Ban the London Mulligan

by ZviDon't Worry About the Vase3 min read11th Nov 20194 comments


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Previously: On The London Mulligan

Oko, Thief of Crowns is a highly messed up Magic card and needs to be banned in Standard. On that we can all agree. Throne of Eldraine contains many other messed up Magic cards. Some of them, like Once Upon a Time, Wicked Wolf and Gilded Goose, are not getting the appreciation they deserve because Oko, Thief of Crowns is stealing the spotlight. If both of those cards are Standard legal when they rotate out, I will be quite surprised. Then there are Fires of Invention, Caldron Familiar / Witch’s Oven, Embercleave, Emry, Lurker of the Lock. Then there’s Feasting Troll King, Questing Beast, Bonecrusher Giant, Lovestruck Beast, Edgewall Inkeeper and the list goes on. And yes, it has a lot of green in it. There are also messed up Magic cards one can choose from previous sets, although the density of them is far lower.

You are not going to succeed in Standard, for a long time, no matter what is banned, without building around at least one messed up Magic card from Throne of Eldraine. If design does not make large adjustments, and likely even if they do, every good Standard deck for a long time is going to have a key messed up Magic card.

Even more than a single messed up Magic card, these decks have central play patterns. Gilded Goose into Oko, Thief of Crowns. Third turn Nissa, Who Shakes the World. Fires of Invention into Cavalier of Flame. Witch’s Oven sacrificing Caldron Familiar sacrificing food triggering Trail of Crumbs or Mayhem Devil. Embercleave on my Questing Beast or Rotting Regisaur or knight. First turn Pelt Collector or else your deck doesn’t quite work. Explosive or super efficient adventure or Veteran Loxodon starts. Growth Spiral into Wilderness Reclamation. And so on.

If you get to do these things, a seventh card you had to put on the bottom will not be overly missed. If you don’t get these things, an extra card will not much matter.

Thus, the first player is forced to mulligan hands that look perfectly good, but which cannot pull off their key play pattern. Decks get designed with a key consideration being what you can and cannot keep as an opening hand. The deck I would have run at Mythic Championship V, Elk Blade, keeps no configuration of cards that lacks Arboreal Grazer, Gilded Goose or Once Upon a Time against an unknown opponent, even at six cards. Because once you see that such hands are going to be bad no matter what, why build your deck to make them 25% to win rather than 10%, given you’re not going to keep them anyway?

Then the second player has an even more stark choice. If the opponent kept seven, they probably have their central play pattern. What are you going to do about it? You’re already behind because you’re going second. You can ill afford to go second, face a hand of seven, and not have a Gilded Goose. So you mulligan even more. If the opponent goes to six, they still likely have their central pattern, and now that they’re down a card. Answering that becomes what the game will be all about. Or they’ll miss, and there won’t be a game.

Thus, we have lots of mulligans to find key play patterns.

Every game looks the same. Both players do their thing, or else one player fails to do it, is likely also down cards, and never has a chance. Lots of time is spent shuffling, and going through the same motions over and over again.

Once Upon a Time makes all this even worse and made it easier to see, but the problem would persist without it.

Decks that rely on a critical mass of cards rather than a central pattern are at a disadvantage two ways. They don’t get the free wins off their messed up starts, and they suffer far more when forced to send their hands back.

Online on Magic Arena, one tires of playing the same games over and over again, but speeding up the operations, especially shuffling, makes it a lot more palatable. Playing in person, the ratio of dead time to interesting Magic is devastatingly poor. I dropped from the Grand Prix, despite still having a good shot at cashing, because I really, really didn’t want to keep playing Standard.

Food decks are actually less bad than they might otherwise be and relatively good compared to some other decks, because they have multiple such play patterns. Sometimes they’re about Nissa, Who Shakes the World or even Wicked Wolf rather than Oko, Thief of Crowns, and because we have strong hate cards like Noxious Grasp and Aether Gust that allow mirror games to be more dynamic and less lopsided or repetitive than one would otherwise expect. In an important sense, we are currently quite fortunate. The food mirror is a luxurious tapestry compared to a Fires of Invention, adventure or sacrifice mirror.

As I warned in my previous analysis, On the London Mulligan, this is not about one deck getting such a big advantage that it dominates. It is about the pernicious effect on play patterns and deck designs across the spectrum, whether the format is balanced or otherwise. Once enough cards are banned, presumably a variety of decks will focus on a variety of messed up Magic cards. But as long as they are still all using the London Mulligan to find them, the problem will continue.

Magic is great because it continuously presents unique situations to its players. Decks and players are forced to be flexible and roll with the punches, to plan for not having access to their key cards. When instead decks and players are rewarded for relying on their central repetitive play patterns, because fallback sequences would lose anyway, Magic loses much of its appeal.

This effect will only grow as players fully appreciate the new world they live in, and learn how to mulligan effectively, and then how to build decks based on those mulligan decisions by both themselves and others. Again, Gilded Goose aside, traditional Oko, Thief of Crowns decks are in many ways relatively good at having alternative patterns that are competitive with the primary one, and providing life totals that allow time to recover if you can avoid too big a snowball on the board.

I won’t discuss here whether we should be banning other cards along with Oko, Thief of Crowns. I would ban at least one additional green card now rather than later, but I am not super confident that I am correct. There is a reasonable case to be made both for and against additional bans.

What we do need to ban, in addition to Oko, Thief of Crowns, is the London Mulligan. We must return to the Vancouver Mulligan for traditional constructed play. If we are willing to bear the complexity cost of having distinct mulligan rules, I am willing to allow the London Mulligan to remain in limited and even in formats like brawl and commander. In Standard, Pioneer, Modern, Legacy and Vintage, we must act. If we do not, these problems likely only get worse over time, no matter how many cards we choose to ban.

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4 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:23 AM
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It sounds like the problem is that mulligans are necessary to ensure there's a game to play, which depends mostly on having a reasonable number of lands, but that they have bad side-effects which are mostly the result of giving too much control over which nonland cards you have. So I propose the following mulligan rule:

  • On your first mulligan, draw five, then choose one: draw a card, or search your library for a basic land card, reveal it, and put it into your hand.
  • On your second mulligan, draw three, then choose as before, twice.
  • On your third mulligan, draw one, then choose as before three times.
  • There is no fourth mulligan.

This makes mulligans much better at ensuring you can play, and much worse at ensuring you can find a particular card or combo that you're looking for.

(For complexity reasons, this rule would work better if there were a keyword for "either draw or fetch a land", and if it were introduced in advance.)

I don't like the suggestion; searching for a basic to put into your hand is an ability worth almost a card and a mana; that's too powerful for a mulligan offset. This rule also weakens color restrictions too much in my opinion; being able to craft the mana for your first couple of turns almost perfectly with just basics and no deckbuilding investment collapses a lot of strategic choices.

As always, the problem with any mulligan rule is that managing decisions under uncertainty is a fundamental tenet of TCG strategy; any step you take to reduce non-games is a step towards repetitive play patterns. Players are smart; if you give them something guaranteed, they can then abandon any effort they were applying to get that thing before and redirect it somewhere else.

Anything this complicated is a non-starter. I do think its heart is in the right place, but needs to be kept simple.

Interestingly, this seems to pointing at the heart of the thing that I don't like about Magic, which I've long thought of as 'combos' (and sometimes as 'good cards'). That is, most of the Magic decks that I want to make are something like tribal creature decks, where I gradually accumulate Slivers or Knights or whatever (and, ideally, the power ramp looks quadratic instead of linear, but that's not essential). [I think Zvi, at one point, called this strategy of playing Magic the game of 'looking at pretty pictures'.]

Most of the Magic decks that get made by my friends who like Magic are closer to "here's a combination of three cards that means 'I win', and the deck is built around getting that combo out before the other person can get their combo out." Multiplayer Magic games (common among my friends) often have as a dominant strategy "sit there attempting to not look dangerous, until you can kill everyone in the same turn."

L5R had a card-by-card mulligan, which exacerbated this problem even more, I think, altho the replacement of lands with a fixed mana income (that could be saved across turns) did a lot to reduce the need for mulligans at all.