The madness continues in the single elimination bracket to determine who is the best in the land. No, not college basketball, I’m talking about something really important, the contest to see which Modern set is better than all the rest. How do you find the answer to such a question? You could fly in Brian David-Marshall and Mark Rosewater and maybe employ some super computers. Or you could simply do what our finest centers of higher education are doing all over the country right now. You fight it out on the field of battle. Or on a basketball court, whatever.
Five or six years ago I found a way to get at the answer of which Magic set is better than which other Magic set by developing a casual format I call Full Set Singleton. Each deck in FSS is composed of one of every card in the set not including basic lands with enough basic lands added so that the completed deck is forty percent basic lands. This time around, for my Modern March Madness tournament, I’m experimenting with a single rule alteration. Each player (deck) starts each game with three mana tokens. A mana token can be sacrificed to allow a player to search his library and put a basic land onto the battlefield untapped. This ability can only be used when you would normally be allowed to play a land. This ability replaces your normal land play for the turn.
I love this format because I have wanted a way to measure sets against each other for a very long time. I’ve been playing Magic from almost the very beginning and have played with every set ever printed. When I discovered that I had half of the fifty sets in Modern already built as Full Set Singleton decks I decided to build the other twenty-five. Now I have fifty Full Set Singleton decks. When you play this format you are testing the design limitations of each set much more than you are testing the play skills of the person operating the deck. That’s exactly what I want from this format, a way to make one entire set of Magic cards compete on a level playing field against an entirely different set of Magic cards. The first two rounds of this Modern March Madness tournament have been very revealing about the overall fitness of the fifty sets that are currently legal in Modern. After two rounds of play, here is what the Sweet Sixteen looks like:
There are ten core sets in Modern and while six of them survived the first round of play only Magic Origins and Eighth Edition managed to reach the Sweet Sixteen. Magic friends of mine on Facebook took a cut at choosing the best sets in Modern. I used their opinions to determine which fourteen sets I would give the top seedings to and with those high seedings, a first round bye. Of these fourteen sets, only five managed to win their second round matchup. In some cases I believe a set’s overall power may have been overestimated. In other cases, it was just the luck of the draw in the match. Games in this format are won and lost with the most average of cards from each set. The most powerful cards from any given set are less likely to appear in any given game. For that reason, Full Set Singleton is probably better at finding the average value power of one set versus another set than it is in weighing the value of the very best cards in that set. That’s fine with me. There’s no ‘I’ in team. Full Set Singleton is more like football than it is like basketball. Each team (deck) has an enormous number of players (cards) and they all have to work together in order to produce wins. You don’t get to just pass the ball to Lebron James every time.
A word about the rules variation that I’m using. The beauty of Full Set Singleton is that unlike many other Magic variants, it really requires no rules variations at all to make it work. Even though each deck has at least 250-ish cards in it and requires patience and care to shuffle, these decks have plenty of mana resources in them and play just fine with no rules changes. The only downside is that all of these decks are essentially five color decks with their cards and mana base more or less distributed equally between the five colors. That means that there will be a lot of games where one deck just doesn’t find the colored mana that it needs to play the cards that it draws. This is no different from “normal Magic” except that in normal Magic you eventually get tired of this kind of variance and start building better decks with fewer colors in them. Full Set Singleton decks are always going to be high variance decks because of the way they all use all five colors. Therefore, a rule change, though not strictly necessary, is a good idea to make the games more fair.
I tried a lot of things before arriving at the variation used in this tournament. I tried having each player draw two cards instead of one in each draw step. I tried giving each player five basic lands, one of each time, at the start of turn one of each game directly into play. I’ve tried methods of play with these decks that did not require basic lands at all. None of them were very satisfying. I don’t like trying to solve Magic’s mana problems by removing the need for land. Too many of the cards in too many sets have to do with finding lands, destroying lands, etcetera. I didn’t want to make these cards meaningless. At some poing last year, a very smart friend of mine, a fellow Texas Guildmage and fellow level two judge, Joe Klopchic, came up with this idea. Give each deck, each game, a number of opportunities to search their library for basic land. Just a few for each deck, each game, just to smooth out the variance. That’s where the idea came from for what I’m loosely referring to as mana tokens. Joe lives in Seattle, Washington, these days, but was in town for the third annual Hunter Burton Memorial Magic Open this past weekend and we had a chance to play the second round matchup between Betrayers of Kamigawa and Magic 2011. Joe was fairly satisfied with how my mana tokens helped the game without unbalancing it too much. After just one game, he offered another bit of advice that I think is a stroke of genius. What if when you used a mana token, which is nothing more than a free card for you, you had to allow your opponent to draw a card? I said that the other guy already has mana tokens of his own, that it wasn’t necessary to add an opposing card draw to make the mana tokens fair. Joe agreed that it was fair, but only in games where both players had equal need for their mana tokens. That’s a brilliant observation. He noticed it after just one game while I’ve been bashing these Modern FSS decks against each other for two weeks now. Having to give your opponent a free card whenever you pop a mana token makes you consider the mana token’s use more carefully. At the same time, it’s not so much of a disincentive that you’re going to quit using the mana tokens when you really need them. An average card draw in Full Set Singleton is worth a little less than it would be in a more focused deck from the world of Constructed or even Limited Magic. I love his idea and will start testing with it immediately after finishing this year’s Modern March Madness tournament.
I know, it’s kind of silly for me to call it a tournament when, in point of fact, I have played both sides of more than half of the matches. I assure you, it really is a tournament. I’m not rooting for any particular set to win. All I care about is the science of the thing. I all I want to do is find out what happens when Set A battles against Set B. I’m an only child and I grew up playing Monopoly all by myself for hours playing as four different players simultaneously. I never cheat to help one side over another. What would be the point? Furthermore, in the matches where I play both sides I can assure you that each player had the same skill level. So much the better for determining which set is actually better in the field of combat.
Analyzing the results so far, there hasn’t been a pattern to tell you what kind of set does well and what kind of set does poorly. That’s because as many games as this bracket includes, it’s still just a tiny sample. To say that games in Full Set Singleton are draw-dependent is more than an understatement. If you play six games with a sixty card Abzan deck and never see a Siege Rhino, that’s an amazing bit of bad luck. If you played six games with the Khans of Tarkir FSS deck and didn’t play Siege Rhino that would be absolutely par for the course. Still, there were things that I expected to see that haven’t proven to be true in my small sample size.
I expected to see sets that leaned heavily in artifacts to do a little better than other sets. It has sort of gone that way, but not the way me and my friends expected. Mirrodin, Fifth Dawn and Scars of Mirrodin all survived the first two rounds of the tournament, each without a first round bye. On the other hand, Darksteel, who had a first round bye, was soundly defeated by Eighth Edition in round two. Another assumption was that core sets would be weaker than completely new expansion sets. One of the goals of Full Set Singleton (other than to fill my days with fun and frolic) was to be able to see which of two sets was better through regular Magic play. Six of the ten core sets won their first round matches. Magic 2011 beat Champions of Kamigawa 2-1. Is Magic 2011 better than Champions of Kamigawa? Again, it’s just one match. Champions of Kamigawa might win the whole thing next year. It’s in this way that my experimental tournament most closely approaches the version being played on college basketball courts this month. Hope springs eternal. Back to the issue of core set quality, I think we all generally believe core sets to be weak. I wonder if FSS is a format in which the lower complexity of a set is a good thing since you see so few cards from the set in a single game there is less opportunity for more complicated synergies to work themselves out. Are core sets doing well in this tournament because they are simpler and full of easy-to-cast monsters? The round one results might indicate that. On the other hand, only two of the six core sets that won round one were able to survive their second round matchups. Eighth Edition, the core set held in the highest esteem by my friends of Facebook, defeated Dissension in round one and Darksteel in round two. Magic Origins defeated Ninth Edition in round one and Khans of Tarkir in round two.
Highlights from the First Round
Born of the Gods (8) versus Mirrodin Besieged (9)
Born of the Gods is on the play in game one and keeps an opening hand with two Forests, Akroan Skyguard, Claim of Erebos, Akroan Phalanx, Tromokratis and Kiora’s Follower. Mirrodin Besieged keeps two Islands, Plains, Shriekhorn, Steel Sabotage, Pierce Strider and Spiraling Duelist. It was a slow start for Mirrodin Besieged but things started to get hot on turn four with the arrival of Spiraling Duelist. Besieged already had Shriekhorn in play from turn one. On turn five Besieged played Ichor Wellspring and drew Master’s Call. After that, Spiraling Duelist always had double strike. Born of the Gods was on his heels as soon as Spiraling Duelist gained double strike. Before long, Born was chump blocking and losing life to Besieged’s other creatures which included Leonin Skyhunter and Pierce Strider and the Myr tokens created by Master’s Call. Mirrodin Besieged wins game one on turn nine, leads the match 1-0.
Born of the Gods starts game two with an opening hand including two Mountains, Forest, Plains, God-Favored General, Plea for Guidance and Brimaz, King of Oreskos. Mirrodin Besieged starts game two with Mountain, Thopter Assembly, Sword of Feast and Famine, Rusted Slasher, Metallic Mastery, Kuldotha Ringleader and Lumengrid Gargoyle. Born of the Gods gets the early lead with Brimaz, King of Oreskos on turn three after God-Favored General. Things are dire enough that after playing Sword of Feast and Famine on turn three, Besieged plays Rusted Slasher on turn four and immediately sacrifices the Sword in order to regenerate Rusted Slasher after it blocks Brimaz. Besieged is already down (20-5) at that point. Things get better for Besieged, however, with Kuldotha Ringleader on turn five and Lumengrid Gargoyle on turn six. Born of the Gods gets a break on turn seven. He plays Plea for Guidance and searches out Chromanticore and Mogis, God of Slaughter from his library. At twenty life, Born figures to have time to set up with these huge enchantment creatures, but Besieged puts a clock on the battlefield on turn seven in the form of Thopter Assembly. Born bestows Chromanticore onto the 4/2 Forsaken Drifters and attacks blocked by Lumengrid Gargoyle, the score after combat is (28-1). Forsaken Drifters wins the game two turns later. Born of the Gods wins game two on turn nine, ties the match 1-1.
Mirrodin Besieged is on the play in game three and keeps a starting hand including two Plains, Mountain, Forest, Into the Core, Treasure Mage and Tangle Mantis. Born of the Gods keeps an opening hand with Mountain, Swamp, Plains, Griffin Dreamfinder, Flitterstep Eidolon, Hold at Bay and Thunder Brute. Besieged plays the first creature of the game, Treasure Mage on turn three searching out Thopter Assembly from his library. Thopter Assembly hits the board on turn six and then again on turn seven after it returns itself to Besieged’s hand putting five 1/1 Thopter tokens onto the battlefield. Besieged attacks for ten in the air on turn eight making the score (8-16) in Besieged’s favor. On Born’s next turn he plays Whelming Wave putting all creatures in play back to their owners’ hands. This move leaves Flitterstep Eidolon the only creature in play (it had been enchanting Odunos River Trawler). On turn nine Besieged replays Thopter Assembly and replays Treasure Mage searching out Blightsteel Colossus from his library. An amazing amount of firepower lands on the board on both sides, but the race is won by Born of the Gods after he enchants Flitterstep Eidolon with Nyxborn Wolf and chops down Besieged’s sixteen life points four at a time. On turn eleven Born adds Tromokratis to the board with the score (8-4) after combat. Tromokratis makes it impossible for Besieged to stop enough damage and Born of the Gods wins game three on turn twelve and wins the match 2-1.
Journey into Nyx (7) versus Magic 2012 (10)
I wanted to show you just the first game of this match in all of its play-by-play glory to illustrate how crazy Journey into Nyx can be. This deck saw all kinds of enchantment synergy even in this very high-variance format.
T1 M12 keeps Island, Swamp, Stonehorn Dignitary, Griffin Sentinel, Coral Merfolk, Goblin Bangchuckers and Jace, Memory Adept. Plays Island.
T1 Journey keeps Forest, Island, Cyclops of Eternal Fury, Reprisal, Flurry of Horns, Eidolon of Rhetoric and Eidolon of Blossoms. Journey draws and plays Mountain.
T2 M12 draws and plays Plains, plays Coral Merfolk.
T2 Journey draws and plays Forest.
T3 M12 draws and plays Forest, attacks with Merfolk (18-20), plays Griffin Sentinel.
T3 Journey draws Hydra Broodmaster, spends his first mana token searching his library putting a Plains onto the battlefield, plays Eidolon of Rhetoric.
T4 M12 draws Reverberate, spends his first mana token searching his library putting a Mountain onto the battlefield, attacks with Griffin Sentinel (17-20), plays Stonehorn Dignitary.
T4 Journey draws Swamp, plays Forest, plays Eidolon of Blossoms drawing Harvestguard Alseids.
T5 M12 draws Rune-Scarred Demon, spends his second mana token searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield, attacks with Sentinel (16-20), plays Jace, Memory Adept, adds a counter to Jace drawing Master Thief and milling Dictate of Karametra into Journey’s graveyard from the top of his library.
T5 Journey draws and plays Swamp, plays Harvestguard Alseids, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Skybind.
T6 M12 draws Rusted Sentinel, plays Swamp, adds a sixth counter to Jace drawing Plains and milling Pharika’s Chosen into Journey’s graveyard from the top of his library, plays Rusted Sentinel, attacks with Griffin Sentinel (15-20).
T6 Journey draws Riddle of Lightning, spends his second mana token searching his library putting a Mountain onto the battlefield, plays Riddle of Lightning targeting M12, Journey scries for three putting Rouse the Mob and Swamp on the bottom of his library and putting Worst Fears on top of his library, reveals Worst Fears and redirects the damage to Jace.
T7 M12 draws Mountain, spends his third mana token searching his library putting a Swamp onto the battlefield, plays Rune-Scarred Demon searching his library putting Fireball into his hand.
T7 Journey draws Worst Fears, plays Swamp, plays Hydra Broodmaster.
T8 M12 draws Plains, plays Mountain, attacks with Rune-Scarred Demon (9-20), plays Fireball with X=7 targeting Journey into Nyx (2-20).
T8 Journey draws Pharika, God of Affliction, plays Worst Fears targeting Magic 2012.
T9 M12 draws and plays Tectonic Rift targeting his own untapped Mountain, taps all of his lands for mana.
T9 Journey draws Font of Vigor, plays Cyclops of Eternal Fury, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Market Festival.
T10 In response to M12’s draw step Journey plays Reprisal targeting Rune-Scarred Demon, M12 draws Alluring Siren, plays Plains, plays Master Thief, attacks with Griffin Sentinel (1-20).
T10 Journey draws Satyr Hoplite, spends third mana token searching his library putting a Plains onto the battlefield, plays Font of Vigor, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Mountain.
T11 M12 draws Goblin War Paint, plays Plains, plays Goblin War Paint enchanting Griffin Sentinel, attacks with Griffin Sentinel, Journey activates and sacrifices Font of Vigor (8-20), combat damage happens (5-20).
T11 Journey draws and plays Mountain, plays Skybind exiling Griffin Sentinel until end of turn when it returns, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Knowledge and Power.
T12 M12 draws and plays Onyx Mage, attacks with Griffin Sentinel (4-20).
T12 Journey draws Lagonna-Band Trailblazer, plays Mountain, plays Pharika, God of Affliction, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Thoughtrender Lamia, Skybind triggers exiling Eidolon of Rhetoric, plays Market Festival enchanting an untapped Mountain, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Forest, Skybind triggers exiling Harvestguard Alseids until the beginning of the end step, at the beginning of the next end step Harvestguard Alseids and Eidolon of Rhetoric each reenter the battlefield, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers twice and Journey draws Underworld Coinsmith and Thassa’s Ire, Skybind triggers twice and Journey chooses to exile Rusted Sentinel and Griffin Sentinel, at end of turn Journey discards Forest.
T13 M12 draws and plays Rites of Flourishing, at the beginning of the end step Griffin Sentinel and Rusted Sentinel return to the battlefield.
T13 Rites of Flourishing triggers and Journey draws Dakra Mystic, Journey draws Starfall, attacks with Pharika, God of Affliction blocked by Coral Merfolk, Journey plays Thoughtrender Lamia, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Consign to Dust, Skybind triggers exiling Eidolon of Rhetoric, Thoughtrender Lamia triggers and M12 chooses and discards Goblin Bangchuckers, plays Starfall targeting Griffin Sentinel, at the beginning of the end step Eidolon of Rhetoric enters the battlefield, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Swamp, Skybind triggers and Journey chooses to exile Pharika, God of Affliction, Thoughtrender Lamia triggers and M12 chooses and discards Reverberate, at end of turn Journey discards Swamp and Lagonna-Band Trailblazer.
T14 Rites of Flourishing triggers and M12 draws Swamp, M12 draws Plains, plays Swamp, plays Plains, plays Aluring Siren (last card in his hand), at the beginning of the end step Pharika, God of Affliction enters the battlefield, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Battlefield Thaumaturge, Skybind triggers and exiles Rusted Sentinel.
T14 Rites of Flourishing triggers and Journey draws Font of Fortunes, Journey draws and plays Plains, plays Thassa’s Ire, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Sigiled Starfish, Skybind triggers and exiles Eidolon of Rhetoric, plays Underworld Coinsmith, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Swamp, Skybind triggers and exiles Onyx Mage, M12 responds activating Onyx Mage twice giving deathtouch until end of turn to Stonehorn Dignitary and Alluring Siren, Coinsmith triggers (5-20), attacks with Pharika, God of Affliction (5-15), plays Swamp, plays Sigiled Starfish, at the beginning of the end step Onyx Mage returns to the battlefield, Eidolon of Rhetoric enters the battlefield, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Stonewise Fortifier, Skybind triggers exiling Thoughtrender Lamia, Coinsmith triggers (6-15), at end of turn Journey discards Stonewise Fortifier.
T15 Rites of Flourishing triggers and M12 draws Mountain, M12 draws Dragon’s Claw, plays Mountain, plays Dragon’s Claw, at the beginning of the end step Thoughtrender Lamia enters the battlefield, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Forest, Skybind triggers exiling Onyx Mage, Coinsmith triggers (7-15).
T15 Rites of Flourishing triggers and Journey draws Colossal Heroics, Journey draws Island, plays Island, plays Forest, plays Font of Fortunes, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Mountain, Skybind triggers and exiles Eidolon of Rhetoric, Coinsmith triggers (8-15), plays Knowledge and Power, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Island, Skybind triggers exiling Rusted Sentinel, Coinsmith triggers (9-15), attacks with Pharika and Cyclops and Broodmaster and Thoughtrender Lamia, Master Thief and Alluring Siren block Cyclops of Eternal Fury, Stonehorn Dignitary blocks Broodmaster (9-5), at the beginning of the end step Eidolon of Rhetoric enters the battlefield, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Aegis of the Gods, Skybind triggers exiling Thoughtrender Lamia, Coinsmith triggers (10-5), Onyx Mage and Rusted Sentinel return to the battlefield on M12’s side, at end of turn Journey discards Mountain and Island.
T16 Rites of Flourishing triggers and M12 draws Island, M12 draws Mountain, plays Mountain, plays Island, at the beginning of the end step Thoughtrender Lamia enters the battlefield, Eidolon of Blossoms triggers and Journey draws Forest, Skybind triggers exiling Rusted Sentinel, Coinsmith triggers (11-5), Journey activates Sigiled Starfish scrying for one putting Mogi’s Warhound on top of his library, Knowledge and Power triggers and Journey pays two mana to deal two damage to Onyx Mage.
T16 Rites of Flourishing triggers and Journey draws Mogi’s Warhound, Journey draws Tethmos High Priest, attacks with Pharika and Lamia and Broodmaster and Eidolon of Blossoms and Harvestguard Alseids and Eidolon of Rhetoric (11- -17).
JOURNEY INTO NYX WINS GAME ONE ON TURN 16, LEADS MATCH 1-0
Magic 2012 thundered back in game two, the shortest game in the tournament so far, with turn one Gladecover Scout enchanted with Angelic Destiny on turn three thanks in part to a turn two Llanowar Elves.
Journey into Nyx had a good shot in game three but Magic 2012 top decked Pentavus to save the day at just the right moment. M12 ultimately prevailed on turn thirteen.
The Best Match of the Second Round
Ravnica (4) versus Fifth Dawn (5)
Fifth Dawn is on the play in game one and rolls out a solid game right from the start. Fifth Dawn played Battered Golem on turn three followed by Auriok Windwalker on turn four and Clearwater Goblet on turn five. Meanwhile, Ravnica draw everything but creatures. Ravnica’s opening hand included Brightflame and was hoping for a late game reversal of fortune. It didn’t come together because of the lack of creatures and Fifth Dawn wins game one on turn nine and leads the match 1-0.
Ravnica is on the play in game two and keeps an opening hand that includes Mountain, Forest, Gather Courage, Doubling Season, Nullstone Gargoyle, Dimir Guildmage and Screeching Griffin. Fifth Dawn keeps two Forests, Swamp, Mountain, Fangren Pathcutter, Door to Nothingness and Furnace Whelp. The score is (20-8) in favor of Ravnica at the end of turn six. Ravnica made the most of small creatures, Dimir Guildmage on turn two followed by Terraformer and Dimir House Guard and then Screeching Griffin. Fifth Dawn finally put a big enough blocker in play on turn five with Krark-Clan Ogre and turn six is even better with Mephidross Vampire who can block either the Griffin or the House Guard if necessary. Ravnica draws a useful answer, Faith’s Fetters, and quickly enchants Mephidross Vampire with it (24-8). Ravnica attacks with House Guard and Griffin (24-4). Fifth Dawn draws the perfect card. Silent Arbiter only allows one creature to attack and only one creature to block each turn. Screeching Griffin puts Fifth Dawn down to two life on Ravnica’s next turn but then Fifth Dawn finds Devour In Shadow to kill the flyer. Ravnica concentrates on making Fifth Dawn discard the rest of his cards with Dimir Guildmage. Then Ravnica gets his ninth land on turn ten and plays Nullstone Gargoyle. Fifth Dawn finds no answer and Ravnica wins game two on turn eleven and ties the match 1-1.
Fifth Dawn plays first in game three and keeps an opening hand consisting of two Plains, Mountain, Fangren Pathcutter, Opaline Bracers, Rain of Rust and Composite Golem. Ravnica keeps Swamp, Island, Copy Enchantment, Dryad’s Caress, Galvanic Arc, Chord of Calling and Suppression Field. Ravnica isn’t crazy about its hand but it seems like it might work out because he’s playing a land every turn and building towards a surprise Chord of Calling while Fifth Dawn isn’t threatening with any creatures at all. Fifth Dawn plays Energy Chamber, then Gemstone Array and finally, on turn six, Composite Golem. On Fifth Dawn’s next turn, however, he plays Opaline Bracers and equips Composite Golem. He attacks for nine and Ravnica lets it through instead of chump blocking with Moroii. Fifth Dawn wins the game on turn nine by playing Rude Awakening with entwine attacking with Composite Golem and seven 2/2 land creatures. Fifth Dawn wins the match 2-1.
Alara Reborn has been the most interesting set in the tournament so far. Magic’s “solid gold” expansion quickly fills the board in game after game with enchantments, artifacts and creatures, every one of which is multicolored. Here is a picture of the very complicated board state from game three against top-seeded Worldwake in round two. Alara Reborn won this game on turn nineteen.
Closing Thoughts Halfway Through the Tournament
Have there been more 2-0 sweeps or close 2-1 matches? In the first round, it was exactly even, nine matches required only two games while nine others required all three games. In the second round only seven matches were 2-0 sweeps. Nine matches required all three games. This means that, overall, most matches so far have required three games. That’s not too surprising, this is a high variance format and because both teams always have access to extra mana (compared to a regular Magic match) the games are closer than they would be otherwise.
Next week we will crown the first-ever Modern March Madness champion of Full Set Singleton. I’m already looking forward to what next year’s competition will be like with the data I gain from this year’s experience and with the addition of four more Magic expansions.
Thanks for reading.
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