The Hidden Value of MTGO Ringers

What does it mean if Adam Yurchick won with a four card opening hand? More than just a good story, I hope! 

I was out to dinner with newly Top 8-ified reigning #1 Apprentice Asher “ManningBot” Hecht and he told me something very interesting: According to Asher, Adam Yurchick (Top 8 at Grand Prix Philadelphia with “old school” U/W ‘Tron among other finishes) won the last round of the Grand Prix on a mulligan to four.

That’s cool.

Cool anecdote, right?

But that’s not all.

According to Asher, “That’s how you know the MTGO ringers… They know when to mulligan.”

Okay. That can just be a bumper sticker statement. Like “everything happens for a reason,” or “there is no such thing as objectivity.” That is, it sounds cool to some people. MTGO ringers (or people who want to grow up to be MTGO ringers) might think this is a great and absolutely true statement!

Let’s assume for a moment that it is true.

What does it mean?

I play a fair amount of MTGO (as you probably know from watching my videos)… I used to play more MTGO, and tournaments as well (in fact, the summer I was very good at Magic, I wrote a lot of articles detailing the 8-man tournaments I was playing all the time, viz. Vore: Still Awesome, Beating Down With Bracht’s Ninjas, and The Next Step in Steam Vents. But since that summer I have de-volved into playing mostly Tournament Practice room just so that I don’t have to set aside three hours at a time.

The difference between how I am playing now and a legitimate MTGO ringer is that there is nothing really at stake in how I play (other than my leisure / entertainment time). So I mostly just never mulligan because I care more about exploring new deck ideas than actually winning MTGO tournaments. But when you are playing tournaments and — like I was that summer — meticulously logging your ratings deltas and tournament win / loss percentages with every deck you play, there is more at stake. Having more at stake encourages you to take mulligans more seriously because your success criteria is / becomes about winning individual games rather than exploring ideas. Tournament Magic is a far different animal from Tournament Practice room, yadda yadda yadda, and more repetitions (when winning specific games actually matter to you) influence behavior (in this case mulligan behavior) over time.

So let’s get back to Adam’s win on four.

Why does it matter again?

According to Asher, “He was unwilling to keep an unwinnable five.”

This is really interesting.

It’s basic math actually.

But while we are actually riding the emotional rollercoaster of a tournament match that might matter, we don’t necessarily pay attention to the math. I was thinking back to a hand I kept in the last round that mattered at the Star City Philadelphia $5,000 tournament. I had just gotten topdecked out of legitimately beating the eventual tournament champion in an extremely hostile matchup (he was dead to any burn spell — and I topdecked Incinerate — but not before he got me by pulling his main-deck Burrenton Forge-Tender a the turn before). What was I thinking at the time? 

Oh, I’m probably going to lose anyway. Keep.

I guess I have to keep this.

Maybe this hand will improve.

Something like this.

If I sat down and had a conversation with myself, I probably could have figured out that the hand I kept — which had very little action — had even less chance of winning the game, a game I had to win if I was going to make Top 8 (and if I had gotten the match, I would have had a pretty good chance of winning the tournament instead of finishing out of the money). 

I had already given up.

So what am I losing if I mulligan?

If I have already consigned myself to losing — or something tantamount to losing like throwing my hands up in the air and praying that some otherworldly forces give me rip after rip so that I can win out of pure hazard and fortune rather than, I dunno, tighter mulligan decisions — then what am I losing by shipping one card? By this reasoning, the card isn’t even good, right?

You don’t mulligan in these situations (I don’t anyway) in order to avoid feeling badly, I guess. I don’t know if there is any other idea. Just some kind of chasing some kind of dead end. You “don’t want to go deeper” even though your one land five card hand has nearly no chance of winning as it is… But what is deeper? Do you have a lower chance of winning than the zero you are stuck with if you stick with this hand?

Seems pretty silly when you say it out loud, right?

I don’t even know if the story about Adam is true (though I assume it’s true). But whether or not it is true, I am going to try to embrace it as life-changing (or at least game-changing) in my own future mulligans.

I hope you get something out of this as well.


facebook comments:


#1 wobblesthegoose on 01.24.09 at 9:56 pm

I wonder if my irl testing would be more useful with 50 cent antes under the same principle.

#2 GerryT on 01.25.09 at 12:11 am

Generally when I look at my opener I ask if I can win the game with that hand. If not, is it more likely that I win with six random cards rather than that seven. If it’s close, I consider whether or not I would be happy to mulligan into my seven card hand.

I think if MichaelJ or the above poster don’t play tight Magic when the circumstances aren’t right, then you just don’t have any fire. I want to win every single game of Magic that I play ever, and that is going to lead me to play tight all the time and not form bad habits.

I hate to single out Michael Jacob, but when he is playtesting with a test he hates, he just wants to lose quickly to get it over with, and he doesn’t care how that affects his testing results. That is not the way to do things. You gotta keep it tight all the time.

#3 GavinV on 01.25.09 at 1:11 am

This story is definitely true. Yurchick mulliganned to 4 AND got his turn two Bitterblossom countered. True, Jed got pretty unlucky to lose that one and Adam got very lucky on his draws, but Adam played for his outs and found them. It’s basically reapplying the theory of mulliganing to a “play for your outs” framework, except you have to be able to know the matchup and deck well enough to play far enough ahead into the game to figure out if your five card hand has a chance compared to a four.

#4 ReeceP on 01.25.09 at 2:54 am

On mulliganing:

So, i’m playing extended in the TP Room on modo against Faeries with the Mono White Control deck. Many (including myself in a desperate cry for help to Mike on Facebook chat) have declared this matchup hard/bad. I was down a game, and I mulliganed to four on the play in game two. I kept three plains and a Crovax.

Who do you think won that game (and on to win the match)?

Obviously I won! 😀

Related obsersvation: At a nationals grinder last year, I lost playing red deck against Reveillark when the Lark played mulliganed to four on the play. Including that, I have seen 100% (of the next four) mulligans to four on the play win the game, the one above being the fourth.

The end result of all this is that I think there is some mystical hoo-haa rewarding us for our good mulligan decisions 🙂

#5 KZipple on 01.25.09 at 8:55 am

Michael Jacob makes for too many MichaelJ’s on this board.

#6 How to Improve Your Mulligan Decisions With Magic Online on 01.26.09 at 12:38 am

[…] Flores has some useful thoughts about improving your mulligan decisions by playing in a lot of MTGO (Magic The Gathering Online) […]

#7 ReAnimator on 01.26.09 at 9:04 am

Percentage wise I’ve won more mulls to 4 than i have 5’s i don’t know why but maybe there is “some mystical hoo-haa” about them.

#8 mason on 01.26.09 at 10:16 am

It doesn’t seem to be so much about ‘MTGO ringers’ – that statement mixes up correlation with causation as the more competitive players tend to spend more time on MTGO.

“You don’t mulligan in these situations (I don’t anyway) in order to avoid feeling badly, I guess.” That is a great way to put it, and really goes to the source, which is that we need to disassociate feelings from the actual math. Sticking only to the potential win %, you’re more likely to be ‘unwilling to keep an unwinnable 5’ as Asher said. So I guess next time you’re staring at miserable 5-card hand, don’t take it personally.

#9 tongonation on 01.26.09 at 10:19 am

In sanctioned tournaments, my opponent has mulled to 4 against me on four separate occasions, and I have lost each time.

#10 admin on 01.26.09 at 12:22 pm

First of all thanks everyone for your comments. Some of these are real gold.

Pretty sure the first sentence of your response is just better than any article in terms of being useful long-term than anything that has been written this year.

You are right of course. MTGO players just have more tournament repetitions (and can probably get to 10,000 hours of tournament play more quickly) than IRL players.

Sounds like you deserved it.

#11 wrongwaygoback on 01.26.09 at 8:35 pm

When you mulligan, how long do you shuffle – and do you spend less time shuffling with each mull?

#12 Five With Flores » Conflux - Knight of the Reliquary on 01.26.09 at 11:29 pm

[…] While you’re here, in case you haven’t read the previous post The Hidden Value of MTGO Ringers, check it out. The comments section is one of the most awesomest ones in the short history of this […]

#13 Five With Flores » Five by Flores on 01.27.09 at 8:32 pm

[…] I think I mentioned it roughly DI times in this article, you should read GerryT’s comment in The Hidden Value of MTGO Ringers. Like right […]

#14 Five With Flores » The Physical Reality of Magical Spells on 02.18.09 at 11:54 pm

[…] like GerryT chided me a few weeks ago: It’s all about having sufficent fire to try to win each and every […]

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