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Mulligans in Hearthstone and Magic

Posted 04-28-2014 at 07:33 PM by Spacebear
Updated 04-29-2014 at 09:32 PM by Spacebear

So somebody brought up an idea on twitter today. (The person who came up with the idea doesn't really matter)

(Ok, it was Day9, now shut up)

What if you took Magic: the Gathering's existing mulligan rule, and replaced it with Hearthstone's much more lenient mulligan rule?

Quick summary of both: In MTG, when you get your opening hand of 7 cards, you have a single choice to make- mulligan, or keep? If you mulligan, you reshuffle your deck and draw a completely fresh hand, of one less card than before. You can do this as many times as you want, but it tends to be very difficult to win a game with only 4 or 5 cards in your opening hand.

Hearthstone's mulligan rule is similar to what you would see as part of some casual MTG formats. Instead of mulligans being an all or nothing decision, you can keep or redraw any number of the cards in your opening hand, at no penalty, but you only get one chance at it.

Both mulligan rules have their advantages and disadvantages, and they are both very fitting for their respective games. That said, I like the MTG mulligan rule much more.

Magic's Mulligans

With MTG's all or nothing mulligans, you are presented with one of the most complex questions right off the bat. There is no hard and fast rules to mulligans, besides the ones that are about not having any lands. Every game, the choice is dynamic. Maybe I have enough land to cast all my spells, but what if these spells are not very good in the matchup? You have to calculate the risk of choosing to draw a new hand of one less card. How much can this hand really improve with one less card?

The MTG mulligan rule also affects deckbuilding. Since you are always drawing from your full deck, small % changes matter a lot. The difference between 22 lands and 24 lands is huge in terms of mulligan resolutions. If you fill your deck with very narrow answers, or cards that are only good at a particular point in the game, you are increasing the risk of having bad 7 card hands at the very start. And since you start the first game in a match with zero information about the contents of the opponent's deck (unless you know them personally or you and your friends did an exceptional job at scouting the room), you have to make the decision blind. "This 7 card hand might be risky to keep against a fast opponent, but if I get another land in 3 draws, I can beat anything that hasn't already killed me."

The point is, Magic's mulligan rule is much more hardcore than Hearthstone's. Entire articles have been written on the topic, and mulligan conventions differ from player to player, format to format, deck to deck. Sure, there is a chance that you just mulligan too much and lose on the spot, but it is a small chance with a properly built deck, and coming back from double or triple mulligans are the best stories.

Hearthstone's Mulligans

Hearthstone's mulligan rule falls in line with the rest of the game's design: streamlined and simple. It excels at maximizing the chance that you have a strong opening hand to start the game with. You aren't stuck with narrow cards or very expensive cards that you can't play for 7 turns anyways. Since the game is about making every card count, the mulligan rule makes sure that you don't have cards stranded in your hand that don't do anything.

The streamlining comes at a price, though. I'll admit right now, most of the problems with it are things that most players don't care about or think about.

Unlike MTG, there are hard and fast rules to Hearthstone mulligans. I have never seen anyone keep a 7+ drop and it be right. So when it comes to deciding whether or not to mulligan or keep expensive cards, the game's design has made that decision for you. Since the decks are only 30 cards, there is a good chance that you'll redraw that expensive card when you are closer to casting it anyways.

Cheap cards present more complex decisions, but again, the game's design makes a lot of the work much easier. Knowing what class your opponent is playing gives you a lot of insight about what their deck is full of, as well as the speed at which your opponent is playing at. A rogue or warlock is more likely to be more aggressive than a Druid would be, and even though you don't know the exact contents of their deck, it is still a lot of free information to work with.

So a billion paragraphs later, I'm going to talk about what would happen if streams got crossed, and we lived in a world where MTG switched to Hearthstone's mulligan rule.

Magic with the new Mulligan

The first thing people would notice would be that their decks would likely be much more consistent than they used to be. No longer do they have to agonize over a 1 land hand with only some promise; they just toss out the cards that they don't need at the beginning of the game. Mana screw is likely reduced, and some deck could probably fit in a few narrow cards in the main deck that would normally rest in the sideboard.

I would expect the average land count in decks to decrease, since it is much easier to get your starting hand to 2-3 lands and the rest spells, which most decks are happy with keeping against an unknown opponent. Decks that rely on a specific subset of cards to win the game will become stronger, since you have double the chances to get what you need at the start of the game.

Making decks more consistent and reducing mana screw sounds like nothing but upside, but that couldn't be farther from the truth, even if the truth is still sorta hard to see/theoretical.

One thing Hearthstone's mulligan rule is very very very very very VERY VERY bad at is properly rewarding high risk play. There is no reward for keeping a subpar hand, only punishment. That 8 drop will still come down at turn 8, regardless of what else you do; keeping it means that you'll have to play a card down until you get enough mana to cast it. This means that your opening hands become less dynamic. Essentially, your deck will be divided into two parts: the cards you always mulligan, and the cards that you sometimes mulligan. The risk of having expensive cards in MTG is that you increase the chances of having 7 card hands that don't play out like 7 card hands- "virtual mulligans". Now that the risk has been removed, your deck will have drastically less combinations of opening hands. The result is that your deck will play out much more similarly game to game.

Would anybody really enjoy MTG if every Naya Zoo deck always curved out, and the UW control deck always had the Wrath? You never have to engage in risky situations, which ruins a ton of the variety MTG offers. It would also ruin nearly half the stories I have accumulated over my many moons of playing MTG.

I truly believe that one of the very real ways MTG can die is making the game more consistent. The game thrives because it has unimaginable variety, real risk/reward tradeoffs, and dynamic choices at every point of the game. When you start making it more consistent and remove risk/reward dynamics, the game will inevitably become more boring. MTG's mulligan rule is challenging in all the right ways. It feels good to make the correct decision, or to win a game where you started from behind.

Hearthstone's mulligan rule is much more forgiving, but in exchange it doesn't reward risky play as much as I would like. Many of the choices are made for you, and it is hard to make a truly wrong decision. Not only that, but the games begin to play out in very similar fashions. This makes the overall game become dull at an accelerated rate. But Hearthstone is meant to be full of friendly mechanics and be very inviting. MTG is meant to be fun, but also very challenging for even the people who have been playing for 20 years.

So, in conclusion, both mulligan rules are perfectly suited for what their respective game seeks to be about. If you think that Magic: the Gathering would be a much better game with Hearthstone's straightforward mulligan rules, I'm going to say that you are dead wrong. It isn't easy to imagine why it would be beneficial or detrimental to the game, but think of it this way: what if you could hand pick the exact cards that you started the game with? The game would likely be very boring after a while. The closer you get to that sort of game, where you have total control over your opening hand, the more dull the game is likely to become. Of course, you can't swing too far the other way either, but that is a whole different can of worms.

(Forgive me if this looks like it sorely needs an editor, I should have been writing a school paper in the time I spent writing this.)
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