June 15, 2015

Mulligans Part II: Limited

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The topic of mulligans is impossibly deep and incredibly complex. Last time we discussed mulligans, the goal was to simplify the question and provide some guidelines to use whenever you’re unsure of what to do. In particular, I introduced the "Two to Five Lands Strategy."

Keep your hand if you have between two and five lands. Mulligan if you have zero, one, six, or seven lands.

Today, I’d like to delve into more advanced mulligan concepts. We’ll go over some of the important factors that should impact your mulligan decisions, and when they should lead you to deviate from the "Two to Five Lands Strategy." Today’s examples will come from Limited, and next time we discuss mulligans we’ll cover Constructed.

TWO IMPORTANT QUESTIONS

Whatever deck you’re playing, whether it’s Limited or Constructed, there are two questions that should always factor into your mulligan decisions. As with any complicated issue, these questions alone can’t tell you whether or not to mulligan, but they should always be considered as part of the big picture.

How Well Does Your Deck Mulligan?

Another way to say this is, simply, how much does it cost you to go down a card? For some decks, the cost will be tremendous, but others might be able to shrug it off.

The most important aspect of this question is the importance of card quantity. Card quantity (not to be confused with card quality) simply refers to the gross number of resources (in this case cards) that you have access to. Card quantity is very important to decks with high mana curves. If you want to cast Dragonlord Atarka, you’re going to need to draw her, you’re going to need to draw seven sources of mana, and you’re going to have to draw everything you need to fight and survive in the interim. If you mulligan to five, the numbers simply won’t add up—you won’t have enough cards!

Wild Slash | Art by Raymond Swanland

Another example would be a deck that focuses on critical mass. Consider an example deck of twenty Mountains and forty Wild Slashes. The way you win is by pointing ten Wild Slashes at your opponent. (Naturally, this deck is fictional, but decks dedicated entirely to burning the opponent are very real). In a game where you draw three Mountains and ten Wild Slashes, you need a grand total of thirteen cards to win the game. You’ll accomplish this by turn six if you’re on the draw and you do not mulligan—not bad! However, for each mulligan you take, you’ll need one extra draw step (one extra turn) in order to get the number of cards you need to win. If you mulligan to five cards and draw five Mountains instead of three, now you’re not winning until turn ten on the draw, or turn eleven on the play. That’s not what you want at all!

Card quantity is very important to both the Dragonlord Atarka deck and the dedicated burn deck, so the costs of mulliganing are high. The opposite example would be decks with low mana curves, or with single cards capable of having an abnormally high impact on the game.

Let’s return to the Wild Slash deck, but now add to it eight one-drop creatures: four Zurgo Bellstrikers and four Firedrinker Satyrs. Let’s also say that if you cast one of these creatures on turn one, it’s likely to attack uncontested three times. That’s 6 damage, which is worth three Wild Slashes! Suddenly, the presence or absence of a one-drop creature in your opening hand becomes an important consideration, which might sometimes outweigh the issue of card quantity. If you get an unexciting hand without a creature (let’s say four Mountains and three Wild Slashes), you can feel more comfortable mulliganing. If your six-card hand has a one-drop creature, its impact on the game can make up for your disadvantage in terms of card quantity.

Another example would be a modern deck that plays with cards like Dark Confidant or Bitterblossom. Mulliganing down to six, or five, or four cards is incredibly costly. But if you stick one of these cards on turn two, the card advantage that they will provide can undo your initial disadvantage. A five-card hand with a Dark Confidant can often be better than a mediocre seven-card hand.

How Much Confidence Do You Have?

The second question is how necessary it is to take chances.

In Constructed, this will mostly be about how your deck matches up against your opponent’s deck. If the matchup is very favorable (let’s say you’re playing against Mono-red and you’ve sideboarded in four Drown in Sorrows and six lifegain cards), then you should be relatively less inclined to keep a risky hand. Your chances of winning are high, and they will probably remain high even if you mulligan to six.

In Limited, it will be mostly about the quality of your deck. If you’ve drafted a fantastic deck with lots of premium removal spells and four or five bomb rares, then you have an advantage over most of your opponents. There’s less need to keep a risky hand. On the flip side, if you’re very unhappy with your deck, and feel that its power level is low relative to your opponents, then you should be slightly more inclined to take a chance (let’s say keeping a two-land hand where you need to draw more lands).

If you’re on the draw and your opponent mulligans before you, you should be less inclined to keep a risky hand. (Although perhaps more inclined to keep a hand that’s slow, but safe). Your opponent can’t have their best draw, so you don’t need perfection in order to win—just something functional.

Finally, if you feel that the skill gap between you and your opponent is large, you can also factor that into your mulligan decision. It may seem heartless to judge someone else’s playing abilities, but in the end, Magic is a game about beating the player across from you. It’s a mistake to ignore the clues about what your opponent may or may not be capable of. So if your opponent is a new player or makes a long list of mistakes in game one, maybe you shouldn’t keep a risky hand in game two. You know you can outplay them in a fair game. On the flip side, if your opponent is a great player with a great deck, you might need something special in order to win.

Remember, though, that issues of ego and self-confidence can sometimes cloud your thinking on this question (no matter who you are). Something I see too often is that after a string of bad luck, a player will be more likely to keep bad hands instead of mulliganing. Either consciously or subconsciously, they begin to feel like they (or their deck) can’t do any better. Remember to always keep a level head when it comes to mulligan decisions, and not let the rush of emotions you can feel during a tournament make the decisions for you.

LIMITED: WHEN TO DEVIATE FROM THE "TWO TO FIVE LANDS STRATEGY"

We’ll begin with Limited (and save Constructed for next time), because mulligan decisions in Limited are more clear-cut. The games are slower in Limited, and mulligans are very costly. For the most part, you ought to be keeping most hands that are functional.

Mana Base

A question that applies much more to Limited than Constructed is that of your mana base. When the mana base in your deck is shaky, you have to be more careful about mulliganing. With bad mana, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to cast your spells if you mulligan to six cards. The consistency of your mana base falls on a spectrum. For simplicity's sake, let’s break Limited decks into three categories: decks with good mana, decks with normal mana, and decks with bad mana.

An example of a deck with good mana is one that’s mostly mono-white, splashing two red cards. It has twelve Plains, four Mountains, and a Wind-Scarred Crag. You don’t need to worry much about casting your spells, and have a little bit more freedom with your mulligans.

Wind-Scarred Crag | Art by Eytan Zana

An example of a deck with normal mana (leaning towards good) is a Blue-Black deck with nine Islands and nine Swamps. An example of a deck with normal mana (leaning towards bad) is a Blue-Black-Red deck splashing for a Dragonlord Kolaghan and a Roast. It has eight Islands, seven Swamps, and three Mountains. With these decks, you should use the normal mulligan guidelines. For the examples to follow, assume that your deck falls in this category.

An example of a deck with bad mana is a White-Green-Blue deck that’s equal parts three colors. It has six Plains, five Forests, five Islands, and an Evolving Wilds. Frequent readers of this column know that it’s important to avoid decks like this. Once in a while, though, a draft might go very poorly and you’ll be forced to make the best of a bad situation. With decks like these, it’s hard to mulligan a hand that has all your colors of mana, since you’re too likely to get a non-functional six-card hand.

When to Keep One-Landers and Six-Landers

You can strongly consider keeping one-landers and six-landers once you’ve already mulliganed. It’s hard to get a good hand in Limited when you’re down to five cards, so sometimes you’d rather just chance a risky six-card hand.

You should only consider keeping a six-land, seven-card hand under two circumstances: One is if your deck has very bad mana, but you have all of your colors. The second is if the one spell in your hand is something very, very special.

In order to keep a one-spell, seven-card hand, your spell needs to have an abnormally high impact on the game. It should be able to reliably trade for two or more of your opponent’s cards. It must also be cheap enough that you feel confident in casting it before it’s too late. Examples of this type of spell include Crux of Fate, Mastery of the Unseen, or Silumgar Assassin.

You should rarely keep one-land hands in Limited. Players are prone to the false logic of "if I draw my second land, I’ll be fine." The problem is that the mana curve of a Limited deck typically stretches up to six or seven. It’s rare that you’ll be able to operate at full capacity with only two or three lands. Plus, you’ll probably have to draw all of your colors before you can cast your spells!

In order to keep a one-land, seven-card hand, you’ll almost certainly need to be on the draw. You’ll need to have more than one card that costs one or two mana. Finally, you’ll have to be able to do something special with this hand, to justify the risk that you’re taking.

This hand is tempting, but you should mulligan on both the play and the draw. If you’re fortunate enough to draw your second land right away (about 50% in your first draw step, about 75% in your first two draw steps), you have two average two-drops to cast. The best these are likely to do is trade with your opponent’s creatures, and then you’re still stuck. You need to draw three lands (two of them Mountains!) before you can do much with this hand. The risk is high, and the reward is low.

This is a hand that you could strongly consider keeping on the draw. This time, you already have both your colors of mana, and you have more spells to cast early. Once you hit your second land, Jeskai Sage and Anticipate will help you get some momentum and draw more lands. You have card-advantage potential if you can either trade-off or exploit the Jeskai Sage, and you have a bomb to take over the game if you can survive a little while. With this hand, the rewards might be great enough to risk keeping on the draw.

When to Mulligan Hands with Two to Five Lands

In Limited, I advise keeping most hands that are functional, and most hands with between two and five lands can be considered functional. However, there absolutely are some circumstances where you should mulligan, even though your hand has both lands and spells.

Some two-land hands are not functional. For example, your hand could have two Mountains, with all green cards that cost 4 or more mana. That’s an easy mulligan; the risk is high and the reward is low (a hand where you cast nothing until turn four is not one or your best hands).

Fast Decks

A less-obvious issue arises when you’re playing a fast deck. Some decks with lots of cheap creatures are built to have an advantage in the early game. However, when they cannot press that advantage, they find themselves at a disadvantage in the late game due to their lack of powerful spells. In such a case, keeping a slow hand can be problematic, and you should be willing to mulligan slightly more.

If you’re playing an aggressive White-Red deck, you should mulligan a hand like this. If you keep, you’re not playing to the strengths of your deck. You’ll be behind by the time you reach the late game, and drawing a bunch of Dromoka Warriors and War Flares will not make it easy for you to claw back into the game.

Similarly, your standards should go up if you’re playing against a very fast, aggressive deck. Imagine that your deck is slow, and that your opponent ran over you on turn five in game one. Game two your hand is:

Although slow, this hand might be fine for a normal game. However, against a very aggressive deck, you’re likely to be in panic mode by the time you reach turn four. Even if you’re not dead, you won’t have the luxury to hold up mana for Contradict, and you’ll probably be forced into unfavorable blocks by the time you start casting creatures. You can consider mulliganing a hand like this against a very fast deck.

Notice also that all of your lands are Islands. It’s fairly likely that you’ll draw a Swamp by turn four, but the chance that you won’t can be a tiebreaker in favor of mulliganing a borderline hand. Furthermore, you’re taking away your chance to get lucky and draw a defensive black card that costs 2 or 3 mana. On the whole, not an ideal situation.

When You Need to Draw Both Lands and Spells

For the above hand to become good, you need to draw a Swamp, you need to draw more spells (preferably cheap ones), and you need to do it in a narrow time frame. This is a common problem, and it’s a good reason to mulligan a hand with between two and five lands.

Nobody likes to mulligan a hand with a good mix of lands and spells, but this hand is bad enough that you probably should. The first problem is that you need to draw one or more Forests in order to cast your green spells. The second problem is that you need to draw multiple creatures before you can use these spells to their full effect. It’s very hard to do both of those things at the same time! Sure, there are some sequences of draws that can turn this into a good hand, but there’s also too much that can go wrong. You can get color-hosed, you can get mana flooded, or you can simply have a slow, unexciting hand.

Yuck! Your deck is Red-Black with a small splash of blue. You have a premium three-drop that also combos nicely with your Ruthless Deathfang. However, this is a case where you already have too many lands, and yet you need to draw more before you can cast your spells. What can you really hope for? If you could teleport a Swamp and an Island to the top of your deck, you could cast the spells in your hand, but then you have seven lands and only two spells! You should mulligan this hand.

Mulligans are not an exact science, and every situation you face will be slightly different. That’s exactly why it’s important to understand the subtle factors that can influence your mulligan decisions. Nothing I can write will tell you with certainty what to do with your next opening hand, but I hope this has given you a few new things to think about when deciding whether to keep or mulligan in Limited.



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