Play Patterns: Keep or Mull?

It’s a fun exercise you’ll see a lot on Twitch streams. They’ll show a picture of a seven card hand, some information about being on the draw or play, what you know about the opponent’s deck, and the question posed for audiences:

Keep or Mull?

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It’s a puzzle designed to make you weigh the positives and negatives of your mulligan decision. Will you get to a red source for Unlicensed Disintegration or a fourth land for Gideon? Will the Fatal Push and Ballista carry you long enough to get to the lands you need? There’s a lot to contemplate and a lot to consider before deciding whether or not you need to go to six cards. Of course going to six cards is not ideal since we’ll be starting the game with fewer resources than our opponent. Because we want as many resources as we can get to start the game, thinking hard about whether or not a seven card hand is good enough is very important.

While this can be a fun game to play while watching the pro tour, it’s also a useful exercise to use when evaluating your own hands. Some hands are no-brainers, you know, the “all spells, no lands” or the “all lands, no spells” kind of hands. Others, like the one above, are not so straightforward.

When evaluating your hands, try thinking through the first couple of turns to better understand how good or bad your opener is. Do you have a decent curve of spells? Do you have all of your colors? Will you be able to sequence your fetches and tap lands to properly cast your spells on curve?

Let’s look at some opening hands on the play against an unknown opponent.

abzan 1 land

This hand is completely hinged on drawing a string of lands over the next couple of turns. If we don’t, there’s a very good chance our hand will get jammed up and will be too slow and clunky. Don’t convince yourself you “just need one more land.” While you only need one more land to be able to cast spells, you need a lot more than just one more land. Convincing yourself that a hand is keepable because of a card you MIGHT draw is flawed logic in any scenario. Work with what you know you have, and in this instance, you don’t have the resources to cast any of your spells.

jund no color

This hand has a nice balance of lands and spells but we’re missing a color. Our early interaction isn’t reliable without a black source of mana and our late game plays may end up not mattering if we spend the first 3 turns doing nothing. That’s a big enough risk to make this hand a mulligan.

abzan close keep

This hand is pretty close. We have some early game interaction we can cast and aren’t too far off from casting the top end of our curve either. We have a number of different ways we can play out our hand and even if we don’t draw a land we’ll have 2 castable pieces of interaction and a threat.

Thinking through this hand, I would play the tap land turn 1 and turn 2 Thoughtseize off the Vent. Then, I can use the Catacombs to fetch Overgrown Tomb to Push a turn 1 or 2 play from my opponent. If they don’t cast a spell that can be Pushed, I can leave the fetch up going into my turn. By refusing to thin my deck, I’m increasing my chances of drawing a third land. Turn 3 I can play my Tarmogoyf. Of course all of this is without the information of my future draws which could potentially change these decision points. The fact that I have a plan going all the way into turn 3 makes this a fine keep in my opinion. On the other hand, the first two examples just don’t have a reliable plan that doesn’t involve luck and good draws. Going to 6 does not automatically mean you’re conceding to your opponent because you’re down a card, so don’t be afraid of mulliganing!

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Game 1 it’s important to understand the limitations of your deck when it comes to mulligans. Decks like Bogles and Tron can mulligan down to 4 cards and still be able to function properly and win. A deck like Burn or Elves require a high concentration of action to win and going down to 6 or below can make that difficult. Understanding your limitations can help you better judge when you need to stop mulliganing and just accept what you have. There is a certain threshold for each deck where mulliganing beyond that point will significantly decrease your chances of winning. Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa has done many Keep or Mull articles in the past and separates these two deck into “quantity” and “quality” decks. Decks that can afford to mulligan because the cards they want in their hand are powerful enough to negate the downside of starting the game with fewer cards are “quality” decks. The decks that have very redundant spells, where mulliganing can simply equate to having one less of the same spell, are “quantity” decks.

With G/B decks, a good hand game 1 often means just having a balance of spells and lands. I believe this makes G/B a sort of hybrid “quality/quantity” deck. We want to start the game with enough resources to execute our game-plan but aren’t relying on redundancy to determine good hands. Our deck is split into three categories: threats, disruption/removal, lands. Having a mix of these game 1 is all we can ask for.

Against an unknown opponent, we don’t know which cards will be the strongest. Being able to simply make your land drops, get all your colors, and cast your cards will typically be good enough for a keep. A hand that is removal heavy and threat light is bad against Control but good against Humans, unfortunately we can’t know if the hand is right for the match until we keep it and play through it. If you have to mulligan game 1, I would be hard pressed to go any lower than 5. I believe this is the threshold for G/B decks game 1. Going beyond that greatly limits the decks capability to function as a three color deck that wants both threats and interaction in our opening hand.

Being on the play or draw will also affect your decision. Being on the draw often bodes well for mulligan decisions since the extra card drawn in conjunction with a scry can often turn a questionable 7 into a very strong 6. On the play you’re much more reliant on what’s in hand at face value making mulligan decisions a bit more difficult.

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After sideboarding, our frame of mind needs to change in accordance with what our opponent is playing. Now we know what cards are strongest in the match, and we’ll be looking for them in our opening hand.  A balance of mana sources and spells is of course still very important when considering whether or not you need to mulligan post sideboarding. What many people forget to do is also evaluate the cards in hand for the match-up in specific. Often times players will automatically keep hands that have 3 lands and some spells even though the cards don’t do much against the opponent.

Correctly determining when to aggressively mulligan against a known opponent is an important skill to learn. Aggressively mulliganing means throwing away seemingly capable hands for ones that have a better chance at winning. In G/Bx mirrors, almost any hand with a nice balance of spells and lands will do and the difference between a game 1 keep and a game 2 keep may not vary by much. It’s hard to know exactly what you’ll need in a match-up with so much attrition that will inevitably come down to top-decks anyway. On the other hand, when facing a very narrow deck like Dredge, you’ll need some specific cards to navigate the match successfully.

Let’s look at an opening hand against Dredge playing G/B Rock and see if it’s worth keeping. This is game 2 and we’re on the play.

Keep or Mull?

GB mull 1

This is the trap hand. We can play what we have, we’re not gonna die to mana screw, and while it looks like a nice keep-able hand in most situations, the question this hand fails to answer well is, “Does this win against dredge?” This is the most important question and is often times the question ignored. In postboard games always ask yourself this:

“Does this hand win against the opponent’s deck?”

The fact that this hand has a nice balance of spells and lands creates an illusion that this is in fact a good hand when it actually isn’t because it does absolutely nothing against Dredge. People get so caught up in making sure they don’t lose to their own deck, that they’re willing to concede to their opponent so long as they get to cast a couple of spells first. This is the most important point I want to make with this article as I believe it’s the most difficult hurdle to overcome when learning to mulligan better.

I get it. It’s not fun to pitch hands that have a nice balance of lands and spells only to keep questionable 1 landers, mulligan to 5, or to put all your faith into a scry. Unfortunately, the hand above falls into the same category of “cross my fingers and hope I draw what I need,” without the helpless feeling of missing land drops or having uncastable cards in hand. The comfort of casting a couple of spells and making your land drops before dying should not make your loss any easier to stomach.

I see it happen all too often. Players who keep hands with little to no interaction appropriate for the match-up only to turn around and blame their loss on variance and bad draws. While there’s no way of knowing if mulliganing would have ended up better for them, by refusing to do so, they gave themselves only the lowest possible chance of winning.

There is a chance you could draw hot and get your hate cards on curve to win with this hand, but the same could be said about any hand against any opponent. Perhaps if this hand had a Grim Flayer at a minimum to dig for interaction like Scavenging Ooze, Kalitas, or Leyline of the Void we’d keep it. As it stands now, it’s pretty slow with Fatal Push not being a great answer to any of the recursive threats in Dredge and Tireless Tracker being very slow.

Okay, we’ve decided this hand just won’t cut it and we need to mulligan to 6. Is this keep-able?

GB mull 2 for real

This is when we start shaking our head with disappointment. “Ugh, why didn’t I just keep my seven. Can I afford to go any lower? Had to get lucky in this match anyway, right?” Yes, this is worse than the seven, but it’s still on par with the first hand in that it does not have a winning line. Unfortunately we have to go to 5.

 GB mull 2

Now you regret driving 2 hours to this big tournament. You internally feel both defeat and frustration. We have some awesome cards for the match in Scavenging Ooze and Kalitas but don’t have any lands. Guess we’re going to 4.

 GB mull 4

Hey, now wait a second. This…this might actually work. This looks like a hand that could actually beat Dredge! Maybe the match is salvaged! Our opponent won’t have access to their graveyard from the get-go and we have a fast clock to back it up that can fix our future draws. Pair that with a scry and we’ve got a real fighting chance.

Dredge is HEAVILY dependent on the graveyard for its power. Taking that away before the game begins can buy you a lot of turns. This 4 card hand is ten times better than the original opening 7 because of how strong our interaction is.

This match is hinged on some very specific cards to win, and without them, Dredge can be almost unstoppable. Keeping a hand that’s light on this kind of interaction is just asking to get ran over. In this scenario, we’ve properly adapted our mulligan threshold for the match-up and found the winning line after going to 4.

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Mulliganing isn’t an exact science, it can’t be, there’s just too much variance involved in your future draws and the unknown information of your opponent’s hand. You can do a lot of research into the mathmatics of mulliganing with the odds and percentages of drawing certain cards in certain situations. However this doesn’t help as much in the moment when there isn’t time to conduct those calculations. Most of our keeps and mulligans are based on a small amount of information like knowledge of our deck, our opponents deck, our possible draws, and instinct. Instead of memorizing percentages  and odds, I can offer some simple guidelines and practices to recap:

  • Play out the first couple of turns in your head to create a plan. Ensure you have a curve of threats and disruptions with the appropriate lands to execute. If a good plan can’t be produced from the cards in hand, then go to 6.
  • When you need to mulligan, don’t be afraid to do it. If you don’t have a good plan with your opening 7, then ship it back without fear. I’ve kept multiple 5 card hands that were infinitely better than the opening 7. Trust that there are better 6’s and 5’s that have winning lines when your 7 does not. Don’t keep mediocrity for the sake of having more cards in hand.
  • Postboard, it’s important to understand the match-up, the cards needed to win, and how aggressively you need to mulligan to find those cards. Knowing what cards are above par in the match and whether you need to mulligan balanced hands to find them is an important aspect to evaluate.

Mulliganing is a difficult thing to master, and even professionals struggle sometimes when weighing the pros and cons of their openers. Modern games are usually decided within the first 3-4 turns. This often means that your opening hand will have a lot to do with your success or failure in a match-up. Recognizing the hands that will bring you success from the ones that will bring you defeat will help you answer the difficult, important question:

Keep or Mull?

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