Mike, like most Magic-playing sports fans, loves to play in fantasy sports leagues. In fantasy sports, participants build and manage rosters of professional athletes and then compete against other owners by scoring points based on the performances of those athletes in actual games. Fantasy sports has revolutionized the way fans enjoy their favorite sports, with a staggering number of fans participating in fantasy leagues each year.
Mike saw the potential for that kind of experience on the Magic Pro Tour using cards instead of athletes, and conceived the Magic: The Gathering Fantasy Pro Tour. We've been running it for a couple of seasons on Facebook, and it has been a blast. The third season—Pro Tour Return to Ravnica—is almost upon us, and it's not too late to participate!
Pick a Card, Any Card
In fantasy sports, your roster is restricted to a certain number of players in each position; you can't field an all-quarterback fantasy football squad any more than an actual football team could. Similarly, in the Fantasy Pro Tour, you pick a card in each of nine categories for your roster. It's up to you to find the biggest winners among the thousands of cards in the Modern card pool in the categories of Planeswalker, Small Creature, Medium Creature, Large Creature, Noncreature Artifact, Enchantment, Instant, Sorcery, and Nonbasic Land.
If that sounds intimidating, don't worry; while deep knowledge of the format helps, you don't have to be a Modern metagame guru to field a competitive roster. Here are some things to consider if you want to finish at the top of your friend leaderboard—and with some luck, perhaps atop the worldwide leaderboard!
The best place to start looking for cards is in some winning decklists. You can look over the top decks from recent Modern tournaments on Magic Online right on this very website in the Event Coverage section of the Magic Online What's Happening page. None of these decks have Return to Ravnica cards, but it's still an excellent starting point. There will certainly be innovation and Return to Ravnica cards at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica, but Modern is a format with an extremely deep card pool. While established decks will incorporate the best of the new set into their strategies, many of the cards that are in the winning Modern decks today will be present in the decks that will be winning at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica. A few minutes of browsing the latest 4–0 decks from the Magic Online Modern daily events will go a long way toward guiding your lineup.
If the successes of some Magic Online players in a relatively low-stakes event don't impress you, then how about browsing the Modern deck choices from sixteen of the top players in the world? This summer saw the inaugural Magic Players Championship right here in Seattle, where Yuuya Watanabe was crowned Player of the Year after fighting through what was arguably the toughest field of competitors ever assembled. One of the formats at the event was Modern, and you can be sure the competitors in Pro Tour Return to Ravnica will be studying the Modern decks from the Magic Players Championship to prepare, and so can you! The coverage team sure did, putting together this rundown of some of the top cards in the tournament—many of them Modern staples.
As you look over decklists, remember that you score points for each instance of a card in a deck that scores 18 or more points (6–4 or better) during the ten rounds of Swiss. A key to picking high-scoring cards is identifying the overlaps among the top decks in the metagame. As you browse, you should take note of not only what deck or decks keep showing up repeatedly, but also what cards are showing up in multiple archetypes. If you look for deep and wide cards in each category, you'll put together a strong roster.
Perhaps you aren't into deck browsing, but you still want to submit a roster. With more than 7,000 legal cards in the format, browsing through the entire Modern card pool on the hunt for roster cards would be like looking for a Needlebug in a Smokestack. To make things a little easier, we have narrowed down the list of cards in each category to the most popular tournament cards in Modern, plus all of Return to Ravnica. Don't worry, the options still go pretty deep, but players with lighter knowledge of the tournament scene can browse the options effectively and create a solid lineup.
Let's take a look at how each category is scored, and explore how to make your picks.
Planeswalker: 5 Points
Planeswalkers are worth 5 points per appearance in a 6–4 or better deck—more than any other category. Why so much? It's not because they have become the game's most iconic spells, it's because decks don't generally contain a high density of Planeswalkers compared to the other card types. We want picking the top Planeswalker to be impactful to your overall score, so they are worth more to balance out the quantity discrepancy.
The most popular Planeswalkers in Modern have historically been the three- and four-mana variety. Modern is a fast format, so unless a deck is ramping aggressively, a five-mana Planeswalker doesn't consistently come down fast enough. It's not that games never go long in Modern, it's that you need to run spells that are relevant during the first four turns of the game or you'll find yourself on the wrong end of a short game. If you run a card that you simply plan on hard-casting after you play a fifth land (or beyond), having it in your opener is like a mulligan in a game of four-turn Magic. It's possible you will survive that game and resolve the expensive spell—you just don't want that to be the plan.
The top players in the world know this, and it's why if there's a spell that costs more than four mana in a winning decklist, it's probably one that is still intended for use within the first four turns. Karn Liberated is an example of such a Planeswalker: he is a popular choice in the "Urzatron" decks that look to assemble an Urza's Tower, an Urza's Power Plant, and an Urza's Mine by turn three, at which point Karn Liberated becomes a very appealing "three-drop."
Small Creature: 3 Points
The creatures in Fantasy Pro Tour are broken into three categories based on converted casting cost: small (0–2), medium (3–4), and large (5+). With the importance of the first few turns in Modern, the Small Creature category is ironically the meatiest, with a wealth of incredibly powerful 0-, 1-, and 2-mana creatures available to choose from.
Given the large number of small creatures that make it into Modern decks, this will likely be a category with a high point potential. It also means the best small creatures are going to show up in a wide variety of decks, so you want to find a broadly relevant creature as opposed to a powerful-but-narrow card like Glistener Elf—unless, of course, you are convinced that the infect deck is going to be the breakout deck of the tournament.
Medium Creature: 3 Points
When you move into the three- and four-mana creatures that make up the Medium Creature category, you are looking more for the top end of aggressive strategies and creatures that work into combo strategies. The rules of the Small Creature category still apply, though; there are some medium creatures that are powerful in a wider variety of decks, and those are the creatures that will likely produce the top scores.
Large Creature: 3 Points
This is the trickiest of the creature categories. I've been going on about the importance of the first four turns, so what are you supposed to pick for the "5+" category? There are a couple of ways to approach this. First, you can find the decks that are actually looking to cast a five-mana creature through acceleration as the deck's top end, or you can consider creatures that are technically five or more mana, but either have cheaper alternate costs that allow them to play like less-expensive creatures or are huge creatures that are going to hit play through reanimation spells. Elesh Norn doesn't seem like a viable creature in the format, but if you can put her and an Unburial Rites in your graveyard by turn three, she suddenly seems like a fine early-game play! Typically, reanimation targets are one-ofs in such decks, but they are also very popular: does the popularity of the deck outweigh the singleton status of the large creature?
Noncreature Artifact: 2 Points
Most artifacts can be cast in any deck, but decks tend to either be all about artifacts or use them sparingly. Affinity decks are all about artifacts, but mostly artifact creatures. They do run some key noncreature artifacts like Mox Opal and Cranial Plating, however. The decks that use artifacts sparingly frequently do so out of the sideboard as answer cards to entire strategies, but in the Fantasy Pro Tour, sideboards count, so take a look at some sideboards for some inspiration in this category. Also consider the popularity of decks using artifacts as a combo piece, such as Birthing Pod in creature combos or Expedition Map searching up Urza's lands for a turn-three Karn Liberated.
Enchantment: 2 Points
Like artifacts, enchantments tend to show up most in Modern as sideboard tech or as combo pieces. Pyromancer Ascension has been a staple deck in the format since its inception, and was in fact so good that several instants and sorceries had to be banned for it to be a fair deck. Splinter Twin can go on a variety of creatures to combo out with an arbitrarily large number of hasty Pestermites, Deceiver Exarchs, and Village Bell-Ringers. Many decks have a very difficult time overcoming some of the Leylines, such as Leyline of the Void, and others roll over to Blood Moon, Stony Silence, and Rule of Law. Meanwhile, aggressive strategies incorporate creature-pumping enchantments like Honor of the Pure and Intangible Virtue, and are worth considering.
Instant and Sorcery: 2 Points Each
The "go cheap or go home" mentality is probably most important in the Instant and Sorcery categories. Three mana can seem like ten in a format where you are trying to actively advance your game plan and leave some mana to disrupt your opponent's. Accordingly, the top performers in the Instant category are probably going to be creature removal and counterspells that cost no more than two mana, while sorceries are going to include discard spells and library-manipulation spells that are almost never printed at instant speed. You might also consider the suite of "mana burst" spells—such as Desperate Ritual—that are four-ofs in the Pyromancer Ascension deck, which wants to go off on one big turn, or the ramp spells that help the decks going big find the lands they need.
Nonbasic Land: 2 Points
The mana bases in Modern are incredibly complex and chock-full of nonbasic lands. The combination of the "fetch lands" of Zendikar and the shock lands" of the Ravnica block which have the basic land types and can be searched up by the fetch lands) is the staple plan for the multicolored mana bases in Modern. In a format so focused on the early turns, the cycle of Scars of Mirrodin dual lands is also a popular choice.
With so many nonbasics around, Tectonic Edge and Ghost Quarter see significant play in an effort to control games that go long, and to take out pesky land-based win conditions like Inkmoth Nexus and Celestial Colonnade. The top nonbasic land at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica will likely be a dual land of some kind, but which one will depend largely on the metagame and on what the breakout deck is. However, if the recently-unbanned Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle combos so effectively with Scapeshift that it takes the tournament by storm, we could have a new nonbasic, monocolored sheriff in town!
Pro Player: Tiebreaker
If any rosters end up in a tie after tabulating all the card points, the winner is the player who picked the highest-finishing pro player in this final slot. It would be hard to go too wrong in picking your favorite of the sixteen participants in the Magic Players Championship, but it's also a great opportunity to choose an underdog you want to root for throughout the tournament. Every competitor at Pro Tour Return to Ravnica is capable of winning it, so pick the player you would most like to see holding the trophy in the victory photo!
Line 'em Up!
If you are in the overlap of sports-loving Magic player, you are probably already a fantasy sports player and know how much fun it is to play a game that gives you a more active rooting interest in a sport you love to follow. If you are a Magic fan but have never cared for the whole "sports" thing, give the Fantasy Pro Tour a try! You might not come out of it wanting to field your first fantasy football team, but you'll probably have a much better understanding and appreciation for the sports fans you know who can't wait for their fantasy draft each year.
Good luck and have fun!