So Okay It's Average

Posted in Limited Information on August 25, 2009

By Steve Sadin

Your are playing in Game 1, Round 1 of a Magic 2010 draft with the following deck:

M10 Draft Deck

Download Arena Decklist

You are on the play and you draw the following hand:
Sparkmage Apprentice
Mind Rot
Zombie Goliath
Zombie Goliath

Do you keep or mulligan?

What if you are on the draw?

The chief problem with this hand is that it doesn't have all that much action in the early game. Sure you have early plays in the form of Sparkmage Apprentice and Mind Rot, but if your opponent opens on Runeclaw Bear followed the next turn by Centaur Courser, Borderland Ranger, or simply a second Runeclaw Bear, you could be in a lot of trouble.

But even if your opponent doesn't have a lightning-fast opener, you could be in a lot of trouble, because this hand doesn't do anything particularly good later on. Sure Zombie Goliaths are fine, but they aren't anything that special.

A good portion of the time you're going to be starting from behind with this hand. This applies both in the sense that we don't have great early plays and that our late-game plays won't typically allow us to pick up much ground (and will likely see us falling further behind).

But is that a problem? Well, quite simply, yes it is. But that doesn't mean that a mulligan is the correct solution.

A notable problem with this deck is that it doesn't actually have that much in the way of cards that can affect the board early. Warpath Ghoul, Child of Night, Goblin Artillery, Vampire Aristocrat, and 3 Sparkmage Apprentices are the only seven cards that can affect the board before turn four.

We already have a Sparkmage Apprentice in our hand, and a Mind Rot to give us a play on turn three if we need it, so we can't really ask for too much more early.

Plus, there are tons of potential draws that our opponents have where we could destroy them with our Sparkmage Apprentice plus Mind Rot. If our opponent plays a 1-toughness creature like a Merfolk Looter, we're going to be so far ahead after we two-for-one him or her with both of our early drops.

Since this draw actually offers us a fairly average early game for a seven-card hand with this deck, and probably something that is slightly greater than what the average six-card hand would offer, we couldn't really use that as an excuse for why we should mulligan the hand.

The hand's mana is fine too, so what about its mid- to late game?

It's got two Zombie Goliaths, five-mana 4/3s in a hand with only three lands. However, the fact that we only have three lands isn't that big of a deal because the only other spell in the entire deck that costs more than four is Capricious Efreet, meaning that pretty much all of our draws are going to be live.

Capricious Efreet

This deck isn't going to offer us many "Wow!" opening hands. Sure, we might get the occasional "Goblin Artillery, Grave Digger, Stone Giant, four land" draws, but those are few and far between.

Goblin Artillery
Stone Giant

This deck's real strength is in its ability to outlast its adversaries in an attrition war.

The four (!) Gravediggers in the deck mean that it's pretty likely that we will draw one in a six-card hand to immediately make up for our mulligan. But it also means that we are fairly likely to draw one in the near future with this hand to put us further ahead of our opponents on cards.

Ultimately, this hand is just good enough, considering what we're working with, to keep on the play or on the draw. In a different deck, this hand could easily be a mulligan, but here we just aren't properly incentivized to cash in this guaranteed-reasonable hand for a slim shot at something flashy.

Sure, a good amount of the time our six-card hand would be on par with this, but without a decent shot at a big upgrade, we don't want to risk it.

Hard to Give Up

This two-color deck has a 9 / 9 mana base, so getting its colors isn't too big of an issue. Because of that, having a Mountain and a Swamp in your opening hand (all off your colors) isn't a big enough reason to substantially change your evaluation of the hand. If you mulligan, your mana is still probably going to be fine.

If we were instead looking at a red-black-blue deck with a 6 / 6 / 6 mana base, then a hand with a Mountain, a Swamp and an Island but not that much else might be hard to send back because you already have your colors taken care of.

Similarly, if you have a deck with a very good endgame, but not too much going on early, you will often be properly incentivized to keep a weak hand that has a respectable early game because your long-term draws are going to be pretty strong (and if you mulligan you run a high risk of getting a hand that will get blown out early because you don't have many early plays).

But if you are playing a very aggressive deck, and your draw doesn't have good early drops but it has some reasonable, but not fantastic, mid- to late-game cards, then you should almost certainly mulligan it. Your hand doesn't have the cards that you need to be able to reliably play your game.

Note that there are exceptions to this last example, but generally speaking it's a bad idea to keep your opening hand in the hope that you will draw into early-game cards, because you have so little time to do so and have them be relevant.

The point that I'm getting at with these theoretical situations is that when your draw offers you exactly what you need to be in the game, and you don't have a good shot of mulliganing into a great hand, then you should probably keep it. But if your hand is going to leave you way behind from the get-go, or if you have a decent hand that you have a good shot of substantially upgrading, then you should strongly consider going to the well to pick up six new cards.

When Is Mind Rot at its Best?

Before the message boards went offline last week for their pending upgrade, an interesting discussion began about whether it's better to cast Mind Rot on the play or on the draw.

However, the issue with this type of question is that it oversimplifies the problem. It's one thing to do something like this in conversation, as you can use it is a valuable shortcut (when you're talking in between matches, you might not always want to spend five minutes talking about the best time to cast a Mind Rot) but there are some interesting things going on that determine when Mind Rot is usually better.

Mind Rot

If your deck has a lot of cheap spells or good ways to catch up, then Mind Rot will typically be better on the draw. If your deck has a big hole in its three slot, then Mind Rot will often be better on the play. This is partially a function of your deck being better on the play, as you will often be making your first-board affecting play on turn four.

But those aren't the types of things that you need to spend too much time thinking about, as a miniscule relative power difference for a card that is still good enough to be in your deck shouldn't affect your play much. If you have a good number of two-drops, cheap removal, and multiple Mind Rots, your Mind Rots become so much better on the draw that you might even choose to go second to give yourself as good of a chance as possible to rip apart your opponent's hand.

Though these situations comes up infrequently, there are times when I'm about to be on the draw and I decide to board out my Mind Rots because I'm worried I won't have enough time to cast them.

My verdict: In Magic 2010 Limited, Mind Rot is on average slightly more effective on the draw than it is on the play, but unless it's significant enough for you to alter your play/draw choice, you shouldn't worry about it.

When Is Your Deck at its Best?

The vast majority of booster draft decks would prefer to be on the play than on the draw, but there are exceptions. If your deck has a lot of cheap removal but is not particularly aggressive, then you will probably want to choose to draw first. If your deck has a lot of good defensive cards, then you should strongly consider drawing first, especially if your opponent is not that fast.

If you have multiple cards that directly benefit from you going second (such as Infest, Pyroclasm, Mind Rot, Knight of the White Orchid, etc.), then you should consider going second. If your mana is quite bad but your spells are otherwise good, you should usually go second. After all, there's nothing slower than not being able to cast your spells.

Knight of the White Orchid

As a rule of thumb, if a set of circumstances suggests that making your land drops on time is more important than being the first person to cast a creature, you should at least consider choosing to draw first.

A lot of the time you will still choose to play first, and that's 100% OK. Just because you could choose to draw first doesn't mean you should. It just means that you should ask yourself the question.

What to Do if Your Opponent Chooses to Draw First?

If your opponent chooses to draw first in one of the first two games, then it's likely that he or she knows something that you don't. But how do you respond to this information? You might have enough knowledge about the true contents of your deck to know that it's still right for you to choose to play first. But if you don't have any reason to be particularly confident that playing first is correct, then you should often follow suit and choose to draw first yourself.

Sure, it might turn out that it was "correct" to choose to play first based on the true nature of your matchup. But unless you have a very good reason to choose to do so, you should rely on your opponent's knowledge to make a more informed play.

If you're wrong when you choose to draw first the game after your opponent chose to start with eight cards, then you probably won't be giving up too much. But if you're right, then you have the potential for very substantial gains (whereas if you had incorrectly chosen to play first, you stand to give up a lot.)

Bonus Exercise

You're in the Top 8 of a Magic 2010 Premier Event on Magic Online.

Your first pack looks like this:


Essence Scatter
Giant Growth
Snapping Drake
Centaur Courser
Jackal Familiar
Veteran Swordsmith
Safe Passage
Air Elemental
Tempest of Light

You take Nightmare, deciding to let the people to your left fight over the giant stack of blue cards in the pack.

Here's the second pack:


Snapping Drake
Sparkmage Apprentice
Llanowar Elves
Craw Wurm
Canyon Minotaur
Wall of Faith
Zombie Goliath
Angel's Feather
Mold Adder
Wall of Frost
Coat of Arms

While the blue cards are certainly the most appealing cards in the pack, you aren't interested in taking any of them because you've already passed so much blue.

After considering taking Llanowar Elves or Sparkmage Apprentice, you eventually settle on Weakness, hoping to further solidify yourself in black.

Then you see the third pack:

Lava Axe
Serpent of the Endless Sea
Zombie Goliath
Soul Warden
Horned Turtle
Llanowar Elves
Snapping Drake
Dread Warlock
Howl of the Night Pack

What do you take?

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