Fractal Magic

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Casual Magic, Magic Culture

Fractal Magic

Jeff Zandi

Jeff Zandi is a level 2 judge and an eight-time veteran of the Pro Tour. He has written continuously about Magic for over eighteen years. His team, the Texas Guildmages, have the longest running regular game in history, meeting at his home every Tuesday night since 1996.

“A fractal is a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern displayed at every scale”
Wikipedia

A serviceable definition. The first time I encountered the word and the concept of fractals was when I was reading the Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park. In it, Crichton’s “rock star” mathematician character Ian Malcolm, played stylishly by Jeff Goldblum in the movie, suggested that a way to understand fractals might be to notice the repetitions found in nature. One was the way that a broken piece of a rock looks a lot like a larger piece of the same kind of rock. This made sense to me because I used to play with action figures a lot when I was a kid. When my GI Joe figure was scaling a big rock in my front yard, it was easy for me to imagine this rock being a giant mountain because the details of my rock were so much like a much larger boulder might be.

What does this have to do with Magic? I’m glad you asked. I assert that the same way that there are repeating patterns in mathematics and nature known as fractals, that the same can be said of Magic sets. At this point, I don’t mean that one Magic set is like another Magic set, although fractals might be an interesting way to approach that comparison. My point is that the same way you can use a hammer to break off a small piece of rock from a larger one, the contents of a single Kaladesh booster pack can be said to be a small piece of the larger whole, the entire expansion set of Kaladesh. As it happens, I have been doing a lot of experiments in this area for a great many years, as have a lot of other people I know. We call that experiment DC-10, the quickest and dirtiest of all Magic’s limited formats.

Each player takes a booster pack. They each open their packs and remove anything that isn’t a Magic card from the back. I prefer to remove the basic land in most cases as well. Then each player shuffles up the contents of the booster without looking at the cards. Now each player has a tiny deck containing fourteen cards. The game plays out precisely like other Magic games with a couple of important differences. The players begin with no cards in their opening hands and the player going first is allowed to draw a card on his first turn. When players first started playing DC-10, supposedly because they were flying on a passenger jet with only their tiny tray tables as play space, they decided that each player had an infinite amount of mana of any color at all times. In my own house rules, each player begins each game with twenty “land tokens” in play, four of each basic land type. These tokens work exactly like other token permanents in Magic. They can be destroyed, they can be bounced after which they functionally cease to exist.

What results is an easy to play game in which the most powerful cards can win games in a hurry. You can play your biggest bomb on turn one and in some cases, win the game immediately. But of course, you have to draw your cards one at a time and start each game with no opening hand. It’s a fun game that nobody takes very seriously. Except for me.

Sometimes I play DC-10 like a “normal” person, a friend and I will be sitting around with a few minutes to kill at the end of a tournament and we’ll each whip out a booster pack and go to it. When both players feel like gambling, it’s not unheard of to put the contents of both booster packs on the line as a prize for whoever wins the game. One of my best friends in the judge community, and a fellow Texas Guildmage, has proposed an interesting challenge that has been accepted several times. Joe and his opponent would each open an entire box of whatever expansion set and play DC-10 games with the winner collecting the contents of both packs. It sounds like a lot of risk, like one player could lose an entire booster box of cards, but guess what really happens? The ultimate “winner” walks away with six or eight more boosters than the loser. DC-10, obviously, has a larger luck component involved that most Magic formats. It’s good fun if you know what you’re getting into.

How far can you take the argument of booster pack as a fractal of the set it comes from? Let me show you. For years and years, I’ve been looking for practical ways to answer debates about how to compare the various expansion sets in Magic. I wanted a way to represent entire sets in a playable format. I was looking for fractals and didn’t even know it. There is no way to use a deck constructed from a certain set to truly represent that set. There would be too many colors, too many good cards left out. I think sealed decks pools are interesting fractal representations of sets. Six booster packs of Kaladesh gives you a card pool that tells a lot of the story of Kaladesh and of what you can do with the set. DC-10 takes the idea of a small card pool and distills it even farther, to just the contents of one booster pack. But how can one booster pack fairly represent the set that it’s from? The answer is to take a bunch of booster packs from the same set and battle them against each other. I do this with each new set as it arrives, and have been doing so for years.

I took sixteen booster packs of Kaladesh and started battling them against each other in a single elimination bracket. In the first two rounds matches consisted of a normal best two out of three games. In the semifinals I played a best of five game series. I played a best of seven game series for the two boosters that wound up in the finals.

Here is the booster pack that finished on top:

It won 4-3 in a very tight final match against this very decent booster pack:

Did I find the most representative booster pack in my experiment? My results can only be as good as my testing. That means that my winning booster is a better representative of the whole of Kaladesh than most random booster packs would be, but the results would obviously be better if I could play with thirty-two boosters instead of just sixteen. Sixty-four boosters would be better still (and I’ve done that at least one time). To a certain degree, more is better when it comes to testing.

Alright, Jeff, you found your champion Kaladesh booster pack. Are we finished? Not quite. I’d like to take you one level deeper into the rabbit hole. For the past several years I’ve been saving the best booster pack, my DC-10 championship pack, from each set. I keep them in a box on top of my desk. At different times, when I needed to play Magic for a few minutes, I started playing ladder brackets with these championship DC-10 packs. In a ladder bracket, you take the two packs at the bottom of the ladder (the ladder’s order is a little random until you play it out a few times) and you battle them against each other. The losing pack goes back in the box at the bottom of the ladder bracket. The winning pack takes on the next pack in the box. Wash, rinse, repeat. At the end of the day you have a ladder bracket that is a little less random, a little more tested, than it was before. I did this exercise over and over but noticed, over time, that the box was filling up. The box can comfortably hold twelve boosters. When Eldritch Moon arrived earlier this year I again played a single elimination bracket of DC-10 games with sixteen Eldritch Moon boosters until I had my Eldritch Moon DC-10 champion. Then I took my Eldritch Moon championship DC-10 pack and put it at the bottom of my ladder bracket. The Eldritch Moon booster was now the thirteenth pack in my box that holds only twelve packs, that means that someone would have to go. I could have chosen to have the lowest finishing pack get ejected from the place of honor, the box of twelve championship booster packs, but I went the other way instead. After playing a ladder bracket with my Eldritch Moon booster fighting its way up from the bottom, I decided to retire the winning booster pack. I removed the winning booster pack from that ladder bracket, which happened to be a very fine Battle for Zendikar booster pack containing Serpentine Spike along with Stasis Snare, Breaker of Armies and Valakut Invoker. Valakut Invoker is pretty good when you have twenty mana available to you each turn.

DC-10 Ladder Challenge

It was time to send Kaladesh up against the twelve surviving DC-10 champions from twelve different sets. Each of these matches was a normal best two out of three games. Before each matchup I’ll share the new combatant’s lineup.

In the first ladder match Kaladesh faced Shadows over Innistrad. Just because my Shadows booster happens to be occupying the lowest rung of the ladder doesn’t mean it should be taken lightly. In game one, Shadow’s first two draws are Tireless Tracker and Rabid Bite. Sounds serious enough to me. On turn three Shadows played Fleeting Memories simultaneously milling the top three cards of Kaladesh’s library into its graveyard and giving Shadows a free card in the form of a Clue token. That’s card advantage for Shadows and three less cards available to Kaladesh. Deck milling spells are extremely dangerous when your deck only contains fourteen cards. In this game, the critical turn was the seventh. Kaladesh played Renegade Tactics to eliminate one blocker and draws Electrostatic Pummeler. Then Kaladesh plays Die Young to get rid of another potential blocker, then swings in with Gearseeker Serpent and Arborback Stomper. Kaladesh wins game one two turns later. Game two goes even better for Kaladesh with Arborback Stomper arriving on turn two. Shadows mounts a decent defense over the next four turns but Kaladesh plays Gearseeker Serpent on turn seven and wins a turn later after making the Serpent unblockable. Kaladesh wins 2-0.

The second match pits Kaladesh against Eldritch Moon. With some packs, you can tell why it’s a champion simply from seeing the rare. That is obviously not the case with Eldritch Moon. This pack has earned its victories primarily on the back of its card advantage and creature pumping spells. In the first game, neither pack does much for the first five turns, and then Eldritch Moon plays Lunarch Mantle on Extricator of Sin, already enchanted with Faith Unbroken. Sacrificing land tokens each turn, Eldritch Moon is able to propel the twice-enchanted Extricator of Sin over the top. Then the game bogs down again as Kaladesh builds a solid line of creatures and Extricator of Sin is forced to stay back on defense. Ultimately, Eldritch Moon loses the game on turn eight when he has run himself out of cards with various card drawing effects and not nearly enough offense. Lunarch Mantle proves more useful in game two when Eldritch Moon snaps it onto the back of It of the Horrid Swarm. Ironically, Horrid Swarm has been previously enchanted with Faith Unbroken. Horrid Swarm swings in (with flying) for eight damage and the game is quickly over. The match is tied 1-1. In game three, it is Extricator of Sin that eventually becomes the target of Lunarch Mantle and Eldritch Moon wins on turn seven in the shortest of the three games. Eldritch Moon 2-1.

Kaladesh, alas, is out of the running, now relegated to the next to lowest rung of the ladder. Eldritch Moon now climbs the ladder to take on Oath of the Gatewatch. The Oath booster is capable of drawing extra cards for itself or force its opponent to draw two cards at a point when the opponent has just a couple of cards in their library. Drawing extra cards for itself also allows this pack to win with Pyromancer’s Assault. In game one, Oath draws Deepfathom Skulker on turn two to take the early advantage. Moon scrambles to find an answer, playing Fortune’s Favor followed by Succumb to Temptation. Moon is now six cards deeper into his library but no closer to an answer for the Skulker. Oath wins game one on turn seven. In game two, Oath has Gravity Negator on turn two followed by Hedron Crawler on turn three. Negator is fine on its own as a two-powered flyer but gets even better when it has colorless mana available for its triggered ability that lets it give flying to another attacking creature. Moon gets back into the game on turn three when Succumb to Temptation draws It of the Horrid Swarm and Lunarch Mantle. What follows is a decent race that ends in Moon’s favor when he draws Faith Unbroken on turn six to enchant his own Geist-Fueled Scarecrow and exile Gravity Negator. Eldritch Moon wins game two on turn six. Eldritch Moon puts himself into trouble right away in game three by plowing deeply into his library with both Fortune’s Favor, Succumb to Temptation, and Wretched Gryff on turn one. The gamble pays off as Eldritch Moon’s accelerated start is too much for Oath of the Gatewatch. Moon wins the game on turn four (the fastest win in the entire tournament) with Woodcutter’s Grit. Eldritch Moon wins 2-1.

The next opponent for Eldritch Moon is Journey into Nyx. This booster can win with big creatures like Gluttonous Cyclops but it’s most inevitable route to victory is playing Thassa’s Devourer followed by a series of the pack’s other seven enchantment and/or enchantment creatures. In game one, Moon goes to work once again with Succumb to Temptation finding Exultant Cultist and Distemper of the Blood. The Cultist attacks on turn two and trades with Aegis of the Gods which draws Wretched Gryff for Eldritch Moon, which in turn draws Extricator of Sin. Eldritch Moon overwhelms the board and wins game one on turn six. Journey looks like it gets the better start in game two with Gluttonous Cyclops on turn three followed by Thassa’s Devourer on turn four. Eldritch Moon has the only flyers, however, the Wretched Gryff he played on turn three and It of the Horrid Swarm (enchanted with Lunarch Mantle). Eldritch Moon wins game two on turn six and wins the match 2-0.

Eldritch Moon moves on to its next opponent, Fate Reforged. Moon takes the early advantage in game one by drawing some extra cards but Fate’s defenses are too difficult to get through. Game one stretches to a ninth turn when Moon draws Eternal Scourge, the last card in his library, and concedes with the score (8-15) in Moon’s favor. Unfortunately, Eldritch Moon can’t get through for the last eight points of damage and has no more cards in his library. Fate Reforged crushed Eldritch Moon quickly in game two. On each of the first four turns, Eldritch Moon drew a spell while Fate drew a creature. The score is (20-0) on turn four in Fate’s favor. Fate Reforged wins 2-0.

Fate Reforged moves on to the next booster on the ladder, Khans of Tarkir. The Khans pack doesn’t want to run you out of cards, it prefers to bash you with big creatures while reserving the ability to counter an opponent’s game-breaking card with Cancel. Fate Reforged draws the better creatures in game one with Feral Krushok on turn three and Silumgar on turn four. Khans draws some extra cards with Weave Fate but can’t find anything useful enough. Fate Reforged wins the first game on turn seven. Khans reverses the whip in game two with Ivorytusk Fortress on turn one followed by Krumar Bond-Kin on turn three. Khans overwhelms Fate’s defenses on turn six to win game two. Game three is a more lengthy affair as both decks get out good creatures right away, Temur Sabertooth for Fate, Ivorytusk Fortress for Khans, both on turn one. Khans almost clears Fate’s board with Dead Drop on turn four but Fate responds returning a face down creature to his hand with Temur Sabertooth. The face down creature is revealed to be Silumgar. Khans eventually wins the war when Fate starts drawing blanks although it’s not over until turn eleven. Khans of Tarkir wins 2-1.

Khans of Tarkir now takes on Theros. The Theros booster is another one in which the key card is clearly not the rare. Not only is Theros’ rare a land that does nothing to affect the board, the pack also contains a second even less valuable land. The pack’s MVP is Scholar of Athreos. Strangely, the Scholar is actually aided significantly by the two non-basic lands in the pack. In game one Theros goes right to work on turn one with Commune with the Gods. While he does not find the treasured Scholar of Athreos, he does get Ill-Tempered Cyclops onto the board. When Scholar of Athreos finally appears on turn five, the game is basically over. Theros wins game one on turn six. Theros looks strong in game two when he plays Commune with the Gods on turn three putting Pharika’s Mender into his hand and Scholar of Athreos into his graveyard. Of course, he then plays Mender to return Scholar to his hand. The Scholar meets a grizzly end when Khans plays Swift Kick targeting his own Ivorytusk Fortress and the Scholar of Athreos. Khans ties the match with a winning attack on turn six with Ivorytusk Fortress and Salt Road Patrol and Krumar Bond-Kin. Khans takes the early lead in game three with Salt Road Patrol on turn one and Krumar Bond-Kin on turn two. By the time that Theros later draws and plays Scholar of Athreos, Khans has such a large army that he’s sacrificing creatures to Kheru Bloodsucker to make Theros lose life points two at a time. The last straw is Dead Drop, a turn nine play that forces Theros to sacrifice Scholar of Athreos and Prescient Chimera. Even after having gained nine life in the game from Scholar, Khans swings for the win on turn nine with Salt Road Patrol and Kheru Bloodsucker and Hooting Mandrills. Khans of Tarkir wins 2-1.

Next up for Khans of Tarkir is Magic 2015. This pack’s main weapon is Mind Sculpt to remove half of its opponent’s library. Feral Incarnation is a great offensive weapon and Polymorphist’s Jest can be a devastating combat trick. In game one M15 finds Feral Incarnation on turn five and makes three 3/3 Beast tokens. M15 has already played Constricting Sliver exiling Krumar Bond-Kin. Khans draws Dead Drop on the last turn of the game and is unable to stay alive another turn. 2015 wins on turn eight. In game two Khans is losing the creature battle to an extent that Khans uses Cancel to counter Razorfoot Griffin leaving the door open for M15 to win with Mind Sculpt which M15 does on turn nine. Khans loses on his next turn when he cannot draw a card for the turn. Magic 2015 wins the match 2-0.

The next battle is between Magic 2015 and Dragon’s Maze. The champion Dragon’s Maze pack has all kinds of tricks up its sleeve. First of all, it’s got two rares in it, a giant basher in Zhur-Taa Ancient and Breaking/Entering. Breaking/Entering is like an even more devastating version of Magic 2015’s Mind Sculpt. Each game between these two packs is essentially a race to the card that mills out the other deck. In game one, luck favors M15. Mind Sculpt on turn one moves the top seven cards of Maze’s library into its graveyard. Most importantly, Mind Sculpt gets rid of Breaking/Entering. Dragon’s Maze runs out of cards on turn six long before life totals matter at all in this game. Magic 2015 wins on turn six. In game two, M15 is already ahead with Borderland Marauders enchanted with Marked by Honor when M15 draws and plays Feral Incarnation putting nine more points of power and toughness onto the board. M15 wins this game fair and square without either side milling any cards into any graveyards. Just hard-hitting creatures and Polymorphist’s Jest just in time for a rather one-sided attack on turn five. Dragon’s Maze chained several Cluestones in an attempt to dig for Breaking/Entering but M15 gets the win on turn six. Magic 2015 wins 2-0.

Magic 2015’s next opponent is Dragons of Tarkir. The Dragons booster has Secure the Wastes and a way to play it a second time with Monastery Loremaster, but no defense against Mind Sculpt. In game one, M15 gets exactly what it wants, a turn one Mind Sculpt that mills away both Secure the Wastes and Monastery Loremaster. Still, with only half a deck, the Dragons pack starts to get things done. It starts with Ojutai’s Summons on turn one followed by a second playing of the same spell at the start of turn two. Most of the damage is dealt by the two Djinn Monk tokens created by Ojutai’s Summons. Dragons of Tarkir wins game one on turn five. In game two, M15 draws the first creature on turn two, but it’s Constricting Sliver and M15 wants to wait to play it for its removal value. That leaves the way clear for Dragons to play Conifer Strider, the one creature with hexproof in Dragon’s deck. Dragons plays Ambuscade Shaman for its dash cost and attacks for nine damage on turn three. That’s about all you need to know about game two. Dragons wins on turn eight and wins the match 2-0.

Dragons of Tarkir moves on to the semifinal match in this ladder tournament against Magic 2014. Along with Magic’s first badass dragon, Shivan Dragon, this pack also features card drawing with Opportunity, evasive creatures and pump up spells. When things get tricky, this pack has Negate and Cancel to keep opponent’s shenanigans under control. M14 plays first in game one and starts with Illusionary Armor. When M14 draws and plays Accursed Spirit on turn two he elects to wait to play Illusionary Armor until his next turn when he can attack with the Spirit. This decision allows Dragons the chance to draw and play Duress taking Illusionary Armor out of M14’s hand. The Spirit deals the first damage of the game on turn three but Dragons is very much in the game with a pair of Djinn Monk tokens from Ojutai’s Summons. M14 puts himself a little further ahead on turn four by drawing four cards with Opportunity. M15 wins the first game on turn seven. Dragons of Tarkir makes a better showing in game two by hitting hard and fast with Ambuscade Shaman with dash on turns two and three. M14 never mounts a comeback and Dragons wins game two on turn five. Neither deck produces any decent threats in the early going of game three. M14 has Cancel ready when Dragons tries to play Ambuscade Shaman for its dash cost on turn six when the score is (18-20) only slightly in Dragons’ favor. Dragons draws Secure the Wastes on turn eleven and plays it immediately to create nineteen 1/1 white Warrior creature tokens rather than risk M14 drawing Negate, which M14 does on its next turn, incidentally. Two turns later, after surviving one attack of the army of tokens, M14 draws and plays Opportunity targeting Dragons of Tarkir when there are only two cards remaining in Dragons’ library. Magic 2014 wins game two on turn thirteen and wins the match 2-0.

In the finals, Magic 2014 faces off with Magic Origins. The Magic Origins pack’s most dangerous card is Dreadwaters because my house rules allow this spell to mill away an opponent’s entire library at one time. It can be a turn one win. In game one of the finals, Dreadwaters turns out to be a turn three kill. M14 draws Cancel on his first turn of game two, insurance against nonsense like Dreadwaters. He draws Sensory Deprivation on turn two and draws Negate on turn three. M14 would like to draw a threat at some point. Neither team has much on the board when M14 draws and plays Shivan Dragon on turn seven. M14 wins the game with superior firepower in the sky on turn ten and ties the match one game apiece. Game three is quiet until turn three when M14 draws and plays Opportunity picking up Shivan Dragon, Dawnstrike Paladin, Cyclops Tyrant and Cancel. That’s a lot of juice! Origins has Kytheon’s Irregulars and is able to stop two of M14’s attackers each turn. Without a way to get rid of Kytheon’s Irregulars, M14 ends up drawing out his deck. He concedes when he draws his last card, Negate, while his opponent is at twenty life and has three cards left in his library. Origins wins game three on turn ten and wins the match 2-1.

And now the celebration begins. Another set has sent its champion DC-10 booster pack into the ladder brackets where it will remain until it exits the ladder bracket one day as champion and is retired to the special binder where I keep the entire contents of each of these retired booster packs. First Battle for Zendikar, now Magic Origins. In another month maybe it’ll be Magic 2014 or Dragons of Tarkir. Or maybe Aether Revolt will be a rare bird and send its championship booster all the way to the top of the ladder on its first try.

I would never ask you to care about this stuff the same way I do. I would never burden you with my weird burdens.

Post Celebration Wrap Up

A side benefit from playing the ladder bracket with booster packs from twelve (in this case thirteen) different sets is that it keeps you sharp on all kinds of different Magic mechanics that you might otherwise forget. Not including the “evergreen” mechanics that are used in almost every Magic set, this ladder bracket tournament included the use of mechanics including renown, spell mastery, dash, formidable, megamorph, rebound, convoke, fuse, delve, outlast, raid, bestow, monstrosity, manifest, bolster, ferocious, delirium, madness, emerge, strive, constellation, devoid, cohort, surge, investigate and fabricate. This just in, Magic: the Gathering has a fascinating and ever more complicated rule set.

These little fourteen-card decks, you know them as booster packs, become such treasured toys that I eventually foil them all out. My box of championship DC-10 boosters is like a kid’s box of tiny soldier figures. Sometimes, in the middle of even the busiest day, I take out a couple of my toy soldiers and make them fight each other.

Thanks for reading.

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