If you’re just getting into Magic through Commander, you may have encountered decks which do something a little different. Rather than just try to draw cards or pull them from the library, they want to put as many cards into their own graveyard as possible. This might seem odd as running out of cards in the library is a surefire way to lose a game, but make no mistake, there’s a ton of power in the so-called self mill in Commander. Today, we’re going to go over the basics of this strategy and some different ways to play them in less competitive settings.
Why make the distinction about less competitive settings? The past few years have been incredibly friendly to self mill strategies in Commander. For the better part of the past decade, the best way for these decks to achieve an easy victory was with Laboratory Maniac. Then, Jace, Wielder of Mysteries came in War of the Spark and Thassa’s Oracle followed the next year in Theros Beyond Death. A once novel win condition became a far more reliable path to victory.
As such, I will not delve too deep into these as win conditions in part because doing so would be me padding my word count with the phrase “resolve one of these three with an empty library and win” over and over. Regardless, if I’m discussing a blue deck in this article, understand that you can add one or more of these cards as win conditions. Just be sure that, when you sit down to play, these come up in the pregame discussion and everyone agrees that it is going to be that sort of battle.
Let’s start at the big picture – why should you self mill? I think this is best illustrated by comparing Diabolic Tutor to Restock. Diabolic Tutor is a “correctly” costed tutor that can go and get any card in your deck for a total of four mana. Restock can get any two cards in your graveyard for a total of five mana. Now, these are not the best cards in their respective categories, but they tell us what we need to know: it’s cheaper to get cards out of the graveyard than to pull them from the library. This is one reason to pursue a self mill strategy.
Another is to leverage cards in the graveyard as full-on spells. It should come as no surprise that this article is coming in the wake of Midnight Hunt which features both flashback and disturb. If you put a card with one of these (or a similar ability) into the graveyard and then cast it, it’s akin to drawing that card. Fundamentally, self mill decks want to turn the traditional rules of Magic sideways and let you leverage the bin as a resource as opposed to a discard pile.
Self mill decks tend to center around the Sultai color trio – blue, black and green. These colors are the best at putting cards into the graveyard. Whether this is through effects like Careful Study, Grisly Salvage or Mulch, there are no shortage of options in these colors. That being said you can absolutely build a self mill deck that touches red or white.
Sidisi, Brood Tyrant gets cards into the yard with ease as does Tasigur, the Golden Fang and Grist, the Hunger Tide. Taigam, Sidisi’s Hand replaces your draw step with the opportunity to do some Strategic Planning. Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis loves a full bin to make it easier to hit the battlefield while The Mimeoplasm enjoys feasting on dead things. Then there’s Muldrotha, the Gravetide, which turns the graveyard into a tried and true value engine.
Looking wider, you can get a bit esoteric. Stitcher Geralf mills everyone and can turn that into an advantage for you if you happen to be running large enough creatures. Gisa and Geralf mill four cards when they enter the battlefield and if you want to run a bunch of Zombies, they seem like a fine choice. Gyruda, Doom of Depths can mill everyone and get an even costed creature sent to their end this way onto the battlefield. Karador, Ghost Chieftain is a precursor of Muldrotha but drops blue for white, giving you some different options (while maybe not painting as large a target on your head).
So now that you have a Commander selected, it’s important to figure out how you are going to win the game. That’s because if you’re looking to avoid the big three, there are a few different ways to go about things.
The first touches on a Living Death or Reanimator strategy. Get enough creatures into the graveyard and resolve a Living Death or similar spell (Twilight’s Call, Patriarch’s Bidding or Haunting Voyage) and use that sudden army to smash your opponents into dust. Alternatively, you can try to bring back a few creatures at a time with spells like Unburial Rites, Dread Return or Priest of Fell Rites. These two can often overlap as if you bin a key spell like Living Death, your best bet to get it back might be casting Unburial Rites on the Eternal Witness in your graveyard.
But creatures are not the only things you can bring back en masse. You can use cards like Splendid Reclamation, The Mending of Dominaria or World Shaper to bring back all those lands you put into the graveyard – perhaps with Field of the Dead or Rampaging Baloths to help things along. Scrap Mastery and Open the Vaults can return broken artifacts while the latter, alongside Replenish and Resurgent Belief, can return every enchantment. Retether is another choice if your deck is focused on Auras, but that might be a bridge too far.
Finally, you can look to gain value off of cards leaving the graveyard. Desecrated Tomb, Tormod, the Desecrator, Syr Konrad, the Grim and Quintorius, Field Historian all provide value when cards leave the graveyard, either to exile or another zone. That means cards like Empty the Pits or Bala Ged Recovery come with a bonus tacked on. If you’re looking to dump a ton of cards into your graveyard only to dink and dunk damage on your adversaries, well, then you’re my kind of deckbuilder.
The last, biggest piece for any self mill starter pack is getting your cards where you want them to be. Mesmeric Orb is great for this but that’s only the beginning. Cephalid Vandal, Monastery Siege, Sultai Ascendancy, Splinterfright, Nyx Weaver and Underrealm Lich all provide a steady stream of cards being deposited directly into your yard. Surveil is a relatively new addition to the game but does a fine job of filling your coffers. Once they’re in the graveyard, cards with dredge like Stinkweed Imp, Life from the Loam or Golgari Grave-Troll can replace a draw and send a certain number of cards to their “doom.”
This to say nothing of any card that mill like Altar of Dementia. Of course, there’s one card that can rather easily accomplish this task – Hermit Druid. Hermit Druid’s ability to find a basic land means there are some Commander decks that will never hit and therefore turn over their entire library in a single turn. If you’re planning to run Hermit Druid in this way, that’s fine as long as your table agrees.
Self mill is less a strategy and more a means to an end, and that’s part of the fun in Commander. There’s nothing to say you can’t build a self mill enchantment deck if you want and your overlap with the Living Death player, while it exists, will be minimal. So, if you’re looking to try something a bit sideways, might I suggest making friends with the flashback mechanic and Satyr Wayfinder?