Spoiler season for Magic: The Gathering‘s newest set, Theros: Beyond Death (THB), is officially here. The first batch of cards was released yesterday and among them is the returning planeswalker, Ashiok.
Ashiok has long been associated with milling strategies (removing all cards from your opponent’s library) and Ashiok’s previous incarnations both played well into that theme. How well does this version match up, though? And could this mean MTG will see a revival of Mill in Standard?
Milling means to remove all the cards from your opponent’s library and then letting them draw a card—one of the default ways to lose in Magic is trying to draw a card from an empty library. Since most Constructed decks start with 60 cards, this strategy often takes a linear approach and a full investment on grinding down that deck.
In recent Standard seasons, Mill has shown up in both control-style decks and in combo decks like Omni Mill. But it’s definitely taken a back seat through the last few set releases since it was easily overpowered in a meta dominated by Field of the Dead and Oko.
With those cards banned and a new set on the horizon, now could be a perfect time to see Mill return to relevance.
Ashiok, Nightmare Miller
As an enabler, the new Ashiok is only relevant in a grindy-style Mill deck. Ashiok’s only relevant ability is its creature token and combat, which makes comboing off practically impossible.
In the grindy-style Mill deck, Ashiok looks like a solid addition. Unless dealt with quickly, Ashiok can dump a ton of milling Nightmare creatures onto the battlefield and start eating up your opponent’s deck.
But there are some important caveats to note. First, THB is introducing the Escape mechanic, which could play very poorly against Mill decks that send cards into the graveyard. Now, Ashiok doesn’t fit into this category, but many of Ashiok’s support cards do, including Wall of Lost Thoughts and Merfolk Secretkeeper. To avoid this possibility, you’ll have to invest into cards like the other Standard-playable Ashiok, which exile cards from the graveyard once you’ve put them there.
When your cards are pointing in opposite directions, it’s time to re-evaluate. Does Ashiok fit well into the current-best Mill strategies? Not really. There may be some other cards in THB that open up the archetype, but for now, sleep on Ashiok as unknown gender Mill royalty.
That said, Ashiok can still be Standard-relevant.
Ashiok, Nightmare Controller
Ashiok reminds us of another popular planeswalker that was easily one of the strongest of its time: Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Ashiok costs the same but comes down with one additional loyalty and comparable power levels.
Their -3 abilities are the most comparable—remove something. Ashiok’s actually looks a little more powerful since you can get an easy two-for-one if you target a token.
Similarly, Ashiok’s ultimate ability can be remarkably strong against certain decks and can be activated two whole turns earlier than Teferi’s due to its cheaper cost.
It protects itself more directly as well. Teferi’s strength centered around untapping lands so you could hold up counterspells. Ashiok may not draw you a card, but the blocker Ashiok makes will be incredibly relevant.
The strongest case for Standard impact, however, is that Ashiok plays remarkably well with several other powerful cards in Standard. Six months ago, Esper was everywhere—Esper Hero, Esper Control, even Esper Superfriends.
Ashiok may indeed be a headliner (or at the very least a roleplayer) in the return of an Esper deck to Standard. Teferi, Time Raveler is still one of the best cards in the format and Thought Erasure on turn two can sometimes end games on the spot. Ashiok as a five-mana value engine seems like a perfect fit. Ashiok even plays well into many of the themes from those decks.
Players should consider the synergy with lesser-played cards that fit in as well. Kaya, Orzhov Usurper turns into a lethal threat once enough cards are in exile. Little-played Throne of Eldraine legendary Lochmere Serpent could serve as an alternate win condition, as well as further draining an opponent’s graveyard.