Modern March Madness Showdown – Part One

Written by Jeff Zandi on . Posted in Casual Magic, Kitchen Table

Modern March Madness Showdown – Part One

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.

It’s that time of year again. Winter is turning into Spring. We already gave our hour back to Daylight Savings a week ago. It’s time for March Madness. Now I like the sound of high tops squeaking on parquet floors as much as the next guy (as long as the next guy isn’t Mike Krzyzewski) but I prefer intellectual sports to college basketball. My favorite three point shot is still Lightning Bolt. While college basketball fans all across the nation are poring over their sixty-four team brackets, I would like to share with you a bracket of my own. Last year I pitted sixty-four different booster packs from the history of Magic: the Gathering in a single elimination battle for DC-10 supremacy. That month-long fight was eventually won by a Modern Masters booster that, led by Verdeloth the Ancient and Careful Consideration, had the rest of the packs swimming up Vivid Creek without a paddle.

This year I’ve cooked up something different, though equally strange. Did you know there are currently fifty different sets in Modern? I remember thinking, when Modern first came into existence as a format, that it had too few sets to be really interesting. It’s amazing how quickly time goes by and how quickly the expansion sets pile up. Fifty sets. Now I’ll ask you another question. Did you know that there is a format that allows you to battle entire Magic sets against each other? It’s called Full Set Singleton.

A Full Set Singleton deck contains one of every card in a particular set that isn’t one of the original five basic land types. To this you add enough basic land, equally divided between the five colors, such that the resulting deck is 40% basic land. It’s just that easy. The decks are enormous, of course, and require a little more work to randomize. If you want to play this format without shuffling hundreds of cards, you can build your Full Set Singleton decks on Magic Online. They are easy to assemble and play with there. Full Set Singleton works perfectly well without modifying any Magic rules whatsoever. I have, however, been playing with various rule modifications for Full Set Singleton to help make up for the variance inherent in playing with decks that are generally split almost evenly between five different colors. The bottom line, however, is that Full Set Singleton lets you battle one set against another. You don’t have to speculate if Zendikar is better than Lorwyn. You can play the games and find out for yourself. That’s the madness that I’ve decided to get into this March.

I’ve built a sixty-four team bracket and included all fifty expansion and core sets currently legal in Modern. Because there are fifty sets in Modern, and not sixty-four, a number of the sets will get a first round bye in the competition. In order to determine what fourteen sets should receive this advantage, and the highest seeding, I took my case to my friends on Facebook. Getting by with a little help from my friends, I found the sets that most deserved the highest seeds in my bracket, and the first round byes that go with them. In order from highest to lowest, the fourteen best sets in Modern were judged by Facebook to be New Phyrexia, Zendikar, Worldwake, Future Sight, Innistrad, Mirrodin, Khans of Tarkir, Darksteel, Oath of the Gatewatch, Lorwyn, Betrayers of Kamigawa, Return to Ravnica, Rise of the Eldrazi and Ravnica. These fourteen sets won’t have to battle in the first round of the tournament and won’t run into each other until much later in the event.

The first step was identifying the best sets of Modern. The second step was dividing up the rest of the fifty sets in an attempt to balance the power across all four regional brackets. The regionals brackets each contain either twelve or thirteen sets.

Building a Collection Worth Fighting With

How hard is building a Full Set Singleton deck? About as hard as putting together a complete set and then adding some basic land. In other words, not that hard. How hard is it to put together all fifty sets in Modern? That’s a bunch of sets, each full of a bunch of cards. Luckily, I’ve been building Full Set Singleton decks for a few years now. I already had the most recent twenty-five sets assembled into Full Set Singleton decks. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to put together the other twenty-five. I was wrong. It was actually quite time-intensive, as a matter of fact. Strangely, the core sets were really the hardest. Eighth and Ninth Edition were particularly tricky because they are old white bordered sets. Tenth Edition was very difficult for me because, as the last core set that contained only reprinted cards, I simply didn’t collect very much of it. It didn’t help that I got a little nerdy with the project. The Champions of Kamigawa deck contains only basic land from Champions of Kamigawa. Champions of Kamigawa land also goes into the Betrayers and Saviors decks as well. The Magic 2011 deck contains only M11 basic land. Lots of searching for cards, lots of sorting, lots of scrolling up and down Gatherer making sure I had every card. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I had all fifty sets put together. Then I spent an hour laying them out on the table in the Guildhall to take the “group picture” and then put each deck back in its box. When possible, I use an empty booster box from each set to house that set. I measure and cut the box down so that it perfectly holds the Full Set Singleton deck for that set. Cutting, assembling, taping. Just picture Martha Stewart as a Magic freak.

50 Modern Sets

What’s the Big Idea ?

The point of Full Set Singleton is to give you a way to compare Magic sets in the most literal way possible, by smashing them into one another on the battlefield. It sounds like a joke, but it’s a problem I’ve been interested in for many years. How do you compare one set with another? You might attempt to do this by making a list of the best, most powerful cards that each set has to offer. You might care about which set has had the most cards become popular in competitive constructed decks in the Pro Tour. Someone else might want to get more specific, thinking about how a set influenced the Standard format that it was once a part of. Another person might only be interested in the average card strength, still another might boil it all down to how much money one set is worth compared to another in the marketplace.

I wanted to compare sets in a way that would allow me to prove my point with actual games of Magic. I thought of solving this problem two ways, I came at it from the Constructed angle and then the Limited angle. Maybe you could build the best possible sixty card constructed deck using only cards from a single set. That deck could be the representative of the set that it came from. Unfortunately, this approach would never be able to come up with a deck that represented all the good cards, all the good abilities and creatures that can be found in a single set. I thought about ways to solve the problem using Limited. I believe you could get much closer to a fair comparison of two sets by using a random Sealed Deck pool from each set. Take six booster packs of each set and build a forty card deck using only those cards. The random distribution that you see in Sealed Deck card pools is a better representation of the variety of things that a set can do than what you would see in a constructed deck built from the same set. However, no single sealed deck pool would ever represent all the cards in a set. A sealed deck card pool does a pretty good job at representing what can be done with the commons and even the uncommons, but you just don’t get enough rares in a sealed pool (six) to learn enough about an entire set. The only way to get where I wanted to go was invent a format in which you play with all the cards from one set in a single deck. When you are assessing the strength of a set, it’s not fair to only consider the good cards. A team has the strengths of its best players and the weaknesses of its worst players, a set of Magic cards can be assessed the same way.

Is Full Set Singleton a perfect solution to the problem of comparing two Magic sets? I doubt it, but I’ve been extremely pleased with the results that I’ve seen over the years that I’ve been playing the format. I have had very satisfying games that revealed the strengths and weaknesses of sets, large and small.

Advantages and Disadvantages, Set by Set

I’ve been very happy with the way that Full Set Singleton creates extremely fair matchups between sets, but I can’t tell you that there aren’t advantages for some sets over others. Let’s talk first about the issue of size. Some Full Set Singleton decks are twice as large as others. Alara Reborn, for example, features only 145 cards not including basic lands. The Alara Reborn Full Set Singleton deck contains a total of 245 cards including twenty of each basic land type. By way of contrast, Tenth Edition contains a whopping 363 cards not including basic lands. The Full Set Singleton deck produced with Tenth Edition contains a total of 603 cards including forty-eight of each basic land type. Each deck contains extremely close to forty percent basic land. However, the potential land clumps can be much larger in a deck with many more lands in it. The Tenth Edition deck has more basic land cards in it than the Alara Reborn has spells and nonbasic lands. Hypothetically, smaller FSS decks could be run out of cards more easily than larger decks. Good luck with all that, even the smallest Full Set Singleton deck has several hundred cards in it. I haven’t ever had a Full Set Singleton game end with one of the players unable to draw a card for the turn. I’m sure it will happen someday, but it will be extremely rare.

What other factors could give one set an advantage over another? A set with a lot of artifacts like in the Mirrodin block, or a set with lots of colorless spells, like Oath of the Gatewatch, could get “color screwed” less often. Because I add the same percentage of basic lands in all the decks regardless of the number of nonbasic lands in the set, the total land percentage in Full Set Singleton decks for sets that have a lot of nonbasic lands in them. The difference is probably negligible but it does exist. I thought about trying to weigh the percentages of colored mana needs for each color for each different set but the complications would be lengthy and complicated. Instead, each set has its basic land needs calculated exactly the same way every time. I think this way is more fair.

A Quick Look at the Bracket

The overall bracket has sixty-four slots that include the fifty decks from Modern. Fourteen of those sets have a bye in the first round of competition. The overall bracket is broken into four regions, each of which contains either twelve or thirteen different sets. I have named the four regions South, West, East and Midwest for purely arbitrary reasons. When possible, sets from the same block are all in the same regional bracket. Each regional bracket contains either two or three core sets.

In the South region, New Phyrexia has a first round bye and awaits the winner of Born of the Gods and Mirrodin Besieged. Magic 2010 and Magic 2013 meet in the first round in the South region. It’s not the only first round matchup between two core sets. Magic Origins and Ninth Edition face each other in the first round of East region play.

Worldwake is the first seed in the West region and has a first round bye. Worldwake will face the winner between Alara Reborn and Gatecrash in the second round. The biggest core set in the tournament, and second largest set in Modern (after Time Spiral), Tenth Edition, battles Cold Snap in the first round in the West region. The winner will face Rise of the Eldrazi, who has a first round bye.

In the only intra-block matchup in the first round, Shadowmoor and Eventide face off in the East region. Magic Origins and Ninth Edition battle in round one for the honor of facing Khans of Tarkir (awarded a bye) in round two.

The Midwest region contains six of the oldest sets in Modern including Darksteel, Fifth Dawn, Eighth Edition and all three sets from the Kamigawa block. The most compelling first round matchup is probably Fifth Dawn versus Battle for Zendikar.

It’s Time for Battles

Here are the rules for this single elimination tournament. Each match until the final four will be a normal best two out of three games. The two semifinal matches will be three out of five games and the finals will be a monstrous four of seven games. In order to help with the mana issues inherent in a five colored format such as Full Set Singleton, each player begins each game with three mana tokens. Each turn, a player may use one of his mana tokens to search his library and put a basic land onto the battlefield. This ability replaces that player’s ability to play a land for that turn. If an effect would allow a player to play a second land in a turn, they could replace one or more of those land plays with the use of one or more mana tokens. All other rules are precisely the same as in normal Magic games.

Interested in what happens next? Good. To whet your appetite, here is the complete play-by-play from the first round match between Alara Reborn and Gatecrash. The number next to each set’s name is that set’s seed in the sixteen team region. When we meet again next week I’ll share the matchups and results of the first two rounds of the tournament. You’ll see each of the four regional brackets and we’ll talk about how the surviving decks reached the Sweet Sixteen.

First Round – West Region

Alara Reborn (8th) versus Gatecrash (9th)

GAME ONE
T1 Reborn keeps two Mountains, Island, Swamp, Plains, Messenger Falcons and Glassdust Hulk. Spends a mana token to search his library putting a Forest onto the battlefield.
T1 Gatecrash keeps Plains, Breeding Pool, Hellkite Tyrant, Duskmantle Seer, Merciless Evolution, Zarichi Tiger and Arrows of Justice. Draws Swamp, plays Breeding Pool tapped.
T2 Reborn draws Glory of Warfare, plays Island.
T2 Gatecrash draws Aurelia, the Warleader, plays Plains.
T3 Reborn draws Captured Sunlight, plays Plains.
T3 Gatecrash draws Corpse Blockade, plays Swamp, plays Corpse Blockade.
T4 Reborn draws Forest, plays Mountain, plays Messenger Falcon drawing Island.
T4 Gatecrash draws Devour Flesh, spends a mana token to search his library putting a Mountain onto the battlefield, plays Duskmantle Seer.
T5 Reborn draws and plays Island, plays Glassdust Hulk.
T5 Duskmantle Seer triggers at the beginning of Gatecrash’s upkeep, Reborn reveals Forest on top of his library and puts it into his hand, Gatecrash reveals Burst of Strength and puts it into his hand (20-19), Gatecrash draws and plays Forest, attacks with Duskmantle Seer (16-19), plays Zarichi Tiger.
T6 Reborn draws Kathari Bomber, plays Glory of Warfare, attacks with Messenger Falcons (16-15), plays Swamp.
T6 Duskmantle Seer triggers, Reborn reveals and puts Island into his hand, Gatecrash reveals and puts Swamp into his hand, Gatecrash draws Gruul Ragebeast, spends a second mana token to search his library putting a Mountain onto the battlefield, attacks with Duskmantle Seer (12-15), plays Hellkite Tyrant.
T7 Reborn draws Meddling Mage, plays Island, plays Meddling Mage naming Aurelia’s Fury, plays Kathari Bomber.
T7 Duskmantle Seer triggers, Reborn reveals and puts Godtracker of Jund into his hand and Gatecrash reveals and puts into his hand Hands of Binding (9-12), Gatecrash draws Guildscorn Ward, plays Swamp, plays Gruul Ragebeast, Ragebeast triggers when it enters the battlefield and Gatecrash chooses to have Ragebeast fight with Messenger Falcons, attacks with Duskmantle Seer and Hellkite Tyrant, Bomber blocks Seer (3-12), Hellkite Tyrant triggers and takes control of Glassdust Hulk.
T8 Reborn draws Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund, spends his second mana token to search his library putting a Plains onto the battlefield, plays Karrthus, Karrthus triggers when it enters the battlefield and Reborn untaps and takes control of Hellkite Tyrant, attacks with Hellkite Tyrant and Karrthus (3- -5).
ALARA REBORN WINS GAME ONE ON TURN 8, LEADS MATCH 1-0

GAME TWO
T1 Gatecrash keeps Swamp, Mountain, Fortress Cyclops, Deepcavern Imp, Zameck Guildmage, Warmind Infantry, Forced Adaption. Plays Swamp.
T1 Reborn keeps Plains, Mountain, Swamp, Sen Triplets, Flurry of Wings, Valley Rannet and Mind Funeral. Draws Talon Trooper, plays Plains.
T2 Gatecrash draws Gruul Keyrune, spends his first mana token searching his library putting a Forest onto the battlefield.
T2 Reborn draws Knotvine Paladin, spends his first mana token searching his library putting a Forest onto the battlefield, plays Knotvine Paladin.
T3 Gatecrash draws Prime Speaker Zegana, plays Mountain, plays Warmind Infantry.
T3 Reborn draws Sovereigns of Lost Alara, spends his second mana token searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield, plays Talon Trooper, attacks with Knotvine Paladin, Paladin triggers (20-17).
T4 Gatecrash draws and plays Mountain, plays Gruul Keyrune, plays Forced Adaptation enchanting Warmind Infantry.
T4 Reborn draws Maelstrom Nexus, plays Swamp, attacks with Knotvine Paladin, Paladin triggers (20-14), plays Mind Funeral targeting Gatecrash, Gatecrash reveals cards from the top of his library and puts Psychic Strike and Guardian of the Gateless and Mugging and Mountain and Smite and Frenzied Tilling and Simic Fluxmage and Forest and Burning-Tree Emissary and Dimir Guildgate and Stomping Ground into Gatecrash’s graveyard.
T5 Forced Adaptation triggers and puts a +1/+1 counter on Warmind Infantry, Gatecrash draws and plays Plains, attacks with Warmind Infantry (17-14), plays Fortress Cyclops.
T5 Reborn draws Maelstrom Pulse, plays Mountain, plays Maelstrom Pulse targeting Fortress Cyclops, attacks with Talon Trooper and Knotvine Paladin (17-10).
T6 Forced Adaptation triggers and puts a second counter on Warmind Infantry, Gatecrash draws Miming Slime, spends his second mana token searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield, plays Zameck Guildmage, plays Deepcavern Imp.
T6 Reborn draws Finest Hour, spends his third mana token searching his library putting a Swamp onto the battlefield, plays Sovereigns of Lost Alara, attacks with Talon Trooper, exalted triggers, Sovereigns of Lost Alara triggers and Reborn searches his library putting Sangrite Backlash enchanting Talon Troopers, combat damage happens (17-4).
T7 Forced Adaptation triggers and puts a third counter on Warmind Infantry, Gatecrash draws Consuming Aberration, spends his third mana token searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield, plays Prime Speaker Zegana, Zegana enters the battlefield with five +1/+1 counters, Gatecrash draws Urban Evolution and Knight Watch and Coerced Confession and Angelic Skirmisher and Swamp and Spell Rupture, at end of turn Gatecrash discards Swamp.
T7 Reborn draws Uril, the Miststalker, plays Finest Hour, attacks with Talon Trooper, there are two exalted triggers, Sovereigns triggers and Reborn searches his library putting Sigil of the Nayan Gods into play enchanting Talon Trooper, Finest Hours triggers and untaps Talon Trooper, Deepcavern Imp blocks Trooper, Reborn attacks again with Talon Trooper, there are two exalted triggers, Sovereigns triggers and Reborn chooses not to search his library (17- -8).
ALARA REBORN WINS GAME TWO ON TURN 7, WINS MATCH 2-0

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