The Expert’s Guide to Mulliganing in Constructed
Magic is an insanely complex game that tests a myriad of skills with every match. Despite many games presenting scenarios that will likely never be replicated again, Magic players live or die by their ability to successfully navigate these situations. That being said, it’s pretty ironic that one of the skills that most players seem to struggle with is one that comes up in nearly every single game of Magic played: mulliganing. Although it’s such a core skill, it’s no surprise that it’s one of the toughest as it tests so many facets of a Magic player’s arsenal in a single decision (the decision being whether to mulligan or not, what card to put back if you do mulligan is another slew of tests). There have been plenty of articles going over particular hands in different scenarios to talk about whether or not a mulligan is appropriate there, and although I do find those interesting, they aren’t always the most helpful. Even amongst the upper echelon of play, professional players seem to have radically different approaches to how to mulligan (Seth Manfield with his famous Seth keeps vs PVDDR with his very aggressive mulliganing) which makes it hard to know who’s right. Therein lies the secret, there really is no strategy that’s correct, just heuristics that can get you close to a good answer. With that, I’m not proclaiming to have mastered the art of mulliganing, nobody truly has, but I believe that if you ask yourself these 3 fundamental questions when deciding on a mulligan, you’ll be correct more often than not. Ideally speaking, if you master answering these 3 fundamental questions you can often make a correct mulliganing decision no matter what you’re playing with or against! Before I dive right in, I touch on some topics from my Game Plans article so if you haven’t read that, I recommend that you should. Before we start, let’s address Limited quickly.
WHY IS THIS MULLIGAN GUIDE ONLY FOR CONSTRUCTED?
I’m not going to say I have expert knowledge for Limited, but mulliganing in Limited is a pretty simple metric for me. If the hand does anything, keep it. There’s definitely a bit more nuance to it depending on your deck, but that’s more or less my philosophy. Limited is more ruled by card advantage compared to Constructed so mulliganing is a much larger detriment comparatively as well.
QUESTION #1: WHAT DOES THIS HAND ACCOMPLISH?
This is very similar to the concept of what your game plan is, so again, if you haven’t read my article on that, you should. Why do we instinctively mulligan hands that are 7 lands or 0 lands? It may seem obvious, but that’s because they don’t accomplish anything. Magic is won by casting spells, so if you can’t do that, it’s obvious you should mulligan. The weird thing is, although functionally every player understands thist, applying it to every hand is not a common concept. Generally you want your hands to be a mix of lands and spells, but you have to keep in mind what that hand is going to do on average. Map out your first few turns with the hand to see what that’s going to look like and based on your knowledge of your deck, surmise if that is a good plan or not. If your turn mapping doesn’t produce a scenario that you believe you can win, you should probably mulligan. How do you know if a hand has a good enough plan to win? That comes down to your deck knowledge. If you’re so new to a deck or archetype that you’re completely unsure whether or not a hand accomplishes the deck’s plan, then use that as an opportunity to learn. The first step to knowing when to mulligan is understanding what is “good” enough versus what isn’t, so establishing a knowledge base to work off of is critical. For example, can Monored on the draw keep a hand of 4 lands and 3 expensive spells? Likely not as your curve will probably be too slow.
This is just the first question you have to ask yourself when deciding a mulligan, but it’s the most important one when you don’t know the matchup you’re in. When it’s game 1, both players are more focused on enacting their game plan than interacting with the opposing plan so looking for a hand that is very proactive is generally a wise choice.
QUESTION #2: HOW DOES THIS HAND MATCH UP WITH MY OPPONENT’S DECK?
Like the first question, the second question to mulliganing is similar to the second level of game plans: how well does your plan line up against the opponents? This is a question you can only ask once you know the matchup you’re in, however this is easily the most challenging part of deciding when to mulligan. This question can only be answered once you establish what your general plan is in the matchup. How do you normally win? How do you normally lose? What is the average game going to look like? When you can answer these questions, you can have a reasonable framework to base your mulligan decision off of.
Let’s use an example, say you’re playing Monored and you have a hand that’s 3 Mountains, 1 Faceless Haven, and 3 Fireblade Chargers. Is this a keepable hand? Well it depends what you’re facing. Say you’re against a slow deck that only plays a few single target removal spells, how does this hand fare? While not amazing, I could see this hand being reasonable if you need to get under a deck that doesn’t play much removal. What if you’re still playing the same deck, but they play 4 Suffocating Fumes? Now the situation is entirely different. Despite the deck not playing much removal, the opponent drawing even a single copy of Suffocating Fumes is enough to completely destroy your hand’s game plan. With that, a hand that may have been keepable before would be a huge mistake with this knowledge. Although most decisions won’t be this straightforward, having an understanding of the matchup dynamic is pivotal to making a proper mulligan decision.
Let’s now work through the thought process of a mulligan decision. So question 1 is what does this hand accomplish? You scan over the hand and you map out the first few turns. In abstraction, the hand seems to have a functional plan. So the second question, how does this hand line up against the opponent’s plan? You have to surmise whether or not your hand’s plan works well against the average hand your opponent is going to present and/or your opponent’s game plan. If you believe the answer is yes, you have a keep on your hands. If you don’t, then you mulligan. What if you’re unsure though? That’s when you have to go to the final fundamental question.
QUESTION #3: WHAT’RE THE ODDS THIS HAND CAN “GET THERE”?
Mulliganing would be very easy if you could always establish a binary of this hand is good enough versus this isn’t. However, the most difficult aspect of the mulligan is a hand that seems close, how do you decide? Well, the best way is to go over the first two questions to see if that can answer your question. If you go through those questions and you still don’t have a definitive answer, you need to surmise the odds of the hand “getting there”. Before we can answer that though, let’s discuss what getting there even means.
This may seem controversial, but I think that players mulligan too little and too often. What does this even mean? Like I said in the beginning, in terms of mulligans, most people fall into two camps: the aggressive keepers or the aggressive mulliganers (though the aggressive keepers are significantly more common). I don’t believe that one system is better than the other so whatever camp a player falls into is fine, but I find that most players are too true to their style. Whether someone keeps a hand because it has lands and spells or mulligans because it isn’t the nuts, going too far in one direction is obviously bad no matter your proclivities. That being said, I think being so polarized is a misunderstanding of what the hand needs to get there, or, a subpar hand’s ability to turn into a winning game plan. Note how I say winning over a functioning gameplan. A lot of players in the aggressive keeps category will keep hands that can’t get there unless everything goes right for them. I can’t even count the number of times I had opponents snap keep 7s only to not do anything for the first few turns and just lose. For a hand to get there, you need to have a reasonable belief that if you draw a certain way, the hand can definitely win.
How do you determine if a borderline hand has the ability to get there? You can find out in a few more questions. The first question is: is the hand close to having a game plan you’re happy to enact in this matchup? This is functionally a blending of the first 2 questions as if a borderline hand doesn’t have any of the tools to create a cohesive game plan, no matter what you draw, then it’s a mulligan. The second question is: what do I need to draw to give this hand a functional game plan? This is again a blending and extension of the first two questions. You need to be able to analyze the hand and figure out what it’s missing to enact a winning plan. The final question is: what’re the odds I draw the things I need? Here’s where the knowledge of your deck is extremely important. It’s not really talked about, but having your exact decklist memorized is extremely helpful when having to make hard mulligan decisions. If you don’t want to memorize the whole deck, you can even memorize the ratios. If you need just one land to have a great hand and you know how many lands you play, you can make rough calculations in your head to figure out the likelihood of drawing one in an acceptable time frame. Now once you have your rough calculation, what do you do with it? There’s no steadfast rule, but I base it off how good I perceive the matchup to be. If I perceive the matchup to be bad, I’m willing to take greater risks in order to keep a hand with a good plan. Conversely, if I think I’m favored in a matchup, I’m not going to take a large risk to keep a hand when my average hand is likely to be good enough anyway. There’s no hard guideline on how much risk you should be willing to incur, but I view it as a function of the perceived win rate of a matchup overall. If I’m in a matchup that I feel I’m 30% to win and my hand has a 35% chance of coming together with a winning game plan, I’d be willing to keep it. However, if I perceive I have a 70% chance to win a matchup, but only a 50/50 shot of a hand working out, I’m likely to mulligan. This seems to be the major hiccup in a lot of player’s decisions and I would say most aggressive keepers are too optimistic about their chances of winning and don’t analyze what the odds are of the plan actually working. A lot of games are decided by the opening hand, so with that knowledge and the absolute massive amount of time Arena gives to mulligan decisions, this is the time to be the most critical.
That’s the framework I base all of my mulligan decisions off of. I’m not claiming this is the perfect system or the best system, but I believe it gets me what I need way more often than not. If you’re able to answer the three questions when analyzing a hand, I think you’ll find how good your average hand is will increase drastically. The biggest limiting factor in this framework is the amount of knowledge you need to properly utilize it, but that’s the easy part. Understanding what’s good in each matchup and how you win/lose will come naturally when you’re playing with a deck, but what to do with that knowledge once you have it is always the hard part. Remember that anybody can learn more about anything, however you should always search for ways on how to apply that knowledge to your benefit.
Thank you for reading!