Rants of Valakut – About Mulligans Part 1: Identifying Bad Hands

Having a bad opening hand in Magic is not good. It’s bad. It’s…

Hang on, let me start again.

Do I Have a Good Opening Hand?

Many players will start the game with the hand they are dealt no questions asked. They are either confident in their chances, or completely resigned to their luck. The option to take a mulligan in Magic and draw a new hand may be the most important decision you make in a game; a second chance at a better hand is tempting, but it is not without its downsides and risks. First, you always get one fewer card in your new hand. Second, there is always the chance that your new hand will be worse. It may be better to stick with what you’ve got, and there are certainly times when that is the case. So how do you determine when you should mulligan?

There are a lot of different opinions on the subject of mulligans, ranging from gut-feelings to carefully calculated statistics. I’ve even seen grading systems for hands that are complicated enough to make my head spin. Personally, my decision to mulligan largely hinges on the answer to one question:

Does My Hand Do Anything?

In limited, this primarily means having a hand with several creatures you can cast. In constructed formats it could mean having a hand that can help find your combo pieces, or one that has a lot of counter-magic and removal. Whatever your deck’s game plan, you should carefully look at what you’ve drawn and try to imagine your first few turns. Are you able to cast something on turn 2? On turn 3? If you aren’t doing anything until turn 4 then your hand may be too slow; a fast start from your opponent could leave you completely in the dust.

The trick here is that just because you can cast something in the first few turns doesn’t guarantee that it will be good enough. You want an opening hand that can pressure your opponent’s life total, or at least protect your own.

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What Does a GOOD Hand Look Like?

As I was saying, a good opening hand should have some meaningful early plays. It should also have just enough lands to get by. In most draft games my ideal opening hand would have a couple of 2- or 3-cost creatures, some form of interaction, and about 3 lands. If I had my way then those lands would also provide at least 2 different colours.

2 creatures, 1 spell and 3 lands… Wait a second, that’s only 6 cards!

Honestly, I would feel very good starting a game of Magic with a hand like that even if I had to mulligan down to 6 cards; whatever the 7th card would be could help shape my decisions, but wouldn’t strictly be necessary for my game plan. An extra creature would allow me to be a bit more reckless with my attacks and blocks; trading off a creature when you have a backup isn’t nearly as risky as it would be if it was your only one. Conversely, if I had an extra removal spell I might be inclined to protect my creatures more and use my spells to deal with opposing threats. An extra land would mean knowing that I could cast almost any card in my deck, so stalling into the later game to cast those bigger spells might be the right choice.

With a great opening hand like this I can easily plan out my first few turns; I have enough lands to cast my spells, and I have enough spells to start impacting the battlefield early. This all lets me have a precise plan, rather than hedging my bets and making decisions based on what-if scenarios. After about the 4th turn I will need a new plan, but whatever I draw in that time will help dictate what I can and should do.

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What Does a BAD Hand Look Like?

If those 6 cards are what make up my ideal hand for a typical draft deck, then what would be missing from it that would require me to mulligan?

No lands…

A hand with no lands is the most obvious hand to mulligan. Without access to mana at the start of the game you’ll be so far behind by the time you find anything that it won’t matter. There is never a guarantee that you’ll draw your lands either, so even if your hand has a lot of low cost spells it’s not worth the risk.

Too few lands

Drawing an opening hand with too few lands is arguably worse than one with none. It is really easy to fool yourself into thinking that you can keep a hand with 1 or 2 lands, but it really depends on the deck you are running. Fast, aggressive decks with a low mana curve can probably get away with that many lands, but most of the time it’s a huge risk that won’t pay off. Looking at the mana cost of the spells in your hand, the higher they are the more you want to mulligan something like this.

All lands….

While you would be able to cast anything in your deck with a hand of all lands, you will have so few threats that it will only take a card or two for your opponent to put you back to square 1, without anything to cast. At that point you may as well have no cards in hand for all the good the extra lands will do you. Keep in mind that mana rocks and other mana acceleration effectively count as lands when evaluating an opening hand; what’s the point if all you have are ways to ‘ramp‘ to zero payoff?

It is worth noting that in Commander an all-land opening hand can be surprisingly strong. Because your commander is always available to cast it means that you have something to do with all of those lands. What’s more, because Commander is often a slower format, ensuring that you have mana to cast big, late-game spells as soon as possible actually puts you in a decent position. You’ll still need to draw something useful, but of all the formats, Commander is the only one where I would consider keeping 7 lands.

Wrong colours….

It is very easy to get fooled into thinking that a hand with any combination of spells and lands is fine, but it has been my experience that keeping a hand with the wrong colour(s) of mana for its spells can be just as detrimental as one with no lands at all. Looking at these hands you might think that by the time you’ll need to cast such-and-such spell you will have drawn the type of land you need, but luck can be fickle.

Generally, the risk of not being able to play any of your spells is rarely worth it, and I have lost too many games because I tried keeping a hand with the wrong lands. What’s more is that even if you do draw the type of land you need, you’ll be limited to casting 1 spell a turn at a time in the game when you’re needing to play catch-up.

No creatures….

A hand with no creature spells can almost look good at first glance. You might have the mana to cast everything in your hand, but depending on your spells that might not matter. Having some early game removal spells helps, since they can buy you time, and you might want to keep a hand with a Planeswalker in it, but most of the time this just won’t be enough, at least in a limited format. Creatures are the backbone of almost any deck, and without them you will have a hard time staying alive.

No early plays….

If you can play progressively bigger creatures every turn starting as early as turn 2, you’ll have a strong chance of winning your game. Regularly using your resources efficiently, by spending 2 mana on turn 2, 3 on turn 3, and so on, is one of the best ways to get ahead in a game of Magic, especially in limited formats like draft.

If you can’t cast any of the spells in your opening hand until turn 4 then you have wasted an awful lot of potential mana, and will likely be heavily outnumbered on the battlefield. Unless your late game can make up for that deficit with something like a mass-removal spell of some sort, you would be better off drawing a new hand.

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Most opening hands won’t hit the extremes I’ve talked about here, but this will hopefully guide you when trying to evaluate whether hand is bad or worth keeping. Finding that exact threshold when you should mulligan takes some practise, and it will vary from deck to deck; some decks do just fine with 1 land, while others don’t really need their creatures to do well. A big part of deciding when to mulligan is knowing how your deck operates and deciding if your hand has what you need. If you can do that, you’re well on your way.

Just remember, mulligans shouldn’t be scary. If you think you can find a better hand with fewer cards in it, don’t be afraid to reshuffle and take that mulligan as many times as you need; winning with 5 cards or less to start is tricky, but it can be done with a good hand and a bit of luck.

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Next time I’ll be talking about what you should do in those games where you mulligan. Hopefully you’ll join me for that discussion, too. As for this week, do you mulligan often? What’s the worst hand you’ve ever kept? Let me know in the comments, and I hope you draw a good opening hand in your next game!

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