This week I'm going to talk about how Mission Briefing has redefined the Blue-Black Mill strategy in Modern. I've never really felt threatened playing against the mill strategy until now. The mill archetype in general is fairly consistent and powerful, but the weakness of most builds are that they tend to be easy to exploit because of their rigid linear plan of only knowing how to do one thing: mill. Mission Briefing changes everything by giving the deck a level of flexibility it never had before and makes it a much more well-rounded strategy.
I never thought I would write two Dimir articles in the same month, but here we are, so let's do it.
PIETART 5-0'd a recent Modern league with Mission Briefing Mill and there are a lot of things I like about their build and a few changes I would make. Let's go over how the deck works and offer some tips for how to play it well.
4 Hedron Crab
Hedron Crab is the king of mill strategies. Entire books can be written about how powerful this crustacean is in a mill strategy. If I have Shelldock Isle or Opt in my opening hand I'll sometimes wait to play the crab until the second turn so that I can immediately follow it up with a fetch land to mill three cards before the opponent ever has a chance to kill the crab. Then I pass the turn. If the opponent casts Lightning Bolt, Fatal Push, or Path to Exile on my end step, I'll crack the fetch in response to mill three more cards. Otherwise I just sit there and do nothing. Then I'll untap and still not crack the fetch. I'll draw my card and play another fetch, milling three more cards. Only then will I crack one of the fetches. If the opponent responds by killing the Crab, I respond by cracking the other fetch to mill another three cards. Playing this way keeps the opponent from being able to avoid getting milled for those three extra cards.
Also, if the opponent is ever tapped out except for a fetch, I wait for them to fetch and then I fetch in response. This accomplishes two things: First it means we get to trigger the millcrab for three extra cards before they gain access to the mana from the land they fetch, which can be relevant if they plan to use the mana from that land to bolt, push, or path our Crab on end step. Secondly it means we sometimes mill the card they were hoping to fetch. For instance, some mana bases only run one copy of a particular shock land, so if we mill it in response to their fetch, they might have to settle for an inferior land.
If you only have one land left in hand and you don't need the mana right away, it is generally better to hold it in case you draw Hedron Crab. The best land to hold is a fetch because it means milling six if you draw a crab instead of just three. The downside to holding a land is if you draw Visions of Beyond and draw three cards and want the extra land to cast all your spells. Even taking this into consideration though, in general the EV is better to hold the land.
4 Mesmeric Orb
While Hedron Crab is the king of mill strategies, Mesmeric Orb is his throne. You want to run this out as quickly as possible - ideally on the second turn each game. I mentioned before that sometimes I'll slowroll the crab until the second turn to guarantee at least the first mill, but that is only if I don't have a Mesmeric Orb in hand. I'd much rather risk the Crab getting axed without value than to wait a turn on the Orb. The Orb will net about as many cards as the crab, on average, over the course of a game. Also much like the Crab, Orbs are cumulative, so multiple copies generate double the effect. It is nearly impossible to apply pressure to us without untapping permanents, so the orb is essentially an unavoidable clock for every opponent.
4 Archive Trap
While Hedron Crab and Mesmeric Orb are the mill engines of the deck, Archive Trap is the most important non-permanent spell in the deck – especially in this particular build. Nearly every deck in Modern plays fetch lands, and most of the ones that don't still search their library for some other reason. Aside from Death and Taxes / Hatebears strategies, Archive Trap will almost always have a window where it costs zero mana to cast. And 13 cards is a ton of cards when our win strategy is milling out the opponent. It plays essentially the same role in a mill strategy as Fireblast plays in a Burn strategy – zero mana to do a huge chunk of work in one hit, except instead of having to sacrifice two of our lands, we just have to wait for a moment when the opponent searches their library, which quite often can be the very first turn of the game.
The card is especially good in this version of the deck because we run three copies of Mission Briefing. Mission Briefing is different than Snapcaster Mage in that it does not give the card flashback. Instead it allows us to cast the card from our graveyard. The difference is that flashback is an alternate cost, so you couldn't pay another alternate cost (zero mana) to cast Archive Trap if you were flashing it back with Snapcaster Mage. But with Mission Briefing the wording is different, so you could pay the alternate cost of zero mana to cast Archive Trap from your graveyard with Mission Briefing. This makes Mission Briefing a two-mana Glimpse the Unthinkable that mills thirteen cards instead of ten card.
4 Glimpse the Unthinkable
Speaking of Glimpse, aside from Archive Trap it is clearly the best rate of any other one-shot mill spell. It won't net as many cards on average as an uncontested second turn Hedron Crab or Mesmeric Orb, but it will always get us about 20% of the way toward defeating the opponent. That makes it the Boros Charm equivalent if we are comparing mill strategies to burn strategies. And with Mission Briefing, we can rebuy it to mill ten later in the game when we get to four mana. Often that is plenty to finish off an opponent at that stage of the game.
2 Search for Azcanta
The above 16 cards are the ways we mill the opponent out. One strategy would be to fill out the rest of the deck with the next best mill cards. Another is to play ways to find our best mill cards. This version chooses the latter approach and Search for Azcanta is one of the most powerful ways to find our best cards. Early on it will smooth out our mana draws while also finding our most powerful mill cards. Later in the game once it transforms it will Impulse each turn to find us Archive Traps, Glimpse the Unthinkables and Mission Briefings.
4 Visions of Beyond
Visions is a fine card to cycle on the first turn of the game if we have nothing else going on. Where it really shines though is a little later in the game when it straight up becomes Ancestral Recall. And where it really REALLY shines is when the opponent cracks a fetch on the first turn of the game and you unload double Archive Trap on them. This allows us to resolve Ancestral Recall on the very first turn of the game!
Opt is the next best card to smooth out our draws. It helps fix our mana development and can turn itself into a better card for a small cost of just one mana later in the game. I'm guessing the creator of the deck decided to cut a land and a spell to add two copies of Opt. So if you decide Opt is the card you want to cut from the deck, I would suggest adding a land and a spell. Otherwise leave the two copies of Opt in the deck. Don't just replace them with spells.
1 Murderous Cut
3 Fatal Push
An early opposing creature such as a Goblin Guide or Flameblade Adept can potentially outrace us if left unchecked. Some mill strategies play Darkness to buy an extra turn, but I prefer these removal spells because they can also get rid of problematic creatures such as Thalia, Guardian of Thraben or Laboratory Maniac that we usually can't possibly beat. They can also get rid of Spell Queller or Gaddock Teeg (at least Fatal Push can).
2 Crypt Incursion
Since we don't play much creature removal, we are relying on milling the opponent out before they can attack us to death with their creatures. As I said before, some players play Darkness to buy an extra turn, but this version instead plays Crypt Incursion to gain a bunch of life against the creature-based strategies. Like Darkness, the card is basically dead against decks that are not trying to kill us through combat. The difference is that this card is much better against burn and generally buys us two additional turns rather than just one. The downside is that it costs three times as much mana. If you don't expect much Burn, I could see running Darkness instead. I prefer a better Burn matchup though, so I like Crypt Incursion more.
2 Collective Brutality
Speaking of beating Burn decks, Goblin Guides, and Flameblade Adepts, Collective Brutality is one of the best in the business at each of these things. It is also quite good against combo decks and control decks because of its Duress mode. If I were trying to fit more copies of a card into the deck, it would probably be this card. It does a lot of things we want for not a lot of mana.
3 Surgical Extraction
This card gives us a completely different angle of attack that plays perfectly as a complement to our strategy. Our plan is to mill the opponent out. One Glimpse the Unthinkable or Archive Trap and we will likely see the opponent's best card. If they are a combo deck, we can take out a key combo piece so they have to try and kill us without it.
And if we Duress the opponent with Collective Brutality, we can see what cards they have in hand to inform our decision as to which card to target in their graveyard. For instance, let's say we cast first turn Hedron Crab and second turn mill the opponent for six with a fetch triggering the crab's landfall ability twice. Then we use our two lands to cast Collective Brutality to look at the opponent's hand. We see that they have one copy of Faithless Looting and two copies of Goblin Lore. We also notice they have a third copy of Goblin Lore already in the graveyard from the crab's mill ability. We can then select Faithless Looting off Collective Brutality and then target the Goblin Lore in the graveyard with Surgical Extraction. This will exile the two Goblin Lores from their hand.
3 Shelldock Isle
This is the key utility land in the deck. We often want to play it on the first turn of the game and hideaway a mill card such as Glimpse the Unthinkable. Then later in the game when the opponent is low on cards in their library, we fire off the card underneath Shelldock Isle to finish off the opponent.
3 Field of Ruin
This is the other utility land in the deck. It takes out cards like Azcanta, the Sunken Ruin or Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle or Urza's Power Plant while also triggering our Hedron Crab a second time. And given that we are milling the opponent pretty aggressively, it is not rare for their only basic land(s) to be in their graveyard when they go to search their library. So sometimes it can be Wasteland that replaces itself. And since being a mill strategy affords us the ability to play Surgical Extraction main deck, Field of Ruin targeting a Tron land or Valakut enables us to extract all copies of that land permanently.
4 Polluted Delta
2 Flooded Strand
2 Watery Grave
3 Darkslick Shores
Six fetches feels a little low for Hedron Crab, so I might try to fit a few more in. We could probably cut an Island and a Darkslick Shores for two more Flooded Strands. That's what I would do to the mana base of the deck to make it more crab-friendly.
Unlike with Snapcaster Mage, the targeted card does not gain flashback. Instead it simply says you may cast it from your graveyard. This means you can pay alternative costs such as two life for Surgical Extraction or zero mana for Archive Trap if an opponent cracked a fetch or searched their library in some other way. It therefore fits into this strategy much better than Snapcaster Mage.
Mission Briefing adds flexibility to the deck because it can target Fatal Push, Archive Trap, or Surgical Extraction depending on the situation. Or it can target Visions of Beyond to draw three cards for three total mana at instant speed. It was a top 10 seller last week and if this mill strategy catches on, it may stay that way for a while.
1 Set Adrift
1 Surgical Extraction
1 Murderous Cut
1 Night of Souls' Betrayal
3 Ensnaring Bridge
2 Echoing Truth
1 Bontu's Last Reckoning
1 Crypt Incursion
Surgical Extraction and Extirpate pile on the anti-combo strategy. I think I would add Ghost Quarters to the sideboard to go along with our Field of Ruin strategy given that we already have access to six extraction effects post-board. The anti-creature cards make sense because we modify our deck to be better against creatures in all the non-combo matchups whereas the Extirpates and Surgical Extractions make us better against the combo decks.
There are a handful of other cards I want to mention because other mill variants run them. I'm not sure any of them belong in the deck, but they are worth considering.
Corbin made a video of Mill back in April that can be seen here. It was based around Fraying Sanity. The card is undeniably powerful, but there isn't really room for it in this build. Turn three is pretty slow and we don't always have the luxury of waiting on our Archive Traps. We would rather Trap them at the first opportunity, especially since it gives us targets for Surgical Extraction.
We don't put enough different card types in our graveyard to reliably turn this on, but even if we could, we would likely not want it since we are trying to be a Mission Briefing deck that plays out its Crab and Orb and then hits them with haymaker one-shot mill bombs for the rest of the game. We also don't want to make the crab jealous by playing other creatures in the deck!
Breaking // Entering
These are likely the next best mill cards after Archive Trap and Glimpse the Unthinkable. If we decide to cut Search for Azcanta from the deck, we would likely choose from one of these two cards or perhaps Fraying Sanity or Manic Scribe to replace it.
Overall, Blue-Black Mill is very similar to the Burn strategy but instead of counting to 20 you count to 60 and instead of counting in increments of two, three or four, you do it in increments of 3, 10, and 13. And Mission Briefing basically adds a whole new level of flexibility to a deck that is already super consistent. It makes our anti-combo Surgical Extraction plan much more reliable while also giving us access to more copies of our best mill card ( Archive Trap). It does all this while also sometimes acting as a three mana Fatal Push or Ancestral Recall ( Visions). The card really does it all for this strategy.
Oh, and did I mention it also surveils two?