How to Beat Problematic Sideboard Cards in MTG Legacy

Over the weekend, ChannelFireball’s own Andrea Mengucci posted this tweet: 

He clarified in the comments that he was looking specifically for advice on playing through the card as Izzet Delver, since many of the comments were suggesting playing non-Izzet cards as the solution. It’s a tricky problem to solve, since it is fairly effective against Izzet decks and there isn’t that much counterplay to the card. However, it’s clear that players are beating it since if it were as easy as “play Carpet and beat Delver,” Izzet decks wouldn’t be nearly as popular and successful as they are. For people who have been struggling against the card, this is a frustrating notion, since it implies that they are doing something incorrectly but without a clear idea of what. While I replied to this thread with a concise response based on my experience, I think this example illustrates an important lesson: how do you beat problematic sideboard cards? This week, I want to go through some of my process and the way I conceptualize these situations in order to try to increase people’s understanding of this issue.

I will use Carpet of Flowers in the context of the Izzet Delver matchup as my primary example throughout this article. Part of the reason for this is that it illustrates these principles reasonably well. Additionally, I tend to think of Izzet Delver as the “fundamental” Legacy deck. What I mean by this is that Delver decks share more in common with the average Limited deck, which rewards fundamentals such as attacking and blocking, than some other Legacy decks (e.g. Storm). To me, this makes the concepts discussed in the context of Delver easier to extrapolate to other formats. On top of this, this is an example where you cannot simply remove the card or completely sidestep it in order to solve the problem. As the Izzet player, you need to know what matters and how to play when the card inevitably resolves. I will include some other examples where appropriate but I think focusing on this context is the best approach.



Understand What You’re Losing To

One of the things that makes Carpet of Flowers so impactful is its ability to negate a significant portion of Delver’s game plan. Both Daze and Wasteland suddenly lose their efficacy and the opposing deck suddenly gets to play a full turn or two ahead of schedule.

Carpet of Flowers

However, it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t what beats Delver. Even if it feels bad to play against and blanks some of your cards, Delver is more than just a mana denial deck. This version of Delver is resilient, hard-hitting and plays a fair amount of efficient answers. While it may feel bad to have opponents cast two cantrips and a removal spell in the same turn early on, that’s not going to beat Delver by itself. In fact, even though those opponents are functioning at high levels of efficiency, they are still doing so at some disadvantage since they are down a card by casting Carpet (more on cost later).

The thing that makes Carpet so potent is when it’s paired with a card advantage engine and this is the thing Delver players should turn their focus towards. Many of the engines that these decks play can be answered somewhat cleanly from Delver decks by Pyroblast, which is something Delver will already have access to many copies of. However, when the threats can’t be one-for-one’d in that way, that’s when problems start developing and in modern-day Legacy, that most commonly arises with Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath.

Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath

While Pyroblast can keep Uro in check, it doesn’t solve the issue and the combination of Carpet and Uro will make sure they always have enough resources to make good use of the mana advantage. Thus, in my experience, the best way to address the Carpet issue is by addressing Uro through things like Surgical Extraction. This shuts down their primary engine and opens the door for you to grind through their mana advantage with Expressive Iteration and Pyroblast and eventually stick a key threat and win the game (this plan can be more difficult if your opponent has non-blue engines, as Matthew Vook pointed out in that thread, but Force of Will is still a potent card in these situations).

The lesson here is that understanding what aspect of the sideboard card is causing issues is key, since it isn’t always the sideboard card by itself. Think beyond the standalone card and process how your opponents are using it to beat you.


Understand What the Cost Is

Cards like Carpet are relatively low-cost to play. At the simple cost of a single mana and a single card, the decks playing Carpet can get a fairly significant advantage. However, while it may be difficult to see at first glance, there is a cost to Carpet. It not only costs a card on its face, but it generally provides so much mana that even drawing one or two too many lands can be pretty devastating for the Carpet player. The cost is a bit clearer to see when you play against cards like Leyline of the Void, since it not only costs a card in hand, but excess copies drawn are often completely irrelevant. 


The problem with both of these examples is that you can’t see the cost most of the time. Your opponent will still have a fair amount of cards in hand and it’s easy to think that they have everything under control. However, it is important to remember the cost and, in some cases, try to take advantage of that. As Will Krueger suggested in the thread, one approach you can take is being more proactive in trying to take advantage of it and use Pyroblasts aggressively to keep them from resolving Brainstorms and Ponders and force them to have unnecessary cards in hand. I think this is a completely reasonable strategy and will absolutely be correct in some games. 

However, another way to approach this is a bit more nuanced: understand that there’s a cost and if you smell weakness, so to speak, assume there might be an opening. If it’s the midgame and your opponent hasn’t developed an engine/threat and you resolve a creature which your opponent allows to live, that may be a sign that they’re feeling the costs of the Carpet. It can be difficult to figure that out, and it won’t always be true, but I try to be as attuned to those small spots as I can be and then figure out the best way to capitalize on them. This can be the window you need to effectively find a way to beat them as the game goes long.


Understand How to Effectively Sidestep the Issue

One of the difficult parts about playing against Carpet is that there isn’t a clear way to completely avoid the issue. It’s cheap and punishes you for naturally developing your game plan. However, with the knowledge that there’s a cost to Carpet, sideboarding with a plan that deemphasizes the aspects that Carpet is good against (read: sideboarding out a decent amount of Dazes and Wastelands) can help mitigate the impact. Additionally, while a lot of people view Force of Will as somewhat poor against the decks that traditionally play Carpet, it is both essential and not as costly since your opponent will be functionally down a card in games where Carpet resolves (I don’t recommend Forcing Carpets most of the time).


It’s also important to remember that you can have a serious negative impact on your own game plan if you try to play around it too much. Carpet has a psychological impact on the game when it resolves. Suddenly, it feels bad to play lands and develop your plan since you are providing them with more grist for the mill. However, if you don’t play out your lands, you won’t be able to effectively enact a plan which can give you the best shot at winning. In this way, Carpet of Flowers is like Standstill: if you try to play around it, you will cost yourself more in the long-term than if you just play into it. So while it may fuel their plan for you to develop, it is unfortunately better than stifling your own development while they get to continue to play a normal game of Magic.


Managing Expectations

Despite everything I have said, it is important to maintain the perspective that when a card like Carpet resolves, it can be an uphill battle. Like many haymaker sideboard cards, it can be tricky to play against which is why they see play. It’s worthwhile to consider that you may be behind from turn one but it’s important to maintain a perspective on how you’re planning to win.

While this whole article focused on one fairly narrow circumstance, I think a lot of it can apply to many sideboard cards (and even some main deck ones): Rest in Peace, Winter Orb, Sulfuric Vortex, etc… These are all examples of cards that can be fairly devastating when they resolve, but understanding the costs, the impact, and how to manage it can be greatly beneficial to long-term success.


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