Improving Your Mulliganing Choices

Every game of Magic involves a significant number of choices. What order to you play your lands? Do you double block or play around a removal spell? What card do you take with you Thoughtseize? While these decisions are important there is one much larger decision that comes before anything else and that decision is what opening hand you decide to keep.


At Canadian Highlander tournaments in Victoria BC players are given an opportunity to take more mulligans than you would typically take in a game of Magic. Instead of the typical 7-6-5-4-3-2-1 mulligan structure players use a 7-6-6-5-5-4-4-3-3-2-2-1-1 structure. In essence you get almost twice as many mulligan choices. This rule exists to insure that players get to play the most real games where both player’s decks actually get to function rather than having one player’s deck have so few resources that they have no opportunity to compete. Despite the fact that this rule has existed for much of Canadian Highlander’s history many players are still not taking full advantage of the value these mulligans give. In this article I will aim to explore mulliganing decisions and demonstrate that it’s likely most players are not mulliganing enough. While this article is aimed primarily at the Canadian Highlander format the concepts from it can be applied to virtually any game of Magic.

One of the biggest traps that players fall into with regards to mulliganing is that they are afraid to mulligan passable hands for fear that they will lose to some sort of negative variance. These fears, however, are largely baseless and ultimately you are more likely to lose a game where you keep an only passable hand than you are to lose to mulliganing. The fact that you are able to send back a medium quality hand in order to search for a better one is an absolute blessing and an opportunity to take advantage of not some kind of mechanism design to dupe you. This doesn’t mean that you should mulligan every hand because there might be something better but it does mean that you should carefully examine every hand before making a decision.

The first and most important thing to ask yourself before even considering whether or not to keep a hand is what is your game plan for this match up? In every single match of Magic you play you should be able to pinpoint a win condition of some variety. For example if you are playing a control deck against an aggressive creature deck your game plan is generally going to look something like this:

Survive the first few turns of the game with a high enough life total so that when you get to cast on your sweepers you aren’t at risk of dying to haste creatures or burn.

A more micro aspect of this game plan might involve attempting to develop basic lands as much as possible in order to not get overly disrupted by cards like Wasteland or Blood moon but that’s a secondary issue to the general plan, survive to a wrath with a high enough life total to be able to stabilize after the wrath.

This concept is a little more complicated when it comes to game ones where you not likely to know what deck you’re playing against. In these situations your decision largely depends on whether you are playing a linear deck or not. If you are playing a linear strategy then you just want to keep a hand that executes your linear strategy as efficiently as possible. For example in virtually all game one match ups CradleHoof (Mono Green Combo) should likely look to keep a hand that kills as quickly as possible. Non-linear decks have a slightly trickier proposition at the outset of game 1. If you truly have no idea what your opponent is playing than this is one of the situations where keeping a classic “Lands and Spells” hand is potentially acceptable. While there will be instances where you will punished for keeping a hand that ends up not matching up well with your opponents you can’t know what they are playing and shouldn’t feel like you were mistaken when you simply didn’t have enough information to make a better choice. It’s worth noting that even in these instances where you don’t know the match you are playing you can still develop a game plan. Play Craterhoof as soon as possible, control the board and gain card advantage, set up a hand with Black Lotus, Lion’s Eye Diamond and a Tutor are all acceptable, though vague, game plans. The important part is that you are thinking about more than just if your hand has lands and spells.

Okay so now you have a game plan for winning the game next comes keeping a hand that is going to give you the best chance of executing that game plan. There are multiple questions you should ask yourself prior to deciding whether or not to keep a hand. Common ones include:

What is this hand’s game plan?

Does that game plan match up with the overall game plan for the match up?

If Game 1 what match ups is this hand good against/What will it struggle against?

Does this hand contain a premium card in the match up?

Can this hand cast all it’s spells?

If I draw blanks for the first turns of the game am I dead?

How quickly does this hand kill my opponent?

Is there a much better 6? (or 5 or 4 etc.) 

Before keeping any hand you should try to ask yourself as many of these questions as you can. Now analyzing these questions is another issue entirely and is one of the skills that players develop with practice and experience but even just knowing that you should be asking them is inherently valuable.

Let’s move on to some examples. You are playing this UW Control List
(I recognize that this list is now over points but since the points list constantly changing were going to use it for simplicity)

You are on the draw in game 2 against Red Green aggro and you open this first 6 card hand.

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Now let’s begin with what the general game plan for this match up is. Generally against Red Green the game plan is to try to keep a high total before resolving a Wrath or some haymaker spell like Moat. Let’s answer each of the questions from above.

What is this hand’s game plan?

This hand is planning to leverage Porphyry Nodes to buy time and Force of Will to stop any major heavy hitters while using Think Twice to dig into more action.

Does that game plan match up with the overall game plan for the match up?

It’s definitely not bad as Porphyry Nodes are not quite Wrath or Moat but they can buy you a lot of time while you work your way towards either of the aforementioned power plays. Force of Will and Logic Knot can also help ensure that your life total stays high.

Does this hand contain a premium card in the match up?

Not quite premium but Porphyry Nodes are quite good.

Can this hand cast all it’s spells?

Yes! You need to draw a land to flash back Think Twice but that’s okay.

If I draw blanks for the first turns of the game am I dead?

You can likely miss on the first 3-4 draws in this game without being completely dead. This is especially true since you have Think Twice to churn through the deck faster.

How quickly does this hand kill my opponent?

Not quickly at all but that’s okay given your deck’s game plan.

Is there a much better 6? (or 5 or 4 etc.) 

We’re on our first 6 so we could mulligan for a second 6. A hand with a spot removal and a Wrath or Moat would likely be better.

Keep or Mull?

I believe that I would keep in this instance. You are leaning on Porphyry Nodes to buy you some time but they will reasonably reliably kill two creatures and will likely force the opponent to slow play their hand. Force of Will means that you can tap out without fear of getting Sulphuric Vortexed or something of that ilk and Logic Knot is also like to hit something. Lastly we get a scry which I would use to try to guarantee our third land drop of the game.

Now let’s try to analyze a hand where we don’t know what we’re playing against.

You are on the play in game 1 against an unknown opponent and you open this hand.

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Let’s again go through each of the questions from above and answer them before ultimately making a decision whether or not to keep this hand. Since it’s game one we don’t have a specific game plan in mind so we have to evaluate the hand on its merits in many possible match ups.

What is this hand’s game plan?

The game plan is to interact early with Maze of Ith, Spell Snare, and Mishra’s Factory before playing either Treasure Cruise of Mystic Confluence to get ahead on resources.

Does that game plan match up with the overall game plan for the match up?

Impossible to know since we don’t know the match up.

If Game 1 what match ups is this hand good against/What will it struggle against?

This hand is not amazing against an match up in particular but it is certainly better slanted towards interacting with creatures attacking than anything else. It might struggle against another control deck or combo deck due to it’s lose interaction with the stack.

Does this hand contain a premium card in the match up?

We don’t know the match up but none of these cards are particularly spectacular in any match up with the possible exception of Maze of Ith.

Can this hand cast all it’s spells?

No! We are two lands and many cards in the graveyard short of being able to cast both our card advantage spells though we do have both colours.

If I draw blanks for the first turns of the game am I dead?

This question is a bit hard to answer not knowing the match up but is worth noting that this hand is fairly soft to combo and other control decks. If we draw a few expensive cards we are likely also a dog to aggro though we are more likely to draw lands and cheap spells.

How quickly does this hand kill my opponent?

Very slowly! There is nothing wrong with that given our chosen archetype.

Is there a much better 6? (or 5 or 4 etc.) 

Where we don’t know the match up for sure the number of better hands certainly decreases but even as lands and spells hands go this one is a little weak. A six card hand with more reliable interaction and cheaper card advantage or a permanent based win condition is likely better.

Keep or Mull?

I would lean towards mulliganing it because of how weak it is to combo and control. Our hand really cannot withstand being disrupted and while our deck is likely to provide us the cheap interaction to make this hand work I would rather send it back and look at a 6 card hand that has the cheap interaction and is looking for a business spell.

Let’s move now from a reactive deck to a proactive one. You are playing this Sultai Aggro List

Your game plan with this deck is much more straightforward. In each game you are going to try to apply pressure to your opponents life total with early threats and disrupt their game plan with your blue and black spells. The issue with this type of deck is lining up your disruption with your opponents hand and ensuring that you present a fast enough clock.

You are on the play in game 3 against Storm and you look at this 7 card hand:

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Before proceeding any further let’s once again examine what the general game plan in this match up is. Firstly we know that Storm’s average kill turn is around 4 or 5 so we need to plan to have a clock that either kills them before that point or we need enough disruption to make our slower clock get there. When we look at our sweet of disruption discard is likely slightly better as it allows us to disrupt more precisely while also developing our own game plan at the same time. Let’s answer the questions again with this hand.

What is this hand’s game plan?

This hand is planning to use Gravecrawler and Tarmogoyf to pressure our opponent’s life total while buying time with Countersquall. Finally we have Time Walk which can get us an extra attack with our creatures and functionally shortens our clock by a turn.

Does that game plan match up with the overall game plan for the match up?

Generally yes. We are looking to play early threats and ride them to victory with our disruption.

If Game 1 what match ups is this hand good against/What will it struggle against?

N/A

Does this hand contain a premium card in the match up?

No, Countersquall is a good card but it is far from premium as it is largely replaceable by any of our other disruption. The same is true of Time Walk to an extent, the power level of the card is undeniable and while it is not replaceable it is also not obviously a lot better than just another creature in this hand.

Can this hand cast all it’s spells?

Yes, though very slowly. This is probably the biggest red flag with this hand; while it contains mostly cheap and castable spells you are not going to be able to play them on curve.

If I draw blanks for the first turns of the game am I dead?

Though this is contextual on the opponent’s hand it seems very optimistic to expect our Countersquall to completely stymie our opponent’s development.

How quickly does this hand kill my opponent?

Assuming Tarmogyf is a 3/4, which we are entirely at our opponents’ mercy for, our clock kills around turn 6 depending on if we get to Time Walk or if we find a gap to fit in casting Countersquall.

Is there a much better 6? (or 5 or 4 etc.) 

What is worth noting in this question is that in many ways this hand already is a 6 card hand because Slaughter Pact is almost certainly a dead card. With that in mind absolutely there are plenty of better 6 card hands. Our deck is capable of both faster and more disruptive starts.

Keep or Mull?

I believe that this hand is a trap. It looks extremely powerful. You have a counterspell, two creatures that cost 2 or less AND Time Walk. Ultimately these types of hands are the hardest to put back and I’m not even sure that in a tournament I would be able to ship this but where our deck is capable of many better draws and with this hand basically already being a mulligan to 6 I think you have to put this hand back. It develops too slowly and is extremely vulnerable to our opponent simply playing a discard spell and killing us on turn 4 or 5.

 

You are on the draw in game 2 against Blue Moon when you open this 7:

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The Blue Moon match is tricky. Blood Moon and Back to Basics shut off a large portion of our deck and depending on how many sweepers the Blue Moon player has it can be tough to establish a board. Our game plan revolves around using recursive threats to gain value while either disrupting our opponents mana denial plan or their attempts to kill our creatures.

What is this hand’s game plan?

This hand is planning to try to apply pressure with Cackler and Painseer while accruing some value with the Seer and Skullclamp. It also has Mana Leak and Duress to disrupt the opponent.

Does that game plan match up with the overall game plan for the match up?

While this hand lacks a recursive it does have other value engines and can disrupt the Moon player early. Additionally we get the opportunity to fetch for a basic swamp which is potentially relevant.

If Game 1 what match ups is this hand good against/What will it struggle against?

N/A

Does this hand contain a premium card in the match up?

Yes. I would be willing to classify Skullclamp as premium for the match up. It makes virtually every creature that we play a threat that must be countered or kill before it can be equipped to the clamp. It also has the potential to make our opponents sweepers considerably worse.

Can this hand cast all it’s spells?

Yes. It’s possible that by fetching basic swamp with our first land we will lock ourselves out of casting green or double black spells until we draw a third land but that is an acceptable loss.

If I draw blanks for the first turns of the game am I dead?

Probably not. This hand has a fairly robust game plan in and of itself and doesn’t need any other cards to help pull it together.

How quickly does this hand kill my opponent?

Not quite as quickly as might be average for this deck. Depending on what we draw in the first few turns this hand probably kills around turn 6.

Is there a much better 6? (or 5 or 4 etc.) 

There are certainly a few 6 cards hands that are better than this one but almost all of them included pointed cards and are largely comparable to the power level of this hand.

Keep or Mull?

I would be very happy to see this as my hand in the Blue Moon match up and would readily keep. The hand has a premium card in the match up and a reasonable group of cards as supporting cast. One thing worth noting is that since both Rakdos Cackler and Pain Seer have 2 toughness the Electrolyze and Arc Trial Effects lose some of their value. In addition since this hand likely puts the opponent on the back foot Mana Leak is much more likely to tag a relevant spell as the opponent will not be able to take time and use bait spells in order to resolve a sweeper or finisher.

 

Lastly let’s examine mulligans for decks that are truly linear. These decks are often planning to ignore their opponent and enact their game plan as quickly as possible. With these types of decks your goal becomes working through your opponents disruption rather than setting up your own. With all that being said let’s assume you playing this Tin Fins List.

You’re on the play in game 1 against an unknown opponent and you open this hand.

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Alright first let’s unpack what this deck is trying to do. Tin Fins is looking to put a Griselbrand in the graveyard and then to reanimate it with haste. The plan after that is to draw a bunch of cards and either kill the opponent with Tendrils of Agony, Emrakul the Aeons Torn, or Borborygmos Enraged. With all that in mind there are a few effects that are pivotal to the deck. Reanimation spells, entomb style effects and mana producers in the form of Sacrifice and Burnt Offering. As long as this deck can assemble 1 of each of those effects it stands a good chance of killing the opponent.

What is this hand’s game plan?

This hand is looking to use Buried Alive to get Griselbrand into the graveyard and then use Mystical Tutor or Dark Petition to find a reanimation spell. It also has a Thoughtseize to protect this plan.

Does that game plan match up with the overall game plan for the match up?

We don’t know the match up but this game plan falls pretty in line with our typical game plan.

If Game 1 what match ups is this hand good against/What will it struggle against?

This hand is well set up against the blue decks and midrange decks that are going to rely holding pieces of interaction and that don’t present an especially fast clock. The hand is threat dense as virtually all the spells are must counter and it has a fair amount of flexibility due to the tutors. This hand isn’t great against aggro as it is a bit slow.

Does this hand contain a premium card in the match up?

While we don’t know the match up Buried Alive can be considered a premium card because effects that put creatures directly into the graveyard are extremely unique and reasonably necessarily for the functionality of the deck.

Can this hand cast all it’s spells?

No, in fact this hand requires a land to cast basically anything of consequence. It is also worth noting that while Mystical Tutor is powerful it does consume your draw for the turn so you can’t cast it before you find the land.

If I draw blanks for the first turns of the game am I dead?

Yes. If this hand bricks on mana for a few turns it’s going to be in rough shape. The deck has a lot of looks and many of the cards in the deck are functionally redraws but if you miss on lands you can’t win.

How quickly does this hand kill my opponent?

This hand has the potential to kill on 3 though that requires some lucky draws but as long as it hits a land this hand will kill on turn 4.

Is there a much better 6? (or 5 or 4 etc.)

Definitely. Tin Fins has some of the best hands in the format and can potentially win the game on turn 2 or 3.

Keep or Mull?

Keep. This hand enough of the pieces that most of the deck is going to be useful to draw. In the dark you can’t throw away a hand that kills on turn 4. However if I knew that I was playing against an aggro deck there is a very real chance that I would throw this hand back looking for either a hand that killed sooner or a hand that killed in a more guaranteed fashion. This hand is good enough against most of the field to be worth keeping however.

I hope that you have enjoyed these examples and that this article has given you a better idea of how to approach the mulligan process in Highlander and in Magic in general. Obviously there is more to the process than just the things outlined in this article but this is a good place to start. I would encourage you to develop your own series of questions that you ask yourself about every hand. The most important thing is that before you keep any hand you ensure that you have a plan for how you are going to win the game and that the hand your keeping is at least in some ways in line with that plan.

I plan to do more keep or mulligan segments featuring hands from live Highlander tournaments here in Victoria. Starting this week on Monday (or Tuesday depending on your timezone) I will release a short blurb about 3 different hands from that night’s tournament. Please feel free to tweet(@CanHighlander) and me regarding both these hands any of the hands posted in the future as discussing mulligans in one of the best ways to improve!

 

-Liam Coughlan

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