Mulligans and the Fundamental Turn

Written by LegitMTG Staff on . Posted in Competitive Magic

Every game of magic you play, you make a lot of little decisions that influence whether or not you win or lose.  Each one of these decisions is important and you will often make them without your conscious mind.  Some of these are made during your turn, or during a particular phase.  Other decisions are made while your opponent is doing stuff or based on how he or she does them. I want us to start with the idea that magic is a complex game where you make decisions, and based on your choices you inform the outcome of the game (win vs. loss).

Note that decisions don’t just live in the context of the game.  Many decisions were concluded long before you even sat down to play.  What deck did you choose to battle with?  Did you order the cards you needed (from LegitMTG, of course) in time to get them before the event?  Few players have the balance to choose the right deck and pilot it well (contextually).  There is normally a split between who is making better in game decisions and who is making better pre-game decisions.  Here’s a few examples of each:

In-Game Decisions

-Attacking with the right creatures -Playing the appropriate land -Choosing a line of play and sticking with it

Pre-Game Decisions

-Mulliganing -Sideboarding -Deck Selection

There are a few decisions that involve both.  For example, when playing limited, before the game you have to memorize your mana costs so you know to lead with a forest when your opening hand contains two forests and a mountain because you know there is a Strangleroot Geist in your deck that you could draw.  Your pre-game decision to memorize the stress points on your mana informs your decision of which land to play on turn one inside the game.

The most common way we help others progress to become better magic players is we try to  focus on the in-game decisions that a player makes.  The first corrections most of us will walk a new player through is why it’s bad to swing a vanilla 2/2 into a vanilla 3/3.  We learn how to make the in-game decisions right.  In fact, I’ve seen many players quickly become adept at making in-game decisions.  They are always playing around on the board and off the board tricks.  I’ve seen their game grow to the point where they are bluffing opponents successfully left and right.  These players do well but eventually reach a glass ceiling because it’s difficult to tune/practice your pre-game decisions.

The root of the problem is this: all the technical play in the world can’t save you if you brought an aggro deck without any disruption into a room full of fast combo.  To think about it another way, even if you brought the wrong deck, if you don’t mulligan contextually you are at a severe disadvantage.  Even if you play as close to perfect as possible with the right deck you will still be disadvantaged against someone who plays well and mulligans contextually correctly.

I’m only going to attempt to make a case for mulligans here, but if you don’t believe that mulliganing is important it’s going to be hard to convince you of anything else.  Let’s take a look at formats and their fundamental turns.  When I say “fundamental turn,” I mean the turn that, as an observer with only the board state to judge, you can tell who is ahead and who is behind on the board.

These numbers may not be exactly accurate, but assume they are for the sake of argument.  My only goal here is to prove how critical mulliganing really is.

Format        Fundamental Turn
Vintage       2
Legacy        3
Modern       4
Standard     5

Unpacking the Above

In vintage, once each player has had two turns you can generally get a sense for who will win the game.  In legacy, you may have to wait as late as turn three.  Modern is defined more or less as a turn four format because that’s when Storm and Twin go off (although Storm can strike sooner with the right hand,) that’s when Jund starting playing the Bloodbraid Elf cascade lottery, and that’s when Melira Pod can go off using Pod.  In standard, you can tell by about turn five because the control decks have had time to cast their sweeper or put up a resistance, the fast decks have hit their large threat (Hero of Bladehold, Sword + Equip mana,) and most of the other decks are going to be casting Titans (if they haven’t already.)

My point is, by the fundamental turn, your deck better have either A) done what it has supposed to do, B) messed with what the enemy deck was trying to do, or C) all of the above.  Your deck needs to have certain cards to be able to execute the plan.

Mulligans let you see more cards for free.  Most people don’t think about Mulligans this way, but the reality is that they let you improve your chances of executing your plan.  Using the standard format’s fundamental turn, let’s look at how many cards you see before your fundamental turn.  The .5 in the Card Seen is to make the math the same regardless of playing or drawing.

Standard by Turn Five

Starting Hand Size        Cards Seen
0                                     4.5
1                                     5.5
2                                     6.5
3                                     7.5
4                                     8.5
5                                     9.5
6                                     10.5
7                                     11.5

X                                 X+4.5

Going from a seven card hand to a six card hand seems like a big deal, but the reality of it is that you can’t influence your draws and you can influence your opening hand by choosing whether or not to mulligan.  Until you mulligan to four, you are changing the chances of the greater percentage of cards you will see before the fundamental turn.  This means that when you go from six to five you are still in the driver’s seat based on card quality in many different scenarios.  You can’t hand pick your starting hands, but you can influence the greater percentage of the cards that matter before the game has even begun.

When you go from a seven card hand to a six card hand your basic plan should be to get closer to the goal of your deck.  It feels like you are losing a card, or giving up % needed to win the game.  In the old model of magic, where card advantage was king, this was invariably true.  As magic has evolved, now it’s far more important to hit the right cards then to out card your opponent.  Few games are decided based on who runs out of cards in hand in this standard environment.  That’s the inevitable outcome of a card advantage model (one deck falls behind too far.)

The current model of magic doesn’t care so much about card advantage.  The current model is more concerned with how you go about using all your resources (card advantage, board advantage, tempo advantage, card quality) to win the game.  Every time you mulligan, you are sacrificing card numbers to gain card quality.  You’re trading resources.

Let’s go concrete for a second.  You are playing an Esper Control Deck against UW Humans.  You know that generally Humans does not run much counter-magic, if any.  You have four Day of Judgments in your deck.  If your hand does not have Day of Judgment, you should consider a mulligan because the Humans deck will not care how many cards you are up on them.  This example is an oversimplification, but the hand that doesn’t interact with the Humans deck will be more likely to lose.  The resources that the matchup depends on are not based on card advantage but card quality.  It’s true that Day of Judgment will trade for multiple creatures, or cards, on the other side of the board and produce card advantage, but your main concern is clearing the board of immediate threats so you can start grinding out Moorland Haunt activations and the top of the Human deck.

Staying with the above example, if you open up a hand of seven cards that doesn’t contain a Day of Judgment, you better have a strong reason for keeping because the card of most quality in this match is Day of Judgment.  When you mulligan, you get six new chances at that Day of Judgment that will up the card quality.  You can’t influence the top of your deck, but you are going through more cards in search of a Day of Judgment when mulliganing once than trusting in the top of your deck and just keeping a mixture of land and spells.

Articles have been written about mulliganing to a single card in your deck by people who are stronger at math than I am, so I’m not going to embarrass myself by belaboring the point. Just remember that when you mulligan or do not mulligan, and you have a strategic reason to do so your odds of winning will increase dramatically.

Game One Mulligans

Mulligan based on your level of matchup information.  When I sit down across from my opponent, I tend to read their body language and how they approach shuffling. Sometimes I can just sense a certain style of deck across from me.  There are three possible game one scenarios based on how much information you have.  This is how I mulligan in these scenarios.

Game One

I know what my opponent is playing.  I mulligan to the cards that I deem important in the matchup, throwing back hands that auto-lose.  I tend to think of certain cards as auto-mulligans.  For example, in most control mirror matches having an opening hand of two Day of Judgments is already a virtual double mulligan (because Day is of such low card quality in control mirrors). In this case, I might as well go to six unless the other cards compensate.  Against a known aggro deck, I will mulligan anything that doesn’t have a plan to disrupt or interact early.

Game 1 – I don’t know what my opponent is playing at all.

If I’m completely in the dark, I mulligan to my deck’s most basic plan.  This means that I probably don’t want too much of one particular element in a control deck.  For an aggro deck I’m evaluating my clock, how much pressure I have and how much resilience I have.  How much resistance can my deck push through?

Game 1 – I have partial information on what my opponent is playing.

While these situations are rare, they are the hardest mulligan decisions to make.  Normally you arrive at these places via intuition, making a read on the player, associating a player with a group knowing what one member of the group is playing, or when they reveal a card accidentally while shuffling and you couldn’t look away in time.  These scenarios normally require a balance on what you think you should respond to and how effectively your opening hand can execute your deck’s most basic plan.  Also you should have a sense of how long the game is going.

These bits of logic can help you better evaluate when to mulligan and when to keep in game one scenarios.  Let’s further complicate things by assuming you are playing game two now and you have already used your sideboard.

Game Two and Three Mulligans

In any sideboard-based game, awkward hands get easier to judge because everybody can more properly evaluate what the deck on the other side of the table is trying to do.  For example, in a control on control mirror, a hand full of lands and card draw is an easy keep while that hand in game one needs to be shipped back on the chance that your opponent has an aggressive deck.  In some scenarios, it’s right to mulligan to your sideboard cards (especially if they are high impact sideboard cards).  In other scenarios, your sideboard is not meant to be as high impact but more to tune your deck, in which case your general power level and ability to execute your strategy should inform your mulligan decisions.

The Truth About Mulligans

Mulligans will affect your game, and it’s something that you should pay close attention to if you’re looking to go from a solid player to a great one.  Mulliganing is often the single most important series of decisions that you can make.  Make your Mulligan decisions with context.  Don’t make the two most common mistakes when it comes to mulliganing:

Don’t be Lazy

I used to be the player who didn’t want to shuffle fully, and said “good enough” when in reality a random five or six would have been much better than my lands and spells keep.  It’s not like the cards are five pounds each.  Shuffling is a part of the game, and if you find your internal monologue stranded on the island of “but shuffling is a lot of work,” that’s probably a snap mulligan.  If you don’t believe me, track how often you mulligan online vs. how often you mulligan in real life.  I’d bet you mulligan more aggressively online because all it is a single click.

Don’t Lie to Yourself Based on Previous Information

This is harder to pin down, but, just because you kept a great three land hand game one and didn’t draw a land in six turns, that doesn’t mean you send that same hand back in game two.  This is hard for people to do, but it pays dividends.  Conversely, if you drew out of a one land bad keep on seven cards, that doesn’t mean that you will be rewarded when you try the same gambit the following game.  Each hand is a new hand; don’t react to your emotions and get back on the horse.

Until next time, when in doubt, ship the hand back.  You’re increasing your options, not limiting your cards.

Chase Keaten
@chasekeaten on Twitter

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