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Determining when to mulligan is a very important skill in magic. But how can I hone my abilities in that skill? Obviously if I had no/all land I'd probably want to mulligan as the opportunity to actually cast some of my spells are worth the 1 card penalty. But what about when I only have 1 land or 1 spell? Are there any good rules of thumb to help me make this decision? How can knowing my deck make these choices easier? What other elements of my hand should I look at when making this decision?

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+1: Great question. I am struggling with this topic myself and hope for good answers :). –  Demento Aug 20 '11 at 16:26
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2 Answers

Unfortunately, knowing your deck inside out and comparing your draw against it are the only universal rules that can apply, so it's a highly individual decision that depends on those two factors. If you already have a good idea of the opponent's deck, that also helps, of course. Essentially, experience is where it's at.

You can ask yourself a few questions.

  • How many more spells/lands do I need to draw in succession to get things going as planned?
  • How badly is my strategy damaged if I fail to draw more of what I need?
  • In case of land shortage (mana screw), how many of my spells can I play with the cards I currently hold?
  • In case of excess lands (mana flood), how powerful are the spells I hold?
  • Do the cards I 'can' play help me getting more spells by themselves (card drawers)?
  • Or are they strong enough to put pressure on my opponent, so I can buy a few turns to benefit from the regular card draw phase?
  • In multi-color decks and holding the wrong mana (color screw), how many colored mana am I missing to cast the majority of my hand, or how many more spells of the wrong color could follow?
  • What is the strategy of my opponent's deck? If he wins by putting out many fast creatures or direct damage, then losing a few turns may well mean defeat. If your opponent is playing a combo deck, all you may need is a single counter-spell that you can play at the right time.

Note that if you often get into a situation where you must consider mulligan (assuming careful shuffling before each game), then there might be an issue with your deck. Adjust the number of mana sources and/or the mana curve of your spells.

On shuffling: obviously, good shuffling is essential to let your deck design have effect on reducing the number of necessary mulligans. During the course of a game, card types tend to clump together as you arrange them: Lands, creatures, and artifacts you play get close to each other, and after the game, they will probably stick together. You have to separate them thoroughly, for example by multiple pile shuffles:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shuffling#Pile_shuffle

Especially in tournaments, take your time for shuffling, though of course not so much that it could warrant a warning.


Edit: Thanks to thesunneversets for the reminder about first to draw or first to play, +1 for that. Another thing I would like to add on that matter:

If you play it very straight, then the player who is first to play is also the first to announce whether to keep or whether to take a mulligan. Only after the first player has finished all his mulligans and announced to keep his hand, only then does the second player have to start announcing mulligan or not. Therefore, if you are first to draw, that can be a very important factor in your decision whether to mulligan or not. If your opponent has to mulligan, then you can either risk playing a sub-optimal hand because of your card advantage, or you can mulligan as often as he does for a chance of a better quality hand.

On the other hand, if you are first to play and consider mulligan, then you can in a bit of trouble, because everything you say or how long it takes you to say it can be a signal to the opponent. If you take a long time to decide whether to mulligan or not, then this can be understood as a signal that you are not happy with your hand, even if you decide to keep, and that can influence your opponent's choice of mulligan or not.

That way, magic can become truly a mind game like Poker beyond the logic of rules and numbers. This applies to the whole game, not just the mulligan phase.

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Good points in the edit there. I would have to say that I am wary about the idea that your own mulliganing decisions should be influenced by whether your opponent mulliganed or not. Yes, of course you're quite happy to see your opponent mulligan down to 5, that makes your life easier; but the decision about whether your hand is good enough to keep shouldn't really be anything to do with your opponent. I guess if your opponent has repeatedly mulliganed you can be a bit less nervous about keeping a genuinely borderline hand though. –  thesunneversets Aug 21 '11 at 18:31
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In essence, a mulligan is about trading card advantage for (a chance for) better card quality. The definition of card advantage already includes the difference in the number of your cards vs. the number of your opponent's cards. Therefore, since in a mulligan decision you must consider the card advantage implications, it is inevitable that you also consider how many mulligans your opponent has taken, if that info is available to you, which is the case if you're first to draw, because each of your oppoent's mulligans is a card advantage for you. –  Hackworth Aug 21 '11 at 19:15
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A slight correction: one of the new rules released with Magic 2010 (I believe) is that mulligans are now done in parallel. Each player chooses whether to mulligan to 6 in turn order; then once that's done, each player who drew a 6-card hand chooses whether to mulligan to 5 in turn order, and so on. It's no longer the case that you always know how many cards your opponent is keeping before you get to decide to mulligan (if you're drawing first). –  David Z Aug 23 '11 at 19:03
    
@David Zaslavxky +1 Thanks for the hint. –  Hackworth Aug 26 '11 at 14:57
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In the old days, mulliganing was easy. No lands? All lands? Draw a new hand.

And then along came the Paris Mulligan - now a mulligan is always an option, not just a get-out-clause for an absolutely unplayable hand. And while you will certainly still always mulligan an all-lander or a no-lander (unless your deck is EXTREMELY unusual), there are many more borderline cases where you will have to make some tricky choices.

Hackworth has already provided a useful list of things you should be thinking about while deciding whether to take a mulligan, and I've upvoted that, but here's a couple of things that I feel compelled to add:

  • Everything else is a side issue to the following consideration: would an average six-card draw from my deck leave me with a better chance of winning than the seven cards I'm looking at right now? If the answer is yes, then take a mulligan. You may be looking at a three land, four spell hand and it may still not be a keeper, if the lands are all islands and the spells are all 7 mana with BBB in their casting cost, for instance. A good deck can win in four or five turns against a "goldfish" opponent, so you usually MUST mulligan a hand where you have nothing to play for the first few turns, if you don't topdeck something.

  • A really, really important factor that Hackworth didn't go into: are you on the play or on the draw? On the draw you can often keep slightly more marginal hands, simply because the chance of drawing into the crucial second or third land to make your hand "work" is dramatically higher when you have an extra draw step over your opponent. By contrast, the benefit of going first is that you fly straight out of the gates and have a tempo advantage over your opponent. This advantage is likely to be completely negated if you don't have a second land to play on turn two.

Beginning players, and I remember well that I used to be like this, have the mentality of "this will be a great hand... if the first card I draw is a land. What the hell, I'll keep it!" Thinking like that probably gives you a 60% chance of losing even before you play a single card, not good odds! Being a card down is bad news, but it's much less bad than running the risk of not being able to play your deck at all. Think through all the probabilities, and then, if necessary, mulligan away. I think it's fair to say that having a good sense when to mulligan is one of THE major factors that distinguishes the pro players in the game...

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How does it follow that if you're on the draw, you should mulligan less often? I agree that you're unhappier at a bad 7-card hand when you're on the play than when on the draw, but a mulligan is about as likely to improve the hand either way. –  warbaker Dec 21 '11 at 16:06
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@warbaker, I do feel that you're not really necessarily mulliganing to get a better hand, so much as to get a hand that surpasses a minimum threshold of acceptability. If you're the starting player and your hand has one land and a bunch of 3 drops, your hand is much less likely to become playable than if you're on the draw, and have a whole extra turn to draw into the land you need to make the hand good. Basically it's just that, IMO, there are many more hands that are obviously terrible on the play than obviously terrible on the draw. –  thesunneversets Dec 24 '11 at 15:07
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