Tripling Mulligans

Posted in Serious Fun on February 24, 2004

By Anthony Alongi

At first blush, it may not seem like a column named “Serious Fun” would have a lot to say about mulligans. But there are two things wrong with that idea:

1) I have something to say about everything.
2) “Mulligans” is a way easier theme than “banding”.

That said, while casual players should care (at least a little) about mulligans, we shouldn’t care too deeply. I therefore have two shallow mulligan-related ponds for your wading pleasure. Not included in this article is the short story of my favorite triple-mulligan (against Pro Tour regular Zvi Mowshowitz, in the only format – Invasion block limited – at the only time – after practicing the format intensely for months – I ever felt like I could have at least worried someone of that caliber just a little tiny bit). I shared that a few months ago, and I try not to repeat too much from column to column. Seek ye the archives, if you want to hear more about this magically embarrassing moment.

Formatting Mulligans

One of the first things a casual player will try to do to something with tournament value (in this case, the mulligan) is debase it and make it our own. Mulligans have strategic value in any format; but in multiplayer formats you can tweak them to start a whole new trend in your group.

The play variant I’m going to suggest has an echo of “Hunt” format feel to it. (I’ve discussed Hunt in past columns, and will visit the topic again someday. For now, suffice to say it involves limiting who and what a given player can target.) The format uses points to determine a winner, and encourages certain players to go after other certain players. Here’s how it would work:

  • Everybody starts with regular, Type I legal decks. (If your group has a different baseline, like Standard, that’s fine too. I suppose you could even use sealed or draft decks.)
  • Everybody draws their seven cards. Try to do this at the same time. Late sleevers and shufflers should receive thorough pummelings. (Not necessarily exclusive to this format.)
  • Everybody starts with an automatic “point”. Everyone has to have value. You’ll see why, later.
  • Serum Powder

    All together (not in individual order), players determine if they want to take a first mulligan. This is your only chance to start down the mulligan road – if you keep your hand, you’re watching the rest of the mulligan festivities. Boring, but potentially profitable, as we’ll see. You may decide as a group if a mulligan here is a normal mulligan (down to six cards), a “Serum Powder” mulligan (remove hand from game and draw another seven), or a combination of the two. Bear in mind that a combination of the two creates some harsh decking possibilities for those who embrace mulligans deeply (and it would be stupid to use the Powder-style in limited formats) – but blending the two penalties for constructed decks really penalizes combo decks, which I like to do. Figure out what you like on your own.

  • Anyone who took that first mulligan earns another automatic point. Mark it now, because you know you’ll forget later!
  • Anyone who took a first mulligan may take a second mulligan. Use the same method you used for the first mulligan; this format is complicated enough without adjusting that particular dial.
  • Anyone who took that second mulligan earns an automatic point and gains five life. This is in addition to the earlier point.
  • Anyone who took a second mulligan may take a third. You may sense a pattern here. Don’t be afraid.
  • Anyone who took that third mulligan earns an (additional) automatic point, gains (an additional) five life, and puts two 1/2 colorless mule tokens into play. That’s right, they won’t have summoning sickness when you start your turn, because you put them into play before the game even started! Mules rule.
  • Anyone who took a third mulligan may take a fourth.
  • Anyone who took that fourth mulligan earns an (additional) automatic point and puts a 1/1 colorless farmer token into play with “sacrifice two mule tokens: draw two cards and lose ten life”.
  • Anyone who took a fourth mulligan may take a fifth.
  • Anyone who took that fifth mulligan earns an (additional) automatic point, and may play the ability “target creature can’t block this turn,” at the beginning of their own upkeep, for the entire game.
  • Anyone who took a fifth mulligan may take a sixth.
  • Anyone who took that sixth mulligan earns an (additional) automatic point and the game-long ability, “spells and abilities you control can’t be countered by spells or abilities. During your upkeep, each opponent gains one life.”
  • Anyone who took a sixth mulligan may take a seventh.
  • Anyone who took a seventh mulligan earns an (additional) automatic point and the game-long ability, “permanents you control are indestructible. During your upkeep, you lose two life.”

It’s important to announce mulligans simultaneously. You can use a “red card/green card” method, or whatever helps everyone time their announcement together.

That gets you your opening hand. (Whew! But that’s the hard part.) Now, the play rules:

  • Normal chaos, free-for-all rules.
  • Any player who deals the final point of damage (or the tenth poison counter, or the last milled card that forces a losing draw) earns points equal to the number of points the losing player had at the beginning of the game.
  • If a player loses due to a self-inflicted wound, no one gets their points. Players do not take mana burn.
  • The player who ends the game with the most points wins.

So let’s take a five-player example:

Player A takes no mulligans at all, and goes with seven cards (value: 1 point).
Player B takes three mulligans (value: 4 points).
Player C takes five mulligans (value: 6 points).
Player D takes six mulligans (value: 7 points).
Player E takes seven mulligans (value: 8 points).

Essentially, D and E are going to be duking it out pretty hard, because whoever wins that duel is likely to win the match. But both are also at severe disadvantages: they’re starting way behind the curve, their mules are only going to be able to do so much (even indestructible 1/2s aren’t much good against flyers and tramplers), and they’re hampered by relative life imbalances. On the other hand, if they survive the early game (which will generally require killing A), they should be fine.

Players B and C will also be gunning for either D or E – but each has to be careful that the other player doesn’t “steal” the prize. If they pick up A along the way, great.

Player A must deliver the killing blow to any two of C, D, or E.

Lots of strategy flows from this – but it’s silly to discuss when the format is so flexible. If you think the abilities given away for seven cards are too ridiculous, change them. (I’m betting you won’t find them as overpowered as you think.) If they’re not ridiculous enough, then ban black from the format – that oughta do it.

Now, we all know that people can metagame this format (e.g., Massacre). That’s why I recommend starting with regular decks, and not making this a “special deck night” where everyone can prepare their favorite anti-mule strategy. If you have the desire to metagame this ridiculousness, then my deep condolences for your internal suffering.

My thanks to Todd Petit for helping me think “through” this format. Neither of us are actually certain what will happen, but that’s kinda the fun of the whole thing! I promise to ask my group to try it sometime.

Okay, enough of new formats. What do mulligans mean to multiplayer enthusiasts, in any format?

Mulligans In Multiplayer: General Thoughts

The average casual Magic player, like the average casual golf player, is nowhere near as good as the average Pro Tour player. A good part of this gap goes to deckbuilding, and a good part goes to play decisions, and a good part goes to just basic experience with the game. (Many ten-year veterans haven’t played a fraction of the number of games a Pro Tour regular will play in the space of two years.) And a good part goes to decisions around mulligans.

Casual players, and particularly group players, generally under-mulligan. This is fine, because it usually works for us. You’ll have a bit of time to make it up; and besides, everyone is staring at you, waiting for you to take your first turn!

I believe many casual players do themselves a disservice by this. When daring a bad hand works out okay, we barely notice (and thus don’t mark the data point). When daring a bad hand ends up with us mana- or color-screwed (or flooded), we whine and complain (marking the data point)…and we get away with it because our friends like us and they’ve been through it themselves anyway. Or maybe deep down, our friends wish we’d shut up and learn what they may already know:

Elves don’t count as much as you think…

1) You must put at least 24 lands into your 60-card deck. So many people still don’t do this, after years of playing Magic – and even after years of reading my very educational and delightful articles. For shame! Use cycling lands to get from 20 to 24, if you must. Elves don’t count as much as you think. Mono decks can get by with a bit less than 24, if the spells are cheap. (“A bit less” means at least 20. “Cheap” means 1-3 mana.)

2) If you draw a seven-card hand with one land, you mulligan it. Yes, Scott Wills yesterday showed us a lovely affinity-based example where you may very well keep. Congratulations, you’ve found one of about three unique exceptions to this rule. Learn the rule anyway, dork.

3) If you draw a seven-card hand with two lands and no plays by turn two, you mulligan it. I’ll admit I don’t always do this myself, especially if everything in my hand costs three. But again, try obeying the rule strictly for a while, and see how you do.

4) If you draw a six-card hand with one land and no plays by turn two, you mulligan it. Yes, you’re feeling angry at your deck for doing this; but there’s no avoiding the occasional burn. Your chances are still better with five new cards. Do it for 50 repetitions before you argue with me.

5) If you’re still screwed when you draw five cards, you’re on your own. I don’t study the tails of bell curves. Put another way: go ahead and whine at this point; you’ve earned it.

6) If you draw a six- or seven-land hand in a multiplayer game, you mulligan it. Okay, this is optional in multiplayer, given the heavier mana curves we play – but keeping a seven-land hand is particularly asking for trouble, given the fact that in a deck with 53 cards left (and following my advice in #1), you’re way too close to 50/50 chances for drawing yet another land right off the top. Chances are even higher, naturally, of drawing that useless eighth land before your eighth turn.

Other writers on this site may have additional (or slightly different) rules; but if you follow these, then some simple laws of probability (and one or two complex ones) dictate you will have smoother play from your decks over the long run – that is, less instances of too few or too many land, and more instances of early to mid-game plays.

“But so what?” you may ask. “I don’t play Magic to win, Anthony. I’m a rebel. I play to have fun, and having fun means, er, mana-screwing myself as much as I want!”

Well, okay there, Luke Skywalker. Long live the rebellion. But before you strap yourself into your X-wing fighter and tell Red Two he’s got a good shot, how about considering this – I’m not asking you to win. I’m asking you to increase your chances of doing whatever fun and cool thing your deck does. Put another way (wookie-speak, perhaps), I’m asking you to decrease your chances of jumping up and down in a hot mana-starved sweat and otherwise making an ass of yourself in front of your friends. Your call. Use the Force.

You may email Anthony at He cannot provide deck help.

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