Modern March Madness – Sweet Sixteen

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

Modern March Madness – Sweet Sixteen

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.

Thanks for tuning in to Sports Center. Not THAT Sports Center, I’m talking about Intellectual Sports Center, the worldwide leader in coverage of intellectual sports. The greatest of these is Magic: The Gathering. We’re not here to cover the Pro Tour, however, or the results of a recent Grand Prix, or even the exploits of the 244 players who stuck it out through nine long rounds of Standard at the Hunter Burton Memorial Magic Open. No, we’re here today to move you and your bracket along in the 2017 Modern March Madness tournament.

Two weeks ago we started with a single-elimination bracket containing all fifty-four of the Magic: the Gathering expansions that are legal for Modern. Then, just like the sweaty collegiate-types with the squeaky shoes and their intense coaches patrolling the sidelines in $3000 suits, these fifty-four sets fight it out against each other round by round, matchup by matchup.

Magic sets battling against other Magic sets? If you missed part one of Modern March Madness you may not yet know about Full Set Singleton. FSS is a format that lets mere mortals like you and I do something once thought impossible, or at least extremely silly. Full Set Singleton allows you to measure one set of Magic cards against another in the only way that any real Magic player can respect: on the field of battle. An FSS deck is constructed from one copy of every card in a Magic set with enough basic land added such that the finished deck consists of 40% basic land.

These are big decks, to be sure, and they have all the challenges of big decks, chiefly the issue of shuffling. Some aren’t so bad. The Conflux deck has 290 cards in it after adding basic lands. Eighth Edition, on the other hand, is a mammoth tower of 562 cards after adding basic lands. You shuffle a Full Set Singleton deck the same way you eat an elephant, not that I’m encouraging anyone to eat an endangered species. You do it one bite at a time. I grab as big a chunk of the deck as I can handle, shuffle that chunk and then divide it onto the table in front of me into six piles of approximately the same size. Then I shuffle the next chunk of the deck and so on until I end up with six piles of shuffled cards. I then use a six-sided die to help me choose which of these six piles to put on the bottom of the finished, shuffled library. Once I stack up the six piles I grab as much of the top of the deck as I feel comfortable holding and shuffle it a little bit more. Although the Eighth Edition FSS deck has 562 cards in it, I’m fully aware that an average game with the deck is only going to use the top twenty or so cards. That’s just how a game of Magic goes.

Now two weeks have passed and we’re down to the Sweet Sixteen. Here’s what the remaining 2017 Modern March Madness bracket looks like:

This is my second year to take on this challenge of pitting all of the sets in Modern against each other. Last year there were fifty sets. This year there are fifty-four. Next year there will be fifty-eight, and so on. Interestingly, a few of the decks that reached the Sweet Sixteen last year have also won their first two matchups this year as well. Theros was the sixth seed in last year’s bracket and holds down the first seed in the East Region this year. Alara Reborn is back in the top sixteen for the second straight year, as is Eighth Edition, Return to Ravnica and Dragons of Tarkir. Dragons of Tarkir was last year’s eventual champion and looks like the favorite in the West Region. However, Eldritch Moon, new to the bracket this year, has won matches over Magic 2012 and Planar Chaos without yet losing a game.

Eight Players Take on the Modern March Madness Bracket

You know what makes sports, even intellectual ones, more fun for a lot of people? Games of chance and skill. This year, Legit MTG and yours truly have teamed to give a prize to the reader who fills out a bracket that come closest to guessing the outcome of my 2017 Modern March Madness competition. We received eight such brackets from our friends on the internet. Some of these gentlemen still have hope of collecting the mystery box of prizes that goes to the eventual winner. Others have had their hopes dashed already, just like the many fine Magic sets that have gone down in defeat like Innistrad and Dragon’s Maze and so many others.

In this bracket contest, the eight players who sent in a bracket before the deadline each receive one point for each correct guess in the Round of Sixty-Four, two points for each correct guess in the Round of Thirty-Two. Going forward, these players also can receive three points for each correct guess in the Sweet Sixteen, four each in the Elite Eight, five each for the two Final Four games and finally, six points for guessing the winner in the final match.

After the Round of Sixty-Four, the scoreboard for the eight bracket competitors looked like this:

15 – Brian Heine
12 – Geoff Hayward
11 – Joe Klopchic
11 – Michael Ricker
10 – Derek Gardner
10 – Stephen Pierce
9 – Matt Jackson
7 – Blake Billingslea

Because there were ten byes in the first round, there were only twenty-two games to guess. Brian Heine hit the ground running by getting fifteen of the outcomes correct. He guessed all six games correctly in the Midwest Region (the lower left quadrant of the bracket). Geoff Hayward is in second place with a very healthy-looking bracket. He was about the same number of round one wins in all four regions. Joe Klopchic did almost as well in the first round with eleven correct choices. The ominous part for Joe is that he only got one first round game correct in the South Region (the lower right quadrant). At the bottom of the rankings after the first round, Blake Billingslea only got seven of the first twenty-two outcomes correct but still has many of his winning teams still in the tournament.

Round two of the tournament really separated the men from the boys. Hayward scored an incredible twenty points picking ten of the sixteen round two matchups correctly. Almost as impressively, Derek Gardner picked up eighteen points in the second round moving him into the top half of the rankings with plenty of chances to pick up points in future rounds. The same cannot be said for Joe Klopchic and Michael Ricker. The second round results hit each of these players hardest. Joe guessed eleven of the twenty-two first round games correctly, but only managed to pick two winners in round two. Michael did even worse, getting only one game correct in round two. He correctly picked Return to Ravnica over Shards of Alara in the second round. Unfortunately, because Ricker does not believe Return to Ravnica will go any further in the tournament, his bracket is well and completely busted. His is the only bracket among the eight competitors that cannot earn any more points.

Here is the scoreboard after two rounds of competition:

32 – Geoff Hayward
28 – Derek Gardner
26 – Stephen Pierce
25 – Brian Heine
19 – Blake Billingslea
15 – Matt Jackson
15 – Joe Klopchic
13 – Michael Ricker

Hayward and Gardner have the most skin in the game, Hayward still has ten of his Sweet Sixteen in the tournament, Gardner has almost as many with nine. At this point, the question is how many of your final four teams are still alive? Blake Billingslea still has three of his four including Theros, Alara Reborn and Eighth Edition. Stephen Pierce also has three of his final four still alive. Brian Heine, Derek Gardner and even Geoff Hayward have only two each of their final four teams still alive. Matt Jackson still has one final four team in the hunt, Return to Ravnica. Joe Klopchic has the opportunity to pick up a few more points in the next round but has none of his final four still in the hunt and of course Michael Ricker has no final four teams still alive.

That’s what it looks like for the eight competitors in this year’s bracket competition, but what do the actual games look like this year?

The games, so far, have been unpredictable. There is a lot of variance, no doubt about it. I freely admit that it’s hard to learn much about one set’s capabilities versus another’s in a single game. Each deck only uses twenty-something or maybe thirty-something cards in each game. It will take many games, and over time, many matches for these Full Set Singleton decks to develop patterns. Or will it? As I shared earlier, it is notable that certain sets have been more successful than others in this competition for a second year in a row. It’s a small sample of games, but it’s interesting at least.

Shadowmoor versus Gatecrash in the Round of Thirty-Two

Full Set Singleton games are no different than other games of Magic in one very important respect. Mana, and lack of the correct mana, can still crush you. In game one of Shadowmoor versus Gatecrash, in the round of thirty-two, Shadowmoor loses a game in which it draws some very powerful cards but can’t play them because of their mana costs. While all decks in Full Set Singleton are by definition five colored decks, Shadowmoor has some special challenges due to hybrid mana. At first glance, hybrid mana always appears to be a helpful feature. Aethertow is an instant that costs 3W/U. You need one mana of either blue or white and three generic mana to play this spell. This spell is easier to cast in a five color deck than if its cost was either 3U or 3W. Unfortunately, the cards that got stuck in Shadowmoor’s hand in game one versus Gatecrash required multiple hybrid mana. Shadowmoor ended the game with these cards in its hand: Worldpurge costing four generic mana and four hybrid W/U mana, Deus of Calamity costing five hybrid R/G mana, and Ghastlord of Fugue costing five hybrid U/B mana. In a five color deck, these casting costs are a lot harder to pay for. Deus of Calamity might has well cost RRRRR or GGGGG or some combination thereof. You need a bunch of Mountains and Forests to play it, in any case. Normally, hybrid mana is your friend but not when you stack up too many of those hybrid mana symbols on one card.

It doesn’t hurt to get a little lucky. In game two, Gatecrash, already up a game and on the draw, keeps an opening hand of Gatecrash rejects opening hand of two Islands, Forest, Mountain, Stomping Ground, Bioshift and Zarichi Tiger. Gatecrash is able to keep a six card hand with Mountain, Godless Shrine, Assemble the Legion, Urban Evolution, Holy Mantle and Clinging Anemones. Scrys putting Plains on the bottom of his library. Draws Hellkite Tyrant, plays Godless Shrine tapped. On turn two Gatecrash draws Truefire Paladin and has the Mountain already in hand to play it. That’s a hot start in a format not known for graceful plays on turn two that need two different colors of mana. There is a thought that Full Set Singleton decks are more forgiving to gold sets with lots of multi-colored cards. This is because all FSS decks are five colored and have more or less equal needs for all five colors of mana. Gold cards generally more powerful than similarly costed cards that only need one color of mana to play. In the variant of the rules that I’m using for this tournament, each deck starts each game with two mana tokens that help pull two more specific basic lands out of the deck to help make things easier to cast. In this matchup between Shadowmoor and Gatecrash, each deck is full of multi-colored cards. It’s possible that Full Set Singleton helps gold sets in a way that it doesn’t aid hybrid mana sets. Last year Shadowmoor beat Eventide 2-0 in the first round of the tournament (another hybrid mana set) before losing 1-2 to Time Spiral in the second round. This year Shadowmoor started with a 2-1 win over Magic 2014 before falling to Gatecrash. Maybe this will be a pattern for Shadowmoor. Only time will tell.

Sometimes Full Set Singleton Games Go A Little Long

Game one of the round one match between Ravnica and Lorwyn took thirty-two turns. Ravnica played Mindmoil on turn six and then started churning through his huge library like you wouldn’t believe. Mindmoil put a total of eighty-nine cards on the bottom of Ravnica’s library while Darkblast dredged thirty-six cards into Ravnica’s graveyard from the top of his library. Darkblast and Mindmoil, as it turns out, are an interesting combo. Sometimes Ravnica wanted to play a spell with Mindmoil in play and would have to respond to his own spell playing Darkblast to give something -1/-1 but, more importantly, to get Darkblast into his graveyard before Mindmoil would have it moved to the bottom of Ravnica’s library. Since Ravnica was getting a fresh hand of cards whenever it played a spell, it was no hardship at all to trade his actual draw steps to return Darkblast to his hand with dredge.

An even longer game took place in the round one matchup between Morningtide and Dissension. The first game of their match took forty-one turns before Dissension finally drew Demonfire to break a very unexciting stalemate on the board. Morningtide had twenty creatures in play and twenty-two lands. Dissension had sixteen creatures and twenty-one lands. Neither side could push through with a board full of small creatures with rather specific and not particularly powerful triggers.

Full Set Singleton Game Oddities

Some things can only happen in Full Set Singleton. In the round of thirty-two, Return to Ravnica is in a tight game three against Shards of Alara when Shards manages to play Invincible Oath on turn seven. Shard’s life total goes from 18 to 365. Return to Ravnica finally won that game, but Shard’s turn seven play made it a lot more difficult to say the least. The end didn’t come until turn twenty-two when RTR attacks for 38 with attacks with Selesnya Keyrune and Desecration Demon and Archon of the Triumvirate and Rakdos Ragemutt and Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord and two Rhino creature tokens (52- -15). The lifegain that RTR enjoyed in that game was almost entirely thanks to Rakdos Ragemutt, the 3/3 Elemental Hound for 3BR that has haste and lifelink. You can see that Ragemutt had to attack many, many times in this game in order to chop down the enormous life total that Shards reached so early in the game.

When me and my son are watching TV or at the movies, we always give each other a knowing nod, and sometimes a high-five, whenever a character on-screen says the name of the movie or television show that they are in. Something similar happened in the round two match between Dragon’s Maze and Conflux. Dragon’s Maze played Zhur-Taa Ancient on turn seven, essentially doubling each player’s mana base. Conflux took advantage on the situation immediately, playing the spell Conflux to search his library for Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker and Child of Alara and Apocalypse Hydra and Martial Coup and Progenitus. Conflux promptly kicked Dragon’s Maze in the Progenitals and moved on to the Sweet Sixteen.

Stacking up the Differences Between Sets with Full Set Singleton

As I shuffle and stack up these big decks for game after game, the differences between sets start to stack up in my mind. Since I’m playing most of these games out all by myself, it’s obvious that I’m not testing player skill with this “tournament.” I’m only trying to pit the cards of one set against the cards of another set. I want to see what wins out, what makes the abilities, the mechanics, the design features of one set possibly better or worse than that of a different set. I don’t want to form my own opinions about what set can beat another set, I want the cards to decide. Still, playing these games makes me wonder. Core sets surprise me with their effectiveness in this format. They generally do not have a bunch of multi-colored cards and I don’t believe that anyone thinks core sets are particularly powerful. So why would core sets do well in this format against the powerful sets of Modern? Do core sets have some kind of strange advantage in this format because they are actually simpler sets to play with, because they contain a collection of very obvious cards? There are ten core sets in Modern. Among these, only Eighth Edition reached the Sweet Sixteen. This year, Eighth Edition is joined in the third round by Magic 2010 and Magic 2015.

On to the Championship

Next week I’ll be back with the results of this year’s Modern March Madness bracket. I’ll share the results of the eight readers’ brackets as they compete for a mysterious box of prizes. I’ll show you some play-by-play from the best matchups in the remaining matches and every play of the final match. Then we’ll look at the two-year results of the Modern March Madness brackets and look forward to the four sets that will join the bracket next year starting with Amonkhet.

Thanks for reading.

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