Sometimes you have a terrible opening hand and have to mulligan, shuffling it away and drawing a new hand. Your new hand has fewer cards in it, but it’s hopefully better than what you had. Unfortunately, regardless of how good a hand you end up with, you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage for the rest of the game. Your opponent has access to more cards than you, which could very well be your downfall. You’ll have to play accordingly, but what does that entail? What do you need to keep in mind when you’re playing with a smaller hand than your opponent?
I find that if you are behind on cards it is better to get off to an aggressive start if you can. If you finish the game before your opponent has been able to use all of their cards then the fact that you started with fewer is largely moot. Of course, sometimes that fast start just isn’t an option and you need to ready yourself for the long game. This can be quite tricky, considering long games usually boil down to one player running out of resources. Because you are starting with fewer cards, you are likely to run out of those resources first. Sometimes there is nothing you can do, but you should never give up too early. If you play carefully and come up with a plan, you’ll give yourself the best odds of success; with a bit of luck, you might even pull out a win.
Here are some suggestions:
1. Stay calm.
Having to mulligan repeatedly can be a very frustrating experience. You start to question if you built your deck properly, and you begin to feel like you can’t possibly win; fate has it in for you, and you lose hope.
It’s hard, but if you can relax, take a breath and clear your head, not only will you have more fun, but you’ll be in a much better mindset to win. When you’re stressed you’re more likely to make mistakes, but if you are calm it will be easier to plan out your turns and make those key decisions.
2. Know your outs (and play to them).
Because you’re already behind, you’ll need to find some way to get an edge in the game. You should have a good idea of what cards are in your deck, and which card you have that can get you out of your predicament. Usually you’ll be looking for cards that can deal with multiple threats at once, but any card that provides you with some extra value could do. A card like Divination, for instance, won’t win you the game by itself, but can help make up for your deficit of cards. Sometimes all you need is to play a couple of creatures in the same turn so you have enough blockers.
Regardless of what you’re looking for, make sure to give yourself as big a chance of getting to these outs and your win conditions as you can. For example, if you really need to find a way of stopping a 5-toughness creature and you know you have a combat trick that provides +3/+3, then you should try and keep one of your 2/2 creatures alive for as long as you can; this way you have one more way of dealing with that big threat.
3. Do what you can with what you have.
You should know what cards you want to draw, but you shouldn’t plan on drawing them. Figure out what you can do with the resources you have first and foremost, then prepare contingency plans. Think about the worst possible card for you at the moment, and figure out what you will need to do if you draw it, just in case.
This is particularly important when considering whether or not to block. If you have very few creatures, you may have to avoid blocking small threats for several turns in a row so that you have some way of stopping larger ones when they come up. You may only get one or two chances to block, so choose your window carefully. The same is true for using your removal spells; if you have an instant that can destroy a creature, it may be worth trying to bait your opponent into casting an aura spell or into blocking with multiple creatures so that you can get some extra value out of your spell. It would be bad to waste a removal spell on a creature that was going to die anyway, unless you were able to get another card for your trouble.
3. Protect the important cards; be willing to sacrifice everything else.
Because you have so few cards at your disposal, keeping what you have safe is of vital importance. You can hardly afford to lose your only creature to an avoidable counterspell or to have it die in combat needlessly, especially if you don’t have a replacement in hand.
It’s important to remember, particularly when you are saddled with a small opening hand, that your life total is a resource; if you are at 1 life you can still win the game, so don’t be afraid to take a little damage if you have to. Getting down to a low life total can be worth it if it keeps your key cards safe. Block if you have to, but be careful when you do; keeping an extra creature on your side of the board could help you stabilize the game later on where otherwise you wouldn’t.
4. Play quickly.
Don’t rush yourself, but if you can play at a faster pace, then it’s probably a good idea. In tournaments you only have so much time each round to play your three games, and if you’ve had to mulligan, your odds of winning your current game are that much lower. If you are playing games one or two of three, then playing at a faster pace means giving yourself more time for the other game(s) if this one goes badly.
Playing quickly usually involves planning out as much of your next turn as you can while your opponent is taking actions. This way, when it comes back to you to make a decision, you already know what you’re doing. On the bright side, because you have fewer resources at your disposal, there are fewer variables to consider, making your decisions simpler.
5. Don’t dwell on your misfortune.
This goes back to remaining calm, but it is worth reiterating. Sometimes you have terrible luck. It happens to everyone, and it always feels bad. While I have been advocating to be mindful of your situation, if you can get to a point in the game where you can forget that you started with a smaller hand, you are probably doing quite well.
If that’s not the case, take solace in the fact that it isn’t necessarily the way you played that cost you the game. You do what you can, but sometimes that just isn’t enough. Every now and again, we all draw hands of absolute garbage.
6. Laugh it off.
There is a certain absurdity in drawing 15 of your 17 lands in a single game, or going 10 turns without ever finding that Plains you needed. The universe can be cold and uncaring, and we can’t control that. We can control how we react to it, though. It’s not always easy, but hopefully with some hindsight you can shrug, roll your eyes and know that next time, your luck probably won’t be as bad.
…And if your luck is even worse, just think of how good a story it will be!
That’s it for me this time. I hope some of this advice was useful for you.
Until next time, may you draw well. And if you happen draw poorly, I hope you take it in stride!