To Keep Or Not To Keep: Everything You Need To Know About Mulligans in Magic: The Gathering
Keep, or Mulligan? A question that has probably plagued the mind of every Magic player, from the kitchen table to the pro tour finals, from the beginning of Magic history to the present day.
It is never an easy or fun decision to take a mulligan, but sometimes it’s a necessary one; and then there’s the horrible moment where you take another, and then another, and you begin to wonder if the first hand was really that bad after all, and if you’d kept it, what would your chances have been?…
The History Of Mulligans In Magic: The Gathering
The rules on mulliganing have changed throughout Magic: The Gathering‘s history. The veteran players among us will remember the original rules: you may mulligan to 7 once, but you can only mulligan a hand if it has 0 or 7 lands, and you must show your opponent to confirm it before you do so. If you draw another 0 or 7 land hand, bad luck, that’s your mulligan and you deal with it. Eventually somewhere along the line the rule changed to allow 1 land hands into the equation, which reduced the number of non-games, but not by a significant amount.
In 1997, the mulligan rules were improved significantly and became what most players today will know – the ‘Paris mulligan’, where you may put back any hand and draw another with one card less. This system was introduced to try to allow for the fact that players were forced to keep terrible hands under the previous system, and that although they didn’t fit the criteria for a mulligan, they didn’t advance the game plan or really do anything and consequently lost the game. As a result, the Paris mulligan was introduced to allow players more flexibility and control over their opening hands.
The Paris mulligan is certainly a much better rule, in terms of making a larger percentage of games actually feel like real games of Magic: The Gathering. Although it never feels nice to go down to 6 or even 5 cards, the ability to be able to mulligan away something that you know won’t get there and hope for something more playable is much more favourable than being forced to keep it and pray. Anyone I have spoken to who began playing under the old mulligan rule certainly prefers the new one!
In 2015, the Paris mulligan rule was changed again, though not significantly, to the current form of mulliganing; the ‘Vancouver mulligan’. This is merely an addition to the usual rule which states that, “Any player whose opening hand has fewer cards than their starting hand size may scry 1.” This was intended to smooth out the mulligan process and make mulligans to 6 or 5 not quite so painful, allowing for more comeback games to take place.
Under the Paris rules, it has been calculated that players mulliganing to 6 would only have a 38% chance to win based on a 50/50 matchup, and the Vancouver mulligan rules has increased those odds, though there is no official data yet to determine by how much. In addition, it makes players more likely to mulligan iffy 7s that they may have kept before by ‘softening the blow’ of going down a card, and therefore potentially increasing their chances against keeping a borderline hand.
So Why Do We Mulligan?
So what are the key reasons we mulligan, and why is mulliganing so important to the game?
Well, for starters, mulligans are incredibly important to a card game like Magic: The Gathering. If there were no system for throwing back bad hands, a huge percentage of games would simply end up totally imbalanced or with two players topdecking from the first turn, hoping to get what they need. Although mulliganing might feel bad at the time, it’s a very important part of knowing how to play Magic, as the chance to rebuy a hand that isn’t what you need is invaluable, and knowing absolutely 100% when to mulligan and when to keep is a skill that can only come from repetition and experience with decks and formats.
Indeed, even with all their experience and constant practice, many pros still disagree on some difficult decisions; there is an interesting feature on ChannelFireball called Keep or Mulligan in which they invite various high-level players to offer their opinions on borderline hands. This is also generally a feature on most of their coverage streams where the commentators will do a ‘Keep or Mulligan’ section, and is very interesting to watch or read. Although in the vast majority of situations, your hand will not be as debatable as the ones featured on there, the principles and reasons for mulliganing that the pros discuss will always be relevant factors to consider, even if the hand is a more obvious decision.
When Should We Mulligan?
“Is my percentage chance of winning larger if I keep this hand, or does a mulligan improve it?”
The decision we must make when choosing whether to mulligan is simply: “Is my percentage chance of winning larger if I keep this hand, or does a mulligan improve it?”
Generally, the first factor we should take into account is the hand itself. Does it have lands and spells? If not, it’s probably a mulligan; you can’t normally keep a one- or no-land hand, or a six- or seven-land one. If you’re running more than one colour, you’ll also need to consider how many of the spells in your hand are actually castable off the colours you have, and whether being cut off one or more colours is a factor you need to take into account. Of course, in some decks this is not the case, and with those corner case situations it is up to the player to know their deck well enough and consider their chances of winning. In most cases, though, no colour fixing, too few lands, or even too many lands is an immediate mulligan, as many experienced players will tell you.
The second factor to consider is your deck’s strategy. What are you trying to do? Are you a combo deck, and the hand is missing some of your vital pieces? Are you an aggro deck, and it’s a little too slow? Are you control, and missing some element that might leave a gap in your armour? Every deck has something that it’s trying to fundamentally do, and if you keep a hand that doesn’t do that, you’ll risk losing because you can’t put a game plan together. These hands are much harder to throw away because they generally do have lands and spells in, and you will feel as if you want to keep it, but if you can play the game out in your head and think “I just need to find this” or “If I draw this, it gets there” – then maybe mulliganing is a decision you need to think about.
Finally, in Constructed, you need to think about the matchup itself. In game one, you typically won’t know what you’re facing, unless you are playing a friend you already know at FNM, so you will tend to keep more hands that are objectively good against most things before knowing what you will be playing against. In game two and three, however, this dynamic changes as you begin to consider what your opponent is trying to do, as well as what you are trying to do. You know which cards you need to win, and how quickly you need to find them.
If you are a control deck playing against a combo deck that runs no creatures, you might have a perfectly good hand with three colours of mana and four removal cards, but you’ll have to consider throwing it away because you know that none of those four removal cards are going to be useful against the opponent you’re playing.
In this case, although the hand is good, and the six you’re going to mulligan to might not be any better, you’ll need to think about whether the hand you have can win, and how much the extra card advantage afforded by keeping 7 will help you compared to the possibility of going to 6 and having more relevant spells. Be careful how far you go with this, and under which circumstances you will mulligan – even with one or two irrelevant cards, a 7 is generally worth keeping – but in the example above, a mulligan is definitely a consideration.
In contrast, you might have six lands and one sideboard card, but if the opponent might go off on turn 1 or 2 and you know that sideboard card will hose their strategy, it might even be a consideration to keep it, even though your deck goes nowhere without draws, simply because you know that stopping them going off is priority number one. Again, this makes for a tough decision and requires knowledge not only of what the opponent tried to do in game 1, but what sideboard plans they might bring in against you, and the likelihood of them having answers.
This is advanced mulligan theory and something which, generally, only the most experienced players will be able to correctly manage.
And When Shouldn’t We Mulligan?
One of the biggest traps with mulligans is trying to mulligan to find a specific card. If you know you have something that hoses the opponent in the deck, and you draw a fine opening hand that doesn’t have it, only in extreme situations should you mulligan to find it. Most often these situations occur in Legacy and Vintage against decks like Dredge, because the percentage chance of you winning without your Leyline of the Void is lower than the chance of it being in an opening 6-card hand. However, in Standard, Modern and Limited, there are almost no circumstances in which you should throw away a decent 7 to try and find some sideboard hate, as there are very few matchups which can produce these kinds of wild percentage swings.
Generally, unless the hand really doesn’t do anything for you in this matchup, you can’t afford to mulligan for your sideboard.
Those are the three biggest factors that you should be considering when taking a mulligan.
- Can my hand cast spells?
- Can my hand cast the spells I need to cast to win?
- Can my hand cast the spells I need to cast to win this particular matchup?
One of the most difficult parts about choosing to mulligan is the mathematics of it, which goes back to our original question concerning percentages. Everything from the die roll to the beginning of the game alters the percentages of each player winning, and mulligans are a key part of that. At the table, it’s difficult to try and consider things in terms of percentages and probability, especially considering you don’t know your opponent’s hand, but there are certain calculations you can do if you have a mathematical brain. Patrick Chapin, veteran pro player and author of a number of books about playing Magic (which, by the way, I would heartily recommend if you are trying to improve your skills), has calculated an equation for mulligans which has been widely published:
100%-[(Z/X)^Y] = odds of drawing a live card
Z = dead draws
X = cards in library
Y = number of draw steps
This is useful if you are considering keeping a borderline hand and need to think about how likely it is to get there, which is information you can use to support your mulligan decision. The equation is only an estimate and will only account for the first two or three draw steps, as it doesn’t allow for the number of cards in the library constantly decreasing, but it will inform you roughly how likely you are to draw something you need in the first few turns.
How Can I Apply All This?
It is difficult to think about the mathematics when you are fundamentally thinking on a personal level. Each player’s innate desire to win the game will be a factor in a mulligan decision, and to some extent people will think with their emotions. Even though a statistically terrible six may require another mulligan, sometimes the thought of going down to five will outweigh the potential percentage point increase and the player will keep a hand they probably shouldn’t, based on the fact that they will get to scry and hopefully see what they need on top. This is one of the top mistakes made when mulliganing (I am also a culprit) and should be avoided if at all possible. If you have gone down to 6, you can go down to 5.
Another important thing to consider when mulliganing is consistency. If you have had a few bad rounds in a tournament, and had to mulligan more than once on a couple of occasions, psychologically you will be less likely to mulligan a 7 that has lands and spells in it later on in the day, even if they are not the spells you need. This is not good. It is something that we all do, unless we have massive amounts of self-control and determination, as it’s human nature. We let bad beats from a mulligan to four get us down, and then we try not to mulligan again to avoid repeat experiences. This can happen to the best players among us.
Try your best to look at each hand objectively, and each new match with fresh eyes. Would this hand be a keep if it was round 1? If the answer is no, then ship it away. Keeping consistency in your mulligans is important, because then you will be more likely to see patterns in your own play and be able to correct errors. A good way to practice is to spend a few hours sitting and simply shuffling up your deck, drawing some hands and making some keep-or-mulligan decisions. Alternatively, play a few games with a friend which only go for a few turns, to see how much your keep or mulligan decisions can affect your gameplay. It is important to know yourself and learn how you make these tough choices, as it will help you to stay consistent in tournament play.
This kind of consideration is less important if you only play at Friday Night Magic, as the number of rounds will be lower and therefore the strain on your mind is far less. However, if anyone is looking to improve their gameplay to serious and competitive levels, this aspect of mulligan theory is something that is very important and necessary in order to improve your percentages over a long eight or nine-round day.
Essentially, Magic is a game with large amounts of variance and luck. Mulligans, and mulliganing properly, are tools to reduce that variance and increase the control a player has over which cards they will start the game with. Knowledge of the format and experience with your deck are key factors in learning to mulligan properly, as well as considering all the information available to you at the time and being able to calculate whether your hand is good enough, or not good enough. The important thing to remember is that there is no hard-and-fast rule on how to properly mulligan or whether a particular hand is a keep. It all comes down to statistics, but although a 20% chance to win may seem low, it means that usually, one in five games, it’ll happen. The best you can do to improve your chances is avoid the traps, don’t be scared to mulligan if you need to, and play your best with the cards you end up with!
Community Question: Would you keep or mulligan the following hand – and why?
Deck: Bant Company
Hand: Yavimaya Coast, Island, Selfless Spirit, Tireless Tracker, Collected Company, Reflector Mage, Archangel Avacyn
Let us know your thoughts – it’s a tough one!
Thanks for reading,