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Modern March Madness 2017

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

Modern March Madness 2017

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.

Welcome to March. Football is over, baseball is about to begin and we’ve installed a new president into the White House. Almost every television channel I flip to is either tall people’s shoes squeaking as they run up and down a wooden court in a sweaty gymnasium or else people in Washington D.C. just screaming about one thing or another. It all adds up to a little bit more March madness than usual. All across the land this week, great minds are studying brackets trying to figure out what college basketball team will go all the way. Meanwhile, in one North Texas home, one madman is enjoying unseasonably warm weather and studying a different bracket. The madman is yours truly and the bracket is loaded with the fifty-four sets that make up the Modern format. They’re all here, Alara Reborn to Zendikar and everything in between. I’m sure the men’s collegiate basketball tournament will be very interesting this year but what interests me more is finding out what set in Modern in the best of all.

How does one figure out which set is the best? I’m glad you asked. Some guys, years ago, started a fun activity inspired by the NCAA March basketball tournament and its famous sixty-four team single elimination bracket. These dudes had the idea of stuffing sixty-four of, well, anything into a single elimination bracket. You know, like they might put the names of sixty-four movie titles into a bracket. The fun begins as you cuss and discuss each matchup while trying to determine a winner. Godfather versus Ghostbusters. That kind of thing. My bracket looks like one of these whimsical things, but I assure you I am as serious as a mid-season emergency banning from the DCI. Here’s my bracket:

Pick a matchup, any matchup. How about Kaladesh versus Magic 2013, it’s the third matchup on the left side of the bracket. Which one’s better? A lot of Magic players’ brains start shorting out at this point. Others dive right in and start talking about the really good cards from Kaladesh and why they help make Kaladesh a good set. There’s nothing wrong with whatever approach a person might use to decide why one set of Magic cards might be better, in their opinion, than another set of Magic cards. Me, I wanted to get a little more objective with my analysis.

Full Set Singleton

Some years ago, I created Full Set Singleton to solve the problem of how to objectively compare Magic sets. I started out thinking of ways to use constructed decks made exclusively from two different sets, like whatever the best deck you could build with only Kaladesh cards versus a deck made only with Magic 2013. The problem is, how could any constructed deck truly represent everything an expansion set has going for it? You can’t, you’d have to build a five color deck, or else leave out a lot of good cards. If you can’t solve the problem of comparing sets by using constructed Magic, could you do it with limited formats? Kind of. Sealed deck is actually a good way to compare different sets because sealed deck pools are random and therefore represent both the best and the worst of whatever a set has to offer. If you could take the eight best sealed deck pools from a 200-player Kaladesh tournament and pit them against the top eight sealed pools from a 200-player Magic 2013 tournament you would probably get very close to the truth of which set is better from an objective, real world point of view. Without the ability to cull through hundreds of sealed deck pools, I was forced to keep looking for the best way to pit entire sets against each other.

That’s when I fell into a fairly straightforward and easy solution. I took one of every non-basic land card in a set and added to it enough basic land so that the resulting deck contained forty percent basic lands. I call this Full Set Singleton. The best thing about FSS is that you can play these decks without changing any rules of Magic. You don’t have to play with a FSS deck any differently than you would any other deck. The worst thing about FSS is that the games all have a somewhat greater amount of variance than normal. This is because every FSS deck is a five color deck. The second worst thing about FSS is that the decks are very large, containing hundreds and hundreds of cards. They can be a hassle to shuffle up for each game. I’ve built a few of these on Magic Online where they are extremely easy to play.

A lot of you have already been building Full Set Singleton decks and you didn’t even know it. If you like putting together complete sets, you’re literally sixty percent of the way to a Full Set Singleton deck. I currently have fifty-four FSS decks put together, one for each of the sets currently allowed in the Modern constructed format.

Two Sets Enter, One Set Leaves

While I’ve been building Full Set Singleton decks for quite a few years now, it was only a year ago that I got the big idea of pitting all of the sets in Modern against each other in a March Madness-style single elimination bracket. I polled my Magic friends on Facebook in order to try to seed my bracket realistically. I didn’t want to have the two best sets in Modern to face each other in the first round. That would be like Duke having to play Kentucky in the first round, am I right? Seriously, am I? I really haven’t been watching much college basketball lately.

The fifty Modern sets were seeded into the bracket as accurately as I could reckon. Then we played that sucker out and let the chips fall where they may. If you’d like to know where all the chips landed last year, I can refer you to the final piece of my March Madness series last year here:

Modern March Madness – Elite Eight

This year there are four more sets that I didn’t have last year. Since I understand power creep to be a very real phenomenon, I fully expect the four most recent sets to make a lot of noise in this year’s tournament.

The Modern March Madness bracket, like the bracket for the basketball tournament, is split into four regions. Each slot in each of the four regions is seeded from one to sixteen. In the name of fairness and continuity, all sets from a single block are always together in the same region of the overall bracket. There are ten core sets in Modern, and they have been split up as evenly as possible for the bracket, two each appear in two of the regions while three each appear in the other two regions.

While I fully defend the playability of Full Set Singleton without any changes to the rules of Magic, I admit that I do use one house rule when I play out the bracket. In order to move the games along more smoothly and remove some of the variance, each player begins each game with two mana tokens. Mana tokens can’t be targeted or destroyed. Anytime a player would be allowed to play a land for their turn, they can choose instead to sacrifice a mana token to search their library for a basic land and put that land onto the battlefield untapped. A Magic friend of mine with a particularly good mind for numbers and Magic game theory came up with the idea of the mana tokens and I have enjoyed using this one rule variant for Full Set Singleton. In last year’s bracket, each player started each game with three mana tokens. Experience informs me that two is a better number than three.

Who plays the matches? I do. I play both sides of most of the matches. Occasionally one of my friends will be interested in playing one of the matches with me, but it’s mostly just me. I grew up as an only child living far out of town in a quiet country community in East Texas. I didn’t have other kids to play with most of the time. I know what it’s like to play as six different players in a game of Monopoly and not cheat to help any of the players. As long as I’ve been playing Magic, and I’ve been playing since 1994, I have played both sides of matches and have been able to do so dispassionately and fairly. When I’m playing a match between two decks, I don’t have a favorite deck, all I want to know is which one is most likely to win given the cards drawn in the game. The results of these matches isn’t determined by the skill of the pilot (the player), it’s determined by the strength of the cards themselves and the order in which they are drawn.

The important thing isn’t who is playing the matches. It’s the matches themselves. Two sets enter, one set leaves.

My son is all business when it comes to this game we love. While I’m sweating over Full Set Singleton, he’s on a Skype call with some other serious tournament dude talking about Modern decks for the upcoming Grand Prix San Antonio in a few weeks. He and I and a player-to-be-named-later will play together in that special Team Constructed event. He’s not too worried about me, he knows I can pilot Affinity ably without getting too much fresh practice in. What he doesn’t know is that I am practicing Modern with every game of Full Set Singleton. When you play constructed Modern you think that you’re keeping up with a lot of cards. Again, there are fifty-four different sets. But in Constructed, you’re only dealing with the best of the best of the best. How many different cards were played in the top eight of the Star City Games Modern Open in Indianapolis two weeks ago? There were six very different decks in that top eight including two Eldrazi decks, two Death’s Shadow decks as well as Ad Nauseam, Abzan, Grixis Control and Grixis Delver. How many different cards were played among all eight of those decks, including sideboards? Exactly 140 different cards, including basic lands. How many cards are there in Modern? The Gatherer search almost ate my computer. There are 10,627 cards in Modern. I’ll play with a giant portion of those ten thousand cards during my 2017 journey through the Modern March Madness bracket. Magic: the Gathering has gotten so large that it’s more and more difficult to reach your arms out wide and give the entire game a hug. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do this month. It’s extremely fun to see so many different card interactions. Commander? You mean that game with the itty-bitty one hundred card decks? I’m way beyond that.

Win Fabulous Prizes in this Contest of Skill

This year, I have been empowered by the editorial staff and management at LegitMTG to award a prize to the reader whose completed bracket is closest to the actual results of my strange little tournament. I’m not sure yet what you’re going to win but I assure you it will be worth the trip to the mailbox whatever day that your box of prizes arrives at your home, dormitory, barracks or correctional facility. You get one point for each winner you pick in the round of sixty-four, two points for each winner you choose in the round of thirty-two, and so forth. Make sure you pick a winner for the final match. For a tie-breaker, guess five of the cards that will be played by the championship deck in the final game of the tournament.

I don’t care how you get your completed bracket to me, any method is fine, but it has to be in my hands by the end of the day Thursday, March 23rd. That’s the day before part two of this article series appears on these electronic internet pages. You can email me at jeffzandi@hotmail.com or friend me on Facebook and send me a private message there with your picks. You can list out your picks for each round or send me a picture of your bracket. It’s up to you. I’ll collect your completed brackets and send you a response so you know I got it. I’ll tell the world who won in the third part of this article series in the first week of April.

Good luck and thanks for reading.

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