Off Topic: A Short Guide to Mulliganing

Welcome to the New Year! It is the time of year when we look dangerously in the mirror and promise to do better. Even though all of our resolutions might not be successful, it is important to try. Every attempt brings the possibility of success. An increase in the number of attempts results in the greater odds of success. Eventually, probability will smile upon us. As a Magic player, my New Year’s resolution is to improve my mulligans. My words are carefully crafted. I didn’t say about how to mulligan a specific hand or certain decisions. A lot more goes into a person’s mulligan success rate than the starting seven. The novice approach is to keep any hand with two land. Generally, such standard drivel is not necessarily bad advice for beginners. However, I hope to make smarter choices in the coming year.

Getting Intimate

The key to any mulligan decision is the piloted deck itself. Different decks will have varying degrees of requirements. White Weenie will mulligan more closely with “two land hand: keep” while decks such as five-color deck’s mulligan decisions will focus heavily on color requirements. A person won’t understand those decisions unless they know their decks…intimately. There is a difference between knowing how to play a deck and having an intimate knowledge of a deck. Generally speaking, I know how to play most Standard decks. I could easily borrow a deck at an FNM and perform to a decent finish. However, I don’t know exactly what to sideboard in against certain archetypes. The color requirements may be hazy. I could have the best starting hand and not know it. My experience with other decks is severely lacking.

Legacy Rock ElvesMagic OnlineOCTGN2ApprenticeBuy These Cards
4 Llanowar Elves
3 Elves of Deep Shadow
4 Wren's Run Vanquisher
4 Wirewood Herald
4 Imperious Perfect
3 Elvish Champion
4 Sylvan Messenger
1 Wren's Run Packmaster

4 Thoughtseize
3 Cabal Therapy
4 Eyeblight's Ending

2 Umezawa's Jitte

4 Verdant Catacombs
4 Gilt-Leaf Palace
4 Bayou
1 Swamp
2 Yavimaya Hollow
6 Forest

I constructed Rock Elves for Legacy Tournaments. The rogueness of the deck has advantages and it is deceptively good. However, I account most of my victories to my intimate knowledge of the deck or more accurately, the Rock Elves archetype. I have play tested it extensively and tweaked it numerous times. I know playing against any kind of Phyrexian Dreadnought deck means an auto win. Eyeblight's Ending is awesome because it kills 90% of the creatures in legacy and will commonly zip around Counterbalance. Besides, killing an opponent’s 50 dollar Tarmogoyf with a 20 cent card is simply fun. The disbelief on their face is priceless. Goblins and Progenitus decks are beatable. It is a race, but doable. With my amount of wins with Yavimaya Hollow, I wonder why anybody playing green isn’t playing the legendary land. More importantly, I know how to mulligan the deck. From my extensive experience, I need about 10 seconds to make the right decision.

Intimacy equals better mulligan decisions. Therefore, don’t expect to make good decisions with each mulligan without intimacy. Taking a random deck to a large tournament may not be a good idea. I’m not saying it is impossible. It simply falls in the category of cons and there is an increased potential for bad decisions. This aspect is compounded more at larger tournaments such as a Grand Prix. The high number of rounds will create more games; it produces more times a person has to make a decision to mulligan. Large tournaments are long and mentally draining. As the tournament continues, the lack of experience with a deck will begin to take effect. Intimate knowledge with a deck will ease those burdens and improve the odds of success.

Mana Sources

Yeah, it seems weird I am even mentioning mana sources. I feel it warrants mentioning because of its importance and fatal flaw most of us step into again and again. The most crucial aspect is lack of mana sources. I say mana sources because lands aren’t all inclusive of other cards like Desperate Ritual, Elvish Spirit Guide, and the elite Mox family. I do think players are getting better, but I constantly see people cutting lands to make room for spells. I understand. More spells and less lands seems logical. At tournament time, a one land or no land hand will really hurt and followed by another mulligan. An increase in mana sources decreases the amount of mulligans. Sure, drawing a land at a crucial point later on in the game sucks. However, the first three turns are the most crucial turns of the game. Missing a second, third land drop loses more games than anything. Simply put, if you want to decrease the amount of mulligans, increase the dam mana sources.

Mana Requirements

Colored mana requirements for a deck are integral to the number of mana sources in a deck. The subject should be separated from the sheer number. A five-colored deck with two lands will have different mulligan decisions compared to a mono-black deck with two lands. As the color requirements in a deck go up so does the potential for a bad starting hand. Therefore, I don’t sympathize with players who play multi-colored decks. To me, it an accepted risk by the pilot of the deck. I believe there are two distinct issues to be asked in an opening hand. The first, can I play my hand? It is more of an obvious thought process. The second took me years to get through my thick skull: can I play my deck? A player shouldn’t just account for the playability of the opening hand. After casting those two playable spells, the rest of the deck flops because nothing else can be played. It is important to consider both requirements before keeping the initial seven.


My opening hand has 3 of the right land: I should keep, right? Maybe. How fast is the format or the deck? Decks like Vial-Goblins, Red Deck Wins, and even Lightsaber-Naya are about speed. In those cases, a slow hand is a losing hand. Yeah, I know it sucks throwing back a three, land hand. When an archetype is defined by its speed, the tempo of the deck must be considered before saying keep. But... isn’t fair. Hey, it is the deck you decided to play. Besides, it isn’t like a Goblin Lackey into Siege-Gang Commander has been the cornerstone of fair. I apologize to those who cringe at the word of Jund. It is a good example in this case. Jund isn’t about speed, but the inevitability of its card advantage spells. The deck cares more about mana sources and requirements than speed. A slow Jund hand can still lead to victory. Before a big tournament, sit down and think about how important it is for the chosen deck to be explosive. Can it afford a slow start? Another question to ask, how important is the explosiveness of the deck against the archetypes in the field? Take my Rock Elves. Against Phyrexian Dreadnought style decks, I can afford a slow start. In those cases, it is not as important. Against Vial-Goblins, I better pitch a slow hand.


Panhandling my own personal theory. Nonetheless, the sequential order of the deck is equally important as speed. The sequential order of an opening hand can equate to what is known as a God hand. Fairies was famous for unstoppable opening hands such as Thoughtseize into Bitterblossom to a Spellsputter Sprite followed by either Cryptic Command or Mistbind Clique. Vial-Goblins wants to open with a Aether Vial or Goblin Lackey. The lack of either card in the opening hand should make the pilot question the playability of it. Combo decks really care about the sequential order of their cards. An opening hand wants either a Brainstorm or Ponder in its grip. The implications of this will be deck dependent. Again, ask these questions before the start of the tournament.

Personal Preference

I hate to mulligan. As such, I tend to steer clear of decks with mulligan issues. Combo decks are powerful and have consistency issues. I don’t like to play combo because of those inconsistencies. It is one of the reasons I like to play my Rock Elves deck. I rarely have to mulligan. One or two lands are usually automatic keepers. Mulligan issues are nonexistent and those reasons cause me to enjoy my tournament experiences much more. As players out there deciding on the deck for the next 5k, think about mulligan issues. My suggestion to less experienced players is to pick a deck with less complicated mulligan decisions. I would suggest something like vampires, white weenie, or red deck wins. These decks are less complicated to mulligan and result in less bonehead errors without the frustration of mana screw. Again, it is personal preference and how comfortable a person is in their own abilities.

Free Mulligan Wins

Metagame all you want, but sometimes keeping an original seven simply wins games. After keeping the starting hand, an opponent will simply scoop to a small explosive hand. It doesn’t matter the rest of the cards in my hand were inconsequential. All my opponent knew was I came out in a blaze of glory and they had zip. It was a free win all because I didn’t need to mulligan. A strong sense of confidence helps the situation. Regardless, experience level should account for the deck choice at hand. Complicated or unfamiliar decks will only result in inexperienced players becoming frustrated at the tournament level. Getting back at the original point, sometimes a deck like white weenie can earn a free win against an opponent because of its lack of mana screw. The opposing player mulled down to four cards. Does it really matter what he or she was playing? The point being is decks like white weenie and red deck wins will get free wins. Their opponent’s were playing decks more sensitive to mulligans and got nailed for it.


Shuffle, shuffle, and then shuffle the deck some more. Of course within reason, but I see it over and over again were an opponent half-heartedly shuffles the deck the first time it is presented. After a bad hand, the opponent suddenly decides to shuffle the deck really well. Shuffle the darn deck well the first time. More importantly, shuffle the deck well before the beginning of the round. Shuffle it multiple times. I say this for the aspect players commonly fail to shuffle a deck well before the round starts or between rounds. There is no time limit before an event or after a round of a game play. Instead of zipping off after the round, desideboard, and shuffle. Statistically, a well, randomized deck will result in less mulligans. When the round starts, a deck shuffled into oblivion should only need a quick shuffle before it is presented. The beginning of the round is not the time shuffle a deck eight different times. With experience, I have noted over the years I tend to mulligan more when I don’t give a deck a good shuffle. This has been most notable for myself during play testing. During such times, I don’t want to waste time reshuffling the deck between matches to hasten the play testing process. It only leads to bad mulligans and more shuffling. Do it right the first time and shuffle.


Got confidence in your opening hand? Well, don’t tell me. Ah...but many players do. When keeping a hand, be careful not to give an opponent a sign or tell. I’ve only kept certain hands in the past because it was painfully clear my opponent’s hand was horrible. There are so many things to observe. Players may think they are giving me a poker face. Instead, they give it away in their tone of voice. I can hear it. A scared little voice with doubts about keeping that weak opening hand. Otherwise, it may be in their eyes. People commonly look away or give other subtle hints when they aren’t confident. Let’s don’t forget about the finger tapping, chair shifting, hair combing, and various other signs in an opponent’s body language. It can be hard to mentally stop all of these tells. The one thing that prevents all of this is confidence. I don’t care if that opening hand is complete garbage. Say “Keep” with vindication. Most of all, a person must believe or pretend to believe. I’m not saying getting cocky about it. However, an opponent with a strong hand just might make me mull down to six or five cards. It is a simple way to gain advantage.

Happy New Year! I’ll keep.


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