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Modern March Madness Wrap-up

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

Modern March Madness Wrap-up

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 over. The fat lady has sung. The games are all complete and the balls are back in their racks. College basketball is finally at an end. More importantly, we have finished a second exciting single elimination bracket pitting all of the sets in Modern against each other.

Why would one want to “pit all of the sets in Modern against each other?” To find out which one is the best, of course. And to have fun. It’s both things. For the second year in a row I created a March Madness-style single elimination bracket into which I placed all of the sets from Modern. I used my best guess, and the help of friends, to seed the sets into the bracket, although these seedings have held up no more than half the time. Welcome to Modern March Madness. This year, I invited readers to take my starting bracket and predict winners and losers. I’ll share the results of their brackets in a little while. The hardest thing to do, as it turns out, is predict how a new set will do against other Modern sets. This year, Eldritch Moon was new to Modern and yet won its first three matches in the tournament 2-0, 2-0 and 2-0 against Magic 2012, Planar Chaos and Oath of the Gatewatch. You just never know.

It’s a brutal tactic, deciding which of two things is better by making them fight it out in the arena, but this is the best way I’ve come up with, after twenty years of trying, to compare one Magic set with another. There is always plenty of hot debate about whether one set is better than another. People start listing cards they like from the set they are defending, or else the game mechanics from that set. Maybe they cite the historical shift that the arrival of some set made to the game of Magic. None of these has ever been a truly satisfying way to solve the problem of comparing two sets. Then I decided to try something goofy. I invented Full Set Singleton. You take a set of Magic cards, one of every card in the set, and add to it enough basic land so that you end up with a giant deck that contains forty percent basic land.

The value of playing Full Set Singleton is that you see everything that one set can possibly do in a game of Magic against another set. You get the awesome mythic rare MVPs as well as the lower quality cards that you wish you didn’t have to play with. Take any two Magic sets… I’ll go with Dragons of Tarkir and Gatecrash. You play a couple of games with these two sets pitted against each other and you learn a little tiny bit about the strengths and weaknesses of each. You play a few more games and you can start to see real trends.

Playing these giant decks is a lot of fun. There’s no blaming the deckbuilder when you have a bad game because there’s no design involved in creating the deck. Just one of every card in the set and some basic land. Once you get the hang of shuffling these big decks in big handful-sized chunks, setup for these games isn’t that much harder than “regular” Magic. It might even be a more friendly format than Commander. It’s hard to get cutthroat when the lists for each deck are completely set in stone. No one’s being sneaky. All you do is take all the resources that one set has to offer and use those resources to try and take down the other giant deck across from you. Who knows, you might even do something that’s never happened before.

Historic Magic Hijinks

In game one of the Sweet Sixteen match between Dragons of Tarkir and Fate Reforged, Dragons did something that I don’t believe has ever happened before. Things weren’t moving all that quickly in this game. Then Dragons of Tarkir drew and played Sarkhan Unbroken and started plussing him. Fate Reforged had Mastery of the Unseen in play and was manifesting cards off of the top of his library but not hitting any creatures that he could flip up for value. Just as Dragons has Sarkhan ready to ultimate with eight loyalty counters, Fate finally manifests a promising card, Torrent Elemental. On his turn, Fate flips up Torrent Elemental and declares an attack. When Torrent Elemental attacks it taps all creatures controlled by defending player. Fate wasn’t in a position to win the game here, only up one life point 18-19, but would be able to attack and destroy Sarkhan Unbroken. It was not to be. It turns out that one of the cards that Sarkhan had fed to Dragons’ hand over the past four turns was Sarkhan’s Rage allowing Dragons of Tarkir to destroy Torrent Elemental before it could attack. On Dragons’ next turn, he ultimates Sarkhan Unbroken searching his library for any number of Dragon cards and putting them onto the battlefield. There are twenty-six Dragon creature cards in Dragons of Tarkir. He already had one in his hand, Shieldhide Dragon, and another already in play, Savage Ventmaw. When Sarkhan’s ability resolved the other twenty-four Dragon cards joined the team. Then he played the last one, Shieldhide Dragon, from his hand. Icefall Regent tapped down one potential blocker, Dragonlord Atarka destroyed another, Dragonlord Silumgar took control of the only flyer that Fate controlled. Dragonlord Kolaghan gave the whole team haste and Boltwing Marauder distributed twenty-three triggers’ worth of +2/+0 bonuses across the team of Dragons. Then the Dragons attacked for 176 points of damage in a historic display of carnage. Literally, I attack you with ALL the Dragons!

Playing the Long Game

In the Sweet Sixteen match between Eighth Edition and Ravnica, Ravnica mulliganed and kept a six-card opening hand with not much other than Dimir Guildmage. This plucky little Human Wizard lets you spend 3U to force a target player to draw a card or 3B to force a target player discard a card. The plan was simple, just use the Guildmage to draw extra cards until Ravnica dug its way to a game-winning situation. Things got a little weirder when Ravnica got Primordial Sage into play. The Sage allows you to draw a card each time you cast a creature spell. Ravnica was clearly getting all the card advantage it could possibly handle. Hunted Lammasu arrived next and soon it was enchanted with Followed Footsteps and creating a copy of itself each turn. When the game ended on turn twenty-six, Ravnica had twenty-four land in play and had seen seventy cards. Eighth Edition had fourteen land on the battlefield and had seen only thirty-six cards. Eighth Edition made a match of it by winning game two but Ravnica won the match in no small part because of Dimir Guildmage in game one.

Your 2017 Bracket Challenge Competitors

When we checked in on our eight competitors in the Modern March Madness bracket challenge, the scores looked like this 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

The round of sixteen was extremely revealing. Geoffrey Hayward did the best by far, getting five winners out of the eight games. Stephen Pierce did nearly as well with twelve points from four correct guesses in the round of sixteen. Derek Gardner appeared to be holding on for dear life with three correct outcomes in the top sixteen matches. Joe Klopchic got one game correct but had no more potential winners on his bracket. This finished Joe’s bracket tournament with eighteen points. Joe joined the already-eliminated Matt Jackson and Michael Ricker. Blake Billingslea also got only one winner in the round of sixteen with no potential winners for later rounds. Eliminated from the bracket contest, Blake finishes fifth just ahead of Joe, Matt and Michael.

The quarterfinals round looked strong with two number one seeds including Theros and the defending champion Dragons of Tarkir. The results of the quarterfinal matches were a little less easy to predict. Theros loses to Magic 2015 and Ravnica loses to Magic 2010. Suddenly there are two core sets in the final four. Dragons of Tarkir looked strong over rookie set Eldritch Moon but Gatecrash was a surprise winner over Conflux. Conflux won its first three matches without dropping a game. Gatecrash had needed all three games in each of its first three matches. The scripts flipped in the quarterfinals as Gatecrash beat Conflux 2-0.

Which of the human competitors had a piece of this final four? Four players each had one team still alive in the final four. Geoff Hayward, still the leader at this point, had Magic 2010 in the final four but the rest of his bracket was busted meaning that there would be no more points coming his way. Gardner, Pierce and Heine all had a single team in the final four, Dragons of Tarkir. The difference that made all the difference was how far each believed Dragons would go. Heine had Dragons moving no further, which meant his bracket couldn’t go any further, either. Stephen Pierce believed Dragons would reach the finals but then would lose. Derek Gardner was all alone in his belief that Dragons would not only reach the finals but would also win the whole thing. Before the semifinals matches were played, Geoff Hayward was in the lead with fifty-one points, ten points ahead of Gardner and nine points ahead of Pierce. Hayward would win the bracket challenge if Dragons of Tarkir lost in the semifinals, it was as simple as that. Pierce, at this point, is only playing for second. The five points that he could earn with a Dragons win in the semifinals would not be enough to allow him to catch up to Hayward. The only challenger to Hayward was Gardner, and for Gardner to win the bracket challenge, Dragons of Tarkir would have to win the semis and the finals. Of course, that’s exactly what happened.

To The Victor Go the Spoils

Derek Gardner is your 2017 Modern March Madness bracket champion. Soon a package of prizes and goodies will be winging its way to Derek by way of the U.S. Postal System. I haven’t mailed anything under the Trump regime but I’m sure it will be fine. Derek will get a t-shirt and some boosters of some sort and whatever else will fit in the box. Here’s a look at the final scores:

52 Derek Gardner
51 Geoff Hayward
47 Stephen Pierce
35 Brian Heine
22 Blake Billingslea
18 Joe Klopchic
15 Matt Jackson
13 Michael Ricker

Thanks to all eight of the players in the bracket challenge. You made Modern March Madness much more fun for everyone. I hope more people choose to play next year.

The Final Four

I have to tell you, I wasn’t incredibly excited to see to core sets in the final four. I feared seeing two core sets in the finals. What was that going to say about my big experiment? Was I trying to say that Magic 2010 and Magic 2015 were the best sets in Modern? The other Texas Guildmage that lives in my house tried to help. Lawson told me that Bears are good. Simple creatures are good game after game. His point was that while the core sets released from 2011 to 2015 were not exciting sets, they were full of consistent and uncomplicated threats. It’s not that there aren’t terrible cards in these core sets, but there might be fewer cards that are useless and fewer cards that are difficult to either play or to play optimally. Maybe these sets have a lower ceiling but also a higher floor?

I’m sure that right about now some readers would like to point out that since I’m playing the games myself I can cause any result to play out that I would like. At the very least I must be influencing the outcomes at least a little on a subconscious level by even worrying about the core sets’ success. Nope. I guess you’d just have to know me. I was an only child and we lived way out of town on kind of a farm. I sat on the floor in my room and made up games all the time. I played hundreds of games of Monopoly in which I was playing as up to six different players. I didn’t care if the thimble won this game over the wheelbarrow, or if the race car defeated the little dog. When I play both sides in a game, the only thing I care about is seeing what the cards do against each other. Obviously you have to take a certain perspective with respects to hidden knowledge but I assure you I play these matches in as straight-up and unbiased a way as possible. And why wouldn’t I? The only goal is knowledge. And fun, I don’t want to forget fun again.

As it happens, Gatecrash won 2-0 over Magic 2015 and Dragons of Tarkir won 2-0 over Magic 2010. For the finals I wanted to do something different this year. I cleared the surface of my desk so that I could better visually share the games from the final match. Still not ready to give up words and just shoot videos of everything, I decided I would take a photo of the board state at the end of each turn including cards in hand, lands in play tapped or untapped, life totals and graveyards. By the way, thanks for being readers, people, I really want to believe that print isn’t yet dead! I wasn’t completely successful with these photos. I would forget to have the life points on one of my giant twenty sided dies turned to the correct number, or I would forget to show the right lands being tapped. These are problems that I seldom have in my patented, although not completely perfect, text format for showing matches.

So, without further ado, here is the play-by-play of the finals between Dragons of Tarkir and Gatecrash. Oh, wait, I have some further ado after all. I want to remind you that for the second year in a row I am adding a variant to the rules involving things that I call mana tokens.

Each player begins each game with two mana tokens. A player can activate and sacrifice a mana token at any point when they would be allowed to play a land from their hand. Using a mana token replaces the normal land drop that a player can make once per turn. When you sacrifice a mana token you search your library and put a basic land onto the battlefield untapped. This variant is not necessary for Full Set Singleton but has proven to be very helpful at propelling the game forward in this format where every deck is playing all five colors. The idea for mana tokens came from my good friend, teammate and super-smart judge Joe Klopchic. Last year I gave each player three mana tokens per game and found that three was too many. This year each player starts each game with just two mana tokens. I’ve been very happy with the variant this year.

Dragons of Tarkir (1) versus Gatecrash (14)

T1 Gatecrash keeps Forest, Soul Ransom, Truefire Paladin, Killing Glare, Clinging Anemones, Five-Alarm Fire and Skinbrand Goblin. Activates and sacrifices his first mana token searching his library putting a Mountain onto the battlefield.
T1 Dragons keeps Plains, Spidersilk Net, Kolaghan Forerunners, Palace Familiar, Inspiring Call, Shambling Goblin and Dragonlord Ojutai. Draws Volcanic Vision, activates and sacrifices his first mana token searching his library putting a Swamp onto the battlefield, plays Shambling Goblin.
T2 Gatecrash draws Voidwalk, activates and sacrifices his second mana token searching his library putting a Plains onto the battlefield, plays Truefire Paladin.
T2 Dragons draws and plays Evolving Wilds.
T3 Gatecrash draws and plays Forest, attacks with Paladin blocked by Shambling Goblin, activates Paladin giving it first strike until end of turn, Goblin triggers when it dies giving Truefire Paladin -1/-1 until end of turn, at end of turn Dragons activates and sacrifices Evolving Wilds searching his library putting an Island onto the battlefield tapped.
T3 Dragons draws Forest, activates and sacrifices his second mana token searching his library putting a Mountain onto the battlefield, plays Kolaghan Forerunners.
T4 Gatecrash draws and play Stomping Ground tapped, attacks with Truefire Paladin (18-20), plays Skinbrand Goblin.
T4 Dragons draws Swamp, plays Plains, plays Palace Familiar, attacks with Forerunners (18-18).
T5 Gatecrash draws and plays Mountain, plays Five-Alarm Fire, attacks with Truefire Paladin and Skinbrand Goblin, Palace Familiar blocks Goblin, Gatecrash pumps Paladin (14-18), Five-Alarm Fire triggers and gets a blaze counter, Familiar triggers when it dies and Dragons draws Island.
T5 Dragons draws Blessed Reincarnation, plays Island, plays Dragonlord Ojutai, attacks with Forerunners (14-16).
T6 Gatecrash draws Shattering Blow, plays Forest, attacks with Truefire Paladin, when Paladin is untapped pumps Paladin (10-16), Five-Alarm Fire triggers and gets a second blaze counter.
T6 Dragons draws and plays Swamp, attacks with Dragonlord Ojutai and Kolaghan Forerunners (10-7), Dragonlord Ojutai triggers and Dragons looks at the top three cards of his library putting Arashin Sovereign into his hand and putting Profound Journey and Sheltered Aerie on the bottom of his library.
T7 Gatecrash draws and plays Forest, attacks with Paladin and Goblin (6-7), Five-Alarm Fire triggers and gets two more blaze counters.
T7 Dragons draws and plays Forest, attacks with Dragonlord Ojutai and Kalaghan Forerunners, Paladin blocks Forerunners, Gatecrash pumps Paladin (6-2), Dragonlord Ojutai triggers and Dragons looks at the top three cards of his library putting Pitiless Horde into his hand and putting Aven Sunstriker and Ojutai Exemplars on the bottom of his library, plays Arashin Sovereign.
T8 Gatecrash draws and plays Island, plays Voidwalk targeting and exiling Arashin Sovereign exiling Voidwalk encoded to Skinbrand Goblin, attacks with Goblin (4-2), Goblin triggers but chooses not to play a copy of Voidwalk, Five-Alarm Fire triggers and gets a fifth counter, Gatecrash sacrifices Five-Alarm Fire targeting Dragonlord Ojutai, at the beginning of Gatecrash’s end step Arashin Sovereign returns to the battlefield.
T8 Dragons draws and plays Island, plays Pitiless Horde for its dash cost, attacks with Arashin Sovereign and Pitiless Horde (4- -9).


T1 Gatecrash keeps Swamp, Mountain, Island, Gideon, Champion of Justice, Warmind Infantry, Lazav, Dimir Mastermind and Merfolk of the Depths. Plays Swamp.
T1 Dragons keeps two Swamps, Forest, Island, Thunderbreak Regent, Ruthless Deathfang and Dragonlord’s Prerogative. Draws Necromaster Dragon, plays Swamp.
T2 Gatecrash draws and plays Island.
T2 Dragons draws Surge of Righteousness, plays Island.
T3 Gatecrash draws Skyknight Legionnaire, plays Mountain, plays Warmind Infantry.
T3 Dragons draws and plays Shambling Goblin, activates and sacrifices his first mana token searching his library putting a Mountain onto the battlefield.
T4 Gatecrash draws Court Street Denizen, activates and sacrifices his first mana token searching his library putting a Plains onto the battlefield, plays Skyknight Legionnaire, attacks with Legionnaire and Infantry (16-20).
T4 Dragons draws Minister of Pain, activates and sacrifices his second mana token searching his library putting a Mountain onto the battlefield, plays Thunderbreak Regent.
T5 Gatecrash draws and plays Swamp, plays Court Street Denizen.
T5 Dragons draws and plays Island, attacks with Thunderbreak Regent (16-16), plays Necromaster Dragon.
T6 Gatecrash draws Righteous Charge, plays Island.
T6 Dragons draws Illusory Gains, plays Forest, attacks with Regent and Necromaster Dragon (16-8), plays Ruthless Deathfang, at end of turn Gatecrash plays Merfolk of the Depths.
T7 Gatecrash draws and plays Plains, plays Lazav, Dimir Mastermind, plays Gideon, Champion of Justice, adds one loyalty counter to Gideon using his first ability putting five loyalty counters on Gideon.
T7 Dragons draws and plays Swamp, attacks with Thunderbreak Regent and Necromaster Dragon and Ruthless Deathfang, Skyknight Legionnaire blocks Thunderbreak Regent (16-0).


Dragons of Tarkir has a Dragon on turns four, five and six. Pretty good, right? No set pours out the powerful flyers like Dragons of Tarkir. Dragons of Tarkir has brought consistency to a format that simply screams variance and inconsistency. Not only is this set the only one not to lose a match in two years of the Modern March Madness bracket, but it’s barely lost any games. This year, Dragons lost single games to Fate Reforged and Battle for Zendikar. Last year, DOT’s only game losses were to Lorwyn and Morningtide. Dragons of Tarkir had a first round bye this year but did not last year when it started the tournament as a six seed.

Now that I have two years’ worth of data I’m just itching to stick my results in a spreadsheet. Here are the top eight point earners among the Modern sets after two years. For this list, each set earned points the same way the human bracket competitors did, one point for a first round win, two for the second round and so on up to six points for winning in the finals.

42 Dragons of Tarkir
18 Return to Ravnica
16 Theros
15 Gatecrash
13 Eighth Edition
10 Magic 2010
10 Magic 2015
9 Alara Reborn

These will most likely be my one seeds and two seeds in next year’s bracket. There are seven sets that haven’t yet won a match in Modern March Madness play. Two of these, Kaladesh and Shadows over Innistrad, only joined the competition this year. Sets that have lost in the first round two years in a row include Journey into Nyx, Mirrodin Besieged, Morningtide, Ninth Edition and Tenth Edition. Of course, it’s a small sample size. No need for any coaches to be fired or for any NCAA investigations.

What Does It All Mean?

Does this mean that Dragons of Tarkir is the best, most powerful set in Modern? Yes. Okay, no, it doesn’t. I really wanted the answer to be ‘yes.’ It’s complicated. Full Set Singleton is a blunt tool that can’t necessarily answer all the questions that arise when you want to compare one set to another. But it’s a start. When you play a match, with another player or playing both decks by yourself, you learn only a little bit about how one deck compares with another. However, when you put hours of practice and experience in tournaments, you learn all kinds of things that help you form useful opinions about what deck will beat what other deck under some certain conditions. That’s what happens with Full Set Singleton as well. Dragons of Tarkir is proving itself to be one of the most powerful sets in Modern when taken as a whole. There’s no way around it.

Full Set Singleton has all this baggage it has to carry around. The decks are gigantic, every deck invites variance by playing all five colors. Yet, when pitted against each other on an even playing field, these Magic-sets-as-decks reveal all the strengths and weaknesses of the game design that went into each set’s creation. Every set has a design story, a purpose for having been created in the first place. Full Set Singleton provides a fun way to test the variety of Magic design ideas in a structured, easy to duplicate way. That’s all science ever asks for.

Thanks for reading.

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