Mulligans can be a headache in all forms of magic. Knowing how to mulligan properly separates mediocre players from players who win tournaments and take down Commander Tables. Many of the aspects of Magic that players often blame improperly are actually the result of poor mulligan decisions. When someone never gets past two lands, doesn’t do anything until it’s too late, has nothing proactive to play, or just plays lands for most of the game, it means they probably made bad decisions in either deck building or when they were considering taking a mulligan.
The reason that mulligans are so tricky is that the decisions usually depend on the deck you are playing and the deck your opponent or opponents are playing. Mulligan decisions also vary depending on the style of mulligan.
You want to be able to play enough lands from your starting hand to play at least one card from those seven cards – and preferably more. In a perfect world, your starting hand should be able to be fully played out even if you can’t draw any more cards. Keep in mind that in multiplayer formats where you always draw on your first turn, going to six (or even five) won’t hurt. Decks vary, but keeping 3-4 lands and 2-3 playable spells is ideal. Lands are the most important cards to mulligan for; go down as far as you need to get to three lands. Only keep a two land hand if you have cheap ramp to compensate. This is why low converted cost commanders are so strong; they give you the ability to reduce your hand size and still be relevant.
Styles of Mulligans
The official mulligan rule for Commander is Partial Paris. The way it works is that you set aside any number of cards from your hand, then draw one fewer than the number you set aside. You repeat this as much as needed, and then shuffle after you have decided on your final hand. It is a quicker way to mulligan since it doesn’t require you to shuffle in between decisions. It has the major advantage that you know you won’t redraw the cards you have set aside. It also shrinks the deck as you mulligan, making finding cards you need much easier. With Partial Paris mulligans you can make decisions more aggressively than with the traditional mulligan style. Don’t keep the big bombs in your opening hand for Partial Paris – you will have plenty of time to draw them later. You should have a maximum of one card with a converted mana cost of about four in your opening hand in most situations.
Free Partial Paris
If your group is incredibly kind, they will allow one free Paris mulligan followed by Partial Paris mulligans. This works exactly like the Partial Paris method, except for your first mulligan you put aside any number of cards and draw the same number. After the first mulligan, it follows the same rules as Partial Paris. If this is allowed you should almost always be using the free Paris and will have ideal hands more often than not. Even just ditching the one bomb out of your hand to get something playable in the early game is worth it.
The most common method for mulligans I have seen personally is to give one free standard mulligan followed by Partial Paris mulligans. A free standard mulligan happens when you take all seven cards in your hand and shuffle them into your library, and then draw seven more. This style of mulligan may be the most complicated mulligan style for making a decision. With Paris-style mulligans, you just have to decide which cards to toss. With standard style mulligans, you just decide if your hand is good enough to keep. With this combination of mulligans you have to decide if your hand is good enough to Partial Paris into a playable hand or if it is worth it to try again. For this decision, you should be looking for 50% or better hands. That means you want 2+ lands and 1+ playable spells in your first hand, or you should ditch the whole thing.
Classic Multiplayer Mulligan
The last style of mulligans I will mention is the classic multiplayer mulligan. This is one free standard mulligan followed by regular mulligans. Regular mulligans allow you to shuffle your entire hand into your deck and draw one less the number of cards in your hand. This type of mulligan leads to the worst hands. The highest priority in these mulligans should be mana. A deck is mostly spells, so it is easier to draw into spells than it is to find mana. When you have 6-7 cards in hand, you should mulligan if you don’t have 3+ lands or 2+ lands and a piece of mana ramp you can cast for two or less mana. The higher your deck’s mana curve, the riskier these mulligans are; you can curb these risks by running a higher amount of lands and low-curve mana ramp in your deck. If this is the style of mulligan your group chooses, then you should consider building your decks as either low-curve or high-ramp.
The type of meta-game you play in can also affect how you use your mulligans. If your games usually last a long time, then there is a good chance you are in a control heavy meta-game. Control heavy environments make it so that if you play a single threat at a time, there is a good chance your threat will be destroyed before it can have a meaningful impact on the game. In these environments, you need to be able to force your threats through by playing multiple threats, playing a threat and a way to protect it, or having counterspell backup for your plays. In all cases, it means you will need to spend more mana to get anything done. When you mulligan, you shouldn’t worry about anything but having enough mana, with lands being preferable over ramp. This is type of environment where a 4+ land hand is perfectly acceptable.
In ramp-heavy meta-games, players will pound out a bunch of acceleration and then start dropping huge threats. In these environments, it is crucial to keep pace with the game or you will be over-run. When you are looking at your opening hand, you want mana as you would in a control environment. The difference here is that ramp becomes more important than lands. These types of environments usually run like races, so make sure you are fast enough to keep up. Even if you are an anti-ramp deck, you need to be able to cast your anti-ramp as soon as possible; otherwise, opponents could drop a threat and you will start falling behind to fast to catch up.
In aggro heavy meta-games, players play creatures all along the mana curve and start pounding face immediately. You should mulligan like you would in a regular mixed environment, except that you need to make sure you can play a blocker. Aggro heavy environments tend to have players that will always hit someone if they can. If you don’t have a blocker early, you could end up taking incidental damage that adds up to a loss later in the game.
Combo heavy meta-games have the most important mulligans. In these environments, games start with a race to see who can land a combo and catch the table flat-footed. If combos get stifled in the earlier game, the pace slows down and the game becomes a tightrope walk. Players need to hold enough control to stop players from going off, while also hand sculpting and building a board position. The games turn into chess matches where you bait out counters to create an opening for your own win condition. When you mulligan in a combo environment, you need to have either an early threat or enough control in hand to stay alive for the first several turns.
I would like to thank @Erik_Tiernan aka Razjah for the article idea. If anyone else would like to see something discussed on GDC Commander, you can head on over to our Google Doc viewform and submit an idea. Please leave your name or twitter handle in the comments if you would like credit for coming up with the article idea. If you want personal deck advice, email me at swordstoplow(at)gmail.com. Thanks for reading.