The Devil is in the Details – Art of the Mulligan

Hello again everyone, I hope you are enjoying reading this feature as much as I enjoy writing it. This week I thought I would try to cover one of the most important aspects of Magic: The Gathering strategy: how and when to mulligan. The mulligan is one of the most impactful decisions that can take place in a game of Magic. If you keep a bad hand, you can start the game at drastically diminished odds of victory. Knowing how and when to mulligan is a skill that must be developed in order to create the best possible action to begin the game.

In order to analyze and discuss how and when to mulligan, I will be analyzing some sample opening hands. I will also analyze both hands based on whether I would be on the draw or the play. The deck I will be using for the sample hands is the MonoGreen aggro deck that I talked about in my Invitational article. After each hand I will discuss why or why not to keep. At the end of the article I will discuss the helpful steps in analyzing a hand.

Creatures (27)
Thrun, the Last Troll
Llanowar Elves
Strangleroot Geist
Daybreak Ranger
Dungrove Elder
Champion of Lambholt
Phyrexian Metamorph
Birds of Paradise
Garruk Relentless

Spells (10)
Gut Shot
Green Sun's Zenith

Lands (23)
23 Forest
Sideboard (15)
Precursor Golem
Acidic Slime
Tumble Magnet
Nihil Spellbomb
Glissa the Traitor
Ratchet Bomb
Corrosive Gale

Sample Hand 1:

  1. Dungrove Elder
  2. Forest
  3. Forest
  4. Phyrexian Metamorph
  5. Forest
  6. Strangleroot Geist
  7. Llanowar Elves

Whether on the draw or on the play I would keep this hand in a heartbeat (.67 seconds at my baseline 90 bpm). This hand has everything that you could want. It has acceleration in the Llanowar Elves, a turn 2 and 3 play in Dungrove and Metamorph, and an adequate number of lands to play any subsequent spells we draw. The Strangleroot Geist gives options to go a more aggro approach should I draw a second. Having Dungroves in play that get larger every time a land is played provides a significant threat level at the beginning of the game.

Sample Hand 2:

  1. Forest
  2. Forest
  3. Forest
  4. Forest
  5. Forest
  6. Forest
  7. Birds of Paradise

This hand is an obvious mulligan down to six. You never want to keep a hand that does nothing on its own. This hand’s success is completely dependent on your first four draws. In the current metagame you will often find yourself shuffling for the next game before you mount an offense if you keep a hand like this. As a general rule, I never keep a hand that does nothing on its own. You cannot rely on the “luck” of the draw in order to win a game of Magic. Variance happens and you will occasionally get hands like this. If you happen to be faced with a hand like this, throw it back and get a new six.

Sample Hand 3:

  1. Forest
  2. Birds of Paradise
  3. Llanowar Elves
  4. Dungrove Elder
  5. Garruk Relentless
  6. Green Sun’s Zenith
  7. Gut Shot

This hand is very similar to the previous hand in that it has a lot of cards that are either land or nonland. However, unlike the previous hand I would keep this one. This hand is light on lands but does provide options. First of all the fact that it has two mana producing creatures makes the punishment for not drawing a second less severe. I could miss one to three land drops and still be okay depending on the matchup. Against other aggro decks I would be more inclined to keep this as opposed to control who may play sweepers. The lone Gut Shot gives me reach against other aggro decks and Green Sun’s Zenith can be used to get another mana producer should the need arise. This hand doesn’t rely on the deck to provide spells to be good. It relies on drawing lands to run more efficiently. There is a greater chance of drawing one of the remaining 22 lands (41.5%) then the chance of drawing any of the remaining spells (5% for any particular spell).
Rules I use for deciding a mulligan:

  1. Always keep hands that do something on two of the first 3 turns on their own. You don’t want to have to rely on drawing spells to stay in the early game.
  2. Mulligan hands with five or more lands. These hands rely too much on variance and do nothing.
  3. Will this hand be good if I miss a land drop? If the answer is yes, keep. If the answer is no, ship it back.
  4. Will this hand be good against my opponent? This applies to games 2/3 or if I have prior knowledge of my opponent’s deck. You want to keep hands that are good against your opponent’s deck. If a hand seems like it will fall short then ship it back.

These rules are not always applicable to everyone and everyone has their own views on when to mulligan. These are the guidelines that I follow when making a mulligan decision. Variance is a happenstance of Magic that cannot be eliminated completely, but by making inquisitive and informative choices when deciding to mulligan, you can reduce the misery of a bad mulligan. The decisions that you make should change as you mulligan into less and less cards. You may need to make more difficult decisions in deciding on a smaller number of cards.

During the Invitational Qualifier, I had to mulligan a six land plus Overrun hand into a five land plus Overrun hand. This was a case of variance that was unavoidable. After a mulligan to five I had a hand that included: 2x Forest, Dungrove Elder, Llanowar Elves, and a Metamorph. Obviously that hand is exponentially better then the first two hands but things don’t always work out that way. I can recall many times where I’ve had to mulligan down to four cards. When this happens you almost always keep any hand with at least one land in it. I never recommend going below four cards in any situation as your odds of winning reduce drastically with every mulligan.

I hope this introspective into my thought process regarding mulligans can help you to make a more informed decision when contemplating your own mulligans.

If you have any questions or comments please post below. You can also email me [email protected] or follow me on twitter @fallfromhell. Thanks for reading.

Jeffrey McCoy
Team FallFromHell