Some Mathematics of Milling (and Extended, too!)

Posted in Top Decks on January 14, 2010

By Mike Flores

For the Top Decks contribution to Milling Week, I wanted to cast a wide (and hopefully entertaining, and hopefully enlightening) net ... a little bit of historical retrospective, some general Magic strategy on the subject of deck exhaustion, and finally a look to the current Extended format. Is a "milling" strategy viable? Why, why not, and what kind of Transmute action might ruin your day?

Let's go!

    Part I. A Brief History of Milling

"Milling," as we've decided to entitle the week's theme, takes its name from Millstone, a card whose ability, while not entirely unique at this point, is iconic to a degree that few cards can claim. Our understanding of "card advantage" has for some stretches blocked Millstone out of Constructed popularity, but there is no denying that the Millstone deck is one of the fundamental pillars upon which modern competitive Magic rests.

Specifically, there were actually two versions of Millstone decks in the Top 8 of the very first Pro Tour ... and one of them won!

Michael Loconto's White-Blue Control

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Shawn "Hammer" Regnier's Millstone

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The Loconto and Hammer decks used Millstone as a primary route to victory. Neither deck used it as the only route to victory (Hammer played Mishra's Factory to outwit Feldon's Cane players, and Loconto added Blinking Spirits, and an inventive Hallowed Ground combination with his Mishra's Factories ... for ... you know ... even more Blinking Spirits), but both decks won the majority of games by running opponents out of their libraries.

Millstone itself waned in popularity in subsequent months—for some years—due to a combination of metagame changes and a greater understanding of the game by the average player. Mono-black Necropotence decks quickly took over Standard, and these decks with their Dark Ritual–driven mana and built-in nineteen-card bonuses (which the damage-poor Millstone decks could do essentially nothing to punish) were specifically very good against these white-blue decks.

In the abstract, players became more and more aware of what, today, we consider basic card advantage principles. On the one hand, Millstone was "just" a "Fireball"—that is, just a way to win (not even giving players the option to defend themselves, as Fireball does). Every time you drew a Millstone—a card that had essentially no effect on the board, it was thought—you would be "down a card" while the opponent would be setting up the advance of a victory plan. Sure, you would have "something" to do with your mana, but it wasn't like having a "real" card ... like a creature. Creatures, of course, are both a way to win and a way, potentially, to defend yourself.

Had Millstone been played in the early 2000s, its "card advantage" stat line would have looked bleaker and bleaker, with cards like Glory and Roar of the Wurm printed in the Odyssey block (but by this point, Millstone would have already had, and finished up on, its second run in Constructed). Instead of just going down a card yourself, activating your Millstone might actually set the opponent up with more cards!

But returning to the mid-to-late 1990s, Millstone decks, even without the bias against their "card advantage" dead weight issues, would have had serious problems with the post-Necropotence Standard metagame. Tempest gave rise to Jackal Pups and Wastelands, and a red deck seven to ten times faster than the white-blue Millstone decks (at least) ... and, surprisingly, with more and more efficient routes to economic advantage thanks to the recurring action of a Cursed Scroll or the sublimely slick mana of a Fireblast.

There was, though, that brief period around 2001 where Millstone made a significant reappearance in a white-blue control deck:

Zvi Mowshowitz's Blue-White Control

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The card resurfaced on the basis of pure speed. Speed? Really? Absolutely! That is, when facing up with other blue control decks, the one with Millstone (rather than Blinding Angel, Evil Eye of Orms-by-Gore, or, ironically, Nether Spirit) could stick a significant threat (that is, the Millstone) on the second turn, often sliding right under a Counterspell wall. The opponent would probably have no way at all to deal with this kind of permanent, making victory inevitable some twenty turns down the line. "Card advantage" be damned! (You're just going to draw a bunch of Vendettas or Dominates anyway.)

As a side note, I get a lot of credit for convincing blue players to tap mana on their own turns to, you know, block with a Keiga, the Tide Star or the equivalent, but Zvi and Scott Johns had it figured out for the summer of Fires of Yavimaya. Their deck started out a Millstone deck, but they played a cantrip–Mahamoti Djinn transformative strategy that made for a smooth and silky turn six.

Opt into land. Counterspell your Chimeric Idol. Absorb your first Blastoderm. Fact or Fiction into two lands. Slow you down with a Tsabo's Web (into more lands), tap six for a Mahamoti Djinn (conveniently sized with that 6th toughness for 'Derm-domination). Bring it!

That Zvi was one smart Mahamoti-Millstone Magician, wasn't he? Did you know he has a book?

While you don't see a lot of Millstones per se any more, the spirit of the white-blue library exhaustion school has recently torn its fingernails crawling back to Constructed relevance via the Joel Calafell Jacerator deck from last year's World Championships:

Joel Calafell

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Planeswalker (4)
4 Jace Beleren
Sorcery (7)
3 Day of Judgment 4 Time Warp
Artifact (8)
4 Howling Mine 4 Font of Mythos
Enchantment (2)
2 Sunspring Expedition
60 Cards

There are three big chunks of deck exhaustion bundled into the Calafell deck: the Howling Mine / Font of Mythos team, Jace Beleren, and finally Archive Trap.

Howling Mine and Font of Mythos help everyone to draw extra cards—starting with the opposition—so assuming everyone plays with the minimum number of cards, they should deck the opponent without resorting to specific "Millstone"-type effects.

Jace Beleren has the same credentials on his resume (Jace's +2 ability being essentially a Howling Mine). That, combined with an actual "Millstone you for twenty" line item, lets Jace bridge the two camps.

But Archive Trap is the special card, and Archive Trap in this deck is the ultimate reason for most if not all of this article.

    Part II. How Archive Trap Just Might Ruin Your Day, or at Least Your Deck

There were indications with a couple of different Standard Red Decks that Archive Trap was a complete monster against them. The first, most obvious, one was Standard Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle. That kind of deck would generally be forced to try to win with a Siege-Gang Commander or whatever, because one Harrow and it was usually done. A single Archive Trap would often pull out enough Mountains to gravely neuter the Molten Pinnacle.

Nick Stadtmiller's Valakut Ramp

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For sake of argument, consider Nick Stadtmiller's Valakut Ramp deck. This deck has twelve Mountains. Valakut requires five Mountains on the battlefield before it does anything besides tap for . While it is very rare that an Archive Trap will eliminate every remaining Mountain that you haven't drawn yet (though that is a possibility, especially in long games), it will with significant regularity make Valakut thoroughly uninteresting as a card, certainly demoting it to a couple of points of damage at the most, rather than a looming long-game threat.

However, even more poignant was testing with a Barely Boros–type red-white burn deck.

These decks, full of Naya Panoramas and Terramorphic Expanses, would almost always give the opponent a clear opening to use an early game Archive Trap ... with devastating results.

Wait! What's the problem?

There is no direct card advantage relationship between Archive Trap and the opponent's deck. In fact, using the Archive Trap puts you down a card—just like Millstone—when considering the "real" card economy of the game's progress. But what really happens?

Petr Brodzek's Mono-Red Beatdown

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Let's look at Petr Brodzek's actual 5-1 deck from the 2009 World Championships. The deck has 4 Arid Mesas, 4 Naya Panoramas, 4 Scalding Tarns, and 4 Terramorphic Expanses ... sixteen opportunities for the opponent to play a free Archive Trap, but seventeen near-legitimate sources of white mana to set up Ajani Vengeant. The importance of Ajani Vengeant in the Jacerator matchup cannot be exaggerated; simply, if the red-white deck sticks its planeswalker, it will usually win. If not ... not so much.

But with a single swoop of Archive Trap, the Jacerator deck can actually rid itself of any and all possibilities of an Ajani-driven Armageddon attempt. How?

Let's suppose you draw seven cards. One of them is a Scalding Tarn. You open up on Goblin Guide (hooray!). You have a hand for a second-turn Plated Geopede, and plan to get your opponent's mana tapped with a heavy attack on turns three and four. You've got Ajani Vengeant in your hand, and you know that sticking Ajani will make winning much easier.

The problem? You opened on a Scalding Tarn, and before you have the opportunity to go and find your singleton Plains, your opponent strikes!

You have 52 cards in your deck at this point, more than a dozen ways to find your white source ... but only one actual Plains. If your opponent hits that Plains—which will occur about a quarter of the time at this point, and much more later—that's actually pre-emptively countering each and every Ajani Vengeant you will inevitably draw in the future. It's actually worse than that (for you). Your opponent doesn't have to actually counter. In fact, Archive Trap will have very quietly Duressed the best card in your hand ... and you might not even know it!

Think about this for a moment. A full quarter of the time the opponent doesn't even have to think about your best card. It is a gimme. A freebie. Your plan was to go Vengeant, and instead you have to play fair against a prolific defense, a slight edge in the Expedition heads-up, and a backbreaking quartet of Kabira Crossroads. Believe me, this isn't nothing.

    Part III. A Little Extended Implementation

Originally purely as an intellectual exercise, I decided to apply what we had uncovered playing with Jacerator to what was becoming the more relevant—and today is the clearly most relevant—Constructed format ... and rich in Arid Mesas itself, arguably much more fertile ground in which to plant an Archive Trap.

This is what (after a couple of iterations) I came up with:


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It might look a little bit strange, but the deck is actually quite serviceable. On the embarrassing side, I kept losing to Rubin Zoo decks after stabilizing around 10-16 life, due to being outmaneuvered by multiple copies of Cursed Scroll—that is, Punishing Fire. However the matchups across a great many decks are quite favorable.

I originally made the deck, in mirror to the hatred Archive Trap had for Valakut in Standard, to be a Scapeshift hater. It is very difficult to lose Game 1. The math holds; if you stick even one Archive Trap, winning can be very difficult for the Scapeshift deck, and the presence of those Snares helps stick more than one.

Similarly, Dredge is a slow pitch right over the plate. This might initially seem counterintuitive because the Archive Trap deck is trying to put a lot of cards into the opponent's graveyard (and the Dredge deck is also trying to put a lot of cards into the Dredge deck's graveyard), but consider the necessity of playing Ravenous Trap and all four copies of Relic of Progenitus in this kind of a deck. For one thing, your opponent might be Dredge. Interjecting in that hunt for a Watery Grave is actually horrendous if you don't have a way to keep your opponent from demolishing you out of the graveyard. You have to play Relic of Progenitus (and see the venom regarding Punishing Fire, above). You may have noticed that while the deck doesn't have any real card drawing, it is chock-full of cantrips like Repeal (for Dark Depths) and Remand (for Hypergenesis); Relic of Progenitus is perfectly suited to this squad.

Most rogue decks are power-low and rely on the opponent's lack of familiarity with a strategy in order to win. The Archive Trap deck is actually quite powerful, and has—if not as stupid a draw as Urborg, Tomb of Yawgmoth; Thoughtseize; Dark Depths; Vampire Hexmage—a pretty stupid draw with Archive Trap (sometimes two) and a Trapmaker's Snare on the second turn.

Consider the second place deck from the online PTQ we discussed last week:

xedcrfvtgbyhnuj (2nd Place)

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This deck plays 21 lands, but only seven mana-producing lands. A multiple Archive Trap swoop on the first or second turn can not only lock out a color (which is quite possible) but take out a huge percentage of mana-producing lands. You can extrapolate from the Ajani Vengeant discussion, above, how hitting the right lands will, in this case, create dead draws in the form of cards that can't be cast ... and to a lesser degree, non-mana-producing lands that can no longer go and find other lands! So long as the opponent doesn't have Punishing Fire, it is pretty easy to win attrition wars with the remaining fast response cards in the deck, or at least buy enough time for the Baneslayer Angels to take over (even if you don't end up winning via deck exhaustion).

The Archive Trap deck has a large number of very good matchups, consistent with a combo-control positioning, but some dismal ones as well. I don't think it has a very good chance against Faeries, and I got absolutely demolished by a white-blue rogue deck with Muddle the Mixture. After setting up an impressive flourish of Traps the first couple of turns—unfortunately flipping roughly one million Momentary Blinks along the way—I watched my opponent cast Transmute for a Jötun Grunt, and ... well ... It might have been tougher than Fae.

Like I said, working on the Traps deck began as a purely intellectual exercise, but it turned out to be a lot more competitive than I originally anticipated. So for all of you who have been asking for the list, there it is!

I actually learned a lot from playing it, and am probably going to end up playing a similarly structured (if more conventional in terms of kill cards) white-blue deck when I get to my first PTQ.

I leave you this week with one of my favorite library exhaustion decks of all time. It isn't actually a "Millstone" deck, but you don't lose the game by having no cards in your deck ... You lose when you can't draw one! Anyway, it features the work of one of my favorite deck designers of all time—and, whether you know it or not, one of yours, too.

Brian Schneider's "The Meditate Deck"

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According to onetime Lead Developer Brian Schneider, this was the easiest deck to play of all time. "Trust me, you Meditate." It was played in one tournament ever. Four players played it; four made Top 8; they only lost to each other, and consequently, two of them took the Blue Envelopes.

And the only way to win—at least main—was Gaea's Blessing recursion!

Good luck picking up a Blue Envelope of your own this weekend.

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