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Welcome to the Third Annual Modern March Madness

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

Welcome to the Third Annual Modern March Madness

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.

I love sports. All of them, really. Football was my first favorite when I was a little kid although I didn’t understand much. I didn’t know why the Houston Oilers couldn’t play against the Michigan Wolverines. Baseball came next, then basketball. By the time I was an adult I was into a lot more sports. The Olympics opened my eyes, then I saw World Cup soccer in 1994 and it broadened my world even more. Then I started hanging out with this Australian guy and he introduced me to cricket. Of course my favorite sport is the intellectual one you play with cards from Wizards of the Coast. If you keep reading I’ll try to get you interested in another intellectual proposal that won’t cost you a dime but might win you a cool prize.

I like basketball, college and pro, but it’s not my favorite. Each February, I sort of dread that moment when the Super Bowl is over and the sports channels are taken over with endless nights of squeaking sneakers. The one thing that collegiate basketball has gotten right is their playoffs. There are 351 schools playing basketball in the NCAA’s 32 Division I basketball conferences. That’s a lot of schools. I didn’t attend a single class in any of those schools. Neither do some of the basketball players at those schools, but never mind that. Amid the chaos of three hundred colleges competing in 32 conferences all across the great land of ours, the constant shoe squeaking eventually comes to a halt for all but the 64 best teams in March. Yeah, I know, the NCAA has ruined their perfect 64-team bracket by adding (gasp) four more teams. Still, generally speaking, college basketball has a wonderful playoff system. The teams battle it out in the big bracket. Every round is single elimination. Sure, I love a best-of-seven as much as the next red-blooded American, but there is beauty in simplicity, and it doesn’t get more beautifully simple than a 64-team single elimination bracket.

But enough about basketball. This is March, and the madness I’m interested in is pitting the 58 sets of Modern against each other. Why? In order to find out what the best set in Modern is. How? I’m glad you asked. The answer is Full Set Singleton.

Full Set Singleton

Did you ever have a dream that you would do anything to pursue? Me too, but once Jennifer Aniston filed court papers, I knew I needed to move on to something else. My next big dream was to figure out a way to test Magic sets against one another. The arguments are never-ending. Even though you and me and so many of our friends love Magic: The Gathering, we all hear the complaints about how bad the new set is. Which new set? Every new set. Always. Maybe it’s not the same people complaining every time, although I imagine it is. I catch myself being one of these people occasionally. It’s no more rational when I do it than when others do. Expansion sets have always been difficult to judge. If your first impression of a set is good, if you like a particular card or cards from a certain set, you think that set is good. If a set comes out with a watered-down near-reprint of a card you used to like, or if a set has a mechanic you don’t think is very good, you tend to dump on that set.

Comparing one set with another is a strange task, to be sure. What’s the context? Innistrad has Liliana of the Veil and Snapcaster Mage. Future Sight has Tarmogoyf and Pact of Negation. Which set is better? Would it be crass to weigh the value of one set with another based on the price for completed sets on the secondary card market? I’m not crazy about that idea, but it might be as good as any other. When I started working on this problem, many years ago, I decided that I wanted to weigh sets against each other in a more tangible way. Even though I love Limited more than Constructed, I honestly did think of Constructed first.

Is it possible that someone could construct a deck using only cards from a single set and use that deck as a sort of “champion” for the entire set? Build a deck out of only Innistrad cards and battle it against a deck built only from Future Sight cards. These decks would be the ultimate expression of the constructed format formerly known as Block Constructed. In this case, the block would consist of only one set. There’s one big problem. For the most part, the best constructed decks aren’t five colors. Whatever two-color deck you build out of a certain set will inevitably be forced to leave out extremely powerful and notable cards of three other colors.

It might surprise you to think about Sealed Deck as a way to solve the dilemma. Imagine a sealed deck tournament using only Innistrad booster packs. The best sealed deck from that event might very well be a decent “champion” for Innistrad. The more sealed decks in the tournament, the better the best sealed deck would be. Of course, there’s the same problem as before with constructed decks, no one deck can represent all the best ideas from a given set.

If you want to judge one set against another in a tangible way, you need to consider all the good cards from a set as well as the less stellar ones. When you get married, you don’t get just the good things about another person added to your life, you have to take the bad with the good. So does your partner. This is how I came up with Full Set Singleton. I wanted a way to play with ALL the cards in a set in one deck.

A Full Set Singleton deck is a collection of each of the cards from a certain set not including basic lands that may have been printed in that set. You then add basic lands, in equal amounts for each of Magic’s five basic land types, until the finished deck contains 40% basic lands. I’ve been playing with this formula for more than six years. I went with this amount of land because 40% is a tried and true formula from the earliest days of the game. I recognize that 40% might be just slightly high considering that every set has some number of non-basic lands in it causing the resulting deck to have slightly more than 40% land.

First the good news. These decks are fun to play. You don’t have to change any Magic rules in order to play them. Now the bad news. There is a lot of variance. A lot of games are determined simply by who draws land first, or who gets flooded first. Sounds like perfectly normal Magic to me. Sort of. The Zendikar FSS deck contains 229 spells and non-basic land and 150 basic lands. That’s 379 cards in all. Shuffling these big boys is an exercise in patience as well as dexterity, but it is completely doable. I’m sure the math boys could help me out with some specifics, but the four or five land clump that happens all the time with a sixty-card deck can stretch into a ten or twelve land clump in the world of FSS. Troublesome.

You can definitely play Full Set Singleton without making any changes to the rules of Magic, but yes, I have added a variant rule. I added it two years ago, with the assistance of a very smart Magic friend of mine, level three judge and software engineer Joe Klopchic. Together, we came up with a concept called Mana Tokens. This is actually a bad name for this effect, because mana tokens are not physical tokens in the game. They are more like a pair of get-out-of-jail-free effects that exist somewhere outside of the battlefield. Two times in each game (we originally tried three and it turns out two is better) a player can spend a mana token to search his library and put a basic land directly into play untapped. This effect can only be used when you could normally play a land and replaces your land play for the turn. I’ve played hundreds of games of FSS giving each player two mana tokens in each game and the results have been very good.

Among the first two FSS decks that I built were Magic 2014 Core Set and Alpha/Beta. That was five years ago when we were celebrating Magic’s twentieth anniversary. I wanted to show newer players that as exciting as the thought of playing with Moxen and Black Lotus is, Magic 2014 is actually a better set overall. Two years ago I got serious, or seriously demented, and I created Full Set Singleton decks for each and every set in Modern. In March of 2016, that amounted to fifty sets. I include core sets but not Masters sets, and Coldsnap is in even though Ice Age clearly is not. I took a poll among Magic friends on Facebook in order to try and figure out a way to seed these fifty sets into a 64-team bracket.

Who plays all the games each year? I play out the matches by myself, mostly. You can only understand the idea of playing both sides of a game all by yourself without favoring either side if you are an only child like me. I grew up playing Monopoly by myself using four, five or six different tokens, keeping track of each of their money and properties. It’s easy for me to play both sides of a game dispassionately. I don’t have a horse in the race. I love all the Magic sets. I’m not trying to prove that this set is great and this other set is terrible. I just like to make the cards battle each other. I let the cards decide. It would be great, and somewhat profitable, if I were the best Magic player in the world. I am not. However, when I play both sides of a match you can at least be assured that the talent level of each player is the same. Each year I manage to get friends to play some of the matches with me as well.

In 2016 the top eight included New Phyrexia, Theros, Alara Reborn, Return to Ravnica, Planar Chaos, Dragons of Tarkir, Fifth Dawn and Eighth Edition. Dragons of Tarkir defeated Return to Ravnica in the finals. Last year, with 54 FSS decks in the bracket, the top eight included Theros, Magic 2015, Conflux, Gatecrash, Dragons of Tarkir, Eldritch Moon, Ravnica and Magic 2010. Already, some patterns emerge, understanding of the course the small sample size. In the finals, it was Dragons of Tarkir over Gatecrash.

Uh, oh. Dragons of Tarkir won two years in a row? Maybe Zanman isn’t as dispassionate as he thinks. I think it’s simply luck. Also, Dragons of Tarkir plays pretty well in this format. This would be a good time to point out things I’ve learned since I started playing this format. Sets with gold cards do pretty well, under certain conditions. No, it’s not the mana tokens. They help every FSS deck more or less equally. Since every FSS deck is a five-color deck, the risk/reward built into the design of gold cards is changed. The likelihood of a deck finding the five mana needed to play a spell that costs 4B isn’t that much different than the likelihood of finding the five mana needed to play a spell that costs 3UW. Therefore, you get the benefit of a presumably more powerful gold card without it being that much harder to play than a single-colored spell. This is only true, however, for gold cards that only need one of several different colors. Spells that have heavier mana intensities, like Shivan Dragon for 4RR and Serra Angel for 3WW. Spells that need three of a single color of mana are very difficult to play in this format. Every FSS deck is a five-color deck with all the mana challenges those kind of decks come with.

Time to Fill Out Your Bracket

Here’s how the game works. Fill out your bracket using numbers, set names, abbreviations, anything is fine as long as I can read it and figure it out. Send your bracket to me by email at Use Modern March Madness in the subject line to be sure I see it. Alternatively, you can post your bracket in the comments below this article if you can figure out how to do that, or you can find me on Facebook. I’m the only Jeff Zandi in the book.

Each round one matchup you get correct is worth one point. Round two wins are worth two points, round three wins are worth three points and so on.

The winner of this year’s Modern March Madness Challenge will receive a special custom playmat that features some elements of this competition and some elements that will be chosen by the winner himself. This contest is free to enter, one entry per person. Entries need to be in my hands by Friday, March 16.

Time to Battle

I’ll be back in two weeks to share with you how the competition is progressing as we watch the 58 Modern sets play themselves down to the top eight. You will be amazed by the things these decks can do. Every card in Modern has a chance to make a difference as we battle one set against another until we find the best set in Modern.

Thanks for reading.

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