Let me tell you all a story from my last PTQ. I was playing affinity, it was round 7 of 8, and I was 5-1. I went to my table, knowing that if I won this match I could intentionally draw into top 8. I was pumped, I had been on fire all day. I shook hands with my opponent and went to shuffling. After our exchange of pleasantries and shuffles we go to game one. He’s on the play and lays down a lotus bloom “Oh here we go” I thought. I ended up losing to an eggs deck comboing off on turn 4. Game 2 I sideboard, shuffle up and I draw my 7. I take a look and I see Springleaf Drum, Inkmoth Nexus, Inkmoth Nexus, Ornithopter, Ornithopter, Glimmervoid, and a Mox Opal. I think to myself “This is solid! All I have to do is draw cranial plating and I win on turn 3!” I lost that game by drawing a Memnite turn 2, a Darksteel Citadel turn 3, and a Signal Pest turn 4. I ended up going 6-2 that PTQ and placing in 9th place. Sometimes I think getting around 12th or 16th is better than 9th. 9th is just close enough to taste top 8.
Most players would blame that loss to bad luck. Your average player would look at that match and say “I was so close, all I needed was [insert one of 20 cards here] and I would have won.” But in reality I lost that match to my own mistakes. I kept a hand that I should have mulliganed, and in the process made one of the critical errors of mulligans, but we will get back to that later.
Choosing to keep or mulligan your hand is the first decisions of a game of magic, and arguably the most important decision of the game. This decision defines how you will play out your game, whether you will hit your curve or not, and sometimes if you will win. Everyone knows the easy mulligans; the no lander, the all land, the wrong colors, etc. It’s the hard ones that most players struggle with. The 2 land with 5 spells, the one land short of your 3 drop, and other similar hands. You see a player draw their opening hand, and stare at 2 lands a bunch of 3 drops 4 drops and 5 drops. They always tend to say things like “This hand is so good!” or “All I need to do is draw straight lands and I win!” The hand always looks good, you’re staring at your most powerful creatures and spells, what’s not to like? But ultimately the hand is not good; if you ever have to think to yourself “If I draw X then this hand is perfect!” stop and mulligan the hand. Your hand needs to go somewhere on its own. If your hand needs help to make plays, then it needs to be shipped back. The amount of factors that go into the decision to mulligan these tough hands are enormous, and more than meet the eye to most players. You have to think “Am I on the play or draw? What is my opponent playing? What am I playing?” and many other things among those. I’m going to be talking about the most common mistakes I see players make when debating these tough mulligan choices.
Talking yourself into a bad keep
This one is absolutely the one I see the most often, and the very mistake that may have cost me an invite to Pro Tour Dragon’s Maze. You see a player stare at hand on the verge of being good and they say things like “well my opponents deck is slow” or “all I need is X card and I’ve got this game.” While both of these are valid statements, all you are doing is justifying a keep that you probably shouldn’t make. Convincing yourself to keep a hand means you already know somewhere in your mind that you probably should mulligan the hand. I cannot stress enough that this mistake loses games! Let’s take my PTQ example. I was relying on drawing one card to make my hand great, and sure, if I had hit the cranial plating I would have won, but I had to tell myself that I just need one thing and it will be great. What I should have done is look at my hand and think “This hand is not fast enough to kill eggs before it combos off, I need to mulligan to try and hit a hand that will go faster and has more outs.” Sometimes this bad habit grows into simply making excuses for your bad keep. I’ve even heard, and I’ll even to my shame admit that I have thought this myself, “Well I’m up a game.” While this is probably the worst excuse for a keep, making excuses for a keep is not a position you want to be in. Look at your hand objectively. If you need X card to make it work well, or if you think your opponent’s deck is slow enough that you will have enough time to stabilize, or if this is an easy match up for you stop convincing yourself to keep and get to shuffling.
Being afraid to mulligan
This one is a bit more common with newer players, but many experienced players struggle with it. They look at their 2 lander and a couple spells just a few mana shy and they think “well it’s pretty close, and my 6 might be worse.” While these players tend to also have issues with our first mistake, this convincing tends to stem from a fear of mulliganing. No one likes giving up their cards, especially when it gets to be less and less. I usually see this when players are staring at their first mulligan and are afraid to go down to 5 for fear of not having enough cards to play. Believe it or not I have won multiple times off of mulligans as low as 4. It took some really lucky draws and a little bit of bad luck on my opponents end, but it does happen. If you find yourself keeping bad hands because you don’t want to go any lower the best thing you can do is to practice mulliganing by yourself. I personally have used the following exercise to help myself become better at mulligans. Get a buddy, and play a game, but instead of drawing 7 cards draw 6. Look at your hand, decide if you want to keep or mulligan, and if you keep draw a card and play the game with your 7. What this teaches you is hand value. One of the many questions you should be asking yourself when pondering a mulligan is “is this 7 card hand worse than my average 6 card hand?” This exercise teaches you how to value your hand properly. Once you learn how to value your hand based on one card less you will be able to mulligan your hand with greater confidence. That way when you take your game to FNM and you draw your 7 you can ship it back without fear, knowing that you are much more likely to draw a better hand with less cards.
Ok, so this one is exactly on mulligans per se, but how people base the value of their hand. Often times I sit down with an opponent who decides to mulligan, and then after they announce their mulligan they look at the next few cards in their deck. They always say something like “Yup that was right” or “shoot I shoulda kept!” This is not the proper way to decide whether a hand was good or not! When evaluating a hand to keep or mulligan you have a limited amount of information. When you mulligan a risky hand, then look at your deck to find out that it would have been fine you have still made the right decision. You made the best decision you could based on the information you had in front of you. The fact of the matter is that sometimes the risky hand works, and sometimes it doesn’t. If you decided with the information you have that the risk is worth the potential reward then go for it, if you decide it’s not then you made the best decision you could have. Players who go down the rabbit hole don’t properly evaluate their hand. Often I hear the excuse for rabbit holing “you have to know if you made the right decision.” I always say to them, that the top card of your deck doesn’t make your decision wrong; it’s all about what you have in front of you.
Mulliganing is a fine art. It’s an art that comes with time, that comes with knowing your deck, and that comes with experience. The hands your deck can work well with all depends on your deck, and knowing your deck depends on you. There are no hard and fast rules to a mulligan decision. Always mulliganing a 2 lander is just as wrong as always keeping a hand with a 1 drop that you can play. But I hope through this article you have a better grasp on the mental aspect of the mulligan, and that you will be able to make better decisions about your own mulligans. As always practice makes the player, so keep on shuffling.