Modern U/B Mill Primer: Where There's a Mill, There's a Way

18 min read

Mill is one of the most captivating, yet painful mechanics in Magic for players new and old. It’s been with us since the birth of the term mill with the printing of [mtg_card]Millstone[/mtg_card]. The inner Johnny in all of us tugs us towards alternate win conditions, with mill strategies being among the most popular among casual players. Just look at the price of [mtg_card]Glimpse the Unthinkable[/mtg_card]. I’ve built many mill decks in my Magic career, but I think the Modern variant is the most competitive a “traditional mill” deck can be right now.

I’m no stranger to Modern Mill. I’ve been playing it sporadically over the last two years in both paper and on Magic Online. I’ve managed a few 5-0’s, a ton of 4-1’s and a handful of 3-2’s in many competitive Modern leagues as well as some pretty strong finishes in paper events. I’ll go over my deck, the card selections, alternative choices, and sideboard plans.

[d title=”U/B Mill by Jeremy Lichtenberger”]

2 Flooded Strand
3 Ghost Quarter
4 Polluted Delta
2 Shelldock Isle
3 Watery Grave
1 Oboro, Palace in the Clouds
4 Island
1 Sunken Ruins
3 Swamp

4 Hedron Crab
4 Manic Scribe

2 Ensnaring Bridge
4 Mesmeric Orb

1 Spell Pierce
4 Fatal Push
2 Surgical Extraction
4 Visions of Beyond
4 Archive Trap

2 Mind Funeral
4 Glimpse the Unthinkable

2 Fraying Sanity

1 Ceremonious Rejection
1 Damnation
1 Echoing Truth
1 Nihil Spellbomb
1 Mindbreak Trap
1 Pithing Needle
2 Profane Memento
1 Ravenous Trap
1 Set Adrift
1 Spell Pierce
2 Crypt Incursion
1 Extirpate
1 Vapor Snag

Why play Mill?

The first thing players love to say is that Mill is absolutely terrible, and you should feel terrible for playing it. Now, I would never tell someone to play a deck specifically because it can tilt your opponents harder than an NFL lineman, but we’ll take percentage points wherever we can.

The deck is actually quite competitive and extremely fun to play. Some people hate playing against mill, but that’s not our problem. This deck is both fun to play and never expected. Although this isn’t really a budget deck (thanks to casual players eating up mill cards) it certainly has a very rogue feel to it. If you’ve wanted to get into Modern and love outside the box strategies, this deck could be for you.

Milling in Modern

On the surface, a mill strategy looks straightforward: cast spells and mill your opponent. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. There is a certain notable Modern card, [mtg_card]Emrakul, the Aeon’s Torn[/mtg_card] that exists randomly to make you look like a complete fool. Also, [mtg_card]Tasigur, the Golden Fang[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Snapcaster Mage[/mtg_card] are all too happy to have half their libaries turned upside down. Many other decks love to have you stock their graveyard, like Storm, Living End, and Dredge so you’re already at a disadvantage depending on the matchup sometimes. It’s not always intuitive to play, as you might just be advancing your opponents plan. Knowing your deck and the gameplan is what separates the men from the boys.

The Math

So most people have a solid grasp on the rates of damage to your opponent versus mana spent. [mtg_card]Lightning Bolt[/mtg_card] used to be the most played Modern card, and it hits your opponent for 15% of their life for 1 mana. [mtg_card]Boros Charm[/mtg_card] does 4 damage, and hits for 20%. When it comes to mill, a lot of people don’t realize how quickly they can lose a game based off of mill percentages, so their decisions aren’t quite as informed.

When you’re playing against most decks in Modern, you make reasonably informed decisions based on things like board state, what your opponent is trying to do, how much life you’re at, etc. It takes a little nuance to realize the same for your library. Let’s compare our mill percentages to a Naya Burn deck, but it’s important to note a 60 card deck quickly becomes a 52 card deck as soon as your opponent draws their initial seven and first card for turn, thus increasing our percentages as cards are removed from your opponent’s deck.

60 card deck vs UB Mill

  • [mtg_card]Hedron Crab[/mtg_card]: 5% on landfall.
  • [mtg_card]Manic Scribe[/mtg_card]: 5% on entering the battlefield, 5% each turn with Delirium
  • [mtg_card]Glimpse the Unthinkable[/mtg_card]: 16.6%
  • [mtg_card]Breaking // Entering[/mtg_card]: 13%
  • [mtg_card]Archive Trap[/mtg_card]: 21.6%
  • [mtg_card]Mesmeric Orb[/mtg_card]: 1.6% per permanent untapped.
  • [mtg_card]Fraying Sanity[/mtg_card]: Percentage varies wildly, but basically is a 2x multiplier on all of our other effects.

20 Life vs Burn

  • [mtg_card]Lightning Bolt[/mtg_card]: 15%
  • [mtg_card]Boros Charm[/mtg_card]: 20%
  • [mtg_card]Lava Spike[/mtg_card]: 15%
  • [mtg_card]Goblin Guide[/mtg_card]: 10%
  • [mtg_card]Monastery Swiftspear[/mtg_card]: 5-15%, average.
  • [mtg_card]Rift Bolt[/mtg_card] 15%

Now obviously it’s not quite as simple as the numbers show, as players gain life, creatures get blocked, etc. What is notable is that in the mill race, our opponent is drawing cards, which speeds up our clock and most decks can’t gain cards in the library outside of shuffle effects and corner cases.

The Creatures

Our deck only plays eight creatures in total, but they’re both lean, mean, milling machines. [mtg_card]Hedron Crab[/mtg_card] is possibly the most efficient milling card ever printed. On the surface it’s straightforward, but we really want to protect our crabs. Fetches mill for 6, [mtg_card]Oboro, Palace in the Clouds[/mtg_card] is a recursive effect, and even [mtg_card]Ghost Quarter[/mtg_card] can be used on  ourselves to speed up the process.

[mtg_card]Manic Scribe[/mtg_card] is a newcomer to the deck and performs very well. It gets around [mtg_card]Leyline of Sanctity[/mtg_card] and blocks 2 power creatures all day. Once we turn on Delirium, milling ourselves due to orb, the cards really start to fly. Our creature count is low enough that our opponents might consider cutting some of their removal, but the creatures are impactful enough that they might be forced to leave it in, hopefully benefiting us with awkward hands and/or decisions.

Honorable Mention goes to [mtg_card]Jace’s Phantasm[/mtg_card]. Prior to Grixis Shadow dominating Modern, I used to play with the full playset. I absolutely loved playing with a 5/5 for U and it created some punishing interactions. My opponent would play fetchland, pass. I would drop Phantasm and pass it back, end step they would fetch and Bolt the phantasm, and in response I would [mtg_card]Archive Trap[/mtg_card] them turning my 1/1 into a 5/5. As Grixis Death’s Shadow starts to fade from Modern (I can hope, right?) I might start bringing the 5/5 beater back in.

The Spells

One look at the list and there’s no doubt that this is a spell-heavy deck. However, this is a very low to the ground, and the curve essentially stops at 3 CMC. [mtg_card]Glimpse the Unthinkable[/mtg_card] is one of the most efficient mill spells around, but also quite expensive, so if budget is a conern of yours we’ll have some alternatives later on.

[mtg_card]Mind Funeral[/mtg_card] is a card I’ve played with off and on with, and I think it’s a reasonable at the moment. Additionally, [mtg_card]Chalice of the Void[/mtg_card] is seeing an uptick, so having a diverse CMC of spells is important. Sometimes the Mind Funeral is lackluster, but sometimes you’re hitting for 15+ cards. I’ve hit Burn for as much as 21 before.

For some, Christmas only comes around once a year.

When it’s good, [mtg_card]Archive Trap[/mtg_card] is amazing. When it’s bad, it’s all but dead until you have 5 mana. True story, I got a turn 0 win in a competitive Modern league game, verified by the photographic evidence above.

[mtg_card]Mesmeric Orb[/mtg_card] is a middle of the road mill card in Modern, but it does help enable Delirium. Against creature based decks, the orb works very quickly. It also gives us an effect that isn’t always easy to interact with. Against decks like control or Elves, I tend to prioritize resolving Orb over any one spell.

The most recent addition to the deck is [mtg_card]Fraying Sanity[/mtg_card]. When it was spoiled my friends asked me if it was viable for the deck. Initially I tested one copy, then two, and finally three. I settled on two as it feels like the correct number. I was hesitant in adding a 3 mana “do nothing” enchantment to my rather low to the ground mill deck, but found out very quickly that it is the real deal and wins games.

Alternative Card Choices & Considerations

Modern, while being a somewhat eternal format (but not technically) changes pretty rapidly. Constantly adapting to the meta with this deck is crucial, but subtle. Some versions run white, or add [mtg_card]Snapcaster Mage[/mtg_card] for a more controlling, mid/late game deck. It’s definitely an option, but I wanted this deck to run as low to the ground as possible, so this list won’t have any sweet Trap-Snap-Trap turns.

[mtg_card]Ashiok, Nightmare Weaver[/mtg_card] is one of my favorite planeswalkers and I always see it in my binder, waiting to be called up from the minor leagues. The planeswalker is very viable against UW/x Control decks as a way to deplete them of resources and empty their hand or graveyard. [mtg_card]Thought Scour[/mtg_card] is included in some lists, but it is far too light of an impact in this build. The cantrip isn’t meaningless, but I want more “oomph!” out of my mill cards.

There are days I want to play [mtg_card]Breaking//Entering[/mtg_card] over Mind Funeral because it is more predictable, but Chalice of the Void and Eldrazi Tron force my spells to be slightly more diverse in CMC. I think it’s a perfectly fine, budget alternative to Glimpse the Unthinkable, though.

startled awake mtg card

[mtg_card]Startled Awake[/mtg_card] mills 13 and can recur itself, but 4 mana is far too much for an initial hit, and the subsequent turns it takes to bring it back, attack and recast are much too steep and slow for a Modern game. [mtg_card]Mind Sculpt[/mtg_card] is also a fine budget alternative for this deck if you can’t afford Glimpse or Archive Trap.

Sideboard Theory and Matchups

I’ve been changing my sideboard almost weekly, but these cards have been among the most effective options for me.

Ceremonious Rejection – With a huge surge in Eldrazi and traditional tron decks, Ceremonious Rejection is very powerful. The main reason I don’t run more, and sometimes don’t run any, is that tron decks are such a good matchup, I rarely need many sideboard cards to fight them. Eldrazi Tron can pop off some powerful spells without tron online, hence the reason for 1x at the moment.

Extirpate – for Magic Online, Extirpate is 3.47 tix (dollars) vs [mtg_card]Surgical Extraction[/mtg_card] at 25.77 tix. I started playing with Extirpate because it was a budget alternative and quickly found that it can be much better than Surgical sometimes. Casting an uncounterable Surgical is one thing, but being able to do it at split second means you’re stopping cards like Snapcaster Mage, [mtg_card]Expedition Map[/mtg_card], etc. This copy comes in when we want more graveyard interaction plus the added insurance of knowing it will stick.

Liliana’s Defeat – With Grixis Shadow falling out of favor, somewhat, I’m actually thinking about cutting this all together. It primarily comes in to combat [mtg_card]Death’s Shadow[/mtg_card] but it’s also randomly good against some other decks.

Pithing Needle – Pithing Needle is used to combat several things: [mtg_card]Lightning Storm[/mtg_card], Karn, Cranial Plating/Ravager, etc. It’s a very useful 1 drop that still keeps us low to the ground and efficient.

Profane Momento – This is most impactful vs decks like Bushwhacker Zoo, Merfolk and Affinity, but it can also gain critical life points against midrange decks like G/W Company. I generally bring these in against any deck that runs 16+ creatures.

Spell Pierce – Our mainboard copy is great for the “gotcha” surprise, but having more copies vs control/combo decks is usually needed. Creatures usually can’t kill us fast enough, especially with a bridge out, so there is a premium on countering spells.

Echoing Truth – I have this as a catch all card. It works against [mtg_card]Empty the Warrens[/mtg_card] tokens, Leyline of Sanctity, or whatever problematic non-land you need to deal with.

Hurkyl’s Recall – Affinity has been very popular lately as well as a slight resurgence in Lantern decks. While not a permanent answer, it gives us a window of opportunity to either win or stabilize. There are also random rogue decks like KCI (Krack-Clan Ironworks) and Blue Steel that Hurkyl’s Recall can do some strong work against.

Crypt Incursion – In matchups that Profane Momento come in, these come in. It’s possible to not bring in momento vs burn but bringing one of these. I generally don’t, as you’re usually better off just racing. These are also brutal vs creature based strategies like merfolk, company, affinity, etc. It’s not unusual to find yourself gaining well over 30 life.

Damnation – These come in against creature heavy decks. I flirted with using Bontu’s Last Reckoning, but having to take a turn off is not even close to worth the cost in Modern.

Mindbreak Trap – The only purpose for this card is Gifts storm. Well, that and it is one of my favorite counterspells of all time. It can also come in if you’re facing something that has a combo element to it and you have to counter something (like KCI.)

Ravenous Trap – While dredge is basically dead, it is still around. Living End, on the other hand, is more popular now and this Trap is a fantastic way to deal with a cast LE. If you have a Hedron Crab out, save your fetchland for your opponents turn. They may not always get three cards to hit the graveyard before you want to cast this. This trap can also come in if you happen to run into a deck playing Emrakul or any other shuffle titan, but can also blow out a storm player trying to cast Past in Flames.

Set Adrift – The main purpose of Set Adrift is to handle Leyline of Sanctity, but it can also come in when you’re mainboard removal is dead, like against traditional Tron. Also resolve Mesmeric Orb first post board so that your Set Adrift will only cost U.

Nihil Spellbomb – Similar to Ravenous Trap, this ensures that no shuffling can happen on your watch. It’s also a fine way to combat Storm or any other graveyard based deck. Using these to combat delve creatures like Tasigur or Gurmag Angler is tough because you’re always trying to fill their GY, but these can come in.

Vapor Snag – Before Fatal Push was printed, I used to run a playset of Vapor Snag as a way to combat big creatures like Primevil Titan and Gurmag Angler. I still think Vapor Snag is a fine tempo card, giving you that much needed turn to close things out.

Modern has been very fluid lately, so I’ll try to cover the decks you’re most likely to see as of this writing. Additionally, this section may vary for some people based on your local meta, or plan to bring it to a larger scale tournament. With that being said, let’s jump into some specifics.

Scapeshift / Titan Shift / Valakut Decks

We have a very favorable matchup against most of the Valakut decks. [mtg_card]Ghost Quarter[/mtg_card] and Surgical alone are enough to do the damage, but the fact that we can not only mill Valakut pieces, but also mountains means that often times Scapeshift can’t find enough lands to kill us. Valakut decks also search nearly every turn, meaning Archive Trap is one of the best cards in the matchup.

The only cards that affect our board, depending on the version they are playing, is [mtg_card]Anger of the Gods[/mtg_card] and [mtg_card]Engineered Explosives[/mtg_card]. Ensnaring Bridge is a giant stone wall for Primeval Titan. The general theme fighting Valakut decks is to mill fast and furiously, keeping as many Valakuts in their graveyard.

Post board they may bring in more creatures and some amount of [mtg_card]Nature’s Claim[/mtg_card], but not much else we really care about. Mind Funerals are generally weak against these decks because they tend to run 27+ lands. We take out all copies of [mtg_card]Fatal Push[/mtg_card] out for Extirpate to target Valakut and Titans (Push is obviously bad against this deck.). Echoing Truth to bounce a titan or [mtg_card]Prismatic Omen[/mtg_card] if they resolve Scapeshift, Vapor Snag again for the Titan and Crypt Incursion as a way to sometimes gain JUST enough life to not die to a resolved Scapeshift, but it’s not the greatest. For the most part though, this should be a favorable matchup for us.

In: 1 Extirpate, 1 Vapor Snag, 1 Echoing Truth, 1 Crpyt Incursion

Out: 4 Fatal Push


Affinity never really goes away and can sometimes surprise an entire field of players like at Grand Prix Vegas this year. It is extremely fast and can end you before you’ve really done anything. Fortunately, we have some sideboard cards to help us, but main board we’re really just racing while we lean on Fatal Push. Ghost Quarters in the main do a great job at keeping Inkmoth from 1-shotting us and also provides a sometimes needed way for our opponent to search their library.

Archive Traps are 5 mana mill cards in this matchup and always come out. Affinity is also redundant, so Surgical/Extirpate doesn’t do much other than maybe take out Cranial Plating or Ravager. [mtg_card]Spell Pierce[/mtg_card] is also lackluster, only hitting Cranial Plating, Galvanic Blast, and soem sideboard cards.

Pithing Needle can have its way with their deck, naming whichever card you can’t immediately answer. With 27+ creatures in their deck, [mtg_card]Profane Momento[/mtg_card] quickly carries its weight, as does Crypt Incursion. Save your Hurkyl’s Recall for their end step, especially if they attacked with an animated artifact land – It’ll usually buy you a couple turns turns. Damnation just cleans everything up nice and neat.

In: Pithing Needle, 2 Profane Momento, Crypt Incursion, Hurkyl’s Recall, Damnation

Out: 4 Archive Trap, 2 Surgical Extraction, Spell Pierce

Tron & Eldrazi Tron

While the decks play differently, the matchups generally play out the same against us. We want to stop Tron from getting online via milling and Ghost Quarters, then take out key pieces with Surgical Extraction and Extirpate. The matchup against Eldrazi Tron is slightly worse than traditional Tron, but still favorable in my opinion.

The biggest difference being two parts: traditional Tron searches quite often, while Eldrazi doesn’t, but they do run [mtg_card]Chalice of the Void[/mtg_card] maindeck. Without Chalice, the games are pretty smooth and very winnable. With Chalice, it becomes very difficult as we are loaded with one and two mana cards. Both decks require a different sideboard strategy, so I’ll break down what comes in and what goes out for each matchup. The main objective against Eldrazi Tron is dealing with big creatures, gaining life and bouncing Chalice. Against traditional Tron, we want to stop them from getting tron and basically mill them before they can cast anything relevant. Since Eldrazi Tron has [mtg_card]Eldrazi Temple[/mtg_card], they can still cast big cards ahead of schedule.

Eldrazi Tron

In: 1 Damnation, 2 Crypt Incursion, 1 Set Adrift, 2 Echoing Truth

Out: 2 Fatal Push, Mind Funeral, Spell Pierce, 2 Archive Trap

Traditional Tron

In: 2 Echoing Truth, Set Adrift, Pithing Needle, Spell Pierce, Extirpate

Out: 4 Fatal Push, 2 Ensnaring Bridge

Gifts Storm

This is a fairly tough matchup for mill. You stock their graveyard much faster than they can, then they take advantage of it with Past in Flames. The way we win Game 1 is to take our time and not mill until we have a way to exile [mtg_card]Past in Flames[/mtg_card]/[mtg_card]Grapeshot[/mtg_card], or we just put the throttle straight to the floor and hope you get lucky. Keep in mind most Storm decks only have Grapeshot as a wincon game 1, so if you can rip one with Surgical, you can sometimes just win on the spot, more or less.

Post board we can combat their graveyard recursion and have a much better shot at winning. They run around 7 fetchlands total, so Archive Trap is not only mostly dead, but sometimes you don’t want to mill them 13 the turn they fetch. Keeping Fatal Push in is very important as we need to deal with their mana reducers immediately. This is the match where our traps get to shine! [mtg_card]Echoing Truth[/mtg_card] is mainly here for goblin tokens, but can be used on their mana reducing creatures in a pinch.

In: Extirpate, Spell Pierce, 2 Echoing Truth, Mindbreak Trap, Ravenous Trap

Out: 2 Fatal Push, 2 Ensnaring Bridge, 4 Archive Trap

U/W Control

This deck has gained popularity recently, but fortunately it is a matchup that leans in our favor. It takes some practice to learn the matchup, but once you do, you’ll find that you’ll win more than you lose. The only relevant cards to them winning is Snapcaster, Gideon and Celestial Colonnade, however they are loaded with answers to everything.

The most important card to resolve is Mesmeric Orb because they can only answer it with [mtg_card]Detention Sphere[/mtg_card] and Cryptic Command. Sometimes you need to lean on your [mtg_card]Shelldock Isle[/mtg_card] to close the game, or to attempt to bait out counterspells on their end step. If you manage to resolve an Orb and Fraying Sanity, it should be hard to lose – they re forced to counter your mill spells, which gets them for tapping.

They have to spend 5 in order to attack with a Colonnade, so be patient and you can find victory game 1. I haven’t run into Leyline against control decks, so I wouldn’t expect it game 2. If you happen to see it, you’ll have Set Adrift and Echoing Truth anyway. Some versions bring in up to 3 copies of [mtg_card]Geist of Saint Traft[/mtg_card], and he can be a royal pain. Damnation is an option, but it will be hard to resolve if you’re on the draw. You might be forced to attempt a race if you see Geist.  These games usually last long enough to where you can cast an Archive Trap during their end step to force out counterspells.

Mind Funeral tends to be a better mill spell if they are running [mtg_card]Spell Snare[/mtg_card].

In: Spell Pierce, 2 Echoing Truth, Set Adrift, 2 Extirpate, Pithing Needle

Out: 2 Ensnaring Bridge, Archive Trap, 2 Surgical Extraction, 2 Fatal Push

Grixis Death’s Shadow

Now let’s address the giant Shadow in the corner of the room. Grixis Shadow is a nuisance to me and has quickly become the deck to beat. When Death’s Shadow decks first hit the mainstream, our matchup with mill was still favorable, but now that the deck is tried and tested, it has become a challenge to beat. Death’s Shadow alone isn’t enough to worry about, but Tasigur and Gurmag Angler mean you’re going to accelerate how fast they come out and constantly supply Snapcaster Mage with fresh targets. They also have Stubborn Denial which can either Force Spike you or just flat out counter your spells. Ensnaring Bridge isn’t even a nail in the coffin as they run Kolaghan’s Command.

It’s not all bleak though. GDS fetches often, turning on Archive Trap, but they also have a very fragile mana base. Most GDS decks have around 7 total mana producing lands. Let’s say you cast Glimpse the Unthinkable on turn 2 and mill one Blood Crypt and one Steam Vents among the 10 cards. You just took them off of red mana for the rest of the game. Ghost Quarters in conjunction with milling means that you can successfully attack their mana base and choke them out of resources.

Additionally, Fraying Sanity puts in work as your opponent will be putting tons of cards in their graveyard. We’ll swap the two Surgicals for an Extirpate because we don’t really need two exile effects, but we do want to stick the one that we cast. There really aren’t bad targets for Extirpate, so read the game and decide what is most important to take them off of. I usually snag Snapcaster, but it also depends on what their remaining lands look like. Liliana’s Defeat shines in this matchup, as does Damnation. Echoing Truth is a great way to bounce multiple Shadows, or a delve creature. Assuming you’re still focusing on their mana production, the tempo of bouncing can sometimes be too much for them to overcome.

In: Extirpate, Liliana’s Defeat, Spell Pierce, Damnation, 2 Echoing Truth

Out: Fatal Push, 2 Surgical Extraction, 2 Mesmeric Orb, Mind Funeral


Lastly, I want to touch on the burn matchup. You can expect to face the archetype at pretty much any Modern event, and it will continue to be reliable. While they only run 18-19 lands, Burn tends to have a resilient mana base, only really needing red most of the time. The main card we don’t want to see hit the board is [mtg_card]Eidolon of the Great Revel[/mtg_card]. Basically, this match up is a race and more often than not, we win the race. We don’t really need to change much postboard. Bridges and Surgicals come out because they are very low impact. Crypt Incursion comes in as a way to gain enough life to finish the game. Profane Momento usually doesn’t need to come in, but since we are boarding four cards out, something has to come in. I wouldn’t expect to gain a bunch of life unless you happen to run into a zoo type burn deck.

In: 2 Crypt Incursion, Spell Pierce, Profane Momento

Out: 2 Ensnaring Bridge, 2 Surgical Extraction

That’s all for now, the next article from me will most likely be another primer for Mardu Burn, another Modern favorite of mine. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @JLichtenberger7 and make sure you’re following @mtgdotone as well! Thanks for reading and supporting our content. If we still have your attention, why don’t you check out some of our other content.

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