The London Mulligan Isn’t Worth the Risk to Eternal Formats

It’s official. The London Mulligan is coming to all formats near you.

I’ve been a skeptic of this since its announcement, and I continue to be. Maybe I’m just an old dog, but the rule worries me. The London Mulligan is certainly an improvement for both Limited and Standard. No question. The rule will lead to a higher percentage of competitive games in both formats. Both formats are legal on MTG Arena, and since Arena is where most games of Magic are currently played, the argument that the upside here far outweighs the downside of its potential abuse in eternal formats.

That’s a valid argument. Where the argument falls short for me is that I believe the rule only slightly improves these formats, specifically Limited. Limited is very much a game of resources, managing those resources, and trading one-for-one regularly. Two-for-ones are incredibly difficult to recover from in many Limited formats and being down a card to start is still a big deal.

On a mull to six, we get to draw 7, put one we don’t like on bottom, and then play the game, which is a small upgrade in my opinion to just looking at your top card and deciding to keep it on top or bottom. It will fix mana problems, mitigate flooded opening hands a little, but all in all games of Limited are still most likely going to be decided on a later turn than in Standard. That’s not to say you actually win the game faster in Standard, but the game gets to a point where it’s closer to being decided than it does in Limited a fair bit earlier.

Going to five is still very likely a death sentence in Limited, as you’re very unlikely to have the resources early on to construct a winning game plan, especially on the play. We simply don’t have cards that generate extra value at common to make sure we’re advancing our battlefield presence while also making land drops. Aggro decks will surely get the best of this mulligan rule, as aggro decks can run on fewer lands and so need fewer overall resources to win games. If card design philosophy stays the same as it has been–that is, we don’t see many more Gustwalkers and instead see more Pouncing Lynx at the two-mana common slot–then boosting the power of aggro decks in Limited is fine.

But when creatures are simply attacking past each other and removal is incredibly clunky, that’s a different story. All in all, I think the rule is good for Limited and I prefer it to the Vancouver Mulligan, but I honestly don’t care all that much and don’t see my win percentage or enjoyment of the games changing a noticeable amount. I think if you want to make games of Limited more enjoyable and closer, they’ve done a good job in scaling down the punishing common two-drops recently, and you can also add more cards like Prophetic Prism and Skittering Surveyor in the common slot to help with land issues, or add cycling to the mix as well. Cards like this help smooth out games of Limited at no cost to other formats. Basically, design more cards to help with this in Limited rather than change the rules in all formats.

I actually think Standard benefits from the London Mulligan more than Limited because of the ability to recover from extra cards lost. Every color right now has some way to generate extra resources, so it’s not just blue anymore. Standard is much more about getting a playable starting hand, gaining traction, and continuing to build momentum within the game until eventually burying your opponent. Whether it’s Search for Azcanta, Experimental Frenzy, Legion’s Landing, or Vivien Reid, those types of cards run away with games and we have the option of including cards like this in our Constructed decks.

Where the London Mulligan worries me is specifically Modern. Yes, I do believe it’s very strong in Legacy and Vintage, but personally I don’t focus much on those formats so I’m not the best person to argue that point. We can all agree that mulling to a Lotus and a Wheel of Fortune isn’t leading to very fun games, however.

As far as Modern goes, the Dinosaur in the room–and one we didn’t get to witness at the Mythic Championship in London–is Neoform Combo. War of the Spark wasn’t legal for Modern play in that event, but the deck has proven very strong with the London Mulligan.

Here’s an old 5-0 list of Kanister’s (Piotr Glogowski) from when the London Mulligan was in effect on Magic Online, with War of the Spark legal:

Neoform Combo

4 Botanical Sanctum
2 Breeding Pool
4 Gemstone Mine
1 Island (335)
4 Yavimaya Coast
4 Allosaurus Rider
2 Autochthon Wurm
4 Chancellor of the Tangle
2 Griselbrand
1 Laboratory Maniac
4 Simian Spirit Guide
1 Wild Cantor
3 Dissenter's Deliverance
4 Eldritch Evolution
1 Lightning Storm
2 Manamorphose
4 Neoform
4 Nourishing Shoal
1 Noxious Revival
4 Serum Visions
4 Summoner's Pact

3 Chalice of the Void
2 Defense Grid
2 Engineered Explosives
2 Leyline of Sanctity
1 Pact of Negation
1 Pongify
1 Rapid Hybridization
3 Spell Pierce

The point is to simply to cast a free Force of Negation, then Neoform or Eldritch Evolution it into a Griselbrand. Use Griselbrand to draw your deck thanks to the life gain from Nourishing Shoal exiling Chancellor of the Tangles and Chancellor of the Tangles, and then Lightning Storm your opponent for a bunch or put a Laboratory Maniac into play and win with an empty deck.

This deck was putting up results with the London Mulligan on Magic Online and has had only some minor success outside of that.

Yes, we could go ahead and ban Allosaurus Rider or Neoform or whatever else is problematic, but the point remains that like Hydra heads, these problems will continue to grow because of the very nature of the rule and the size of the card pool.

Before you get in a tizzy and tell me you can simply adapt to this by playing cards like Spell Pierce and now Force of Negation, I’m more worried about how this warps the format

By forcing people to potentially play games with cards like these in their deck and then getting run over by a Champion of the Parish. It will create a less diverse metagame, and thus, become what Modern isn’t intended to be. Decks like these warp the format in an unhealthy way if they’re too strong. The London Mulligan simply brings them much closer to reaching that point of “too good.”

Let’s assume for a moment they just always end up banning the turn one or two combo decks that are going too far in abusing the mulligan rule.

Zvi Mowshowitz made a great point that the real issue with this rule won’t show up in data, it shows up in play patterns in the games. The win percentages and format may not change all that much if a deck doesn’t break the format, but the enjoyment of the games and repetitive nature of each matchup will be harmful to the format.

I played Tron at Mythic Championship London, and the regularity at which I’m able to put turn three Karn into play is simply incredible. What that means is that in the games, you have to be able to beat Karn, and if you can keep me off Tron, you’ll likely win fairly easily. If you counter my Karn or Thoughtseize it or whatever, you have to just close out before I’m able to find another haymaker to win the game.

This condenses the game into very few meaningful turns and the meaningful decisions are mostly done before the game even begins. The games themselves become predictable, repetitive, and in my opinion, not very fun. Yes, maybe Tron put up a slightly sub-50% win percentage at the event, but it got pretty close to 50% for being the most-played deck, when most everyone in the room knew it would be the most-played deck and had prepared for it as such.

In fact, this tournament we’re using data from also used open decklists. This skews the data as it’s changing two variables. First, we add the London Mulligan, then we’re adding known decklists. Without open decklists, I’m not going to know to mulligan to that Force of Negation or Thoughtseize in my opener and I’m just going to lose game one far too often to a degenerate combo deck and have to hope that I can take both sideboarded games.

Tron can lead to repetitive and boring games, but it gets a lot worse than that; Neoform Combo goes off on turn one or two fairly often. As more and more cards are introduced into this non-rotating format (cards not necessarily tested for Modern play), the London Mulligan gets riper for abuse. This will lead to more tournaments being taken over by a single deck or cause a series of reactions and overreactions that lead to uninteresting game play, and a rock-paper-scissors pairing dynamic.

With Modern Horizons being injected into the format, we get an interesting new tool in Force of Negation that is meant to mitigate this degenerate combo element. While good at combating this, Force appears like it may fall flat in many matchups in the current metagame. Decks like Humans will punish opponents trying to play a lot of Force of Negations, so Forces will likely be relegated to sideboards. I’m hoping that because Force exists, we can now let the format get out of control because we have this countermeasure.

To me, it honestly seems like we’re catering more to the implementation of Arena, making that product and the formats it supports better at the cost of formats the client does not support. While I’m fully on board with introducing as much new blood to Magic as we can via MTG Arena, I think we need to be careful with how we weigh the cost to the benefits. Modern is an incredibly popular format, and when we’re watching and playing the same games over and over because we’re both deckbuilding and taking mulligans to the exact same sequence every game, the format will lose its luster quickly. Flashy one-ofs are much less appealing to jam into your deck if your plan is to correctly mulligan low to find a specific start. If I’m never keeping this one-of in my 5-card hand, why do I want it in my deck over the fourth copy of a card I do want?

I think the London Mulligan is an awesome idea in theory, but in practice I’m worried about how it may affect the player base that’s already enjoying Modern as-is and still playing Legacy and Vintage. Maybe we can’t protect these formats forever, but I think we should at least look at the big picture and I wonder if giving a little to Standard and Limited is worth potentially taking a lot from these formats. I simply don’t think it is. I know I’m in the minority here, but I wanted to make my position known, and explain my reasons the best I could.

What do you think about the London Mulligan?

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