Mill Decks in Magic: The Gathering are a Bummer

By Cecilia D'Anastasio on at

“Dishonorable” isn’t a word you hear a lot in Magic: The Gathering. It’s good to win and bad to lose, and whatever strategy most consistently gets you that win is good in itself, too.

Knights know that’s not the case – that there are both honorable and undignified ways to win – which is a little ironic, because ever since Magic: The Gathering introduced its new, Arthurian-themed set Throne of Eldraine, a strategy I just can’t abide by has become very, very popular: milling.

Winning a game of Magic: The Gathering typically means knocking an opponent’s health to or below zero. Players will use a variety of strategies, including throwing big monsters on the field, denying opponents’ plays or gaining life, to keep their health up and push opponents’ health down. There’s another, less common win condition for Magic: The Gathering that in reality can only be described as more of a loss condition for your opponent: attempting to draw a card from an empty deck. The corresponding strategy to get you there is called “milling,” when you force your opponent to discard as many cards as possible into your graveyard.

Outside a Magic: The Gathering prerelease draft in Flushing, Queens earlier this year, I attempted to explain to a man with a very large vape why mill decks are dishonorable. It’s not the game, I said. You’re playing your life total game and your opponent is playing their mill game – it’s hard to interact with, plus, they’re barely interacting with my play strategy! He took a deep rip off that big boy and explained how it’s exactly the game. And the way you counter it is to win faster or add more cards to your deck. Bystanders agreed; milling is a legit strategy if it gets you that win.

I didn’t encounter a lot of mill decks out in the wild of Magic: The Gathering’s online iteration, Magic Arena, until publisher Wizards of the Coast released Throne of Eldraine last week. Now, they’re everywhere. In games with pre-made decks, the mill strategy abounds, as players build decks around the very many new cards that transfer opponents’ libraries to their graveyards: “Merfolk Secretkeeper,” “Didn’t Say Please,” “Folio of Fancies,” “Syr Konrad, the Grim,” etc. The Magic subreddits and blogs are full of advice on how to build Throne of Eldraine mill decks on the cheap, what decklists are optimal. In my online draft games, where players construct decks using a set of cards limited by what CPUs pick I’ve had my entire library milled just after taking my enemy down to one or two health.

(Some Magic Arena players suspect that the mill strategy abounds in these online Throne of Eldraine drafts because of the way CPUs select cards.)

For years, ever since there were Magic: The Gathering forums, there have been Magic players who complain that mill decks are exclusively for newbies, that they’re not competitive, that it’s insulting to lose to and can make the loser too tilted to shake hands after a match. These complaints hinge on winning and losing. For me, after spending an hour, a day, weeks or months building a deck with interlocking mechanics, delightful synergy and satisfying traps, it wholly and completely sucks for an opponent to circumvent it and toss all your cards in the garbage.

With the limited resources of a card draft, it always makes sense to grab onto the best win strategy you’re presented with, and milling, for better or worse, seems to be a popular one. Yet milling is one of those things that calls into question whether winning is the most important thing of all. It’s not dishonorable for a knight to stab their opponent, but it is dishonorable for them to dig a ditch on the opponent’s side of the battlefield and fill it with quicksand before the swords are out.

Spoiler: It is. Sorry, knights. But I’d argue that the biggest flex of all is to win the game head-to-head – with all the back-and-forth drama that makes a good game of Magic so addictive.