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.
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.