Default Draft Settings: Mulligans

Draft is wonderful because we make so many choices before the games even start. Flashy rare or boring common, aggressive archetype or slow and grindy, all of your deckbuilding choices, and the list goes on. Interesting decisions are what keep me coming back to Eternal draft.

Deciding whether or not to mulligan shouldn’t be one of your interesting decisions. Just apply your default setting: Never mulligan.

I’m convinced that I made better mulligan decisions before I saw this tweet a few weeks ago. There’s a heuristic or piece of advice that can support almost any decision you want to make, and lately you can hand me any 7 random Eternal cards, ask me if I want to mulligan, and my brain will go “ya know what Seth Manfield says…… Keep!”

People have wanted an article about mulligans since I started writing about draft. It’s easy to see why – making better mulligan decisions is a simple way to start winning more games. For the past 9ish months I’ve waited for a stroke of genius to occur, as if suddenly I’ll wake up and know how to explain mulligans. Here’s the problem: when I think of articles about mulligans, I think of Paulo Vitor Damo Da Rosa. PV is obviously in the discussion for best Magic player of all time, but he’s in a class of his own when it comes to writing about Magic/gameplay theory in my opinion (I can’t link to just one article. He’s written hundreds). When people say that Eternal or Magic are more about variance than skill, I just think of Paulo’s articles. When you delve into the minutia of how PV makes his choices, it’s evident that he hasn’t been successful because of luck or variance. I can only speak for myself, but when I started to become interested in tournament Magic, Paulo’s articles made it blindingly clear that the best players aren’t luckier – they’re just better.

Fellow better-than-the-rest-of-us player LSV explained some mulligan heuristics on a recent episode of Limited Resources (beginning around 49 minute mark) which serves as the basis for this article.

Holding myself to Paulo’s standards is clearly absurd – I couldn’t write articles like his if I wanted to (and I do) – but I can cover some of the fundamentals that LSV talked about. Now that I’ve accepted this very obvious realization, let’s talk limited mulligans!

Heuristic #1: Never Mulligan

Simple enough. Article over, I guess.

Ok – so it can’t be correct to never mulligan, so why the absolutist heuristic?

Think about the premise.

“Time to decide if I’ll keep or mulligan this hand” is a very different thought process from “I’m never going to mulligan unless I absolutely, positively, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency have to.”

LSV: “your win percentage falls off a cliff when you go to 6.” Math and probability bear this out in the long run. Starting down a resource makes you far less likely to win that game. Factually, mathematically so. I’ll refer you to Frank Karsten’s body of work if you’re interested in the math of mulligan decisions and hitting your land drops. For now, let’s accept the simple premise that your win percentage decreases significantly when you mulligan.

Heuristic #2: Two Things Away

Don’t keep hands if you need two things to go right. Keeping a hand that needs to draw a power is correct, keeping a hand that needs to draw two power in a row in order to be functional is not.

If your hand is sketchy and you’re relying on your first 2-4 draws of the game to smooth it out, be wary of the word “and.” When you start to say “I need to draw a power AND and early unit” or any version where you need two things to happen, you should strongly consider throwing that hand back.

Know Your Format

Though drafters are always my target audience, many of the skills or concepts I write about are also applicable in Constructed. This is NOT one of those times.

Making mulligan decisions in Constructed is a far different process than Limited. In constructed, part of the thought process is “how does this hand win?” or “what is my plan?” At the risk of sounding too simplistic, the question you should be asking yourself in draft is if your hand is remotely close to functional. If it is, you keep. If you have a two-drop that you can play on turn two, you keep. If you have power for one of your two factions but have early plays you can make until you find your other faction, you keep.

Be Boring

All drafters have different strengths. It’s a fun mental exercise to think about what separates the good from the great, the great from the excellent, the excellent from the elite, etc. If there’s one aspect of my game that’s substantially different from your average Eternal drafter, I suspect I mulligan a lot less. Part of this is due to my strong aversion to it that I’ve developed over time based on math and Magic, but the other reason is boring deckbuilding.

The factors that impact your mulligan decisions occur far before you draw your opening hand – they occur during the draft. I advocate for following fundamentals during draft and deckbuilding based on a very simple idea: Make sure you can cast your cards. Most of my decks are two factions, I always follow the rule of three for splashing, take cards that fix like Seek Power early in the draft, and cast my cards in a large majority of games.

Building boring (fundamentally sound) decks allows you to keep more questionable hands than you would otherwise. When you look at your opening hand, you shouldn’t just be considering those seven cards. You should be considering those seven cards plus the most likely draws in your next 3-4 cards. If you keep a two power hand on the draw with a boring deck, chances are really good that you’ll hit your third power by turn three. Mulligan decisions don’t occur in the abstract – they occur within the context of the rest of your deck.

In my Argent Depths Feln Control decks, I’d keep two power hands on the draw because you’re just so likely to hit power 3 on turn three. I’d wrap up in my verbal security blanket, whispering “this is why we play 19 power” as I hit the “keep” button.

Trusting Outcomes

Sometimes you keep really good two-power hands and never draw another power. Sometimes you keep 4-5 power hands and then only draw sigils for the rest of the game. These things will happen and it’s important that we both recognize and accept it.

Reminder: you can make the correct decision and still lose. It’s incredibly difficult, but you must separate your decision from the result. If it was correct to keep that two-power or five-power hand, then it was correct regardless of the outcome. The goal is to make decisions that have a high probability of working out. If you keep a hand that looks questionable but has an 80-90% chance of being successful, then you just have you to be aware that it’s going to fail 10-20% of the time accept when those games occur.

Redraws

Cotillion, Empire of Glass draft leaderboard maintstay and much appreciated Let’s Talk Limited Patron, recently posted in the Farming Eternal Discord about Eternal’s mulligan system, specifically questioning whether the two guaranteed power on redraws was sufficient. Oh my sweet summer child, you do not know the winters of the Magic Mulligan system.

Having grown up playing Magic, redrawing a hand of seven cards still feels like cheating to me. It’s tough for me to be critical of Eternal’s mulligan system in limited because I think it’s really good. Redrawing a seven card hand leads to fewer non-games. Having 2-4 guaranteed power after a mulligan leads to fewer non-games. Six card hands with two power don’t bother me at all because I’ve drawn so many six card Magic hands with one or zero lands.

My sense is that people redraw a little bit optimistically. Drafters will redraw seven cards just because their hand isn’t perfect – that’s a constructed mindset. For me, the only question is whether or not my first seven is better or worse than the average starting hand for my deck. I realize that’s very vague and I’m not exactly sure how I come to that conclusion on a hand-by-hand basis, but I’ll be paying more attention to my redraw/mulligan decisions in the future.

Play vs. Draw

See Heuristic #1.

I’ll go into more depth on this in the advanced mulligan article (estimated publication date: 2036).

10,000 Games

There are times when going down to six cards is correct, but the times should be very few and far between. Your default setting should be to never mulligan and then only deviate when the seven cards you’ve drawn and most likely 3-4 cards off the top of your deck are truly dysfunctional.

Here’s what helps me. Two-power are hands are scary. Sketchy five-power hands are nerve-wracking, especially on the draw. I get it. They make us feel uncomfortable because there’s a chance they’ll fail. But going down to six cards is a guaranteed disadvantage. Essentially: I don’t want to take the risk that this hand might stumble and lead to a lower win percentage, so instead I will make a decision that undoubtedly leads to a lower win percentage.

If you consistently opt for six-card hands instead of imperfect but keepable seven-card hands in limited, you’ll lose more of your next 10,000 games as a result. A hand being scary doesn’t make it a mulligan – it just gives us bad feelings. And if you never draw the power you need or draw too many, that has no impact on the correctness of your decision to keep those seven cards. It’s very hard to separate your decision from the result when you’ve just lost a game, so reaching out to other players you trust is a great way to evaluate your choice.

Stop thinking of mulligans as an option. Start thinking of them as a terrible occurrence, a travesty, a near-crisis event that can be used in the most dire of circumstances.

Of course there are unkeepable seven-card hands that you should mulligan. Never Mulligan is easy to remember and correct most of the time but you’ll miss the exceptions if you fall in to Seth Manfield snapkeep mode too quickly. When his games trainwreck, I bet being Seth Manfield sure helps him come back from behind and win those games. But I also bet he drafts decks that minimize the chance he’ll ever have to mulligan. I bet they’re beautifully boring.

Looking Ahead

I had a blast streaming for a few hours last night and am planning to do a lot more of it in the future. I’ll be drafting most of the time, but would also like to set up a stream after publishing articles so people can just hang out and ask questions – starting with this one. A 4-month-old currently dictates my schedule and every aspect of my life, so I’m not exactly sure when it’ll happen but keep an eye out for me on Twitch in the near future.

Having a PC will make it a lot easier for me to create content, like on this Sunday morning for example. Mulligans are such an important and endless topic that I might Keep or Mull series. You can submit tough choices in the Farming Eternal Discord or email them to schaab214@gmail.com. Aforementioned 4-month-old is currently demanding my attention, so I’ll leave you with the usual advice: Be Boring and happy drafting!

-Schaab

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