Can I Keep This? – How to Mulligan in cEDH
A quick note about the Silicon Dynasty cEDH tournament in San Jose on January 14-15: I’ll be there! If you’d like to say hi, get a game in, and get my Pro Player Card which I’m happy to sign for you, please come by. The event has $5,000 in cash prizes, dealers on site, is proxy friendly, and is going to be a ton of fun. Hope to see you there.
Mulliganning accurately requires multiple skills and today’s I want to discuss a key difference between how I think about mulliganning in formats like Legacy, Modern, Standard, Booster Draft vs. how I think about mulliganning in cEDH.
Reason to Keep vs. Reason to Mull (default mull vs. default keep)
Several things combine and interact in cEDH to make mulliganning much more frequently the right play, so much that it becomes the default action (rather than keep being the default):
- You have to outperform 3 other starting hands, not 1 (and you don't get partial credit for having the 2nd best game at the table)
- The disparity between the best cards and the rest of the cards is vast (Mana Crypt and Dockside and Remora are better than the 50th best spell in your deck by a LOT)
- Singleton (1 of every card) adds further to the amount of variance from hand to hand (and draw step to draw step if you decide to rely on the draw step to make up for deficiencies in your opening hand)
- You get an extra mulligan (to 7 cards) to work with
- You may be going 3rd or 4th starting position placing mediocre hands at an even greater risk of falling hopelessly behind
With that fundamental difference in mind, our mantra needs to be, "Do I have a valid reason to keep this hand?" If not, throw it back.
But not all reasons are equally compelling, nor do they show up with the same frequency. Below I'll start to dive into some of the most important reasons to keep and the order I rank them in terms of how compelling the hand needs to be on that axis before keep is justified.
Ranking and Prioritizing the Reasons to Keep
Strong decks do multiple things - develop the board (often including casting commander(s)), interact with what opponents are doing, draw cards, cast our commander, etc. But these things don't contribute equally to our winning chances. They don't contribute in equal share in any one deck (in Shorikai, interaction may be more important than drawing cards, something our Commander can do for us if and only if we survive) and they don't contribute in consistent share from deck to deck (developing the board might be more important to Winota than it is to Codie).
And of course, all this abstracting and theorizing is just stick figures and arrows scratched into the sand – a guide for our intuition and discussion, but not a simulation of how the decks work or a collection of universal truths across every deck. But this stuff helps. How often have you found yourself staring at a hand, unsure about whether to mulligan, except the problem is you're just staring, aware of what can go right and what can go wrong but without a framework to get you closer to the right decision as the seconds you have to decide tick away.
The framework below, once you learn through experience how it typically applies to your deck (and to your meta/pods), can be something you're keeping in mind as you make those tough calls about whether what this first 7 or that 6 are doing is "enough" to justify a keep or whether you should throw it back in search of something higher up on the priority list (experience is what's needed to know how likely those things are to show up in your deck and give you winning chances in your pod).
Reasons to Keep a cEDH hand, Ranked:
- Truly Broken Things
BREAKPOINT AFTER WHICH MOST HANDS AREN'T KEEPS
- Card Advantage
- Non-Functional-Hand Avoidance
1. Truly Broken Things
You don't need a plane ticket if you're already at your final destination. Opening hands that do something so powerful that they win the game or set you up to win the game break the categories and distinctions that will follow in this list. Is Mystic Remora on turn 1 or 2 technically just Card Advantage? Sure, technically. But it provides so many resources on average that I'd put it into the Truly Broken Things category instead. The categories need to be useful, not technically distinct.
Note that I said turn 1 or 2 Remora. If I'm going 4th, *just* putting a Remora out may not be broken enough, it depends on what else the hand is doing and perhaps what pod I'm in. Cards aren't strategies, they're just cards, and context always matters.
Putting a Rhystic Study into play, triggering Winota turn 2, casting Ad Nauseum. Hands that can do these things don't need much else to be worth keeping, even on a first 7.
Sample Hand to Illustrate:
First 7, playing TnK, going first (typical set of opposing commanders, 1 creature based 2 spell based):
It's a keep. This hand doesn't do a lot of things, and we're flooded. But Remora in seats 1 or 2 is so powerful that it's likely to draw us nearly as many cards as mulliganning to a new hand would let us see throughout the game.
Note that going 3rd or 4th it's a mulligan on first 7, but probably a keep still on 2nd 7. Context can often change how compelling our "reason to keep" is, so we can't just store in memory which hands are keeps and which are mulls, we have to get context-specific experience and heuristics.
Development in cEDH is deck specific, but almost always prioritizes mana development and critical permanent development. Sculpting your hand can count too, but you need to be careful with this type of development since it's slower and therefore contingent upon surviving to use the card(s) you found, nobody having found answers or stax pieces that thwart them, and on having sufficient mana development to get the most out of it. Thus, land + Lotus Petal + Demonic Tutor is often a worse turn 1 than land + Lotus Petal + Arcane Signet. Mana is our most frequent bottleneck in cEDH. We die with 1 and 2 mana interaction in hand, we say go because our threat costs 5 and we only have 3 or 4 mana. Mana isn't the only thing, but it's the one to prioritize.
When mana development is prioritized, we will often have something to do in the command zone (unless we've accidentally brought kobolds and grey ogres to the battle) as a *floor* on where we're going, and have many good draws. Still, it is possible to have only mana and nowhere to put it, so we have to be concrete about total development and not focus solely on mana just because it's a primary focus.
Sometimes development is Commander-specific, such as Winota needing attackers (and 2WR to cast Winota), Rigo or Raffine needing small bodies, or Food Chain commanders needing specifically Food Chain. Practice will inform what types of development your deck can and can't live without. The point is, this development is usually more important than having good threats for the midgame or having interaction.
Sample Hand to Illustrate:
Second 7, going 3rd, playing Najeela, typical pod:
Some of our most powerful cards, enough mana to cast them, and a swat to boot. MULL. The speed at which development occurs is critical. Even though the cards here are powerful once cast, by the time this hand gets its pants on the rest of the table will be in the middle of the race.
What if the Swat and Derevi and Rhystic were Flusterstorm, Silence, and Force of Will? Well, we still wouldn't have fast development. You don't win in cEDH by not losing. Interaction is a lower priority than Development, so let's talk about interaction.
It's not that interaction doesn't matter in cEDH. It matters a lot. This isn't EDH, after all. But we need to recognize (and this will be unpacked more fully in a future article) that interaction is a shared responsibility. Again, you can't win in cEDH by not losing. You have to do something broken or truly lock the table out with stax pieces to win. But having some interaction does improve a hand (or a deck) because you get to uphold your portion of the shared responsibility of stopping the active player from winning if they can do so before the rest of the table.
"But Matt, some decks don't even play interaction or play very little (Korvold is a good example), what do you mean interaction is a shared responsibility?"
I don't mean responsibility in the sense that players are ethically or morally obliged to contribute, I just mean that multiple players can step up and interact, but if none of them do they all lose when an opponent can go off. There is an advantage to not having interaction in hand or in deck (you don't need to expend resources stopping others) and a disadvantage (the likelihood you lose when someone else goes off is higher).
The thing to recognize here is that interaction helps a deck or hand, but isn't usually itself a Reason to Keep, hence it falls below the BREAKPOINT AFTER WHICH MOST HANDS AREN'T KEEPS line, as something nice-to-have in addition to a reason to keep, but not sufficient in itself.
Even using interaction to "buy time" to develop is a strategy that can backfire. Sometimes you stop 1 player only to watch another go off. Sometimes your interaction wasn't the right kind. If you're already on 5 or 6 cards, well, you gotta do what you gotta do, but 7s of this type can usually be thrown back.
Every general concept has exceptions. Developing specifically towards cards like Dockside Extortionist (well, I guess there aren't many cards like Dockside Extortionist so perhaps I mean specifically this card), you might only need 2 lands and a way to survive, and a payoff. Decks like Kenrith and Korvold that are very reliant on Dockside and tutor it a lot have to modify some of these principles to understand how things are likely to play out, so it's worth mentioning here.
Lastly, some players might be wondering how this applies to a deck like Shorikai that is in a "control" role. Well, if you keep Shorikai hands that don't develop artifact mana, all I'll say is you're not going to have much fun with Shorikai, in my experience.
4. Card Advantage
If we can't develop, draw a couple of cards in the hopes that the development comes is usually too slow and too uncertain. Land Lotus Petal Sylvan Library isn't nearly as likely to win as you might think, and even Land Dark Ritual Necropotence often loses (although now we're into Truly Broken Things and can keep it – just understand that in these spots you'll often want to Necro for 10 instead of 25 or 30). Point is, enhancing our hand without developing the board is mostly a trap.
Remora and Rhystic are good because of massive amounts of card advantage that scale up when your opponent decides to go for it are Truly Broken, like Necro but without being punished hard by the discard step. (and again, Necro is still often Truly Broken)
5. Non-Functional-Hand Avoidance
Too many players keep 7 or even 6 cards hands that are "functional" as in making a few land drops, maybe interacting once, hope to draw some improving cards. This is how mulliganning in 60-card formats works, or in limited. But in cEDH, avoiding a non-functional hand just isn't a priority. You don't get any partial credit for doing a few things before you die. You either win or you lose. So you need to locate a hand that has winning chances even if it means sometimes mulling to 3 and never really being in the game.
If someone offered you a game piece in Rock Paper Scissors that beats Rock, and loses only *slightly* to Paper and Scissors, this piece would be unplayable. Losing big or losing slightly is the same thing in Rock Paper Scissors, as it is in cEDH.
I hope the concepts in this article plant a seed for many readers about modes of thinking when mulliganning that can be refined, customized to your deck, further customized to what commanders you're facing, and bent or broken as exceptions are found. In the meantime, if you have sample hands you aren't sure about, feel free to tweet them tagging @sickofit on Twitter and I'll try to give my two cents on whether to keep or mull, and why.