The Art Of The Mulligan

What do Gerard Fabiano, Ed Fear, and most of the Magic-playing community at large have in common? By and large, they have terrible mulliganning habits. I don’t do a lot of things in this game perfectly, but one thing I feel I am awesome at is the Paris Mulligan – so let me show you three guidelines on when to throw back and when to keep, and give you solid examples from both Limited and Constructed games.

What do Gerard Fabiano, Ed Fear, and most of the Magic-playing community at large have in common?

If you said an uncanny knack with the women, you’d be correct. However, the answer I am getting at is, by and large, they have terrible mulliganning habits. I don’t do a lot of things in this game perfectly, but one thing I feel I am awesome at is the Paris Mulligan.

I intentionally left this section out of my Errors article, as I wanted to devote more space to it. In case you’re curious, mulliganning incorrectly is a strategic error ninety-nine times out of a hundred, though there are times (I have done it myself) where you say”keep” out of habit – in which case it would be a slip. A misclick on Magic Online would also fall under the”slip” category.

Improper mulliganning is not only the most critical decision you can make, but also the most common. Players I watch tend to err on the side of keeping hands that they shouldn’t; this makes sense, as since around the time of Alliances we have had the concept of card advantage drilled into our heads. Card advantage has been winning games since before most players knew what it was. There was a time when Time Walk was actually considered a better card than Ancestral Recall – but unbeknownst to most players, Ancestral would be the key card that won their games.

I liken mulliganning to hitting a hard 16 against a face card in blackjack. Yes, you are an underdog when you hit – but odds are you will lose if you don’t. The same logic should be going through your head when deciding to mulligan.

When I am playing a match and my opponent contemplates mulliganning, I am so much happier when he decides to keep his hand. It is almost always the wrong decision, and they wind up stuck on two lands as I resolve Visara. This leads me to my first tip in improving mulliganning habits:

Tip #1: When in doubt, throw it out

This will cause you to mulligan hands that would have won you the game, and it will cause you to mulligan hands you should have kept… But I would stake my life that you will mulligan fewer hands that you should have kept than you will keep hands that you should have thrown back. A tip for those of you who are plagued by manascrew: I bet you see an immediate turn-around once you start applying this tip.

This epidemic seems to manifest itself mostly in Limited, at least at the Pro level. The reason for this is that Pro players get a lot of playing time with Constructed decks and they know what it takes to win with them; they also have testing sessions where their teammates can point out hands they should mulligan, and why. You can repeat this in Limited, but different decks require different mulliganning strategies.

Tip #2: Discuss each and every questionable hand

When you are playing casual or test games and you aren’t sure whether or not you should keep, discuss it after the game. Additionally, if your opening hand turns sour and you kept, discuss it. Even if there was no question that it was a keeper in your mind, you may have missed something that a teammate or friend can help you understand.

Mulligans and land screw have always been connected topics. As such, people tend to only examine that aspect of their hands:”Four spells, three land – that’s a keeper.” That isn’t even the first thing you should consider.

Tip #3: There is more to mulliganning than land

Here is a list of everything you should consider when deciding whether to mulligan:

  • Do I have any land at all?

  • Am I playing or drawing?

  • Is my deck aggressive or defensive?

  • Is my opponent’s deck aggressive or defensive?

  • Do I have enough land to go with the spells I have?

  • Do I have the right color mana?

  • Can I win the game if I don’t draw more land (or spells, depending on what the hand is missing)?

  • What are my odds of drawing the missing pieces of this hand?

  • Is there a threat in my opponent’s deck that I have a limited number of ways of dealing with – and can this hand deal with that threat in time, assuming that I get an average draw?

  • Do I have a good balance of threats and answers, considering my deck?

  • Do I have the mana to support the curve in my deck?

  • How many”comes into play tapped” lands do I have in my deck, and is drawing them as good as (or better than) drawing a regular land?

  • If my opponent comes out blazing, can I stabilize?

  • If my opponent deals with the threats I have drawn, can my deck recover?

  • How much worse is this hand than an average hand of one less card from this deck?

  • Do I have enough early game cards to set up a good board position?

You have to do all this in two minutes. Rather than going into detail in each of these, I will give some examples of different hands and show where they fail these tests.

Playing first, Green-Red splash Blue for Rush of Knowledge and Ascending Aven

Controlling Beast deck

7 Forests

7 Mountains

1 Forgotten Cave

1 Tranquil Thicket

1 Island

1 Grand Coliseum.

Opening hand: Forest, Birchlore Ranger, Wirewood Elf, Wirewood Savage, Rush of Knowledge, Snarling Undorak, Wave of Indifference.

This hand must go back. This is obvious to some of you… But others would call me insane. You have three lands in your deck that come into play tapped – so that leaves thirteen out of thirty-three cards in your deck you can draw to not outright lose to an average draw. On top of this, if you do manage to draw one of your basic lands next turn, you still need to draw a third by turn 5 to really hope for a good board position. On top of all this, you have two cards that aren’t good in the early game in Wave and Rush.

Drawing first with a Red/Blue control deck.

8 Islands

8 Mountains

1 Lonely Sandbar.

You have already mulliganed game 3 versus a White/Blue aggressive deck.

Six-card hand: 4x Island, Solar Blast, Carbonize.

This came up in a draft in which my friend Aaron and I were playing together. He was helming the cards, and I told him that he should mulligan, but he insisted on keeping. It seemed borderline to me, and I always err on the side of sending it back – but we were working together, so I went with him. Turn 1 he drew another Island, turn 2 he drew a Mountain. I said,”See? That is why we should have mulliganed. You drew the mountain – and the hand still sucks.” He agreed, and we went on to lose the game and the match.

Playing first with a White Blue Soldier deck.

You have fifteen soldiers, two of which are Daru Stingers.

9 Plains

8 Islands

Opening hand: 2x Island, Glory Seeker, Daru Sanctifier, Aven Redeemer, Daru Stinger, Piety Charm.

This hand doesn’t seem that bad on the surface, but there are a couple of problems with it. First of all, you can’t exploit the best weapon in your deck, the Stinger. Another problem is if you don’t draw a Plains on your second turn, your Glory Seeker does nothing but pump the Stinger, so it is almost like a mulligan right off the bat – and also, if you draw out of this mediocre start mana-wise, then you aren’t drawing soldiers to pump the Stinger.

And these are only the reasons to send it back if you do draw mana – God forbid the next two cards are spells! It has got to go back.

Playing first, Type 2 Blue/Green madness.

Opening Hand: 2x Forest, 2x Basking Rootwalla, Careful Study, Arrogant Wurm, Mana Leak.

This type of hand is probably the most-kept hand in Magic that should be sent back. Blue/Green madness has been a dominant deck for one reason: Madness. This draw has no madness outlets, and no Island to run the first-turn Careful Study. Yes, you have castable spells; yes, you have land; yes, you have countermagic. But without the Island to facilitate things, you will be way too far behind the eight-ball even if you do draw an Island. An Aquamoeba or a Wild Mongrel is almost essential these days; if not, you really need to be able to Careful Study on turn 1.

I could go on and on with examples, but I would rather use real-life examples taken from my readers. As a follow-up to this article, I want to get some opening hands from you guys through e-mail and discuss them in a separate article. Make sure to include all relevant info such as I listed in my examples. You can post them in the forums (where they will get discussed plenty) or you can e-mail them to me. I prefer e-mail, as I can give my opinion without the influence of other posters.

Until then, mulligan often! It could be your only chance of winning.


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