Keep Or Mulligan? — Magic Online Championship Edition

World Champion PVDDR analyzes five tough decisions from the Magic Online Championship. Would he keep or mulligan these marginal hands? Would you?

Collected Company, illustrated by Lake Hurwitz

Welcome to another Keep or Mulligan! In case you haven’t seen one of those before, the way it works is I present you some sample hands and then you choose Keep or Mulligan and vote on the appropriate option. You can then compare your answers to the rest of the poll’s and to my own answers and explanation. 

For today’s edition, I selected five interesting hands from the Magic Online Championship that happened last weekend, so you’re also going to have the player’s decision as a point of comparison. Remember that, even if you ultimately disagree with my conclusion (or the player’s), the goal is to understand the thought process behind each decision so that making your own decision becomes easier in the future. 

Hand #1:

You’re playing Michael Jacob’s Modern Selesnya Company deck and you’re on the draw, in Game 2, against Jund Midrange. Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My answer: Keep.

This was a hand from the Magic Online Championship finals — Michael Jacob against Logan Nettles — that MJ ended up mulliganing. I agree a five-land hand is never going to be something you’re thrilled about, but I think in this particular scenario this is a hand I’d keep. In fact, this is sort of the textbook example of what I talked about in my article last week, where the fact that Jund Midrange turns every matchup into a “quantity” game about resources should lead you to keep inferior hands against them, as you’re mostly interested in having enough cards rather than having the right cards.

Logan’s deck was a traditional Jund build — he had a lot of removal; Liliana of the Veil; Thoughtseize; Inquisition of Kozilek; and Kroxa, Titan of Nature’s Hunger. Against decks like those, it doesn’t really matter if you come out of the gates with guns blazing — it’s an attrition war and you want to outlast your opponent. This is especially true when you’re on the draw and on a mulligan — it’s going to be very hard to simply overwhelm your opponent and they will almost always be able to deal with your early assault. So, because of this, I think you should be content to make your land drops, have plenty of fodder for Liliana and Kroxa, and hold onto what are some of your strongest cards against removal – and, in the case of Collected Company, a card that even dodges Inquisition of Kozilek.

Hand #2:

You’re playing Pioneer Boros Wizards (Lurrus), on the draw, Game 2 against Sultai Midrange. Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My answer: Keep

This was Oliver Tiu’s hand in Game 3 against Logan Nettles, and he ended up keeping. I think it’s a close hand, but ultimately I agree with Oliver’s decision to keep it, even though I don’t like it. 

There are two main reasons why I think this hand is a keep. The first is that this is not a good matchup, especially after sideboarding on the draw — you need a pretty good hand to win and this hand at least has the potential to be a pretty good hand, since you have your important cards, the one-drops with prowess and Roiling Vortex. The second is that Boros Wizards is a deck that mulligans very poorly, as a lot of your resources are interchangeable and you just want as many as possible. 

There is, of course, the risk of crashing and burning; if you don’t draw a land in your first two draws your win rate is going to plummet and if you don’t draw one in the first three draws it’s unlikely you will win. However, how likely is it that you will win with Boros Wizards against Sultai Midrange on the draw starting with six cards? I would argue that’s not very likely either. At least, with a hand like this, you only need one thing to happen for you to “get there.”

Obviously you don’t automatically win if you draw a land, but then at least you have everything you need to put up a fight (enough creatures to put on early pressure, enough burn to finish them off, your sideboard hate), whereas a six-card hand might not have any of the pieces that you need or might only have one of these things. You could easily, for example, mulligan into a hand of four lands and three burn spells, at which point you’re forced to try to topdeck a creature to have a chance rather than a land. 

If I was playing a matchup where I felt favored, I would not keep this hand, as then the risk of fizzling out actually removes a big chunk of your win-rate. But this is specifically a deck that mulligans very poorly in specifically a bad matchup, so I think this is a keep. 

Hand #3:

You’re playing Pioneer Oops All Spells on the play against Mono-Green Devotion, post-sideboard. You’ve already mulliganed once and they kept seven cards. This is your opening hand:

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My answer: Keep

This was Matti Kuisma’s hand in the semifinals of the Magic Online Championship against Michael Jacob. After a grueling six minutes of thinking, he decided to mulligan, which I understand but ultimately don’t agree with.

The first thing we need to analyze is what we think will happen in the game, so we know which kinds of hands we have to look for. In this matchup, there are two big threats to your combo — the first is Karn, the Great Creator (MJ’s biggest piece of disruption, as it can get Tormod’s Crypt immediately), and the second is that you might combo off but not win if the battlefield is already too big from MJ’s side. The solution to both these problems is mostly going to be comboing off as quickly as possible (ideally Turn 3). If we go off Turn 3 on the play, we’re very likely to win.

As it stands, if you draw nothing else, this hand has the ability to go off on Turn 4. If you draw an untapped “land” in either of your two draw steps — roughly a 40% chance — then you have a Turn 3 combo. MJ kept a seven-card hand, so his hand has to at least be reasonable; we could assume he has the ability to cast a Turn 3 Karn or he would not have kept seven cards. In a scenario where we’re facing a Turn 3 Karn, a Turn 3 combo will win us the game, whereas a Turn 4 combo will lose us the game. This would give us effectively a 40% chance to win the game. Is that good enough?

There are two potential factors that will also make us higher than 40% to win the game. We could, for example, draw a piece of disruption, such as a Thoughtseize, which will not let us kill Turn 3 but will let us strip MJ of his own disruption, paving the way for the Turn 4 kill we already have. The second factor is that there’s always the chance that MJ kept a seven-card hand without Turn 3 Karn. We assume this isn’t the case, but we can’t know for sure, and there might be a combination of factors that led him to keeping a different hand.

All in all, I understand the appeal of mulliganing — you want to look for the Turn 3 win you think you need — but I think you’re over 50% to find an untapped land or a piece of disruption, and I think this is better than you get from a five-card opener. Muliganing doesn’t hurt you as much with this deck, but it’s still a limiting factor; for example, if you mulligan into five lands, Balustrade Spy, and Thoughtseize, you’re still left with having to topdeck a land to combo on Turn 4 with disruption, as you have to get rid of two lands. 

It’s very hard to do the math on how many combinations of hands kill Turn 3 or are clean Turn 4 kills with disruption, so I could be wrong here, but my instinct is that you’re slightly over 50% to win this game with this opening hand and I don’t think you’re more than 50% if you go to five cards, so I would keep it. 

Hand #4:

You’re playing Pioneer Mono-Green Devotion and you’re on the draw against Sultai Midrange. You mulligan your first hand and this is your new hand:

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My answer: Keep

This was MJ’s hand against Logan in the third game of the second match of the finals. MJ ultimately ended up keeping, which is a decision I agree with.

I don’t think there’s a way to sugarcoat it: this hand is bad, but your choice isn’t between this hand and a good hand, it’s between this hand and a mulligan to five. The Mono-Green Devotion deck has ramp and payoff, which means it does not do a good job of mulliganing; it’s going to be very hard to find a five-card hand that includes lands, ramp and payoff. There are simply not enough cards for that and you’re playing versus a deck that, while not Jund Midrange, is very Jund Midrange-like. 

Since you’re playing versus a midrange deck with disruption, this hand does have some things going for it; if you manage to draw some lands, at least you already have stuff to do with them, and your opponent is not going to be able to disrupt you effectively since you have a lot of threats (for example, a Thoughtseize on Turn 1 is pretty bad for you, but you can shrug it off on any other turn and you’re good against removal). It’s not much, but it’s something. All in all, I wouldn’t like my chances with this hand and I would never keep it on seven, but I think it’s superior to mulliganing to five.


Hand #5:

You’re playing Modern Selesnya Company and you’re on the draw against Amulet Titan in Game 2. Your hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

  • My answer: Mulligan

This was MJ’s hand in Round 4 of the tournament and he kept. I think this is not an unreasonable hand — it has a nice balance of things going for it — but the key is that, in this matchup, it doesn’t really have the cards you’re looking for, which are Heliod, Sun-Crowned; Collected Company; and Spike Feeder.

In this matchup, the Spike Feeder combo is stronger than the Walking Ballista combo since it’s so much cheaper, and this hand has no pieces of that combo and no reasonable way to find them. Walking Ballista by itself is not a strong card in this matchup and the combination of Ballistas and Skyclave Apparition means your hand is very reactive. You could theoretically buy some time with it, such as hitting an Amulet of Vigor with Skyclave Apparition, but in many games you’re not going to have the chance to do that as they can sandbag the card if given enough time, and this hand gives them ample time. 

Overall I don’t think this is a bad hand and it’s not an outrageous keep or anything, but I think being on the draw in this matchup you should probably look for a slightly more powerful and more proactive hand than this one. 

That’s what I have for today! Again, please remember that this is just my opinion and not the absolute truth; all these hands are drawn from a very high-stakes tournament and I picked them specifically because I think they are close hands, so the understanding of the thought process is a lot more important than the decision itself.