Yesterday, Zvi Mowshowitz released an article on his personal blog that called for “banning” the London Mulligan. You can read it here. Since then, he’s received a significant amount of backlash, but probably an equal amount of praise. Without getting into the details, I think the points Zvi made in his article have some obvious merit, but they were laid out in such a way that anyone who wasn’t receptive to the initial proposal would find the article to be long-winded, and to perhaps present more personal complaints than broad solutions.
That being said, I think the idea of taking a second look at the London Mulligan can raise some truths about some of the issues that competitive Magic, specifically Standard, has been facing recently. In this article, I’m going to look at the mulligan rules we’ve had in recent times, solidify what the goal of a mulligan rule is, why the London Mulligan rule is problematic, and my solution to this problem.
Changing the Mulligan Rule
Magic is an incredible game. Its depth and strategy have never been rivaled by another card game. However, no game is perfect, and Magic has some inherent flaws that most players are willing to get through in order to enjoy the game. The resource system in Magic, for example, is one such issue that players have accepted as the best possible solution to a problem found in all card games. Other games, like Hearthstone, use systems that are too simplistic and can diminish the variety and strategy that is found in Magic’s mana system. However, the lack of depth in Hearthstone’s resource system also enables it to provide extremely consistent gameplay.
Unlike Hearthstone, Magic’s resource system is found in land cards, which are treated just like any other card. This leads to significantly more interesting decisions in deckbuilding, but obviously comes with the drawback of drawing too many or not enough lands. Mulliganing is how the game greatly minimizes the amount of matches that are ruined due to drawing too many or too few lands (also known as flood/screw, but I’ve honestly always hated those terms). The punishment for taking a mulligan is that you take one fewer card each time you mulligan. This solution is the simplest and most effective mulligan rule that has ever existed or ever will. That being said, it isn’t perfect, and Wizards of the Coast felt that non-games were still one of the pervasive issues in Magic that could be solved.
In 2015, Pro Tour Magic Origins tested out a new mulligan rule, referred to as the “Vancouver Mulligan Rule” due to the tournament’s location. This change was to have any player that mulliganed scry 1 at the beginning of the game. This solution created significantly fewer non-games because players could afford to keep a mulliganed hand with too few or too many lands and have some control over how the early turns of the game played out. Generally speaking, this rule was extremely successful. Players were punished for mulliganing, but not as severely as they were before, and there were significantly fewer non-games.
Of course, this change solved many issues, but Wizards didn’t feel like the rule was as good as it could be, and they once again changed the mulligan procedure with the London Mulligan Rule earlier this year. If you haven’t been keeping up with Magic, the London Mulligan Rule sees players draw 7 cards every time they mulligan, but they then put a number of cards equal to the amount of mulligans they took on the bottom of their library. It is essentially a backwards way of having players mulligan to 6 cards, then 5, then 4… etc.
Players seem to really like this new rule, and the worrywarts such as myself (I was concerned it would be hard to explain to new players) have basically all been shut up. However, the aforementioned Zvi Mowshowitz article raises some concerns about the new rule that many competitive players have felt. So we should ask ourselves, what is the goal of a mulligan rule? In my mind…
The goal of a mulligan rule is to limit the amount of games where one or both players are not afforded the opportunity to play a meaningful and interactive game of Magic.
Issues with the London Mulligan Rule
If you haven’t read the Zvi Mowshowitz article that I’ve referenced in this article, I highly recommend you do so, but I’ll talk about the points he brought up here anyway.
5 card hands with the London Mulligan Rule are significantly better and more powerful than 5 card hands were with any previous mulligan rule. The reason is fairly obvious. The 5 cards you keep with this new mulligan rule are the five best cards from a random 7, rather than being 5 random cards. I tend to be very chatty during tournament matches, and my current favorite joke when I mulligan to 5 is to say “well if they’re going to give me infinite free mulligans, I’m gonna use them.” And while, yes, that is objectively an extremely funny joke that doesn’t get old ever, there is some truth to it.
Because of the way Magic is designed, almost every deck will have cards in their opening hands that aren’t needed. Extra lands, expensive spells, and redundant effects are some of the most common of these “air” cards in opening hands. The “punishment” of removing those cards from an opening hand is significantly lower than the “punishment” of drawing one of them in a 5 card hand that you must keep.
The first place to see this is in Standard, with the various Food decks. While it’s not a “combo” in the traditional sense, for the sake of this article and simplifying rhetoric, assembling turn 2 Oko, Thief of Crowns or turn 3 Nissa, Who Shakes the World is a “combo.” Either one of those plays are miles above the power level of the rest of the format, especially on those particular turns. Whether or not Veil of Summer is the true enemy of interaction in Standard is a topic for another article (it is).
Starting from accepting that Food decks are trying to maximize the percentage of games that they get to do the most powerful “thing” in the format, we start to see how the London Mulligan actually helps these decks achieve their powerful plays as often as possible. We are beginning to see deckbuilding reflect this, as the idea of a deck with Arboreal Grazer, Gilded Goose, and Paradise Druid that really sees its power level in a 3 mana and 5 mana planeswalker would have been written off as clunky and weak a few years ago. With the London Mulligan Rule, this deck gets the starts it wants without having to worry much about what happens when they don’t find it. With previous mulligan rules, players would have to deckbuild with fail states in mind. This is no longer the case. With old mulligan rules, decks that were too dedicated to one strong interaction were punished when they weren’t able to do that powerful thing. This is no longer the case.
The Vancouver Mulligan Rule did not set up combos like the London Mulligan Rule does, because it didn’t sculpt your opening hand, it sculpted your initial draws. Thus, it was arguably just as powerful as the London Mulligan Rule when looking at ensuring land drops are hit for the first few turns of the game, but was much less reliable when trying to assemble a combo, such as the modern-day turn 2 Oko, Thief of Crowns or turn 3 Nissa, Who Shakes the World. Additionally, the sculpting of the London Mulligan Rule succeeded in reducing the amount of non-games that Magic sees. But, as many have pointed out, an unfortunate byproduct of this was that it also increased amount that certain play patterns show up. The general variety of Magic games, especially in Standard and especially in this Standard, has decreased. As some people on Twitter put it, there are no more “scrappy” games.
Now, it is incredibly important to put this entire discussion in the context of modern-day Magic. The way Magic Arena is set up has dramatically changed how the world plays Magic, and how we think about the lifetime of a Standard format. Arena has vastly increased the number of games played in a Standard format, and has made card availability issues nonexistent on the platform. Of course, decks that have more rares or mythic rares are going to take more investment to be able to play with, but the traditional secondary market supply-and-demand forces are completely eliminated. Thus, anyone that wants to play the “best deck” in a Standard format won’t necessarily pay more than if they wanted to play a tier 2 or tier 3 in the format.
Standard is also significantly less diverse than formats such as Modern or Legacy (and I guess we include Pioneer here now as well). While this certainly isn’t the main reason that things have gotten a bit out of hand recently, the smaller overall card pool means there are fewer decks that are both powerful enough to compete in the format and are a natural foil for the best deck. What this has led to is a dangerous cliff, where decks that have access to the most powerful combo in this format, turn 2 Oko, Thief of Crowns, are played to an incredible degree on Magic Arena, and only become more popular as the hive mind refines the “best” deck.
Over the years, Wizards of the Coast has taken some measures to ensure that formats aren’t “solved” quickly, and that the “fun exploration” phase of a Standard format lasts as long as possible. With the incredible proliferation of Magic content (I promise there aren’t any decklists or sideboard guides in this article), and matchup data being mined, this exploratory phase was always likely to trend shorter and shorter. I believe that the London Mulligan Rule has contributed to this time frame shortening as well. While with previous mulligan systems players had a fairly large number of games where one or both players’ decks didn’t function optimally, that number being cut down has had the unintended effect of players being able to understand the format and explore all of its nooks and crannies even faster.
This “solving” process speeds up even more when development mistakes are made. While it feels like mistakes have been happening more and more in recent years, and it’s hard to argue that they haven’t been, they have been amplified and discovered much faster due to the London Mulligan Rule. It has only been 22 days since Field of the Dead was banned in Standard, and everyone who was paying attention knew that the Mythic Championship was going to have an unprecedented amount of Oko. Many factors led to this, but no one should have been surprised by its dominance. The Saheeli Rai–Felidar Guardian combo is undoubtedly more of a, to use a technical term, “whoopsie” than Oko, Thief of Crowns, and yet there is much more of a consensus around banning Oko than there was for banning the “Copycat” combo when it was in Standard. The London Mulligan, combined with other factors such as the number of Magic games played rapidly increasing thanks to Arena, is largely to blame for this.
To bring this back to the general direction of this article, the original mulligan rule (no scry) was hugely punishing, and it led to many non-games which left players frustrated. The change to a scry after mulliganing helped this a bit, as Wizards correctly identified that the frustrations were largely pointed at drawing a suboptimal number of lands. However, they didn’t feel that this was enough, and so the London Mulligan Rule was born. This current rule, however, as pointed out by Zvi Mowshowitz, leads to incredibly consistent gameplay, amplifying other issues in the game and taking much of the format exploration time away from players.
The perfect mulligan system would punish mulligans less than the Vancouver Mulligan Rule, but would not take the sharp turn that led to the London Mulligan Rule. Thus, a good system would have the player take the traditional mulligan procedure of drawing one fewer card each time they mulligan, but would give them an added bonus.
Here’s my proposal:
Each time a player mulligans, they draw one fewer card than they did previously. Once they keep a hand, they scry X, where X is the number of mulligans they have taken.
I believe that this solution helps boost the power of mulliganing and would lead to fewer non-games, especially when players are able to keep hands that have too few lands and attempt to scry them to the top of their library. Additionally, players would not draw 7 card hands while mulliganing, which would help alleviate some of the issues Magic is facing due to the London Mulligan Rule, notably gameplay becoming too consistent and repetitive.
My initial reservation of making a change to this system would be the complexity level for newer players. However, I find that this system is much more elegant and less-confusing than the London Mulligan Rule, where players are forced to remember how many mulligans they have taken after they make the decision to keep or mulligan their current hand. For newer players, it makes sense that each mulligan is essentially turned into a scry. Did you end up with 4 cards in hand? Well 4+3=7, so you scry 3.
Multiple mulligans with this system are not very punishing, as setting up the next few turns is both reassuring for a mulliganing player, and very interesting strategically for that player. For the opponent, they know that mulliganing is punishing, and their opponent’s hand is likely going to have a completely different makeup than the sort of hand they would keep with seven cards. This leads to more varied gameplay, more interesting decisions, and diminished effect of development mistakes.
While #BanTheLondonMulligan hashtag may be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, taking a long look at the impact the London Mulligan Rule has had on competitive Magic, especially Standard, sheds light on reasons why it may be time to change the mulligan system again. While it may be too early to say, and we are only a few months into this new mulligan system, I have a sneaking suspicion that far less egregious cards than Oko, Thief of Crowns will pay for the sins of the London Mulligan.
Until next time.