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The Great London Mulligan Rule Test


While Modern Horizons has been the hottest topic of conversation regarding the Modern format over the past couple of weeks, it's easy to forget that an even bigger change is (potentially) coming in the near future: the so-called London mulligan rule (named after Mythic Championship London, where the rule will be tested at the end of April). The idea of the rule is simple: in the wake of fan-favorite LSV losing in the Top 8 of a recent Pro Tour after mulliganing to four in the last game of the finals, the London mulligan is designed to decrease the pain of mulliganing and the number of non-games that happen as the result of one player having a hand that simply doesn't do anything (like no lands, for example). While variance is an important part of Magic and people eventually learn to live with the fact that in Magic, sometimes you get hands that don't let you play the game, no one really enjoys the non-games that happen on occasion as the result of mulliganing into non-functional hands. These games aren't fun for the players mulliganing, for the opponent (outside of the purest Spikes, who might appreciate a free win), or for the audience watching at home. Finding a way to make these games happen less often is a worthy goal.

On the other hand, the London mulligan rule itself is potentially quite dangerous, especially outside of Standard and limited. If you're not familiar with the rule yet, the basic idea is that every time you mulligan, you'll mulligan back to seven cards, and then once you finish mulliganing, you choose a number of cards (from your seven-card hand) equal to the number of times you mulliganed and put them on the bottom of your deck. For example, if you mulligan to five under the current rule, you've actually mulliganing two times, which means by the time you have finished mulliganing, you would have seen three full seven-card hands. Then, with your third and final seven-card hand, you'll get to choose your five best cards to keep and put your two worst cards on the bottom of your deck. The end result is that six- and even five-card hands become much more functional. While you're still starting off behind, the odds that you will have a mixture of lands and spells that make you feel like you are playing a game of Magic will go up meaningfully.

The Risk of London Mulligans

If you watched the live stream announcing the London mulligan test, you'll know that Wizards was pretty upfront about the fact that it heavily tested (and generally liked) the rule in Standard and limited but hasn't seriously tested it in Modern, Legacy, or Vintage. As such, Mythic Championship London will be an incredibly meaningful tournament for the future of older formats. Not only will it crown a winner and hand out a serious amount of cash, but the success or failure of the rule being tested will likely decide the future of a bunch of cards and decks in the Modern format and potentially the future of the format itself. So why is this rule so impactful and potentially scary in older formats? Check out this article from Wizards back in 2015, which discusses the mulligan options that were considered before the current scry mulligan rule went into effect. One of the experiments at the time was very similar to the London mulligan rule. The big difference was that rather than putting cards on the bottom of your deck at the end of the mulligan, the unwanted cards were shuffled back in, which isn't an especially meaningful change in older formats where fetch lands shuffling your deck is the norm. And this arguably makes the 2015 rule less powerful, since rather than having your worst cards safely on the bottom of your deck where you can't draw them, they are shuffled in, so there's a chance that they will end up back on the top of your deck.

Now, before talking more about Wizards' 2015 thoughts on the London mulligan rule, I should say that I mentioned this article on Twitter, and some R&D people suggested that, until the last few months, the rule had never been tested by Wizards. I'm not sure how that meshes with the 2015 mulligan rule changes or the article breaking down the "experiments" at the time. It seems hard to believe that the article was written without actual testing or that the current scry mulligan rule was put into play without actual playtesting, but the full behind-the-scenes details are anyone's guess.

Regardless of how or when these rules were tested, it's interesting that Wizards' take on the London mulligan rule back in 2015 is pretty close to the consensus take from the community when the rule was announced a few weeks ago: the rule seems great for limited and probably good for Standard but potentially dangerous for older formats, as combo decks become much better at setting up their combos and sideboard cards become even better, as players can London mulligan into them with ease. 

London Mulligans in Modern

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In many ways, Modern specifically is the format in the most danger from the London mulligan rule for a few reasons. First and foremost, it is the non-rotating format that sees the most play by a significant margin, so a change to the mulligan rule in Modern impacts way more people than it would in Legacy or Vintage. Second, and perhaps most importantly, one of the hallmarks of both Legacy and Vintage is powerful answers—cards like Force of Will—that provide a natural safety valve in case combo decks get too out of control. In fact, degenerate combo decks are already so powerful in Legacy and Vintage that they would dominate the format even under the current mulligan rule if not for equally powerful, free answers to keep Turn 1 and Turn 2 kills in check. Third, the two things that the London mulligan rule powers up the most—linear combos and hateful sideboard cards—are two of the things most disliked about the Modern format already.

While Modern is a great and much-beloved format, in recent years, most of the format's criticism can be boiled down into one of two groups. First, without the strong answers provided in Legacy and Vintage, linear combo decks are too strong. While there are certainly some exceptions, over the past several years, more often than not, Modern has been about which linear combo deck can goldfish into a kill the fastest while ignoring its opponent the most. Decks like Dredge, Storm, Amulet Titan, KCI, and the like often top the format, to the point where they need to be targeted with bannings. More shocking is that, after the bannings, all of the aforementioned decks (with the possible exception of KCI) managed to reemerge near or at the top of the format, even while missing key pieces. All this is to say: thanks to a huge card pool that lacks free and cheap answers, even under the current mulligan rule, Modern is a haven for fast, linear combo decks.

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The second complaint we often hear about Modern involves the sideboard. Thanks to all of the fast, linear combo decks in the format, most sideboards are overloaded with extremely powerful but somewhat narrow hate cards that can pick up free wins against various combo decks if left unanswered. While Dredge might be a huge favorite in game one, if you can find a Rest in Peace or Leyline of the Void in game two, suddenly Dredge has an extremely difficult time doing anything (until they find a way to get the hate card off the battlefield). The same is true of cards like Stony Silence against Affinity or Hardened Scales, Damping Sphere or Rule of Law against Storm, or Blood Moon against Amulet Titan. 

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While these powerful hate cards are a necessary evil in the Modern format, the truth of the matter is that they don't lead to very interesting games of Magic. When you play against Dredge, you pretty much assume you will lose game one since you can't interact with your opponent's graveyard-based combo. Then, in game two, you mulligan as much as possible into a hate card. If you find one, your opponent can't win because your one card invalidates their entire deck. If you don't find one, you repeat game one.

The London Mulligan Paradox

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This is the paradox of the London mulligan rule in Modern: a rule that is designed to reduce non-games actually has the potential to greatly increase the number of non-games in the Modern format. In Standard and Limited, non-games come primarily from natural variance in the mana base, where sometimes you draw a hand with all lands (or no lands), repeat the process for a couple of mulligans, end up with a not-that-functional five cards, and know from the start of the game that you are extremely unlikely to win. In Modern, on the other hand, thanks to cantrips like Faithless Looting, Ancient Stirrings, and Serum Visions along with more efficient decks that typically only need a couple of lands to function at least semi-properly, the natural variance non-games happen less. The most common non-games in Modern comes from the breadth of the format, the speed of combo decks, and the power of sideboard cards. Playing Dredge and having your opponent put a Turn 0 Leyline of the Void is just as much of a non-game as mulliganing to five. Playing against Dredge and not having graveyard hate in your main deck is often just as much of a non-game as starting with a five-card hand, in the sense that you feel like very few of the decisions you make actually matter, since your starting with a 10% chance to win the game thanks to something beyond your control (the matchup).

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Basically, according to Wizards' own thoughts back in 2015 and the consensus view of the community, the London mulligan rule seems likely to power up two of the most problematic and least liked aspects of the Modern format, and this doesn't even take into consideration that certain cards or decks can directly abuse the rule (most commonly cards or combos that actually want you to have fewer cards in hand, like Restore Balance or Ensnaring Bridge, both of which happen to win by making the opponent unable to play a full game of Magic or, in the case of Restore Balance, any form of Magic at all).

As such, the London mulligan rule should go a long way toward decreasing the number of non-games in Standard and Limited but might actually do the direct opposite in Modern (and to a lesser extent, other older formats).

The Future of London Mulligans

Image from London Wikipedia page

Now, this might sound all doom and gloom, but really, it's not. Remember, the London mulligan rule is just a test with a few possible outcomes. First, it's possible that, as the result of the test at Mythic Championship London, the rule will never go into effect. If the tournament is dominated by Turn 2 kills and the feature match area is a mess of players mulliganing to four for a non-game-creating hate card, it's possible Wizards will simply pull the plug on the experiment. Second, it's possible that the consensus view is wrong and that the rule doesn't have as much a significant impact on the decks and cards of the Modern format. Maybe no one will figure out a build that can abuse the rule and the ease of assembling combos and the ease of finding hate cards for combos cancel each other out and people end up mulliganing more or less in the same way they do under the current mulligan rule. Third, it's possible that Wizards knows that the London mulligan rule has potential to be harmful to Modern but has a plan in place to fix the problem, either with aggressive bannings or with the help of new cards coming in Modern Horizons (one long-shot theory is that Force of Will will show up in Modern Horizons, which would suddenly make Modern much more like Legacy and give decks a free answer to degenerate, fast combos). 

On the other hand, there's also a scarier theory, which is Wizards simply doesn't care all that much about formats that aren't on Magic Arena, and since pretty much everyone agrees that the London mulligan rule will be good for Standard and limited (the two primary Magic Arena formats), it's going to be put into place regardless of the consequences in older formats. One thing Wizards made clear during the stream announcing the London mulligan test is that it isn't interested in having different mulligan rules for different formats and that the London mulligan is an all-or-nothing affair. Since Standard, limited, and Magic Arena are Wizards' primary concerns at the moment, it isn't all that tin-foil hatty to think that what's best for these formats is what will guide Wizards' decisions moving forward (as, at least in many ways, it should). 

That said, it would be nice if Wizards were at least open to the idea of keeping the old rule for non-rotating formats, if the test at Mythic Championship London shows the new rule would be hugely detrimental to Modern and potentially eternal formats as well. Having two different mulligan rules—one for Magic Arena formats and one for non-rotating paper / Magic Online formats—doesn't seem that much more more confusing than having no sideboards for Magic Arena's primary formats and sideboarding for non-rotating paper / Magic Online formats, especially when you consider there's less crossover between Standard and Modern than there is between best-of-one Standard on Magic Arena and best-of-three Standard at your local FNM.

Wrap-Up

So where does all of this leave us in regard to the London mulligan rule? At this point, I'm hoping for the best while expecting the worst. I'd like to believe that Modern matters enough in the grand scheme of things that the mulligan test will be a true test and the results from Mythic Championship London will determine whether or not the rule goes into effect. But it's hard to shake the feeling that at this point, Wizards considers "what is best for Magic" to mean "what is best for Magic Arena," which could mean the rule will take effect regardless of the results from Mythic Championship London because pretty much everyone agrees the London mulligan rule will be good for Standard and Limited (and thereby Magic Arena).

That said, I'm also incredibly excited for Mythic Championship London in six weeks. Over the last year or two (ever since Wizards moved Pro Tours / Mythic Championships to six weeks after the release of a set rather than right after a set releases), Pro Tours have been pretty dull. While the Magic itself has been great, the decks are known, and there's not much intrigue as far as new, weird, rogue decks showing up and breaking the format. In many ways, Mythic Championship Cleveland will be the most exciting Modern event since Pro Tour Philadelphia, which happened just a few months after the Modern format was announced. No one knows what to expect, and for the first time in a long time, it actually feels like there's a chance that someone will break the format with an unknown (or at least under-known) deck. The London mulligan rule test will make Mythic Championship London must-see TV for any Magic fan, so even if the London mulligan rule fails horribly (either by not becoming an official rule or by breaking the Modern format), at the very worst, we'll get an extremely exciting Pro Tour out of the deal, which isn't nothing in our brave new world of Magic e-sports.

Conclusion

Anyway, that's all for today. What's your take on the London mulligan rule? Will it break Modern, or are fears about the rule powering up combo and hateful sideboard cards overstated? What about in Standard and limited? Are there any specific decks and cards you can't wait to try under the rule? Let me know in the comments! As always, leave your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and suggestions, and you can reach me on Twitter @SaffronOlive or at SaffronOlive@MTGGoldfish.com.


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