Exploring when to keep your opening hand.

Mulligan’s Island

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The letter H!ello once again, faithful readers. Today we are going to cover perhaps the most important strategic decision I can impart to you during our brief time each week

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip.
You'll mulligan to Paris and start
With one card less in grip.

You may not know it, but the decision of whether or not to keep your opening hand is probably the biggest decision you will make in a game of Magic. Keep the wrong hand and you could be dead without even playing a spell. Choose to ship that hand back for one card less, however, and you'll have a much better chance of keeping up with your opponent and even winning the game.

Definition

Magic is a game of strategy with an element of randomness thrown in to keep things fresh and lively. That random element comes from the order of cards in your deck, which is shuffled by you and your opponent before you draw your opening hand. Because of this randomness, Magic's creators decided to let you choose to send back any opening hand, reshuffle your deck, and let you draw a new opening hand that will hopefully be better than the last. The cost for this is starting with one card fewer per mulligan, and this may be repeated as many times as you want (you can even go down to zero cards).

This may seem harsh at first because having as many or more cards than your opponent is certainly a desirable thing, but the Paris mulligan provides an excellent strategic tradeoff between opening resources and choice.

Note: Mulligan rules used to be different in the olden days, but the Paris mulligan is universal across organized Magic these days with one crucial exception: Two-Headed Giant. Since 2HG matches are the best of one instead of the best of three, they have more lenient mulligan rules that can be found here.

The First Thing You Have To Know

The first thing you absolutely have to know when it comes to deciding whether or not to mulligan is: what does your deck do? Is it a beatdown deck or a control deck? How many lands does it contain? What colors do those lands produce? What exactly constitutes a good hand for this deck and what is bad? These are the basics that you need to know external to the actual cards you will draw. Having this knowledge ahead of time will allow you to determine whether the opening seven cards your deck delivers are capable of winning or not.

While the old "lands and spells" adage ("Any hand with multiple lands and multiple spells to go along with them is keepable.") is an easy one to follow, it doesn't even come close to the complete picture. Once you know what your deck needs to have in hand to start the game, the deck's plan, and the mulliganning information we're going to cover here, you will make much better decisions. These better decisions will go a long way toward not only making you a more competitive player, but will also make it more likely for you to have more fun when playing the game. Let's face it, mana screw and mana flood are not fun. Avoiding those with regularity just might be.

Level 2

The next level of information you want comes from your opponent's deck. If you know what archetype he or she is playing, you will get a better idea about whether you should mulligan a particular hand. This is where playtesting is critical, because it teaches you what cards you need to have in the early game in a particular matchup if you are to win/survive. You can do okay without this information, but having it ahead of time makes your decision process much more precise. There is often a vast difference between the cards you want to have against a beatdown deck versus the ones you want when facing a control deck.

Level 3

This is when we finally get to the cards you have in hand. Didn't expect that, did you? In order to mulligan properly, you need a lot of prior information before you ever draw those fateful seven cards. The main question you should ask when you draw your opening seven cards is: How many of my spells can I cast with this hand? This should make you think about at two things. The first thing it tells you is whether you have a hand that is active in the early game. Some decks need this to function well, while others can get by with casting only one or two early-game spells as long as they draw enough land for their more powerful spells to take over later. The second thing this makes you think about is what cards you need to draw in order for the rest of your hand to become castable. Do you need to draw lands for this to happen? What color mana do you need? Once you know what you need to draw and by what turn you need to draw it, you can then figure out the probability that you will draw those cards over the next x turns. This is an advanced concept, but it's one you will want to keep in mind as you progress at the game.

Mulligan Categories

In this section I'm going to cover some of the specific types of hands you will want to mulligan and then show some close, but keepable hands as well. Since the devil is in the details here, we'll need to have a specific deck to work from. The aggressive Red/Green deck we constructed a while back should serve this purpose just fine.

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Mana Flood

This hand is not as sketchy as they come, but it's clearly a mulligan. It's nice that you drew a Llanowar Elves as a mana accelerator, but you have nothing to accelerate in to. Paris.

Mana Screw

What we have here is a classic case of mana screw. You can't cast any of the spells in your hand, and only drawing a Forest would allow you to cast anything on turn two. You also need to draw another land after that to cast any of your other cards. The odds are not with you and this fish stinks – throw it back.

Color Screw

How many spells in this hand can you cast? What do you need do draw in order to make the rest of your spells castable?

The answer to the first question here is "one." The answer to the second is "two Forests" preferably in your first two draw phases (though technically a Llanowar Elves could be considered a Forest with summoning sickness). Being able to cast only one spell in your opening hand is bad, but having to draw two correct cards back to back just to activate the rest of your hand is worse. Ship this hand back every time.

Mana and Mana Accelerators, but No Action

Look Ma, lands and spells! Not so fast, my friend. To me, this hand is an easy mulligan. Once again, while it's nice that you have some mana acceleration, that's all you have. If you want to win, Llanowar Elves beatdown probably isn't going to get the job done, and you still can't cast Verdant Force until turn six at the earliest. Throw this hand back and search for a better six cards.

All burn, no creatures

Our Red/Green deck is an aggressive creature deck with burn spells like Shock and Volcanic Hammer to clear the way for our creatures or to help finish off opponents. While it's nice to draw your burn spells early, it's not as nice when you don't have creatures in play to go along with them. Trade Llanowar Behemoth for a Grizzly Bears and this decision becomes a lot closer – to the point where I'd really like to know what type of deck my opponent is playing or at least whether I am playing or drawing before I make the decision.

Also know that this hand would be a reasonable keeper against a deck you know likes to be very aggressive early, because it has a lot of removal for their creatures. However, unless you know that ahead of time, the proper move here is to Paris.

No Early Action

This is probably the closest hand of the bunch, since it features both colors of mana, some strong creatures, and even a removal spell for the early game. However, it is still a hand that I would throw back, and I'll tell you why.

You have a nice curve of fatties at the top end of this hand, but minus the Shock – which may or may not be useful against an opponent's deck – you have no plays before turn four. That's not the sort of start this deck needs to win against most decks out there. Yes, you can choose to keep the hand and hope to get lucky by drawing some of your early drops in the first couple of turns, but this is Magic, not dating, and "hoping to get lucky" is not the optimal strategy you should pursue.

I do want to note that if the Shock were a Llanowar Elves, I would almost certainly keep the hand. The presence of the Elves lets you cast the Order of the Sacred Bell on turn three, and also powers out all of your fatties one turn earlier. It's a perfect illustration for why you play mana acceleration in a deck like this.

Play or Draw Considerations

Some hands will become more keepable if you are on the draw than when you are on the play. The inverse to this is also true, though the types of hands that meet these criteria are generally beyond the scope of this beginner article. Mulliganning in certain situations will bring a cacophony of disagreement even from pro Magic players, and sometimes comes down to nothing more than personal preference. Just know that many borderline hands become slightly more keepable when you have the luxury of drawing an extra card, and you should be alright for now.

Multiple Mulligans

Sometimes the six-card hand you get after mulliganning still doesn't fly. You always have the option to mulligan again, but be warned: your odds of getting an ideal array of cards drops with each mulligan, and the guidelines you use to determine a keeper become less strict as you become more desperate for a playable hand. However, investigating the proper five- or even four-card hands to keep is also beyond the scope of this initial article.

Homework

I'm going to give you guys some homework today that you should discuss with your Magic-playing friends. Both of these hands require some thought before making your final decision, and you can make arguments for both sides.

Problem 1:

You are on the play against what your friend told you was "a control deck," but he wouldn't elaborate on the details. This is your opening hand:

Do you keep this or choose to send it back?

Problem 2:

You are on the draw against an unknown deck. This is your opening hand:

Knowing that you have 15 Forests and 4 Llanowar Elves left in your deck, do you keep or Paris?

Until next time, may you never be stranded on a three-hour tour.

Advanced Reading

Many Magic pros and writers have taken on the art of mulliganning over the years. They don't always come up with the same conclusions about the same hands, but the articles listed below cover the topic in greater depth than we did here today. If you want to become more comfortable with this element of Magic strategy, I highly recommend the articles listed below.

Ken Krouner is a former Worlds Top 8 competitor whose greatest contributions to Magic writing are probably his two articles on mulligans. The card examples in them are mostly from around Onslaught Block. The introductory article can be found here, while his practical examples article is located here.

Rogier Maaten is Dutch pro who tackled the same topic a couple of years later at a fundamental level. He also includes some minor math analysis, while his article uses examples from mostly Kamigawa Block and Ninth Edition Limited. Teammate, fellow Dutchie, and former World Champion Julien Nuijten also took a brief swipe at the topic in a Daily series in 2005.

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