"Mull, Mull, Mulligan!Shuffle and draw one lessMull, Mull, Mull again!To five, to four, GG, no more!"
—Forgotten Kithkin Children's Rhyme
The times are a changing in Magic, especially when it comes to organized play, and nothing is sacred or safe from the winds of change. Personally, I'm all for it. Desperately clutching to the past, afraid to move forward, as the world changes around us is a surefire way to be left behind. Magic, especially competitive and professional Magic, was stuck in 1999 for the last 20 years. It was extremely frustrating to watch Magic get trounced by games like Hearthstone, knowing that Magic is a much more robust game, simply because Magic was still clinging to and beholden to the same outdated structures from the past. Magic Online looked like a program I had to fire up from MS DOS. It's no surprise that people would choose to play Hearthstone instead, a game you could comfortably play on your phone.
Are there going to be growing pains as Magic changes to match our new digital times? Of course. But is it worth it? I certainly think so. Playing the first ever Mythic Championship with $500,000 as the prize pool instead of the customary $250,000 was nice, as was cashing the event for $500 at 197th place, a finish I've had many times before, but never for any value.
If I'm going to be brutally honest, and I see no reason why I shouldn't, I've become extremely fed up and disenfranchised with the Magic Community's proclivity to complain incessantly about every new change that happens without bothering to give things a chance and see how they play out. Planeswalkers were going to kill Magic, as was the removal of damage on the stack, mana burn, and so forth. The Mythic rarity was the beginning of the end, or so I heard. Now Magic is thriving and more popular than ever, and everything is "Mythic" something. I can't say I'm thrilled with the "Mythic" moniker, it sounds kind of cheesy to me, but I'm willing to give it a chance, nonetheless.
Nowadays, Magic Arena is going to kill Magic, as is how Wizards of the Coast is choosing to dump an extra $5 million into Pro Magic. The Paris mulligan would never work, until it did. The Vancouver mulligan would make degenerate decks way too good and would never pan out...except it did and now it's generally accepted and praised as a great change.
Recently, WotC announced that there would be a new mulligan procedure tested at the Mythic Championship in London in April. The reaction was, predictably, negative. The London mulligan, as it is dubbed, is going to be too good and will need to be walked back. It's going to ruin that Mythic Championship.
Are we sure about that? What if we're wrong, like we were so many times before? "Am I out of touch? No. It is the children who are wrong!"
For those who didn't see the announcement, the London mulligan is a new way to mulligan where you draw seven cards each time you mulligan, and then put X number of cards from your hand onto the bottom of your library for each time you've mulliganed. So if you mull to five, you draw seven cards, choose the five you want to keep, and put the other two on the bottom of your deck. On six cards, you only put one card from your hand to the bottom, and so forth.
To start with, this is a massive upgrade on the Vancouver mulligan (scry 1 after you decide to keep a hand). Max Gilmore wrote that the difference between the Vancouver and London mulligans is like the difference between Opt and Brainstorm, and I don't think he is wrong. This is a drastic power level boost for going down to six and fewer cards. However, before I talk about the implications, I want to first touch on something else. Why would WotC even do this?
The Vancouver mulligan, by all metrics, was a good thing. It was an improvement over the previous mulligan system, by providing a little extra value with a scry. What was wrong with the Vancouver mulligan? Why did it need to go?
The answer is that there is nothing wrong with the Vancouver mulligan, it just doesn't go far enough. As Magic moves forward, and as WotC is willing to make huge changes to the game in order to facilitate a hopefully improved play experience, getting rid of aspects of the game that suck is a worthwhile goal.
"Non-games" of Magic, where one person basically doesn't get to play the game, either from mana screw, mana flood, or extensive mulligans are not really a feature of the game, and not something that is worth holding onto and cherishing as nostalgia. These are more aspects of Magic that we endure because the rest of the game is so awesome, rather than something we get excited about...well, most of us, that is. You know who you are.
There is something to be said for variance and how having variance in the game makes it fun for everyone—any given match a less experienced player could beat a professional, and that keeps players coming back for more. Mulligans, flooding out and screwing are common vessels for variance and common ways for less experienced players to beat more experienced ones. However, they are not the only way for variance to be a part of Magic. Flooding and screwing will always be a part of the game, they are impossible to remove without a drastic realignment of gameplay, but variance can also rear up in terms of things like matchup dynamics, not drawing the right cards to deal with your opponent's threats, and so many other things that don't specifically involve one player having to mull to four for the other to have a chance to win.
If you just focus on Magic as a game, the two biggest problems as I see it are how punishing it is to be on the draw in certain matchups and formats, and how punishing it is to mulligan. It's a horrible feeling to lose the die roll when you know the matchup and think "well, I'm probably going to lose this match" or to mull to five cards and think "this game is essentially over unless I get really lucky."
Frank Karsten wrote an article a few years ago, back when the data was still available, that took in bot-scraped games from Magic Online and, accounting for the Vancouver scry, determined that you had a 40% chance to win on six cards, 25-28% chance to win on five, and 13-15% chance to win on four cards. Saffron Olive also posted numbers from 85,000 games that provided similar results of 39%, 26% and 13%.
I personally think those numbers are lower than what they should be in a perfect world. Opening a hand and seeing no land immediately reduces your chance to win by 20%. Opening a second hand and seeing no land then immediately reduces your chances by another 30%. You're half as likely to win with five cards as you are on seven, barring any other information.
If this new system makes it so that a mulligan to six cards means you have a 45% chance to win, and a mulligan to five cards means you have a 35% chance to win, is that so bad? It doesn't seem bad to me. In fact it seems like a big improvement. I'm all for anything that reduces "non-games" and increases the chance that every game played involves both players having a chance.
But what if it ends up being way better than that? What if it makes certain decks too good? What if formats drastically shift toward decks that can better take advantage of this rule and the improved six- and five-card hands they would see?
The easiest implication for this rule change is that decks that mulligan more often get a boost because they now will have access to better hands on six, five, and four cards. This means decks like Tron that often get clunky hands will be improved, as will various combo strategies like Dredge and other degeneracy.
That's level one. Level two is that decks that punish opposing decks for mulliganing will also get significantly better. So while your Tron opponent might be smug in the knowledge that their five-card hand can assemble Tron on turn three, your deck that casts Thoughtseize on turn one and strips them of the only relevant card in their hand can also be fairly pleased that they now have significantly fewer resources to work with. This benefits highly interactive decks like Grixis Death's Shadow.
Tit for tat. An eye for an eye. While degenerate decks and various combo or linear strategies will improve because they can more often and more reliably mulligan to the cards they need, so too can reactive decks improve when they will be able to more reliably find the cards that mess up those strategies. These decks also improve simply by being more likely to keep seven cards and punish resource-light draws on mulligans.
"Mulligan to Cranial Plating" becomes less appealing when U/W Control's strategy of "mulligan to Stony Silence" takes you on an all-expense-paid trip to 0-1'sville. Population: you.
There are a few points I want to make.
The first is that mulligans are still a disadvantage. Even if this new rule improves your odds of winning on a mulligan, chances are you're still worse off than just by keeping seven cards. If going to five cards is now something that gives you, say, 35% chance to win instead of 25%, that's still way worse than keeping seven cards, and decks that more consistently keep seven cards will have a leg up in this regard, as they always have.
People greatly underestimate the value of raw resources. Sure, your five-card hand might be the "nuts," but if your opponent plays two interactive spells, then you're completely out of gas and have no follow-up. Compare that to a seven-card hand where you might still have more plays to make afterward. Your four-card hand of Mountain, Simian Spirit Guide, Electrodominance, Restore Balance sounds like liquid-hot fire, but what if your opponent just casts Thoughtseize or wins the topdeck war? What if you can't find that combination of cards by your mull to four and you throw away the match because you're playing an incredibly inconsistent and easily disrupted combo deck?
Another point is that people are greatly overestimating how much sculpting can occur. For each mulligan you only get to look at seven cards. The way I have heard people talking about this rule makes it sound like you get to take the perfect five cards out of your deck and that's your new hand when you mulligan to five. No, that's not how it works. Your five-card hand isn't always going to be two lands, Faithless Looting, Stinkweed Imp, Cathartic Reunion. Sometimes it's going to be Blood Crypt, Stinkweed Imp, Stinkweed Imp, Nature's Claim, Cathartic Reunion and you're going to hope to draw the green source, and hope to not get destroyed by Leyline of the Void into Thoughtseize. That's even a pretty good five-card hand. It could be way worse.
While decks like Dredge benefit from this rule change, as they will more often have playable hands or even explosive ones, the flip side is that anti-dredge cards like Leyline of the Void are now 97% likely to be found if you're willing to mulligan far enough to find them. Dredge decks may be more likely to find great hands, but they are also significantly more likely to play against hate cards as well.
While Dredge can play anti-Leyline cards like Nature's Claim, the thing is that the power level of these two cards is not commensurate. If Dredge keeps a great seven without a Nature's Claim and the opponent plays a Leyline, the game is essentially over, since half of the Dredge deck just no longer does anything. If the opponent opens on Leyline and Dredge does have the Nature's Claim, then the result is that the game continues onward and is played out as normal. Either the two cards cancel each other out or Leyline basically wins the game. Nature's Claim in hand with no Leyline on the other side of the table doesn't take over the game like the reverse.
I strongly suspect that decks that weren't already good decks won't suddenly become dominant decks because of this rule. There is a reason those decks aren't good and it isn't because their deck folds too hard to mulligans, it's because what they are doing is too fragile and too easily broken up by interaction. If your opponent's Chalice of the Void deck mulligans to five to start out with Ancient Tomb + Chalice of the Void, then you can fist pump that your hand with Force of Will, or Abrade, or Disenchant, or Kolaghan's Command is going to punish their five-card hand pretty well, since it's less likely they have relevant follow-up plays.
Yes, these decks can also just keep good seven-card hands, as per normal, and the same is true for decks like Dredge, but these decks can already do that and they aren't crushing tournaments. Improving consistency on their mulligans isn't going to take a tier 3 deck and make it suddenly too good for a format. Maybe it will bump it up to tier 2 or something, but I think people are greatly overstating the value of slightly improved opening hands if the idea is that a bad deck suddenly becomes format-defining because it now has better five-card mulligans.
One of the common arguments against this rule that I have heard is about a card like Bazaar of Baghdad. Vintage Dredge is based around the card Bazaar of Baghdad and they have to mulligan any hand without the card. Between the new mulligan rule and Serum Powder, the deck is now something astronomical like 99% likely to find a Bazaar of Baghdad, and it doesn't even really matter if they have to go down to two cards to find it, they can still win from there fairly easily. Granted, after sideboard, their opponents will be able to find Leyline of the Void with similar likelihood, but still it's a massive advantage for the strategy in game one and against opponents without the right hate.
It's definitely possible that the new rule breaks in this particular instance. However, I think it would be counterproductive to say that a new rule, that could potentially be a huge benefit in reduction of "non-games" across every Magic format, should be thrown out because it breaks in regard to a nearly 25-year-old card, banned in Legacy, that is played in a deck based around the dredge mechanic that has led to numerous bannings and has been a huge thorn in the side of "fun and fair" over its existence in Magic. This deck is also played in a format I have never once played in 13 years of playing Magic, where decks costs $20,000 or more, and where there are only a few sanctioned events per year because it is too wildly cost prohibitive for normal people to play without allowing proxies.
I think Vintage is sweet, but if one of Vintage's already most loathed decks requires a restriction because of a rule change that will benefit formats with hundreds and thousands of times more players that play them regularly, then I think that's a fairly reasonable cost to pay. I also think "but what about Vintage Dredge?" as an opposition to this rule change is a pretty weird stance to hear from people who don't even play Vintage or care about the format. That comes off to me as the words of someone predisposed to dislike something looking for confirmation, rather than someone genuinely interested in giving it a fair shake.
This mulligan change is a fairly drastic measure, but I like it, and am curious to see if it works, because reducing the punishment on mulligans is something that I think would drastically improve the game of Magic.
If this works out, then what is next? I think it absolutely has to be fixing the massive disadvantage of being on the draw. In Standard for the last few years, it has been an enormous disadvantage to be on the draw in most matchups. Part of this is the design of printing creatures like Bomat Courier or cards like Heart of Kiran that just hit so hard on the play if the opponent doesn't have the right interaction. Another issue is cards like Aetherworks Marvel that can be slow or all-in on the draw, but on the play they just have too much time to set up.
In older formats, this is generally less of a problem as cards like Force of Will help play catch-up very well. Even in Modern, one-mana removal spells like Path to Exile, Fatal Push, and Lightning Bolt can do a great job of catching up someone on the draw, as can one-mana countermagic like Spell Snare. However, that doesn't really work in Standard where these cards don't always exist. One option is to stop printing the cards that run away (steam-kin) with the game on the play if they go untouched early.
Another option is to give more value to the person on the draw. There are a surprisingly high number of matches in testing where the final result is 5-5 where the person on the play won all ten games. That happens far more than one would expect. To provide a personal sour-grapes anecdote, I was in contention for Top 4 of the World Championship last year until I lost three consecutive B/R Aggro mirrors in a row. I lost all three die rolls, and the person on the play won 9/9 games in the matchup. Had I won those die rolls, I would have maybe had a chance at the Top 4 and it's a feel bad to have a tournament potentially decided by coin flip. While this anecdote is just small-sample-size gripes, it is still undeniable that there is a huge edge on being on the play.
This problem gets exacerbated even more by MTG Arena's best-of-one hand selection algorithm. The algorithm provides you with the generally better of two opening hands, leading far more regularly to people curving out with nut draws. This massively benefits the player on the play, creating an even wider disparity between being on the play and draw in terms of win likelihood. With the huge Mythic Invitational coming up featuring this format with this selection algorithm, I strongly fear that a lot of games will simply come down to the die roll, even more than normal.
I played a deck for an entire six-hour stream a few weeks ago and played against Mono Red Aggro between 10–20 times on that stream. The person on the play won very close to every single game. I believe I broke serve exactly once, when my opponent kept a one-land hand and didn't get there. I felt massively ahead on the play and significantly behind on the draw and it wasn't a great feeling to lose the die roll, see Mountain and think "I've already lost unless they get unlucky." Likewise it didn't feel great to be on the play, see Mountain on the other side of the board and look at my hand of Moment of Cravings into Kaya's Wrath and think that I just have to go through the motions. That's not fun Magic.
Much like how this new London mulligan rule helps to prevent "non-games" by giving players who mulligan better tools to have functional hands on less cards, I strongly hope that WotC will consider implementing something that improves the win percentage for the player on the draw. Personally, I suggest something like drawing eight cards on the initial hand and then putting one back into the deck on the draw, which would both reduce mulligans and increase the likelihood of a hand that can curve out to counteract an opposing nut draw.
It's entirely possible that I'm wrong and this rule change ends up being too good. I don't think I am, but I'm open to the idea. With that being said, I think the willingness to try out a rule like this is amazing. I love the fact that they are willing to take a big risk, because the current Vancouver scry simply isn't doing nearly enough in my book, and I love to see them push the envelope and see if they can't find something that more effectively balances out games of Magic and makes a higher percentage of games fun.
The biggest point to me, and the one where most people objecting to this lose me, is that I don't see the harm in trying. I don't see a problem with them trying out a new change that has the potential to be awesome, even if it carries some risk. While it is possible that it will be a rough Mythic Championship if this rule doesn't pan out, that will affect about 400 people, which is a small drop in the pond when it comes to Magic. I can understand people playing in that event, especially those playing in their first Premier Event, being upset about this. But I don't understand people who aren't affected being upset about something that might make Magic significantly better in the long run.
I also think that it will work out. I think that this rule will be fine and at the end of the day, decks that punish people trying to abuse this rule unsuccessfully will end up coming out on top over the decks that try to abuse it. Being down on resources, after all, is still a huge price to pay. Modern, year after year, has proven itself to be a format that can adapt to new emerging strategies and find ways to exploit them. I doubt decks that aren't already good will suddenly become good from this.
I want to also note that most objections to this rule come from formats like Modern, Legacy, and Vintage. I think in Standard this rule change will be awesome, and I haven't seen many objections to it playing out in Standard. In weaker formats like Standard and Limited, it will most likely be a benefit, as decks aren't as powerful and play more traditional games of card advantage, aggression, and interaction where being down on resources is a bigger issue. I personally find mulligans incredibly punishing in best-of-one play on MTG Arena, so I'm all for fixing that.
At the end of the day, though, this is a big change, and changes are always met with skepticism. Change, however, is necessary for growth and progress, and taking risks is one of the most important elements in achieving success. I, for one, want to see it play out before I declare it unwaveringly to be a bust. I suspect, in a few years time, we'll be praising this like we did with the Vancouver mulligan.