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Keep Or Mulligan? — Core Set 2021 Standard Edition

Are you losing Standard games before they start? World Champion PVDDR takes you through tricky keep-mulligan decisions.

Serum Powder, illustrated by Matt Thompson

Today’s article is a Keep or Mulligan. I collected some interesting opening hands from social media and the goal is to figure out if you should keep them or not. Each hand will have a poll, and then you can compare your answer with my answer and the general public’s. For this edition, I also polled some members of my testing team, so you get to see their answer as well (though only my answer will have an explanation). 

Hand 1:

You’re playing Temur Reclamation against an unknown opponent. You’re on the play and your hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My team: 60% Keep; 40% Mulligan
  • My answer: Keep

It pains me to keep a six-lander when you don’t have a Temple or a Triome, but I think having Growth Spiral is so absurdly important to this deck that it’s worth keeping a hand like this. Even if you’re not accelerating into a four-drop, it maximizes every future draw — things like Shark Typhoon, Expansion // Explosion and even Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath become much better when you cast a Turn 2 Growth Spiral. This hand also has a Blast Zone and a Castle Vantress, so even though it doesn’t have the ideal utility lands that will mitigate flooding immediately, it does have some utility lands that will mitigate flooding in the long run. 

Hand 2

You’re playing Azorius Control (Yorion) with 36 land. It’s Game 1 against Mono-White Aggro (the version Hoshi Yuki used to win Red Bull Untapped International Qualifier II). You’re on the draw and your hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My team: 80% Keep; 20% Mulligan
  • My answer: Keep

Normally, against an aggressive deck, I would mulligan this hand because you can always find Shatter the Sky as your get-out-of-jail-free card. However, this new version of Mono-White Aggro is surprisingly resilient to sweepers — it has four Garrison Cat, four Hunted Witness, four Seasoned Hallowblade, four Selfless Savior, and three Unbreakable Formation. This doesn’t mean Shatter the Sky is bad versus them — it’s still good because they pump all their creatures and you reset a lot of them, and it’s good in multiples — but you cannot count on having a sweeper to bail you out completely. This means a card like The Birth of Meletis is at a premium against them, as it actually deals with one of their creatures forever, which makes this hand more appealing than normal (you really only need to draw one land and then it’s actively good).

After sideboarding, I would not keep this hand, because you do have a “get-out-of-jail-free” card against Mono-White Aggro, which is Archon of Sun’s Grace. It’s very hard for them to beat, given that it’s immune to Giant Killer and can go over the top of everything once it gets going. If I have a card like that in my deck, I’m more likely to mulligan more aggressively since I know it can bail me out.  

Hand 3

You’re playing Temur Reclamation and you’re on the play in Game 1 versus Sultai Ramp (the list with four Cultivates, the only black card is Casualties of War, no countermagic whatsoever). Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My team: 100% Keep
  • My answer: Keep

Two-land hands can be a bit awkward with this deck (there are 28-29 lands in it for a reason), but as far as two-land hands go, I think this is a reasonable one. The ramp deck tends to cast one spell per turn, so being constrained on mana isn’t that bad (as opposed to other blue matchups where you need to counter multiple things in the same turn and the inability to do that will lose you the game). The dream is of course that they cast Cultivate, which you can then copy with Expansion, which then solves all your problems. 

Hand 4

You’re playing Jund Sacrifice against Bant Ramp. It’s Game 1 and you’re on the play. Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My team: 80% Keep; 20% Mulligan
  • My answer: Keep

This is an awkward hand that I would never keep under normal circumstances, but I think the context makes this appealing. When you’re playing Jund Sacrifice versus Bant Ramp, the best card in your deck by a lot is Bolas’s Citadel, and this hand has two of them and acceleration. They don’t pressure your life total and often have no instant-speed interaction, so it’s not hard to resolve Citadel and go off with it. Given that this hand has two copies, you can even expose one to Elspeth Conquers Death or a potential Dovin’s Veto that they’re playing, which I think makes this hand a keep. 

Hand 5

You’re playing the same matchup (Jund Sacrifice versus Bant Ramp) and you’re on the draw. Your opponent has taken a mulligan, and then kept six cards. You’ve taken a mulligan and kept your six cards as well. This is your hand:

What card do you put back?

What card do you put back?

I would never really consider putting back Gilded Goose, so we’re left with three real options. First, you can put the Cauldron Familiar back, which is the card that does the least for you. This could prove to be a very bad decision if you draw Witch’s Oven immediately, for example, as you’ve just shipped part of your combo and you’ll miss out on a lot of damage with the Mayhem Devils.  

Then, you can put back Mayhem Devil. This is a hedge, as it leaves you with one of each piece of the combo if you do draw Witch’s Oven, but it’s not going to be the best possible. Mayhem Devil is also a card they’re prone to removing if they have a removal spell such as Glass Casket, Devout Decree, Elspeth Conquers Death, or Shatter the Sky, so having a backup is good.

Finally, you can put back Bolas’s Citadel and sort of go all-in on the beatdown + potentially drawing a sacrifice outlet plan. Bolas’s Citadel is certainly the card that fits the rest of the hand the least, as it’s a plan on its own rather than part of what the rest of the hand is trying to do, and at six mana it’s going to be a long way off.

Ultimately, I choose to put back the Cat because it’s simply the least powerful card. Unless you draw specifically Witch’s Oven, it’s not going to do much, and I would rather just have two Mayhem Devils — it’s not like they don’t scale in proportion, and one could easily be dealt with. Depending on what lands you draw, it’s possible the Cauldron Familiar can only be played on Turn 3 or later anyway, at which point the Devil is just a better card to play. As mentioned in the previous hand, Bolas’s Citadel is the best card versus Bant Ramp, so even though you’re far from playing it with this particular hand, I think it’s a very good Plan B to have if things don’t work out with the Mayhem Devils

Hand 6

You’re playing Temur Reclamation against Rakdos Sacrifice, an aggressive version with Dreadhorde Butchers. Your deck has no removal Game 1 other than Brazen Borrower and Aether Gust, but you do have maindeck Nightpack Ambushers. It’s Game 1, you’re on the draw, and your opponent mulliganed. Your hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My team: 80% Keep; 20% Mulligan
  • My answer: Mulligan

This was my hand against Michael Bonde during the SCG Tour Online Season One Championship last weekend. At the time, I kept the hand, but this hand is not good. I don’t know what possessed me to keep it and as soon as I did it I was beating myself up. I guess part of the downside of playing an online tournament is that you get distracted and there’s other stuff on your mind, but I really should just have mulliganed. In fact, I artificially made the hand better, because I thought it would make the decision more interesting — my actual hand in the tournament had a second Fabled Passage instead of a Breeding Pool, which makes it even worse, since even if I topdeck a Growth Spiral, I cannot cast it.

I think that, when you’re playing Temur Reclamation against these decks in Game 1, you need a good opening hand, especially on the draw. Turn 4 Wilderness Reclamation + Nightpack Ambusher is reasonable, but unlikely to be enough on the draw, and this hand isn’t even guaranteed to produce that. I don’t think you can mulligan any hand that doesn’t have Growth Spiral if you’re on the draw — that’s just not realistic — but there are certain components you can have – Brazen Borrower; Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath; perfect mana; even Aether Gust – that will give you a much better fighting chance.

Hand 7

You’re playing Temur Reclamation (28 lands, four Opt) versus Jund Sacrifice. It’s Game 3 and you’re on the play. Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My team: 60% Keep; 40% Mulligan
  • My answer: Keep

This is another weird two-lander that you really wish was a three-lander, but I think it has enough going for it that you should keep. Uro is pretty good versus Jund Sacrifice, especially in sideboard games, and being on the play you should have enough time to be able to recover even if you stumble. If you do draw two lands, then the hand is very good and you can also draw Opt, Growth Spiral, and Shark Typhoon to find more lands, or any removal that you sideboarded in for interaction. In this hand, there just aren’t that many dead draws (you really just don’t want extra copies of Expansion // Explosion and Wilderness Reclamation), so I think you should keep. 

Hand 8

You’re playing Esper Control (Yorion), which is very similar to Azorius Control (Yorion) but with some black cards, against an unknown opponent, but they have revealed Yorion, Sky Nomad as their companion. Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My team: 100% Mulligan
  • My answer: Keep

This is tricky because you know what decks your opponent can be playing, but you still don’t know if Aether Gust is good versus them. If they’re playing Azorius Control or Esper themselves (the most likely option, I think, but not by much), the Aether Gusts are completely dead. If they’re playing Bant Control with Yorion as their companion, the Gusts are reasonable. If they’re playing Temur Elementals with Yorion, the Gusts are actively good. I believe this is a great hand if the Aether Gusts will ever find a use, so I would happily keep this against any deck that has green or red cards, while I would mulligan this hand if I knew for a fact that they were bad. 

Overall, I think this hand is strong enough outside of the Aether Gusts that you can keep. Omen of the Sea does good work in a Yorion deck, and Elspeth Conquers Death is bound to be one of your best cards whenever anyone reveals a Yorion. Given how excellent this hand is against the green Yorion decks, I think it’s worth it being sub-optimal versus the other versions. 

Hand 9

You’re playing the Temur Reclamation mirror. You’re on the play and it’s Game 2. Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My team: 80% Mulligan; 20% Keep
  • My answer: Mulligan

This is a tricky hand to evaluate because it’s excellent if you just draw a couple of running lands — you have early Growth Spirals to accelerate, Shark Typhoon as the payoff and both Mystical Dispute and Negate to stunt their early development. However, the issue with this hand is that it doesn’t need to draw one land — it needs to draw several. If you don’t draw more lands, your Growth Spirals are no longer acceleration — they’re just expensive cantrips and that’s really not what you want. So even if you do draw a land immediately, if you Growth Spiral into a nonland, that’s already a pretty bad spot to be in.

This is of course on top of the chance that you just don’t draw a second land immediately, in which case you’re in big trouble, and even drawing a tapped land could be trouble. Overall, I don’t think the benefits outweigh the risks here. 

In the end, the fact that even the top players diverge so much with these (there is only one hand where there’s a consensus between me and my team, for example) should show you that there’s hardly an absolutely correct answer. The most important thing isn’t to get the same answer as me, but to understand the thought process behind the decision so you can make your own decision when the time comes. 

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