I like big decks and I cannot lie. Like Commander? No. Not big enough. My Magic fetish of choice is Full Set Singleton. You take one of every card from a single set, not including the basic lands, and then add basic lands so that the resulting very big deck contains forty percent basic lands. Then you give yourself carpal tunnel syndrome while you patiently shuffle that massive slab of cardboard, and then you’ve got yourself a Full Set Singleton deck. Oh yeah, you’re going to need to repeat this process with a second set or else you won’t have another deck to play against.
No problem here, I’ve been building Full Set Singleton decks for each set as it came out for the past five or so years. This spring I put in the extra work to assemble Full Set Singleton decks for all fifty of the expansion and core sets legal in Modern (not including the brand-new Shadows over Innistrad). The reason, and I’m completely serious here, that you build a couple of FSS decks is to find the answer to a simple yet tricky question, which set is better? When you want to know whether one Standard deck is better than another you shuffle them up and play them against each other. Why wouldn’t it be the same when comparing entire sets? Because no one ever thought of a way to battle entire sets against each other until now. Why build an FSS deck for all fifty sets in Modern? It’s because I get a certain madness in March. This year, I put all fifty Modern sets into a single elimination bracket. I had my more astute Magic friends on Facebook help me rank the sets so that I could seed them into the bracket in a way that would have the best sets facing each other as late in the tournament as possible.
Is it really a tournament if you play most of the matches all by yourself? Of course it is. This tournament isn’t interested in one mere human’s ability to beat another simple mortal. This is a contest of significance. We’re trying to find out what is the best, most powerful set in Modern. You can find out how the tournament started in the first part of this three part series here. The second part of the series is here.
Before I refresh your memory of the sets that made it two the Sweet Sixteen, I want to share a thought experiment with you. Beyond having fun with gigantic decks and beyond trying to figure out which set is the best in Modern, there’s more going on with my Full Set Singleton experimentation. Even though Full Set Singleton requires absolutely no changes to regular Magic rules in order to play perfectly well, I did add a rules variation in order to smooth out the problems inherent in a format where every deck plays all five colors in roughly equal proportions. After trying many other variations, all of which were wackier than the one before, I came to this point: each player starts each game with three tokens in play called mana tokens. Whenever a player would be allowed to play a land he can sacrifice one of these mana tokens to search his library and put a basic land onto the battlefield untapped. Is this variation helpful to Full Set Singleton games? Tremendously. Is this variation problematic in any way? Yes, to be honest. It causes hands with just one or even possibly no lands in them to be acceptable and even desirable. Next year, I will probably take some great advice from a friend and change the mana token’s ability to “Search your library for a basic land and put it onto the battlefield untapped. Each opponent draws a card.”
Mana tokens are just a means to an ends, the goal being to smooth out the play of a very high-variance format. However, don’t think for a minute that such a variation could never become a part of “normal” Magic. I was greatly surprised that Wizards of the Coast changed the mulligan rule last year to include a free beginning of game scry 1 for any player who started the game with fewer cards than the starting hand size. Why did Wizards do that? Because they are very interested in solving Magic’s longest standing problem, mana screw. When the scry ability returned in the Theros block, particularly attached to a new set of dual lands, Wizards took notice of how much a simple scry could do to help smooth out mana problems at the start of a game. The Temple lands, with their ability to let you scry for one when you played the land, became game changers. I’m convinced that the success of the scry lands from the Theros block are the reason that Wizards chose to (a) make scry an evergreen ability for future expansion sets and (b) change the mulligan rule to include a free scry for players who take mulligans and start the game with less than a full hand. What’s next? Look no further than Magic’s latest expansion, Shadows over Innistrad. There are no less than two dozen cards in the new set that can cause a player to investigate. Investigate is an ability that puts an artifact token called a “clue” onto the battlefield. Clue tokens can be sacrificed for the cost of two mana of any color to draw a card. Could Clue tokens be Wizards’ next experiment into fixing mana screw? Only time will tell. Today it’s a free scry when you mulligan. Next year you might be able to take one free mulligan per game giving your opponent a Clue token. Maybe my mana tokens, or something like them, will be added to the game someday. These are the kinds of solutions that Wizards of the Coast is interesting in for solving the problems in their game.
When we last looked at the Modern March Madness tournament we were down to the Sweet Sixteen. Here’s how the bracket looked at that time:
New Phyrexia cruised past Scars of Mirrodin 2-0. New Phyrexia is the only number one seed still in the tournament.
Next, the number six seed Theros takes on Innistrad, the number two seed. They split the first two games taking twelve and eleven turns respectively. Theros is on the play in game three and keeps an opening hand with Plains, Forest, Abhorrent Overlord, Dissolve, Spark Jolt, Lagonna-Band Elder and Erebos’s Emissary. Innistrad rejects his seven card hand, it contains Forbidden Alchemy, Moonmist and five basic lands. Innistrad keeps Plains, Forest, Mountain, Into the Maw of Hell, Disciple of Griselbrand and Splinterfright. Game three starts harmlessly enough. Innistrad plays the first creature, Disciple of Griselbrand, and Theros kills it before the end of turn with Spark Jolt. Theros has Lagonna-Band Elder on turn three and it deals six damage before it dies. Innistrad was saving Harvest Pyre but needed to kill the Elder when Whip of Erebos arrived on turn five. Abhorrent Overlord arrives on turn seven and makes four 1/1 black Harpy creature tokens with flying. The Overlord is eaten immediately by Fiend Hunter. Theros snaps Erebos’s Emissary onto one of the Harpy tokens on turn eight and attacks in the air for seven damage gaining seven life. The funniest thing about this game is that Innistrad had Splinterfright on turn three but only self-milled one creature in four turns before it died in combat to buy Innistrad one last turn. Theros wins game three on turn ten and wins the match 2-1.
Alara Reborn is the underdog against Rise of the Eldrazi but has been a great surprise so far. Alara Reborn wins game one on turn twelve. Game two is exactly the same length and provides the same result. Alara Reborn wins again.
Return to Ravnica is one of the highest seeds remaining, a number three playing against Dragon’s Maze, a number ten, in the Sweet Sixteen. Return to Ravnica wins game one with Cryptborn Horror on turn eight. Eight turns is a fast game in Full Set Singleton. Dragon’s Maze plays first in game two and keeps two Forests, Mountain, Reap Intellect, Gruul Cluestone, Maw of the Obzedat and Obzedat’s Aid. Return to Ravnica keeps Plains, Island, Forest, Hover Barrier, Catacomb Slug, Viashino Racketeer and Doorkeeper. Return’s draw is defensive with both Doorkeeper and Hover Barrier. Return happily drops Doorkeeper on turn two but draws enough creatures that do things that he never gets around to playing Hover Barrier. After Maze plays Maw of the Obzedat Return considers burning it down immediately with Dreadbore. With Knightly Valor in hand, Return to Ravnica keeps changing its mind about what creature it wants to put it on. It could make Catacomb Slug a 4/8 monster, good but not great. Return ends up waiting until turn six and the arrival of Carnival Hellsteed, a 5/4 Nightmare Horse with first strike and haste. Return doesn’t take advantage of the haste, he would rather wait a turn and put Knightly Valor on Carnival Steed. Return does exactly that and Dragon’s Maze is immediately at a loss. Dragon’s Maze, not having an answer for Carnival Steed, spends a turn clearing out the remaining cards from Return’s hand with Reap Intellect. This gets rid of Dreadbore and Hover Barrier. Maze prepares to block with all of his creatures on turn nine but Return to Ravnica top decks Rogue’s Passage and makes Carnival Hellsteed unblockable for the win. Return to Ravnica wins game two on turn nine and sweeps the match 2-0.
Planar Chaos (9) upsets Time Spiral (4) in an ugly three game match.
Dragons of Tarkir (6) eliminates one of the only two core sets still in the tournament, Magic Origins (7) in a sweep 2-0.
A better Sweet Sixteen matchup saw Fifth Dawn (5) take on Guildpact (9). Guildpact wins game one because of Debtors’ Knell even though Fifth Dawn had a 5/5 Skyreach Manta equipped with Sparring Collar and Opaline Bracers making him a 9/9 flying first striker. Game two takes sixteen turns and is won by Fifth Dawn when Rude Awakening allows him to attack for twenty-eight points of damage. Guildpact plays first in game three and keeps an opening hand with Living Inferno, Douse in Gloom, Starved Rusalka, Pillory of the Sleepless, Revenant Patriarch, Thunderheads and Droning Bureaucrats. Fifth Dawn keeps Mountain, Skyreach Manta, Grinding Station, Thermal Navigator, Roar of Reclamation, Loxodon Stalwart and Disruption Aura. Both players are a little mana starved in this game. Guildpact finds a total of six lands in nine turns, the same for Fifth Dawn. The difference is that Fifth Dawn found one of each basic land by turn five and played a 5/5 Skyreach Manta. Guildpact had all kinds of trouble with its mana and didn’t get much done where creatures are concerned, either. Guildpact’s best creature was Revenant Patriarch on turn six. Not terrible, but not as good as a 5/5 flyer, either. Fifth Dawn added Myr Quadropod to soak up some damage and played Healer’s Headress and Horned Helm to make the Quadropod just a little bit better. Fifth Dawn wins game three on turn nine and wins a tightly contested Sweet Sixteen match 2-1.
In the last match of the Sweet Sixteen round, Betrayers of Kamigawa (3) hopes to take down the last core set in the tournament, Eighth Edition (7). Game one goes Betrayers way in fourteen turns. Eighth Edition steals game two when it steals Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni right out from Betrayer’s library with Bribery. Betrayers of Kamigawa is on the play in game three and keeps this opening hand: Plains, Blazing Shoal, Loam Dweller, Frostling, That Which Was Taken, Hokori, Dust Drinker and Split-Tail Miko. Eighth Edition keeps two Mountains, two Islands, Skull of Orm, Ogre Taskmaster and Canyon Wildcat. Both sides of early plays. Betrayers has Frostling on turn one followed by Loam Dweller on turn two. Hokori, Dust Drinker changes the game significantly on turn four. Essentially a Winter Orb with feet, Hokori only allows each player to untap one land per turn. Frostling takes out one of the two creatures in Eighth’s opening hand, Canyon Wildcat. Eighth top decks Canopy Spider on turn two and that little Spider holds off a ton of damage throughout the game. So does Drudge Skeletons on a later Eighth Edition turn. On turn five Eighth puts up Aven Fisher and much later he is joined in the friendly skies by Angel of Mercy. Down to one life at the beginning of turn thirteen, Betrayers chooses to untap a Swamp instead of a Plains and immediately regrets it when he draws Kami of False Hope, a creature that would have allowed Betrayers to live one more turn. Eighth Edition wins game three on turn thirteen and wins the match 2-1.
The Elite Eight
A Magic tournament’s not really a tournament until you get down to the top eight, and we have finally reached that point in this massive contest between the fifty massive Full Set Singleton decks of Modern. I’m going to hurry through the Elite Eight details in order to show you more details from the semifinals and the finals. Theros knocked off the last number one seed, New Phyrexia, in a close match 2-1. Return to Ravnica similarly survived a three game match against Alara Reborn. Alara Reborn was the Cinderella of this tournament and should be proud it reached the Elite Eight. Dragons of Tarkir had no trouble at all with Planar Chaos and won the match 2-0. Eighth Edition continued to find ways to survive. After splitting the first two games, Eighth Edition wins a weird game three where the key play was top decking a Shatter to destroy Fifth Dawn’s Silent Arbiter allowing Eighth to attack in with more than one creature a turn. The attacking creatures are not impressive but they do the job and Eighth Edition wins game three on turn nine and advances to the Final Four.
Return to Ravnica (3) takes on Theros (6). Return carries the day on turn nine with the extremely powerful Isperia, Supreme Judge. Two turns before, Isperia had erased Elspeth, Sun’s Champion from the board. Agent of the Fates hits the board for Theros early in game two and takes down some massive creatures when the Agent is targeted by its owner. When Celestial Archon is bestowed on Agent of the Fates on turn seven Return is forced to sacrifice its one and only creature, Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius. Theros wins game two on turn nine. Return to Ravnica starts game three with Angel of Serenity in his hand and sure enough, the big Angel wins the game on turn seven to send Return to Ravnica to the finals.
Dragons of Tarkir wins game one against Eighth Edition dealing the last eight points of damage by playing Damnable Pact with X=8 targeting Eighth Edition on turn ten. Eighth Edition slows game two down to a crawl with Royal Assassin on turn three. Nekrataal takes out a face down Den Protector on turn four. At the end of Eighth Edition’s turn eleven Dragons plays Secure the Wastes with X=9 putting nine 1/1 white Warrior creature tokens onto the battlefield. It’s only a matter of time after that and Dragons of Tarkir wins game two on turn twelve sweeping their way into the finals.
Before the finals, I played a consolation match between Theros and Eighth Edition to see which set would claim third place. Theros won that match 2-1.
I’m going to include the exact play-by-play for the final match but before I do, here is a much shorter summary for those many of you who don’t care to know all the details. Also, this is a good time to point out that my original plan had been to play a best-of-five-games series for the semifinals and a best-of-seven-games match for the finals. I changed my mind, in part because at some point, you know, enough is enough. Also, the whole idea of Modern March Madness is a wink and a nod at the men’s college basketball bracket. It’s compelling that they play single elimination and that every game is the same length, that the rules are the same for every round whether it’s the round of sixty-four or the finals.
In game one of the finals, the most interesting thing that happened was that both sides quickly put a planeswalker on the battlefield. Dragons of Tarkir played Narset, Transcendent on turn four. Return to Ravnica followed that play with Jace, Architect of Thought on his fourth turn. A turn later, Return to Ravnica turns up the heat playing Jarad’s Orders searching his library for two creature cards putting Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius into his hand and putting Deadbridge Goliath in his graveyard. A turn later Niv-Mizzet arrives. He gets huge with counters from Deadbridge Goliath the turn after that and the turn after that Dragons of Tarkir spoils everything by stealing Niv-Mizzet with Dragonlord Silumgar. Dragons of Tarkir wins game one on turn ten.
Game two is played with completely conventional weapons for the first four turns, although it’s extremely promising for Dragons that he has Secure the Wastes in his opening hand. Then the Dragons arrive for Dragons of Tarkir. Ruthless Deathfang hits once before getting taken out by Avenging Arrow. Icefall Regent arrives next and keeps Towering Indrik with reach tapped down. It’s a short game after that. Dragons of Tarkir wins game two on turn eleven.
Here is the play-by-play of the final match:
T1 Dragons keeps two Mountains, Forest, Swamp, Dragonlord Silumgar, Student of Ojutai, Narset Transcendent. Plays Swamp.
T1 Return keeps two Forests, Dryad Militant, Frostburn Weird, Terrus Wurm, Jarad’s Orders and Jace, Architect of Thought. Draws Sphinx of the Chimes, plays Forest, plays Dryad Militant.
T2 Dragons draws Qarsi Deceiver, spends his first mana token searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield, plays Qarsi Deceiver.
T2 Return draws Swamp, spends first mana token searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield, plays Frostburn Weird.
T3 Dragons draws Swamp, plays Mountain.
T3 Return draws Wayfaring Temple, spends his second mana token searching his library putting a Plains onto the battlefield, plays Wayfaring Temple.
T4 Dragon draws Hardened Berserker, spends his second mana token searching his library putting a Plains onto the battlefield, plays Narset Transcendent, adds a loyalty counter to Narset looking at the top card of his library and revealing it as Flatten and putting it into his hand.
T4 Return draws Mountain, spends third mana token searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield, attacks Narset with Weird and Militant and Temple, Deceiver blocks Temple, Return plays Jace, Architect of Thought, removes two loyalty counters in order to reveal the top three cards of his library, Dragon puts Minotaur Aggressor in one pile and Seek the Horizon and Temple Garden in another pile, Return chooses to put Minotaur Aggressor into his hand and puts the other cards on the bottom of his library.
T5 Dragons draws Corpseweft, adds a counter to Narset looking at the top card of his library, Dragons puts Forest back on top without revealing it, plays Flatten targeting Wayfaring Temple, plays Swamp.
T5 Return draws Mountain, plays Swamp, attacks Narset with Weird and Militant, Deceiver blocks Militant, Return pumps Weird one time, adds a counter to Jace, plays Jarad’s Orders searching his library for two creature cards putting Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius into his hand and putting Deadbridge Goliath in his graveyard.
T6 Dragons draws and plays Forest, adds a counter to Narset looking at the top card of his library revealing and putting Vandalize into his hand, plays Dragonlord Silumgar, Silumgar triggers when it enters the battlefield and Dragons chooses to take control of Frostburn Weird.
T6 Return draws Nivix Guildmage, plays Mountain, plays Sphinx of the Chimes, adds a counter to Jace.
T7 Dragons draws Gravepurge, adds a counter to Narset looking at the top card of his library and choosing not to reveal Dragonlord Ojutai, plays Mountain, plays Student of Ojutai, plays Hardened Berserker.
T7 Return draws Precinct Captain, removes two counters from Jace revealing the top three cards from his library, Dragons puts Grove of the Guardian into one pile and puts Forest and Swamp in another, Return puts Grove of the Guardian into his hand and puts the other two lands on the bottom of his library, plays Mountain, attacks Narset with Sphinx of the Chimes blocked by Dragonlord Silumgar, Return plays Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius.
T8 Dragons draws Dragonlord Ojutai, adds a counter to Narset looking at the top card of his library revealing and putting Display of Dominance into his hand, plays Forest, plays Dragonlord Ojutai, plays Display of Dominance targeting Jace, Architect of Thought.
T8 Return draws Brushstrider, plays Forest, scavenges Deadbridge Goliath out of his graveyard exiling it and putting five +1/+1 counters on Niv-Mizzet, Dragogenius, attacks Narset with Niv-Mizzet.
T9 Dragons draws and plays Mountain, attacks with Dragonlord Ojutai (15-20)
(FIRST DAMAGE IN THE GAME HAPPENS ON TURN NINE)
Dragonlord Ojutai triggers, Dragons responds playing Gravepurge putting Dragonlord Silumgar on top of his library and then drawing it, Dragons looks at the top three cards of his library putting Butcher’s Glee into his hand and putting Sarkhan’s Rage and Plains on the bottom of his library, plays Dragonlord Silumgar taking control of Niv-Mizzet, Return responds activating Niv-Mizzet targeting Dragons (15-19) and drawing Mountain.
T9 Return draws and plays Plains, plays Minotaur Aggressor, attacks with Aggressor blocked by Hardened Berserker, plays Brushstrider.
T10 Dragons draws and plays Forest, attacks with Niv-Mizzet and Ojutai and Silumgar (-3 -19).
DRAGONS OF TARKIR WINS GAME ONE ON TURN 10, LEADS MATCH 1-0
T1 Return keeps two Islands, Swamp, Towering Indrik, Eyes in the Skies, Perilous Shadow and Dispel. Plays Island.
T1 Dragons keeps Swamp, Forest, Hardened Berserker, Summit Prowler, Youthful Scholar, Gravepurge and Secure the Wastes. Draws Draconic Roar, plays Swamp.
T2 Return draws Fencing Ace, spends his first mana token searching his library putting a Plains onto the battlefield, plays Fencing Ace.
T2 Dragons draws Ruthless Deathfang, spends his first mana token searching his library putting a Mountain onto the battlefield, plays Draconic Roar revealing Ruthless Deathfang targeting Fencing Ace (17-20).
T3 Return draws Plains, plays Swamp.
T3 Dragons draws Dragon Hunter, plays Forest, plays Hardened Berserker.
T4 Return draws Island, spends second mana token searching his library putting a Forest onto the battlefield, plays Towering Indrik.
T4 Dragons draws Obscuring Aether, spends his second mana token searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield, plays Youthful Scholar.
T5 Return draws Avenging Arrow, plays Island, plays Eyes in the Skies putting two 1/1 white Bird creature tokens with flying onto the battlefield.
T5 Dragons draws and plays Plains, attacks with Berserker and Scholar, Berserker blocked by two Bird tokens, Scholar blocked by Indrik, Scholar triggers when it dies and Dragons draws Plains and Profaner of the Dead, plays Ruthless Deathfang for one less generic mana because Hardened Berserker attacked this turn.
T6 Return draws Azorius Charm, plays Plains.
T6 Dragons draws Silumgar’s Command, plays Plains, attacks with Ruthless Deathfang (16-20), plays Dragon Hunter, at end of turn Return plays Avenging Arrow targeting Ruthless Deathfang.
T7 Return draws and plays Temple Garden tapped, at end of turn Dragons plays Gravepurge targeting Ruthless Deathfang in his graveyard, Return responds playing Dispel targeting and countering Gravepurge.
T7 Dragons draws Icefall Regent, spends his third mana token searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield, plays Icefall Regent tapping Towering Indrik, attacks with Dragon Hunter (14-20).
T8 Return draws and plays Seek the Horizon searching his library revealing and putting two Swamps and a Mountain into his hand, plays Swamp, plays Perilous Shadow.
T8 Dragons draws and plays Plains, attacks with Icefall Regent (10-20).
T9 Return draws Arrest, plays Swamp, plays Arrest enchanting Icefall Regent (paying two extra generic mana because of Regent’s ability), Dragons responds playing Silumgar’s Command choosing to counter Arrest and give Perilous Shadow -3/-3 until end of turn.
T9 Dragons draws Pinion Feast, plays Profaner of the Dead, attacks with Icefall Regent (6-20).
T10 Return draws Forest, plays Mountain.
T10 Dragons draws and plays Swamp, attacks with Icefall Regent, Return plays Azorius Charm targeting Icefall Regent putting him on top of Dragons’s deck.
T11 Return draws and plays Plains, at end of turn Dragons plays Secure the Wastes with X=8 putting eight 1/1 white Warrior creature tokens onto the battlefield.
T11 Dragons draws and plays Icefall Regent tapping Towering Indrik, attacks with Profaner of the Dead and Dragon Hunter and eight Warrior tokens, Perilous Shadow blocks Profaner of the Dead, Return pumps Shadow two times, combat damage happens (-4 -20).
DRAGONS OF TARKIR WINS GAME TWO ON TURN 11, WINS MATCH 2-0
Dissecting the Championship
There’s no denying that Return to Ravnica drew more lands and less threats in game three. That’s just how the cookie crumbles. In defense of the victory for Dragons of Tarkir, I’d like to suggest that this set contains some very good creatures. Many of them are, as you might figure, Dragons. Let’s go to the tale of the tape and look at some statistics. Both sets have 249 cards not including basic lands. There is no question that Return to Ravnica has some extremely powerful non-creature spells. While Dragons of Tarkir can offer Descent of the Dragons and Secure the Wastes and Roast, Return to Ravnica has Supreme Verdict, Epic Experiment, Mizzium Mortars, Rakdos’s Return, Collective Blessing, Cyclonic Rift and Sphinx’s Revelation. Each of these can blow a game wide open. But the creatures do not stack up as well for Return to Ravnica. Let’s say you were choosing up sides for a game of kickball on the playground. Return might first pick Angel of Serenity. Cool. Dragons picks Dragonlord Atarka. Maybe Return takes Worldspine Wurm next and Dragons counters with Sunscorch Regent. Return chooses next Niv-Mizzet, Dracogenius. Dragons picks Dragonlord Silumgar to steal Niv-Mizzet. Return picks Isperia, Supreme Judge and Dragons counters with Deathbringer Regent. Return has three more game changing monsters with Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord, Rakdos, Lord of Riots and Mercurial Chemister. No problem, Dragons of Tarkir can send in Dragonlord Dromoka, Dragonlord Ojutai, Icefall Regent and Thunderbreak Regent.
No other set in Modern, including Return to Ravnica, can keep up with Dragons of Tarkir when it comes to offensive creature threats, namely the scaly kind with flying and all kinds of abilities. There are twenty-six Dragons in Dragons of Tarkir and another nine flyers that aren’t Dragons along with five mana-producing Monument artifacts that can turn into Dragons. Return to Ravnica has twenty-six flyers but only eleven of them have a power of four or more. Dragons of Tarkir wins the first-ever Modern March Madness Full Set Singleton tournament on the strength of an unmatched team of badass flying Dragons.
Anytime one of your friends tries to tell you that some set is better than some other set, tell them you know a guy that can figure out the answer. I’ll climb into my cave and play a bunch of games and get back to you.
Thanks for reading.
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