

Thought Scour is highly synergistic with this deck (category #1) and doesn't cost us a card to use (category #2), which makes it an excellent cog in this deck's network. As this continues to show, when a card fits squarely into category #1 and #2, it's usually a great fit.

Next: Young Wolf.

Young Wolf isn't particularly synergistic, but it does help us stem the early game, which fills a hole this deck currently has. Coupled with its creature-ness, I'd say it's a fine candidate for the deck when compared to the cards we're taking out.

I'd rather have it than something like, say, Brindle Boar when it comes to early game protection. Young Wolf is cheaper, as opposed to the three-times-as-expensive Brindle Boar, and in many cases will prevent the same amount of damage.

Next: Evolving Wilds.

Even though it means another land in our deck will enter the battlefield tapped, I'm just as happy to add this as I was to add the last one. Hurray for good mana!

Next: Chill of Foreboding.

This is a card which certainly doesn't seem very powerful under any of the normal definitions, but is incredibly synergistic with this deck. (And therefore very powerful.) Milling five is great, the ability to flashback makes it even more enticing. This is one noncreature which definitely makes the cut.

Finally: Scorned Villager.

Not synergistic, not powerful under the traits I mentioned, but this certainly fills a hole in the deck of mana acceleration. It's a creature and more consistent than Caravan Vigil, so this is a solid category #3 card I'd want in my deck.

So that's three boosters of "unlocks" and the deck is already beginning to take a more cohesive form. Most importantly, hopefully you can see how individual card tweaks work a little more clearly now than you did before—that skill will be crucial to traversing the Duels 2013 landscape.

    Broadening the Planes

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't also include a finished suggested green-blue self-milling decklist. If you're doing more than making card-by-card changes and sit squarely in the group who will go out and find all of a cards to build a deck, this is the version I would build:

Deranged Milling

Download Arena Decklist

If you notice, these cards practically all fit into category #1 or #2. You just want to hit that note as often as possible, and this deck does that admirably. Graveyard hate can be frustrating—but only if they exile your graveyard. A card like Grafdigger's Cage isn't that big of a deal; you can just win with Cagebreakers, Ghoultrees, and Bonehoards.

This kind of deck is a ton of fun to play. It's a little inconsistent, but when it comes together it's an absolute spectacle. And who knows, perhaps Magic 2013 will offer it some goodies as well...

    Honorable Mentions

There are always a ton of decks submitted, and in this area I like to recognize some that nearly made the cut to be the feature for the article. Check these out!

Phillip Bang-Jensen's Misthollow Extraction

Download Arena Decklist

Kyle Casey's Tempered Summoning

Download Arena Decklist

Theo Trevisan's Black-Red Loners

Download Arena Decklist

Aaron Golas's Black-Red Heartless Smallpox

Download Arena Decklist

Nick Ehnat's Arcane Melee

Download Arena Decklist

    Back to the Future

Another week, another deck down! I have an exciting one for you next week, as I unveil what exactly was up with that five-color challenge I proposed last week. But until then, it's time for another Standard challenge, but this time it's time to travel to 2013—Magic 2013, that is!

Format: Post-Magic 2013 Standard
Restrictions: Your deck must prominently feature a card from Magic 2013
Deadline: Tuesday, June 26, at 6pm Pacific Time
Send all decklists via email by clicking the "Respond via Email" link at the bottom of this article

It might be hard to believe, but in two weeks' time, the full Magic 2013 spoiler will be up! My article will be going up the day after we show off the entire set, and so I'll take the opportunity to look over your Standard deck and tweak it with all kinds of Magic 2013 cards.

Servant of Nefarox | Art by Igor Kieryluk

Of course, there's a twist—your deck must prominently feature some card from Magic 2013! It's up to you as to what prominent entails, but in general I want that card to be something that significantly helps the deck. It doesn't have the be its core, but it can't just be an offbeat support card either.

I'm even giving you guys an extra day so you can see all the Magic 2013 goodness you can before sending in a deck submission, so take your time on this one. I'm looking forward to seeing what you guys come up with!

Let me know via Twitter (@GavinVerhey) or in the forums if you found the approach this article took helpful. Hopefully you have a better idea now of how to move individual cards around when building a deck, for Constructed, Limited, or Duels of the Planeswalkers.

Until next week, may your tiny deck building choices make a big difference.


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