Feature Article – The Power of Sideboarding


When people think about how to improve at Magic, many people turn to their play and some think they need to play better decks. Others think they need to work on playing aggro, control, or combo decks. However, something that should be considered more in depth is improving sideboarding and sideboard plans. In reality, building and playing with a sideboard is probably the weakest part of most players’ game. People are aware that the sideboard is meant to have more specific cards, and cards that improve your weaker matchups, but beyond that people do not seem to understand the true power of sideboarding.

When I began testing for Grand Prix Washington D.C., the deck on the top of my list of decks to play was Jund. I do not particularly enjoy playing Jund, but I can’t argue that it was a good choice. My main test partner in crime, Josh Utter-Leyton, had just gotten two people into the Top 8 of a PTQ: himself, and the eventual winner, John Pham. Most of you have probably seen the list by now, but in case you haven’t:


There are a few reasons this deck was so powerful. Firstly, maindeck Plated Geopede is extremely powerful against the popular Blue/White (sometimes splash red) control decks. In addition, the extra fetchlands help fight against Spreading Seas, which is a problem card for Jund. But the most significant improvement to the Jund deck was the well thought out sideboard. Josh knew what was up. He had done the most important thing most people going to a tournament don’t: sideboard math. In this form of sideboard constructiion, you don’t start with what you want to bring in in a given matchup; you start with what you want to cut. You take the major decks in the format, decide the number of bad cards you have in your maindeck for each of them, and building a sideboard accordingly. But of course you must be aware of matchups that require more attention. The first step is identifying which cards to cut for each given matchup. This is what Josh came up with:

The Sideboard Plans

Against Blue/White control decks you want to board out: 2 Bituminous Blast 2 Lightning Bolt 4 Sprouting Thrinax (8 slots). Spot removal that can’t kill Baneslayer Angel is pretty weak against them and they have many ways to answer Sprouting Thrinax including Spreading Seas, Wall of Omens, Oblivion Ring, and Celestial Purge.

Against Mythic you want to board out: 4 Putrid Leech 4 Sprouting Thrinax 4 Plated Geopede (12 slots). Because game 1 is hard for Jund you want to devote as many slots as possible to this matchup. These cuts also allow you to cascade into removal much more frequently.

In the Jund mirror you want to board out: 4 Maelstrom Pulse 2 Lightning Bolt (6 slots). Generally removal is pretty weak in the mirror match. Lightning Bolt could kill Leech or Bloodbraid Elf, but that doesn’t really make it worth keeping in.

Against Red aggro you want to board out: 4 Maelstrom Pulse (4 slots). Sorcery speed removal is not particularly strong against Ball Lightnings and Hell’s Thunders.

Against Polymorph: 4 Sprouting Thrinax 4 Siege-Gang Commander 2 Borderland Ranger (10 slots), Siege-Gang Commander is clunky and Borderland Ranger becomes unnecessary once we lower our curve.

Leaving any of these cards in your deck postboard against the corresponding decks ultimately means you are playing with a handicap. By using overlapping sideboard cards it is not difficult to have the appropriate number of sideboard cards for each matchup. When you are trying to look at sideboard plans like this, you want to look at the matchups where you need to bring in a lot of cards. For those, it is better if the sideboard cards you are bringing in overlap, because that helps make the numbers work. In this case, the decks that you need the most cards against are Mythic and Blue/White control. While these decks are very different, there are still some places to find common ground. You want answers to creatures against both decks. After some brainstorming, Josh and I realized that Consuming Vapors was a good overlapping card. It could eat Blue/White’s annoying Walls and Baneslayers and was an extremely powerful two-for-one against Mythic.

The next overlapping card we liked was Chandra Nalaar. Against Blue/White it served as an answer to Baneslayer Angel and Wall of Omens while providing a hard to answer threat. Against Mythic, it could easily shoot down two or three creatures assuming you could protect it with your other removal. After coming up with these gems, the math began to work.

Another creative choice was Sedraxis Specter. While this deck is slightly light on blue sources, both matchups where you bring in Specter provide you with an additional way to cast him. Against Jund, their Blightnings allow you to use his unearth ability which only costs black. Against Blue/White, they have Path to Exile and Spreading Seas, both of which can allow you to cast Specter.

Against Blue/White control decks bring in: 1 Chandra Nalaar 2 Consuming Vapors 4 Sedraxis Specter (and the Island for of a Mountain). This provides us with answers to Walls and Baneslayers while giving us additional threats that are hard to answer.

Against Mythic bring in: everything except the Specters and accompanying island.

This leaves us with two of the cards we wanted to take out in our deck, which is slightly frustrating. Putrid Leech is pretty putrid in the matchup, but isn’t as bad as the other cards we want to cut. This is not optimal, and there may have been a way to fix it, but Josh made a decision that having the Specter plan was worth having two mediocre cards in our deck against Mythic postboard. Occasionally our cascades will hit Leech, but if they don’t they will either hit removal or Blightning, both of which are good against Mythic. We take the control role in this matchup postboard and use Siege-Gang Commander as our win condition.

Against Jund we bring in: the Specters (and accompanying island). This allows us to essentially play 8 Blightnings while also being less vulnerable to their Blightnings.

Against Mono-Red we bring in: 2 Lightning Bolt 2 Doom Blade 1 Burst Lightning 1 Bituminous Blast
There are six cards we want to bring in against Mono-Red, so we could take two more out. Whenever you have too many cards to bring in, you should try to take out the most specific cards and turn it into something good against a deck you are light on cards for. We could try and cut two anti-Red cards for two anti-Mythic cards in this case to make the numbers work better.

Against Polymorph bring in: everything except Specter plan Numbers work perfectly here which is nice. Specter isn’t bad, but they often don’t play Spreading Seas making it hard to cast. Our other cards are probably better anyway.

While the numbers don’t work perfectly for this particular deck, they are a lot closer than the average PTQ deck. I often see people boarding out tons of good cards for a matchup just because they have slightly better ones in their sideboard. Building a sideboard without the context of a maindeck is like trying to make a play decision without looking at what’s on the board.

Many PTQ players simply play more cards for bad matchups and fewer cards for good ones, but this isn’t always the best way to approach sideboarding. In many cases, a deck will be inherently weak against another and sideboarding will not help the matchup significantly since you will not actually be heavily upgrading cards. When this happens, it is often better to accept a weak matchup and focus on improving the other ones.

One trap you can fall into when using this sideboard strategy is counting on your sideboard to win games. When your sideboard molds perfectly and your opponent’s have to leave in bad cards, it gives you a significant edge. Thus, you can often lean on your sideboard for testing. By the time Grand Prix DC rolled around, Mythic was much more popular and Naya came out as a real deck. Instead of playing a maindeck that was better suited to beat GW decks, we simply had a 15 card sideboard for them. We figured that since we were winning the majority of postboard games against Mythic and Naya we could probably get by. However, our deck would have been much better suited for the metagame if we had played a lot of our sideboard cards in the main and boarded into a deck that was good against control. We were essentially using the sideboard strategy as a crutch. In the end, Web, Wrapter, and I all had slightly positive records, but between the three of us we only had around five game one wins. Using sideboarding math does not mean you should play a suboptimal maindeck for the metagame.

Another thing that is worth noting about building sideboards is the potential of sideboarding for your opponent’s maindeck. At Grand Prix D.C. this weekend, I was playing a postboard game against Mythic. My hand was filled to the brim with Maelstrom Pulses, Burst Lightnings, and Lightning Bolts. I thought the game was locked up. My opponent cast a Sphinx of Jwar Isle this is awkward. The only answer in my postboard deck was Consuming Vapors, and I had already used them, but I was still the favorite in the race. Next turn, my opponent cast a Sovereigns of Lost Alara, put an Eldrazi Conscription on his Sphinx, and killed me. My hand was well-equipped to handle any card in his maindeck, but the Sphinx was too hot to handle.

Sideboards are only there for postboard games, so you should not be boarding solely for their maindeck. Sometimes you have to assume that they are bringing something in against you and sideboard accordingly. A simple example of this is when Mono-Red decks bring in Doom Blades and/or Deathmark for Kor Firewalkers. If you are playing Mono-Red and you don’t make this assumption, you will be at quite a disadvantage when they have them.

Having a better sideboard than your opponent can give you a significant advantage. I know it sounds obvious, but having no bad cards in your deck really is incredible. When I’m playing postboard games with Jund, I feel like every draw is live. As long as you never lose a postboard game, you will never lose a match.

As of the time of this writing, I’m currently at a hotel in San Juan trying to figure out what to play for the Pro Tour. I’m not sure what I’m going to play yet, but no matter what it is, I do know that I will have a tight sideboard.

31 thoughts on “Feature Article – The Power of Sideboarding”

  1. Editor’s note (I’m not a big fan of putting parentheticals in the articles themselves – if you ever really really want to know why, email me sometime and I’ll explain), to preempt any confusion on this matter, Sphinx of Jwar Isle can wear an Eldrazi Conscription when powered out by Sovereigns of Lost Alara.

    Sovereigns reads:

    “Whenever a creature you control attacks alone, you may search your library for an Aura card that could enchant that creature, put it onto the battlefield attached to that creature, then shuffle your library.”

    Since the bit that says “Put onto the battlefield attached to that creature” does not target, a creature with shroud (like, say, Sphinx of Jwar Isle) can still hold an enchantment. Or you can graft onto it (which also doesn’t target – Simic Sky Swallower definitely got some graft counters in his day), or any number of effects of that nature which don’t actually say “target creature gets blah blah.”

  2. Just wondering, if you had a burst lightning and a bolt, why didn’t you just burn out the Sovereigns after it was cast?

  3. Arrggh, I wish I had this article Friday! I was sideboarding completely wrong in a mirror match.

    Good read, the explanations helped me understand some of Jund’s weak spots, but how would you sideboard against Naya?

  4. same question as akrolsmir…i admire your mtg skills and writing matt but doesnt 2+3 = 5? 😛

  5. This was an awesome article, Top 3 of the Summer by far, and I loved how concise it was, howver it covered quite a bit! The only complaint: Write great articles like this BEFORE our PTQs!!! All of this info would have won me the torney!

  6. This was a good article. I had never thought to first decide what cards you want to bring out when building a sideboard.

  7. This is good. Sideboarding is all about figuring out how to get the greatest +EV. What really makes a good sideboard plan is the disparity between the strength of the cards coming out and the cards coming in for the particular matchup. This means that considering what to take out is just as important as considering what to bring in. A lot of people forget this, myself included.

  8. Great article, as many said and will say. I keep reading and thinking that sideboard math is important and I have to think about the cards I bring/take out BEFORE the tournament, yet I always seem to do side at the last moment and leave figuring for the time while I travel to the venue. I mean – I hope there will be a day, when I will read one more article saying – DO THE SIDE MATH!!! and start doing it right and I sure hope that day is today))))

  9. ok, so the ppl actually asking if he missed burning out the sola, maybe he didn’t have RR up….

  10. Hey, nice article
    Im looking forward to play an important event with a jund deck list, but I dont feel comfortable with this list since the metagame will be pretty much a lot of jund, allies and RB and monored with few uws and mythics (due to the expensiveness of jace).
    Im looking at Owen Turtenwald GP finalist decklist but with a few changes, and Id like to know your oppinion according to the metagame:
    Id like to make in 3 ruinblasters main deck to improve the main odds in mirros:
    -1 bolt-1 bituminous-1 pulse ( I would also like to play 27 lands because I find myself mulliganing a lot because of 2 land hands, I know it may look excesive but it happens a lot, maybe looking to cut a second bolt)
    For side Id like to make some changes:
    take out the malakir and the pyroclasms and maybe add the extra pulse and bolts also have room for 3 more cards that Id like to make room for uw or more jund mirror hate…
    Any ideas?

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  12. Burning out Sovereigns would have been possible but irrelevant because he was about to get bashed by a huge, shrouded annihilator.

  13. Dear Nate,

    I would like to note that if you kill the Sovereign before the Sphinx attacks, Sovereign’s ability doesn’t trigger and the Sphinx won’t become a huge annihilator.

  14. If you burn out the Sovereigns before the attack then the trigger won’t be there when then Sphinx attacks and he stated that he was winning the race. Probably didn’t have double red up.

  15. Only problem I have with this decklist is that there isn’t and Sarken the Mad. That card is insane against the mirror and U/W. Our playtesting group a currently trying to work out if Geopede is better then Sarken, any insight that can be provided on this decsion would be much apreciated.

    Taking out a mountain against U/W also seems loose as red is the colour spreading sea’s targets the most, why isn’t it safer to take out a forest or swamp with this in mind?

    This manabase is so much better then the m10 base. In our stock builds we’re using this manabase and its working so much better.

  16. @Matt

    Can you give any general advice on sideboarding options for Grixis colors? Beyond Vapors for Mythic and Hexmage for WU/Superfriends, I am at a loss. Assume we’re playing something normal with Seas maindeck and some number of Ruinblasters and Negates between the deck and board already, I guess. In particular, I need to up my percentage versus the various ‘walker control decks.

    Here’s what I’ve considered-

    Anathemancer: nice with Crazy Sarkhan but doesn’t deal with Gideon.
    Roiling Terrain: nice linearity with Ruinblaster but again, no good versus Gideon.
    Grixis Charm: I may move to maindecking these.
    Pithing Needle: do these not always get O-Ring’d?
    Breath of Malfegor: seems awful, but 3+5 does equal 8…
    Slave of Bolas: Jund killer but Jund is favourable for Grixis anyway. Sideboarding these plus one Conscription vs Mythic seems too cute.
    Countersquall: terribad.
    Bolas: I did one-of the big man for control matchups at my last premiere event, and he was okay. Pretty expensive if he gets answered, though.
    All Is Dust: looks very good in the Friends matchup, though Grixis doesn’t run Chalice and is moving to include Jace/Sark/Chandra…
    Spell Pierce: is this a blowout if you counter an early Chalice?
    Bloodwitch/Sphinx: are these too slow to matter? I like Sphinx more than Bloodwitch versus control, though I guess one could have both. The traditional ‘two Ultimatums to top the curve’ are definitely replaceable maindeck, since Ultimatum is garbage vs walkers.

    Anyway, I imagine you don’t often play this shard, but I’d appreciate your advice!

  17. Good article, but the numbers don’t always add up. Like for Jund you have
    -4 Maelstrom Pulse
    -2 Lightning Bolt
    +4 Specter
    +1 Island
    Still need one more card.

    -4 Leech
    -4 Thrinax
    -4 Geopede
    +10 (everything but Specters and Island)
    -2 Cards left

    -4 Maelstrom Pulse
    +2 Bolt
    +1 Burst Lightning
    +1 Bit Blast
    +2 Doom Blade
    +2 Cards

  18. I’m going to assume Matt was tapped out when the Sovereigns came down, since he admits needing to race.

    Excellent article. Of course my biggest problem with sideboards is more often that I don’t know the meta or the matches. Bolts come out in the Jund mirror? Didn’t know. So obviously that would have to be the first thing I fixed if I attempted a serious tournament.

    But I definitely see value in the “take out first” approach, and will try it. Thanks.

  19. “Bolts come out in the mirror” is helpful particularly becuase it helps explain what the matchup comes down to-in the Jund mirror, it’s all about winning the card attrition battle, which one-for-ones don’t do.

  20. Maybe you and wrapter are just 3 steps ahead of everyone else, but every pro i know agrees that blightning is actually worse than horrible against mythic…

  21. @somedude – I think it’s fine if you’re on the “kill everything plan.” If you let their mana elves live, they’re more likely to empty their hand, making your blightnings a bad burn spell. But the idea is if you kill their mana elves and they have to play their expensive cards without the benefit of acceleration, then blightning should hit some strong cards, leaving them less likely to have gas.

    Just depends on the plan you’re running.

  22. lols at the ppl that would have won if they hadnt lost! i like the idea of talking about sideboarding, but using jund as your example = a big dislike from me:(

  23. This was an okay article but still very general and not really saying anything all that original

  24. @Jim Storrie:

    I’m a very big fan of Grixis, and I just went 4-1 at my local FNM with this sideboard:

    4 Consuming Vapors
    3 Malakir Bloodwitch
    3 Thought Hemorrhage
    2 Chain Reaction
    2 Countersquall
    1 Terminate

    Anathemancer is overrated. It was bad enough in Shards block, and is even worse in the current Standard Environment.
    Roiling Terrain is useful if you’re running other LD cards, but LD is a bad plan for Grixis because you aren’t taking advantage of the LD like an aggro deck would.
    Grixis Charm is terrible. Don’t play it.
    Pithing Needle is good if you need percentage against planeswalker decks, but Grixis doesn’t need that.
    Breath of Malfegor. Um… No?
    Slave of Bolas is good vs Mythic… if you can ever find a chance to cast it.
    Countersquall is amazing. Enough said.
    Nicol Bolas is essentially a less color-intensive, but 8CMC Cruel Ultimatum that doesn’t gain life. No.
    All is Dust is the same thing as Pithing Needle, only it kills your own Jaces, which makes it worse.
    Spell Pierce is a good 1-of if you have room.
    Malakir Bloodwitch: Have at least 3 of these. I they’re good in the main against a control-heavy meta, but often much better in the sideboard.
    Consuming Vapors is an all-star against Mythic, and surprisingly against Jund, who often boards out Thrinax against you (don’t quite know why, but that’s why I don’t play Jund)
    Thought Hemorrhage is critical to have against combo decks.
    Chain Reaction is vs Mythic. I don’t think I need any explanation.

    A little note about Cruel Ultimatum, it’s NEVER bad against control. Killing their Baneslayer Angel, gaining 5 life, Mind Rotting them, and getting back a Siege-Gang or a Bloodwitch is never a bad deal.

    Also, my decklist, for reference: http://tappedout.net/mtg-decks/cruel-control-6/

  25. I thought Geo-Jund was old tech? Sarkhan seems to have earned a spot in more recent top 8 Jund builds. I ran this list at regionals and a couple of FNMs and one thing I disliked about it was that pre-board it seems the deck is built to hang with every archetype yet doesn’t particularly excel against any particular archetype (if that makes any sense.) Many game 1’s, my mind was already thinking about my sb options for games 2 and 3 and I never felt like I had any clear advantage game 1 against Mythic, U/W or “old Jund” beyond cascades against Mythic and U/W which felt situational. I’m really happy that alot of aggro decks are skimping on removal game 1. It really paves the way for some exciting creatures to make a comeback (Royal Assassin has been spotted.)

  26. S1lent: that’s why he basically says it was a bad choice for GP DC.

    Embighten: Chain Reaction vs Mythic? Seems a little slow.

  27. @Jim

    I run Grixis and have been doing very well with it. It’s a known deck in my meta but those that run it all run slightly different variations of it. I run the counter heavy slow grinding control build. So the place to really make an impact is the sideboard.

    *Slave to Bolas 2x -This is a card that goes in and out of the board alot to swap with Hexmages. It wrecks mythic or those who are playing stompy decks, but it is narrow.
    *Scepter of Fugue -Very useful against any deck that runs counterspells. Sneaks under counters better then Lil.
    *Flashfreeze 3x -Against Jund and Naya I just board in more counters.
    *Malakir Broodwitch 2x -Great agains UW control and Naya. Beats through Wall of Denial and gets through to stop any deck boarding in Luminarch Ascensions.
    *Vampire Nighthawk 2x -Shores up the burn match and comes in for the mirror to stop Sphinxes.
    *Executioner’s Capsule -Good tool to stop Emakrul and Iona, serves secondary purpose against decks that bring in Firewalkers.
    *Telemin Performance -Polymorph. You resolve this against them and it’s a handshake game over.
    *Earthquake 2x -These really shut down allies, vamps, and now the newer Kiln Fiend / Dragonlord red decks. One of these may turn into a Chain Reaction though.
    *Pithing Needle -Mostly to stop Luminarch Ascension but very good and shutting down planeswalkers.

    I don’t have many answers to combo decks but they aren’t really prevalent in my area. If they were I’d run Thought Hemorages.

  28. Much better article than the last one, Matt. Maybe not the Conley Woods quality yet, but you’re definitely improving.

  29. Dont know if anyone pointed this out yet but this guy is Nassssssssssssssssssssssssssssssty

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