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Keep or Mulligan #1

As previously announced, we will be publishing articles by Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa originally posted on Substack for everybody to enjoy as a taste of what’s to come on the MTG Arena Zone Premium section!

Hey everyone!

Today we’re going to do a Keep or Mulligan article, where I present you with some interesting hands and you have the option of keeping or mulliganing. I’ve also included a turn 1 play situation that came up during our testing and that I thought was worth talking about. I’m going to leave you with the hands first and the answers and explanations below it.

Scenario 1

You’re playing Legacy, Izzet Delver against Reanimator (Black/Red). It’s Game 2 and you’re on the draw. Your relevant sideboard cards are two Force of Negation and two Surgical Extraction. Your opponent is on the play and they mulliganed.

Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Explanation and Answer

Normally, I would be very much against keeping a hand that cannot produce Blue mana. However, we must consider the context of the matchup — you’re playing against a combo deck with a lot of discard spells.

As a general rule, when you’re playing against combo, you need to have at least one piece of interaction. Sometimes that’s going to be Force of Will, sometimes that’s going to be Surgical Extraction, and sometimes it’s just going to be Daze. Most hands without a single piece of interaction, especially on the draw, are not going to be good enough.

This hand has interaction in spades, but it lacks anything else. In fact, it’s very far from having anything else, as there’s no card you can even cast if you draw. You need to draw a blue land, and then you need to draw something you want to cast. The Wastelands are also not great here, as they cast no spells in your deck and the opponent will probably be able to find a basic Swamp (though they are not entirely useless either, they could be very good in some games).

In return, what you get is several pieces of disruption — enough so that it will insulate you from discard spells. A real risk when playing versus a Reanimator deck is that they will just discard your one piece of disruption and then combo you out, so having extra copies is always good.

In the end, is this hand worth it? My impression is that it is, but it’s pretty close. This hand is sort of close to “we both mulligan to 0 and topdeck from there”, and I think the Delver deck should be advantaged there, as the opponent is going to have few cards that do anything compared to you — if you manage to stop their enablers, then every reanimation spell and every big creature is going to be a blank, whereas you only need to draw a land for most of your draws to be live. Plus, they did mulligan and you could always cheese them with your two Wastelands.

So, in the end, I think this is close, but my answer is Keep.

Scenario 2

You’re playing BG Food in Historic, and you’re post-sideboard against Izzet Phoenix. You’re on the play and your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Explanation and Answer

This hand has some things going for it — you have a removal spell for a big creature and two pieces of graveyard interaction, so you can stop Arclight Phoenix even if they happen to Pithing Needle the one you have in play. You have Gilded Goose to produce mana even if you don’t draw a land, Lantern to cycle, and then what is possibly your best card in Ravenous Squirrel. The counterpoint is that you’re not going to cast anything on turn 1 and you might be locked into casting one spell a turn for a while.

Overall, with hands like this, my philosophy is to consider how good the matchup is. The better my matchup is, the less likely I am to keep a hand that can lead to disaster, and I think this land can definitely lead to disaster, as it’s a one-lander and the land is tapped, so it’s clunky on top of that.

Given that I consider the matchup of BG Food vs UR Phoenix to be pretty good for BG Food, I don’t see the need to keep a hand like this. Yes, you have graveyard hate and the graveyard hate is good, but you don’t need graveyard hate to be able to win — you can just win a game without it on a solid six card hand. If the matchup was impossible without graveyard hate, then I’d keep the hand.

So, my answer is Mulligan.

Scenario 3

You’re playing Mono-White Aggro in Standard, and you’re on the play versus an unknown deck. Your deck has 2 Legion Angel maindeck and 2 in the sideboard. Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Explanation and Answer

When I played the White deck in Alchemy, I’d have seriously considered a hand like this (or the equivalent, since we didn’t play Legion Angel), because I felt that deck behaved more as a midrange deck than an aggro deck, and you didn’t need to apply any pressure. In Standard, however, the deck assumes a much more aggressive role. The cards that allow you to grind out the opponent (Sigardian EvangelInquisitor CaptainFaceless Haven) aren’t there – instead you have cards like Usher of the Fallen and fully powered Luminarch Aspirants.

Because of this, I don’t believe you can keep a hand as slow as this one. Yes, you might be playing against a deck where Portable Hole and Eiganjo are both going to be live, and then this hand can actually be OK on the power of Legion Angel, but I think overall I’m looking for more than just a Hopeful Initiate in my opening hand, and I think you can do better on six cards.

So, my answer is Mulligan.

Scenario 4

You’re playing the Rakdos Invoke Despair deck in Alchemy. It’s Game 1 and you’re on the play against the Rakdos Mirror. Your opening hand is:

Keep or Mulligan?

Explanation and Answer

Traditionally, Rakdos mirrors are very grindy — they are not about applying a lot of pressure but rather about having the last big threat standing. The Rakdos mirror in Alchemy is no exception. There is a lot of removal going around (especially in Game 1, before players have had the chance to sideboard some of it out), so it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to rush the other player down. What’s going to matter instead is incrementing two-for-ones (which this hand doesn’t really have) and powerful late-game spells (which this hand does have).

Another very important thing about the Rakdos mirrors is that having blank pieces of cardboard is very important. Discard effects are abundant, and there’s also looting in the form of Fable of the Mirror-Breaker and potentially The Celestus. This means that excess lands are never really excessive — you always have a way of getting rid of them — and excess five-drops are not bad either, as they insulate you from Citystalker Connoisseur.

Overall, I would say the bar for keeping a hand in the Rakdos mirror, especially in Game 1, is really low. I would mulligan if the two Invoke Despairs were two more removal spells, but that’s about the extent of it.

This hand clearly clears that bar for me, so my vote is Keep.

Scenario 5

You’re playing Alchemy Izzet (a UR deck based around casting Invoke Calamity on Body of Research and then after that sacrificing it to Kazuul's Fury) versus a Rakdos deck. This is Game 2, you’re on the play, and your opening hand is:

I assume we’re keeping, but which land do you play on turn 1 — Pathway or Jwari Ruins?

Explanation and Answer

This hand is a bit tricky, because there are things pulling us in both directions. We really need to map out the next turns of the game to figure out what we want to do.

One option is trying to use our Jwari Disruption for value. This is almost certainly going to be possible, given that we’re on the play, so we’ll be able to hit a turn 2 creature like Rahilda, Wanted Cutthroat or Bloodthirsty Adversary, or a discard spell (Check for TrapsUndercity Plunder). Even if you hit nothing on turn 2, chances are you’ll be able to hit something on turn 3 or even turn 4 with your Disruption — it’s going to be a good card for you.

So, if we play Pathway, we’re hoping to play another Pathway turn 2 and then Jwari Disruption their 2-drop, whether that’s a creature or a discard spell. Then, if we don’t draw a land, we’ll want to play Expressive Iteration on turn 3 to find one. If we do draw a land, we can play Spoils or Divide by Zero depending on how things are looking.

If we play the Jwari Ruins on turn 1, we’re planning to play Negate on turn 2 (assuming we can do that), and then one of the three-mana spells — we’re probably saving Expressive Iteration for turns 4 or 5.

Which line is better? To me, they are really close. If you draw a bunch of lands in a row, you’ll regret playing Disruption; If you don’t draw a third land, you’ll regret not playing it as a land. So, which one is it?

When I am in spots like this (a perfectly fine hand, on the play, everything going right), I like to minimize risks. In this case, not having enough lands is a big risk — I would say it’s the biggest risk with this hand. Having too many lands is also a risk, but it’s a much smaller risk, because the Izzet decks operate well with a high land count and I already have two potential ways of getting rid of them (the Divide and the Spoils). The real risk with this approach is getting hit by a Rahilda on turn 2, but not everyone even plays that card, and if they do have it, you can still play Divide by Zero on it or try to find an answer in two turns. A lot of your cards are reactive, so getting hit by Rahilda once isn’t the end of the world.  

Overall, I think your hand is just too awkward if you lead with Pathway and don’t draw a land until turn 3. This forces you to play Expressive Iteration, which is not what you want to do because it will make the rest of your curve super awkward. Not drawing a land in two draw steps is not so unlikely, so I want to minimize this scenario. 

So, my choice is to play Jwari Ruins on turn 1.

That’s what I have for today! If you have any questions or disagreements, feel free to reach out here or on Discord.

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Paulo Vitor "PVDDR" Damo da Rosa has been a professional Magic: the Gathering player and writer for over 20 years. He was Player of the Year in 2017, World Champion in 2020, and is tied for most Top Finishes in history with 17. He will play whichever decks he thinks are the best, but his favorite style is aggro-control. Other than Magic, PV is also a fan of watching TV shows, reading fantasy novels and playing several other games such as Bridge, LoL, TFT, Storybook Brawl, Baldur's Gate 2 and Diablo 2.

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