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In MTG (or other games), if one player is dealt a strong hand, and the other a weak one, the first player is likely to win. Unless, of course, the first player plays much worse or is unlucky during the course of the game.

How does one evaluate the strength of a hand in MTG? This is NOT a question about when to take a mulligan (which applies only to the weaker hands), but is a general question about all hands, weak, average, strong, and even "come" hands. (An example of a "come" hand, from poker is four to a straight or a flush, that is weaker than one pair, but will be a very strong hand if it "fills.")

I'm using some examples from bridge, which I know better:

  1. One has a disproportionate number of the most powerful cards (three or all four of the aces in the deck).

  2. One has a large number of moderately powerful cards (e.g. face cards, not all aces).

  3. One has a hand with only average "raw" strength, but that is highly co-ordinated (e.g. seven or eight cards of a single suit for trumps). This can be combined with having few low cards, and hence few weaknesses, in other suits.

  4. One has "position", e.g. by playing after an opponent with a slightly weaker hand, so it is easy to "cancel" or "one-up" him.

What are similar, or analogous advantages in MTG? Are there "standard" evaluation methods, as there are in bridge (with its high card point count), or is it more of a situational thing?

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    And in game 2+ of a match, you can also take into account the deck your opponent is playing, and the cards that would be useful for dealing with it. – murgatroid99 Oct 23 '15 at 23:37
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    @murgatroid99 Or game 1 if you know what they're playing (via "scouting," or hearsay, or draft signals, or because Bob always brings aggro decks to FNM). – Alex P Oct 23 '15 at 23:41
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    I should also mention that Magic is fundamentally unlike bridge, so using bridge as a starting point may not be the most helpful. In bridge, everyone's playing the same game, evaluating hands composed of the same cards. In Magic, different decks with different cards have different gameplans and don't really have the same notion of strong hands, so anything that applies in general is going to be very vague. – Cascabel Oct 24 '15 at 5:52
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    There are a few articles in the Level One series about mulligans, i.e. evaluating whether a hand is strong enough to keep or weak enough to mulligan and try again. You might also be interested in reading some of these Keep or Mulligan articles. It's a little indirect; they're discussing what hands have and what they're missing, rather than explicit "strength", but that's pretty much the way you have to think about hands, and you'll see actual hands. – Cascabel Oct 24 '15 at 18:20
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    While I agree that the question is similar to the linked possible duplicate, I feel that the two questions are posed and answered in very different ways, and this question draws on experience from another game for clarity. As such, I feel that this question is valuable to keep open even if there's a topical overlap. – Samthere Oct 26 '15 at 16:19
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A Good Hand is a Good Plan

Magic plays rather differently from a traditional card game:

  • Most cards in Magic require other cards as resources (e.g. land to generate mana). They can only be played once you've sufficiently developed your board. An effective deck has a mixture of early-, mid-, and late-game cards; what exactly that means varies greatly depending on your strategy.
  • Many cards are situationally useful — they're good because of synergy with other cards, or because they're reactive cards that answer an opponent's plays.
  • You get to tailor the deck to a particular strategy (outside of a few very special game modes like Momir Basic and Rainbow Stairwell).

So, most of the individual evaluative tricks don't work the same way at all. But that's fine.

Because, as you probably know, all of the evaluation tricks from bridge are cognitive shortcuts for figuring out the fundamental question: "How will this hand play out?" That's what you need to figure out in Magic as well.

Look at your hand and imagine what you're going to do in the next few turns. Imagine what your opponent is going to do, too, based on whatever information you have about them.

"I'm going to run my opponents out of trumps and then all these low cards will be tricks."
"I'm going to play some cheap creatures and use burn spells to clear the way while they apply repeated pressure."
"I'm going to use counterspells to survive long enough to cast my Wrath of God, then stick my planeswalker to control the board."

A good hand is, typically, one that presents some kind of coherent "story" or "gameplan" — ideally one that's powerful, fast, and resilient to disruption.

As a starting point:

  • What are you going to be doing on turn 1, turn 2, turn 3, et cetera?
  • Do you have enough lands to develop your board?
  • Do you have cards you can play early to help you stall or put pressure on your opponent? (Which do you actually need to do: stall or apply pressure? a.k.a. "Who's the beatdown?")
  • What's your opponent likely to do to disrupt you? What can you do to do to disrupt them?
  • What's missing? What cards do you need to draw to shore up your weaknesses or make your strongest play? (A bit of poker experience may help here. It also helps to understand "playing to your outs.")

Note that, beyond basics like "Make sure you will be able to actually cast something," what actually constitutes a good or bad hand is highly situational. Familiarity with your deck, with the metagame, and with general archetypes and strategies will all help immensely here.

  • "What actually constitutes a good or bad hand is highly situational." Then it would NOT seem that the question is a duplicate of "when do I take a mulligan," because THAT doesn't seem highly situational. Nor is the question unanswerable since you answered it. – Tom Au Oct 27 '15 at 2:19
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    @TomAu Mulligan decisions are situational, too. Consider that this is one of the best hands you could hope for against a control or combo deck but an absolute death sentence against burn. – Alex P Oct 27 '15 at 2:54
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If you want to see how this works in practice, probably the best way is to read what people have written about taking mulligans. That's really the only decision you can make after evaluating the strength of a hand: is this hand strong enough to keep, or is it weak enough that I'd expect an average hand with one less card to be better?

I know you've said you don't just care about mulligans, but this is really the only kind of real-world resource to point you at, and this is definitely a question where you'll benefit from looking at real examples. When you ask "how does one evaluate the 'strength' of a hand?" as a broader question, the answer in practice is "you don't." All you care about is mulliganing. If it's an obvious mulligan, you don't waste any time deciding precisely how bad, you just shuffle it back. If it's an obvious keep, you might be a little excited if it's really good, but you're not going to try to pin it down. The potential range of power is more like awful to reasonably good, not weak to incredibly strong. Generally, the best possible hand just means you have decent odds and you'll get to play a "real" game.

The Level One series has several articles about mulligans, trying to give some generally helpful advice. If you haven't played a lot of Magic, you might want to read some of the rest too, since that background will help give you the context you need to understand what you're really looking for when you draw your seven cards.

There's also the Keep or Mulligan articles on Channel Fireball, which are all about looking at specific hands for specific decks. That might be a little less meaningful if you don't grok the decks, but it'll give you an idea of the kinds of things people consider.


So this is clearly a pretty complex thing; people are writing whole articles not just about hand strength in general but about specific hands for specific decks! Let's come back to your comparison to bridge, and see why it's so different. For several reasons, Magic isn't as easy to generalize about as bridge:

  • In bridge, your opening hand is all the cards you'll have for the whole game. In Magic, your opening hand is just the first seven cards - even in a very fast game you'll see at least a few more, but you can easily see another seven, or in longer games, another twenty or thirty. So you have to think about your hand in the context of average subsequent draws. You're far from perfect information, and there's an element of chance.

  • In bridge, every hand is drawn from the same deck of cards, so you can analyze all hands in the same way. In Magic, every deck is different, so the main considerations for one deck in evaluating hands may be completely different from those in another deck.

  • In bridge, the cards all come with numbers printed on them indicating their precise "power", and there's not many possibilities. In Magic, not only are there not numbers like that on the cards, there couldn't be. Everything's contextual; it's more like a radically expanded version of nontransitive dice, where it's not "A beats B beats C beats A" but rather a large number of cards each of which are better than some others in some contexts, and worse than some others in other contexts.

  • In bridge, your opponents are also drawing every hand from the same deck of cards. In Magic, each opponent you play can be playing a different deck, which in turn changes the value of the cards in your deck. Something that's amazing against one opponent's deck might do absolutely nothing against another's.

  • In bridge, there are actually hands that can guarantee victory. In Magic, there's no such thing. Your opponent will always have at least some opportunity to interfere with your plans, and most often there's a lot of interaction and dependence on subsequent draws. So the power level ceiling is much lower - there's no such thing as a "come" hand. (Even in vintage, where you can play some pretty degenerate combo decks, your opponent can be playing free counterspells to mess you up on your first turn of the game.)

All that said, we can certainly try to come up with some very general ideas.

The most important thing is mana. To first approximation, you're looking for the right number of lands. But as soon as your deck has multiple colors (which it most often does), you're also thinking about whether you have the colors you need to cast the spells in your hand and the spells you're hoping to draw. And since nothing is ever perfect, you're also often thinking about how likely it is you'll find the additional lands you need and the colors you're missing in time.

Next, you're looking for cards that will let you do what your deck wants to do, which varies wildly depending on the deck. In a very simple aggro deck, that might just be a selection of the cards that will let you deal damage as quickly as possible. In a more synergistic aggro deck, you'll want cards that work well together, not just all of one thing. In a midrange, you're probably looking for cards that will help you deal with your opponent's early threats as well as cards to help turn the tables on your opponent in the later game. In a control deck, you probably want cards to deal with threats and some spells to create card advantage (e.g. card draw), but you don't want the cards you'll actually use to win, which you can wait to find later. So even within a single deck, there's likely no simple notion of power, and across all types of decks, it's impossible to generalize. You're just looking for a set of cards that you think will play out favorably, in combination with the cards you'll draw over subsequent turns.

On top of all that, as soon as you have some idea what your opponent is doing (i.e. in the second or third game of the match) you'll re-evaluate all your cards based on how well they fare against your opponent's game plan. Are your threats ones that are easy or hard for your opponent to deal with? Are your answers ones that answer your opponent's biggest threats?

The only real things in common across all of this are that you want "enough" mana and cards that give you a good game plan. What that actually means in practice, though, can't really be said in the same way you can about bridge. In some sense, whenever you build a new deck, you create a game, and then within that game you have to figure out all these things about power and synergy that you'll then use to evaluate hands.


For what it's worth, one could try to force the analogy with your points, and come up with ideas that are certainly part of how one evaluates opening hands.

  • In decks that have a few "favorite" cards, rather than a more even power level across the whole deck, it can indeed be great to see one of those in your opening hand, like your point (1). This is more common in limited, where you might pick up a single copy of a rare bomb, and not draw it in every game. (In constructed formats, anything that amazing you're probably playing four of, so it's not as much of a surprise to see it.)

  • Similarly, like your point (2), even if your deck doesn't have a giant range of power, it may have some range, and so some hands may include better cards than others. Again this is more common in limited, where your 23rd best card is often not one you're terribly excited about.

  • In decks that care more about synergy (how cards interact with each other), rather than just individually powerful cards, the synergy of your opening hand is a consideration, analogous to your point (3). It's a lot more complex to evaluate than simply looking for a long suit, though.

  • It sounds like the closest analogy to positional strength (4) is simply hands that are awful on their own but if you draw the right card will be great. That certainly happens, but those hands can be anywhere from a regretful "it was so close" mulligan to a hopeful keep (you might do nothing the whole game, you might have a blowout win), So it doesn't really tell you much about actual strength.

But as we've seen, none of those are actually simple rules; the power of a card is by no means straightforward to determine, and there's an awful lot of context to take into account that can completely change things from hand to hand and from game to game. Trying to think of it in terms like this is likely not to actually help you much in practice.

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It's hard to know what is needed in a "good" hand without knowing your deck and the deck(s) of the opponent(s). There are some really obvious bad hands (like having 0 lands), but beyond that it's down to what your deck is trying to accomplish.

In bridge it's a lot more easy to assign values to high cards because you know exactly how much trick-taking power it's worth. Aces only lose to trumps. Between two kings, you can expect to get at least one trick. You never draw more cards than your starting hand, so you know right at the beginning of the game exactly what is and isn't possible.

A better analogy for evaluating Magic hands is evaluating a poker hand like in 7-card stud. Obviously, your opening cards are very important and go a long way in establishing your play. But future cards (for both you and your opponent) can swing the game in either player's favor. You have to take into account how many remaining cards in your deck will help you while doing the same for your opponent's board.

As far as "positional" advantages, deferring decisions as long as possible keeps your plan more hidden and reserves your spells for when they're really needed. Waiting until the second main phase to summon creatures can be very helpful. It's much like leading from dummy to declarer's hidden hand. Hiding that information (when possible) can get your opponent's to waste their better cards on your average ones. It's the same in Magic, where you might try to bait a kill spell for your lesser creatures before playing your bomb.

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