Today I am going to focus on the topic of mulligans. In my Magic career I have found this skill to be the single most important in the game, yet the most difficult to master. It's a constant source of frustration to many players, but it's possible to transcend the randomness. I have written about the subject in the past, but today I want to move beyond the theoretical, and into real in-game mulligan situations. I'm going to lay out some theory behind borderline mulligan decisions, and then share some example hands before going over my solutions.
Consider that borderline mulligan decisions worthy of discussion are so because they inherently come with uncertainty. Their outcomes rely on the random factors including the opposing deck, the opposing hand, and your own draws to come. The decision to mulligan or not to mulligan in these tough spots is theoretically less important than the easier decisions, because the difference in value between keeping and mulliganing is often very slim. It's impossible to figure out exact math in-game, so decisions rely on intuition as well.
In some cases the decision to mulligan is roughly the choice between keeping a coin flip hand -with something like a 40% chance to hit a land and win, and 60% to miss a land and lose - or mulliganing into a six card hand with a 40% expectation to win. Alternatively, assume a metagame of 50% control and 50% aggro. Against an unknown opponent, one could gamble with their control deck and keep a hand that is half removal and half lands: a hand that is very likely to beat an aggro deck, but is very likely to lose against control. A mulligan to a six card hand is less likely to win against the field on average, but more often it will allow one to actually play a game of Magic, and thus be less of a gamble. These tough decisions don't necessarily have a huge impact on win percentage, but they have a tremendous effect on how a given game will play out.
On the other hand, the closest mulligan decisions are the most valuable in terms of learning and discussion. These hands require thinking deeply about one's deck and the potential cards across the table. The actual decision to mulligan is not so important as the reasoning behind the decision. No hand means anything without a strategy and game plan accompanying it, and these borderline decisions are great opportunities for learning and growth as a player.
There is an endless amount of potential hands to discuss as examples, but today I will focus on hands from some popular Standard decks. The hands I'll share today are draws from playing these decks on MTGO. I found them interesting in that they showcase fundamentals to an archetype, extreme situations, or offer a particular challenging decision.
I will first share all four hands, then provide my solutions at the end. I aim for these hands to generate discussion in the comments, and I also invite everyone to share a mulligan decision of your own!
In this example, you sit down to round one of a Standard tournament with Kyle Boggemes' Abzan Aggro list.
You're against an unknown opponent, win the die roll, choose to play first, and look down at this hand:
Dromoka's Command Tasigur, the Golden FangValorous StanceForestAnafenza, the ForemostLlanowar WastesWindswept Heath
You're in a Standard tournament with Chris Andersen's update of Craig Wescoe's Ojutai Bant deck.
You're playing for Top 8 against Esper Dragons. You win the die roll and are on the play, and look down at the following hand:
ForestPlainsYavimaya CoastMastery of the UnseenCourser of KruphixMana ConfluenceForest
You're playing Alexander Hayne's GP Krakow-winning Esper Dragons decklist.
You sit down for round two, lose the die roll and are on the draw against an unknown opponent, and look down at the following hand:
Dismal BackwaterTemple of DeceitPolluted DeltaCaves of KoilosCaves of KoilosCrux of FateUltimate Price
You're playing Mike Flores' Dragons deck that he used to qualify for the Pro Tour at a Regional PTQ last weekend.
It's round four against an unknown opponent, you lose the die roll and are on the draw, and you look down at the following hand:
IslandCrucible of the Spirit DragonNullifyDragonlord OjutaiHaven of the Spirit DragonDig Through TimeSilumgar's Scorn
Mulligan. With three lands that come into play untapped that together produce Abzan colors, this hand is flawless in terms of its mana production, but it lacks relevant early pressure.
While Anafenza, the Foremost is excellent on turn three, and Tasigur, the Golden Fang has a boost from the Windswept Heath, the hand does not have a play on turn one or turn two. Anafenza, the Foremost is most effective when it's pumping another attacker, but it can't do that when it's the first creature in play. With the cards currently available, Tasigur, the Golden Fang is a turn four play at best. The two two-mana spells, Dromoka's Command and Valorous Stance, are deceiving in that they look like turn two plays, but in reality they are quite unlikely to destroy anything on turn two. The best case turn-two scenario for either of these spells is to be on the draw against a Courser of Kruphix, but that's wishful thinking, and we're on the play anyways. If we knew we were against a deck with an enchantment creature, like Courser of Kruphix, and another target for Valorous Stance, like Siege Rhino, then this would probably get the job done and is thus a keep, but I'm not keeping it against an unknown.
Abzan Aggro wins by taking advantage of early pressure, and then keeping the opponent on the back foot with removal spells or more creatures. This particular decklist goes so far as to include two copies of Heir of the Wilds to add redundancy to the two-drop slot, which hammers in the point of just how important an early creature is to the success of the deck. Abzan Aggro is especially potent on the play, but this hand plays to none of its strengths.
You Mulligan, and look down at the following:
Llanowar WastesSiege RhinoRakshasa DeathdealerForestTemple of MaladyWindswept Heath
This hand is exactly what you are looking for. Keep. A threat on turn two is critical to success against control, and a guaranteed turn four Siege Rhino should be enough to keep us in the game if we are against an aggressive opponent. As long as we draw a reasonable mix of lands and spells over the next few turns, this hand has game. Rakshasa Deathdealer is also a great mana sink if we do happen to flood out. We are already on six cards, and any hand with two castable creatures is better than going to five.
Keep. This hand has a lot of land, but the cards it has access to are among the best in the matchup, and they will come down right on time.
Mastery of the Unseen is the single best card against control decks, because it's very difficult for the opponent to Remove once resolved, and it generates card advantage turn after turn and will exhaust their attrition game plan. The fact that we are on the play means Mastery of the Unseen will slip into play even past Silumgar's Scorn, thus leaving the Bant deck in a great position. Thoughtseize could certainly snag the enchantment, but mulliganing to six plays into Thoughtseize as well.
Courser of Kruphix is the perfect follow-up to Mastery of the Unseen on the curve between activating and casting it, and it's also the perfect combo with the enchantment for their interactions with the top of the library. Having any aggressive creature play on turn three to follow up Mastery of the Unseen turns this hand from good to great, and Courser of Kruphix is the best of the bunch. I'd expect this hand to be a big favorite against a control deck, so it's a keep.
This hand is also a keep on the draw. It's more vulnerable to countermagic, but the extra card will help to make up for it.
Keep. This hand looks deceptively bad at first glance, but it's important to consider what kinds of opponents we are likely face.
In the case that we are against a creature deck, Ultimate Price offers some protection against an early threat, while Crux of Fate will clear up the board and transition into the next stage of the game. Ultimate Price is particularly attractive because it answers the two single creatures that are most likely to run away with the game if unanswered, Courser of Kruphix and Goblin Rabblemaster.
This hand is weak against Abzan Aggro, because Ultimate Price isn't ideal against Abzan Aggro's multicolor creatures, but it does destroy Warden of the First Tree, Heir of the Wilds, and Surrak, the Hunt Caller. Crux of Fate is weak again Rakshasa Deathdealer and Fleecemane Lion, especially on the draw, but it's strategically great otherwise.
This hand is decent against Red Aggro. Ultimate Price on turn two is perfect, but from there this hand will need something on turn three or four to bridge into Crux of Fate, which will beat a weak-to-average opposing draw but not a good one.
This hand is great against Devotion decks, and good against RG Monsters/Dragons. Ultimate Price is ideal against these decks and Crux of Fate is the best card available, though keep in mind Dragon decks can diversify to play around it.
Against a control deck like Esper Dragons this hand lacks action, but it does have five lands, with mana being the most important resource in a control mirror. Control opponents lack ways to take advantage of this hand's passivity, and Crux of Fate even offers protection against a Dragonlord Ojutai. Five lands sound a lot better than a random six cards.
Being on the draw, and with access to a scryland, this hand is going to see many new cards over the first few turns and will likely find enough action to put itself right into the game, ideally more cheap disruption. The fundamental gameplan of this deck is to reach the midgame, where it can take over with its card advantage, removal, and Dragons. This hand has what it takes to reach the midgame, and it's better than a random six, so it's a keep.
Keep. This hand is inherently based around the odds of drawing a second blue source, which turns on both Counterspells and Dig Through Time. If draws a blue source by turn two, it will be in good shape to beat any opponent with its two Counterspells leading into Dig Through Time or a Dragonord Ojutai. If it doesn't draw a second blue source by turn two, it will certainly fall behind and lose to an aggressive deck, but with two colorless lands, it would still be in a good position against a control deck.
There are 18 more blue sources in the deck, so the odds of drawing one in two draw steps are just under 57%. Assuming this was the end of it, this seems like an easy keep that's clearly better than a random six.
Now, consider that drawing a second blue source is not the end of the story, because it's somewhat important that the second blue come into play untapped. Only eight of the remaining 18 blue sources meet that requirement, but if a tapped blue source is drawn on the first turn, it still allows for two untapped blue on turn two. We will draw a scryland on turn one 19% of the time, or an Island or Polluted Delta by turn two 28% of the time, which combines to give us around a 47% chance of having two blue lands untapped on turn two. We are at a clear disadvantage against an aggressive deck, where our turn two and turn three Counterspells aren't even necessarily good enough to win on the draw. If I knew I was against an aggressive deck, where odds of winning are likely below 40% given the circumstances, I would mulligan. On the other hand, assuming we are in fact 47% to win the game, that's better than mulliganing. Against midrange or control, this is a clear keep. On the play, with half the draw steps to make the hand, it's a mulligan in the dark, a mulligan against aggro, and a keep against control.
How would you proceed with the hands shared today, and why?
I hope you enjoyed the mulligan questions I posed today, and please turn to the comments with your feedback! I'd like to do more mulligan articles in the future if this is well received. Again, I'm also interested in discussing these hands and more so please share your thoughts and questions in the comments!
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