To Mulligan or Not to Mulligan

Posted on Monday, October 6th, 2008 by llarack
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Posted in mtg, strategy

One topic that is not often covered in articles about constructed is how
to properly mulligan with decks, and what factors to consider while
mulliganing. However, I feel the best way to approach a discussion of this
is through examples.

Example 1: B/W Control, (just after Time Spiral was released for
States ’06):

Now, keep in mind, the major decks back then (or the well known ones) were Solar Flare, Solar Pox, Zoo, R/G aggro, Dragonstorm.

You were favored vs most of those decks with tight play. (In fact, my only loss in States ’06 was to dragonstorm who drew 3 ignorant bliss and 1 remand in game 2, in running turns).

However, one of the most important things to consider is how your path to victory looked vs those decks. The games vs control basically degenerated into attrition wars, so Wayfarer and Arena are the best cards, with Nightmare Void (a tutorable target) being a softlock with Arena. The only difference between the hands vs aggro and vs control is that Wayfarer is slightly worse vs them, because it tends to die very easily, and you lean much more heavily on your removal spells.

Let us consider the following hands, that I randomly generated from this link:
BW Control.

Hand #1: Swamp, Caves of Koilos, Ghost Quarter, Weathered Wayfarer, Faith’s Fetters, Akroma, Angel of Wrath, Phyrexian Arena.

This hand is basically the best opening hand you could draw. Since it has 2 sources of card advantage (wayfarer and arena), fetters to help you stabilize, and a lategame finisher that you can probably play on turn 8 or 9. In every matchup, I would keep this hand.

Hand #2: Plains, Orzhov Basilica, Wrath of God, Condemn, Phyrexian Arena * 2, Mortify.

This hand is also a keeper, even though it is slightly marginal, seeing as how you need a second black source for your Arenas, and the 2nd Arena is much worse than the first. Condemn, Mortify, and Wrath help you survive vs aggressive decks, and Arena is trump vs control.

Hand #3: Plains, Swamp, Castigate, Weathered Wayfarer, Mortify*2, Faith’s Fetters.

I guess the hand generator just likes me today, because this hand is very good as well, containing a source of card advantage, some disruption, and 3 removal spells.

One point, in games 2 and 3 (where you know what your oppt is playing), you should try to mulligan into a hand with Castigate or Phyrexian Arena vs combo or control, and a hand with removal spells vs Aggro.

Let me take another example (from Ravnica 2006, States Limited, top 8 Draft)

U/R/W Ravnica Draft

Several things first: Yes, this deck is misbuilt, if you look at the
sideboard. However, that does not mean we can’t learn things from looking at sample hands from this deck.

Hand 1: Island, Island, Island, Barbarian Riftcutter, Hypervolt Grasp, Cackling Flames, Faith’s Fetters.

Clearly a mulligan, with only 7 red sources, and 6 white sources in the deck (counting Azorius Signet).

Hand 2: Island, Boros Garrison, Faith’s Fetters, Helium Squirter, Ogre Savant, Barbarian Riftcutter.

I would probably keep this hand on the draw, and consider mulliganing it on the play.

Hand 3: Island, Mountain, Mountain, Mountain, Plains, Three Dreams, Helium Squirter.

If I had any sort of knowledge that my opponent was playing an aggressive deck, I would probably mulligan this hand on the draw. Otherwise, I would keep it.

To quickly summarize, you have to keep suboptimal hands much more often in limited, simply because of the higher variance in hands because of the lack of focus of limited decks.

Example 3: B/G Elves from Richmond 5k

A few key things about this deck. The sideboard was built anticipating a lot of Faeries (like 40-50% of the metagame, which turned out to be nearly correct), a decent amount of Elves (in which case, you want the 4th Profane Command, 2x Primal Command, and 1 Shriekmaw), a smattering of Reveillark, and a bunch of other random decks which you don’t really care about.

I wrote a round by round report about this deck at the following link Elves. But I did not really discuss how/why I would mulligan certain hands.

Hand #1: Imperious Perfect * 2, Garruk Wildspeaker, Swamp, Treetop Village, Llanowar Elves, Mutvault.

This hand is great in every matchup except vs Faeries. I would 100% mulligan vs Faeries on the play or draw, and keep everywhere else. This in particular emphasizes the point that in certain matchups with certain decks, you want to mulligan aggressively.

Hand #2: Llanowar Wastes, Swamp, Wren’s Run Vanquisher, Imperious Perfect, Profane Command, 2 * Nameless Inversion.

This hand is pretty good, even if you miss your first land drop (you just play Vanquisher on turn 2, and kill their first 2 guys, hopefully forcing through 9 points of damage.

Hand #3: Treetop Village, Gilt-leaf Palace, Mutavault, Forest, Terror, Nameless Inversion, Llanowar Elves

This hand is actually fairly good vs Faeries and Reveillark simply because there are 2 manlands in it, but kind of mediocre vs other decks. However, I probably would never mulligan this hand.

My last example is probably one of the most degenerate decks ever (last season’s extended dredge), which can be found at the following link:
Saito Dredge from GP Vienna

Hand #1: Watery Grave, Careful Study, Tolarian Winds, Golgari Thug, Bridge from Below, Golgari-Grave Troll, Narcomoeba.

I think you keep this hand, even though you are not happy about it, because bridge and narcomoeba are kind of dead, and your deck only has 14 other mana sources, so it is not that likely you will hit a land off careful study.

Hand #2: Island, Cephalid Coliseum, Stinkweed Imp, Ichorid, Breakthrough, Breakthrough, Breakthrough.

This hand is very good, and will most likely win on turn 3.

Hand #3: Watery Grave, Watery Grave, Polluted Delta, Polluted Delta, Cabal Therapy, Golgari Grave-Troll, Breakthrough

This hand is a tiny bit slow, and I might consider mulliganing it if you know your oppt is playing Doran (because of thoughtseize/duress) or vs a deck with counters that can stop your first Breakthrough. Otherwise, you just therapy yourself, breakthrough (hopefully hitting another dredge card).

Hand #4: Careful Study, Flame-kin Zealot, Putrid Imp, Breakthrough, Cephalid Coliseum, Cephalid COliseum, Flooded Strand.

Looking at this hand, it is relatively good, although slightly risky due to the lack of a dredge card (and there are only 11 in the deck). I would still keep it, simply because you will see about 9 cards over the next few turns from Careful Study into BT for 1, into Coliseum.

Hand #5: Polluted Delta*2, Watery Grave, Cabal Therapy, Putrid Imp, Breakthrough, Bridge from Below.

This hand is BARELY keepable, due to a lack of a dredge card, and holding Bridge from Below (which is basically a blank). If you are playing vs storm, or Zoo, I would consider mulliganing this hand, because there are certainly better 6 card hands with Dredge.

To sum it all up, most limited decks should not mulligan as often as constructed decks, simply because of the lack of focus, and the higher variance inherent in the format. This is not quite as true if you know your opponent’s deck is very very good, because you will need a better hand in order to compete.

In certain matchups, do not be afraid to aggressively mulligan, especially if it is a bad matchup for you. One example from this last extended season was Goblins vs Storm or Ideal. You could never keep a slow ringleader hand, simply because it did not put enough pressure on them to force them to waste resources and also because it let them draw 1-2 more cards to go off with. Another example was, Domain Zoo vs Storm or Ideal, in which case, you had to mulligan into a 1 drop/2 drop hand, or risk not having enough pressure to beat them.

I welcome criticisms and/or PMs on this topic.