Common Sense: The Art of the Mulligan

Hello readers! Thanks for tuning into another installment of Common Sense. Today’s article aims to gain some insight into one of the aspects of gameplay that is easy for players to neglect and is not often examined in post-game observations: how to discern close mulligan decisions.

The advent of Magic Online has drawn in a much more relaxed atmosphere regarding mulligans, possibly due to the convenience of the interface. I notice many players keep loose hands that meet basic requirements; it is rare for players to pass up a full grip if it has a decent mix of spells and enough lands to cast them. Here are a compilation of the next set of mulligan-relevant factors to consider before you jump into another tournament.

Picking Sides

I want to challenge you to dig deeper into what qualifies as a hand that is not simply passable, but which will give you a favorable chance to win the game. Due to the innumerable variances that each card of a deck can introduce to a given scenario, it is widely considered impossible to make correct reads on mulligans every single time. I feel it is important, therefore, to make a decision as to which side of the coin you decide to fall on. When there is considerable merit to both sides of the argument, would you rather be a player who mulligans more often, or less?

This is especially relevant when considering hands that could go either way. These “50/50″ hands are traps that are easy to fall into because a player can argue that keeping is the proper choice, but subsequently choose to mulligan a similar hand in the same matchup as soon as the next game of the match.

Let’s take a sample hand from a deck rising in popularity, Mono Blue Fae. To set the scene, you are on the play against this White Weenie list.

Checking your hand, you see Delver of Secrets, Stitched Drake, Preordain, Intervene, Cloud of Faeries and two Islands. What is your line of play here? Your hand offers two concepts that run in opposite directions.

On the one hand, landing Stitched Drake and holding Intervene puts a huge damper on offensive threats the opponent might be holding (Guardian of the Guildpact notwithstanding).

In the other direction, the interactions of Delver’s transform ability and Cloud of Faeries-into-Ponder on turn two can allow you deploy a potential four damage on turn three, which may lead to an adequate race considering the aforementioned Intervene to gain tempo should the opponent consider casting Unmake.

The question here is somewhat ambiguous because these types of decisions, as noted above, are the first that come to mind. What really matters at this point, however, is whether or not it is worth keeping a hand that pulls your plans in both directions. You see, in order to get the Drake into play, you essentially have to give up on your aggressive game plan, or have it go horribly wrong. This now requires you to determine if the aggressive approach is something you should pursue or not. Would it possibly be better to ship this acceptable hand back for a fresh six that offers a more defined line of play?

Constantly Constant

To be honest, it is both defensible to keep the above hand and realistic to consider shipping it back. What’s important is to determine a hard-line stance on 50/50 scenarios in general, i.e., always shipping or always keeping these types of hands.

First, this benefits a player’s psychological stamina during a tournament because, should a discernible win/loss pattern emerge from this train of thought, it can be adjusted to earn more wins based on correct (or near-correct) choices. Too often, players let a bad beat warp their decisions, which leads to errant, whimsical mulligans. If a player loses a game and decides it is directly caused by his or her choice to mulligan, it becomes less likely that that player will mulligan in a later game when it is more obvious that this is the correct decision. Staying consistent and gleaning some sort of consistent results can be a key indicator that the given player is basing their mulligans on correct decisions.

Also, this tough stance on tempting hands will ensure a player stays focused on the game plan he or she sets out to execute rather than be tempted by entrapment. For example, if a player decides he has to take a more controlling stance against deck X but draw a surprisingly smooth aggressive hand, he will know better than to try and play it because the player can stick to the established line of play. It is possible that this stance on controlling game play is flat-out wrong, but if the player never commits to a decisive game plan, playing any hand that the shuffler deals out will not yield definitive results. The only way to know for sure is to commit.

My Kingdom for A Card

Despite all this talk of whether or not to focus on deciding to mulligan, I have not yet discussed what a deck gains or loses in the mulligan process.

Some decks don’t really notice missing a card because their focus is to propel consistent or linear strategies. What I mean by this is, if you choose to pilot a deck that contains a smattering of similar creatures or spells, giving one of those redundant cards up for a chance at a more playable hand is certainly justified. Consider again the White Weenie deck we linked to above. Cutting a random 2-drop out of one of this deck’s starting sevens is understandable if it means a proper distribution of land and threatening creatures backed up by an efficient removal spell. The hands with six lands or a cluster of 4-drops are easy to mulligan because it is very likely the deck will curve out better with six cards in these scenarios.

However, if the hand is solid but not stellar, keeping is most likely correct. These decks should focus on using a mulligan only when the hand obviously necessitates it. Since going down to six or five essentially only serves to draw the player fewer copies of the same cards, it’s worth holding onto okay hands (in a vacuum, at least) because the mulligan will likely result in a very similar, but slightly smaller, hand.

These type of decks are usually swarm-based aggro, such as Goblins or Stompy. You effectively only draw 2-drops and combat tricks with these decks, so giving yourself one fewer option has to prove vital to winning the game. Likewise, the burn deck almost never mulligans, even if it is holding double Fireblast and only one Mountain. Since the only thing the burn deck will draw is Lightning Bolts, it is completely feasible to manage an opponent’s life total until those extra lands show up.

On the other hand, variant decks such as those based around Mystical Teachings or Empty the Warrens gain a lot from aggressive mulligans. These decks are built around engines designed to solve whatever problem is presented to them; having the appropriate tools matters more to them because their skill sets and options are so much more varied. For example, a Goblins hand without Goblin Sledder or Mogg Fanatic is much more consistent against an Infect deck than a Mono-Black Control deck is without Wail of the Nim or Diabolic Edict.

Being aware of the types of spells you could be chasing down is important to deciding how valuable a mulligan really is.

Taste the Hatorade

This theory may also need to be adjusted to consider specific hate cards out of the sideboard and their overwhelming presence in their designated matchups. For example, if a black deck sides in Blood Seeker to combat Empty the Warrens, how important is it to have a copy of that Blood Seeker in the opening grip? Depending on the deck’s overall game against Storm, perhaps multiple mulligans are justified to ensure casting the Blood Seeker as soon as possible.

This is also true of cards such as Crypt Rats against aggro decks or Obsidian Acolyte with respect to Mono-Black Control. Knowing exactly how good these types of specific sideboard cards can be matters because their power level can reverse otherwise-standard mulligans.

Now consider this dilemma from the opposite viewpoint. Does your Goblin Storm Combo have enough speed in its first hand to beat a Turn 2 Blood Seeker? Does it matter if you are on the play or on the draw, or is this perhaps an objective fact? This decision weighs heavily on the viability of a hand because hate cards can turn a line of play obsolete, regardless of the strength of your draw. Having accurate knowledge about what to expect post-board is a huge factor in mulligans because it may well reverse the entire thought process on what constitutes a good hand.


Along the lines of hate cards, acknowledging the existence of certain unique cards and preparing your deck to face them allows your technical play to be as tight as possible while also ensuring you are playing the right hands. Per our earlier mention of Guardian of the Guildpact, it is worth noting that this card has been seeing an elevated level of play recently.

To cut a long story short, the greedy manabases of Cloudpost decks and two- or even three-color control strategies has encouraged players to streamline their efforts, focusing on a monochromatic manabase that punishes the more complex decks for stumbling. This focus on one-color decks has added to the value of an already solid card, and it can wreck some decks’ plans once it hits play because they do not have any way to get around it.

Cards like these are something of a fluke in Pauper because there is simply not as much free design space at the common level to explore. Guardian of the Guildpact and Mystical Teachings only come around once every block or so, but to come unprepared against them is a dire mistake. Always consider the presence of a card like this in the metagame; it would be difficult to reconcile losses to the card simply due to poor planning.

Rinse and Repeat

After examining several different factors in mulligan decisions, the best advice I can give you is to stay consistent in your reasoning and follow through on your choices time in and time out. It will be impossible to correct errors in the mulligan process if you cannot document what you are doing and figure out what patterns earn the best records.

Here I would like to refer to another card game based on decisive lines of play. To those who are unfamiliar with Blackjack theory, I trust you have a basic knowledge of how to make a hand into what constitutes ‘breaking’ a hand. My focus is on the midrange hands, namely totals of 15 or 16. The odds are very vague as to whether it is correct to take another card to strengthen them or to stand pat and hope the dealer breaks, but one thing is noted by most who discuss the game’s driving theory: Whatever you choose, defend it and stick to it. Find your line of play and stick to it.

My advice to test this is simple. Reach out to a buddy or form a new friendship online, pick a deck you are interested in playing, and run a ton of games up until Turn 8. Although this obviously does not determine which deck actually wins more, it allows you to get a larger sample size of how your mulligans turn out. Playing more short games and noting the result of your mulligans can be absolutely valuable to determining a base line for mulligan rules or standards, from which you can then test full games and discover if your mulligan rule is correct or if it contributes to lost games.

That’s all for now, but expect upcoming video submissions showing some decks as they are put through the 2-Man Queues. I am considering starting a deck series where I begin playing a deck and work with it over several installments to tweak it closer and closer to fit the ever-changing Pauper metagame. If you would like me to work with a certain deck, feel free to suggest it in the comments below, along with any more requests for articles.

Tune in next time and keep practicing to tighten up those mulligans!

  1. Seems like you put a lot of work in this article. It made for a good read on several levels. Thx bro.


  2. Great article. It’s nice to see quality written content on theory and general analysis. I have just one suggestion: instead of listing a hand, create an image for it. Evaluating a hand is, at least for me, an extremely visual process.

    Also: hi guys!

  3. Great Article, I’ll ditto what Zonko says about the basic theory and analysis that experienced players take for granted. Looking forward to your deck series. One thing I would like to see is a general article on sideboarding. I know every deck and meta is different but for me it’s usually fairly obvious what needs to go in but what do I take out? Are there any general rules to follow?

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