Feature Article – Sixes and Sevens: Mulligans in Constructed

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Seven cards are better than six. This much we know. But how often can we be sure that the hand we’re keeping is stronger than a prospective six? Dan Paskins brings us an interesting look at the process of playtesting with regards to mulligan decisions. By examining those hands that win against those hands that lose, Dan helps us along the road to a greater understanding of mulligans in general.

I’m going to try an experiment in this article, to explore a simple question, but one which helps to touch on a much larger topic. It’s the question of what difference it makes to start with six cards, rather than seven.

One noticeable difference between an average Magic player and a very good Magic player is their approach to the opportunity of mulliganing their starting hand. Most players will happily mulligan a hand with all lands, or all spells, but providing there is an equal balance of lands and spells, will keep the hand rather than trade it in for six new cards. In this mindset, having to mulligan your starting hand is a misfortune to be avoided except when necessary, as opposed to a tool which can help optimize your chances of victory.

Learning when it is right to mulligan, and when it is right to keep your starting hand, is one of the most complicated, and relatively under explored, areas of Magic. When playtesting a particular matchup, one of the most important things to try to discover is not just whether your deck is at an advantage or disadvantage, but what kinds of hands should be valued highly, and which should be dismissed. For example, several people qualified for the Pro Tour a few years ago because they discovered that the following hand was extremely powerful in a popular matchup:

Island, Island, Island, Island, Island, Island, Island

Most players mulliganed that hand without another thought, but in matches between two control decks where the key to victory was playing land, and where neither player would dare try to cast a spell when faced with untapped Islands on the other side of the table, seven Islands in hand offered a great start.

I’ve lost count of the number of times when I’ve seen people testing, and they’ve decided not to count games where one player has to mulligan twice or more. “Oh just draw seven cards”, says the playtester, as if in tournament Magic no one has ever had to mulligan to five or four cards. At a more subtle level, players will rarely test out different mulliganing strategies while playtesting – the reason why most players missed the strength of the seven Island starting hand is that they never even considered playing a game with an all land hand, because Autopilot says that six cards are better than seven lands.

So I am going to try out a new playtesting technique, aimed specifically at finding out which kinds of hands are worth keeping, and what the effect on a matchup is of starting with six cards rather than seven. If, for example, a deck wins just as often with an average six card starting hand as with a seven-card hand, then there should be no worries about throwing back any substandard hand. Equally, if for some reason the extra card proves crucial in particular matchups, then you learn to mulligan the hand only when absolutely necessary.

What I’m going to do is play a few games, keeping a seven-card hand in each and recording what happens. Then I am going to play the same games over again, keeping one of the decks exactly the same with the cards in the same order, but starting the other deck with a random six-card hand (this is easy to do if you record the starting hands, and the order in which cards are drawn for the deck which you are keeping the same). This is a slightly more sophisticated version of peeking at the top card when you decide to mulligan, to see if it is a land.

The two decks that I have chosen are Richard Feldman R/U beat down deck, and Guillaume Wafo-Tapa mono Blue deck. When Richard wrote about this matchup, he found that the score was 5-5 between the two decks. I chose to play six games with each, alternating which deck was on the play each game.

Game 1:

Wafo-Tapa: Island, Dreadship Reef, Desert, Desert, Ancestral Vision, Venser, Teferi
Feldman: Island, Island, Mountain, Faerie Conclave, Pongify, Pongify, Incinerate

This was an easy win for the Mono-Blue deck – by the time Feldman’s deck exerted any pressure, it had drawn into plenty of counterspells and resolved Teferi.

Feldman six-card hand: Mountain, Mountain, Shivan Reef, Island, Mogg Fanatic, Rift Bolt

…and this was little better, with the game going much the same way.

Game 2:

Feldman: Faerie Conclave, Rift Bolt, Riftwing Cloudskate, Mogg War Marshal, Keldon Marauders, Magus of the Scroll, Mountain
Wafo-Tapa: Island, Desert, Pact of Negation, Pact of Negation, Think Twice, Remove Soul, Faerie Trickery

Wafo-Tapa was able to use counter spells and Desert to manage Feldman’s creatures, aided by Feldman having to wait a couple of turns to get his third land, until it was possible to summon Guile with Pact of Negation in hand.

Feldman 6-card hand: Magus of the Scroll, Pongify, Faerie Conclave, Shivan Reef, Shivan Reef, Rift Bolt

This time round, Feldman had a turn 1 Magus, and a Pongify when the Desert tried to kill it. Sad to say, but the 3/3 Ape, with a little help from the burn spells, went all the way, as Wafo-Tapa failed to draw a Venser or Cryptic Command.

Game 3:

Wafo-Tapa: Island, Island, Dreadship Reef, Ancestral Vision, Faerie Trickery, Venser, Guile
Feldman: Mountain, Mountain, Mogg War Marshal, Incinerate, Rift Bolt, Riftwing Cloudskate, Pongify

Wafo-Tapa drew a Desert on turn 3, and this time had Venser when Pongify turned a Goblin into an Ape. Feldman drew an Island on the third turn, and therefore was able to cast all the spells, but Ancestral Vision backed up with Deserts, countermagic and turn 6 Guile were too hard to beat.

Feldman 6-card: Island, Faerie Conclave, Shivan Reef, Incinerate, Riftwing Cloudskate, Gossamer Phantasm

This game worked out in a very similar way to the one above – Wafo-Tapa going first and Feldman having no turn 1 play meant that it was easy for the Mono-Blue deck to stay on top.

Game 4:

Feldman: Mountain, Shivan Reef, Island, Magus of the Scroll, Magus of the Scroll, Riftwing Cloudskate, Incinerate
Wafo-Tapa: Island, Island, Teferi, Remove Soul, Remove Soul, Rune Snag, Pact of Negation

A win for Feldman this time as Wafo-Tapa doesn’t draw a Desert, and doesn’t get a fourth land until turn 6, which means that the Magi can attack for a while and then Scroll out Wafo-Tapa when Feldman has played out his other threats.

Feldman 6-card: Island, Mountain, Gossamer Phantasm, Gossamer Phantasm, Keldon Marauders, Riftwing Cloudskate

Again, the fact that Wafo-Tapa has no Deserts and is drawing first means that Feldman can get a threat into play and keep casting other threats which require a counterspell. Win for Feldman with six or seven cards.

Game 5:

Wafo-Tapa: Island, Island, Island, Desert, Ancestral Vision, Cryptic Command, Teferi
Feldman: Island, Gossamer Phantasm, Gossamer Phantasm, Mogg War Marshal, Magus of the Scroll, Keldon Marauders, Incinerate

This ended up being a very close game. Wafo-Tapa had a Desert, but no early countermagic, while Feldman drew a Shivan Reef and another land to be able to cast threats. Eventually, Wafo-Tapa won a very close game, finishing on three life and with no countermagic left in hand.

Feldman 6-card: Mountain, Mountain, Magus of the Scroll, Psionic Blast, Pongify, Pongify

Wafo-Tapa’s lack of early countermagic, combined with the fact that Feldman drew a source of Blue mana and some more creatures, meant that Pongify was a star in this game, making Desert look rather silly. It was still close, but Wafo-Tapa couldn’t manage both to deal with the Apes and also counter all of the burn spells which were aimed at him.

Game 6:

Feldman: Island, Faerie Conclave, Faerie Conclave, Keldon Marauders, Mogg Fanatic, Psionic Blast, Mogg War Marshal
Wafo-Tapa: Island, Island, Desert, Pact of Negation, Remove Soul, Guile, Cryptic Command

Wafo-Tapa took this one, though Feldman again drew an early Shivan Reef in order to be able to cast Red creatures. But Wafo-Tapa was able to use Desert, Remove Soul and Cryptic Command to deal with Feldman’s threats without taking too much damage, before summoning Guile and Venser.

Feldman 6-card: Shivan Reef, Mogg Fanatic, Mogg Fanatic, Magus of the Scroll, Riftwing Cloudskate, Psionic Blast

So, you know how in previous games, turn 1 drops proved to be really powerful? Not this time. The Fanatics got in to deal a couple of points each, and Feldman drew some lands and other two drops, but Wafo-Tapa had the countermagic for them, and Magus of the Scroll versus Guile proved not to be a very fair fight.


Wafo-Tapa versus Feldman 7-card hand: 5-1
Wafo-Tapa versus Feldman 6-card hand: 3-3

In games 1, 3, and 4, the quality of Feldman’s hands almost didn’t matter – in games 1 and 3, Wafo-Tapa had just about the best possible hand for the matchup, and only the most exceptional of hands would have given Feldman a chance. In game 4, Wafo-Tapa’s stumbling on mana and lack of Desert meant that even a quite mediocre hand from Feldman would be good enough (remember: a win is a win whether you crush them quickly or win a little more slowly and less convincingly).

Although several of Feldman’s seven-card hands only had one land, none of his defeats were caused by a lack of one or other color of mana, though in some cases being stuck on two lands did contribute to defeat. Feldman only won one game out of four when he didn’t have a turn 1 creature to play.

Those seven-card hands from Feldman weren’t very powerful, by and large (they were all random, I didn’t pick them to make any kind of a point), in only one of them did he have both colors of mana and some early creatures. But I know plenty of players who would have kept, for example, Island, Faerie Conclave, Faerie Conclave, Keldon Marauders, Mogg Fanatic, Psionic Blast, Mogg War Marshal, rationalizing that they have two Faerie Conclaves to beat down with or some such. Playing out games with both seven and six-card hands also gives useful insights into what the key cards are in the matchup, and what the most important things to look for in your starting hand to choose between victory and defeat are.

What this little exercise has hopefully shown is that there is no reason to be scared of throwing away a seven-card hand. In those six games, the strategy of mulliganing every single seven-card hand and keeping six cards produced a better outcome than keeping the seven-card hands, and as good an outcome as keeping some seven-card hands and taking a mulligan on weak hands. Clearly this won’t always be the case, but I do think there is potential in trying out a few games with both seven and six-card hands so that you can see when it is better to keep and when it is better to throw away your seven cards and try the game with six.

This is a very small sample size, and it would be interesting to find out how much the odds of victory reduce on average if a player starts with six rather than seven cards. But as a general rule, if you’re not sure whether or not to mulligan, then you should do so. You should try to make sure that one of the outcomes of your playtesting is that when you pick up your cards in a tournament, then whatever the format and whatever the matchup, you know which combinations of cards to keep, and which to throw away.

This is quite a hard subject to talk about and explain, and this is just a very preliminary look at it. As ever, if you have any questions or comments, then I’ll be happy to discuss them in the forums,

Take care,

Dan Paskins