It’s an obvious statement, but not all opening hands are created equal. For most decks there’s a very wide range of acceptable hands, though what exactly that means varies from deck to deck. Some decks need an evenish mix of lands and spells, other decks can get by on hands with one land and a variety of cantrips, whereas some need to mulligan aggressively for a specific plan. Years ago when I started playing D&T, I noticed that my opening hands with Aether Vial were noticeably better than the hands without it. At the time, I didn’t really put too much further thought into the implications of that observation, but now that I’m playing significantly more games (and with a wider variety of decks), I think my initial observation was part of something bigger.
Today I’d like to introduce what I call my Critical Card Theory. I believe that many decks have a card that is objectively more powerful and less replaceable than any other card in the deck. Opening hands (or early turns) that have access to this “critical card” will have a noticeably higher win percentage than those without it. In many cases, hands with and without this card may promotes entirely different play patterns. These critical cards are the cards that you should be most cognizant of. These are the cards that help to determine the strength of your hand. These are the cards that if you are given the opportunity to counter or otherwise answer one of these cards, you probably should.
It’s probably easier for me to illustrate my theory via examples rather than to stay theoretical the whole time. Let’s say that you are playing a Reanimator deck. You usually need three cards to go off: a creature, a way to discard that creature, and a reanimation spell. Accordingly, you are a three card combo deck. This is not true if you have your critical card: Entomb. Entomb allows you to be a two card combo deck; now you only need Entomb and a reanimation spell to go off. Thus hands with your critical card are going to be better than those without since they require require fewer cards to execute your primary gameplan. This, in turn, can allow you to use your resources differently and more optimally. Instead of targeting yourself with a discard spell to put your creature in the graveyard, you can use that spell on your opponent to pave the way for victory. Accordingly, stopping an Entomb (if possible) should be a primary objective if you are playing against this deck. The critical card is often going to be worth using two cards on, so trading a Force of Will for a critical card is probably fine in most cases.
So returning now to Aether Vial, what makes this card so good? Why is it a critical card? Aether Vial lets you cheat on mana more than most other cards in the format. If you think Dark Ritual is a good Magic card, consider how much mana Vial produces over the course of a game…yeah, that’s pretty busted. When you have a Vial, you can dedicate more of your resources to things like Rishadan Port and Wasteland, counting on your Vial to eventually let you put in enough creatures to win the game, even if you never cast one! There’s no other card like Aether Vial in this deck. Nothing else even produces close to the same degree of advantage that it does. No other card contributes so greatly to your win percentage. Your games with and without Vial play out like games with an entirely different deck.
In recent years, critical cards have been the subject of multiple bannings. Sensei’s Divining top gave Miracles an absurd degree of flexibility and enabled abuse of the Miracle mechanic. Deathrite Shaman was a swiss army knife attached to a a one mana creature. Opening hands with those cards just put you at an incredible advantage. Honestly, Gitaxian Probe probably fits my Critical Card Theory as well. The ability to start the game knowing your opponent’s hand is not to be underestimated. I didn’t play enough Probe personally to say that with authority, but I imagine that it probably felt like one of the better cards in a deck like ANT or Grixis Delver.
Now that being said, not every deck necessarily has a critical card. Many decks have a much more even distribution of power level between cards. This is especially true for the value-oriented decks. Consider Grixis Control for example. The card quality in that deck is pretty even; most of them are designed to give you a 2-for-1 of some nature. Accordingly, there’s not necessarily a card that *if it is in your opening hand* will greatly increase your win percentage across the field. Now Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Kolaghan’s Command are great and powerful cards, but those cards being in your opener don’t necessary directly contribute to your win percentage as much a critical card would. These cards hit play considerably later than the critical cards traditionally do, so they don’t qualify as critical cards by my definition, despite their objective power. These two cards are also less universally good than my idea of a critical card, as their power level is much more matchup dependent.
I don’t want to linger on identifying and discussing critical cards for too long before I make my next point, but here are few more examples of critical cards:
Eldrazi/Red Prison/Steel Stompy/MUD- Chalice of the Void
Goblins/Merfolk/D&T/Slivers/Humans- Aether Vial
4c Loam- Mox Diamond
Reanimator/Tin Fins- Entomb
Elves- Gaea’s Cradle
So where do we take this theory from here? Once you’ve identified the critical card, it’s often useful to consider what the games with/without it look like. How do those games differ? How does resource management or sequencing change based on those cards? How does your gameplan (as the opponent) need to change when they do/don’t have it? How does your gameplan (as the player) need to change when you do have it?
Let’s your playing against Chalice of the Void in Eldrazi as our first example here. If your opponent leads on Chalice on the play, a good portion of your hand may just be dead. So what’s the scariest follow up play your opponent could have? Probably Thought-Knot Seer, as it could rip one of your few remaining follow up cards from your hand. To be frank, the games where your opponent leads on that sequence probably aren’t real games…that’s gonna be hard to beat for just about any deck? Let’s assume they don’t have the follow up Through-Knot though…how does the game progress with just a Chalice in play and a more normal hand? If your opponent doesn’t lead on something like an Eldrazi Mimic or an Endless One, then the game will be slightly slower than the games where they do in many cases. So the games where your opponent has Chalice have the potential to be shutout games with no interaction, but the games where your opponents lead on creatures instead will have a faster potential goldfish.
Understanding the difference between hands with and without critical cards can do wonders for your mulligan decisions. Let’s stick with the Eldrazi example from above for a moment. In mulliganing against Eldrazi, I would recommend asking yourself two questions: “What does my hand do against a hand with Chalice?” and “What does my hand do against a hand without Chalice?” I think this is a much better approach than the generic question of “Do I have good tools for the matchup in my opening hand?” In some cases, you may end up with a mix of cards that hedges against both sorts of draws, but does not actually have the tools to win.
So what is the take home message? Why does this matter? Being aware of critical cards in each matchup helps to inform your mulligan decisions and play patterns for the first few turns of the game. Rather than considering every possible combinations of opening hands your opponent could have and how you should interact with them, you can often split decisions trees in two, simplifying your decisions immensely. How do I play if they do have their critical card vs how do I play if they don’t have it? How do I approach this matchup when I have my critical card vs how do I approach it if I don’t? Thinking like this has really helped me to have a better grasp of the first few turns of the game and improved my sequencing.
I hope that I’ve articulated myself well in this article, and I hope that it is useful. If you have feedback for me, I’d love to hear it! This is one of the first times that I decided to write a pure theory article rather than one focused on a specific deck, so let me know what you thought!