Hello, Crixuz here with another skill from the Toolbox!
I started playing Hearthstone in 2016. Played it for 2 years and quit. I was never really good at it, consistently ending up around rank 12 (which is pretty average). Part of the reason was that I struggled a lot with Mulligans. When I started playing Runeterra, I realized again that I had no idea what I’m doing when I mulligan.
Guides on mulligans are sparse and highly uninformative. I’m sure many of you are as frustrated as I am when we see banal advice like aim to play cards on curve. That means having a one-mana card for round one, a two-mana card on two, a three-mana card on three, and so on.
Many deck guides will identify key cards to keep in general (e.g. "always try to keep Will of Ionia”), while other more detailed guides tell you which cards to keep against specific matchups (“keep Deny if against xxx”).
I think they are onto the right idea. Playing on curve, keeping your core cards that are integral to your winning conditions and keeping cards that are good against certain matchups is not incorrect.
However, from a noob’s perspective, this advice doesn’t really equip you with the necessary skills to mulligan optimally. The guides tell you which card to keep and we just blindly follow. If we are lucky, say we are piloting a deck that is super linear, then blindly following may work. However, oftentimes, especially for decks like aggro burn or combo, a little more nuance is needed.
Principle 0 - Do not consider these principles in isolation
Learning to mulligan is a complex process. It is very contextual and cannot be assessed in a vacuum. This is principle zero; an acknowledgment that there isn’t going to be just ONE advice that I can give you that will work in EVERY situation.
This guide is written in the spirit of triangulation, meaning that different concepts and ideas will converge into one correct answer. By itself, none of these principles have the means to arrive at an optimal mulligan strategy. So, please do not blindly follow any of these principles in isolation because they may actually cause you to fare worse.
Principle 1 - Don’t go on autopilot
You are playing Bannerman, going against an aggressive deck. This is your opening hand. What do you keep?
No offense, but I think an Iron up to maybe Platinum player might keep Unyielding Spirit, as the card has a very powerful effect. Bearing in mind that we are going against an aggressive deck (e.g Burn Aggro) in this example, I think the correct thing to do would be to drop all of them.
The two main trappings for greedy keeps are (1) assessing the power level of a card in a vacuum and (2) not tailoring mulligans to the opponent’s plan.
(1) Assessing the power level of a card in a vacuum
A new player is more likely to have this problem. Signs include complaining about a certain card, such as Unyielding Spirit, being busted. Players might be tempted to think of Unyielding Spirit as a bomb card that will absolutely win games.
Unless you have a very specific strategy, keeping Unyielding Spirit may not be the best idea, especially against aggressive decks. Players need to assess the viability of any card in the context of the matchups they are up against. If you are somebody who has a favorite card or enters every match with the desire to see the same few cards that you think are powerful, you won’t climb very far.
It‘s important to understand that cards that are strong against deck A maybe perform poorly against deck B. Therefore, you should be very careful whenever a deck guide tells you to always keep a certain card.
(2) Not tailoring mulligans to opponent’s plan
This concept is also known as ‘always using the same plan regardless of what the opponent is trying to do’. For example, you may enjoy the Fiora/Unyielding Spirit combo greatly. But if you enter every match trying to force that combo, you will lose a lot of games. Another example would be forcing a Plunder package combo.
I think a lot of newer players may get excited when seeing this hand. They may drop Miss Fortune and Riptide in hopes of a Black Market Merchant. While that certainly constitutes having a game plan, it’s worth seriously questioning whether it’s a worthwhile one.
Be careful not to be too attached to a certain mode of playing. This is called “autopilot mulligan“ and it’s often why people remain “hard stuck” at a certain rank. Insanity is doing the exact same thing over and over again expecting things to change. That is crazy. Don’t be crazy.
Principle 2 - (a) Don’t rely heavily on combo pieces appearing, (b) but if one unexpectedly does it may be a good decision to take it.
Let’s consider the first part of this principle first. Consider this hand from a Burn deck. Do we keep Imperial Demolitionist?
I think we can all agree that if we decide to keep Imperial Demolitionist, we have to throw the other three cards to look for a Crimson Disciple. This is what I got
Unlucky or unskilled?
Is this just bad luck, or could we have avoided this? I would argue that this cannot be attributed to luck. It is inherently risky to keep Imperial Demolitionist in the first opening hand. The payoff is really high if you rolled Crimson Disciple, but in most other cases (including this one!), it’s an uphill battle to win. Seems to me almost like you have already lost.
Now let’s look at the second part of this principle. What if you are not expecting a combo, but you get one? Here is a hand you could get playing Karma-Ezreal.
The deck's usual mulligan plan includes keeping removal spells such as Thermogenic Beam and engine units like Eye of the Dragon. Chump Whump and Rummage by themselves are never considered ”priority keeps”.
Keeping Thermogenic Beam is probably a no brainer, Concussive Palm is highly questionable, but I would hesitate against throwing out Chump Whump + Rummage. Unless I’m against a very aggressive start (aggro, maybe midrange), it might be worthwhile to forgo finding an Eye of the Dragon or Shadow Assassin.
For the first part, (a), be careful about forcing combos. Some combo pieces are inherently weak without their accompanying pieces.
It is important to recognize that while a certain combo may win you the game, holding combo pieces on their own may lose you the game.
For the second part, (b), sometimes an unusual combination of cards may yield a better game plan than the usual starting cards that you are used to seeing.
Principle 3 - Consider the health of your units against your opponent’s deck
You are a Teemo Burn player, against MF/Sejuani. This is your starting hand and you are on the draw. What do you keep?
The first thing I want you to do is to take stock of the health of your units. In this case, they are all one-health units.
Next, pull up the decklist of MF/Sejuani from Mobalytics, unless you have memorized the list.
Ask yourself, “are there any cards here that could lose me the game if I play three one health units?. I think that it is pretty convincing that Make It Rain is such a card. Perhaps Miss Fortune’s ability as well, but not so much, as a burn aggro deck does not seek to actively block without justification.
Given that we are on the draw, Turn 1 Saboteur or Teemo followed by Turn 2 Grenadier doesn’t look as appealing.
Let’s drop Saboteur, Get Excited, and Grenadier.
This is a hand that is sufficiently respectful of our opponent having Make It Rain. In fact, it does better than that by making it really awkward for them to cast it. There’s nothing from MF/Sejuani that can kill Teemo in round one. In the second round, you have priority so you can play Crimson Disciple, and Make It Rain is effectively nullified.
They can opt to cast Make It Rain in the second round but that would consume all of, or at least most of their mana, and trigger Crimson Disciple's effect. But if they don’t, then there’s a chance Teemo goes unanswered (unless they have a Hired Gun).
Being very thoughtful about the health of your units against the backdrop of your opponent’s deck is the first step to mulliganing well. This means that you are respectful of your opponent’s game plan (or disruption) and you play around that disruption.
In this example, we considered Make It Rain, a spell card. But I don’t want you to only consider spells that ruin your game plan. There are also units. Think about your opponent’s most likely round one play (Omen Hawk). Another reason you don’t want to play Legion Saboteur is that it gets easily countered by anything an MF/Sejuani deck can play. A much better option would be Precious Pet.
Principle 4 - Having a plan
This is a difficult concept to teach to a beginner because it is abstract. But let’s simplify by using archetypes. Over time, your inventory of archetypes will increase and you may not rely on them anymore.
The first archetype is “CHAAAARGE” (aka ”Hoping for the best”). Say you drew this hand again:
If you are a beginner, this is likely the first plan that you constructed. It involves simply playing all the cards you have and just going for the Nexus, hoping for the best. So round one Saboteur into round two Grenadier, and hoping your opponent does nothing for the first two turns because all they have are 5 cost cards and above.
Attack, with Saboteur and Grenadier, and you have just dealt 6 damage! As unlikely as it is, this is a legitimate plan. Sometimes, when there’s no other way of winning, you may just have to bet on charging. Its glaring weakness is that it is very easily disrupted. Not a game plan you want to be relying on right off the bat. (For those of you complaining that Aggro Burn is hard to pilot, this is probably what you are doing.)
Let‘s consider the second hand after dropping Saboteur, Get Excited, and Grenadier:
From this hand, I can identify two possible game plans, (1) “Getting maximum value from Crimson Disciple” and (2) “Protecting the elusives“.
”Getting maximum value from Crimson Disciple“ is favorable against MF/Sej. It nullifies Make it Rain and cuts off units like Omen Hawk or Hired Gun from attacking. The hand also synergizes well with Imperial Demolitionist, representing 4 face damage from the start.
“Protecting the elusives”, in this case, Teemo, is equally valid. MF/Sejuani does not offer a lot of interactions with elusives except for Hired Gun and Make it Rain. Without Crimson Disciple, there’s the consideration for dropping Teemo from our opening hand, but luckily for us, this is a very valid combination.
Both the “getting max value off Disciple” and “Protecting Teemo” game plans are highly synergistic because the opponent can only respond to one threat and not both. Furthermore, by prioritizing the removal of Teemo with Make it Rain, the opponent is forced to use their Nexus life as a resource which in this case is perfect for an aggro burn player.
The way to develop the skill of constructing a plan on the fly is to recognize archetypes. Ultimately, how you want to name or catalog them is up to you. Here are some additional archetypes to give you a better sense.
“Bank mana until turn six and cast The Ruination“ (this helps with card advantage).
"Going wide against a deck that is very sparse on units" (think about kinkou elusives' explosive turn 4)
“Buffing deck with Starlit Seer” (involves keeping a more spell-slanted hand, with card draw)
“Ensuring plunder triggers, perhaps with Monkey Idol to enable your nab cards to get lots of cards”
The list goes on. The more archetypes you understand, the faster you can develop a plan. Some decks are linear and don’t require developing a completely new plan for every game. These include midrange decks like Bannermen.
Contrary to popular opinion, I consider aggro decks to be very non-linear. Although many players have found a lot of success with it, I think it has more to do with the deck being too overtuned rather than the players themselves making the most correct decisions all the time. If you nerf burn aggro, suddenly the decks become a lot harder to play, but I think the potential of the deck is still very high in the hands of a skilled player.
Principle 5 - Every card must serve a purpose
Instead of saying that we should mulligan to play on curve, I prefer the principle of every card having a purpose. This principle is much more encompassing and has much wider applications. Having a purpose could mean, avoiding redundant cards. Having a one drop unit for round one is fine, but having three one drop units in your opening hand when you’re a midrange player is not.
An example of a redundant hand.
Much better. But don’t treat this as the holy grail or textbook.
The trap of “mulligan so that you can play on curve” is that it is over-generalized. It forces players into the mentality that a hand with 1, 2, 3, 4 drop units is the best opening hand. I have often played a lot of midrange games with such a hand and still lost.
Another purpose a card might serve is disrupting the opponent’s win conditions. Let’s say we are playing Heimerdinger/Vi against Deep Sea Monsters. This is our starting hand:
For those of you who don’t know, when playing this deck, it is so important to see Heimerdinger in your opening hand because he is your win condition. The decision to keep Claws of the Dragon is highly dependent on Principle 1 - Consider the health of your units against your opponent’s deck. Deny and Will Of Ionia are cards that can address your opponent‘s win conditions (Atrocity and Nautilus).
If you are new to mulliganing, I would recommend keeping one key card that counters your opponent’s win condition. Too many and you end up being too reactive and without a win condition, you are simply prolonging your defeat.
I decide to keep Will of Ionia, and drop everything else. Opting to keep Will of Ionia, lowers the probability I will find Heimerdinger but it is still less risky than keeping both Will and Deny. The correct answer is probably to drop everything or to keep either Will or Deny.
I kept Will of Ionia and this what I got. Very lucky to see Heimerdinger.
Examples of a purpose that a card can fulfill:
- Filling a curve
- Early aggression
- Ensuring that an important card doesn’t end up at the bottom of your deck
- Disrupting your opponent’s plan
- Fulfilling your own plan
- Card draw
A good opening hand tries to hit an optimal balance. Again, this is very deck-dependent. You may not want to keep a card that (primarily) only draws you a card like Statikk Shock, as you lose out on tempo.
Principle 6 - Articulate your thoughts in a clear and rational manner
When I first started to approach Mulligans, I would fall into 20 seconds of stream-of-consciousness conversation about what cards to keep before haphazardly keeping or dropping cards without any solid justification. Many of us are probably like that.
The reason why this guide is organized using principles is precisely to combat this problem. First, stream-of-consciousness or intuitions or whatever you want to call it kind-of-thinking is inconsistent. Today you use a certain set of criteria because you feel a certain way, tomorrow it’s some completely new standard.
Thinking about mulligans requires a systematic process. These principles help to function as a kind of checklist you can go through. They may not be the best checklist and some of them are principles that may even work against you, but there is a need to formalize the process (at least in the beginning).
The next time you mulligan, think out loud and explain your decisions to yourself (doing it like this will make it easier to analyze your choices). If you hate your own voice, at least think in a more articulate manner. -Crixuz