We have all been there. Sketchy seven, unkeepable six, and snap off that mediocre five. But just because MJ says to blame it on the boogie, doesn’t mean you should. Variance is a part of the game, losses to drawing poorly happen, but blaming the loss on a mulligan and dismissing the game as out of your control is one of the least constructive approaches to playing Magic: the Gathering, except it’s the norm. I have done it. You have done it. Let’s stop doing it. A game as complex as this one always has a lesson. In fact, the decision whether or not to mulligan is one of the most difficult tasks in the entire game. But before we learn how to beat a mulligan, learning how to mulligan itself is a good idea.
How to Mulligan
As is true for most aspects of this game, there really isn’t an all-correct rule for mulliganing. Yes, you throw back a hand with no lands, but when it’s not so clear-cut, even the professional players don’t necessarily agree. There are plenty of useful heuristics (ie. if you can’t cast any cards in your hand, mulligan) that are useful here, and these will be right a majority of the time. But the most important way to choose whether to mulligan or not is by asking questions. Here are some relevant questions that I find useful for this process:
- Can I cast my spells?
- Do I have a reasonable mix of lands (all my colors?) and spells?
- How much worse is this hand compared to an average hand with one fewer card?
- What do I need to draw for this hand to be good, and how likely is that?
- How is my curve?
- Am I on the play or the draw?
- What does this hand fold to? How likely is that to occur?
- Do I have any “dead cards” in this hand?
- Does this hand somewhat represent the plan of my deck?
- Does this hand match up well against what my opponent is playing?
And the list could keep on going. In fact, there are so many questions and decisions, that you don’t have time to make a perfect decision. But if you ask yourself many of these questions, you should get an idea of whether or not the hand is acceptable. For Limited, which will be the focus of this article, these questions are in order of importance. Before I move on, let’s apply this:
This is the deck you have drafted. It’s a pretty straightforward UG emerge deck. Before you begin your games, it’s important to understand your deck’s plan. Here, as is the case for most emerge decks in Eldritch Moon Limited, you want to mitigate the cost of sacrificing a creature in order to run your opponent over with large monsters. So an ideal hand has a couple lands, an emerge creature, and some good fodder such as Exultant Cultist. With this in mind, let’s look at a hand. You’re on the play.
This is a pretty easy keep. It is missing one piece of the puzzle: an emerge creature. But, you have an early creature, a removal spell, all your colors, and an enabler for when you draw an emerge creature! Don’t forget that Kessig Prowler is much better on the play as well, which inclines me to keep as well. This hand is pretty good and will likely be better than a random six cards. How about this hand on the play?
This hand is much trickier. You have your lands, and spells, but you can’t actually use any of them to good efficiency. Yes, if you draw Byway Courier, this hand is spectacular, but that’s not actually that likely. This current hand is almost a mulligan to five because Prey Upon and It of the Horrid Swarm don’t do anything. Even though I could get significantly rewarded by keeping this hand, I would likely mulligan. Being on the play also means you have less time to draw a 3-drop. Let’s do one more example, with a new deck.
Honestly, this deck is pretty mediocre. It is missing key cards like Olivia’s Dragoon that make your madness cards more potent. The deck wants to beat down, but doesn’t have enough density of good cards to beat down with until turn 3. It also lacks a bit in power level. With all of this in mind, your decisions on mulligans become more important. Take this as an example, and you’re on the draw:
You can’t cast any spells in your hand. You’re an aggro deck and if you don’t draw a mountain in the first couple turns, this hand is not going to beat down very well. So you should mulligan, right? Well, there’s reason either way, but I argue that this hand is a pretty solid keep. The reason is two-fold. First, there are seven spells you can draw and cast by turn 3 and eight mountains left in the deck. With 33 cards left and 3 draw steps before falling significantly behind, you are likely to draw something impactful. The second, and more important reason, is that this is one of the best hands you can have if you draw a mountain. Given that this has a great curve and your most impactful creature in your mediocre deck, I would be willing to take the risk and keep it.
Hopefully these examples shed some light on the complexity of mulligan decisions. Now, let’s discuss how to win on a mulligan.
How to Win on a Mulligan
The game is different under a mulligan. Obviously so, as you have fewer cards. But this is often underestimated. My goal is to develop some tips that will help you understand how to play optimally when you mulligan. And in order to do this, we have to fully understand the problem of how we win in a game of Limited and, furthermore, how a mulligan interrupts this. Here are some of the most common ways to win a game in Limited, in no particular order:
- Be aggressive and kill them before they can get grounded.
- Card advantage. Get 2-for-1s and amass greater forces due to this.
- Ride a bomb to victory.
The problem with a mulligan is that all of these become less likely. To be aggressive you want a good curve and a mass of creatures. The fewer cards you start with, the harder this is to obtain. Card advantage is also much harder to maintain when you already start down some number of cards. And similarly, with fewer cards it may be harder to find and/or deploy your bomb. But Magic is a game of skill and probability, so don’t give in just because chance shifts out of your favor; it isn’t entirely gone!
The best hands in the game usually have cards that enable multiple of the three plans above. This will almost never be the case when you take a mulligan to five, so the first approach to a mulligan should be identify your plan. Ask yourself, “how do I win”? The answer to this question can be different for many decks and many hands. So you should be prepared to play differently depending on what cards you’re dealt. Let’s consider the following example:
This is a pretty good and straightforward 5-card hand. Play your early creatures and try and close out the game as soon as possible. This also means that you likely want to play the Glint-Sleeve Artisan as a 3/3, which is not usually the case. Remember that, on a mulligan, you often will have to play differently to maximize the chance of exploiting your opponent stumbling. A 3/3 is more likely to attack through your opponent’s 3-drop, which is more important here than getting two bodies.
But why is hyper-aggression a good way to mitigate the downside of a mulligan? Consider how a game of Limited ends when one player is significantly more aggressive than the other. The norm here is that the aggressive player has fewer cards in hand than their opponent at the end of the game. They were able to deploy more threats over the course of the game. Although this may be unintuitive, aggression can be a form of card advantage. Cards that you don’t get to play in a game never exist within the game, so if you are aggressive enough such that the game ends prior to your opponent using all their cards, the detriments of card disadvantage are not as relevant!
Additionally, when you have fewer cards, it becomes very hard to change the momentum of the game. Starting aggressive is important if possible. Maintaining that aggression to keep your opponent on the back foot is crucial. If your opponent taps out for a blocker, you should likely just jam. Bluff aggressively. You need to get in additional points of damage where you can if you’re going to win. Giving them time to stabilize is not a luxury you have when you’re down cards and don’t have hopes of winning via the card advantage route with a hand like this one. If they call your bluff and you trade, it’s not great, but it’s what you have to do to win on a mulligan like this one. Here’s another, very different, hand:
This hand is fine, but not exciting, which is the case with many 5-card hands. One of the most useful heuristics in playing games of Limited is to use as much mana as you can each turn. The problem is, when you’re down to five cards, it’s hard to get and stay ahead. The main reason this heuristic is so useful is because it enables maximization of impact. You increase the likelihood of casting multiple spells in a turn later on, while progressing your board every turn. On a mulligan, that is an unlikely scenario. A very useful analysis for trying to keep up on a mulligan is count how many cards behind you are.
When you do this, catching up on cards becomes a priority. Which opens your eyes in an important way: you play with the goal of card-advantage. This hand becomes a seven card hand if played with that in mind. Try and bounce Gonti, Lord of Luxury to catch up on cards. Which means you should be playing your two drop on turn five! Yes, you are behind on tempo, but if your opponent is not putting that much pressure on, you can likely stabilize and come back (especially if you draw a 3-drop by turn five in this scenario). And if they are putting on pressure, you likely wouldn’t win with this hand anyways.
Some hands are not as obvious as this one. But, as a concept, you want to get the most mileage out of your cards as opposed to trying to play everything in reasonable time. This means that, while on a mulligan, try and save your combat tricks and removal spells to yield 2-for-1s instead of using them when you usually would. This will help your mulligan to five become a mulligan to six and then no mulligan and so on. You are essentially trying to climb yourself out of a hole you were pushed into. You can’t just try and jump out without planning. Be meticulous. Plan far ahead.
Next time you find yourself forced into a mulligan, remember not to give up. Yes, your win percentage on a mulligan is lower, but you can take measures to mitigate that! Discover if you can be the aggressor and take risks. Make plays that make your opponent think. Increase the likelihood that they make mistakes. Capitalize on your plan. And try and climb your way out of the card disadvantage with either virtual or actual card advantage.