It’s a little more complicated than that
As Pioneer becomes a more diverse and studied format, and as deck construction becomes more rigid, the main places to focus on improving are in-game decisions. What’s the first in-game decision you are making when you sit down for a match of Pioneer? Mulliganing. As I’ve iterated before, this is one of the most important skills to hone as a Magic Player, so let’s take a look at some interesting examples to see if you’re thinking along the same lines as myself and other Pioneer experts!
You’re on the play with Mono White Humans in game two against Mono Red Aggro. Your hand is the following:
We’re starting off with a slightly easier one, although there isn’t a ton of aggression with this hand, you still have a lot of what you are looking to accomplish in the matchup. You have a Portable Hole to slow your opponent down a bit, you have a Reidane you can play out on turn three as a blocker, and then follow it up with the backside, Valkmira, Protector’s Shield, one of the best hate-cards you can play against the red deck. You still may run into a few issues, however, as if your opponent manages to build out a substantial board — a single Stomp will stop the damage prevention from the Shield and allow your opponent to finish you off in that turn. Overall, though, it’s important to remember that this hand is pretty strong, especially when on the play.
You’re on the play with Abzan Greasefang against an unknown opponent. Your hand is the following:
It’s pretty clear what the issue with this hand is that you have a hand that relies pretty heavily on your Stitcher’s Suppliers to find your Greasefang and Parhelions, and that’s risky. Even if you do find what you are looking for, you cannot cast your Can’t Stay Away without finding another land. Without it, this hand does a lot of nothing. There’s no interaction, no great way to guarantee a game plan. This is a seven card hand — it’s pretty free to take a mulligan to find a hand that digs a bit deeper, while still having some of the guaranteed plan.
You’re on the draw with Boros Heroic against Rakdos Midrange in game three, and you’re on a mulligan to six. Your hand is the following:
This is a pretty scary situation to put yourself in. A single removal spell begins to unravel this hand, and the threat you are presenting doesn’t have any built-in protection like a Favored Hoplite would. However, this hand is still something worth keeping against Rakdos. Mulliganing to five against that deck is terrifying, especially when playing a deck like Heroic where the matchup comes down solely to trading resources one for one. This hand has some of the tools that allow you to continue casting spells in a low resource game, however, both Homestead Courage and Escape Velocity are spells that you can cast at least twice, and are both pretty good against the removal spells that are great against Heroic. While this hand is not great or anything, sometimes, you have to settle for “just ok.”
You’re on the play with Izzet Phoenix against Azorious Control in game two. Your hand is the following:
At first glance, this hand might look pretty bad. There’s no way to draw cards, you’re exposing your mana to Field of Ruins becoming Stone Rains, and you’re relying pretty heavily on your two threats. However, this hand lines up pretty well against the way Azorious Control will be looking to interact with you in the post-board games. The Young Pyromancer is very unlikely to die early on, and if there is no counterspell for the Saheeli, you have an army that will never stop coming. The Galvanic Iteration, while doing nothing on its own, is not only another spell for Pyromancer and Saheeli, but it also means any cantrip turns into two new cards, giving you some versatile play patterns as you proceed to turn four or later. While this hand doesn’t do very much in terms of the normal Phoenix gameplan, this hand has a different type of game plan that your control opponent might not be prepared for if they spend turn two tapping out for a Rest in Peace.
You’re on the draw with Green Devotion, against an unknown opponent, and you’re on a mulligan to six. Your hand is the following:
Yes, this hand is a turn four Nicol Bolas, but that’s basically it. It doesn’t matter what you put to the bottom, you’re still not doing anything to really impact the board or attempt to win the game. This Oath of Nissa could be good to find a better threat than Bolas, such as a Cavalier, but even if this outcome was guaranteed, this hand is most likely much too slow against an unknown opponent. In most matchups, speed is key, and this value-based hand will only be good versus Azorious, Rakdos, and other slower matchups.
You’re on the play with Rakdos Midrange against an unknown opponent. Your hand is the following:
This hand plays out a lot like the previous situation, where this is very good against some specific decks, but has a lot of dead cards against other matchups. Thankfully, this is where Fable of the Mirror-Breaker somes in to save us. Allowing us to filter through the dead cards in our hand into fresh new ones means that past turn three, we should have some better tools to combat whatever we may face. In addition, this style of hand matches up well against a larger percentage of the format than the previous example, being great against any graveyard, midrange, or control deck. We’re even able to choose whether we want to cast Hearse on turn two and discard Kroxa to a Fable Trigger, or cast Kroxa on two for an additional discard. This hand is pretty versatile, so I’m pretty inclined to keep it.
It’s actually quite simple…
Pioneer is a much different format than something like Modern. Here, the contents of your opponent’s deck must be taken into account much more heavily when mulliganing than in Modern, due to the slower and more interactive gameplay showcased in Pioneer compared to older formats. It’s important to remember that you’re not just trying to win the game, but you are also trying to stop your opponent from winning the game as well. You should always ask yourself “What is this hand doing in the first few turns”, and “Is that plan good against what I believe my opponent’s plan could be”. As long as you remember to take these tips into account, you’re on your way to keeping less hands that “just don’t work out”.