Unlocking Legacy – Mulliganing and Deck Design

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Monday, February 11th – Today’s article addresses a commonly made mistake – incorrect mulliganing. The underused resource of mulliganing has effects on design, and Chris talks about and how to avoid it both as a player and a deckbuilder.

I. Legacy Design

Deck design is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Legacy. The most popular and common discussions of deck design in Magic revolve around Standard card pools with low power and very few options. And despite what some theory-only players say, Extended design is almost irrelevant to this format and has similar problems to comparisons with Type 2.

Legacy deck design is a different problem than the one addressed by pundits and non-players in the vast majority of Magic. As I noted in the first Unlocking Legacy, Legacy’s card pool is unique not just for the variety of cards, but also for the inevitable limitations placed on viability due to the culmination of the most efficient cards in every set. This has several implications for design, but a major one is the invalidation of ideas which might succeed in slower, weaker formats — and not just ideas based on specific mechanics or engines, but ideas about how much tempo or card advantage is acceptable. One of the biggest challenges in Legacy design is how to decide which cards are worth building around, and more generally, where to compromise between power and synergy in design. The answers are different in Legacy than they are in more high-profile formats. However, these problems are merely a motivation for today’s topic.

Throughout this process, important questions that any designer ought to be asking are: What is this deck’s optimal draw, and is it good? What strategy does this deck want to accomplish, and is it feasible given popular decks? Is this deck strong and consistent enough to be worth playing, and how can I achieve a balance between the two?

These are complicated questions, and their answers are quite lengthy. One aspect of answering them I want to focus on is how effectively decks are used when they are played. A deck is only as good as the best use of it in a tournament. Mulliganing is an important tool for maximizing a deck’s abilities.

II. Mulligans

One of the tools available to players to increase consistency (and indirectly power) is the mulligan. Deck design, card design, Magic theory, and design theory have all been strongly influenced over the lifetime of Magic by the size of the opening hand. Cards are highly tuned to this number, as well as the size of the deck and the limit on copies (four), and anything that allows players to modify these rules can be very powerful. Some well-known methods are redundant effects, draw and tutoring spells, and a vastly underused method, the mulligan.

Mulliganing is just a transaction that a player can make if they know they are not using their resources optimally. It is not a safety mechanism that is employed when something goes wrong, or at least that’s not how it should be treated. The correct time to use the mulligan is intimately tied to deck design and the answers to the questions I posed earlier. In general, a player should mulligan when their seven-card hand is worse than the expected strength of an average six-card hand. The same applies when going to five cards. This is already a very challenging decision to make, as you must know how valuable your own cards are, and how that value is affected by the opponent’s deck.

In a deck with exceptional speed or power, a tactic sometimes called aggressive mulliganing is worth employing to take advantage of a small subset of cards. A player may mulligan as many times as they want, and the number of cards they can see at the beginning of the game can be very large. If the power level of the hand you want is high enough, it can be worth risking the stability of mediocre hands to find one that will overpower your opponent. Clearly, in this scenario, the value of specific cards is higher than multiples of weaker cards — something which happens all the time in Magic, but which can be difficult to perceive in a card advantage-oriented mindset. What is important to note is that decks vary continuously on scales of power, consistency, speed, etc., and this approach to mulliganing may still apply to some decks even if less frequently.

Winning the game is not directly tied with drawing more cards. Mulliganing decreases card advantage, but it can often lead to better openings despite this. Countless applications of traditional Magic theory have failed when players have realized that casting Fact or Fiction doesn’t lead to victory, or that setting up a Life from the Loam engine is a bad idea, because they are completely ignoring tempo development. Card advantage is a sound theory, and it’s important to consider it in design, but it’s only a small part of the story.

Perhaps one reason that mulliganing remains underused is the dominant influence of a certain type of deck on the common knowledge pool of magic theory. Blue-based Control and Aggro-Control decks typically don’t mulligan except in emergencies, and that’s the right strategy for those types of decks. This happens to be a very easy algorithm to execute. They are attempting to play a slower game and have the ability to draw into the cards they are looking for while disrupting the opponent. These kinds of decks have been very successful in Magic, and continue to be in larger formats due to the strength of Blue, but the rules of mulliganing change when you play a different kind of deck.

III. Strategic Focus

The canonical example of a successful Legacy deck is Vial Goblins. I played this deck for a long time and was very successful with it, and mulliganing was always critical to my success. I frequently attributed my failures to incorrect mulliganing decisions.

Players who complained about Goblins for a long time had no idea which cards they were really losing to. A common card to point at was Goblin Lackey. This was probably because the turn 3 kill that the deck was capable of executing depended on Goblin Lackey. However, at best, it’s the third strongest card in the deck. This is relevant because this level of familiarity with Goblins leads to incorrect mulliganing decisions on the part of the Goblins player.

Goblin Lackey was a strong card, but it’s not because it led to early kills. It was an uncallable bluff which bought time for Goblins to play its real threats. It rarely ever contributed to the execution which actually won the game. Goblins wants to kill the opponent by attacking with creatures and dealing damage directly with some of those creatures’ abilities. By now, everyone understands that the key cards in this strategy are AEther Vial and Goblin Ringleader. But these are slow cards that take time to use maximally. This means that the deck really wants to mulligan into hands which are slower, but which can support this late-game strategy. A common rule of thumb was to try to have AEther Vial or Goblin Lackey on turn 1, but these were not mandatory for the deck to work. Some of the best hands I have played with Goblins were three or four lands and efficient ways of getting to the late game.

A slight complication to this procedure was the use of Wasteland and Rishadan Port, which were powerful cards on their own, and dominant when combined with the synergy of Goblins. However, the point is that the mulligan is based on where you want the deck to end up, not what you can do with the cards you are looking at. Dropping lands for three turns, tutoring for Goblins, and disrupting the opponent’s manabase was a perfectly good way to beat many decks.

Goblins is a deck heavily reliant on synergy to execute properly. This mitigates some of the pressure to mulligan because the cards support each other. In addition, Goblins was really aiming for a late-game scenario, which made it even more forgiving. But there are many decks which do not have these buffers, and for which mulliganing is more important.

Cephalid Breakfast is a good comparison to Goblins on this question. Goblins can benefit from opening with more cards since it is aiming for later in the game; since all of the cards are going to be used in a successful execution of strategy, most if not all of the cards in the opening hand will demonstrate their value over the course of the game. But Breakfast doesn’t really need all of the cards in its opening hand. Cephalid Breakfast can keep a three-card hand, draw the appropriate card on turn 2 and win immediately. This is really what the deck wants to do, and direct application of aggressive mulliganing increases the occurrence of this type of draw. Imagine the same scenario with four extra cards in the opening hand — they do nothing. Now imagine you draw a seven card hand that doesn’t win on turn 2. There is an extremely strong pressure to mulligan if you don’t have another early kill method. There is quite a lot of disruption in Legacy, so there are plenty of good and even better hands that don’t win on turn 2, but the point is that the deck is capable of that opening and therefore it’s necessary to compare the mediocre hands against it. There is no reason to keep a hand with tutors and draw and no immediate threat to the opponent when you can easily draw the nuts on six or five cards.

Forcing yourself to mulligan and throw away hands that don’t have anything “wrong” with them requires practice and discipline. It goes against our training in card advantage and also has an element of risk because our six card hand is random, just like our first seven. We may find ourselves with a worse six card hand going down to five out of desperation. Obviously there is danger in mulliganing, but the point is that not mulliganing when you should is a mistake just like throwing away a good hand, but we commit the first error far more frequently because it requires no decision. It is difficult to do correctly because it requires the player to know the deck well enough to understand the potential openings they can have on six, and it becomes more complicated when considering the variation due to the opponent’s deck. Humans also have a difficult time reasoning about statistical occurrences — we may get a bad six card hand and decide incorrectly that we should not have mulliganed, when the decision to mulligan is completely unrelated to the specific hand you get afterwards. I have pushed myself to ignore the false security of mediocre hands, and I still make mistakes every tournament, but I’ve rarely ever mulliganed too much.

The correct hands to keep are those which have the right cards to support the intended strategy of the deck, not the ones with flashy openings. Any time you mulligan, you have to ask yourself what you really want the deck to do, and if the cards in your hand support that strategy. Since we have to play with sixty cards, and usually the core of cards we are building around is smaller than that, it is possible and sometimes common to draw hands which are only indirectly related to our strategy. Even though opening hands may have acceptable plays, if they do not help the deck execute, then they should be seriously weighed against another draw.

Opening hands can suggest a series of opening plays, which can be tempting to follow if they allow the deck to maintain minimum tempo parity. However, this consideration should be completely avoided when deciding whether or not to keep the hand. The power of the hand should not be compared to an abstract measure of what is good according to the basic rules of Magic. The only valid comparison of the opening hand is the set of all opening hands the deck can produce with one fewer card. The task of maximizing power and tempo development is critical, but it should be relegated to the design stage.

IV. Consistent Design

I have drawn a sharp distinction between design and execution, and that is an important classification to make. The player must always be mindful of the design of the deck and the intended use of the cards, and one focus of this is the mulligan.

Thinking the other way is very important as well. In design, it is extremely important to take into account the effect that mulliganing can have on a deck, and a player’s ability to make that transaction. Just think back to the early rules before there were mulligans, or the all-land no-land rule. Deck design under these regulations would be vastly different, and necessarily so. The player’s freedom to re-randomize their opening hand rewards certain design plans, and can suppress other strategies due to the opponent’s access to increased consistency as well.

One strategy which has been utilized in deck design from the beginning of the game is redundancy. This seems like a trivial idea since it has been used for so long, but it’s related to mulliganing, which is a younger addition to the game. Having redundant engines or threat suites makes it statistically much more likely that a given opening hand will have the elements necessary to execute the intended strategy. This in turn restricts the scenarios where mulliganing is the correct decision. Redundant design is not always possible, but I would guess it is present in some form or another in almost every successful magic deck ever played, either through draw, tutoring, or actual redundant cards.

Threshold is an example of a deck with incredible consistency. The basis of the deck itself is a set of around ten one-mana cantrips which itself is redundant design, but which then allow the player to draw more frequently into the other elements of the deck which are themselves redundantly designed! Force of Will and Daze are often present totaling seven or eight free counterspells; Nimble Mongoose and Tarmogoyf are both present for at least eight undercosted threats; and the cantrips draw into more of themselves allowing the deck to draw into the stronger but less common cards in the deck such as Counterbalance.

The design of Threshold intrinsically reduces the pressure to mulligan because opening hands will have multiple elements that can find the deck the cards it wants to execute its main strategy, either by drawing them directly or disrupting the opponent long enough to draw into them. In fact, Threshold is so cleverly designed that drawing into its main threats and disruption is actually part of its strategy, since doing so makes its creatures larger. Threshold is a deck that benefits from mulliganing infrequently.

Design like this is not always possible, of course. Threshold is the singular combination of amazing disruption, vastly undercosted creatures, and powerful draw spells which were printed over a period of ten years in different blocks. Legacy is the only place where such designs are both possible and viable (you can build most Legacy decks in Vintage, but they will be outclassed by decks with cards from the first two years of the game.)

However, the principles are usually applicable even when there isn’t a conjunction of this kind. Generally, design is improved if it reduces mulliganing pressure (remember, it’s a random process — we can control the strength of our design and the quality of our play, but we have no control over the hands we draw except through design). Redundant effects are a classically understood method — consider Goblin Lackey and AEther Vial in Goblins. Draw spells are another commonly used method, and in fact draw spells are generally good for a variety of reasons in addition to mulliganing. Tutoring has similar benefits, although the tutors available in Legacy will usually require you to sacrifice card advantage to use them — consider Worldly Tutor in Cephalid Breakfast, which doubles all the combo elements as well as a few anti-answers.

Another method which isn’t exactly redundant design but which does reduce mulligan pressure is the utilization of multiple strategies. Survival decks in Legacy have always had to use this option because there is no way to tutor for the engine. Instead of focusing their design purely around resolving and abusing Survival of the Fittest, many include a secondary strategy, which can be acceleration of creatures and the abuse of equipment, or more recently the use of a Burning Wish-based sideboard to counter the opponent’s opening. These are solid design strategies because they allow the deck to function more or less successfully while mulliganing less. However, they are not ideal because they split the focus of the deck, and it is inevitable that one of the strategies is superior in every situation. It is a big risk to let the deck randomly decide, or at least influence, which strategy you use.

V. A Subtle Mistake

Proper design and proper use of the mulligan influence and reward each other. It is best to design consistent decks, and it is best to play those decks in a way which maximizes their power. It is important to design powerful decks, but that is an entirely different topic, and the same methods apply to playing them correctly.

Legacy design is a pleasure because of the card pool and the banned list (although I can think of some improvements…). But like any other format, the object is to win the game, and the task of playing decks correctly is difficult. Mulliganing incorrectly is one of the most common errors I have observed in tournaments. I think this is the case because it is very hard to see when it is done incorrectly, and it is somewhat daunting because of the risk involved. However, my solution to this is similar to that proposed by Ken Krouner – when in doubt, mulligan. Of course, this isn’t a good tournament strategy, but it will certainly demonstrate the benefits of mulliganing and make more apparent the need to stay strategically focused.

Christopher Coppola