Mulligan decisions may actually be the single most difficult aspect of competitive Magic to learn and constantly improve on. I've personally struggled with it throughout my career, and it's problematic trying to take lessons with you since the standards for which you keep or mulligan a hand change drastically based on your deck type and the matchup you face.
Last week , I declared my intention to win Pro Tour 25th Anniversary with Reid Duke and William Jensen. We've played as a team many times in Grand Prix and many more in practice matches not even counting how long we've been on the same Pro Tour testing team. We don't really have any set rules for how much we do or don't communicate during our matches, but we do appreciate the fact that anytime you say something aloud you could be giving away information at the table and you're interrupting someone's game when you decide to volunteer information. The level of confidence you need to be introducing your advice to the game of someone you respect deeply needs to be strong, and we try to be careful.
One thing we don't skimp on, though, is advice with regards to opening hands. There's so much to learn and it's the type of mistake that will have long-term ramifications on the rest of the game, so you want to be sure you're giving yourself the best chance to win. As a rule of thumb, I like to ask myself:
How lucky do I have to get to have a competitive hand?
Another way to interpret this statement is that I want my opening hand to clearly be advantaged against someone without enough lands. I haven't studied my games to know exactly what percentage of the time I win as a result of mana screw, but I have played Magic for long enough to realize that it's a significant loss in equity to lose a game when my opponent has one of their hands that would fall in the bottom 5%. You could even go one step further and instead of quantifying what it means to have "not enough lands" you could instead consider many hands to be nonfunctional.
Today, I'll be talking about R/B Midrange once more, but for a different reason: to dissect opening hands and mulligan decisions. With R/B Midrange, I feel quite strongly that a fast proactive mix is always best when on the play game one because you beat every deck in the format with your best aggressive hands. I'm not much of a sports fan and I realize there's some debate about how the phrase should be used but in Magic, but in my opinion, the best defense is a good offense. If I kill you on turn five, I don't care what your deck was trying to do.
First, the decklist:
- 4 Bomat Courier
- 4 Scrapheap Scrounger
- 2 Glorybringer
- 4 Goblin Chainwhirler
- 2 Soul-Scar Mage
- 3 Hazoret the Fervent
- 2 Kari Zev, Skyship Raider
- 2 Pia Nalaar
I've spent a lot of time talking about mulligans with R/B Midrange, and I feel this point shouldn't go underappreciated. Some of the time, a mulligan is outright to my advantage as the fewer cards I have, the better use I can make of Hazoret the Fervent. I love Hazoret and I know many others do, but just wait until you mulligan to five and play it on turn four and attack; Hazoret with haste is on a whole new level of power. Additionally, Bomat Courier doesn't care what your hand looks like when you cash it in for a new hand. If you started with seven cards and spent all but two or if you mulliganed to five and have zero cards remaining, it all comes out in the wash when dealing with the Construct.
Lastly, I have specific cards in my version of R/B that I feel have such immense value that mulligans are a way for me to give myself six or five new opportunities to end up with my preferred cards. The cards that fit this description best are Scrapheap Scrounger, Goblin Chainwhirler, and, of course, Hazoret the Fervent.
Now I'd like to show you some sample hands of R/B Midrange and how I play them:
This is a hand I mulligan. My deck has two copies of Glorybringer which are the only possible scenario in which my fifth land has value to me, so I've already decided for myself that I need to cycle Canyon Slough. That means my hand now appears to be turn one Bomat Courier into turn two cycle Canyon Slough, and I don't feel that's powerful enough on average to beat a random deck/hand. It's also a big problem for me that my turn-two play does not reduce my total number of cards in hand and lowers the ceiling for how strong Hazoret will be in this game.
I also must factor in that in a Standard tournament, a huge portion of the field plays with Goblin Chainwhirler, and I'm stuck with a two-spell hand and one of them is Bomat Courier. I don't live in constant fear of The Chainwhirler, and I still keep hands that are weak to it, but if I'm on the fence, I can definitely use this as a tiebreaker. I do like the cute trick of cycle Canyon Slough and respond by activating Bomat Courier such that I get a new hand first and then the card from cycling; it's a way of doing the limbo with your cycling card and getting some value. This is a play I've made a few times but definitely not one I place a high value on early in a game because if Bomat Courier goes uncontested for that long, I should be planning for bigger things than paying two mana for a cards' worth of value.
This is a hand that I don't love but I do keep. I'm basically crossing my fingers hoping I got a creature-based matchup and that I will draw a spell with converted mana cost three or less in my top two cards. If I can be fortunate enough to draw Bomat Courier, Soul-Scar Mage, Abrade, Kari Zev, Heart of Kiran, Scrapheap Scrounger, Pia Nalaar, or The Chainwhirler, I can curve out and play a spell on turns 2-3-4-5 which is adequate for a matchup that's entirely creature-based. If I had to guess for my next event, dedicated control would be about 20% of the field and about 65%+ would have a good number of creatures or at least get to the point where Lightning Strike wasn't a dead draw. It's borderline but I'd gamble on it.
This is a hand I had presented to me at the Season One Invitational on the draw game three against an Esper Control deck and I kept. With the benefit of hindsight and after some reflection. this is a hand I feel I should have mulliganed. The Chainwhirler is great, but it's not built for the Esper Control matchup, and the second and most important thing I failed to factor in was the majority of my Pro Tour testing was against U/W Control decks where Duress is a stone-cold killer in the matchup, but against Esper it's only an effective tool; its value should be discounted as a result. This poor decision cost me the game and the match and was part of the reason why I finished 6-2 in the Standard portion of the event.
I drew up this hand on the draw game one against an opponent who I was 95% sure was playing W/B Knights and I kept. I asked my teammates and almost all of them said they would keep, but deep down I knew it was a mulligan and the only relief I got was William Jensen also told me he would mulligan. I have a rule for myself that if I believe something and William Jensen believes the same thing, it's no longer opinion, it's fact.
Having four lands, none of which produce black mana, is annoying, Additionally, I don't have a strong proactive plan, and many of the cards I can draw like Scrapheap Scrounger and Heart of Kiran don't do much if I fall behind. It was a feature match at the Pro Tour and I knew I should mulligan, but I sat in that chair and contemplated my options and maybe it was fear of going down too low and being handcuffed and unable to make good decisions to positively affect the outcome of the game. I kept, lost, and would not keep again.
I've had many people ask me for my sideboard strategy recently, so I'll include what changes I make before I have a ton of new information. This isn't by any means set in stone, but it's a nice guideline.
VS Mono-Green Aggro
VS Esper Control and U/W Control
VS B/U Midrange
VS U/W God-Pharaoh's Gift
I hope this helps, and I can't wait to try a new version of the deck based around Demanding Dragon soon enough.