On The London Mulligan

Original Announcement: Mythic Championship II Format and the London Test

Previously (Patrick Sullivan at Star City Games): The London Mulligan: A Game Designer’s Perspective

We’ve now had about a week to think about the London Mulligan rule. I’ve changed my mind several times in that period. There are big advantages and big disadvantages. It’s not obvious which should dominate.

My preliminary conclusion is that this is quite bad for Modern, Legacy and Vintage, and probably small positive for Limited. I’m increasingly confident it’s also bad for Standard.

Advantage 1: Less Fully Dead Games

This is the headline reason. It’s a big one.

Going to six is a big disadvantage but often survivable. Going to five and winning is a story. Going to four is so bad it often raises the question of whether it’s worth playing your first land and revealing what deck you’re running. Being down two or more cards is bad enough without the risk of not having any lands, or missing your color, or not having early spells.

Because mulligans are so bad, players often keep seven card hands that don’t have much action, or that need a land soon in order to play Magic at all. Making mulligans less hostile lets those dead games be avoided as well.

With the new rule, you get to look at all seven cards on six. You are much more likely to have a reasonable mix of lands and spells, and at least do some things. At five cards, you are probably going to have the number of lands you want, usually two or three, and a few reasonable spells. You’re down two cards, but you otherwise get to play.

This is very good. When I look back upon my experiences at the Pro Tour and Grand Prix in Cleveland, most of the games were great fun, but the dead games were the exceptions, and result in standing around for a long time waiting for the next round.

Minimizing those games is a big win. Such games can even be an exit point where people quit playing.

How many do we get to avoid? Definitely a substantial number, but also definitely not the majority.

Disadvantage 1: More Time In Mostly Dead Games

The direct danger in avoiding free wins is that we might turn games on four or five cards into long agonizing struggles that never had a chance. Whereas before, you could lose quickly and move on. This is especially true when playing online. Doubly true on the ladder in Arena.

In a weird way, the game being completely over right away is kind of a benefit. You can say, that’s Magic, this happens, time to move on. The lost opportunity is bad, but if you can go play another match, it’s not a big deal.

Some of my least favorite experiences are games where you’re 1%, or 0.1%, to win, and the game is mostly out of your hands. Hello, Nexus of Fate and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. You sit there watching your opponent go through the motions, in case something really strange happens and you can get back in it. A hundred such games later, you have one win and a great story. You also have ninety-nine (relatively) miserable stretches of your life you will never get back.

The indirect danger is that if going to five or fewer cards gives you some chance of winning, then players will choose more often to go to five or fewer cards to get a hand of land and spells. But not enough land or spells.

So instead of a world in which you’re either dead quickly or mostly alive, there’s a world in which you’re usually mostly dead.

Note that this is especially bad online and in Arena. The moment your game is done you can start a new one, so fully dead games are not a big problem. Mostly dead games effectively force you to concede or tough it out, which feels bad and blameworthy both ways.

This contrasts with paper Magic in tournaments, where sticking it out takes time you would have otherwise had to wait.

Advantage 2: Increased Agency, Skill Testing and Sense of Agency

With the London mulligan, you are making more decisions when sculpting your opening hand. Patrick noted this as a big advantage – you think there was something you could have done.

With the current mulligan rule, most hands are straightforward keeps or mulligans, and most scry decisions are easy as well since you usually either want most lands or most spells. There are marginal hands and a few marginal cards to keep or not keep, but that’s mostly it.

This still allows good players to get a substantial edge from making good mulligan decisions, as the few decisions left matter a lot and are easy to get wrong. Whenever I read one of the ‘keep or mulligan’ columns I find big disagreements, and these can be among the hardest and least intuitive decisions in the game.

Still, it leaves a lot of room for improvement.

The London mulligan means more hands that can plausibly go to six or fewer cards, more hands that do go to six or fewer cards, and a much more complex decision if you keep a smaller hand. How much land do you want? Do you need to gamble on finding the right lands, or risk a flood? Should you ensure you have good early plays at the expense of long term power when you’re already down on cards? Or should you keep your powerful cards to try and catch up?

Those are often going to be intense, interesting decisions. All choices are lousy, but some are much more likely to win than others.

It’s not clear to me that this is an improvement.

Even recently, have you seen the last 10 Pro Tour performances from Luis Scott-Vargas and Reid Duke? It’s hard to say this isn’t a skill game. It’s hard to lose sleep over it not being more of one.

There are plenty of places one could add or subtract skill testing, and my guess is that right now this level of skill testing is where Wizards wants it. I don’t think they are far from the ideal balance, so good job there.

Despite that, many players express a desire for the game to be more skill testing. If one considered this an advantage, that could be a strong argument for the London Mulligan.

Alternatively, if one thinks that skill testing is otherwise expensive, that we could make an otherwise better game if we needed less of it, we could increase skill testing here so we could stop buying it elsewhere. That too could be good.

The other danger is that while this increases the skill testing during the mulligan, it risks decreasing skill testing elsewhere for all the wrong reasons, as we’ll see later on. It probably results in a more skill testing game at least in Standard, but it’s not obvious that it does on net.

Disadvantage 2: Increased Sense of Agency in Inevitable Losses

Patrick’s definitely on to something when he points to players having a sense they had a way out.

Can this backfire as well? I think it can.

The same way there’s something soothing about a 0% chance of winning and a chance to move on, there’s also something reassuring about knowing there’s nothing you could have done. You made the only decisions you could, or all reasonable decisions definitely lost.

When I was playing Artifact, I loved that every game I lost was somehow my fault. I might not have won with perfect play, but I would have had a better chance. I always had a way to improve. Magic’s not like that. A tournament of Magic is like that. If you think you couldn’t have improved all day, you’re wrong. Individual games often aren’t. If you didn’t see land three until turn ten, you could have bluffed a little better, or gotten more information out of the opponent, but it likely wasn’t going to much matter.

When in deliberate practice mode, finding ways to improve is great. But there’s reasons a lot of players aren’t in that mode too often. One of those reasons is that it often feels a lot better to chalk one up to bad luck. Good for the ego and soul. You didn’t have a choice (remember, choices are bad) which makes it all much easier to take.

You know how you should never look at the top of your library after you mulligan, but you do anyway and it’s terrible and you know it’s terrible but you don’t stop? It’s a lot like that. You suddenly know if only you’d done this seemingly insane thing you’d have been in it, or even won, and now you feel a lot worse about the whole thing. How was I supposed to know to do that, you repeat to yourself. And probably, you weren’t supposed to know, or to do it. But that can be small comfort, sometimes.

This can also combine with disadvantage one. When choosing what to do with a five or six card hand, there will often be a choice between the fast option, where you plan to go for it, hope your opponent stumbles and you win quickly, or the slow option where you hope you can survive and slowly get out. The second option means a likely slow and painful death, which you’d prefer not to choose, but given the choice you feel blameworthy for not taking it.

When the most winning play pattern isn’t the most fun play pattern, it’s a problem, and I worry this is going to encourage that here. And in other ways, as we continue.

Disadvantage 3: Increased Importance of Scouting

Knowing what your opponent is playing becomes much more important if you make impactful card selection decisions before the game begins!

It’s already important with the current mulligan rule, as some hands don’t play well against some decks. If you have the chance to sculpt your hand, that takes it to another level. In many games, what card to place on the bottom will be the biggest decision made. Often it will be a guessing game, where your removal spell is dead in some places and the best card in others. The result will be more worry about mini–games around scouting and field knowledge that most players prefer to avoid. We’d much rather play the games.

With opponents having stronger and more consistent opening hands, not only will you be making these decisions more often, those decisions will be more vital to keeping pace. You won’t have much time to draw out of it if you’re wrong.

Disadvantage 4: Increased Reliance on Key Cards, Combinations and Play Patterns

What’s the deck in history that most benefits from the new rule? Who wants to draw one key card, or a key combination of cards, almost no matter what?

Dredge decks with Bazaar of Baghdad would be thrilled (until the inevitable restriction) but there’s a limited deck that occasionally got played that I think has them beat: 39 Swamps and 1 Pack Rat.

Once you accept you’re never having six Swamps in play, the additional cards don’t matter even a tiny bit. All you care about is finding the Pack Rat. If you find it and it lives, you probably win. If it dies or you fail to find, you lose. That’s it.

That’s the ultimate in extreme contrast. Your other cards are all so bad that you’re better off hoping to draw one copy of one card, than trying to play Magic normally.

This is not something we want to encourage.

It’s easy to see how dangerous such options are for Modern, and even easier for Legacy and Vintage.

It’s also popular to dismiss this as ‘Dredge is an abomination regardless’ or some variation thereof. So is Lantern. So is Amulet. So is Tron? So are a good portion of Modern’s other decks?

Even in Standard, decks that are much stronger when they have one key card, or one of two key cards, will both be stronger and be sorely tempted to mulligan a lot of otherwise fine seven card hands to find what they need, even in game one.

Consider a Standard world in which blue mulligans a lot of its playable hands without Curious Obsession, many green decks go seeking either a Llanowar Elves or a Wildgrowth Walker engine, Nexus decks won’t keep hands without a Growth Spiral or Search for Azcanta, and white decks won’t start on seven without either History of Benalia or Legion’s Landing.

After sideboard things get much worse. The classic example is someone with a Leyline of Sanctity or Leyline of the Void, who will mulligan to find it almost no matter what, and an opponent who in turn is going to mulligan to Nature’s Claim. That’s not what I think of as fun. Standard versions of this are less dramatic, because Wizards stopped printing sideboard cards (which I think is a mistake, but that’s another debate), but now that you know what you’re up against and what you need, there’s still going to be a lot of ‘this perfectly good hand won’t get it done.’

The examples could be wrong, as I haven’t played some of the decks, but the point remains.

Many of the best Magic games are about dealing with unexpected or awkward combinations of cards, and improvising what to do with strange hands and interactions. the London Mulligan will push decks towards having their best cards and most obvious play patterns more often. Hands without them will get mulligans, and mulligans will put the less key cards on the bottom. Both seem quite bad.

Disadvantage 5: Increased Pressure to Mulligan, Including Into Oblivion

We’ve talked about increased mulligan pressure. That pressure in turn puts even more pressure on. Can a Drake or Esper deck keep a hand without a quick removal spell when it’s so often facing such threats? If your opponent keeps seven do you basically have to assume that they ‘have it’? That second turn Wildgrowth Walker must mean Jadelight Ranger, right?

More seven card hands get thrown back as likely to get overrun, polarizing things even more. Then, six card hands that can’t deal with seven card hands, that are facing a seven card hand, face increasing pressure to go to five. Before, you’d stop the spiral at six (and five) due to how terrible it was to keep going, even if keeping was bad, but now keeping a lousy hand is death since you know they’re on a strong seven, and throwing back gives some hope.

It may well be correct even in Standard to give up a substantial portion of games to the death spiral, and dramatically increase mulligan rates, to maximize your chances. Then we’re no longer even decreasing the number of dead games.

Ambiguous: Advantage of Playing First

I can’t tell if this will make going first that much more imperative, since both players often have strong hands, or reduce the card counts so much that playing first is less attractive.

It’s not something I worry about too much, unless the effect is very large. There’s a lot of randomness in Magic. That’s a good thing. Players like to point to the die roll and complain about it, but one must roll with the punches. I doubt this effect is going to be big either way.

Disadvantage 6: More Glass Cannons, both Deck Choice and Deck Configuration

Deck construction and deck selection will change. Players will build decks that rely on finding key cards, and accept that failure to find means mulligan. There will be no point in creating backup plans if those plans are not good enough to prevent a mulligan. 

Tron decks, for example, won’t plan much for what to do without Tron. What they do without Tron is, they lose. Same with other decks that rely on key cards, and have a reasonable shot at getting them. It becomes reasonable to simply assume one of eight cards will show up. Some matches after boarding the entire plan becomes finding the one key card at almost any cost. More subtle options are given up.

Decks become about doing one key thing as well and fast as possible. Sideboards become about finding the one true answer, or the one true answer to the one true answer. More and more players put in discard or removal for key answers, instead of tuning their strategies.

Conclusion: More Dangerous, In Subtler Ways, Than You Think

The changes in the mulligan rules so far have had real effects on deck choice and deck balance, but have been well worth those costs. Magic is self-balancing to a large extent, as the metagame adjusts to changes. Having games where players start on six or five, and where they get some free card selection, were small enough adjustments that things mostly went on as before.

The London Mulligan is different.

The increase in card selection, and in the quality of mulligan hands, versus the bonus from a scry 1, is several times bigger even at six cards. I believe that even in Standard this would have large effects on how decks are played and configured, and how often key cards and play patterns occur. It would shift Magic into a game that is much more about gambles before the game begins, much more centered on central cards and strategies, and much more focused on the early turns. These changes threaten to form vicious cycles, where others going down such roads forces you to do the same.

More time will be spent in games with five or six card hands that have little chance of winning, but which aren’t hopeless enough to give up, especially hurting when playing online.

There will be more and more pressure to do things that can win off of five or fewer cards, either from a key combination or raw aggression, or some other way. These will not be as many cool, complex Johnny decks.

This could be quite bad, including directly undoing the key advantage of avoiding dead games. Players will often mulligan themselves into a small hand with little or no chance, hate that they (correctly) gave their seven card hand away, and have lots of feel bad moments. The games where interesting and different things happen and you learn to deal with it become less common.

I approve of trying new dangerous things. I think that this is a worthy experiment. That’s why I’m calling this on the London Mulligan, rather than against. Experiments are cool, and they are how we learn. We have a great game. Let’s do science to it!

There’s a chance this will all turn out great. Perhaps I’m seeing mirages, or things whose magnitude is an order lower than I fear. That definitely happens. In that case, great.

There’s a chance this will be an obvious disaster, degenerate decks and strategies run rampant, and everyone vows never to do that again. In that case, great again. Glad we did that.

What worries me is that this will be subtly bad. The decks that do well in London will look somewhat different, with more decks that can operate on fewer cards and more true silver bullets and answers to bullets, but with decklists and win percentages that still mostly look like Modern. The damage will be more in the play patterns that result, the escalating mulligan frequencies and importance of the pregame, the increased focus on key cards even when the decklists barely change. I worry that will happen, and it will be easy to miss. 

Then, by the time the damage is done, it might be too late.



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7 Responses to On The London Mulligan

  1. rossry says:

    > What’s the deck in history that most benefits from the new rule?

    Not relevant to your main argument, but does Lost in the Woods have Pack Rat beat here? At least in game 1; there’s a lot more spot removal and burn main-deck, and especially in a London keep…

    • hnau says:

      True: turn-5 Lost in the Woods in a Sealed deck with, say, 44 Forests (to be relatively sure of a win by decking) will beat the majority of Sealed opponents, at least in game 1. With maximally-aggressive London mulligans your odds of finding Lost (or Pack Rat) on the draw are upwards of 70%.

      On the other hand, Pack Rat seems almost as good and a lot less fragile. Turn 2/3 limited removal is in short supply these days… you can expect maybe 1 Shock effect at common, plus a Pacifism effect which doesn’t really help with Pack Rat. Once you get 2+ Rats and are making 1/turn it’s basically game over unless they have some kind of sweeper.

    • TheZvi says:

      I think they are very similar. Because Lost requires a 44-card deck, you need the help more to find it. So it would come down to which deck hated giving the option to the opponent more.

  2. Jon Ross says:

    Disadvantage 4 seems like the real killer. Encouraging aggressive mulligans to find particular cards or silver bullet sideboard cards is just not good Magic. It will also add extra time to the pregame, i.e. the worst part of Magic.

  3. hnau says:

    My pet proposal for mitigating the “OMG so much easier to find combos and sideboard cards now!” objections: Reduce the Constructed copies-of-the-same-card-per-deck limit from 4 to 3.

    I assume this is a non-starter for WotC for money-making / consumer-confidence reasons. Is there another important objection to it that I’m missing?

    • TheZvi says:

      Forcing players to play more different cards in this way is not obviously bad or good but would be a huge disruption – it would make a lot of strategies not viable, and invalidate every deck ever built, with notably rare exceptions. If it was the right long term move it would still be right, but I don’t see it as necessary, or as a clear improvement; my guess is it would be net bad by forcing people to play more ‘good stuff’ strategies.

      As I noted above, I think Magic is mostly in a good place right now.

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