Ever since I started understanding how the game of Magic works, sideboarding always interested me. It was a dynamic part of how a match played out, but most people didn’t give it much attention. Even though players would be experienced in how every first game of a format played out, they would still end up watching from the sidelines after a few rounds of a tournament. This is the biggest flaw a player can make when trying to become a competitive Magic player.
If you are given a chance to playtest a matchup and only have time to play pre-sideboarded or post-sideboarded, the answer is very easy. You will play more sideboarded games of Magic than game ones in a tournament, so it is more important to learn to play the sideboarded games correctly, which means knowing how to build a sideboard is just as essential.
KNOW THEIR PLAN
The first step to understanding how to sideboard is to know how your opponent is sideboarding. This can be difficult at times but these days there aren’t so many rogue builds running around. You should have a good idea as to what your opponent is trying to accomplish. Figuring out what your opponent is going to bring in and take out will allow you to be one step ahead of them.
Proactive planning is when you make your spells more productive. Use the basic information of what they are going to try to accomplish on their side of the table and gain value from the spells you use to counter their strategy.
The best example I have of this is from last year’s Nationals. Conley Woods created a new, innovative Jund deck that swept through the tournament. The only three players using this deck were Woods, Brett Piazza, and I. This is the deck we played:
After the dust settled, I was up against Brett Piazza in the first round of Top 8. I tested all night to get a feel for the mirror match. We discovered every single card in the sideboard could have value in the mirror depending on how the opponent sideboards. The most important thing I could learn to prepare, in other words, was figuring out how Brett was going to prepare.
After the first two games, I was up 2-0. Game 3 was decided with a fourth turn Volcanic Fallout that killed my opponent’s team while leaving my [card]Great Sable Stag[/card] unharmed. Fallout was not very good in other Jund matchups, but it was good in this situation based on two things: whether my opponent sideboarded in a specific way and whether he knew I would bring it in. Without figuring out how my opponent was going to sideboard, this strategy would have never surfaced.
Initially we thought Fallout would be sideboarded out. We ignored the card until Brian Kowal decided to throw me for a loop and board them back in. He blew me out in a game and we started to consider the possibility of how powerful this spell can be if it is unexpected. Kowal made me understand how proactively sideboarding in unexpected cards can win games more often than more powerful expected cards.
Another great example of this is something LSV does. Luis puts Baneslayer Angels in the sideboard of decks lacking many targets for removal spells. Baneslayer Angel was not a good spell in the first game, but became an amazing card once his opponents boarded out their removal in game two.
Reactive Planning is when you make their spells less efficient by taking out cards in your deck to which they are bringing in answers.
At Pro Tour San Diego, Kyle Boggemes played against Craig Wescoe in the Top 4. Boggemes was playing Jund to Wescoes’s White Weenie. Jund is obviously a very powerful deck with many great creatures. The problem was that Wescoe’s WW deck was set up with eight protection bears in game one and four Devout Lightcasters in the board. Boggemes reacted to this by boarding out Sprouting Thrinax for Great Sable Stag, giving him a green 3/3 dude that trumped all of the 2/2 protection bears on Wescoe’s side, while at the same time reducing possible Lightcaster targets. Boggemes’ reaction to Wescoe’s sideboard strategy enabled him to blank several problematic cards.
Having strategies like this will not always win you the game, but being able to catch an opponent off guard just long enough to get a free game is always worth it.
Keep Them Guessing
If there is anything you take from this article I want it to be this: Always shuffle your sideboard into your maindeck and pull out 15 cards. It may be a bit more work, but it will win you plenty of matches. Not only will you keep your opponent in the dark regarding how many cards you sideboarded, but they won’t know if you changed that sideboard in the third game.
Another way you can keep your opponent guessing is by not always using the most obvious sideboard strategy. Grand Prix Columbus was a Flash Hulk-infested Legacy tournament before the deck died to Wizard’s banhammer. The eventual champion, Steve Sadin, devised the most chaotic sideboard strategy I’ve ever seen by playing Flash Hulk with a Fish variant sideboard. The deck feasted on the other combo-oriented Hulk decks.
Once he made Top 8 and his opponent saw his sideboard strategy, he was in a predicament. He could not just sideboard as usual since his opponent would know if he was boarding out the combo and into the Fish deck. What was his plan then? He randomly decided in his head if he was going to Combo or Control. This left his opponent always guessing.
Even if one strategy is functionally better then the other against a prepared opponent, there is no telling what the value of a wrong guess is. If his opponent guessed wrong, Steve had a huge advantage.
Every matchup isn’t as simple as randomly deciding how to board each time. Bram Snepvangers in the Top 4 of last year’s Worlds, for example, boarded out all of his red creatures on the draw against Andre Coimbra’s sideboarded Celestial Purges. He brought them back in on the play, thereby catching Coimbra with Purges at the wrong times and without them at the right times.
Catching your opponent off guard and forcing sideboard mistakes is something great players do in the third game. Keep that in mind: even if you sideboard a certain way for the second game, the plan you chose may not be correct for a third game. Your opponent might have brought in a card you are unfamiliar with or took out a card you are not used to. He may have kept a card in that you are used to them taking out. It is critical to be able to adapt.
SLIGHT UPGRADES / MAJOR UPGRADES
(Things your maindeck can do/Things your maindeck cannot do)
In the last few weeks a lot of my local friends have picked up the Boss Naya deck I played at the Pro Tour. They have been playing it at local Friday Night Magic events. I get a lot of questions about the sideboard. Most recently a friend asked me about Uril, the Miststalker in the Jund matchup. Uril would be a great inclusion for this matchup. The problem is that it is only a slight improvement to any other card you have against Jund.
The theory behind Uril is, obviously, that their removal can’t touch it. This may be true, but because every other card in your deck is targetable, Uril’s ability loses a lot of potential. It becomes a very slight upgrade to any other card you would like to board in. Uril is a very proactive spell against Jund, but it does not help your deck become proactive. Uril separates itself from the engine you are trying to build to fight Jund.
I have never been a fan of people putting cards in their sideboards that are just better versions of cards in their maindecks. [card]Celestial Purge[/card] is one of those cards that come to mind. A lot of people will board out Path to Exile to bring in Purges against Jund. This is a very poor use of sideboard space since the downside to Path to Exile may be bad at times, but is not as bad as having an eleven-card sideboard.
As an example of a sideboard I don’t like, let’s look at Andre Coimbra’s deck he used to win Worlds. Before I get in trouble for criticizing a world champion, I want to be clear that Andre is a great player – he even dealt me my third loss in that very tournament! I’m just not a fan of his sideboard:
In this tournament there was not a true control deck to merit Goblin Ruinblasters, so the Goblins were for the Jund matchup. This meant that Coimbra boarded in 12 cards against Jund. His deck was already positioned to have a great Jund matchup and didn’t need this kind of treatment. The cards in his sideboard were mere upgrades to go with what he already had in the maindeck.
What happened is that he was forced to board in Celestial Purge against Boros even though it was not a good spell against them. I don’t know about the other matchups in the tournament, but this definitely left him lacking good sideboard slots for other matchups. A card I think he would have liked would have been Qasali Pridemage.
Pridemage was a card I didn’t have much faith in at first. Tom “The Boss” Ross was all about this card going into the Pro Tour. When you get strong-spoken people like Luis and Gabe Walls in a room, it is hard to get your word across about a subject. Add Tom’s quiet and humble approach to life and you don’t get your point across very well. Tom’s only response to the question of why Pridemage was in his sideboard was, “Because it’s a good card and I like it.”
This isn’t the explanation I was looking for, but after I gave the card a chance I completely understood why it was so important. Not only does Pridemage come with a very flexible body, it helps you a lot in the small amount of matchups its good against. It solves random problems and does it in a great way. When Pridemage is put to work, it gets the job done.
So Pridemage is an example of a Major Upgrade. It might not be good in many matchups, but when it is good, it’s great.
Pridemage can also function as a beater. After playing with Boss Naya for so long, I started bringing in Pridemage in an array of matchups that don’t even have targets for his ability. The exalted ability and early body were just what I needed when I was against Vampires to lower my curve to be fast enough to beat the fanged opponent.
Speaking of lowering my curve using Pridemage, the sideboard can be used to preserve or manipulate your deck’s speed. Usually there is a downfall to changing the curve. If a player does not take this into account they could lose needed tempo in specific matchups. Tempo is a very big factor when it comes to presideboarded and post sideboarded games – and not just when you play aggressive decks. Even control decks have curves.
Most of the time a matchup is a bit slower post-sideboard. Each player can more finely tune their decks, so the games tend to go longer. The action may not necessarily slow down, however, so you still have to maintain close to the same speed of the first game.
When two aggressive decks fight each other, however, you may need to bend the rules a bit. Often you need to up the ante with more powerful spells that trump your opponent’s cards.
This is what we did with our Boss Naya deck at the Pro Tour. We needed a card to deal with the big, powerful spells like Baneslayer Angel and Rampaging Baloth. The Cunning Sparkmage/Basilisk Collar combo was fast enough to fit our curve and yet powerful enough to control a game.
Knowing when to lower, raise, or keep the same curve is something that takes practice in certain matchups. It will take a while to understand when you want to do this, but knowing that it is needed is important when building a sideboard.
SPECIFIC HATE CARDS/SACRIFICING MATCHUPS
Going into Grand Prix Oakland, I asked Cedric Philips for advice against Dredge. Since he had a lot of experience with Dredge, he was the person to ask. I was going to play a Naya deck I talked about a few weeks back that did not have a shot in hell at beating Dredge in the first game.
Because my first game was so lousy, I didn’t want to just concede the matchup entirely. What Cedric told me was different. Based on the fact that I had a slim to nil shot at winning the first game and that it would take at least four to six slots to have a decent chance post-sideboard, it just wasn’t worth it. Dredge wasn’t that big in the metagame and it was foolish to sacrifice that many slots to that matchup.
This happens a lot in Magic. I was sacrificing too many sideboard slots to a matchup that wasn’t worth caring about. Sure, I may play against Dredge and lose, but it’s worth it if all of my other matchups get better because of the extra sideboard slots I have to work with.
It is always a guessing game if specific hate cards are worth it. Meddling Mage in Extended is worth it because you can use it in many different matchups. There are a lot of decks that are oriented around a single card, which makes Meddling Mage valuable. It is a specific hate card that is still flexible in multiple matchups.
Specific hate cards usually fit the “Major Uprgrade” category, but figuring out if it is worth it is the real question. It comes down, first of all, to how large a part of the metagame the deck you’re focusing on is, and second, how good your match against them already is.
ON THE PLAY/ON THE DRAW
This is one that really gets me. It doesn’t happen with every format or every matchup, but there are times when cards are only good on the play or the draw. One of these cards is Putrid Leech. Leech is amazing against Naya on the play, but much worse on the draw. I wouldn’t recommend boarding Leech out in that situation, but it’s pretty close.
Figuring out slight sideboard decisions based on who goes first is important. Games play out differently when a deck is drawing compared to playing. Back in the year of Fae I would play with two to four Thoughtseizes depending on whether I was first or second. I had to affect games quicker on the draw, so I brought in more; if I played, I could take a few out.
Understanding that your opponent’s cards lose or gain value is also important. If they have a card that is more of a threat when they are on the play, you need to understand this and adjust accordingly. In Extended, Mono Red Burn’s Blood Moons are much more valuable when they are on the play. They will probably not board it in on the draw, so if they get you with it in the second game, it probably won’t be there for the third.
RESULTS-ORIENTED TUNNEL VISION/AUTOPILOT
Just because a player beat you a certain way in a game does not mean that’s what is going to happen in the next game. Let’s say a player just lost a game to a deck they in which they are well versed in an unusual way – UW Control managed to deck them with Jace Beleren, for example. If that player isn’t careful, they may get a nasty case of tunnel vision. They’ll assume the same thing will happen in the next game or that the UW Control player will always try to win with a Jace. This type of thinking is results-oriented.
I find myself wanting to make small sideboarding changes going into game three because of a fluke in the previous game and have to stop myself. Sometimes random things happen and you just have to go with it and believe that testing proves it won’t happen again. If it is part of your opponent’s strategy then you must adapt to it. That is when you cannot go into tunnel vision or auto pilot and use proactive/reactive planning.
Going into autopilot is the opposite of tunnel vision. Autopilot happens when you ignore a small difference in your opponent’s list and just think to yourself, “Oh, they’re playing Deck X, so here’s my plan” without really thinking through how your plan may need to adapt to each individual opponent. Many players stumble unwittingly into this pitfall.
Last season Jake Van Lunen was playing in the finals of a PTQ. If you don’t know who Jake is, you will soon. He had his debut at Pro Tour San Diego a few years ago when he was half of the infamous Sliver Kids. After taking home the title, he coasted through a year of the Pro Tour. After falling off the train, he has spent years perfecting his game and has a second shot in San Juan. This time he is back for blood!
Anyway, he was in the finals of a PTQ where he was playing the best deck in the room. It was right after UW Larkless won Great Britain’s Nationals. We worked all week on perfecting the list and I knew he was going to do well. It was not surprise to me that he called me to tell me he was waiting for the finals. What did shock me was that he lost.
He had the same strategy against Five Color Control all day. It was working since all the lists he played against were very similar”¦ until the finals. His opponent had a very inventive list with cards like Vendilion Clique, which caused unusual situations Jake was not used to. Still, Jake took the first game and boarded the same as he always did against Five Color.
After losing game two, he did not re-evaluate what his opponent was doing different and just thought it was a fluke. Unfortunately, he lost the third game the same way he lost the second. He made a big mistake in this match, but he was still able to walk away with a new and important lesson learned.
I know this was a lot of information to digest and I want to make one thing clear: this information will not sink in right away. It involves a lot of critical thinking and will take a while for it to become second nature. I just hope this will at least help you get on your way.
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