When I first saw Phenax, God of Deception spoiled I thought “Wow! This just might make mill a viable strategy in Commander!” Sadly I may have been mistaken. Mill as a strategy is plagued with many downsides that make it an incredibly difficult feat to achieve, and while Phenax approaches the task from a different point of view than the typical mill strategy, it just isn’t enough to overcome those downsides.
As soon as I was able to get my grubby hands on a Phenax I started construction of the mill deck that would accompany him. I packed it full of high toughness creatures, primarily those with defender so that I could build an impenetrable wall and sit behind it, milling my enemies from turn to turn with impunity. Unfortunately I went a little too heavy on the creatures and didn’t have enough answers for the things that my opponents were doing. After only a couple of one-on-one games I realized that the deck didn’t give me the time to get Phenax on line and milling away.
I went through the deck and drastically reduced the number of creatures, replacing them with answers for whatever my opponents could throw at me. The deck was much more in line with the approach that I wanted to take in that I would sit behind many walls to protect me, answer my enemies threats, and mill with impunity. The first battle with the deck would be at game night against three opponents.
I played two games with the Phenax deck on game night. In the first game I started off relatively well and on-curve. Then I went to cast Phenax and was met with a Spell Crumple, tucking him to the bottom of my library. After that another opponent hit some important artifacts that I had and I was then unable to get anything going. Guess what? A deck based on milling with high toughness creatures doesn’t work so well when the only catalyst to activate that function is unavailable. Game two fared a bit better. I was able to get Phenax on-board and functioning, but I found that while I was able to mill people, the process was not quick. Phenax was easy to turn off, or keep off as a creature, so I was only able to use him to mill once or twice the whole game, and since the creature count in the deck was lower, I didn’t see as many useful mill creatures as I would have hoped. In the end I pulled out the win on this game, but only because my opponents had to focus on each other rather than on me. I was left with one opponent, and it was a race of mill vs. Commander damage! On my last turn I was able to cast Sands of Delirium, activate it, and double the effect with a Rings of Brighthearth for a total of 12 cards milled… the exact number of cards in my opponent’s library!
Yes, I had won the game, but the problem was that I barely won the game, and it was against the one opponent that I had been targeting with my mill for the whole game. It just so happened that the other players weakened each other so that he and I were the last two standing. So, I had been working on his library for the whole game, and he had been fighting and defeating two other players, so that in the end I barely milled him out of the game. Had he fallen to another player, all the work I did on his library would have been wasted. That is the very essence of why mill is a very difficult strategy to pull off in Commander. Take a look at the various things that we can attack in a given game of Magic. The primary target is the life total. In a Commander game each opponent has forty life. We can also attack the life total via Commander damage. Each player can take twenty-one points of Commander damage. The only other real thing that we can attack to win the game is the library. Each Commander deck has ninety-two cards in it after the first hand of seven cards is drawn. So to outright win a Commander game with three other players, I have to do one hundred twenty points of damage which can be augmented by the other players or other effects (such as life gain), or I have to do sixty-two points of Commander damage (which can’t be augmented by anything), or I have to remove two hundred seventy-six cards from my opponents’ libraries! That number is of course augmented by every card that a player draws, cards that shuffle the library back in, etc… So if these quantities are the amount of work I have to do to remove a player from the game, the mill strategy is more than twice the work of a regular damage strategy.
Unfortunately the biggest drawback of a mill strategy is until you mill out their last card, you aren’t stopping them from doing anything. Sure, you may mill away that answer that they needed, but you may also mill away some other card that made no difference, putting them closer to the answer. This is speaking in terms of pure statistics, and I know that when playing against a mill strategy it sure feels different. Regardless, the outcome is the same. A mill strategy is doing very little in terms of its effect on the game until it hits that last card.
Mill also has the effect of making you enemy number one most of the time. Even though statistically I am digging you closer to answers just as much as I am milling away answers, people really, really, really hate being milled. For that reason, the second you indicate that your intention is to mill someone out, then everyone at the table tends to turn their attention on you… unless there’s an infect deck on the board… then they go after that.
Phenax is particularly odd in a mill strategy. Traditionally mill strategies don’t want, need, or use creatures unless they are specifically geared towards mill, like Mirko Vosk, Mind Drinker. He’s a creature, and he has to attack, but whatever damage he does is irrelevant to the mill strategy. His triggered ability is what you really want to take advantage of. With Phenax however, you really want all the creatures you have to be stacked on the toughness end. Most of the time that means that the power end of those creatures is going to be pretty low. Most of the time this is fine, but what happens when Phenax is tucked? The answer is very little. You are left with high toughness creatures so that maybe you can defend yourself for a while, but you will be very ineffective until you get the Commander back in action.
What to do about it:
So what kind of deck can we make to use Phenax to his full potential, but still be an effective deck in the event the Commander is tucked. The answer is quite a lot. We could go the reanimator route, using Phenax to fill up graveyards and then pilfer them of their creatures. We could go the combo route, but Sharuum the Hegemon with Dire Undercurrents and Sculpting Steel is a much more efficient mill strategy than any combo we could come up with using Phenax. I’m thinking that the next approach I want to take with my Phenax deck is to make it a mid-range type deck where I have a bunch of creatures and if I happen to get Phenax out then I can attempt to mill, but I can also attempt to attack people out of the game. I’ll also have a fair amount of control elements as well as reanimator type elements to try and make the most use of everything in the deck. I think that in this way the deck won’t be too reliant on Phenax himself, but can still make effective use of him when needed.
In conclusion I think that mill as a dedicated strategy is incredibly difficult to pull off. The best way to do so is to have a dedicated mill/combo deck. I still think that Phenax has the potential to be a well rounded Commander, but the deck has to be built such that you can be attacking player A, milling player B, and once you get Phenax himself online as a creature, maybe mop up the game with some Commander damage!